Kayam Farm, at the Pearlstone Retreat Center, near Baltimore, MD.

I recently attended a retreat at the Pearlstone retreat center outside of Baltimore. Among the many things that make Pearlstone a lovely place, and a model for something that should exist in many more communities, is the Kayam Farm. Kayam is a working farm that produces vegetables, eggs, and goat milk and cheese—some of which is served at Pearlstone itself, and much of which goes to a community supported agriculture (CSA) initiative.

But what really distinguishes Kayam is the fact that it is rooted in serious Jewish learning. This is more than saying, ‘We are practicing tikkun olam with our farming.’ No—the folks who work at Kayam study the laws of Shabbat and more fully appreciate the meaning of resting from labor (it’s about a lot more than turning off your iphone). They study the laws of tza’ar ba’alei chayim, not causing suffering to animals, which applies not only to how we treat our pets, but to verses in the Torah that mostly have meaning in the context of farming: not yoking different species of animals together (Deut. 22:10), not muzzling an ox when it is threshing (Deut. 25:4), sending away the mother bird when fetching the eggs from a nest (Deut. 22:6-7), and many more.

But most striking, the Kayamers study the agricultural laws of the Torah related to planting. These laws form an entire order of the Mishnah (Zeraim) which has typically not been studied in depth by most Jews, even those who study in yeshivot. Why? Because the Rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud understood that most of these laws apply only in the land of Israel. With the advent of religious Zionism, these laws became a major area of study and application once again.

The association of Torah-informed farming with the land of Israel is thus one deeply etched into my mind. It’s the idea of the kibbutz hadati, the religious kibbutz. It’s the image of the farmer who rises early to put on tefillin, and then goes out to milk the goats, feed the chickens, and work in the fields. It’s the thought of all of that taking place in Hebrew.

So it was a jarring experience to see it all happening—in Maryland, not the Galil. What does it mean to imagine applying the Torah to agricultural settings outside the land of Israel? On the one hand, there’s something wonderful about it: Jews learning Torah, developing a language of Torah and farming that enables a richer, healthier, more sustainable life. Wonderful! But on the other hand, there was something deeply unsettling about it, as though these good things were happening, but in precisely the wrong place. Most Rabbinic literature deals with the notion of mitzvot teluyot ba-aretz, the commandments that are dependent on the land of Israel, as a question of whether a mitzvah applies outside the land of Israel, not whether one could voluntarily observe it. The very notion of observing the Sabbatical year outside of Israel, for instance, is a non-sequitur both because of the extra stringency inherent in the idea, and because, traditionally, observing Israel-dependent mitzvot has been viewed as a privilege of living in the land of Israel. To a traditional mind, the mitzvah simply doesn’t make sense outside of it.

All of this happened this week, in the days leading up to Shavuot. Shavuot, of course, has a double-identity. In its identity as z’man matan torateinu, the time of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai—outside the land of Israel—it is a holiday accessible and meaningful to all Jews in all places. Jews around the world can study Torah on the night of Shavuot and know that they are part of a people doing the same thing across the globe. But in its identity as chag habikkurim, the festival of first fruits, its significance is talui ba’aretz, dependent on the land of Israel. Outside of Israel, this notion doesn’t make sense, because the first fruits mentioned in the Torah are those of the land of Israel: “When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the first fruits…” (Deut. 26:1-2).

We take as a given that Israel is interwoven into the fabric of Jewish life. Yet it is an old trope in American Jewish life that America itself could represent an Israel of its own, that not only can’t we make aliyah because of economic or family ties, but that we actively want to build a Jewish life here in this place. The Reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries took this as an article of faith. The Kayamers of the 21st century are experimenting with a fascinating take on the same theme. Personally, I disagree with the impulse to observe Israel-specific mitzvot outside of Israel. I view the mitzvot of the land of Israel as only fulfillable there, whether they are understood as a legal obligation or a special spiritual privilege. But I can’t help but admire the dedication and creativity of people who are seriously engaging with the questions, who are farming and learning and bringing Israel into a larger contemporary conversation.