By Daniel Kieval
In the insightful children’s book Noah’s Wife, which provides a modern-day expansion of the Biblical story of Noah, the title character Naamah goes out and gathers seeds from every kind of plant while her husband is busy collecting all of the animals for the ark. After the floodwaters receded, she and Noah are able to repopulate the Earth with all of its plants as well as its animals.
Until hearing of this midrash, most people never even notice this glaring hole in the Biblical story—I hadn’t. What would the animals have eaten in a world without plants? Where would they have gotten oxygen to breathe? Obviously, this is not the only scientific critique we can make of the Noah story, but it is one that calls attention to the importance of plants, and their seeds, to our survival.
Seeds have long been a part of Jewish tradition. The first of six major sections of the Mishnah—Seder Zera’im, the Order of Seeds—is devoted to them, covering a wide variety of laws related to food and agriculture. A subsection of Zera’im known as Kilayim (mixtures) deals largely with how seeds may and may not be planted in a field. Some of the debates between the Talmudic rabbis seem scientifically outdated today, but others turn out to be shockingly prescient. For example, a panel at last winter’s Kayam Farm Beit Midrash discussed how the principles of kilayim apply to the genetic modification of seeds—an issue too big to ignore as the majority of U.S. farmland (and therefore the majority of U.S. food) now contains such seeds.
Whether these seeds will save or destroy the world depends on whom you ask. Supporters say that seeds engineered to resist diseases and herbicides and to contain extra vitamins will allow us to grow more food and fight malnutrition in the developing world. Opponents, meanwhile, argue that the seeds encourage privatization and commodification of life, cause indigenous farmers around the world to become dependent on U.S. corporations for their food, and threaten the world’s crop gene pool by replacing countless local varieties across the globe. The fact remains that seeds in the U.S. are now controlled by fewer people than ever before.
With the national seed supply undergoing such a transformation, I had the chance last month to attend a remarkable meeting whose goal was to reestablish something quite different: a community seed supply, and with it, the intimacy and knowledge that come from working in partnership with plants year after year. Representatives of the burgeoning Jewish farming movement came together from such organizations as Kayam Farm, the Jewish Farm School, Adamah, the Teva Learning Center, Kavanah Garden, and Shemesh Organic Farm. Gathering at Teva’s Nature Center on Long Island, the passionate group shared knowledge of growing and saving seeds, visions of a future Jewish seed exchange and seed bank, and seeds themselves. Efforts like this are attempting to counter the danger that some see in the centralization of seeds by large corporations. At the same time, they are restoring the Jewish community’s awareness of its long-standing connection with the Earth and how it sustains us.
Jews often say “ledor vador,” meaning from generation to generation. The transmission of Jewish religion and culture across the generations is what enables a people with such ancient origins to continue to thrive today. Likewise, the perpetuation of our seeds from generation to generation is quite literally what allows us to survive as human beings. The modern midrash of Naamah, the ancient rabbis, and today’s Jewish farmers remind us that we must work to cultivate a reverence and appreciation for the seeds that accompany us across the generations.