Tag Archives: green

The Seeds of the Future

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 Some of the debates between the Talmudic rabbis seem scientifically outdated today, but others turn out to be shockingly prescient.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.

Kosher Goes Green

By Lily Hoffman Simon

Have you ever sat in an empty Chinese restaurant on Christmas day feeling like you are the only person in the whole country not congregating around a tree?  For those who keep kosher, resisting the temptation to order shrimp for their fried rice sometimes seems like just one more thing that sets Jews apart.  Sometimes, one can’t help but wonder: What’s the point?

This question comes into starker light when considering that traditional kashrut inadequately addresses contemporary ethical issues of the gastronomic variety. For example, if you type ‘agriprocessors’ into Google, you will be bombarded with information about the ethical misconduct of one of America’s biggest kosher meat producers, including cruel animal abuse, refusal to recognize its workers’ union, questionable environmental behavior and charges for breaching child labour laws.  How can these practices in good conscience  be considered “Kosher”?

Kashrut’ comes from the Hebrew root meaning “fit” or “proper,” and denotes guidelines for appropriate eating and consumption. The animal being consumed must be slaughtered in a way that ensures little physical discomfort for the animal. An animal must not be eaten with its mother’s milk, to signify the separation between its death and its source of life. A mother and child animal must not be killed on the same day.  All of these rules, and others, are intended to create a social, ethical consciousness surrounding the food we eat, as well as promote a spiritual relationship to food. But are these rules enough to ensure an ethical food industry?

The limitations of traditional kashrut have sparked critical analysis of the dietary laws. Proponents of kashrut reform advocate for changes in the standards of kashrut to follow suit with the changing food industry and the new ethical dilemmas its presents. A simple hechsher (the symbol of kashrut certification) no longer seems to be enough to ensure ethical food.

At the forefront of addressing these questions stands the Eco-kashrut movement, which emphasizes the environmental impact of the globalized food industry, which values efficient mass production over environmental consciousness. Advocates of eco-kashrut encourage environmental and animal-friendly ideas about food, such as organic farming, free-range livestock and sustainability, as a contemporary means to maintain an ethical conscious. Eco-kashrut also connotes a lifestyle outside of the realm of food, providing commentary on the environmental and spiritual implications of issues such as plastic production, energy consumption and general sustainability. With Hanukkah just around the corner, the Shalom Centre’s Green Menorah Project provides an interesting example of the key role environmentalism plays in the holiday.

Spiritually speaking, eating with an ethical understanding can unite food consumption with nature and God.  The Conservative Movement of Judaism has gone so far as to develop its own eco-kosher hechser, called a hechsher tzedek (justice certificate), to supplement traditional kosher standards. Other initiatives to create “social hechshers,” which denote just worker-producer relations among other socially responsible considerations include Tav Chevrati, created by Bema’aglei Tzedek, and Magen Tzedek’s initiative to label food that is conscious of environmental implications, animal welfare, and labour relations.

So the next time you scan a package of meat for a hechsher, maybe think about all the other aspects of production that are not considered in the traditional kashrut certification process. After all, if kashrut is intended to provide an ethical guidance, it might as well be relevant to the ethical questions of today’s times.