A Purposeful Fast: A Yom Kippur Sermon on Food

Thanks so much to Rabbi Dov Gartenberg who shared his Kol Nidre sermon with us.  Rabbi Gartenberg is the Spiritual Leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach, California.  You can find more of his writings on his blog or listen to audio files of some of his other sermons.

As Jews we can speak with authority about the importance of health care. We come from a tradition that has great reverence for healers and the art of healing. “Two ethicists are debating about abortion. One says a human life is viable at conception. The other says human life is viable only after birth. A Jew hearing the discussion interrupts, “When does a human life become viable according to the Jews? When your child finishes medical school.”

Humor aside, our greatest philosopher and authority in Jewish law was a physician. Maimonides establishes a cornerstone obligation concerning human health in his great code, the Mishneh Torah:

” When one eats and drinks, one should not be doing so just for enjoyment, because then one will eventually be eating just to sweeten one’s palate and for the joy of it; but one should eat and drink just for the sake of the health of one’s body and limbs. Therefore, one should not eat whatever he desires like a dog or a donkey; one should eat only what the body will use, whether it is bitter or sweet, and one should not eat those things which are bad for the body, even if they are sweet.”

(Torah, Hilchot Deot 3:5-8)

As we enter our 25 hour fast, what better time to reflect on food and health as we suffer from its temporary absence. Maimonides establishes a central principle of the Jewish teaching on physical health. We have a personal obligation to live in the healthiest way possible. The imperative for health starts with each of us.

Maimonides establishes here a principle about health and eating. Tonight, I want to suggest to you that kosher, which means fit or proper, should be understood to include all Jewish teachings about food, what constitutes proper food, how we prepare it, how we consume it, and how we share it with others, and the impact of our way of eating beyond ourselves. There is a way of eating that is “fit” not only in the ritual sense, but “fit” in a broader sense-food that is fit for our health, food that is fit for our bodies, food that is fit for our environment, food that is fit for our world.

Being kosher is not just about permitted and forbidden foods, it is about a whole way of eating and relating to the bounty of nature. Being kosher is taking responsibility for the way we eat and a concern for all matters relating to food and health, an activity that is integral to our daily lives.

Judaism’s profound teaching about food gives us a unique perspective on the health care debate raging around us. My beef with the great health care debate is about what is not being talked about. What is our personal responsibility in regards to the way we eat? I have a right to good medical care, but don’t I also have an obligation to not eat excessively, to avoid the consumption of unhealthy foods and substances, to maintain my body.

Tom Nantais, TBS co-president, shared with me his conviction that if more Americans committed to eating healthfully, we would go a long way toward resolving our health care morass. Tom, you are a follower of Maimonides who teaches us that the first obligation for a Jew is our responsibility to do our best to care for our health through the way we eat. We all know that illness can strike us even with a healthy lifestyle, and that we all age and ultimately die. But our tradition does emphasize that we can greatly influence the outcome of our health by our way of eating.

But a big problem in our times is that the food choices around us and pedaled to us, the crazy pace of our lives, and the lack of universal access to good and healthy food compromises our ability to live healthy lives.

The current raging debate about health care focuses on our vast, dysfunctional system of interventionist medicine. But there is an elephant in the room. No one is talking about how our government subsidizes terrible food choices. No one raises the injustice that poor Americans have little or no access to healthy food. No one challenges a system that spends billions of marketing dollars seducing us to eat food products that undermine our environment, waste huge amounts of fossil fuels and most of all jeopardize our personal health.

Michael Pollan, the leading critic of the American way of eating, writes that the government is putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating Type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup, one of the main contributing factors to that disease. Our health crisis in America is driven not only by a broken health care system, but even more so by the American way of eating and producing food. This food system compromises our health which requires massive amounts of expensive medical intervention to keep us functioning and alive.

One of the leading products of the American food industry is patients for the American health care industry. (Pollan, NY Times, 9/9/09)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three-quarters of health care spending now goes to treat “preventable chronic diseases.” Not all of these diseases are linked to diet — there’s smoking, for instance — but many, if not most, of them are. Our food industry produces 17000 new food products every year with a marketing industry which spends over thirty two billion dollars a year to sell us those products. The fast food industry, one large part of this industry, is the source of over 250 billion dollars a year in health care costs and billions more in environmental and energy costs.

According to Michael Pollan a global pandemic is in the making, a most unusual one because it involves no virus or bacteria, no microbe of any kind- just a way of eating. Four of the ten leading causes of death today are chronic diseases with well established links to diet: coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer. An American born in 2000 has a 1 in 3 chance of developing diabetes in his lifetime.

The modern American diet, built on highly processed foods and grains and on the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat, dependent on a handful of staple crops and on massive amounts of chemicals and fossil fuels to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures is the most radical change to the way humans eat since the discovery of agriculture. The modern American diet has ushered a new creature onto the world stage: the human being who manages to be both overfed and undernourished, two characteristics seldom found in the same body in the long natural history of our species.

But our way of eating doesn’t only impact our health. It has massive side effects. US agriculture uses 400 gallons of fossil fuels a year to feed every American. That includes the average travel distance of 1500 miles for your food to arrive on the shelf.

Current meat packing practices maim and cripple tens of thousands of workers each year by virtue of the intense speed and volume of their output. The working conditions at these slaughterhouses are horrendous. With great embarrassment and shame to the Jewish community the top kosher meat producer, the Kosher Agriprocessers plant in Iowa, was busted by the Feds for illegal hiring and labor practices– then when bankrupt.

These sobering facts, which are only the tip of the iceberg, remind us that Judaism’s call for us to take personal responsibility for our health is made more challenging in an environment that seduces us constantly with cheap, poor quality, mass produced and marketed, wasteful, and unsustainable food products. All these factors overwhelm the wisdom of our food traditions and centuries of accumulated common sense about eating.

As Jews we have to start with personal responsibility even when the environment around us is set up to undermine good choices. Because once we take personal responsibility for our choices, we have authority to speak out for society as a whole. In that spirit, I call on my fellow Jews to a renewed and expanded understanding of what it means to be a kosher Jew.

To be kosher in the fullest sense is to eat





practicing hospitality,

and in a distinctively Jewish way.

1. To be kosher is to eat healthfully.

The Talmud offers an astonishing admission about Yom Kippur: Resh Lakish said: One who gorges himself with food on Yom Kippur is free from punishment. Why? Because the Torah said, “A person who does not afflict themselves throughout the day shall be cut off from his kin.” (Lev 23:29), and that excludes one who does himself harm by excessive eating.

In other words, we afflict ourselves more by unhealthy eating than by any of the sanctioned afflictions such as fasting on Yom Kippur. Unhealthy eating is its own punishment.

2. To be kosher is to eat ethically:

To be a kosher is to be an ethical eater. This requires mindfulness about the way our consumption of food impacts others. If we know a food was produced by slave labor, should we eat it? If we know the kosher meat we are eating was made by producers who treat their laborers unfairly, should we eat it?

In the wake of the Agriprocessors raid, the Conservative Movement established a new kosher certification process called Magen Tzedek. Kosher meat and poultry producers will only get a Magen Tzedek Heksher if they are able to demonstrate their upholding of fair and ethical labor practices.

Hear the story of what is in my mind a kosher hero. Will Allen, son of a black share cropper won a $500,000 McArthur Genius Grant for his efforts to bring healthier options to the urban poor of Milwaukee. Allen was moved to action as he witnessed the horrible health conditions of America’s urban poor who suffer from sky high rates of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and the devastating health impact of the limited food choices in the urban ghettos. He applied farming skills learned in childhood to establish 14 greenhouses crammed onto two acres in a working-class neighborhood on Milwaukee’s northwest side.

Allen’s Growing Power Farm produces a quarter of a million dollars worth of food in his crammed urban space using microbe and nutrient-rich worm castings. (poop, that is). Using these natural nutrients Allen grows produce and fish to provide healthful food to 10,000 urbanites. Being kosher to me means supporting heroic efforts like Will Allen’s.

3. To be kosher is to eat sustainably

One day Choni Hamaagal, the rainmaker, a famous figure of Jewish folklore, was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him, “How long does it take for this tree to bear fruit?” He replied. “70 years.” He then asked him: “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” He replied: “I found grown carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children.”

Does the way we eat and the food we consume enhance the prospects for a sustainable diet for future generations? The answer is to seek out ways to eat sustainably. Patronize farmer’s markets, buy foods that are grown locally, eat a wide variety of foods to avoid an over dependence on corn products and over processed foods.

4. To be kosher is to eat intentionally

Being mindful when we eat is a critical element to the Jewish way of eating. “Rabbi Ba the son of Rav Hiyya bar Abba teaches: If he ate while walking, he must stand and bless. If he ate standing he must sit and bless. If he ate sitting, he must recline and bless. If he ate reclining, he must enwrap himself and bless.”

By distinguishing the act of blessing from the act of eating, the Rabbis teach us to strive toward awareness when we eat. Humans should not eat like dogs or donkeys. Judaism teaches that we should become conscious eaters.

Instead of “You are what you eat,” Hale Sofia Schatz writes that people eat what they are. “If you are stressed out all the time chances are you’re feeding yourself stressed out quick grab foods with little vital nourishment. When we shift our way of thinking from ‘you are what you eat’ to ‘you eat what you are’ we see that the latter involves awareness. It makes us stop and question who we are.

If we believe that we are spiritual beings, then we are more likely to seek out the nourishing foods that feed the shining life force that already exists within us.” By adding blessings to our eating, by practicing the Jewish way of mindfulness, we will be more inclined to eat food that blesses our bodies.

5. To be kosher is to practice hospitality.

“Greater is the welcoming of guests than receiving the countenance of the Shekhinah,” states the Talmud.

Jews don’t talk about food like Puritans. We emphasize responsibility, but we teach there should be joy in responsibility. This is the key to understanding the Mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim-hospitality. Sharing meals is joyful. It is also healthy.

As our meals have become more rushed, they have also grown more isolated. We rush through our meals in the car or eat mindlessly and excessively in front of the TV. As one critic has observed, “The sheer abundance of food in America has bred a vague indifference to food, manifested in a tendency to eat and run rather than to dine and savor.” (Pollan, Eater’s Manifesto, p.54)

Sharing our meals enables us to dine and savor. When we share, we eat more slowly; when we share, we are more inclined to serve healthier food to guests and friends. We rediscover what our Sisterhood already knows, that cooking for others is great gift. You will also rediscover the joy and art of conversation and interaction with others. And you will be doing a mitzvah, especially when you share your meals on Shabbat and Festivals.

6. To be kosher is to eat in a distinctively Jewish way.

This aspect of koshrut is most familiar to us. Following the ritual laws of koshrut, eating meat only from permitted and properly slaughtered animals, separating of milk and meat, buying products that are free from foods forbidden to us by the Torah is a significant way we express our uniqueness.

It is also the part of being kosher about which many of you are ambivalent. Why go to the trouble of eating the unique diet called upon by the Torah? What has this to do with all that I have described up to this point?

It is hard to be kosher today, just like it is hard to eat healthy today, because of the enormity of the bad choices all around us. Being kosher is the Torah’s way of teaching us to be strong, to be not afraid in being distinct, and to learn self-discipline. Every generation of Jews who remained loyal to koshrut had to make mindful and distinctive decisions about the way they ate. This included healthy practices that distinguished the Jews from their neighbors in Antiquity and in the Middle Ages.

Eating is a holy act that encompasses so many dimensions of what it means to be a purposeful human being. It is time to reclaim the excellence and wisdom of the Jewish way of food and eating. We have every reason to be proud of what our tradition teaches us and to commit to living it in our lives.

Let us come back to the theme of personal responsibility in leading healthy lives. Our choices do not only have impact on ourselves, but those around us. And when more of us work hard to live responsible, healthy lives, we find the courage to face the obstacles and traps made by our troubled food system.

The current health care debate is important because it will hopefully lead to addressing the heartbreaking unfairness, the terrible inequities and inexcusable inefficiencies of our byzantine health care system. But we should not ignore the troubling linkage between a health care system and our food system. For reforms in our food system will have a huge impact on our health care system and an even larger impact on our lives and the lives of those who come after us.

By living kosher in the fullest sense we walk the walk toward a healthier, sustainable, and Jewish way of living. In renewing our commitment to living kosher in the fullest sense we stand on firm ground to advocate for a just and sustainable national health care system built on a reformed food system which offers us accessible, affordable, and abundant healthy choices for our way of eating.

Here are four concrete ways our Temple community can act to collectively offer a healthier and kosher way of living for every member of our community.

First, Beginning Thursday morning, October 8th, Thursdays will be a Health Walk with Rabbi Dov . Every Thursday morning at 6am before the minyan I welcome congregants to join me for a vigorous 45 minute walk around Hilltop Park on Signal Hill.

Second, lets join TBS Member, Martha DeYoung, with her idea to start a small organic vegetable garden in our courtyard which would be tended by our children. Help Martha to realize her initiative so we can teach our children the value of growing good and healthy food and enjoying its bounty at our communal meals.

Third, let’s establish a congregational CSA: a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) Program. A CSA supports local, sustainable agriculture by working with a local farm to bring local, organic produce to our members at competitive prices. The CSA helps a farmer to do sustainable organic farming and preserve farmlands near urban areas. A CSA enables participating members to pick up delicious, fresh produce once a week from the synagogue for the entire growing season. I have a CSA food box from Tanaka farms for you to see what could come to your home if you participate.

Lastly, join me at the Hazon Food Conference in Monterey, California at the end of December where the emerging Jewish Food Movement is bringing about a renewal of our understanding of koshrut along the lines I have spoken about here. I would love to share this wonderful and exciting Jewish experience with TBS congregants. Go to www.hazon.org to learn about this award winning organization transforming the Jewish scene.

The Torah is the way of sacred attunement-of holy mindfulness about our most common and basic acts of daily life. Judaism teaches that our daily acts do ripple out to affect the wider world. We consume what we are. The way we eat impacts our own bodies and carries repercussions for our fellows.

“We do not inherit the earth from our parents; we borrow it from our children.”

Reflect on this truth as we deprive ourselves of food and drink over this great Day of Atonement. Let us rise from our fast tomorrow to work together as a community to restore common sense and holiness to the way we eat.

Live Kosher. Help Save the World.

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2 Responses to “A Purposeful Fast: A Yom Kippur Sermon on Food”

  1. Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder Says:

    Thanks for framing it so well.
    Shanna Tova,

  2. Judith Says:

    Hi Dov,
    This is a wonderful piece – I’m so glad you will be teaching at this year’s Hazon Food Conference. I look forward to hearing more!

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