We are what we eat — and in most religious traditions, at some point or points of the year, what we don’t eat.
In my husband’s nominally Reform Jewish family of origin, there was a wide range of compliance with the fasting on Yom Kippur practice — the Day of Atonement in early fall, from his ordinarily indulgent, chain-smoking Uncle Morrie who sat in the synagogue for several hours in the evening and the entire next day, praying and atoning and starving himself all the way up to the next sunset (on the dot), to others who incrementally fudged on the start time: eating dinner the night of, but dutifully skipping breakfast and lunch, to the least observant. As Richard always says, he faithfully fasts every year on this day, afflicting his soul from breakfast all the way up until lunch.
One writer notes that there are some general themes in the menu of this meal. Round foods represent the circle of life. Stuffed foods, she says, are common, symbolizing the desire for a new year filled with peace and prosperity.
For some worshippers, leaving their temples and synagogues with a clean slate for the new year but with an empty and queasy stomach, the Yom Kippur supper is a lighter version of the ultimate Jewish Sunday brunch, some starting off with oatmeal or fresh melon, followed by mostly cold foods: smoked and pickled fish, egg salad, and savory noodle kugel, made with sour cream, potted cheese, and a whole lot of butter.
Breaking the fast following Yom Kippur has somehow morphed into a major foodie event, if coverage in the New York Times is any indication. From being grateful for whatever meal is offered following a day of denial, to in recent years, a reporter observes, when the break-fast party has become part of the Jewish social calendar. Columnist Mark Oppenheimer tells us the spirit of the High Holy Days can get lost in the mixing, and where the day’s solemnity quickly abates, smothered by large quantities of cream cheese and hummus.
Bringing up some serious theological questions for Vanessa Ochs, a professor of religion at the University of Virginia, who noted that before the day of repentance is over, many people are spending their meditative time, instead of resolving to try to live by the teachings of goodness, ruminating over the meal they will be serving, if not skipping services altogether in order to make preparations. For her and others, the line between a social party exclusively focused on food and drink, and a celebration of a new year written in the Book of Life, which happens to be accompanied by food, drink, and friends is blurred at best.
Food and Faith. Faith and Food. In the eating and the not eating of it.
From Psalm 34. 8: Oh taste and see that the Lord is good. Taste and see.
Almost immediately following the fast of Yom Kippur is the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, celebrating the harvest, and recalling the temporary huts the Jewish people built and lived in as they wandered in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. Families erect and decorate these shelters, from makeshift to elaborate, eating their meals there: in the past the fruits of the vines: the grapes and dates and olives and other produce.
This year, this Jewish Calendar year, beginning with the end of the High Holy Days in September, is a Shmita Year, every seven years a time of release, of a Sabbath for the land. With instructions in the Bible, in Exodus, to let the land go fallow, to let it rest and replenish its nutrients and fertility — a real precursor to sustainable agriculture — and to share the perennial harvest, the gleanings, the fruit of the vines with the landless, the poor. What one rabbi has called a trial vision for a just society. Grounded in food and faith.
A chapter in Exodus stipulates that for six years you sow the land and gather its produce but in the seventh year you are to let it rest and lie fallow that the needy of your people may eat and what you leave the wild animal may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard and also with your orchard.
This commandment has always been hard to follow — in fact, there is little evidence that in biblical times it ever was — to go without, to share unconditionally, to survive only on what falls to the ground. But Shmita is there as a religious guidepost.
For as long as people have been planting and gathering food, there have been harvest festivals with religious connections. The indigenous people, the Native American tribes at the time of the pilgrims held six harvest or thanksgiving festivals during the year, for blessing the maple tree and its syrup, for the planting of seeds, for the first fruits of the season, for the ripening corn, and in the late fall, in thanks for the food they had grown.
One of our original American myths is that in 1621, the pilgrims invited the native people of the Plymouth Colony to a peaceful and happy harvest “thanksgiving,” a foundational story most of us grew up with, intertwined with gigantic meals of turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, parades and football.
And according to the descendents of the Wamponaug tribe who attended that first celebration, untrue. That a Truthsgiving, a true history of Thanksgiving — dismantling common misunderstandings — tells a far different tale.
The full story would note that the 90 native people in attendance were not invited guests, that they were most likely an army sent by their chief following sounds of gunshots. That in fact, prior to the feast, the new settlers had stolen winter food provisions from the indigenous people as they anticipated starvation, not bounty.
That this first harvest was followed by deadly conflicts between the colonizers and the indigenous tribes. Not the Christian teachings of loving their neighbor and sacramental welcoming tables.
That for Native people, the Thanksgiving feast we now celebrate calls for a day of mourning and the core religious act of repentance.
Environmentalist Michael Schut wrote that it was not accidental that in the New Testament, Jesus chose a meal for the setting and bread and wine as the symbols for what has become the most central of Christian sacraments: Communion.
And beyond the formal sacraments, including Baptism, Confirmation, Ordination, and Marriage, he reminded us that in this tradition there are also informal sacramental moments in everyday life: watching someone getting born, making love… A meal with people you love.
In his collection of writings, Food and Faith, he recalled his own sacramental relationship to tomatoes, growing up in Southeastern Minnesota, which he describes as prime tomato-growing country, with a wonderful combination of summer heat, humidity, and rich soil that each year turns little seeds into the richest of fare.
The occasion of harvesting the first tomato, he says, was a significant calendar marker, up there with holidays and family birthdays. The farm where these tomatoes were planted, nurtured, and plucked, then shared on a communal plate was still a place of pilgrimage for him: the garden underfoot, the aroma of my mother’s cooking, the colors and tastes…
He experiences food as celebration, adding joy to life, and as nurturing gratitude. Receiving the gift of our daily bread, he observed, can remind us of the miracle of sun, water, seed, soil, and air. Of our holy interdependence.
But he also sees food, the way most of us experience food, as being disconnecting and even dangerous: the division, he observes, between the foods we eat, how they are grown or produced, and the knowledge of how these foods not only impact our own health but the health of the world.
If food can be a sacrament: the farm fresh tomato dripping with juice, the fresh baked bread, it can also be the cause of individual ill health and environmental degradation.
Writer Wendell Berry declared: How we eat determines to a considerable extent how the world is used.
The accuracy of this statement, we are told, was corroborated in a landmark book — The Consumer Guide to Effective Environmental Choices. What choices might consumers make, the book proposed, that might really make a difference to the environmental health of this planet?
Their findings: two of the top three most harmful consumer activities involve what we eat and where and how it is grown. The most harmful individual consumer activity: cars and light trucks, researchers found. The second most harmful: meat and poultry. The third most harmful: fruits, vegetables and grains. How we eat, these studies revealed, really does significantly determine how the earth is used. Their suggested priority actions for American consumers was to eat less meat and buy organic produce.
That was more than two decades ago. The call for a food revolution, for a significant cultural shake-up in the way we grew, raised, produced, purchased, cooked, and served our food. The call to unhook from the industrial farming pipeline, to return, perhaps to a simpler time of more responsible growing and more balanced and conscious eating. A call, hopefully, not to return to some blurred sepia picture of what it was like to eat and drink in what is sometimes called the Gilded Age in this country: portrayed as one overflowing cornucopia of harvest, a gigantic culinary groaning board, that was actually only available to a small minority of Americans.
In reality, most people were forced to subsist on a crude and scanty diet of tea and bread, supplemented now and then by a soup or stew of questionable origin, shopping for their dinners at secondhand food markets where they could select from leftover groceries, and the trimmings and bones from butcher shops. With a lack of hygienic standards, from street vendors to corner grocers, allowing food to be sold that today would be considered unfit for human consumption. When even for rural Americans, their diet was monotonous, and often far from healthful.
Rather than looking falsely backwards, there have been prophets who looked forward, like chef Alice Waters, a 27-year-old dreamer and environmental activist, opened Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, in 1971 as an option to what was already a fast-food nation. Flocked to by foodies from all over the world, she based her menu on what was grown or raised nearby.
Expanding from that successful enterprise, she launched “The Edible Schoolyard,” an organization dedicated to transforming children’s relationship to food through the public school system, offering healthy, organic alternatives to what has been standard canned and processed cafeteria fare. Exposing kids also to the labor and love of tilling their own soil and planting their own seeds.
Is she a food saint as some call her, or an unreasonable culinary moralist?
Reading about Alice Waters and her passion for “whole” food and local, fresh organic choices, I admit makes me feel retroactively guilty. You see, I was a mother of young children when she was raising her own daughter on farm-fresh poached eggs and home-baked wheat bread, making her plea for this way of feeding and eating, while I was living in the same town shopping at the Lucky chain supermarket, picking up the cheapest boxes of macaroni and cheddar cheese slices I could find, stocking up on Cheerios, cutting up refrigerator-stock apples, doling out the packaged cookies. Stretching our puny food dollars and falling into a pattern of convenience.
That was the reality for me and my family then, and for millions of families now, who rightly or wrongly believe that what Alice Waters and others were, and still are, proposing, their vision of heirloom produce and grass-fed beef and poultry, does not square with either our wallets or the practicalities of how we secure our food. Those who might argue that we cannot afford the alternatives to cheap groceries, and if we could, we do not have access to them, lacking the stores or stands in our neighborhoods that sell them, or transportation or enough gas money to go where they are being sold.
Who need to be respectfully and compassionately convinced of the addictive qualities of fast food eating, and the substitute pleasures of learning to cook our own “real” food. Who need to be supported by merchants selling reasonably priced fresh food in low income areas both rural and urban, zoning laws that limit fast food franchises and encourage other types of eateries, farmers markets wherever there is a vacant lot or closed off street, and nearby community gardens. So we don’t offset the benefits of buying and eating these foods with a bigger carbon footprint.
Let alone the millions of American children who were already eating marginal diets, before this pandemic caused a food scarcity epidemic as well.
Food and faith. Faith and Food. Blessed are the poor.
Religious organizations throughout the world have discussed the impact of the production, distribution, and use of food for many years now, well ahead of the international summit on climate change.
Our 2011 UU statement of conscience: Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice, thankfully acknowledged many of the complexities of this issue. Some people enjoy many food choices, while others remain hungry. The food industry produces wealth, but small farmers and farm workers are often poor. Food production and transportation contribute to many environmental problems.
This statement suggests that congregations can develop effective strategies to address two of the world’s biggest problems: social inequality and environmental destruction. This is an issue, we are told, that is in line with our Unitarian Universalist purposes and principles. We have a vision of environmental justice. One of our principles affirms justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, another the interdependent web of all existence.
This is worthy of our deep study, our discernment, and our action. Now as then.
Why is food so important in religion? Ours and other faiths?
What moral guidelines, if any, should govern food production?
Some people have too much food and others too little. How should congregations, this congregation, address issues like poverty and hunger, nutrition education, and health promotion?
What guidelines, if any, govern the purchase and use of food and beverages in this congregation?
What does it truly mean to bless our food when we gather? To set a welcome table — literally and in our community?
We are what we eat, as the blogger Queen of Green reminds us — that we vote with our fork — when we eat as low on the food chain as possible, with foods grown or raised closer to home, when we help end food waste, when we grow our own.
As best we can.
Food and Faith. Faith and Food. How do we practice reverence not just for human life, or other life in service of human life, but for the Earth itself (Rev. Peggy Clarke)?
In the words of rabbi and poet Marcia Falk:
Let us acknowledge the source of life, source of nourishment.
May we protect the bountiful earth
that it may continue to sustain us.
And let us seek sustenance for all who dwell in the world.