By Rhea Yablon Kennedy
I think it was the title that got me. “What would Moses drive?” is how the session appeared on the conference schedule. I was at the Hazon Food Conference, held Dec. 24-27 in Pacific Grove, Calif., on the heels of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.
The human imperative to fight climate change is no different than the Jewish imperative, was the message of the session’s leader, Adam Berman, former director of Connecticut’s Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center and founding director of ADAMAH: The Jewish Environmental Fellowship.
The sessions at Hazon’s seaside gathering brought together 630 members of the contemporary Jewish food movement. Like the talk on faith and climate change, each session linked contemporary issues of sustainability to Jewish practice, beliefs, and culture. I joined fellow food writers, as well as chefs, farmers, rabbis, policy watchdogs, and urban gardeners in poring over pages of offerings. We could choose from a panel on media and the food movement with San Francisco Chronicle food editor Miriam Morgan, a talk on making sustainable agriculture profitable with farmers who have made it happen, tours of the Jewish climate change bus that had traversed the country on used vegetable oil, and presentations on Israeli foodways with Jewish food authority Joan Nathan. You could even learn to make sourdough bagels.
Those who attended “What would Moses drive?” found themselves right at the intersection of Judaism and environmentalism. Berman ran quickly through the disturbing statistics and trends–the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere and projections of what our land masses will look like as the rising sea eats away at their edges.
Then Berman brought us the good news: Jewish practices make perfect tools to stave off a global travesty. He pointed to Shabbat (the Sabbath), Tzekakah (literally “righteousness,” and often translated as “charity,”), kashrut (kosher laws), and brachot (blessings).
What would happen if one day a week we didn’t emit carbon? Berman asked, referring to the practice of refraining from driving or using electricity on Shabbat. What if we expanded our idea of kashrut to expand our awareness of the foods we consume? How might our consumption change if we stopped and blessed each meal?
Here we had built-in models for using less energy, giving away some of our earnings to better the world, thinking carefully about our foods’ origins, and being thankful for what we already have. Dropping into only that session, one would think that Jews had been preparing to confront this crisis all along.
Yet Berman’s take on climate change at the food conference, we all knew, was just an interpretation. The commandment about keeping Shabbat simply says “you shall do no work,” not “you shall emit no greenhouse gases.” In fact, many Jews keeping Shabbat leave a few lights on the entire day, because turning them off is also considered work. As for blessings, one could say shehecheyanu–the prayer for a new and wondrous experience–during a first jaunt in a three-ton Hummer just as well as the inaugural bite of homegrown organic lettuce.
Should this worry us? I wondered. But I immediately knew the answer: Absolutely not. I have always learned that Jewish practice encourages scrutinizing, arguing over, and testing our texts and customs. Even the descendants of Rashi, the greatest commentator on the Talmud, questioned his interpretations.
You can find Jewish individuals everywhere who embrace this idea, but I think it’s especially easy for Washingtonians to grasp. We live a stone’s throw from the U.S. Supreme Court, where the most highly-respected judges in the country question the meaning of our sacred Constitution every day. Imagining what Moses would drive is like asking whether Alexander Hamilton would support stem-cell research. It’s a funny riddle and an enlightening debate.
The Hazon Food Conference reminded me that all of our practices are open to interpretation. No commandment demands fighting against climate change–nor, for that matter, supporting sustainable agriculture, working to make good food affordable to all, or baking great bagels. But if we look at such issues in a Jewish context, our traditions offer rich inspiration for the most enormous and urgent tasks of our time.