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Eat, Drink + Think

Turning the Tables: The Disturbing Torah

This is the first of a series of a monthly column by Rabbi Noah Farkas called Turning the Tables.

This column is not about food. It’s about living with meaning and purpose, and there’s no better meeting point of the personal and communal, the mindful and the prophetic, the historical and the contemporary than in our food.

When I started thinking about my life, I realized that the most banal experience — putting a morsel of food in my mouth — is the common denominator for all religions, races, classes and cultures. Every person thinks about eating multiple times a day. Yet, thinking about eating and thinking about food are different things. Everyone gets hungry, but most people are asleep at the wheel when it comes to thinking about food. Most Americans have a vague idea where their food comes from, its ingredients, and whom it empowers or impoverishes along the way. Our epicurean narcolepsy is destroying our environment, making us sick and enslaving human beings to one another. How can we be so complacent? What we need is something that unsettles our souls. This column, Turning the Tables, will look at food from a spiritual and moral perspective in the hopes of inspiring and pushing ourselves to think deeper about our relationship to what eat.

As a rabbi, I believe that Judaism at its best is disturbing. One of the central messages of Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah, is that all of us need a little agitation. Over and over in the Torah, the text confounds our assumptions about power, social placement and ethical expectations. This is clear in the scroll read on Shavuot, the Book of Ruth.

Ruth’s is a story about a woman who loses everything: her husband, her land, her sense of self. She ends up among the poorest of the nation, the gleaners, who have nothing to eat and must take what they can after the harvest (Ruth 2:2). It is there, in the field, that she meets Boaz, who changes her life. She bears his son, Obed, the grandfather of King David (Ruth 4:17). The moral of the story is as simple as it is confounding: Even a poor gleaner can give birth to a king. At the center of Shavuot, when our eyes are fixed on the heights of Mount Sinai, we remember that the real moments of salvation lie with the lowly beggar woman, not only in the maelstrom of revelation. If our Bible is disturbing on revelation, what about our everyday experiences, like eating for example?

Everyone says that the most important place in the house is in the kitchen. It’s where we eat for sure. It’s also where we congregate after a great dinner party, where parents teach their children to cook, and often where families sit to have their most important discussions. In fact, around the kitchen table was where I learned my grandfather had cancer, where we told our parents that my wife and I were pregnant and where we signed the papers to buy our home. The kitchen table is where real life happens — it’s the heart of the home.

In the Talmud, the rabbis understood that tables are not just family meeting places. They are holy altars reverberating with sacred energy that knit our spirituality with our ethics. Like the altar of the Temple, they are the place where we meet God and atone for our sins (Talmud Bavli Hagiga 27a). In some ways, the kitchen table is like a modern Mount Sinai. It is the place where families experience their rawest moments, where plans are laid, covenants established and life’s moments celebrated. Turning the tables means awakening ourselves to our authentic moments, to our greater world, and the injustices that lurk within it.

A prophetic table is like an alarm clock that just won’t shut off, goading us to remember that our lives have not yet achieved their full meaning until we include mindfulness and justice. Food needs history and a sense of connection with the larger cosmos. The way to feel that connection is to evoke the consciousness our food represents. Justice is the understanding that when we sit at our tables, we must account for those whose tables are empty, or worse — those who have no table at all.

This column, Turning the Tables, sets the tone for the New Jewish Food Movement. Our internal, spiritual lives and exterior, political ones need not be separate — both are part of the food experience. Like our Torah, we can bring meaning to our lives by overturning the systems that impoverish and commit violence against human dignity — and the right to fill our stomachs with enough nourishment every day. To turn the world, we start by turning the tables.

Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino is the founder of Netiya, an L.A.-based network of Jewish organizations focused on food education for environmental and social justice. He can be reached at [email protected], and @RabbiNoah on Twitter.

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