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To Till and To Tend: Jewish Farming Course

The beginning of June was busy in the Greater Boston area — garlic plants sent their scapes into the air, rainbow chard darkened their multi-color stalks and a whole slew of salad greens begged to be harvested. Intoxicated with the potential energy of fresh produce, New England provided an enchanting background to engage in matters of Jewish sustainability and food systems issues.

This is the environment in which the Jewish Farm School and Hebrew College hosted a one-week intensive course called “To Till and To Tend.” The course aimed to focus on sustainable agriculture, food justice and the Jewish tradition through a hands-on, skill-building week. In the mornings, we worked at the day’s chosen organic farm or urban garden and posed a number of questions to the farms’ managers: How did you become interested in farming? Why are we planting strawberry plants? Where are these lettuce heads being donated? What’s it like being a woman in a male-dominated field? What is this?!

In the afternoons and evenings, we asked the “larger” questions and discussed issues of food security, the Jewish agricultural laws of peah and shmittah and our place as humans in the ecosphere. The whole week culminated in a sunny, contemplative Shabbat where we could reflect on how to carry forward these ideas into our own lives.

One question resonated with me from our week of discussions: “What is our appropriate intended relationship with the land?” We met a number of wonderful organic farmers, we talked about the ethics of Jewish agricultural practice and we ate some of the best pan-fried fresh sage I’ve ever had. But how does this week reflect our relationship with the land?

For me, the debate falls along the lines of dominion versus stewardship. Arguments of dominion are rooted in creation, in Bereshit 1:28: “And God blessed [Adam and Eve] and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’” (emphasis added). Human dominion over the land and the animals could be interpreted as our allowance to extract whatever we desire from the land. And quite frankly, this seems to be a common interpretation, as reflected in our sanctified environmental actions or non-actions. We — the general ‘we’ to include all global citizens — dig for oil in the middle of oceans, support unsustainable methods of factory farming and much more. We exert our dominion over the land by building exploitative systems that ask for nothing else but productivity in return.

This interpretation of our relationship to the land is missing a key element of our role as the actors who dominate. We have a responsibility to protect that within our authority, to cultivate the natural wonders, to benefit the greater population and to respect the power we’ve been given. The namesake of the course, To Till and To Tend, is in direct reference to this idea of responsibility or stewardship. “The Eternal One placed the human being in the Garden of Eden, to till and to tend it” (Genesis 2:15). “To till” refers to our work with the land and to our support of its production, while “to tend” indicates that we have a responsibility to look after the interests of the land.

Each individual’s relationship to the land is a personal journey. We have to figure out for ourselves, as individuals and as a community, how we want that relationship to look. Do we support factory farming? Does the kosher certification satisfy all our ethical beliefs for food production? Is growing our own food possible and as important as having a green lawn or uncluttered balcony? Our decisions inevitably will reflect how we value the dual nature of our relationship — our role is not merely to till, but to tend as well.

Alyssa Bauer is the Garden Site Coordinator at the Walnut Street Center in Somerville, MA where she organizes educational activities focused on growing food for residences for adults with disabilities.

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