Shabbat at the Hazon Food Conference is an exceptional experiment in pluralism. I wish I had the time to comment on it, but perhaps that will be saved for reflections tomorrow evening once I’m back home. For now, I will report on the sessions I sat in on today. The first involved a private meeting with current and future rabbis (and the occasional educator) and Nigel Savage, the director of Hazon and a true visionary. The second session, titled “The Vegetable Monologues,” after “The Vagina Monologues,” focused on the stories of three Jewish, female farmers. Before Havdallah, I attended a session of the status of Genetically Modified Organisms in Halakhah put on by Zelig Golden, an environmental lawyer with the Center for Food Safety and Rabbi David Seidenberg.
The first session was focused around Hazon’s source book, “Food for Thought.” This is a truly amazing collection of texts from a wide variety of sources, Jewish and not. Nigel encouraged us all, as a function of our rabbinate, to utilize this curriculum in our work. It was truly inspiring when we went around the room of around 20+ rabbis and future rabbis to share our own visions of bringing this important work to our communities. This is a great resource that can be shared amongst friends, in the classroom, out in the world and even around the table. In my opinion, by virtue of being a collection of such diverse texts, it truly lends itself to interfaith work. In my experience, and that of others I spoke with today, sharing food becomes an issue in observant Jewish communities because of the barrier of kashrut. So, while truly on a human level food connects us all, it can actually serve to separate us in this case. I would love to see a future where we can bridge our differences on food and utilize our shared experiences with the state of food in our contemporary society to bridge some of those difference–not just across lines of faith, but even across denominational lines in our own faith.
The second session, “The Vegetable Monologues,” was by far the most exciting, informative and enjoyable session I had the pleasure to attend at this year’s conference. We had the opportunity to hear from female, Jewish farmers, certainly not the most common of entities to find. We had the great pleasure to hear from Emily Freed, chair of the 2009 Hazon Food Conference and director of Jacob’s Farm, Anna Hanau and Elizabeth Giancola, both of ADAMAH at the Isabella Freedmen Center, and goatherd/milk-maid Abbe Turner of Lucky Penny Creamery. None of these women were raised with the knowledge of farming, but rather felt the calling and made the change and became farmers. It is personally fascinating to me, with dreams of making such a life change, to hear success stories of this variety. Especially that of Lucky Penny Farm, which has managed to become a fully functioning dairy goat farm providing nutrient rich, fresh, sustainable, reasonably priced goat dairy. What is amazing is the drive and vision which with she was able to establish her farm and grow her business.
The last session of the day, and my last session of the conference, was on the halakhic status of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). For those who don’t know, a GMO is a food product, most typically corn or soy, which has had genetic code of another organism injected or transfered into it via viruses or bacterias. There are currently 4 widespread GMOs–corn, soy, cotton and canola. These are all designed by Monsanto to be Round-Up ready. Zelig Golden has done some incredible work in the legal venue (even currently has a case possibly going to be heard by the US Supreme Court) and covered the information of the ethical and legal aspects of GMOs. He was able, in four steps which I wish I could repeat but since it was Shabbos I couldn’t write, to easily dismiss the claims of the biotech corporations regarding GMOs as positive for farmers, consumers and the environment. Rabbi Seidenberg covered the halakhic issues and came to these basic conclusions: regarding laws of kashrut, GMOs are acceptable because of halakhic principals of nullification, and in the case of potential non-kosher animal genes being utilized GMOs still qualify as kosher because the food item itself resembles the produce and not the non-kosher animal. In addition to issues of kashrut, he brought up kilayim (forbidden plant mixtures) and markuv (grafting) as possible places to look for a place to forbid GMOs. And, of course, kilayim and markuv are not about the finished product but the planting; furthermore they apply only to Jews, and, specifically, only in the Land of Israel. Not to mention there are times when GMOs are utilized in the production of medicines, which of course Jewish law is firm in the permitting most forbidden things in the case of saving life. While he could not come to any conclusion, he did present numerous questions and problems to consider. Ultimately, it is an ethical issue relating to economics and environmental protection and therefore needs to be addressed by the ethics and values of each community. The issue is that the biotech corporations, which own the patents to the seeds and genomes they use and sell, will not allow these products to be researched empirically.
There is so much more to say about this year’s conference and so little time to say it. I will not be able to post on tomorrow’s sessions, so look for a guest post covering Sunday’s events. Also, look for my ultimate reflections on the conference in retrospect with vision towards the future on Monday. Until then…