Food Justice at the Seder Table

Below is an overview of the Uri L’Tzedek Food and Justice Haggadah Supplement by a former Uri L’Tzedek intern, Yitzi Raizner. The supplement, featuring 26 articles and insights about food, justice and Pesach, is available for free download here:

Justice at the Seder Table
by Yitzi Raisner
The Seder is an orchestrated affair with fourteen movements, from Kadesh to Nirtzah. At my family’s Seder, though, there is a prelude which marks the true beginning of the meal, long before the first cup of wine is poured. One might call it Bechira, “The Selection.” For you simply cannot approach the Pesach table without a thoughtfully chosen Haggadah (and pillow, for that matter). My grandmother is loyal to the Szyk Haggadah for its aesthetic offerings. My sister, on the other hand, appreciates the Abarbanel’s unique insights. It’s a highly personal choice and no two people end up at the table with the same one.
This year, Uri L’Tzedek, “an Orthodox social justice organization guided by Torah values, and dedicated to combating suffering and oppression,” has partnered with a number of like-minded groups to produce a Haggadah supplement tailored to the needs of a new generation of Jews. This is a generation, according to Nigel Savage, founder of Hazon and a contributor to the supplement, “striving to find meaning and wisdom in ancient tradition, and not merely in the abstract, but in relation to a wide range of complex and troubling contemporary issues.” Members of this generation will find a compelling treatment of one such issue in the Food and Justice Haggadah Supplement. Its message is simple: As we eat sumptuously and recount the story of the Exodus, we cannot ignore modern-day slaves, the impoverished and oppressed people of the world. Some of them, like the farm workers who pick the grapes for our wine, provide the backbone of our food security while enjoying no such security themselves. This is a grave injustice.
The story of our Exodus from Egypt is best unravelled through discussion. Parents are instructed not to tell their children the story, but rather inspire them to initiate a conversation with the four questions of Mah Nishtanah. Uri L’Tzedek is no stranger to fostering fruitful discourse. Much of the organization’s educational programming is centered around conversation, and the Supplement is no different. The entries are not presented as definitive. They are voices in a lively discussion—Russel M. Neiss’s entry on Hallel is essentially a three-paragraph question.
To ensure the quality of the discourse, Uri L’Tzedek has brought a variety of views to bear upon the issues discussed in the Supplement. Twenty-six contributors approach the Haggadah, and its relevance to food and justice, in their own way. Some emphasize the simple, down-to-earth approach, characterized by Rabbi Josh Feigelson’s statement that “many things don’t need to be ritualized to nonetheless be right.” Others draw upon their respective backgrounds to glean insight from the Haggadah: Shira Hecht-Koller, a graduate of Cardozo Law School, presents an incisive analysis of the laws surrounding matzah and chametz, with important implications for our thinking about justice; Aliza Donath, a freelance artist, closes out the Supplement with a pair of topical papercut designs. Along the way, we pick up intriguing bits of scholarship from the academic world (the word afikomen seems to be a variant on epikomien, a Greek post-meal custom).
The contributors themselves look to a variety of great thinkers for inspiration. Rabbis Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook and Joseph B. Soloveitchik loom large. Those familiar with Uri L’Tzedek Director Ari Weiss’s writing and lectures will not be surprised to see him quote, within one short entry, Thomas Hobbes, Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Donne, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Emmanual Levinas.
Amidst the pluralism of the Supplement, four major food- and justice-related themes emerge.
First is an inquiry into the question, What is a meal? The Seder, with its rules and rituals, calls for a serious contemplation of what, when and how we are eating. A number of the contributors show how this heightening of consciousness surrounding our food can turn a mundane physical activity into a spiritually fulfilling moment. How are we to manage our bodily desires? What exactly should we be thinking about?
The second theme is a modern-day application of a principle found throughout the Torah: we are not to mistreat gerim, or strangers, because we were once gerim in Egypt. The suffering we endured there should imbue us with a particular compassion towards marginalized communities. Many of those who grow, cultivate, and bring us our food are members of one such community—the community of undocumented workers in America. Their community is overworked and underpaid, denied basic rights and demonized in the political discourse. Our own history of enslavement compels us to sympathize with them.
In his entry on Dayyenu, Ari Hart cites the Sephardic Jews who playfully whip one another with leeks at that point in the Seder. The symbolic gesture reminds us of how easy it is to take what we have for granted: Even the Jews who experienced the Exodus lost sight of their miracle-laden existence when they complained about the manna in the desert, pining for the produce they had in Egypt. The Supplement’s third main theme is simply to appreciate what we have. Implicit in such an appreciation is the acknowledgement of those who are not similarly privileged.
The fourth theme is related to the third. We spend so much of the Seder in awe of the Mighty Hand that took us out of Egypt. While we must make sure to appreciate the miracles performed for us, we cannot lose all sense of our personal agency. A number of contributors emphasize the role we play in our ultimate redemption, the one we pray will bring about “next year in Jerusalem.” The world in its current state is filled with misery and suffering. If we yearn for a fixed world, we must initiate the fixing.
But how?
It is often hard to translate inspiration into concrete action. To that end, the Supplement is peppered with helpful “Act” boxes. They highlight some steps we can take immediately to implement food justice. Joining Uri L’Tzedek’s pioneering project, the Tav HaYosher, which certifies kosher restaurants that treat their workers fairly, is one way we can connect the food we eat and the morals we live by.
I will be bringing the Supplement to my Seder this year, to take part in the growing conversation within the Orthodox Jewish world about food and justice. It’s a conversation worth having.

6 thoughts on “Food Justice at the Seder Table

  1. Don’t have time to wait for downloads. Too busy packing boxes of matzah to give to food banks.
    For others who have downloaded is there anything there about giving food to food banks?

  2. DB-
    the download is very fast. it’s worth a look at. the content is very serious, very deep learning. the sources used are excellent, the analysis is sound. the depth of knowledge of rabbinic sources is impressive. i think you’d like it. it’s very frum.

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