Torah that Nourishes: a Jewish Food Ethic of Pleasure and Justice
Guest post by Aviva Richman
Aviva Richman is on the faculty at Yeshivat Hadar in Manhattan, the only full-time egalitarian yeshiva in North America, where she teaches Talmud, Jewish Law and midrash. She is also pursuing doctoral studies in rabbinic literature at NYU, as a Wexner fellow. Other interests include niggunim, classical piano, and making all manner of soup!
We live in a world where many people offer conflicting advice about what to eat and how. Should meat be a crucial part of my carbs-free diet or should I avoid meat because it is unhealthy – or unethical? Is fresh, organic, and local the way to go – or does that make food too expensive and less accessible? In this whirlwind of food movements and media, there is perhaps no better time to engage the complex discourse around food in our own tradition. To use the words of a fifth-century midrash, “Is there such a thing as Torah in the gut?” (PDRK, 10)
The idea of “Torah in the gut” arises from a puzzling verse where the Psalmist turns to God and says: “I desire to do you will, my God; Your Torah is in my gut.” (40:9) The midrash can’t make sense of this visceral image. Torah is made of written words, not food; it is processed in our minds, not digested in our stomachs. What kind of Torah resides in our digestive tract?
The most well-known side of Torah that relates to food is kashrut. Indeed, a later midrash (Tanhuma) interprets “Torah in our gut” as keeping kosher. Pious eating is thus defined by exercising denial and restraint. This approach finds expression in our own world as kashrut organizations declare more items “unkosher” each year.
And yet the Torah’s approach to food cannot be reduced to ritual asceticism. A practice of denial directly conflicts with other teachings in our tradition that require us to delight in the world’s delicacies:
“In the future, each person will have to give an accounting for everything he saw that he didn’t eat.” (Jerusalem Talmud Kiddushin 4:12)
We so often hold ourselves accountable for the things we ate that we shouldn’t have. Can you imagine being held accountable for all the things you should have eaten but didn’t? This isn’t meant as mere hyperbole; the Talmud goes on to say that these are in fact words to live by:
“Rabbi Lazar was very strict about this and would save a little money so that he could eat every item, once a year.”
This tradition invites us to express piety through indulgence and delight rather than denial. The Talmud is not blind to the difficulties of such a practice. If delighting in the world is a religious imperative, then the example of Rabbi Lazar pushes us to ask how it can be an accessible and sustainable practice. Who can afford to share in this delight?
We are now ready to return to our original midrash, for it ultimately weaves together food, community, and ethics. What does David, the psalmist, mean by referring to Torah that resides in our gut? The midrash explains:
David said, “Woe to me if something enters my gut before I tithed it!”
David cannot imagine partaking of food before the portions are given to the landless and the poor who do not share the same access to food. According to this midrash, “Torah in the gut” is what happens when the feelings of pleasure and anxiety bound up with the visceral need for food become transformed into ethical practice. When I put the food I eat at the center of a practice of recognizing others, my own consumption becomes an act of ingesting Torah.
How do we live out these values in our large-scale economy where we can enjoy every possible food item and at the same time are quite distant from all aspects of how this food is produced, processed and distributed?
In some respects, our position isn’t so different from David. As a king he wasn’t out in the field himself, but even so the midrash goes on to teach that David appointed people in every aspect of food production charged with the task of giving tithes. Being far away from the places where our food is produced shouldn’t stop us from taking responsibility for the social impact of the food we eat.
Unlike David, though, we don’t have unilateral power to determine the practices that surround our food industry. What do we do at the limits of our power? Does David’s statement suggest that we refrain from eating any product that isn’t produced in an ideal, ethical way? If so, how can we fulfill the imperative of enjoyment? We are left with a fundamental tension between eating with delight and with responsibility.
This January, Yeshivat Hadar’s annual, winter learning seminar will be co-sponsored with Hazon, on the topic: “Can a Morsel of Bread Bring Peace?” We will delve into the delights, challenges, and responsibility that Torah holds for us in it discourse on food, through live text-study, rich conversation, and hands-on workshops. Our learning will be animated by all that the verse from Psalms represents: “I desire to do your will, my God; Your Torah is in my gut.” In context, the visceral imagery conveys a sentiment that reaches into our innermost being, a “gut” feeling, to be in relationship with God and do what is right. Perhaps this is what it really means to have Torah in our kishkes: As we navigate the myriad food choices we make each day, we can only hope that our craving for integrity matches our craving for the food we love. When our eating choices are shaped by our deepest commitments, the food we ingest becomes Torah in and of itself, and it in turn can shape and sustain us.
To join us in the bet midrash this winter, please visit our homepage, www.mechonhadar/collegeseminar.