By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *
The adventure of the Jewish people with the sacredness of food began when the People of Israel -- as an indigenous community in its own land -- defined the most important way of connecting with God as the offering to God of the foods of that land in sacred shrines.
The Hebrew usually translated as "sacrifice" or "offering" is korban, which literally means "what is brought near." A word from the same root means "innards," and the korban was what brought God near to the most inward part of the human body.
The foods that thus brought God as near as physically/ spiritually possible included not only beef and mutton but also barley, wheat, leavened and unleavened bread, pancakes, olive oil, various fruits, wine, and water.
Varied configurations of these "nearings" celebrated sunrise and sunset, the new moon, every seventh day as a day of rest, and sacred festivals connected to the spring and autumn harvests. These "nearings" were also used to restore personal equanimity by expiating guilt, celebrating joy, and addressing other moments of spiritual disturbance .
Sometimes these foods were "turned into smoke upon the Altar." In this way, they joined the Breath of Life, the Interbreathing of all life, that may have been evoked by the divine name "YHWH." (Try pronouncing these four letters with no vowels. Most people find what emerges is the rush of a breath or of the wind. In Hebrew, the word ruach means "breath," "wind," and "spirit" -- just as pneuma does in Greek, spiritus in Latin.
More often, however, these foods were given to the priests, their assistants the Levites, and to the poor and landless and orphans and "resident sojourners" to eat. Since priests and Levites had no land of their own to cultivate , what these categories of people had in common was that without the food from these "nearings" and from the gleanings the poor were entitled to gather from the fields of every landholder, they would have nothing to eat.
As part of defining food as the sacred channel for bringing everyone's innards near to God, some foods were defined as sacred and some as forbidden. Endless debates have been engendered over the specifics of this regimen – why the meat of pigs, camels, crabs, and hawks was prohibited while that of sheep, goats, cows, doves, chickens, and tuna was permitted –To some extent, the forbidden animals were predators, carnivores, and omnivores, while those permitted were more likely to be herbivores and domesticated. So there was a tendency toward what might be called "vicarious vegetarianism" -- eating mostly creatures whose own diet was made up of plants. And there is evidence in some of the sacred texts of a wistful memory of a time, past or future, when human beings might eat only plants.
Some have also argued that the permitted foods came from creatures strongly connected with living on the land, or in the sea, or in the air – as against amphibians or insects that might cross these boundaries. It is argued that since the creation legends of the Israelites distinguished and emphasized these three domains, eating from these distinctive domains was a way for human beings to affirm or even join in the process of Creation.
Whatever one thinks of such efforts to explain the content of the code of permissible foods, it is clear that the regimen itself put great emphasis on knowing that choices of food were sacred decisions.
This system of sacred foods reached its apogee in the great spring festival of Pesach, or Passover. It seems to have sprung from a festival of shepherds, celebrating the birth of new lambs, and a festival of farmers, celebrating the sprouting of barley. As tokens of these celebrations (later redefined to fit into celebration of the spring-like uprising of the people against slavery and Pharaoh), the eating of leavened bread was prohibited, the eating of unleavened bread was required, and the korban of roasted lambs was also required.
Starting over, rebirth, was the focus: Bread must be the simplest food a farmer could make: grain and water and heat, without yeast or flavoring. Meat must be the simplest a herdsman could make: new lamb and fire, not even the water to boil it. Not raw meat, not raw vegetables; for human beings are technological animals. The foods of the dawn of fire and farming.
As part of this process of connection with God through food, the land as well as the people were entitled and obligated to pause from work every seventh day, every seventh year, and an extra year after the seventh cycle of seven years. In those years, the community ate from what had been stored and from free-will gathering of food that grew on its own, without sowing or harvesting.
All this affirmed and gave physical reality to the collective Israelite assertion that no human being, not even the human community as a whole, owned the land: Only God, YHWH, the Interbreathing of all life, owned the earth.
Even before this process was interrupted for an interval of about seventy years by the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire and by what became known as the Babylonian Captivity, the channels of God's wisdom who became canonized after the Captivity as the Prophets began to speak out for other ways of connecting with God.
Some of them excoriated the assumption that offerings of food could bring God near if the society did not insist on justice, on sharing the abundance of food from the land, on sacred rest for workers and owners alike from the toil of producing.
Others began to speak of offering words – what came out of the mouth as well as what went into it—as a way of connecting with God.
But it took the triumph of Roman/ Hellenistic civilization in economics, politics, science, philosophy, and weaponry to shatter the whole system of food-and-body Judaism enshrined in the Hebrew Bible. As the economy of the Mediterranean basin was transformed, more and more Jews lived far too far from the Jerusalem Temple to bring their food there as "nearings" of God. The foods they ate were no longer from a small strip of land along the eastern Mediterranean, but from such great bread-baskets as Egypt and from their own locales. And fewer and fewer Jews had political control over the land policy of the societies where they lived, and therefore could not celebrate sabbatical years or other physical ways of reaffirming God's ownership of the earth.
Moreover, the use of words of prayer and study as a way of making Divine connection became more and more attractive as Jews watched and learned from Hellenistic philosophers.
This process of divorce from the "nearing" of food as the most sacred practice was made full and final by the Roman Empire's destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and the decimation of the Jewish population of the Land of Israel after the Roman repression of the Bar Kochba Revolt, in 135 CE.
As what we now call Rabbinic Judaism emerged from this crisis, it preserved the celebration of food in a much lesser way and elevated the use of words to a much greater one.
The mouth remained the locus of God-connection. But the emergence of the notion of Torah sheh baal peh – literally, "Torah through the power of the mouth," or "the oral Torah," was Torah of words, not food. This "Oral Torah" was said to emerge alongside with and intertwined with the Written Torah, from the word-study of skilled interpreters over the centuries from Sinai on and into the future forever and in every land.
But food was not forgotten. The rabbis taught that with the Holy Altar gone, the dinner-table in every Jewish home was now an altar. While the specific rituals of the Altar were mostly not transferred to every kitchen, the elaborateness of the sacred "nearings" was transformed into elaborate rules that went far beyond the biblical limits on what to eat.
A few mysterious biblical lines about "not boiling a kid in the milk of its mother" were interpreted into a vast network of rules for how to separate milk and all its products and utensils from those of meat. Rules for the ritual slaughter of animals permissible for meat likewise became extraordinarily elaborate.
Alongside the legal requirements of what to eat and not eat for Passover grew up strong customs of what to eat to mark each festival: oil-fried pancakes and doughnuts to honor the consecration of oil at Hanukkah; fruits and nuts and wine in carefully ordered series for Tu B'Shvat; rebirth-day of the trees; apples dipped in honey for the sweet new round cycle of the year for Rosh Hashanah; and so on.
In our own generation, the impact of Modernity on rabbinic Judaism has in some ways replicated, even gone beyond, the impact of the Roman/ Hellenistic civilization of=n biblical Israel. In the arena of food as in others, this has shattered much of the old system and is beginning to sow seeds of new possibility.
For example, the smallest proportion of the Jewish people in rabbinic history now adheres to the official rules of kosher food in its own eating. Yet out of the economic and cultural clout of even a minority of Jews has grown a pantry of kosher-certified commercial foods eaten by millions of non-Jews -- in numbers that would have been an utter astonishment to Jews of the last three thousand years.
And the world-wide ecological crisis created by the actions of the human race in the last few generations of Modernity has begun to raise concerns among Jews as well as other communities, for how to redefine what food is proper and sacred to grow and to eat. Questions about the use of pesticides and of genomic engineering; of the burning of fossil fuels to transport foods across the planet, meanwhile disturbing the whole climatic context in which the foods are grown; the misuse of topsoil and the use of long-term poisonous fertilizers; the effects of massive livestock breeding on production of a potent global-scorching gas, methane -- all these have raised profound new questions.
Questions global in scale, not for Jews alone. And so there has arisen another radical departure from the conventions of previous Jewish life: consultations in which Jews join with others to refine and redefine these questions.
And still another: efforts, yet in their infancy, to apply the basic outlook that created the notion of "kosher" food when most human beings were farmers and herdsfolk, to a world in which human beings also "eat" coal, oil, uranium. Efforts to imagine an "eco-kosher" code for consuming all that an abundant and partially depleted earth produces, not only food.
Through the peculiar history and theology in which the Jews preserve both a sense of indigenous earth-connected peoplehood and a sense of worldwide presence and significance, can the Jewish attention to food as a crucial means of connection with God play an unusually useful role in the future of the human race and planet earth?
* Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center, through which on a grant concerning "Sacred Foods" from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal he worked on this paper and others. He is also the author of Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, & the Rest of Life (Morrow, 1995) and many other books and articles on Jewish thought and practice.