Cultivating Jewish Community

What does organic farming have to do with Judaism?

In my undergraduate work I studied anthropology and environmental studies. I was interested in how and why humans act in the ways we do and how we can help ourselves live in way that is healthier for ourselves and the planet. I looked at how the religious beliefs of  certain indigenous tribes helped them to live in a sustainable way.  I saw these tribes as deeply connected to the land, not necessarily by choice, but by the ethos that is embedded in their culture and supported by ceremonies and myth.  It wasn’t until my last semester of college that I began to realize how much my very own religion has to say about human being’s relationship to the Earth. Once I started looking for it, I saw that the value of sustainability and respect for the Earth is very deeply built into Judaism.  No longer did I need to look solely to the peoples of South America or the Himalayas, but I came to see that all I had to was to look around and look within to unearth my own religion’s teachings on the environment.

This process of reconnection to Judaism began in my final year at Tufts, when I was participating in Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship (EPIIC), an intensive year-long class through Tufts’ Institute for Global Leadership that focuses on a different international issues each year.  The year I participated, our topic was “Oil and Water.” Throughout the year we examined the global implications of oil consumption, water privatization, environmental degradation and depletion of the ocean’s resources.  It was during this intense year of study that I realized something was deeply lacking for me. I had accumulated an incredible amount of knowledge through the countless books we read, papers we wrote, and speakers we heard, but at some point this was all  just information. Facts and dates and maps and numbers swirled around in my head, but never became integrated into the rest of my being. By the end of this course I understood that I had to do something hands-on and integrative, something that caused my body and soul to understand what my mind had learned.

Connecting to Jewish Roots

To find out where I could do this embodied learning, I began with a google search: religion, farm, sustainability, learning, community. That is how I found the Adamah: the Jewish Environmental Leadership Fellowship. As an Adamah Fellow I spent three months living in community with twelve other fellows from around the country. We worked our four-acre farm from harvest season through the winter, cared for animals, developed sustainable resources, shared a spiritual practice, and learned why what we were doing was very, deeply, Jewish.

So,what exactly is Jewish about organic farming and sustainability? Let’s begin with some classic Jewish texts. In Genesis (2:7) God creates the world.  God creates adamah, the Hebrew word for earth, and adam, the Hebrew word for human. When looked at in the original Hebrew, these words are clearly intertwined so that adam, humanity, comes out of adamah, earth. As it says in the Torah, God forms man from the earth and then blows breath into his nostrils. From the very beginning we there is an essential human-earth connection. We then read that G-d took man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it (Gen 2:15).  The word that is used for gaurd is shomer, which also means to watch or to keep. The first job given to human beings by God is to cultivate and care for the land. Further on, in Leviticus (25:23) God says, “For the land is mine; for you are sojourners, residents with me.”  From this we learn we are not given free reign to exploit the land for our own benefit, but that we are given the privilege of being partners with God by working the land, and that, ultimately, this land does not belong to us. Finally, a famous Talmudic tale goes: a man came to Rabbi Hillel and said to him, “Teach me all of Torah while I stand on one foot.” Rabbi Hillel responded saying, “What is hateful to thyself, do not do unto another, the rest is commentary, now go and study it.”

From these texts we learn that human beings and the earth are deeply connected, so much so that man is created from the ground, the earth then being the basis of our very existence, and then we are brought to life by the breath of God. We see that from the moment of our creation our first responsibility in the Garden of Eden was to work and to care for the land. Ultimately, this land is not ours, it is God’s, and therefore we should treat it as part of the Divine. Lining all of this, we learn that the foundational principle of Judaism is to treat your neighbor as you would treat yourself. Extrapolated beyond the people we live near, neighbor can also mean the land we live on, which makes up our interconnected neighborhoods. As Jews, each time we pray we recite words that remind us that God is everywhere and that everything and everyone is connected through this Divine presence. Just as we are linked to one another through this Divine presence, we are linked to the land we live on and the natural resources that sustain us.

This understanding of the interconnection of all life became  relevant and visible  through the organic farming we were doing at Adamah.  Organic farming describes a form of agriculture that does not use pesticides or other harmful chemicals. In its best form, it is a holistic system that promotes and enhances ecosystem health and biodiversity. By keeping the soil healthy and alive a plot of land is able to be farmed for generations.

It seems that if we are respecting the land as part of the Divine’s and if we agree that we want to treat our neighbors and neighborhood the way we treat ourselves, then organic farming is a system of food production that can support both of these values. We treat the earth as we desire to treat ourselves – we nourish it rather than degrade it.

A New Form of Redemption

An important theme that we focused on in our work during the fellowship was reusing or redeeming our wastes. This meant turning that which would be thrown away into useful materials, finding the goodness in those undesirable things. Compost is one example of this principle. Combining food wastes, animal wastes and some leaf or Nitrogen component creates an environment where tiny microbes can thrive and decompose the waste into soil. This soil is extremely nutrient rich and adds vitality to plants when spread on the soil.

A second example of redeeming wastes is the fuel we made to run our farm equipment and trucks. We learned how to brew our own biodiesel, a  biodegradable, non-toxic fuel source which has significantly fewer emissions than petroleum-based diesel when burned and is usable in any diesel engine. Our source to create this fuel was local diners. We would collect the waste vegetable oil from the deep fryers and bring it back to our makeshift lab. Here, we learned how to mix the appropriate combination of chemicals to create the fuel. Instead of using rapidly depleating fossil fuels, we learned how to take something that was originally garbage and to turn it into a valuable resource. Making biodiesel became a practice of finding Divinity in the mundane.

Life on the Farm

Day-to-day in Adamah, the twelve of us fellows spent six days a week and about seven hours a day working the land. We grew everything, from ocra to leeks, from sunflowers to pumpkins. During the warmer months we woke up every morning at 5:30 am. We bike the mile and half from where we lived to our four-acre farm. There, we would have an hour of Jewish meditative spritual practice outside on the land. We would chant the morning prayers and witness the sky as it changed from pitch black and full of stars to pale sunrise to bright morning. We had no big tractors or machinery so everything was done by hand or with a small plow or mower.

Working with the land day in and out allowed us to develop a deep realtionship with our plants. I learned how to tell if watermellons are ripe by examining the first tendril off of their vine. I noticed the pungent smell of the leeks and bunching onions every time I walked by them. I found out how filling beans are when you eat them all day as you pick them. During our time on the farm we were surrounded by abundant life, beauty, rich color, and were in tune with the cycles of the day and of the seasons.

From doing this work I began to notice how wrapped up I am in the intellectual world and how little time I have spent expereincing things with my whole self. I, like many of us, have experience grasping at the fruit of the tree of knowledge, but am less skilled at reaching within myself to find embodied knowledge. Adamah was a revelation for me. This was not a weekend workshop were we talked about farming, I was not analyzing articles from the New York Times about  the trend of organic agriculture. Instead, working with the land was the sole occupation of my thoughts and actions for three months, day in and out.

In addition to cultivating a deep connection to the land, farming taught me another important Jewish value – responsibility. Every day we had a responsibility to the land. We were living in partnership with the earth that we worked. If we were tired after a long morning of work, we couldn’t forgo the rest of the day’s tasks. If the fragile vegetables were not covered and protected when a frost came, they would die. Our responsibility to the land became especially apparent after a huge rainstorm hit and our entire farm was flooded under two feet of water. After the rains we had to slog through the mud with a canoe to harvest our twelve beds of potatoes, covered by water, in order to prevent losing the whole crop to rot.

We were responsible not only to our plants, but to our animals as well.  Our farm had four goats, fifty free range organic chickens, and a hive of honey bees. We milked our goats every morning and turned their milk into goat cheese, ice cream, yogurt and other delicacies. Whether it was our one day off or not, the goats had to be milked at 7am and 7pm every day or else they would be in sharp pain from holding too much milk. When the intense rains started coming in the afternoon and did not let up by midnight we had to go out and rescue our hive of honey bees from the farm lest they be swept away in the floodwaters. Adamah taught me the great joy that comes from understanding we are laced into a web of interdependence with plants and animals.