09 May 2009

Safe Food and Safe Streets Are Torah-True

Rabbi Nehunya ben Hakanah said, "Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah from him are removed the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly care; but whoever casts off the yoke of Torah, upon him are placed the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly care."

Don't be fooled by this text--it's not about losing oneself in Torah study at the expense of the secular world. Rather, it's about Rabbi Nehunya's idea that being morally obligated by Torah simply lightens the load of obligation one has to the secular world as well.

In other words, one may read this text with a sense of celebration for the challenge to let our religious dimension inform our sense of obligation to the government and secular service.

After Shabbat evening services last night where I talked about this idea, someone said, "So does this mean we should enjoy paying taxes?" Good question. And I think the answer is "Yes." Along with the charge that we make sure our government is obligated to spend our money wisely, and in dialogue with our values as citizens--wherever they come from.

I think about a couple different issues, so relevant to our community: the safety of our streets and the food we eat. Brooklyn cares deeply about both.

With regard to transportation, our section of Brooklyn is one of the intellectual and activist centers of the Alternate Transportation movement. Street redesign, bikers rights, "green" transportation schemes--each of these are being worked on passionately and with a sense of devoted immediacy. Our own synagogue has several members who themselves are quite active in this area. And as rabbi to those people, I think about the sacred relationship between their work and the Jewish tradition's own concern for the welfare of its people, for the obligation to live, work and teach in safe conditions and from an environmental perspective, to live in sacred, covenantal partnership with the planet. This isn't left mumbo-jumbo. There's serious Torah at stake.

And though liberal American Jews often hold as sacred the separation of "church and state," our time demands a new way of thinking. A community like ours might consider ways to let it's voice be heard on this matters--no matter what they are. And determine in what ways we may want to speak out for safer, sounder traffic patterns. After all, imagine walking to Shul to study Torah, to learn Hebrew, to pray to God, to hear a lecture--and have your life threatened by irresponsible drivers, careless law enforcement, or the inertia of not making progress in traffic design that is healthier and better for the citizens.

With regard to food, one could make a similar argument. Our devotion to organic food, to the responsible ways its grown, to the very earth from which it comes--each have the simple Torah dimension of meriting a blessing before we eat it. A blessing for each food type, before and after, circumscribing our consumption with: 1. gratitude for the food; 2. cognizance of the process which made it; and, 3. gratitude for the experience of satisfaction in having eaten it.

But given that food and food policy is actually quite public, this is no singular culinary experience that is uttered in modest privacy. Rather, it mitigates toward our own involvement in public policy--from the FDA to local gardens.

Rabbi Nehunya ben Hakanah said, "Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah from him are removed the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly care; but whoever casts off the yoke of Torah, upon him are placed the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly care."

Our relationship to Torah--yoking ourselves to the moral obligations of tradition--frees us from the burdensome relationship to government by opening us up to a sacred dialogue in making the government the true instrument of the will of its citizens.

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