Each fall after the High Holidays have passed, the Jewish people move from comfortable homes into impermanent huts in backyards, driveways and on balconies for the festival of Sukkot. By eating and living in these fragile shelters, we train ourselves to temporarily subordinate our gashmiut (materialism) to the value of ruchaniut (spirituality).
To be sure, most of Jewish tradition does not promote an ascetic ideal, that retreating from the physical is actually the best way to live. Rather, we hope that removing ourselves from our customary comforts for eight days will help us, when we return to our normal lives, to have a heightened ethical and spiritual sensitivity about consumption and to act toward our world with greater integrity. Indeed, the renewed awareness and actions that result from Sukkot are imperative in protecting the world for future generations.
In addition to living for eight days mostly at the mercy of the elements, Sukkot presents opportunities to connect with and reinforce a sense of guardianship over the natural world. In taking up the lulav and etrog, we are reminded of our duty to safeguard nature with its many blessings. The Mishnah in Sukkah 3:1 says that one cannot fulfill the mitzvah with a stolen lulav, making clear that ritual is inextricably intertwined with the ethical.
We learn from the Talmudic tale of Choni (“the Circle-Maker”) the importance of protecting our world for our descendants. One day, Choni happened upon an old man planting a carob tree. Curious, Choni asked the man how long it would take for the tree to bear fruit. When the man replied that it would take 70 years. Choni reproached him: "Silly old man, do you really think you’ll live to see its fruit?" The old man answered, "I found this world planted with carob trees; as my parents planted for me, so I will plant for my children."
In our lifetime, food production, distribution, and consumption have changed radically in ways that will inevitably affect future generations. While what we eat was once produced at home or by small, local farms, today it is largely produced by massive industrial farms often located thousands of miles away from consumers. Agribusiness, with its toxic pesticides, sewage runoff and monocropping, as well as rampant maltreatment of workers and animals, has a profound and irreversible impact on our world. According to the UN, one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock pollution; if you count deforestation and every step from seed to landfill, food and agriculture account for as much as one-third of greenhouse gas emissions.
American meat intake has soared to unprecedented levels. Jean Mayer, a Harvard nutritionist, claims that 60 million hungry individuals could be fed if people would reduce their meat intake by just 10 percent. The amount of food consumed by 200 million Americans could feed over one billion people in developing countries.
These global issues can be addressed not only during Sukkot, but every time we eat: When one says a blessing over food, the goal is to cultivate a spiritual consciousness of the invisible factors that brought that food to our plates; that it came from our Creator, was prepared in a ritually fitting manner and isn’t environmentally or morally damaging. The blessing is the affirmation that we have investigated what this food is, where it came from, and that it is fully fit for consumption.
Furthermore, one must contrast the affluence that enables us to have regular meals in the sukkah with the poverty of those who live in food deserts and cannot meet their basic food needs. Fifty million Americans, including 17 million children, are “food insecure,” meaning they do not have regular access to food. We may be experiencing an obesity epidemic, but many of those overweight people are also malnourished because of a lack of access to healthy food.
We live in a precarious time, with low cost taking consumer priority over supporting worker justice, impact on the environment, and humane treatment of animals. I recently sat on a panel with a leading Ultra-Orthodox rabbi, who suggested “no one cares if the poet stinks”: Readers want good poetry, not hygiene; kosher consumers want good taste at a low price, not ethics in their foods. This has to change.
The Sefer HaChinnukh, a 13th century Spanish work, considers consuming something unjustly produced an act of idolatry, the worship of selfish desire over the good. Beyond personal hedonism, unethical consumption affects us all in today’s interconnected economy and ecology. The Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yokhai tells this story, “A man in a boat began to bore a hole under his seat. His fellow passengers protested. ‘What concern is it of yours?’ he responded, ‘I am making a hole under my seat, not yours.’ They replied, ‘That is so, but when the water enters and the boat sinks, we too will drown’” (Leviticus Rabbah 4:6). Our consumption choices represent more than personal piety; also public responsibility.
Over the past few years, Jews have become disillusioned with elements in the kosher industry’s maltreatment of workers and animals, and deleterious environmental impact — as evidenced particularly by the Agriprocessors and Flaum scandals, among others. How can we reverse these trends?
We sit in a sukkah to remind ourselves that we too are wanderers, like our ancestors who lived in huts as they traveled in the desert. We are akin to undocumented workers struggling to make it in America today. We are short-term visitors in this world, charged with the great task of leaving the universe more whole and less broken than how we received it.
When the myriad values in the rich Jewish tradition are embraced fully, not only kashrut is observed, but also a respect for human dignity, the sentience of animals and the upkeep of our planet. In a globalized age, Jews must be more aware of the impact we have as consumers in the marketplace, as well as of the conditions where our products come from.
Today more than ever we are in need of a Jewish consumption virtue ethic. This Sukkot, let us recall the vulnerability of the human condition and the precariousness of our environmental situation. The Jewish spiritual consciousness is embedded in the awareness of the physical world we live in.
Today, our votes as consumers may matter even more then our political votes as the corporations have overtaken the nation-states. Of the hundred largest economies in the world, fifty-one are corporations and only forty-nine are nation-states. The largest hundred corporations now control around twenty percent of the global foreign assets. The products we own speak volumes about our values.
Perhaps Rabbi Yisrael Salantar, the founder of Mussar, put it best: “Another person’s physical concerns are my spiritual concerns.” Let us take this to heart in the coming weeks. As we welcome in our great ancestors, the Ushpizin, let us recall their great ethical message.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology.