Food is love, at least according to many observers of Jewish life. Whether or not food really is synonymous with love, having it or not having it is a very big deal in our tradition. And as the issue of hunger takes a place on our nation’s stage to the tune of billions of dollars, that is something to which we might all pay more than a bit of attention.
Food has been central to the Jewish story since a woman and a man followed a snake’s advice to eat a piece of fruit in the Garden of Eden. The consumption of food has continued to be central to how Jews think about life, as we developed food laws in the Hebrew Bible and subsequent Rabbinic tradition, developed food banks and feeding centers for feeding the hungry as recorded as early as the 1st century CE, and into contemporary Jewish life where holiday food recipes are among the most sought after Jewish information on line.
So, as the House of Representatives passed a Farm Bill this week that includes $8.6 billion in cuts to SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, we have a stake in this issue. We have a stake in this issue as Jews, as human beings, and as New Yorkers, home to one-third of the SNAP recipients who are slated to receive this 25 percent cut in their benefits should this bill become law.
In New York City, that translates into 70 million fewer meals per year — an amount that cannot be absorbed by any extant non-governmental organization or coalition of them. The number alone rather staggers the mind.
According to Food Bank For New York City, nearly 50 percent of emergency food providers in the city ran out of food when SNAP benefits were reduced this past November. Twenty-six percent were forced to turn people away altogether, and all that, as 85 percent of soup kitchens and food pantries were experiencing dramatically increasing demand.
My purpose here however, is neither partisan nor even primarily political. To be clear, I am not necessarily decrying the bill, or the bipartisan coalition that supported it in the House. One could even argue that passage of this bill represents breaking the logjam that has paralyzed Congress for so long.
I am simply pointing out that passage of this bill into law, without carefully figuring out how millions of people will not go hungry as a result, is like jumping out of a plane and only then thinking about the need for a parachute. That is where we as a community, and religious leaders especially, have a vital role to play.
Whatever our thoughts are about the bill, the cuts to SNAP, and the enormous impact they will have on millions of people across the country, we cannot look away or be silent. We must respond.
Our nuanced intellectual heritage cannot be reduced to single answers, certainly not on an issue as complex as this one is.
But that tradition does speak to us about the centrality of food, its connection to human dignity and the dangers of averting our eyes or remaining silent in the face of human suffering, ongoing or immanent. And as a people, we know too well the price when others, in the words of Leviticus 19:15, stand idly by the blood of their neighbor.
The idea that with the stroke of a pen, millions could go hungry is simply something that we, as Jews, as human beings, and as New Yorkers need to be talking about. And not only do we need to talk, we need to act.
Whatever position one takes on the cuts to SNAP, their position must include a plan to deal with the fallout. If you find these cuts reprehensible, then fight against them, but also appreciate the need for fiscal and budgetary responsibility.
If you think the current bill should actually pass into law, first ask yourself how those consigned to new levels of hunger and suffering will be protected. If you have no answer, no answer that really can be put into place to protect those in need of a meal, then you are asking others to pay a very high price for your principles, as you place your views ahead of their lives.
Let this moment stir us to raise a collective voice of conscience about feeding the hungry. We may disagree about how best to get it done, but we should all be able to agree that none of us will rest until somehow, it is.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is president of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the co-founder and executive editor of TheWisdomDaily.com