Got Me Thinking…

how life can teach us about life

Are these tomatoes vegan? How a week on the farm got me thinking about the limits of ideology

on October 3, 2013

Originally posted in May 2012

Note: I spent last week with the Jewish Farm School and Hebrew College on a program called To Till and To Tend (or, To Work and To Guard as some of us renamed it). It was an incredible week of farming and learning and I recommend it to everyone. But how to share the events of this week without making it sound like a long diary of a list? That couldn’t even begin to capture it. Instead, I just want to share a few events and how they got me thinking. I really like this format. It’s like a “d’var experience,” using an event in one’s life to spark an idea (instead of a traditional text). What do you think? We could be on to something…

The Thursday of my Jewish Farm School trip, we went to visit the Food Project in Dorchester. The Food Project is an incredible organization that runs farms all over Boston and engages the neighborhood in community building through workshops, volunteer programs, and just being a beautiful spot of ground for people to gather by. The head of the Food Project there took us on a tour around the area, showing us the many backyard gardens and farms that had been there for decades. Then we arrived at the Food Project greenhouse, where we were greeted by rows and rows of eight-foot tomato plants. It was like entering a jungle. Each plant relied on a pulley system to keep it growing straight. Our guide explained the intricacies of tomato growing, the wires and the irrigation and the fish emulsion… Fish emulsion? If we had been an old-school movie, a record would have scratched the music off. We participants looked around at each other with puzzled expressions, especially myself and the other vegan on the trip. “You feed the plants… fish?” I asked for clarification before jumping to any conclusions. 
“Yes!” said our guide enthusiastically, “We buy it straight from the wharf nearby. It’s just all the leftover fish parts, they make it into liquid and we buy it in barrels. It’s full of such-and-such nutrients.” (I forgot which ones, but it was a formidable list.) I was still trying to process the meaning of all this, when one of the group leaders piped in to the silence. 
“What’s the alternative?” he asked leading-ly.
“Petroleum fertilizers,” said our guide shaking her head. “Not sustainable. Most organic farms use animal by-products. Bones, blood, hair…” I think I remembered sticking out my tongue at this point. 
And then it dawned on me. “So I’m vegan, but the plants I eat might not be?” Cue the laughter from the group. And yes, put that way, it was incredible amusing. As we walked to the next stop, the amusement continued. Someone said it must be “carnivore’s revenge.” “This must be the best-kept secret in the vegan community,” said another. “Well now Eliana can’t eat anything!” said almost everyone at some point or another. What I heard was, “Guess you’re not really vegan!”
I laughed at these jokes because of the absurdity of it all, because of the ridiculous notion of plants eating animals. But at dinner that night, someone posted a sign that said “tomatoes not vegan” next to the plate on the buffet line. I decided not to eat them. More jeers, more laughter. And yes, it was amusing. But for me, this was not just an interesting tidbit of information. This was a dilemma that pitted my values against each other. On the one hand, I support environmentally sustainable farming practices, including limiting our reliance on petroleum. On the other hand, fish emulsion may be a sustainable by-product, but it’s a by-product of an industry that I don’t support. I’m not just vegan for kicks, but because I believe that it’s better for my health, the health of the planet, and the health and security of all beings involved. Non-vegan tomatoes weren’t an amusement for me, but a challenge. Fellow trip-goers asked me what I was going to do. I answered that of course I support organic farming and will continue to eat organic, but it seems like the lesser of two evils now.
Let’s jump all the way to Shabbat afternoon. Sitting on the grass outside of our dorm building at Mt. Ida college, we were being led by Rabbi Or Rose in a rousing discussion of Shabbat and Shmita (agricultural practice outlined in the Torah for letting the land rest every seven years). The first task was to discuss, in hevruta (study partners,) what we love about Shabbat. My hevruta and I talked about rest, joy, community, and other aspects of Shabbat we held dear. Then we were instructed to switch gears and talk about what makes Shabbat challenging. My hevruta was bursting to talk about this! She loves Shabbat but lives in a small town without many Jews, has a family that isn’t so keen about her becoming more observant, and struggles with whether or not to work on Friday nights. I agreed that it can be tough, and told her a story I’ve told many people to illustrate this point:
After my year in Israel, I was reinvigorated and excited to delve deeper into Jewish practice, including more stringent Shabbat observance. On my first Friday night home, my mother comes to me and says, “Eliana, we’re going to Anne’s for dinner. You can either get in the car and drive with us, or sit here at home by yourself.” Sigh. So much for that. 
Rabbi Rose pointed out how interesting it is that something that is called a taste of the world to come can be so full of difficulties. It reminded me of something Rabbi Ethan Tucker said at Mechon Hadar during the college week of learning this past January, where the focus was Shabbat halacha (Jewish law): “The way you observe Shabbat now is no indication of the way you will celebrate Shabbat the rest of your life.” We many know what our ideal Shabbat would look like but may not be in the community, physical location, or monetary situation to make it a reality. Our ideology needs to wrestle with reality as we continue to grow. When this all came together, I finally realized what bugged me so much about the non-vegan tomatoes.
When people find out I’m vegan, I am sometimes met with a barrage of questions about my decisions. Do you eat honey? Do you wear leather? Do you ever eat anything from an animal, ever? These kinds of questions feel like they are meant to poke holes in my ideology, to prove that since I can’t be a “perfect” vegan, that I’m not one at all. Let’s flip the questions:

Do you carry?
Will you ride in a car?
Will you use electricity?
Do you keep Shabbat?

Now for me at this moment, the answers to the first three questions is “yes”. But the answer to the last question is also “yes.” I really grapple with my practice. I probably said “my complicated relationship with halacha” at least four times on the trip. But I grapple because I care about Shabbat, because I care about law and tradition and community. Would I like to live walking distance from all my friends and go to a shul with a strong Shabbat community? Yes, ideally, but I can’t right now. Would I like to only eat tomatoes that have been fertilized with human-generated compost? Yes, ideally, but I can’t right now. There are practical roadblocks to my ideology.  It even sounds like the word “ideal” and exists on a purely philosophical perfect plane. Translating it into the real world is where it gets tough. But if something really matters, don’t give up on trying. “You are not required to finish the task but neither are you allowed to desist from it” also applies to creating a personal ideology that works with your values and in the world. 
As we allow ourselves the space to grow and grapple with our beliefs, we must extend that same opportunity to others. To often we dismiss people as “not being a real such-and-such” because they don’t have it all figured out, because they question and struggle. Or, we dismiss the struggle itself because it isn’t a dilemma for us so obviously we must be doing things right. To the first point, the struggle proves the importance of those values in the person’s life. If they didn’t care, it wouldn’t even be a question.  And to the second, it only seems obvious because you don’t hold the same values in the same order of importance. It’s not a dilemma for you, but it’s a very real dilemma for others. 
There are people who believe in being vegetarian but need to deal with a protein deficiency or a gluten intolerance. There are people who believe in the Democratic party but want to support the other candidate in a local election. And there are people who believe in the value of Shabbat but don’t live close enough to a synagogue to walk. If we don’t want to end up in a padded room by ourselves, we must learn to translate our deepest held values into the real world. We must not give up on what we are passionate about, but we must recognize that other people have different value systems and dilemmas. Only by respecting and dialoguing with each other can we grow along our varied paths. Maybe those paths will be lined with fish-eating tomatoes. Or maybe not. 


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