SJ Seldin at Yesod Kitchen+Farm. Photo by Aaron Dahlstrom, courtesy of 100 Days in Appalachia.
SJS: Just to pick up the thread, at the end of Shani’s statement, farming as a Jew in diaspora is a constant act of interpretation. It is saying, “How do these principles, how do these laws apply to me here, on this land, at this moment?” Our more recent ancestors, who have been in diaspora for the last two thousand years, have been playing that game, doing that dance of interpretation the whole way through. And part of why we won’t have an awareness of ourselves in mainstream Judaism as an earth-based, farming people is that those are not the stories that have been elevated. I think a lot of what we do with the Jewish Farmer Network is to elevate the stories of Jewish farmers, so that those stories are not just, “Oh, right. Our grandfather had a dairy farm, but then sold it and moved on.” We elevate these stories of the many Jews between the land of Israel and now who have been farming, and give kavot, give honor, to those stories. Those are Jewish stories. This is not an exception to a rule; this is an unbroken thread of Jewish land stewardship and of Jewish interpretation.
MN: Could either of you give me an example of a tradition where there’s no rule that says it has to be practiced outside of the land of Israel, but that you bring to your own farming practice anyway?
SJS: The first thing that comes up is shmita: the practice of keeping the land fallow one year out of every seven. Shmita is like a fractal of Shabbat. If Shabbat is one day of every seven, a rest for humans, then shmita is rest for the land. There’s no obligation to allow the land to lie fallow outside of Israel. And shmita is part of a much larger social and economic structure that was designed to ensure economic remission and justice; a system in which everyone’s hunger was important and everyone, regardless of social status, was to be fed. For me on a personal level, and as a steward of land, I believe that all creatures, and the land itself, are deserving of and need rest. So, the first year that we were here, I talked about it being a shmita-inspired year of fallowness. Lessons of permaculture teach us to have a year of deep observation before doing land-based work on a new piece of land. Permaculture is an amalgamation of many indigenous-based practices and wisdoms that was packaged and sold by two White Australian men. For me to be able to say this isn’t just permaculture, this is actually a Jewish teaching around the importance of fallowness, the importance of rest, and the necessity to sit in humility at the power of nature to feed us with a different relationship.
I believe that all creatures, and the land itself, are deserving of and need rest.
SM: To be engaged in that cycle of shmita, it means investing in perennials in a way that you otherwise might not. If you’re not cultivating your land, then you need to be able to survive off of something. The way that you’re supposed to be counting the days, you’re saying them as one day from Shabbos, two days from Shabbos, three days from Shabbos. You’re always orienting your week to the rest of the Sabbath. That same principle is enlarged in terms of shmita. How are we orienting our years such that when the seventh year comes about, we can rest properly? And the land also gets to rest on Shabbos, on our time scale, but that shmita is a Sabbath on the time scale of Earth. We know not of that timescale and we can only try to understand it.
MN: You all are doing this creative, interpretative thing, but you’re also farming on the ground in a very practical way. It seems like there’s an interesting way in which you have to balance the spiritual and the pragmatic. Where do spirituality and farming interact for both of you?
SM: I think farming is a practice of praying with your hands and your feet. And every seed you put into the ground is a prayer, is a hope, is an exercise of faith. Right now, I’m actually thinking aloud about Leah Penniman. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard her speak, but when she talks about going back—I don’t remember where she was in Africa—the elders there asked her, “Is it true that the farmers in America, they put down a seed and they don’t pray and pour libations and sing and dance?” [paraphrased]
SJS: And they expect it to grow.
SM: And then they expect it to grow. There is an opportunity for prayer and for connection with each and every seed that we plant, every plant that we transplant into the ground and every part of the work that we’re doing and it’s often a missed opportunity, even for myself. The dance of farming, of agriculture, is a dance of relationship with divine energy that’s flowing through the world and how we can meet that energy to bring food forth from the earth. I think specifically about bread, and I can go on a whole bread tangent, but just the way that we meet God in the act of creation and the ways that we find partnership there, with the divinity flowing through the earth. We’ve had folks reach out to us and say, is there a specific blessing you should say when you’re planting a seed? Are there songs we can sing and things like that? And I think a lot of that is lost to us. There are blessings that are kind of like catchall you can throw in and be grateful we’re in this moment of planting, right? But I think that those specificities of Jewish songs of plantings are not really alive right now and I think that’s an opportunity for something we can grow into. And to find ways to bring more prayer to the farm. Judaism as an embodied tradition, that’s kind of lost and in this work, we are finding it, again.
SJS: There’s so much death in farming, which I think is not often realized by people who are not engaged in it. Anytime humans are met with the choices of life or death, whether that’s plants or animals, that’s a lot of responsibility. I feel like I’m held accountable in my spirituality and in my sense of ethics, in those moments; that humility before the soil, the choices that I’m making impact real living things that have consequences. I second everything Shani said, and I also feel that my spiritual practice holds me in and helps hold me up in those responsibilities.
I think farming is a practice of praying with your hands and your feet. And every seed you put into the ground is a prayer, is a hope, is an exercise of faith.