What Might the Organic and non-GMO Food Movements Teach Us About The Jewish Community and Bugs In Vegetables?

Over the recent decades, there has been a push in some circles of society towards organic food and away from Genetically Modified food. Many reasons are given; health, fear of chemicals, a moral stance on what kind of farming ought to be done by people, whatever. This despite the fact that there is overwhelming scientific evidence that GMO’s are safe, and that organic food is not necessarily any better for you. Why, then, does this persist? There seems to me to be a class element to this movement. It used to be that what set different classes apart was the quality and quantity of food available to each wealth sector. With the advances in farming and agricultural science providing an unprecedented amount of food to an unprecedented amount of people, I suspect there were people who unconsciously started to think, “well, my food must be better than that which is eaten by the common peasant”. And thus, organic food movements and anti-GMO movements are born, both of which reject methods to increase agricultural yields and concurrently access to food by the poor, preferring more expensive alternatives that are supposed to be a more refined and more ideal product. In this way, the more well-off get to establish themselves as better for having paid a premium price for food they see as more ideal, and get to set themselves apart from the unwashed masses of peasants eating peasant food. This despite the fact that this movement is a net loss for humanity, especially when companies start satisfying demand for these “natural products” by deliberately choosing agricultural policies that decrease their yield, driving up food prices and pricing out the poor. In other words, when rich people are allowed to set the market operating under the unconscious assumption that they must set themselves apart from the peasantry, the market tends to follow their lead, to the detriment of the poor.

I think a similar thing has occurred in the Jewish world when it comes to the idea of bugs in vegetables. With food suddenly plentiful, the well-off and well-educated unconsciously search for reasons to pronounce their own food as being of higher quality than that available to lower classes. And what they found was that bugs in vegetables fit that bill. That a new badge of pride would be the high prices paid for checked produce, or even the total avoidance of certain produce altogether. And by doing so specifically within a religious context, it meant that the poor had to keep up on these religious standards, (unlike people who can just go ahead and buy unorganic and GMO food), as they become seen as a important aspect of being an Orthodox Jew. The effect, unfortunately, is a regressive tax on Orthodoxy: poor people depend on produce for a higher percentage of their diet than the rich who can afford to dine on (kosher-slaughtered and glatt) meat. Suddenly, if they want to keep within the frum community, produce is out of their price range again. Even for those communities which are okay with checking vegetables at home, there is a certain person who can afford to spend as much as an hour of their time merely prepping the vegetables, and its not, say, a single mother of 5 who has a full time job to pay for yeshiva tuition. The effect is essentially pricing the poor out of Orthodoxy by allowing the rich to set the standards of religious practice.

Rabbinic decisors ought to be cognizant of these trends and their deletritous effects of the community and stop them before they become widespread. It is not enough to offer poor families certain dispensations on a case by case basis; the fact that certain trends become standard within the community such that a given parent will feel that they can’t afford to keep halakha is itself a problem. In the case of bugs and vegetables, there have been poskim, most notably the Aruch HaShulchan, who have recognized the undue burden that being machmir would place on members of the Orthodox community. I’m not offering any practical suggestions for psak, nor do I have any right to, but I am wondering aloud; would it be so terrible if the Orthodox community agreed to follow the Aruch HaShulchan, and be mekil on this issue, so that the poor would feel more welcome in our community?

A More Detailed Critique of R. Avrohom Gordimer’s campaign against Open Orthodoxy/Things That Make Him Uncomfortable

(The first version of this post accidentally failed to refer to R. Gordimer by his proper rabbinic title, and I apologize deeply for that error. If I were to point to a cause for this error, and if I were to be honest with myself, it is likely due to participating in too many conversations where R. Gordimer was not granted the basic respect of being referred to by his proper title, to the point it had been normalized in my mind. I resolve in the future to insist that he be referred to by his proper title as a matter of “what is hateful to you don’t do to your friend”. This post should furthermore not be construed as an attack on R. Gordimer’s basic character; according to everyone I’ve ever spoken to, R. Gordimer is a wonderful and nice person in real life. I myself was privileged to hear R. Gordimer speak to an OU Kashrut course and found his shiur engaging and informative. The only reason I did not go up to thank him after the shiur was because I feared my name being recognized as someone who had written a scathing critique of an article he had written for the YU Commentator. So, R. Gordimer, on the off chance you read this, I apologize profusely for failing to refer to you by your proper title, and thank you for that shiur) 
Last night, in a fit of passion, I wrote a post about what I percieve to be problems in the ways that Open Orthodoxy has been criticized, particularly by R. Avrohom Gordimer. I neglected to bring specific examples of R. Gordimer exhibiting the trends that I ascribe to him, as I as more musing aloud than writing a fully documented critique. But I want to back up what I said with actual references, so I have selected a R. Gordimer “kefira roundup” article at random to illustrate what I’m talking about.

Let’s go with this one.

Right off the bat, R. Gordimer identifies the point of the mitzvah of Matzah as teaching us a lesson in humility and submission before God, as is his wont. Having confidently identified the true reason for the commandment, he then goes on to assail anyone who goes against the True Meaning of Pesach by having the gall to disagree with him.

The first object of his ire is R. Shmuly Yanklowitz, who proposes we remove Shefoch Chamascha from our Haggadah. I will admit, I was no fan of this proposal. I feel that this suggestion is insufficently receptive to the genuine pain of our ancestors in exile, and recognizing that pain and that anger has its value. Do I think removing it constitutes heresy? No. No ikkar emunah is being impinged on if R. Shmuly Yanklowitz decides not to say Shefoch Chamascha. Making such a passage, one so jarringly dissimilar from anything in Jewish liturgy (even the Kinot are much much more muted in their calls for divine retribution) central to one’s notion of Judaism is the very definition of picking a bad hill to die on. But, because R. Yanklowitz is liberal, and he’s expressing something R. Gordimer sees as a liberal value, its treif.

The second object of R. Gordimer’s displeasure is R. Dov Linzer for having ” just postulated that we insert our own characters and values into the Haggadah:” and having the temerity to suggest rabbinic opinions were rejected. For the latter crime, I’m not sure why R. Linzer is not allowed to interpret a Gemara or suggest rabbinic opinions get rejected, or give reasons why. As for the latter, you can judge for yourself, but as far as I can tell, R. Linzer is merely offering an interpretation of the concept of “seeing yourself as if you exited Egypt”, and gives a nice little devar torah on it, which R. Gordimer rejects because how dare he say that anyone’s allowed to have their own viewpoint?! So R. Gordimer didn’t like the devar torah. That’s not heresy. That’s you not agreeing with a point of a devar torah. Maybe even that’s you having a different philosophical orientation towards text in general. But, because R. Gordimer believes that there’s only one kind of rabbi, one kind of Jew, and one kind of Orthodoxy, and R. Linzer doesn’t fit into those categories, therefore, its heresy, non-Orthodox, nu-conservative whatever and now he needs to write a blogpost about it.

The third object of R. Gordimer’s displeasure is the “Joy of Text” podcast, which discusses matters of sex and Judaism in a podcast. R. Gordimer does not like that they’re doing this. Okay. I have my own issues with it, chiefly that it plays off this voyeuristic fascination with religious people’s sex lives, but also that I do think that our halakhic system values privacy when it comes to matters of intimacy. That said, the fact that they have this podcast is not an act of heresy. They’re discussing Torah and halakha, and such discussion might be incredibly valuable in an increasingly sexualized society, making sure an authentically Jewish and compelling view of sexuality is put out into the public sphere. Like with everything, there is a balance that ought to be struck between two extremes, and R. Gordimer seems not only unwilling to negotiate that balance, as is his God given right, but seems unwilling to grant the right to grapple with that balance to others, because the type of Orthodox people R. Gordimer envisions in his head are not the type of people to have that discussion.

The fourth point of contention is R. Ysoscher Katz’s responsa on Breastfeeding women in shul. R. Gordimer has an issue with it because he doesn’t agree with it. Nu, he’s allowed to not agree with it, he’s allowed to attack it, and being as this is on an actual point of halakha, its not really the focus of what I’m critiquing, unless it is meant to be brought as evidence for R. Katz’s heresy, which would be a little much. People can be wrong on halakha without being heretics. What seems to distinguish heresy from simple wrongness in R. Gordimer’s book is the ideological direction the error comes from. And that strikes me as dishonest.

R. Yaakov Kamenetsky, in last week’s parsha, has a fascinating piece, beginning with an explanation of God’s command (Shemot, 19:3) of כֹּה תֹאמַר לְבֵית יַעֲקֹב, וְתַגֵּיד לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, “This is what you shall say to the House of Yaakov, and this is what you shall tell to B’nei Yisrael”, which seems to imply a specificity to the words Moshe is to say. R. Yaakov writes that God wanted the Israelites to accept the Torah not out of being convinced by Moshe in any way, but purely from their own free will, and thus Moshe was given specific words to say. Working off this, he gives a fascinating explanation as to why Moshe hitting the rock in the desert, after God had told him to talk to the rock, resulted in such a harsh punishment for Moshe, ie, dying and not entering into the land. If Moshe had been allowed to get away with a ever-so-slight deviation from the exact divine command, than it would mean we would have no ability to trust that what Moshe had relayed to us in the Torah was exactly what God had commanded. Even the slightest distortion of the exact text of the divine command would completely destroy any notion of trust in rabbinic authority.

So while R. Gordimer concerns himself with people who deny that Moshe wrote the Torah because of the disastrous effect that would have on the foundations of our faith, I worry that the constant misrepresentation of the boundaries of heresy, such that the mere lack of conformance to a very narrow vision of Orthodoxy is taken as unforgivable heresy, will have even more deleterious effects. If the accusation of heresy is bandied about constantly , with flimsy basis, in an attempt to force Orthodoxy into a tiny box, then it will lose any sort of meaning, and all respect for rabbinic authority will erode. R. Gordimer and his ilk claim that his targets are tearing the fabric of Orthodoxy. I suspect that they have more than their share of blame in the matter.

On the Victims of Communal Strife: Or Why R. Avrohom Gordimer Scares Me

I’d like to start with a story of an event that made me sad.

There was a guy I went to elementary school with, let’s call him M, who was, is, and always will be a brilliant brilliant
guy. Math genius, gemara genius, all around genius. We were good friends, not just because I was a smart kid, he was a smart kid, and we’d get bullied a lot, but because we were both very big baseball fans. We used to debate about which players were the best, passing notes to each other in which we detailed our personal all star teams. We collected and traded baseball cards, played baseball video games, etc etc. We were big baseball fans. Both of us.

Time went on. We went to the same high school. We drifted apart a little bit, but stayed on good terms, for the most part. He had a stronger work ethic than I, and he got put in top gemara shiurs, top Math classes, and he became a poster boy for our school’s academic excellence. I went in a different direction, not an opposite one, but a different one. I became more interested in philosophy, Gemara bored me even as I remained pretty good at it, and I got into movies, music, and other stuff that M never really touched, to my knowledge. And of course, I remained just as into baseball as I always had been.

One day, I don’t even know how it came up, I casually mentioned that M was a big baseball fan. My interlocutor was incredulous. “M?! A baseball fan, I thought all he did was learn gemara!” No, I insisted, M was a big baseball fan. We used to talk about baseball all the time! My interlocutor demanded proof, so I proposed we ask M. We went over to M, and said “hey, you’re a big baseball fan, right?” M didn’t know what we were talking about, or at least, said he didn’t. “Baseball….is that the one with the baskets?” he asked.

M damn well knew it wasn’t.

Now, let me explain why this makes me sad. It doesn’t make me sad because I think M is a bad person. He’s not. I haven’t talked with him in a while, but he has always been an incredibly nice, down to earth, humble person who at this moment is probably in the process of becoming a leader of Orthodox Jewry. It doesn’t make me sad that M grew out of his baseball fandom. That is his right, and if he felt that his time could be better spent learning than following the wild card standings, then all the power to him, and maybe I should have that kind of willpower.

What makes me sad is that he felt the need to pretend that he had never even heard of baseball, that the idea of a budding Talmud Chacham even being acquainted with sports was such an unheard of idea that he had to pretend he was someone he wasn’t.  He could have said, “you’re right, I used to be a baseball fan, but I kind of grew out of it.” He did not. He pretended he had never heard of baseball.

What makes me sad about that is that if all my teachers had been like M, there’s a chance I wouldn’t be frum today. Looking back at the people who most affected my spiritual journey (ugh, I hate that term. Whatever), I found myself drawn to people who expressed a broad array of interests yet never lost sight of the primacy of Judaism and Torah. One of the (many) reasons I picked the yeshiva I picked was specifically because both of the Roshei Yeshiva were (and still are) huge baseball fans, and I learned from them that one can be a baseball fan and also a ben torah, also a Talmid Chacham, also an oved hashem, and that Judaism always comes first. That the person I was was not incompatible with a life suffused by the divine. R. Yitzchak Hutner, in a letter to a student concerned about how having a career may constitute “living a double life”, talks about how one should value not leading a “double life”, but having a “broad life”. From my mentors, I learned that it is okay to have a broad life. And to this day, I am grateful for that. And yes, we still talk baseball.

I thought about this story when I saw yet another broadside launched against “Open Orthodoxy”/Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, this time by one Shmuel Landesman for Yated Ne’eman. Just to preface, I am not Open Orthodox. I am a proud RIETS student. I have my issues with Open Orthodoxy, and the article did indeed raise what I think is a fair point regarding the rigor of the YCT curriculum. But what concerns me, at this moment, is the straws that are being grasped in this debate, and why those straws are actively harmful to the future of Orthodoxy. I’d like to hone in on this paragraph:

It is fascinating to read the information Chovevei puts out about its current students. Its students are primarily graduates of secular universities; only a small minority attended Yeshiva College/YU. Most Chovevei students graduated from state schools (University of Connecticut, Brooklyn College, Queens College), while a few are Ivy League grads (Columbia, University of Pennsylvania). Most were liberal arts majors – i.e., sociology, religion, psychology, education; though a few majored in the hard sciences – i.e. chemistry, biology. Today’s Chovevei students formally list an amazing array of interests: reading comic books, playing banjo, harmonica, rapping, beat-boxing, films, movies, comedy, raw foodism, craft-beer tasting, social justice, art history, art museums, antique home restoration, knitting, badminton, squash, tai chi and qi gong, yoga and German idealism.

The YCT Students have hobbies and interests! Perish the thought! I’d like to publicly state here first, before the House Committee of Un-Rabbinic Activities comes for me, that I enjoy movies *and* films and reading comic books, I’ve been known to drink a craft beer from time to time, and I own a harmonica, even as I never could figure out how to play it. Kidding aside, what seems to be underlying this paragraph is the unstated assumption that rabbinical students ought to have no interests besides learning Torah, such that quoting their varied interests is relevant in an article attacking their institution. What is being attacked, then, is not so much a breach of halakha but a breach in what the writer considers to be appropriate rabbinic activities when compared to a preconceived notion of what a rabbi ought to be interested in. In other words, its not that there’s anything necessarily wrong halakhically with all these things, its just that the author is uncomfortable with rabbis doing these things.
The problem is that demanding that all of our rabbinic leaders conform to a specific prefabricated mold necessarily means that there is only one type of Jew with which we ought to supply only one type of rabbi, that no one with a broad view of the world or a broad array of interests ought to be a rabbinic leader and thus no one should have broad interests. This is an approach that, had it guided my education, would have led to me leaving Orthodoxy, no question.
But this goes beyond this one article. Whatever you want to say about Open Orthodoxy, the attacks on it, particularly from R. Avrohom Gordimer, (which, if you’re reading this on your weekly jaunt through the blogosphere, hi!) have all too often consisted not of a sourced halakhic critique of certain activities, but the mere expression of discomfort with other people’s approaches that is then equated with heresy. R. Gordimer has attacked people for beginning a lecture with a provocative question (with no mind given as to what the eventual answer was), or for even entertaining the possibility of certain questions. My personal favorite was when R. Gordimer attacked R. Dov Linzer for having the temerity to quote a gemara that he thought was inappropriate to be discussed in public, one that said that the Keruvim in the Beis HaMikdash were engaged in coitus. Yeah, its a weird gemara, but who are you to decide which gemaros ought to be quoted? The overall impression from R. Gordimer’s oeuvre is not that he has a critique of Open Orthodoxy based on particular issues, but based on their character; R. Gordimer has issues with a certain kind of person who asks certain kinds of questions and has certain kinds of views being considered Orthodox, and has a very specific pre-fabricated notion of what an Orthodox person ought to look like.

This terrifies me. I feel like I have been caught in a cross-fire. Do I agree with the conclusions made by some people within Open Orthodoxy? No, and occasionally vehemently so. But I am not the kind of person R. Gordimer believes ought to be Orthodox. I find myself sometimes, perhaps even often, having the same questions, sometimes having the same approaches, as people within that movement. I furthermore have other interests besides Torah and Judaism; baseball, detective fiction, blues music, Quentin Tarantino’s movies, I’m not a guy who dresses in white shirts and black pants, and I’m politically liberal. I worry that all this communal strife is paving the way towards a future where all those things will be seen as incommensurate with a life lived according to halakha. I don’t want to live in an Orthodox world that only allows one type of rabbinic leader. I don’t want to be part of a rabbinate that would have turned my high school self off from Judaism. And I fear for an Orthodox world that totally rejects the notion of living a broad life.