Ethical Consumption

February 1, 2012
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Ruth Messinger & Jordan Namerow

E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 classic Small is Beautiful introduced many of us to the concept of “enoughness” — the antidote to scarcity and the moderation of excess. It’s a concept that I hope calibrates my consumption habits wherever I am — at a kiddush lunch in California, a coffee farm in Kenya, or a supermarket on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The fact is, I do not always meet my own standards of reduced consumption.

Several months ago, I felt the physical intensity of “enoughness” when I joined 6,000 leaders, mostly from faith-based organizations, in a week-long fast to show solidarity with the millions of people in developing countries who go to bed hungry every night and who are at risk of losing critical U.S. food aid. For two days, I drank only water and then for the next five, I also took in clear liquids. Light­headedness and a low-grade headache followed me as I kept up with my regular routine of meetings, conference calls, and donor solicitations. Although I knew my fast would end and I would soon return to eating and drinking whatever I wanted, I spent much of the week reflecting on what hunger must feel like for someone whose life is defined by never having enough. More recently, I took the “food stamp challenge” — in which participants use the average food supplement benefit of $31.50 as their budget for food for one week.

What does Jewish tradition teach us about the role of “enoughness” in achieving kedusha — holiness — in the world? Rambam teaches that it is easy to be fooled into thinking that if we are consuming what is permissible, the quantity of our consumption does not matter. But according to Ramban, one who abuses the resources of the world by rationalizing that these resources are not explicitly forbidden is deemed “naval bereshut haTorah” — a “vile person within the delineations of the Torah.”1 To prevent such overconsumption, Ramban notes that the Torah adds the general commandment of kedusha, “That we should be separated from excess…”2

It is all too easy to ignore the fact that we frequently consume too much. Food plays a dominant, sensory role in the lives of most Americans and certainly in the lives of American Jews. It is, in many ways, a map of our history. Meals, recipes, and the acts of eating and drinking express who we are, where we come from, and where we live. Food is accessible, enjoyable, and meaningful.

But when nearly 1 billion people around the world are malnourished, we need to adopt a food ethic that enables everyone to experience the sweetness of having enough; to experience food as a human right, not a luxury.

Ethical consumption is not only about being mindful of where we shop and what we ingest. It’s also about reforming government policies that perpetuate a cycle of poverty and widen the gap between “too much” and “not enough,” making ethical consumption nearly impossible for even the most conscientious among us.

For example, in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, the U.S. government sent food aid to Haiti, mostly rice. In the short term, this rice helped feed thousands of earthquake survivors who had lost everything. But U.S. food aid had an unintended — and sometimes devastating — consequence on local farmers. The influx of free rice from abroad brought the price of Haitian rice so low that Haitian rice farmers could not compete in the global market. They couldn’t earn an income from their crops and, tragically, could not purchase seeds for the next year’s crop.

The U.S. Farm Bill, a piece of legislation that is re-authorized every five years and that dictates the direction of our global food policies, is up for revision in 2012. Since the United States is the largest donor of global food aid, we must ensure that our policies support local farmers, not undermine them.3

It’s easy to forget that this imperative has deep roots in our religious tradition. In his legal code “Laws of Giving to the Poor,” Maimonides, a 12th-century philosopher and Jewish legal scholar, argues that helping people achieve self-sufficiency — far more than ensuring that they have food on their table for just one night — is the highest form of tzedakah and an essential part of developing a responsible Jewish food ethic.4

Furthermore, two rabbis from the talmudic era offer a way to think about our own ethical consumption amid today’s global food crisis. Rabbi Natan bar Abba wrote, “The world is dark for anyone who depends on the tables of others.”5 By contrast, Rabbi Achai ben Josiah wrote, “When one eats of his own, his mind is at ease.”6 These words tell a true and powerful story. For the most part, we have sated bellies, and it is therefore up to us to help ensure that people around the world can feast from their own harvests and put food on their own tables.

Ruth Messinger is president of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an international development organization that works to alleviate poverty and advance human rights for marginalized people in the developing world. Prior to joining AJWS in 1998, she spent twelve years on the New York City Council and served eight years as Manhattan’s borough president.

1 Ramban is an acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman Gerondi, (1194 – c. 1270), a master of Jewish scholarship, including biblical, halakhic, and kabbalistic topics, who was born and raised in Spain and eventually moved to Israel. This is his commentary to Levitcus 19:1.

2 Ibid.

3 See “Reverse Hunger: Ending the Global Food Crisis,” an AJWS campaign to put Jewish values into action on behalf of better food policies (

4 “Laws of Giving to the Poor,” Chapter 10:7-14

5 Beitzah 32b

6 Avot d’Rabbi Natan 30

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