Learning about the connection between the land, food, and faith at the Concord UMC community garden. Photo by Grace G. Hackney

Learning about the connection between the land, food, and faith at the Concord UMC community garden.
Photo by Grace G. Hackney

To celebrate the upcoming holiday season, CFSA asked three faith leaders – a Rabbi, an Imam, and a Reverend – to contemplate the importance of food in their faith traditions and what it means to share a meal.


Our Kitchen Table: An Altar in Miniature

by Rabbi Mark Cohn of Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Food is ubiquitous in Jewish culture – especially complaining about the size of food portions, but that’s for another article. Truth is: food is central to Jews – all the way back to our origins. There are laws about what we can and cannot eat in the Torah. The Talmud – let alone later codes – writes tomes about what is permissible. Look no further than the Creation story found in Genesis and already we are dealing with food (note: a vegetarian diet from the start, which will change after Noah).


Food plays a unique role in each holiday. Some of the big ones: With Passover we eat matzah (unleavened bread), chrein (horseradish), gefilte fish, charoset (way too hard to explain in English what that means), and parsley. Some eat lamb on Passover and some eat absolutely no lamb. With Hanukkah, there are latkes; with Rosh HaShanah (New Year) apples and honey are ubiquitous; Shavuot is a time for Lactaid in order to enjoy the dairy delights; Purim brings pastries called hamentaschen. And then there are times when we refrain from eating: Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, most notably. The former for Repentance the latter for the Remembrance of Destruction. Each of those foods listed, and I struggled to keep the list short, has a story and a meaning. Each of those foods, once consumed year after year, brings a memory and a connection to tradition, family, friends, place, experience.

As Jews, we can look into our tradition for direction for how to literally bring the farm to the table.


Food is what unites us as humans. We all need it. As Jews, we can look into our tradition for direction as to how to prepare the food, how to treat the land that stores the energy to grow the seeds, how to support the farmers, how to handle fairly the workers who harvest the crops and process the raw materials, and literally how we bring the farm to the table. These are the opportunities where Judaism gives us answers and direction to create a world that is sustainable and just. We have countless laws in the Torah and in Jewish law books related to the Sabbatical Year (Shemita), worker’s wages, appropriate and fit foods (kashrut).


When the Second Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., our ancestors realized that our kitchen table would become the altar in miniature. If that is the case, then how we treat eating is no less important than when the High Priest brought a holy offering to draw nearer to God. So that grilled cheese sandwich: holiness incarnate. And whether we dine alone or with a table filled with friends and neighbors, the stranger or our brothers and sisters, God is present and blessings must be recited and lived.


So, yeah, I guess you could say food and its preparation is kinda important in Jewish life and among our people. May we all, regardless of background or heritage, appreciate the gift of nourishment and help provide for one another to protect, sustain and nurture this holy Creation of which we are a part.



A Muslim Finds Faith through Food

by Mohamed AbuTaleb, Imam of the Islamic Association of Raleigh

Food is integral to our survival, yet means so much more to us.  We cherish our memories of an intimate conversation with a loved one over the flicker of candlelight; the warming sensation of hot cocoa on a bitter cold night; the sensory delight of trying a new cuisine and having an experience that cannot be put into words.  What we eat literally represents what we allow into the most private of spaces – the interior of our own bodies.

As we eat, we live at the intersection of faith and food: savoring a delicious meal while acknowledging the blessings of God, nourishing our bodies while recognizing we are accountable for what we eat and the lives we live.


For Muslims, like many others, food also carries spiritual and religious meaning.  At the beginning of each meal, we are taught to say the prayer, “In the name of God: our Lord, bless us in what you have provided us, and save us from the penalty of Hellfire.”  And after each meal, we recite, “All praise is due to God, who gave us food and drink and allowed us to submit to Him.”  As such, the meal itself is intertwined with spiritual significance and religious meaning. As we eat, we live at the intersection of faith and food: savoring a delicious meal while acknowledging the blessings of God, nourishing our bodies while recognizing we are accountable for what we eat and the lives we live.


Food and drink not only connect us with God, but also facilitate a special connection with others. When God created the first human beings, Adam and Eve (Arabic: hawwaa) did not know how to connect with one another in this first human family.  The Quran recounts God’s words to Adam: “We [God] said: ‘Adam, live with your wife in this garden.  Both of you eat freely there as you will …” (Quran 2:35).  This initial connection over a meal has been lived anew on countless dinner tables, restaurants, and outings; it facilitates our connections by reminding us in the most basic ways, what it means to be human.


Feeding the poor and needy is among the key acts of worship that is encouraged countless times in our scripture.  Food is intertwined with both major Islamic religious holidays.  Eid-ul-Fitr, “The Festival of Breaking of the Fast”, occurs after Ramadan where Muslims fast from food, drink, and bodily pleasure from dawn to sunset.  Eid-ul-Adha, “The Festival of the Sacrifice”, commemorates the family of Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s command; Muslims share meat and food with millions of families worldwide that cannot normally afford such luxuries.  The Prophet Muhammad said, “He is not truly a believer, whose stomach is full while his neighbor goes hungry.”


As Americans, the modern conveniences of grocery stores, restaurants, and widespread availability of food causes many of us to forget the struggles of the less privileged across the globe and here at home.  Prophet Muhammad says in an oral tradition, “Whomever amongst you wakes up secure with his family, healthy in body, having food for the day, it is as if he possesses the entire world.”  According to the United Nations, some 795 million people – about one in nine globally – do not have enough food to lead an active healthy life, and a growing number lack access to clean water.  The next time our food turns out too salty or the coffee comes out wrong – I pray we’ll remember how blessed we are to have food in the first place.


Life Around the Table

by Reverend Grace G. Hackney, Director of Life Around the Table Ministry in Efland, NC

Food is central to the life of the Christian community, spilling out from sanctuaries to church kitchens and fellowship halls, food pantries and community gardens, small group dinners, and community-wide tables of bounty and goodness. The mother of Jesus sang that “the hungry would be filled.” Early Church Fathers noted the significance of Jesus being born in the feeding trough of animals, food for a hungry world. Jesus called farmers to follow him – fish farmers! As they traveled, the disciples were dependent on the hospitality of strangers for their food. One can scarcely turn a page in the gospels without finding some reference to Jesus celebrating, inviting, welcoming, serving, or receiving hospitality around a table.  He teaches his disciples to pray for their daily bread, brings to mind their histories as Israelites in the wilderness when he refers to himself as the “true bread come down from heaven.”  Jesus models new table manners when he crosses boundaries by eating with groups who would have been excluded from table fellowship. And before he is crucified, Jesus shares the Passover meal with his disciples in an upper room, taking bread and wine and telling them to “do likewise” and to “remember him.”  After the resurrection, Jesus is recognized when the disciples share a meal with Jesus on their way to Emmaus. Matthew’s gospel declares that when we feed the hungry, we are indeed, feeding Jesus (Matt. 25). For Christians, the reign of God’s compassion, justice, hospitality, generosity, and joy is made real in Jesus. Therefore, the way Christians eat and invite others to eat is also marked by compassion, justice, generosity, and joy.

For Christians, the reign of God’s compassion, justice, hospitality, generosity, and joy is made real in Jesus. Therefore, the way Christians eat and invite others to eat is also marked by compassion, justice, generosity, and joy.


In ancient and modern liturgies for Holy Communion (Eucharist, Mass, Lord’s Supper), the people partake of bread and wine, praying that in the eating and drinking of the meal “we may be for the world the Body of Christ.”  As Jesus gives himself to us, we are compelled to give ourselves for others. We do that when we take meals to the bereaved or parents celebrating the birth of a child, when we open our doors to the hungry, when we engage in and work for food justice in how our food is grown, prepared and served, speak out for fair wages and working conditions for farmworkers, befriend and promote local farmers, buy food at local farmers’ markets, or simply sit and share a meal with a stranger or a friend. As we consume food with others around a shared table, we are “consumed” into each other and our lives become connected. When we do this with regularity, we find that our own lives, as well as the lives of the community, are strengthened.


We affirm our belief in “God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth,” and join with other faith traditions in receiving food as gift from a hospitable and generous God who loves us and who has ordered the world as one who eats. To eat is not only a necessity, but a pleasure. When we eat or invite others to eat carelessly, or without thought of animals, plant, or soil, we fail to live fully into our vocation as stewards of the world which God has created and called good.


Brief bio on Rabbi Mark Cohn… 

Since July, 2001, I have served as the rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Born and raised in Moraga, California, a suburb of San Francisco, I am the youngest of four children and have been blessed with a son and daughter (Eitan and Harli).

In my professional life, I balance a variety of rabbinic duties for an active congregation along with communal engagements as a clergy member in Winston-Salem. Two career excitements: In 2010, I had the chance to serve on an ad hoc committee that met twice to advise President Barack Obama on matters related to Israel and in March 2015, was chosen to be one of 33 of The Jewish Daily Forward’s Most Inspiring Rabbis in America, 2015.

My formal education comes from the University of California at Los Angeles (B.A. History, 1990), Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (M.A. History, 1993), and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, Israel & Cincinnati, Ohio (M.A.H.L., 1997, Rabbinic Ordination, 1998).


Brief bio on Imam Mohamed AbuTaleb… 

Mohamed AbuTaleb serves as the Imam of the Islamic Association of Raleigh. He is a lifelong student of the Quran and Islamic studies and also shares a love of science and reason, having completed his Ph.D. and Master’s degrees in electrical engineering from MIT along with degrees in physics and mathematics from the University of Maryland.  Mohamed has traveled the United States extensively as a lecturer, trainer, and educator.  His style focuses on enabling audiences to couple transformative understanding with relevance to daily life, and to cut across labels and divisions through scholarship and dialogue.  You can find him on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube, or schedule a visit to the mosque by contacting [email protected].


Brief bio on Reverend Grace G. Hackney… 

The Reverend Grace G. Hackney is an ordained elder in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church and founding Director of Life Around the Table.  Grace has served churches in Cedar Grove and Bahama, NC, and was co-founder of Anathoth Community Garden in Cedar Grove in 2005, following a tragic murder in the community.  She has since continued to build community around the table, through preaching, teaching, writing, and example. Grace lives on a 12 acre piece of land in Orange County with her husband Tony and two goats, two cats, and a fluctuating number of ducks and chickens. She and Tony have two grown children.


The mission of Life Around the Table (LATT) is to invite, encourage, and equip clergy, congregations and communities to eat together faithfully. A ministry of the Corridor District of the United Methodist Church, LATT welcomes ecumenical engagement around the topic of food and faith. There are two primary arms of LATT.  Sabbath Life is a 10 month retreat- based ministry for clergy and ministry professionals. EATING TOGETHER is a 12 session community based curriculum introducing Food that LAUGHS: Local, Affordable, Uncomplicated, Good, Healthy, and Seasonal.  LATT staff are also available to preach, teach, and consult with congregations and their communities as they move toward more faithful ways of eating together.