Heksher Tzedek, Kashrut and Workers’ Rights’:
A Sermon for Parashat Re’eh and Labor Day
August 30, 2008
I am not sure when I started keeping kosher. It depends on how you define “keeping kosher.” I grew up in a kosher home – meaning that meat and milk, as well as milkichk and fleishik products were always separate, never mixed. The meat and chicken my mother bought came from the kosher butcher or supermarket. We had two sets of silverware and dishes, as well as separate china for Passover and for company – in every respect a kosher home – except for those rare occasions when they bought crabs – but even then, it could only be eaten on the porch, never in the house, and with plastic utensils. I guess it is what you would call, “Baltimore kosher.”
When my family went out to eat, they avoided what I later learned to classify as “high traif.” In other words, they never ate pork or cheeseburgers, pepperoni pizzas, or bacon. But being from Maryland, crab and crab cakes were ok, as was lobster.
In other words, we kept a kosher home, basically, but not when we went out.
Even before I knew that I wanted to become a rabbi, I knew that I wanted to keep kosher. While my family partook of the forbidden foods when I was younger, I did not eat shellfish. Somehow I knew it was a violation of Judaism to eat these things, and did not feel comfortable doing it. I wanted to keep kosher for two primary reasons – for one, I felt it was a means of connecting to other Jews and to make a statement of being a Jew, and a proud one at that. And furthermore, I also was conscious of the fact that my grandparents had kept kosher inside and outside of their home. Following in their footsteps, my parents kept a kosher home, but did not observe dietary laws outside of their home. Based on that trend, and what I had observed in other families, I saw that each generation has the tendency to do less and therefore to pass on even less ritual and tradition to their children. Consequently I made a deliberate decision that I wanted to observe more and not less than what my parents had done. I wanted to pass on to my children more, not less of Jewish customs.
Eventually I learned that there were other compelling reasons to keep kosher. Among the other factors are the connection not just to our tradition and to other Jews, but to the Almighty God who commands us to observe His mitzvoth.
I am reminded of the joke, which I am sure some of you may know, about the rabbi who decided once when on vacation, far away from his congregation and the community where he lived to see what it would be like to eat non-kosher food. Sitting in a small restaurant, in a remote place, he ordered a baked pig. Just as he was served and about to enjoy the delicacy, much to his utter surprise, in walks the president of the synagogue. The president walks over to the rabbi’s table, and is shocked by what he sees. Only the rabbi, doesn’t miss a beat. “Sam, how good it is to see you here. This is a great little place. You will love how they prepare food here.” Pointing to the big baked pig with an apple in its mouth, the rabbi says to the skeptical shul president, “All I ordered was a simple baked apple, and look at how they serve it.”
A myriad of reasons exist to keep kosher, including ethical ones. In fact, this week’s Torah portion discusses one of the requirements of kashrut, the prohibition against eating the blood of an animal, for it is a symbol of the very essence of life, and we are prohibited from eating an organism that is still alive.
Our commentary to this week’s Torah portion notes that kashrut is a compromise by God based on our desire to eat meat. We are allowed to slaughter an animal, but the pool of what is available to us is severely restricted because of our tradition’s ambivalence for having to take an animal’s life to satisfy our appetites.
What people do not usually realize is that there is a link between ethics and kashrut. Contrary to what many assume, the system of keeping kosher has far more to do with ethical considerations than with outdated and antiquated health concerns.
A cornerstone of the laws of kashrut is that the least amount of pain possible is to be inflicted on the animals.
Kashrut is recognized by Jews and non Jews alike for the standard it sets, which is why the Hebrew National advertising campaign of a few years ago was so successful. Their slogan is still well remembered and to this day is still widely quoted: Pointing to the heaven above, a pious rabbi reminds consumers, “We answer to a higher authority,” implying an authority even higher and with even more stringent standards than the United States Department of Agriculture.
But today, there are religious and governmental authorities who are raising questions about some of the practices of the largest kosher meat facility in the country, at the Agriprocessors meat packaging plant in Postville, Iowa.
For the past two years The Jewish Forward has been writing about disturbing practices going on at the plant. A book that I read several years ago, called Postville chronicled the arrival of the Hasidic community to this quiet Midwest town and the clash between two very different cultures. The book also shed light on the disturbing way in which workers, especially immigrant workers were being treated by the Hasidic employers. And most recently, the New York Times has reported on government raids which have turned up serious violations of child labor and immigration laws.
The Iowa labor commissioner’s office has registered 57 separate accusations of violation of child labor laws. In addition to the charges of underage children wielding heavy equipments, the company was fined in March $ 182,000 for violating health and safety regulations.
Not all of the accusations and charges have yet been proven and upheld in a court of law, but the record does not look good. In addition to the charge that minors are employed are reports of poor and unsafe working conditions, that workers are underpaid for their labor, and that workers have sustained injuries and been maimed as a result of insufficient safety precautions. In a highly publicized raid in May of this year a federal raid turned up nearly 400 workers who were found to be illegal immigrants employed and exploited at the plant.
Suffice it to say, something is not kosher here. This is not what we would expect of a system which supposedly answers to a higher authority. There is a certain degree of negligence accompanied by arrogance which is deeply troubling.
As conservative Jews we have a unique role to play in this discussion, for we encourage our congregants and require our rabbis and congregations to keep kosher. Yet we also understand the importance of kashrut being grounded in Judaism’s ethical laws which are equally important, and which require that workers be treated with respect and dignity.
On this weekend when our nation celebrates Labor Day, it is especially appropriate for us to be reminded of how much the Torah and the Talmud discuss how the worker is to be treated and of our obligations to them. Compassion towards those who work for us is mandated by Jewish law. We are not allowed to take advantage of the disadvantaged, or those in our employ. Judaism was the first legal system to believe that workers, even slaves, had rights which we are obligated to safeguard.
The ritual laws of what we are allowed to eat are not a distinct body of law, nor are they any less important than the laws that discuss how we treat our fellow human beings. Kashrut and ritual do not qualify as exemptions for the other laws dealing with workers’ rights.
The conservative movement has recently embarked on a campaign to add another dimension to determining what is kosher. It is asking that kosher certification include consideration for how the workers are treated, and the conditions of the employees as well. It seeks to issue an additional certification, called heksher tzedek, a “certificate of justice” to those companies which abide by the standards not just in regard to the ritual slaughter of animals and observance of the standard laws of kashrut, but also in regard to the workers’ conditions. In other words, it is not kosher to take advantage of workers and to trample on their rights. It is not kosher to regard them, even if they are immigrants and non-Jews as being a dispensable commodity. The torah teaches that all are created betzelem elohim, in the image of God, and that therefore there is a moral imperative to treat them with dignity.
It is my hope that by developing this new qualification, even more Jews will keep kosher. Furthermore, we will be reminded not just in regard to kashrut, but in all of our dealings of the importance of maintaining respect for how we treat the workers and laborers in our society. In so doing, we truly will be able to say, with confidence, “We answer to a higher authority.”