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Shmuly Yanklowitz of Uri L'Tzedek speaks at a Yeshiva University panel on ethics and the kosher food industry, December 9, 2008.

Living Judaism

What Is Next for Kosher Living?
Modern Orthodox group takes up one aspect of eco-Kashrut.

-- Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Ideas about renewing Jewish ethics regarding kashrut (kosher products, their production and distribution) coming from the far left of Judaism have now made it almost all the way across the spectrum of the Jewish people. It has been several decades since Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (widely known as Reb Zalman, founder the phenomenon known as Jewish Renewal) began urging a return to Torah values regarding care for the planet, for workers and food-related health issues. Some in orthodoxy are now taking notice of these ideals.

Shmuly Yanklowitz, is a valiant, modern orthodox, doctoral student at Columbia University studying Moral Development and Epistemology. He is also Founder and Co-Director of Uri L'Tzedek (Awaken to Justice), an orthodox social justice movement, and he has launched Tav Ha Yosher, which has been much-lauded in the press this past month. The tav, “seal,” certifies that a business is following one important aspect of eco-kashrut, ethical payment of restaurant workers. The term yosher, per the group’s web site, is derived from Rav Yosef Breuer, one of the leading figures of 20th century Orthodoxy, who famously stated:

Kosher is intimately related to Yoshor (upright, ethically aligned) God’s Torah not only demands the observance of Kashrut and the sanctification of our physical enjoyment; it also insists on the sanctification of our social relationships. This requires the strict application of the tenets of justice and righteousness which avoid even the slightest trace of dishonesty in our business dealings and personal life.

On hearing of the Tav Ha Yosher, Reb Zalman commented in delight: “The Tav Ha Yosher has taken the lead in giving something that is better than Glatt Kosher.”

Rabbi Dennis Beck-Berman, co-creator with Rabbi Victor Gross of the ALEPH Eco-Kosher Supervision program, offered an additional response:

It is wonderful that the American orthodox community is increasingly broadening the scope of what it means for a product to be truly kosher. The traditional kosher certifying agencies have long devoted attention to the complexities of modern food technology and processing, but have generally been reluctant to address other aspects of halakhah that would impinge upon kashrut, such as: tza’ar ba’alei chayim, compassion for all living creatures and concern with how animals are raised and slaughtered; shemirat haguf, concern about the health of our bodies and treating it as sacred (insecticides, hormones, etc.); oshek, concern about social justice, so that the people who produce and prepare our food are not oppressed or mistreated (fair trade); and bal tashchit, prohibition against waste and wanton destruction of living and nonliving things (sustainability; recycling; energy consumption).

Rabbi Gross, speaking from the language of Jewish spiritual practice, observed: “As I watch this dawning realization on the part of the Jewish world that supervises what is ‘kosher,’ I sense that God's partzufim, [facets/many faces], i.e., the interfacing of all of creation with God…that these partzufim, bear a striking resemblance to animals, vegetables, and farm/factory workers even if they are undocumented here on earth.... [I]n heaven they are.”

After reading a press release about Tav Ha Yosher, many questions came to mind for Shmuly Yanklowitz. How has he managed to catalyze his project? What grounds did he present to make his case to those who live by the letter of halachah, the ever-evolving practices of Jewish law? Is the Tav Ha Yosher a foot in the door of eco-kashrut or a single-issue initiative?

PJV: Why did you start with labor rights? Is this going to be a narrowly focused effort or do you plan to move into other aspects of Jewish ethics and eating such as human growth hormone, treatment of animals, carbon footprint reduction, environmentally caring packing, etc?

This is on one of many steps; we are only at the beginning. There is still a tremendous amount to address in terms of environmental standards, animal treatment and labor standards. The best way to engage the orthodox community is to begin with locations most orthodox individuals encounter, e.g., through kosher establishments. There they encounter the reality of the production and distribution process by seeing the faces of those who serve them the food. To build consumer awareness and an ethical consciousness, let's begin with those just serving us the food and attain an initial goal of minimum wage.

Some employers are paying only $2/hour for their workers, so our first goal is employers paying at least minimum wage, giving proper breaks and having no further worker abuses. This furthers the Jewish ethical consciousness through a connection to places dedicated to kashrut (kosher).

PJV: The Postville Agriprocessors event – where a kosher meat processor has been indicted for horrific labor conditions including child labor – received much attention in both the Jewish and secular press. Do you think the Postville event has yielded a dimension of awareness, perhaps shame that is leading to a reconnection of meaning and spiritual intent to the halachic process, to the practice of the precepts of Jewish law?

While some continue to view authoritative sources very narrowly, the Agriprocessors event really shook the conscience of the community and many are now struggling for a response. A viable response is to really move the conversation forward and with action. We have over 100 orthodox volunteers and we have trained about 50 compliance officers. We have empowered 12-15 strong leaders to run the operations. In our part of the spectrum this is mostly coming from the modern orthodox community, however we have not felt any pushback from the more ultra orthodox community. On our website you’ll see a whole page of support from rabbis. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein saying Rav Soleveitchik would have been totally behind this, and Rabbi Genack from OU (a major kashrut supervision organization) saying "How could anyone oppose this." That said, many are still unaware.

PJV: Who were the poskim [scholars of Jewish law who rule on specific situations] consulted in developing your initiative?

The imperative to apply Jewish ethics broadly even to the food industry is why, as Jewish History Professor Jonathan Sarna has verified, the Boston Beit Din in 1974 forbade grapes due to the extremely low wages that the migrant farmers were being paid which they could not even live on. These orthodox rabbis, following Cesar Chavez’s lead, said that oppression of workers is a prohibition and so it is not permitted to buy these grapes. The pasuk [verse upon which the decision is based] is right out of the Torah (Devarim 24:14): "Lo taasok sachir ani v'evyon mai'achecha o mee'gaircha asher bi'artzecha bisharecha." – The RambaM teaches, (in Hilchos Gezeila 12) that oppression applies to non-Jews as well, and that is how it seems that the Boston Beit Din ruled!

The support for labor practices from Rav Feinstein, Rav Soleveitchik and others at that time remains inspiring. And our efforts today have been inspired by the teachings of a number of modern orthodox poskim, Rabbis Shlomi Riskin, Avi Weiss, Haskel Lookstein, and Asher Lopatin, though we don't go to them for pshat [basic interpretations/guidance].

PJV: While recently attending a Yeshiva University bioethics conference, I raised the Agriprocessors issue and the ideals of eco-kosher. Many at the table, indicated my question was out of order, emphasizing their view is that there is no connection between kashrut and other ethical issues. They “informed” me that kashrut is a specific method of kosher slaughter of animals that is required by Jewish law and that is all. Have you run into this attitude and how do you respond to it?

You ask is it a halachically valid approach to separate ethics and kashrut. According to halachah, as the Orthodox community understands it, the formalistic categories of kashrut and ethics are distinct. However, there is a separate category that comes with consumerism and forbids the consumption of products that are created unethically. There’s a Gemara in Talmud, in Tractate Kiddushin, around how the purchasers enable the wrongs to happen. Here we learn that the consumer of goods produced immorally is the one who is culpable since he or she has enabled the wrong to be possible with the power of their money. That’s coming off of the prohibition to assist in an aveyrah [a transgression].

In the Agriprocessors case we see five major categories of Jewish ethics transgressed: Nezek, Tzaar, Shevet, Ripooi, Boshet - damages, pain, unemployment, medical costs, and humiliation.

Accordingly I think it is important to use the lashon of chashash (language of suspicion). If there is chashash (suspicion that it’s not properly kosher) for a kosher lulav, we don’t buy it. If there is chashash whether a food item is kosher, all the Rabbis say to be machmir [stringent] and refrain from purchasing it. So if there is a chashash for the issur d’oraisa of oshek, [a suspicion regarding the matter of wage rip-off, which is a rule from the Torah] how can we not be machmir and refrain from purchasing when lives [of laborers] are at stake?

PJV: How many businesses have asked for the hecksher [certification of full kashrut supervision] at this point?

I wouldn’t call it that; it’s a tav, a seal, not a hecksher. We are careful with that. So far seven places have gone in and we have done verification. Now we are having conversations with businesses in Washington, DC, Boston, Chicago and NY. It's a busy time.

PJV: Do you speak with these businesses about the other eco-kashrut issues?

This process is about relationships. We are slowly building trust with the managements and furthering their commitment to these ideals, asking them to consider more options and a number of the standards you have mentioned.

PJV: So our readers can experience the process of halachic thinking in this regard, would you please lay out the sequence of traditional sources and advising scholars, that underlie your project’s rationale? Perhaps show us how the phenomenon of stringency can have some sacred synergy with the issue of ethical payment of workers.

[Building on what has been said] the Gemarrah in Talmud, Tractate Nedarim calls this purchasing [of products where Jewish ethics has not been followed] machzik yedai ovrei aveirah, [meaning one is culpable]. The RambaM – in his work Laws of Theft ruled that we do not buy goods that are procured unethically because we are mesaya lidei aveira, [i.e., abetting the transgression.] The Beis Yosef rules this way and the Gra on Choshen Mishpat (356:2) learns from Tractate Nedarim that one can not make purchases that support wrong-doings.

Rav Schechter in his article on dina d’malchusa, meaning Jewish citizens of any given country are obligated to follow the law of the land, quotes the Rav to show that one can not buy from an establishment that breaks the law simply by not paying sales tax. So, at an absolute bare minimum, we are bound by dina d’malchusa dina, [civil law].

PJV: How are you financing your efforts?

Uri l’Tzedek is based in the Jewish non-profit incubator Bikkurim as a vehicle; they give us office space, consulting, etc. We do parlor meetings and grant writing to raise more funds and we have a wealth of volunteers.

PJV: The traditional view is that mashiakh [moshiach, the messiah or a messianic time, won't come until ahavas yisrael (the mitzvah of all Jews being able to respectfully accomodate, love, all other Jews) leads to klal yisrael (wholeness for the Jewish people). What coalitions are you part of? Might this effort help lead to mashiakh tzeit [messiah time]?

Ethical kashrut has one of the greater potentials for unifying klal yisrael because it builds upon a common commitment to kashrut. All the Jewish factions can unite in a core concern and still pursue this value in a unique way. The more approaches we attain while working on our core projects the more we create a larger synergy.

To view previous editions of "Living Judaism", please click here.

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