A social kashrut certificate

Yechiel Tropper, 8/6/2004

Dear Chevra, The article that follows calls for society-wide social justice to become part of the religious (especially Orthodox) Jewish agenda in Israel. The same questions apply in America and elsewhere. The author is a member of an organization, Maaglei Tzedek, that came into being in response to recent slashes in the social budget of the Sharon-Netanyahu government. Shalom, AW

A social kashrut certificate
By Yechiel Tropper *

August 5, 2004 Ha'aretz

For the past several months, a socioeconomic dialogue has been taking place in Israel that includes both rightists and leftists, capitalists and socialists. But one voice has been conspicuous by its absence: that of the religious public. This absence is particularly grating given the contents of the agenda, whose importance is hard to overstate, and given that decisions about these issues have the power to shape the social, human, and also the Jewish character of the State of Israel.

One is forced to ask: Where is the social-ethical voice of Jewish tradition? Is it possible that the religion of Israel has nothing to say about pension arrangements, social benefits, workers' rights, poverty, the accessibility o f public places to the disabled, and other such issues?

Many social battles have been waged in Israel in recent years, from those of the disabled to the single mothers to the elderly and the pensioners. Even though these are sectoral struggles, they also encompass a genuine and honest attempt to raise a moral-ethical banner. They obligate society to choose between competing values and determine its order of priorities. But in this choice among competing values, the voice of the Torah of Israel has been silent.

This silence is particularly surprising given that the Jewish religion believes that the Torah is a system of life. This means that it has something to say not only about obligations between man [sic] and God - Shabbat, kashrut, prayer and tefillin (phylacteries) - but also about rights and obligations between man and his fellow man: the payment of a minimum wage to workers, or fair treatment for foreign workers, strangers, orphans, widows, battered women and victims of violence in general.

It is both possible and desirable for the voice of religious Judaism to make itself heard on issues such as the behavior of manpower agencies, labor relations in Israel, socioeconomic gaps, and even the Torah's attitude toward cruelty to animals, as in the recent battle over the force-feeding of geese for food and commerce.

It seems that what is needed now is an expansion of the terminology of Judaism and the areas with which it deals. The battle over the state's Jewish identity must be extended beyond pork laws and the ban on selling hametz (leavened bread) on Pesach to include key social issues as well. On all of these issues, the religion of Israel has positions that ought to be heard in the country's social discourse.

For instance, the idea of "kashrut" should be broadened. Today, the standard kashrut certificate deals with the separation of meat and milk and the manner in which animals are slaughtered, but it does not deal with the way in which the animals were treated before they were slaughtered, or the way that kosher food arrives at our table. In other words, it could be that a goose was force-fed to death, thereby violating the grave prohibition against cruelty to animals, but it is still considered kosher food. It could also be that the wedding hall employee who brings the kosher food to our table is not paid a fair wage, but despite this, no one will prevent the wedding hall from brandishing its kashrut certificate. But the concept of kashrut is far broader: If you eat a force-fed goose or dine in a place that does not honor its workers' basic rights, you are violating the laws of kashrut.

There are many similar examples of issues on which the ethical-social voice of Jewish tradition ought to be heard. Perhaps the most noteworthy is that o f the extended nonpayment of salaries to local government workers. It is hard to think of a clearer statement than that of the Torah on this issue: "Thou shalt not defraud thy neighbor, nor rob him; the employee's wages shall not abide with thee overnight until the morning" (Leviticus 19:13). It must be said, i n the clearest possible fashion, that the continued nonpayment of these salaries harms not only basic human rights and universal justice, but also the Jewish character of the state.

Recently, it must be noted, there has been a certain awakening, and the firs t sparks of a Jewish discourse on issues of social justice, of rights and obligations, have begun to emerge. Various rabbis have spoken out clearly on social issues such as the nonpayment of wages and the treatment of the elderly. This should be welcomed, and it is to be hoped that engagement in these matters will increase and the circles of justice will continue to expand.

The author is a member of the group Ma'agalei Zedek ("Circles of Justice"), whose goal is to integrate Jewish values into social discourse.