Monday, August 27, 2007

Heksher Tzedek and Ki Tetze

by Rabbi Joel Wasser
Congregation Kol Ami
Tampa Florida

My initial forays into the world of kashrut were interesting, to say the least. Years ago, I had the honor of serving as a mashgiach at Camp Ramah in the Poconos. It was a huge operation. A not so simple 800 meals a day prepared ongoing – morning, noon, and night. And my job was to make sure that every single product was kosher, that every recipe was kosher, and to ensure that a fork left over from one meal wasn’t accidentally used at the next meal, of a different variety.

And because the institution was so very committed to kashrut, as well it should have been, I was given further instructions. Namely, I was told not, under any circumstances, to trust anything other than particular certifications. What that meant was that if a product harbored a kosher symbol other than the normative “OU” marking, that I had to call the company and do a background check on the rabbi who provided the certification. Who was he? From where did he receive his ordination? What were his stances on certain minutia of Jewish law? In the end, based on the answers to these questions, I was informed by my superiors in New York to dismiss many products that indeed did have formal - and what I believe were - legitimate kosher certifications. The level of scrutiny involved in the policies and their application left a terrible taste in my mouth, as the Camp in essence got caught up in political, as opposed to religious issues regarding the permissibility of the food. At that point in my life, I thought I had seen it all. But, as the famous line goes, “never say never”.

A few years later, Kashrut Magazine, a large, national publication, came out with a warning about… romaine lettuce, of all things. In the article, published by a noted mashgiach and Orthodox rabbi, the claim was advanced that romaine lettuce could not be used, unless it was first examined closely under heavy-duty lights and amidst intense scrutiny. The thinking went, that it was possible that infinitesimal bugs might make their way onto the back-side of the leafy vegetable, rendering it un-kosher. And as much as I am not a fan of infinitesimal bugs of any type, I couldn’t help but ask the reasonable question, “Well, why stop with heavy lights. Why not use a microscope as well?” Indeed, I thought I had seen it all. But, again, as the famous line goes, “never say never”.

Since moving to Florida, I have consumed more water daily, than ever before in my life. Look, we’re running around in the sun all day, the cars are 140 degrees inside most of the year, and dehydration is a constant concern to anyone who cares about health and wellbeing. And especially recently, I have noticed two things about the bottled water that we all drink aplenty. One, that it costs more than gas – which isn’t so easy to do these days – so, don’t ask me how. And two, that the vast majority of these water bottles have hasgacha – that is to say, that many companies pay some rabbi from some national organization to come in, watch over the production, and offer – mind you for a hefty fee – that the water (the WATER people!) is actually kosher.

The whole messy scenario reminds of the story of the tzadik who dies after a long, fruitful, and righteous life. The man gets to heaven and God himself meets the individual at the old pearly gates. The holy man says, “Gee, Hashem, I can’t believe that you are here to greet me! God responds by saying, “Look, you’ve led such a pious a wonderful life tat I just had to meet you here Myself. And even, better news…we’ve prepared a banquet for you. The fellow goes in to this grand hall, laden with every possible delicacy, herring and egg kichel included. Before they sit down to eat however, the very religious fellow turns to God and says, “Sorry to have to ask you, but who is the mashgiach here?” Hashem turns around and says, “Why, it’s Me of course”. The pious fellow reflexively responds- “We’ll, I’ll have the salad”. I guess he was confident of the absence of romaine lettuce!

Yet, being kosher, my friends, undoubtedly comes in various forms and guises. While principally and most commonly it has to do with food and pervasively dictates what we as Jews ingest, there are other applications as well, one of which finds a central place in this week’s Torah reading.

In our pasrha, Ki Tetze, we encounter an interesting mitzvah about environment. The portion reads:

"When you come into your neighbor’s vineyard you may eat of the grapes until you have enough at your own pleasure… when you come into your neighbor’s standing corn, you may pluck ears with your hand… "

At first glance, the commandment may seem merely like some bizarre license for theft or freeloading. But of course, this is not the case, nor the essence of the teaching. In her commentary on the Torah, the famous 20th century Israel exegete, Nahama Leibowitz, elucidates the hidden context. Citing the Torah Temimah, she suggests that the commandment is present to address labor law. Specifically, she offers that what the commandment is addressing is the case of a worker and his job place. What the directive is teaching is that an employer harbors an ethical obligation to allow his or her employees the benefit of rest and sustenance while at work - even if those provisions have to come out of he employer’s own pocket. She writes:

"The Torah grants the laborer this privilege on the grounds that it would raise his morale, physical and spiritual, thereby improving his efficiency and productivity, in the interest of the owner himself. He will work with greater drive if he des not have to use his own wages on his own food."

The point of this teaching is not merely to address whether or not the company buys it’s workers lunch here and there, or whether the boss hosts a come as you are holiday party at a particular season. Obviously, our economic context is far different than that envisioned in antiquity. Yet, the eternally compelling aspect of this teaching has to do with how Biblical law sought to create safe and dignified contexts for all of our employees. Indeed, later codes, specifically the Shulchan Aruch, have enormous volumes dedicated to the importance of business ethics and codes that inform proper dealings with employees. Everyone should be treated with respect, dignity, and honor.

Recently, there has begun a unique national initiative under the auspices of the Conservative Rabbinate in this country. Created and motivated by a colleague in Minneapolis, the project seeks to create a new type of hasgacha – a new type of kosher marking. Yet, instead of commenting merely on the products and their suitability for the kosher consumer, the program seeks to investigate if the given companies are treating their employees in an ethical and just manner. As such, companies that employ child laborers cannot receive this marker, no matter how kosher their ingredients might be. Companies that abuse foreign workers cannot receive the marker, no matter how suitable their by-products may be for those who are punctilious. Companies that refuse to pay overtime or take advantage of the simple laborer in any fashion, similarly, cannot receive this marker, called a hechsher tzedek.

Only the future will tell if this interesting ethical initiative will take hold; or, on the other hand, if the kosher consumer will actually even stop to care about its lofty goals. Be that as it may, what the bold project does do, is challenge us to consider the meaning of the term “kosher” on its broadest of levels. Sure, the food we eat can be kosher or not. But, the manner in which we speak, act, and do business, can also, according to our tradition, be deemed “kosher” or not.

In the end, the point is that what we see transpiring here is a most lofty goal. It asks us to appreciate that the concept of being kosher is really, really big in Jewish life. But, in it’s most authentic and comprehensive form “kosher” is not only about ritual, but it’s about ethics as well. “Kosher” is rooted in how we deal with our responsibilities to God, but it applies to our interaction with mankind as well. “Kosher” is surely about the transcendent, but never at the expense of immanent obligations and duties.

By challenging companies to be completely kosher, the hechsher tzedek program is also challenging each and every one of us to consider how kosher are we? Not merely in terms of what we eat. But, in terms of how we deal with people, with immanent realities, and with the complexities of a world situation that might otherwise be disinterested in the broadest of applications.