Worker Justice and Ethical Kashrut
by Rabbi Bonnie Margulis
Once it happened, as Passover neared, that Rabbi Israel Salanter (founder of the Jewish Musar (ethics) Movement) came to a matzah factory to judge its fitness to receive a kosher certificate. Without that certificate, the matzah factory would be out of business. The owner of the factory wasn’t worried, however. He was certain his factory would be certified kosher for Passover. He had instituted new protocols of efficiency that he was sure would impress Rabbi Salanter. Rabbi Salanter came in and observed the process in action. When the matzah was finished and the owner proudly presented it to Rabbi Salanter, the rabbi told the owner the matzah could not be certified as kosher. The owner was shocked. “Why, what’s wrong with my matzah?”. Rabbi Salanter replied, “The matzah has blood in it, and nothing with blood in it can be certified kosher.” “Blood? There’s no blood in my matzah!” exclaimed the factory owner. “The way you press your workers and the demands you place on them to be ever more ‘efficient’ in their work, shows that their blood is in every piece of matzah they produce, and therefore I cannot consider this matzah kosher.”
Workers’ rights and welfare has always been paramount in Jewish law and ethics. From safety issues, to fair working hours, to living wages, to being treated with dignity and respect, all these are integral to the ethical underpinnings of Jewish law on how we treat our workers. Last week, (the week of March 16) Jews around the world read the Torah portion in Leviticus that lists the animals that are considered kosher and those that are considered treyf (unkosher). Today many Jews still follow those ancient laws of kashrut, keeping kosher. Others look to the kosher laws and imbue them with new meaning – ethical kashrut. For some, this means eating vegetarian or vegan. For some it means eating locally. For some it means eating organic. And for many Jews today, ethical kashrut includes paying attention to who grows our food, who picks our crops, who works in our food factories. It means caring about farm and food industry workers being treated fairly, making a fair wage, working in safe conditions, and being able to support their families in dignity.
Today our state, and our country, is facing a situation where economic injustice is rampant. CEO’s make wages hundreds of times greater than their workers. Low-income workers are forced to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Food stamps and unemployment benefits are cut just when people need them most. As we approach this Passover, as Jews all over meditate on the meanings of slavery and freedom, of having enough to eat or not having enough, let us all pledge to work together to build a fairer, more just, and more equitable society.
Rabbi Bonnie Margulis
President, Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice