Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz and Food Justice

— by Hannah Lee

“The first incidence of food justice occurred in the Garden of Eden,” said Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, “when Adam and Eve chose to defy divine prohibition and ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This moral consciousness formed the basis of Jewish ethical system and it was a matter of food choice.”

Yanklowitz spoke on April 15 at a symposium titled “How Kosher is Kosher?,” as part of the “What Is Your Food Worth” series, hosted at Temple University and coordinated by its Feinstein Center for American Jewish History.

Rav Shmuly, as he’s known, burst onto the Jewish communal arena five years ago, after the scandal of Postville, Iowa, where federal agents conducted the largest immigration raid in United States’ history at the Agri-Processors kosher slaughterhouse. The agents rounded up illegal migrant workers who had been abused, threatened, and paid below-minimum wages. At the time, Agri-Processors slaughtered 60 percent of the nation’s kosher beef and 40 percent of the kosher chicken. Rabbinical students at the time, Shmuly and Ari Hart, had founded Uri L’Tzedek the year before, which then launched an international boycott, signed up 2,000 rabbis and community leaders, and demanded transparency in worker standards.

More after the jump.
Uri L’Tzedek’s major contribution to Jewish social justice has been Tav HaYosher, an ethical seal certifying fair and just labor condition. Relying solely on volunteers in order to assure compliance, 100 food establishments now display the certification, and thereby declare that they provide their workers with a minimum wage at least, overtime payment and time off. Rav Shmuly said that one of Judaism’s greatest gifts to the world is Shabbat, incorporating the concepts of worker justice and animal welfare (giving both human workers and animals a day of rest), but a gap remains.
 
While the British philosopher David Hume famously declared that we care more about the stubbing of our toe than someone dying around the world, Rabbi Shmuly claims that today we are more aware than ever of the suffering in the world and it is time to expand our understanding of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, to include social justice and animal welfare.

Kashrut, said Rabbi Shmuly, is a powerful vehicle for social change, because we control the kosher industry with our purchasing power. Unlike the Conservative Hechser Tzedek (renamed Magen Tzedek), Tav HaYosher does not work directly with the kosher supervising agencies, for several reasons: the mashgichim, kosher supervisors, might be biased, they are not trained to look for ethical practices, and they might not be sensitive to the issues.

However, Shmuly cites an incident involving Rav Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement of ethical conduct: when Rav Salanter was invited to inspect a matzah factory, he noticed that the female workers did not get a single break in the entire time of the inspection. He concluded that they were over-worked and he resolved to not sign the kosher certification. Tav HaYosher focuses on highlighting the employers who abide by ethical worker standards, bestowing its seal of approval without demanding payment from their establishments.

Creating a new social movement is an uphill struggle to convince people to think beyond their wallet and how much their food costs. Rav Shmuly spoke about Primo Levi, who wrote about the worst day of Auschwitz being after the Nazis had left and before the Allies rescuers arrived. There were no rules and no one knew what would happen. Then, the inmates found some potatoes and they shared with one another. In this way, they regained their humanity, by not simply following a foreign sense of order.

Rav Shmuly declares, “We can build a community that cares about the environment, the workers, and the animals.” His newer Shamayim V’Aretz Institute promotes animal welfare and Jewish veganism.

In 2008, The Jewish Week recognized Rav Shmuly as one of the 36 most influential Jewish leaders under the age of 36. In 2009, the United Jewish Communities named Rav Shmuly one of five “Jewish Community Heroes.” Having earned two master’s and a doctorate degree (in Moral Development and Epistemology from Columbia), Rav Shmuly is now Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel in Kansas and he is the author of the 2012 book Jewish Ethics & Social Justice.

Readers who wish to become Tav HaYosher compliance officers, contact Uri L’Tzedek.

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