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“We’re working with a community that takes their kashrut seriously,” Weiss told the Forward. “There’s something about being kosher that’s part of being Jewish. The Torah also tells us not to exploit workers. We’re trying to put something else on the agenda.”
That’s not to say Tav HaYosher hasn’t faced its own opposition from within the ranks of Orthodox Jews. Weiss acknowledged that a few restaurants in the program opted out after pressure from the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, whose adherents include the Rubashkin family that owned Agriprocessors. (Sholom Rubashkin, formerly the company CEO, was sentenced to 27 years in prison.)
Why the person who washes dishes in a kosher restaurant should be denied a minimum wage because of complaints over the prison term of a convicted felon is one of the mysteries of modern Jewish life.
Another mystery is why Jews of all denominations aren’t pushing for Magen Tzedek, or a simplified, more practical version of it. The Jewish food movement is growing in so many other ways. When Agriprocessors was raided and shut down, there were about 10 communities around the country participating in Hazon’s CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) program, buying local organic produce at synagogues and community centers. Now there are 57.
In fact, Fred Bahnson, director of the Food, Faith and Religious Leadership Initiative at Wake Forest University, travelled the country examining how different faith communities were responding to the food movement and concluded that “Jews were far ahead of Christian churches in making the link between food and faith,” he said in an interview. (And he’s a Christian.)
The explanation was kashrut. “Food is an explicit part of religious devotion and cultural heritage,” he observed. “There’s already a sensibility that food is something we should pay attention to, where in other faith traditions, it’s not as obvious.”
Sometimes it takes an outsider to make the simple but profound point. As Bahnson wisely noted, Jews already have a many-thousand-year tradition of laws governing how food is obtained, prepared and consumed so that the very basic act of nourishment is infused with an element of the sacred. At a time of mass production and global markets, that imperative is even more urgent. If Magen Tzedek isn’t feasible, then develop something else in its place, but the serious effort to link kashrut ritual with broader concerns for workers, animals and the environment cannot be forsaken.