Becoming ethical Jewish consumers
The Jewish community should welcome and support Magen Tzedek by buying products that carry its seal, inviting others to follow suit and encouraging its expansion to products other than foods.
On January 31, the Conservative Movement officially launched its Magen Tzedek (Shield of Justice), a certification awarded to kosher food manufacturers who conduct their businesses in accordance with Jewish ethical norms. To receive the accreditation, businesses must demonstrate that they uphold the Jewish tradition’s standards for fair labor practices, ethical treatment of animals, and stewardship of the environment.
The Magen Tzedek is not without its (frankly misguided) detractors. Most of the objectors come from the fringe right of American Judaism and, because of their opposition to anything the Conservative Movement does, have forced themselves into the ludicrous position of arguing that ethics are not a Jewish concern.
The mainstream Jewish community, on the other hand, ought to applaud its creation. But the self-congratulation ought not last too long. There are at least two crucial ways for the Magen Tzedek (or similar initiatives) to continue its praiseworthy work.
First, Magen Tzedek ought to expand to supervise all goods and services in the marketplace. The impetus for creating the Magen Tzedek was to embody the Jewish tradition’s insistence that Jewish consumers are not permitted to purchase items procured or produced in ways that violate Jewish law. The great medieval rabbi, Moses Maimonides, mandates that one may not “purchase from a thief an item that he stole, and this is a great offense, for it strengthens the hands of violators of transgressions and causes him to commit other thefts, for if he did not find a buyer, he would not steal” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Theft 5:1). Jews may not purchase from thieves because doing so creates a market for stolen goods.
This rule, traditionally, applies whether or not the sinful seller is Jewish, and whether or not the sinful seller’s victims are Jewish. And, importantly, Jewish legal authorities have classically applied Maimonides’ ruling broadly to include all transgressions. One may not patronize a seller who has obtained his/her goods through any kind of sinful behavior. Magen Tzedek valuably reminds us that an observant Jew may not purchase a stolen item, a cheeseburger, or a product obtained through theft or manufactured by underpaid or abused workers.
But we must not forget that the rules also apply to all kinds of products, not just food. Sure, Jews ought not purchase beef slaughtered by mistreated workers, but neither may we purchase clothes produced by mistreated workers.
For these reasons, the Jewish community needs a Magen Tzedek for all products and services, not just for food. The same issues rampant in the food production industry plague so many other industries. There should be a Magen Tzedek for clothing, cosmetics, toys, and consumer electronics. There should be a Magen Tzedek for the energy and automotive industries. There should be a Magen Tzedek for restaurants and for hotels. Observant Jews ought to demand a way of ensuring their money does not embolden those who mock the values they strive to uphold.
There are those who will insist that such a mechanism is superfluous, since American law governs issues like treatment of workers and environmental standards. However, reliance on local law is not enough. Domestic labor and environmental laws are often poorly enforced. And the lack of enforcement is an even bigger issue intentionally. Goods are often assembled in multiple locations, often with complicated and conflicting laws and standards. It is difficult to pinpoint when and where violations occur, and, when they do, under whose legal jurisdiction they fall. Chinese labor laws mandate a much different standard than those in the U.S.
And even when the laws are enforced, whether in America or abroad, those standards frequently fall far too short of what Jewish law envisions. Jews need an independent, dedicated, and thorough mechanism – based on a Jewish legal standard that transcends international borders – for knowing when a given good or service is okay to buy, and when buying said good or service would violate halakhah. In these cases, when the lives of workers, the health of communities, and the wellbeing of our planet are on the line, it is not enough to remain ignorant and thereby only sin accidentally (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 60b).
The Magen Tzedek (or similar initiatives) also ought to address one of the greatest challenges facing the ethically conscious Jewish consumer: price. Goods and services that are ethically produced tend to cost more. The higher overhead associated with paying workers a living wage or with ensuring environmentally sustainable production usually gets passed along to the consumer. This discourages people from making moral choices in the marketplace; they simply cannot afford to.
Jewish law requires us to purchase ethically, but the Torah mandates one law for everyone (Leviticus 24:22). Jewish legal standards must be attainable for all Jews, not just the wealthy. This means that we must find ways to financially support Jewish consumers who want to make ethical purchases, either by putting money directly into their hands, or by subsidizing ethical products. It would also be useful to aggressively advocate for reforms in American law that can enable everyone to be ethical consumers.
The Jewish community should enthusiastically welcome and support Magen Tzedek. We should buy the products that carry its seal, encourage others to do the same, and demand more manufacturers adopt its certification. And, importantly, we can support the Magen Tzedek by encouraging its expansion to products other than foods, and by ensuring all Jews are able to afford being ethical consumers.
Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, and a recent graduate of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles.