The American public has been shocked by the revelations of the past few months regarding the unethical treatment of workers at the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. Court charges that allege illegal deductions from paychecks, the use of child labor and employees being robbed of their human dignity have prompted many in the Jewish community to demand that kosher food production must be about more than just the laws of kashrut; kosher food must reflect Jewish ethical values as well.
This is not the first time there has been a demand for greater accountability on the part of the food industry. In 1949, as American Jewry was entering a period marked by physical security and material prosperity, Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer, grandson of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the leader of German Orthodoxy, and himself a leading figure of American Orthodoxy, wrote an essay entitled "Glatt Kosher - Glatt Yosher." In addition to "the conscientious and minute observance of the laws of kashrut," Breuer wrote, Jews must never forget that, "Kosher is intimately related to yosher (correct ethical practice)." God not only requires that we sanctify our physical selves; God demands that we sanctify our social relationships.
Breuer went on to say that the guidelines for accomplishing this are basic: We are commanded to follow the "strict application of the tenets of justice and righteousness, and to avoid even the slightest trace of dishonesty in our business dealings and personal life."
In a similar vein, Rabbi Israel Salanter, the legendary 19th-century founder of the Musar movement, which stressed disciplined ethical practice, understood the relationship between the material, spiritual and ethical elements of Judaism similarly when he said: "The material needs of my neighbor are my spiritual needs."
Since the May 12 raid on the Agriprocessors plant, consumers of kosher products have become particularly conversant with the conditions in which their meat is sometimes produced: Numbers like the almost $10 million in fines for the 96,436 illegal payroll deductions, or the 9,311 criminal misdemeanor charges Aaron and Sholom Rubashkin face for employing at least 32 underage workers, are published in The New York Times and discussed at Shabbat tables around the world.
Perhaps the greatest fallout from the Rubashkin tragedy is that the link between kosher and yosher has been broken, in both the Jewish and non-Jewish public consciousness. Those deeply committed to Jewish ethics and law have been calling for the leadership to address this crisis.
It is in the wake of the events of last summer and in the spirit of Rabbi Breuer's clarion call to "link a drive for Glatt Kosher with an equally intensive one for Glatt Yosher" that Uri L'Tzedek - an Orthodox social-justice organization guided by Torah values and dedicated to promoting discourse, inspiring leaders and empowering the Jewish community toward creating a more just world - is launching what it calls the "Tav HaYosher" (ethical seal) for kosher restaurants in America.
Modeled on the successful "Tav Chevrati" (social seal) campaign launched by the Israeli NGO Bema'aglei Tzedek, Tav HaYosher will be a free service that guarantees a restaurant's commitment to join workers and communities to create a just workplace that meets the basic standards of ethics and decency. Restaurants will be awarded the Tav based on a commitment to three basic rights:
The right to fair pay. According to New York State law, all non-tipped employees must be paid a minimum wage of $7.15 an hour, and tipped employees must earn $4.60 an hour. According to a recent survey of New York city's restaurant industry, 15 percent of employees reported receiving less than minimum wage. This number jumped to 60 percent when asked if they were paid more for overtime.
The right to time. Time is holy. For six days of the week, Jewish tradition encourages us to engage in productive work; on the seventh day we are told to rest. The Torah not only prohibits us from work, but also those around us: children, workers, animals and the strangers in our midst. Legally, restaurant workers cannot work seven days a week (even if they serve pre-paid meals on Shabbat), and they must be provided with certain breaks of 20, 30 or 45 minutes, according to the number of hours worked. Restaurants awarded the Tav will be those following the letter of the secular law and the spirit of the Torah.
The right to dignity and a safe work environment. We are all created in the image of God. What follows from this fundamental human truth is that all people should be able to work in an environment that treats them with dignity: No one should be subject to harassment, abuse or discrimination based on sex, race, religion, language, pregnancy, age, disability, sexual orientation or citizenship status.
It is Uri L'Tzedek's goal, in creating Tav HaYosher, to ensure that those who serve us are paid what they are legally entitled to, given the rest they deserve and afforded the appropriate dignity. In doing so, we will be upholding the highest standards of yashrut alongside our already high standards of kashrut.
With God's help, we hope to implement a system that can protect those who are vulnerable and fulfill God's promise to Abraham, the champion of righteousness and justice, to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.
Rabbi Ari Weiss is the lead professional and Ari Hart and Shmuly Yanklowitz are co-directors of Uri L'Tzedek (http://uriltzedek.webnode.com/).