Monday, September 15, 2008

Should Orthodoxy Promote Social Justice?

Rabbi Avi Shafran is the spokesman for Agudath Israel. He is someone with whom I usually agree. That may seem strange to many of those who read this blog considering that I am viewed by them as a Charedi basher. But the fact is I am not. And I more often agree with him than not.

But I’ve said that before. He is one of the good guys. But as is sometimes the case, I disagree with his assessments in certain situations. And this is one of them.

In a column written in the current Jewish Observer and reproduced at Cross-Currents, he hits the Conservative movement hard on it’s Heksher Tzedek initiative.

I am the last one to defend the Conservative movement. As most who read this blog know - I do not consider them a legitimate expression of Torah Judaism. They reject the requirement of some of the fundamentals of belief – such as Torah MiSinai which many in the Conservative Movement do not take literally. They instead permit allegorizing that event. And – as Rabbi Shafran put it - they have… through (their) creative “halachic process,” effectively erased entire pesukim from the Torah, and led the vast majority of (their) synagogues’ members – our precious Jewish brothers and sisters – to abandon entire portions of the Shulchan Aruch with “rabbinic approval.”

But I must take exception to his attributing to them ulterior motives and calling them cynical. Yes, as he points out - and it is quite clear to anyone who pays attention - they need to resuscitate their movement. But I doubt that is their primary motive here.

Social justice has always been a big item on their agenda. They consider this Tikun Olam. And who is to say it isn’t? We may not agree with the particulars of their Heksher Tzedek initiative but do we not agree in the general concept of social justice? As Rabbi Shafran pointed out - some of these issues are mentioned in the Torah itself.

Additionally, we are required to live B’Darkei Shalom – in peaceful relations even with idolaters. Darkei Shalom was the reason Chazal abrogated some of their own rabbinic enactments (Mishnah in Gittin 59A-B). Certainly a Jewish employer should be held accountable when Darkei Shalom is transgressed – even in error.

Aside from that is it unreasonable to require the highest standards of behavior of our purveyors of food toward their employees? I don’t think it is unreasonable at all. It is eminently reasonable. It is a Chilul HaShem if we don’t require high standards and a Kiddush HaShem when we do.

We may not agree with their exact social agenda, but we must be fair when we are being critical and not impute ulterior motives when there is no real evidence of any.

Why – he protests - this business and not others? Perhaps it is because Agriprocessors has been the source of a lot of negative publicity. The Conservative Movement probably wants to assert that as an association of rabbis they note what has been reported, suspect improper treatment of God’s creations made in His image- as well as animals, and they want to do something about it.

I do not think for a moment that their primary impetus for creating the Heksher Tzedek was for any other reason than to promote their big ticket item - social justice. That they hope this will regenerate interest in their movement - while I’m sure it’s welcome - is probably secondary.

And to that end, I think those Orthodox institutions involved in Kosher food supervision should take a cue from Heksher Tzedek and implement some of these standards themselves. Perhaps then we can justifiably claim that we are no less interested in social justice than the Conservative movement is - and prevent the kind of negative publicity generated in the Agriprocessors fiasco in the future.