A significant component that sustains the Jewish concept of human dignity is the notion that dignity is connected to our empowerment through labor in the world as a partner with God to mold creation. Yet, what is the limit between people—you and me—using God’s power to bring new things to the world and us going beyond God’s will by taking over power traditionally attributed to God? Such a question is prominently featured in an argument between Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Yossi; namely, that to alter Creation is either an example of Divine creativity filtered through human hands, or an unsanctioned exploitation of nature’s strictures.
Human dignity was a foremost issue in the philosophical thought Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (known popularly as “The Rav”) and was a dominant theme in his extensive writings. In his existentialist thought, he taught that there was a fundamental duality to humans. Indeed, he claimed that:
There are… two moralities: a morality of majesty and a morality of humility. The moral gesture of cosmic man aims at majesty or kingship. The highest moral achievement for cosmic man is sovereignty; man wants to be king. God is king of the world; man, imitating God, quests for kingship, not only over a limited domain, but over the far and distant regions of the cosmos, as well. Man is summoned by God to be the ruler, to be king, to be victorious. Victory, as the most important aspect of kingship, is an ethical goal and the human effort to achieve victory is a moral one, provided the means man employs are of a moral nature (Majesty and Humility, 33-34).
Contrary to the seemingly contradictory nature of those two positions, the Rav argued that these worldviews are not, in fact, in competition with one another. Rather, from his vantage point, the differences between God and humanity are complementary forces, forces that people are supposed to harness, and, ultimately, preserve to keep in fine balance. As he mentions in collected edition of his work titled “The Emergence of Ethical Man”:
Nature surrenders voluntarily to man’s control and rule, she entrusts man with her most guarded secrets. Is more cooperation than dominion, more partnership than subordination? Let us watch out for moments of tension and conflict, when nature begins to hate man and to resent his presence… If nature refuses to be dominated, man is left helpless and weak… This is man’s freedom: either to live at peace with nature and thus give expression to a natural existence in the noblest of terms, or to surpass his archaic bounds and corrupt himself and nature (60).
The Rav argued that work is at the core of dignity found in humanity and that work gives people a sanctified purpose. As he writes in his book Halakhic Man “When God created the world, He provided an opportunity for the work of His hands—man—to participate in His creation. The Creator, as it were, impaired reality in order that mortal man could repair its flaws and perfect it” (101).
But the work that Rabbi Soloveitchik discusses here is not only about work to sustain oneself or a family, but also talking about the grander purposefulness that labor does to elevate human dignity and address human suffering. As he writes:
The Modern Jew is entangled in the activities of the gentile society in numerous ways – economically, politically, culturally, and on some levels, socially. We share in the universal experience. The problems of humanity, war and peace, political stability or anarchy, morality or permissiveness, famine, epidemics, and pollution transcend the boundaries of ethnic groups….It is our duty as human beings to contribute our energies and creativity to alleviate the pressing needs and anguish of mankind and to contribute to its welfare (Man of Faith in the Modern World: Reflections of the Rav).
For the Rav, the need to work and the action of working are not only deemed moral but actually part of halakhic practice. In respecting work, we can respect the worker. Rather than be confined by the private sphere and study hall, the Rav argues that the halakhah:
…penetrates into every nook and cranny of life. The marketplace, the street, the factory, the house, the meeting place, the banquet hall, all constitute the backdrop for the religious life” (Halakhic Man, 94).
Speaking of the ‘banquet hall,’ the Rav genuinely lived by his expression of the all-encompassing nature of the Jewish tradition, especially in regards to kashrut. As the modern kashrut industry was established in America, the Rav was adamant that ethical structures be put in place. As Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, a Professor of Rabbinic Literature at Yeshiva University and a close student of Rabbi Soloveitchik, writes, the Rav was a passionate leader who advocated for better wages in the kosher industry. Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff recounts that:
Before Rabbi Soloveitchik assumed the supervision of the slaughtering of kosher poultry, the [kosher slaughterers] were definitely exploited. The hours were unduly long…their salaries minimal. Rabbi Soloveitchik was then invited to put order into the chaos. The Rabbi agreed to do so provided that kosher bands were used, since the Rabbi, as well as others in our community, knew that an enormous amount of misrepresentation was practiced. After Rabbi Soloveitchik undertook this task, the living conditions of the [kosher slaughterers] were considerably improved and the standard of Kashruth raised. They began to receive a living wage and began to work decent hours (Tradition 30:4, 1996).
In the late 1950s, there were many attempts (on the state and federal levels) to ban kosher slaughter. The Rav was appointed the spokesmen by the Synagogue Council of America to represent the American Jewish community. While the Rav, of course, defended the Jewish right to maintain Jewish ritual, he also challenged the Jewish community to establish more humane methods for animal treatment, opposed shackle and hoist, and worked in partnership with the ASPCA to developed a pen (See Helfgot, Community, Covenant And Commitment: Selected Letters And Communications, 61-71). Further, it has been noted numerous times that the Rav believed vegetarianism to be a Torah ideal. One commentator writes in Yeshiva University’s Kol Hamevaser on this:
Unlike Rabbis Kook and Albo, R. Soloveitchik has no reservations concerning vegetarianism, and affirms it both as an ideal and a practice. He believes that all life, even animal life, is sanctified… Hence, according to R. Soloveitchik, vegetarianism should be practiced, yet man, too desirous for meat, refuses to stop eating animal flesh.
The concern for suffering in the kosher industry was not the Rav’s invention but was actually a family tradition. In a lecture on May 22, 1979, the Rav shared that his grandfather Rav Chaim Brisker supported the matzah baker’s strike in Brisk:
I am more impressed by Reb Chaim’s heroism as far as social justice is concerned. If there was a real socialist, not a Marxist socialist, it was Reb Chaim. He possessed a most sensitive conscience and sensitive heart, along with unlimited courage… There was once a strike in Brisk. I am not trying to mislead you, since who could strike in Brisk? They did not manufacture anything (laughter). One article they did manufacture was, however: namely matzah. So those who worked in the matzah shops went out on strike. Reb Chaim supported them and collected money to feed the people who were on strike…Reb Chaim almost lost his rabbinate as a result, but he would not deviate” (The Rav Volume 1, 198-199).
The moral courage displayed here from Reb Chaim is extraordinary. Here, rather than act in a calculated political manner, he prefers to support the matzah bakers and their plight through a spiritual lens, giving them the ultimate ethical advantage; such actions were fundamental to Reb Chaim’s worldview. As Rav Soloveitchik commented many years later:
My uncle, Rabbi Meir Berlin, told me that he once asked Reb Chaim (Soloveitchik), man of Brisk, “What is the role of the rabbi?” Reb Chaim replied and said: “To prosecute the humiliation of the lonely and abandoned, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor.” Not teaching, not political leadership, but the realization of an ideal of justice (Halakhic Man, 80).
Some of the Rav’s closest students took this message of ethical kashrut to another level in the societal realm. Consider for example, this 2008 interview with Rabbi Haskel Lookstein and Rabbi Dr. Yitz Greenberg in the Jerusalem Post. When asked why they declared for non-union lettuce and grapes to be boycotted, they said:
We were both students of… Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. From him we learned the idea that Halacha is not just a list of ritual dos and don’ts, but a comprehensive worldview that applies to everything that happens around us. The Torah prohibits the exploitation of workers – so why shouldn’t that apply to migrant farm workers picking lettuce or grapes? They were being mistreated, so it was natural for us to apply the principle of non-exploitation to their situation, too. It seemed obvious.
Today, nearly five decades after Rabbi Greenberg and Rabbi Lookstein were inspired by the Rav and nearly three decades after the Rav’s death, the moral demands for ethical kashrut are enormous. It is up to us as members of the Modern Orthodox community to follow the Rav’s intellectual tradition. It is up to us as ethical citizens, no matter our religious denomination, to ensure that not only do we work in a dignified way but that all workers, no matter their occupation, are treated with dignity. We have much to do to treat all workers humanely, to reduce our environmental impact, and to ensure the food fit for consumption is prepared in such a way as to amend the countless inequities found the food industry.
The isn’t an easy path for us all to follow. Some, possibly, will wander off the path altogether, saying that only the minimum standards are required for a piece of food to be considered kosher or that a certified kosher restaurant doesn’t need to concern itself with its workers. We cannot follow this abysmal standard. It is in our best interests to ignore attempts at halakhic ethics and instead reach for the highest levels of moral and spiritual renewal in every endeavor. Yes, even when re-examining the intersection of kashrut and dignity. For, as it is written in Pirkei Avot 2:16, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We need to keep going and never desist from the task at hand. And certainly never when human lives are at stake.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 18 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.
The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.