Shmuly Yanklowitz

Passover is behind us, but we’re still thinking about food

(Uri L'Tzedek awarding the Tav HaYosher to a kosher restaurant. Photo: Shmuly Yanklowitz)

With Passover now over, there’s a general sense of relief among Jews that now, finally, we can go back to eating what we want. While there absolutely should be joy in eating the bread of freedom, the time between Pesach and Shavuot ought to be a time for personal introspection. We’re free—now will we use that freedom wisely? 

If we look carefully, I think all of us will find that there is a growing sense among us that our food choices have become too rote, and that we lack intentionality in our moral decision-making. And the challenges around us are not slowing down. Lab-grown meat has become a politically contentious issue. We’re still never really sure whether our food is a product of forced labor, or is environmentally unsustainable.

To many of us, the minutiae within the laws of kashrut can sometimes seem a bit arbitrary and difficult to rationalize. I’ve previously felt this way too, but things changed when I came to the conclusion that kashrut is actualized in its deepest form when it’s given moral dimensions. For me, this emerged, at least partially, from being a student of the work of Yisroel Salanter, the 19th-century founder of the Mussar movement concerned with studying Jewish ethics and practicing them with a rigorous curriculum. I learned his texts directly and privately with Rabbi Dr. Yitz Greenberg as my mussar teacher.

I remember being struck by a story of how, when Rav Salanter washed his hands before eating bread, his students noticed how little water he was using. Shouldn’t the more pious use more water? He then showed them the man on the hill carrying the water from the well. What is holy about creating more hard labor for another person? Our precious rituals, I realized, cannot be disconnected from the practical implications around them.

Fifteen years ago (to this month!), we were inspired to create the Tav HaYosher Ethical Seal, a certification that shows that a restaurant, in addition to its kosher certification, is meeting our standards for the ethical treatment of its workers, with them receiving fair pay, reasonable hours and a safe working environment. I’m so grateful for all we’ve been able to do for workers over that decade and a half, and the connections we’ve fostered between consumers, workers and business owners. I’m also glad to see a change in culture in much of the kosher-keeping community. I encounter people all the time for whom being vegan or vegetarian or an environmentalist is an integral part of their kashrut practice, and who can easily see the connection between food ethics and workers’ rights. People tell me they’re happy to be supporting restaurants whose practices they believe in. 

Although we’ve accomplished so much, the challenges are still enormous. While we’re proud to have certified hundreds of establishments, we lost many either because they closed down or because they were no longer in compliance. I also see a challenge in changing consumer trends, where we seem to have become more concerned with affordability as well as culinary quality. Even for those who want to make the most responsible choices, shifting how we buy is difficult to do. 

There are also reasons for restaurant owners and even workers to push back against our efforts. Workers are so vulnerable as people, often in poverty, who need jobs to feed their families and are often afraid of speaking out and risking their jobs. When we ask their employers to do more for them, that may not be what they believe they need. Owners and managers are often in no comfy position either. The restaurant industry is already difficult to survive in, and it is all the more difficult for kosher restaurants. The profit margins are often small, not to mention how there are those still struggling to get caught up from debt taken on during the lockdowns of the Covid pandemic. Owners and managers who feel often bottom-line committed to the lowest cost possible are understandably defensive around external compliance checks. 

Many liberal Jews are not committed to only eating at kosher establishments so we lose much of their consumer power. And, as much as there are those of us who seek out ethical restaurants, much of the traditional Jewish population is skeptical of certifying for a moral dimension beyond the basic laws of kashrut, as it may feel like an external intrusion. We also struggle with the logistical challenge of locating and training compliance officers in enough places to make sure we can have the Tav HaYosher in as many communities as possible. 

As much as I feel that our emphasis on ethical concerns and workers’ rights concerns puts us in the minority of the kosher-keeping community, to me it’s worth the struggling of keeping the dream alive. There’s a kiddush Hashem in how people will know that, yes, Jews do care about these issues and that Jews see the invisible people in the back rooms washing pots and pans in the day and mopping at night. I think that, rather than being discouraged by the challenges, we can be motivated by the opportunities for the future.

Looking toward the future, on top of securing certain rights for workers, I’d love for us to provide more workshops and resources to help workers grow and learn. I’d love to see us create new programs that strengthen relationships between workers, owners and consumers. Further, I believe we can do more to empower our compliance officers so that, in addition to defending workers, they’re prepared to go on to do even more as budding Jewish leaders. 

(Uri L’Tzedek volunteers leading a Tav HaYosher compliance check at a kosher restaurant. Photo: Shmuly Yanklowitz)

More broadly, I hope we can trigger in the consciousness of all Jews an awareness that we should be concerned with the unseen processes behind the products we consume. Our food is about our eating experience, but it’s also about the environment, the animals, the workers and our bodies. Food should be not just physically satisfying, but also spiritually nourishing. 

When I envision us feasting together in the World to Come, I can only imagine that the food there will be produced ethically. 

About the Author
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 22 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.
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