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Rosh Hashanah - 2008 / 5769 - Rabbi Carey Brown  


Rosh Hashanah - 2008 / 5769 - Rabbi Carey Brown

One evening this summer, while my husband Gregg and I were enjoying our vacation in Jerusalem, we decided to indulge in a visit to a dessert shop in a quiet residential neighborhood.  The specialty of the shop was fresh Belgian waffles filled with butter-cream toppings.  While I was instantly intoxicated by the delicious smells that greeted us when we entered the shop, something else grabbed my attention as we waited for our order.  On the wall hung atedudah, a certificate, not unlike the certificates you find in restaurants throughout Israel that vouch for the kashrutof an establishment.  In Israel, the chief rabbinate issues these certificates to let patrons know that the restaurant is compliant with Jewish dietary laws.  One who sees a certificate hanging in a restaurant, presumably can be assured that their food is prepared under rabbinic supervision, assuring the food to be kosher – that is, fit for consumption.

Yet the certificate in the waffle shop was not issued by the rabbinate.  It did not claim to be a teudat kashrut – a certificate assuring the food to be kosher.  Rather, its title read, “tav chevrati” – a social seal.  The seal was created by an organization of dynamic social activists across the religious spectrum in Israel who strongly believe that Jewish tradition has much to say about the current socioeconomic discourse in Israeli society. Their main project is this "Social Seal," a certificate granted, free of charge, to businesses that commit to the following basic social criteria: 1. That they respect the rights of their employees and 2. That they are accessible to people with disabilities. Moreover, the group encourages the the general public to patronize places that meet these criteria.

I was impressed by the idea, especially in Israel, where the business of kosher certification is often laden with political and religious coercion.  Here was a certificate recognizing that social justice criteria are important Jewish values, deserving wall space alongside a certificate of kashrut.  At the same time, I was struck by the parallel nature of a similar struggle taking place within the Jewish community in America.  As many of you are aware, the largest Kosher meat processing plant in the world, Agriprocessors in Postville, IA, has been under incredible public scrutiny over the past two years, including front page national press coverage.  This mega-shohet, is not your bubbie’s butcher down the street.  The plant, which produces about half of all kosher beef and chicken in America, has been cited with disturbing accusations of worker abuse, the employment of minors in the slaughterhouse, and immigration violations.  Just a few weeks ago, the company was charged with over 9,100 counts of child labor violations by the Attorney General of Iowa.  These violations are a real chilul Hashem, an affront to God’s name – and demand our attention.

The Jewish community has responded in varied and strong ways.  Some, including various modern Orthodox groups, have called for a boycott of all Agriprocessors’ products.  The Orthodox Union, the largest of the AmericanKashrut authorities – responsible for the well-known ‘OU’ symbol – an “O” with a “U” inside it – that you see on so many grocery items, recently stated publicly that they will consider removing their hekhsher, or symbol of compliance with the laws of kashrut, from Agriprocessor’s products, because of the child labor indictments.  Others have demanded a change in the leadership at Agriprocessors.  As of last week, a new CEO was hired and in response, some have recommitted their support to Agriprocessors.

One of the most interesting responses has come from within the Conservative movement.  A strong delegation, led by Rabbi Morris Allen of St. Paul, has been working to create a hekhsher tzedek – a seal of justice – to serve as a supplementary hekhsher. The hekhsher tzedek would act in a similar fashion to the one I saw in the dessert shop in Jerusalem, to vouch for the compliance of a company to follow the tenants of worker justice demanded by our tradition.  The creation of the accompanying seal would ensure that not only are kosher products rooted in the proper Jewish methods of food inspection, but that the food is produced in a way that demonstrates concern for those human beings who are involved in its production.  I am proud to say that in recent weeks, the Rabbinical body of the Reform movement, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, has joined in support of the hekhsher tzedek.

Although the number of Reform Jews who follow the laws of kashrut is relatively small – the data from the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey indicate that Reform Jews constitute about 8% of American Jews who keep kosher – I believe that there are important reasons for us as a Reform community to be concerned.  As a movement, we have always held closely to the ideals of worker justice and it is especially important for us as Jews to speak up when we find a company, one specifically intended to provide goods for the Jewish community, in violation of these ideals.  But beyond our concern for the social justice violations present at Agriprocessors, I think that the introduction of the hekhsher tzedek, the seal of justice, offers us an opportunity to reexamine the purpose of ahekhsher and its role in our own lives.

A hekhsher, in its most literal sense, is specifically connected to the kashrut of food.  But really, the idea relates to the notion of having a higher, ethical commitment to how we live our lives.  Think of the Hebrew National advertisement: “We answer to a higher authority.”  In this pithy ad slogan, we find the essence of the function of thehekhsher: We should strive to live our lives as if every action that we take, even something as simple as what we choose to eat, is really about answering to a higher authority. A hekhsher grants us the ability to be discerning about bringing practices into our lives that hold to these high standards.  Being Jewish is not about observing our religious principles selectively, at certain times of the year, on particular holidays, or when we enter the synagogue.  Judaism calls to us to live every aspect of our lives at a higher plane.  To always think of how we can answer to that Higher Authority.

I know that keeping a kosher diet is not a meaningful spiritual practice for everyone, and as your rabbi, I do not stand before you this day to insist that you commit to doing so.  But what I do encourage and hope for this year is that you will think about finding and observing Jewish symbols in your life that help you to keep your life on the same plane of holiness that you feel during this season of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.  Let us consider: what is thehekhsher in your life that helps you stay on track?

We are accustomed to looking for such symbols as consumers. For example, many of us make sure to search for an “Energy Star” label when we shop for appliances so that we can minimize our energy output.  When we go to the grocery store, some of us look for labels informing us that our food is organic, or local, or free trade for reasons both health and ethically related.

But what about when we hire someone to mow the lawn or clean our homes – how do we remember our responsibilities to treat them with dignity – with fairness and livable wages?  What about when we see a homeless person on the street asking for spare change or food – how do we remember that feeding the hungry is a mitzvahwe are obligated to fulfill?  What about speaking up when we hear an off-color joke – how will we remember that Judaism demands that we live our lives seeing each and every human being as one created b’tzelem elohim – in the image of God?  Wouldn’t it be nice if there were hekhshers or symbols stamped on all of life’s situations to help us remember these principles?

Sometimes the symbols that help us define an acceptable path of living are easily noticed.  As a purely secular example, think of traffic lights.  It is a widely held notion that we should stop at red lights.  When the light turns green, you go.  These lights help us arrive safely to our destination.  But often, we have no obvious demarcation.  And so we have to look hard, or create these symbols ourselves to stay on a path of righteous living.

Our tradition teaches us in the V’ahavta prayer, “v’hayu l’totafot bein einecha – you shall keep symbols before your eyes.”  Traditionally, this is understood to mean t’fillin, the phylacteries, or small leather boxes that are worn on the arm and forehead during morning prayer.  But let us think of these totafot, these symbols in a wider sense:

After all, Jewish life is pregnant with symbolism.  Our Shabbat and Holiday rituals alone offer a myriad of possibilities.

Hanging a mezuzah on our doorposts, serves as an important sign of the commitment to Jewish life within our homes
Lighting Shabbat Candles and reciting Kiddush is our way of marking and sanctifying time
Apples dipped in honey help us concretize our desire for a good year ahead
But these Jewish symbols we cherish, those that remind us of sacred time and space, are often not brought out of the home or synagogue.  This is the challenge of the hekhsher, to remind us of the sacred nature of all of our choices and decisions.  We must be willing to look for such symbols when we are out on the street, when we are in the checkout line at the grocery store, in the classroom, or driving on the highway…

This New Year, what will be the totafot bein eineicha – the symbols before your eyes?  How will we remind ourselves to live ethically by the principles demanded by our tradition?  Each of us might have a different symbol to help us remember.  Maybe it is wearing a kippah… maybe it is a word of prayer uttered when you go to sleep at night or wake up in the morning… perhaps it is a Jewish star you wear around your neck… or maybe it is another way that you find to mark your own commitment to a life of Jewish ethical consciousness.  This Rosh HaShanah, how will you commit to remind yourself of those opportunities to imbue ethical living into your everyday life?

There is a wonderful story about Albert Einstein that I think illustrates this challenge:

Einstein was once traveling from Princeton on a train when the conductor came down the aisle, punching the tickets of each passenger. When he came to Dr. Einstein, Einstein reached into his vest pocket. He couldn't find his ticket, so he reached into his other pocket. It wasn't there, so he looked in his briefcase, but still couldn't find it. Then he looked all over the seat around him. He simply could not find his train ticket.

The conductor said, "Dr. Einstein, I know who you are. We all know who you are. I'm sure you bought a ticket. Don't worry about it."  Einstein nodded appreciatively.

The conductor continued down the aisle punching tickets. As he was ready to move to the next railroad car, he turned around and saw the great physicist down on his hands and knees frantically looking under his seat for his ticket. The conductor rushed back and said, "Dr. Einstein, Dr. Einstein, don't worry. I KNOW WHO YOU ARE. No problem. You don't need a ticket. I am sure that you bought one."

Einstein looked at the conductor and said, "YOUNG MAN, I TOO KNOW WHO I AM. WHAT I DON'T KNOW IS WHERE I'M GOING.”

We are all searching for that ticket to help us understand where we are going.  To keep us on the right train, to arrive at the proper destination.  We must commit to keeping that symbol in front of us… in the forefront of our vision.

L’Shanah Tovah.