Vberger, joceyln
Vberger, joceyln

You and the global community are what you eat

Like Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and NBC newscaster Brian Williams in the recent video Judd Apatow made for American Jewish World Service, I am motivated by tradition.

Jocelyn Berger

Tradition is why I love food. Tradition is why I believe in social justice. For some Jews, tradition comes from text and law. For others, it’s a cultural practice passed down from elders. Either way, food and justice form two central tenets of Judaism — and among today’s young Jewish adults, they have united as a significant force.

Growing up in a Conservative family that kept kosher, I understood kashrut as one of those rituals that Jews perform simply out of a sense of tradition or obligation — a mitzvah ben adam l’makom (commandment between a person and the Divine).

Without obvious worldly significance, mitzvot of this kind are often difficult to grasp. In attempting to fulfill the letter of the law, sometimes we lose sight of a broader purpose for the practice. To that end, recent controversies in the kosher food industry have indicated a need to reassess what actually makes kosher kosher.

Investigations in 2008 at Iowa-based Agriprocessors, formerly the largest glatt kosher meatpacking facility in the United States, revealed grotesque, inhumane treatment of animals; unjust, illegal treatment of workers; and extensive food safety and environmental violations.

Currently, New York Satmar–owned Flaum Appetizing, another kosher food distributor, is refusing to fulfill court-ordered payments of approximately $300,000 in back wages to their largely immigrant workforce, many of whom were fired after complaining about their low (if not completely lacking) wages, long hours and cruel treatment.

Sure, these companies produced technically “kosher” foods. But besides teaching us not to mix milk and meat, doesn’t Judaism also teach us ethics of justice, humanity, compassion and simple decency?

Observing strict legal obligations of kashrut in a vacuum that fails to

incorporate the underlying values of Judaism has created a situation considered untenable by many American Jews. As the prophet Isaiah said, “Your hands are stained with crime — Wash yourselves clean … Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice” (Isaiah 1: 15-17).

Given today’s globalized world, industrialized food system, environmental and economic crises, and numerous other problems, I believe it is time to evolve our understanding of kashrut to be a mitzvah ben adam l’chavero (a commandment between person and community) — and I have reason to believe I’m not alone.

Here in the Bay Area, it is implicitly understood that the food system is broken, and this is reflected in our individual choices of alternatives to conventional options. Increasingly, people are starting to ask deeper questions: What does food justice really mean? Why and how is the food system broken? What can we do about it?

In an attempt to answer these fundamental questions, Pursue developed a new series titled “Chewing on Food Justice.” It was created in conjunction with our partners at the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Hazon.

This four-part program has explored various aspects within the food justice conversation: workers’ rights (“Fruits of Our Labor” in August); environmental impact (“Mind Your Agri-Business” in September) and food sovereignty (“Got Access?” in October). Through this series, we hope to equip a broad cohort of young Jews with the information and tools they need to move toward collective action.

The series concludes Tuesday, Nov. 30 with “Is Kosher, Kosher?” — where we’ll consider the Jewish take on food justice issues. Have we stayed true to the spirit of our dietary laws? Are we living up to the standards of our tradition? If not, why? And how can we better express our values?

Unlike the extreme cases of Agriprocessors and Flaum, luckily, some Jews have espoused forms of kashrut that do incorporate social justice, perhaps per Isaiah’s suggestion.

Both the Conservative and Reform movements have come out with new guidelines for ethically produced kosher food. Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization, is spreading its very successful Tav HaYosher (ethical seal) across the country, certifying kosher restaurants that honor basic labor and safety standards (three Oakland business have received the seal: Amba, the Grand Bakery and Oakland Kosher Foods).

Yes, Jewish vegetarianism and farming are practically the hottest things since the iPhone4.

The more we understand the complexities of the food system — the myriad interconnections between immigration, domestic farm policy, foreign aid, environment regulations, global trade agreements, urban poverty, the paradox of hunger and obesity, and much more — the more we realize that our food choices impact far more than just our own bodies.

How and what I eat is not just about following divine ritual. It is about acting with responsibility and care for the greater global community.

Incorporating kashrut as one element of an entire, coherent system of tzedek (justice) can transform it from a mitzvah ben adam l’makom (between a person and the Divine) to a mitzvah ben adam l’chavero (between a person and community).

I believe tzedek is one of the best offerings of the Jewish tradition. That and some really good food.

Jocelyn Berger is the Bay Area program officer for Pursue: Action for a Just World, a project of American Jewish World Service and Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps. Contact her at [email protected].

“Chewing on Food Justice: Is Kosher, Kosher?” is scheduled for 6:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 30 at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, 290 Dolores St., S.F. $15 with dinner by Amba (pre-registration required), $5 program only. Information: www.kosherkosher.eventbrite.com or www.pursueaction.org.