The week we’ve just begun has Jews around the world reading parashat shofetim, chapters 16-21 of the book of Deuteronomy. It includes the stirring call to justice, tzedek, tzedek tirdof. “Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue.” These words are a clarion call on Labor Day, and every day, to see to it that fairness and equity are present in our society. Though the verse appears in a section of the Torah describing fairness in legal proceedings, our tradition has always construed the commandment broadly. In all realms of life, we are obligated to pursue justice.
The Rabbinic tradition, always attuned to the fine points of Hebrew grammar and syntax, keys in on the repetition of the word tzedek, “justice,” in our verse. Would it not have been enough to say tzedek tirdof, “thou shalt pursue justice?” Why “justice, justice?” Among the answers given is this one: “you must pursue just ends, and you must do it by just means.” The establishment of justice cannot, in fact, be justified, if unjust means were used to establish it. Tzedek – just ends – tzedek – by just means – tirdof – this, you shall pursue.
It’s an important message at all times and all places, and has a particular relevance for the Jewish community this year. For among the biggest news stories related to Labor in recent months has been the Federal raid on the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa. The raid and its aftermath bring into stark relief the importance of pursuing just ends through just means.
Agriprocessors is the nation’s largest supplier of kosher beef, and is relied upon by perhaps hundreds of thousands of Jews to provide beef that meets the ritual requirements established by Jewish tradition. What we’ve learned over the past several months is that Agriprocessors, in its effort to serve its customers, appears to have cut many corners with regard to workers’ rights. The allegations against Agriprocessors are extensive, and include charges of shorted paychecks, unsafe working conditions, and sexual harassment in the workplace. The Federal government’s initial focus was harsh and punitive, focusing on the immigration status of the victims, but recent months have also seen – thank God – a renewed focus bringing to justice those who ran the plant.
In the Jewish community, reaction has been split. Many of us are outraged, and rightly expect that food labeled kosher – a word meaning “fit” or “proper” – cannot be so only by virtue of the sharpness of the knife at the moment of slaughter. If the workers have been mistreated, if the animals have been mistreated, then no ritual fitness in the last moments can justify the purchase and consumption of such meat.
Others, I’m sad to say, have expressed too little concern for the suffering of the animals and the rights of workers, and too much concern for management’s need to provide kosher beef at a nice price. Those who claim that kashrut is only a ritual matter, and that labor practices have no bearing on it are, if I may be so bold, of a kind with those in every faith who cynically turn their backs on justice while embracing – as they would have it – “religion.” They are the Jewish cousins of those who would – just as an example – say, “Christo, Si” while rejecting so much of the Gospel. Let us stand tall and strong against those who would tell us that our words and deeds on behalf of workers, the poor, the immigrant, have nothing to do with “religion” and are somehow out-of-place in our houses of worship.
And let us recognize that the lessons of Postville extend beyond a meat-packing plant in Iowa, and beyond the Jewish community. Let us learn from Postville to ask questions about the fitness and propriety of everything we purchase and consume. Our children’s toys, our appliances, our cars, as well as our fruits and vegetables, are all the end product of someone else’s labor. Are they kosher? Do they pass the “justice, justice test?” Or are the righteous stock gains and the righteous price tags the end result of injustices all along the way.
On this Labor Day weekend, let us dedicate ourselves to pursue justice for workers. A fair wage paid promptly and a safe work environment free of harassment are not, after all, a luxury. They are a right, enshrined in the sacred literature of our faith traditions – when properly understood – and in the laws of our land, laws hard-won by our forebears through decades of organizing and agitating for justice. Let us not give them away in the interest of higher profit margins for investors or marginally cheaper prices for consumers. Let justice be done every step of the way.
“Justice, Justice, shall you pursue.” Justice on the killing floor and justice in the picking fields. Justice on the assembly line and justice in the supermarket. Justice for our teachers and justice for our civil servants. For workers everywhere, we demand it and we pursue it. Tzedek, Tzedek. “Justice. Justice.”
May this be God’s will. Amen.