May 8, 2012
Orthodox Social Justice: Kudos to the Tav HaYosher by Rabbi Asher Lopatin
The Orthodox Social Justice organization, Uri L’Tzedek has been in the news recently regarding a settlement they helped win from a Jewish company accused of mistreating its workers and forcing them, against the law, to work 70-80 weeks. I was not part of the lawsuit so I would like highlight a program of Uri L’Tzedek which I am involved in: Tav HaYosher - the “Ethical Seal”. I would especially like to point out its Torah true roots and how it is integral to the Orthodox world of halacha and practice.
I first found out about something like an “Ethical Seal” when I was in Israel eight years ago on the fast day of Shiva’a Asar B’Tamuz, and I went to a modern Orthodox program sponsored by Bema’aglei Tzedek, a social action organization, which was rolling out their Tav Chevrati - social justice seal. The Bema’aglei Tzedek program had several prominent rabbis speaking, and ended with a huge, separate seating mincha minyan. It blew me away to experience exactly what the prophets would love for us to do on a fast day: learn about what Torah has to say about a just society, and plan to implement that Torah. And in fact, that is what the Israeli Tav Chevrati - Social Justice Seal - of Bema’aglei Tzedek does and what the American Tav HaYosher - the Ethical Seal - of Uri L’Tzedek does. Both of them are seals that restaurants can voluntarily get, which ensures that they are following the laws of the land - dina d’malchuta dina - in how they are treating their workers.
The Israeli seal is more complicated, but the Uri L’Tzedek (American) Ethical Seal is simple: restaurants have to demonstrate to volunteer mashgichim and mashgichot (supervisors) that they are paying their workers for their time worked (at minimum wage or wages agreed upon), that they are giving their workers the breaks they are legally mandated, and that the safety conditions in the restaurant meets code. The Tav is only given to restaurants that have rabbinical supervision to their kashrut, so as not to confuse people who may see a Hebrew label and think the restaurant is kosher, which it is not, unless the food follows halachic standards of kashrut.
The Tav, “Ethical Seal” is not a political, social engineering seal, but, rather one that just verifies that the restaurant bearing it conforms to American law. I do not expect the mashgiach for the kashrut, who may be checking for bugs, or salting the meat or making sure that every ingredient has the right label, to be able to verify what the workers are doing and whether they are being paid and treated according to US law. Unfortunately, overworked and understaffed enforcement arms of the government are not able to police restaurants either for these matters. An extremely high percentage of restaurants do not conform with the law - and luckily, the kosher ones have the opportunity of verifying that they are following Jewish law by following the law of the land.
The Tav HaYosher was born from Orthodox activists in Israel, inspired by Israel and the words of the prophet King David, who asked Hashem to guide him in the “circles of righteousness.” These are people who were energized by the rigor of the halachic life and decided that halacha and Torah could give them the power to change society and to make sure the world of the Nevi’im (prophets) were not just nice Haftaras, but were real, living Torah, Torat chayim. They had, and continue to have, as their guides some of the greatest Torah luminaries, such as Rav Yuval Cherlow and Rav Beni Lau, recognized rashei Yeshiva and gedolim.
Both the Israeli and the American “Tav”s - seals - are careful not to call themselves a “hachsher” or a “hashgacha” which might challenge the importance of ritual kashrut. (See the article by Rabbi Avi Shafran in Dialogue , Winter 5772.) To the contrary, the Tav is coming to re-enforce the amazing strides we have made over the past half century in ensuring that “kosher” really means halachically kosher, by restricting itself only to kosher certified restaurants. But they wisely do not get involved in which hashgacha is good and which bad.
I am writing this on the 32nd day (lamed beit, or lev) of the Omer - as we think about the “lev” - the heart - of the Jewish people. Embedded in the heart of the Jewish people are the words of God and God’s prophets, along with the generations of great rabbis who ask us to seek justice and follow the laws of the lands in which we live. I ask each and everyone of us: if we go into a restaurant in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Boston, Seattle, Teaneck, etc. - over 100 restaurants across America, and over 350 locations in Israel - please ask for the Tav! If they have never heard of it, contact Uri L’Tzedek and tell them to reach out to that establishment. Having the Tav means the restaurant is following our Torah true tradition of justice and following the law. If you eat in a kosher Tav restaurant, you are not only fulfilling the ritual of kashrut, you are fulfilling the ethical laws of caring for your fellow human being and living a just life.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin