The Jewish holiday of Passover (Pesach) begins in 2019 at sunset (7:30pm in Providence) on Friday, April 19, commemorating the central defining event in Jewish history, the biblical Exodus about 3,300 years ago, during which the Jewish people escaped from slavery in Egypt and began the process of establishing a national identity on their own land in what is now the State of Israel. As the first documented successful slave revolt (regardless of its historicity), the Exodus has carried enormous resonance for the dignity of laborers, often recalled in such disparate circumstances as the abolitionist movement and the organized labor movement.
The coincidence of the holiday falling during a strike against supermarket chain Stop and Shop by Local 328 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) trade union has forced Jews to consider the ethical and religious implications of honoring or crossing the picket lines, because Stop and Shop is widely recognized as among the best available suppliers of the specialized food needed for the holiday: for eight days, observant Jews avoid all leavened bread and other products made from specific grains such as wheat and barley, and instead eat only “matzoh,” a kind of cracker made from no other ingredients but water and flour baked in less than 18 minutes at high temperature to prevent yeast from rising. Such special foods are certified as “kosher for Passover” under careful rabbinical supervision.
While determining whether food or other consumables is kosher is usually a matter of examining only its ingredients and preparation process to assure freedom from contamination, there can in some cases be a need to examine other issues. Although all plants, fruits and vegetables are kosher by default, tobacco products in the past were commonly certified as kosher although almost no authorities would do so today since the harm from smoking has become known.
Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen of Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel in Westville, Conn., was reported in the New Haven Independent (reprinted in the Jewish Ledger) as ruling that crossing a picket line violates Jewish law and therefore renders the purchases acquired by doing so non-kosher, reasoning that the workers indisputably have a right to strike and therefore crossing a picket line helps take away that right. “I am not making any judgment about the current strike – whether the workers or owners are ‘right’ or not, or whether or not they are smart or stupid. I am stating that we, local Jews, must respect the workers’ action,” the rabbi was quoted as saying in an e-mail message to members of his congregation. “Some kashrut [kosher certifying] agencies choose a narrow definition of ‘kosher’ – they are certifying only that certain technical aspects of food production and provenance comply with the rules – which is a reasonable position. Here, I am simply saying that there are additional considerations that render food acceptable or not, and in this case, crossing a picket line, it is clear to us that the food is tainted.”
This ruling attracted considerable attention, reported in Forward, a national Jewish publication based in New York City, and on social media. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg on Twitter agreed with Rabbi Tilsen, citing a number of biblical provisions about labor practices, such as Jeremiah 22:13-17 – “He who builds his house with unfairness and his upper chambers with injustice, who makes his fellow man work without pay and does not give him his wages, who thinks: I will build me a vast palace with spacious upper chambers, provided with windows, paneled in cedar, painted with vermilion! Do you think you are more a king because you compete in cedar?” Rabbi Josh Yuter on Twitter disagreed with Rabbi Tilsen, noting that Stop and Shop was not breaking Jewish law against mistreating workers as long as the company maintained a safe working environment, complied with civil labor law such as the minimum wage, and paid workers on time – and, he said, even if labor laws were broken, the food would not be thereby rendered non-kosher.
I asked members of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island for their opinions, and none chose to respond in terms of Jewish law. This is understandable, as Judaism recognizes no hierarchy but rather requires each individual to take personal responsibility for understanding and complying with the law: Although a rabbi – the word literally means “teacher” – is respected for knowledge and learning, they have no chain of authority comparable to Catholic priests.
Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman of Temple Beth-El on the East Side of Providence said, “Speaking only for myself, I would never cross a picket line to buy Passover food or anything else either. I am a former labor lawyer, a proud supporter of the Jewish Labor Committee, and very cognizant of the Jewish people’s role in supporting organized labor. All the more so at Passover, when we are reminded of the Torah’s command of economic justice and fairness with respect to those who labor for others. In this day and age, there will always be debate, but for me the issue is quite clear.”
Rabbi Raphael Kanter of Tifereth Israel Congregation in New Bedford, Mass., said, “I don’t believe in crossing picket lines… I have studiously found alternative sources for my Passover needs but keeping kosher for Passover trumps the picket line. If I needed something to keep kosher I would cross it for those Passover items only. It’s too easy an out to say I won’t keep kosher for Passover because of a strike. Liberal Jews need to show that they have strong commitment to Jewish observance.”
Rabbi Tilsen confirmed his e-mail statement to Motif, saying “It really is a quick answer to a complicated question. I hope it will encourage people to learn and do more concerning the realm of labor law and ethics. The dignity of labor is at the very core of the Passover story – as well as the Creation story. In general, deciding to not cross the picket line is the right thing to do. The workers on strike are paying a big price and taking a risk not only for their own benefit but for others as well. For the rest of us, respecting their action might have price but if we don’t respect the workers’ action, who will?”
I was puzzled by his reference to the Creation story, so I asked Rabbi Tilsen to explain further. “The Creation story has God taking six days to create the world. That is a long time for an omnipotent God, and makes no sense theologically. Our sages asked, why is the story told this way? To teach us something. One lesson has to do with the value and dignity of labor. Just as God works, and rests, so too we humans should work and rest. Even God ‘works.’ This was a radical notion in the ancient world, quite contrary to the idea held by the Egyptians and others. Consider the classical Greeks, who taught that a human worker is different from a work animal only in the number of legs they stand on. They have no value beyond the labor they provide for the benefit of the elite class. Those who enslave and exploit other people have some theory, some rationalization, for their actions. The Torah’s teachings about the dignity of labor are in sharp contrast. It speaks to the very reason we are created – why God created us, and the answer is not ‘to be workers for the slave-owners.’”