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Let’s “Stretch” the Meaning
Erev Rosh Hashanah 2008

September 29, 2008

 

Let’s begin the New Year with a bit of a quiz. 

Here’s a simple question to warm you up. 

It was Beijing for the Summer Olympic games of 2008.  Back in 1960, the games were held in ?? (Rome)

It was No Country for Old Men when it came to Best Picture at the Oscars this year.  Back in 1960, the Oscar went to ?? (Ben Hur)  

Red Sox fans – In 2007, the Red Sox took the World Series.  In 1997, who played whom and who won?  (The Florida Marlins defeated the Indians.)

And now for politics.  Sarah Pailin wants to be Vice-President on the Republican ticket of 2008.  Who ran for Vice President back in…1988…For the Republicans? Dan Quayle.  For the Democrats?  Lloyd Bentsen.

Finally, a very tough question.  What was Rabbi Shapiro’s topic for the 2007 Yom Kippur morning sermon?

Hint…Juan Valdez…Maxwell House…Starbuck’s 

More hints…The title of the sermon was “Drink Responsibly.” 

One sentence from the sermon read.  “It’s like sharing a cup of loving kindness.”

The topic of the sermon was fair trade coffee. 

Buy it.  Drink it.  It’s the right thing to do.  

Here’s the good news.  On Yom Kippur 2007 and during the weeks that followed, you were very responsive to my sermon.  Many of you talked about researching fair trade coffee and buying it.  Sinai is now serving only fair trade coffee.  It’s safe to say that the idea of paying attention to the source of our coffee (and perhaps more goods as well) has taken root in our community.  

I hope almost everyone here would understand the new fair trade coffee slogan.  “It’s not just a cup of coffee.  It’s a just cup of coffee.”

End of subject. 

A new year arrives.  It’s time for a new sermon topic.

Or maybe not…because if you think back to last Yom Kippur very carefully, you may remember that I didn’t mention fair trade coffee until half way through the sermon.  That morning I got to coffee by inviting you to think about a topic that rarely gets air time in a Reform setting.  The topic was kashrut.  (That’s the correct noun for discussing foods that are and are not kosher.)  

        My opening topic was kashrut, and I can best summarize what I said last year by asking you to take a closer look at this elastic band.  

        When it hangs from my hand, it doesn’t do much at all.  That changes, however, when I put the elastic between my hands and stretch.  Then it begins to work.  When I stretch it, the elastic band works for me.

        Back to last year:  What I did Yom Kippur morning in order to get to fair trade coffee was to start with that traditional term kashrut and stretch it.  

I knew back then and I know right now that many of us are not moved by the traditional notion of kashrut.  But what happens if we give that term a second look?  After all, kashrut is already there in our history and community.  So what if I propose that kashrut doesn’t need to be confined to the details of mixing milk and meat or monitoring the pepperoni on a pizza.  

What if I stretch the value and think about kashrut more broadly.  The Hebrew word means “fit” or “proper.” So how about understanding kashrut on that basis as a moral term.  

To be kosher, you might say something has to be moral.  To be kosher, it’s got to be right.

        That is how I got to fair trade coffee as a matter of conscience or, you might say, kashrut.  Even though coffee in traditional kosher terms is pareve or neutral, a broader, expanded version of kashrut tell ms that if traditional coffee growers are underpaid and overworked, the coffee they produce becomes traif.  Fair trade coffee, which is grown with fair concern for workers, is by our expanded definition – kosher.

        That was then.  That was Yom Kippur 2007.  Flash forward to May 2008.  Federal agents raid a meatpacking plant in Postville Iowa and discover that over 350 workers are illegal immigrants, discover some are underage, discover a good number have serious labor complaints, and discover as well a variety of inappropriate slaughter methods.  

It’s the kind of scandal Upton Sinclair described in his historic novel about the Chicago meatpacking plants.  He called that 1906 novel – The Jungle.

        There’s one wrinkle!  The meatpacking plant in question is called Agriprocessors.  It is owned by the Rubashkin family.  It also the largest provider of kosher meat in the country.

        Here’s where the matter gets interesting.  

If what I said about the discovery of illegalities at Agriprocessors is true, is Agriprocessors actually producing kosher meat? Technically speaking, if the cattle are slaughtered according to the details of Jewish law, the answer is yes.  It’s the right animal being prepared according to the time-honored demands of Jewish ritual slaughter.  It’s kosher.  End of story.

        But let’s say the animals are being mistreated, crowded or prodded excessively before their end, would that kind of cruelty make Agriprocessors meat unkosher?  According to Orthodox authorities, it would at least raise serious questions.

        But let’s say Agriprocessors underpaid or took advantage of its employees, would that make their kosher meat unkosher?  

        Could morality trump ritual?

        Here is what has made this last year so fascinating and I think historic.  

A group of Conservative rabbis has come together (because traditional kashrut is so much more their issue than ours) and they have responded emphatically to the Agriprocessors crisis with something totally new in Jewish life. 

        They have created a new level of certification for kosher food.  

        They call it Hechsher Tzedek.  

        Hechsher means certification; Tzedek means justice.

        They are calling for kosher food to be certifiably ethical food.  

It’s like fair trade coffee - except they are being even more specific as Jews in their campaign.  

For a traditionally kosher product (say A Hebrew National hot dog) to be Hechsher Tzedek kosher, they are demanding that it meet four criteria.  

First, the company has to guarantee that animals are treated humanely at all points from beginning to end of the production cycle.  

  Second, the company has to offer fair wages and benefits to all employees, including some kind of Health Insurance, Retirement Benefits, Sick Leave, and Maternity Leave.  

Third, the company also has to demonstrate concern for Employee Safety and proper Employee Training. 

Four, Hechsher Tzedek certification will also only be available if a company demonstrates environmental awareness.  no hazardous waste; no toxic emissions.

This is historic stuff.  

It’s historic because it takes what has always been implicit in Judaism and makes it explicit.  As one Conservative leader has said, we have always had the material on kashrut in one legal text on our shelves and the Jewish material about economic life in another volume.  Up until now, they have stood side by side.  Now we bring the ideas together.  Our tables become both ritually kosher and ethically kosher.

Which is all very nice for traditional Jews but probably leaves you wondering what difference it makes for Sinai’s Reform Jews. 

Let me take you back to that elastic band.  

As a Reform rabbi, I welcome the way in which my Conservative colleagues have stretched their hearts and souls and minds.  Hechsher Tzedek has recently been applauded through formal resolution by the national Reform rabbinic association, the CCAR, and our national parent body, the Union for Reform Judaism.  The notion of Hechsher Tzedek powerfully enriches the conversation about kosher that we began last year.  

Plus something else:  the exploration of that word kosher underscores for me that kosher can begin with diet and extend way beyond that.  Kosher is a classic Jewish term that can be applied to the entire way we live our lives.  Kashrut is not only about what we put in our mouths. It can become a way for thinking about what we do with our lives in general.  

What words come out of our mouths? 

What deeds by our hands. 

        Are they kosher? Are they right?  Are they proper?

        You tell me, or better still, you tell yourself.  Is your behavior towards your parents kosher?  Is your treatment of your spouse kosher?  Are the words that come out of your mouth to your child kosher?  

        Does anyone work for you?  Is your treatment of those people kosher?

        The last time you passed a rumor around – was that kosher?

        When you use plastic bags at Big Y (which essentially never decompose and never leave the planet) – is that kosher?

        I know I’m using the term more and more broadly, but I think Jewish tradition asks us to do no less.

        Judaism is all about paying attention to every aspect of our behavior in the world.

        Moses Maimonides understood the blast of the shofar this way.  Maimonides taught that when the shofar blows, it’s not for entertainment.  The rude repeated honking is meant to wake us up. It’s meant to sound so totally unpleasant that we are forced to ask ourselves the most challenging questions there are.  Questions such as:  How are we doing?  What’s our score in the game of concern and compassion we Jews call life?

        Martin Buber tells the story of a Chasidic rabbi who was jailed by the Russian government in the early 1800’s.  The rabbi was awaiting trial when one of his jailers entered his cell.  The jailer, who was not Jewish, asked a number of questions about the Bible and saved the best question for last.  

“Rabbi,” he said.  “How do you explain what happened about Adam and Eve at the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.  If God is supposed to know everything, why did God have to ask Adam – WHERE ARE YOU?  Shouldn’t God have known where Adam was whether or not Adam was hiding?”

The Rabbi answered, “Do you believe that the Bible can speak to everyone no matter how old it is and now matter how modern we are?” 

“I do,” said the jailer. 

“Well, said the Rabbi, “this Bible doesn’t mean God couldn’t ‘see’ Adam.  Of course, God could find Adam if God wanted to find Adam.  But the verse comes to teach us that in every generation God calls everyone of us and asks – WHERE ARE YOU?  You have been alive for so many days and so many years.  Where are you in your life?  What has it meant?  What kind of person have you become?”

        Or, as I said before, the supreme Jewish question goes like this:  Are you paying attention to life, to the people around you, to the issues around you, to the responsibilities your humanity demands?

        Maybe there is a final way to capture Judaism’s attitude.  If you’ll let me stretch you one more time, I’ll be very grateful.  

        Take the word “observant.”  If I ask “Are you an observant Jew,” my bet is that most of you will begin to count mitzvot.  You’ll wonder whether you pray enough or study enough or follow enough rituals.  You’ll wonder if you “observe” enough tradition.

        But what if this word “observant,” has some give?  Consider the other ways we sometimes use the “observant.”  Think Sherlock Holmes.  Think Agatha Christie.  They were observant.  They saw what others overlooked.  They read, as it were, in between the lines.

Paul Cezanne, the 19th century artist, talked about art and life by saying, “Being observant is the most vital part of my life.  One never pays enough attention.”

And do you remember Moses when he was nothing but a shepherd in a backwater place called Midian?  According to the Torah, his life changed on an otherwise unexceptional day because he noticed something burning just off the beaten path.  In fact, it’s not just that Moses noticed something burning, he made a conscious decision to see what was going on.  And when he did, Moses had an encounter with God that convinced him the plight of his brothers and sisters in slavery was his plight too.

Moses was observant.  

He looked carefully.  He felt strongly.  He had open eyes that forced him to see a world which desperately needed his concern.

***** 

At the start of a New Year, that’s how I would like to be. 

I would love to be called “observant” if that means I take note of the world’s needs.  I would love to be called “kosher” if that means I greet every single human being in a fitting, proper, caring way.

I would really love be like King Solomon who asked for only one blessing when he became king of Israel.  According to the Book of Kings, Solomon asked God for a “seeing heart.”

Which led the poet Danny Siegel to create this prayer for me and, I hope, you as well.  I’ve adapted it slightly for this evening and for Sinai.  

 

Dear God, give me a seeing heart. 

 

Let my heart see the wings of the hawk,  

The crane, the eagle and the owl. 

 

Let my heart see the tides, 

The sap flow to syrup in the trees, 

The fires in the rock in the heart of the earth, 

The conversations of stars. 

 

Let my heart see sweet Torah, 

Truth unshakable, 

Prophecy alive. 

 

Let my heart, human, hear tearing hearts 

In the final stages of repair, 

Tears wiped away by kindly hands 

Soft as flowers unfolding. 

 

In whatever my heart hears or sees, 

Let me hear Your voice. 

Let me make this a year of growth. 

 

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