Friday, September 3, 2010

Piety and the Scope of Tzedakah--Elul 24

Tzedakah is our obligation to act justly to those who are in need. Another way to think of those who are in need, beyond economic need, is to think of those who are vulnerable to injustice and thus bear a disproportionate burden of suffering in the world.  To all those we owe justice, and we can do justly in relation to them in many ways. 

We are accustomed to hearing that it is not enough to give money or food to those in need--those these, too, are good.  We are also to help them learn skills and gain the ability to support themselves.  Here's another way to do tzedakah:  become a vegetarian and/or join the hechsher-tzedek movement.  As Rabbi Morris Allen of Congregation Beth Shalom in Mendota Heights, MN and others have been teaching for years, and as recent news reports have confirmed, the kosher meat industry has engaged in unjust practices against its workers.  Just as rabbis in New York in the early twentieth century pronounced the matzot in Jewish factories treif because it had the blood of the hands of the underpaid and ill-treated women who made it in it, so contemporary rabbis are arguing that the unjust treatment of human beings in kosher meat plants renders the meat unfit for consumption.  They have formed the hechsher tzedek project to ensure that the foods Jews eat are not only ritually kosher but ethically kosher as well. For more information, read Rethinking Kashrut: An Interview with Rabbi Morris Allen.

In these last days of the month of turning and during the Days of Awe that end with a complete fast, let us think about tzedakah and the food we bless on our tables everyday. As the prophets continually remind us, ritual does not displace ethics; the two nourish each other.  The haftarah for Yom Kippur, Isaiah 57-58, puts it bluntly:

6 No, this is the fast I desire:

To unlock the fetters of wickedness,

And untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free;

To break off every yoke.

7 It is to share your bread with the hungry,

And to take the wretched poor into your home;

When you see the naked, to clothe him,

And not to ignore your own kin.
Whether eating a Rosh HaShanah feast, giving tzedakah to avert the evil decree, or fasting on Yom Kippur, it is justice, tzedek, we are to pursue, not a false sense of piety that raises us above and beyond our fellow creatures. The test of true piety is this: does it bear fruit in acts of righteousness and lovingkindness?

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