Fair Trade Shabbat Drash by Carole Baden
Hope you’ll be as inspired, as we are, by this drash delivered by Carole Baden, on Fair Trade Shabbat 2016. Carole is a long-time member of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, CA, currently serving on the Board of Directors.
In today’s parshah, Kedoshim (“Holiness”) G-d prescribes proper behavior for the Jewish people; not just in terms of formally “holy” activities where human beings connect with the Divine Presence — such as religious ritual — but in every area of daily activity. We find some of these laws to be hurtful and inapplicable to contemporary life, like many of the proscriptions on sexual behavior, or simply incomprehensible (be sure not to trim your beard to a greater extent than you would harvest the expanse of your field). But many of them serve as a useful guide.
In fact, many of them are a grown-up version of what is written in “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”: Treat other people, even strangers, as though they are as important as you are. Share the necessities of life with those in need. Share the things that are valuable to you. (This is the implication of the injunction not to harvest your fruit, even for sacrifice, until the fourth year, because that is the first year the fruit is of good quality.) Don’t cheat; be honest and play fair. The greater part of holy behavior involves us acting like people with functioning superegos who can look beyond their own needs and desires.
This is a pretty good introduction to Fair Trade Shabbat, the officially Jewish version of World Fair Trade Day, which has been commemorated by an association of Fair Trade organizations since 2001.
What is fair trade? In the words of the original Fair Trade Day organizers, fair trade makes “a tangible contribution to the fight against poverty and exploitation, climate change, and the economic crises that have the greatest impact on the world’s most vulnerable populations.” Many farmers and other workers in developing nations lack access to the markets where commodities are sold, which means they are easily exploited by middlemen who buy their goods for far less than they are worth on the open market. They are also vulnerable to fluctuations in global commodity prices that can make it impossible to support themselves and their families.
Fair trade standards include setting stable and sustainable prices for producers, offering technical support to increase profitability and sustainability, and adding a premium to the finished product to contribute to social, environmental, and organizational improvement projects (which often include social goods like medical clinics and schools.) Having access to sustainable prices allows producers to plan for the future, instead of only being able to focus on their day-to-day survival.
Hundreds of fair trade-certified organizations around the world, often organized into cooperatives, produce commodity products like chocolate, coffee, tea, bananas, and cotton; fresh flowers; handicrafts, including Judaica; and even soccer balls. Independent certification organizations here in the United States and around the world audit fair trade producers to ensure that they meet these standards.
Fair trade standards also include an explicit prohibition on child labor. The exploitation of children’s labor is a particularly egregious issue on cacao farms in five African nations, including Cote d’Ivoire, which produces 40% of the world’s cocoa supply. Children as young as five years old have been documented working in conditions that include exposure to hazardous pesticides, the use of sharp, dangerous tools, and heavy labor that results in injury. They are often kept in the conditions of slavery and separated from their families. Manufacturers of chocolate ignore the problem, because the low prices supported by exploited labor allows them to feed the insatiable worldwide demand for low-cost chocolate products at artificially low prices. Our own Fair Trade Group here at Netivot Shalom has worked for many years to educate our congregation and the larger community on the importance of consuming slavery-free chocolate (particularly during Pesach) as well as supporting other fair trade goods.
What makes fair trade so aligned with Jewish values? All we need to do is look at our parshah. Chapter 19, verse 13 in Kedoshim states, Lo-taʽashok et reʽacha velo tigzol lo-talin peulat sakhir itcha ad-boker (“Do not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning”). Deuteronomy 24:15 strengthens this idea of the connection between withheld wages and oppressive behavior (“You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry out to G-d against you and you will incur guilt.”). Nachmanides comments on both verses to point out the necessity for workers to receive timely pay to support themselves and their families.
Deuteronomy 24:14 expresses the command of ethical behavior toward all workers, not just other Jews: Lo-taʽashok sakhir ʽani ve’evyon meahchecha o migercha asher beartzecha bishʽarecha (“You shall not abuse a needy and destitute worker, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land”). Not that we necessarily need a proof text. Since the end of the 19th century, Jewish workers in the United States (building on the work of Jewish guild and labor organizers in Eastern Europe) have advocated for safe working conditions and fair wages for all workers.
While holy behavior is possible in all aspects of daily life, it is not easy to achieve (which is probably a large part of what makes it holy). I recently thought about all the ways I have consumed non-fair trade (“cheap”) chocolate without really thinking about it. Ice cream from the grocery store. Two of my favorite kinds of Girl Scout cookies, which I sold assiduously back in the day. Hot chocolate from the vending machine, and chocolates from the candy jar at work. Then there are other things we think we can’t do without: clothing (inexpensive and not-so-inexpensive), electronics, morning coffee. It is easy to become enmeshed in systems that we wouldn’t accept if we fully considered them.
In her commentary on Kedoshim, Nehama Liebowitz cites a rabbinic teaching that holiness equals separation, and then quotes a clarification by Buber, “God is the absolute authority over the world because He is separate from it and transcends it but He is not withdrawn from it. Israel must — in imitating God by being a holy nation — similarly not withdraw from the world of the nations but rather radiate a positive influence on them through every aspect of Jewish living.”
To avoid participating in the easy, to reconsider our consumption choices in ethical terms, is a form of separation and transcendence. To then engage with the world and refuse to participate in oppressive systems while advocating for justice is another definition of holiness.
The Talmud affirms that the declaration in Exodus 20:9 that people work for six days is a distinct commandment with the same weight as the one to rest on the seventh day. The labor of human beings is paralleled with that of G-d; like G-d, people are to work for six days and rest on the seventh. Hard work is holy.
In The Book of Blessings, Marcia Falk expands this idea by stating:
“If to honor the Sabbath is to honor being itself – the being of all creation – to honor the weekday and its work is to honor our doing in the world. It is during the week that we work to effect change, and thus, we might say, it is during the week that we strive to bring about redemption.”
The holiness of the labor of others should be met by equal holiness by us when we benefit from it. Society conditions us to think that consumer goods should be easily and affordably available to us – whenever and wherever we crave them — but if they involve the exploitation of others, the price is too high.
Parshat Kedoshim enjoins moral behavior on the Jews not just as individuals, but as a holy community. At Netivot Shalom, we have committed ourselves to a number of ethical practices, including doing our part to protect the environment, standing against gun violence, supporting Black Lives Matter and the LGBT community, committing to the use of fair trade food products — such as coffee and chocolate — when we prepare Kiddush, and giving ethically-produced gifts to our b’nai mitzvot (in the form of a fair trade yad). May we continue to strengthen our role in supporting fair trade and fair labor practices as individuals and as a community.