Tikkun Olam 24/7: What you eat, what you buy and how you use your money
Having lived within Jewish congregations all my life, I learned to have tzedakah very present in my mind. Now, as an educator and rabbi, I think and speak about tikkun olam a lot, and I am always looking for opportunities to do things leading to repairing our world. And yet, I find that this is still short of what Judaism truly demands of me and expects from us. Judaism expects from me a 24/7 commitment, making tikkun olam a concern in each of my daily acts. Tzedakah - giving from the “corners of our fields,” a marginal gift - and occasional tikkun olam projects, however important, are still not the complete nor the main way of fulfilling my duties as a Jew.
In the Talmud (BT Shabbat 31) the 4th Century sage Rava says there are six questions we will all be asked when we eventually reach the Heavenly Court, to judge the quality of our actions in life. The first one: "Did you trade and do business with integrity?"
Even when thinking of Heaven, Jews have always understood that our main duty is to do justice here on earth, and to do it in each one of our daily mundane actions. There are about 100 commandments in Torah for how we manage our wealth and how we do business in a just, fair and ethical manner. Yet, even engaged Jews can rarely name even a handful of them.
Our Rabbis and our Torah are telling us that the key role we have to play today as Jews is that of ethical consumers, ethical business partners and ethical investors. This is the "old way" to tikkun olam (from our ancient sources) and also the “new way” in line with how the world now has changed. I'll mention what I think are the main three ways for us to live up to Torah ideals and contribute to a just world we can and should engage in:
- Fair Trade - My morning tikkun olam question: flavored coffee or Just coffee? Every time I have my morning coffee I make a choice - whether I want it or not, whether I know it or not: Will I use my money to do business with those who oppress workers, disregard ethics and decency, and promote poverty? Or will I rather favor with my business those companies who respect workers' rights, pay living wages and promote a way out of poverty for working farmers? The new way of engaging in fair trade is not, as far as I know, a Jewish invention - but the very notion and principles of fair trade are precisely responding to what Jewish ethics demand from us as consumers.
- Eco-Kosher - By the name of Eco-Kosher, we refer now to the new awareness of how many ethical issues are involved in our food choices: individual health, public health, environmental pollution, animal suffering. All of these issues are central problems worrying and occupying anyone caring to do tikkun olam. While education, legislation and advocacy are surely needed to solve these, the very good news is that we, the consumers, have the power to make choices that make a difference. For example, by avoiding the consumption of red meat, you actually will be reducing global warming, reducing animal cruelty, minimizing disease, and reducing outrageous waste of precious resources such as antibiotics and water. While traditional Kosher rules allow us to eat some beef, our new realities and our new understandings make it clear that from the perspective of Jewish ethics, this can be a bad and harmful choice that is against tikkun olam.
- Socially Responsible Investing - According to Judaism, it is just as bad to commit a transgression as it is to pay someone else to do it. If I buy stolen goods from a thief, knowing or even suspecting the items are stolen, then I am an accomplice to the thief, and a thief myself. If a corporation (knowingly or not) oppresses workers and causes illnesses through its business practices- which are obviously prohibited by Jewish law - and I choose to invest my money in this corporation, then I am a partner in the transgressions myself. Recognizing this, a growing number of people, including Jewish leaders and institutions, are embracing Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) as the only way of ensuring that our investment choices are not making us partners of our world's injustices and problems, with or without us knowing it. The RAC and our Reform Movement have made this point loud and clear. However, even our own institutions are still slow in implementing these principles. We are still struggling ourselves to live up to our espoused values in this area. But while we wait for our institutions to do as they say, each one of us as individuals can easily - and meaningfully- make the switch and begin embracing SRI.
I'll end with a challenge question: Do you believe in tikkun olam and pursuing social justice? The answer is not in what you think or say - but in what you buy or avoid buying, in what you eat or avoid eating, in what you invest in or avoid investing in. Let's not be part of the problems anymore - let's be part of the solutions!