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Is the iPhone Kosher?

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I bought my first iPhone in January. After only a few short hours, I was hooked by the sleek design, ease of use, and power. After a few weeks, I couldn't remember life without it. And then, on my iPhone, I read the following email from SumOfUs:

"Every day, tens of millions of people will swipe the screens of their iPhones to unlock them. On the other side of the world, a young girl is also swiping those screens. In fact, every day, during her 12+ hour shifts, six days a week, she repetitively swipes tens of thousands of them. She spends those hours inhaling n-hexane, a potent neurotoxin used to clean iPhone glass, because it dries a few seconds faster than a safe alternative. After just a few years on the line, she will be fired because the neurological damage from the n-hexane and the repetitive stress injuries to her wrists and hands make her unable to continue performing up to standard."

As an Orthodox Jew, I had to ask: knowing what I know now, is the iPhone suitable for use? Is it kosher?

The rights and safety of workers are of paramount concern to Judaism. In Deutoronomy 24:15, the Torah states: You shall not oppress a hired worker that is poor and needy, whether he is your brother, or a strangers that are in your land, within your gates." Let's say for the sake of argument that the Chinese workers who make the iPhone are indeed oppressed, and that Apple has committed a wrong: what do responsibility do I have? As a consumer, am I culpable as well?

The Talmud, Tractace Gittin page 45a contains this interesting insight: "It is not the mouse (that steals the food) that is the thief, but rather the hole (where the mouse can hide) that is the thief." Meaning, if there were no place to bring the stolen goods, there would be no theft. Perhaps we can extend this ethic to the iPhone - if there were no market to buy unethically produced iPhones, there would be no unethical production of the iPhone.

The Sefer HaChinuch, a medieval commentator who lists and explains the 613 mitzvot (command/good deed/God-connections) found in the Torah, takes this idea further. He writes the following about the 429th mitzvah -- to avoid benefiting from idolatry:

And within the commandment is that one should not attach to his own money, which God graced him with, the money of another which was gained through theft, violence or exploitation, or from any disgusting element, because all of these are included in the elements of idol worship.

In a powerful move, the Chinuch equates idol worship, the worst spiritual mistake you can make in Judaism, with benefiting financially from exploitation. If the workers who made my iPhone were exploited, and I am benefiting from this, am I guilty of idol worship? Heavy stuff. And not the kind of thing most of us want to think about when we are checking email or playing Words with Friends.

But we cannot turn away. The SumofUS petition continued:

"In many cases, people literally are dying while making Apple products. Reporters have documented cases of deadly explosions at iPad factories, and repeated instances of employees dying of exhaustion after working 30 to 60 hour shifts. In some of the factories Apple contracts with, so many employees have attempted suicide that management installed nets to prevent employees from dying while jumping off building ledges. Can Apple do this? Absolutely. Apple is the richest company in the world, posting a profit margin for the last quarter of 44.1 percent yesterday. They're sitting on $100 billion in the bank. According to an anonymous Apple executive quoted in The New York Times, all Apple has to do is demand it, and it'll happen -- "Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn't have another choice."

Judaism teaches a powerful ethic of responsibility. We can not sit idly by as the blood of our neighbor, or the blood of the worker who makes the products we depend on, spills. Even if we don't know the way forward, we are called to protest. The Talmud, in tractate Shabbat, says:

"He who has the power to protest against wrong in his house and does not do so, is responsible for the transgressions of every one in his house. In the city, he is responsible for the transgressions of every one of the inhabitants of the city; in the whole world, he held responsible for the transgressions of the whole world."

Thanks to the work of SumofUs and Change.org, among others, thousands of consumers with conscience have spoken up and demanded change. And change has begun -- Apple is undergoing an independent audit of the factories that produce its components, and Foxconn, a key company in Apple's supply chain, just announced that wages would go up for its workers and overtime abuses would be curtailed.

So, is the iPhone kosher? Let's continue do everything we can to make sure it is.

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