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Magen Tzedek: Making BP Kosher

07/08/2010 08:17 am 08:17:59 | Updated May 25, 2011

As the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the worldwide association of Conservative and Masorti rabbis, our movement has actively engaged in developing an initiative for ethical corporate certification on kosher food products. As the Conservative Movement announced that we are completing the final stages of bringing the Magen Tzedek, an ethical certification for kosher food, to market, I find myself in Louisiana on behalf of the Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign to visit the again-devastated Gulf region and craft responses for the faith community.

Now going into its third month, this environmental crisis continues to occupy the top news slot with heartbreaking photos and footage of oil-slicked wildlife, polluted waters, and utter devastation.

Compounding the tragedy is the fact that the BP oil spill in the Gulf was entirely preventable. The cause is not mysterious. It is not in the heavens. It is in the offices of BP, which were governed by an ethic of corporate greed. The level of greed must now be counteracted by a spirit of concern that will serve as a catalyst for change.

Although it was designed for ethical food production, the Magen Tzedek seal, a holistic Jewish response to the responsibilities of food and consumption, can serve as a model for the corrective needed now for BP. The areas of review of the Magen Tzedek speak directly to the tragedy in the Gulf region: environmental responsibility; corporate accountability; worker safety and other concerns and animal welfare.

The Magen Tzedek seeks to give voice to the large and growing need, not only in the Jewish community but throughout the world, to have concrete ways to connect our values to our consumption. Judaism has always recognized that the human being and the human community are creatures of "appetite."

In a constructive sense, those appetites can be a creative force, driving society forward and give human beings the impetus to achieve. So, Jewish tradition created an extensive body of "sumptuary laws," principles by which we consume wisely and moderately. The driving principle behind the limits to our individual consumption is a sense that because we are part of a larger human community, we cannot consume in a way that would harm the basic needs of others.

The applicability of Magen Tzedek, created to review the preparation of a loaf of bread, to a disaster as sweeping as the crisis that has befallen this still-struggling region of the country is not coincidental. The ethical values of Jewish tradition come from an ancient, basic, agrarian society. Our interdependence was unambiguous in the ancient world. If humankind wishes to survive, we must commit ourselves to living in responsible communities. How instructive to see, over and over, that this is as true in our global village as it was in an ancient one!

The lessons are as clear as the Biblical injunction: tzedek, tzedek tirdof (justice, justice shall you pursue). Hiding behind the mask of a corporate identity, individuals -- human beings bound by a covenant to each other, to earth, and to a Higher purpose -- betray that sacred trust. Do we think we cannot see them behind the corporate veil?

Magen Tzedek is a leap of action to lasting religious change in response to a tragedy caused by corporate greed and indifference. Magen Tzedek puts religious principles into action in a global economy where companies can hide behind complexity to evade the clear truths so amply demonstrated by the devastation being caused in the Gulf.

The Rabbinical Assembly proposes that the four Magen Tzedek principles of ethical compliance become the new Ten Commandments of corporate accountability.

Our Tradition teaches: "When the Holy One created the first man, He took him around all the trees in the Garden of Eden and said to him: See how beautiful and wonderful my works are. Everything I have created, I have created for you. Be mindful that you do not ruin and devastate my world, for if you ruin it, there is no one to repair it after you" (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13).

This week, I am proud to be part of a delegation of clergy representing the Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign (JECC) on this tour of the Gulf area organized by the Sierra Club. The JECC asks the Jewish community to conserve more, use less, raise awareness of sustainable behaviors, and to advocate with our officials to reduce the use of resources and promote energy independence. We cannot demand of others what we do not ask of ourselves.

But people of faith must come together to do more. We cannot allow men and women acting in their corporate roles, who deserve to receive no more and bear responsibility no less than the vast numbers of people they harm, to go uncensored in their carelessness and their indifference. Much has been taken away from the residents of the Gulf. Must has been taken away from all of us and from future generations to come. We call upon the executives of BP to review the Magen Tzedek standards and to examine their own consciences. The Magen Tzedek standards are not vague and they are not new; they are ancient calls for Justice crying out tonight in Louisiana as clearly as they did in a much quieter world, thousands of years ago.