07/11/2013 06:18 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2013

A Tisha B'Av Appeal to the Jewish 'Bottom Line'

If the importing of cheap clothes from Bangladesh were responsible for more than 1,200 American deaths just in the past year, we would probably stop buying those products. Since the dead were Bangladeshi workers, however, exports of Bangladesh garments have actually increased by 13 percent.

Despite high-profile and unenforceable pledges by a few major U.S. companies, little has changed on the ground as far as worker safety or subsistence wages. Bangladesh exports nearly $18 billion worth of clothing to Europe and the United States.

Jews are used to being the targets of boycotts, so it's hard for us to consider banning "Made in Bangladesh" clothes. But many of us are prominent and influential in the garment and consumer industries, including retail and advertising. It seems we could do a bit more as a Light Unto the Nations than shrug our shoulders or maybe sign a Facebook petition.

If Jewish-owned and Jewish-supported businesses worked with governments and local producers, we could set a new standard that honors and even raises the prevailing wage in countries and possibly shows the way to improved working and living conditions. We could be proud of the clothes we wear, and not just because it's the "in" look.

Recently, a leading (non-Jewish) human rights activist called on me to help recruit New York's Orthodox Jewish establishment to the cause of basic rights for farm workers here in our state. Many decades ago, since African-Americans were disproportionately working on farms, racism and greed combined to exclude all farm labor from laws requiring minimum wage and sick days, among other basics we mostly take for granted in the United States. I was ashamed to have to explain there is effectively no such constituency among our leaders and political donors, since most of them rely on business proceeds and would be loath to publicly support an effort to impose new obligations on any business owner. After all, it affects their "bottom line."

Perhaps 2,000 years of exile and persecution have inured us to the possibility that we can make a difference in the world in ways which don't impact our immediate and long-term survival. For the past several decades, though, we have been in just such a position.

Before the Temple was destroyed and the Crusades, Inquisition and Holocaust reshaped our world view, we had a bottom line that justified rather than secured a continued Jewish presence on this Earth. We were to be a holy nation which not only worshiped God and studied Torah, but also served as a beacon for humanity -- a catalyst for others to praise God for the fact of our existence. Have we merited such praise?

Beyond all the Nobel Prizes and Fortune 500 listings of which we boast, the success of Judaism and the Divine Plan were not meant to be an inspiration to Chinese entrepreneurs seeking comparable wealth and fame (which they are). Our success was to be measured in how we improve the world, sanctify our own lives through study and action, and generally expand God's presence.

The Torah and rabbinic tradition prohibit us from wearing shatnez, or garments blending linen and wool. The reason for this edict remains a mystery, but the lesson is clear: Clearly, what we wear matters.

In the case of Bangladesh and probably a dozen other countries, the clothes and sneakers we wear are stained with blood and tears. We don't need to boycott these products, and we don't need to pay top dollar for alternatives. We can use our purchasing power and moral suasion to institute fair, safe and verifiable practices in those factories and sweat shops where we derive our wardrobes and toys.

We need not condemn companies and countries to achieve this. We should be engaging them and sensitizing them to the true meaning of having all nations call God's name, while also calling on their bottom line.

By paying a few cents more -- or even a dollar -- on each item, we can be fulfilling the most basic mitzvah (commandment) and justifying our existence as a people. We will also need to work with the major U.S. retail chains, whose newly aggressive business model squeezes distributors to the point where many can barely break even. Otherwise moral business-owners are compelled to find the absolute cheapest sources or risk going out of business -- and we need to put Macy's, Target and Wal-Mart on notice to stop manipulating their suppliers.

Most Orthodox Jewish parents sit around every Shabbat (Saturday, the Sabbath) bemoaning the high cost of yeshiva (parochial school) tuition, yet our purchasing patterns incentivize millions of factory kids to forego any education. Our children do not need to wear clothing made by their pre-teen contemporaries, and the very thought should sicken us. The fact that it doesn't is cause for mourning.

Two millennia after the destruction of the Second Temple, and 45 years after the Six-Day War, the fact that we remain fixated on our own survival and "bottom line" is a perverse corollary to the litany of tragedies we mourn on Tisha B'Av (the Ninth of Av, observed next July 15-16). Instead of waiting for God to redeem us and remake the world, we need to try harder to do his bidding in the world we have. This will also speed the Messiah, and our children will honor us for it.

If every Jew were to fully observe Shabbat , so the legend goes, the Messiah would finally arrive. Paying a little more -- and earning slightly less profit -- so that parents and children in Bangladesh and other countries can enjoy a minimum quality of life, makes a good bedtime story, too. And besides, it's part of our bottom line.