11 May 2006

On Business Ethics and Halakhah...

I grew up not frum and chose the observant life when I was in college. Since I am an avowed "foodie", one of the first mitzvot I took on was kashrut. My then-boyfriend, cool yiddish papa (cyp), has had a little more difficulty with the derekh but is going along at his own pace.

A few months ago, a friend and I were talking about the plight of ba'alei t'shuvah and gerim. There seems to be a line on the derekh that differentiates a BT not performing a mitzvah "because they don't know better" and being judged because now they do. However, no one seems to tell anyone when that line is crossed. In addition, no one seems to hold the venerable FFB to this same standard.

It was during the time of this conversation that we were reading parashat Mishpatim in Shemot. In masechet Bava Kamma of Talmud Bavli, we are told that if one wishes to be religiously devout, then he or she needs to be stringent in regards to the laws of damages. One destroys other property (or by extension, their livelihood) as acted with the same disregard as someone who is chillul Shabbat or chillul kashrut. Even chazal points out that ethical mitzvot hold the same weight as ritual observance.

Two years ago, a friend of mine (the one who the community will not help through his hard times) had been working for a "frum yid" in his "kosher" restaurant. During his gerut studies, he spent a great deal of time learning about kashrut matters. After all, like me, he is a "foodie" and these halakhot interested him a great deal. I loaned him some sefarim and we would discuss what he learned when he came to our Shabbat table. Anyway, he found several infractions that were questionable at best in terms of kashrut. When he told the mashgiach, (who stopped by once a day for five minutes since the restaurant was owned by a "frummie"), he was ignored. These weren't chumras that were being debated but genuine kashrut concerns. For example, equipment used to mix the "pareve" challot were washed in the same sink AT THE SAME TIME as cream cheese containers, causing a danger of basar b'chalav for many in the community who would purchase his challot. When it came out that our friend had gone to the rabbi, suddenly, a few days later, he was fired by owner "for theft". He was urged to not go to the local beit din (for owner's inability to pay his workers) since the rosh was the rav of the restaurant owner and would decide favorably for the owner. (By the way, in addition to kashrut violations and questionable business ethics, he was cited by the health department, an "achievement" that was noted on the news several times.)

This is not the first time our community has had this problem. In the nineties, before I had started to keep kosher, we had a Chinese restaurant owned by a kipa sruga. The va'ad ordered him to have mashgiach t'midi and he complied. Eventually, he sold to a charedi and the va'ad decided that there wasn't a need for a t'midi and allowed him to get away with daily 5 minute visits by one of the rabbanim. The charedi ended up being shut down when it was discovered AFTER SOME TIME that the order sheets from the meat suppliers did not match the physical inventory. Traife meat was eventually discovered in the restaurant and the man left town.

Now, in 2006, I discover that not only did my friend's former boss not have to ever pay his back wages (a direct violation of halakhah) but he is being permitted to open a new restaurant, this time a fleishig one, which can present even more problems. I was happy to hear, though, that it seems that the va'ad is giving them a hard time about some of the scenarios. However, I am angry that they are not going to require a mashgiach t'midi because he's "frum". I'm sorry, but a black hat and knowing how and when to shuckle does not make for a frum yid.

We have another restaurant here in town who had to change hashgacha because the new owner is not shomer Shabbat. Well, the new rav ha-makhshir (not connected to the va'ad ha-kashrut) made it a condition that he have a mashgiach t'midi, so the place is completely kosher. What does the va'ad do? They sent out the standard notice saying that they are no longer certifying the place. Of course, this got twisted around into saying that the place was now traife. One of my charedi colleagues told me that I can't trust it because he is not shomer Shabbat. This got into one of my diatribes where her comeback was basically, well, he has a key and go in on Shabbat to "traife" the place. Where are we that we are becoming so paranoid of everyone who is not frum but ignore the "frummies" who clearly commit chillul Hashem with their behavior?

As Jews, we are held by a higher standard than the rest of the world. Even more so when we call ourselves religious. A man who wears a kipa (of any kind) puts himself out there for scrutiny. Going to the right yeshivot and being "shtark" does not matter when you do not have any good middot. This is what is being forgotten by everyone.

There is a call to patronize frum-owned businesses in order to help our fellow Jew. Al yad sheni, if we know that person does not practice favorable business ethics, then we are equally bound to not give them our business. Stand up for Torah principles now and boycott those businesses that you know give their workers the short end of the stick in favor of profits. This is a particular issue with our kosher food establishments. Think about it this way, if they find lying about their practices so easy, what is not stopping them from committing chillul kashrut as well?

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