Rabbi Gordon Tucker is the Senior Rabbi at the Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York. He served as the Dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTA) from 1984 until 1992, and on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly from 1982 to 2007. His most recent published work, Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations is a translation with commentary of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s three volume work in Hebrew.
Right before Thanksgiving, I had the chance to speak with Rabbi Tucker about his thoughts on Hekhsher Tzedek, how food and social justice connect, and where change comes from in Conservative Judaism (hint, read the title of this post)
Read all about it below the jump (plus – a special, candid photo of Rabbi Tucker on Hazon’s New York Jewish Environmental Bike Ride!)…
What do you see as the most important food-related issues in the Conservative movement today?
I actually don’t even use that phrase, food issues. In the Conservative movement institutionally, it is related to Hekhsher Tzedek. That’s what’s on the agenda now: the extent to which our religious concern with food is primarily a matter relating to the rituals of the preparation of food or the moral qualities that are reflected in the production and distribution of food. The premise of Hekhsher Tzedek is that they are essentially of coequal status – something that is not taken as obvious by everyone.
Do you have a position on that?
I am a complete supporter of Hekhsher Tzedek. In fact, I see it as just beginning with food.
Food happens to be an obvious and convenient place to start. First of all, there was a real life poster child for the violation of these things in Agriprocessors, though they’re by no means the only culprits, nor is this the only industry that produces and distributes its products in ways that aren’t associated with the ethics and ideals that Judaism associates itself with. But it sort of starts with food because Judaism already has a religious concern with food (kashrut), so it was an obvious place to make the argument that the religious concerns are even bigger than one might think. But that should be true of clothing and textiles and everything else, including Wall Street, I suppose.
Do you think Jews are concerned about these other industries?
Yeah, I think so, I mean, you’re familiar with the Jewish Funds for Justice? They’re very concerned about living wage issues and other kinds of workers rights, the role of Unions, protecting workers. They do their work and promote these ideas very much out of a Jewish context, so there are certainly lots of people who are concerned with these ideas outside of just food.
Do you think the focus on social justice is recent?
No, I think it’s been that way for a long time. We’ve been a little late to pick up on it. But [otherwise] we’re not going to really inspire people who are not already initiated into [Judaism], and that certainly includes the entire younger generation, who because of their age are not fully initiated into anything.
They’ve been taught things at home, but to the extent that they’re making up their own minds as young adults, it’s a question of where they’re going to put their allegiances. Religion has to be able to present a face that is concerned with justice and fairness because that’s very important to people, rightly so.
How has food awareness changed for the congregants at your synagogue, The Temple Israel Center in White Plains? Do your synagogue members belong to CSAs? Do they want their shavout cheesecake to be made with grass-fed milk? If not, where is the support for a focus on food in the Conservative movement coming from?
This last year we still got cheesecakes from S&S… but it’s something that little by little is being thought about more. One of the things you probably know from hanging around Hazon is that we’re one of the congregations here in White Plains who formed a Tuv Ha’Aretz, we just had our last delivery from Hudson Valley Farm, and we have every reason to think that will continue next year. So we’ve got a lot of people’s awareness up here in the community about the importance of supporting local food production and keeping transportation costs and the carbon footprint down.
We just had our centennial, and looking into our second century, if we pull out of this economic crisis and are able to think about raising some significant funds for some initiatives in the synagogue, one of them is going to be greening the synagogue in some significant ways.
Do your congregants ask you for advise about food not just related to kashrut but to ethics?
Not a whole lot, but the CSA is certainly a launching pad. It’s not specifically people coming to me to ask questions about it, but getting into conversations about it, “why is the synagogue doing this, why this specific thing?” Those are great questions, opening up educational opportunities.
How do you answer?
I start taking them back to the very beginning. There are two interweaving accounts of human beings at the very beginning of our literature. One has us being handed the world on Friday afternoon, God saying, “Here, enjoy it, take charge of it, control it, bend it to your will.” Then there’s another account of us as having been created to take care of the garden. They don’t always sit comfortably with each other, but I think they accurately reflect the two moods of human beings. One is sort of naturally ingrained in human beings – to sort of go out and conquer and exploit things. The other is the kind of super ego which says to us, “Uh-uh, this is not all about you.”
That’s a very instructive tension that’s built right into the Hebrew bible. If all we had was “to till and to tend” it would sound very goody-two-shoes. The fact that the Torah very frankly tells us, “Y’know human beings are built in a certain way, but they also have to recognize a responsibility that comes from something larger than them,” I think is more realistic, more accurate and more honest.
So is your community excited about Hekhsher Tzedek?
Well, they’re concerned. We do get asked questions in terms of what is our local butcher carrying here, can we be sure that its not products that are coming from the worst offenders etc. I wouldn’t call it a mass movement, but there’s an awareness right now that didn’t exist at all a year ago.
Do you think that comes mainly from the news coverage?
From the news coverage and from my talking about it and from my co-rabbi Neil Zuckerman talking about it as well.
A report from PBS’s “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly” that was posted on the Heksher Tzedek blog stated that around 20 percent of Conservative Jews keep kosher while about 90 percent of Orthodox Jews do. Do you think that Hekhsher Tzedek will be able to have a real impact on Kosher producers without the support of the Orthodox movement, or is there a possibility that producers will just rely on their larger market share?
First of all, twenty percent of the Conservative movement is probably equivalent in numbers to fifty percent of the Orthodox movement, so it’s a lot larger than it sounds, but keeping kosher has a lot of definitions, in home, outside the home.
So it’s not really a concern among Hekhsher Tzedek to increase support among Orthodox Jews?
Oh, I think it’s a concern to increase support among everybody. We certainly aren’t happy if the Orthodox movement as a movement pooh-poohs Hekhsher Tzedek, but they’re not doing that at this point.
Is there a hope in the Conservative community that Heksher Tzedek will lead more Conservative Jews to commit to kashrut in their homes and daily lives?
Lets put it this way – it can help remove one of the excuses for not keeping kosher, and will give kashrut a better name.
When you ask people what they think religion should be concerned with, they won’t necessarily point to some of the symbolic and ritual kinds of things that many of us would associate with religion. They’re just not into that and they don’t get it. But most people will say that religion should be concerned with ethical and just action, and if kashrut is more fully defined as something that’s concerned with those things, then it will be understood as an important and legitimate religious act and religious concern.
In a commentary on Parashat Tol’Dot, Dr. David Kraemer says that “Judaism is not only a religion of formal ritual and Torah. It is, and has always been, a religion of the kitchen, a way of life in which the masters of the kitchen — usually the women — were real religious virtuosi, sustaining the body and soul together.” How have changes in Conservative Judaism regarding gender and sexuality, like ordination for women in 1985 and for gays and lesbians in 2002 influenced the focus of the Conservative movement?
I understand the premise of the question, but I have to say that I don’t feel like I have any evidence of that. Let me give you an analogy. When women were admitted to the rabbinical school at JTS, people noticed a couple years afterwards that there were different kinds of conversations, and openness to a whole lot of issues. Some people would ask me, “Don’t you think that the fact that women are here now has sort of changed the terms of discourse and now certain things that weren’t being discussed are being discussed because it’s the nature of having women in the community to promote that?”
And again, I understood the premise behind it, but I felt that it was getting it backwards. The terms of discourse had, for a variety of social and cultural reasons, begun to change. The openess was not the effect of having women admitted, but probably the cause of opening up and being able to do that.
I would say it’s something like that now: various more inclusive ways of looking at the sexes and at sexuality and different sexual orientation are not necessarily the cause of more ethical ways of looking at food production and consumption but that they are somehow related to each other organically and almost happening simultaneously as part of a large common cause and common effect.
It sounds to me that that’s sort of how you feel that change happens in general, that change comes from the way that congregants are seeing the world, not from inside the institution.
Above, Rabbi Tucker rides with Hazon during the 2001 New York Ride. Sign up for the New York ride here yourself.