The cost-benefit approach to God’s Law

The cost-benefit approach to God’s Law

ITEM: Conservative rabbis debate whether to issue a halachic ruling requiring that workers be paid a living wage.

ITEM: Kashrut authorities insist there is no connection between the Torah’s insistence on how animals are to be treated and how they are to be slaughtered for food.

In a little over a week, we will mark the festival of Shavuot, the anniversary of that matchless moment in time when God spoke to all of us individually and together, as He began to give us His laws.

Several days before this unique event and in preparation for it, God said to Moses: "Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel…: If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant…, you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’" (See Exodus 19:3-6)

There are no qualifiers here. This was and continues to be an all-or-nothing covenant. The Torah, the instruction book for that covenant, is an organic whole. All parts are interconnected by the concept of holiness. If no direct connection exists between one law and another, it is of no consequence; pick-and-choose is not an option here.

There is also no suggestion of "ethics" or "morality" here. We do the mitzvot for one reason only — because that is what we are supposed to do as a kingdom of priests and holy nation. We may debate among ourselves how to observe a particular law, but we do not get to choose whether or not to observe it.

Some of the laws make sense; do not kill, for example. Others seem to make no sense (sprinkling a red cow’s ashes on someone who came in contact with a dead body in order to purify him or her). Sense or no sense, they are God’s laws and we must follow them.

The kosher laws fall in the no-sense category. A variety of explanations have been suggested for the permitted and non-permitted animals, birds, fish, and creepy crawling things (okay, creepy flying things, since we are limited on the permitted side to locusts, albeit only four specific varieties, provided we can actually identify them, which is a neat trick). They remain suggestions, however, since the Legislator remains silent.

The reason for ritual slaughter, on the other hand, appears fathomable (although this, too, is ultimately guesswork) because it emerges from a discernible pattern in the Torah.

Initially, God appears to limit humankind to vegetarian diets (see Genesis 1:’9), but the human desire for killing things leads not only to killing animals for food, but ripping their limbs off while they are yet alive.

After the Flood, God produces a compromise: He allows meat-eating, but He also creates rules meant to limit the suffering food animals must endure. (See Genesis 9:1-6.)

When Israel comes along, God devises ever more stringent legislation unique to His holy nation. Thus, an Israelite wanting to invite the neighbors over to his tent for a barbecue must bring the ill-fated cow to the Tabernacle to be "sacrificed." (See Leviticus 17:1-4.) Otherwise, "bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man: he has shed blood…."

As the late Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch noted, this means that simply to kill an animal for food "is to be taken as murder."

Why? The logical progression provides the answer (there is much I have left out because of lack of space): The priests, in doing the slaughtering, follow guidelines that bring about as painless a death as possible for the animal (even if only as a side "benefit" of the ritual).

Of course, Leviticus 17:1-4 — a piece of wilderness legislation — would be unworkable once Israel spread out in its own land. Thus, on the eve of the crossing of the Jordan, Moses eliminated the need for sacred cover as long as the animal is slaughtered "as I have instructed you." (See Deuteronomy 1′:’0-‘5.) Put another way, you no longer have to sacrifice an animal to eat it, but it still must be ritually slaughtered.

To argue, then, that there is no connection between the Torah’s concern for animal welfare and the laws of kosher slaughter is fatuous. Maybe there is no "direct" connection, but if the Torah is an organic whole, that connection exists nonetheless and, in context, that connection in this case virtually screams out at us.

To hear those screams, however, is to open a Pandora’s box of financial implications that few want tackled (such as loss of income, or worse, for restaurateurs and mashgichim, and even higher meat prices for consumers).

Also screaming out at us are other laws, such as Leviticus 19:13, which states, "The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning."

The Torah elaborates on this in Deuteronomy ‘4:13-14: "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt."

Obviously, this law will change over time as rabbinic legislation adapts it to changing circumstances — but the changes only build on the concept that the worker must be paid in a timely manner and must receive a living wage (i.e., a wage that is not abusive and that somehow helps meet his or her needs; this clearly has implications for the Postville case, but we are on to another point here).

This interest in the laborer on the Torah’s part has led to a desire on the part of some Conservative rabbis to require that workers be paid a living wage as a matter of halacha. Other Conservative rabbis, however, oppose the move. They warn that we Jews are in a "different place" economically than we once were (we are more "employer" than "employee") and that here, too, a financial Pandora’s box awaits with potentially far-reaching implications (such as limiting an employer’s flexibility during collective bargaining or causing marginal businesses to close, imposing a competitive hardship on Jewish-owned businesses, etc.).

As noted earlier, "If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant" came with no qualifier. Apparently, it did come with a price cap.

This Shavuot, instead of staying up all night studying the minutiae of medieval rabbis, maybe we should all simply concentrate on understanding the opening and closing verses of Leviticus 19:

"You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy….You shall faithfully observe all My laws and all My rules: I am the Lord."

Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and an instructor in the UJA-Federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University. He is the editor of Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.