Of the many laws mentioned in this week’s parashah – from purity standards for the Kohanim to the mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah – one verse in particular grab my attention:
וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ, אֶת-שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי, וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אֲנִי יְהוָה, מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם.
And you shall not profane My Holy Name; rather, I will be sanctified among the children of Israel: I am the LORD who sanctifies you.
What is the meaning of sanctifying God’s Name - Kiddush HaShem? What about Hillul HaShem - desecrating God’s Name? Who decides when an action or statement is one or the other? And when are things done in the name of one that are actually the opposite?
The contrasting behaviors presented in this verse, the prohibition of profaning God’s Name versus the positive commandment of sanctifying God’s name, is on my mind a lot these days. Religion is used far too often by extremists to justify behavior that is a Hillul HaShem - a desecration of God’s Name - in order to eliminate behavior by others that they, the extremists, define as a desecration. That is, in order to eradicate the desecration, these extremists engage in behaviors that they claim are sanctifying God’s Name when, in fact, all they are doing is bringing desecration in a different way. Using religious principles or laws to justify or explain away bad behavior is simply unacceptable and yet it seems to happen all the time.
Examples abound. In its most extreme form, we see it this week in the extremism that found a face and a voice in Osama bin Laden. Or we could look to the ongoing pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church. It would be too easy to stop there, though, at the big and obvious acts of violating God’s Name just as it would be too easy to ignore supposed acts of Kiddush HaShem that simply desecrate of God’s Name committed among our own people. The new Hekhsher Tzedek or Magen Tzedek is a perfect example of just such an issue.
The Hechsher Tzedek, Magen Tzedek, is a certification conceived by rabbis in our own region to highlight companies whose products represent “fair treatment of workers, humane treatment of animals and care for the earth.” Sounds like a good thing, right? Certified Kosher and produced in a way that pays people fairly, that treats the animals well, and that is a good steward of the earth. This is baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie. Yet, Magen Tzedek is under fire from Jewish extremists. Despite the fact that Biblical and Rabbinic laws address these areas of business practice and should be applied in our time, there are those who claim that the Magen Tzedek is trying to fundamentally change Kashrut: to replace halakhic kashrut - proper slaughter, etc - with a new ethical standard that is not based in Jewish law. Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course. Magen Tzedek is an added level of stringency to products already certified as “kosher” in the traditional sense. It will not be applied to food that is not certified kosher. Magen Tzedek is a true effort to sanctify God’s Name in this world that is being categorized by others as a desecration.
So, which is the greater desecration of God’s Name?
Products where the animals are slaughtered properly according to all standards of Kashrut. Yet, the animals are mistreated throughout the process. Their lives are lived in miserable, overcrowded places. The employees are not paid living wages, are denied basic benefits, and are not treated well. And animal refuse is discarded in ways that pollute the environment.
Products where the animals are slaughtered properly according to all standards of Kashrut AND the animals are treated with care, the employees are paid a fair wage and the environment is cared for, and there is an additional certification acknowledging that the company meets all of these requirements as well.
Is there really a question here? We live in a world where certain meat products in the US need to have not just one but perhaps two or three different kashrut certifications, one more stringent than the next, to meet the standards of different people. Magen Tzedek is an added level of stringency and should be applauded by every corner of the Jewish world because it will result in greater sanctity. Instead, there are corners of the Jewish world that are intent on smearing the good names of those involved, like our own Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob in St. Paul Minnesota and Rabbi Michael Siegal of Anshe Emet in Chicago, instead of praising the efforts to raise the level of halakhic behavior to new levels.
In leading halakhic lives, lives of meaning and spiritual connection with God, we are charged with bringing greater sanctity to God’s Name and prohibited from desecrating or bringing desecration to God’s Name. Let us always be counted on the side of those seeking to bring more קדושה to the world and to God’s Name.