Orthodox Rabbis & Social Activism

Rabbi Gil Student writes:


I don’t recall where, but someone recently mentioned (perhaps in the comments here) that R. Haskel Lookstein had once declared that we should treat lettuce as non-kosher due to the treatment of farm workers. As it happens, I recently obtained a copy of the new biography of R. Lookstein, Rav Chesed: The Life and Times of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, that was written in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of R. Lookstein’s service to his synagogue. It is a wonderful tribute to a successful pulpit rabbi that emphasizes his service to the community, rather than the typical rabbinic biography that emphasizes the subject’s scholarship. Books like these are important because they teach us that there is more to Judaism than studying Torah and that there are role models in addition to roshei yeshivah.

The story about the lettuce is on pages 55-56 of the book, part of a chapter that focuses on R. Lookstein’s social activism, particularly on behalf of Soviet Jewry:
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Political or social activism was hardly the hallmark of American Orthodox rabbis in the 1960s. While a number of Conservative and Reform rabbis participated in the civil rights movement or protested U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, their Orthodox counterparts typically regarded such causes as too far removed from Jewish concerns to justify their involvement. Haskel Lookstein, while not personally active in those battles, early on recognized a connection between traditional Jewish concepts and modern social struggles. In a May 1966 sermon, which was the subject of a sizable article in the New York Times, he argued that the Talmud advocated principles similar to that of the civil rights movement. "It is the Talmud that says that no man is free if he must live in a segregated community, whether that segregation is the creation of law or the result of informal social consensus," he declared. "It is the Talmud that states that no man is free unless he has economic opportunity, a chance for employment, the social possibility to work in any geographical and economic area in accordance with his God-given and acquired talents." In 1971 he was one of the few Orthodox rabbis to publicly endorse Cesar Chavez’s battles for the rights of farm workers, he urged his KJ members to boycott nonunion lettuce. Technically, all lettuce was kosher, he acknowledged, but lettuce produced "under exploitative conditions" should be regarded as nonkosher. Years later, during his tenure as president of the New York Board of Rabbis, R. Haskel engineered the adoption of a resolution urging "all Rabbis and their congregants" to boycott nonunion grapes, declaring such produce to be in violation of "ethical kashrut."

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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