On Fair Trade and Rabbinical Authority

cffee.jpgOn October 17, in the blog “A Blog from the Underground” libertarianwannabe discussed my 10/11 post “Mirembe Kawomera.” Here’s what libertarianwannabe had to say:

I happenned to stumble on a blog through wordpress’s list of the fastest growing blogs. It seems interesting and well-written although it comes from a left-wing Reconstruction (redundancy?) viewpoint and four posts in it shows. Take the second post abput some over-priced Fair Trade coffee (that seems to be the popular phrase to use by the rich when they either rip the poor off or decide to massage their conscience by overpaying them)

<<Why is a rabbi going on about Fair Trade Coffee? Because I believe it’s a mitzvah to drink it. After all, Judaism teaches us over and over again to be socially responsible consumers, to act justly toward workers and to alleviate poverty in our world. So what could be more Jewish than drinking Fair Trade Coffee?>>

He essentially fingers the problem facing the Reconstruction and Reform movement, namely what authority does the Rabbi have and in fact what’s the reason to listen to him. So they turn to left-wing activism and such causes and then claim that the Torah makes it a mitzvah to do such a thing. Of course no claim would be made about what a person who drinks free-trade coffee (a product for us invisible handers) is doing. However the website is very interesting and readable.

To libertarianwannabe:

First of all, thanks for reading and thanks for the compliments. “Interesting” and “Readable” are definitely two things I want my blog to be.

One important point of clarification: the name of the Jewish denomination to which I belong is “Reconstructionism,” not “Reconstruction.” I encourage you and other readers to learn more about my movement – click here for more information. (“Reconstruction,” on the other hand, refers to a period of American history immediately following the Civil War. Click here if you’d like to learn more about that).

Though perhaps I did the cause of Fair Trade a disservice by raising and discussing it in a very short post, I have no interest in getting into an economic shoving match with a libertarian on this subject. I will only say it is difficult for me to understand how anyone can claim poor coffee growers could possibly be “overpaid” or that Fair Trade “rips them off.” I encourage readers to learn more about Fair Trade, what it stands for, and it is such a critically important global movement.

By what authority do I make my claims? Your very use of the word “authority” is an interesting one – and it betrays your traditional bias regarding the sources of religious authority. As a Reconstructionist rabbi, I do not purport to be a religious authority figure. We Reconstructionists believe that in the contemporary world, religious authority more appropriately resides in educated decisions made by individuals and communities. We also believe that most Jews today do not desire their rabbis to be authority figures, but rather Jewish teachers, advocates, resources and leaders. My studies at the Recontructionist Rabbinical College trained me in this regard, and as a rabbi I can only hope these roles provide sufficient cause for folks to “listen to me.”

In a comment to your post, “Rachel” responded:

The guy doesn’t even bother to work in relevant Bible Quotes, he just assumes we don’t need anything other than our leftist ideals.

Fair enough, Rachel. I agree with you, actually. I share your impatience with rabbis who short shrift Jewish tradition and assume that their mere title will give their words the necessary Jewish gravitas.

So let me expand on my claims a bit. Yes, I do passionately believe that it is a mitzvah to buy Fair Trade coffee – but not simply because of my “leftist ideals.” After all, Judaism teaches that:

1. We are obligated to be responsible consumers.

As Maimonidies taught in the Mishneh Torah (Laws of Theft 5:1):

One may not buy from a thief the goods he has stolen and to do so is a great transgression because it strengthens the hands of those who violate the law and causes the theif to continue to steal for if the thief would find no buyer he would not steal, as it is written, “He who shares with a thief is his own enemy.

While purchasing coffee is not literally the same as buying stolen goods, we can and should make the case that consumers have an obligation to educate themselves about the source of the goods they purchase. It is thus reasonable to infer that consumers should not purchase any goods that the seller has obtained unethically or unfairly.

2. We are obligated to insure that workers are treated justly.

In Deuteronomy 24:14-15, we learn,

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 upon it.

We should underline here the line “urgently depends upon it.” Poor workers depend upon a reasonable wage for their very livelihood. If coffee farmers work hard to produce a product that we want and need, we have an obligation to insure they receive a fair wage that will allow them to live a sustainable life.

3. We are obligated to help the poor.

In Midrash Exodus Rabbah 31:12 we read:

There is nothing in the world more grievous than poverty – the most terrible of sufferings. Our teachers have said: if all the troubles of the world are assembled on one side and poverty is on the other, poverty would outweigh them all.

And how do Jews help allieviate poverty? The primary Jewish method is through the giving of tzedakah. Maimonidies famously taught that the highest level of tzedakah is by entering into business partnerships that help the poor become self-sufficient. When we buy Fair Trade coffee, we are doing just that.

For those who are interested in Fair Trade and grassroots sustainable development from a specifically Jewish point of view, I highly recommend the work of American Jewish World Service (who helped educate me on much of the above).

Thanks again for reading!

2 thoughts on “On Fair Trade and Rabbinical Authority

  1. Lesley Williams

    Great response Brant, but may I suggest a far better resource for those interested in Reconstruction than Wikipedia?
    _America’s Reconstruction: People, and Politcs after the American Civil War_, by Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, and Olivia Mahoney, Director of Historical Documentation at the Chicago Historical Society.


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