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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Fair Trade and Kosher for Passover; Do we need all these certifications?

I spoke yesterday with Joanne Kryszek, co-owner of my husband's favorite internet chocolate store, Chocosphere.  I couldn't bear the thought of benefiting from slavery davka on Passover, though I know our ancestors did so.  I was trying to find Kosher for Passover Fair Trade options.

The bad news: Though they sell tens of high-quality brands from around the world, including some that are both Fair Trade and KSA, none are certified kosher for Passover.

The good news: they may not need to be.  Having failed to find both certifications co-existing, I asked myself if the kosher certification is really necessary.  Dating back all the way to the Talmud, chametz  had that magic property of being able to be nullified by personal intention before Passover begins (see Pesachim 6b -- once the holiday starts, the chametz sticks and it is too late to nullify).  That's why it's fine to buy uncertified Orange Juice ahead of time, and the Chicago Rabbinical Council (the Orthodox authorities in my old home town) holds that the same applies to pure cocoa powder not processed in Europe (don't ask me about the Europe piece -- I have no idea!).  So just go to your favorite store -- online or in person -- and buy yourself a bag of slave-free, pure cocoa powder.  I went for the 5 kilo bag of Dagoba myself.  Yes, I plan to make a lot of brownies!  For a list of slave-free options, look at the "Other Online Resources" list on the right side of my blog page.

Even chocolate bars may not require special certification, if purchased in advance of Passover.  Read the labels carefully, the fewer ingredients the better.  Lecithin is a soy-based product added to many chocolate bars.  In truth, even that is probably ok -- because soy is not actually chametz (it is kitniyot), and because it is added in tiny quantities, and because it is added for the general public and not with you personally in mind.   A good case for leniency on chocolate is made on the Kosher v'Yosher website of Australia.  But, since it feels good to read labels and to be picky on Passover -- I went for the Theo bars which are soy-free.  But woe is me, when the bars arrived I discovered they were made on shared equipment with wheat.

So then, let's turn to the other certification - Fair Trade.  How necessary is that?  Joanne (of Chocosphere) told me that some of the companies she works with have offices on the ground in Africa, she knows some of their representatives and can't believe they would tolerate slavery.  As to children working on cacao farms, she considers the possibility of family farms where children work alongside their parents; the fact that we see footage of children working does not necessarily mean they are slaves, though there probably are instances of unsavory practices. So who is being hurt and who is being helped by the Fair Trade movement, she asks?  Some of her favorite suppliers are too small to afford Fair Trade certification.  She specifically mentioned Grenada Chocolates as a small, socially-conscious company, with good people and good chocolates.

Of course, Joanne is working with elite chocolatiers; not with Cadbury and Nestle and the other giants who have been scolded by congressmen and by NGOs.  On the other hand, Nestle makes a good case that the social problems in the Ivory Coast run deep, and the country is overall better off for their involvement: click here for a thoughtful article.  Are children being abused in cocoa production?  Undoubtedly!  But are Western companies at fault, and will purchasing Fair Trade cocoa help?

In 2005 Nestle signed an agreement that they would clean up their act in Africa.  Advocate groups claim the company's done nothing since then.  CNN interviewed an African farmer who has taken the moral high-ground, refused to use children on his plantation, and is frustrated by the lack of support.  But then, for Western organizations to try to monitor all African plantations would be horrendously complicated and expensive.  It seems unrealistic.

In the end, I still feel better paying for the Fair Trade label, but only because I am blessed to be able to afford it.  Horrible abuses are happening in this world.  If someone has offered me an opportunity to abstain from benefiting, I'll take it.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Time of desire

The Torah describes an עת רצון, a time of God's desire:

ואני תפילתי לך עת רצון
"My prayer goes to You at the time of desire", says the Psalmist (69:14).

כה אמר ה', בעת רצון עיניתיך
"So says God, at the time of desire I will answer you",  says Isaiah the prophet (49:7).

But when is the time of desire?

With another human, we know when it is.  When the benefactor is in a good mood, when her stock is up and you have just done something to ingratiate yourself to her.  Then you catch her eye, and the smile comes easily to her lips, and you know that now is your best chance for a yes.

With God, desire cuts the other way.

When "I am sunk in the mire and cannot stand," when "my clothing is sackcloth, and I have become an example (to pity), the folks at the gates gossip about me,"  (Psalms 69:3 & 11-12) that's when God answers in an עת רצון, a time of desire.

If a person's well-being could be graphed like the stock market, God's desire is aroused at the bottom of the valley, just as the bear hits rock bottom, just before it rises up as the horns of a bull.
וברצונך תרום קרנינו
"And in Your desire You will raise up our horn," says the Psalmist (89:18).

The Nevi'im Achronim (Prophets) and Tehilim (Psalms) are replete with pronouncements of God's love for the poor.  The Israelites in Egypt were redeemed by virtue of their forefathers, who themselves were wealthy and powerful.  But in later biblical times, suffering itself becomes a virtue.  Often, the prophet blames the wicked for the plight of the poor.  The poor in their suffering stand in contrast to the wicked in their power, the implication: poverty equals innocence.
פלטו דל ואביון, מיד רשעים הצילו
"Rescue the poor and destitute, save them from the hands of the wicked."  (Psalms 82:4)

Viewed through a hasidic lens, suffering brings us closer to God for another reason.  The poor are not inherently righteous.  But those who examine themselves and their lives through their suffering, and reach up beyond their present selves, emerge into a holier state.  The time of hardship can be an עת רצון, a time of God's desire, but only if we make it so.  Says Rebbe Nosson, the student of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav:

"And even one who falls – chas v’chalilah – to doubts and bad thoughts and he is thinking away from God, even so, there is no despair in the world at all.  Even if it seems that he has fallen to a tainted place where God cannot be found at all,  even so, he should strengthen and fortify himself, to seek, to search, to ask after the Blessed One’s glory.  And when he asks and searches after God, and he is sorry and longing and calling out to God, and yearning to return to Him, even though he does not know any way or path or advice or plan of how to rise up and return from such places that are so distant from God, even so, through the asking and the searching within himself, he is searching and asking  for God:  'איה, where is the place of His glory?'  Through this, he rises up, for going down brings us to go up."