When is it Kosher?

The Conservative Movement‘s debate over whether or not to implement a new “tzedek hechsher” reflecting a particular company’s compliance with extra-dietary standards of Jewish Law was the subject of an article today in the Jewish Exponent:

Jewish law clearly has a lot to say, of course, about ritual slaughter, and the proper preparation of kosher meat and poultry. There’s also plenty in the Torah and Talmud that focuses on employer-employee relationships, and the ethics of how to treat workers.

Except for a few historical cases where rabbinical authorities tried to link the two issues, generally, they’ve been considered sperate spheres.

But a newly formed commission created by the Conservative movement is calling attention to conditions faced by workers at kosher-meat plants. The Commission of Inquiry is weighing whether or not to call for a “Tsedek Hekhsher,” combining the Hebrew word for justice with the traditional term for kosher certification.

The initiative would create a process to certify that kosher meat and chicken were prepared in an environment where workers are paid fairly and on time, treated with dignity and receive adequate safety training.

I’m livid about this. Not about the Conservative movement doing hechsherim, or about the difference in standards in what can be called “kosher” by law.

What I simply can not understand is, “where are the Orthodox in all this”? A particular kashrus organization was lauded for its requiring compliance to laws of alcoholic consumption for its hechsher, while entire segments of Jewish Law are relegated to virtual irrelevance.

On Thisisbabylon.net I go into much more detail about this, and I attempt to show that, when it comes to kashrut, many questions — of actual codified Jewish Law — are being sorely left unasked…yet I still can’t drink the water in Brooklyn.

Filed under Food, Social Action

29 Responses to “When is it Kosher?”

  1. Where are the Orthodox? As your blog post notes, they are too busy linking kashrut certification to observance of other mitzvot between humans and G-d. Good luck getting them to even think about re-defining “observant” to include mitzvot between humans.

    Conservative Judaism has long since moved outside the acceptible halakhic boundaries of Orthodoxy. The movement needs to stop looking over its right shoulder and stand for something. A “tzedek hecksher” is long since overdue.


    mhpine · April 12th, 2007 at 5:02 pm
  2. Between man and G-d, between man and man, between man and pygmy seal — the “tachlit”/purpose of any individual mitzva is irrelevant to me when it comes to this particular issue. If I see “this establishment is under the strict rabbinical supervision of Rav X” then I expect that Rabbi X does not, oh, willfully overlook violations of Choshen Mishpat (labor laws) in favor of maintaining the Sabbath observance of the janitors.

    You’re right, the Conservative Movement has long since “moved outside…acceptable halachic boundaries”, which, for me, renders any food under said supervision unfit to eat without mitigating circumstances or information.

    However, my point wasn’t that the OU or other Orthodox supervision organization should implement a “tzedek hechsher” tout de suite, the point was that there is virtually no dialogue about this in the kashrus industry and that I find infuriating.


    Y-Love · April 12th, 2007 at 5:24 pm
  3. I can’t speak to orthodoxy, Talmudic legal codes or any potential influences such things may or may not have on Orthodox attitudes towards Kashrut innovations. However it is been my (limited) experience that the Orthodox tend to flat out reject any innovations proposed by non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

    Regardless I think it’s a brilliant innovation and have supported it at least in spirit since I first read about it last fall.

    Also I completely agree with mhpine that the Conservative movement should just stand up for what they believe in and bring into being whatever innovations they deem appropriate.

    Thanks for the interesting post and kudos on the new and beautiful wordpress theme.


    TikkunGer · April 12th, 2007 at 5:25 pm
  4. has nothing to do with the right shoulder. How many conservative Jews, many of whom do not even keep kosher now, would adhere to the new, stricter standards of Kashrut? Its a beautiful idea, but its very hard for people already keeping kashrut – and eating less and more expensive food because of it – to shift to keeping more kashrut, and more so for people not keeping kashrut at all.
    Perhaps, first, the c. movement should work to unionize synagogue maintenance staffs, or perhaps recommend that those who employ workers in their homes pay them for sick days and time off and give them medical and dental benefits, or a million other things. a “tzedek hechsher” seems more like a way to pander to the bloggers, and less like a way to effect social/religious change.
    Also – who says the orthodox are any less sensitive to the issue? In Israel the new “tav chevrati” given free of charge to restaurants and other establishments for the same criteria (minimum wages and wheelchair access, though, sadly, not equal-opportunity or unionization) was invented by orthodox young people.
    American Jews will never actually stand for unionized labor anymore – the donors are all against it.


    Amit · April 12th, 2007 at 5:26 pm
  5. amit– interesting that the Tav Chevrati (“social seal”) was started by the young people, not the powers that be…


    rebecca m · April 12th, 2007 at 5:53 pm
  6. you can’t drink the water in Brooklyn? Y-Love – you can do what you like – you have chosen to accept the ruling of whichever – frumer-than-frum ‘rabbi’ – talk about Babylon?

    you’re living in a self-inflicted exile – within orthodoxy!

    Who the hell gave frummers the name ‘Orthodox’ (the right way) anyway? probably some reform bunch of idiots.

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe claimed that he was “UnOrthodox” and that the so-called “Daas Torah” was not close to what the halachic way of living according to the Torah was meant to be, and (i heard this from Rabbi Eli Cohen previously of NYU – who of-course now denies it) the reform movemnent were ‘in a way much’ closer to how the mode of halachah should be, namely flexible and fluid and adapting to the times.

    The point is Orthodoxy is Wrong – it is not Authentic Judaism!

    If you realised this then you wouldn’t be shocked by the stupidity and double standands of the ‘Orthodox’ kashrus authories.

    And you would stop worshiping the Authority of dumb-ass-rabbis and start worshiping GOD!

    “Yiddishkite” is idol-worship! – You Are Moshiach Now!


    MaxKohanzad · April 12th, 2007 at 7:13 pm
  7. I heard a fun Kosher related story over Passover. A Jew in Arizona owns a Kosher deli, not just Kosher-style. The kosher mafia decides not to certify his deli because it is open on Saturday. The man tries to stay in business by not opening on Saturday, but that is the most profitable day and he does not earn enough during the rest of the week to stay in in business.

    He sells to a gentile. The gentile sells the same kosher food, and is open on Saturday, but not being Jewish is able to get certified. A Jew is out of business because no one dares to call RICO against these people.


    Jason · April 13th, 2007 at 12:17 am
  8. As we have discussed earlier, the incentives are horribly misaligned in the kashrut oligopoly. As someone (y-love?), mentioned the other week, mashigichim are generally paid by whichever firm they are certifying (The Deli, Dougie’s, etc) not by the organization who certification they are work for (OU, Kaf-K, etc). This yields a less than ideal incentive for the mashgiach to be serious about kashrut implementation, after all if he (she?) is to machmir he is out of a job.

    There is strong but inconsistent precedent for using ethical and worker justice related issues in the normal certification of kashrut. Yisroel Salanter, the main figure in the development of the Mussar movement, for instance, told his students that the most important issue in overseeing matzah production is that the workers are mostly elderly widows and often mistreated, so the students should be especially vigilant to insure they are treated fairly and that if they are not, the matzah will be as if it has blood in it. This new tzedek hechsher positions itself in Salanter’s vision, not a bad place to be.


    zt · April 13th, 2007 at 12:39 am
  9. I attended a talk at Brandeis where both Rabbi Dov Linzer (of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah) addressed the idea of “kosher” veal and Nathaniel Popper (journalist for “The Forward” who covered the Agriprocessors ordeal) talked about how it was not only the Kashrut in Postville that was a problem—it was also the treatment of their (mostly immigrant) workers. If you can imagine, the discussion went all over the place, with many of those present pounding their fists and waving their hands, demanding that Orthodox Jews must come up with a “tzedek hechsher” and other notions.

    I mention this, first and foremost, to make note of another (see above mention of Tav Chevarti in Israel) instance when Orthodox are discussing this. However, I disagreed—-technically—with the idea of having a “tzedek chesher.” First, I think that practically it would be a huge problem, because kosher food is already nearly-prohibitively expensive, and adding additional requirements (and thus, more cost) on religious people’s food is something no Rabbi would be able to do.

    But this is besides the point. I think the real issue is where does Halacha stop and “values” begin. I mentioned that Rabbi Linzer gave a talk regarding the kashrut of veal (to those who are not aware, veal is produced in a highly unethical manner, which usually includes locking up very young cows and force-feeding them). I think the most interesting source was that of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who spills no small amount of ink moralizing that no decent Jew should ever even consider eating veal, and then sets up halachic boundaries that *should* make the production of veal prohibatively expensive to Jews, and then admits, after all that, that one could argue that (as long as you observe his laundry-list of halachic requirements), you could have kosher veal.

    I think an interesting point can be made here: even though many people feel that halacha is already a draconian set of laws, it is really only a basis or foundation for living a moral and ethical life. In reality, the truly difficult ethical and moral decisions made in life are not contained in halacha. One of the Rabbi’s at this talk invoked Ramban’s famous discussion about “Kadoshim Tee’hee’yu” (“You shall be for me a Holy Nation”). There is a repetition of the invocation to be holy, and he interprets this to mean that one can observe ALL halachos and still be an unethical person (he gives the example, interestingly enough, as someone who gouges themselves on kosher food). The point is that Torah and Halacha are not a catechism for living a moral life….but more of a regimen to keep us thinking about the ethical ramifications of every tiny aspect of our lives, and set us upon the path to face the daily ethical problems we encounter.

    I will finish this with saying that I completely agree with the way Y-Love addressed the problem—-the Orthodox community SHOULD BE up in arms about violations against employer/employee halacha and the unethical treatment of workers. The unfortunate fact that most would rather worry about microscopic bugs in their water is what needs to change! Discussions such as these should spur action, not more blogging. I think the internet may be an interesting tool in a movement to start a site dedicated to the grass-roots monitoring of kosher food for violations of extra-kosher law (like treatment of workers, treatment of the environment, etc.).


    Michael Star · April 13th, 2007 at 1:06 am
  10. I completely agree with Michael. Some more questions:
    1. Would this “tzedek hechsher” make pots treif? would conservative Jews stop eating in homes of Jews who do not buy meat of this sort? if not, what difference would it make, apart from the political statement?
    2. Is this the same movement that repealed the issur on treif wine for Jews to be able to socialize with their business partners more easily? How would only eating “tzedek food” allow for this? What about tzedek lettuce, or tzedek tuna, or tzedek coca-cola?
    So, essentially, this is a nice political statement, but will not change anybody’s eating habits. I repeat my claim that the idea is to pander to the bloggers, because there is no practical significance to any of this.

    Also – not a big fan of the orthodox, but the attacks on them in this case are completely unfounded. The orthodox know that kosher food is expensive and that families who keep kashrut are not all wealthy, and that raising the price of kosher chicken may mean that many children will not have meat (in these families meat=protein) even once a week. Ditto with organic food: smaller tomatoes and less tomatoes mean that some people don’t get any tomatoes at all. The only way to insure working conditions is to proliferate unionization, and the Conservative movement sure isn’t doing that.

    More:
    I think an interesting point can be made here: even though many people feel that halacha is already a draconian set of laws, it is really only a basis or foundation for living a moral and ethical life.
    maybe yes and maybe no. But this whole debate has nothing to do with this at all: we would be exchanging the tyranny of the orthodox for the tyranny of the conservative. How are we to know that nobody is paying off the conservative mashgiach? that nobody is lying about the condition in which employees and animals are treated?


    Amit · April 13th, 2007 at 5:59 am
  11. The kosher mafia decides not to certify his deli because it is open on Saturday.
    i.e. the mashgichim explain to him that food prepared on shabbos is treif, and perhaps the pots as well. And if a gentile owns the store, the store may be open on shabbos.
    its not saturday. Its shabbos. Just as Jewish as kashrus.


    Amit · April 13th, 2007 at 6:02 am
  12. And – sorry to be ranting so much – and I promise I’ll stop – what about usury (i.e. the prohibition thereof)? That’s a beautiful mitzva, and I haven’t seen any movement try to actually implement it anywhere, anytime. Open a free loan society, CCAR!


    Amit · April 13th, 2007 at 8:16 am
  13. I never said that the food was made on Shabbat, just that food was sold. Can you show me where in the Torah the kosher rules say that disobeying the commandment to not work on Shabbat makes something unkosher?


    Jason · April 13th, 2007 at 8:52 am
  14. Max, you need to chill. Your post put the “ax” in Xanax. You know why the Orthodox people named themselves (largely) so, to differentiate from the Enlightenment which was pillaging Europe at the time. Eventually we would have “denominations”, but originally even these were largely results of self-naming — vis-a-vis the Reform, b’davka, and “why this came to be that way” is a whole separate historical conversation.

    Obviously I worship G-d, I found Him before I met any rabbi. Your anger at an abusive establishment, however ubiquitous you may think it is, is the result of the combination of these rabbis’ actions in our present time-space and your subjective perception, neither of which have any bearing on Chaza”l or on the Code of Jewish Law IMO.

    Again, the ultimate “rulebook” for living, in the Orthodox perspective, should be the Code of Jewish Law (I mean, halacha, come ON, ppl) and my mind is just boggling at how things like this are not only being done, but are being done because of the refusal to even discuss the halacha. People are suffering as a result of someone else’s enforcement of am ha’aratzus (I can’t translate that).

    It is, to me, the equivalent of an Orthodox shul relied upon as authoritative saying, “in our shul, the Torah reading only consists of Exodus. We, being scrupulously religious, realize that there are other books of the Torah but we only read Exodus.”

    Please, if you could, give more information on this Tav Chevrati, or at least a couple sites to start the searches with. This, I think, should be the future. I think young Orthodox people need to revolutionize halacha by taking it, well, back to halacha.

    Safe workplaces, living wages, and abuse-free environments — as required by Chaza”l and the Shulchan Aruch — are a wonderful place to start.


    Y-Love · April 13th, 2007 at 12:35 pm
  15. Michael is completely right, the issues arising from a tzedek hecsher would lead to vastly confusing issues about keilim, kashering, and all of that. Would you not eat at a friends house unless you verified that all of their meat followed this new hechsher?

    And just in case you think the Orthodox don’t talk about this, I was at a young couples and singles event for Bnai David in Los Angeles and having such a tzedek hechsher was exactly what the assistant rabbi, rabbi ari leubitz called for.

    But really, we are getting so ahead of ourselves. Is no one here other than Michael willing to admit that this will never work for conservative jews because the vast majority of them don’t keep kosher?


    BearsforIsrael · April 13th, 2007 at 1:56 pm
  16. Is no one here other than Michael willing to admit that this will never work for conservative jews because the vast majority of them don’t keep kosher?

    No one is suggesting that this is exclusively “for Conservative Jews” — it’s being done by Conservative Jews, for anyone who would find it useful.


    BZ · April 13th, 2007 at 3:45 pm
  17. [...] on the coverage of the Conservative Movements’ tzedek hechser, Jew School has yet another round of agitation about the lack of leadership from the Orthodox kosher industry authorities on this [...]


    jspot » Blog Archive » Can we PLEASE Stop Griping about the Orthodox Kashrut Barons? · April 13th, 2007 at 3:53 pm
  18. BZ, i appreciate the distinction, but let’s face it- unless coupled with an orthodox hashgacha, orthodox jews won’t buy it (or most of them won’t), and reform jews care less about hashgacha than conservative jews. so yea, apart from the jewschool elite, how is this ever going to take off? this is a non-halachic movement (or just barely so) trying to bring itself into what really is a very complex halachic issue. there’s a reason why kashrut and it’s surrounding issues is one of the main topics for the rabbinate (or at least the orthodox one).


    BearsForIsrael · April 13th, 2007 at 4:33 pm
  19. 1. I admitted it would never work, and I am not michael.
    2. I wonder if anyone will explain the paradigm shift in the movement’s thinking – yayin nesech is OK becuase you need it for social functions with non-jews, but you will come up with a new hechsher for tuna, one of the last foods the travelling Jew can eat without qualms? how does this work, and what will the travelling Jew eat now?


    Amit · April 14th, 2007 at 12:15 pm
  20. There’s an organization in Israel called Maglie Tdezek that has been certifying restaurants and other businesses on social justice issues. The certificate is free to the business. Last I check there where over a hundred organizations carrying the certificate. What we need now is for customers to make their buying choices based on the certification – that will force the hand of business.

    The organization’s website (in Hebrew) is mtzedek.org.il/ .

    There’s an English overview of the organization and their operations at www.mtzedek.org.il/upload/aboutusp.pdf .


    'laizer · April 14th, 2007 at 4:12 pm
  21. Where are the Orthodox?

    Well, anytime any Orthodox tries to implement a hechsher that does not have something to do with the actual food supervision, they are vilified.


    josh · April 14th, 2007 at 5:35 pm
  22. Amit– same thing [non fish eating] vegetarian travelling jews eat. peanut butter and jelly, alternated with beans and rice. Beans and rice requires a hot pot (aka kumkum), so it’s a less helpful, cause you don’t always have an electrical outlet.

    after both my New Orleans trips, I had no desire to look at any of those foods for a while :)


    rebecca m · April 14th, 2007 at 11:07 pm
  23. ‘la’zer, it’s a great thing that they are doing. note the distinction, though- what they are serving is kosher regardless of what they serve. it’s a certificate not of what’s kosher, but of other (just as important) values. it’s just this whole ‘kashrut equals bunnies and flowers and everything else right in the world’ movement which is absurd. good luck to MT in all that they do.


    'laizer · April 14th, 2007 at 11:26 pm
  24. rebecca, why won’t those foods need a tzedek hechsher? why not apples and chocolate, too?


    Amit · April 15th, 2007 at 3:03 am
  25. fair point, as far as my sleepy, caffeine jittery brain can discern at the moment


    rebecca m · April 15th, 2007 at 2:15 pm
  26. Those saying that the tzedek hechsher “won’t work” are assuming that people will either relate to it the same way that some people relate to existing hechshers (i.e. won’t eat anything without it) or will ignore it completely, and since the former is unfeasible, the latter is unlikely. I think there’s a middle ground — if there are otherwise identical products, one of which has a tzedek hechsher and one of which doesn’t, people who are aware of the tzedek hechsher may opt for that one, and may even pay a little bit more. It would be one factor to consider among many in making a purchasing decision.

    We have an analogous situation in place with “organic” food: Yes, there are some people who will only buy “organic” food, but there are probably a lot more half-assed consumers (such as myself) who will buy an “organic” product if it’s available and reasonably priced, and otherwise won’t worry about it. WorldManna is a similar model.

    That said, systemic change won’t be achieved merely through the purchasing power of small-time half-assed consumers like me. A tzedek hechsher is no substitute for minimum wage legislation, regulation of workplace environments, etc.


    BZ · April 16th, 2007 at 12:26 am
  27. BZ is on the money. I can’t imagine anyone keeping strictly “tzedek kosher” the way that most Orthodox folks keep OU (or whatever hechsher they trust) kosher. The issues surrounding produce alone would make tzedek kashrut very difficult to implement in a comprehensive sense.

    But that’s not the point.

    I believe there are two points to be made by implementing a tzedek hechsher, even if it’s only applied to a few products or restaurants.

    1) For the non-kosher-keepers: There are a ton of Jews out there, many of whom don’t keep kosher, who are searching for relevance in Jewish traditions. For many of them, social justice is more relevant than traditional halakhic observance. By tying social justice issues to a halakhic observance like kashrut, it makes the halakhic observance more relevant to Jews who have a hard time buying into the “that’s what the rabbis say, so do it” school of halakhic Judaism. More relevance –> more people thinking critically about kashrut –> more people potentially keeping kosher.

    2) For the hard-core kosher keepers: People are tired of reading about worker and animal abuses at “glatt” kosher facilities. Even if the mainstream kosher konsumer won’t buy something with a tzedek hechsher unless it also has another Orthodox hechsher they recognize, implementing the tzedek hechsher also gets these people thinking about these issues, and could potentially create more pressure on the Orthodox authorities to consider whether they might want to consider things other than Shabbat observance.


    themicah · April 16th, 2007 at 9:22 am
  28. [...] with a lot of related issues and developments. As that conversation geared up, Y-Love dropped an argument in favor of the orthodox kashrut establishment getting their act together on worker justice and [...]


    Jew School » Blog Archive » Eating Right · July 8th, 2007 at 3:49 pm
  29. [...] much for Hekhsher Tzedek. Apparently politics wins out over justice. In a not very surprising move, the Conservative [...]


    Jewschool » Blog Archive » Blogging the Omer Days 31 & 32: Shame on You! · May 21st, 2008 at 8:07 pm

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