The Forward reported yesterday that the Conservative movement is beginning the process of creating a new ethical certification system for kosher food. The ongoing shenanigans in some of the country’s largest slaughterhouses last year (and previously) prompted the movement to set up a special commission to investigate working conditions at the AgriProcessorsInc slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa (See previous posts: Where’s the beef now? Kashrut update on Rubashkin’s; Another beef with kashrut in the news; Kashrut Brouhaha Has Legs all from earlier this year). Starting with PETA’s allegations of improper slaughter, following with federal subpoenas in connection with a criminal antitrust investigation and rounding up with allegations of improper treatment of workers, such an investigation has been long overdue.
According to the Forward,

The five-person commission, formed by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly, was created following an investigative report in the Forward, which detailed a series of allegations about the treatment of workers at the AgriProcessors plant in Postville, Iowa. Members of the Conservative panel, who visited the Iowa plant in August and September, recently issued a report stating that “there are significant issues of concern at the plant, including issues of health and safety.”

The goal of the committee is to establish a “tsedek hekhsher,” or a oversight that includes justice as a guideline, to ensure that kosher food producers “have met a set of standards that determine the social responsibility of kosher food producers, particularly in the area of workers rights.”
This is the first time that any Jewish denomination has attempted to use labor as a guideline for certifying food and is also the first time that the Conservative movement would be involved in overseeing food nationally.
According to the Rabbinical Assembly Press release,

According to the Rabbinical AsThe commission intends to continue working with these and other kosher food manufacturers to ensure adherence to Jewish values in the production of kosher food and will be conducting other site visits.
As the humane treatment of animals is at the heart of the laws surrounding kosher slaughter, further visits may include assessments of the conditions and treatment of animals. Additional study may also include an assessment of the effects of their products on the environment by these same and other food processors.

The idea of this committee most likely sprang from ongoing conversations within the movement which called into question exactly what it means to certify something as kosher. As we have seen, the laws of kashrut (just for one example) have recently been taken to be exclusively about following certain ritual requirements, and have had less attention paid to other related laws which guide us as Jews to have respect for animals and their comfort, let alone to paying attention to business practices of Jewish organizations and businesses. It has been profoundly disturbing to those of us who take halakhah seriously, to see that Jewish organizations and businesspeople have selectively focused on certain halakhot and felt it within their their rights to ignore others, and still to call themselves observant.

The question arises, specifically in regards to kashrut (Although I wait with bated breath to see this sort of oversight to be directed at other Jewish businesses as well), as to whether ignoring those other, not directly related halakhot, affects in any way the status of the food that is produced by those businesses. This is reflected in a quote from the Forward,

Reached this week, the head of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division, Rabbi Menachem Genack, applauded the Conservative movement for looking at labor issues, given the weight of Jewish law dedicated to the topic. Genack also said he had spoken with AgriProcessors and the United States Department of Agriculture about the working conditions at the plant. But Genack said that the Conservative movement should be careful not to blur the line between Jewish law regarding worker rights and Jewish law regarding the kosher standard of food.
“There are lots of social issues that are really important that could be subsumed under some sort of super certification,” Genack said. “But if we just move away from strict concerns about kashruth — if we talk about what they pay workers — these kinds of standards can be less than 100% clear.”

Another question arises as well: in internal discussions the question always comes up, especially for Conservative Jews: as we are trying to increase the number of people keeping kosher and taking Jewish law seriously, what do we do when one of these places comes up short? Will we drive people away from eating kosher food?
In many places in the USA, there are no other options for meat than that produced by this company. It is no small likelihood that many people will simply take a stamp of disapproval of a kosher slaughterhouse as license to stop keeping kosher. While many of our more liberal colleagues from other movements may simply shrug and say “so?” or suggest vegetarianism, this keeps Conservative rabbis up at night, as we are already engaged in a very difficult balancing act to try and cajole, persuade, encourage, even beg people to be serious about their Judaism, and that part of being serious means taking seriously commandments which aren’t always so easy, whether that means keeping kosher, or it means paying your workers a proper wage.
But I also want to say this: this is potentially what the best of the Conservative movement is about. Conservative Judaism at its best is taking halakhah seriously – not simply confining ourselves to outward observance of ritual mitzvot. This is what we should be doing: serious observance of halakhah, asking people to commit themselves to God’s service broadly; not simply to keep kosher, but also to keep laws about employment and tzaar baalei chaim. To remind people that there are no minor mitzvot – they all count.
It is surely a coincidence that this has been announced shortly after our very difficult proceedings on homosexuality, but in my opinion, there is a connection. Both these matters deeply emphasize the struggle and balancing act of God’s service. Halakhah is not always obvious, and how we keep all the mitzvot is not simple. I don’t suggest that accepting homosexuality in the way that the Dorff/Reisner/ Nevins tshuvah did is necessarily equivalent to the tzedek hekhsher, but I do think that the parallel is the amount of struggle to do good and to do right. I believe that this is step in the right direction for the Consevative movement, and I hope that this initiative will be successful; this is possibly one of the most important steps that the movement has taken in years. May it be the first of many, and may this path be one of increasing observance for Conservative Jews, just as in this season we increase light in the surrounding darkness of winter.
Forward story here
*Isaiah 1:27