Culture, Justice, Religion

. . . But is it Kosher?

Sue Fishkoff has also decided to talk about food. She travels across the Jewish world, around the OU, JTS and Hebrew College, passing by the Kavod House and the Van Ness Minyan, and ending up at Hazon in order to fill an article with all sorts of foody goodness about Eco-Kosher, CSAs and two-table potlucks. What really struck me was this paragraph describing the OU’s reaction to Eco-Kosher movements.

“The Orthodox Union has had this discussion, in terms of animal welfare and healthful foods,” but ultimately decided that its mandate is simply to provide certification of what’s kosher according to halachah, not decide what’s “healthy” or “ethical” food, says Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the organization’s kashrut division.

If only that were true! The OU addresses issues that go far beyond the narrow realm of kashrut. OU certification insures an establishment free of Stam Yeinam (wine that has been handled by a non-Jew) and Shabbat violations, and in the past refused to give Kashrut supervision because of a New Year’s celebration.
While I have my own reservations regarding Eco-Kosher, Rabbi Genack is missing the point. The OU has done a good job of branding itself, and has made clear that its trade mark and Kosher means food that is ethically fit for a Jew to eat – not just free of milk and meat. And no matter how you understand the word Kosher, food that is gained by destroying the environment, by exploiting laborers, by torturing animals, or by doing many other halkhically detestable things is not ethically fit to eat.

22 thoughts on “. . . But is it Kosher?

  1. I don’t know that I entirely agree with your stance that the OU decides what is “healthy or ethical.”
    For instance, food cooked on Shabbat by a Jew is unkosher. You are not permitted to eat it. Stam Yeinam falls under the same category, if non-Mevushal (unboiled) wine has been improperly handled, it too is not permissible to consume it. It is not unreasonable for a Jew to expect that when they buy food it is not only kosher in terms of seperation of meat and milk, etc, but also acceptable in terms of all the other laws relating to food/drink.
    I do, however, agree with you vis a vis the New Year’s celebration, as it is clearly an example of the OU/Vaad/kashrut supervisor’s way of enforcing their ideas about what is religiously acceptable onto others.

  2. The OU also has its opinions about hezkat halavi (they call it dairy) and glatt meat (they call it kosher, and do not make the distinction). If they support humrot, then they can support these, too.
    Also, in many cases, not respecting the welfare of the animals damages their health and makes them treif.

  3. The OU is so not machmir. Their definition of bishul akum when it comes to commercial products (namely things like Manischewitz products) is based on kulot that very few kosher households would use (in one case, a pilot light-bulb — Easy-Bake Oven style — was found to “add enough heat” to qualify under the Rem”a’s requirement of an observant Jew “adding something to the cooking process,” just screw in the light bulb and all’s kosher).
    Stam yeinam is halacha, check the Shulchan Aruch.
    Unfortunately — labor violations and financial mismanagement notably excluded — most of these “ethical” precepts are not in the Shulchan Aruch or its associated poskim and nosei keilim vis-a-vis kashrus. That being said, what requirement does the OU have to legislate such? If you “understand the word kosher” in the way of the Shulchan Aruch and its associated poskim, many of the things which are “unethical” are fit to eat, and all most hechsherim are looking for.
    Now, on the flipside, one could say that supporting companies which do engage in assur activities unrelated to kashrus (e.g. destroying the environment/bal tashchis or not paying workers on time) could be assur due to m’sayei’a l’ovrei aveirah – assisting sinners in doing sin.
    The fact remains, the OU isn’t remiss, just perhaps not living up to the standard they could be holding to.

  4. Halakhic notes are in order:
    1. Food cooked on shabbat is not _assur_. It is a matter of dispute (from the tannaim to the acharonim) who is forbidden to eat it, but we usually hold that after shabbat, and after enough time has passed to make it not on shabbat, the food is permitted. There might be a difference between _mezid_ and _shogeg_, but only for the actual Jew who did the cooking.
    2. It is ashkenazi custom, backed by many poskim and also by minhag, to be very lenient on the matter of bishul akum, especially when there is a mashgiach and the workers are being paid by Jews.
    3. Many, many things that are kosher would never, ever be allowed by the OU. for instance, a gentile may cause _bittul_ (annulment) of a forbidden thing in a mixture (usually 1/60th) on purpose. Like cooking kosher food in a “treif” pot. This is kosher – but in stark contrast to prevalent custom.
    4. This all boils down to the fact that the OU just doesn’t care about some things in the Torah (in the broad sense), while being overly zealous about others. Its all a matter of priority, and the OU just doesn’t have it.
    5. A similar case can be illustrated by the following story. My cousin, an intern for the RCA beit din, called my mother to obtain information on the level of observance of a certain Conservative rabbi with whom she was acquainted. He did not care about Lashon haRa and Rechilut nor about Hotzaat Laaz (defaming) of the earlier marriages and divorces which he had witnessed and preformed during his life. All he wanted to know was “dirty” details which might help the beit din annul a certain marriage and help a certain woman to free herself from the fetters of a broken marriage. Is this a proper order of priorities? Maybe, maybe not. But the OU – and the RCA – and the Orthodox in general, just like everybody else, have their priorities. You can’t, apparently, have it all. Or can you?

  5. i am following this conversation with enormous interest but don’t have as much background as some of you guys – would you mind translating phrases like mezid, shogeg, bishul akum, etc? parenthesis within your posts or a mini glossary would be great. don’t feel like you need to write a thesis on what each idea is, i know how to use google, but just for the sake of readability that would be really nice.

  6. The OU gives a Hechsher to companies who destroy the planet and exploit the workers because they represent Orthodoxy, not Judaism. The distinction lies in the fact that the underlying theme of Orthodoxy has nothing to do with Halacha. Orthodox Judaism is about taking certain Mitzvos (Shabbos, Kashrus, Tefila…) and building mountains of Chumros upon them, while relegating other Mitzvos (B’yomo Titen Secharo, Bal Tashchis…) to the dustheap of outdated practices which have no place in a capitalistic society.

  7. I’m sorry. I just wanted to feed Y-Love with a piece of his own pie.
    an action preformed be-Mezid means it was preformed intentionally.
    and action preformed be-Shogeg means someone did it by mistake.
    Akum is an acronym adopted by printers, which means “worshippers of stars and constellations”, to substitute for the original “Goyim”. Bishul Goyim (or Gi’ulei Goyim) means food cooked by gentiles. Many forbid it.
    _assur_ (pronounced by some “Ossur”, stress on O) = forbidden. (from this: Issur: prohibition and forbidden object, like pork)
    _mutar_ (“Muter”, stress on M) = permitted. (from this: heter: permission or permitted object, like a cucumber)
    anything else?

  8. I also apologize for my lack of translations, but I’m about to take Amit to yeshiva.
    1-2) While you’re right regarding the food cooked on Shabbos being subject to a huge machloket — I was referring not to the food cooked on Shabbos, but rather the status of all food cooked by said person. Under Orthodox standards, any person who is a mashgiach has to be shomer Shabbat al pi halacha in order to render the food “he cooks” (as, with non-Jewish workers, his “adding to the cooking process” is so that the food is as if “he cooked it”) permissible. Here is an example of a non-kashrut-related law which does impact the status of the food.
    (It should be noted that the above is a large force behind the machloket in the charedi world regarding hotels and “kosher resorts”. It is almost anecdotal at this point — many mashgichim at many halls and events have been found to not be shomer mitzvot, throwing the entire hechsher into question.)
    And I don’t understand you meant to bring out by 5).
    3) Was a bad example, but I see and agree with your point. One of my rebbeim told me, “You’d never eat in Rash”i’s house!” regarding the amount of chumrot that are noheg in your average frum community. I actually looked at him quizzically thinking, “his words are holy, his thoughts are Torah, his life is an example, his food is treif?”
    4) is just a blanket generalization, rooted in nothing, meant solely to denigrate the OU. The OU is not a monolith. R’ Yisroel Belsky for instance, a few years ago, pulled a hechsher from a New York cafe for having shira b’makom sh’tiyah (music and bar were too close together), and spoke vehemently praising an OU employee’s pulling a hechsher for tzniut violations, another mashgiach allows light bulbs and OU meat is already eschewed by many in the charedi world for its historic leniencies with things like sirchot and their definition of glatt.
    I will agree with you, though — organizationally the OU could benefit from standardization of practice and procedure. Many mashgichim are exactly as you said, and perhaps the leadership is turning a blind eye, but to say that the entire OU “just doesn’t care” about Torah commandments is unneccessarily abrasive and 613 kinds of wrong.

  9. I stopped eating rubashkins before I went veggie and it ceased to be an issue.
    but I can only think of a one omnivore offhand who eats it (no luck thus far influencing my roommates)

  10. I’m no veggie. But since I moved away from Crooklyn to my new, better hockey but crappy football team city I can’t remember the last time I ate red meat. “Kosher” beef is available. But it is only Rubashkins. Even the Trader Joes that just opened here last week sells no other kosher beef but Rubashkins. And I thought Trader Joes was a more progressive store then to be selling Rubashkins. But on the plus side, their non-hechshered ahi tuna steaks are awesome. Already seasoned. Pan fry each side for 5 minutes and they are great. Oh well, who needs pot roast anyway?

  11. I am introducing my students to Kashrut laws ( they are 16). Could you suggest a good website for Eco Kosher? Thanks!

  12. I think the banter between myself and Y-Love should stop. I will therefore only comment on his more flagrant pieces of nonsense:
    >Under Orthodox standards
    1. What are “orthodox standards”? Do they mean the standards set by the Orthodox Union?
    >, any person who is a mashgiach has to be shomer Shabbat al pi halacha in order to >render the food “he cooks” (as, with non-Jewish workers, his “adding to the cooking >process” is so that the food is as if “he cooked it”) permissible. Here is an example of a >non-kashrut-related law which does impact the status of the food.
    2. Are you saying that kosher food cooked by a jew who is not shomer shabbos is asur? I have seen nothing of the sort anywhere. The person who is mechalel shabbos may not necessarily be trusted on matters of kashrut (again – subject of much debate, we are usually lenient, and stick to the rule that one witness is enough) but I have never seen your funny rule anywhere. It requires making up a special status of “mashgiach” which does not exist.
    Orthodoxy has nothing to do with halakha – as someone already pointed out. It has to do with priorities.

  13. I was trying to think of the most parve way to say “the standards which are generally accepted in traditional Orthodox communities.” “Orthodox” standards was only a shorthand way of trying to express that concept.
    A quick Google search for the concept of the cooking of a mechalel Shabbos (one who desecrates the Sabbath) being assur returns “Ramba”m Hil. Gittin, perek 3 halacha 15, Even Haezer 123: 2” (law in question actually is whether or not one has to be Sabbath observant in order to write a get, also see Kitzur Shulchan Aruch).
    I’m not saying this is universal halacha l’Moshe miSinai, almost everything after anochi Hashem Elokeichem is debated somewhere by someone and applying the label of “Sabbath violator” to today’s non-Orthodox Jew was certainly disapproved of by the Chazon Ish et alii, but a “funny rule”? “Nothing of the sort anywhere”? R’ Moshe Feinstein’s Igros Moshe Orach Chaim III:12? Chullin 5a? Rambam Hil. Shabbos 30:15?
    And, just off the top of my head, doesn’t the Gemara in Shavuot go to great lengths to stress that one who intentionally violates a Torah commandment is an invalid witness (pasul l’edut) — even one who makes his living from gambling (m’sahek b’kubya) — so then how would you say that the principle of eid echad ne’eman b’issurim should be not only applicable but “stuck to” here?
    No “funny rules”. And certainly not “flagrant pieces of nonsense.” Just halacha. Which Orthodoxy, ideally, has everything to do with.
    To the Beis Midrash with ye.

  14. I don’t know how RELEVANT this is, and I am WAAAAY out of my league in terms of remembering the ins and outs of the specific laws of kashrut, but reading this made me remember a little tidbit of info from the Ramban on the juxtaposition of the words ‘Kedoshin Ti’hiyu’ after a laundry list of positive and negative commandments (Errr, in Parshat Kedoshim, of course). So the question he is dealing with is ‘Why would Hashem tell us to be holy (‘Kedoshin ti’hiyu’) after listing off a bunch of laws? Isn’t that redundant- if we keep the commandments, wouldn’t that make us holy?:
    (mind you, this is certainly not verbatim- and please, correct me if I’m wrong… It has been over 10 years since I first learned this)
    No, says the Ramban. ‘Being holy’ consists of more than simply obeying the commandments. One can follow every commandment in the Torah and still be ‘unholy’. I believe the example he uses is one of a glutton, or maybe a lazy, unmotivated person. Being ‘holy’ requires following the spirit of the law as well as the letter of the law.
    So I say, the OU should incorporate ethics into it’s Kosher symbol- because as you so eloquently put it “food that is gained by destroying the environment, by exploiting laborers, by torturing animals, or by doing many other halkhically detestable things is not ethically fit to eat“.

  15. while i’m not sure if its really within the job responsibilities of an OU magshiach, I do think there should be some sort of certification that provides a guarantee of certain Jewish ethical standards towards employees and the environment, not only for food but for consumer products in general.

  16. It’s kind of a shame that kosher doesn’t really mean better at all morally though, doesn’t it? my not-very-relgious grandmother still buys kosher meat, trusting that kosher cows aren’t tortured the same way… Wouldn’t it be awesome if that were true at all?
    alas, it appears almost as if there’s no “right” way to eat meat. how could it be?

  17. I’m not going to get involved in the debate between Amit and Y-Love – anyone who is familiar with halakha knows who is correct. But, I do want to clarify a very simple things that are blurred.
    1 – The Orthodox world is not monolothic. The OU Kashrut division is. Every halakhich question that arises at any plant or restaurant is bounced up a very clear chain of rabbis until eventually it reaches Rav Schechter and one other Rabbi, I apologize for forgetting who it was. They take turns being present in the OU office. If there is a diiscrepancy in their opinon – Rabbi Genack paskens. The decisions are then passed orderly down the chain of command. It is a wonderfully functioning bureaucracy which maintains a level of uniformity not seen in any other large kashrut organization.
    2 – Regardless of the actual halakhic status of varieties of food that is the product of ma’aseh shabbat (work done on the sabbath), eating them would be a violation of Hilchot Shabbat, not Hilchot Kashrut. It may possibly be assur to eat them, but it would not be ‘not-kosher.’ Similarly, bishul akum (food prepared by a non Jew) or stam yeinam (wine hyandled by a non-Jew) are all non-Kashrut issues, even though I don’t dispute their halkhic validity. The entire point of my post, was that the OU includes other halakhot under their Kosher symbol, they could also include halakhot regarding the destruction of the environment (bal tashchit) et al.

  18. Right, precisely. I’m not saying the OU shouldn’t incorporate ethics into its logo and hechsher, but I just had problems with the saying that the OU has been remiss this whole time.
    Really, R’ Yisro’el Belsky of the OU once said that just as one has a rabbi at home that they ask their Shabbos and kashrus questions to, they should have a “rabbi at work they ask their financial questions to (‘Choshen Mishpat shailos‘, verbatim).”
    Wouldn’t that be wonderful — financial mashgichim who come and check on the books and the workers, etc.!

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