Culture, Justice

Eating Right

Reading an article called Eco-Kosher Movement Aims To Heed Tradition, Conscience in the Washington Post earlier today led me to do some thinking about how several different food related issues tie together. The idea of eco-kashrut, like so many great recent innovations, dates back to the 1970s when Reb Zalman began thinking and talking about it. This was not long after he had moved away from Habad and was one of those targeted when Ramah purged several innovative thinkers who had been working there (I am always looking to learn more about this, if you know anything about it…). Zalman’s idea, as i understand it, was to consider ecological impacts, footprint minimizing, workers rights, tzar baalei hayim (animal rights), and related issues when considering which foods ought be eaten. It did not take long for the theory to gain traction in the Renewal world, though it didn’t move much beyond that for several decades.
Lately, as the WaPo article reiterated, a coalition has formed in the Conservative movement to look into the idea of eco-kashrut and the concept of a tzedek hecsher. Jewschool’s own Kung Fu Jew works with Hazon on their joint which deals 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 animal treatment issues:

An article on Eco-Kashrus (kosher certification requiring environmental concerns be implemented) was relegated to almost irrelevance in Kashrus magazine. Laws of bal tashchis, of “not destroying” the environment (“fruit trees” are referenced in the verse) are discussed in the Code of Jewish Law, right there in the second volume, not too far after laws of forbidden meat and dairy mixtures. Is there not even room for a debate of the validity of these holy laws when it comes to kosher certification?
And the workers. I have an extremely hard time understanding how blatant Choshen Mishpat (fourth volume of the Code of Jewish Law) violations are allowed to go on in light of numerous exhortations of the Sages in the Talmud (Bava Metzia) to treat workers well, pay wages on time, etc. Even calling someone an insulting word is forbidden by Choshen Mishpat 228.

While I share Y-Love’s anger at how blatantly the koshernostra has failed to take these issues seriously, i am excited to see the possibility of a competition to push these issues into the fore. If the Conservative yidden do launch some sort of tzedek hechsher it would certainly put a lot of pressure on the OU to prevent future Postvilles. Kol Ra’ash Gadol gave a fuller account of the Postville incident about 6 months ago, but in brief a kosher slaughterhouse was caught mistreating undocumented workers, threatening them with deportation, and heinously mistreating animals. Many of the facts were exposed by PETA in a video.
The tzedek hechsher would certify products as acceptable in six areas:

  • fair wages and benefits
  • health and safety
  • training
  • corporate transparency
  • animal welfare
  • environmental impact

I bet I’m not the only person who finds the prospect of such a thing exciting. The details would be tough to work out precisely–is it permissible for a company union bust as long as it pays better than prevailing wages?–but the promise is really appealing. I have often been headed to a party, stopped to buy beer, and wondered which companies are worker and enviro friendly. Luckily now that some of the big unionized domestic producers (like Bud) have spread into beers which actually taste good, there are lots of options available but why should we have to do so much research. How many people would buy items with justice hechshers when they had the chance? Companies who do the right thing should be recognized for it and prosper. What’s more, this would be a great opportunity to partner with coop america and other orgs that have been doing green andorganic certification for years. This is the sort of initiative that could begin to win back young jews being pulled in lots of directions. Creating a serious ethical voice on these issues would be a huge step forward. Let’s hope that the progress over the next couple years is faster and broader than the progress through the last three decades.

17 thoughts on “Eating Right

  1. “How many people would buy items with justice hechshers when they had the chance?”
    I would.

  2. I would, too, but I fear this will continue to be stuck in the Jewish political mire. As we don’t have a single national authority to make all our important decisions for us (*sarcasm alert*), it seems that any attempt at this noble and timely certification is open to criticism/ denigration/ boycott by groups that did not do the certifying. Remember, the thing we as Jews like almost as most as achdus, is biting the heads off Jews who don’t believe what we do.
    Honestly, I’m surprised that some other (not Jewish) organization hasn’t jumped all over this. Nowadays, there are products which are certified not only organic (in all its shades), but vegan, halal and fair trade. An independent group’s “tzedek” seal would probably stand the best chance of success.

  3. I most obviously would. But the C. movement should think hard and long about how they define “tzedek”. There are numerous problems with the local “Tav Chavrati” (discussed here before) including that they don’t require employees to belong to unions, and that they allow restaurants to pay wait staff with tips.

  4. i wonder whether life would be better if we began having a plethora of different certifications like a coop america green star for organics, an afl-cio blue solidarity something for labor, and a nice footprint to indicate acceptable levels of ecological impact. probably not all organic fans care about labor standards and vice versa.
    the reason these other symbols haven’t happened yet is that until very recently there hasn’t been the possibility of a consumer base who would choose such items and demand certification. frankly, i am surprised jerry falwell hasn’t started offering a trademarked cross logo to folks who meet his ideological needs, perhaps free of domestic partner benefits etc.

  5. At the risk of sinking into the “mire” judi refers to, I wonder if eco-kashrut is defined only as an add-on to conventional kashrut, or can be thought of as an alternative.
    From the WaPo item linked above:
    “The Conservative seal of approval will not be based on traditional kosher requirements…”
    But then later a rabbi is quoted as speaking of it as an add-on: “We do believe that most Jews, if given a choice between ‘This item is kosher’ and ‘This item is kosher and also was produced by a company that respects its workers and the environment,’ that most Jews will choose the latter.”
    Obviously, we are a long way from an agreed upon definition. But I would guess that the Jews who are most likely to be attracted to an “eco-kashrut” concept are the more liberal Jews, who just happen also those least likely to adhere to conventional kashrut. If so, then doesn’t a concept of eco-kashrut as alternative hold more promise?

  6. I’m totally down with this. I have some of the same concerns as other commenters, but I’d go out of my way to buy these products in a second.

  7. HI all, in broadest principle, i am excited about a conversation on this hechsher, but two thoughts:
    1) Kashrus law is really, really confusing. do we really want to go down this road? does this mean that a pot used to cook non’Tzedek-hechshered’ meat makes all other cooking not ‘tzedek-kosher’?
    2) I really, really worry about including liberal politics with relgion. i grew up with my dad being a state political director for AFSME, a union, but my girlfriend is a Texan conservative who simply doesn’t believe in unions. do i truly want to tie the secular world of labor politics in with my religious preferences? and before you tell me that obviously unions and living wages are so obviously right or wrong (and i believe they are right, make no mistake), i ask to whether or not the belief one way or another should now be given the same religious weight as, say, whether to keep shabbos.
    good luck in this, everybody.

  8. B4I–
    1)I agree– for this to work realistically, it would be better to not take it as far as separate dishes, etc. Seeing as most kosher vegetarians I know (myself included) eat of meat dishes, this will probably be intuitive for most people.
    It’s also quite likely that a lot of people won’t be exclusive– they’ll get things with a Tz-H as much as they can, and select a Tz-H product over a similar but not Tz-H alternative.
    2)that would be a benefit of ZT’s idea above– that there be separate certifications for different qualities (organic, carbon footprint, labor, etc.) But that could get really complicated.

  9. My bro recently compared the hechsher industry to Communism. Both are super idealogies designed to safeguard the well-being of our social and environmental communities. Both, when implemented large-scale, have turned into corrupt systems that lose the idealogy in favor of money and power benefits for the people on top.

  10. I’m fascinated by the gezeirah shavah that seems to be implicitly assumed every time this topic comes up here: that because the tzedek hechsher uses the word “hechsher”, it must be subject to every possible chumra associated with the other kind of hechsher. This is also assumed to be nonseverable, so that if any of these chumras are not going to be observed, then this is seen as an inherent flaw in the idea of a tzedek hechsher.
    I think there is no basis for this gezeirah shavah, as the two types of hechsher are fundamentally different, despite using the same language of “kashrut”. The obligations connected to the tzedek hechsher are about which products we purchase – how do we spend our money, and do we want to support companies with unethical practices? This doesn’t place any limits on what we eat in someone else’s home, etc. In contrast, the other obligations connected to the standard hechsher are about which products we consume – someone who keeps kosher won’t eat bacon regardless of where it came from or who paid for it (but might buy non-kosher meat as pet food, etc.). The various chumras around keeping a kosher kitchen are meant to make extra extra sure that we don’t eat anything non-kosher, and don’t really make sense when it comes to the tzedek hechsher. But this doesn’t mean that the tzedek hechsher isn’t useful or valuable.
    And despite this fundamental difference, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to use the word “kashrut”, since the word “kasher” just means “ok”. No one has this kind of confusion when talking about a kosher sukkah or a kosher mezuzah.

  11. I could be wrong, but my understanding is that the tzedek hechsher would not certify animal welfare standards. I believe that was an original goal (possibly one of several) that is no longer part of the plan.
    Great post, though! 🙂 When so many of these important issues come together, they deserve serious attention.

  12. The Washington Post article cited “animal welfare” as one of the 6 issues the tzedek hechser would address. it may be that they screwed it up resulting in my screwing it up. perhaps someone deeper in conservative movement politics could shed some light.

  13. BZ- i completely agree that the use of the word hechsher doesn’t imply the two are neccesarily related. but seriously, i just know i can count on the day when some uppity pico-robertson conservative jew responds with his/her nose upturned that she keeps “tzedek kosher” and nothing else, because, really, kashrut is SO last century. this will be just one more way for secular people to keep ‘kosher’ without keeping kosher. and it will be done with the best intentions, but it will happen nevertheless.

  14. this will be just one more way for secular people to keep ‘kosher’ without keeping kosher. and it will be done with the best intentions, but it will happen nevertheless.
    Do you think that even one person will stop keeping kosher as a result of this? Show me the person who is still keeping kosher only because s/he hasn’t found the right excuse to stop.

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