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New York - No Hekhsher, Not Tzedek

Published on: September 12, 2008 10:24 AM
By: The Jewish Observer, September, 2008/Elul, 5768 By Rabbi Avi Shafran
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New York - According to Chazal (Nedarim, 40a), ideas that on the surface seem entirely constructive can in truth be quite the opposite.  A contemporary case in point is the effort calling itself “Hekhsher Tzedek,” or “Justice Certification.”

Conceived by the rabbi of a Conservative congregation, and now endorsed by that movement’s rabbinic arm, the “Hekhsher”’s promoters insist that it is not really a hekhsher, or kashrus certification, at all.  It is, rather, an “enhancement” of such certification, an indication that a kosher product was also “made in compliance with a set of social justice criteria.”

Needless to say, a kashrus certifier certainly has a right, and in many cases a responsibility, to ensure that a food-producing company or food-service establishment seeking its certification hew not only to the laws of kashrus but to other requirements of halacha.  Thus, a bakery that is open on Shabbos, a slaughterhouse that violates the dictates of tza’ar ba’alei chayim, or a restaurant where tzenius is lacking would all be rightfully subject to a machshir’s insistence that the business bring itself within the bounds of halacha.

And, of course, there are “social justice” issues, too, like the forbiddance of an employer to withhold workers’ wages, that are of no less concern to halacha.  Tellingly, though, only that category of extra-kashrus concerns and animal welfare seem of interest to the purveyors of the planned “Hekshsher Tzedek.”
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More telling still is that even in the realm of “social justice,” the advocates of the proposed non-heksher hekhsher seek less to ensure compliance with halacha than to supplant it with a broader social agenda of their own choosing.

Which explains why those advocates turned to a “social research” firm, KLS Research and Analytics – whose self-described mission is to effect “greater corporate accountability and, ultimately, a more just and sustainable world” – to create the document setting down the conditions for awarding the “Hekhsher Tzedek.”

The resulting seven pages lay down a “strict set of standards” relating to “Wages and Benefits; Employee Health and Safety/Relations/Training; Product Development; Corporate Transparency and Integrity; and Environmental Impact.”  Evaluation of companies, it explains, will be based on data collected from, among other sources, “governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the media.”

“Non-governmental organizations” would conceivably include groups like “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,” or PETA; and “the media” – well, we all know what sort of exemplars of responsibility that word encompasses .
Unintended Consequences and Mischief-Making

We American Jews are fortunate to live in a malchus that is not only one of chessed but of laws.  And among those laws are more than a few that govern many of the areas into which the “Hekhsher Tzedek” seeks to insinuate itself.  Federal and state labor regulations cover wages, safety, animal welfare, employees’ rights, and much else.  There are, moreover, secular laws covering areas that halacha may not explicitly address.  In those cases, the principle of dina de’malchusa dina requires Jews to respect the temporal law, and its violation perforce constitutes a violation of halacha.

Thus, laws, halachic and otherwise, are already in place to ensure proper treatment of animals, workers, consumers and the environment; and ignoring any of them renders a company subject to punitive action by federal and state agencies.  To the extent that an envisioned new “badge of approval” simply reiterates those requirements, it is superfluous.  And where it aims to go further, beyond halachic and/or governmental strictures, it overreaches, and can serve only to make mischief.

The proposed “ethical” certification, in fact, would require or favor (and, puzzlingly, only for producers of kosher food, not any other businesses) things that the law does not require, like an unspecified number of paid vacation days, pension plans, “positive relations with unions,” “proactive efforts to have a diverse workforce,” non-mandatory environmental management systems, and much else.  However nice those things may sound, they have no place as the subjects of even a quasi-hechsher.  What is more, their implementation – with companies paying not only for the new requirements but for the new certification itself – would raise already high prices for kosher food, driving some consumers away from kosher food and likely putting companies out of business (and their employees, of course, out of work – see opening paragraph).

The Plot Thickens

Finally, according to the document, “essential” for any company seeking to qualify for the “Hekhsher Tzedek” will be its “willingness to enter into dialogue with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), and their partners.”

Those, of course, would be the congregational and rabbinic groups, respectively, of the Jewish movement that has, through its creative “halachic process,” effectively erased entire pesukim from the Torah, and led the vast majority of its synagogues’ members – our precious Jewish brothers and sisters – to abandon entire portions of the Shulchan Aruch with “rabbinic approval.”

And that is the movement now presenting itself as the arbiter of a “higher standard” for companies producing or selling kosher food.

Here, of course, lies the key to the matter.  Only a naïf could miss the real motivation for the Conservative movement’s recent front-burnering of its “Justice Certification.”  It is a bald attempt to portray itself as something other than dwindling and desperate.  The movement’s loss of members over past years and its embarrassing jettisoning of yet another passuk of late (this most recent one sacrificed to contemporary society’s increasing approval of “alternate lifestyles”) have left it with a well-deserved intensified identity crisis.

As Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of the New York Jewish Week, politely put it: “This is just the kind of moral issue that could inspire and reinvigorate Conservative Jewry, which has lost members and been divided internally for the last few years… .”

Whether the project has the ability, despite all else, to inspire and invigorate the Conservative movement is uncertain, to put it gently.  What is clear, though, is that the movement sensed, and seized, a golden opportunity in the media’s relentless assault on Agriprocessors, the embattled kosher slaughterhouse and meatpacker based in Postville, Iowa.
Blood in the Water

The Conservative rabbi who conceived of the ethical “enhancement” of kashrus was inspired by a report in the Forward in 2006 that portrayed the Agriprocessors plant as rife with harassment, abuse and bribery.  Although after his own visit to the plant the rabbi admitted to The New York Times that “We weren’t able to verify everything” that the Forward had reported, he insisted that he had discovered “indignities.”  He cited lower wages than those offered by unionized meatpacking plants, safety training only in English, and a single option health-care plan for $50 a week per family.
Although the “abuse” seemed something less than truly abusive, the sharks, so to speak, smelled blood in the water.  Before long, the Conservative rabbinic arm endorsed the “Justice Certification.”

Then, this past May, Agriprocessors was the subject of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid during which hundreds of illegal immigrant workers were arrested.  Some of those in custody leveled accusations of mistreatment of workers, and the Iowa Labor Commissioner charged that the company had violated child labor laws.  Agriprocessors vociferously denied knowingly employing any minor, and pointed out that it had terminated four underage employees in 2007 who, it was determined, had submitted false documentation.  And when the Iowa Labor Commissioner’s Office told the company that it knew of other underage workers at the plant, Agriprocessors requested that the workers be identified so that their employment could be terminated, but the Commissioner’s Office refused to do so.

Coming, though, after Agriprocessors was accused by PETA in 2004 of cruelty to animals (a post-shechita practice that was discontinued after objections to it were raised) and the Forward story, the raid set the media – and interested others – to salivating.  In mere weeks, the “strict set of standards” document was publicly issued.

The Bottom Line

At least to the degree to which it might stimulate the Conservative laity to focus on actual kashrus, we might take some heart in all the publicity the “Hekhsher Tzedek” has garnered.  Few consumers already dedicated to kashrus, though, will be impressed with the proposed seal of Conservative “Justice Certification” approval; they will recognize it as neither a certification nor just.  They know that halacha standards are already of concern to kashrus certifiers, and that any “enhancement” of kashrus – in particular at the hands of a Jewish movement that has shown little respect for even clear and established halacha itself – represents not a raising of Jewish standards, but rather a reaching for some semblance of a Jewish high ground, a cynical attempt to stake a claim in a realm until now uncharted by its new intrepid explorers.  It is not unconceivable that the “Heckhsher Tzedek” seal, should it ever come to appear on a product, might even serve to repel consumers – at least those who recognize it for what it isn’t, and what it is.



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Read Comments (18)  —  Post Yours »

1

 Sep 12, 2008 at 10:43 AM Simchat Says:

Hekhsher Tzedek = Kosher Pork

2

 Sep 12, 2008 at 10:44 AM Anonymous Says:

What amazes me the most is the fact we are willing to even acknowledge the relevance of these idiots to Kashrus; let them say what they want and just ignore them!

3

 Sep 12, 2008 at 10:50 AM Torah Yid Says:

If it isnt a heksher by the conservative movements own admition then why do they call it a Heksher? Hmmm perhaps because they are looking to deceive unlearned yidden or pathetically attempt to validate their own apikores movement?
TO CONSERVATIVE: Recognizing that Hekhscher Tzedek isnt a Hekhsher is the first step. The next step is to admit that Conservative Rabbis arent Rabbis and Conservative Converts arent Yidden... Keep it up and make teshuvah... return to Hashem

4

 Sep 12, 2008 at 11:09 AM Anonymous Says:

OSHA Covers Plant Safety
US Dept Labor Covers Labor Laws Min Wage Age Etc.
INS/HS Covers Imigration
IRS Covers Taxation
USDA Covers Quality Standards
EEOC covers equal opportunity
"Heksher" "Tzedek" is obviously a sham
What these perverters of Judaisim are offering is just another oppurtunity to take advantage of the attention drawn towards Agri adding another sick twisted spin on thier attempts to demonize Torah observant G-d Fearing Jews and appear as moral and socialy just people with modern values good enough to be accepted by gentiles.

Last Shabbos I passed a reform temple they had a street "shabbos" party and BB-Q, cooking in public,(would not venture to guess if the meat was kosher) playing music in public.
The reform as did the saducees claim that CHVSHLM
do not accept Torah Shel Bal Peh.
However The Torah is very clear about making a fire in public On Shabbos.
My point is that we should just simply ignore these or try to be mikarev (the ones who are truly Yidden) and not engage in debate with them as they clearly are devoid of any Yiddishkeit.

5

 Sep 12, 2008 at 11:08 AM Joseph Says:

Well put, Rabbi Shafran!

6

 Sep 12, 2008 at 11:21 AM anonymous Says:

How do we stop companies thaht use their yiddishkeit to flout the laws of the land? Obviously, this would include Rubashkin, et.al.

7

 Sep 12, 2008 at 11:28 AM hamavin yovin Says:

bottom line is DONT KILL THE MEESSENGER.
tell rubashkin to shape up or ship out. hechsher tzedek has the right to do what they want . if you dont give hem a reason for this then they wont bother you.

8

 Sep 12, 2008 at 11:32 AM YENTA PESHA Says:

BEING CONSERVATIVE IS A HECHSER TO ACCEPT TUMAH!!! THEY ARE A DIFFERENT RELIGION.

9

 Sep 12, 2008 at 11:31 AM Anonymous Says:

Rabbi Genack holds the problem is Scheita Munachas

10

 Sep 12, 2008 at 02:35 PM yehuda Says:

I hope RABBI GENACK will read the above article, Very well written

11

 Sep 12, 2008 at 02:44 PM anonymous Says:

hamavin yovin Says:
bottom line is DONT KILL THE MEESSENGER.
tell rubashkin to shape up or ship out.
**********************************
But they havent. What can we do now?

There are posters on this blog who are adept at killing the messenger. Rubashkin can do nothing wrong in their eyes and for voicing our opiniopns, we are called every name in the book.

What can we do to tell Rubashkin to shape up??

12

 Sep 12, 2008 at 04:10 PM Anonymous Says:

add to my 4:08 post

Or maybe sadly, Rabbi Avi Shafran knows that many frum owned companies would fail to met the standard for worker and animal welfare. How sad is that if it where true

13

 Sep 12, 2008 at 04:08 PM Anonymous Says:

I read and reread this article and really do not understand the Hekhsher, Tzedek is only an addition to an already existing Hekhsher. No different than a product that carries an ou and kaj. Or for example if an ou product has a label certified organic on it. Thery are not claiming to imply that it means kashus in the regular sense.

So people that are more sensitive to workers and animal rights can now have a choice. Let say two different companies one both have a kaj Hekhsher on it however one also has a Hekhsher Tzedek but cost a few cents more. The buying public then made a choice.

what is the big deal

14

 Sep 12, 2008 at 04:20 PM Abe Smith Says:

OU = Shame on YOU!

Where was the ou when empire was driving everyone out of business and
holding the consumer hostage with outrageous prices?where were they when rabbi
Louis Bernstein tried to break the empire monopoly which charged 3 to 4 times
the national average for chicken? Louie as he was fondly known had one of the
major chicken companies ready to make a kosher division with prices guaranteed
at only 20 cents more per pound! where was the ou outrage against price
gouging and monopoly?
Rabbi Genack has a different agenda here and we have to stand up for
rubashkin!

15

 Sep 12, 2008 at 05:07 PM Michal Says:

To Rabbi Shafran,

Why no comments on the actions of OU and Rabbi Genack?

16

 Sep 12, 2008 at 05:04 PM actually Says:

the Gemorrah lists numerous things we do for Tikkun Olam. The question is if you have 2 seperate compnies producing the samr prime rib and only 1 has a hecsher Tzedek , would buying your meat from the other one constitute an aveirah?

17

 Sep 12, 2008 at 06:03 PM Anonymous Says:

Thank you Abe Smith!

Why are more of us not completely OUTRAGED at the way Jewish companies are conducting themselves?
How can we even trust the OU anymore?
Maybe there should be a PETA of the food industry! If the OU won't stand up for fair labor laws, or even humane killing of animals--which is a serious halahic problem-- who can say the food we are eating cannot even be considered Kosher?!!
Maybe this Heksher Tzedek is not the solution, but the OU does need a serious shakedown! They are doing our entire community an injustice and disservice.

18

 Sep 14, 2008 at 10:56 AM anonymous Says:

Anonymous Says:
Thank you Abe Smith!

Why are more of us not completely OUTRAGED at the way Jewish companies are conducting themselves?
How can we even trust the OU anymore?
******************************************
What about Rabbi Weismandl?
What is is stand on child labor?
There was a noodle company that he took away his hashgacha because of cartoon figures on the box. Morl outrage then and none now??

19

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