Monday, July 23, 2007

Expanding the definition of 'kosher'

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, a suburb of St. Paul, Minn., is passionate about both kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) and social justice. These concerns have developed into the Hechsher Tzedek (justice certification) movement, which brings social justice in the workplace into the discussion of kashrut.

"I really do believe that kashrut is a central part of Jewish life," Allen told the AJW.

For the better part of the past year, Rabbi Allen has worked steadily as part of a five-member committee to raise awareness about Hechsher Tzedek. The initial focus of the local committee was the welfare of immigrant workers employed at Agriprocessors, the largest kosher meat processing plant in the United States.

After the Forward newspaper published an article that charged poor working conditions at the plant in Postville, Iowa, Allen and the committee visited to determine the truth of the allegations.

"One of the things the committee has been interested in is immigration and it became known that in terms of kosher meat production, many of the workers are immigrants," said Peter Glick, co-chair of the social justice committee at Beth Jacob.

The committee's findings confirmed some of the Forward's allegations. The Postville plant remains at the center of ongoing debate.

"It is not enough anymore in the 21st century to say that a product is kosher according to the ritual debate," Allen said. "It is also necessary to ensure that a product matches our ethical debate."

The Hechsher Tzedek program will seek to certify foods that are produced in proper and healthy working conditions. Products that are certified will be stamped with the official seal.

To evaluate the social justice standards in the kosher food industry, the program will look at six areas: wages and benefits, worker health and safety, animal welfare, corporate transparency, employee training and environmental impact.

Jewish Community Action, a local social justice-oriented non-profit organization, has also been active in the movement. Its executive director, Vic Rosenthal, served on the five-member committee, and noted the cooperation between JCA, the Beth Jacob Social Justice Committee and Allen to implement the Hechsher Tzedek project.

"Our hope is that there will be an initial list of businesses that will want to work with us on moving this forward," Rosenthal said. "Ultimately, what is going to make this work is that there are going to be Jewish consumers who are interested in purchasing kosher foods and who believe that having a Hechsher Tzedek is going to be important to them."

This local initiative has grown quickly in scope and has been supported on the national level by the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, umbrella groups of Conservative rabbis and congregations, respectively. As for press coverage, both the New York Times and the Washington Post have reported on the Hechsher Tzedek concept.

Despite its growing national recognition, Hechsher Tzedek has produced a significant controversy.

Rabbi Asher Zeilingold, of Adath Israel Congregation in St. Paul, oversees adherence to kashrut at Agriprocessors as mashgiach. In that capacity, he has also visited Postville. Zeilingold branded the Forward's allegations as "malicious falsehood"; and he believes that the Hechsher Tzedek program is unnecessary.

"Orthodox Jews will consider it as something that takes away from what kosher is all about," Zeilingold said, "I do not think it will be successful because it I don't think it has any bearing in reality."

Zeilingold worries that Hechsher Tzedek would overthrow the traditional definition of kashrut that is derived from halacha (Jewish rabbinic law). He is dedicated to preserving the traditional halachic interpretation of kashrut.

"I don't see how it [Hechsher Tzedek] could be modified as long as they are talking about a hechsher to include areas which are not within the limited boundaries of kashrut," Zeilingold said.

Allen disagrees.

"We are not interested in replacing traditional hechshers; our goal is essentially to supplement the fine work in determining the narrow definition of kashrut into something much broader," he said.

Both Rosenthal and Allen noted a growing spread of the scope of Hechsher Tzedek beyond the Conservative movement, and even beyond Judaism.

"We are capable of adding to the discourse in American religious life in general about what it really means to be a person of faith," Allen said. "Our goal is to demonstrate the holistic nature of Jewish life. All religions, Jewish and non-Jewish, are increasingly narrow in their focus."

Although the full extent of Hechsher Tzedek may take a few years to implement, Allen aspires to finalize provisions of the program by Rosh Hashana.

For information on Hechsher Tzedek, visit Allen's blog at:

Carly Ettinger and Daniel Oppenheimer are editorial interns at the American Jewish World in Minneapolis, Minn.