Monday, August 6, 2007

Eat Justice

by Leah Koenig · August 6th, 2007
The Jew and The Carrot

Rabbi Morris Allen has served Congregation Beth Jacob outside of St. Paul, Minnesota for 22 years. In his “spare time,” he is also the founder of Hechsher Tzedek – a proposed certification put forward by the Conservative movement last December that would endorse foods that are traditionally kosher and also produced in a socially just and sustainable way.

Hecsher Tzedek has received significant acclaim, and also sharp criticism since the idea was piloted eight months ago. I spoke with Rabbi Allen recently to find out the latest news.

“Kashrut is not simply a statement about what we can and cannot eat,” Rabbi Allen told me. “There are so many people who worry about whether a cow’s lung is smooth [glatt] or not, but have no worry about whether someone’s hand was mutilated in the process.”

After my goose bumps subsided, I asked him what this vision looked like in practice. He identified six criteria that will be the “meat and potatoes” of Hechsher Tzedek as it develops:

Fair wages and benefits “We live in a world where kosher meat can be produced in Iowa by a worker making $6.25/hour, whereas the average meat packer is making $11.25/hour,” Rabbi Allen said.
Health and safety
• Appropriate training
• Corporate integrity
• Animal welfare
• Environmental Impact

Some critics argue (most notably Rabbi Menachem Genack from the OU) that ethical and health concerns belong with the USDA, OSHA, and not rabbinic authorities. But Rabbi Allen believes Jewish tradition mandates a more holistic approach: ”If we don’t connect [kashrut] to the world and the values we hold, then we fail to take kashrut at its core level.”

Other naysayers, like ultra-Orthodox rabbi, R. Gershon Tannenbaum, claim that a Hechsher tzedek threatens to “infiltrate and dilute the existing framework of kashrus certifications” and called on observant Jews to flat out reject Hechsher Tzedek. Yikes.

R. Tannenbaum clearly doesn’t understand that Hecsher Tzedek, and all of Rabbi Allen’s work, is focused on precisely the opposite goal: turning people on to kashrut. More and more, socially-conscious Jews are abandoning kosher food products (especially meat) that are produced in unsustainable, unhealthful, and unjust ways. Even those Jews who will not give up the hechsher are starting to clamor for socially-responsible, kosher meat options.

“I don’t want people to say, ‘I’d rather buy a free-range chicken than a kosher chicken,’” Rabbi Allen said. “There shouldn’t [have to] be that split.”

Despite criticism, Rabbi Allen is thrilled with the committee’s progress. Hechsher Tzedek has been covered in many of the major Jewish papers (JTA, The Forward, etc.), not to mention the coveted New York Times article. Aside from good press, Agriprocessors - the industrial meat ”goliath” of PETA infamy has made notable progress as a result of Hechser Tzedek encouragement, including inviting animal welfare expert, Dr. Temple Grandin to advise them on their animal handling practices. (Dr. Grandin also advises Mc Donald’s Corporation.)

“I don’t see [these ideas] as divisive in Jewish life,” Rabbi Allen said. “When push comes to shove, Jews want to do the right thing. We want to know that what we do matters in the world.”

Still, the greatest challenge that seems to be facing Rabbi Allen and Hechsher Tzedek is buy-in from across the Jewish spectrum. Rabbi Allen stressed the importance of building allies and partnerships around this work. At this point, however, every member on the Hechsher Tzedek committee hails from the Conservative movement. Additionally, as they move forward, the committee will need to place a strong emphasis on public input. (As of now, they have hosted a series of forums in the Twin Cities and Rabbi Morris’ keeps a Hechsher Tzedek blog that is open to comments.)

You might say Rabbi Allen has opened up a big can of worms - the hechsher tzedek is a critical piece of the emerging movement of Jews who care about deeply Jewish tradition and the health of the world. The work that unfolds will undoubtedly be great. But judging from Rabbi Allen’s words last week, “Kashrut has always been a core of my rabbinate,” - it seems he’s up to the task.