Friday, August 3, 2007

Hechsher Tzedek Will Divide Conservative and Orthodox Jews

by Rabbi Asher Zeilingold

The American Jewish World, July 27, 2007

I appreciate this opportunity to elaborate my thoughts on the Conservative movement's new Hechsher Tzedek (AJW 7-20-07).

I am deeply concerned that the Hechsher Tzedek (justice certification) will water down the sacred definition of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws). Unfortunately, only a minority of our people keep kashrut with all the requirements of halacha (rabbinic law).

To preach that kashrut is a matter of how workers are treated, etc., will give our people logical reason to concern themselves solely with the social aspects of food production in the name of keeping kosher. Torah mandates that workers be treated farily and also accepts the authority of the goverment to administer these matters. The Hechsher Tzedek will serve only to drive a deeper wedge between Conservative and Orthodox Jews, further dividing Jew from Jew. It is disturbing that the Conservative team has unjustly made the Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse the centerpiece of its campaign. In every news item and interview, they have referred to alleged conditions at Agriprocessors in order to justify their Hechsher Tzedek. I strongly dispute their allegations.

In May 2006, the Forward newspaper published a lengthy article defaming Agriprocessors. I visited the plant in Postville, Iowa, accompanied by Spanish speaking Dr. Carbonera, on a fact-finding mission. After lengthy and detailed interviews with nuimerous employees, conducted in their native language, we determined that Forward article was "malicious falsehood."

The Conservative movement asked to visit the plant independently. They claimed they wanted only to evaluate the validity of the Forward article. Instead, they capitalized upon the unsubstantiated charges of that article to demonstrate the need for a Hechsher Tzedek.

The Conservative rabbis who supposedly made a thorough investigation of the plant and came up with negative findings have never stated their qualifications and credentials to evaluate safety and labor issues at a meat-packing plant. In contrast, I retained, as a private consultant, a high-level OSHA employee to evaluate the safety of Agriprocessors. This consultant found that the plant compared favorable with other plants in the industry, and identified serious errors of fact and misleading statements made in the report published by the Conservative movement on its official Web site.

One must logically conclude that the Conservative team visited Agriprocessors with a predetermined agenda and predetermined findings. The Hechsher Tzedek is nothing more than an effort to show sympathy for and support of the labor movement (as does the Forward) and has nothing whatsoever to do with kashrut.

The Conservative movement has decided that the U.S. minimum wage is not an acceptable standard of fairness, but has not stated what is a "fair wage," nor how it will determine what is fair or not in matters of labor generally. When it comes to living standards, people of different backgrounds and cultures have a wide range of values. If no standard is specified, decisions will invariably be made unilaterally and arbitrarily, on the basis of if individual perception and expectation, rather than with respect to regulatory compliance.

Unless fairness is carefully and measurable defined, evenhandedness loses its protection, and Tzedek, justice, itself is endangered. We must all work together to preserve Tzedek, justice for all humankind.

Rabbi Asher Zeilingold is the spiritual leader of Adath Israel Synagogue in St. Pau