by Rabbi Morris Allen and Dr. Richard Lederman
There is an apocryphal tale told about Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of Judaism’s Mussar [ethics] movement. Every year before Pesach, Rabbi Salanter would inspect matzah bakeries to check their kashrut. One confident owner couldn’t wait to show off how efficient his matzah production had become. When Rabbi Salanter finished the inspection, though, he declared that the bakery was in violation of the halakhic prohibition against blood in food. “Your sense of efficiency, together with the unacceptable demands placed upon your workers, shows that their blood is mixed into the food produced in this bakery,” he said. Even though the blood was purely metaphoric, Rabbi Salanter would not certify the kashrut of the matzah.
In his concern about how food is prepared and the impact of its production on its producers, Rabbi Salanter demonstrated how social justice should be an element in the process of kashrut certification. In some ways, the Conservative movement’s new hekhsher tzedek or “kosher certification for justice” can trace its origins to this story. Although we must be sure that the food we put into our mouths is conventionally kosher we must be equally interested in how it makes its way to our tables.
Observing commandments that connect us with God through ritual acts does not excuse us when we violate the commandments that connect us to humanity. Many of our congregants feel a certain sense of incongruity between kashrut and other Jewish values, such as the treatment of animals, environmental degradation, poverty, and hunger. The American Jewish community’s definition of kashrut often is more focused on the smoothness of a cow’s lung than on the dignity of the worker who dresses the carcass as it comes down the line.
In response to published allegations that working conditions were unsafe and workers were being mistreated at AgriProcessors, the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the United States, United Synagogue and the Rabbinical Assembly sent a commission of inquiry to inspect both AgriProcessors and the Empire Kosher poultry plant in the summer and fall of 2006. A summary report of these two visits is at www.uscj.org (click on the Social Action tab at the top).
The commission found that workers’ safety and well-being were somewhat compromised at the AgriProcessors plant. As a result of its findings, the commission was asked to expand its efforts and establish the hekhsher tzedek, an ambitious and challenging project that would determine a product’s ethical kashrut. A hekhsher tzedek demonstrates how we can meld the ritual and the ethical to create a Judaism that is concerned with human dignity. It can ensure that our core observance of kashrut includes a conscious determination not to “abuse a needy and destitute worker” (Deuteronomy 24:14).
As a movement that accepts the authority of halakhah, the Conservative movement has a stake in encouraging the observance of kashrut. We also have a responsibility to ensure access to kosher meat and to enhance the community’s confidence in those products. At the same time, we cannot sit idly by while food industry workers are maimed and injured because of poor safety practices, receive substandard wages and benefits, or lose earnings because they must pay for their own essential safety equipment.
The commission is establishing standards that both address social values and have a strong foundation in halakhah. Indeed, it is the nexus between halakhah and social values that is at the heart of the hekhsher tzedek. As a vital expression of how halakhah is imbued with a sense of social justice, we hope that the hekhsher tzedek will encourage a newfound enthusiasm for the observance of kashrut. In a world in which people are thirsty for meaning and hungry for an ethical path, our tradition has the power to inspire a new generation.
We must establish mechanisms for applying the standards, and ongoing supervision will require on-site inspections. In the initial stages the commission has focused on worker rights but it will expand to focus on six broader areas: wages, safety and training, fringe benefits, treatment of animals, environmental impact, and corporate transparency, the need to receive honest information from companies and proper access to ensure its honesty. Each of these represents an important Jewish value.
In addition to educating Conservative Jews about the added value of the hekhsher tzedek, we will rely on grassroots support to encourage manufacturers to apply it and local distributors and retailers to stock products that carry it. United Synagogue has taken the first step by establishing the Hekhsher Tzedek Fund, which will provide staff, research and educational and promotional materials.
For more information or to support United Synagogue’s Hekhsher Tzedek Fund, call Dr. Richard Lederman at 301-230-0801, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or send donations to 121 Congressional Lane, Suite 210, Rockville, MD 20852.
Rabbi Morris Allen is co-chair of United Synagogue’s Commission on Public Affairs and Public Policy and rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minnesota. Dr. Richard Lederman is the commission’s director and executive director of United Synagogue’s Seaboard region. Both are members of the commission of inquiry.