Thursday, March 27, 2008

Compassionate Conservatism

by Jane Calem Rosen

Movement creates hekhsher based on ethics

When you buy food certified as kosher, how do you know that the manufacturer offers its workers a fair wage and benefits package; provides safe working conditions; doesn’t pollute the environment; engages in honest business practices; and, in the case of meat, treats the animals humanely before and during the slaughtering process?

And should you care?

The answer to the last question is an unequivocal "yes," according to a paper written by Rabbi Avram Reisner on behalf of the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission, an initiative of the Public Policy and Social Action Commission of the Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

And if the Conservative movement has its way, consumers will someday be able to easily ascertain the answer to question No. 1. The commission is close to concluding work that will enable kosher food purveyors to submit to a review that will deem their products ethically fit for consumption. Such approval is intended to supplement, rather than substitute for, a label that indicates products have met ritual requirements for kashrut certification.

In his document, Reisner, a former religious leader of the New Milford Jewish Center who is also a member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the movement’s legal body, details the halakhic — Jewish legal — underpinnings of five specific areas the commission has identified as appropriate for setting standards of ethical kashrut. The five are wages and benefits; health, safety, and training; corporate integrity, i.e., issues around working cooperatively, sharing information, honest reporting of data, and the like; product development, which includes aspects of animal welfare; and environmental impact. In each area, Reisner cites biblical and rabbinic sources, as well as medieval and later commentators.

For example, regarding the obligation of an employer to fairly compensate workers, including sick and vacation pay, Reisner builds an argument based on the law in Shulchan Arukh (Choshen Mishpat 331:1), which states, "One who hires employees should treat them in accordance with local custom," followed by Joseph Caro’s injunction from the same source, "When the custom was to provide their meals, he should provide their meals, to provide figs or dates or something similar, he should provide it — all in accordance with local custom."

(To read Reisner’s arguments in their entirety, log onto [Al Pi Din]

"We believe that for a majority of Jewish people, regardless of their denomination, the gold standard is tzedek, righteousness. And [with hekhsher tzedek], we make a statement that is uniquely ours, as Jews, to make, since food is so central and tzedek so a critical part of our orientation to the world, that where ritual and ethics really meet is at our dining room tables," said Rabbi Morris Allen, religious leader of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minn., project director of the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission, co-sponsored by the two organizations that represent Conservative rabbis and the Conservative laity. (The six-member commission is composed of rabbinical and lay representatives.)

In a recent telephone interview, Allen told The Jewish Standard that the Conservative movement is uniquely positioned to insist that both producers and consumers of kosher food heed Jewish ethical standards. "There is no bifurcation of ethics and ritual" in the Conservative approach to Jewish practice, Allen said. On an interdenominational panel on the topic in Chicago in January, Allen said that an Orthodox rabbi expressed embarrassment that "the Orthodox community has refused to address these issues [of social justice in kashrut] all these years," while Allen’s Reform colleague, said Allen, noted that ethics, rather than ritual, was of greater appeal to his constituency.

Allen first used the term hekhsher tzedek in a High Holy Day talk he gave in 2006 after spending that summer chairing a movement commission of inquiry into reported complaints by workers at one of the nation’s leading producers of kosher food, AgriProcessors of Postville, Iowa.

"I came to understand [from my summer experience]," said Allen, "that as someone who promoted kashrut observance, it is not possible to just focus on the ritual aspects, if the production of kosher products are inconsistent with Jewish values and norms from an ethical perspective.

"We need to get across to much of the kosher food industry," Allen continued, "that this [hekhsher tzedek] will be a reward for good work they are doing, an indication that observant Jews can feel really good about buying products produced ethically as well as ritually in a kosher way. So one important message to really reinforce is this is not a replacement for [an] already existing hekhsher, but a secondary statement about this food that is ritually kosher, that you can feel good about the way workers have been treated, the environmental impact of the company, and so forth."

"Unfortunately, we know there may be some companies where ethical shortcuts have been taken [that are] inconsistent with the values that Jewish people know to be correct," said Allen, noting that the absence of a hekhsher tzedek would alert the public to the potential for such abuses.

While the Conservative community is in full agreement on the ethical dimensions of kashrut, said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, chair of the law committee, a question yet to be settled is one of nomenclature. Some movement legal experts have expressed misgivings about applying the word "hekhsher," a term that conveys certification with the full force of halakha, Jewish law, behind it, in this context, said Dorff. These members of the law committee, Dorff explained, say they prefer the designation "siman," which means sign or symbol and therefore would be less authoritative and presumably carry less weight with consumers who observe strict standards of kashrut.

Reisner’s paper, while legal in nature, is "not a tshuvah [a Jewish legal responsum with the force of law]," agreed Allen. "All the areas addressed [in Reisner’s paper] have already been addressed halakhically. We’re not asking the movement or the Jewish people to do something beyond what is required [by Jewish law]. It’s not question of whether there are ethical underpinnings on labor relations or for keeping kosher, for example. These already exist. The movement is already on record against hoisting and shackling in upholding the ethical treatment of animals," another area addressed by Reisner’s legal arguments.

Whether the new label is ultimately called a hekhsher tzedek or a siman tzedek may turn on how broadly or narrowly kashrut is understood, an issue that has come before the law committee in the past, Dorff said, most recently in 2003 with the publication of a responsum co-authored by him and Rabbi Joel Roth against hoisting and shackling. Reflecting Roth’s narrower interpretation of kashrut in this instance, Dorff observed, "Joel was very careful to say that shackled and hoisted animals were still [ritually] kosher," adding, "I went along with his language [in order to] rule out the practice."

But however the name game eventually ends, with its latest foray into kashrut certification, the Conservative movement has made another important statement, Dorff suggested. "Until recently, not officially, but in fact, the Conservative movement ceded to Orthodoxy the control of kashrut." He added, "That no longer is the case."

Article Series
This article is part 1 of a 2 part series. Other articles in this series are shown below:

Compassionate Conservatism
A look at sources