Sunday, August 24, 2008

Exploring the ethical meaning of kosher food

By Sumathi Reddy, Sun reporter
August 23, 2008
Baltimore Sun

Kosher food just isn't kosher anymore for some members of the Jewish faith.

Concerns about worker abuse at kosher slaughterhouses have led Conservative Jews to develop standards to ensure that producers pay fair wages and benefits and are sensitive to animals and the environment.

A proposed certificate of righteousness, called hekhsher tzedek (pronounced HECK-shur ZED-ick) and an identifying seal, are likened to fair trade coffee. The idea is producing a rift between Conservative and Orthodox Jews.

Some Orthodox rabbis say they have no place getting into the business of labor practices, which are best left to the federal government. Furthermore, they question why producers of kosher food should be held to a different standard from other businesses.

"On humanitarian grounds, I support it," said Rabbi Sheftel Neuberger, a leader in Baltimore's Orthodox Jewish community. "But I don't think it's a rabbinic issue. ... Are they going to also choose which sneaker company to endorse?"

But other Jews say that ethics surrounding the production of kosher meat are as important as the ritual.

"I'm not obligated to buy Nike shoes; I am obligated to buy kosher food," said Rabbi Morris Allen, a Minneapolis rabbi who has led the Conservative movement to implement the seal.

"I can't fix business practices throughout the world ... but I do have a responsibility to be involved in trying to address an industry that I am dependent upon in order to fulfill my Jewish life."

In May, federal authorities raided Agriprocessors Inc. in Postville, Iowa, the nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant. Immigration officials arrested about 400 allegedly illegal workers, and authorities are investigating possible violations of child labor law, among other things. Yesterday the plant was accused of more than 31 safety violations, according to Iowa state labor officials.

Allen and the rabbinical and congregational arms of the national Conservative movement have been in the process of developing a hekhsher tzedek for more than a year, since concerns first surfaced over work conditions at Agriprocessors.

Draft regulations were approved last month for standards that address five areas: health, safety and training; wages and benefits; environmental impact; corporate transparency; and product development.

The program would be strictly voluntary. Companies that seek the symbol would be evaluated by a commission to ascertain whether they meet the five standards and would then be periodically re-evaluated.

"We affirm the role of those who have spent their lives defining kashrut products through ritual means," said Allen. "This would be a secondary seal demonstrating that Jews are not only concerned about the ritual aspects of our tradition but the ethical aspects of our tradition. This is another level of commitment of what it means to be Jewish in the marketplace."

The process will cost companies, he said, acknowledging that that cost will likely be passed on to consumers, but it's a price he believes they'll be willing to pay.

A campaign is under way with rabbis supportive of the concept taking up the issue.

Allen has spoken at Chizuk Amuno, a Conservative synagogue in Pikesville, said Rabbi Ron Shulman. Shulman took up the issue in June when the congregation decided to stop buying kosher meats that come from Agriprocessors. They are sold under several labels, including the popular Rubashkin brand.

"In our congregation people are very aware of it, and they have adapted their consumption choices to not be buying their meats from the Postville plant until their practices are modified," he said. "There are plenty of other brands. Fortunately, nobody's going hungry."

Miriam Foss is one such congregant. The Mount Washington resident said she recently asked her butcher, Wasserman & Lemberger Kosher Meats in Pikesville, if any of the meat came from Agriprocessors and was pleased to find out that it did not.

To Foss, a hekhsher tzedek symbol is similar to the fair trade coffee that she buys and is willing to pay more for.

"The process is really important, not just the product of kosher meat," she said. "I feel like it's really supported in Judaism, that it's important how workers are treated in the production of kosher food. Of course the laws of kashrut have to do with the animals ... but it's the whole picture that's important."

Some say that with food prices soaring, any increase that could result from a hekhsher tzedek process will turn consumers off. "I think now things have gotten so expensive, it's going to be very, very hard," said Chaim Fishman, manager of Seven Mile Market in Pikesville, a kosher grocery store.

Fishman said of the hundreds of customers he sees, only two or three have inquired about the brands associated with Agriprocessors. "I think people are just happy trusting the rabbis for the certification and trusting the U.S. government," he said.

Fishman, who is an Orthodox Jew, said he would not be swayed by a hekhsher tzedek symbol. "If it happens to be there, OK," he said. "But I think a lot of Orthodox probably won't be all that interested in seeing that certification."

The Rabbinical Council of America, the national Orthodox Rabbinic organization, does not support the hekhsher tzedek concept.

"Kosher is kosher, and kosher reflects the requirements of what renders an animal ... acceptable for a Jew to properly eat," said Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the council. "Of course there are always ethical concerns whether it's regarding food or clothing or furniture ... but it is inappropriate to mix the two realms together."

Furthermore, Herring said labor law is the government's domain: "For a kosher agency or a rabbinic group to take upon itself those responsibilities ... would be enormously complex, inefficient and, frankly, very, very expensive."

But some in the Orthodox community called it an "excellent idea." One is Rabbi Chaim Landau, who leads the Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Synagogue in Baltimore.

"We are now driven to raise the level of understanding of what kosher is and to be able to relate to it on more than just a technical level," said Landau.

He said he hopes it would be a positive education "not just for those who are concerned within the Jewish community ... but those within the broader community."