Monday, September 29, 2008

Living - not just eating - kosher

Anderson Cooper 360
September 29, 2008

Rabbi Morris J Allen
Beth Jacob Congregation
Mendota Heights, MN

Being at the center of an effort to change how American Jews think about “what’s Kosher” is a double-edged sword when you are the rabbi of a modest congregation in suburban St. Paul and it is the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

This is the busy season for rabbis, the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. There are sermons to write and congregants to counsel. There are holiday preparations to look after, festive meals to plan, family members to invite.

Then add on interviews to be done – for radio, television, newspapers, magazines and the web. During this time of celebration and reflection I can most strongly make the case for a “Heksher Tzedek” or “Justice Certification” for Kosher meat and poultry.

Outside of the Jewish world, the word “Kosher” has become part of the vernacular, usually applying to whether one is acting properly or ethically. For Jews, Kosher means the rules that apply to what we eat and how we eat.

Kosher is a big business. There are about 6.5 million Jews in this country, but more than 10 million Americans who buy Kosher products.

We have proposed an additional standard as it relates to Kosher food – taking into account, for example, not only whether an animal is slaughtered according to Jewish law, but also how the animals are treated beforehand. This concern must also be matched, just as importantly, with how the people doing this work are treated. And not simply with meat, but Hekhsher Tzedek is addressed to all products which bear a kosher symbol. For these concerns also occupy a central place in the discussion of Jewish life. Yet, this undertaking is controversial.

Hekhsher Tzedek has sparked a national conversation among Jews about the contemporary meaning of Kosher. People who previously knew little about keeping Kosher are receiving a crash-course education. And they are responding beautifully. Our work has allowed us to demonstrate that when so important an issue is brought to a community, people respond.

Naturally, this brings a smile to a rabbi’s face (even one who, ironically, is a vegetarian). After 23 years of promoting the observance of Kashrut, people are now really listening! They are listening because we have demonstrated to the Jewish community that keeping Kosher is central to Jewish self-understanding and a perfect way to demonstrate that both ritual and ethical aspects of Jewish life can be present at our dining room tables.

Some people know about the Hekhsher Tzedek campaign because of the federal immigration raid in May and the investigation into the Agriprocessors meat processing facility in Postville, Iowa. The national Hekhsher Tzedek commission has gone on the record regarding charges of worker abuse at the plant, which produces kosher meat and poultry, insisting that the ethical treatment of workers and corporate responsibility be part of how we view Kosher companies.

Though this story has captured national headlines, Hekhsher Tzedek exists above and beyond this deplorable case, promoting the simple yet profound message that ritually kosher food tastes best when it is prepared in accordance with the ethical Jewish norms and values that are also found inside our tradition.

Keeping kosher has always been an integral part of Jewish identity. Kashrut provides us with a daily opportunity, with every meal, to sanctify our lives, to create a sense of holiness and awareness of God in our lives. Keeping kosher must translate into living kosher and exploiting a worker, the environment, or an animal in the process of producing kosher food makes that an impossibility. Our Justice Certification will insure that it is indeed possible to buy kosher food and be assured that it meets with all the criteria that we as Jews should live.

A Hekhsher Tzedek is being developed by a renowned group of rabbis and food industry experts. Marketing will commence when we are sure that we have developed a system that can evaluate from a Jewish perspective in an objective and verifiable manner. The appearance of this Justice Certification symbol alongside the traditional ritual hekhsher (Kosher seal) will provide consumers with assurance that the food they are buying is produced by companies that embrace Jewish ethical values as well as follow ritual practices.

This certification will be based on adherence to standards in five categories: Employees’ Wages and Benefits; Employee Health and Safety; Product Development; Corporate Transparency; and Environmental Impact.

It is important to understand that the goal of this initiative is not to replace any existing, honored hekhsher, nor to revise any traditional beliefs or practices. Rather it is intended to enhance what living kosher means.

And despite what some critics have said, Hekhsher Tzedek does not aim to overthrow existing standards of kashrut. Nor does it aim to be divisive, as others have charged. In fact, from our experience, Hekhsher Tzedek has built bridges between Jews of various walks of life. It will be a win-win for the producers of Kosher food. And here’s why.

Within my own movement, the Conservative movement of Judaism, Hekhsher Tzedek has gained unanimous support from the governing bodies of both rabbis and congregations. Simply put, Hekhsher Tzedek has served to re-energize Conser vative Judaism, which has always occupied the solid center of the American Jewish community. We have been able to speak about kashrut with new assuredness and confidence.

And we’ve received support from the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. Many Orthodox leaders have also praised the initiative, with a prominent rabbinical group announcing a similar type of initiative earlier this week. Hekhsher Tzedek has been endorsed by a consortium of organizations dedicated to social justice, including HAZON and MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. When all is said and done, more Jews ( and many non-Jews) will buy more kosher products as a result of our work.

These have been exciting and dizzying times for those of us involved in Hekhsher Tzedek. What began as a modest initiative in my own community of Mendota Heights, MN to further promote the observance of the laws o f kashrut has snowballed into a national, interdenominational effort to create a culture of kashrut in America. I first spoke of this on the eve of Yom Kippur in 2006. Today, articles written about the kashrut in America frequently reference our work.

It seems that American Jews are hungry to live kosher lives, which is an expansion of the idea of simply keeping kosher.