(The Jewish Observer, September, 2008/Elul 5768)
According to Chazal (Nedarim, 40a), ideas that on the surface seem entirely constructive can in truth be quite the opposite. A contemporary case in point is the effort calling itself “Hekhsher Tzedek,” or “Justice Certification.”
Conceived by the rabbi of a Conservative congregation, and now endorsed by that movement’s rabbinic arm, the “Hekhsher”’s promoters insist that it is not really a hekhsher, or kashrus certification, at all. It is, rather, an “enhancement” of such certification, an indication that a kosher product was also “made in compliance with a set of social justice criteria.”
Needless to say, a kashrus certifier certainly has a right, and in many cases a responsibility, to ensure that a food-producing company or food-service establishment seeking its certification hew not only to the laws of kashrus but to other requirements of halacha. Thus, a bakery that is open on Shabbos, a slaughterhouse that violates the dictates of tza’ar ba’alei chayim, or a restaurant where tzenius is lacking would all be rightfully subject to a machshir’s insistence that the business bring itself within the bounds of halacha.
And, of course, there are “social justice” issues, too, like the forbiddance of an employer to withhold workers’ wages, that are of no less concern to halacha. Tellingly, though, only that category of extra-kashrus concerns and animal welfare seem of interest to the purveyors of the planned “Hekshsher Tzedek.”
Brave New “Just And Sustainable World”
More telling still is that even in the realm of “social justice,” the advocates of the proposed non-heksher hekhsher seek less to ensure compliance with halacha than to supplant it with a broader social agenda of their own choosing.
Which explains why those advocates turned to a “social research” firm, KLS Research and Analytics – whose self-described mission is to effect “greater corporate accountability and, ultimately, a more just and sustainable world” – to create the document setting down the conditions for awarding the “Hekhsher Tzedek.”
The resulting seven pages lay down a “strict set of standards” relating to “Wages and Benefits; Employee Health and Safety/Relations/Training; Product Development; Corporate Transparency and Integrity; and Environmental Impact.” Evaluation of companies, it explains, will be based on data collected from, among other sources, “governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the media.”
“Non-governmental organizations” would conceivably include groups like “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,” or PETA; and “the media” – well, we all know what sort of exemplars of responsibility that word encompasses .
Unintended Consequences and Mischief-Making
We American Jews are fortunate to live in a malchus that is not only one of chessed but of laws. And among those laws are more than a few that govern many of the areas into which the “Hekhsher Tzedek” seeks to insinuate itself. Federal and state labor regulations cover wages, safety, animal welfare, employees’ rights, and much else. There are, moreover, secular laws covering areas that halacha may not explicitly address. In those cases, the principle of dina de’malchusa dina requires Jews to respect the temporal law, and its violation perforce constitutes a violation of halacha.
Thus, laws, halachic and otherwise, are already in place to ensure proper treatment of animals, workers, consumers and the environment; and ignoring any of them renders a company subject to punitive action by federal and state agencies. To the extent that an envisioned new “badge of approval” simply reiterates those requirements, it is superfluous. And where it aims to go further, beyond halachic and/or governmental strictures, it overreaches, and can serve only to make mischief.
The proposed “ethical” certification, in fact, would require or favor (and, puzzlingly, only for producers of kosher food, not any other businesses) things that the law does not require, like an unspecified number of paid vacation days, pension plans, “positive relations with unions,” “proactive efforts to have a diverse workforce,” non-mandatory environmental management systems, and much else. However nice those things may sound, they have no place as the subjects of even a quasi-hechsher. What is more, their implementation – with companies paying not only for the new requirements but for the new certification itself – would raise already high prices for kosher food, driving some consumers away from kosher food and likely putting companies out of business (and their employees, of course, out of work – see opening paragraph).
The Plot Thickens
Finally, according to the document, “essential” for any company seeking to qualify for the “Hekhsher Tzedek” will be its “willingness to enter into dialogue with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), and their partners.”
Those, of course, would be the congregational and rabbinic groups, respectively, of the Jewish movement that has, through its creative “halachic process,” effectively erased entire pesukim from the Torah, and led the vast majority of its synagogues’ members – our precious Jewish brothers and sisters – to abandon entire portions of the Shulchan Aruch with “rabbinic approval.”
And that is the movement now presenting itself as the arbiter of a “higher standard” for companies producing or selling kosher food.
Here, of course, lies the key to the matter. Only a naïf could miss the real motivation for the Conservative movement’s recent front-burnering of its “Justice Certification.” It is a bald attempt to portray itself as something other than dwindling and desperate. The movement’s loss of members over past years and its embarrassing jettisoning of yet another passuk of late (this most recent one sacrificed to contemporary society’s increasing approval of “alternate lifestyles”) have left it with a well-deserved intensified identity crisis.
As Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of the New York Jewish Week, politely put it: “This is just the kind of moral issue that could inspire and reinvigorate Conservative Jewry, which has lost members and been divided internally for the last few years… .”
Whether the project has the ability, despite all else, to inspire and invigorate the Conservative movement is uncertain, to put it gently. What is clear, though, is that the movement sensed, and seized, a golden opportunity in the media’s relentless assault on Agriprocessors, the embattled kosher slaughterhouse and meatpacker based in Postville, Iowa.
Blood in the Water
The Conservative rabbi who conceived of the ethical “enhancement” of kashrus was inspired by a report in the Forward in 2006 that portrayed the Agriprocessors plant as rife with harassment, abuse and bribery. Although after his own visit to the plant the rabbi admitted to The New York Times that “We weren’t able to verify everything” that the Forward had reported, he insisted that he had discovered “indignities.” He cited lower wages than those offered by unionized meatpacking plants, safety training only in English, and a single option health-care plan for $50 a week per family.
Although the “abuse” seemed something less than truly abusive, the sharks, so to speak, smelled blood in the water. Before long, the Conservative rabbinic arm endorsed the “Justice Certification.”
Then, this past May, Agriprocessors was the subject of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid during which hundreds of illegal immigrant workers were arrested. Some of those in custody leveled accusations of mistreatment of workers, and the Iowa Labor Commissioner charged that the company had violated child labor laws. Agriprocessors vociferously denied knowingly employing any minor, and pointed out that it had terminated four underage employees in 2007 who, it was determined, had submitted false documentation. And when the Iowa Labor Commissioner’s Office told the company that it knew of other underage workers at the plant, Agriprocessors requested that the workers be identified so that their employment could be terminated, but the Commissioner’s Office refused to do so.
Coming, though, after Agriprocessors was accused by PETA in 2004 of cruelty to animals (a post-shechita practice that was discontinued after objections to it were raised) and the Forward story, the raid set the media – and interested others – to salivating. In mere weeks, the “strict set of standards” document was publicly issued.
The Bottom Line
At least to the degree to which it might stimulate the Conservative laity to focus on actual kashrus, we might take some heart in all the publicity the “Hekhsher Tzedek” has garnered. Few consumers already dedicated to kashrus, though, will be impressed with the proposed seal of Conservative “Justice Certification” approval; they will recognize it as neither a certification nor just. They know that halacha standards are already of concern to kashrus certifiers, and that any “enhancement” of kashrus – in particular at the hands of a Jewish movement that has shown little respect for even clear and established halacha itself – represents not a raising of Jewish standards, but rather a reaching for some semblance of a Jewish high ground, a cynical attempt to stake a claim in a realm until now uncharted by its new intrepid explorers. It is not unconceivable that the “Heckhsher Tzedek” seal, should it ever come to appear on a product, might even serve to repel consumers – at least those who recognize it for what it isn’t, and what it is.