Unwashed Poets and Kashrut

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Recently I was privileged to participate in a student-group organized panel presentation at Yeshiva University entitled “The Kosher Quandary: Ethics and Kashrut.” The panel included representatives of the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America and a social justice advocacy group, Uri L’tzedek. The panelists were given a list of questions to address in their remarks, and I think, and hope, that it was an educational experience for all who attended.

Since some people seem to have imagined that I said things I didn’t, or chose to ignore things I did say, I offer my remarks below, which followed my expression of gratitude to the organizers.

I would like to make clear at the onset that, while I intend to speak clearly and bluntly tonight, nothing I say should be construed as impugning the intentions or good will of anyone. I might feel that certain actions or decisions are misguided, but I mean to judge things, not, G-d forbid, people.

Searching for the right metaphor for the relationship between ethics and kashrut, what I came up with is the relationship between… personal hygiene and poetry. Get it? Well, a great poet might never shower, but that bad habit need not affect the quality of his writing. One might not want to attend the fellow’s readings; but the Cantos are the Cantos, Ezra Pound notwithstanding. So while kosher food producers are required by halacha to act ethically in every way, any lapses on that score have no effect on the kashrut of the food they produce.

The same applies to observance, or lack of observance, of the Torah’s laws mandating care for animals and proper treatment of workers; and to societal laws like extra-halachic labor or environmental regulations. All of those things may be mandates, either directly from the Torah or by way of dina dimalchusa, but they are independent of kashrut. That is eminently clear from the Talmud and halachic Codes.

And it is part of the objection that some, myself included, have to the proposed “Hekhsher Tzedek” that has been endorsed by the non-Orthodox movements: Because it conflates two independent Jewish concepts, and thus it misleads.

That, though, begs the larger and more important issue of whether or not kosher food producers should be held accountable for non-ethical behavior.

Of course they should. Here, too, though, there is a further thought to think: Accountable, yes, but more than merchants of Judaica, booksellers or synagogues, Jewish educational institutions or widget manufacturers? No. And so the fact that what has been proposed has been limited to kosher food producers is baffling – or perhaps telling – and constitutes a second objection to the Hekhsher Tzedek initiative. Jewish ethics is a meta-concept, not limited to kashrut.

Further adding to the objections is the fact that the Hekhsher Tzedek plan was conceived in sin – not a word I use lightly. The sin, that is, of jumping to negative judgments of others.

The impetus of the initiative, by all accounts, was the controversy over a company
called Agriprocessors. Let me state right away that I have no connection to the company and wouldn’t know a Rubashkin from a Rubik’s Cube.

Nor do I have any idea if any of the company’s owners are guilty of any or all of the very varied charges that have been leveled against them by private groups, government officials or the media. I don’t know if they mistreated animals (as PETA claims), if they ran a methamphetamine lab (as was alleged in a government affidavit), if they harassed employees, knowingly hired underage workers or misrepresented collateral in a loan. I don’t know – but neither do you, or anyone else, no matter what they may think.

What I do know – and what all of us should know – is that it is Jewishly wrong to assume guilt on the basis of accusations, no matter how many. In fact it is, bluntly put, unethical. And to create and herald a new effort as a result of mere accusations against people disregards the Torah’s laws of hotzoas sheim ra.

Let us pretend, though, that the Hekhsher Tzedek idea had been proposed out of the blue, or as the result of some clear and proven breach of ethics across the board of the kashrut industry. Would that not be sufficient reason to create a mechanism to help ensure that the industry will better hew to their extra-kashrut obligations? Yes it would, and indeed, in Jewish history there are precedents of Gedolei hador, elders of the community, threatening recalcitrant merchants with communal penalties, of their instituting price controls and other such measures.

But the operative principle here, and this is my final and most important point, is that those are not decisions just any of us is qualified to make. If the term Orthodox Judaism has any meaning, it lies in reverence for the past, and for those who lie closer to the past than we. The proper way to explore whether a communal mechanism is warranted and proper to deal with a particular problem – whatever it may be – is to bring it to the attention of the elders of the community.

There are, of course, different sub-communities in the Orthodox world, but each has its elders, its accomplished and experienced talmidei chachomim. Theirs is the address. I don’t expect a Conservative rabbi to acknowledge that fact; the non-Orthodox movements are by definition “progressive” – i.e. focused on change and youth, not mesorah and zikna.

But those of us who call ourselves Orthodox have to know on whose shoulders we
stand and who the Torah teaches us to consider to be the einei ha’edah, the perceptive and farther-seeing eyes of the community.

Thank you for listening.

© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered for publication or sharing without charge,
provided the above copyright notice is appended.

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31 Responses

  1. dovid says:

    “it would be nice if in the same comment where you suggest that the Rubashkins ought to be judged “l’kaf zechut” you extended the same courtesy to me.”

    I could argue that my December 29 comment only questions but does not accuse you of failing in your mission as their spiritual guide. The truth is that I doubted that you instructed you congregation what the Torah demands of us and you correctly sense it. I apologize.

  2. Charles says:

    In fact I do tell congregants that if they have ethical objections to a particular supplier of meat, they should not eat that meat, but that they are not permitted to buy non-kosher meat. I tell the same things, for example, to elderly congregants who have been told by their doctor to avoid kashered meat because of concerns over sodium intake.

    I also have worked with the local supermarket to get them to bring in other brands. Since the Agriprocessors bankruptcy seems to have pretty much disrupted the supply of meat from Postville, I am glad I did. Fortunately the store here is now carrying Solomon’s meat, which from everything I have managed to learn is far superior in terms of treatment of both workers and animals.

    Dovid, you may of course “suggest” anything you wish. But it would be nice if in the same comment where you suggest that the Rubashkins ought to be judged “l’kaf zechut” you extended the same courtesy to me.

  3. Ori says:

    Dovid, if I understand things correctly in Charedi society there are consequences for not following Halacha. Your kids may not be accepted to certain schools, or have a problem finding a spouse. You may be ostracized. In extreme cases, such as the Monsey treif grocer, you might have to leave town.

    For Conservative Jews there are no such social consequences.

  4. dovid says:

    “Rabbi Charles can recommend that his congregants follow kashrut, but not enforce it”

    This holds true for rabbis of all stripes. Can any rabbi enforce halacha? Not today.

  5. Ori says:

    Dovid: Did you enlighten your concregants that while buying Rubashkin is optional kashrut is not, that it is a mitzvah from the Torah to eat kosher?

    Ori: The relationship between a Conservative Rabbi and congregants is similar to the one between a doctor and and patients. Rabbi Charles can recommend that his congregants follow kashrut, but not enforce it – just as your doctor can recommend you lose weight, but not stop you from eating a pizza on the way back home.

  6. dovid says:

    “congregants who do not currently buy kosher meat tell me that they *would* if meat were available that was both ritually and ethically pure.”

    These people who go to such length explaining away their failures, are they ritually and/or ethically pure?

    “in the wake of Rubashkin’s they are considering buying treif meat since the kosher meat is not more ethical, only more expensive.”

    Did you enlighten your concregants that while buying Rubashkin is optional kashrut is not, that it is a mitzvah from the Torah to eat kosher? Did you enlighten your concregants that judging a Jew or a Jewish organization based on allegations is אסור? And that if suppose the allegations do prove to be true, your congregants’ choice is to switch to a different supplier of kosher meat, or maybe stop eating meat? If you didn’t, may I suggest you failed in your mission as their spiritual guide?

  7. Charles says:

    To Rabbi Oberstein, re: your comment #21

    1.) Apparently the objections to the term “Hekhsher Tzedek” have been changed as the symbol is now called “Magen Tzedek.” I will be curious to see how the critics in the Orthodox community now respond.

    2.) While as a Conservative rabbi I agree with you that, a.) many of our members do not observe kashrut, and b.) I wish that were not so — there is one aspect of which you may not be aware. I have had congregants who keep kosher homes tell me that in the wake of Rubashkin’s they are considering buying treif meat since the kosher meat is not more ethical, only more expensive. I have also had congregants who do not currently buy kosher meat tell me that they *would* if meat were available that was both ritually and ethically pure. So while the Magen Tzedek may have negligible impact in the Orthodox community it may in fact increase kashrut observance outside of it.

  8. Yoel B says:

    My previous post omits the fact that the kashrut agency also stated that l’chatchila we should still check eggs even though we can assume that there are no blood spots.

  9. Yoel B says:

    #22
    First, concerning pepper, I personally consider the COR of Canada to be reliable concerning such items; the FAQ on its website states “Pure seasonings that do not have any mixtures of other ingredients such as spice oils or spice blends are generally OK.” Your rov may disagree, of course, but to me requiring a hechsher on such a product is a chumra.

    A certain kashrut supervision agency is among those which places its hechsher on whole raw eggs. When asked “What exactly does your hechsher on an egg mean? Does it mean that I don’t have to check the eggs?” the response included an extremely informative discussion on the kashrut of commercial eggs today, including the information
    -that all commercial non-fertile eggs can be presumed to not contain blood spots
    -that, because straw, chicken waste and other dirt together with any detergent being used to wash the eggs can in no way be considered edible, the eggs are still kosher even if the detergents used aren’t
    -that the cleaning process can’t make the egg non-kosher.
    In other words, the halacha is that the egg is kosher. Without a hechsher. Period.
    The email then concluded, “wouldn’t you feel better to know that there is a hechsher on your eggs?” No, I don’t.

    I don’t deny that there have been benefits in widespread industrial supervision to those who keep kosher. But I do think that it is intellectually dishonest to say that because the problems which have arisen weren’t intended, they somehow don’t count.

    That marketing includes a combination of acts of commission and omission that have succeded in giving the public, including the non-Jewish public,the idea that kosher is purer, cleaner, and more ethical. We (or our kashrut agencies) did it. THAT’S WHAT IT NOW MEANS. We just raised the bar on ourselves. We can’t lower it without a major chillul Hashem, R”l.

    Hechsher tzedek, by that name or another, is now necessary. Attacking the messengers won’t help.

  10. Ruth says:

    #14,
    Today, there are very few foods that don’t need a hechsher. Pure pepper needs a hechsher because the spice company makes mixed spices (which include non-kosher ingredients) in the same plant. Water, for those who are concerned about possible observable (although tiny) insects in it, could require a hechsher too. Food processing has become increasingly complex and knowledgeable mashgichim provide a necessary service.

  11. LOberstein says:

    Hechsher means that someone with authority supervises and certifies what they say is permissable. There is no evidence that the Conservative Movement has the ability, the resources , the personnel or the internal will to operate any kind of hechsher. Sadly, few members care about kashrut, fewer still keep kosher out of their homes. I knew rabbis of Conservative shuls who did not keep kosher our of their homes, both in Baltimore and earlier in Birmingham,Ala. You can’t just talk the talk, you have to walk the walk and the Conservative Movement is too weak in every way to actually carry out this project. I do believe that the motives are sincere and it would be nice if they had any constituancy at all that actually cared what their rabbis decided.

  12. Charles says:

    If the certification were not called “Hekshser Tzedek” but rather “tav tzedek” would the objection disappear? I grant that the term “Hekhsher” does tend to blend two distinct areas of halacha, though it should be reiterated that
    1.) Only products which already carry a recognized hekhsher will be eligible — this is not a kashrut supervision but a certification of ethical behavior for products which are ALREADY kosher, and
    2.) No one is asserting that products lacking a Hekhsher Tzeded aren’t Kosher.

    One suspects that the real problem is that this emanates from the Conservative community.

  13. chaim yosef says:

    Re: Bob Miller post 17,

    The hechsher comes from one community. The owner’s religious community is another. The hechsher is widely recognized, the community may consider itself, above or outside the rabbinical authorities of the hechsher. So, to whom does the proprieter answer/listen? One is a marketer and the other is an appropriate halachik authority? It is a negative aspect of American orthodox life.

  14. Natan Slifkin says:

    The proper way to explore whether a communal mechanism is warranted and proper to deal with a particular problem – whatever it may be – is to bring it to the attention of the elders of the community.

    This sounds great, but the fact is that it doesn’t usually happen anyway. The way that virtually all, if not all, directives from the Gedolim emerge is that someone in the community becomes very passionate about a cause, and then eventually goes to the Gedolim to get their approval and endorsement for whatever cause. In many such cases, it is effectively the layperson himself who is making the decision; whichever Gedolim give him approval will have their signatures appear, and whichever don’t, won’t. So why can’t the same thing be happening here? Is someone not allowed to feel passionately about something and speak up about it before it has been rubberstamped? Does Jonathan Rosenblum ask the Gedolim before every opinion piece in Mishpachah? Of course not!

  15. Bob Miller says:

    Tal Benschar stated correctly that “it is not the hashgacha’s job to certify the proprietor’s compliance with the tax laws.”

    Fine, but IF the proprietor’s business is considered to be essential to the American Jewish community’s well-being, is there no high-level communal Rabbi or Rabbinic board who should step up and correct that business’ ethical/legal problems in line with halacha? Does our community have no clout whatsoever vis-a-vis essential suppliers? For both these questions, if not, why not?

  16. Tal Benschar says:

    What’s the question about cheating on taxes? In my opinion, if the proprietor openly cheats on his taxes — and that includes failure to collect sales tax — then the hasgacha should be pulled to avoid chillul Hashem, perhaps with a warning before the axe falls.

    That said, the food is still kosher whether or not the taxes are collected. And, more to the point, it is not the hashgacha’s job to certify the proprietor’s compliance with the tax laws.

  17. Jewish Observer says:

    “I was privileged to participate in a … presentation at Yeshiva University”

    – do you have no more children to marry off?

  18. Yoel B says:

    There’s an unexamined problem here. First of all, at least in the USA, observant Jews are only a minority of the buyers of kosher food. A few of the others have real health concerns: shellfish allergies, dairy allergies, and a good hechsher will help insure their safety. But most of the non-Jews who look for a hechsher do it because they’re looking for cleaner, healthier, purer food whose makers “answer to a higher authority” and are therefore also more ethical.

    And once the hechsher takes the food manufacturers money under those circumstances, once it starts to put its hechsher on plain spring water, pure ground pepper and the like (doesn’t tell the manufacturer “well that product doesn’t actually need supervision) and for various reasons decides to say “OK, it’ll help your sales and we won’t object if you let people going on thinking that “kosher” means clean and ethical, but we’re not going to do anything to make sure that you actually act ethically…”

    At that point you have customers who think “kosher” means one thing, and kosher supervisors who think it means something else. That lays the foundation for big problems, especially if you keep telling people that kosher slaughter means humane slaughter, and animal welfare organizations start finding inhumane treatment; especially if you – or people who look just like you – dress in a distinctive religious way and then act like crooks.

  19. Charlie Hall says:

    Not all ethical transgressions are hidden. I’ve personally have had frum businesses — including food-related businesses with reliable hechshers — offer to waive sales tax for me if I pay in cash. Should I have reported them to the rabbis? (Should I report a kashrut violation to the supervising rabbi?)

  20. joel rich says:

    The obvious difference between giving a hasgacha to an establishment where inappropriate activities take place (e.g. mixed dancing, racy entertainment, not to mention a house of ill repute) and an establishment which fails to meet its ethical obligations is that the former acts in an open and notorious manner, the latter doesn’t.
    ================
    OK, even accepting your differentiation (which imho is a slippery slope) what about an establishment that informs patrons that they don’t charge sales tax if you pay cash?

    KT

  21. Naftali Zvi says:

    >>How would the poet analogy play out for certifying the kashrut of the food in a house of ill repute?

    What difference would it make? The food may be kosher but one wouldn’t be able to make a bracha there, in any case.

  22. Isaac Moses says:

    To build on Chaim Yosef’s first point, there is a concept in halacha of “chashud amam’na -> chashud ashvu’ata” — that if we seriously suspect a person of civil wrongdoing, we can’t use an oath on his part to help establish his position, because his suspected monetary wrongdoing removes our prior assumption that Jews would never take up God’s name in a false oath. In other words, we do not trust civil scofflaws to not also be religious scofflaws. I don’t know how much of the hashgacha of frum-owned plants relies on positive assumptions about the intentions of the frum owners, but that aspect, at least, should go out the window if there is a strong suspicion of civil wrongdoing.

    That said, I support the OU’s position that it’s not the role of the Kashrut agency to independently investigate and certify the civil behavior of companies, but that Kashrut agencies should react to government findings in these areas.

    To add to the list of counterexamples to R’ Shafran’s blanket exclusion of non-ritual matters from the aegis of Kashrut supervision, I have heard stories about at least two different local hashgachot withholding supervision from restaurants that they feel would be in violation of Masig G’vul — intruding on another business’ “territory.” This is clearly a civil matter and as related to the kashrut of the food as hygiene is to poetry.

    Finally, I take exception to R’ Shafran’s characterization of Hechsher Tzedek as “conceived in sin” because of its birth amidst the uproar over Agriprocessors. I haven’t followed this story closely, so I don’t know if the Hechsher Tzedek people made any conclusory statements about Agriprocessors’ guilt in justifying their venture. Assuming they didn’t, we may also assume that their venture is motivated not by Agriprocessors’ alleged guilt, but by the uproar itself. The fact that such a major kosher food producer is seriously suspected of so many civil evils could reasonably be enough by itself to suggest that the industry ought to be certified against various forms of civil wrongdoing, since such certification would help prevent the sort of chiliul Hashem even false allegations create.

  23. Bob Miller says:

    I’m bothered the idea that the personal midos and behavior of the enforcers of Jewish regulations, or of those subject to the enforcement, can be irrelevant to the degree of compliance.

    Any Torah-based system depends critically on the positive human qualities of all participants, because people have a yetzer hara that can defeat any system no matter how robust it appears to be. If someone indulges his/her yetzer hara in some area of behavior, that attitude can easily spill over into other areas.

    While the kashruth supervisor or organization may have a narrow responsibility, the overall Jewish community leadership has a broad one. Somebody has to attend to the serious communal issues that don’t exactly fall under one technical specialty or another.

  24. chaim yosef says:

    While not in favor of the Hechsher Tzedek, I do have two generic if theoretical questions. If one does not respect people (assuming the charges are true) can one be relied upon to respect kashrut? Can a beis din certified Goniff be a shochet?
    Second, we have all sorts of certifications, one as noted by Mr. Hall, why couldn’t a community Rabbi decide on his criteria — the issue of entertainment in a cafe disqualifying some night clubs or other venues from receiving certification.

    If there is a Rabbi, and he has responsibility for his community does he have to turn to some higher authority to make such decisions. Does, or more accurately, should, not his semicha — give him authority to make decisions, and judgement when he has to ask a more qualified authority. Without any disrespect to any of the Gedolim of any denomination, is there not a tendency to almost call a gadol and ask what the family should eat for dinner this evening. People have a mesorah, Rabbis have a more robust mesorah and the ability or duty to take responsibility in this area. Others may disagree with what the Rabbi says or does but that certificate either should not have been granted or it carries the weight of Sinai.

  25. Tal Benschar says:

    The obvious difference between giving a hasgacha to an establishment where inappropriate activities take place (e.g. mixed dancing, racy entertainment, not to mention a house of ill repute) and an establishment which fails to meet its ethical obligations is that the former acts in an open and notorious manner, the latter doesn’t.

    In both cases, the food is still kosher. There is nothing wrong with a kashrus organization pulling a hasgacha because it feels that inappropriate activities are taking place on the premises — even if it does not affect the kashrus directly.

    The difference is that in the one case it is clear what is going on — no one is trying to hide anything. Only issue is whether it is appropriate to give a hasgacha to that kind of establishment.

    In the latter case, the unethical behavior is hidden. No one trumpets the fact that they mistreat their workers or cheat on their taxes. You would need a team of mashgichim trained in accounting, labor relations, employee safety, etc., etc. — all far beyond their ordinary expertise — to inspect and ensure ethical behavior. That is simply not the job of a hashgacha organization.

  26. Miriam says:

    In Israel there is the issue of giving a hechsher to a restaurant that features belly dancing. The Jerusalem Rabbinate made an issue of it.

    I think hechsher granting institutions have some room to set standards outside of kashrut.

  27. Charlie Hall says:

    Dear Rabbi Shafran,

    Thank you for providing us with the entire text of your remarks. In my not so humble opinion, the New York Times account did not do your position proper justice.

    If you care to write another essay on this, I would love to hear your thoughts on the issue of taking non-kashrut matters into consideration when deciding whether or not to grant a hechsher. Joel’s example of the house of ill repute that might be perfectly shomer Shabat is probably the extreme example, but I’ve personally eaten in a pizza shop that had a large screen television that was blasting out a particularly racy Fox Television program. I wasn’t sure I could say brachas in the room. Yet this pizza shop was certified by a kashrut agency widely regarded as being quite stringent, and I didn’t see anything on the kashrut certificate that said that it applied only to carry out. I have also been told of one respected local Vaad that requires grocery stores to accept food stamps if they want the hechsher. That is probably a good thing, but the food from a grocer who only took cash would be just as kosher. Where should we draw the line? And how much responsibility do we take?

    I’ve expressed elsewhere my opinion that the hechsher tzedek or anything like it is probably impractical. We don’t have enough mashgichim who are knowledgeable about kashrut, much less chosen mishpat and secular law regarding things like treatment of employees and suppliers, payment of taxes, care for the environment, etc.

  28. Daniel says:

    It is is not the inspectors job to pass judgemnet on hoe the construction workers were treated, how much they were paid, etc. Their concern lies only with the kashrus of the bridge.

    But the bridge constructors are not people who wrap God’s word on their body each morning. They aren’t people who embrace the role of being a light unto the nations. In other words, we ought to expect more from religious people.

  29. joel rich says:

    How would the poet analogy play out for certifying the kashrut of the food in a house of ill repute?
    KT

  30. LOberstein says:

    “Stacey Eve Sarfatti and Rustin Ian Paul were married Tuesday at Hebrew Union College in New York. Rabbi Jerome K. Davidson officiated.
    On Nov. 30, the couple had a nondenominational ceremony at the St. Regis Bali Resort in Nusa Dua, Indonesia. It was led by the Rev. Gede Eka Santosa, a Presbyterian minister”
    This item appeared in today’s New York Times.
    I understand that we need a “hechsher tzedek” but maybe intermarriage is a bigger threat to Jewish survival. If a wedding is performed in the Hebrew Union College, not by some shyster cantor in a hotel, then one assumes this union has the full blessing of the high and mighty of the Reform Movement.How then can the same couple proudly proclaim a prior marriage by a Christian minister?
    There may be a need for standards of ethics in Kashrus, but the need for standards of ethics in performing marriages trumps it. How can anyone take the Reform Movement seriously ?

  31. The Contarian says:

    I would have used a metaphor from the world of construction to explain the difference between cheftza and gavra.

    There are many bad things that can be happen and be done in the construction of a bridge for example. on practically all large construction projects construction workers are killed in the process. Most of the time the deaths could have been prevented and were caused by shortcuts taken by the contruction crews bosses, etc. Those responsible are guilty of shedding blood. Sometimes they are prosecuted, sometimes its ia left to the Heavenly court to administer justice.

    There is second avenue of malfeasance in construction: use of substandard materials, design and methods. These affect the safety and usability of the completed structure.

    Bridge inspection looks into these areas only. It is is not the inspectors job to pass judgemnet on hoe the construction workers were treated, how much they were paid, etc. Their concern lies only with the kashrus of the bridge.

    Similarily, the kosher inspection process is only concerned with the the food and its method of prepartion.