Hypocrisies, Imagined and Real

I hope my wife and kids don’t find out that I consider it kosher to force 16-year-old girls to work 20 hours a day.

In fact, I was shocked at myself for having said such a thing – or, at least, I would have been had I actually said it.

The source of the disturbing disclosure is a rabbi of a Conservative congregation who writes a column for the New Jersey Jewish Standard. He shared the contention in the course of a column dedicated to the “hypocrisy” he feels American Jews sense in Jewish leaders, “specifically religious” ones – a sense that, the writer contends, holds “much truth.”

Some of the columnist’s criticism is, in fact, well founded. He is upset, for instance, that Conservative rabbis who “stand shoulder to shoulder” with Reform ones in opposing the single standard of time-honored halacha, or Jewish religious law, regarding conversion in Israel nevertheless won’t automatically recognize their Reform colleagues’ converts as Jews. There is indeed some, well, inconsistency there.

But some of the other things he sees as causing some Jews to “roll their eyes in disgust” evoke such reaction, if they do, only because of how they are presented by media (including the columnist himself).

Take an issue he cites: the decision by a rabbinic court in Israel that a number of conversions had not met the requirements of halacha. The columnist presents the legal ruling as illegitimate – on the grounds that the members of the rabbinic court (Israel’s highest one) are not declared Jewish nationalists but mere authorities on halacha.

Now, if religious judges in Israel are mere state functionaries, then, like apparatchiks in a communist country, they might well be required to pledge fealty to an ideology in order to serve in state positions. But if religious judges are, rather, charged with applying halachic principles to cases before them, it would be unreasonable to expect them to do anything less or anything more than precisely that – and perverse to disqualify them for political reasons. No hypocrisy among the judges there, only integrity.

And what of my reputed endorsement of torturing teenagers?

Some kashrut authorities, the writer goes on, will not grant a kosher certificate to a restaurant or club whose food may be kosher but whose ambiance is religiously objectionable. So far, accurate.

A kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa, the columnist continues, “violated with abandon a variety of civil and criminal laws and halachic requirements.” That those accusations have yet to be adjudicated, much less validated, doesn’t seem to bother the writer.

What does, though, is that “the same certifiers” who would deny certification to, say a nightclub have dared contend that even if the Iowa slaughterhouse’s owners are proven guilty of some charges, the meat the plant has produced remains kosher!

And, worse yet, “Agudath Israel’s Rabbi Avi Shafran” concurs, as he “recently told a Yeshiva University-sponsored conference.”

So, continues the columnist, what certifiers and Shafran apparently hold is that “music you can dance to does help determine ‘the kosher value,’ but forcing 16-year-old girls to work 20 hours a day does not.”

Disclosure: I did indeed tell a Yeshiva University audience that even an actual, much less alleged, lapse of business ethics has no effect on the kosher status of food produced or served by the violator of the law. Neither, though, does a nonkosher ambiance in an eatery. Such situations are analogous to the fact that a medicine produced by an ethically deficient drug company is no less effective than that produced by an ethically spotless one. The company’s ethical responsibilities are, most people readily realize, something apart from its products’ efficacy.

The kashrut of an item, however, and certification of its manufacturer or of an establishment serving it are two distinct things. When a kashrut certifier weighs the decision about whether to certify an establishment, it isn’t kashrut alone that matters. Both business ethics and non-kashrut-related religious issues are perfectly reasonable concerns for it to take into account. Because certification endorses more than kashrut; it lets consumers know that an establishment is a patronage-worthy one.

What sort of ethical concerns are rightly in the purview of a certifier, though, is another question, and a complex one. Should ingredients originating from a country where child labor is the norm be unacceptable? Should a company that pays its employees only minimum wage be rejected for certification? Must workers be unionized? Receive a certain number of paid vacation days? If so, how many?

I do not claim to know where the lines should be drawn in such things. My point at the symposium, in fact, was that drawing such lines requires wisdom, experience and Torah knowledge. I think it’s safe, though, to say that “forcing 16-year-old girls to work 20 hours a day” is well on the wrong side of an important line.

As is pejoratively misleading readers about what someone said. And fostering such misrepresentation in the course of extolling ethical behavior? Well, there’s a word for that.

© 2009 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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14 comments to Hypocrisies, Imagined and Real

  • Dave

    I would love to ask these people who have such righteous indignation whether they apply these same standards to everything else they buy-namely, products from China, for example, where the conditions there make the worst allegations against Rubashkin seem like a vacation in Hawaii by comparison.

  • Benjamin E.

    Is there a link to the article so we can judge it for ourselves and have a discussion, by any chance, or is it only in print? It is hard to determine the extent of the spin you claim was present in the article without seeing it.

  • Moishe Potemkin

    Leaving aside the irrelevancies about companies “only minimum wage” and vacation standards (Is that really what Rubashkin was repeatedly fined for doing?), the point remains that kashrus organizations have consistently been far more willing to use hashgacha to enforce appropriate ambiance than appropriate employment practices, even when the lines and laws are perfectly clear. It’s hard not too see that as some sort of prioritization.

  • Chaim Fisher

    Avi is 100% right.

    But I’m sure he agrees that if he had just added a line to that YU speech about how for sure there is always a minimum ethical conduct that the Rabbis have to keep in mind, it would surely have flown better.

  • Natan Slifkin

    I don’t know who’s right. What I do know is that the perception of this writer is understandable. How many Kol koreis and other public mecha’os have we seen over the last few years for mitzvos bein adam lechavero, and how many have we seen for mitzvos bein adam leMakom?

    This is true with all mitzvos of social/ethical concern. I used to give shiurim pointing out the nonsensical (and sometimes worse) attitudes of PETA. But then it occurred to me that it’s all too easy to ridicule them; instead, we should be looking at our own shortcomings. The bottom line is that they are concerned for cruelty to animals, and we in the frum community (myself included) are not adequately concerned about violations of tzaar baalei chaim to actually do anything about it. Would the recent takanos about regulating kapparos have occurred without PETA making a demonstration? Why is it always up to outsiders to point out our shortcomings in such areas and force us to do something?

    The bottom line is that any honest observer would have to conclude that the frum community does not give anywhere remotely near the same level of concern to mitzvos bein adam lechavero as it does to mitzvos bein adam leMakom. This isn’t some chiddush of mine; if I recall correctly, it’s even been pointed out in The Jewish Observer.

  • Miriam Shear

    Once again, we are missing the most important point.

    Of course, the ambience of an establishment does not physiologically change the status of ingredients from kosher to non-kosher and vice-versa.

    What can and has happened, however, is that Chillul Hashem is bred and fostered by illicit activities in establishments that purport to be kosher because they have recognizied kosher certification.

    Is there any greater sin than Chillul Hashem?

  • dovid

    “the point remains that kashrus organizations have consistently been far more willing to use hashgacha to enforce appropriate ambiance than appropriate employment practices, even when the lines and laws are perfectly clear.”

    Why do you find this problematic? It is a sensible and clear division of labor. We pay taxes so that the law enforcement agencies take care of our upholding the law. Food processing firms and restaurants, catering halls, etc. pay a fee to have kashrus organizations uphold halacha, ambiance, waitresses with short sleeves and short skirts included. Cops are not rabbis. Rabbis are not cops.

  • YM

    Since the Torah really has no minimum age for working, the idea that Kashuruth agencies should enforce a minimum age as a condition for certification does not make sense to me. I think that Kashuruth agencies should stick to those issues that pertain to the “Heskes Kashurus”; is the owner trustworthy in the issue of making sure that only Kosher meat gets sold as Kosher?

  • Moishe Potemkin

    Why do you find this problematic?

    Because it reinforces (internally and externally) the widely-held impression that the Torah-observant world doesn’t take mitzvos bein adam lechaveiro as seriously as mitzvos bein adam lamakom.

  • dovid

    taking “mitzvos bein adam lechaveiro as seriously as mitzvos bein adam lamakom”

    You are right, that’s an objective that we need to keep constantly in mind. Still, I think comments #6 (Mrs. Miriam Shear) and #8 (YM) address the issue correctly and to the point. Some issues are within the purview of Halacha (kashrus, tzinus), others are the territory of the law enforcement agencies.

  • Moishe Potemkin

    Some issues are within the purview of Halacha (kashrus, tzinus), others are the territory of the law enforcement agencies.

    I’m certain you didn’t mean it this way, but your bifurcation makes my point – we have somehow developed the attitude that communal tznius is more within the purview of halacha than are employment practices.

  • dovid

    “we have somehow developed the attitude that communal tznius is more within the purview of halacha than are employment practices.”

    If you refer to stringencies in one area but not in others, that’s should be ok. If you are referring to halachos, I don’t agree with you. The attitude you are refering to reflects individual choices and not those made by communities. It’s a lifetime job and challenge for each of us to become knowledgeable in the halachos and apply them consistently. Many of these halachos relate directly to kinnah, taavah, and kavod. A weakness in any of these areas may result in being charitable with ourselves and taking liberties by flouting the Shulchan Aruch. For example, someone driven by taavos, may cut corners with regard to the requirements of tzinus or kashrus. He may also be dishonest in business to pay for his taavos. I haven’t found a community that would cherry pick halachos and uphold one set of halachos over others.

    I would like to point out that many of those who protested alleged improprieties with regard to “employment practices” at the Iowa facility even before Shalom Rubashkin had his day in court, were motivated by their animus against the Orthodox community. It had little to do with their desire to improve the lot of the illegal workers found at the facility. What happened to these workers after the raid? After all, they risked life and limb to come to America to work. Some were deported, others are in hiding, none of them is working. However little they made, it was more than what they could make in the home country.

  • Moishe Potemkin

    Dovid –

    I must confess that I don’t understand your first paragraph. If you contend that kashrus organizations are responsible for halachic concerns aside from the ingredient list, then I can’t see why employment practices should be excluded. The “attitude I am referring to” is one that doesn’t consider employment practices to be under the purview of halacha.

    I would like to point out that many of those who protested alleged improprieties with regard to “employment practices” at the Iowa facility even before Shalom Rubashkin had his day in court, were motivated by their animus against the Orthodox community.

    How can you possibly know this? And why does it matter?

  • dovid

    Suspicions with regards to violations of employment-related halachos typically affect neither the food, nor the ambiance of the hall where the food is served. I think one can eat in a place where he suspects that violations of such halachos may take place. Breaches in labor contracts or any contract should certainly be addressed, preferably through arbitration (Din Torah), or rabbinical tribunal (Beis Din). If the employer is proven as a dishonest, unreliable person during such procedures, that could become a kashrus concern, over and above the halachos that he breached in those other areas. In kashrus, it’s not enough to have a knowledgeable, reliable supervisor. The owner of the establishment must be trustworthy. No matter how good the mashgiach is, if the owner wants to beat the system, he will. Rabbi Gornish, a recognized authority in kashrus, goes as far as advising consumers to enquire where the owner’s children learn and ascertain the degree of tznius of the owner’s wife and daughters. If there are no halachos regarding minimum age for hiring a worker, but America does have such laws, then the laws of the land prevail (with no effect on the kashrus of the food).