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.]
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