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.


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

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6 years 6 months ago

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).

Moishe Potemkin
6 years 6 months ago

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?

6 years 6 months ago

“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
6 years 6 months ago

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.

6 years 6 months ago

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.