A Well-Trained Seal

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The article below, reprinted with permission from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, was distributed by that news service to its subscribers.

There is something ironic, to put it politely, about an effort championing ethics that speaks out of both sides of its mouth.

That would be the new certification seal for kosher food products, created by a Conservative rabbi and actively being promoted by his movement, that aims to “help assure consumers that kosher food products were produced in keeping with the highest possible Jewish ethical values and ideals for social justice in the area of labor concerns, animal welfare, environmental impact, consumer issues and corporate integrity.”

Originally called “Hekhsher Tzedek,” the symbol’s name was later changed, to “Magen Tzedek.” This was presumably done in response to objections raised by Agudath Israel of America and others who pointed out that kashrut, which the word “hekhsher” clearly references, is a well-defined halachic concept that has nothing to do with ethical considerations. To be sure, Jewish ethical values in food production are no less important halachic concerns, and are indeed embodied in independent halachic mandates. But they are something distinct from kashrut. Implying otherwise, it was objected, subtly but unmistakably conflates two distinct realms and, in the process, attempts to “redefine” an important Jewish concept.

So the “Hekhsher Tzedek Commission” sought to unbake its cake and recast its initiative as not really a “hekhsher” (i.e. kashrut certification) at all but rather a non-kashrut-related endorsement (oddly, though, only for food), replacing the “Hekhsher” with “Magen.” It will be, in the commission’s words, “a supplemental mark… affixed only to foods bearing the symbol of a ritually certifying organization. It does not replace a traditional kosher symbol.”

It was strange that the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission itself nevertheless retained its own name, complete with its kashrut reference. But at least the renaming of the seal would skirt the kashrut issue. The certification, it now seemed, was essentially a “social justice/corporate integrity” stamp of approval. No problem. Indeed, a positive contribution, at least for consumers who for whatever reason do not trust the penalty-empowered governmental agencies that already oversee all those things.

Aye, but here’s the rub: At the same time the new seal was being touted as limiting itself to “bring[ing] the Jewish commitment to ethics and social justice directly into the marketplace” – to, in other words, entirely non-kashrut-related concerns – Magen Tzedek still described itself as being the “gold standard of kashrut” and as offering “kashrut for the 21st century.” Something’s rotten, it would seem, in the state of definitions.

The decidedly non-kosher elephant in the room here is the fact that the Conservative movement does not really embrace halacha. Nor have its religious leaders ever made kashrut a priority or promoted it to their constituents.

Conservatism pledges allegiance to halacha in theory but has, time and time again in a variety of contexts, sought to “accommodate” Jewish religious law to the mores and norms of contemporary American society. The “Whatever Tzedek” is simply the latest manifestation of Conservative leaders’ tradition of exchanging Divine mandates for contemporary constructs. Its seal is a trained one, and its neat trick isn’t balancing a ball on its nose but leading people to confuse kashrut with contemporary social issues.

When Agudath Israel recently issued a statement pointing out the unmistakable redefinition of kashrut inherent in the Magen Tzedek endeavor, representatives of Magen Tzedek responded by erecting and shooting at a straw man, implying, mendaciously, that Agudath Israel discounts the importance of halachic requirements regarding workers, resource wastage and animals; and that we believe Jewish law in the realm of “between man and man” is less important than that “between man and G-d.” Needless to say, these charges are absurd.

Even as Magen Tzedek’s promoters fired wildly, though, they seemed to realize the blatant nature of their “now it’s a hekhsher, now it’s not” approach, replacing the words “Kashrut for the 21st Century,” which had appeared prominently at the top of its homepage after the words “Magen Tzedek,” with: “An Ethical Certification for Kosher Food.” The latest change of wording, however, was cosmetic, an attempt to keep the effort’s goal – which it still defines as to “improve our consciousness, understanding and practice of kashrut by extending the definition beyond ritual to reflect ethical, environmental and social concerns” – less “in the face” of visitors to its website. The “ethical seal,” it seems, is engaging in a cover-up.

But the obfuscation will fool only those predisposed to Magen Tzedek’s goals. Any Jew who recognizes the Divine nature of Torah and the sacrosanctity of halacha knows that the effort’s refusal to address the central issue – the redefinition of kashrut – head-on really says it all.

(c) 2011 Agudath Israel of America

POSTSCRIPT

A response to the above essay, from the co-chairmen of the Magen Tzedek effort, is accessible on JTA’s website. In it, the representatives claim that “The outdated language on our website,” they continue, “has been corrected.”

But it hasn’t.

In the Magen Tzedek’s “Overview”: “[The seal] will improve our consciousness, understanding and practice of kashrut by extending the definition beyond ritual to reflect ethical, environmental and social concerns.”

Under “The Impact,”:”Magen Tzedek certification will provide another way to connect to the spiritual meaning of kashrut.”

And in the “Background” offering that follows the Magen Tzedek “Mission Statement”: [Magen Tzedek is intended] “to deliver a broader, compelling definition of ‘what is kosher’.”

The “initial language” Magen Tzedek removed from its website wasn’t “confusing”; it was telling. It revealed what the effort, emergency cosmetic surgery notwithstanding, was, and is, about.

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