When Tzedek Isn’t: The Conservative Movement Finds a Cause

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This article appears in the current issue (Winter 5772) of Dialogue Magazine.

When a Jewish religious initiative captures the imagination and garners the admiration of as broad a swath of general and Jewish media as The New York Times, the Wall St. Journal, the Washington Post, USA Today; the Forward, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the New York Jewish Week, Beliefnet, Forbes, the Huffington Post and NPR (among others) – it is probably prudent to regard the effort with some suspicion.

And, in the case of the enterprise known first as “Hekhsher Tzedek” and more recently as “Magen Tzedek,” such wariness would be well-deserved indeed.

Those names refer to the at-first-glance-seemingly-benign quest of a Conservative rabbi, Morris Allen, to “help assure consumers that kosher food products were produced in keeping with the highest possible Jewish ethical values and ideals for social justice.” His idea, which morphed into a full-fledged joint project of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, is to place a special seal on already kosher-certified products, to indicate that the producer has met certain standards regarding “labor concerns, animal welfare, environmental impact, consumer issues and corporate integrity.”

Needless to say, a kashrus certifier may well have a right, and in some cases even a responsibility, to ensure that a food-producing company or food-service establishment seeking its certification hews not only to the laws of kashrus but to other requirements of Halacha. Thus, a bakery that is open on Shabbos, a slaughterhouse that violates the dictates of tza’ar ba’alei chayim, or a restaurant where tzenius is lacking would all be rightfully subject to a machshir’s rejection.

And, in fact, of no less concern to Halacha are some “social justice” issues, like ensuring proper treatment of workers or prompt payment of wages. Tellingly, though, the promoters of “Hekshsher Tzedek” seem interested in nothing but the social justice categories of extra-kashrus concerns (along with animal welfare and environmental issues). And, curiously, even those categories are applied by them exclusively to the manufacture of food. This, despite the fact that social justice concerns, halachic and otherwise, are no less applicable to manufacturers of Toyotas, washing machines, office supplies or widgets. This might seem an unimportant observation, but it is, in fact, a most significant one, as will be elaborated below.

First, though, some history.

Conceived in Sin

The Conservative rabbi who conceived of the ethical “enhancement” (his word) of kashrus was initially inspired by accusations in 2004 by “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,” or PETA, of cruelty to animals at the Agriprocessors kosher meat company in Postville, Iowa; and then further impelled, by a 2006 report in the Forward that portrayed the same plant as rife with harassment, abuse and bribery. (Several years later, the reporter at the Forward who wrote that article penned an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal in which he showed his less-than-objective colors by mocking “bearded Orthodox rabbis” who “buzzed around the Agriprocessors plant,” and called such people the “Antonin Scalias of the Jewish world” – a comment he did not intend as a compliment.)

Although after his own visit to the plant the Conservative rabbi admitted to The New York Times that “We weren’t able to verify everything” that the Forward had reported, he insisted all the same that he had discovered “indignities,” citing lower wages than those offered by unionized meatpacking plants, safety training offered only in English, and a single-option health-care plan.

Although such “abuse” seemed something less than dire, the proverbial blood was in the water. Before long, the rabbinic arm of the Conservative movement had wholeheartedly endorsed the idea of a “Justice Certification,” citing the Agriprocessors stories as evidence for such a need.

Then, in May, 2008, Agriprocessors, already enduring a harsh spotlight, was the subject of a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid during which hundreds of illegal immigrant workers were arrested. A host of accusations came from some of those in custody – from disregard of worker safety to cruelty to animals to operating a methamphetamine factory in the plant. With all the attention and charges roiling the media, Agriprocessors’ debtors insisted on immediate payment of all that was owed them, and the company entered bankruptcy.

The wilder accusations didn’t hold up to scrutiny and the immigration law violations were unceremoniously dropped. The company’s CEO, Sholom Rubashkin, was acquitted on all 67 state charges that he had knowingly employed underage workers. The only charges that stuck were those concerning Mr. Rubashkin’s misstatements to banks regarding his company’s assets, made in order to secure loans (which were regularly and promptly paid, with interest, and were unrelated to the raid). On those charges, astoundingly, he was sentenced to 27 years in prison.

(The compelling and deeply disturbing treatment of Mr. Rubashkin is a sad saga in its own right, deserving of a book-length exposé of the actions of prosecutors and government officials.)

Thus, Hekhsher Tzedek, it might be said, was conceived in sin – the sin of not only accepting slander but, by dint of the enterprise’s self-definition as a high-minded corrective to the Agriprocessors “scandal,” promoting slander as well.

Untruth In Advertising

Its genesis aside, though, the Conservative certification effort is misleading and, at least from a Jewish perspective, dangerous.

In the United States and other Western nations, laws are already in place to ensure proper treatment of animals, workers, consumers and the environment; ignoring any of them renders a company subject to punitive action by federal and state agencies. The principle of dina de’malchusa dina requires Jews to respect governmental law, and its violation perforce constitutes a violation of Halacha. And so, to the extent that a new “badge of approval” simply reiterates those requirements, it is superfluous.

And to the extent it goes further, it leaves the realm of Jewish religious concerns. The Conservative “ethical” certification in fact would require or favor things that are absent from both Jewish and American law. Like an unspecified number of paid vacation days, pension plans, “positive relations with unions,” “proactive efforts to have a diverse workforce,” non-mandatory environmental management systems, and much else. However nice those things may sound, or be, they have no place as the criteria for even a quasi-“hekhsher.”

Clearly, the advocates of the proposed non-heksher hekhsher, their rhetoric aside, seek not compliance with Halacha but rather to conflate Halacha with a broader social agenda of their liking.

Tellingly, in order to create the document setting down the conditions for receiving the Conservative label, its founders turned not to halachic sources but rather to a “social research” firm, KLS Research and Analytics – whose self-described mission is to effect “greater corporate accountability and, ultimately, a more just and sustainable world.”

The resulting seven pages lay down a “strict set of standards” relating to “Wages and Benefits; Employee Health and Safety/Relations/Training; Product Development; Corporate Transparency and Integrity; and Environmental Impact.” Evaluation of companies, it explains, will be based on data collected from, among other sources, “governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the media.” The final two categories would presumably include entities like PETA and the Forward.

The Name Game

As noted above, the actual symbol planned to be placed on foodstuffs and granted to dining establishments was originally called “Hekhsher Tzedek” but 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 the ethical emperor was improperly dressed – that kashrus, which the word “hekhsher” clearly references, is a well-defined halachic concept, and unrelated in any real sense to ethical considerations. Ethical values, at least Jewish ones, are of course no less important halachic concerns than kashrus ones, and are indeed embodied in independent halachic mandates. But as they are something distinct from kashrus, to imply otherwise, it was objected, is to subtly but unmistakably confuse two distinct realms and attempt 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” but rather a non-kashrus-related endorsement (although, again, oddly, only for food). To reflect that recasting, it renamed the seal the “Magen Tzedek.” Somewhat later, seeming to realize that its “now it’s a hekhsher, now it’s not” approach was contradicted by other self-descriptions in its literature, it replaced the words “Kashrus for the 21st Century,” which had appeared prominently at the top of its homepage after the words “Magen Tzedek,” with the more anodyne “An Ethical Certification for Kosher Food.”

It was an improvement. Despite its birth name, the re-christened seal would skirt the kashrus issue. The certification, it now seemed, was essentially a “social justice/corporate integrity” stamp of approval, independent of Jewish law’s definitions.

Aye, but a rub remained: 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- kashrus-related concerns – Magen Tzedek was still describing itself on its website as the “gold standard of kashrus,” according to documents linked to on its website. And its goal is to “improve our consciousness, understanding and practice of kashrut by extending the definition beyond ritual [emphasis mine] to reflect ethical, environmental and social concerns.” Something is clearly rotten, it seems, in the state of definitions. An effort aimed at enhancing ethics is engaging in misleading advertising.

In the end, whatever articulation acrobatics the Conservative promoters of Magen Tzedek may engage in, what they are peddling will rightly be understood by the public as precisely what the adoring media have reported all along: a redefinition of kashrus.

Behind the Curtain

The decidedly non-kosher elephant in the room here, of course, is the fact that Conservative theology does not really embrace Halacha at all. What it embraces is hanging the word on whatever its leaders deem worthy of the shingle.

To be sure, the Conservative movement 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 movement was designed in the early twentieth century to preserve (or “conserve”) those laws with which the sensibilities of modern Jewish society could be comfortable. That approach flies in the face of the essence of Judaism – that the Written and Oral components of Torah were given by G-d to the Jewish People at Sinai; and that a specific halachic process, itself part of the Oral Torah, governs the application of the Torah’s laws. This process means that explicit verses of the Torah cannot be disregarded, and that the interpretations of the Scriptures given by the Talmudic Sages and Rishonim are incontrovertible. No movement that ignores this process and seeks instead to adjust Halacha to popular demand can be considered a legitimate expression of Judaism.

The Conservative movement has left a long trail of tamperings with Torah law, “justified” by so-called “responsa.” It has removed the mechitzah from the synagogue; permitted driving a car to Shul on Shabbos; changed the laws of niddah; and permitted its rabbis to sanction homosexual “marriage.”

And so, 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, whose neat trick isn’t balancing a ball on its nose but leading people to define Judaism as social action.

In keeping with its cavalier attitude toward Halacha, Conservatism’s religious leaders have not in recent memory, if ever, made “ritual” kashrus a priority for their constituents. Now, for the first time in its history, the movement is touting not just “kashrut” but a “beyond the letter of the law” approach to it. Quoting the Rambam, Magen Tzedek’s promoters contend that “one must be strict in their behavior and still go beyond the letter of the law—lifnim mishurat hadin.” Strangely, that hallmark of holiness (or, for that matter, even the letter of the law) is not evident in the movement’s treatment of actual kashrus, or Shabbos, or tefilla, or tzeniyus, or any other realm of Jewish observance.

Therein, of course, lies the key to the matter. Only a naïf could miss the real motivation for the Conservative front-burnering of its “Justice Certification.” It is the movement’s anxious attempt to portray itself as something other than dwindling and desperate. The movement’s loss of members over past years and the permission it extends its clergy to jettison yet another pasuk of late (this most recent one sacrificed to contemporary society’s increasing approval of “alternate lifestyles”) have left it with a well-deserved intensified Jewish identity crisis.

As Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of the New York Jewish Week, politely put it: “This [the new certification] is just the kind of moral issue that could inspire and reinvigorate Conservative Jewry, which has lost members and been divided internally for the last few years… .”

That motivation is why, according to the Magen Tzedek literature, “essential” for any company seeking to qualify for the seal will be its “willingness to enter into dialogue with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), and their partners” – the congregational and rabbinic groups, respectively, of the Conservative movement.

Whether the project has the ability, despite all else, to inspire and invigorate the movement is uncertain, to put it mildly. What is entirely clear, though, is that Magen Tzedek is in essence a politically, not religiously, motivated effort. And an illegitimate one.

The Bottom Line

As noted, the Conservative approach to Torah cavalierly disregards the basic principles of the halachic process. That being so, the Conservative movement has no right to offer rabbinic sanction for anything at all. Rabbinic certification of a product implies that it was produced in accordance with Halacha. Magen Tzedek makes no objective effort to ascertain the Torah’s position on the practices of companies it seeks to supervise; nor does it have either the commitment or the capacity to do so. Instead, Magen Tzedek’s standards are adopted from secular environmental and social justice organizations. Hence, its certification is, from an authentic Jewish perspective, meaningless.

In fact, it is something worse. Voices within the Conservative movement have in recent years objected to the “monopolization” of kashrus by the Orthodox. Were Magen Tzedek to become accepted as a rabbinic certification, even only regarding social issues, it would, in time, no doubt seek to expand its “authority” to kashrus itself.

Still and all, some Orthodox Jews see the Conservative effort as benign, a venture best just ignored, one they imagine will peter out when companies realize that few if any consumers are considering the seal when buying products. They also point out that there are already kosher products that carry, along with a reputable kashrus agency’s certification, one that declares it halal, attesting to the foods’ acceptability for observant Muslims. Why, they ask, can’t a symbol signifying adherence to labor or environmental standards be seen similarly, as extraneous to kashrus but unobjectionable?

But they miss the fundamental distinction between a halal label and the proposed Magen Tzedek. The former does not promote a false and misleading idea; it simply claims, presumably accurately, that a product meets the standards of Islam.

Magen Tzedek, however, implies that a movement that has jettisoned the very core of what Torah means has standing to declare something Jewishly acceptable. Simply, starkly put, it does not.

Torah-observant Jews should actively resist the legitimization of a false vision of Halacha. Perhaps they should even refuse to purchase products that may come to display the Conservative seal. The Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, in fact, has rendered its considered opinion that kashrus organizations should not permit their certifications to appear side-by-side with that of Magen Tzedek; for to do so would be to give an unintentional “hekhsher” to a Halacha-rejecting movement as a legitimate halachic authority.

Companies seeking to assure customers that their products are produced in accord with the most stringent contemporary standards regarding business practices and environmental responsibility have every right to do so, of course. But instead of succumbing to the blandishments of a movement-middleman falsely claiming Jewish authority they should go directly to one of the many secular groups that specialize in such matters.

No one, Orthodox or Conservative, could object to that.

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micha
3 years 5 months ago

I wanted to go on record: I, Micha Berger, would be happier with a Jewish community that looked for chumeros in the same areas R’ Yisrael Salanter did. Too often we end up relying on leniencies in bein adam lachaveiro (interpersonal mitzvos) because of our pursuit of stringencies in bein adam laMaqom (those between man and the Omnipresent). There was a time when someone (even not Mussarists in particular) who wanted to complement another as being closer to the ideal Jew, they would call that person “ehrlach”. Today we use “frum”. And in that lies all the differences.

David F.
3 years 5 months ago

Micha,

“Second, I have no idea how you know how these people (most of whome posting under one name or a pseudonym) feel about chumeros. But, since you raise the subject, where should be be finding places to implement them?”

While I may not know many of the commenter by their real names, I’ve been reading CC long enough and following a few other boards where many of them comment and they’re opinions are no secret. Over the years I have heard many of them consistently decrying the “chumrah culture” and what they perceive [perhaps correctly] as the tendency to add new chumras etc. I find it ironic that suddenly they’re so gung-ho and supportive of the need for an additional hechsher or all things, when far more traditional chumras in the field of kashrus have long been the object of their disdain.

For my part, I don’t have strong opinions on where chumras are or aren’t appropriate so I’ll refrain from offering my suggestions. I merely wanted to point out the delicious irony that I discovered in this article.

Bill
3 years 6 months ago

What threat to Orthodoxy does Conservative Judaism represent? If anything Conservative Judaism has kept many Jews affiliated who later become Orthodox. I don’t hear a lot of Orthodox Jews becoming Conservative.

micha
3 years 6 months ago

RDF,

See Avos 2:1 and Sheqalim 3:2 as for the severity of acting in ways that do not cause others to think less of you.

Second, I have no idea how you know how these people (most of whome posting under one name or a pseudonym) feel about chumeros. But, since you raise the subject, where should be be finding places to implement them? R’ Yisrael Salanter was meiqil in how much water to use to wash his hands in order to be machmir on how he treats the maid who lugs it. And missed Kol Nidrei to tend to a crying, but safe, baby. Etc… Those are the priorities I would wish to emulate.

As Rav Shimon Shkop opens Shaarei Yosher (the haqdamah):
BLESSED SHALL BE the Creator, and exalted shall be the Maker, Who created us in His “Image” and in the likeness of His “Structure”, and planted eternal life within us, so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were). For everything He created and formed was according to His Will (may it be blessed), [that is] only to be good to the creations. So too His Will is that we walk in His
ways. As it says “and you shall walk in His Ways” – that we, the select of what He made -– should constantly hold as our purpose to sanctify our physical and spiritual powers for the good of the many, according to our abilities.
..
And so, it appears to my limited thought that this mitzvah includes the entire foundation and root of the purpose of our lives. All of our work and effort should constantly be sanctified to doing good for the community. We should not use any act, movement, or get benefit or enjoyment that doesn’t have in it some element of helping another. And as understood, all holiness is being set apart for an honorable purpose…

David F.
3 years 6 months ago

What I find particularly amusing about the comments to this article is that the very same people who rail against the implementation of any chumrah whatsoever are the ones who now support additional criteria for a hechsher which have no basis in halachah whatsoever. How ironic.