A Culture of Kashrut

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September 4, 2009
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MORRIS J. ALLEN

A person blinded in one eye is exempt from making the pilgrimage. (Hagiga 2a)

While this talmudic text is speaking only of the three-times-a-year obligation to appear in Jerusalem in ancient times — on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot — the ancient rabbinic dictum holds great importance for modern Jews. Indeed, Abraham Joshua Heschel gave it a metaphysical spin, using it to explain why those who are unable to see out of both eyes — meaning those who do not live with an ability to appreciate the “parallax effect” — are unable to succeed in the religious quest.

For contemporary Jews who have just lived through a year of continual ethical scandal, whether in the kosher meat industry or investment world, our need to restore healthy balance to our Jewish lives is obvious. The Magen Tzedek seal for kosher-certified food products, developed by the Hekhsher Tzedek commission, intends to serve as a corrective for a community that has become comfortable elevating ritual commandments over our equally important ethical demands and norms. Paraphrasing Heschel, a community that sees “mitzvot bein adam l’Makom” (commandments between humanity and God) as more important than “mitzvot bein adam l’havero or l’olamo” (commandments incumbent upon humanity toward humanity or the world we live in) is incapable of truly fulfilling God’s dream for us as a people.

Several years ago, a minor scandal broke out in a butcher shop in Monsey, N.J. The butcher was selling treif chickens and labeling them kosher. It was a terrible act and the community responded with anger and with resolve. The small butcher was quickly put out of business and his product line disappeared from the town’s streets.

However, when a major kosher food producer was discovered to have regularly abused his workers, to have garnered excessive fines from the U.S.E.P.A. due to the violation of the city’s wastewater treatment permit, to have been accused of a Madoff-worthy money laundering scheme, not a single kashrut organization pulled their hashgacha.

On the contrary, one leading supporter of the kosher food industry played the antisemitism card, publicly proclaiming that the owners of this company were being persecuted simply because they were “observant Jews.”

The absence of moral outcry from some in the religious world in the wake of the multiple moral scandals of Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa, was a stunning indication that we have become a people blinded in one eye, more concerned about the smoothness of a cow’s lung than the safety of the worker processing the meat on the line, or the wellbeing of the environment, or the honesty of the business itself.

As Jews, we need to correct this moral disability. Appearing this year (God-willing) on ritually certified kosher food products, the Magen Tzedek will mark the first time that a religious community can actively demonstrate that ethical and ritual commandments go hand-in-hand.

Working tirelessly over the past year, the Hekhsher Tzedek commission has developed halakhically based standards to certify that the production of kosher food takes into account wages and benefits; employee health, safety, and training; corporate integrity; product development (including animal welfare concerns); and environmental impact.

Creating such standards is a win-win for the kosher food industry. As a result of our work, more people will buy more kosher food products — some simply because the product is kosher, others because it has been produced in an ethically appropriate fashion, and many more because it is both ritually and ethically kosher.

In the Shulchan Arukh, the laws of kashrut are found in the section called Yore Deah. The laws detailing economic responsibility in the marketplace are found in Choshen Mishpat. For far too long these sections of the Code have lived in splendid isolation — one from the other — as if they were independent silos holding up our tradition.

Moral blindness is no less a problem than physical blindness. Imagine what the Jewish community will look like when we take the lead in demonstrating that good corporate citizenship can be rewarded. Imagine what it will mean to restore a “culture of kashrut” within our Jewish world, whereby eating becomes a sacred act of Jews — either as fulfillment of ritual or ethical demands or both. Imagine a Jewish world where sustainability becomes a byword of Jewish life.

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Rabbi Morris J. Allen has served as the first rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation, Mendota Heights, Minn., since August 1986. A strong proponent of kashrut throughout his life, Allen developed the concept of an ethical seal for kosher food items during the fall of 2006. He also serves as the project director of the Hekhsher Tzedek commission, which will begin to affix its seal — the Magen Tzedek — this fall.

2 Comments

  1. How can Morris Allen advocate standards for Kosher when he himself eats in non kosher restaurants. What a hypocrisy. I would suggest that he first follow Shulchan Aruch himself before he preaches to others.

    Posted by
    Jack
  2. Candidly the Reform and Conservative communities by and large to not keep Kosher. What they have succeeded to do is to jeopardize the high quality implications and availability of a kosher certified product amongst the broad non-Jewish community. That will result in the decision by many entities now seeking kashrut certification to simply drop this certification on their products. So…thank you for making it more difficult for those amongst us that do keep Kosher. No one will accept the new Hekhsher Tzedek. The people that like this development of a new certification will not make a difference since they probably think that reading the contents label is enough,

    Regarding Agriprocessors – the attach on this meat processor is naive of the unusually had conditions that exist in every meat processing plant. Interesting enough that many of those that were “outraged” by the employment of undocumented workers are also in favor of amnesty for such workers and amongst many people that I know, never check the legal status of their own gardeners and maids. Postville, Iowa came to life as a result of Agriprocessors and created many jobs and opportunities for hard working people looking for an opportunity.

    Posted by
    Cathy Porter
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