Jews Argue Over The Ethics Of Kashrut

From the Boston Globe:

The raid on Agriprocessors’ Iowa plant has sparked debate in the Jewish community about the role of ethical considerations in the production of kosher food and sets the backdrop against which the moderate Conservative movement will issue guidelines Thursday for an ambitious new "hekhsher tzedek," Hebrew for "certificate of righteousness." The additional stamp would identify producers of kosher foods that meet its standards regarding working conditions, treatment of animals, and the environment.

To Conservative Jewish leaders, the new certification symbolizes the embrace of tradition and modern social concerns that defines the denomination.

"Hekhsher tzedek reminds us that kosher is not just about rituals," said Rabbi Barry Starr of Temple Israel in Sharon, where Cetlin is a member. "That’s a very powerful niche for the Conservative movement."

Federal and state authorities are now investigating complaints of illegal working conditions at Agriprocessors, including allegations, detailed in The New York Times, that underage immigrants worked shifts as long as 17 hours.

"Kosher gives me the sense that it’s a respectful process," said Cetlin, 52. With hekhsher tzedek, the Conservative movement also jockeys for a foothold in a kosher industry dominated by Orthodox Jews, the most traditional branch of Judaism.

Other portions of Jewish law mandate ethical behavior.

Most Orthodox Jews have kosher homes – 86 percent, according to the National Jewish Population Survey – compared with one-quarter of Conservative Jews. Yet because Conservative Jews outnumber Orthodox Jews, they account for one-third of American Jews with kosher homes. Only 5 percent of Reform Jews, the most liberal denomination, keep kosher.

Before the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid, in which almost 400 workers who were in the country illegally were arrested, Agriprocessors supplied 60 percent of the nation’s kosher beef and 40 percent of the kosher poultry. The production squeeze has been felt here, with purveyors from supermarkets to the Butcherie in Brookline and Larry Levine’s Kosher Meat Market in Peabody, two of the area’s main kosher grocers, filling their gaps with aternative suppliers. Shortly after the raid, United Synagogue suggested that its members seek alternatives to Agriprocessors, and a number of Conservative rabbis preached on the topic and e-mailed members. The Orthodox social justice group Uri L’Tzedek ended its boycott July 8 after Agriprocessors hired a former US attorney to oversee its compliance efforts. The Conservative advisory remains in effect.

"There are few enough kosher meat producers as it is," he said. "We need that company. This month Agriprocessors pledged cooperation with investigators and defended itself in full-page advertisements in a dozen Jewish newspapers around the country, including Boston‘s Jewish Advocate. The Minnesota rabbi spearheading the effort has long made encouraging kosher observance a mainstay of his pulpit. "My belief is more people will buy kosher products with hekhsher tzedek because it speaks to their value system on multiple levels," said Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in suburban St. Paul.

"It’s an insult to all the religious people and the Orthodox people and all the people who have the highest standards," he said. The Orthodox Union, the umbrella organization that is the country’s major certifier of kosher food, is critical, too.

A company indicted or convicted of ethical wrongdoing would lose its approval, said Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer of the union’s kosher division. Among Orthodox leaders expressing cautious support is Rabbi Gershon Gewirtz of Young Israel of Brookline, the largest Orthodox congregation in New England. Although Gewirtz opposes boycotting Agriprocessors before allegations of what he terms "absolutely intolerable" behavior are substantiated, he sees a place for a thoughtfully executed hekhsher tzedek.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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