Rav Yitzhock Adlerstein blogs:
My main concern was the damage to kashrus that would result from people coming to believe that the details of the law were far less important than the ethical intent of the law. Traditional Jews have been told that too often in the past, by those who wished to wean them away from what they saw as excessive legalism. We were told that in centuries of Christian polemics; we were told that by 19th century Reform. Although Hekhsher Tzedek claimed that they were not going to replace the hechsher concerning legal compliance, I could never trust such a claim. Hekhsher Tzedek quickly gained the endorsement – and is now formally linked to – the Conservative movement. This is not a movement known for its compliance with the laws of kashrus. Even among the minority of members who would call themselves kosher-observant, you will not find many under the age of sixty for whom the details of Yoreh Deah (as opposed to more general rules, like avoiding pork) are real considerations. Some of their statements about the relative importance of the legal and the ethical give further reason to suspect that the Agriprocessor debacle affords the Conservative movement an opportunity to sell the public a kashrus newly manufactured in its image. In fact, Hekhsher Tzedek’s webpages link to kashrus manuals and essays that are all of heterodox provenance.
Rabbi Broyde’s central argument was that consternation in the community about alleged misconduct (to the best of my knowledge, we are still dealing only with allegations, not accepted facts) had to do with violations of the law, and nothing more. When people grimaced over the fact that kashrus, which in our mesorah is so heavily weighted with ethical considerations, was being linked with unethical behavior, they meant violations of the law of the land. They were disgusted that the source of their meat stood accused of employing child labor and tolerating practices that unnecessarily caused pain to animals. These are legal infractions. They were not chagrined that Rubashkin failed to come up with a profit-sharing plan for its laborers, or offer two months of paternity leave, or volunteer to pay for the college education of their workers. Such treatment would be laudatory, but complying with the law of the land in a generally just country – and nothing more – cannot be condemned.
Moving in the marketplace beyond the letter of the law in is not easy to demand. What level of compensation, of health-benefits, of vacation privileges should be agreed upon as “ethical?” Without such agreement, any standard is unsatisfying. What is compelling to one person is excessive to another, and insufficient to yet someone else. If the standard does not flow directly from Torah literature, then it is necessarily arbitrary. Both Rabbi Broyde and I (as well as anyone who spent a decent amount of time in a yeshiva) know that there is no accepted set of ethical expectations. If arbitrary standards are going to be used instead, we argue that rabbis are no better than anyone else in developing them, and at a definite disadvantage in enforcing them, having little investigative experience or authority.