Hekhsher Tzedek is Not the Way to Go

What does it take to get two very opinionated writers to drop their differences and collaborate on a hot topic?

A shared feeling that the topic is too important to go without comment. That is what led to a
recent op-ed in The Forward on Hekhsher Tzedek, the plan to introduce a second tier of hashgacha on food products that would assure compliance with ethical standards.

Rabbi Michael Broyde and I have written together before, more often than not on relatively innocuous issues of interest in the legal community. Our awareness that we come from somewhat different hashkafic universes and often hang out with some very different people has not diminished our friendship in the slightest. Neither has our frequent disagreeing on important matters. When we find that we do agree on more controversial topics, we sense that it might be important to broadcast far and wide that people from different points on the continuum of Orthodoxy nonetheless see some real danger ahead.

Anyone who took notice of our collaboration last week probably figured that out for him or herself. It was probably even easier to figure out after observing that we went head-to-head with Reform leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie, and that Agudah (completely independently) issued a press release on the same issue, making virtually identical points.

Many people, including some unpublished commenters to this blog, have asked what could be wrong with assuring higher ethical standards? Our position is that scrupulously obeying the law – Torah law, and the law of the land – is a good idea. Going beyond the letter of the law is also a good idea. Hekhsher Tzedek is not a good idea.

When Rabbi Broyde and I collaborate, we usually pen first drafts independently, and then merge the best points. In this case, each of us championed completely different arguments, and merging them together proved difficult. We may not have succeeded, so it is worthwhile relating what we were trying to do.

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.

Briefly, if the standard is a legal one, governmental agencies can do a better job enforcing them. If the standard is not a legal one – and does not flow from genuine Torah sources – then reasonable people will disagree, and rabbis have little to add.

Some would argue that there is nothing to lose by agreeing to have a group of well- meaning rabbis come up with some standard, even if arbitrary. This is a mistake. Whenever you go beyond the expectations of the law, there are complications. Sometimes, they are so onerous as to make the entire exercise counterproductive. It is easy to see, for example, that the wage and benefit package suggested by Hekhsher Tzedek will add significantly to the price per pound that consumers will have to pay for meat. It should also be easy to see that were meat prices to rise, someone would set up large scale production in Argentina, or even China, and not have to worry about American conceptions of minimum wages and benefits. The net result is that American workers would not get enhanced wage packages, but that they would lose their jobs altogether.

Interestingly, Hekhsher Tzedek seems very much aware that any ethical standards that do not flow from Torah sources will not find consensus in the community. The subtitle on its collection of sources is Al Pi Din – according to Jewish law. In other words, they try – admirably – to find the authority for any ethical standard within mainstream mekoros in gemara and poskim. They correctly identify key sugyos – issues of ta’arumos, lifnim mi-shuras ha-din, minhag ha-medinah. In each and every case, without fail, they completely misunderstand and/or misapply these concepts. It is painful for anyone with background in learning to read such a complete manhandling of texts. The arguments are as specious as the ones coming from the same movement that tried decades ago to argue that eating fish in a treif restaurant is permissible (stam keli of an akum is an eino ben yomo, reducing the issur to a derabban; since most Jews eat out, it proves that any ban on such activity is a gezerah she-ein ha-tzibur yecholim la’amud bah), as well as driving on Shabbos (since no one used fuel in an internal combustion engine at the time of the Mishkan, burning fuel for transportation is a melachah she-eina tzrichah legufah, making it a derabbanan; see above in re fish for the rest of the argument).

While looking for a higher standard seems praiseworthy and impossible to resist, closer inspection shows it to be a Trojan horse. And no hechsher can make horsemeat kosher.

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19 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    From what I’ve read here, Jewish business law does have requirements beyond those of the law of the land in the US.

    Assuming it was done by Rabbis you trust, would you consider a certification that a business complies with Jewish business law (doesn’t give bad advice, for example) valuable?

  2. elana says:

    Rabbi Alderstein, Your argument is that if it does not “flow from genuine Torah sources” in your language and it is not illegal, something better left to the government, then any involvement is arbitrary and not the domain of Rabbis.

    There are many things that are hard to define but as the saying goes, “I know it when i see it.” What behavior constitutes menuval bereshut hatorah in the language of Ramban? I am sure there will be arguments around the edges, but much such behavior must not be granted a teudat hechsher. When the Rav ztl says “the halakha is a floor not a ceiling” can you not find anything in the room in between? Sure it is somewhat ill-defined,(a more accurate word than “arbitrary”) but I expect an ethical individual not to just give up. And why should this area be immune from dispute. rabbis decide many a halakhic issue when giving a teudat hechsher; why can they not decide a few (ill-defined), even broadly disputed, ethical issues as well, legally mandated or not?

    As Prof. Katz ztl has shown, in the history of psak rabbis had to apply extra-halakhic principles to counter/outlaw/punish behavior going beyond the strictures of traditional halakha. (listen to his lecture on YUTORAH.ORG to better understand his precise use of terms like halakhic.)

    If a rabbi can only find chumrot in traditional areas of bein adam laMakom and cannot find them in the mitzvot bein adam lechavairo/lepe’olo or in extra-halakhic ethical domains, then i would suggest finding another rabbi.

    And even in your view, do rabbis report legal violations that they strongly suspect(when they are not even alleged), or must they wait until after the chillul hashem is fully exposed?

    I grant you that it is hard, but the chillul hashem involved cannot be easily ignored. Attacking the conservative approach is just a red-herring. Granted their reading of many of the texts is not normative, and they may well have gone overboard at times, but that does not say that some of what they suggest does not have an ethical basis, connected to the texts they quote. (I wonder how their readings of texts compare to the issurim on a drasha in the vernacular that were once proposed? having just heard a chareidi Rav give an excellent shabbat shuva drasha in English, I hope i did not sin!) If you are going to attack, rather than examples from eating fish out or driving on shabbat, i would suggest an example or two directly from their article.

    The RCA expressed intent to and (largely non-chareidi) rabbis in Israel have taken up the challenge. It will take generations until these issues are a broadly accepted part of normative halakhic behavior; but giving up before starting is hardly to be applauded.

  3. Garnel Ironheart says:

    That the Hechsher Tzedek is not going to work is not something that can be argued.

    That it is an excellent IDEA can be.

    From the beginning of the Agriprocessor’s mess, we have been treated to denials and confabulations. At first, the whole problem was denied. Then it was a plot by competitors eager for the company’s market share. Then it was a plot by anti-Semites. Now, it all hangs on the word “alleged”, all 9000 plus allegations.

    And then we’re told the same thing over and over: Yes, but the meat’s kosher and that’s all a hechsher is supposed to mean.

    Except that as other blogs have demonstrated, there are plenty of cases of hechshers being yanked and denied because the rabbonim in charge of them found something objectionable about the business even though the product was fun. I myself recall a case something like 10-15 years ago of a Conservative youth hostel in Israel being refused a hechsher on the grounds that it was a non-Orthodox insitution, not because of anything wrong in the kitchen. When it is politically, expedient, the hechsher can be affected by non-food issues. In the Agriprocessor’s case, this inconsistency screams out.

    Rav Adlerstein mentions “Our position is that scrupulously obeying the law – Torah law, and the law of the land – is a good idea. ” If only Agriprocessor’s had done so, this whole mess would never have happened.

  4. Tal Benschar says:

    Two points to consider:

    1. Unlike the laws of kashrus, the laws of Choshen Mishpat (not to mention extra-halakhic ethical behavior) apply to far more than just food. Why are those pushing a “hechsher tsedek” limiting the push to kosher food? Is it more important that the meat I eat comes from a company that exploits its workers than the shirt I wear, the house I live in, or the toilet which is cleaned by an exploited maid/housecleaner?

    2. What is the authority to impose extra-halakhic (not required by either the law of the land nor Choshen Mishpat) requirements on business by a beis din? As it is, kosher meat is far more expensive than non-kosher. Is it fair — or is it “yashar va tov,” to use the Torah’s language — to impose additional costs on the kosher consumer for extra-nice treatment of workers when that is not required by either halakha, the government or marketplace realities?

    Sure, a college fund for the worker’s children is a nice touch. Is it fair to raise the costs of kosher meat by 20% to pay for that? Especially when no one else in the same industry gives such benefits?

  5. Benjamin E. says:

    I’m sure you’ve heard of the Israeli organization known as “Bema’aglei Tzedek” and their “Tav Chevrati” project (http://www.mtzedek.org.il/english/tav.asp), which is a “Social Justice Seal” that they give to restaurants for free certifying ethical business practices. This is unquestionably an Orthodox-run organization. Are you as vehemently opposed to this project, which has successfully done a lot of good in ensuring compliance with the law and ethical standards in Israel?

  6. Chaim Fisher says:

    Official Statement of Agudath Israel on this subject:

    “As Conservative leaders have done time and time again in a variety of modern-day contexts, they are paying lip service to halacha while in fact seeking to reshape it. The “Hekhsher Tzedek’ is simply the latest manifestation of Conservative leaders’ tradition of exchanging Divine mandates for contemporary constructs.”


  7. elana says:

    Tal, 1) there is no teudat hechsher on your shirt or house and i pray you do not exploit your help. and i hope we prefer to buy from ethical merchants/suppliers where that choice is relevant. 2) by what authority and in what circusmstance does “makin veonshin shelo min hadin” apply? and lest anyone is troubled by this citation, it is only meant metaphorically. rabbis acted to police commerce under a variety of circumstances, some extra-halakhic; ethical principles are the most basic non-strictly halakhic domain rabbis traditionally addressed even before the rise of what is now labeled “daat torah.”

    and BTW the costs of an average/fair wage are not 20%; look at the income statement/cost of goods lines of any meat packing firm! Pulling numbers out of thin air is not helpful.

  8. Eliezer says:

    How sadly predictable that, on the issues that pique the conscience of the sensitive and globally concerned, the chareidi community can so routinely be counted upon to side with the oppressive and the regressive. Mistreatment of workers, economic injustice, global warming, animal rights, genocide in Darfur, the constriction of civil liberties: the list goes on and on, with much of the Orthodox world either viewing these as being the exclusive concern of the secular and non-Jewish worlds or as weapons with which to attack their “heterodox” co-religionists. It is hardly surprising that so many Jews today have concluded that the self-styled champions of Torah Judaism are essentially irrelevant both to their own lives and to the world. And we, as a Jewish community, are weakened significantly by that conclusion and the distancing from Torah that has resulted.

  9. LOberstein says:

    “The arguments are as specious as the ones coming from the same movement that tried decades ago to argue that eating fish in a treif restaurant is permissible (stam keli of an akum is an eino ben yomo, reducing the issur to a derabban; since most Jews eat out, it proves that any ban on such activity is a gezerah she-ein ha-tzibur yecholim la’amud bah), as well as driving on Shabbos (since no one used fuel in an internal combustion engine at the time of the Mishkan, burning fuel for transportation is a melachah she-eina tzrichah legufah, making it a derabbanan; see above in re fish for the rest of the argument).”
    Thank you for educating me to the basis for the heterim. I wonder how many Conservative Jews in the world actually rely on the heterim because they accept the halachic arguments.
    In all the years that the Conservative Movement has had a law committee , have they ever come out with a isur on anything , or do they only find heterim for things that are already being done anyway? The answer may be that the Hechsher Tzedek is their first chumra.


    It is unfortunate that the public statement of the Agudath Israel, unlike the op-ed of Rabbis Broyde and Adlerstein, did not limit itself to critcizing the Hekhsher Tzedek proposal on its (de)merits, but had to use the occasion as an opportunity to bash the Conservative movement.

  11. CR says:

    stam keli of an akum is an eino ben yomo, reducing the issur to a derabban; since most Jews eat out, it proves that any ban on such activity is a gezerah she-ein ha-tzibur yecholim la’amud bah

    I am reminded of the BeSh”T story of the recalcitrant man who claimed he was unable to help a stranger in a particular difficulty. The stranger replied “Yes, you can. You just don’t want to do so.”

  12. DS says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein:
    I’m more than a little uncomfortable with the ad hominem nature of the attacks on Heksher Tzeddek coming from the Orthodox establishment, specifically as to what their “real” agenda might be.

    Why not, instead, raise the level of argument and demonstrate the speciousness of their Al Pi Din position paper?

    Then, you’d have something substantive.

    Kol Tuv

  13. Glatt some questions says:

    What is Rabbi broyde and Rabbi Adlerstein’s view of Uri l’Tzedek, an Orthodox social action group which on the surface seems to be advocating the same thing (not a new hechsher…just a commitment to ethics in Jewish law and practice)?

  14. Yoel B says:

    One thing nobody has discussed so far is that Agriprocessors kosher production (to a lesser extent, other kosher meat producers as well) is not all sold to Jewish consumers who keep kosher, or want to buy kosher meat even if their kitchen isn’t kosher.
    A lot–and most kosher food in general– is sold to non-Jews who have the idea that Jewish meat producers, and kosher food producers in general, “answer to a higher authority” and therefore their products are cleaner or purer. That subsidizes the kosher market, and the manufacturers think it’s worth paying for a hechsher with that in mind. Maybe in a limited sense it’s true–someone allergic to shellfish could probably be safe eating food with a good hechsher, and similarly if it’s parve or fleishig a dairy sensitive person would probably be fine.
    But as far as the perception of purity goes? Anybody think that _that_ is as widespread in the wake of the Agriprocessors scandals as it was before? So any arguments about keeping the price of kosher food down have the economy of scale resulting from the non-Jewish market to consider in the other direction. Of course, that’s for the big, nationally known hechshers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it trickles down to most hechshers.

  15. Steve Brizel says:

    If you want to see what happens when a writer with no knowledge interviews someone who imposes his political agenda on Hilcos Brachos, Shechita and Tzaar Baalei Chaim,look at this week’s NY Times Magazine.

  16. Shiras Schmidt says:

    In #5 above, Benjamin E. mentions the ISraeli organization – “Bema’aglei Tzedek” and their “Tav Chevrati.” I am not sure that the businesses/restaurants in Israel to which they award the “social hechsher” are required to be closed on Shabbat. I am currently trying to find out about this from them, but one of their spokespeople did once say that compliance with Shabbat laws is not a prerequisite to getting a Tav Chevrati. This is deeply problematic. Again, I am waiting to hear from them officially on this point.

  17. Benjamin E. says:

    Chaim – you realize that that does not actually address the issue at all; it is simply a vague, stereotyped response to the hekhsher tzedek.

    Incidentally, in my opinion, the hekhsher tzedek has now done its job. Is the hekhsher tzedek itself the best idea? Maybe, maybe not. But by bringing it up in a real, forceful manner, it has forced the Orthodox world to address the issue and come up with ways of ensuring the same result, whether it is a hekhsher tzedek or not. In my opinion, they should keep pushing the hekhsher tzedek until the Orthodox world gets so defensive and scared about the “Conservative infiltration” or whatever into hashgakha that the Orthodox world solves it itself by building in the same principles into its hashgakha.

    Of course, there’s always the question of whether ethical supervision by the same company that is paid for kashrut supervision is a conflict of interest or not…I can imagine it being easy to overlook small indiscretions if they keep paying for the kashrut hashgakha (which is the main point anyway, right?), but I’ll give it a chance.

  18. Andy G says:

    I believe that the Heksher Tzedek concept, as presently formulated, is wrong and misguided. Social, labor, and envioronmental standards are inherently subjective, and we should take great care not to allow certifications of kashrut to be used by people with a political axe to grind.

    As Ross Perot said, the devil is in the details. I urge people to actually look at the Policy Statement and Summary of Working Guidelines (available online) promulgated by United Synagogue and Rabbinical Assembly. These guidelines are totally biased, and in many cases make little economic sense. Given the consulting firm that was used in making these standards, it appears that activists have taken general concepts of ethical behavior contained in Jewish law and tradition, and extrapolated to push a certain social and economic agenda.

  1. October 16, 2008

    […] Rav Adlerstein writes: "Our position is that scrupulously obeying the law – Torah law, and the law of the land – is a good idea. Going beyond the letter of the law is also a good idea. Hekhsher Tzedek is not a good idea." […]

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