Blowing the New Kashrut’s Cover

Anyone who raised an eyebrow at charges that the “Hekhsher Tzedek” kosher-certification initiative recasts the very concept of kashrut might want to aim an eye at the February 6 Wall Street Journal.

At a column, that is, entitled “A Quarrel Over What Is Kosher,’ by the Forward’s Nathaniel Popper – the reporter who, in 2006, first shone a harsh light on the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse. His reportage of alleged abuse of workers there was followed, in 2008, by a federal raid on the plant, the deportation of hundreds of illegal alien workers and the filing of criminal charges against its owners and others.

In his “Houses of Worship” guest column, Mr. Popper reveals some personal cards, of the sort usually held behind the fictional screen of journalist objectivity. Like his comparison of “bearded Orthodox rabbis” who “buzzed around the Agriprocessors plant” making sure kashrut laws, but not ethical norms, were being observed with the “progressive, socially engaged and mostly clean-shaven rabbis” who rode in, so to speak, on white horses to rescue Agriprocessors from itself.

Popper also characterizes efforts to persuade a judge to grant bail to a Rubashkin official – imprisoned before his trial for months despite offering to surrender his passport, wear an electronic bracelet to track his movements and post an exorbitant bond – as a campaign “to spring Mr. Rubashkin from jail” because of “an ancient Jewish religious obligation to free Jews from gentile captivity.” No mention of the fact that Sholom Rubashkin’s Jewishness (as it made him eligible for automatic citizenship in Israel) was among the factors cited in denying him bail. (The bail denial was in fact reversed by another judge – although Mr. Popper might consider the ruling tainted, based as it was partly on the testimony of bearded rabbis.)

Mr. Popper’s personal perspective is further on display when he extols “a more explicitly universal vision of mankind, in which a Guatemalan Catholic has the same weight as a Brooklyn Jew” – as if a spiritual bond to a religious community somehow implies criminal unconcern for others.

The essential point of Popper’s piece, though, is both true and important. He characterizes the respective positions of the Hekhsher Tzedek’s proponents and opponents as a dispute over “the proper way to interpret religious law and values.” Should we, he asks, “read our ancient texts literally or adapt them to a changing world?”

Popper doesn’t mean “literally” literally, of course; presumably he realizes that the Torah’s laws are determined not by literal readings but by the intricate teachings of the Oral Tradition. He is accurate, though, to ascribe to the non-Orthodox rabbinates a willingness to jettison elements of Jewish religious law that discomfit them.

By contrast, Orthodox rabbis are, he writes (with, one suspects, less than reverence), the “Antonin Scalias of the Jewish world.” One such rabbi even told him (you might want to sit down here) that he keeps kosher not out of social consciousness but “because G-d said so.”

When, in the fall, Agudath Israel of America characterized Hekhsher Tzedek as an attempt to redefine kashrut, that judgment was pooh-poohed by some. It is, though, precisely the Popperian paradigm.

And its trumpeting in the venerable Wall Street Journal will likely deeply disturb the main proponents of the Hekhsher Tzedek, who have in recent weeks sought to unbake the cake and recast their initiative as not really a “hekhsher” (i.e. kashrut certification) at all but rather a non-kashrut-related endorsement (oddly, though, only for food), renaming it “Magen Tzedek.” “Oy,” some progressively clean-shaven clergymen are probably thinking, “Popper’s blown our cover.”

Indeed he has, and with admirable honesty about both his own bias-baggage and the Whatever Tzedek. He doesn’t bother to disguise his feelings for Jews who believe that the Torah is G-d’s will and that its laws, whether fathomable or not, are sacrosanct; and he exposes the now-it’s-a-hekhsher-now-it’s-not initiative as an attempt to “evolve” kashrut into a plank of the social liberal platform.

What Mr. Popper seems to not fully appreciate, though, is the trenchant fact that the very same set of Divine laws that Orthodox Jews believe mandate kashrut and other ritual requirements and prohibitions mandate no less interpersonal ethics (including proper treatment of workers) and respect for the laws of the land.

Whether any particular Orthodox Jew honors or fails to honor those mandates is beside the point (although the Torah’s ethical system does forbid reaching negative judgments about accused people before a trial). But Orthodox Judaism is entirely as strict about the Torah’s ethics as about its rituals. So the issue is not “adapt[ing] Torah to a changing world,” but rather applying Torah to that world.

And so Mr. Popper has the dichotomy only half right. Yes, there is a perspective – his own and the non-Orthodox movements’ – that regards the Torah’s laws as entirely mutable. But the Orthodox perspective does not, as he seems to believe, sacrifice ethics to ritual. It, rather, elevates both to the plane of Divine will.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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13 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    Blow what cover, that Conservative Judaism modifies Halacha to suit the times (or the perceived needs of the times)? That seems as controversial as saying that Alaska is cold, or that Obama disagrees with some of Bush’s policies.

    The purpose is not to get Orthodox Jews to eat a different kind of food. It is to get more Conservative Jews to start looking for a Hechsher when they buy food by tying it to something they do believe in. You can argue that’s a useless goal (I don’t see it as particularly worthwhile myself, BTW). But why do you consider it actively bad?

  2. Nathan says:

    This complicated situation can be understood simply:

    The so-called “Hekhsher Tzedek” is NOT LeShem Shamayim, period.

  3. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I don’t think you are right that the new certification has the purpose of trying to get C Jews to check out what they eat. I think it is about bashing O. The dwindling number of aging C Jews and the small number of them who will bother to pay attention to what they are buying except for the price leads to the conclusion that consumer action will be irrelevant to the purpose of the move. It’s all about PR.

  4. Steve Brizel says:

    R Shafran is 100% on the mark-Hechsher Tzedek makes no pretense of wanting its supporters to adhere to kashrus based on halacha.

  5. L.Oberstein says:

    “Blown their cover” is apros po. Someone pointed out to me today that the advertisement for students for JTS has the slogan:”Be histoically significant.” He said, can you imagine anyone dying al kiddush Hashem to be “historically significant.” It is true that they claim to keep kosher for some non mystical reasons, maybe because it historically defined Jewish behavior. However, their is not a shred of yiras shamayim involved, it is all a means to identify with Jewish mays, not in any way a commandment from a Higher Power. That has been the truth about the JTS since 1902 when it ceased to be orthodox and is more true than ever today. How sad.

  6. Garnel Ironheart says:

    Hechsher tzedek has nothing to do with kashrus. It has to do with business ethics. For many without and WITHIN the Torah observant community, the Rubshakin’s scandal has created the distinct impression that all the OU cares about is if the food is kosher. Are workers being mistreated? Not our problem. The food is kosher. Killed or maimed due to unsafe working conditions? Not our problem. The food is kosher. Paid starvation wages and threatened with deportation if they get uppity? Not our problem. The food is kosher.

    For some people, it’s enough for the food to be kosher. But those kinds of people had no trouble going to Acheshverosh’s banquet and celebrating his party on how the Temple hadn’t been built. After all, the food was kosher.

  7. Reb Yid says:

    Yes, this is an attempt to “redefine” kashrut.

    So are many others…anyone remember the “Glatt Yacht” episode a decade or two ago….the food was 100% kosher, but the kosher certification was nonetheless revoked because there was mixed dancing on the ship.

    Food for thought, indeed….

  8. Ori says:

    Yehoshua Friedman: The dwindling number of aging C Jews and the small number of them who will bother to pay attention to what they are buying except for the price leads to the conclusion that consumer action will be irrelevant to the purpose of the move. It’s all about PR.

    Ori: I agree that it’s about PR, but I don’t think it’s just PR. It is an attempt to update Judaism to appeal to Heterodox Jews who do not value Halacha for its own sake. You could say the attempt is useless (I believe it is), or that any such attempt is useless – but then you’re left with writing off the majority of Jews in the US(1).

    I haven’t heard anybody in my synagogue bashing the Orthodox, but I might have weak hearing. I’m mostly involved in children’s programs.

    (1) Assuming no Mashiach – but if there’s Mashiach then most of our problems are moot anyway.

  9. YM says:

    Lets consider another approach: Maybe the system worked exactly the way it is supposed to work.

    Details: The granting of kashurus certification is based on the process for slaughtering and preparing of the meat, and may also involve the extent to which the principals involved in the business have a ‘heskes kashurus’; whether their behavior as Orthodox Jews leaves them trustworthy for all of the elements of Kashurus that cannot be 100% asssured by the mashgichim.

    Facts: Of the two agencies certifying Rubashkins meats, one (the OU) dropped its certification after the indictments. The other (I cannot remember the name) said the indictments didn’t concern them, they were satisfied that the meat was kosher. In other words, they were depending on the government to worry about the other legal aspects of Rubashkins operation.

    Conclusion: Sholom Rubashkin will go on trial for alleged violations of the law. At this point, I don’t believe that there is any meat being sold under the Rubashkin name; if there is, it is under a new organization. The system worked.

  10. Nathan says:

    If my memory is correct, it was Conservative Jews who started the lawsuit that eliminated the New York State agency that protected consumers against kosher fraud. This was in the 1980s or 1990s.

    Most Conservative Jews eat non-kosher both inside and outside their homes. So far as I am concerned, Conservative Jews do not have the right to say one word about kashrut.

    About a year ago, I visited my local Conservative synagogue and found that out of about 150 people attending Saturday morning services, there were less than two people under age 50. What Conservative Jews want is irrelevant, because 50 years from now their movement will not exist.

  11. jjbennoach says:

    As someone who lives in Iowa, and has some personal connection to the situation, the reality at Agriprocessors in Postville was actually worse than reported in most mainstream media.

    Federal drug and weapons laws were alledgedly being violated, but because of the desire to portray illegal immigrants as just potentially-good citizens and victims, these violations were mostly glossed over.

    Presumably, some of this downplay could be part of even larger long-term federal investigations as well, including those of the illegal sale of certain types of obscure legal work visas that politicians have mostly hidden from public scrutiny.

  12. Zev says:

    The above comment is total fiction. There is a tiny community of Jews in Des Moines, and they know no more about this case than Jews in Denver or Daytona. And what do allegations mean, anyway? Any lawyer will tell you 1000 allegations cross their desk every week, 999 of which are just posturing.

    Bottom line is, you have a union campaign, and to the shame of this country, the government let it work. That Shalom Rubaskin is still in jail is an incredible disgrace to the Judge, who ought to be impeached, and the justice system as a whole. Simply by providing kosher food, and employing hundreds of workers (thousands, in aggregate effect) the man has done more for Jews and for general society in general than any one reading this blog will ever do.

  13. Moshe says:

    I work as a Mashgiach for a prominant hechsher and the longer I work and the more I see, the the more attractive the idea of a hechsher tzedek seams. Let’s hope the kashrus industry does not turn into a massive chilul Hashem

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