When Tzedek Isn’t: The Conservative Movement Finds a Cause

This article appears in the current issue (Winter 5772) of Dialogue Magazine.

When a Jewish religious initiative captures the imagination and garners the admiration of as broad a swath of general and Jewish media as The New York Times, the Wall St. Journal, the Washington Post, USA Today; the Forward, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the New York Jewish Week, Beliefnet, Forbes, the Huffington Post and NPR (among others) – it is probably prudent to regard the effort with some suspicion.

And, in the case of the enterprise known first as “Hekhsher Tzedek” and more recently as “Magen Tzedek,” such wariness would be well-deserved indeed.

Those names refer to the at-first-glance-seemingly-benign quest of a Conservative rabbi, Morris Allen, to “help assure consumers that kosher food products were produced in keeping with the highest possible Jewish ethical values and ideals for social justice.” His idea, which morphed into a full-fledged joint project of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, is to place a special seal on already kosher-certified products, to indicate that the producer has met certain standards regarding “labor concerns, animal welfare, environmental impact, consumer issues and corporate integrity.”

Needless to say, a kashrus certifier may well have a right, and in some cases even a responsibility, to ensure that a food-producing company or food-service establishment seeking its certification hews not only to the laws of kashrus but to other requirements of Halacha. Thus, a bakery that is open on Shabbos, a slaughterhouse that violates the dictates of tza’ar ba’alei chayim, or a restaurant where tzenius is lacking would all be rightfully subject to a machshir’s rejection.

And, in fact, of no less concern to Halacha are some “social justice” issues, like ensuring proper treatment of workers or prompt payment of wages. Tellingly, though, the promoters of “Hekshsher Tzedek” seem interested in nothing but the social justice categories of extra-kashrus concerns (along with animal welfare and environmental issues). And, curiously, even those categories are applied by them exclusively to the manufacture of food. This, despite the fact that social justice concerns, halachic and otherwise, are no less applicable to manufacturers of Toyotas, washing machines, office supplies or widgets. This might seem an unimportant observation, but it is, in fact, a most significant one, as will be elaborated below.

First, though, some history.

Conceived in Sin

The Conservative rabbi who conceived of the ethical “enhancement” (his word) of kashrus was initially inspired by accusations in 2004 by “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,” or PETA, of cruelty to animals at the Agriprocessors kosher meat company in Postville, Iowa; and then further impelled, by a 2006 report in the Forward that portrayed the same plant as rife with harassment, abuse and bribery. (Several years later, the reporter at the Forward who wrote that article penned an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal in which he showed his less-than-objective colors by mocking “bearded Orthodox rabbis” who “buzzed around the Agriprocessors plant,” and called such people the “Antonin Scalias of the Jewish world” – a comment he did not intend as a compliment.)

Although after his own visit to the plant the Conservative rabbi admitted to The New York Times that “We weren’t able to verify everything” that the Forward had reported, he insisted all the same that he had discovered “indignities,” citing lower wages than those offered by unionized meatpacking plants, safety training offered only in English, and a single-option health-care plan.

Although such “abuse” seemed something less than dire, the proverbial blood was in the water. Before long, the rabbinic arm of the Conservative movement had wholeheartedly endorsed the idea of a “Justice Certification,” citing the Agriprocessors stories as evidence for such a need.

Then, in May, 2008, Agriprocessors, already enduring a harsh spotlight, was the subject of a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid during which hundreds of illegal immigrant workers were arrested. A host of accusations came from some of those in custody – from disregard of worker safety to cruelty to animals to operating a methamphetamine factory in the plant. With all the attention and charges roiling the media, Agriprocessors’ debtors insisted on immediate payment of all that was owed them, and the company entered bankruptcy.

The wilder accusations didn’t hold up to scrutiny and the immigration law violations were unceremoniously dropped. The company’s CEO, Sholom Rubashkin, was acquitted on all 67 state charges that he had knowingly employed underage workers. The only charges that stuck were those concerning Mr. Rubashkin’s misstatements to banks regarding his company’s assets, made in order to secure loans (which were regularly and promptly paid, with interest, and were unrelated to the raid). On those charges, astoundingly, he was sentenced to 27 years in prison.

(The compelling and deeply disturbing treatment of Mr. Rubashkin is a sad saga in its own right, deserving of a book-length exposé of the actions of prosecutors and government officials.)

Thus, Hekhsher Tzedek, it might be said, was conceived in sin – the sin of not only accepting slander but, by dint of the enterprise’s self-definition as a high-minded corrective to the Agriprocessors “scandal,” promoting slander as well.

Untruth In Advertising

Its genesis aside, though, the Conservative certification effort is misleading and, at least from a Jewish perspective, dangerous.

In the United States and other Western nations, laws are already in place to ensure proper treatment of animals, workers, consumers and the environment; ignoring any of them renders a company subject to punitive action by federal and state agencies. The principle of dina de’malchusa dina requires Jews to respect governmental law, and its violation perforce constitutes a violation of Halacha. And so, to the extent that a new “badge of approval” simply reiterates those requirements, it is superfluous.

And to the extent it goes further, it leaves the realm of Jewish religious concerns. The Conservative “ethical” certification in fact would require or favor things that are absent from both Jewish and American law. Like an unspecified number of paid vacation days, pension plans, “positive relations with unions,” “proactive efforts to have a diverse workforce,” non-mandatory environmental management systems, and much else. However nice those things may sound, or be, they have no place as the criteria for even a quasi-“hekhsher.”

Clearly, the advocates of the proposed non-heksher hekhsher, their rhetoric aside, seek not compliance with Halacha but rather to conflate Halacha with a broader social agenda of their liking.

Tellingly, in order to create the document setting down the conditions for receiving the Conservative label, its founders turned not to halachic sources but rather to a “social research” firm, KLS Research and Analytics – whose self-described mission is to effect “greater corporate accountability and, ultimately, a more just and sustainable world.”

The resulting seven pages lay down a “strict set of standards” relating to “Wages and Benefits; Employee Health and Safety/Relations/Training; Product Development; Corporate Transparency and Integrity; and Environmental Impact.” Evaluation of companies, it explains, will be based on data collected from, among other sources, “governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the media.” The final two categories would presumably include entities like PETA and the Forward.

The Name Game

As noted above, the actual symbol planned to be placed on foodstuffs and granted to dining establishments was originally called “Hekhsher Tzedek” but later changed to “Magen Tzedek.” This was presumably done in response to objections raised by Agudath Israel of America and others who pointed out that the ethical emperor was improperly dressed – that kashrus, which the word “hekhsher” clearly references, is a well-defined halachic concept, and unrelated in any real sense to ethical considerations. Ethical values, at least Jewish ones, are of course no less important halachic concerns than kashrus ones, and are indeed embodied in independent halachic mandates. But as they are something distinct from kashrus, to imply otherwise, it was objected, is to subtly but unmistakably confuse two distinct realms and attempt to “redefine” an important Jewish concept.

So the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission sought to unbake its cake and recast its initiative as not really a “hekhsher” but rather a non-kashrus-related endorsement (although, again, oddly, only for food). To reflect that recasting, it renamed the seal the “Magen Tzedek.” Somewhat later, seeming to realize that its “now it’s a hekhsher, now it’s not” approach was contradicted by other self-descriptions in its literature, it replaced the words “Kashrus for the 21st Century,” which had appeared prominently at the top of its homepage after the words “Magen Tzedek,” with the more anodyne “An Ethical Certification for Kosher Food.”

It was an improvement. Despite its birth name, the re-christened seal would skirt the kashrus issue. The certification, it now seemed, was essentially a “social justice/corporate integrity” stamp of approval, independent of Jewish law’s definitions.

Aye, but a rub remained: At the same time the new seal was being touted as limiting itself to “bring[ing] the Jewish commitment to ethics and social justice directly into the marketplace” – to, in other words, entirely non- kashrus-related concerns – Magen Tzedek was still describing itself on its website as the “gold standard of kashrus,” according to documents linked to on its website. And its goal is to “improve our consciousness, understanding and practice of kashrut by extending the definition beyond ritual [emphasis mine] to reflect ethical, environmental and social concerns.” Something is clearly rotten, it seems, in the state of definitions. An effort aimed at enhancing ethics is engaging in misleading advertising.

In the end, whatever articulation acrobatics the Conservative promoters of Magen Tzedek may engage in, what they are peddling will rightly be understood by the public as precisely what the adoring media have reported all along: a redefinition of kashrus.

Behind the Curtain

The decidedly non-kosher elephant in the room here, of course, is the fact that Conservative theology does not really embrace Halacha at all. What it embraces is hanging the word on whatever its leaders deem worthy of the shingle.

To be sure, the Conservative movement pledges allegiance to Halacha in theory but has, time and time again in a variety of contexts, sought to “accommodate” Jewish religious law to the mores and norms of contemporary American society. The movement was designed in the early twentieth century to preserve (or “conserve”) those laws with which the sensibilities of modern Jewish society could be comfortable. That approach flies in the face of the essence of Judaism – that the Written and Oral components of Torah were given by G-d to the Jewish People at Sinai; and that a specific halachic process, itself part of the Oral Torah, governs the application of the Torah’s laws. This process means that explicit verses of the Torah cannot be disregarded, and that the interpretations of the Scriptures given by the Talmudic Sages and Rishonim are incontrovertible. No movement that ignores this process and seeks instead to adjust Halacha to popular demand can be considered a legitimate expression of Judaism.

The Conservative movement has left a long trail of tamperings with Torah law, “justified” by so-called “responsa.” It has removed the mechitzah from the synagogue; permitted driving a car to Shul on Shabbos; changed the laws of niddah; and permitted its rabbis to sanction homosexual “marriage.”

And so, the Whatever Tzedek is simply the latest manifestation of Conservative leaders’ tradition of exchanging Divine mandates for contemporary constructs. Its seal is a trained one, whose neat trick isn’t balancing a ball on its nose but leading people to define Judaism as social action.

In keeping with its cavalier attitude toward Halacha, Conservatism’s religious leaders have not in recent memory, if ever, made “ritual” kashrus a priority for their constituents. Now, for the first time in its history, the movement is touting not just “kashrut” but a “beyond the letter of the law” approach to it. Quoting the Rambam, Magen Tzedek’s promoters contend that “one must be strict in their behavior and still go beyond the letter of the law—lifnim mishurat hadin.” Strangely, that hallmark of holiness (or, for that matter, even the letter of the law) is not evident in the movement’s treatment of actual kashrus, or Shabbos, or tefilla, or tzeniyus, or any other realm of Jewish observance.

Therein, of course, lies the key to the matter. Only a naïf could miss the real motivation for the Conservative front-burnering of its “Justice Certification.” It is the movement’s anxious attempt to portray itself as something other than dwindling and desperate. The movement’s loss of members over past years and the permission it extends its clergy to jettison yet another pasuk of late (this most recent one sacrificed to contemporary society’s increasing approval of “alternate lifestyles”) have left it with a well-deserved intensified Jewish identity crisis.

As Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of the New York Jewish Week, politely put it: “This [the new certification] is just the kind of moral issue that could inspire and reinvigorate Conservative Jewry, which has lost members and been divided internally for the last few years… .”

That motivation is why, according to the Magen Tzedek literature, “essential” for any company seeking to qualify for the seal will be its “willingness to enter into dialogue with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), and their partners” – the congregational and rabbinic groups, respectively, of the Conservative movement.

Whether the project has the ability, despite all else, to inspire and invigorate the movement is uncertain, to put it mildly. What is entirely clear, though, is that Magen Tzedek is in essence a politically, not religiously, motivated effort. And an illegitimate one.

The Bottom Line

As noted, the Conservative approach to Torah cavalierly disregards the basic principles of the halachic process. That being so, the Conservative movement has no right to offer rabbinic sanction for anything at all. Rabbinic certification of a product implies that it was produced in accordance with Halacha. Magen Tzedek makes no objective effort to ascertain the Torah’s position on the practices of companies it seeks to supervise; nor does it have either the commitment or the capacity to do so. Instead, Magen Tzedek’s standards are adopted from secular environmental and social justice organizations. Hence, its certification is, from an authentic Jewish perspective, meaningless.

In fact, it is something worse. Voices within the Conservative movement have in recent years objected to the “monopolization” of kashrus by the Orthodox. Were Magen Tzedek to become accepted as a rabbinic certification, even only regarding social issues, it would, in time, no doubt seek to expand its “authority” to kashrus itself.

Still and all, some Orthodox Jews see the Conservative effort as benign, a venture best just ignored, one they imagine will peter out when companies realize that few if any consumers are considering the seal when buying products. They also point out that there are already kosher products that carry, along with a reputable kashrus agency’s certification, one that declares it halal, attesting to the foods’ acceptability for observant Muslims. Why, they ask, can’t a symbol signifying adherence to labor or environmental standards be seen similarly, as extraneous to kashrus but unobjectionable?

But they miss the fundamental distinction between a halal label and the proposed Magen Tzedek. The former does not promote a false and misleading idea; it simply claims, presumably accurately, that a product meets the standards of Islam.

Magen Tzedek, however, implies that a movement that has jettisoned the very core of what Torah means has standing to declare something Jewishly acceptable. Simply, starkly put, it does not.

Torah-observant Jews should actively resist the legitimization of a false vision of Halacha. Perhaps they should even refuse to purchase products that may come to display the Conservative seal. The Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, in fact, has rendered its considered opinion that kashrus organizations should not permit their certifications to appear side-by-side with that of Magen Tzedek; for to do so would be to give an unintentional “hekhsher” to a Halacha-rejecting movement as a legitimate halachic authority.

Companies seeking to assure customers that their products are produced in accord with the most stringent contemporary standards regarding business practices and environmental responsibility have every right to do so, of course. But instead of succumbing to the blandishments of a movement-middleman falsely claiming Jewish authority they should go directly to one of the many secular groups that specialize in such matters.

No one, Orthodox or Conservative, could object to that.

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36 Responses

  1. Avi Shafran says:

    Although it has long been my policy to disallow public comments on my postings (while always welcoming private ones to me at the address at the bottom of each offering), I have decided to make an exception in the case of this article.

    To ensure that comments do not cross the line into halachically or hashkafically questionable territory, I will personally (and hopefully promptly) vet submissions. To save time and energy (commenters and mine!), I share here the criteria for acceptable comments:

    Taking issue with any or all of the posting is perfectly fine, but comments must deal with the subject of the posting, and not use it as a springboard to comment on unrelated issues.

    Comments must be devoid of mean-spiritedness, ad hominem attacks and criticism of talmidei chachomim.

    They must contain no lashon hora or hotzo’as sheim ra about anyone.

    And they must be cogent and clear.

    If a comment, even in part, doesn’t meet the above criteria, it will not be posted. Comments will not be edited to meet the criteria.

    I thank readers for their understanding, and I look forward to reading any comments that might arrive – and, especially, for insights into other points of view they may provide.


  2. Orit says:

    Do you think the Conservative movement has raised reasonable objections about food production? Or is all their worry false? For example, why I am Orthodox and value the kapparot ceremony, I can’t help but watch the chickens, cooped up in tiny cages in extreme heat, and wonder if we have forgotten some of our values….

  3. cvmay says:

    According to Halacha, is there any connection between the kashrus of a product and the ‘mal-treatment of employeees’?

  4. Michael says:

    Regardless of “actual” kashruth (in frum eyes that is) since a significant swath of Jews buy kosher who are not frum by many standards – what do you think will happen to the cost of kosher meat when there is a competing siphon?

  5. L. Oberstein says:

    In summation, if this seal came from a secular agency e.g. peta, then the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah would not object. What they object to is granting legitimacy and stature to the Conservative Movement.

    In my opinion, if the orthodox tell the companies that it won’t bring them any business and that it is irrelevant to the concerns of kosher consumers, then the Mogen Tzedek won’t get any customers.

    What objective standards beyond those imposed by law can be agreed to to such a degree that such a seal would meet with universal approval. It seems to be a moving target. If the ACLU gave the seal, I would know what their standards are based on. I fail to see the Conservative Movement, as a branch of one religion, in the position to undertake such a broad labeling of “ethical” standards. They mean well but they are out of their element. It won’t amount to anything.

  6. Menachem Lipkin says:

    This statement, “…a restaurant where tzenius is lacking would all be rightfully subject to a machshir’s rejection.”, pretty much undermines your entire argument. Once you crack open the door to allowing Kashrut certification to be about issues not related to the Kashrut of the food, then nothing is off the table, certainly not things that are far more closely related to the production of food than how a waitress is dressed.

  7. Baruch Gitlin says:

    I have the same questions as Orit and cvmay. I’d like to add an additional thought. In Israel (maybe also in the United States, but I’m only familiar with Israel), I believe that many kashrut agencies, including the state rabbinute, have fought for the right to revoke heksherim on grounds that are not directly related to the actual kashrut of the food. For example, the rabbinate attempted to revoke the kashrut certificate of a restaurant that was host to an event with belly dancing. In the past, I remember the rabbinate attempting to revoke kashrut certificates of restauarants promoting events for the secular New Year. There was an interesting article in Techumim – I’m sorry that I don’t have it handy in order to cite the exact article – by one of the chief rabbis, of the state I think, explaining and justifying this position. Would you agree with this position in general, and if so, what distinction would you make between issues such as non-tzniut events or celebrating New Years, on one hand, and the type of issues the Conversative Movement is relating to in its heksher? Is the distinction that the former cases involve restaurants, and situations in which the kashrut certificate would mislead people into going to an establishmen where activities are taking place for which a frum Jew should not be present? Or that people engaging in such activities cannot really be trusted with kashrut? The former argument might present a distinction, but I wonder if the latter presents a valid distinction – if the owners of a food company are mistreating their employees in violation of employment laws, to give one example, would that not call into question their veracity with respect to kashrut just as much as if they hosted belly dancing or a New Years event?

  8. David Meir says:

    I’d like to address the mindset reflected in the very first sentence of the article – which says that where something gains the admiration of a “broad swath” of periodicals it should necessarily be regarded with suspicion (i.e. by the Torah community).

    In essence, this is saying that something which appeals to a universal sense of morality is something we should assume to be anti-Torah.

    This statement represents the “siege mentality” within Torah. There is undoubtedly a place for such a mindset, since Torah does often come under attack, but know that there are other positions to take. Rather than looking first to take a defensive posture, there are also those within Torah who first seek to embrace if at all possible.

    That is to say, if people are universally concerned with fair employment practices, environmental issues, treatment of animals – all things that have to do with the conscientious handling of those things under our care, with avoiding harmful exploitation – a legitimate reaction for Torah people is to *resonate* with those concerns, knowing that they are reflected/addressed within Torah. And with this acknowledgement of shared values, we can take great JOY in embracing others – including non-Jews and Conservative Jews. I assure you that a Torah person coming from this place could write just as compelling an article arguing FOR “Magen” or something similar.

    To be sure, each position comes with a risk. The siege mentality will systematically reject even good ideas to avoid the Torah world having to collaborate with outsiders or concede that perhaps they may be offering a good idea or two – even if such ideas are firmly grounded within Torah. It also is not a great mentality for achdus or shalom.

    The mentality of embrace, on the other hand, risks being overly concerned with the whims of the time, looking so hard to find the world’s values within the Torah that Torah itself loses some of its self-identity in the process. Looking for common values is indeed a good mentality for achdus and shalom – but such achdus requires one to give credit where credit is due, even to those outside of Torah. And that itself takes an openness which much of the Torah world is frightened of.

  9. David Meir says:

    With respect to your comments policy, in particular the prohibition of “mean-spiritedness”, I ask you to consider the tone of your own article:

    “at-first-glance-seemingly-benign quest of a Conservative rabbi”
    “by dint of the enterprise’s self-definition as a high-minded corrective”
    “whatever articulation acrobatics the Conservative promoters of Magen Tzedek may engage in”
    “what they are peddling will rightly be understood”
    “What it embraces is hanging the word on whatever its leaders deem worthy of the shingle”
    “justified” by so-called “responsa.”
    “whose neat trick isn’t balancing a ball on its nose”
    “Only a naïf could miss the real motivation for the Conservative front-burnering of its “Justice Certification.”

    I think many of your points are cogent and well-taken, but the language used to express those points is needlessly disrespectful, condescending, and yes, “mean-spirited”.

  10. Yitzhak says:

    Baruch: Tehumin 30 apparently has articles on the topic by Rabbanim Shalom Messas and Yitzhak Kulitz (search on Zomet’s site for ‘Kashrus’).

  11. shaya says:

    I agree with your critique of the Conservative movement, and I oppose the “hecksher”. But what gives this initiative the prominence and appeal it has is mainly, I believe, the popularity of alternative food movements concerned with the environmental destruction, animal cruelty and corporation domination associated with the food industry. This is one of most widespread social movements of our time. There are young people dropping out of college to start organic farms. Idealistic young men and women (particularly through the organization Mercy for Animals) have gone undercover to take jobs on industrial farms and taken video footage that clearly demonstrates the worst possible violations of the halacha against animal cruelty. There is a growing sense that something is rotten in our food system, and our economy and society in general. While we should be skeptical of the Conservative movement, we should also make clear that activism to try to stop injustices — against animals or workers — is a noble cause and worth the time of Orthodox Jews as well. Just because heterodox movements are wrong about religion doesn’t mean they’re wrong about everything. The American Jewish World Service is an example of a fine organization that, while run mainly by non-Orthodox Jews, includes many Orthodox rabbis and youth in its activities to empower poor people throughout the world. That, and not the Magen Tzedek, is the kind of model of beyond-halacha social-justice activism that Orthodox Jews should consider supporting.

  12. Gavriel says:

    “In the United States and other Western nations, laws are already in place to ensure proper treatment of animals…”

    Who says that these secular laws are in accordance with halachah and the spirit of Torah regarding Tzaar Baalei Chayim?

    You say that “a slaughterhouse that violates the dictates of tza’ar ba’alei chayim… would all be rightfully subject to a machshir’s rejection.” Has this EVER happened? Somehow, I doubt it. And surely you can’t believe that the factory farming of animals is consistent with the highest ideals of the Torah with regard to tzaar baalei chayim. How is it that people who care so much about minutae of chumra care nothing about a d’Oraisa?

  13. Reuvain says:

    There is another critical issue. The leader of Magen Tzedek, Rabbi Morris Allen, led the charge against Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin. He made many accusations, child labor and others. Some of which Rubaskin was found innocent of in court. Allen never apologized nor recanted for his accusations. Orthodox rabbis in his community of St. Paul have stated he acted disengeously. His unethical behavior raises serious questions about his role in defining ethical kasruth. Should the orthodox community support Magen Tzedek that was an outgrowth of Allen’s activism, aligning himself with the unions etc. Clearly he has made false accusations against Rubashkin, he never apologized, that should be enough to make his Hersher unacceptable to the Orthodox community.

  14. Baruch Gitlin says:

    I want to note that shaya expressed something I very much wanted to express also, but couldn’t quite find the words for. Key phrase: “Just because heterodox movements are wrong about religion doesn’t mean they’re wrong about everything.” I think as Orthodox Jews, we sometimes have a tendency to react against ideas that are valid ideas, and truly Torah-based ideas, just because these ideas are embraced by movements we oppose. This is something we should guard against, because I believe it sometimes draws us away from Torah.

    And Yitzhak, thanks for the citation. That was, indeed, the article I had in mind.

  15. Michael says:

    I don’t think the “economic model” I was questioning above was viewed in the manner in which it was proposed. To be more specific, since frum Judaism is ~ 10 – 15% of all Jews in America, if that, then even if only a very small percentage of non-frum Jews buy “traditionally” kosher meat, by sheer numbers, they number at least as many as frum buyers, no? If so, and, if, for the moment, one imagines all of them switching to “heksher tzedek” meat, what do you think the economic implications are for traditional producers – both good and bad?

  16. micha says:

    The Conservative Movement, at least its left wing, bought into the identification of Juadiam with “Tikkun Olam”, here being used to refer to social activism in causes popular among the more liberal camps of the Democrat Party. So, this comes as no surprise.

    If they want to say ethics are more important than kashrus, it’s likely they’re right. Where things go wrong is this notion that there is a tradeoff. Checking the ethics of companies the cater to our community — kashrus, sefarim publishers, etc… — is a good idea. But has nothing to do with kashrus. There is a choice being portrayed rather than telling people of the need to pursue both.

    What don’t gain much vilifying the members of this camp for living to their own ideals. Rather, what we need to do is to stay out of the newspapers with stories of ethical lapses. When these things happen, we talk of chillul Hashem — this is simply the fallout. We give the non-Orthodox movements far too much fuel for believing that it’s meticulousness in the more rite areas of halakhah or in ethics. We regularly hand them opportunities to claim they are the ethical high road. We can’t blame them for taking it.

    But Judaism is the pursuit of both.

    A second piece of the damage is that because it’s not the Orthodox world taking on the role of ethical mouthpiece for Judaism, the ethics being promoted are those of Liberal America, not the Torah.

  17. Shanks says:

    I appreciate being part of this Dialogue but I’m a bit hesitant about expressing my thoughts which stem from my analysis, since Rabbi Shafran wrote in his first comment that any criticism of talmidei chachamim (for their policies or anything) will be deleted. I am apparently allowed to criticize Rabbi Allen — as Reuvain did with such passion earlier in the comments — but not those criticizing him, as they represent the frum community, and any critique of their critique would be an implicit critique of the leadership. Still, I can at least note an interesting discrepancy.

    I thought the most interesting paragraph was the last:
    Companies seeking to assure customers that their products are produced in accord with the most stringent contemporary standards regarding business practices and environmental responsibility have every right to do so, of course. But instead of succumbing to the blandishments of a movement-middleman falsely claiming Jewish authority they should go directly to one of the many secular groups that specialize in such matters.

    What this paragraph essentially does, after I’ve just read an essay making many cogent and I think correct critiques of the Conservative heksher, is remove ethical concerns from the heksher-giving process. But just because the Conservative heksher isn’t justified doesn’t necessarily mean that said concerns should be ignored. In Israel, hekshers are refused to restaraunts if the restaraunts are in parts of town the mashgiach considers not-Torahdigeh and if the restaraunt doesn’t set up safeguards considered properly stringent to separate the sexes. None of these things effect the actual kashrus of the product of course, but from their religious perspective, these things are just that important.

    I won’t critique the haredi leadership for removing the ethical from heksher-giving concerns, the readers can decide for themselves what they think of that. But I think it’s at least interest to note the discrepancy between the policies enacted by the haredi world and the rhetoric of one Hirschian gadol: “‘Kosher’ is intimately related to ‘Yoshor.’ God’s Torah not only demands the observance of Kashruth and the sanctification of our physical enjoyment; it also insists on the sanctification of our social relationships. This requires the strict application of the tenets of justice and righteousness, which avoid even the slightest trace of dishonesty in our business dealings and personal life.”

    Rabbi Shafran, I know opening your comments section was difficult, so: Thanks for the opportunity to have an open and honest dialogue, a real engagement with ideas by giving folks who might disagree with you an opportunity to respond. 🙂

  18. Shanks says:

    P.S. To clarify, because I can see my first paragraph becoming wildly misunderstood:

    Of course I saw the comments which took issue with things Rabbi Shafran wrote. What I meant by us not being allowed to criticize the criticizers of Rabbi Allen is that we’re not allowed to criticize their policies and the things they say which are openly endorsed by the gedolim (such as anything written in the gedolim-approved media on these topics).

  19. Bob Miller says:

    For many of the heterodox, justice is defined according to their political persuasion, while Torah law is invoked as an afterthought or as a smokescreen.

  20. Shanks says:

    [please disregard my earlier “P.S.” in favor of this one…It’s been awhile since I’ve dialogued with frum Jews, I had forgotten the emphasis on nuance necessary]

    P.S. To clarify, because I can see my first paragraph becoming wildly misunderstood:

    Of course I saw the comments which took issue with things Rabbi Shafran wrote. What I meant by us not being allowed to criticize the criticizers of Rabbi Allen is that we’re not allowed to criticize their policies and the things they say which are openly endorsed by the gedolim (such as anything written in the gedolim-approved articles on these topics, as opposed to a journal called Dialogue where all opinions from Torah Jews are welcome).

  21. concerned says:

    Is there anything less relevant than a kashurs certification from a body that (counting it’s members) for the most part does not adhere to the laws of kashrus and is going the way of the dinosaurs?

    The Conservative movement as a body of Judaism has never been less relevant to Jews – Conservative or otherwise.

    This whole issue I think is deserving of less thought that a tree falling in the forest.

    “If a conservative hechsher is placed on a product does any body who cares about kashrus ever notice it?”

  22. Mr. Cohen says:

    What percentage of Conservative Judaism schools and Conservative Judaism synagogues
    could pass the Magen Tzedek certification test for ethical standards?

  23. shaya says:

    A couple additional thoughts:

    1) While improving animal welfare and worker conditions are praiseworthy goals, a certification system for food isn’t going to do much good — we need new national legislation reforming factory farms and stopping abuses of workers, and only various social groups (including Jews) working together can achieve such a huge feat.

    2) If Conservative Jews want to bridge progressive ethical concerns with halacha, how about persuading the few semi-idyllic farms (the small but growing number of local, genuinely free-range, beyond-organic farms) to get legitimate kosher certification? Factory farms are one of the most horrifying and anti-halachic phenomenon of modern times, but without kosher supervision for meat and dairy from alternative agriculture, all kosher meat is going to come from factory farms.

  24. Eli says:

    “Although it has long been my policy to disallow public comments on my postings (while always welcoming private ones to me at the address at the bottom of each offering), I have decided to make an exception in the case of this article.”

    Yasher Koach. If you don’t mind if I ask, why this article over others?

  25. cvmay says:

    Many readers concentrate on reading ONLY the posts that allow discussion, comments and dialogue.
    Perhaps, Rabbi Shafran can answer some of the respectful questions that were brought up by the readers?

  26. Avi Shafran says:

    My thanks to all who posted comments (whether they made it to the comments section or had to be declined) for sharing their thoughts and questions. I have every intention to try to respond to some of the points and questions that have been brought up, and will do so as soon as I have a few quiet moments to read them all again and put my thoughts into words.

    Until then, please forgive the delay.

  27. lacosta says:

    listen, i too was raised to believe that it bacame a mitzva to eat grapes when the reform rabbis said it was assur. but how does it become a mitzva to eg buy brand XXX’s salads because the workers who are protesting the company arenot jews? why does serving treyf affect the hechsher but abusing workers doesn’t? [ i thought the kruvim were ish el achiv to symbolize both luchot are equal]…..

  28. micha says:

    “lacosta”: why does serving treyf affect the hechsher but abusing workers doesn’t?

    Because the hekhsher is a statement that “this isn’t treif”.

    When I was a kid, a reastaurant in Queens with Middle Eastern cuisine lost its hekhsher over having a belly dancer. The hekhsher could not in good conscience promote kosher-observant Jewish men watching belly dancing. That’s closer to this topic, in that the agency wouldn’t certify something as kosher for reasons other than kashrus.

    But it’s still different, because the consumer is the one who would be sinning. Here it’s the producer who sinned, not what do we do? One can’t crossbreed fruit, but after the fact, crossbred fruit are kosher. Here too it’s after the fact.

    The argument one has to make here is that the existence of a consumer market for unethically produced kosher products means that they will continue with current business practices, and so one is enabling future sinning. And while that isn’t quite the hekhsher’s mission of protecting consumers, it may still be prohibited for them to do. Assuming, of course, that one is defining employer-employee relations in halachic terms, and not by some American Liberal standard. And this is why the hekhsher would be specifically for matters where the market is dominated by the observant consumer; a sneaker manufacturer would continue using the same number of underpaid and overworked children in some corner of Asia regardless of what some Jewish ethics certifier said. But even without the issue of heksheirim or even the black-letter halakhah, it bothers me how few O Jews simply wouldn’t buy such products because of a gut revulsion to being a party to such things. What about the drive to be ehrlich?

    As for the notion of Hekhsher Tzedek or Uri L’Tzedek (an Open Orthodox run ethical certification), there is a basic pragmatic problem with treating interpersonal ethics the way one treats kashrus. There are two parties involved, and thus two stories. Kashrus is a more straightforward matter of ascertaining the facts. Worker ethics is a matter of hearing both sides and making a determination. It requires something much more like a courtroom setting, if not an actual court. A hekhsher is altogether the wrong format for actually determining violations.

  29. Reb Yid says:

    Actually Uri L’Tzedek’s Tav HaYosher is also straightforward about ascertaining the “facts”, in that their standards are simply about following relevant federal, state and local laws.

  30. Avi Shafran says:

    Dear Readers,

    Let be begin by again thanking all who sent comments on my Magen Tzedek piece. A number of valid issues were raised and I wanted to comment on at least some of them, in no particular order.

    The reason I decided to permit comments to be posted to this piece, unlike my longstanding policy about my weekly Ami essays was mainly because it dealt with a here-and-now practical issue for the Orthodox world, one about which, more than usual, I wanted to receive thoughtful feedback (good, bad and ugly alike). Also, since the article was lengthy and appeared in a periodical other than Ami, my usual gig, I felt I could make a distinction here and not feel obligated to open comments for my weekly offerings. (I simply am not able, due to my work and personal responsibilities, to vet comments for posting each week, something I feel is essential if comments are posted.)

    I will, incidentally, be posting another piece shortly (likewise unusual, in that it appeared in the Forward) where comments will be welcome. But after that, my regular policy will be reinstated. As always, I welcome communications personally addressed to me at [email protected] .

    To substantive issues (and I write here as an individual, not as a representative of any organization or periodical):

    Technically speaking, of course, kashrus concerns only the ritual permissibility of a food; a hechsher, by contrast, is rightly concerned with auxiliary issues.

    Where there are, however, actual halachic problems in food production that are not technically kashrus-dependent, it behooves the kosher certifier to investigate and, if necessary, take action. Every reputable machshir has a rav to which it takes questions and so if there are concerns about, for instance, tzaar baalei chaim or inappropriate entertainment in a food establishment, he would be the person to decide if changes are necessary. His decision, though, will and should be based on halacha and hashkafa, not what any particular secular (or non-halacha-bound religious group) considers proper or improper. Ethical concerns are properly a responsibility of a machshir – but ethical as defined by Torah, not contemporary sensibilities.

    Likewise with employee issues. I would imagine that most such issues will involve the halacha of dina d’malchusa dina.

    I do believe that we should not automatically consider anything that emerges from a non-Orthodox Jewish movement to be ipso facto objectionable. Magen Tzedek, though, to me, is.

    The thesis of my article was that the Conservative movement’s pushing of the new seal (in recent days it has tried to distance itself from the initiative, but history’s hard to change) is a bald attempt to “cash in” (in credibility, if not in dollars) on societal ideals. Those ideals may well have great value (although it can be argued that both animal rights and workers’ rights have been taken to extremes that are, in the long run, detrimental to society). Valid issues are valid issues. Attempts to capitalize on them, especially on the “reasoning” that the ideals are routinely flouted by Orthodox Jews and machshirim, are (if you’ll excuse me) a different animal entirely. The quote I included from Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt is a telling one.

    And, to reiterate something else I mentioned en passant in my article, if Magen Tzedek aims to raise ethical standards in the Jewish world, why would it aim only at food production? There are ethical concerns, after all, in every conceivable profession, business and organization.

    Finally, I think there is a clear line between sharp and straightforward writing and mean-spirited writing. I hope I did not cross that line in my article; and I don’t think I did.

    I hope the above will prove helpful for understanding my point of view, just as many of the thoughtful comments that came in were helpful to me in understanding others’ takes on this issue.

    Avi Shafran

  31. Baruch Gitlin says:

    Rabbi Shafran, I just want to thank you for allowing comments and posting your response. I think the process, and your response, sharpened the issues, and make the post more interesting and informative than it otherwise would have been. I know this must be a time-consuming thing, and the fact that comments on this blog are always moderated is one of the key things that I believe makes this blog worthwhile.

    In short response to your response, I think that if the Orthodox rabbinute, in general, paid more attention to the type of issues that could be considered “ethical” issues in the general society, it would undercut things like this Conversative “hecksher.” I’m not suggesting it be done for that reason – really, I think it should be done because it is the right thing to do, and the Torah should be treated in a more holistic way than I believe is done now. By holisitc, I mean paying attention to the entire Torah, and not just those facets of Torah that separate us from the rest of the world.

  32. David F. says:

    What I find particularly amusing about the comments to this article is that the very same people who rail against the implementation of any chumrah whatsoever are the ones who now support additional criteria for a hechsher which have no basis in halachah whatsoever. How ironic.

  33. micha says:


    See Avos 2:1 and Sheqalim 3:2 as for the severity of acting in ways that do not cause others to think less of you.

    Second, I have no idea how you know how these people (most of whome posting under one name or a pseudonym) feel about chumeros. But, since you raise the subject, where should be be finding places to implement them? R’ Yisrael Salanter was meiqil in how much water to use to wash his hands in order to be machmir on how he treats the maid who lugs it. And missed Kol Nidrei to tend to a crying, but safe, baby. Etc… Those are the priorities I would wish to emulate.

    As Rav Shimon Shkop opens Shaarei Yosher (the haqdamah):
    BLESSED SHALL BE the Creator, and exalted shall be the Maker, Who created us in His “Image” and in the likeness of His “Structure”, and planted eternal life within us, so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were). For everything He created and formed was according to His Will (may it be blessed), [that is] only to be good to the creations. So too His Will is that we walk in His
    ways. As it says “and you shall walk in His Ways” – that we, the select of what He made -– should constantly hold as our purpose to sanctify our physical and spiritual powers for the good of the many, according to our abilities.
    And so, it appears to my limited thought that this mitzvah includes the entire foundation and root of the purpose of our lives. All of our work and effort should constantly be sanctified to doing good for the community. We should not use any act, movement, or get benefit or enjoyment that doesn’t have in it some element of helping another. And as understood, all holiness is being set apart for an honorable purpose…

  34. Bill says:

    What threat to Orthodoxy does Conservative Judaism represent? If anything Conservative Judaism has kept many Jews affiliated who later become Orthodox. I don’t hear a lot of Orthodox Jews becoming Conservative.

  35. David F. says:


    “Second, I have no idea how you know how these people (most of whome posting under one name or a pseudonym) feel about chumeros. But, since you raise the subject, where should be be finding places to implement them?”

    While I may not know many of the commenter by their real names, I’ve been reading CC long enough and following a few other boards where many of them comment and they’re opinions are no secret. Over the years I have heard many of them consistently decrying the “chumrah culture” and what they perceive [perhaps correctly] as the tendency to add new chumras etc. I find it ironic that suddenly they’re so gung-ho and supportive of the need for an additional hechsher or all things, when far more traditional chumras in the field of kashrus have long been the object of their disdain.

    For my part, I don’t have strong opinions on where chumras are or aren’t appropriate so I’ll refrain from offering my suggestions. I merely wanted to point out the delicious irony that I discovered in this article.

  36. micha says:

    I wanted to go on record: I, Micha Berger, would be happier with a Jewish community that looked for chumeros in the same areas R’ Yisrael Salanter did. Too often we end up relying on leniencies in bein adam lachaveiro (interpersonal mitzvos) because of our pursuit of stringencies in bein adam laMaqom (those between man and the Omnipresent). There was a time when someone (even not Mussarists in particular) who wanted to complement another as being closer to the ideal Jew, they would call that person “ehrlach”. Today we use “frum”. And in that lies all the differences.

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