The Kosher Quandary

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Last night I attended The Kosher Quandary: Ethics and Kashruth, which was the inaugural event of Yeshiva University’s new student organization TEIQU, A Torah Exploration of Ideas, Questions and Understanding. The debate was moderated by Simcha Gross and Gilah Kletenik who jointly spearheaded the event and founded TEIQU.

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The room was packed with hundreds of people, students from all different colleges as well as professors, parents, and nearby residents. Cameras and sound systems were visible at every turn, namely the New York Times and PBS.
The panelists consisted of Rabbi Menachem Genack, Rabbi Dr. Basil Herring, Rabbi Avi Shafran, and Shmuly Yanklowitz. Gilah Kletenik opened the discussion with a brief history of “kosher quandaries” as well as posing the opening questions to the panelists. “What if any is the relationship between ethics and kashrut? How should Orthodox organizations certify meat?”

Although I cannot fully recount nearly everything the panelists discussed, I will try and give you a sampling of each.

Rabbi Avi Shafran currently serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs and the American head of Am Echad. He opened his statements in a cautionary note stating that he knows that his opinions are not as “popular” or as discussed as the other panelist opinions. He also said that whatever he says he is not judging people but rather things, for only God judges people.

He began his response with a metaphor for the relationship between kashrut and ethics.  He said they are like personal hygiene and poetry. A great poet may opt not to shower, but this does not affect his poetry. Kosher food producers are required to uphold ethical standards, but if they don’t, the kashrut of the food is not affected. Ethics are independent of kashrut.

Rabbi Shafran went on to speak about Hekhsher Tzedek and claimed that the initiative “conflates and confuses two Jewish concepts (ethics & kashruth).”

“Should food producers be held accountable for these wrongdoings?” he asked. “Of course they should” he responded, “but should organizations and people in the kashruth industry be more accountable than other Jewish organizations? Jewish ethics is a meta concept-not limited to kashruth.”

He went on to state that “Hekhsher Tzedek was conceived out of sin because we have no idea if the charges are true, and I don’t say that lightly…It is Jewishly wrong to assume guilt based on accusations, it is unethical.”

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As Orthodox Jews we have reverence of the past and those who lie closer to the past…These matters must be brought to the attention of the elders (gedolim) of the community.”

Rabbi Genack currently serves as the Rabbinic Administrator/CEO of the OU’s Kashruth Division. Since 1980, he has overseen the certification program of some 4,500 food production facilities in 68 countries.

He took the podium and began by stating:

It is no mistake that the Rambam puts Hilhot Kashruth in the section of Kedusha. Furthermore the Ramban, in his well known commentary on the Torah, states that “kedoshim tehiyu,” or “You Shall be Holy.” It is an overarching principle, and it must be because, as the Ramban says, it is possible to fully follow the halakhic guidelines of the Torah  and still be a menuval birshut hatorah or disgusting in the eyes of the torah.… But has the Kashruth been compromised? That is not true.

We are deeply concerned with the perception of kosher to the world, and world ethics and kashruth are linked. I have met with Rabbi Allen and Rabbi Seigel, (founders of Hekhsher Tzedek) but with some of the standards they propose, more than half of the food industry would be unethical according to those standards. I believe that these matters are better handled by the federal authorities. They have the mandate and the manpower. We must be humble in what we can handle.

What defined the Jewish home for generations was having a kosher home. Erosion of the perception of kosher will affect the identity of Jews who are not affiliated. In this way Hekhsher Tzedek, the initiative itself, it’s something we should applaud and encourage.

Rabbi Basil Herring, Executive Vice President of Rabbinical Council of America took the podium.

At the end of Moreh Nevuhim (Guide to the Perplexed) by the Rambam, he writes that the ultimate goal of intellectual perfection is ethical perfection, and we cannot forget this.

We delude ourselves and mislead ourselves if we think that the agencies can be responsible for these types of things. How are the Rabbis going to investigate every case–it’s beyond realistic. Kosher agencies obviously should not be mithabeh l’rasha, hiding or covering for a wicked person. They should disassociate from them and create penalties.

I myself am currently part of a task force in cooperation with the OU. We are also dealing with these complex questions, these are not simple matters.

As far as how the community should respond? Instead of pointing fingers, we should look inside ourselves to be more ethical and practice more sensitivity to other people on a daily basis.

Shmuly Yanklowitz , Co-Founder and Director of Uri L’Tzedek was the youngest panelist by a few generations and was also seen by many as the wild card in the lineup. He was undoubtedly the most dynamic and passionate of the bunch.

Every word he said was pronounced with booming sound and confidence. In fact, he spoke so quickly and loudly that it was very hard to write down his points, he quoted passages of Talmud, biblical verses, and quotes of Rabbi Joseph B. Solveitchik as fast as a machine gun.

He began his statements with a story of a his interaction with an African cheiftan in Ghana. The man asked Shmuly why he had brought his own food. Shmuly responded that he was Jewish, and the cheiftan answered, “The Jews are the most moral and ethical people I have heard of.”

Shmuly recounted wrenching stories from Agriprocessors and continually reminded the audience that these immigrants were people with dignity. After each point, he would lament: “Where is our moral courage?”

He referred to the meat we lovingly eat and enjoy on Friday night dinner and in our cholent: “Can we enjoy it when we know that someone suffered so to make it and prepare it? Is this the Jewish ethical standards that the chieftain in Ghana was speaking of?” He rattled off sins from the Bible: oppression, enslavement, damages, with-holding wages.

So where is our moral courage?

He quoted Rav Broyer as stating that “Kosher is intimately related to yosher (justice, righteousness).”

Unlike the other panelists, Shmuly Yanklowitz presented a plan of action. It is an initiative called Tav HaYosher or The Ethical Seal. It is modeled off of the Tav Chevrati which is already in place in over 300 restaurants in Israel and has been backed by several Rabbis including Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein.

It is a seal not a hekhsher like Hekhsher Tzedek.  The Tav HaYosher will be awarded to restaurants that pay workers minimum wage and overtime, and to restaurants that have a safe and abuse-free work environment. The seal, unlike the Hekhsher Tzedek, will be free. Restaurants will receive the seal based on ongoing audits by trained compliance officers on a monthly basis.

Shmuly’s vision was not rash, he gave no excuses for the ongoing abuse in work places, nor was he paralyzed by the idea that well  “aren’t all of our products unethical in some way?” Uri L’tzedek’s Tav HaYosher is the first step in the right direction for the Orthodox movements’ stance on the kashrut issue. He is not proposing something that is antithetical to halakhah. In fact the tav upholds halakhah and a practical ethical standard which can be implemented.

Shmuly Yanklowitz did not tell people to look inward and improve yourself because hopefully we are all doing that introspection on a daily basis. Even though it was suggested by more than one panelist, looking inward is not action. After a scandal such as Rubashkin, we have clearly seen that action must be taken.

There were many more questions, statements, and comments relayed during the panel and unfortunately I could not relay them all but as Gilah Kletenik stated in her closing remarks, last night we were truly part of Jewish history, engaging in debate and questions just as many have before us.

Posted on December 10, 2008

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

6 thoughts on “The Kosher Quandary

  1. NewSoul

    Hi,
    Let me just say, I LOVE your blog. I do have a question though. Let us assume that the Tav Hayosher initiative come to fruition and we live in a world where Tav Hayosher is as mighty as an OU. Now we have a man named Bill who owns a kosher Taco joint in Brooklyn and relies on this business to keep his 6 kids in Jewish day schools. Now the food industry is a competitive one, and like most small joints in Brooklyn, Bill makes his money by keeping his prices low. It just so happens to be that Bill is only able to keep his prices low because he has 3 able bodied people, Joe Frank and Penny, who are working his kitchen. These 3 people happen to be illegal immigrants. A little about Joe, Frank, and Penny. They just got here from lets say Guatemala where they were living in utter poverty, and have been lucky enough to have found a job with Bill. Everybody is happy. Still, Tav Hayosher will necessarily strip Bill of his seal, thereby rocking his business. And he cannot get other workers and still be competitive. Is this what a Tav Hayosher world would be? I understand that Bill is breaking the law of Dina Dimalchusa Dina, and true it could also result in a “Chillul Hashem”. But a minor one. And thing about the Chillul Hashem Joe Frank and Penny experience when they lose their life changing job and are maybe even turned over to the gov’t!?

  2. Ezekah

    Read your post again, Bill is employing ILLEGAL immigrants. Bill is breaking federal law. Should we decide which laws to follow based on whether the people that are affected are happy?

  3. The Doctor

    In addition, there are all sorts of laws in Torah and Talmud regarding the proper treatment of workers. These laws are just as much part of halacha as those governing how to schecht a chicken. If you hold that Jews should not be able to pick and choose which mitvot to observe, then this applies to those who produce and serve kosher food [or run schools, or administer shuls, etc etc etc].

    Ezekah is right. If it’s illegal, it’s illegal. You could make the exact same argument that Joe Frank and Penny would be economically better off if Bill came in and opened the shop on Shabbat and supervised them, because they would make more money that way. I don’t hear anyone calling for that…

  4. llennhoff

    There is nothing miraculous about being an illegal immigrant that simply by employing them Bill makes money. Either Joe, Frank, and Penny are much harder workers than average, or more likely Bill is paying them less than he would be obligated to pay legal workers. The latter option is plainly against halacha, IMO. Most of Jewish contract law states that the communal defaults are binding on all contracts unless an agreement specifically exempts it.

  5. mbczion

    בס’’ד

    The Torah stipulates that Jews are to obey the law of the land, UNLESS there is a law that coerces a Jew to go against Torah (for example circumsion, kashrut, Shabbat, etc. declared illegal to keep). The law against illegal immigrants is the law of the land and MUST be obeyed.

    מנחם בן צבי הכהן

  6. Jordanna Birnbaum Post author

    To New Soul:

    The Tav HaYosher has a commitment to running only positive campaigns. Restaurants will simply not have the seal if they do not meet the requirements. In a meeting I was at recently with the organizers of Tav Hayosher they specifically said that they are not looking to strip anyone of the Tav if they don’t meet the requirements. The Tav is a partnership between Workers, Owners, and community members. They are willing to work with owners to figure out a feasible financial plan, so that Bill is not left without a business. There will be no “kashruth alert” from the OU if a restaurant no longer meets the requirements. Furthermore, your statement that “they are lucky enough to have found a job” asserts that Bill is doing them a favor by underpaying them. Tav HaYosher will create a Kashruth industry where paying at least minimum wage is standard, if all restaurants adhere to this, we will create a kosher food industry that instead of underpaying workers, will add a dollar or two to food for the sake of ethics and Kiddush Hashem. (Im not sure that by paying workers the minimum wage, Bill or anyone would necessarily lose their business, your scenario was extreme and unlikely when two organizations are working together to benefit both parties.)

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