It’s been two years since the illegal-immigrant scandal at Agriprocessors, the Orthodox Jewish kosher meat-packaging plant that turned out to have many other violations (see an excellent Voice article about it at http://www.villagevoice.com/2008-12-03/news/the-fall-of-the-house-of-rubashkin/ ). Since then, there’s been a crisis of confidence among observant, including Conservative, Jews about whether kosher standards should include humane labor practices.
Most kosher food is bought by non-Jews who believe that because it’s produced according to religious rules, it’s healthier and/or more ethical. (See http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3421676,00.html for recent coverage of that). The Agriprocessors crisis helped make consumers aware that kosher meat processing work can be just as brutal as in non-kosher plants, just as the organic label, too, is no guarantor of ethical labor. It was a black eye for kosher food’s reputation among non-Jews as well as Jews. And very educational, from a secular perspective.
In response, a Conservative Jewish commission developed “Hekhsher Tzedek” ethical standards that address labor standards, the treatment of animals, corporate transparency, and environmental impact in kosher food (http://www.hekhshertzedek.org ) Orthodox groups resisted that, though, saying that Hekhsher Tzedek standards were “arbitrary” (http://www.forward.com/articles/13871/ ) instead of being biblical.
But the Jewish movements seems to have reached a compromise: In the name Hekhsher Tzedek, the Conservatives agreed to replace the word “hekhsher,” which implies kosher certification, with “magen,” a symbol of Judaism. (“Tzedek” means “justice.”) The Magen Tzedek seal will be only optional, and would be shown alongside existing kosher seals.
Maybe if the Conservative Jewish groups had been stronger, they could have liberalized the definition of kosher and brought the arbitrary biblical practice closer to modern ethical standards. Instead, the ultrareligious held firm.
Here’s the latest article about it:
With new name, ethical kashrut seal can appear alongside the O.U.
By Ben Harris
December 26, 2008
NEW YORK (JTA)—In a move that paves the way for a new ethical certification to appear on food products alongside the Orthodox Union’s kosher label, the Conservative movement has chosen Magen Tzedek as the name for its certification, dropping the term “hekhsher” that some saw as an attempt to modify the ritual meaning of kosher.
The seal, whose design was unveiled Tuesday, would be applied to products already certified as kosher but which have met certain additional criteria for ethical production.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, the O.U.‘s head of kosher certification, has been in discussions with the Conservative body overseeing the new seal, which will still be known as the Hekhsher Tzedek Commisssion.
Genack said that the O.U.‘s agreements with kosher food producers generally preclude more than one kosher certification label from appearing on packaging. Had the commission retained the term “hekhsher” on its seal, Genack said, “it would have been a problem.”
“One of the things that we have been clear about from the start is that we are not interested in doing anything but certifying food that has already been certified as kosher,” Rabbi Morris Allen, the director of Hekhsher Tzdek, told JTA. “In order to avoid any kind of misstatements made by others that this is an undermining of kashrut, as opposed to a vehicle to elevate kashrut, we just felt that in the long run it would be better to take the word ‘hekhsher’ off the products that we certifying.”