Sunday, May 20, 2007

Social Justice & Kashrut

I read an article many years ago in Moment Magazine (I believe by Dennis Prager, but I've never been able to find it again) that suggested that we need a new "brand" of Kashrut -- a hechsher (symbol of kosher certification) that indicated that the product was more than just merely adhering to one rabbi's (or one organization's) approval system. Instead, this article proposed a kind of kashrut that took into consideration the company's ethical behavior -- are they environmentally friendly? do they treat their workers well and with respect? do they make contributions to worthy causes? do they have a sense of community responsibility? All these questions would lead to some kind of "certification" that would be an indicator for those consumers who wanted their food and other products to fit with the very essence of "kosher" -- in its strictest sense meaning "fit or acceptable." What is acceptable and fit to me is very different than what was fit or acceptable in medieval times or even fifty years ago. I am very concerned about the kind of companies from which I buy and the kinds of food that my family eats. Is buying organic enough? There are even questions about this as the market for organics opens up -- do organic foods from Wal-Mart, a company whose practices and political beliefs I don't believe in, really fit the bill? Or do I need one more step, one more "kashering" of my food and other products?

An article in Saturday's New York Times explores these questions as it tells the story of Rabbi Allen of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Rabbi Allen is a conservative rabbi who has pushed the Rabbinic Assembly (the rabbinic organization for Conservative rabbis) to approve a "Conservative movement hechsher" under the term "hechsher tzedek" or "just certification." What a fabulous name for it! And what a fabulous idea.

Aside from the issues I wrote about above, I have also objected in principle to the hechsher system. The system is political and in many ways about money -- companies have to pay a mashgiach to come in and certify their production as kosher. Let's point out that these mashgichim are Orthodox rabbis who, for the most part, would not recognize my rabbinate as valid. With all this in mind, I am far more likely to read labels and buy organic or natural products that say "Vegetarian" or whatever else I'm looking for than to buy a hechshered item. I must also point out that I don't buy meat, partly because of all this. (oh, and by the way, the Orthodox kosher system is very much opposed to the Conservative movement's plan, go figure.)
So the idea of a Conservative hechsher is somewhat exciting to me because there are very few Conservative rabbis who wouldn't recognize me and my rabbinate! And while there are many ideological differences between me and the Conservative movement, we are far closer in our beliefs about this particular matter than I am to an Orthodox mashgiach who is certifying a factory without a care for how it treats its workers, only how it treats the cows it is slaughtering (ew).

I am proud of the Rabbinic Assembly for approving and Rabbi Allen for bringing this issue to them! I look forward to seeing the results as their plan moves forward.
What do you think? Would you buy a product if it were hechsher tzedek?