Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Friday, 6 May 2011

The Reality They Live In

I've not been shy about my views on the shortcomings of the new Conservative hechsher, the Magen Tzedek.  In short, I don't think it'll make much of a difference in the kosher food market.  The vast majority of exclusively kosher consumers are Orthodox and stop looking once they see a hechsher they recognize.  Many groups might further avoid buying anything that looks like it has a Conservative "seal of approval" on principle.  As for the Conservatives themselves, 95% of them are either entirely non-kosher or not exclusively kosher even if they do care. Of the remaining 5% how many will look for the seal?

Then there's the issue of standards.  Magen Tzedek promises If you care about workers, animals and the planet Earth, you are a supported of Magen Tzedek. Magen Tzedek states that food tastes best when it is prepared with integrity which is all well and good but when it notes that it ensure food is prepared according to "the highest ethical standards" it still begs the question: who decided that those standards, admirable as they are, are the highest and ethical?  What's more, what will stop the Magen Tzedek from being coopted by leftist elements?  Might at some point the requirement for unionization or a certain type of drug plan for workers become part of Magen Tzedek?  After all, both the Conservatives and Reform have had no problem in the past taking in secular liberal values that are at odds with Torah ones and declaring these values to be "authentically" Jewish.
However, I do recognize Rabbi Morris Allen's intent behind this initiative and certainly it indicates his heart and Jewishness are in the right place, even if I disagree with some of the methods.  Others, however, see this as a graver threat, amongst them our good friends at the Agudah and their defender of the true faith, Rav Avi Shafran:

A new seal for kosher products and establishments being promoted by the Conservative movement is reportedly about to appear alongside those of Orthodox kashrus agencies. The “Magen Tzedek” certification is intended to signify adherence to certain standards regarding labor, treatment of animals, safety, environmental concerns and corporate integrity.
Such issues are worthy ones but they are well covered by governmental regulations and other areas of halacha, as determined by recognized Torah authorities. They have nothing to do with kashrut.
The goal of “Magen Tzedek,” however, is nothing less than to redefine kashrut. Magen Tzedek is the symbol of an entity called the “Hekhsher Tzedek Commission.” Its exclusive purview is food. In its own literature, it calls itself the “gold standard of kashrut”; prominently claims to offer “kashrut for the 21st century”; and states its objective: to “improve our consciousness, understanding and practice of kashrut by extending the definition beyond ritual to reflect ethical, environmental and social concerns.”
There is no such thing as “ritual.” There is only halacha – the holiness we are enjoined by our Creator to embrace. To in any way change halacha is to corrupt the essence of the concept of mitzvah, Divine commandment.
The brazen effort of Magen Tzedek to change the Jewish mesorah, or religious tradition, should come as no surprise, considering its source. The Conservative movement has repeatedly shown that it harbors no respect for the very concept of halacha as it has been carefully preserved with great sacrifice by observant Jews through the ages. For a movement that does not subscribe to halacha to suddenly inject itself into a complex halachic realm like kashrut – with the avowed purpose of “extending the definition” of kashrut – should strike any informed Jews as unmitigated chutzpah.
We Jews have a responsibility to not only ethics but to the entirety of the Torah. All of us who recognize the Divine nature of halacha, along with our established kashrut organizations, should regard the new seal for what it is, a falsification of the Jewish religious heritage, and treat it accordingly.
Where to begin?  While it correct to note that many of the issues regarding "labor, treatment of animals, safety, environmental concerns and corporate integrity" are covered by existing government and halachic regulations, the regular onslaught in the news of Orthodox owned businesses being exposed for fraud or cruelty, the classic example being Rubashkin's, show that the existence of these standards is simply not enough.
In addition, Magen Tzedek is not about redefining kashrut.  The Magen Tzedek website clearly notes in several places that a product needs to be kosher ab initio to be considered for their seal.  The most ethical pork sausage plant in the US will not qualify under the current guidelines.
See the defence of the Rubashkin supporters all along has been that the products they produced were kosher and therefore there was nothing wrong with the plant.  Yes, they were right.  Every rule regarding kashrus was probably followed but halacha has more to say about how we behave than just about the fitness of our food according to dietary law.  Magen Tzedek is not about kashrus, it's about acceptable Jewish behaviour as defined by Magen Tzedek.  The food could be kosher but the people preparing it might not be.  
Look at veal, for example.  Veal calves are raised under abominable conditions, conditions that would be considered torture if used on human beings.  Yes, the animal is slaughters, salted and rinsed al pi halacha but might someone not be disturbed about how the animal lived before dying "properly"?  Magen Tzedek is for those people who aren't simply satisfied that the shochet's knife was sharp enough.
The statement "For a movement that does not subscribe to halacha to suddenly inject itself into a complex halachic realm like kashrut – with the avowed purpose of “extending the definition” of kashrut – should strike any informed Jews as unmitigated chutzpah" should also be of concern.  Excuse me but what has Orthodoxy been doing over the last 70 years if not extending the definition of kashrus?  Mehadrin, mehadrin min mehadrin, Lubavitch vs Satmar vs Beis Yosef shechita.  How about the Chareidi modesty squads that threaten kosher restaurants in Yerushalayim that allow mixed seating?  If the only unmitigate chutzpah the Agudah can see is Magen Tzedek's, then they need to buy a mirror and look it in really closely.  Magen Tzedek won't drive Jews from kashrus like the rising prices of "more kosher than thou" food has. 
It is with this final statement "e Jews have a responsibility to not only ethics but to the entirety of the Torah. " that Shafran's statement shoots itself in the foot.  Yes, we have a responsibility to the entire Torah which includes those laws that Orthodox organizations routinely flout.  Magen Tzedek's goal is to remind Jews that how your food got to your plate has rules just like the food itself.  I might disagree with some of their definitions but the general ideal is laudable.  How the Agudah can criticize this organization when it should be trying to outdo them is beyond me.
Why is it that when it comes to kashrus we have no hesitation to try and out-machmir anyone, but when it comes to ethics we don't do the same?

12 comments:

Bob Miller said...

Well-meaning or not, can Conservative clergy be trusted to be accurate about the baseline kashrut of products they supervise?

Since they have few contituents who care deeply about kashrut in first place, we might wonder whom they mean to impress.

Once we get onto the topic of consumer fraud, we can wonder about the Conservative movement itself, which is based not on halachic principle but on "have your cake and eat it, too." This movement is a (maybe, not so) living, breathing example of religious consumer fraud.

BB said...

@ Bob, Not that I support Conservative, if I read Garnel correctly a product must have a kosher hechsher first before Magen Tzedek will give it a secondary certification. Not saying what kind of kosher hechsher it must be; I go by O-U (and others) but know people who only go by heimishe hechsherim, for example.

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

The info on the Magen Tzedek website clearly states that the symbol will only be give to products that have a valid kosher supervision. In other words, only once the OU or whoever says it's kosher can the company then get a Magen Tzedek.

Bob Miller said...

If a Conservative rabbi gave a hechsher to a product, and not some reputable Orthodox organization or rabbi, would we expect Magen Tzedek to ignore the product?

Y. Ben-David said...

Although it is praiseworthy to insist on ethical principles to be followed by Jewish businesses, I can only think that the fact that the Conservative Movement came up with this is part of the liberal Jewish belief that "to be a good Jew one must be a political progressive" or that "Judaism=Political Liberalism" and nothing more. The Conservative Movement (like the Reform) are in a long-term crisis and are in decline. I have to think that this move is, in the end, an attempt to tap into this political liberalism in a futile attempt to show they are still relevant, especially since the Reform movement is usually seen to be taking the lead in the "Judaism-Political Liberalism". In other works, they are saying "me too" in order to attract support.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Bob, I'm not aware of the Conservatives offering kosher supervision to products so the question is theoretical. I would guess that they would, however, since the Magen Tzedek people are Conservative themselves.

YBD, I agree but in this issue they've cleverly tapped into an actual Jewish issue as well and out-machmired the Agudah for once which probably explains the fierce response.

Bob Miller said...

Once we start getting beyond kashrut as such, we get into a realm where politics interacts with ethics, possibly negating the ethics! Leftwing groups, Jewish or not, typically consider traditional Torah morality to be passe at best and repressive at worst, but put forward a rainbow of alternative moralities based on their subjective sociopolitical leanings.

Garnel Ironheart said...

I both agree and disagree. Yes, you're right about where politics interacts with ethics and this is my concern about Magen Tzedek, that it will get hijacked by leftist dogooders who make it an ideological, rather than "halachic" symbol to better assuage their secular consciences.
On the other hand, politics also interacts with halacha. Look at examples other blogs have brought where certain products were denied hechshers for reasons that had nothing to do with the production of the food. I recall a few years ago there was a story about a hostel in Yerushalayim that identified itself as Conservative and was denied a hechsher despite meeting the Rabbanut's criteria simply because of political affiliation. Neither side can claim the high ground here.

David said...

Well put. I think the heckscher tzedek is problematic for a number of reasons (not least of which is its collection of rather Byzantine rules with attendant loopholes), but your point about its being a response to a fairly serious situation is a good one. Aguda, as usual, has completely missed the boat-- it would be nice if Shafran could turn his very keen fault-finding abilities towards his own organization, and perhaps improve its credibility.

Garnel Ironheart said...

> it would be nice if Shafran could turn his very keen fault-finding abilities towards his own organization

Ain't no blindess like selective blindness.

Bob Miller said...

In he found an internal problem, don't you think he'd air it internally?

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

Bob, the problem with that is his tendency to publicly air what he perceives are the problems of other groups. He has no trouble loudly attacking those he disagrees with so the sudden need for quiet discussion would be inconsistent.