Thursday, October 02, 2008

Implementing Ethics - Agudah and the RCA

Both Agudah and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) have recently come out with statements stemming from the Rubashkin controversy. I have resisted posting about this issue and have done so only sparingly. I prefer the issue be resolved in the courts whereupon I will then offer my final analyisis.

But my reluctance to post has not prevented others from commenting on the greater issue that the Rubashkin controversy has raised – that of ethical conduct in the workplace. The Conservative Movement was the very first (to the best of my knowledge) to deal with that issue – long before US immigration officials raided the Rubashkin owned Agriprocessors.

They created the Hekhsher Tzedek. They wanted to implement ethics as an added layer of Kashrus certification. That would help insure that the kind of ethical violations Agriprocessors was accused of would never happen again.

In an article by Rabbi Avi Shafran in the Jewish Observer - available at Cross-Currents - the Agudah has condemned this initiative in its entirety.

I took exception to Rabbi Shafran and wrote about it a while back. Everything I said there is still true. The gist of it was that one should not condemn a good idea just because of the source or the way they seek to implement it. As I said then, there is plenty to criticize the Conservative movement for. But this is not an instance of it.

Agudah has nonetheless recently made a public statement along these lines. Among other things they said:

The halachic tradition defines the term “kashrus” as relating to the ritual suitability of food. Jews insist on kosher food not because of ethical considerations, but because Hashem has commanded us to observe certain ritual dietary requirements. Terms like “kosher,” “kashrus” and “hechsher” are, as a result, rightly associated with those requirements – those requirements alone. The “Hekhsher Tzedek” blurs this fundamental distinction.

I prefer the approach taken recently by the RCA:

The Rabbinical Council of America announced on September 23 that it would create and publish a guide to Jewish ethics as applied to business in general, and the kosher food industry in particular, and would urge companies to commit to upholding those standards.

Whether Rubashkin is guilty or innocent, this episode has brought into sharp focus ethics in the workplace. And though many Orthodox Jewish owned companies have very high ethical standards it is obvious that there is room for improvement. It is long past due that the Orthodox community not let ethics be ignored or allowed to be the sole domain of individual company owners – any more than matters of actual Kashrus are. No matter how ethical any given individual company owner might be, not all company owners have the same standard of ethics.

It behooves Orthodoxy to insist on ethical standards for Jewish owned businesses that seek certification from Kashrus organizations. To that extent the RCA has taken up the challenge and now advocates tying ethics to Kashrus certification.

This it’s not the first time that Hechsherim- kosher certification - has been tied to other Halachos having nothing to do with the actual kosher status of the food. Bnei Brak rabbinic authorities do not allow fast food restaurants to provide seating for their customers.. Any fast food establishments that has customer seating - cannot get a Hechsher. The rabbinic authorities behind this certification policy feel that providing seating encourages these establishments to become hangouts for boys and girls. That results in inappropriate mingling of the sexes. One can certainly debate the need for such rules. But what it shows is precedent. Tying extra-Kosher conditions for Kosher certification is not an inappropriate or a new idea.

Ethical standards are no less important than matters of Tznius. Public violations of ethical standards is no less a Chilul HaShem than public violations of Tznius.

So instead of condemning the source of the HeksherTzedek as Agudah did, we should instead be taking a cue from it and insisting on our own ethical standards. And that is exactly what the RCA did.

Updated: 10/2/08 12:37 PM CDT