Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Kashrus, Ethics, and Agudah

On the heels of my thoughts yesterday with respect to the schizophrenic nature of the Conservative Movement comes a statement by Agudah blasting the new Magen Tzedek certification by that same movement. They call it unmitigated Chutzpah!

While I completely agree with them about the nature of the movement itself, I question this particular way of showing it. There are many things to criticize them about but this is not one of them. One can quibble about some of the particulars of this new certification. But one cannot quibble with its intent – which is to raise ethical standards.

Improving ethical standards is not Chutzpah. It ought to be very high on our agenda. I do agree that ethics and Kashrus of food are two different things that should not be conflated. But this is a minor point that should not take away from their goal about improving the ethical standards of the Kosher food industry. This is a good thing. Not Chutzpah.

We need to remember how the Conservative Hekhsher Tzedek Commission that created Magen Tzedek came about. It was due to the very negative reports of how the now defunct Agriprocessors Kosher Meat packing facility run by the Rubashkin family treated their workers. While initial reports may have been exaggerated there is little doubt that at a minimum there was room for improvement on how workers were treated.

The Rubashkins whose Lubavitcher traditions forbid them from trimming their beards are the quintessential picture of ultra Orthodox Jews. This magnifies everything they do and puts it all in Torah context. To see the world’s largest kosher meat packing facility in any kind of negative light is a Chilul HaShem. There is nothing wrong with creating an organization that will upgrade ethical behavior and certify it. That is a Kiddush HaShem.

The Agudah seems to feel that government supervision in and of itself is sufficient to assure basic ethical standards are followed. They therefore see such organizations at best as superfluous and designed to embarrass Orthodoxy. I do not see them that way.

For one thing if government agencies were sufficient Agriproccers would not have gotten such bad publicity about how they seemed to treat their workers. According to Agudah the FDA should have been all over them like a cheap suit. They weren’t. It took some investigative reporting to uncover any of it.

I believe that Magen Tzedek was created to prevent that kind of Chilul HaShem from ever happening again. And the Conservative Movement is not the only one doing it. Uri L’Tzedek was created by some Modern Orthodox Rabbis for the same purpose. They were motivated by the same events as was the Conservative Movement.

To call this particular move a brazen effort to change our Mesorah is in my view a misreading of their goals here. They do not mean to change the laws of Kashrus. One need only look at their Peasach Kashering Guide to see that.

If we feel embarrassed by Magen Tzedek, maybe we should be. We should have thought of it first! Maybe we should have had ethical standards in place to begin with.

It also curious that the Agudah states that there is no such thing as ritual - that there is only Halacha. Of course there is Halacha. That is what Judaism is all about. But Halacha is comprised of many things some of which are ritual. In what way do they define ritual to mean there is no such thing in Judaism? In its religious context a ritual just means doing an act that is defined as having no purpose other than serving God - the Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Makom.

Is not taking the Daled Minim (Lulav and Esrog) on Sukkos a religious ritual? Is there any other purpose to this act? Isn’t going to a Mikva a ritual act? Yes, it is Halacha, but it is a ritual too. In fact an Orthodox Mikva in Chicago back in the sixties was called a Ritualarium! There are Halachos that are not ritual. These are the Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Chavero.

I don’t understand Agudah’s point here except as a slam against the Conservative movement. If you’re going to criticize the movement do it for the right reasons. Slamming them for trying to raise ethical standards in the workplace is the wrong reason.

This is not to say that that I agree with the full agenda of Magen Tzedek. There are probably specific points with which I would disagree and change. And I would definitely not conflate ethics in the workplace with the laws of Kashrus. Magen Tzedek should absolutely not be characterized as an extension of Kashrus. In fact Magen Tzedek would do well to extend its certification to other Jewish businesses and not just the Kashrus industry.

But the overall idea of raising ethical standards in the workplace should be supported and not seen as Chutzpah. I know this was not their intention but this statement by Agudah makes them look petty and less ethical than the Conservative Movement.