Friday, February 09, 2007

The Tsedek Hekhsher

The Tsedek Hekhsher. What is that? It is an attempt by the Conservative movement to certify labor standards at kosher food plants. Why are they doing this? From an article in The Forward:

“The Conservative movement decided last December to create a Tsedek Hekhsher, or justice certification, after finding substandard working conditions at the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa.”

“(Their)committee began looking into the issue of labor conditions after an article in the Forward detailed complaints from workers at AgriProcessors, the Iowa slaughterhouse that is the country’s largest kosher meatpacking plant. The USCJ and the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly created a task force to investigate the allegations. After numerous visits to the Iowa plant — and to another slaughterhouse in Pennsylvania — the task force issued a report declaring that “there are significant issues of concern at the plant, including issues of health and safety.”

Of course there has been a total rejection by the rabbinic administrator at the Satmar affiliated Hechsher organization, The Central Rabbinical Congress, Yitzchok Glick. He advocates refusing Conservative rabbis into kosher food processing facilites. “The Orthodox kosher producers are all of the same opinion. They will adhere to our proclamation. They will not allow them into the plant.” Rabbi Gershon Tennenbaum of the Jewish Press said Jews should “repulse any attempts of introducing such alien impositions.”

The lady doth protests too much, methinks.

Not all Orthodox rabbinic authorities are so strident:
“Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the largest kosher supervision agency, the Orthodox Union, said his organization is “not taking a position” on the Tsedek Hekhsher. But Genack said he believed that labor issues would be better left to governmental authorities.”

I would prefer we first policed ourselves and not leave it to the government. They are a “court” of last resort. Unfortunately we have here a situation of complex factors impacting on each other. And that obfuscates the real issue: The mistreatment of the labor force. AgriProcessors, known better by its trade name, Rubashkin, is indeed the largest kosher meat processors in the country. And in a scathing investigative article a while back they were accused of seriously mistreating their non Jewish laborers and if I remember correctly inhumane treatment of animals as well.

Rubashkin has vehemently denied this and to this day I don’t know where the truth lies. But the idea of creating an oversight body to prevent labor abuses which are, at the very least. a big Chilul HaShem is not a bad one, especially in light of all the negative publicity that has since been generated.

The problem of course is that it is a non Halachic movement who wants to do this oversight, a movement which is in the throes of trying to figure out whether it is Halachic even by its own definition. So the resistance is high. And I understand that. But I question whether the Halachic consideration is the sole motivation behind this resistance.

The idea is a good one and ought to be implemented. I would however agree that we should continue to follow the practice of not joining with the Conservative movement in anything even remotely connected to theology. Doing so would imply endorsement of their views. True, this kind of supervision would have nothing to do with Kashrus, per se but the perceptions that Conservative rabbis are in some way involved together with Orthodox rabbis in Kosher supervision of food could all too easily be misconstrued by the public.

But the idea of this type of supervision should not be rejected or ignored. It would behoove the kosher certification industry to create their own standards and Hashgacha on this issue and to make Hechsherim (kosher certification) contingent on whether these guidelines are followed. Just because “they thought of it” doesn’t mean we can’t implement it. It is a good idea. Only I would take it a step further and make certain that not only are laborers fairly treated but that animals are humanely treated as well.

The Kosher meat industry has not performed well in this area and this was true even before Rubashkin ever existed. Rav Ahron told our Shiur way back in the seventies that he was disgusted by the wide spread practice at the time of shackling the cattle by its hind legs, then hoisting and suspending them upside down for slaughter. This is a completely inhumane and unnecessary practice.

He also felt that the way in which veal was and still is produced today is inhumane and unacceptable. I believe Rabbi Soloveichik never touched veal because of it. Our appetites for veal should not trump the torture those calves must go through. I’m not sure if the practice of hoisting and shackling still exists or how common it is. But it ought to be stopped if it exists at all. Animals mistreated in this or any other way in the Shechita (Kosher slaughtering) process must be barred from getting any kind of Hechsher. Slaughtering animals should be done as humanely as possible. It is long past time we implemented such standards so we can truly be a light unto the nations instead of an embarrassment to God.