Monday, September 14, 2009

The Seal of Justice

The Conservative movement has introduced a new social justice initiative. It is a 'Hechsher' called Magen Tzedek. Roughly translated it means - seal of justice. This new initiative was created as a response to a terrible work situation that was reported about Agriprocessors a couple of years ago under its old management. Agriprocessors was at the time the largest distributor of kosher meats in the country. They were raided by federal authorities and among the accusations were that their employees – most of whom were illegal aliens - were horribly treated.

The almost immediate response by the Conservative movement was to create something tyhey called a Hekhsher Tzedek. Food producers would not only be required to see that their product is Kosher – it would be required to insure that the treatment of its workers is just - and the treatment of animals humane.

In theory I am supportive of that idea. I have suggested that Orthodox rabbis should themselves come up with these kinds of rules. Why - I thought - should we concede social justice to the Conservative movement? True - they came up with this particular idea first. But it was a good one and I thought we should go ahead with it.

I still believe that social justice is an important ideal. But as Ross Perot once said, ‘The devil is in the details’. When one sees a document that is 175 pages long one begins to wonder exactly what this new initiative mandates and what it will mean to the consumer.

On the plus side - the Conservative Movement is careful to point out that this new certification has nothing to do with the actual Kashrus of the food being produced. It will be an ‘add on’ on top of any Hechsher a food producer has. It will insure that not only is the food Kosher, but so too are its ethical standards.

That was a big concern among Orthodox leaders who feared that Conservative Kosher standards - which are not entirely the same as Orthodox standards - would create one big mess. There would be overlap, interference, and big time confusion. Not a good situation. Declaring in advance that this will be completely separate helps to meet that concern – although it doesn’t eliminate it entirely.

Be that as it may Magen Tzedek sounds great in principle. But I have to question how this is going to be implemented. Aside from the fact that this will not eliminate fears by the Orthodox of Conservative interference - there is a reality check that needs to be made.

We live in an economic system that is dictated by the market place. Completion is what drives success. Hechsherim cost money. The reason that food companies pay to have Hechsehrim is not because they are idealistic. They do it because it increases business.

Most Kosher food is consumed by non Jews. Kosher food is a sought after food commodity. People see it as an extra layer of protection over and above the USDA. Many conscientious consumers feel that the more supervision the food gets - the better the quality will be. What about the cost to the consumer? It is minuscule.

The kind of supervision that Magan Tzedek mandates sounds like it may increase the cost to the consumer significantly. Aside from paying for the supervision – Magen Tzedek requires that payroll structures be put in place that will end up increasing the costs to the consumer. That will put the food producer at a competitive disadvantage.

Most people of course do not want to see employers abuse their employees. But will they be willing to pay the price for preventing that at the supermarket? Won’t the consumer look at the price tag first? I think we all know the answer to that question.

This initiative is doomed to failure, I’m afraid.

This does not mean that I don’t support the idea of raising the ethical standards of the Kosher food production. Unfortunately the Agriprocessors experience shows us that we must have standardized ethical standards implemented across the board in all kosher food production. But I disagree with the well intended but prohibitively high standards set by the Conservative movement.

I would suggest that the Orthodox Union – if they haven’t yet done so – set their own more simplified standards. They are the oldest and largest Hechsher organization and ought to be the model for all others. They need to be realistic. I’m sure there is a happy medium between the high minded but prohibitively expensive standards sought by the Conservative movement and the unfair practices of some of the Kosher Food producers of the past.

All human beings have a right to be treated like they were created in the image of God - fairly with dignity and respect.

This does not mean we have to mandate payroll packages that includes expensive benefits - or minimum pay standards necessarily higher than the federally mandated minimum wage. What we should however do is implement better safety standards, pleasant working conditions and prevent any worker abuse. We ought to insist that any willful violations of the law in hiring practices risks removal of the Hechsher. Payroll and benefits packages should be worked out between the employees and employers to their mutual satisfaction and not be subject to some arbitrarily high and unaffordable standard.

These rules should be reasonable and uncomplicated - simple and straight forward. They need not be 175 pages long. And they ought to be incorporated into the Hechsher already given via existing supervisors. These rules ought to be viable and cost effective – and not add significantly to the price for the consumer.

Simplicity is the key - and the essence of success to my mind. We need not concede ethics to the Conservative movement. Nor should we. I predict Magen Tzedek will fail. We ought to pick up the gauntlet and do it ourselves in a way that will succeed. Kavod Habriyos and Kavod Shamyim demand it.