June 30, 2008

The Hekhsher Tzedek: in the aftermath of the 'gotcha' environment

To begin with, here is my weekly disclaimer that I do on occasion represent Agriprocessors, so don't shoot the messenger. The new Hekhsher Tzedek promoted by several conservative rabbis and other liberal groups was a non-starter three years ago after a PETA video alleged animal abuse at the Postville plant of Agriprocessors. This happened even though the USDA neither found fault with the company nor closed down the plant, as is customary for the federal inspectors who monitor the treatment of animals and safety of the food. It surfaced again in conjunction with a campaign by the UFCW to unionize workers at Agriprocessors that included calling thousands of Orthodox Jewish homes with a warning that Agri products were unsafe. It is, of course, very much in the news these days in the aftermath of the federal immigration raid at Agriprocessors on May 12th . Orthodox groups understandably rejected a new definition of kosher that has no basis in halacha. The humane treatment of animals and the proper treatment of laborers are addressed in the Torah separately. Orthodox groups pointed out that kashrus is kashrus, to be monitored by rabbis steeped in Jewish law, and that they rely on government oversight on issues that relate to animal welfare and treatment of laborers.

Even more importantly, the lion's share of the market has rejected this new hekhsher including innocent Conservative and Reform Jews who understand the difference between the value of kosher and the politics of kosher. That is why Hekhsher Tzedek failed after PETA, why it was a non-starter with the Union campaign and why it will ultimately be strike three now as well, despite the hype. The reason: shoppers want quality products that are genuinely kosher at a fair price. That won't change irrespective of what conservative rabbis dream up in their effort to make the case that the people who have built kashrus are not as great after all. They are telling the world, 'We may have failed in the past, but this time we gotcha.' And that kind of approach is far from kosher with most kosher consumers, who unfortunately will be paying a price for the politics of kosher. When the rebel rabbis ask for donations on their website, ask yourself whether you want to contribute to the timeless value of kosher as passed down on Sinai or the politics of kosher for rabbis who may themselves not be very kosher.