Friday, December 19, 2008

Rabbi Shafran's Remarks At “The Kosher Quandary: Ethics and Kashrut.”

Also see Rabbi Shafran's previous articles about this issue: The Missing Ethic and Look Before You Leap: Judge-and-Jury Journalism

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Recently I was privileged to participate in a student-group organized panel presentation at Yeshiva University entitled “The Kosher Quandary: Ethics and Kashrut.” The panel included representatives of the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America and a social justice advocacy group, Uri L’tzedek. The panelists were given a list of questions to address in their remarks, and I think, and hope, that it was an educational experience for all who attended.

Since some people seem to have imagined that I said things I didn’t, or chose to ignore things I did say, I offer my remarks below, which followed my expression of gratitude to the organizers.
I would like to make clear at the onset that, while I intend to speak clearly and bluntly tonight, nothing I say should be construed as impugning the intentions or good will of anyone. I might feel that certain actions or decisions are misguided, but I mean to judge things, not, G-d forbid, people.

Searching for the right metaphor for the relationship between ethics and kashrut, what I came up with is the relationship between… personal hygiene and poetry. Get it? Well, a great poet might never shower, but that bad habit need not affect the quality of his writing. One might not want to attend the fellow’s readings; but the Cantos are the Cantos, Ezra Pound notwithstanding. So while kosher food producers are required by halacha to act ethically in every way, any lapses on that score have no effect on the kashrut of the food they produce.

The same applies to observance, or lack of observance, of the Torah’s laws mandating care for animals and proper treatment of workers; and to societal laws like extra-halachic labor or environmental regulations. All of those things may be mandates, either directly from the Torah or by way of dina dimalchusa, but they are independent of kashrut. That is eminently clear from the Talmud and halachic Codes.

And it is part of the objection that some, myself included, have to the proposed "Hekhsher Tzedek” that has been endorsed by the non-Orthodox movements: Because it conflates two independent Jewish concepts, and thus it misleads.

That, though, begs the larger and more important issue of whether or not kosher food producers should be held accountable for non-ethical behavior.

Of course they should. Here, too, though, there is a further thought to think: Accountable, yes, but more than merchants of Judaica, booksellers or synagogues, Jewish educational institutions or widget manufacturers? No. And so the fact that what has been proposed has been limited to kosher food producers is baffling – or perhaps telling – and constitutes a second objection to the Hekhsher Tzedek initiative. Jewish ethics is a meta-concept, not limited to kashrut.

Further adding to the objections is the fact that the Hekhsher Tzedek plan was conceived in sin – not a word I use lightly. The sin, that is, of jumping to negative judgments of others.

The impetus of the initiative, by all accounts, was the controversy over a company called Agriprocessors. Let me state right away that I have no connection to the company and wouldn’t know a Rubashkin from a Rubik’s Cube.

Nor do I have any idea if any of the company’s owners are guilty of any or all of the very varied charges that have been leveled against them by private groups, government officials or the media. I don’t know if they mistreated animals (as PETA claims), if they ran a methamphetamine lab (as was alleged in a government affidavit), if they harassed employees, knowingly hired underage workers or misrepresented collateral in a loan. I don’t know – but neither do you, or anyone else, no matter what they may think.

What I do know – and what all of us should know – is that it is Jewishly wrong to assume guilt on the basis of accusations, no matter how many. In fact it is, bluntly put, unethical. And to create and herald a new effort as a result of mere accusations against people disregards the Torah’s laws of hotzoas sheim ra.

Let us pretend, though, that the Hekhsher Tzedek idea had been proposed out of the blue, or as the result of some clear and proven breach of ethics across the board of the kashrut industry. Would that not be sufficient reason to create a mechanism to help ensure that the industry will better hew to their extra-kashrut obligations? Yes it would, and indeed, in Jewish history there are precedents of Gedolei hador, elders of the community, threatening recalcitrant merchants with communal penalties, of their instituting price controls and other such measures.

But the operative principle here, and this is my final and most important point, is that those are not decisions just any of us is qualified to make. If the term Orthodox Judaism has any meaning, it lies in reverence for the past, and for those who lie closer to the past than we. The proper way to explore whether a communal mechanism is warranted and proper to deal with a particular problem – whatever it may be – is to bring it to the attention of the elders of the community.

There are, of course, different sub-communities in the Orthodox world, but each has its elders, its accomplished and experienced talmidei chachomim. Theirs is the address. I don’t expect a Conservative rabbi to acknowledge that fact; the non-Orthodox movements are by definition “progressive” – i.e. focused on change and youth, not mesorah and zikna.

But those of us who call ourselves Orthodox have to know on whose shoulders we stand and who the Torah teaches us to consider to be the einei ha’edah, the perceptive and farther-seeing eyes of the community.

Thank you for listening.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]
Jewish Media Resources has an archive of past Am Echad Resouces articles

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