Sunday, October 19, 2008

Outsourcing Shechita

On September Agudath Israel issued a statement in which it dismissed the Hechsher Tzedek of the Conservative Movement for two principle reasons:
• The Conservative Movement isn’t a “halacha respecting” movement and are attempting a redefinition of kashrut. In addition most of their members do not even keep kosher.
• Halachic tradition defines kashrut as relating to the ritual suitability of food and has nothing to do with ethics. Issues regarding the treatment of employees, safe standards, working conditions, etc. is relegated to “dina d’malchta dina”.
Neither of these reasons, however are weighty enough however to negate the potential power and strength of the Hechsher Tzedek.

The first argument isn’t worthy of responding to because it insults the integrity of the Conservative Movement, its leadership, rabbis, schools and devoted communities in America and Israel. Their rabbis and leadership are devoted to halachic standards. The fact that their interpretation may be different than an orthodox interpretation doesn’t mean that they don’t subscribe to halachic standards. Normative Judaism has always supported minority opinions with alternative interpretations. One just has to understand the Shulchan Aruch and the ongoing opinion differences between the mechaber and the Ramah, is but one example.

Agudath Israel claims that by introducing the Hechsher Tzedek there is an attempt at redefining what kosher is and what it means. Truth be told, halacha, even according to conservative standards has been organic and expanding as community needs change and grow. Halacha is nothing, if it doesn’t meet the challenges of those whom it claims to serve. Moreover by introducing the Hechsher Tzedek, a new definition of kosher isn’t being asserted, it is just identifying an area of weakness. This has been employed by the orthodox supervising agencies over the years. One example of this that comes to mind is the threat to remove a hechsher, if an institution does something deemed inappropriate or not in the spirit of normative orthodox behavior. For a hotel in Israel to publicly sponsor a New Years Eve party jeopardizes their kashrut certification. Based upon Agudath Israel’s declaration this ought to be considered inconsistent, since having a New Years’ eve party has nothing to do with the “ritual suitability” of the food.

Rather than condition the continued hechsher on ethical standards they rely upon “dina d’malchta dina”, the law of the kingdom is the law, which is disingenuous. According to that logic there ought not to be unions because the law of the kingdom is the law. Obviously, the “law” doesn’t cover every contingency and thus the need for unions to protect employees. The conundrum is that Agriprocessors wouldn’t allow union organizing, so that the workers would have the protection where the law falls short. To make matters worse, Agriprocessors employed labor lawyers to fight the union organizers and thus depress further the plight of the workers. “Dina d’malchta dina’s” application works when the intent is genuine. However when a Jewish organization is intent on evading the principles supported by “dina d’malchta dina” then there is need for an oversight halachic agency such as Hechsher Tzedek.

For the sake of argument would halachic agencies allow for the exploitation of underage children if the law of the land allowed it? Would Agriprocessors outsource its slaughter houses to Asian countries where labor is cheap and absent of child labor laws by hiding behind “dina d’malchta dina”?