Upon consultation with its rabbinic leadership, Agudath Israel of America has issued the following statement regarding the Conservative movement’s new “Hekhsher Tzedek.”
The Agudath Israel statement stresses the vital importance of ethical behavior in all interpersonal and business dealings but “emphatically rejects” the initiative as distorting the meaning of kashrus. It points to the facts that “Hekhsher Tzedek” is inexplicably aimed only at producers of kosher food and no other merchants or institutions, and that it includes elements that are decidedly beyond halachic mandates as evidence that the larger goal of the new “Hekhsher” is a redefinition of the term kosher. What is more, the statement asserts, the Conservative movement, as a non-halacha-respecting movement, cannot credibly claim to serve as arbiter of halachic suitability.
The initiative, the statement avers, “is simply the latest manifestation of Conservative leaders’ tradition of exchanging Divine mandates for contemporary constructs.”
Following is the full text of the Agudath Israel statement:
The Conservative movement has embraced a brand new certification for kosher foods, the “Hekhsher Tzedek,” which is designed to indicate a kosher food producer’s “compliance with a set of social justice criteria.” Agudath Israel of America regards the Hekhsher Tzedek idea as misguided and misleading. It rests upon, and will likely foster, a distorted understanding of kashrus, and a corruption of the halachic process itself.
To be sure, Jewish producers of kosher food – like all Jewish businesses – are halachically bound by obligations regarding fair treatment of employees, maintenance of a safe and sanitary work environment, and a host of other strictures that might be called “social justice criteria.” They are, in addition, bound by the principle of dina d’malchusa dina (the law of the kingdom is law), and must comply with all applicable laws and regulations. More generally, Jews are called upon to uphold the highest ethical and moral standards in their personal and business dealings.
It is of utmost importance that these halachic mandates be observed scrupulously. But it is also important to recognize that they have nothing to do with the laws of kashrus.
The halachic tradition defines the term “kashrus” as relating to the ritual suitability of food. Jews insist on kosher food not because of ethical considerations, but because Hashem has commanded us to observe certain ritual dietary requirements. Terms like “kosher,” “kashrus” and “hechsher” are, as a result, rightly associated with those requirements – those requirements alone.
The “Hekhsher Tzedek” blurs this fundamental distinction. Its promoters may assert that the certification is not designed to expand the traditional meaning of kashrus, but that claim is belied by the certification’s very name – and by the fact that it is being offered exclusively to foods that are otherwise under kosher certification. If its purpose is simply to assure consumers that the companies they patronize conduct themselves in accord with social justice ideals, why limit the “Hekhsher Tzedek” to kosher food producers? Why not extend it as well to manufacturers of all goods, services and institutions?
It is further noteworthy, and telling, that the scope of the proposed “Hekhsher Tzedek” goes well beyond halachic requirements. It speaks of such matters as transparency in corporate governance, generous maternity leave policies and pension plans – worthy objectives, to be sure, but not halachic mandates. If the “Hekhsher Tzedek” is simply interested in ensuring that producers of kosher food comply with the requirements of Jewish law, why incorporate these types of extra-halachic factors into the certification?
The answer to these questions is clear, and deeply dismaying. The Conservative movement, most of whose constituents do not keep kosher, is attempting with its “Hekhsher Tzedek” a subtle redefinition of the concept of kashrus. As Conservative leaders have done time and time again in a variety of modern-day contexts, they are paying lip service to halacha while in fact seeking to reshape it. The “Hekhsher Tzedek” is simply the latest manifestation of Conservative leaders’ tradition of exchanging Divine mandates for contemporary constructs.
Sadly, but decidedly, the Conservative movement is not a halacha-respecting movement. Accordingly, any effort on its part to serve as an arbiter of halachic suitability – whether regarding a kosher food producer’s compliance with halachic mandates or anything else – has neither credibility nor legitimacy.
In summation, standing up for ethical practices is laudable, but not when it is done in a way that redefines a Jewish religious term like kashrus – and not when it is done under the auspices of a movement whose claimed fealty to halacha is in fact an exercise in distortion. For these reasons, Agudath Israel of America emphatically rejects the “Hekhsher Tzedek.”
At the same time, we appeal to all our fellow Jews to rededicate ourselves to the highest standards of proper and ethical business conduct. Jews are called upon to serve as a light unto the nations, people whose interpersonal dealings cause Hashem and His holy Torah to be loved by all (Tractate Yoma, 86a). During this season of introspection, may we all resolve to strengthen ourselves in this respect, and thereby merit Hashem’s favorable judgment for a blessed new year.
(YWN Desk – NYC)