In releasing ambitious guidelines to marry new ethical standards with the traditional laws of kashrut, the leaders of the Conservative movement are taking a bold step to align it with a Judaism that cares as much about social justice as it does about ritual practice. But the success of this endeavor depends on whether rank-and-file Conservative Jews will care as much about ritual practice as they do about social justice.
The Magen Tzedek (shield of justice) guidelines grew out of the shame many Jews felt about the abuses, first uncovered by this newspaper, of workers and animals at the infamous Iowa slaughterhouse that once was the largest producer of kosher meat and poultry in the nation. And not only the abuses but the unconscionable attempts by some Orthodox leaders to absolve the owners of treating the ritual slaughter of cows and chickens as divorced from basic, humane principles of employment and corporate responsibility.
Magen Tzedek was created to address that disconnect; its 175 pages of guidelines are divided into five standards that companies must meet to earn this new seal, ensuring justice for workers, animals and consumers, and considering corporate integrity and environmental impact. After a three-month review, the standards will be tested in the marketplace.
In one sense, Magen Tzedek — which may be the most comprehensive food certification in the country, kosher or not — is a brilliant move to ride a wave of ethical consumerism so trendy now that even Time magazine is proclaiming in a September 21 cover story: “We are starting to put our money where our ideals are.” Americans are creating a “new kind of social contract among consumers, business and government… the beginning of a responsibility revolution.”
The social contract represented by Magen Tzedek could infuse new life and purpose in the Conservative movement, and not a moment too soon. Struggling to retain synagogues and members, the movement’s congregational arm just announced lay-offs and a major reorganization, while its legendary Jewish Theological Seminary is anguishing over its own severe fiscal pressures. At the heart of these structural challenges is the more profound question of identity and mission, articulated simply by Rabbi Steven Wernick, the new head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism: “What do we believe in?”
The answer, Wernick and others clearly hope, is in this melding of a modern social consciousness with ancient Jewish ideals and practice, reclaiming the middle ground that has slipped away as Reform Judaism has overtaken the Conservative movement in numbers and Orthodox Judaism has beaten it in passion.
But do Conservative Jews care enough about ritual and practice to make a difference? Only about one-quarter of them keep a kosher home. Will they buy a product because of its Magen Tzedek imprimatur even if the new certification process adds to its cost? Will this reframed concept of kashrut be attractive enough to induce new practitioners? Will the younger Jews who buy organic and flock to environmental conferences find meaning in these guidelines, enough to join a movement that many are spurning?
The success of Magen Tzedek does not rely on one denomination alone. There are Orthodox Jews who share these social justice concerns; some have begun their own effort to certify New York-area kosher restaurants based on their labor practices. The Reform movement has endorsed the push for ethical standards.
But this may, indeed, be part of a defining moment for that most American of denominations, the one that embraces modernity while trying to hold fast to tradition, the one that clings to the belief that the Jewish and secular worlds have something to teach each other. The Conservative pulpit has spoken. Now it’s up to those in the pews to respond.