Kosher ‘Ethical Guidelines’ Sidestepped Ethics

Opinion

By Moses L. Pava

Published March 17, 2010, issue of March 26, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Over the past four years, the reputation of the kosher food industry — and indeed of Orthodoxy itself — has been badly tarnished by revelations about mistreatment of workers and animals and violations of law at the Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa. The Agriprocessors scandal demanded a decisive communal effort to reassert the ethical core of the Jewish tradition and redeem Orthodoxy’s good name.

Earlier this year, mainstream American Orthodoxy’s leading rabbinic association finally took action. Unfortunately, the remedy it came up with fell far short of what the occasion demanded — and even calls into question whether our communal commitment to ethics goes beyond lip service.

This past January, the Rabbinical Council of America’s issued a document titled “Jewish Principles and Ethical Guidelines (JPEG) for the Kosher Food Industry.” A close reading reveals it to be a strange document.

In its introductory section, it notes “the responsibility of Torah leaders to teach and promote ethical conduct in the workplace.” Toward the end, the document cites several specific areas of concern including: integrity toward the consumer, honoring commitments to workers and concern for public safety and animal welfare. In the penultimate paragraph, the document reminds the reader that “Jewish law and ethics require that all Jews strive to facilitate correct business behavior far beyond the limited realm of kashruth itself.”

Reading the introduction, it seems like the document is going to be about ethics. Reading the conclusion, it seems as if it was about ethics. But in the intervening sections — the meat of the document — ethical considerations are nowhere in evidence. Indeed, the document’s action-oriented passages focus exclusively on the kosher food industry’s responsibility to follow the strict letter of the law and removes any and all responsibility for encouraging ethical behavior from kosher-certifying agencies. Kosher-certification agencies are asked to require that food companies “affirm in advance that they are committed to law-abiding conduct, and have implemented procedures to comply with legal norms as they understand them.” (Emphasis added.)

Compliance with the law is certainly important, but it is a standard that, taken in isolation, falls far short of achieving “ethical” behavior. Tellingly, the document does not even stipulate that a kosher food company itself has any responsibility for ethical self-regulation beyond compliance with the law.

Moreover, the document does not require that kosher-certifying agencies do much to ensure adherence to even this modest standard. “Practically, an agency cannot assume responsibility for monitoring a company for unethical or illegal behavior,” the document states. It asserts: “Responsibility for regulating the business practices of the kosher food industry lies instead with a variety of specialized government agencies.”

Taken in whole, the document reads more like an after-the-fact justification of kosher-certifying authorities’ inaction during Agriprocessors crisis than a document intended to spell out and expand our understanding of ethics and corporate social responsibility. As such, it represents a tremendous missed opportunity.

The Conservative movement’s Hekhsher Tzedek’s Commission took a radically different approach. In its draft guidelines, it articulated specific and detailed ethical rules for companies that want to receive its seal of approval. Its guidelines include, among other elements, rules stipulating minimum levels of compensation and benefits for workers and directives regarding workplace safety issues and animal welfare.

There have been legitimate criticisms made about the Conservative movement’s approach. For instance, it is noted, rabbis and lay leaders are not necessarily experts at developing detailed standards for corporate behavior. And, it is suggested, any such standards that emerge will likely be somewhat arbitrary.

But there is a middle approach between the Conservative movement’s effort to promulgate a comprehensive set of ethical standards and the RCA’s decision to let kosher food producers off the hook when it comes to ethics.

The RCA could have required all companies receiving kosher certification to develop their own code of ethical conduct. Almost all major American and international corporations now have such statements as a matter of good business practice.

It could have required companies to affirm in advance that they are committed not only to law-abiding conduct, but to ethical conduct as specified by a company’s own ethics statement. Such an affirmation should include detailed explanations on the procedures in place to ensure compliance with ethical norms as stipulated in the company’s code of ethical conduct. Procedures could include internal control systems and ethics audits by outside consultants or accounting firms on a periodic basis.

The overriding concern of such guidelines should be corporate accountability to the public as part of an ongoing dialogue. This means clear articulation of the company’s own goals, a description of mechanisms used to measure its own performance and a commitment to full disclosure to all stakeholders. A company might be asked to issue a so-called triple-bottom line report concerning its economic, social and environmental performance. While these institutional changes may be new to the kosher industry, they are already best practices in most major industries.

An important litmus test concerning the success or failure of the RCA’s current statement is how one might answer the following simple question: Had these guidelines been in effect before the Agriprocessors scandal reached its critical climax, would they have made any difference in either Agriprocessors’ or kosher certifying agencies’ behavior? Rabbi Asher Meir, chairman of the committee that developed the RCA’s standards, told The Jewish Week: “What we saw at Agriprocessors was that the producers were not aware of what the demands of the supervisors were regarding compliance with U.S. laws.” To the extent that one agrees with this diagnosis, then, perhaps, the answer may be yes. To the rest of us, who see the Agriprocessors scandal not only as an instance of unlawful behavior, but also as a profound ethical failure, the RCA’s new guidelines are too little, too late.

Moses L. Pava is the Alvin Einbender Professor of Business Ethics at Yeshiva University. He is the author of “Business Ethics: A Jewish Perspective” (Ktav, 1997), “Leading with Meaning: Using Covenantal Leadership to Build a Better Organization” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) and “Jewish Ethics as Dialogue” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.