Conservative Movement Finds Unity in Promoting New Hekhsher Guidelines

By Anthony Weiss

Published September 11, 2008, issue of September 19, 2008.
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Two years after a bruising debate on sexuality that left some wondering if the Conservative movement was irreparably divided, an initiative to link kosher food regulations with labor and environmental standards seems to have reunited the movement’s rabbinate.

A number of rabbis have agreed to devote at least part of their High Holy Day sermons to the initiative, which is known as Hekhsher Tzedek, Hebrew for “justice certification.” In late July, the committee spearheading the initiative released the guidelines that will be used to judge food producers, but the High Holy Day push ensures that the move will be widely discussed when synagogue attendance is at its highest.

Rabbis and leaders of the Conservative movement who spoke with the Forward were universally positive about Hekhsher Tzedek, a display of unity that would have been astonishing only two years ago.

“It’s something that is obviously one people can get behind, because who is opposed to tzedek?” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, referring to the Hebrew word for “justice.” “Among rabbis, I think it’s a great relief to be able to talk about tzedek.”

In 2006 Rabbi Morris Allen of Minnesota started the kosher food initiative in response to reporting by the Forward about labor conditions at the giant Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa.

The moves by Allen and his commission came at the height of the movement’s earlier problems. In December 2006, the movement’s committee on Jewish law passed a legal opinion paving the way for same-sex marriage and gay and lesbian ordination. In response, four rabbis promptly resigned from the committee in protest. Earlier this year, four synagogues in Toronto, where opposition to the sexuality rulings had been particularly high, voted to leave the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella group for Conservative synagogues.

As the same-sex marriage debate unfolded, the Conservative movement’s numbers were dwindling and some observers warned that the movement might be coming apart at the seams.

The new certification program has drawn anger from many leaders of Orthodox Judaism, but the blend of ritual, ethics and food seems to have formed a powerful combination that has spoken to the various strands within the Conservative movement.

“There’s no divisiveness on this,” said Ray Goldstein, international president of the USCJ. “Everywhere I go, people are speaking about it. Rabbis have gotten passionate about it, and also laypeople.”

The most striking element of the support has been that it has come from both sides of the earlier debate about sexuality. Rabbi Loel Weiss of Temple Beth Am in Randolph, Mass., had opposed the liberalization of the movement’s strictures on homosexuality, but he has spoken out in favor of the new movement.

“This is one of the very few examples where the movement has come out to modify Halacha in a more vigorous, dynamic way,” Weiss said. “This is one of the most exciting developments that the Conservative movement has produced over the last two decades.”

Likewise, rabbis who pressed for the new rulings on sexuality have been supportive.

“I think this is a real moment of definition for the Conservative movement,” said Menachem Creditor, rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Calif. “If this translates into something that’s visible, the Conservative movement will have achieved something it hasn’t done in a long time, which is translating a profound idea into personal action.”

Observers suggest that one thing making Hekhsher Tzedek so unifying is its combination of Jewish law and a socially liberal mission. Where these impulses parted ways on issues of sexuality, they have been fused together in Hekhsher Tzedek.

“Gay ordination became a symbol of the fault lines between the halachists and the post-halachists” in the Conservative movement, said Steven Bayme, director of the American Jewish Committee’s contemporary Jewish life department. With Hekhsher Tzedek, Bayme added, “suddenly, you have an issue that bridges that gap.”

Within Orthodox Jewish streams it has been exactly this fusing that has caused concern. A number of Orthodox rabbis have said that Jewish law about the proper treatment of employees should be kept separate from Jewish law about the preparation of kosher food. These rabbis have argued that kosher supervision should focus on ritual food preparation while issues like labor rights and environmental regulation should be left to the government.

“[L]aws, halachic and otherwise, are already in place to ensure proper treatment of animals, workers, consumers and the environment; and ignoring any of them renders a company subject to punitive action by federal and state agencies,” wrote Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel, in the September 8 issue of the Jewish Observer. “To the extent that an envisioned new ‘badge of approval’ simply reiterates those requirements, it is superfluous. And where it aims to go further, beyond halachic and/or governmental strictures, it overreaches, and can serve only to make mischief.”

Shafran went on in the article to accuse the Conservative movement of using Hekhsher Tzedek as “a bald attempt to portray itself as something other than dwindling and desperate,” citing the recent divisions over sexuality issues.

Even within the Conservative movement, there are still questions about whether the excitement about the initiative among the clergy will translate into greater participation by ordinary members. A number of rabbis also warned that consumers must see concrete examples of the Hekhsher Tzedek on the shelves of their supermarkets if the initiative is to hold people’s attention. The rabbis who lead the commission have said that they hope to provide the first evaluation of kosher companies within the next year.

For a look at the Forward’s ongoing coverage of the turmoil in the kosher industry, click here.

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