Orthodox Rabbis To Set Voluntary Guidelines for Kosher Businesses

By Anthony Weiss

Published October 02, 2008, issue of October 10, 2008.
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In the wake of a widely publicized initiative by the Conservative movement to link kashrut with Jewish ethics, the largest umbrella organization of Orthodox rabbis has announced that it will devise its own set of ethical guidelines for the kosher food industry.

On September 23, the Rabbinical Council of America, which serves as the rabbinic authority for the country’s largest kosher certifier, announced that it would create and publish a guide to Jewish ethics as applied to business in general and the kosher food industry in particular, and that it would urge companies to voluntarily commit to upholding those standards. A top RCA official said that his organization’s push was in response to allegations of worker mistreatment by the kosher meat giant Agriprocessors.

Agriprocessors has faced heightened scrutiny of its labor practices since a May 12 federal raid on its Postville, Iowa, slaughterhouse in which federal agents arrested nearly 400 workers on immigration violations. On September 9, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office filed 9,000 counts of child labor violations against Agriprocessors officials.

The RCA’s push is reminiscent of the Conservative movement’s Hekhsher Tzedek initiative, which was established in 2006 in response to the Forward’s reporting on labor conditions at Agriprocessors. A number of Orthodox rabbis have criticized Hekhsher Tzedek for linking kosher rituals to what they have called unrelated parts of Jewish law. The new initiative suggests a shift of some sort in the Orthodox world.

This past July, the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission released a set of standards relating to such areas as labor and environmental conditions and corporate transparency — all areas that the RCA’s executive vice president, Basil Herring, said that his council would also address.

But the two initiatives will operate differently. Hekhsher Tzedek is set to certify companies according to a measurable set of standards on issues ranging from wages and benefits to animal welfare. Companies would be scored on those categories, and those that qualify would receive a certifying stamp to display on their packaging.

By contrast, the RCA is assembling a task force to devise a general set of guidelines on Jewish principles of business ethics. The RCA would then ask companies to agree to attempt to uphold the guidelines, and Herring said that the RCA could potentially publicize the companies that agree to do so — possibly even offering them a certifying label, as well. But he said that compliance would be voluntary, without any enforcement by the RCA.

“It is a completely different approach to what Hekhsher Tzedek has adopted,” Herring told the Forward. “Without trying to criticize them, without meaning to criticize them and without criticizing them — and we wish them good luck in what they’re trying to do — we believe that given the enormity of the kosher food industry, the size and the complexity, what we are attempting to do is a more practical, beneficial approach.”

The RCA will also push companies to sign an agreement that will make their kosher certification dependent upon their compliance with all laws and regulations, with a set of penalties for violations. This would be particularly relevant in the case of Agriprocessors, given the criminal charges currently pending against the company. The RCA serves as the rabbinic authority for the Orthodox Union, the country’s largest kosher certifier and a certifier of Agriprocessors’ products.

The RCA has, to this point, avoided criticizing Agriprocessors over the labor allegations surrounding the company. After the Forward’s 2006 report, the RCA dispatched a rabbi to investigate the plant, but the organization kept its findings confidential. In August, RCA rabbis participated in an Agriprocessors-funded tour of the company’s Postville plant. The rabbis that went on the tour issued a statement saying that they found nothing wrong with the plant.

RCA officials said that while the new initiative was inspired by public concerns about Agriprocessors, it should not be taken as a comment on the company’s innocence or guilt.

“It’s very clearly on people’s minds, and we felt that since it’s on people’s minds, there should be a response,” said Rabbi Yaakov Wasser, a vice president of the RCA who was on the August tour of the slaughterhouse. “It should not be construed as comment on Agriprocessors.”

The founder of Hekhsher Tzedek took the RCA’s move as a sign that the Orthodox rabbis are beginning to take action after two years of resistance.

“This decision by the RCA is an indication that Hekhsher Tzedek has been quite successful in demonstrating that our work matters — in terms of religious action and in terms of the everyday impact it has had already on the Jewish consumer,” said Rabbi Morris Allen, the Minnesota-area pulpit rabbi who devised Hekhsher Tzedek.

But Herring’s relatively benign stance on Hekhsher Tzedek is not universally shared in the Orthodox world. The day after the RCA announced its initiative, the ultra-Orthodox organization Agudath Israel released a statement savaging the Conservative initiative.

“Agudath Israel of America regards the Hekhsher Tzedek idea as misguided and misleading,” the statement said. “It rests upon, and will likely foster, a distorted understanding of kashrus, and a corruption of the halachic process itself.”

Agudath Israel spokesman Avi Shafran said he was also concerned about the RCA’s move to link secular law compliance and kosher certification.

“Insofar as it is aimed at kashrut certification in particular, it would seem to raise some of the same issues with which we take issue in our statement about ‘Hekhsher Tzedek,’” Shafran said in an e-mail to the Forward.

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