Sometimes, simply promising to follow the law of the land is a welcome step forward.
In that spirit, the new ethical guidelines issued by the Rabbinical Council of America regarding kosher food production must be applauded, even with the understanding of what they are not. They are not a new ethical manifesto along the lines of the lengthy regulations being formulated by the Conservative movement’s Hekhsher Tzedek commission. They leave much authority in the hands of individual kosher supervising agencies — perhaps too much, since there is no clear pathway to ensure that the guidelines will be enforced.
But progress is often incremental, and the RCA’s guidelines, representing a broad consensus in Orthodox Judaism, are certainly a sign of shifting attitudes among religiously observant Jews in the wake of scandal, changes in the marketplace and a heightened social awareness of what Judaism has long taught: We are what we eat.
Would adherence to these new guidelines have prevented or at least curtailed the labor and immigration violations that led to the demise of Agriprocessors, the nation’s largest producer of kosher meat and poultry? One would hope so. Rabbi Asher Meir, chair of the task force issuing the guidelines, said that the new rules ask those who supervise kosher production to demand that producers commit to following civil law, and to understand that supervision will be withdrawn if they don’t.
One would hope, in other words, that Agriprocessors — whose former owner, Sholom Rubashkin, sits in a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, jail, awaiting what could be a life-long prison sentence — would have had its kosher certification withdrawn because the company broke the laws of the United States. Many times, in fact. Rubashkin was convicted of 86 counts of felony fraud in federal court. (His appeal, denied by a three-judge panel, is now before U.S. District Court in the Eighth Circuit.)
This doesn’t mean that Orthodox kosher supervisors are suddenly going to become an arm of American law enforcement. The rabbis who drafted the guidelines are clear that the separation of authority over religious law and civil law will remain. “Rabbis have neither the expertise nor the mandate to investigate the ethical or legal conduct of corporations,” Rabbi Meir said. “But neither should they turn a blind eye to misconduct.”
This is where the RCA’s guidelines grow a little squishy. The rabbinical authorities say that they cannot demand that supervisors write language into their contracts requiring that producers follow the law. They are providing model language and can only urge “in the strongest possible fashion” that it be adopted, said Rabbi Basil Herring, the RCA’s executive vice president. The Orthodox Union, the nation’s largest certifier of kosher food, has agreed to include such language in all new contracts and in renewal of existing ones. But since this process, like much in Orthodox Judaism, is decentralized, it’s unclear how many other supervising agencies will follow suit.
So it will be up to the consumers of kosher food — those who follow the Jewish dietary laws, and the many more who purchase kosher products because of their presumed superior quality — to take a more proactive stand.
And it will be up to the Conservative movement to prove that the regulations it is drafting, which include more comprehensive expectations on labor, immigration, environmental and other social justice practices, will have as much or more clout in the kosher marketplace. The Hekhsher Tzedek commission’s recommendations align with the trend to buy and consume food products that are grown organically, or under fair trade laws, or in other ways that match the views of more socially conscious citizens. That, too, is to be applauded. The unknown is whether there are enough Conservative Jews who care about kosher food to answer to that higher authority.