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 business practices and will ask members of the kosher food industry to sign on.
The Rabbinical Council of America announced on September 23 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 would urge companies to 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 some shift in the Orthodox world.
This past July, the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission released a set of standards relating to such as including labor and environmental conditions and corporate transparency — all areas that the RCA’s executive vice president, Basil Herring, said the council would also address.
But while Hekhsher Tzedek would certify companies against a measurable set of standards, Herring said that the RCA would ask companies to voluntarily uphold Jewish ethics, without any enforcement by the RCA.
“It is a completely different approach to what Hekhsher Tzedek has adopted,” Herring told the Forward. “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 founder of Hekhsher Tzedek, however, took the RCA’s move as a sign that the Orthodox rabbis are coming on board.
“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.