Support Grows To Change Kosher Rules

Support is growing in the Jewish community to change the standards for kosher certification — to include an ethical component. A group of conservative rabbis has drafted guidelines. The orthodox movement has resisted the idea, but may be open to independent certification on ethical issues.

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What does it mean for food to be kosher? There are new questions about that very old subject - questions that have come up because of a raid this past May in Iowa on the nation's largest kosher meat-packing plant. The company, Agriprocessors, allegedly hired illegal workers and mistreated both workers and animals.

Now, there's pressure to redefine kosher beyond adherence to ancient dietary laws to include modern day ethical considerations as NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH: There's an old hot dog slogan that may have said it best that being kosher means living by a different set of rules.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Unidentified Man: Hebrew National 100 percent Kosher Beef Hot Dogs. We answer to a higher authority.

SMITH: Indeed, keeping kosher is all about elevating food into the realm of the holy. A strict set of biblical law mandates everything from which parts of which animals are kosher to what kind of knife can be used for slaughter. Full-time rabbis work inside food plants making sure no rules are broken. But to a growing number of Jews, that alone no longer guarantees that something's kosher.

Rabbi MORRIS ALLEN (Founder, Heksher Tzedek): It's not enough to be concerned that we have separation about milk and meat - that an appropriate blessing has been recited at the appropriate time. All of those are serious concerns but no more serious than ensuring that exploitation of a worker doesn't take place.

SMITH: Rabbi Morris Allen is founder of a social action group called Heksher Tzedek, or certificate of righteousness. He wants to impose a new set of rules on everything from a food company's vacation policies to their toxic emissions and treatment of animals.

Rabbi ALLEN: All we want to do is formalize the way for the consumer to know that a product that they are purchasing is not only ritually acceptable but ethically acceptable as well.

SMITH: Allen says his kind of good housekeeping seal of approval would run parallel to the traditional kosher certification. Any product could earn both symbols or just one. But to other kosher consumers, the notion that a product could fail the ethical test but still pass the kosher one makes no sense.

Rabbi BENJAMIN SAMUELS (Head, Shaarei Tefillah): I don't think there has to be multiple symbols. And I don't think that there should be.

SMITH: Rabbi Benjamin Samuels, who heads an orthodox congregation outside Boston, says kosher certifiers cannot pass the buck on issues of ethics.

Rabbi SAMUELS: It would be a sad day if we abdicate our religious responsibility to assuring ethical practices. You know, definitely, it smacks of religious hypocrisy.

SMITH: But the rabbis who decide what's Kosher, with a capital K, have largely bought that suggestions that they most also certify that a company's behavior is also kosher, with a small k.

Mr. MENACHEM LUBINSKY (Editor, Koshertoday.com; Spokesman, Agriprocessors): It's something that the kosher community simply cannot accept.

SMITH: Menachem Lubinsky is editor of Koshertoday.com and spokesman for the meat plant now being investigated. He says generous wages and environmental consciousness may indicate a good corporate citizen or a righteous Jew. But he says it mustn't be confused with what makes food kosher.

Mr. LUBINSKY: Kosher is kosher. Everything beyond that is an extension of a definition that has been accepted since Sinai. So we're not going to redefine now what has been on the books for 3,000 years.

SMITH: It's not that the rabbis don't care about ethics, as the head of one kosher agency put it, every child who studies (unintelligible) that mistreating animals, for example, is as much a sin as eating pork.

But Avrom Pollak, president of Star-K, says kosher agencies like his are not equipped to police everything. If it's outside the realm of Jewish dietary laws, Pollak says, they let the government do the job.

Doctor AVROM POLLAK (President, Star-K): Quite honestly, when a company advertises that they're kosher and we're certifying it for kosher, but they also advertise that they're organic, we expected to make sure there are no pesticides in there. We have to some extent rely on governmental agencies to help us out.

SMITH: If a company violates the law, Pollak says, rabbis do respond.

Dr. POLLAK: If indeed bad things are happening, yes, we would pull the certification. We don't want to have anything to do with such a company. But I don't think it is fair to place the onus of enforcement for all ethical aspects of a company's production on the kosher agency.

SMITH: If another group wants to take that on, some kosher certifiers, including the Orthodox Union, say that's fine. But as one rabbi put it, they can't just pick on kosher food. What about other food or t-shirts or toys, for that matter?

The OU's Menachem Genack says it'd be unfair to penalize only the kosher companies who fall short of some arbitrary higher standard.

Mr. MENACHEM GENACK (CEO, Orthodox Union Kosher Division): I think to argue that anybody who pays a worker have this level as opposed to another level is somehow hurting the American economy, hurting the worker and somebody that we have to look with a stain on, and to say that we shouldn't be eating his product - that's where I disagree.

SMITH: Heksher Tzedek is still trying to hammer out exactly how ethical is ethical enough. Founder Rabbi Allen concedes it's not been easy. But rabbis have worked through trickier issues. And Allen says it's incumbent on them to make these judgments rather than rely on the likes of OSHA and the National Labor Relations Board.

Rabbi ALLEN: It's not simply the domain of the government. This is a Jewish concern. This emanates from the core of who we are. It's not a government standard. It's a religious standard.

SMITH: If kosher foods do answer to a higher authority, that may turn out to be the marketplace. As one rabbi put it, it's going to be up to consumers to do some soul searching and decide how much they care about companies' ethics and how much more they're willing to pay companies that proves more generous and more righteous than others.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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