The aisles of Home Depot are probably the last place in the world one would expect to confront a kosher conundrum.
Lined with products such as carpeting tools, extension cords, cabinetry and paintbrushes, the retailer’s mega-stores seem far more concerned with matters of the body than the spirit.
And yet it is precisely amid the myriad merchandise on display that I caught a glimpse of what has gone wrong with the kosher certification industry, and why urgent measures are necessary to rein in its excesses.
Many consumers are familiar with the ubiquitous “OU” symbol, which signifies that a product is certified kosher by the Orthodox Union.
The symbol, and countless others like it, can be found on thousands of items that fill the shelves of supermarkets across North America and elsewhere, ranging from tomato paste to breakfast cereals.
It is a straightforward and easily identifiable form of code, one that informs shoppers as to whether the merchandise in question is in conformity with the laws of kashrut.
Having said that, consider for a moment this simple question: what does keeping kosher have to do with cleaning a chandelier? If you are having trouble furnishing an answer to this riddle, you are not alone.
Nonetheless, there it was, staring me straight in the face: a one-liter bottle of Hagerty brand chandelier cleaner proudly brandishing the OU on its front label.
My initial bemusement quickly gave way to intense curiosity when I noticed that a rival product, Westinghouse’s Extend-a-Finish chandelier cleaner, did not seem to have kosher certification.
What could possibly lie behind this mystery? The laws of kashrut, its philosophy and rationale, are matters that have been discussed for centuries by the Talmud and later generations of scholars.
Some, such as Maimonides in the Guide to the Perplexed, have suggested that they are based on concerns regarding health and nutrition, while others, such as Nahmanides, see them as linked with the well-being of the soul.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great 19th century Orthodox German thinker, wrote in his work Horeb, “Just as the external Temple, which represents your holy mission and to which you should sanctify yourself, becomes desecrated by impurity ... so are these foods impure and unfit for your spirit, as far as they are all of them the living place of activity for your own being which is summoned unto holiness.”
Clearly, keeping kosher is about consumption, about the food and drink that we put into our system.
And while the complexities of modern manufacturing processes have undoubtedly raised all sorts of interesting issues, many of which are far beyond the understanding of mere laymen, it is difficult to see what any of this has to do with cleaning a light fixture.
Sure, when it comes to non-food items that might come into contact with food, such as pans or even the machinery on assembly lines, there are questions that one might wish to explore regarding the kinds of lubricants or release agents that are utilized, in case they contain non-kosher ingredients.
But what on earth – or in heaven – does that have to do with a product aimed at maintaining the sparkle of a decorative lamp? The answer, it would appear, has a lot more to do with dollars than devoutness.
As Larissa Faw noted in a December 2013 Forbes magazine article entitled, “Is Kosher the Next Big Food Trend?”, the perception among many American consumers, be they Jewish or not, is “that kosher is somehow better, purer, and healthier than non-kosher.”
In fact, according to a study conducted by Mintel, only 15 percent of those who purchase kosher products are motivated by religious reasoning. And estimates are that there are tens of thousands of products certified as kosher, generating billions of dollars in revenue for major and minor American manufacturers.
Without a doubt, labeling something as kosher has taken on added marketing value, and it was perhaps inevitable that some firms would seek such a stamp of approval, even if the product in question has nothing to do with food.
That may be understandable, but what is less so is the willingness of a respected agency such as the Orthodox Union to go along with such shenanigans, and to agree to give their imprimatur to a cleaning liquid for chandeliers.
Sadly, this appears to be a case of putting profits before the prophets. It is a misuse of the trust that a kosher symbol is meant to inspire, and it sends a terrible message about the meaning and significance of our faith and its values.
This is merely one of many problems that have arisen with kosher supervision in general, which has become a big business and runs the risk of overlooking what is truly at stake.
It is time for rabbis in North America and elsewhere to take a stand, and demand that kosher supervising agencies such as the OU and others stop straying beyond the mandates of halacha and common sense.
When they do so, they imperil the very same religious integrity they seek to uphold.
Yes, Israel is meant to be a light unto the nations. But, I can assure you, that has little to do with the cleanliness of the ceiling bulbs in one’s home.