The integrity of kosher America

For millennia, Judaism’s purpose has been to uplift the soul to perform its heavenly duties here on earth and bring about positive change to a world occupied with conflict, exploitation and woe.

Young people wave Israeli flags during the Jerusalem Day march on June 5 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Young people wave Israeli flags during the Jerusalem Day march on June 5
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In the depths of Jewish tradition and law, there is one refrain that echoes through each and every story, each and every law: to do what is yashar v’tov, what is right and good, to uphold the banner of justice and treat all our fellow human beings with dignity and respect.
For millennia, Judaism’s purpose has been to uplift the soul to perform its heavenly duties here on earth and bring about positive change to a world occupied with conflict, exploitation and woe.
This expands to all facets of life, yet nowhere is this more immediate than in the food industry. In the Torah, there is a serious emphasis on what products are consumable and which are forbidden. The Torah not only demands the observance of kashrut, but also that its sanctification be enabled by how we treat others. This requires the strict application of the tenets of righteousness as we understand them in the Torah, meaning the rejection of even the slightest trace of dishonesty in our business dealings and personal life.
To follow through on one element while neglecting the other leaves one’s observance lacking – fundamentally.
Sadly – and too frequently – the businesses the Orthodox Jewish community relies on to uphold the kashrut of our food and their certifying agencies have failed, both in the spirit of the Halacha and in its broader moral dimensions. Whether it be through the exploitation of undocumented workers and minors or unethical business practices, these organizations repeatedly let down the Jewish community and denigrate the sacred practice of kashrut.
In response to disturbing and often highly public failings in this matter, the Rabbinical Council of America convened a task force and published its “Jewish Principles and Ethics Guidelines.” It begins by acknowledging the presence of less than ideal standards in the food industry, stating that: “From biblical times to the present, Jewish tradition has summoned us to a life of ethical behavior and social responsibility, of fidelity to both ritual practice and the rule of civil law... [Given] the influence we have in this area, we believe it is incumbent on us to promote and enforce conduct consistent with Jewish values throughout the kosher food industry.”
The document goes on to call upon the agencies that certify kosher products to ensure that the companies which they certify are following the law and create transparent policies for responding to allegations of violations of the law. This call for the most minimal standard possible, while still having a stated standard at all, has gone completely ignored. None of the major kashrut agencies have done as the RCA asked, and none have publicly set in place even the most basic of ethical standards.
This leaves our community in a terrible bind. We require both ritual and moral excellence from businesses who provide us with food. Yet the kashrut agencies we rely on for their guidance and well-being are unwilling to take even the most basic step of ensuring the lawfulness of our food providers. Their moral standards are now equivalent to the secular corporate standards of factory farming in 21st century America. I see only two clear solutions to this dilemma: either agencies establish the clear and transparent ethical guidelines the RCA has asked they provide or we seek out additional certification that will ensure the basic norms of legal observance.
Our community is called upon to maintain not only strict observance of the rituals and prohibitions of kashrut but to set a moral standard in all things. Rav Yoseph Breuer explained the deep link between these two elements of Halacha beautifully, saying that kosher is intimately linked with yosher, which is Hebrew for uprightness and integrity.
Thus, the creation of the Tav HaYosher ethical seal. Launched by Uri L’Tzedek, the Tav HaYosher is a seal that guarantees a restaurant patron that three simple legal norms of worker treatment are being met.
All three criteria are derived strictly from United States federal, state and local law: the right to fair pay; the right to fair time; the right to a safe work environment.
Over 150 kosher restaurants and caterers in America have been certified.
By encouraging kosher restaurants to adopt the Tav and going out of our way to patronize ones that do we can cause changes from the ground up. We cannot simply wait for the next chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name), we must be proactive. Kashrut agencies exist to serve our communal needs and thus rigorous standards of Halacha. These standards clearly extend to the manner in which employees are treated. As the halachic standard is not being met we must work on top of kashrut agencies through such methods as the Tav HaYosher while simultaneously pressuring them to adopt the necessary policies.
The progress we make is but a small step toward ensuring that the kosher industry writ large is a moral enterprise. For too long, ethics and business practices in kosher food have been thought of as separate spheres. This thought process needs to end. Connecting these two powerful ideals is our task. Being forthright and righteous in our habits at the grocery store has a positive effect that ripples across the marketplace. It is through these methods of transparency and kindness to workers that we can bring about the change we need to see in our community.
Institutions that control kosher certification exist to serve our communal needs, not their bottom line. It is entirely within our power to demand more from them. It is our test, and our dream. Let us achieve it together.
Rabbi Ari Hart, Jonah Winer and Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz: Uri L’Tzedek, the Orthodox SocialJustice movement.