If the term ‘kosher’ means fit, or done right, is the food we eat ‘kosher” if it’s produced using unethical practices? What if it meets all other technical requirements? Conservative Rabbi Morris Allen says, “no”. For Rabbi Allen, it is not enough to be concerned about the ritual specifics of the kosher food we eat without also being concerned about the ethical issues raised by its production, processing, and marketing.
This realization grew out of Rabbi Allen’s “Chew by Choice” program, which he began to encourage kosher observance in his congregation. He soon realized that ritual observance divorced from ethical observance is inconsistent with Jewish values. Thus was born Heksher Tzedek, now a national program of the Conservative Movement.
For generations, kosher consumers have relied on kosher certifying agencies to be their eyes and ears at kosher food production plants, assuring that kosher standards are maintained. A heksher is a symbol that a particular processed food has received the approval of a certifying agency as to its kosher fitness.
Heksher Tzedek, a symbol sporting a “J” and the Hebrew letter tzadi–the first letter in the Hebrew word for justice, tzedek (but that is another kind of symbol all together). A Heksher Tzedek appears in addition to standard kosher supervision, which will still be done by the standard kosher organizations. To win a Heksher Tzedek, the company must pass five additional eco-kosher and fair trade qualifications: that the food is produced in a humane manner; that food producers provide fair wages and benefits for employees; that they provide workers a safe and healthy environment with sufficient training; that the environmental impact of food production is limited as much as possible; that corporations behind the food permit transparency to check accountability and integrity; and that humane kosher slaughtering is utilized.
There is reason for concern about all of these issues as awareness about fair trade issues and the environmental impact of agribusiness increases. In addition, a recent PETA investigation has uncovered inhumane kosher slaughtering methods in South American kosher slaughtering plants, according to a recent report in the Forward. South American kosher meat plants, which provide the majority of meat for Israel, still use what is largely seen as a barbaric method: shackling the back leg of the animal, hoisting it up by its back leg, then dropping it to the ground to be held down and then slaughtered. More humane methods for kosher slaughtering are currently available. According to the Forward, such procedures are being discussed by Israel’s chief rabbinate but no action seems imminent.
What’s the delay? The Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards unanimously deemed such shackling and hoisting as invalid over seven years ago.
With Heksher Tzedek, the Conservative Movement is providing a real service: a way for all of us concerned about the social and environmental impact of what we eat to know that the kosher food we eat is truly “kosher” in the full sense of the word. That is helpful even for those who are vegetarians.