That’s the big question being addressed by Hekhsher Tzedek, an initiative led primarily by rabbis in the Conservative movement, most notably Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minnesota.
With new guidelines just released in which they set out the criteria which a business must meet in order to gain this group’s seal of approval, they are not replacing one form of kashrut with another. In fact, they are not even certifying the ritual/legal process by which the food is rendered kosher. They are offering a complimentary certification which raises awareness about the ethical/legal obligations that business’ and employers have according to halacha, Jewish law.

One can agree with them or not, but if you think that Jewish law matters, then this is a good thing. You don’t have to buy in to their system to appreciate the significance of their commitment to reintegrating the ethical and ritual aspects of a tradition that arguably never saw the two as distinct from each other any way. In other words, this new initiative is a powerful return to tradition.
I wrote recently about the mistake being made by so many people who have jumped into the ethical kashrut issue with sacred rage about “injustice”, and confuse two separate areas of Jewish law, each important and each with their own complex set of details. But Rabbi Allen has managed to nurture this move to heightened ethical awareness without such hyperbole or confusion. And in our world, especially when it comes to religious issues, that’s almost a miracle. Here is how he describes the work of Hekhsher Tzedek:

The concept of kosher foods produced by companies that have attained this “God Housekeeping Seal,” has tremendous consumer appeal, merging the ritual aspect of kashrut with ethical consciousness, states Rabbi Morris Allen, founder and director of Hekhsher Tzedek.
“Hekhsher Tzedek is a holistic celebration of Jewish tradition, uniting ethical practice with ritual observance in the production of Jewish food,” he added. “Jewish law is concerned not only about the smoothness of a cow’s lung, but also about the safety of a worker’s hand as well as the impact that kosher food production has on the environment. Hekhsher Tzedek grows out of Jewish tradition; it does not seek to redefine kashrut as much as enhance it.”

I am curious about they are only working with companies that are already certified kosher. I hope it’s a function of needing to start somewhere and wanting that “somewhere” to be closer to home. Though, I wonder if there is not a bit of “in your face” attitude toward the Orthodox establishment on display here as well. Of course if they went the other route and started certifying “un-kosher” foods, they would get slammed by those same rabbis as having endorsed food which they themselves would not eat!
Here’s an idea: I invite all rabbis who think that this initiative is too narrow because it only addresses those companies that already have kosher certification, to sign a pledge promising to support Heksher Tzedek when it reaches out to certify the ethical behavior of companies producing non-kosher foods. That’s right, let’s see a promise not to mock Conservative rabbis and their standards of kashrut, before asking them to go out on that limb. Personally, I think that would be the way to go. It may too early for that, but it would be wonderful.
Imagine finally having the courage to endorse what people do on an issue by issue basis and not on the basis of it being a reflection of our own behavior! Imagine an otherwise “non-observant” Jew who becomes a master of ethical kashrut, without having the slightest interest in “traditional kashrut” meeting up with someone who practices kashrut the other way around i.e. great on technicalities of how the animal was slaughtered but couldn’t care less about the worker who made that possible. The very definitions of words like religious, traditional, observant, etc would all open up and more people would find more connections to both each other and the tradition.
How bad would that be?

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