Eat Justice

morris.jpgRabbi Morris Allen has served Congregation Beth Jacob outside of St. Paul, Minnesota for 22 years. In his “spare time,” he is also the founder of Hechsher Tzedek – a proposed certification put forward by the Conservative movement last December that would endorse foods that are traditionally kosher and also produced in a socially just and sustainable way.

Hecsher Tzedek has received significant acclaim, and also sharp criticism since the idea was piloted eight months ago. I spoke with Rabbi Allen recently to find out the latest news.

“Kashrut is not simply a statement about what we can and cannot eat,” Rabbi Allen told me. “There are so many people who worry about whether a cow’s lung is smooth [glatt] or not, but have no worry about whether someone’s hand was mutilated in the process.”

After my goose bumps subsided, I asked him what this vision looked like in practice. He identified six criteria that will be the “meat and potatoes” of Hechsher Tzedek as it develops:

Fair wages and benefits “We live in a world where kosher meat can be produced in Iowa by a worker making $6.25/hour, whereas the average meat packer is making $11.25/hour,” Rabbi Allen said.
Health and safety
• Appropriate training
• Corporate integrity
• Animal welfare
• Environmental Impact

Some critics argue (most notably Rabbi Menachem Genack from the OU) that ethical and health concerns belong with the USDA, OSHA, and not rabbinic authorities. But Rabbi Allen believes Jewish tradition mandates a more holistic approach: “If we don’t connect [kashrut] to the world and the values we hold, then we fail to take kashrut at its core level.”

Other naysayers, like ultra-Orthodox rabbi, R. Gershon Tannenbaum, claim that a Hechsher tzedek threatens to “infiltrate and dilute the existing framework of kashrus certifications” and called on observant Jews to flat out reject Hechsher Tzedek. Yikes.

kosherlaws1.jpgR. Tannenbaum clearly doesn’t understand that Hecsher Tzedek, and all of Rabbi Allen’s work, is focused on precisely the opposite goal: turning people on to kashrut. More and more, socially-conscious Jews are abandoning kosher food products (especially meat) that are produced in unsustainable, unhealthful, and unjust ways. Even those Jews who will not give up the hechsher are starting to clamor for socially-responsible, kosher meat options.

“I don’t want people to say, ‘I’d rather buy a free-range chicken than a kosher chicken,’” Rabbi Allen said. “There shouldn’t [have to] be that split.”

Despite criticism, Rabbi Allen is thrilled with the committee’s progress. Hechsher Tzedek has been covered in many of the major Jewish papers (JTA, The Forward, etc.), not to mention the coveted New York Times article. Aside from good press, Agriprocessors – the industrial meat “goliath” of PETA infamy has made notable progress as a result of Hechser Tzedek encouragement, including inviting animal welfare expert, Dr. Temple Grandin to advise them on their animal handling practices. (Dr. Grandin also advises Mc Donald’s Corporation.)

“I don’t see [these ideas] as divisive in Jewish life,” Rabbi Allen said. “When push comes to shove, Jews want to do the right thing. We want to know that what we do matters in the world.”

Still, the greatest challenge that seems to be facing Rabbi Allen and Hechsher Tzedek is buy-in from across the Jewish spectrum. Rabbi Allen stressed the importance of building allies and partnerships around this work. At this point, however, every member on the Hechsher Tzedek committee hails from the Conservative movement. Additionally, as they move forward, the committee will need to place a strong emphasis on public input. (As of now, they have hosted a series of forums in the Twin Cities and Rabbi Morris’ keeps a Hechsher Tzedek blog that is open to comments.)

You might say Rabbi Allen has opened up a big can of worms – the hechsher tzedek is a critical piece of the emerging movement of Jews who care about deeply Jewish tradition and the health of the world. The work that unfolds will undoubtedly be great. But juding from Rabbi Allen’s words last week, “Kashrut has always been a core of my rabbinate,” – it seems he’s up to the task.

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5 Responses to “Eat Justice”

  1. Avi Says:

    “I don’t want people to say, ‘I’d rather buy a free-range chicken than a kosher chicken,’” Rabbi Allen said. “There shouldn’t [have to] be that split.”

    Which is why consumers are able to buy a kosher chicken that has organic/free-range certification. If he wants to lobby more kosher companies to produce free-range chickens kol-hakavod, but it’s not a kashrut issue. Nor is it the job of the Conservative movement to enforce free-range labeling when it falls under the FDA/FTC.

  2. Suzanne Bring Says:

    In most parts of the country, you cannot buy a kosher free range organic chicken. And, by the way, just because it’s free range and organic doesn’t mean that the workers have good training or adequate wages or health benefits.

    And this isn’t just about meat, but about the full range of kosher food. How about the truck drivers who deliver kosher baked goods to stores? How about the line workers in vegetable canneries?

  3. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    “R. Tannenbaum clearly doesn’t understand that Hecsher Tzedek, and all of Rabbi Allen’s work, is focused on precisely the opposite goal: turning people on to kashrut”
    Leah, do you really believe that? I’m certainly no fan of Gershom Tannenbaum, but can you blame him for being skeptical? It’s like the old joke of the pope speaking out against birth control and the people grumbling – “you-a no playa de game, you-a no maka de rules” How receptive would you like the Orthodox to be to having definitions of things like kashrus and mikva rewritten by people who don’t keep these mitzvos but who co-opt them and recreate them in their own fashion? I’m not asking you to agree with him but at least acknowledge where he’s coming from. While Gershon may not know enough about eco-kashrus as an outsider, I certainly do, and while certain aspects may in fact be beneficial all around, its hardly a 100% altruistic endeavor. How is he to know where the line is drawn as to who is sincere and who’s looking to rewrite the Torah? What would his response be to the suggestion of using pigs to compost at Freedman (pigs by the way make excellent compost – it’s just that there are social, cultural and halachic taboos against it) when I voiced those objections I was told “thats davka (precisely) why we want to do it! Am I being paranoid? I think not. Were he to look at the programs for the retreats and see workshops like “challah making with a twist” (wink wink, nod, nod) or “the threats and thrills of mixing up the species” what should his reaction be? So understandably in that world, many babies unfortunately get discarded along with much bathwater. Agenda bundling has that unfortunate effect. I spent 2 days at Agriprocessors last year inspecting operations and speaking to workers. Who gives the seminar on the evils of industrial kosher production? someone who saw a snippet of PETA footage and who coincidentally is starting a grass roots grass fed beef coop. What does that tell you? There’s room for change all around but people should be upfront with their agendas. At least “yikes” was much milder than many other responses:)

  4. Leah Koenig Says:

    Hi Shmuel,

    Thanks for your response – I totally hear what you’re saying. But I think what Rabbi Allen and co. is doing with hechsher tzedek is different from the usual “eco-kosher” stuff for two reasons.

    First, Rabbi Allen does practice traditional kashrut, and has made kashrut a central part of his rabbinate since he started 22 years ago. Even though he is working within the Conservative movement (where many synagogues keep kosher while members do not necessarily keep it in their homes), he is definitely “playing the game,” and “knows the rules.” His argument is that it’s a shame that some people – even traditional keepers of kashrut – are turning away from the halacha because they can’t justify eating foods that are “unethical” in a myriad of other ways. Hechsher tzedek is not proposing to rewrite or override the traditional rules of kashrut, but to assert that Judaism also has a lot of mandates (often neglected) towards worker safety, kindness to animals etc. – and that these should also be considered when Jews think about what is “fit” to eat.

    The second piece is – he and his team didn’t just watch a PETA video. They visited Agriprocessors several times (fortunately, Iowa is not too far from Minnesota!), and have been in conversation with them throughout this process.

    Anyway – your points are both right on, but although I think Hechsher Tzedek still needs to be developed, I think it’s really coming from the right place – including respecting halacha.

  5. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    Leah – I know he does, but I suspect that the potential exists for him to be a victim of his own success. Politically while he may very well be sincere and I have no reason to doubt that he has made kashrut a cornerstone of his rabbinacy, his battle cry is getting picked up by the “Vegan – good, agriprocessors – bad” bleaters forcing an understandable kneejerk, wagon circling reaction in the camps that see themselves -rightly or wrongly – under siege. How does that better the situation? Ironically it used to be that many Conservative were at least kosher in the home – now as you mention, the trend seems to be “my temple is kosher” hey, the slope gets slippery. There’s a complex dynamic at work and I think that change will come primarily from within and not from those who don’t share R Allen’s passion for all things kosher. We actually got Agriprocessor to consider generating energy from fat and tallow on site (which they are now doing) as both a cost savings measure and one with positive environmental footprints. I don’t see the vegan boycott of Aaron’s having deep consequences. Let me ask you – if you ran a glatt kosher meat processing facility, do you want to be told how to run your business by someone to whom eating a snail or a clam is more important than serving genuine kosher food to a dear friend? You tell me.
    BTW I wasn’t referring to him about the seminar – I am aware that he too has been out to Iowa several times – I was referring to last year’s food conference presentation on kosher slaughter – sorry if I wasn’t clear.

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