Point/Counterpoint | Religion & Jewish Life

Point/Counterpoint: Magen Tzedek seal engaging in a kashrut cover-up

(JTA) — There is something ironic, to put it politely, about an effort championing ethics that speaks from both sides of its mouth.

That would be the new certification seal for kosher food products, created by a Conservative rabbi and actively being promoted by his movement, that aims to “help assure consumers that kosher food products were produced in keeping with the highest possible Jewish ethical values and ideals for social justice in the area of labor concerns, animal welfare, environmental impact, consumer issues and corporate integrity.”

Originally called Hekhsher Tzedek, the symbol’s name was later changed to Magen Tzedek. This was presumably done in response to objections raised by Agudath Israel of America and others who pointed out that kashrut, which the word “hekhsher” clearly references, is a well-defined halachic concept that has nothing to do with ethical considerations.

To be sure, Jewish ethical values in food production are no less important halachic concerns, and are indeed embodied in independent halachic mandates. But they are something distinct from kashrut. Implying otherwise, it was objected, subtly but unmistakably conflates two distinct realms and, in the process, attempts to “redefine” an important Jewish concept.

So the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission sought to unbake its cake and recast its initiative as not really a hekhsher (i.e. kashrut certification) at all but rather a non-kashrut-related endorsement (oddly, though, only for food), replacing the Hekhsher with Magen. It will be, in the commission’s words, “a supplemental mark … affixed only to foods bearing the symbol of a ritually certifying organization. It does not replace a traditional kosher symbol.”

It was strange that the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission itself nevertheless retained its own name, complete with its kashrut reference. But at least the renaming of the seal would skirt the kashrut issue. The certification, it now seemed, was essentially a “social justice/corporate integrity” stamp of approval. No problem. Indeed, a positive contribution, at least for consumers who for whatever reason do not trust the penalty-empowered governmental agencies that already oversee all those things.

Aye, but here’s the rub: At the same time the new seal was being touted as limiting itself to “bring[ing] the Jewish commitment to ethics and social justice directly into the marketplace” — in other words, to entirely non-kashrut-related concerns — Magen Tzedek still described itself as being the “gold standard of kashrut”  and as offering “kashrut for the 21st century.”

Something’s rotten, it would seem, in the state of definitions.

The decidedly non-kosher elephant in the room here is the fact that the Conservative movement does not really embrace halachah. Nor have its religious leaders ever made kashrut a priority or promoted it to their constituents.

Conservatism pledges allegiance to halachah in theory but has, time and again in a variety of contexts, sought to “accommodate” Jewish religious law to the mores and norms of contemporary American society. The “Whatever Tzedek” is simply the latest manifestation of Conservative leaders’ tradition of exchanging Divine mandates for contemporary constructs. Its seal is a trained one, and its neat trick isn’t balancing a ball on its nose but leading people to confuse kashrut with contemporary social issues.

When Agudath Israel issued a statement recently pointing out the unmistakable redefinition of kashrut inherent in the Magen Tzedek endeavor, representatives of Magen Tzedek responded by erecting and shooting at a straw man, implying mendaciously that Agudath Israel discounts the importance of halachic requirements regarding workers, resource wastage and animals; and that we believe Jewish law in the realm of “between man and man” is less important than that “between man and God.” Needless to say, these charges are absurd.

Even as Magen Tzedek’s promoters fired wildly, though, they seemed to realize the blatant nature of their “now it’s a hekhsher, now it’s not” approach, replacing the words “Kashrut for the 21st Century,” which had appeared prominently at the top of its homepage after the words “Magen Tzedek,” with “An Ethical Certification for Kosher Food.”

The latest change of wording, however, was cosmetic, an attempt to keep the effort’s goal — still defined as to “improve our consciousness, understanding and practice of kashrut by extending the definition beyond ritual to reflect ethical, environmental and social concerns” — less “in the face” of visitors to its website. The “ethical seal,” it seems, is engaging in a cover-up.

But the obfuscation will fool only those predisposed to Magen Tzedek’s goals. Any Jew who recognizes the Divine nature of Torah and the sacrosanctity of halachah knows that the effort’s refusal to address head-on the central issue — the redefinition of kashrut — really says it all.

(Rabbi Avi Shafran is the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.)