While proponents of kashrut tout its many auxiliary benefits — building community, a constant reminder of holiness — it is primarily a ritual, rather than ethical, obligation, taken on out of respect for God and/or tradition and not because keeping kosher makes the world a better place.
But in our modern world, it is hard to ignore that our food choices have ethical, as well as ritual, implications. Indeed, in recent years growing numbers of Americans, many of them Jewish, have voiced concerns about the many troubling aspects of our industrialized global food chain — whether it be overuse of pesticides and antibiotics and its impact on public health and the ecosystem, crowded and unsanitary conditions for livestock, slaughterhouses that are inhumane to both animals and the workers, or even the environmental costs of shipping products all over the world.
And as we all know, just because an item on our plate is ritually kosher does not mean it won’t make us ethically queasy.
In this climate, we welcome the arrival of Magen Tzedek, a long-awaited ethical certification program intended to supplement kosher certification. Now, observant Jews who also care deeply about Judaism’s ethical imperatives will not have to choose between the two when they go to the supermarket. Meanwhile non-observant Jews, many of whom have demonstrated a commitment to local, sustainably raised food by joining community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs), including 55 such programs under Jewish auspices, may find themselves eating more and more kosher food once they have a wide array of kosher and ethically sourced products from which to choose.
Launched initially as a Conservative-movement project, Magen Tzedek is now not affiliated with any denomination. It remains to be seen whether the idea will catch on, whether a critical mass of manufacturers and consumers buy in and whether the certification will be implemented in a fair and transparent manner.
However, we look forward to seeing the new seals on our grocery shelves and hope that one day consumers can be confident that all kosher products adhere to the highest ritual and ethical standards.