Mainstream Orthodox rabbis have for the first time affirmed that kosher food must not only be prepared in a certain way but that the company doing the work must comply with specific ethical standards.
The centrist Orthodox group, the 1,000-member Rabbinical Council of America, announced last week that it was establishing a task force to develop business and professional ethical guidelines. The RCA is the rabbinic authority of the Orthodox Union, which provides kosher supervision to 3,000 companies.
Rabbi Basil Herring, the RCA’s executive vice president, said creation of the task force was prompted by “allegations of ethically questionable behavior” at Agriprocessors, once the country’s largest kosher slaughtering facility in Postville, Iowa.
Its owners and managers were recently charged criminally with violating child labor laws; an animal rights group charged that animals there were not properly slaughtered; a federal raid in May revealed that hundreds of employees were illegal immigrants; and there were reports of abusive practices at the plant, including 17-hour work days, six days a week.
The allegations led to an uproar in the Jewish community and calls by some kosher consumers to boycott Agriprocessors’ products.
“We learned that in the eyes of the consumer a kosher business is not limited to what kind of food comes out,” said Rabbi Asher Meir, chairman of the RCA’s task force. “It reflects the way the business is run — if it’s run in a kosher way. We want it reflected in the expectations of the kashrut agencies. The committee is only now being formed, but we would make sure there were no flagrant violations [and that things were done] in a way customers and citizens have a right to expect.”
Rabbi Meir, research director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem and a leading authority in the field of Jewish business ethics, said in response to a question that the guidelines would also be applicable to the financial community. This would be particularly appropriate, he said, in light of allegations that the current financial crisis occurred in part because institutions gave sub-prime mortgages to individuals they knew would have difficulty paying them.
“The topic of responsible financial dealings and managing balance sheets is something I will put on the agenda,” he said. “Speaking for myself alone, I envision that we would have a set of principles that a company could commit itself to and proclaim to the world. All Fortune 500 companies have a code of ethics and even though it is not legally binding, they commit themselves to it.”
Rabbi Herring said the guidelines would have two parts. In the first part, a company would make a commitment to act in accordance with all civil laws and regulations.
“A violation of those would endanger the kosher supervision,” he said. “Breaking the law would be viewed with great seriousness and concern and would have to have appropriate consequences. It could mean a fine, it could be other penalties or warnings.”
The second part would be the detailing of voluntary ethical standards and practices.
“Many books have been written about ethics in business and ethical sensitivities in business and marketing, disclosure and transparency,” Rabbi Herring said. “All these things go beyond American civil and criminal law. We don’t pretend that every company would be required to adhere to them, and we don’t think kosher supervisory agencies have the resources or the expertise to enforce such things. But we would encourage businesses to voluntarily embrace as much Jewish ethics as they are able to.”
Asked the impact the guidelines might have, Rabbi Herring replied: “If done right, it could certainly make a big difference and consumers will be able to feel a lot better — that what they put in their mouths and stomachs has been prepared in good conscience.”
The Conservative movement’s Hekhsher Tzedek movement, the rabbi added, “showed that the community was ready for it, and within the Orthodox community many people have felt a sense of urgency and need.”
But unlike the Conservative movement, Rabbi Herring said it would not be feasible to give a stamp or certificate to companies that follow the RCA’s ethical guidelines. He explained that the OU supervises 6,000 factories throughout the United States and in 80 countries around the world, “including remote areas of China, Asia and Africa.”
“These companies produce about 400,000 food products,” he continued.
“How would any agency certify that the rice grown in China in a particular farm that later went into a product was ethically planted, watered, harvested, shipped and prepared?
“How would it be able to monitor and certify that all the companies that had anything to do with this product paid their taxes properly, treated their workers properly and engaged in proper environmental safeguards? What kosher agency could certify that it knows all of that? The government, which has untold resources, has a very difficult time doing that.”
But Rabbi Meir, the task force chairman, said the urging of rabbis for companies to adopt the guidelines might be enough.
“We give moral and ethical guidance,” he said. “The rabbi’s job is not to police other people and tell other people what to do or to scold them when they are not doing it. The rabbi is an educator and he gives moral support and guidance.”
The RCA’s announcement was welcomed by Morris Allen, a Conservative rabbi and director of Hekhsher Tzedek, who asked that the RCA join with his group and the Reform movement in pursuing this issue.
“This decision by the RCA is an indication that Hekhsher Tzedek has been quite successful in demonstrating that our work matters — in terms of religious action and in terms of the everyday impact it has had already on the Jewish consumer,” he said in a statement.
In an interview, Rabbi Allen said he hoped that all three major branches of Judaism could work together in this effort because it would be “better for American Jewry and the kosher food industry.”
But Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the Agudath Israel of America, said his organization has the same objection to the RCA’s forthcoming guidelines as it does to the hekhsher tzedek.
“A big part of our concern is that the hekhsher tzedek is perceived and promoted for kosher food producers,” he said. “Limiting a hekhsher or guideline to kosher food producers alone when the same concerns apply to seminaries and synagogues and widget manufacturers would be perceived by people as if there is some central interrelationship between kashrut and ethics.
“If you want to empower ethics in the Jewish community, it should be done through halachic means,” Rabbi Shafran continued. “There is no reason to begin with the empowerment of ethical behavior in one aspect of Jewish life, rather it should be aimed at all business, social and personal concerns.”
He said he is also concerned about the confusion that could arise with the hekhsher tzedek.
“To say something is not kosher unless the workers are paid above minimum wage is a dangerous misperception,” Rabbi Shafran explained. “I agree that there has to be ethical responsibilities. But does that entail a certain number of vacation days, a minimum wage and unionization? I think not because halacha does not cover it. Nothing in halacha requires you to give a certain amount of vacation days and the [expected] guidelines would say otherwise. But they have nothing to do with Jewish law. … The Conservative movement is saying that this is what halacha requires, but that is a misrepresentation of halacha.”
But Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, a member of the RCA, disagreed, telling The Jewish Week that “halacha is all-encompassing,” covering every step of the food process.
“We have to be cognizant of the ingredients, and not only the physical ingredients but the way in which workers are treated and the way the business is conducted,” he insisted.
Rabbi Herzfeld, spiritual leader of Ohev-Sholom-The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., and an RCA member, wrote a recent Op-Ed article for the New York Times in which he criticized the RCA and the OU for failing to do act after federal authorities raided Agriprocessors and arrested hundreds of employees who were found to be illegal immigrants.
“There is a basis for declaring something non-kosher on the basis of how employees are treated,” he wrote. “Yisroel Salanter, the great 19th-century rabbi, is famously believed to have refused to certify a matzah factory as kosher on the grounds that the workers were being treated unfairly.”
Rabbi Herzfeld said he had not been asked to sit on the task force but wished it well. He said he hoped it would examine the past, present and future of Agriprocessors and issue a report on what they believe should be an “ethical course of behavior.”
And Rabbi Herzfeld said he was pleased to learn that Rabbi Menachem Genack, the kashruth supervisor of the OU, is a member of the task force because “he understands the issues involved and has a good grasp of the different competing values.”
Rabbi Genack, who has been involved with the RCA task force from the start, said that although the OU’s kosher certification would not be dependent upon a company complying with the RCA guidelines, the very fact the guidelines are there “will make people more sensitive to the issues.”
The forthcoming ethical guidelines were also welcomed by Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department of the American Jewish Committee, who noted that people rarely look to rabbis “in terms of how they run their professional and business lives.”
He said he found it “very refreshing that Judaism would have an ethical voice that addresses [this]. It says that Judaism is not about a list of dos and don’ts, of who says what under the chupah, but rather what is the value system in our business practices.
“It’s a way of saying you shouldn’t think Judaism is irrelevant in the way you conduct your personal business decisions,” Bayme continued. “I see it as making Judaism more salient in our day-to-day decision making.”
Rabbi Meir, the task force chairman, stressed that aside from developing a standard of ethical principles, he does not envision the rabbis “getting involved in every labor dispute. … I don’t want to undertake a supervisory role in business ethics. We are experts in Judaism and ethics, but not in every area of business.
“We would hope that many companies, especially Jewish ones, would like to tell their stakeholders” of their commitment to the guidelines, he said.