Kosher Supervision and Ethics Supervision

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The Forward is reporting that a new certification agency is set to begin certifying kosher food with an additional symbol called a Magen Tzedek denoting that the certified food meets their ethical standard. The guidelines for earning a Magen Tzedek require food companies to meet the Magen Tzedek standard in 5 major categories: labor, animal welfare, consumer issues, corporate integrity and environmental impact. The standards are extensive. They fill a 150 slide PowerPoint presentation.

I’ve been thinking about this innovation and have mixed feelings about it.

My first thought is that certifying businesses as ethical is a nice thing to do. There are people who would only support a business if they were confident that the business was acting legally and ethically in all of its facets. Having that information verified by a third party seems like a great idea.

My second thought is that the standards are completely arbitrary. There are 5 categories and they are all issues and I think they  are all important. But why are these the 5 issues the certification cares about? Moreover, not only are the 5 issues arbitrary, but the standard by which they are judged must be completely arbitrary as well. Take “environmental impact”. How much environmental impact is acceptable? Based on what is that standard established? Take “corporate integrity”. Does that include secretaries who nick paper clips and pens? What if the CEO makes a disproportionate amount of money? Where are the standards coming from?

In contrast, kosher certification is based on rabbinic sources. The sources are all agreed upon. There are minor discrepancies in application, but the standards are, for lack of a better word, standardized.

I am wary of any standard that is not standardized. I could be wrong. But I don’t see how things that are by definition arbitrary can be useful tools in a certification program.

Personally, I think a “whistle-blowing” organization would be more useful. Find out the facts. Report the facts. Then allow the consumer to decide whether the information is something that would affect their decision. This avoids the arbitrariness of the standards but still achieves the ultimate goal.

My third thought is that the reaction of the orthodox Jewish media is heinous. For example the headline on read: Left-Wing Non-Torah Liberal Jewish Factions to Test New Magen Tzedek Kashrus “Ethics Seal” in Kosher Marketplace. As I sarcastically posted on Twitter, this headline is slightly biased.

Why should it matter to an orthodox Jew if a good idea comes from Left-Wingers? Or even if it’s Non-Torah? Plenty of really great ideas are Non-Torah. And people who demand ethical business practices are to be considered “Liberal Jewish Factions”? Why? Further, the standards may be arbitrary, but they are also based mostly on Torah principles!

But what bothered me most of all is that lately, orthodox Jews are drawn to all sorts of stringencies that make them feel better about their observance of Torah. So why would it be offensive to them to add this stringency? Isn’t it reasonable to be strict about treatment of employees? Proper treatment of animals is required by the Torah! If corporate integrity means “honesty in business” well that is also a Torah requirement! Not wasting the earth’s resources? That’s also in the Torah. (See Earth Day.)

So why the uproar?

I am very interested to see how this certification progresses and if it begins to certify products in the orthodox Jewish marketplace. I hope that I will be able to post a follow up after this certification hits the market place and begins to make an impact (or fades away).

Link: The Forward

  • Rabbi Binyomin Pesach Simon

    The complaint about secondary simple is silly. Will they stop eating Hashgachos of parve products that have a vegan symbol?

    • And TM and ® too…

      • Rabbi Binyomin Pesach Simon

        ® = ? Orthodox Rabbis? 😉

  • Joenahari

    Don’t worry, the standards are based on rabbinic sources. And you really can’t expect a newpaper article to contain enough information to judge the details.

    Try these links to see more:

    And I think they’re accepting comments on the standards, so if you have any suggestions, instead of conplaining on your blog, why not send them directly to the Magen Tzedek people directly?

    • Well, I looked at some of the standards and they don’t seem to be based on rabbinic standards.

      I am not complaining on my blog. I am simply editorializing an issue that my readers may be curious as to what my opinion is…

      • Joe Nahari

        Well, I looked at some of the standards and they don’t seem to be based on rabbinic standards.

        My apologies, I thought I had posted a link to Rabbi Riesner’s “al Pi Din” paper, and apparently I didn’t.

        Here it is:

        As far as the standards being a bit vague, well, in my professional life I happen to be managing a voluntary environmental certification (of truck tires, in my case). Believe me, the standards we set may or may not be the absolute best based on the science and engineering, but they’re ones that the tire manufacturers can live with, and we are pretty sure that they result in real improvements in environmental performance.

        And unlike halacha, environmental standards do have objective criteria, as the environmental performance is controlled by the physical laws of nature, which can be measured in a way that anyone who measures them can come up with the same results. Halacha is much more spiritual and objective, and there’s really no proof that what you rule is right, at least until you go to olam haba and have a chat with the Deity.

  • Conservative Apikoris

    “So why the uproar?”

    You know darn well why the uproar.

    This is obviously a shot across the bow of the good ship Orthodoxy by the non-O’s. It’s a clear message that the non-O world sees the Orthodox world as being obsessed with strict observance of the ritual mitzvos at the expense of the ethical ones. The presence of this certification is a clear statement that, as far as most of us are concerned, the practice of Orthodox Judaism does not lead to ethical behavior. Sure, we know that not all Orthodox are like that, but alas, it seems that the Orthodox world has let this super stringency on ritual and laxness on ethics taker over their community.

    • I don’t know if it really is a “shot across the bow”. I don’t see it as an attempt to outfrum the frum. The standards themselves seek to certify all companies at this present time. It isn’t trying to exclude anyone as proof that they are not worthy of the Magen Tzedek.

      And a good idea is a good idea. No matter whose idea it is…

  • GarnelIronheart

    People are, by nature, more interested in Ben Adam L’Makom than Ben Adam l’chaveiro because there’s more “glory” in it. No one notices if you don’t speak loshon horo but if they see you waiting an extra half hour after Shabbos, pssshhhh! A tzadik!
    Regular kashrus is about ben adam l’makom. Hecsher tzedek appeals to ben adam l’chaveiro, hence the ridicule with which its been greeted.
    Here’s the real problem with the concept – 99% of Reformers and 90-95% of Conservatives don’t keep properly kosher. Most Orthodox people won’t care about hechsher tzedek since they only care if the food’s kosher. So here comes an additional hechsher to appeal to a population that doesn’t care about the basic kashrut hechsher in the first place. How many products will ultimately have it?

    • It’s not a hechsher per se. It is an ethical standard. How can a frum person object to that?!

      • GarnelIronheart

        You’re absolutely right but there are emotions in play here. Me, I’d like know a few more things about this hechsher, for example in the US does a company have to provide a certain level of health insurance coverage, does a plant that’s unionized get the hechsher quicker, etc. How objective are the standards? Do they have a Jewish basis or it is once again the assumption that secular leftist values and Jewish values are identical?
        No one has a problem with demanding a safe and respectful workplace and if that’s all this is, no sensible person could oppose it. But does it go further?

        • The links in the comment above take you to the standards. They are very subjective – but in a good way – they want to work WITH the businesses, not against them. The values are pretty universal but the levels of the standards are as I said, arbitrary.

    • Conservative Apikoris

      “People are, by nature, more interested in Ben Adam L’Makom than Ben Adam l’chaveiro because there’s more “glory” in it.”

      That might be true in the Orthodox community, but we non-Os tend to look down on people who are too frum, even frum by our standards. I think there’s a line the Pirkei Avot about not being too over-righteous. Sure that might apply to both ritual and ethical, but we definitely apply that to ritual.

      “Here’s the real problem with the concept – 99% of Reformers and 90-95% of Conservatives don’t keep properly kosher.”

      You mean don’t “properly” keep kosher according to the standards of the Orthodox. The problem with that slur is that the majority of people who buy a product becuase it has a hechsher aren’t Orthodox. Most importantly, I’ve read that the majority of people who buy a product because it has a hechsher are Gentiles! They might be vegetarians who are looking for the “parve” or they might be trying to avoid dairy, etc. In addition, because Reform and Conservative Jews outnumber the Orthodox by 10 to 1, even if a most non-Os don’t keep kosher the way Rabbi Fink would like :), they are still a larger part of the market for kosher certification than frum Orthodox Jews. And in some submarkets, this may well be critical. For example, nearly all Conservative shuls require certified caterers for any events held in the shul, plus they do a gpood bit of guilt-tripping for affairs held outside, too. With regard to bar mitzvah kiddush, even the members who insist on eating pork and shellfish and cheeseburgers, have to patronize a kosher certified caterer. Given the large number of bar.bat mitzvah celebrations at Conservative shuls, these non-observant people are a large part of the caterers’ market. Then, of course, you have the people who keep a strictly kosher home, but who might eat treif outside. They might be sinners, but they’re also part of the market for kosher certified products. All of these people are not part of the Orthodox cult, and so they may be more interested in an ethical certification that the Orthodox who circle the wagons whenever their institutions are criticized.

  • Max

    Reading this article, two main ideas pop into my head:

    1) Many people have a belief (whether it is reasonable or not is beyond the scope of this post) that Kosher corporations routinely mistreat animals, or at least treat them less well than secular “free-range” animals are treated. This new Kosher certification agency seems to address this belief.

    2) What about the implications for corporations which this new Kosher certification agency refuses to certify or corporations who do not have the money to pay this new Kosher certification agency? Will people infer, based on these corporations’ lack of certification, that they are unethical? This creates dangerous ground.

    • Max:

      1) Sure, kosher corporations do not care about “free range” or other more humane techniques of raising cattle or fowl. But they are not routinely mistreating animals. What is good about this supervision is that it will allay and fears or doubts about the treatment of animals and other issues.

      2) It’s not really dangerous because most folks don’t really care either way (unfortunately). But for those who care, they can support whom they wish.

  • David Olesker

    The most obvious problem with the “Heksher Tzedek” is that it calls itself a heksher and is placed on food products. If you wanted to set up a standard for ethical business (and I accept your point on non-halachic definitions being arbitrary, but, ‘let ten thousand flowers bloom’! If people want to set up standards of support for the philosophy of Star Trek, that’s their own business) why the connection to food? Why not offer it to, say, the hotel industry, or the construction industry (both of wich have reputations for exploiting undocumented workers)? Why not revive the “Union Made” label on garments and other products?

    I don’t think it can be explained as “well we have to start somewhere”; this is an attempt to redefine what “kosher” means, or rather what it ought to mean. Although the proponents of “Heksher Tzedek” would not suggest that having used your pots to cook unethically produced food you now need to kasher them, by attaching their seal of approval to food and calling it a heksher they are suggesting that the Torah’s definition of kashrus is inadequate. That is a very dangerous position to adopt if you believe that “Torahs HaShem temimah”.

    To push for ethical behavior in all aspects of a Jes life is a great idea (I remember in 2000 hearing the Novominsker Rebbe talking about the need to be “glatt yoshar” as well as “glatt kosher”). Even prioritizing one aspect of ethics (say, shmiras haloshon) for a campaign is often good, but this campaign id krum for the reasons I’ve outlined.

    • Your question is valid but your presumed answer is not. Spend five
      minutes on their website, read about kashrut in their own words and
      you will be hard pressed to believe that it is all a covert attempt to
      redefine kashrut.

      • David Olesker

        I wasn’t suggesting that there is anything covert about it. I was suggesting that it’s connection to food demonstrates an implicit statement that the halachic definition of kashrus is inadequate. The website’s statement that ”
        Magen Tzedek, is the gold standard of kashrut” seems to be saying exactly that.There is an UK organization called the Fairtrade Foundation ( that promotes what it considers ethical trading practices with Third World countries. It also offers a seal of approval for products that meet thier standards. Because most Third World countries trade in agricultural products most of it’s seals appear on food products, but also on cotton. Now, reasonable people could differ on the validity or significance of this program, but no one would confuse it with kashrus. I also gave the example of the “Union Made” label. Magen Tzedek is overtly trying to redefine what kashrus should mean. I think the proof of that can be found in five minutes on their website.