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What’s Wrong With the Star-K Kosher Phone?

About a month ago the Star-K, a world renowned Kashrus agency, announced that they were certifying kosher phones. These phones have no access to the Internet, cannot place or receive text messages, cannot take photos, and most importantly, cannot be hacked to perform any of these tasks.

It’s not troubling to me that people would want a phone that is insulated from certain tasks. Although I think it is an unnecessary measure and perhaps counter productive, I don’t begrudge people their personal self control restraints.

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What is troubling is that a kashrus agency is part of this initiative. A kashrus agency should be concerned with one thing and one thing only. Their singular concern should be the kosher status of the food. I don’t even think that a kashrus agency must concern itself with humanitarian or other ethical issues that may arise. I have no problem with a secondary agency coming in and providing a secondary level of supervision. But the kosher status of the food cannot be affected by anything other its status as kosher food.

So when I see a kashrus agency entering into the phone market, I see an agency that should be worried about kosher status of food but is now legislating morality. It’s not even as if the technical skills involved in kosher supervision overlap the neutering of cell phones. They have nothing to do with each other. I don’t think it is smart for kosher supervision to be intertwined or even related to morality supervision.

Similarly, when kosher supervision agencies make demands on the clientele or ambience of an eating establishment I believe they are overstepping their bounds. There are restaurants that are not allowed to be open at certain hours because they will lose their hechsher if they are open. This is far beyond the scope of kosher supervision. Tell me if the food is kosher and I will decide if I want to patronize the restaurant. That is all we need from a kashrus agency. The stretching of their authority serves no important purpose for the public. It seems to me that it is merely a self-serving, self-righteous way to legislate their morality. If they can legislate phones and who can eat where, what’s next?

I am not making a slippery slope argument. I am pointing out that there is no logical connection between the kosher status of food and the kosher status of a phone. There is also no relationship between the kosher status of a restaurant and whether teenagers are hanging out. In other words, the kashrus agencies are already legislating their morality. There is no reason to think it only will apply in these two instances because there is no connection between these two things and the kosher status of food.

We need to stop using the word kosher for things other than food. Yes, the word is a general term but it has evolved into a word that describes whether food can be eaten by orthodox Jews who keep kosher. We don’t eat anything that is not kosher. Using the word kosher for phones and Internet implies that the non-kosher versions are not allowed to be used. This is sophomoric and divisive.

If anything, the kashrus agencies should be concerned with the ethics and morality of the actual food. This is something they have resisted time and time again. I am not recommending they get into the ethics of food business, but if they must expand their business and purview of supervision I think that is the first place they should be looking to legislate seeing as they have the knowledge and expertise to monitor and report on that aspect of food production. But teens mingling and phones? They don’t belong there at all.

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  • olesker

    I agree. That’s why I was always against the “ethical kashrus hechsher”. At least here, in Israel, kosher phones are not certified by a kashrus authority but by a seperate va’ad haRabbonim for communications issues. BTW, they don’t officially call them kosher phones (although that’s what they are universally referred to as), they call them “me’ushar”, i.e. “authorized”. For once things are more reasonable here than in the US.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      I think an ethical seal (they took out the word hechsher) is a great idea. But not implemented by the kashrus agency itself.

      Me’ushar is a much better word. Even better would be to simply say non-Internet phone.

      • Julia

        Just call it a dumbphone like the rest of the world does.

      • olesker

        Although (as I’ve said) I agree with you, just to be precise, the word kosher has traditionally applied to things other than food such as arba minim, sukkos and tephilin.

  • Noam Greenberg

    I think this comes from the “wing” of the Star-K that certifies appliances. And to be fair, I find that particular endeavor to be extremely worthwhile. The Star-K’s database of which appliances had approved “Shabbos” modes or “Yom Tov” modes was very helpful.

    Is “Kosher” the best way to categorize it? Probably not. But the service is extremely helpful, and since it comes from a “Kashrus organization” the particular word choice is not that troubling.

    I don’t disagree with you regarding food v. ethics. However, I think distinctions need to be made between egregious violations of ethics and human rights and legislating stringencies unrelated to food. A mashgiach should have no say on teh legnth of the servers’ skirts. However, as a Jew with halachic credibility, a mashgiach cannot turn a blind eye to mistreatment of workers and ethical violations. And if threatening to remove the hechsher is the only way to force change, then that is the weapon in the mashgiach’s arsenal.

    I guess the problem is that I *am* on a slippery slope….but I’m ok with that.

    TL/DR: kosher phone is dumb.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      They don’t call the ovens “kosher ovens.” And it’s food related. But again, not a hechsher.

    • http://2nd-son.blogspot.com/ G*3

      > A mashgiach should have no say on teh legnth of the servers’ skirts. However, as a Jew with halachic credibility, a mashgiach cannot turn a blind eye to mistreatment of workers and ethical violations.

      Tznius is just as much a halachic concern as business ethics. Either he can be concerned with both, or with neither.

      • Noam Greenberg

        “Tznius is just as much a halachic concern as business ethics. ”

        Not entirely. There’s a spectrum of what’s acceptable to certain groups. Not paying workers and human rights violations do not.

        • http://2nd-son.blogspot.com/ G*3

          There’s a spectrum for both. There’s no halacha mandating 40-hour work weeks. And I’m sure an argument can be made that none of the halachos apply to non-Jews.

          But that’s not the point. The point is that once you start mixing in other things, you don’t have a right to tell them that this halachic concern is okay for them to make a condition of certification and that one is not.

        • grumbling ex-mashgiach

          The tragedy is: If Orthodox Jews of a certain mindset were to walk into a restaurant and see servers wearing shorts, they’d walk right out of the place, and follow up by complaining to the management, to the Kosher certifying agency, and to whichever community organ’s “Reader’s Write” column they can reach.

          If, however, they see a kosher restaurant with striking workers outside decrying a management that pays sub-minimum wage, confiscates tips, demands 12 hour shifts with no work-guarantees, and is regularly late with wage-payment . . . They’ll yell at the picketers to ‘get to work!’, complain amongst themselves that these ungrateful workers are trying to put a frum owner out of business, and do whatever they can to increase patronage at the restaurant just to make a point.

          FWIW, certain aspects of a worker’s rights might not be a violation of halacha . . . But neither is union organizing. Orthodox Jewry has got to break its knee-jerk affiliation with “management”

    • MarkSoFla

      When we remodeled our kitchen in 2002, we chose our appliances based on the Star-K “hechsher” for us on chag, etc.

  • Adam Kenigsberg

    The Star-K is a trademarked stamp.

    If it appears on a product – any product – it lets me know that Rabbi Moshe Heinemann approves of the consumption / use of the product.

    It’s my choice if I want to follow Rabbi Heinemann’s certification for food, but not for cell phones or household appliances.

    You’re technically right, the word “kosher” is out of place. Unfortunately, since the literal meaning of kosher is “proper, correct, prepared, connected” – objecting to the use of the word to describe a Kharedi cell phone comes off as pedantic.

    Using the word kosher for phones and Internet implies that the non-kosher versions are not allowed to be used.

    Does using the word kosher for food imply that non Star-K products are not allowed to be used?

    The Star-K doesn’t view every food product that isn’t supervised by them as not kosher.

    Why must we assume that they view every non Star-K cell phone that way?

  • DF

    Test

  • DF

    The post is correct, except I wouldnt even say “If someone wants to expand hechsherim, it should be for ethics first.” No. The first instinct is correct. It should be for NOTHING, other than the food itself. Once one deems himself an arbiter of “ethics”, there is no end to the matter. People give themselves “Green” certification, not realizing it uses a lot more energy to be enery-efficient than it does to use simple fossil fuels. People tout their “minority-friendly” practices, even as they discrimiante against white men. People talk about their generous pay, while obtaining raw good overseas that contribute to job losses at home. Its hopeless, and hoplessly naive, to play this stupid game.

  • Eliyahu H

    Here in Israel there are a plethora of Hechsherim, and they should not be seen as dictating people’s morality, they are simply different institutions supervising according to their chosen level. When they put their stamp on it, it is just informing those who wish to rely on them that the food meets those standards. The moral choice is in the hands of the consumer as to which hechsher to rely on. For those who want a phone that cannot be used for internet etc., it is helpful to have an institution who check the product according to certain guidelines and then certifies that it meets those criteria chosen by the consumer and therefore by the hechsher.
    If a rabbi says it is moral/immoral to do/eat/use such and such a product/hechsher, that is a “moral legislation” and those who choose to follow that rav’s ruling should be enabled to do so by the appropriate supervision. The activity of hechsherim is there to enable people to eat not to bar them from doing so, and so it can be with phones where “moral” issues arise.

    • charliehall

      Plethora in Israel? I have some dried spices in my kitchen with four hechsherim. According to some opinions simple dried spices don’t require a hechsher at all!

  • Hallel

    ב,ג המקבל עליו להיות חבר–אינו מוכר לעם הארץ לח ויבש, ואינו לוקח
    ממנו לח, ואינו מתארח אצל עם הארץ, ולא מארחו אצלו בכסותו. רבי יהודה
    אומר, אף לא יגדל בהמה דקה, ולא יהא פרוץ בנדרים ובשחוק, ולא יהא מיטמא
    למתים, ומשמש בבית המדרש; אמרו לו, לא באו אלו לכלל.
    From Mishna Demai. One who accepts on himself to be a Chaver (one trusted to maintain purity) must accept on himself not to sell things which can become impure to those who are not careful, not buy from them, not stay at their house, and not invite them in while they are wearing their (impure) clothes. Rabbi Yehuda says, he must also accept not to raise small animals, not be loose in vows and levity, not become impure to the dead, and learn in the Beis Medrash. They said to him: that has nothing to do with this

  • charliehall

    “cannot be hacked”

    Now THAT is something that could only come about as the result of Divine intervention!

  • Ze’ev Smason

    I’d like to take issue with several items in this post

    1)The conditions of raising calves to ensure their meat be white (for marketing purposes) can be rather extreme, involving cruel treatment of animals. Would the author suggest that regardless, this white veal be deemed kosher? If an eating establishment with 100% kosher food sponsors activities in the dining area contrary to both the spirit and letter of Jewish law and sensibilities (i.e. ‘contests’ or shows degrading to women, being open on Shabbat), should a supervisory agency nevertheless provide that establishment with a hechsher? If a certain food product would be produced in the equivalent of a tragically dangerous Bangladesh textile mill, should it be given a hechsher because the ingredients are kosher? My answer to all of the above is a definitive ‘NO’. “Kosher Food’ means ‘fitting to eat’ — as the laws of Yoreh Deah, Choshen Mishpat, and all other relevant areas of the Torah, collectively, deem fit.

    2) The author wrote: “Using the word kosher for phones and Internet implies that the non-kosher versions are not allowed to be used.” This is not accurate. It means that other phones aren’t recommended, not that a definitive pronouncement of ‘non-kosher’ applies.

    3) The author wrote: “Yes, the word is a general term but it has evolved into a word that describes whether food can be eaten by orthodox Jews who keep kosher.” This statement is not only inaccurate, but divisive. Many ‘types’ of Jews eat kosher, including ‘orthodox’. Some conservative Jews extend themselves greatly to keep kosher either fully or partially. Many other Jews, both affiliated and non-affiliated (as well as some Jewish institutions) keep some degree of kashrut. Labels are for clothing. A Jew is a Jew.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      1) The meat is kosher. You don’t have to eat something just because it’s kosher. There are plenty of harmful foods to one’s own body that are kosher. There are plenty of practices that are harmful in the process of making food. The food is kosher. You are entitled to make your own choices about what you want to eat, but the food is kosher. Also, I wonder if you were eating Rubashkin meat while they were slaughtering in a way that harmed the animals and that he had illegal workers in putrid conditions in his plant.

      2) There are two categories of food. Kosher and non-kosher. We may eat kosher and we may not eat non-kosher. Applying the same categories to a phone my implication follows.

      3) I accept your criticism. However I was speaking in the context of orthodox hechshers. Many non-orthodox Jews follow their own standards.

      • Ze’ev Smason

        Re: your response

        1) We’ll have to agree to disagree. According to Rav Moshe Feinstein, white veal grown via cruelty to animals could not be given a kosher certification. When I lived in Israel, a hotel with a 100% kosher kitchen wanted to introduce belly-dancing as an evening dining activity. The Rabbanut threatened to withdraw their teuda (certification) if the hotel went through with their plans.

        2) Your statement that there are two categories of food (kosher and non-kosher) doesn’t take into account the existence of hundreds (if not thousands) of hechsheirim in Israel, the U.S. and elsewhere — many of which are neither universally accepted nor rejected. No responsible rabbi would pronounce another hechsher as ‘non-kosher’. He would simply say – if for no reason other than legal liability — not recommended. Certainly some foods are clearly and blatantly non-kosher (pork, shellfish, etc.). But your suggestion of ‘only two categories’ is misleading and overly simplistic.

        3) Tizku l’mitzvos :)

    • Adam Kenigsberg

      1) The farmer who violates צער בעלי חיים , the distributor who doesn’t wear tefillin, or the waiter who doesn’t declare his tips as earned income; none of them change the kosher status of the food that all of them had a part in delivering to my table.

      2) No, it does NOT mean that other phones aren’t recommended. Putting a hechsher stamp on one item, does not imply any status whatsoever toward an item that doesn’t happen to have the same stamp.

      3) The statement is only divisive in the eyes of those who want to divide Klal Yisrael. I’m not a fan of the “O” word. However, the overwhelming majority of kosher keepers self-identify as “Orthodox”. Turning HaRav Fink’s benign statement into a platform for your holier-than-thou pluralism is just petty.

      • wk

        what the farmer does has direct influence on the end-product, the food. so we can argue it changes the status. the tefillin, non-declared income or clothes of any of the other mentioned persons has nothing to do with the food itself (does not change taste, texture, ingredients, etc). so it should not change the status.

        what is the reason that (historically) we do not give a hechsher to a restaurant where the owner was not careful in other halachot e.g. in tzniut? because we fear he might not be careful with the halachot of kashrut as well. this can not be an issue in a muddy area such as tzniut where there are hundreds of valid standards and most of it is minhag. also in Israel where hechsher means customers, we can argue with ‘professional integrety’ like we do e.g. for bishul akum – anybody can be trusted to be careful if his livelihood depends on it.

    • DF

      Why was the textile mill in Bangladesh “tragically dangerous” – because it collapsed? We dont judge things retroactively to be unsafe just because an accident occured. (Nor, lest you say it, do we second guess and point to alleged defects in the cement, in the infrastructure, etc.) I practice in OSHA as part of my labor practice. There is not a single company in America that is not currently in standing violation of at least 15, some say 20, OSHA standards or regulations. The Congressional office buildings themselves were audited a few years ago, and were found in violation of many such regulations. ( Indeed, relatedly, the National Labor Relations Board was found to have committed unfair labor practices with its own in-house union.) I also dont know what you mean by shows “degarding to women”, nor do I think the women in such shows, whatever they are, would appreciate your paternalistic dictation to them of what they can and cannot be part of.
      Such are the types of tomfoolery one must descend to when one wishes to arragate for oneself to judge the “ethics” of another.

      • Ze’ev Smason

        DF — Taking your claim of familiarity with OSHA standards at face value (though notably, you refrain from using your name in your post), it’s striking (and for someone in labor practice, shocking) that you are completely unfamiliar with what occurred in the Bangladesh tragedy. The collapse of the Bangladeshi factory complex was only the latest, deadliest chapter in the story of miserable labor conditions in the international garment industry that far exceed anything found in America. As someone purportedly familiar with workplace standards, you could have at least surmised that the problem in Bangladesh occurred not only because of defects in construction and construction regulations, but various forms of working conditions. And regarding your claim that I ‘arragate’ (sic) in judging ethics, my standard in decrying various forms of activities that are degrading to women is the Torah. Upon what is your system of ethics based?

        • DF

          Ze-ev Smason – if that is indeed your real name, because its as meaingful to me as DF is to you:
          1) I am familiar with the Bangladesh building story, and read about it in the WSJ when it happened. Nothing about it changes anything I wrote.
          2) On an internet forum, you should not resort to snide “sic” asides and attempting to cast aspersions based upon one’s internet handle. It makes one look trivial.
          3) Who are you to dictate to the belly dancers (taking your claim of familiarity with the alleged story at face value) how they can earn their livelihood? Are you going to step up and pay them for the money they would have earned had their show not been cancelled?
          Look, all of the above is just messing around. The bottom line is this: Do you have a problem with rabbis granting or declining a hechsher based on anything other than food? If that’s all right with you, then ain hachi nami, then you can go give your shtempel based upon someone’s conception of “equality.” Just bear in mind that no matter who you are, and literally no matter what you do or dont do for a living or for enjoyment, plenty of people will find ethical flaws in YOU too. Presumably you wouldnt want to lose your livelihood because of someone else’s moral judgment.

  • http://2nd-son.blogspot.com/ G*3

    If the Star-K was a government agency tasked with certifying food is kosher, then I would agree with you. Endorsing a phone would be overstepping their mandate. But they’re not. They’re a business, and the phone is another way to make money. Just like putting hechsherim on other non-food products, like aluminum foil and bleach.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      Right. That was my initial thought. But when I realized the consequences of all this I decided that Star-K should put business after other considerations.

      • MarkSoFla

        “should put business after other considerations.”

        That’s a sure way to go out of business.

        And the general rule, even prime rule, of *ALL* organizations is – protect the organization at all cost.

  • DK

    So glad I left that world, and am so embarrassed I was every a part of it. Mom, Dad, I am soooo sorry!

  • Someone hadda say it

    FWIW, I went out and bought the Star-K kosher phone.

    It tasted like crap!

  • Benjamin

    1. Why are you conflating this with the restaurant issue, when it is completely different? If you don’t want a kosher phone, don’t buy one. The main complaint I’ve heard with restaurants is that they force you to accept other morals in exchange for agreeing to make your food kosher, which does not apply here in any way.

    2. You seem to think Star-k is a “kashrus business”. That isn’t correct, they are the main communal arm of the baltimore community, and their services range from providing shidduch incentives for setting up people from baltimore to buying ambulances for hatzala, to funding the beis din. http://www.star-k.org/kashrus/kk-STAR-KAwardsGrantBCKCBMF.htm Your argument that “they should stick to food” is thus wholly ignoring the nature of the organization. You should do more research.

    3. The only cognizable issue you raise–in passing–is that calling it “kosher” implies it is min hadin and not a chumrah. You are assuming they agree with you that it is only a chumrah, but you fail to state that explicitly, and I don’t know if that premise is correct. In any event, the star-k and every kashrus org incorporates many chumrahs into their food certification also, so I don’t know why you are so mad specifically about the phone.

    4. The most innocuous explanation is that these phones have been called “kosher phones” in the common vernacular for 10 years now. It is simply the generic term; you should recognize that while you jump all over them for it.

    5. Even on the actual restaurant issue, your objection comes across as not very considered. Would you really give a kashrus hashgacha to a strip-club or a beis zonah in states that allow that? I assume you would not. So why the strident tone–why not just disagree on what you actually disagree about.

  • mendy

    Wait a second – can these phones make calls on shabbos!?!? If I were in the hashgacha-selling business, I would only certify phones that can’t be used from sunsets on Friday through motzei shabbos (Rabeinu Tam). And yomtov. Maybe the phone could call 911 if the phone could verify that the call was absolutely necessary for pikuach nefesh. Otherwise, is it really fair to call this a kosher phone? As they say in yiddish, a phone that can make calls on shabbos is nisht a kosher phone.

  • Jack

    Rabbi I normally agree with your views and this time is no different. they should stay out of this or any other non-food issue. However in regards to the issue of restrictions on food establishments, it is a bit of a slippery slope. I agree with you that on first instinct a kashrus organization should stick to simply: kosher food or not. However since the concept of kosher is a religious concept, there is an inherent association between the agency and religion and that association can have a spillover effect. Just like any agency or public figure beds to protect its image, a kashrus organization is no different. Therefore they tend to get cagey when approving a venue that will have “questionable” or uncomfortable activity. if I may cite an exaggerated example to put this in perspective: say a strip club was seeking a hechsher, would we say just stick to the facts, kosher food or not?

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      I’ll flip it. If the OU gives a hechsher on Coke should they say that it can’t be served in strip clubs?

      • Ben

        That doesn’t show anything. Nobody thinks they should impose every halacha or chumra there is along the entire chain of distribution.

        We just think there is some extent to which a kashrus agency should avoid putting their name on something that embarrasses them.

        You seem to be claiming there is NO scenario where they should care about anything but kashrus, so we put to you: Are you opposed to a kashrus agency refusing to certify the food in a brothel?

        • RAM

          What about food that could end up being served in a brothel?