I’m actually not going to be giving a sermon this week, as I’ll be on vacation in Colorado. But I came across a news item that has a connection (well, admittedly rather tenuous connection) to this week’s Torah portion, so here’s a little Torah anyway.
This week’s Torah portion is Miketz — the continuation of the Joseph story. As the parsha opens, Pharaoh has two dreams dealing with food. In the first dream seven fat cows are eaten up by seven skinny cows. In the second seven skinny ears of grain devour seven fat ears of grain.
The tenuous connection to the news I want to share is the cows. Just what is it that makes a cow kosher? Back in August I gave a talk on parshat Re’eh about the idea that "strictly kosher" isn’t kosher enough (click here to read it). In my opinion, meat that is slaughtered according to a narrow reading of halacha, but that subjects the animals to unnecessary pain and suffering, is not kosher. The whole idea of kosher slaughter was to prevent tza’ar baalei chayim, needless suffering to animals.
One problem with wanting to eat only meat that has been ethically treated is "how do you tell?" Up until now there has not been any kind of certificate or standard you could go by. If you buy meat with an OU hecksher you could be sure the knife used to kill the animal was sharp, but you have no idea whether the animal was abused getting to that point.
The Forward reported on Dec. 18 that the Conservative Movement is planning to issue a "tzedek hechsher:
"Conservative movement leaders said that they plan to establish a “tsedek hekhsher,” or a justice certification, that would ensure kosher food producers “have met a set of standards that determine the social responsibility of kosher food producers, particularly in the area of workers rights.”
It’s not clear to me from the article exactly what goes into the "social responsibility" of kosher food producers, but I would hope that in addition to worker’s conditions it would consider treatment of animals.
The new hecksher would be supplementary — it would not replace existing certification:
"The head of the Conservative movement commission, Rabbi Morris Allen, said that any certification system would be a supplement — not a replacement — for current kosher supervision. Allen said the additional level of scrutiny is necessary for the religious bona-fides of the industry.
“We have reached a point where it not sufficient to teach and promote the whys of keeping kosher,” Allen said. “It is necessary to ensure we talk about how our kosher food is produced.”"
It will be interesting to see how this proceeds. I applaud the effort — it’s an echo of the "eco-kosher" idea that’s been floating around in Renewal circles for sometime, but done as a higher standard, not a substitute standard, to traditional kashrut. But I also see a lot of problems in the details. How do you decide things like what’s a fair wage? Is $11 an hour OK, but $10 an hour is not? Do you have to have a different value for every community based on local cost of living?
It may be tricky to implement, but I wish them well and hope they really get the project off the ground. It’s important for those of us who are dedicated to both keeping kosher and being socially responsible.
Tip o’ the hat to Rabbi Jason Miller where I first saw mention of this effort.