On Tuesday, July 17 at 7:30 p.m., the Adath Jeshurun Synagogue in Minnetonka will host a symposium about ethical standards in the kosher food industry.
Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, along with members of Beth Jacob's social action committee and Jewish Community Action will discuss the controversial "Hechsher Tzedek" campaign.
Allen is the central figure in this campaign.
If successful, it will create "justice certificate" labels on kosher foods, letting the consumer know that the producer of the product met working standards like wages, safety, benefits and corporate transparency.
Rabbi Aaron Brusso will moderate the discussion. Brusso is a 35-year-old Chicago native and graduate of Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City and is in his seventh year at Adath Jeshurun.
QA 2004 study by the Minnesota Jewish Federation put the Twin Cities Jewish population at 40,000. Of that, 2,500 Jews keep kosher. Kosher means fit for consumption under Jewish law, can you explain further?
It has to do with what you can and cannot eat, like pork and shellfish. And it also has to do with the way food is prepared, in that there's a concern for the animal. For example, kosher meat needs to be slaughtered in a quick and painless way.
People often assume kashrut [Jewish dietary law] is about hygiene. This is a traditional apologetic. Keeping kosher is really about adding holiness to one's life. Judaism believes that living in this world is not just about a social contract - the sort of "you stay off my property, I'll stay off yours." We have a higher mission that the gift of life was given to us to do something in the world, and we need reminders that there is a holy realm, and not just a natural realm.
QWhat is "Hechsher Tzedek," and why is it important?
Hechsher Tzedek is a justice emblem. The Hechsher Tzedek movement is an attempt to say ethics need to be just as much a part of the kashrut business as holiness, acknowledging businesses that do things in a just way.
It is an attempt not to supercede the kashrut certification, and it wouldn't in any way impugn the certification, it would be in addition to and separate from in terms of its process.
QWhy has such a powerful issue gained initial prominence in the Twin Cities, a Jewish community that, compared to other cities in the United States, is relatively small?
What makes it easy to start here is Rabbi Morris Allen, who is a passionate advocate of social justice, and a passionate advocate of traditional observance. This has always been a challenge, and I think what Rabbi Allen is trying to do is say you cannot keep kosher if it is ignoring social issues. What Rabbi Allen has done is put forth a mission that ritual and ethics go together.
The fact that this movement is occurring here, you could point to the Humphrey tradition of liberalism and social justice, which has been a part of Minnesota tradition. I think that this has been a progressive community, and if you go back to the issue of egalitarianism you'll see that women in Minnesota congregations gained the right to do things ritually much quicker and sooner than in other parts of the country.
The perception is the important Jewish decisions occur on the coast [New York], but the progressivism, the sort of pushing forward to the next step, has occurred historically here. The innovative spirit in Judaism has been a part of the tradition in Minnesota.
QRabbi Allen argues, "Kosher standards should address issues beyond adherence to religious ritual." Is this modern approach indicative of a greater movement?
I don't think that Hechsher Tzedek, unlike egalitarianism, is an attempt to modernize. I would say it's an attempt to make existing values of Judaism speak with as loud a voice as others in different realms.
To allow issues like social justice and kashrut to exist together, that's allowing Jewish tradition to speak in its fullness, but not a modernization.
If you attend on the 17th, you'll hear Rabbi Allen link all these things back to Jewish text, and show that it's very much part of Jewish tradition.
QAccording to mainstream media much of the orthodox community, which dominates the kosher food industry, objects to the campaign. Why the rift?
I would only be conjecturing. If you want a good answer you should probably speak to Rabbi Asher Zeilingold of Adath Israel in St. Paul. It would be unfair for me to say he's concerned about this or that, because I'd be putting words in his mouth.
QHow and why did Adath Jeshurun get involved with this initiative?
We are a conservative congregation, and this is a movement-wide initiative.
When Rabbi Allen decided he wanted to go forward with this, he approached the rabbinical assembly and they passed a resolution supporting the initiative and that Rabbi Allen would head up the committee in our movement to push this forward. Rabbi Kravitz [senior Adath Rabbi] and I feel that this is really important as well.
We hope to educate people and tell them ways that they can get involved and raise awareness.
QThere are foods, like kosher hot dogs that people of all denominations enjoy. Is Hechsher Tzedek important exclusively to the Jewish community?
That's a really good question. I would say first and foremost, it is to address Jews who care about kashrut and social justice, but I could imagine the non-Jewish community looking at this and saying "It's got Hechsher Tzedek on it, I know that it adheres to certain standards of social justice, maybe I would purchase that as well."
They may not be concerned with the ritual aspects of kashrut, but seeing that label they may see that as important to them. There are universal components to this.
QWho doesn't love a kosher hot dog? Will they be served at the event?
I don't think they are, but it would be appropriate. Maybe when this gets off the ground we'll have a big barbecue and celebrate.