Kosher Meat: Once again, a tender subject


Kosher Meat: Once again, a tender subject
Does your meat live up to a “higher calling?”

In the past week most of us have seen near-hysteria arise both in communal discussion and over the media concerning the recent allegations being made as to the quality of kosher meat, as well as the business and labor practices of Hebrew National; who represents one of the most notorious American producers of kosher products, including hot dogs, whose standards they claim “answer to a Higher Authority.” The media interest arose after a lawsuit was filed which anonymously claims they do not live up to that trademarked slogan. (see “Hebrew National sued over non-kosher allegations” at CNN)

Before we get too far into the subject, it should be fair for us to put some of this information into perspective. It is important for us to all keep in mind why this is being played-out so harshly in the media. So far reporting is mostly relying upon public conjecture regarding the public’s feelings about the ethics of kosher food production in this country. Simply put this is because hard-hitting reporting, with interviews of people related to the case, hasn’t been possible because the petitioners are anonymous. There is no official statement from any religious groups at this point either, because the petitioners of this lawsuit are not a religious organization or kosher agency; in fact it is reported that the record states none of the petitioners adhere to kashrut, but are merely members of the general public that feel misled by the slogan of superior standards.

Though this case raises nothing but questions, and is a piece of litigation that people would ordinary brush aside as another case of a frivolous lawsuit, this story is riding on the momentum of public concern related to other scandals in kosher food production. And in those cases, no matter how we slice it and dice it, not all those allegations were so baseless. Most notorious is the Rubashkin’s/Aaron’s Best, Agriprocessors case which led to the raid of their Postville, Iowa plant in May 2008. Among the reasons cited for the federal raid was the violation of immigration, labor and safety laws. The plant was once the largest producer of Glatt Kosher meat, mostly meeting the needs of the growing Chabad-Lubavitch community.

Whereas there was a level out outcry from within the Jewish communities for some of the most conservative elements to want to defend Rubashkin’s, you will not be seeing the same level of concern shown for Hebrew National. Quite honestly, the defense of Orthodox communities of Sholom Rubashkin was out of necessity; we needed meat. There is not that type of demand for the Hebrew National product, so the vanguard defenders of kashrut seem to care-less for now.

Many years ago I had a conversation with a boss of mine who was a very prominent progressive rabbi about kashrut. I had mentioned once when planning for an event that it had become more expensive because of the use of glatt kosher hot dogs. When asked why they didn’t go with Hebrew National, he was quite confused when it was communicated that going that route would result in a huge loss of sales. People wouldn’t want the product. In fact, the local rabbinic supervision agencies demanded the highest level of kashrut because a higher quality of product was widely available in a large city like Los Angeles. If we wanted supervision, it had to be this quality. Though not adhering to kashrut himself, and being of an old school, classic Reform mindset it was beyond him to comprehend the concern. All he could keep asking was, “So you saying they are treif?”

Pretty much that’s how its come out in the more liberal Jewish media too with this issue. Because of the allegations surrounding Hebrew National many have been quick to ask, “Are they treif?” The answer to that question, so far, is no. Most of the concerns surrounding Hebrew National are ethical concerns, not related to kashrut at all. Simply put, ethical concerns are not normally taken into consideration when it comes to kosher food supervision. There are certain allegations regarding kosher law, however the claims regarding the application of the halacha is at best an infantile understanding of the inspection of regular Stam (Heb. regular, simple standard; that it meets the purpose) kosher meat. Stam Kosher is the level of adherence for Hebrew National under the supervision of Triangle-K.

Now again we must keep in mind, this is not up to the standards of Chassidic, Haredi, and Sephardic Jews who follow an even higher standard yet; Glatt kosher (Heb. mechaber; which means mehadrin styled standards of kashrut).  This standard does not permit certain abnormalities upon organs, in certain and select case that are determined by supervising rabbis during their inspections of the animal after slaughter. (see “What Is Glatt Kosher” by Rabbi Jason Miller)

Kashrut sometimes seems to be all about standards. In theory, the more observant you are, the greater level of standards of dietary laws you adhere to. But is there really a difference between the classes of kashrut?

Ironically, during the late 1990s I had this explained to me by Rabbi Sholom Rubashkin himself. He was traveling the country, and was well received by the local Lubavitch communities. Before he departed he had a chance to address the shul, as everyone was interested in hearing about the trends relating to the growing standards and availability. At one point he began to talk about his own product and the higher prices people pay at the check-out line. He related that its obvious there is a price difference between non-kosher and kosher meat, and glatt meat is even higher yet. Some are for mere economic reasons. But some of it is also related to the quality of the meat, as fewer animals meet the final-inspection, there is less of it, thus higher demand means higher prices. But then in the middle of his statement he candidly stated that halachically there was nothing wrong with Stam Kosher meat; it is not treif.

Without as much as a seconds pause I heard a woman yell from behind the mechitzah, “Good! It’s cheaper, we will go with that then!” Of course the whole shul busted up laughing. And cheerfully Rubashkin began to make the point to us that in reality the regular Stam Kosher meat met all the requirements of Jewish law, however it did not adhere to the customs of the Chassidic communities.

He cited the well-known halacha that we not to buy meat from a shochet that is of questionable sources. Even more so, people should adhere the halachic standards that have been set down by their communities. He stated that what people were paying for is assurance that the people who process their meat are of their own persuasion and adhere to the standards they hold dear. A sense of certainty is easier when the person is known because they are of their own sect.

In reality, he was right. In fact kosher certification with a recognizable hechsher marking is something more of an American trend, that has strongly taken root in Israel since the founding of State and then subsequently throughout the world as food production increased overseas. However, the laws of kashrut demand that a person be proactive regarding their food sources. Traditionally the different communities knew what was acceptable in their own region, and when in doubt they would ask their local rabbi. But kosher certification on a can or bottle is a modern invention, originating in America after the invention of the registered trade-mark. People trust the mark on the can, because they trust the agency that licenses that food producer to print that seal of approval on that product; the agency vouches for the product’s compliance with the Jewish dietary laws.

One benefit of greater kosher observance and demand worldwide is that you can find products bearing well-known kosher certifications just about anywhere. Better distribution has meant that the certainty of kosher supervision should reach as far as the distribution line of that product.

Problem is these companies are often so far away and so large that there is little personally known about them in order for people to make informed decisions regarding the product. In reality many are merely are going on their faith in the certifying agency, often times without even knowing exactly who the supervising rabbis really are. They just know everyone they go to shul with holds by that certification too. In their defense, it’s simply not possible for most people to know much about the food producer or the kosher supervisor when they are a large corporation that is producing for a whole region, if not the whole continent.

The allegations against Hebrew National are going to have to slowly play out in court. Until then this is being dramatized in the Jewish communities and blogosphere.

But it should be kept in mind, once again, that the Hebrew National product is no longer a major player in the Jewish community, mostly attracting non-Jewish customers who prefer the taste and follow their assumption that kosher means healthier. (see “Hebrew National – Answering to a Higher Authority?” by the Shiksa in the Kitchen) In a way it seems non-kosher observing people are shooting for standards higher than the industry benchmark, and observant Jews are shooting higher than the kosher standard to get the finest standards possible yet. In this hierarchy, at this point in the developed world we look at USDA, Stam Kosher, and Glatt like the ratings we assign eggs by B, A and AA-ratings; meaning good, best, best yet.

These are some of the most popular American hechshers – recognizable certifications of kashrut

For this reason people become upset when they hear a product doesn’t adhere to the standards they expect, they put their trust and they feel if the allegations are true then that trust has been broken. They don’t know the intricacies of kashrut so they trust someone else to assure that for them. In this way the implications and concerns transcends the Jewish community itself. And it is certain that this case will entirely center around the definition of what “higher standards” means, as the courts have refused to rule in the past on the issues of Jewish-law for obvious reasons. The controversy cuts at the heart of a much-needed consumer base for this product.

However, in my opinion there is going to be long-lasting consequences for the Hebrew National product no matter what the outcome of the lawsuit. Even if all the claims are found to be false, enough damage has been done in the public sphere that people are not going to quickly forget that allegations were once made. And that will be enough to justify many consumer’s doubts.

In reality Hebrew National is already at a disadvantage because of wide-held suspicion within the Jewish community due to commonly held misconceptions regarding their kosher supervising agency, Triangle-K. This is despite wide-held Rabbinic acceptance of their supervision in recent years (see “Major New Acceptance for Triangle-K/Hebrew National As Kosher” at JTC). True the suspicion of Hebrew National predates their relationship, but Triangle-K contracting as the independent supervisor did not remedy the pre-existing concerns of Jewish customers. Among the reasons cited by individuals is because Triangle-K does certify grape and dairy-related bread items as kosher; this is not a widely held custom, but it is in accordance with halacha and the rulings of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, z”l. Because these customs have not been widely known or understood some have mistakenly jumped to the conclusion that their halachic understanding is erroneous, making their hechsher subject to suspicion. (see “Interview with Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag” at The Cannonist)

Though one should take to heart if their own personal rabbi tells them to not use certain products, it is not within our right as individuals to unilaterally designate something as non-kosher. In fact,  I have yet to meet a rabbi in my entire life that has attained the status of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in order to impeach his rulings regarding these matters. Simply put, until one has the status of Rav Moshe they are not within their right to proclaim any different; they are merely bound to adhere to their own minhag, but to overrule him is not permissible. To do so in public is lishon hara (slander), and personally  holds one responsible  of breaking the commandment to not act presumptuously against the Law. (see Parshat Shoftim)

The Triangle-K has already made public their response to the allegations against Hebrew National. The statement is directly from Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag, who manages the everyday operations of Triangle-K. He is also a well respected posek, head of a beit din, and is further honored as the official Chief Rabbi of Amsterdam. (see “Triangle-K: Complaint About Kashrus Issues Of Hebrew National Outrageously False” at Voz Iz Neiase)

In the case of Hebrew National, just like Rubushikin’s, the main concern remains surrounding the ethics of their business. We must understand that most animal rights concerns will not be taken seriously beyond the scope of legal standards and ritual practice, because the activists are generally unwavering in their abhorrence of meat consumption all together; kosher consumers will not consider them objective. Those who do not feel compelled by coercive vegetarian sentiments, the moderate voices in progressive Judaism and Modern Orthodoxy, still feel that there must be some type of Jewish response made. One suggestion has been the Conservative movement’s Hekhsher Tzedek, which would independently certify the ethics and business practices of the company; meaning a secondary supervising agency in addition to the kosher supervisor.

Although the Hekhsher Tzedek does offer the progressive movements some type of representation, along with some quality and ethical assurances, it still does not hold much importance to many kosher consumers in order to command respect. We should also recognize that to some companies this is already being looked at rather coldly; being considered just another cumbersome threshold that might further complicates production. In fact some even go so far as to suggest that it may frighten away company’s interest in independent certifications for many mainstream food items all together. (see “Hekhsher Tzedek’s Law Problem” at the Daily Jewish Forward)

Though Hekhsher Tzedek can be considered a start if it takes hold, it is not the ideal. It is my personal opinion that it falls short of the traditional Jewish expectation of knowing one’s food sources. I feel certifications can and should symbolize the start of the process in whether or not we choose a product, but it shouldn’t end there. We should know more about the production of the products we buy, their fair business practices, their environmental record and their nutrition. And ideally we should accustom ourselves to buy local products and form relationships with producers. We cannot pretend to have any type of certainty with, in fact it’s hardly possible to feel any impulse to hold responsible, huge corporate producers whose deeds are out of sight and thus out of mind.

Looking back now I can see why it was so important for Rubashkin to go on tour. He had to try to make connection with the communities, there was no other way that people could really feel a sense of trust in a faceless company two-thirds of the continent away and providing for everyone from there and in between. Sadly, the crimes that he was found guilty of landed him 28-years in federal prison, which constitutes a life sentence for Rabbi Sholom Rubashkin. Though many see this as excessive, we need to recognize that the severity of his punishment seems to be in relation to the largeness of the crimes committed, and that are comparable to the size of their operation. His downfall is embarrassing to many observant Jews, sure. And it should be, because to some point we as kosher food consumers contributed to a crime of that magnitude by not asking enough questions and assuming too much as well.


Reflection:

When I was very young I was very concerned about the laws of kashrut. Many of the specifics of laws left me with questions because I wasn’t used to that level of kashrut. I often found myself, and even more so my friends who weren’t observant at all, tending to be more strict than necessary for my sake. Being part of a chassidic community I adhered to high level of kashrut so it seemed reasonable to be so concerned.

However one day in a discussion related to kashrut a personal rabbi of mine, who was also a very knowledgeable mashgiach himself, sat down and began to teach me certain aspects of kashrut that I was not familiar with. His observations and suggestions were fully supported, and completely logical. However, at one point someone overheard the conversation and said, “I’ve heard of that, but never held by that because it sounds too lenient.”

His response back was, “They used to say the same thing to the Alter Rebbe.”

The rabbi began to explain how in the lifetime of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, z”l) many critics of the chassidim tried to find issue with the Rebbe. One day they decided to quarrel with him over giving his approval for certain people’s chickens that were brought to him to inspect. The misnagdim insisted that they were not kosher. The Rebbe detailed issues of kashrut related to the birds, and being a master in Jewish-law who wrote his own Shulchan Aruch, he easily dispelled their claims.

But after they conceded to his points, he related to these contrary rabbis that he didn’t just give his approval but he also asked about the owners situation; did they have another bird and could they afford another, what was their level of necessity? For those who had other options available to them he wouldn’t invest too much time, but for those who really needed that meal he did everything in his power and knowledge to find a way of making that acceptable if possible; so that the hungry would not go without.

The rabbi made the point that Jewish-law is responsive to actual situations at hand and personal necessity. But he was also making a deeper point. We need to look at the situation at hand and think about it, not just jump to conclusions. The Alter Rebbe was applying halacha that was not easily understood, yet valid upon demonstration. This does not mean he was being lenient. Actually, quite to the contrary it shows his sophistication of knowledge.

He compared the situation to a doctor prescribing medicine for a person who came in with a bump. One doctor says it’s cancer and they should radiate right away. However, the doctor who the patient went to for as a second opinion was a cancer expert and says that it’s just a pimple that needs a simple cream to remedy it. The expert doctor is not being lenient, he is just knowledgeable enough to know the difference and not jump to extreme conclusions.

Kashrut is about being mindful. But we don’t need to jump to extremes to show how faithful we are. How religious we are should not be defined by how many people’s houses we are too stringent to eat at.

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