November 07

Rethinking Kashrut: An Interview with Rabbi Morris Allen

Rachel Barenblat

Rabbi Morris Allen is at the forefront of the hechsher tzedek movement, a grassroots effort to change the way Jews think about kashrut. The hechsher is a mark used to certify a food is kosher. Yet, Rabbi Allen found out that such a mark doesn’t guarantee the food’s making is fully in accord with Jewish laws and ethics. Born out of distress at the reported working conditions at Agriprocessors, the nation's largest kosher meat packing plant, hechsher tzedek is intended to be a way to ensure that the foods Jews eat are kosher not only ritually but also ethically.

As he tells the story, Rabbi Allen came to this work almost by accident. A congregational rabbi for twenty-two years, he had concentrated his social justice agenda on prison and immigration reform. Now, he has involved the entire Conservative movement in the hechsher tzedek project. By Allen's admission, they've got a tough row to hoe. At one end of the spectrum are Jews who argue that kashrut is the purview of the Orthodox and ought to stay that way. At the other are Jews who are more concerned with eating sustainably and locally than with the nature or presence of a hechsher in the first place.

It remains to be seen whether the hechsher tzedek becomes part of normative Jewish practice, or whether it stays on the fringes with its cousin eco-kashrut, which, while praised by its proponents, hasn't become widely-accepted. Then again, these days there's unprecedented interest nationwide in eating sustainably and healthfully, so who knows: Rabbi Morris Allen may have picked the perfect moment to let this idea fly. – RB

RB: What's your relationship with kashrut?

Rabbi Morris Allen

MA: I grew up in a home that was kosher, in the way in which families in the Sixties often were -- some members of the family ate treif outside the house (although, for what it's worth, they don't anymore!) My community here in the Twin Cities has promoted kashrut all along. Twelve years ago I embarked on a campaign called Chew by Choice. I wanted to begin to elevate people's understandings that, once you enter into the discussion, you're on the path. Giving up pork or shellfish, for example, is already a way of recognizing the role kashrut plays in the Jewish people's lives.

My approach has always been that kashrut needs to be livable. For people who are neurotic, and Jews certainly qualify, this can really become a crazymaking enterprise! Kashrut needs to be an understanding that in fulfilling this act of eating, I'm bringing God fully into my life. In recent years we've seen kashrut essentially be hijacked by people who are much more concerned about infinitesimally small bugs living on broccoli than about the purpose of the rules in the first place, and that's not how it's supposed to be.

I've been a vegetarian since 1974. My vegetarianism is a result of my commitment to kashrut.

RB: So it's kind of funny that you've become so involved in matters of kosher meat.

AM: How it happened was, in January of 2006, after our kosher butcher in St. Paul had closed, the Lubavitch rabbi in town asked me to work with him to bring fresh kosher meat back to St. Paul.
In March of 2006, I made my first visit to Agriprocessors to talk about bringing kosher meat to the Twin Cities. Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin was very lovely to me; I remember he said he didn't understand why the Conservative movement wasn't a bigger customer. I said 'sure, fine, we'll work on that!' We started bringing their kosher meat into the Twin Cities market.

And then in May of 2006 Nathaniel Popper did an investigative piece on worker treatment at Agri, and printed it in the Forward.

I was personally embarrassed. I had staked my local rabbinate on working effectively with Agriprocessors, and I was aghast to read this article! I went to the Chabad rabbi and said, “We have to do something!” That was Friday of Memorial Day weekend. On Sunday he went down to Agriprocessors, and he investigated, and he came back and wrote a report saying he had no idea what Nathaniel Popper was talking about, everything was beautiful, the people were happy, they were singing as they worked, and so forth. But I wanted to put together a group of Conservative leaders to go in and make our own determination.

Five of us, representatives from United Synagogue and the Rabbinical Assembly, spent the summer of 2006 making numerous calls, interviewing people directly and indirectly related to Agriprocessors, including people in Senator Harkins' office, clergy, and so on. In August 2006, we went to Postville for a visit, and it was pretty fascinating. Initially we proposed three major undertakings which, if Agriprocessors would agree, would indicate a sincere desire to address our concerns. We promised them that we would keep our report out of the press in that event. We didn't want to be party to a world in which one Jew exposes another Jew, you know? It didn't seem necessary. We felt that if they would take these three steps, that would demonstrate good faith on their part to clean up their behavior.

A still from the undercover video made by PETA of Agriprocessors' operations.

RB: But they didn't.

MA: No. We did not hear back from them by the deadline we'd set. It was at that point we realized this was not an issue stemming from one producer of kosher food, but something much deeper.It's a matter of paying attention to all of the ethical demands upon labor laws that are present in Jewish law -- how employers are to treat employees, what kind of safety issues have to be addressed. We read in Torah, for instance, about building a parapet on a house so people don't fall off! In what we build, we have to make sure it's safe for people to be present. Ethics are woven into the fabric of Torah. So we batted around the idea of what we called a hechsher tzedek.

It would be great, we said, if we could be assured that food products that met the standards of kashrut also met the standards of the ethical mitzvot that are incumbent upon us. We need to think in terms of mitzvot bein adam l'chavero [between one human and another] as well as bein adam l'makom [between a person and the Creator]. We should not be eating food that has been produced in a way that has denied the dignity of the labor! We should not be more concerned about the smoothness of a cow's lung than we are about the safety of a worker's hand.

At the end of 2006, the RA and the United Synagogue national board gave us six months to see whether these standards were feasible, and lo and behold, they are. We're reviewing our first set of verifiable objective standards, produced for us by a company in Boston that does market evaluation for social justice mutual funds. That's the meat, as it were, of what we're doing now. Those standards address the six areas Jewish law is concerned about in production of kosher food over and above the laws of kashrut.

RB: And those are...?

MA: Wages/benefits, health/safety, training, corporate integrity, animal welfare where appropriate, and environmental impact.

So we're in the process of reviewing these standards, vetting them through classic Jewish law. The next stages are to talk with industry about this -- how do we move this forward in practical terms? There are some serious issues still to address, but the reality has been that the response in the Jewish community and in the non-Jewish community has been beautiful. The depth of who we are as a people is exposed by this issue.

RB: It sounds to me like there's some overlap between eco-kashrut and hechsher tzedek. I think many Jews today feel the need to choose between eating in a way that fits traditional Jewish dietary practice, and a way that fits their environmental and social values (organic/sustainable food, perhaps belonging to a community-supported farm, etc.) Do you think that binary distinction is valid, and does hechsher tzedek offer a way around the binary?

Proposed logo for the Hechsher

MA: I want to be working beyond the binary. That's exactly the issue. That's the reason hechsher tzedek has to exist.

I was teaching about this at Camp Ramah Wisconsin this summer -- they took their kids on a trip to Postville [where Agriprocessors is located], and I was there to prepare the kids for what they might see. Someone raised their hand and said, 'so rabbi, you're saying it would be just as good (because it's also Jewish law) to eat food prepared in an ethical way as it is to eat food with a kosher sticker!' And I said, that kind of bifurcation is the issue -- we shouldn't have to decide between one of these or the other.

We need to be in a world where we can say that keeping kosher is the way in which I demonstrate not only a concern for my relationship to God and Torah but the Jewish concern for our relationship to the world in which we live. That's what I really want to get across to people.

In 23 years of my rabbinate I've had a lot of crazy ideas! But this has really become a passion for me, it's central. I mean, here is such a classic opportunity -- this is so obvious that we've overlooked it until now. This is the melding of ritual and ethical law.

Think about the haftarah for Yom Kippur, for instance. Isaiah: 'Is this the fast that I have chosen?' It's not about the fast, it's aout unshackling the enslaved. But at the end, Isaiah says, 'and you've gotta observe Shabbos.' You can't just do one or the other.

For so long there have been wonderful Jews concerned about one or the other of these. This is the project where they meet. It's the classic opportunity to see that Judaism isn't either ritual or ethical, but the union of both. Ethical and ritual meet on our tables. The table for us as Jews has taken the place of --

RB: It's our mikdash me'at, our "little sanctuary."

MA: Right, it takes the place of the altar! Where we have this opportunity to demonstrate that at our core, the totality of Jewish life is understood. When the Temple fell we didn't put altars in our synagogues. The home table becomes the altar.

RB: Thank you.



Rachel Barenblat is a Contributing Editor to Zeek.