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Good Enough To Eat, Ritually And Ethically

Four years in the making, ‘comprehensive ethical’ certifier Magen Tzedek plans to complement, not compete with, kashrut.

02/07/12
Staff Writer
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Within the next few months, consumers will probably see a small symbol — a series of Jewish stars within a white circle — next to the familiar OU or OK or other familiar kosher certification heksher marks on kosher foods in groceries.

The symbol is the sign of Magen Tzedek, a “comprehensive ethical certification” that this week officially announced its certification standards and started accepting applications from interested food producers and processors.

The Magen Tzedek “Seal of Justice” will testify that a company complies with the Torah’s ethical standards, said Rabbi Michael Siegel, national co-chair of the Magen Tzedek Commission. It will be granted after inspection of a firm’s treatment of workers and animals, on-the-job safety standards and compliance with government regulations about “environmental impact.”

“An ever increasing number of both mainstream food processors, as well as specialty producers are adding socially responsible practices to help differentiate their brands in the marketplace,” the organization’s website stated this week in announcing that Magen Tzedek is “open for business.”

The organization, which launched four years ago and has roots in the Conservative movement but is now not affiliated with any denomination of Judaism, will give its symbol on foods that already bear a kosher certification symbol. But it will itself not rule on a product’s kashrut, Rabbi Siegel, who lives in the Chicago area, told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. “It’s a complementary mark” to a standard kashrut heksher.

Magen Tzedek (magentzedek.org), “a classic faith-based initiative,” will concentrate on factories and plants where kosher food is produced, while the like-minded Uri L’Tzedek social justice organization, which was formed in the Modern Orthodox community, issues its Tav HaYosher certification to some 100 kosher restaurants and food service firms, many of them in the Greater New York area.

“We are [both] speaking the same language,” Rabbi Siegel said of the two programs. “We start with the premise that the Torah is equally concerned with ethics as with ritual — the Torah is a holistic document.”

“A number of companies” that make kosher products have contacted Magen Tzedek about its certification, and the organization’s first marks are likely to appear on items sometime this year, Rabbi Siegel said. He added that producers of halal foods, made in accordance with Islamic law, are also possible recipients of the Magen Tzedek symbol.

A mark of ethical certification will probably have little effect on the sales of foods that bear such a mark, said Menachem Lubinsky, president of Lubicom Marketing Consulting, a specialist in the kosher marketplace. “My sense is that quality and price are the major things people look at.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the haredi Agudath Israel of America, said parts of the Orthodox community find such an additional certification unnecessary. “At first, the [Magen Tzedek] seal implied that it signified adherence to kashrut, something the Conservative movement has no standing to determine,” Rabbi Shafran said. “Now it claims to simply mean that the recipient has adopted standards designated by secular environmental and social justice organizations. Products and manufacturers can already avail themselves of those organization’s imprimaturs, rendering Magen Tzedek superfluous. Hence the seal has gone from misleading to meaningless.”

Rabbi Shafran “has been perfectly consistent since the creation of Magen Tzedek,” Rabbi Siegel said. He “has never missed an opportunity to denigrate Conservative Judaism ... [claiming] that Magen Tzedek, originally called Hechsher Tzedek, was an attempt by the Conservative movement to replace traditional kashrut standards. This is patently false. In fact, at the urging of several Orthodox colleagues who believed that using the word heksher was confusing, we renamed our product Magen Tzedek.

“The intent remains exactly the same despite the name,” Rabbi Siegel said. “That is, the assurance that kosher food has been manufactured according to the ethical norms of Jewish law and tradition.”

E-mail: steve@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

02/27/2012 - 00:04

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While not all people who wish to see the new symbol use food with Hechshers that doesn't mean they are unobservant. A Jewish person who wishes to consider ethnics before Hechshers might be more concerned with the biblical regulations than which rabbi is ok to give a certain mark. But many people from conservative and reform life styles have made positive statement supporting the new mark it seems to be giving the Hechsher system a second chance to meet all torah standards and some who weren't buying Hechsher products are talking about changing their practice. Increasing the number of people buying Hechsher products will hopetbly help with the price which is another major barier to the system.

"Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the haredi Agudath Israel of America, said parts of the Orthodox community find such an additional certification unnecessary. "

I have in my spice rack a container of pure unmixed dried spices with five hechshers. By some halachic opinions, unmixed spices don't need a hechsher at all. When Agudath Israel starts leading the charge against excessive kashrut hechshirim that drive up the price of food for Orthodox Jews, I'll worry about Hechsher Tzedek.

The comment above, while suffering from some repetition and "flame"-worthy elements, makes an excellent point. While Magen Tzedek is a wonderful and much-needed element to the kashrus landscape, Avi Shafran's unsurprising dismissals not withstanding, it is an unfortunate example of "physician, heal thyself" (or "glass houses", take your pick). Until the Conservative Movement's major institutions can make it a policy to provide basic fairness to their employees- health benefits for example- they have little right to expect to be taken seriously as a watchdog for the same.

Magen Tzedek is the most recent manifestation of "Do as we say not as we do Judaism" which has plagued and ravaged Conservative Judaism again and again. Mr Lipman: why don't you write a follow up article based on the article that appeared in The Forward a few years ago notiing that while Conservative Judaism demands kosher food companies to provide good wages and benefits to its line staff that when taken as a whole Conservative Jewish insitutions do not provide their own line staff with exceptional wages and benefits. Line staff of Conservative Jewish shuls and schools sufferf from this hypocrisy every day but have no way of demonstrating their displeasure except to quit or do their work poorly by intention. The only groups that get great wages and benefits are the top guns, the rabbis and cantors whose Rabbinical and Cantors Assemblies hold shuls hostage because they can't hire Conservative clergy until clergy are given extraordinary pay and benefits. Funny how only the top guns are organized well in Conservative Jewish life. People in the pews and all the people that have left the pews know this is what goes on in Conservative Jewish life way too often. I will lead the boycott of any product that puts a magen tzedek on it. Food companies: put a magen tzedek on your product and you are destined for the same trash heap that also claims much of what was Conservative Judaism.

I don't have the same axe to grind as you, Jonathan, but agree with your sentiment to wish for the rapid demise of this new initiative. As an observant, former Conservative, Jew, I am bothered that the great majority of those pushing for this additional certification are people who do not actually bother with keeping strictly kosher. While I acknowledge it would reduce my access to the current variety of food in the market place, I would love to see the major Hechsher organizations remove their symbol from any product that adopts this new bit of drivel.

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