Except for a few historical cases where rabbinical authorities tried to link the two issues, generally, they've been considered sperate spheres.
But a newly formed commission created by the Conservative movement is calling attention to conditions faced by workers at kosher-meat plants. The Commission of Inquiry is weighing whether or not to call for a "Tsedek Hekhsher," combining the Hebrew word for justice with the traditional term for kosher certification.
The initiative would create a process to certify that kosher meat and chicken were prepared in an environment where workers are paid fairly and on time, treated with dignity and receive adequate safety training.
"I believe that we, as Jews, when it comes to the food we are obligated to eat, should make sure it is produced in a way that meets the necessary standards of Jewish law and Jewish values," stated Morris Allen, a Minnesota rabbi who's chairing the commission established by the Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Also sitting on the committee is Avram B. Lyon, a New Jersey resident, who also serves as executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee. He spoke about the commission's work last month at the University of Pennsylvania in a program sponsored by the Philadelphia office of the Jewish Labor Committee and Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist synagogue in West Philadelphia.
Lyon explained that the idea is that the Tsedek Heksher would serve as a supplement to -- and not a replacement for -- traditional certification of kosher meat, which is virtually always done under Orthodox auspices.
"The Talmud is rather explicit about the treatment of workers," he noted in an interview after the program. "When looking into the problems that may or not exist in a plant, there's a whole series of things you want to look at."
Lyon stressed that the commission members are still figuring out what criteria will be used, and how deeply certifiers will have to dig to investigate conditions. It's also not clear whether the hechsher will just stick to labor issues, or if it will also take a page from the eco-kosher idea -- developed by leaders of the Jewish Renewal movement, including Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Philadelphia Rabbi Arthur Waskow -- and also examine a slaughterhouse's effect on the environment.
Another conundrum is just how deep certifiers would be asked to dig. In an industry where undocumented immigrants make up a large portion of the workforce, it's difficult to obtain information easily, and reliable safety statistics are hard to pin down, explained Lyon.
He could not provide a time frame for when the initiative might go into the next phase, nor could he offer specific details about how the process would work. He stressed that the commission is treading carefully, and trying to avoid creating acrimony between Orthodox authorities, particularly those in the business of kosher supervision, and the Conservative movement. This, of course, comes closely on the heels of the movement's decision to allow the ordination of gay rabbis -- a measure that put more distance between Conservative Judaism and its approach to Jewish law, and Orthodoxy.
At its upcoming annual convention in Boston, the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly will vote on whether or not to support the efforts of the commission.
According to Lyon, the story behind the commission begins in Postville, Iowa, home of Agriprocessors, the largest supplier of kosher meat in the country. That plant has already had its fair share of attention from both a book, Postville, and a 2004 controversy stirred by the release of slaughterhouse footage secretly filmed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a move seen by many in the Orthodox world as an attack on the practice of kosher slaughtering.
In May 2006, the Forward published a story about poor working conditions at Agriprocessors; the Conservative movement decided to form a commission to investigate.
The commission did specify a number of safety issues and received a response from management that claimed these concerns would be addressed. The same commission also visited the Empire Poultry Plant in Mifflintown, Pa., and found conditions there to be far better. Late last year, the commission decided to expand the mission and explore the possibility of creating the hechsher.
"This is an issue on which the Conservative movement has an opportunity to be at the forefront of leadership," declared Allen, the Minnesota rabbi. "Jews who keep kosher want to know that in their observance of kashrut, that they are doing the right thing. Jews want to feel good about their religious acts."