Kosher to eat is not the same as kosher to buy

Is meat produced at Agriprocessor’s plant in Postville, Iowa, really kosher?

In spite of it bearing the Orthodox Union’s kosher symbol, that question has been on many of our minds since U.S. immigration authorities raided the plant May 12 and arrested 390 illegal immigrant workers.

The raid also raised allegations that workers were paid less than the minimum wage and subjected to forms of abuse.

What does “kosher” really mean? As used in Jewish law, the definition of kosher is “fit for a certain purpose.”

For example, one could ask whether a dried out lulav is kosher to wave on Sukkot, or whether a cracked shofar is kosher to blow on Rosh Hashanah.

With regard to food, kosher means “fit for a Jewish person to eat.” As most of us know, the Jewish tradition includes intricate rules for food.

But there is no rule that if an illegal immigrant manufactures a food, or if workers producing food are abused or not paid, the food itself then becomes forbidden to eat.

Consider, for example, someone who hosts an extravagant wedding but then never settles the food bill. Even though this would be theft, the wedding guests have not retroactively eaten traif. Pots and pans used to cook the meal don’t need to be kashered.

The rules regarding whether food is kosher and how we conduct our financial affairs are two different things.

However, I don’t think whether the meat produced by Agriprocessors is kosher to eat or not is really our concern. We don’t want to know if it is kosher to eat. We want to know if it is kosher to buy.

Why would meat from Agriprocessors not be kosher to buy? A legal discussion in the Talmud (Shabbat 3a) provides a reason:

On the Sabbath it is forbidden to pick up an object in the public domain and put it down in a private domain. If someone picks something up in a public domain and puts it into the hands of a second person standing in a private domain, the first person has violated the Sabbath and the second person has not.

The Tosfot commentary on the Talmud questions whether it is really possible for this second person to be completely in the clear. After all, he is a party to violating the Sabbath.

So Tosfot explains that while this person has not violated the law of carrying on the Sabbath, he has violated a different prohibition: the prohibition of being part of an activity that involves wrongdoing.

This is the way many of us may come to feel with regard to Agriprocessors if the allegations turn out to be true. When we buy the meat, even though as consumers our role in perpetrating the alleged violations is passive, we nevertheless associate ourselves with doing something wrong.

The Orthodox Union states clearly that its supervision relates only to whether food is permitted to be eaten. It does not consider labor issues, animal cruelty, environmental impact or anything else of this nature and has no plans to start doing so. Why not? For many reasons.

The list of potential issues to include in expanded supervision is nearly endless. The government already regulates some of these matters; the O.U. lacks the required resources and expertise.

And many of these concerns are not uniquely Jewish, while the O.U.’s purpose is to serve the special needs of the Jewish community.

There is nothing wrong with the O.U. conducting itself in this manner, as long as we understand what the O.U. symbol means. A product is kosher to eat, but whether the company manufacturing that product is kosher to do business with is unknown.

What we need is not a replacement for the current kosher supervision system, but an addition to it.

Since how a business treats its workers, the environment and its animals is important, we need another mechanism by which consumers can receive that information.

The Conservative movement has taken some steps to form a “hechsher tzedek” kosher certification focused on the above issues. Some other small, independent groups have done the same.

The Orthodox kashrut establishment, however, due to its large existing infrastructure of supervisors, would be able to produce a new certification with the greatest ease, efficiency and speed.

As kosher consumers, let’s make clear that we want them to do so. Only if we as consumers make known that we will base our purchasing decisions on the presence or absence of such a new symbol is it likely that substantial action will be taken.

Rabbi Shlomo Levin is spiritual leader of Milwaukee’s Modern Orthodox Lake Park Synagogue. This piece originally appeared in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.