New ethical seal will take kashrut where it must go

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The laws of kashrut have guided Jews for millennia. But like everyone else on the planet, Jews can no longer deny the link between food and the socio-ecological impact of its manufacture.

That is why we applaud the Conservative movement for devising a new hechsher, or certification, that adds to the guidelines for what is — and isn’t — an acceptable kosher product.

Our story on page 8 details the movement’s new Magen Tzedek, which acknowledges what its designers call “Kashrut for the 21st century.” After a period of testing, the new seal of approval will make its debut, probably in the first half of 2011.

Beyond the rules of kashrut enshrined in the Torah –– rules that can never be modified –– the Magen Tzedek commission created additional categories by which to assess kosher status. Those categories include the welfare of workers and animals, the environment and corporate responsibility.

Some may look askance at this and similar efforts afoot in other denominations. After all, the Torah and Talmud already address a multitude of social justice issues. Over the years, the various streams of Judaism have codified the Jewish way when it comes to how we treat the planet and our fellow human beings.

The times we live in call for more.

Nothing has a greater impact on civilization than food production. There is no greater drain on resources, no endeavor more polluting, than the food industry. We depend on an unsustainable global system powered by fossil fuels, pesticides and exploitative labor practices.

And let us not forget the horrific level of animal cruelty at its base.

As the shameful example of the Agriprocessors scandal showed us, the kosher food industry is not immune to committing abuses.

Thus we face the omnivore’s dilemma. We must eat to live, but we must make sure that the food we eat meets the highest ideals of Judaism. It is no longer enough that a shochet properly applied his trade or that a rabbi supervised production in any given factory.

It means that at every step, from farmland to dinner table, from pasture to drive-through window, the food we eat embodies respect for the Earth, respect for animal life and respect for our fellow human beings.

The new Conservative hechsher absolutely upholds the letter of the law when it comes to kashrut. As one commission adviser says, there will be no hechsher on pork sausage.

But the Magen Tzedek hechsher upholds more than the letter of the law. It upholds the spirit, as well.