My colleague Rabbi Morris Allen (pictured at right participating in a recent phone-a-thon at the St. Paul, MN JCC), who lives in the Minneapolis area, has taken on those in the Orthodox community who have near hegemony over kashrut certification in the meat-packing plants and slaughterhouses local to his congregation. His activism comes as a result of the negative publicity that has appeared over the last several months concerning the questionable treatment of animals being readied for kosher slaughter. Since I am a vegetarian, the whole matter particularly troubles me. But I have to admit that Rabbi Allen’s approach is totally in the right direction. He argues that animal rights are not sufficient in the determining of kosher standards. Rather, he suggests, we must ensure that the workers in these slaughterhouses, mostly underpaid immigrants, are treated humanely as well. Thus, he proposes a new standard called “hekhsher tzedek,” which guarantees that the animals and the workers are all treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. This philosophy calls to mind Arthur Waskow’s proposal some years ago (which he called eco-kashrut) to make sure that the standards of kashrut were “green.” By keeping kosher, Jewish people can feel addressed by the mitzvot (commandments) and connect with other members of the community and with their Jewish heritage, but by incorporating the ideas of Rabbi Allen and Arthur Waskow, the kosher dietary laws take on the added significance of advancing the cause of tikkun olam (“healing the world,” the Jewish notion of social justice).
As someone who keeps kosher and is supportive of maintaining kosher dietary laws, especially as a daily spiritual discipline, I wonder whether Rabbi Allen’s approach might be appealing to those on the periphery, especially to those who might not previously have thought about kashrut at all. Those who may not have considered keeping kosher may be inspired to do so as a result of the social justice element hekhsher tzedek injects into the practice. Could we position a kosher dietary standard that is righteous to all involved as a way of reaching those on the periphery?