Another post in the Halachics series – perhaps I should organize them into some kind of category.

Like most bloggers, I keep an eye on lots of blogs, but I only read a select few religiously (no pun intended). Among my favorites is the Kosher Blog, which combines recipes and restaurant reviews with reporting on the kashrut industry. Recently Jonathan Abbet, the blog-owner, posted his notes on a lecture given by Rabbi Moshe Heinemann, a Rabbinic Administrator at the Star-K. I want to turn my attention to some of the issues R. Heinemann discussed.

The first issue covered at the lecture was the upcoming Shemitta year, and its impacts on the produce market. During Shemitta, produce grown on Jewish-owned land in Israel may not be sold commercially to other Jews, and as such, will not get a hechsher. In order to meet demand, companies contract with Arab farmers for their produce, grown on their land. Normally, there is not much demand for Arab produce, and it is usually much cheaper than the more in-demand Jewish produce. However, every Shemitta year, demand for Arab produce skyrockets, and Arab farmers are often not prepares to meet the demand. Since the price of Jewish produce plummets during Shemitta, Arab farmers will often meet shortfalls in their supply by purchasing and re-selling Jewish produce.

According to R. Heinemann, their actions undermine the efforts to respect the Shemitta year. What’s interesting is what the Star-K has decided to do about this issue. I nearly fell out of my chair when I read it:

[T]he Star-K has contracted with a French satellite company to take pictures of Arab farms every five minutes to discover any illicit deliveries of Jewish produce. The image resolution is high enough that a truck’s license plate can be read, and appropriate action may be taken.

I guess if you’re wondering why kosher products are so expensive, here’s your answer! Satellite surveillance!  Is this reasonable? I’ve been singing this tune for a while: the Kashrut industry has transformed our obligation from a standard of reasonable reliance to one of empirical kashrut. My understanding of the overall shape of the laws of kosher is that we are permitted to make a broad range of assumptions in determining whether something is kosher. Relying on these assumptions no doubt means that some of the food that enters into our bodies would be not kosher by empirical standard (some quantity of non-kosher molecules, if such a thing could be said to exist, will be eaten) the halacha is clear that the power of the Rabbis to declare something kosher supersedes the physical reality. This is not an uncommon feature of the power of psak.

Unfortunately, the kashrut industry has rejected this approach, and has decided instead ot attempt to meet a standard of absolute, empirical kashrut. While this is no doubt a middat chassidut, and a laudable practice for the especially pious, is this the proper standard for determining mainstream kashrut?

Here’s why I think it is not:

  • As we’ve seen over the past year, even reputable and reliable hechsherim have been found to have shocking gaps in their operations, and their ability to enforce compliance has been severely compromised. The Monsey chicken scandal proves, in my mind, that no hashgacha is truly reliable to the level of empirical kashrut. As such, it is both fraudulent and self-defeating to set the empirical standard as normative.
  • In personal conversation, anyone involved in kosher slaughter that I’ve ever spoken to has told me that if 70% of what is sold as kosher is, in fact, kosher empirically, it would be a miracle. Given this, who are we kidding by taking pictures of Arab farms from space?
  • Empirical kashrut, and its step-sister, Glatt-only hechsherim, place a serious financial burden on the kosher community. If halacha allows us to observe more realistic standards, it behooves us to embrace them, rather than feeding more and more money into the Quixotic quest to achieve a standard not required by God or Halacha.
  • How can empirical kashrut be such an important priority? In the days of the Talmud, when merchants tried to gouge Jews shopping for Shabbat, the leaders of the day declared that no person should buy from these merchants, even at the cost of not having fish and meat for Shabbat! Where is that sentiment today? Significant food savings would make an enormous difference for many kosher families, and lower prices for kosher products would enable more Jews to keep kosher, in whole or in larger part.

The madness did not stop with the satellites, however. Evidently, the Star-K is developing a leaf camera(!) that will be able to sort out produce that contains bugs from bug-free produce, based on its ability to detect protein, which is present in bugs, but not in leafy vegetables. Sorry folks, but this sort of thing is what convinces me that the whole system has jumped the tracks, and is careening wildly. The profit motive has replaced the pious motive, and their is no real oversight. The vision of the kashurt industry stands in stark contrast to the vision of kashrut expressed in our Mesorah, and what started as a public service to the community has become a private business supported out of the coffers of the public.

In response, I have decided to become far more liberal about which hechsherim I will accept in my home. If even the best hechsherim are essentially cheating me, by claiming to meet a standard that they do not meet, and if their standards far exceed halachic requirements anyway, why should I support them? Let them make their money off of kosher bleach and paper plates! What do you folks think?