Magen Tzedek

Reference: Magen Tzedek: An Ethical Certification for Kosher Food

The Magen Tzedek Commission works to bring the Jewish commitment to ethics and social justice directly into the marketplace and the home. The Commission’s seal of approval, the Magen Tzedek, will help assure consumers that kosher food products were produced in keeping with the highest possible Jewish ethical values and ideals for social justice in the area of workers’ rights, animal welfare, environmental impact, consumer issues and corporate integrity.

The Magen Tzedek, the world’s first Jewish ethical certification seal, synthesizes the aspirations of a burgeoning international movement for sustainable, responsible consumption and promotes increased sensitivity to the vast and complex web of global relationships that bring food to our tables.

History

Magen Tzedek was initiated in 2007 by Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, following investigative reporting by Nathaniel Popper in The Jewish Daily Forward regarding working conditions at the Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa. A five-member rabbinic and lay commission visited the plant over two days and spoke with owners, senior managers and about 60 current or former workers. The commission also reviewed reports from the State Department of Labor. Following the visit, Allen stated: “We weren’t able to verify everything Popper wrote, but what we did find was equally painful and filled with indignities.”

In 2008, a task force was formed to develop “a set of standards that would certify that kosher food manufacturers in the U.S. operate according to Jewish ethics and social values.” Originally known tentatively as Hekhsher Tzedek (“certification of justice”), the name was changed to Magen Tzedek (“shield of justice”) in order to clarify that the designation was not intended to replace or alter the traditional Hekhsher or kosher certification, which is based on very specific rules of food content and preparation.

The Magen Tzedek Commission was founded on January 31, 2011, as an Illinois not-for-profit corporation with seed funding from the Nathan Cummings Foundation,which reportedly has given grants totaling at least $245,000 to Magen Tzedek since 2008. Negotiations are ongoing with several entities that are considering submitting their products or establishments for Magen Tzedek certification.

Standards

The Magen Tzedek Commission has developed a food certification program that combines the rabbinic tradition of Torah with Jewish values of social justice, assuring consumers and retailers that kosher food products have been produced in keeping with exemplary Jewish ethics in the area of labor concerns, animal welfare, environmental impact, consumer issues and corporate integrity.

The cornerstone of the program is the Magen Tzedek Standard, a proprietary set of standards that meet or exceed industry best practices for treatment of workers, animals, and the Earth; and delineates the criteria a food manufacturer must meet to achieve certification. Upon successful certification, the Magen Tzedek Commission will award its Shield of Justice seal which can be displayed on food packaging.

The Magen Tzedek seal is available only for products that currently carry a traditional Hekhsher seal from an authorized kosher certification agency. It is not intended as a replacement, but rather a complementary enhancement to a brand’s reputation.

According to Magen Tzedek, food production should comply with various biblical and rabbinic commandments which are ignored by conventional kosher certifying agencies. As outlined in a paper titled “Hekhsher Tzedek Al Pi Din” (“Justice Certification According to Law”) authored by Rabbi Avraham Reisner of the Rabbinical Assembly, these laws include:

  • The Book of Deuteronomy lays out a prohibition known as Ona’ah: “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger” (Deut. 24:14-15)
  • The Shulchan Arukh, the authoritative 16th century code Jewish law, states in Chosen Mishpat 331:1 that “one who hires employees should treat them in accordance with local custom” and that “when the custom was to provide their meals, he should provide their meals, to provide figs or dates or something similar, he should provide it — all in accordance with local custom.” Reisner argues that this gives employers an obligation to fairly compensate workers including sick and vacation pay.
  • Biblical law requires employers to provide for the health and safety of their workers, as seen from laws regarding one who leaves a pit uncovered (Exodus 21:33) or fails to build a protective parapet on a roof that is in use (Deuteronomy 22:8).
  • Tsa’ar ba’alei chayim (“the suffering of animals”) is a biblical principle which prohibits causing unnecessary pain to animals.

The Magen Tzedek seal can be placed on a wide range of grocery products including meat/poultry, dairy, dry grocery, canned/bottled goods, refrigerated/frozen products and baked goods.

With many labels and certifications addressing separate aspects of food and its production – organic, fair trade, etc., the kosher-conscious public needs a way to buy food with the assurance that it was produced consistent with the Jewish tradition of justice and ethics, while suited for today’s complex world. Magen Tzedek is very much part of the spirit of values of contemporary American Jewry, which acknowledges the importance of acting with integrity. As the only US religious symbol signifying ethical standards in the production of food, Magen Tzedek is a symbol that all people of conscience can support, without regard to their religious affiliation or observance.

According to Allen, it makes sense that the Conservative movement has taken the lead on the issue, as “Conservative Judaism is uniquely positioned. We are committed to kashrut, which some other movements might not be, and also committed to social justice. The hekhsher tzedek is that point where halachic intensity meets ethical imperatives.”

Controversy

Magen Tzedek has come under attack from Orthodox Jewish organizations and leaders, many of whom claim that it causes confusion about what is truly kosher. Some have charged that Magen Tzedek downgrades traditional kashrut by confusing it with social justice issues, and that it makes use of kashrut to follow secular political agendas. Agudath Israel of America has called the Magen Tzedek seal “a falsification of the Jewish religious heritage,” deploring it as an attempt “to redefine kashrut.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs of Agudath Israel of America, the public affairs voice of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, has charged that Magen Tzedek certification is a stealthy way for the Conservative movement to enter the arena of kosher supervision making allowances for “contemporary society’s increasing approval of ‘alternate lifestyles’” in response to its loss of members.”

Following these criticisms, there have been reports that kosher establishments considering Magen Tzedek certification have been deterred by fear that Orthodox kosher certification authorities will retaliate by stripping them of their kosher certification. Rabbi Menachem Genack, director of kashrut of the Orthodox Union, the largest kosher certifying agency, denied that an establishment’s acceptance of Magen Tzedek certification would jeopardize its OU kosher certification. “If there is a company that wants to use Magen Tzedek, we will not object to it appearing on the label,” Genack told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2013, adding “we also would not object to them putting ‘halal’ on their label. These are marketing decisions the company makes on its own.”

Includes material from Wikipedia, “Magen Tzedek.”

To see the Magen Tzedek certification standards in full, click here.