The Kosher Conundrum

“Kosher from Florida” is a new logo and slogan that Florida’s Department of Agriculture is pushing as a marketing strategy to increase sales of kosher food produced in Florida. One can question this strategy. After all, wouldn’t “Kosher from Israel” be more appealing to seekers of kosher food?

In fact, from a marketing point of view, the program can only be designed to capture people looking for Florida-produced product. In this sense, it’s a kosher-food equivalent of the “Fresh from Florida” campaign promoting Florida-grown fruits, vegetables and juices. Since Florida is famous for fresh citrus, it is logical to think consumers may prefer produce from Florida. Why they would prefer kosher foods from Florida is not obvious. Why the program isn’t just promoting all foods produced in Florida, kosher or not, is something of a mystery.

What is not a mystery, or even surprising, is that the American Civil Liberties Union is out in force trying to derail the Florida campaign. Since the rules that define kosher are Jewish religious rules, the ACLU is quick to find an unconstitutional mingling of church and state: “The State is lending its imprimatur to a commodity that’s prepared in conformity to religious laws and rituals that date back to the Old Testament. That’s not appropriate for government.” So says Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

This is rather silly. There is no reason Florida can’t promote kosher products produced within the state, or for that matter, Florida products that follow the Halal principles dictated by Islam. If we accept that one of the purposes of the state is to promote that state’s industry, consumers will only buy products produced in accordance with various religious regulations. To argue that the constitution requires states to somehow ignore this demand is preposterous and would result in the state writing off giant markets that simply will not buy products without proper certification.

More problematic than the state promoting its production of kosher food is the question of defining kosher food. Many states, usually over the objections of the ACLU types, have various laws punishing the false representation of kosher food or meat. This is hardly the constitutionally threatening issue it is sometimes made out to be. It is more in line with a consumer protection statute or a truth-in-labeling act. Kosher is a commonly used term; those who search for it are defrauded if they don’t receive the kosher product when the label or signage indicates that product is kosher.

Aye, there’s the rub. What exactly makes a product kosher? Who is to decide? Should the state be in the position of making such a determination? There is a certain irony to the controversy: The one group whose behavior will not change no matter what the state does in this area is the one group that most passionately cares about kosher requirements – the Orthodox Jewish community.

Within this group of dedicated kosher consumers is passionate disagreement about kosher rules, and even more significantly, about who can be trusted to ensure the rules are followed. As a result, there are hundreds of kosher certification agencies around this country. Many of the most passionate devotées of kosher food consider foods produced under the supervision of a particular agency kosher and foods produced under the supervision of another agency trayf, or non-kosher.

These differences sometimes represent authentic disputes on doctrinal issues; other times, genuine questions as to the rigor of a particular rabbi or certifying board; and still other times, financial battles as to which group shall get the fee paid for certifying the product as kosher. Whatever the cause of differences among Orthodox Jews, this much is clear: Orthodox communities will continue to look for the symbols of certification agencies that these communities trust.

So the people protected by state laws preventing the sale of fraudulently labeled kosher food are the more casual kosher food consumers. They include Reform and Conservative Jews, Muslims and other groups searching for kosher products, but the vast majority of these consumers are simply people who eat kosher food because of their perception of the food as being high-quality.

Most states have striven to have a sort of generic kosher definition, one acceptable to most parties. Connecticut, for example, defines kosher through supervision by “the Orthodox Hebrew religious requirements.” Massachusetts defines it in accordance with “Orthodox Jewish religious standards.” And New Jersey’s definition is “prepared and maintained in strict compliance with the laws and customs of the Orthodox Jewish religion.”

That is the food industry at the turn of the millennium. Kosher standards are established by the state, but only for those who don’t care that much about kosher. A free enterprise market of certifying agencies fights it out among the passionately committed to establish reputations that will encourage manufacturers to hire them as certifying agencies. And Florida, once famous for oranges and juice, now wants to be known for a nice piece of gefilte fish. It’s called millennium fever. My grandmother would have said that everyone has gone meshuga.