Friday, October 06, 2006

Some Thoughts About the Monsey Kashrut Situation - 1

Let me start off with this caveat -- I know nothing. I know enough to know that I am unqualified to make halachic pronouncements with wide applications in kashrut. What follows are just my musings.

I saw the following at the end of a Letter to the Editor in the Jewish Press:

No, the concern must be how we as a community can fix an obviously broken system. Whatever the validity of the old practice of relying on the integrity of the merchant, this approach is, at the very least, problematic in today’s world.

And no, this is not a non-Orthodox approach – i.e., changing halacha to conform with newly emergent realities. No one ever said that reliance on the merchant was halachically required, only that it was acceptable. This is no different from the common plaint one hears from Orthodox leaders that, given the times we live in, special precautions must be taken in many areas of life. If the profit motive has become such an important factor, we must react accordingly.
This approach unfortunately leads to adopting chumra upon chumra as time goes on, such that the direction halacha takes is more and more strict.

I also take issue with the phrasing "how we as a community can fix an obviously broken system." If there is something to be fixed, I do not think it should be fixed by the "community," which on the whole, even with Jewish education what it is, are not experts in these matters, and are thus prone to overreaction or hysterical reaction. Any response should be taken by experts in the matter of Jewish law, and in this subsection in Jewish law, not by the community.

I also take issue with the idea that this is "an obviously broken system," and that the approach of "relying on the integrity of the merchant" is "at the very least, problematic in today’s world." The letter writer qualifies this by saying he only means this towards chumra, so it is OK. But I wonder at such liberties in re-evaluating entrenched assumptions within the halachic system. For example, Those who say that modern times prove that the old assumptions no longer hold true -- would they be willing to say the same thing for Resh Lakish's statement טב למיתב טן דו מלמיתב ארמלו? I would guess not.

Further, I take issue with the statement "If the profit motive has become such an important factor, we must react accordingly." This is not the first time that this type of thing has happened. Consider the famous case in Cracow in the early 1600's. There, there was also profit motive. Yet they did not entirely eliminate the reliance upon the integrity of the merchant.

Also, we have at hand a single case. Even though this case effected many many people, we are dealing with the actions of a single individual. We do not know, at this point, exactly what his motivations were. Probably profit motive factored into it, but we do not know his internal thought process, or other pressures on him. Even if we did and could ascribe this purely to profit motive, we are dealing with a single individual. This is, in other words, anecdotal evidence. In the field of science, one does not make broad deductions from anecdotal evidence. This is one data point. If one has many anecdotes, and thus many data points, one could possibly draw some conclusion. But we should not deduce from this case that this is true in general. This one individual may well have been the exception to the rule.

Chazaka means different things in different contexts - it could mean rov, umdena, or assumption that the status quo is maintained. We see that we can rely on certain chazaka even when counter-examples occur. Thus, a mikveh can have a chezkat kashrut (and we needn't remeasure it each time to ascertain that it does not have less than 40 seah) even though incidents occurred in which the amount of water reduced to less that 40 seah (at which point we have to decide at what point it changed). A shliach can be depended upon to have fulfilled his shlichut because חזקה שליח עושה שליחותו, and this is true even though I am sure there was on occassion a lazy shliach who did not fulfill his duties. The nature of the chezkat kashrut every religious Jew has, and how ed echad neeman beIssurin applies - that is an interesting and detailed discussion, for those in the know. But I don't think that one can merely cite one or two counter-examples and conclude that the well-founded halachic assumptions have been overturned in modern times, and that, therefore, "this approach is, at the very least, problematic in today’s world."

Then again, perhaps I am wrong. Be'ezrat Hashem, more thoughts later.

1 comment:

yaak said...

Josh, I agree. This was an unfortunate incident, but an isolated one. The first such known case in numerous decades of Kashrut in America where a Shomer Torah Umitzvot would do such a thing on such a grand scale.
The Hashgaha process doesn't need to be fixed, but people should be more aware of red flags (e.g. much cheaper prices), which would put a re'uta on the hazaka.


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