In which I answer to a lower authority

The next time I go to the Associated grocery store on 23rd Street and Second Avenue, I can either buy the premium kosher meat that's recently appeared there -- a variety of tempting cuts, quite pricey, but a lot more convenient than the nearest proper butcher -- or I can eat something I've never eaten before: Hebrew National.

I have mixed feelings about this new possibility. For many years, Hebrew National was considered kosher enough to eat by an ever-shrinking slice of the Jewish pie. I don't know how long Hebrew National has been a brand unto itself, though now it seems to be part of some food monolith with the unappetizing name of ConAgra. In any case, though, until recently, it was possible for a product to be kosher without being certified by some large national organization. Indeed, kosher certification by those organizations (e.g. the O-U), is only eighty-some years old, if this on-line history is reliable. Widespread use of these hechsherim as the gold standard is even more recent.

What is the effect of this ever-broadening appeal to organizational hechsherim? As with any organizational convergence, the end result is more conservative (with a small "c") -- the national supervising organizations are more liberal than some other alternatives (like some ultra-Orthodox hechsherim often seen on Israeli products), and more stringent than others.

The problem for Hebrew National is that, for whatever reason, what one might call the "stringency curve" for traditional Jewish religious observance is sharply right-shifted. In English: most observant folks are on the rightward end of the spectrum. It used to be that the imprimatur of Rabbi T. Stern (the name on Hebrew National products until the recent change) was enough for many people who kept kosher. But as this right-shift began to take effect over the past few decades, a premium was placed on mass-market hechsherim. Loyalty to rabbis known personally in one's community ceded pride of place to brand loyalty, rigorous attention to the most stringent halachic detail, and a new industry of kosher supervision. One proof of this can be brought from the reasons I heard given for people refusing to eat Hebrew National when good old Rabbi Stern was its certifying rabbi -- the only evidence adduced was darkly whispered "leniencies," and rarely anything more specific than that.

All this means that for the duration of Rabbi Stern's Hebrew National hechsher there was a gap between national brand-name hechsherim and a smaller-scale, non-hegemonic definition of kashrut. It would have been perfect for the Conservative movement to take advantage of, an opportunity to explain the difference between Jewish law and tradition and standardized Orthodox stringency. National kashrut organizations encourage stringent observance - but that is not the only variety of kashrut. There is a community standard, independent of the kosher industry, which has not yet been completely coopted. Unforunately, while many Conservative Jews probably did eat Hebrew National, they weren't the sort that were likely to keep kashrut in general. Thus, while I approved theoretically of Rabbi Stern's hechsher, I never ate of it myself, since I never found a kosher-keeping community that approved of it.

With not a completely light heart, then, but with a curious palate, I'm going to buy myself some Hebrew National hot dogs next time I'm in the store, with the triangle-K brand of hechsher. For those of you who find these fine distinctions faintly ridiculous, consider them another reason to be vegetarian.

Postscript: The Kosher Blog has links to more information about the late Rabbi T. Stern, the lone certifier. (I got his name wrong, but I've corrected it above.) Also, it seems I missed the number-one reason why the right-shift rendered Stern's certification not kosher enough: it wasn't glatt kosher.

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