Originally published December 12, 2018
On Monday, the New York Daily News published an article about Leah Forster, a comedienne. Forster was set to perform her act at the Garden of Eat-In in Brooklyn on New Year’s Eve. Shortly after tickets went on sale, the Vaad Harabonim of Flatbush, who provides the hechsher for the Garden of Eat-In, told the restaurant that their hechshermight be pulled if they allowed Forster to perform there. This is because Forster is a woman who practices inappropriate behavior according to Torah law.
This story, or one similar to it, will be very familiar to all, as will the aftermath. Once a decision like this is made, the script practically writes itself. One side springs up in defense of the Vaad, another to attack. Slurs get thrown; everyone gets muddy. The Vaad’s decision notwithstanding, making an impactful decision against anyone because of his or her orientation these days is an invitation to at least be criticized, most likely ostracized. Kashrus organizations, which must have a high level of religious credibility to be deemed reliable by the masses, are not immune.
The main point of contention with the Vaad in this case is that it should not be within their purview who performs at a restaurant that they certify as kosher. The food and the entertainment are separate, and a restaurant should not be penalized for whom they choose to hire for the evening’s entertainment. There is a clear rationality to this argument. This contention operates under the premise that it is the Vaad’s sole responsibility to certify if a dining establishment is kosher.
However, that is not the Vaad’s sole responsibility, and it never was. This is where the fundamental disconnect occurs between those who attack the Vaad’s decision and those who defend it, and even the defenders usually miss the point.
Adina Miles, who was set to emcee the event and is known for her criticism of ultra-Orthodox publications for blurring out women’s faces, commented on this controversy.
“Can you imagine if the Health Department would give a restaurant a C because the head chef was [in a same-gender relationship]?” she asked. “That’s what this is.”
The analogy is flawed. The Vaad is not the Health Department. The Vaad, and all kashrusorganizations, is more like Zagats. They are a business, and they sell a product. That product is their reputation. With the seal of approval from a kashrus organization, a certain number of people, ranging from hundreds to millions, will feel comfortable eating the food that is prepared by the approved establishment. Restaurants, manufacturers, and supermarkets pay for this seal of approval. Customers are put at ease by this seal of approval. The generation that had to read ingredients on sealed packages and make a guess whether or not they could purchase it are headed into retirement. Every major city has an option of eateries to choose from. There are kosher options for Mexican tacos, Texas barbecue, Italian pasta, and much more. The backbone to this is the confidence that consumers place in kashrus organizations.
As consumers, we enter into a social contract with the kashrus organization that certifies the restaurant that we are patronizing. They are the arbitrary third party, who will not be swayed by cut corners and loopholes. We put our trust in them, and most people do not even question that trust. Why do many trust the OU with their meat, but not the Triangle-K (which certifies Hebrew National)? Why do others trust the OU only when it’s combined with another certification? Because some kashrus organizations have made business decisions or have been negligent enough to lose some or all of the public trust. Without that public trust, they are out of business.
The Vaad Harabonim of Flatbush had a business decision to make regarding Forster’s performance. It is uncomfortable for many to think of same-gender relations as a sin. Discussions about the egregiousness of said sin, and why it is singled out more so than other sins, often cause vicious arguments amongst members of the Orthodox community (especially between generations). Operating under the premise that it is a sin, the restaurant is giving implied approval of a lifestyle that is sinful according to Jewish Law. Since the performer is Jewish, this is more of a problem than if the performer was not Jewish. The Vaad allowing its stamp of approval on a restaurant that tacitly approves of Forster performing there could easily be seen as an approval of a disregard for Jewish Law. Jewish Law is the Vaad’s stock in trade. Without a meticulous record of upholding the sanctity of all Jewish Law, not just kashrus, the Vaad would have none of the community’s trust, thus no business. Would anyone trust the Vaad’s hechsher if their certifying rabbi drove to shul on Shabbos? He could be the most knowledgeable person in the world regarding kashrus issues, but his reputation would not allow him to have a business certifying restaurants.
This is not exclusive to the Jewish community. If someone is negligent in one aspect of his life, he is deemed irredeemable in other aspects. If a stockbroker is caught hurling racial slurs, he or she will likely be fired from their job. Does his racist behavior have any effect on his ability to buy and sell stocks? No, but his company does not want to be associated with a person with this reputation, as it could damage their business.
This conflict could be boiled down to a simple point. Who should prevail when two business interests compete? It is within the business interest of the Garden of Eat-In to have Forster perform. At the same time, it is within the business interest of the Vaad to have her not perform. While you think about that, think about this: Do you really want to fight with your neighbor about the competing business interests of two companies that you have no stake in? This issue deserves a reasonable discussion about the expectations of the businesses we utilize. It does not deserve anger, division, and mob mentality.