Ironies, Divine and Otherwise

The conclusion of the Commack anti-kosher-law crusade

Walking home from Megillah reading on Purim morning, even before engaging the mitzvos hayom, I had what I think was an insight.

There isn’t any word in Lashon Hakodesh, I pondered, for “ironic,” the meaningfully coincidental that we see in the Megillah, and sometimes in our own lives.

Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that there isn’t a Hebrew word for “religion” because, from a Jewish perspective, there is no such qualitatively limited “thing” — our beliefs and the Torah’s laws are life and the universe themselves; they are all that there is.

Maybe, I mused, “ironic” is similar; we use it to refer to the glimpses we occasionally have of Hashem’s Hashgachah, the Divine Providence that in fact permeates all. But it’s omnipresent, whether we spy it or not.

It was spied recently, as it happens, in the shuttering of a butcher shop on Long Island.

The name “Commack Self-Service Kosher Meats” conjures memories in the mind of anyone who has followed the legal saga of “kosher laws” in the United States. That shop’s owners, having been issued a fine by state kosher inspectors back in 1993 for harboring poultry that lacked proper tags, subsequently sued to have New York’s kosher law at the time declared unconstitutional.

That law, which was created in 1915 to stem rampant misrepresentation in the kosher meat market, required that food labeled kosher had to be “prepared in accordance with Orthodox Hebrew religious requirements.” And for many years it was enforced by a state agency empowered to force mislabeled products from shelves and levy fines on violators of the law.

In 1996, Commack Kosher’s proprietors claimed that the law’s language, by referencing “Orthodox” standards, violated the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, illegitimately entangling government and religion.

The New York courts, like others in New Jersey and Maryland that scrutinized their own similar kosher laws, agreed. And so a new law, the Kosher Law Protection Act of 2004, was written and enacted. It requires only that products labeled kosher carry information about who stands behind the claim. The original law empowered state inspectors to force the removal of, say, a product with a “Kosher Nostra” hechsher backed by a supervisor named Vito. Under the current law, such a “hechsher” is just as “kosher” — at least as far as New York is concerned — as a Badatz certification.

Many Orthodox Jews weren’t particularly concerned about the fate of the original kosher law. After all, it had little impact on them. An observant Jew wouldn’t rely on a state inspector; he or she would look for the stamp or label of the Rav or agency on a product to determine its acceptability. That, in fact, remains the upshot of the current law — that the state can only ensure that duly authorized labels appear on products, but final determination of kashrus is the consumer’s responsibility.

Still and all, an assortment of Orthodox groups, including Agudath Israel, did their best to defend the original law because there are many Jews whose commitment to kashrus might be less than robust but who would still prefer to buy a kosher product if it were available. Ensuring that products claiming to be kosher were, in fact, halachically so, would benefit such Jews.

But that was not to be; the courts spoke. Still bent, though, on ridding New York of any kosher law, Commack Kosher sued the state again in 2008 to try to have the new law declared unconstitutional as well. They failed in that bid. They failed, too, despite their now-“kosher” Conservative movement certification, to garner sufficient sales to stay in business.

One of the owners, Brian Yarmeisch, reportedly told shoppers that he blamed “the community” for failing him.

What really failed him, though, was the Conservative movement.

The majority of Jewish houses of worship in central Long Island are Conservative, and that movement, despite its declared early aspirations to “conserve” Judaism by tailoring it to contemporary American Jews’ desires, has been rapidly declining in popularity. More important, it failed miserably at its “conservation” goal. The average Conservative Jew may retain some interest in Jewish “life cycle” rituals. But Shabbos, taharas hamishpachah, kashrus… not so much.

Commack Kosher’s crusade, in fact, included its championing of a Conservative kashrus certification. Their original lawsuit explicitly charged that New York’s kosher law discriminated against non-Orthodox Jews, and claimed that Conservative Jews were being denied the right to market and purchase and label as kosher foods that Orthodox Jews consider forbidden.

And so, there’s more than a plumba of irony in the fact that, by putting its eggs (and chicken and meat) squarely in a Conservative basket, Commack Kosher ended up alienating any Orthodox clientele it had and, in effect, committing commercial suicide.

Some ironies are sourced in the Divine; others are of people’s own making.