Rabbi Menachem Genack Talks OU Kosher and More

OU Kosher is a leading nonprofit organization that certifies over one million products with more than 13,000 plants worldwide. It also views educating the public in kashrut as vital. Rabbi Menachem Genack is the CEO of OU Kosher, standing at the helm of the operation. We had a chance to sit down with him to discuss kashrut, Torah, artificial intelligence, politics, Israel and more.

Steven Genack: Besides leading OU Kosher, you are General Editor of OU Press, where you disseminate many of the teachings of the Rav, you’re Rosh Yeshiva at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), you’re a Professor of Talmud at Touro College, you are a close confidant of a president, you have been part of panels and leader of tours relating to Abraham Lincoln, you were the founder of NORPAC and you carry many other responsibilities. How do you manage to give the necessary focus to all of your endeavors?

Rabbi Menachem Genack: You have to prioritize what’s important and give everything the time that’s required.

SG: Regarding Lincoln, you once said, “With integrity wedded to political and oratorical genius, Lincoln is easy to admire.” Phillip Shaw Paludan, who was the professor of Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois, said about Lincoln, “… He reached out to political enemies and adversaries. He did not make politics personal; for Lincoln the political was not the personal.” Given Lincoln’s political acumen, how do you think he would view today’s partisan politics?

RMG: He would view it with dismay and shock. And remember, Lincoln lived in a toxic political environment that led to the Civil War which historians believe led to a loss of 700,00 lives. There were, of course, other contentious political times in American history. For instance, in the early 1800s, you had the Jeffersonians against the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton. Part of the divisive political wars then lead to the well-known Burr-Hamilton duel in 1804 that left Hamilton mortally wounded. Nonetheless, the current political environment is beyond the pale.

SG: Was it Lincoln that inspired you to get into politics or were there other factors?

RMG: After witnessing the apathy towards the Jews in WWII Europe, I felt the need to get actively involved to help Israel and the Jewish community.

SG: You learn with Senator Lieberman. He was always a very well-liked and respected senator. What is his view of the political scene today?

RMG: He was very much a centrist, bringing people together in bipartisan fashion. He recently wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal critiquing the current political discord. Just to exhibit his bipartisanship, his best friend in the Senate was Republican John McCain. Lieberman told me that when McCain was running for president, McCain was considering nominating him as vice president; that’s how close they were.

SG: You have said that if you could go back in time to meet one figure, it would be the Ramban. Can you expound on that?

RMG: The Ramban is my hero. In high school I started learning the Ramban on Chumash and I was taken away. It’s such an incredible peirush. And if you look at his commentary on Shas, Milchamos Hashem, the chiddushim are deep and insightful. His talmidim, the Rashba, Ra’ah and Ritva really set the groundwork for what we learn today. The Rav told me that the Brisker derech was predicated on the Ramban and Ra’avad. Of course, on the Rambam as well, but the Rambam never revealed his lomdus, so it is in the area of categorization of the Rambam that the Brisker derech follows.

SG: In terms of OU Kosher, you have set up a system where “super visits” occur, meaning the rabbinic coordinator who manages the company’s account from the office must still visit the company, and make sure all protocols are in order. When did this practice go into effect and why did you feel it was so important?

RMG: It’s important to get to know the company well and we have different safeguards to ensure that everything is watched assiduously. We instituted a Gavoah m’Al Gavoah Shomer (which for OU Kosher means supervision upon supervision) approach whereby the mashgiach and the rabbinic coordinator check everything. Once our core infrastructure at OU Kosher was established, we instituted it.

SG: Now that Covid-19 seems to have passed, are they any practices that were adopted during that period that are still in effect? 

RMG: During Covid-19, we had virtual inspections whereby the mashgiach and rabbinic coordinator were able to see inside the plant by watching live video from a worker inside who would walk around. This ensured product and paperwork compliance. We have now returned to live inspections. However, we are still thinking from an efficiency standpoint if there are things that can be integrated from what he learned during that period.

SG: Clean meat was a hot issue for a long time. It presented the possibility of producing a large quantity of meat from living cells of animals. You recently had a divergent opinion from Rabbi David Lau in Israel, whereby you said that using cells from a live animal would be tantamount to eiver min hachai and would therefore be prohibited. Does this close the door on this industry or is there still any potential for it to have any viability?

RMG: It doesn’t necessarily close the door on the industry. They do still have the option to get cells from a slaughtered animal, though it’s not as efficient. Also, most of the clean meat companies want to market to a vegan crowd and to those who are not usually in favor of slaughter, so they would unlikely turn to slaughtered meat. However, in the poultry arena, I visited a company in Israel, SuperMeat, that’s capable of getting stem cells from eggs which obviates the problem in regard to poultry.

SG: Regarding artificial intelligence in the food industry, there is now smart farming where based on data farmers can know the optimum time to plant in order to reap the best crop, manufactures now use automated machinery that saves energy and preserves water and one technology expert believes that robots will soon have sensors that will enable taste, allowing the food industry to perform taste trials on robots before the food enters the market. Can you see AI playing a role in the kashrut arena?

RMG: Technology is going to play a role in everything. Though, even those who developed AI are concerned that as it grows it can perhaps become an existential threat.

SG: You have a program called ASK OU whereby rabbinic coordinators travel around the world and share their expertise on kashrut issues. How much do you view OU Kosher as being an organization that certifies kosher products as much as an organization that spreads all aspects of kashrut knowledge?

RMG: We do have a kashrut educational department, whereby rabbinical coordinators visit different cities, communities and schools. It’s something we will continue to expand.

SG: The three weeks are approaching which reminds one of the hopes for redemption and a final return to Eretz Yisroel. As mentioned, the OU is involved in many areas, and one of them involves publishing the works of the Rav. Recently, there was a Mizrachi event in Israel where a new book of the Rav was introduced: The Return to Zion: Addresses on Religious Zionism and American Orthodoxy.

You expressed a dichotomy on the Rav’s view of Zionism. You said, “On the one hand, [the Rav] firmly believed that the establishment of the State and the realization of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel was the fulfillment of the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz…Jewish destiny in Jewish hands, was, for the Rav, not merely the realization of a nationalist dream, but the observance of a religious imperative. On the other hand, the Rav was occasionally critical of the secular orientation of the Israeli government.”

How do you think the Rav would feel about the government today in Israel? Would he hold the same views now as he had then? What are your thoughts?

RMG: The Rav was more of a moderate in terms of the policies he wanted to see in Israel. I think he would be concerned about some of the extreme positions that are now being taken in the government. The current divisions in the government and dissension between the secular and religious are certainly concerning.

SG: What do you think can bring about unity in the government and among all the types of Jews in Israel?

RMG: It’s not an easy situation right now. Reaching an agreement on judicial reform is an issue and aside from the divisions occurring in the government, it’s crucial that Israel maintains a strong relationship with the US, its most important strategic national security asset.

Another point of concern comes from a recent Gallup poll in the US that said more Democrats support the Palestinians than Israel. This should sensitize the Israeli government to be more deliberative in their words, so as not to alienate American Jewry, most of whom are not religious but identify with Judaism through the state of Israel.

SG: You used to visit family member Rav Avrohom Genechovsky zt”l who was the rosh yeshiva of Tchebin. He would take you to see Rav Yechezkel Abramsky zt”l who was very close with Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik zt”l. Did he tell you any stories of Reb Chaim?

RMG: Yes, we visited with him several times together. One time he told me how Reb Chaim was strong in terms of geirus, conversion, to make sure the person was sincere. On one Sukkos, we were discussing whether the defanos, the walls of the Sukkah, were a cheftza shel mitzvah, part of the mitzvah. I brought a proof from Reb Chaim and he responded humorously (in Yiddish) whether I had an “original one.” It happens to be I have a proof written in one of my seforim based on a Tosephos (Rosh Hashana 28b sv. ein uminah), that asks why we don’t say bal tosif, that we’re adding on, regarding the walls as well, proving that he holds it’s part of the mitzvah. Also, when he first published his Chazon Yechezkel on tractate Shabbos, he gave me an inscribed copy to bring to the Rav.

SG: You often talk about mission. What do you feel is the mission right now for the Jewish nation as a whole and for the individual?

RMG: It’s one and the same for the nation and the individual: to study Torah, be faithful to G-d’s commandments and be mekadesh Shem Shamayim.

Steven Genack
Steven Genack has worked at OU Kosher for more than ten years with a specialty in ingredients. He is an attorney and former editor of a newspaper. He has a wide array of interests including playing tennis, golf and basketball and reading biographies and memoirs.