Yet even more significant is the claim by the OU that marijuana needs kosher certification at all. Under kosher law, plants and minerals are inherently kosher; onions and apples do not receive kosher certification and yet are acceptable under kosher law. Yet as the reach of kosher certification agencies has expanded, so too have the claims of rabbis that ever more products need to be labeled with a rabbinical hecksker (endorsement). Science has provided a legitimate rationale for some, as food companies embed hidden ingredients, processing agents, and preservatives into seemingly innocuous foods such as frozen broccoli and canned tomatoes. But even the Orthodox wince at some more marginal claims, such as the need to place the OU’s distinctive logo on bottled water and aluminum foil.
So in this sense, the claim to certify marijuana is of a piece with certifying Deer Park spring water – an assertion that only the rabbis know whether products that can be ingested (or touch items that can be ingested) should be used by Jews. It reflects the aspiration of modern rabbinic Judaism to serve as the interlocutor between Jews and the modern world.
OU officials assert that it is the processing required for medical marijuana that requires their attention, as the product is ingested and not rolled into a joint. In that sense it is the same issue as certifying vitamins, as placing a B-12 complex into a gelatin (and thus non-kosher) capsule creates a non-kosher product. Unstated though is whether it is now acceptable under kosher law to obtain marijuana legally for recreational purposes, such as in Colorado where it is permitted by state law. If the rationale for certifying medical marijuana is how it is processed, then is it acceptable under Jewish law to smoke the raw stuff?
The OU is on uncertain ground when it comes to certifying pot for recreational purposes. It refuses to certify cigarettes on the basis they serve no useful purpose and are harmful to health, even though tobacco is, like marijuana, an inherently kosher plant. But it is willing to put its trademark U in a circle on many kinds of alcohol, not only wine which can serve ritual purposes, but also gin and vodka that, to my knowledge, are hardly part of Jewish traditions. What difference is there, after all, between a taking a toke of Hawaiian Haze, a leading Colorado marijuana strain, and knocking down a shot of OU-certified Glenmorangie Original single malt whisky? Managing the boundary between and ancient religion and the modern world certainly is a very tricky business.