Monday, July 30, 2007

More than laws of slaughter


Cleveland Jewish News

Workers’ conditions are also in spirit of kashrut.

I would like to offer Dr. Michael Kirsch some rabbinic “antacid” to soothe his indigestion about the proposed foray into kashrut certification by the Conservative movement. At the same time, I have my own heartburn about abuses in kosher-certified businesses that undermine the very meaning of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws.

I believe in kashrut as part of the nexus of Jewish law and tradition. Kasher literally means fit. The animals we are permitted to eat must be kasher. Their slaughter must be done in a kasher manner. Their meat must be processed in a kasher manner. Kasher means eating in a way that is fitting in our service of God.

When the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly endorsed the establishment of heksher tzedek (certification of justice), it was with the understanding that this certification would be a supplement n not a replacement n for current kosher supervision now available in the U.S. for tens of thousands of products.

Heksher tzedek is a response to reports in the media that have raised questions regarding the conditions of workers at some kosher slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants in our country. The news media have documented dangerous working conditions in these plants, inadequate training of workers, repeated failure of the companies to issue prompt and just payment, and the fact that many of the workers are undocumented migrants. According to reports, the AgriProcessors plant in Postville, Iowa, producer of Aaron’s Best glatt kosher meats, has been the most egregious perpetrator of these injustices.

I believe the time is ripe for development of heksher tzedek as a legitimate Jewish communal response.

There are several principles in Jewish tradition that justify, even necessitate, heksher tzedek.

First, let’s look at Torah itself: “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger … You must pay him his wages on the same day … for he is needy and sets his life on it; else he will cry to God against you and you will incur guilt” (Deut. 24:14-15). The Talmud also teaches that a sin committed in fulfillment of a commandment invalidates fulfillment of that commandment. Therefore, if a product labeled “kosher” is produced through nefarious labor practices, how can it truly be kosher?

While shechitah, ritual slaughter, requires a blessing by the shochet (slaughterer), most aspects of kosher-food production do not require recitation of liturgy by a rabbi. Nevertheless, the perception in the public sphere of kosher food being “blessed” is significant, even if not technically accurate. Whether we like it or not, the label “kosher” on a product suggests to the public a higher moral standard in the food’s production. A company that engages in immoral (if not illegal!) labor practices is a naval (scoundrel) and is committing a terrible hillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) that casts aspersions on the entire kashrut-observant public.

Finally, the Midrash teaches that all mitzvot were given l’tzaref bahen et habriot, to refine humanity. We need to elevate eating beyond our animal instincts.

Dr. Leon Kass, a renowned scientist, philosopher and ethicist, writes in The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature: “The meal taken at table is the cultural form that enables us to respond simultaneously to all the dominant features of our world: inner need, natural plenitude, freedom and reason, human community, and the mysterious source of it all. In humanized eating, we can nourish our souls even while we feed our bodies.” For me, a truly nourished individual is one who cares about how his or her food was produced. In this way, we elevate eating with heightened moral sensitivity.

Kashrut is meant to elevate the eating experience from mundane to holy. In my rabbinate, I strive to inspire Jews to observe mitzvot, including kashrut. When a Jewish family decides to keep a kosher home, it is a holy and heroic act that opens their home to klal Yisrael, the entire community of Israel. For more Jews to be inspired to keep kosher, we need an ethical kashrut industry that lives up to its name in elevating humanity toward a more ethical lifestyle. I hope heksher tzedek can help.

Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein is spiritual leader at Congregation Shaarey Tikvah.