by Samuel Freedman
The Jerusalem Post
October 5, 2008
For two days earlier this week, as many of us stood in synagogue, we recited one of the most famous and challenging passages in the Rosh Hashana liturgy, the acrostic poem of Unetaneh Tokef. At the very outset, the text reminds us we are in the "awesome and terrible" time of judgment. For those who fall short, the verses declaim a variety of hideous deaths: by beast, plague, stoning, famine, earthquake, sword.
In its refrain, however, Unetaneh Tokef offers the formula for survival. U'teshuva, u'tefilla, u'tzedaka ma'avirin et ro'a hagezera, go the words. Repentance, prayer and righteousness can avert the evil decree.
As American Jews, we're not particularly vulnerable these days to famine or beasts, and stoning was something we gladly partook of in college. We need deliverance more from hypocrisy, a hypocrisy bred by comfort. Hearing the Rosh Hashana service, it was hard to conceive of a more appropriate focus of New Year soul-searching than Agriprocessors.
By now, the scandal of Agriprocessors has been chronicled from Stephen Bloom's book Postville to Nathaniel Popper's investigative reports in the Forward to Julia Preston's coverage in The New York Times to the muckraking blogger FailedMessiah.com. No sensate American Jew has any reason to be unfamiliar with the rudiments of the case: The largest kosher meat plant in the nation has been charged with violating federal or state laws on pollution, workplace safety, child labor and the employment of illegal immigrants.
Early on in the series of exposures, Morris Allen, a Conservative rabbi in St. Paul, Minnesota, began campaigning for a new designation of kashrut called hechsher tzedek that reflected how a food producer treated its human employees as much as its animal raw material. With the explosion of news about Agriprocessors since last spring, when federal authorities swooped down on the Iowa plant to arrest several hundred Hispanic immigrants, the hechsher tzedek proposal has gathered momentum from its base in the Conservative movement to Reform and even certain Modern Orthodox quarters. Just in the past few weeks, the Orthodox Union threatened to withdraw its valuable hechsher from Agriprocesssors' meat unless the company replaces its CEO. The Rabbinical Council of America, the major association of Orthodox rabbis, announced it would form a task force to determine ethical guidelines and practices in producing kosher food.
SO, WHILE I hardly was in the position to take a field survey, I would guess that hechsher tzedek and Agriprocessors figured prominently in a great many Rosh Hashana sermons. Which is all to the good. And at the same time, I've become aware of a dismissive counterargument that portrays hechsher tzedek as an easy issue, a lofty stance that costs nothing to the person holding it. That premise I deeply dispute.
At a minimum, an American Jew who refuses to buy Agriprocessors' meat is willing to be inconvenienced because its distribution network is unmatched in the industry. If there is indeed a kosher-meat shortage in parts of the country, as has been reported, then prices will almost certainly rise.
Paying that kind of literal price is the least important cost of conscience. Far more importantly, the Agriprocessors situation requires us to look into ourselves, our values. America as a whole has been unwilling to acknowledge the elephant in the room - the illegal immigrants, given no plausible way to become legal, who babysit our kids, mow our lawns, bus our tables, build our homes. No, the discussion on the subject consists of one side: the fantasy of walling off Mexico and shipping all the illegals to the far side.
Agriprocessors offers our own specifically Jewish version of this American embarrassment. The biggest producer of the meat we consider to be holy was doing so by taking advantage of the desperate and weak.
IT ISN'T Agriprocessors' fault that Congress has repeatedly caved in to the nativist lobby and failed to enact a rational reform of immigration law. But it is Agriprocessors' fault, enabled by our complicity at the registers, that the powerlessness of its workforce, the inability of the exploited to protest against their own exploitation lest they be uncovered and deported, made possible all the other forms of workplace abuse. To endorse and live by and buy by hechsher tzedek would require you (or me) to look unflinchingly at the casual hypocrisy that lets you separate what you consume from how it got to your plate.
What kind of religion cares more about how a cow's neck is slit than about child labor? Imagine if, after the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, the prevailing Jewish concern hadn't been about the young seamstresses locked into a burning factory, but whether the clothes they made had mixed wool and linen.
One of the lasting shames of the Triangle fire is that it was the company's Jewish owners who exploited its Jewish workers. In the case of Agriprocessors, the Jewish owners, the Rubashkin family, have had plenty of defenders among the Orthodox. One delegation of rabbis, having taken a plant tour paid for by the company, pronounced the facility state-of-the-art - as if the issue here were the age of the equipment, not the conditions of the workers. Lenin had a phrase for that Orthodox delegation: "useful idiots."
It will be far from an easy issue to have an intra-Jew battle over hechsher tzedek. A lot of liberal American Jews, who never before showed much concern about kashrut, will have to make a persuasive case. Surely, the Rubashkins and their apologists are counting on their Jewish critics to lose energy, drift away, alight on some other cause du jour. Even if Agriprocessors changes its CEO, as the Orthodox Union has insisted, the shift could prove purely cosmetic unless sustained pressure on the company to rectify its day-in, day-out practices continues.
When it comes to Agriprocessors and hechsher tzedek, tefilla is the easy part, the lip service. Tzedaka and teshuva, righteousness and repentance - those demand action.