Published: December 10, 2008
The New York Times
What it means to be kosher — the nub of a debate sparked in May by sweeping labor abuse charges against the Orthodox Jewish owners of the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the nation — was pondered Tuesday night in a panel discussion at Yeshiva University in Upper Manhattan, the academic nexus of Orthodox Judaism.
It was, for the most part, a subdued and scholarly discussion about ritual law, Jewish ethics and what to do if you suspect that the kosher meat on your table has been butchered and packed by 16-year-old Guatemalan girls forced to work 20-hour days under threat of deportation, as alleged in a recent case.
“Is it still possible to consider something ‘kosher certified’ if it is produced under unethical conditions?” asked Gilah Kletenik, one of the organizers of the student group that arranged the session, which drew an overflow crowd of 500, most of them students.
In keeping with the Talmudic tradition embodied by the rabbis on the panel, the answer seemed to be yes and no.
“The basic underpinning of Jewish tradition is ethics,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, a Yeshiva dean and the chief executive of kosher certification for the Orthodox Union, the group that oversees kosher standards in 8,000 food manufacturing plants around the world, including about 25 meatpacking facilities in the United States.
But he said the process of producing food that is certifiably kosher according to Jewish law is one thing; the conditions in which that process is undertaken are another. “The issues are not obvious sometimes,” he said.
In a more pointed comment, Rabbi Avi Shafran, who has defended the prerogative of the Orthodox rabbinate against what he sees as well-meaning but misguided efforts to add social-justice protections to the criteria for the production of kosher food, said, “Lapses of business ethics, animal rights issues, worker rights matters — all of these have no effect whatsoever on the kosher value.”
The realm of kashrut, or Jewish dietary law, which for 5,000 years has been the exclusive domain of orthodox authorities, has received new scrutiny from a broad spectrum of Jews since federal agents raided an Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, on May 12, arresting 389 illegal immigrants. The owners, Aaron Rubashkin and his son, Sholom, members of a prominent Orthodox family in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, were charged with bank fraud and employing under-age workers.
After the raid, workers’ organizations said that many Agriprocessors employees had long complained of frequent accidents and forced overtime but did not take their claims to the authorities because they feared deportation.
The workers’ stories gave a boost to a kosher-reform campaign known as Hekhsher Tzedek (in Hebrew, kosher righteousness), which was begun in 2006 by Rabbi Morris J. Allen, a Conservative rabbi from Mendota Heights, Minn., who has long promoted ethical reforms in kosher meat plants.
Rabbi Allen said on Wednesday that though he “would have loved” to have been invited to the discussion, “the important thing is that the topic of what constitutes good kosher food production has been elevated.”
“We are proud that people in all parts of the Jewish community are taking our agenda seriously,” he added.
The four-member panel was composed of Rabbi Genack, Rabbi Shafran, Rabbi Basil Herring — executive director of the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox group — and Shmuly Yanklowitz, whose views probably came closest to those of the reform-minded Rabbi Allen.
Mr. Yanklowitz, a recent Yeshiva graduate and co-founder of Uri L’Tzedek, which describes itself as “the Orthodox social justice movement,” told the audience he had visited Postville and met a former Agriprocessors employee named Maria, a young woman from Guatemala.
“Maria worked in hot, slavelike conditions from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. so that we could have our kosher meat,” he said.
In an extended address that was at times Jeremiah-like in its condemnations, he called on the audience to rise to “a higher moral standard” in addition to adhering to the strict guidelines of kashrut as defined by traditional Jewish law.
“The consumer of goods produced immorally is morally culpable,” he said.
At the moment, Mr. Yanklowitz’s group has focused mainly on improving conditions for workers in kosher restaurants.
Rabbi Allen’s group has proposed something more comprehensive and problematic for Orthodox authorities: a seal of approval, the Hekhsher Tzedek seal, which he proposes adding to kosher products whose producers meet certain standards of employee safety and benefits, humane treatment of animals and environmental protection.
The campaign has received support from prominent members of the Conservative and Reform movements, but so far not from Orthodox circles, despite general agreement that worker protections are important in kosher food plants.
What may seem to reformers to be a mistaken separation of Jewish ritual law and Jewish ethics, however, is seen by the Orthodox as a defense of tradition.
“There is nothing in Jewish law that conflates the status of kosher food with the way the food is produced,” Rabbi Shafran said in a phone interview Wednesday. “What sticks in our craw,” he said, referring to the proposed seal, “is that it is following the zeitgeist rather than following the law. It falsifies the integrity of Jewish law.”
To be clear, he said, “Ethics is vitally important in Judaism.” Unethical acts, like illegal acts, should be punished according to the laws that apply. But the rules of what defines food as kosher were written in the Torah by divine agency and cannot be changed, he said.
Shlomit Cohen, 21, a senior at the university’s Stern College for Women and president of the Social Justice Society, a student group representative of a new wave of social activism among young Orthodox Jews, said she appreciated Rabbi Shafran’s point of view and “his desire to retain respect for the authority of legal tradition.”“But this is more than a technical legal issue,” she said. “Change is needed, and if it is not coming from the leadership we have, it will have to come from others.”