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What's 'Kosher' About the Agriprocessors' Situation?

June 19, 2008 By:
Samuel Freedman
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As the Havdalah ritual serves to remind us, Judaism sanctifies separation. We separate holy days from ordinary days, Shabbat from the rest of the week, light from darkness, purity from impurity.

There is one sort of division, however, that Judaism refuses to hallow. That is the disengagement of cause and effect. If anything, our holy texts, prophetic injunctions, historical memory and rabbinic interpretations tell us that cause inevitably leads to effect, and in forms as catastrophic as the defeat of kingdoms, the destruction of temples, the imposition of exiles.

The stakes admittedly are not nearly so existential in the matter of the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse and the American Jews who both operate and patronize it -- the largest kosher meat plant in the nation. Still, the moral and ethical questions remain real, present and pressing.

Should it not matter to us that the meat we buy and consume -- ostensibly for the purpose of fulfilling a religious obligation, or at least reifying a sense of Jewish community -- is coming from a scandalous source? Just what does the separation between kosher and treif mean if kosher depends on the exploitation and endangerment of human beings who do the supposedly Godly work of preparing our food?

As a good deal of American Jewry already knows, federal authorities recently raided the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, and arrested more than 300 workers on suspicion of being illegal immigrants. Scores of them have been sentenced to jail and slated for deportation in an assembly-line version of justice.

The last thing I would condemn Agriprocessors for is hiring immigrants who have fake Social Security cards or work permits. America's unconscionable immigration policy -- its refusal to make the common-sense reforms variously proposed by President Bush, John McCain and Edward Kennedy over the past few years -- enables this kind of shadow economy, especially in arduous industries like meat-processing.

The importance of the recent immigration raid is that it has laid bare a Jewish hypocrisy on the subject of humans, rather than cows, lambs and chickens.

A chronology of the Agriprocessors controversy by an impartial source -- the Des Moines Register -- cites a pattern since early 2006 of workplace-safety violations, pollution, contaminated food, product recalls and unsanitary conditions, including rodent infestation.

Even before the recent raid, one Brooklyn-based va'ad had withdrawn its endorsement from Agriprocessors' brands, and activists in the Conservative rabbinate had begun promoting the concept of a hechsher tzedek -- a "justice certification" that takes into account how a food company treats its employees.

Now, in the wake of the arrests, the Conservative movement's associations of rabbis and congregations have called for a not-quite-boycott of meat from Agriprocessors, which is owned by a prominent Lubavitcher Chasidic family, the Rubashkins. The Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism issued a formal statement advising members to "evaluate whether it is appropriate to consume Rubashkin products until this situation is addressed."

That carefully parsed statement strikes me as appropriate. As much as a formal boycott would potentially wield greater power, I have a wariness of that particular, and often indiscriminate, weapon.

Besides, the decision to patronize Agriprocessors rightly resides with the individual conscience.

The most significant consequence of the raid is not -- as certain articles in Jewish newspapers have suggested -- that a meat shortage could result from the plant's loss of one-third of its workforce. What we should care more about is what we have learned about how our kosher meat gets from hoof to market.

There is a difference between law and justice, and there is a difference between following every requirement of kosher slaughter and treating the people involved inhumanly. Or is the moral of this story that it is permissible to abuse a worker as long as he or she isn't a Jew?

Last week, the chief executive officer of Agriprocessors, Sholom Rubashkin, announced that he would resign.

Still, his father, Aaron Rubashkin, remains the owner of the plant, which can only make you wonder about the prospects for a true housecleaning.

Until that day comes, I can only say that, for me, the putatively kosher meat from Agriprocessors will be as treif as swine.

Samuel G. Freedman teaches journalism at Columbia University.

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