Slaughterhouse Rules

Published May 26, 2006, issue of May 26, 2006.
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Many Jews nowadays find Shavuot, the holiday that begins next Thursday evening, June 1, to be among the hardest of Jewish holidays to embrace and take to heart. It lacks the pageantry and symbolism of Passover, the majesty of Yom Kippur, the intimacy of Hanukkah. It celebrates the Torah, Judaism’s sacred book of Law, but without the unfettered merriment of that other celebration, Simchat Torah, marked each October with song, dance and drink.

No, Shavuot’s joys are more pensive and austere. On this day the Law is celebrated by delving into it, studying it through the night, re-examining its countless facets and meanings. It is a day for getting straight to the heart of things. Its main Torah reading recounts the moment in Exodus 19 when Moses came down from the mountain and read the tablets of the Law to a cowed nation of ex-slaves, trembling at the magnitude of the vow being pressed on them. You are commanded, Moses told them, to become a moral beacon, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The Israelites’ terrified reply: “Speak to us and we will obey, but let not God speak to us, lest we die.”

Three thousand years later, it’s possible to look back in amazement at the tenacity with which the generations of Israelites have clung to that gift — and how hard it remains for most of us to absorb the plain language of the text we claim to venerate. We may wonder at how hard we’re still trying to duck our responsibilities.

Some of us, perhaps a majority these days, take the text as a general exhortation to reach upward, oblivious to the Torah’s central message of daily discipline. Interpret it how you will, the book means us to live by a code, to turn each act of eating, working and loving into an ethical choice. Morality, we’re taught, must be active. It’s not just a background theme.

Others of us, sadly, manage to consecrate our lives to daily observance of Torah laws without ever hearing those larger themes. For an example, turn to Nathaniel Popper’s Page 1 report on working conditions at AgriProcessors, Inc., the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse.

The firm, based in the Iowa town of Postville, was first made famous by Stephen Bloom’s 2000 book of the same name, examining the odd clash of cultures that ensued when a community of Lubavitch Hasidim came to set up shop in a Midwestern farming village. Its next brush with fame came in December 2004, when an animal rights group released a videotape showing the suffering of the animals slaughtered in the plant.

Alongside the scandals, the firm has gained a steadily growing following of enthusiastic consumers, drawn by its ability to deliver reliable kosher products nationwide at an attractive price. In recent years its combination of availability, quality and price has made it one of the fastest growing brands in the kosher marketplace.

But, as Popper discovered in Postville, there is another price that is being paid — by AgriProcessors’ employees. The company’s workers tell a grim tale of long hours, low pay, humiliating treatment by capricious supervisors, dangerous conditions and insufficient safety measures. The workers, many of them undocumented immigrants, spoke to the Forward on condition of anonymity, fearing dismissal or deportation if they were identified. But their stories were backed up with on-the-record testimony and documentation from a host of clergy and community leaders, Iowa academics and union officials. The story they tell is consistent, and shocking.

How AgriProcessors and its owners treat their employees is a matter for federal and Iowa state authorities to judge. We hope someone takes a good, hard look at conditions in Postville. Given the current state of American labor law, it’s not likely that much will change dramatically for the better. Still, stricter enforcement of existing labor laws will improve some lives.

The question we must ask on Shavuot, however, is a larger one: Why is this meat kosher?

The Torah details its views on proper and improper food in a relative handful of verses. Much of it is a highly specific list of forbidden animals. The rest comes in elliptical, symbolically charged references to milk and blood and the nature of life, which have been amplified over the centuries into an elaborate code for cooking and eating. As mysterious as the code often seems to outsiders, those who live by it find it a rewarding, spiritually uplifting practice.

A greater, more pressing mystery involves the Torah’s laws of labor relations and business behavior. They appear throughout the text at great length. They are specific, unambiguous, unblinking and as relevant today as ever. Do not humiliate your employee. Pay your workers on time. Give them time off. Compensate them for their injuries. Do not treat them like chattel. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.

The laws couldn’t be clearer. Why aren’t they upheld with the same rigor as the rules of kosher food or Sabbath?

How is it that a kosher food supplier who violates the Sabbath loses his kosher certification, but a supplier who underpays his workers does not? Why is it that a community leader may be barred from receiving synagogue honors if he openly eats pork — or lives as a homosexual — but not if he cheats his workers or harasses his tenants?

Shavuot is a holiday dedicated to reflecting on the Law and its meaning. In the morning we will read of Moses bringing down the tablets and reading them to the people, and of the people’s terrified response. If we are uncertain just what to make of these laws, an answer will be offered that afternoon, when we read the biblical story of Ruth, the non-Israelite guest worker who crossed the river into Canaan seeking a new life. As the Bible recounts, she entered an interfaith marriage with a Jewish man and eventually ended up on welfare, supported by the gleaning tax that Hebrew businessmen were required to deduct from their profits to support the unemployed. She eventually married another Hebrew and gave birth to many descendants, among them Judaism’s most revered figure, King David.

As if by miracle, the Shavuot holiday offers one more tradition that can assist in our moral inquiry this year: For the duration of the holiday, we swear off meat and eat dairy. By the end, perhaps our minds will be a little clearer.

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