Kosher Fight Turns Rabbis on Each Other

By Anthony Weiss

Published August 14, 2008, issue of August 22, 2008.
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The delicate relationship between Jewish ethics and Jewish ritual might seem like a topic for careful rabbinic disputation, but lately, the arguments coming out of the pulpit have sounded more like a bare-knuckled brawl.

Over the past few weeks, the debate spurred by labor conditions at the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse has reached a fevered and sometimes nasty pitch. One Conservative rabbi said that the Orthodox world seemed more concerned with kosher law than American law. An Orthodox rabbi argued that allegations surfacing about the Postville, Iowa, plant were giving Judaism a black eye — and he was publicly rebuked by one of his congregants. The head of a national synagogue group used such harsh language in criticizing one of his synagogues for entering the debate that a blogger couldn’t believe he wanted his comments published. (He did.)

The debate spurred by labor conditions at Agriprocessors, the country’s largest processor of kosher meat, has exposed old fault lines, and some new ones, in the Jewish world — between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox and traditional, those who want Jews to close ranks and those who want to open up debate. These rifts have been particularly sharp in the rabbinate, where the terms of debate are not abstract questions but matters of their own moral standing.

“I think in many ways this was an emotional explosion waiting to happen,” said Shmuly Yanklowitz, co-founder of Uri L’Tzedek, a liberal Orthodox group that has been active in the Agriprocessor debates. “To attack one community’s kashrut is to attack the very nature of that community.”

That tension between rabbis has been a long simmering brew. One of the first fights to break out was between two St. Paul, Minn., rabbis — one Conservative, the other Orthodox.

After the Forward first wrote about the working conditions at Agriprocessors’ Iowa slaughterhouse in 2006, Asher Zeilingold, a Chabad rabbi, traveled to Postville, toured the plant, interviewed workers, and concluded that the Forward’s report was “completely unfounded.”

Later that summer, Rabbi Morris Allen led a Conservative task force to Postville to conduct his own tour of the plant and subsequently criticized the company.

Allen and Zeilingold had worked together before on local kosher issues, but once they took opposing sides about Agriprocessors, each flung accusations at the other. In 2007 interview with the trade publication Kosher Today, Zeilingold denounced Allen’s “deceptive behavior” and Allen, in turn, has questioned Zeilingold’s professional ties to Agriprocessors as a kosher certifier.

“I certainly regret that the relationship has been affected negatively,” Zeilingold told the Forward. “But I feel I have done the right thing in stating what I have stated.”

The angry rhetoric has accelerated since federal agents staged a May 12 raid on the Postville slaughterhouse and arrested nearly 400 workers on immigration related charges. As new reports of worker mistreatment emerged, the main body of Conservative rabbis urged congregants to consider staying away from Agriprocessors products.

Mainstream Orthodox organizations, by contrast, urged caution. The Orthodox response led one prominent Conservative rabbi to turn a televised discussion about kashrut and ethics into a sweeping indictment of Orthodoxy.

“I think there’s a general feeling that in the Orthodox community, in many Orthodox communities, and especially in the more Haredi, more extreme Orthodox communities, there’s more concern for the strict rules of halacha, for how you cut the animal’s throat and how you examine the lungs,” said David Lincoln, rabbi emeritus of New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue, on a recently broadcast episode of the “Rabbis Roundtable” on The Jewish Channel television station. “They’re not really concerned about whether you’re stealing, or whatever, or going into court and perjuring themselves.”

Many Orthodox rabbis responded with outrage, but debate has also been happening within denominational boundaries.

When Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, a Modern Orthodox rabbi in Washington, D.C., published an editorial in the New York Times calling the Agriprocessors allegations a desecration of God’s name, he received a prompt rebuke from one of his own congregants, sometime Agriprocessors lawyer Nat Lewin.

Anger has also been directed at Uri L’Tzedek, the liberal Orthodox group that organized an Agriprocessors boycott.

Though Uri L’Tzedek earned praise from prominent Orthodox leaders for leading the boycott, they have also stirred up anger. Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council for Young Israel, an umbrella group for Orthodox synagogues, publicly slammed one of his member congregations for inviting Uri L’Tzedek’s executive director to speak on “Ethical Issues and Kashrut in Jewish Law.”

“I feel embarrassed for the membership of the Young Israel of Stamford,” Lerner wrote, in a statement published by the blog Open Orthodoxy on July 28. “If they want to be lectured to by a young man with limited knowledge of ethics, of kashrut, of the totality of Judaism, by a young man who has limited experience in life in general, in Judaism more specifically, I guess that is their prerogative.”

Lerner’s tone was so scathing that the blog’s editor, Mark Einhorn, wrote that he had originally been reluctant to publish the statement and had only done so at Lerner’s urging.

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