Orthodoxy’s Kosher Crisis

Opinion

By Eric Yoffie

Published September 25, 2008, issue of October 03, 2008.
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Over the course of the past five months, the American Jewish community has observed with dismay the gradual unfolding of the Agriprocessors scandal. Agriprocessors may be a private corporation, but as the nation’s leading producer of kosher meat, it is one that operates under the Jewish communal banner. Its actions have been followed closely, not only by Jews such as myself who observe kashrut, but by all Jews — not to mention many in the broader American public.

Thus far, however, our communal response to this crisis has been decidedly mixed.

The Conservative movement deserves praise for its strong stance in favor of strengthening the bond between social justice and Jewish law. Its new Hekhsher Tzedek initiative is working to create an additional certification for kosher products that would take into account ethical considerations. We in the Reform movement have expressed our sympathy and support for this effort. The Union for Reform Judaism recently adopted resolutions endorsing Hekhsher Tzedek and stressing the need for better treatment of workers and immigrants.

Yet it is Orthodox Judaism that is primarily responsible for our system of kosher supervision. And Orthodox Jews represent the largest single consumer base for the kosher meats produced by Agriprocessors. Therefore, the Orthodox community and its leaders have a particular responsibility for addressing the troubling questions that have been raised and for working to repair the damage that has been done.

I expect nothing from the owners of Agriprocessors, the Rubashkins. Rapacious businessmen are hardly unique to the Jewish world. But I do expect something from Jewish leadership, and in particular from rabbinic leadership. The question that I keep asking myself is: Where is the voice of the Orthodox rabbinate? Why are we not hearing from the great Torah sages who are the ultimate authorities in all matters of consequence in the Orthodox world?

In talking with some of my Orthodox friends, they endlessly repeat the mantras of “due process” and “innocent until proven guilty.” But this is entirely beside the point. While there is, of course, a presumption of innocence, it could be years before the judicial proceedings are concluded.

In the meantime, the Jewish community faces a public crisis of major proportions. The scandal has raised basic questions about the ethical foundations of our religious tradition, about undue deference to the wealthy and about Jewish indifference to injustice in our midst.

Jewish tradition has a great deal to say about proper treatment of the laborer and the stranger, and throughout history our greatest rabbinic figures have not hesitated to address these matters. Let us imagine that in the early stages of the most recent scandal, the Torah authorities of the Orthodox world had emphatically proclaimed the obligation of Jews to meet the requirements of Torah and treat workers with justice, immigrants with compassion, and animals with care and consideration. To this they could have added that they had no intention of prejudging any cases currently being adjudicated in the secular courts but only to make clear the Torah principles that must guide us all. Had this happened, the scandal would have played out in a very different way, and the unease now felt throughout much of the Jewish community would have been mitigated considerably.

And where is the voice of Chabad? Since the Rubashkins’ ties to Chabad are well known, it has a special responsibility to speak to the ethical issues of the scandal. Chabad-Lubavitch is a ubiquitous presence in North America, doing much to strengthen Jewish life. I know many young Jews who have studied Torah and Jewish ethics with Chabad teachers. But ethics in the abstract are meaningless if they are not applied to the real ethical challenges that we face as Jews.

It is strange that many of those most insistent on “due process” for the Rubashkins have felt no need to offer Torah opinions that are completely objective and unbiased. Rabbis who “investigate” abuses against workers from Agriprocessors while putting their expenses on the company tab are violating both accepted ethical canons and common sense. And attorneys and communal leaders who argue points of Torah to rebut company critics while remaining on the company payroll dishonor the tradition they profess to serve. Torah that is bought and paid for is not Torah at all.

Some Orthodox rabbinic voices have been heard, to be sure, and frequently they have been younger voices. Sadly, these younger rabbis have been dismissed with utter contempt by some establishment Orthodox leaders.

One very encouraging development was the recent action of O.U. Kosher, which threatened to withdraw its kashrut certification unless Agriprocessors changed its management. As a result, the company named a new CEO. Nonetheless, two caveats are in order: First, a company with a record of wiliness and deception might make management changes that are cosmetic only, and careful follow-up will obviously be required; and second, statements by kashrut officials, no matter how admirable, are no substitute for the words of the gedolim and roshei yeshiva — the great Orthodox rabbinic scholars and yeshiva heads.

This scandal cries out for religious leadership from the Orthodox world, and it is not too late for Orthodox Torah scholars to provide it. My fervent hope is that a resolution of the crisis will come speedily, with those in authority affirming Torah’s message of hope — which is that we must obey God, mitigate injustice and assure human dignity for all.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.


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