Debate Highlights the Politics of Kosher Food, From Left, Right and Center

By Anthony Weiss

Published December 11, 2008, issue of December 19, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In the Orthodox world, the arguments over kosher ritual, Jewish ethics and beleaguered kosher meat giant Agriprocessors have led to boycotts, name-calling and cries for investigations. But a recent evening at Yeshiva University featured a new element for the Orthodox world: an actual public debate.

DEBATE: Arguing kosher ethics, fom left: Avi Shafran of Aguda Israel of America; Menachem Genack of Orthodox Union; Basil Herring of Rabbinical Council of America; Shmuly Yanklowitz of Uri L’Tzedek.
DEBATE: Arguing kosher ethics, fom left: Avi Shafran of Aguda Israel of America; Menachem Genack of Orthodox Union; Basil Herring of Rabbinical Council of America; Shmuly Yanklowitz of Uri L’Tzedek.

For the first time since May, when a federal raid on Agriprocessors thrust the relationship between kosher ritual and Jewish ethics into the national spotlight, Orthodox leaders representing a broad spectrum of ideological opinions appeared on the same stage to publicly discuss these issues.

The debate, organized by a pair of Y.U. students, featured people who have figured prominently in the Agriprocessors controversy, including Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division, which oversees Agriprocessors; Shmuly Yanklowitz, co-director of the Orthodox social activist organization Uri L’Tzedek, which has been intensely critical of Agriprocessors and organized a temporary boycott of the company; Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the ultra-Orthodox organization Agudath Israel, and Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, which is the largest umbrella organization for Orthodox rabbis.

Their arrangement onstage, before a packed house at the university, generally reflected the ideological stances the participants have taken, with Genack and Herring wedged uncomfortably in the middle and Shafran and Yanklowitz to their right and left, respectively.

Though the debate was free of the rancor that has periodically surrounded these issues, some striking differences quickly emerged.

Shafran opened the discussion and denied that there was any link at all between the ethics of kosher food producers and the food itself, saying that the relationship between the two was no more significant than that between a poet’s hygienic habits and his verse.

“A great poet might opt not to shower, but that doesn’t necessarily affect the quality of his writing,” Shafran told the audience.

But other panelists argued that the link between ethics and kashrut was more intimate than Shafran suggested.

“Even if ethics and kosher are not connected, it remains connected in people’s minds,” said Yanklowitz, in an energetic speech that drew strong applause from the mostly young audience. “We do not compartmentalize our ethics.”

The intersection of kashrut and ethics — with kosher giant Agriprocessors at the nexus — has been the subject of vigorous debate in the Jewish community for more than two years, since the Forward published an investigative report on working conditions at the company’s Postville, Iowa, slaughterhouse. Those debates have become more intense and public since May, when federal agents staged an immigration raid on the Postville plant, spawning a new round of stories about the company’s business practices and dangerous working conditions at the slaughterhouse.

“I think there are many people in the Orthodox community who worry that the publicity surrounding the Rubashkins [the family that owns Agriprocessors] has given Orthodoxy as a whole a bad name,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. Sarna did not attend the event.

One voice notably missing from the debate was the Conservative movement, whose Hekhsher Tzedek initiative aims to certify kosher food producers that meet a broad array of social and environmental goals. Under the leadership of Rabbi Morris Allen, an early critic of Agriprocessors, Hekhsher Tzedek has been the subject of intense scrutiny and argument in the Jewish community.

This debate was no exception. Shafran, a longtime critic of Hekhsher Tzedek, blasted the initiative as having been “conceived in sin” — namely, “the sin of jumping to negative judgments of others.”

But the others were more measured. Genack said he had doubts about the efficacy of the initiative, but he nonetheless praised supporters of Hekhsher Tzedek for “trying to bring their own constituency back to kosher.”

In the end, the panelists reached no firm conclusions on the relationship between kashrut and ethics. All agreed that both were important, but disagreed about how to link them. But Y.U. junior Steven Paletz said that the evening had nonetheless been rewarding, despite the lack of consensus.

“There was a lot of food for thought,” Paletz said.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.