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Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld: Is Agriprocessors Meat Kosher?

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the Modern Orthodox spiritual leader of Washington’s Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue, has penned a scathing op-ed for The New York Times about the growing controversy over labor conditions at the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse:

…News reports and government documents have described abusive practices at Agriprocessors against workers, including minors. Children as young as 13 were said to be wielding knives on the killing floor; some teenagers were working 17-hour shifts, six days a week.

This poses a grave problem and calls into question whether the food processed in the plant qualifies as kosher.

You see, there is precedent for declaring something nonkosher on the basis of how employees are treated. Yisroel Salanter, the great 19th-century rabbi, is famously believed to have refused to certify a matzo factory as kosher on the grounds that the workers were being treated unfairly. In addition to the hypocrisy of calling something kosher when it is being sold and produced in an unethical manner, we have to take into account disturbing information about the plant that has come to light.

The affidavit filed in the United States District Court of Northern Iowa, for instance, alleges that an employee was physically abused by a rabbi on the floor of the plant. If true, this calls into question the reliability and judgment of the rabbi in charge of making sure the food was kosher.

What’s more, two workers who oversaw the poultry and beef division were recently arrested for helping illegal immigrants falsify documents. If they were willing to break national immigration laws, one could reasonably ask whether they would be likely to show the same lack of concern for Jewish dietary laws.

It’s no surprise that an article like this, written by a Modern Orthodox rabbi with a prominent pulpit, and appearing in the national newspaper of record, is making waves (and drawing fire). Indeed, it’s currently the third-most e-mailed and fourth-most blogged article on the Times Web site.

Herzfeld’s article is particularly noteworthy since, heretofore, many of the loudest voices raising concerns about conditions at Agriprocessors have been from outside the Orthodox community. But it’s Orthodox Jewry that is the main group involved in the supervision of kashrut, and, quite likely, the largest consumer base for Agriprocessors products. And Herzfeld’s argument — that working conditions can be taken into account in determining whether or not food products are kosher — in some ways goes even further than the Conservative movement’s Hekhsher Tzedek program, which itself has been criticized by some in the Orthodox world for bringing ethical considerations to bear on kosher food production. (The Hekhsher Tzedek initiative simply bills itself as an effort to “display a seal on already designated kosher foods that reflects production benchmarks consistent with Jewish ethical standards” — not to intervene in the process of certifying food kosher.)

Finally, it’s also significant that Herzfeld publicly calls out the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America — two organizations he’s a member of — for responding to the Agriprocessors mess in a way that he says has “fallen far short of what is needed to be done and have done little to diminish the extent of the desecration of God’s name.”

Read Herzfeld’s full article here.

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