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The Ethics of the Rabbis

On the surface, the crisis besetting America’s largest kosher meatpacker looks a lot like the larger infection that is crippling the nation’s economy and undoing so many iconic brands, from Lehman Brothers to AIG to Circuit City. Like other firms, Agriprocessors fell victim to the arrogance of its owners and the dereliction of outside regulators. Like others, the crippling of Agriprocessors hits hard in thousands of households where daily life was dependent on the smooth operations of a trusted company.

Unlike the others, however, Agriprocessors’ downfall is not simply an economic crisis, but also a spiritual and moral one. Kosher food is not meant to be a mere foodstuff, but rather a vehicle for bringing sanctity into one of the most basic activities of daily life. Those who choose to live by that discipline rely on kosher certification to guarantee that the food they eat has been produced in a manner worthy of its spiritual mission. The behavior attributed to Agriprocessors and its owners — abusing employees, illegally hiring and endangering children, befouling the environment, overlooking sanitation rules — ought to disqualify the company’s products from receiving religious certification by any standard worthy of the name. That the products continue to be accepted as kosher, even as the company’s owners face massive fines and jail time on suspicion of misdeeds that have shocked a nation, is a scandal nearly as great as the owners’ actions themselves.

Ever since the Forward published its first reports two years ago on working conditions at the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, Orthodox rabbinic authorities have insisted that the violations attributed to the company are not directly related to the rules of kosher slaughter, and therefore are outside the certifying rabbis’ jurisdiction. Kosher certification, they have explained, follows time-honored biblical and talmudic principles that cannot be altered by modern rabbinic fiat. Many have derided and even ridiculed the Conservative rabbinate for seeking to develop a new form of certification, Hekhsher Tzedek, that would consider a company’s ethical behavior alongside its slaughtering techniques.

Besides, Orthodox rabbis told us, protecting workers and safeguarding the environment are the job of government, not the clergy. If the government with all its lawyers has not acted against the Postville plant, why should rabbis presume to?

The arguments were specious from the outset, as we have argued before. Kosher certification standards have been altered repeatedly over the years in response to behavior unrelated to the slaughter itself. A generation ago, kosher restaurants in New York were commonly open on Saturdays. Today the practice has all but disappeared, shut down by kosher certifiers. Kosher hotels in Israel used to offer New Year’s Eve parties, mixed dancing and even belly dancers. Nowadays such activities lead to loss of certification.

Rabbis routinely use their certification power to regulate activities that have nothing to do with knives. It’s one of the only enforcement powers they have in the modern world. Qualified rabbinic authorities could have used that power in response to growing evidence of Agriprocessors’ abuses. They did not. Instead, they crossed their fingers, hoped for the best and waited for the government to act.

Why did the kosher authorities not take action? Part of the reason was fear for the integrity of the community’s food supply. Agriprocessors had managed, by cutting costs and beating back the competition — in ways that deserve their own examination — to dominate the nationwide market for kosher beef. Rabbis feared that if the company were to stonewall in the face of a rabbinic threat of decertification they might be forced to ban much of the country’s kosher meat supply, leaving their public without a food staple.

In part, too, rabbis were deterred by mistrust of the labor, animal rights and other liberal groups that led the protests against the company. There was a widespread suspicion in the Orthodox community that the protesters were motivated by concerns other than simple ethics. Acknowledging the abuses, many thought, would have put traditional Judaism and the Jewish community in a bad light. In the choice between siding with critics and circling the wagons of their community, most Orthodox leaders chose the latter. Only a handful of mostly young activists chose to speak out against the abuse. Their protests were mostly ignored by the kosher consuming public.

In the end, events took their own course. Government authorities acted far more harshly than anyone had anticipated, with terrible results for both the kosher marketplace and the reputation of traditional Judaism. Agriprocessors was forced to shut down production amid a circus of theatrical law enforcement and front-page media coverage. News media across the country have responded gleefully to images of a company run by devout Jews, its primary mission to enable the observance of Jewish religious rules, acting in ways that violate the ethical and moral standards of everyone else. And the bottom fell out of the kosher meat supply.

For all that, it must not be forgotten that the real victims in this saga are the Agriprocessors’ employees whose mistreatment sparked the controversy in the first place. During the long months that Jewish community leaders debated the ethics of Agriprocessors and its certification, the mostly immigrant workers toiled on in largely unchanged conditions. The same long hours, short pay, dangerous conditions and on-the-job harassment that they had endured unseen for years continued in daylight while outsiders discussed whether and how to act.

And when the government finally did step in, as the rabbis had said it should, it did not act to protect workers’ legal rights and public safety standards — but rather to punish the workers for being on the job. In one of the largest workplace law-enforcement raids in American history, close to 400 Agriprocessors employees were arrested for immigration violations and taken without notice from their homes and families. In a move of astonishing callousness, authorities did not simply deport the detainees to their home countries, but first jailed them on charges of stealing identity documents — papers whose illegality the workers themselves had no way of knowing about.

Now, five months later, as our Nathaniel Popper reports, dozens of them are out of prison, their sentences completed, but they are not free. In a Kafkaesque turn of events, they are being held in Iowa so that they can testify against their former employers on charges of child labor and employing illegal immigrants. They cannot leave, they cannot see their families, they cannot yet work and the government will not provide them with the wherewithal to live while they wait. They live day to day on the charity of a Catholic church as they prepare to help the government prosecute their former abusers for the suffering that they continue to endure, now at the government’s hands.

The rules of kashruth are a legacy of the Jewish spiritual tradition, preserved by the courage of countless generations as a gift to the present. Dishonoring them and violating their spirit shames all Jews. Those who honor the laws must stand up to their abuse.

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