Every breath we take, every bite we eat...

An opportunity to turn the Agriprocessors scandal into a boon for observant Judaism.

By ANDREW SILOW-CARROLL
August 17, 2008 21:03
4 minute read.
Every breath we take, every bite we eat...

Agriprocessors 224.88 courtesy. (photo credit: Courtesy)

A gutsy op-ed in The New York Times has sharpened the debate over the Agriprocessors kosher meat factory scandal - and perhaps pointed the way toward rapprochement between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. Written by an Orthodox rabbi, Washington's Shmuel Herzfeld, it calls on the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union, bastions of mainstream Orthodox Judaism, to appoint an independent commission "that would make sure the plant upholds basic standards of kashrut and worker and animal treatment - and that it is in full compliance with the laws of the United States." It's the conflation of two ideas - "standards of kashrut" and "worker and animal treatment" - that makes Herzfeld's essay controversial in the world of kosher supervision. The OU has been trying hard to distinguish between the two, saying that its supervisors can only make sure that the ritual slaughter and inspection of meat are kosher. As for workers' rights and humane treatment of animals - that's the purview of government agencies, says the OU. Herzfeld isn't the first rabbi to call for an ethical dimension for kosher certification. Conservative rabbis, led by Minnesota's Morris Allen, are pushing for a hechsher tzedek - a righteous certification - that would do just that. But Herzfeld is perhaps the most visible Orthodox rabbi to do so - or at least do so in the most visible of all places, The New York Times. Attention must be paid. AGRIPROCESSORS FOUGHT back this week, distributing a rebuttal to Herzfeld written by one of its attorneys, Nathan Lewin, a legend in Washington for his defense of Jewish religious freedoms. The rebuttal is remarkable for its focus not on the allegations against the plant, which Lewin largely ignores, but for its attack on Herzfeld's premise that a plant's kosher certification should be linked to its business ethics. Lewin does this by trying to discredit the validity of Herzfeld's reference to Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883), the pillar of the ethics movement known as Mussar. According to Herzfeld, Salanter "refused to certify a matza factory as kosher on the grounds that the workers were being treated unfairly." Lewin can't find a solid scholarly reference to the Salanter story, and calls it "fallacious." It's an odd gambit on Lewin's part - implying that if the principle of judging a factory's kashrut according to the treatment of its workers was not established by a 19th-century rabbi, it can't possibly be an operable criterion. In other words: ethics, shmethics. Missing from Lewin's lawyerly rebuttal is the larger picture - like the one captured in a devastating editorial in the August 7 Forward that recounts the past two years of journalistic and government investigations surrounding Agriprocessors and the sordid legal history of the extended family that runs the plant. AND THEN there's the biggest picture of all. It is a basic premise of the mitzvot that our everyday acts can and should be infused with holiness. Every breath we take, every bite we eat can be elevated by connecting it to the sacred. The Mussar movement itself was an attempt to "close the gap between the high ideals we hold in mind and the living truth of how we act in life," according to Aish Hatorah, the influential Jerusalem yeshiva. Nevertheless, the rabbinical authorities closest to Agriprocessors continue to deflect the ethical and legal implications of the allegations - or at least outsource their concern to secular inspectors. And that's too bad, because they have the opportunity to turn the scandal into a boon for observant Judaism. Imagine what it might mean for the image of Orthodoxy, and Judaism, were the rabbis, instead of saying, "That's not our job," to declare that, indeed, Judaism has standards at least as high as those of the National Labor Relations Board. Imagine the credit it would bring to Torah-observant Jews were leaders to immediately draw up their own set of labor and animal welfare standards. Or if a sage were to stand up and say, "When Jews talk about 'holy,' we're not just talking about a razor-sharp knife, but about sensitivity to the pain of animals and humans alike." NON-ORTHODOX RABBIS like Allen have been way out front on this one. But that's only a temptation for the other movements to be smug. They too have failed to honor the tradition. I grew up in a Reform synagogue and was taught why classical Reform chose to reject kashrut. But Reform also teaches its followers to "study it and to consider whether or not it may enhance the sanctity of their home." That too many institutions and individuals - and that includes many Conservative Jews - have failed to take up this challenge is a loss for Judaism, and Jews. I understand why a temple would bristle at adopting standards set by Orthodox supervisors. But that doesn't mean it can't create menus and standards of its own, based on sustainable agriculture, healthy ingredients or anything else it thinks might forge a deeper spiritual connection between what we eat and how we live. Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews have grown distant over the years, and the mutual recriminations over Agriprocessors won't help. But I can imagine another outcome. In this scenario, Orthodox authorities embrace this opportunity to teach fellow Jews, and the world, about the Jewish way of holiness, from field and feedlot to the dinner table. And the non-Orthodox meet them halfway and establish a personal "kashrut" that raises eating from a biological necessity and sensuous indulgence to a taste of the divine. The writer is editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.


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