In the Diaspora: 'Treif' as swine

The raid on America's largest kosher meat plant laid bare a Jewish hypocrisy.

sam freedman 88 (photo credit: )
sam freedman 88
(photo credit: )
As the Havdala ritual serves to remind us, Judaism sanctifies separation. We separate holy days from ordinary days, Shabbat from the rest of the week, light from darkness, purity from impurity. There is one sort of division, however, that Judaism refuses to hallow. That is the disengagement of cause and effect. If anything, our holy texts, prophetic injunctions, historical memory and rabbinic interpretations all tell us that cause inevitably leads to effect, and in forms as catastrophic as the defeat of kingdoms, the destruction of temples, the imposition of exiles. The stakes admittedly are not nearly so existential in the matter of the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse and the American Jews who both operate and patronize it - the largest kosher meat plant in the nation. Still, the moral and ethical questions remain real, present, and pressing. Should it not matter to us that the meat we buy and consume, ostensibly for the purpose of fulfilling a religious obligation or at least reifying a sense of Jewish community, is coming from a scandalous source? Just what does the separation between kosher and treif mean or matter if kosher depends on the exploitation and endangerment of the human beings who do the supposedly Godly work of preparing our food? As a good deal of American Jewry already knows, federal authorities earlier this month raided the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, and arrested more than 300 workers on suspicion of being illegal immigrants. Scores of them have already been sentenced to jail and lined up for deportation in an assembly-line version of criminal justice. The last thing I would condemn Agriprocessors for is hiring immigrants who have fake Social Security cards or work permits. The United States' unconscionable immigration policy - its refusal to make the common-sense reforms variously proposed by President Bush, John McCain and Edward Kennedy over the past few years - enables this kind of shadow economy, especially in arduous industries like meat-processing. Similarly, I cannot get terribly worked up by the earlier attacks on Agriprocessors by the animal-rights group PETA for the company's slaughtering practices. No matter how Judaism tries to create the fiction of compassionate slaughter, no such thing can exist. There is no kind way to kill an animal for food; we're not talking about hospice here. To be an omnivore, as I am, means to accept a brutal hierarchy among the species. THE IMPORTANCE of the recent immigration raid is that it has laid bare a Jewish hypocrisy on the subject of humans rather than cows, lambs and chickens. Between the PETA criticisms four years ago and the federal sweep on May 12, Agriprocessors has repeatedly abrogated basic standards of health and safety for its workers. It has fought against their right to join a union, and failed to provide them training in Spanish, their native tongue. It has, if recent allegations prove correct, forced them to work overtime shifts without overtime pay. Taken together, these labor practices evoke the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. A chronology of the Agriprocessors controversy by a reliable, impartial source - the Des Moines Register, Iowa's respected statewide newspaper - cites a pattern since early 2006 of workplace-safety violations, pollution, contaminated food, product recalls, and unsanitary conditions including rodent infestation. Even before the recent raid, one Brooklyn-based va'ad had withdrawn its endorsement from Agriprocessors' brands, and activists in the Conservative rabbinate had begun promoting the concept of a hechsher tzedek, a "justice certification" that takes into account how a food company treats its employees. Now, in the wake of the arrests, the Conservative movement's associations of rabbis and congregations have called for a not-quite-boycott of meat from Agriprocessors, which is owned by a prominent Lubavitcher hassidic family, the Rubashkins. The Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism issued a formal statement advising members to "evaluate whether it is appropriate to consume Rubashkin products until this situation is addressed." THAT CAREFULLY parsed statement strikes me as appropriate. As much as a formal boycott would potentially wield greater power, I have a wariness of that weapon, one so indiscriminate that it can serve the idealism of Cesar Chavez with non-union grape-growers or the bigotry of Sonny Carson with Korean-owned stores in black neighborhoods. Besides, the decision to patronize Agriprocessors rightly resides with the individual conscience. Reading the other day through the manuscript of the historian Jonathan Sarna's excellent forthcoming book, A Time to Every Purpose: Letters to a Young Jew, I was struck by the phrase he cites from the ancient Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria: "the practice of virtue." What are many of the mitzvot, and the broader, more secular sense of Jewish values, than such practice? We cannot know the provenance of every item we buy, but when we know, shouldn't we act on that knowledge? The proliferation of "fair trade" products such as coffee and of no-sweatshop college apparel offer just two examples of the market bending to a collection of personal consumer decisions, inspired by organized public advocacy. The most significant consequence of the Agriprocessors raid is not, as certain articles in Jewish newspapers have suggested, that a meat shortage could result from the plant's loss of one-third of its workforce. What we should care more about is what we have learned about how our kosher meat gets from hoof to market. There is a difference between law and justice, and there is a difference between following every requirement of kosher slaughter and treating the people involved inhumanly. Or is the moral of the Agriprocessors story that it is permissible to abuse a worker as long as he or she isn't a Jew? I can only tell you what I have done. Several months ago, I was clicking my way through, the online supermarket I use for most of my food shopping. I happened to notice a notation on the kosher meat screen - many of the products came from Agriprocessors under names like "Aaron's Choice." Since then, I have engaged in my own form of separation, buying my meat from a local butcher. Agriprocessors, of course, has more to worry about than my flyspeck worth of lost income. This meat plant, a very public element of the Lubavitcher hassidim, can do plenty of damage to the sect's positive reputation among Jews. As a journalistic observer of American Jewry, I've seen and admired the energetic, sincere inreach of the Chabad movement; I serve on the faculty advisory board to Chabad at Columbia University, where I teach. If the image of Chabad becomes something out of The Jungle, then that will be a grievous but entirely self-inflicted wound. Last week, the chief executive officer of Agriprocessors, Sholom Rubashkin, announced he would resign. Still, his father, Aaron Rubashkin, remains the owner of the plant, which can only make one wonder about the prospects for a true housecleaning. Until that day comes, I can only say that, for me, the putatively kosher meat from Agriprocessors will be as treif as swine.