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Archive for August 18th, 2008

Herzfeld and Agriprocessors

Monday, August 18th, 2008 by Ari

Even in those neighborhoods made up predominantly of religious Jews, one can no longer talk of the “sanctity of Shabbat.” True, there are Jews in America who observe Shabbat… But it is not for Shabbat that my heart aches; it is for the forgotten “erev Shabbat” (eve of the Sabbath). There are Shabbat-observing Jews in America, but there are no “erev Shabbat” Jews who go out to greet Shabbat with beating hearts and pulsating souls. There are many who observe the precepts with their hands, with their feet, and/or with their mouths – but there are few indeed who truly know the meaning of the service of the heart!

- Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, On Repentance, pp. 97-98


On May 12 of this year, there was a raid by federal authorities on Agriprocessors, the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the US. The affidavit (parts 1, 2, and 3), contains a host of allegations, many of which are serious if true. Since I don’t know which ones will ultimately turn out to be factual, I will not delve into it in any depth, but rather focus on the response. There has been a varying level of outcry in different parts of the Jewish community, and a host of different responses from individuals and organizations. The one to gain the most attention was Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld when he published his Op-Ed Dark meat in the New York Times, and later appeared on NPR with Menachem Genack.

Herzfeld called for an independent commission to be set up to investigate Agriprocessors and make recommendations to “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.” While this sounds great (it would be nice if everyone in the world would uphold these sorts of standards), I don’t think his target is correct. I can’t see a bunch of rabbis launching a criminal investigation into whether or not employees were in fact illegal immigrants, getting testimony, evaluating ID cards for fakes, and figuring out what good processes are to put in place to ensure future compliance. There are entities which can do those things (for example, law enforcement can investigate, consulting firms can offer advice on proper business practices), but the RCA and the OU simply don’t have the expertise. (This is essentially what Genack said on NPR). After all, if the OU is supposed to be looking for immigration law violations, why not also look at OSHA regulations? Should they also audit the financial records to guard against Enron style bookkeeping? How about ensuring Sarbanes-Oxley compliance? In this case, the OU is doing the right thing by letting the experts do what they do best.

Now of course comes the flip side. As I indicated with my Soloveitchik quote at the top, we as Orthodox Jews are frequently mechanical in our performance of the commandments. Part of the reason can be attributed to the fact that we believe the Torah is the unaltered word of god and contains laws which cannot be ignored. I fulfill the religiously required laws with about the same spiritual enlightenment that I do when I follow American law by paying my taxes, registering for the draft, or obeying traffic lights. However, this can also be attributed to us focusing too much on the minute details of the law and forgetting our larger spiritual purpose. (Missing the forest for the trees if you will). We forget sometimes that while we’re measuring our walk-in closets to see if they’re larger than 36.9333 square feet (chazon ish’s shita) which would indicate we need to hang a piece of parchment with specific biblical passages on the doorways, is that we’re also supposed to uphold a higher moral and ethical imperative. When talking to people about  this issue, I’ve found both myself and others resorting back to the old line “regardless of the allegations, the food is kosher, that’s what’s important”. While it may be true that technically worker mistreatment does not make the food treif, that does not make worker abuse acceptable. (Rb. Herzfeld has actually done his own argument a disservice by confusing these two issues with his story about Yisroel Salanter). When we buy Agriprocessors food we may not be eating something trief, and we may not be violating the letter of any religious law, we are supporting a Jewish-owned and operated enterprise which has not shown itself to uphold high ethical standards.

Am I calling for a boycott of Agriprocessors? I don’t think so, if only because I know that if I did I’d probably also have to boycott 99% of the fresh produce in this country which is harvested by illegal immigrants. (Especially given what a lack of vegetables and fruit would do to my health). However, I know that we can’t ignore the ethical imperative by saying “well, the meat is kosher….”, and Rb Herzeld is, ironically, doing us all a favor by reminding us of our duty not just as exclusively-kosher-consumers, but as human beings and as Jews.