October 9, 2008
When is Kosher not Kosher?
— Nora Rubel
In my introductory Judaism course, the most common questions my students have relate to confusion over dietary laws. Many are surprised to learn that the actual definition of kosher has nothing to do with food. The slang use of the term ("Something's not kosher here") is actually correct. Kosher meat is not blessed by a rabbi, nor is it "cleaner" than other meat. Kosher simply means "fit" or "proper"; kosher meat is meat from an animal that is sanctioned by halakhah (Jewish law) and subsequently slaughtered according to that same law.
Questions about the nature of kashrut recently entered the public discourse with new allegations surrounding a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. The plant, Agriprocessors - run by the hasidic Rubashkin family - came under general scrutiny after the publication of Stephen Bloom's 2000 book Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America. Bloom's critique of the plant had more to do with what he perceived as an arrogance of the new Jewish inhabitants toward their Iowan farmer neighbors. More serious charges came in 2004, when an undercover expose from PETA (including gruesome video coverage) raised questions about inhumane treatment of animals. A later 2006 investigative report in the Jewish weekly The Forward described complaints about the unethical treatment of workers, as well as concerns over the hiring of illegal immigrants who have little legal recourse. This past May, a federal raid of the plant led to the arrests of over three hundred undocumented workers, one of the largest such raids in US history. The following weeks and months have brought increased scrutiny on the whole Rubashkin family enterprise, a kosher monopoly that supplies well over half of the nation's kosher meat. Accusations beyond Agriprocessors' undocumented workforce have included charges of child labor violations, unreasonably low wages, poor safety training, extortion, and physical and sexual abuse.
Much of the outrage about these conditions began outside the Orthodox community, most notably from the Conservative movement, which has recently raised the idea of an ethical stamp of approval for kosher goods. This stamp, known as hekhsher tzedek, is meant to be placed on products already determined to be kosher by recognized authorities (such as the Orthodox Union), but would signify that those goods were produced in an ethical and socially responsible manner. This proposal has drawn ridicule from some segments of the Orthodox community, who see it as hypocritical coming from a movement where many practitioners eschew dietary laws anyway; nonetheless, a conversation about the ethical standards of kosher meat production is stirring within the Orthodox world as well.
On August 5th, Shmuel Herzfeld, the Orthodox rabbi of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue, published an Op-Ed entitled "Dark Meat" in the New York Times. In it, Rabbi Herzfeld not only expressed outrage about the reluctance of many in the Orthodox community to speak out against Agriprocessors' alleged behavior, but he provided Jewish precedent for declaring something treyf (nonkosher) due to poor treatment of employees. Herzfeld writes, "We need to express shame and embarrassment about the reports coming out of Iowa, and we need to actively work to change these matters." Heralded by many as a hero, Rabbi Herzfeld has also been sharply criticized for suggesting that "kosher" should mean anything other than the proper slaughtering of a halakhicly sanctioned animal.
But those who claim that it's ridiculous to try to redefine kosher are not paying attention. The last few decades have seen an increase in separate sinks, separate dishwashers, even separate kitchens in order to fulfill kosher laws to the highest possible standard. While the other end of the spectrum argues that these increased standards are far beyond what our most revered ancestors practiced, those advocates for stricter standards essentially claim that with great power comes greater responsibility. The question remains, why can't these stricter standards include demands for greater ethical and social responsibility? Kosher certification may be lost if the owner violates halakhah by working on the Sabbath, for example. In such a context, how can Agriprocessors' ethical violations - if the allegations are true - go unpunished? A letter to the editor in response to Herzfeld's piece succinctly asserts, "I must rely on rabbinical supervision to determine if foods are fit to be put in my mouth. I don't need anyone to tell me that the plant's actions cannot be stomached." As Jews observe Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement, they prepare to recite the Al Chet, a communal confession of sins. Each line begins with the phrase "For the sins we have committed before You..." Perhaps this year we have something else we can add to our list.
Nora Rubel is Assistant Professor of Religion and Classics at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York.