Windows and Doors

Windows and Doors

Something is Really Not Kosher in Iowa

And I don’t mean the meat from the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa which packages as much as thirty percent of the kosher beef consumed in this country. But according to today’s New York Times, there are rabbis who disagree with me. They are coming perilously close to declaring that the meat from this plant, which meets the formal requirements for kosher beef, be declared un-kosher because of the labor practices of the plant’s owners.
Don’t get me wrong, I want increased ethical awareness. But I really don’t want one more cause which empowers one group to identify another as “bad Jews”. There are real areas of Jewish law which prohibit the abuse of workers, not paying them a fair and timely wage, and other crucial ethical obligations which are just as important as the fine points of kashrut. But the fact that they are just as important does not mean that one is a substitute for the other, or that the failure to meet one set of obligations implies that the other has not been met.


It is precisely that kind of logic, which allows one group of people to completely discount the religious authenticity of another group with which they have a disagreement about one thing or another. A good example in this case, since the movement against Agriprocessors is led by Conservative rabbis, is when Orthodox Jews speak about the “impossibility” of Conservative Jews “really appreciating Shabbat” because the latter group drives instead of walking to synagogue on the Sabbath. Such people confuse their disagreement with liberal Jews about operating a car on the Sabbath, with the idea that such Jews could understand the meaning and practice of it as well as those who do not drive.
Another example is when local boards of kashrut deny kosher certification to restaurants or hotels that allow New Year’s parties or events at which men and women dance together. However objectionable such things may be to some, they have no bearing on the kashrut of the food. And politicizing kashrut that way, is never a good idea no matter how good the cause may be, as seems to be the case in Postville.
I have no problem with asking about whether one can ethically enrich a company that abuses its workers. In fact, depending upon what qualifies as abuse, the answer according to Jewish law is probably not. But confusing the issues propagates a dangerous trend. Why not argue instead, as these rabbis who lead Hechsher Tzedek, an organization committed to raising ethical awareness of the practices by which bring products to our tables, for a complimentary certification which praises those who not only follow all of the legal requirements of Jewish law, including labor practices?
Do they really need to take to picket lines to argue for a variety of other issues including declaring all those illegal immigrants who worked in the plant being declared legal? If so, then are they anything more than another version, this time from the left instead of the right, of those who insist that God has a politics and they are uniquely positioned to explain it?
I know that is not their intention, but good causes are funny things. They seduce us into all kinds of words and deeds whose seeming righteousness steamroll over all those who may disagree. What is it they say about the road to hell and good intentions?…..

  • Lucy Silver

    I look at this issue from a number of perspectives.
    First, the issue of immigration. I grew up in Mexico and am also currently very involved in the issue of illegal immigration. Let me assure you that illegal immigrants come here to earn money to help their families back home. They send whatever small pittance they earn back to their villages; that money helps to build homes and support families. They harbor no ill intentins toward this country; they simply want to work (and work hard) to survive.
    Secondly, industries, even kosher markets, have discovered that these people are hard working and will work for low wages. They are ideal employees.
    To make a long story short, employment of these illegal workers is illegal. However, it is most likely not immoral. Their wages are helping people who need help.
    I don’t have an answer. Should these people earn more and have benefits? Of course. However, if that were the case, their work would be done by resident North Americans. And the prices of everything, kosher meat included, would skyrocket.
    BTW, I was under the impression that, by Jewish law, an animal that was kosher had to be be “butchered” (not the right word, I know) by a shochet, a Jew. I am curious as to how goyim participate in a “Jewish” production of meat.

  • NoteTaker

    There are several noteworthy things about this issue.
    First, these aliens (not “illegal immigrants,” the politically-correct term) broke the law by entering the United States in a method inconsistent with proper, well-established and lawful procedures. On that basis alone they are criminals…period.
    Second, their illegal entry is a slap in the face to those who did the right thing, both morally and legally, by following the rules, waiting, in many cases, for years.
    Third, their illegal entry tells others that they have no issue with breaking the law. After all, they simply “want a better life.” Lawlessness begets lawlessness, and all such actions, whether committed by aliens or citizens, reinforce the idea that breaking the law is acceptable when it suits our own purposes; the ends justify the means. It’s “situation ethics” on a grand scale.
    Fourth, their illegal entry speaks volumes about the type of citizen they might be should they ever actually become lawfully naturalized, which in and of itself seems doubtful.
    Fifth, there is a lot of blame to spread around in this regard. Employers, as “good community citizens,” have a duty, both morally and legally, to see past the dollar signs and do the right thing. Aliens also have the same moral and legal responsibility to follow the law. To “want a better life” should not and does not include side-stepping the legality of their entry into the United States. Further, our own government has a moral and legal mandate to enforce the law. Their willingness to “look the other way” and, in fact, work with the national governments of one or more of these aliens’ native countries in aiding their illegal entry is a sad statement of how far both the Democrats and Republicans, especially at the Federal level, have sunk.
    Sixth, I find it instructive that out of all the “Press ‘1’ for English”-type phone messages I’ve heard, not one has offered their callers the option of any language other than Spanish. Why is that? Is that because Spanish-speaking people are incapable of learning English? Are the Chinese, Koreans, Somalians, Italians, Germans, and many others for whom English is not a native tongue the only ones that can and do learn English? I think not. So, why do those who speak Spanish get special treatment?
    Seventh, for all the criticism that anti-illegal immigration advocates get that they are “racist,” it’s those chanting “La Raza!” who are the real racists. Some of them go even further by telling some to take a swim back to Europe because America, or at least parts of it, belongs to “La Raza!” And this is a view that has been articulated for years, unbeknownst to many U.S. citizens.
    Eighth, I find it especially disturbing that the Catholic Church there in Postville, along with some Jewish groups and others, supports the breaking of the law under the guise of how we all need to “love your neighbor,” as if to “love your neighbor” and to be lawful are mutually exclusive. I’m not sure what the church there would have to gain other than more money rolling into their coffers. Perhaps that’s not the case, but, following the money does tend to pull all sorts of skeletons out of the closets. For their part, the Jews who participated in supporting those entering, living and working in the United States illegally, the only answer I can find is, there again, that it has to do with money. It makes sense to me as the Agriprocessors plant in question is owned by Jews. And like any business, lower labor costs can only add to the bottom line.
    Shame on all of them, aliens included, I say.

  • Jordan Hirsch

    The issue for which Agriprocessors garners the negative attention is not the employment of illegal workers per se, but the exploitation of same. The Unionhas a beef with them regarding represenation, and there are allegations of msiconduct and unfair labor practices. Whether these are well founded or not is up to the Labor depratment and the State of Iowa to determine.
    But if ethical misconduct is at the heart of this call for a higher standard, why stop at Kosher Meat? Do we actually care about fair treatment of workers, about the right to collective bargaining, or making sure minimum wage or immigrant laws are upheld? If thats the case, then these Rabbis have a whole list of companies and even entire countries they should feel free to picket. I suspect that the urge to protest comes at least as much from the opportunity to score a cheap shot at an Orthodox establishment.
    I take second place to no one when it comes to collective bargaining and workers rights, but I also know when it’s time to let the legal system do their job to determine which if any laws have been broken. Agriprocessors have said that they will cooperate with the authorities. Let’s give them a chance to back that claim up, not picket them prematurely just to score a few extra anti- Orthodox points.


    It qould not be a terrible thing for the company to be found to be ethically challenged!
    They could say in a letter to the media that altho the products are found to be kosher in all ways that they have an ethical problem about the business practices and they leave it to the consumer to decide if they want to continue to deal with this company.
    HOWEVER, they best be sure that they treat all places they give the kosher symbol to the same!

  • Malachi Hamavet

    If the allegations about the treatment of workers is true, then it is nothing short of a chilul hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

  • Rabbi Henry Jay Karp

    The issues surrounding Agriprocessors are complex. Immigration reform is but one of them – though as American Jews, it should be an important one for us. After all, most American Jews are leading a fairly good life. Yet we would not be in such a fine situation had it not been for the fact that our ancestors – and therefore we – were, and are, the beneficiaries of open immigration policies. They entered this country through such portals as Ellis Island, where all they needed was to pass a physical exam and enter their name into the registries. Yet later in our history, our people were also the victims of the current highly restrictive immigration policies. On their account, millions of our co-religionists were condemned to death in Nazi Europe. It is no coincidence that it was a Jew – Emma Lazarus – who composed the poem the adorns the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” So while it is but one issue, it should be a sensitive one for us.
    Another issue is the violation of civil laws. While it is literally correct that such law was violated by the undocumented laborers, as Jews, our primary concern here should be in its violation by the Jewish management. Their civilly illegal behaviors – which include the hiring of undocumented laborers, the paying of substandard wages (which they would not even consider doing if the were truly unaware of the undocumented status of these employees), child labor violations, physicl abuse of employees, sexual abuse of female employees, extortion of funds from undocumented laborer, failure to provide any or adequate safety training or precautionary measures, bribing federal officials, and violations of cruelty to animal laws – are in direct violation of the Talmudic principle of “Dina d’malkuta dina – the law of the land is the law.” Back when Ivan Boesky was convicted of insider trading, it was then argued that the money which he gave for tzedakah purposes to Jewish institution should not be considered tzedakah. Having been acquired by illicit means, its taint disqualifies it as tzedakah. Should not the same hold true for the production of kosher meat. If the meat is produced as a result of illicit practices, should it not also be disqualified from being designated as kosher?
    Yet another issue centers on the ethics. It is all a matter of mitzvot. “Kosher” means fit. Fit where? Fit in the eyes of God. As Jews, we stand before God in all we do. Can one honestly argue that God would recognize the kashrut of meat that is prepared in strict observance of the ritual mitzvot but in devastating violation of the ethical mitzvot? I cannot help but believe that God would consider as treif any meat which is tainted with the tears and blood of abused laborers.
    Then we come to the ritual issues of kashrut as well. As the Peta expose of 2006 clearly demonstrated – and as was confirmed by the citations leveled at Agriprocessors by the Department of Agriculture – the management at this plant had no compunction about administering a section cut, if the first cut did not prove fatal to the animal. That second cut would automatically render the meat non-kosher, yet it was sold as kosher.
    All these offenses are only compounded – and compounded profoundly – by the fact that Agriprocessors is not just any meat packing plant, nor is it any meat packing plant that happens to be owned and run by Jews. But rather, it is a KOSHER meat packing plant. As such, what it does it claims to be doing according to the highest standards of the Jewish tradition. Yet their actions have time and again betrayed the Jewish tradition. The work of kosher meat preparation is sacred work, yet that have drowned it in truly sinful behavior. And to add insult to injury, they have fed the fires of antisemitism, giving substance to the claims of our enemies that we are a fundamentally cruel and abusive people.
    Rabbi Hirschfeld criticizes those rabbis who would publicly condemn the actions of their fellow Jews. He states “But I really don’t want one more cause which empowers one group to identify another as ‘bad Jews'”. I could not disagree with him more. As a Jew and a lover of Israel, I know that I do not stand alone when I express my deep disappointment in the failure of the Islamic community to speak out and condemn those terrorists that perform their evil deeds in the name of their faith. How can we criticize Muslim silence if we profess that Jews should likewise refrain from criticizing their fellow Jews in situations such as these? While Jewish loyalty is something to be valued and cherished, it cannot trump loyalty to the human values handed down to us through our tradition. If the prophets could speak out about injustices committed by Jews, then we, too, must sense that calling.

  • Jordan Hirsch

    Rabbi Karp,
    Most of the allegations you make have yet to be proved. Should they be proved, we can make any number of decisions regarding what our ethical obligations are in terms of buying Agriprocessors products or not. Until they have been found to be guilty of those ethical and legal misdeeds, there is no place in Halacha to determine that as of now the meat is not kosher. Your citation of a PETA propaganda film does not trump the supervision of Rabbis who are trained experts in the preparation of kosher meat, and who work for agencies independent of Agriprocessors. Please look at my previous post.

  • Rabbi Henry Jay Karp

    Actually, some of the “allegations” which I stated have been proven – back in 2006 – to the satisfaction of the investigators of the Department of Agriculture. Indeed Agriprocessors was cited and fined at that time for: 1) the hiring of undocumented workers (which they admitted to), 2) excessive cruelty to animals (the Peta FILM footage was considered irrefutable evidence – and as far as kashrut is concerned, if the mashgichim supervising the slaughter approved the taking of a second slaughtering cut rather than stunning the animals and selling their meat as non-kosher – as is required by civil law – then either their expertise or the honesty must be seriously questioned, and 3) bribing federal officials – offering meat inspectors gifts of meat in exchange for favorable reports.

  • Tom

    Now Agriprocessors is hiring Somali immigrants, many of whom follow the Islam faith.

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