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?…..