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NEW YORK (RNS) Struggling with a kosher meat industry labor scandal that won’t go away, Orthodox Jews have begun publicly debating what role– if any — ethical standards should have on their eating habits.
At a panel discussion Tuesday (Dec. 9) at Yeshiva University, four scholars presented a range of responses to accusations of illegal and underage labor used at Agriprocessors, an Iowa-based plant that produced about half of the country’s kosher meat and poultry.
Agriprocessors filed for bankruptcy in November; former CEO Sholom Rubashkin is in jail, awaiting trial on labor and bank fraud charges.
Orthodox Jews make up less than one-fifth of American Jews, but are the majority of those who keep kosher. Over the past year, many have balked at calls for boycotts against accused companies; Orthodox rabbis say they must ensure kosher food remains affordable and available, and don’t want to act prematurely if a major supplier has not been proven guilty.
Regardless of the claims against Agriprocessors, some rabbis continue to maintain that kosher certification has nothing to do with a company’s labor practices. Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, compared workplace ethics and kosher laws to the relationship between personal hygiene and poetry.
“A great poet might opt to not shower,” Shafran said, “but that bad habit doesn’t necessarily affect the quality of his writing.”
In contrast, Shmuly Yanklowitz, co-founder of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox Jewish social justice group, said visiting the terrified Agriprocessors workers earlier this year convinced him that fair treatment of workers must be a priority in kosher food production.
“Where is our moral courage?” he asked. “We’re fighting for the soul of the Jewish people.”
For now, most seem to cling to a middle ground, represented by Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of kosher supervision for the Orthodox Union, and Rabbi Basil Herring, head of the orthodox Rabbinical Council of America.
While agreeing that dietary laws do not technically include labor principles, and that government agencies are better equipped to investigate companies than a system proposed by the Conservative movement, they concluded that kosher certifying agencies should include some workplace stipulations in their contracts — if only to reclaim the perception that their food adheres to a higher standard.
“We have to act with due consideration, we have to always put the ethical and moral at the top of our agenda but to do so in a way that brings about, rather than defeats, the goals that we need to achieve,”
Herring said.
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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