October 07, 2008

The Ethics of Kosher

There have been in recent years, a series of scandals in the USA over kashrut. The most public have been those that involve the largest provider of kosher meat, Agriprocessors, based in Postville, Iowa, and owned by the Rubashkin family. An undercover video revealed practices that shocked even the most hardened of kashrut experts and raised issues of how animals were treated. Could cruelty and kashrut be compatible? The kosher rabbinate rallied round and tried to defend the indefensible and the furor died down.

Then came last May's Federal raid on the factory and prosecution over violating employment rules and a stream of very unsavory allegations emerged. Once again the rabbinic authorities refused to concede any wrong. They talked about innocence till proven guilty. They went on a carefully staged and publicized tour of inspection and, as expected, declared nothing was amiss. (Only afterwards did it transpire from another PETA video that they were given a special performance and did not see what normally goes on.) Any Orthodox leader who dared to suggest anything was wrong was excoriated in the Orthodox press by vocal aggressive apologists. Only the "middle of the road" Orthodox Union said it would suspend its approval until it was satisfied that the practices it considered ethically unacceptable ceased. However the more ultra-Orthodox, including Lubavitch, remained adamant that so long as the letter of the shechita law was obeyed they would let the matter rest.

The situation is reminiscent of those who have tried to do something about sexual abuse in the Orthodox community being made out to be the wrongdoers, and attacked and harassed into silence. The kneejerk defense, the cover-up and then the attack, as the surest form of defense, is all too familiar. Any advisor on crisis management knows this is the wrong way to go. Israel has tried it for years and failed. Ultra-Orthodoxy is making the same mistake by not seeing when it needs to make concessions to public sentiment.

It was the non-Orthodox movements that took the lead in pushing for supervision that guaranteed that "kosher" meant not just killing the animal in the required manner but that the industry behaved according to Jewish ethical standards. Orthodoxy responded in contradictory ways to this challenge. The Agudah spokesmen have refused to countenance any suggestion of wrongdoing coming from those less Orthodox than they. They have argued consistently that although Judaism does indeed require ethical behaviour kosher is simply about kosher, technically, no other way.

Two otherwise admirable, balanced, learned Orthodox rabbis, Adlerstein and Broyde, wrote a disappointing article in the American weekly Forward, saying that they agree that "working conditions and the like are Jewish concerns", but that making a hechsher contingent on ethical practices requires rabbis to make judgments that go beyond the letter of the law. And that focusing on ethical considerations in the kosher food industry implies that such concerns are more important than halacha, which should be sufficient on its own. Hello! Indeed that is what the problem is. Total halacha is not working.

I understand that, as they say, "for centuries Jews were urged to abandon Jewish practice by arguments that the ethic behind the law was far more important, and indeed the only real purpose of the law itself." I share their opposition to anything that minimizes the importance of halacha. Focusing only on spirit totally undermines what differentiates Judaism from Christianity. But what people want to hear, and what they or the editor omitted from their piece, was unequivocal condemnation. It was a lost opportunity.

Thank goodness, therefore, that another Orthodox rabbi, Yosef Blau, wrote an article in The Jewish Week unreservedly supporting ethical standards in kashrut. And this week the Orthodox Union, the biggest authorizing body and the dominant organization on thinking Orthodoxy, finally agreed to set up a commission to ensure kashrut and ethics go together.

Ultra-Orthodoxy is so used to having to fight its corner that it cannot see when it makes sense to concede an issue. The fact is that the kashrut industry is the flashpoint, the largest specifically Orthodox business that is indentified with the religion. It is the face of Judaism that most Jews and non-Jews have dealings with. Too much of this industry has been busy proclaiming the strictness of its kashrut and has paid too little attention to other issues such as conditions of animals and workers.

Why has the Charedi rabbinate not made more of a fuss? Jewish Law does indeed cover issues such as the treatment of workers and animals. But as a rule all we hear in the press are Orthodox rabbis railing against immodest ladies in cycle lanes or mixed concerts. Orthodox leadership needs to come out and hammer home, again and again, the importance of ethics and ethical treatment in addition to and as part of halacha, not to attack those who argue for higher standards, whatever their motives.

Why, you may ask, am I bringing this up this week, before Yom Kippur? Precisely because this is the message of the Talmud for Yom Kippur (Yoma 86a). If all sins are forgiven, either through atonement, or Yom Kippur itself, or even death, the one thing that is not forgiven is Chillul HaShem, giving Judaism or Torah a bad name. The Talmud gives a specific example: when religious leaders do not pays bills at the kosher butcher on time, thereby giving the impression that they are trying to evade their responsibilities! Imagine how much more serious is allowing the impression to spread that Torah leaders care little for ethical issues so long as the letter of the law is maintained. That is Chillul HaShem.

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