Tuesday, August 19, 2008

When Kosher Isn't Kosher

When Kosher Isn’t Kosher
By Eli Jeremiah

Kosher is the best thing about Judaism. Symbolic and practical at the same time, kashrut laws—when applied thoughtfully—stand out among Judaism’s beautiful concepts as the most defining and meaningful way to practice the Jewish faith, to live a Jewish life.

The practicality of the kosher moral code manifests itself in several ways. Kosher slaughterhouses are supposed to be more humane than non-kosher ones. They are supposed to minimize the suffering of the animals killed, and the animals are to be cared for as dignified creatures while alive. There is a feeling of solemnity to a kosher slaughterhouse, because the animals are treated this way and not as meat, and most kosher slaughterhouses embrace complete transparency, with its facilities open to public and rabbinical inspection at any time.

The symbolism comes from the spiritual significance of kosher. We don’t mix meat and dairy to symbolize that meat comes from violence and dairy comes from life. Rabbi Feinstein says in Tough Questions Jews Ask, “Saying no to a cheeseburger is a symbolic way of saying to no to a world that mixes violence and life all the time.” And the reason some animals (like pigs) are prohibited is to limit what we are allowed to kill. There’s a story rabbis often tell that says G-d actually wants us to be vegetarians, that not killing any animals is the most ethical way to live. But He understands He gave us cravings for meat that many of us cannot overcome. Therefore He listed several animals Jews are prohibited from eating in order to make the consumption of meat more inconvenient.

For many Jews, keeping kosher is a way of turning our kitchen into an altar to G-d. Keeping kosher forces us to think about what food we put in our bodies. It disciplines us and makes us respect the animals we kill.

That’s why the AgriProcessors scandal is so tragic. In the hands of some Orthodox Hasids, a supposedly kosher business was not kosher at all.

For those who don’t know, AgriProcessors is a Hasidic-owned kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. For years, this business—which caters mostly to the Orthodox community—has violated U.S. law as well as halakha, Jewish law. PETA exposed its shocking abuse of animals, and a May 12 immigration raid spotlighted its completed disregard for human beings. The company had hired a staff of illegal immigrants and mistreated them, paid them terrible wages, and gave them so little food they were forced to accept charity handouts.

To Conservative Judaism’s everlasting credit, the movement—led by the Jewish Theological Seminary—worked tirelessly to expose these criminals to the media and to bring about justice. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Conservative Rabbinical Association also called for an immediate boycott of AgriProcessors, urging Jews to not patronize any of its subdivisions, either. (“Conservative Socialism: AgriProcessors and Hekhsher”)
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union of Reform Judaism, said it was “absolutely time for the Jewish community to demand similar investigations into all kosher slaughterhouses.”

Not surprisingly, AgriProcessors has many sympathetic Orthodox supporters who claim the controversy was caused by liberal Jews and unions. (The Orthodox Union says it is awaiting the outcome of the legal proceedings against AgriProcessors and will withdraw its kosher certification if the company is found guilty. As if there isn’t enough evidence of wrongdoing without the trial.) While U.S. law is one thing, many Orthodox Jews fail to see how mistreating humans and animals violates halakha. Well, they could start by reading the Torah.

“You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities in your land. You must give him his wages on the very same day [he works], before the sun sets, because he is needy and he urgently depends on it—otherwise he will cry out to G-d against you and you will be guilty.”
--Deuteronomy 24:14-15

Noting the activism and pursuit of justice by the Conservative (which requires keeping kosher) and Reform (which does not) movements, Shmarya Rosenberg said this about Orthodox Jews who still defend AgriProcessors: “Orthodox outreach groups are fond of asking potential [Orthodox] recruits a question: Will your grandchildren be Jewish? The idea being that if the non-Orthodox person doesn’t take proactive steps now, his children or grandchildren will marry non-Jews. Those proactive steps? Adopting Orthodoxy, of course. The thing is, they’re asking the wrong question. Their question focuses on genetic group identity rather than behavior. The question should be, “Will your children and grandchildren be kind, moral, and ethical people?” Asked that way, the answer is clear. Orthodoxy as currently practiced is no guarantee of ethical behavior—in fact, it’s probably contraindicated. AgriProcessors has proved that.” (“Exploiting Undocumented Workers Exploits Judaism.”)

What many Orthodox Jews fail to understand is that they are not actually keeping kosher at all. Not the way the majority of Jews understand the concept. They are blindly following a legalistic set of guidelines with absolutely no concern or thought for Jewish ethics. Most Orthodox Jews would say everything this article says about the reasons we keep kosher is silly. Jews keep kosher simply because G-d say to. To them, there is no rhyme or reason to the laws.

But that’s not real Judaism. Judaism is a life-changing, soul-shaking faith where we wrestle with ethics at all times. Every single thing we do—and yes, every single thing we eat—requires adhering to the highest possible standard. That’s what kosher means: the highest possible standard—even non-Jews use the term that way colloquially. That’s why progressive organizations like Kosher Conscience and Hazon—which seek to blend kashrut laws with the values of the eco-friendly/ fair wage/ organic movements—are in keeping with Jewish values much more than just not eating certain foods because G-d said so.

By standing up to AgriProcessors and bringing its leaders to justice, the Conservative and Reform movements (as well as those secular Jews, non-Jews, and against-the-grain Orthodox Jews) have made kosher more kosher.

Copyright 2008, Eli Jeremiah


JDHURF said...

Interesting post. I was unaware of AgriProcessors. It’s ironic that it is predominately the orthodox, the fundamentalists and so on who perpetrate such immorality without any apparent compunction.
Whether the Orthodox AgriProcessors exploiting undocumented workers and butchering animals in an unseemly fashion or the Christian Coalition and the Indian lobbying scandal, those who make such a fuss about moral purity and scriptural literalness seem to have a very difficult time actually behaving morally.

Eli Jeremiah said...

Thanks for reading and responding, JDHURF. I agree with your point about fundies.

On a side note, if Conservative continues taking such strong stands, I really think its membership will increase. Maybe not more than Reform, but I am trying to get more Jews interested. One article I read quoted Reform's leader Eric Yoffie as saying it's fitting and more meaningful for Conservative Judaism to be so vocal about this issue because Conservative--unlike Reform--requires keeping kosher.

I can easily forsee that happening time and again with future issues. Conservative has the potential to blend tradition and social justice more than the other branches, which seem to be either/or. If only its leaders realize that potential!!