By SHMUEL HERZFELD
NY Times August 6, 2008
ACCORDING to the Jewish calendar we are now in the month of Av, a period of increasingly intense mourning that culminates with a total fast on the Ninth of Av, which this year coincides with Sunday, Aug. 10.
One of the customary practices in these nine days is the avoidance of meat: it's the way we commemorate the destruction of the Temple, where daily animal sacrifices were once brought.
Refraining from food is symbolic, of course. The idea is not just to avoid meat but to limit ourselves so that we can better focus on the spiritual.
Unfortunately, this year kosher meat has become a different type of symbol, one not of mourning and spiritual devotion but of ridicule, embarrassment and hypocrisy. In May in Postville, Iowa, immigration officials raided Agriprocessors Inc., the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the country.
What began as an immigration sting, however, quickly took on larger dimensions. News reports and government documents have described abusive practices at Agriprocessors against workers, including minors. Children as young as 13 were said to be wielding knives on the killing floor; some teenagers were working 17-hour shifts, six days a week.
This poses a grave problem and calls into question whether the food processed in the plant qualifies as kosher.
You see, there is precedent for declaring something nonkosher on the basis of how employees are treated. Yisroel Salanter, the great 19th-century rabbi, is famously believed to have refused to certify a matzo factory as kosher on the grounds that the workers were being treated unfairly. In addition to the hypocrisy of calling something kosher when it is being sold and produced in an unethical manner, we have to take into account disturbing information about the plant that has come to light.
The affidavit filed in the United States District Court of Northern Iowa, for instance, alleges that an employee was physically abused by a rabbi on the floor of the plant. If true, this calls into question the reliability and judgment of the rabbi in charge of making sure the food was kosher.
What's more, two workers who oversaw the poultry and beef division were recently arrested for helping illegal immigrants falsify documents. If they were willing to break national immigration laws, one could reasonably ask whether they would be likely to show the same lack of concern for Jewish dietary laws.
Unfortunately, the responses of the leading Orthodox organizations, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union, have, in my opinion, fallen far short of what is needed to be done and have done little to diminish the extent of the desecration of God's name. I am a member of both groups, but I am dissatisfied with their stance, which asks us to sit back patiently and wait for the results of a federal investigation. On some level, this might be prudent, but on another it is unacceptable.
What is needed is for the Orthodox Union to appoint an independent commission whose members have not in the past been paid by either the Orthodox Union or Agriprocessors. Such a commission would select a team of rabbinic experts to spend an extended period of time at the plant and then make suggestions and recommendations. This independent team would make sure the plant upholds basic standards of kashrut and worker and animal treatment — and that it is in full compliance with the laws of the United States.
Hebrew National used to run a commercial that said: "We answer to a Higher Authority." Well, we do. We need to express shame and embarrassment about the reports coming out of Iowa, and we need to actively work to change these matters. Then we should ask ourselves if our behavior and our values need improvement. Only if we truly think about these issues will we truly be keeping kosher.
Shmuel Herzfeld, rabbi of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue, is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America.