It is a sign of bad times when a clergyman stating an obvious moral truth is big news. So we live in bad times. Nonetheless, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld deserves great praise for his op-ed this week in the New York Times on the scandal of the kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, where:
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…
Herzfeld asserts what should be obvious: that producing “kosher” meat in this way is a desecration of God’s name, and that the leading Orthodox organizations have failed to respond properly. He also asserts that the kashrut of the meat produced in Postville is questionable.
For this he offers a couple of arguments. By his reasoning, if the Agriprocessors company was willing to ignore U.S. law and basic employer ethics, it cannot be trusted to pay attention to Jewish dietary laws. Here, I think, Herzfeld has aimed too low, and accepted the obsessive-compulsive focus of some in the Orthodox community on ritual requirements. His stronger argument is
there is precedent for declaring something nonkosher on the basis of how employees are treated.
That is, food produced through abject exploitation of human beings should be seen as treif even if every other technical detail of kashrut has been observed. The model, I’d suggest, is the well-known halakhah stating that one cannot fulfill the commandment of lulav on Sukkot with a stolen lulav. If the laws governing relations between people have been violated, fulfilling ritual requirements is meaningless.
Herzfeld’s courage is laudatory – especially his choice to publish the article in the Times. Rather than worry that his criticism would alert non-Jews to an ethical failure by Jews or to dissent within the Jewish community, he recognized that non-Jews already know about Postville – and that dissent is to the community’s credit.
And lest it be said that I’ve never said a good word about a settler, allow me to note that Rabbi Re’em Hacohen of Otniel has reportedly ruled that reckless drivers and smokers should not be accepted as witnesses for purposes of Jewish legal proceedings. Hacohen reportedly argues that reckless drivers and smokers both show unconcern with human life. To disqualify a man as a witness is to say that he lives flagrantly outside the bounds of halakhah. Thus, Hacohen is saying that if you drive like a maniac, you’re not living as a religious Jew. Well, obviously. But I’m glad he said it.