Finally, Jewish Law for the Real World

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.

3 thoughts on “Finally, Jewish Law for the Real World”

  1. Unfotunately Rabbi Herzfeld took no notice of the outrage of the “locals” in Postville who have come to think of the workers as their own,who have contributed to the economic life of the community and provided some previously unknown good Mexican resturants and other healthy interactions.The loudmouths who want to deport some 12 million of these illegals don’t want to hear about the positive contributions these people make to this wonderful “melting pot”. Upton Sinclair wrote about the condition of the meatpacking industry almost 100 years ago; “the more things change the more they are the same”. This op-ed “Dark Meat ” should be on the front page of The New York Times not back on the Opinion Page. Since the Fourth Reich of Bush II meatpacking plant oversight has been non-existent and this is not an isolated incident.

    If the rabbi in charge was witness to the travesties described and did or said nothing he is complicit in their perpetuation. I find the Rabbi’s concern for Jewish dietary laws a,although a matter of concern, seems to pale when lined up with the abusive practices and violations of child labor laws. Fines do not resolve these problems or does closing the plant; indicting the owners gets as close as we can come to getting a satisfactory outcome. Small- town America needs these jobs and yes they need these immigrants; unfotunately the government let it get out of hand. The American Jewish community should be outraged.

  2. It was a actually PETA’s undercover video of this very slaughterhouse that made me give up meat and become a vegetarian.

    Even if, as has been reported, their kosher practices are not exactly up to snuff I can’t see how much more humane one can make the act of slitting an animal’s throat and letting it bleed to death. It’s hard to imagine that kosher slaughter practices actually induce less pain and suffering than what is possible with more sophisticated techonology.

    Can’t these methods be modernized? If it’s not required to use three thousand year old techniques for surgury on humans, why can’t slaughter practices be updated as well?

    Anyone who still eats meat (kosher or not) needs to watch this video in order to understand the suffering they are indirectly causing.

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