The Agriprocessors fiasco, which came to a head just about a year ago with the ICE raid on the Postville, Iowa, meat processing plant, was, as we say in Yiddish, a shande far di goyim—a scandal in front of the Gentiles. But it’s also had a profound effect within the Jewish world, deepening the faultline between those who view the mitzvot, the commandments of the Torah, simply as religious strictures, and those who would also see them as a source for progressive values.
The Rubashkin family’s slaughterhouse and meat-processing plant is the largest such kosher facility in the world, though given the legal problems it now faces that distinction may soon be conjugated in the past tense, if it isn’t already. When the Feds raided last May 12th, they arrested close to four hundred illegal immigrants. More upsetting were the subsequent revelations that these workers had been laboring in illegally dangerous conditions, that some were underage, and that some claimed to have been subjected to physical and sexual abuse. This came on top of the allegations of animal mistreatment, environmental pollution, and anti-competitive business practices that had already been dogging Agriprocessors for a few years. (Rumors of a methamphetamine laboratory on the premises have not been substantiated.)
While the government continues to compile its case against the Rubashkins, the Jewish world has been taking sides. The ultra-Orthodox establishment has rallied to their defense, going so far as to label the federal indictment a “blood libel” against a pious family. But others, deeply concerned by this alleged sullying of kashrut, the Jewish principle of sanctified eating, have been using the case as a rallying point against religious hypocrisy. If rabbinic supervision as it is currently constituted, they suggest, is concerned only with ascertaining the purity of meat according to the letter of the law, and does not provide the moral foundation to militate against flagrant social abuses, then a revaluation of the concept of kashrut itself is in order.
Progressive Jews have been suggesting this move for a while, arguing that if kashrut is really about bringing sanctity to the act of eating than in our day that might be better effected through vegetarianism or a reliance on local agriculture—what they call “eco-kashrut”—than a separate set of dishes for meat and milk.
But in the wake of Agriprocessors proposals have also begun to emerge within more traditionalist strands of Judaism. Members of the Conservative movement have been working to institute what they call a heksher tzedek, the first word meaning “kashrut seal of approval”, and the second “righteousness.” This certification would add to the existing stipulations of kashrut (rather than replacing them) a set of criteria related to “worker safety and well-being.” A business would have to demonstrate adequacy in both areas in order to receive this qualification.
And the Forward is reporting this week that a group of young Modern Orthodox activists in New York have launched, in conjunction with the first anniversary of the Agriprocessors raid, what they are calling the Tav HaYosher—an “ethical seal” to be distributed to kosher businesses that conform to the activists’ standards of fair labor practices. (It has been noted that these are, in essence, no different than what the businesses are already expected to adhere to under New York state law.) Unlike the heksher tzedek, which also goes further in the moral obligations it places on the institutions that would seek its sanction, the tav does not aspire to the mantle of “kosherness,” but is instead set up as a kind of parallel system of okaying a food-provider according to the spirit of Judaism.
These are tentative but welcome steps. The ancient rabbis taught that since the destruction of the Temple a Jew’s own table is his or her sacred altar, and should be subject to the same degree of sanctity. Kashrut is not meant to be a system of arbitrary food taboos, but a discipline that elevates the human drive to eat above the kind of desecrations Agriprocessors may have committed.