Nit Kosher

It’s a sad moment for American Orthodox Jewry when one of their own takes to the pages of the New York Times to say how ashamed he is—Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Washington’s Ohev Shalom synagogue.

He and his congregants call it The National Synagogue. It’s over a century old, and Al Jolson’s dad was once the cantor. Herzfeld’s considered a bit of a maverick, but he’s a young man trying to revive a shul that was dying, and he seems to be doing well.

God knows plenty of things about American Jewish life need reviving. So what’s he ashamed of? Well, last May there was a raid on America’s largest kosher meatpacking plant, Agriprocessors, Inc., in Postville, Iowa.

“What began as an immigration sting,” he writes, “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.”

The official affidavit in the U.S. District Court alleges a rabbi abused a worker on the shop floor; meanwhile two managers at the plant have been arrested for falsifying immigration documents.

This, as Rabbi Herzfeld points out, is not kosher. He cites a precedent where a famous 19th-century rabbi, Rav Yisroel Salanter—founder of the Mussar movement in Jewish ethics–was said to have decertified a matzah factory because of unfair treatment of workers.

The principle is simple: it’s not just what animal you eat, it’s how humanely you slaughter it. And that means not just how sharp the knife is, but how ethically you treat the people you hire to assist you. If Rav Salanter didn’t in fact take away their hekhsher—their stamp of approval for kashrut—he should have.

And so should the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union do to Agriprocessors—a devastating judgment on a kosher meatpacking plant, and one that would fit the crime like a glove–if in fact they find the charges are true. Rav Salanter also said it was worth studying the Torah for a lifetime just to avoid saying one word of evil gossip—lashon harah.

But they aren’t going to find out whether the charges are true because they haven’t set up the independent commission that is clearly needed. They are just going to sit back and wait for the feds to rule. That doesn’t sound to me like ethical oversight by the country’s leading Orthodox rabbis.

My childhood rabbi, Bernard L. Berzon of blessed memory, was president of the RCA, so I’ve always had a certain reverence for that organization. I have a book of his sermons, inscribed to my father, and today I looked up his sermon for the same Shabbat we are approaching: Devarim, the first portion of the last book of Moses–in English, Deuteronomy.

Coincidentally, that Shabbat ended with the beginning of the fast of Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av, just as this one does. His sermon was around the time of the Eichmann trial, and he used this traditional occasion of lamentation—Tisha B’Av, by convention, commemorates the destruction of both Temples—to bemoan the murdered six million and the ongoing threats to the new State of Israel.

But in his characteristic way, when he asked rhetorically whether God was among us, he answered himself that “if He had been admitted into the hearts and minds of Americans, if He really were bekirbenu, the plight of the State of Israel would not be so critical, and the Negro would be treated as a human being.”

In one breath, the plight of the State of Israel and the decent treatment of African-Americans. In one brief sermon, the lamentation over murdered millions and the quest for civil rights.

I can’t know for sure what Rabbi Berzon would have said about the oppressed immigrant workers of that Iowa meatpacking plant, but I am guessing that if he were president of the RCA again today he would launch an investigation. Among other reasons, he had a masters degree in labor economics from the University of Maine.

He too would be sensitive about the evil tongue. But if, as seems likely, the charges proved to be true, I think he would have said, with his always clear, rational, and yet impassioned voice: Dos is nit kosher!

Jews don’t believe in reincarnation of course, but I have a feeling young Rabbi Herzfeld may be channeling Rabbi Berzon. If so, I’m one of his followers.

3 thoughts on “Nit Kosher

  1. Beautiful piece Mel.  You have expressed my sentiments on the matter perfectly.  Being of wavering faith I have already been considering ditching my kosher diet.  Reading of this travesty makes me more conviced that I need to stop being a consumer of kosher products…just becuase they are kosher.

    Vegetarianism would be the best way.

    Hunter Gatherer?

  2. Steve, thanks for writing. If you want to learn more about the hunter-gatherer diet, you might take a look at a recent blog entry on my other website:

    I’m not observant, but I in spite of this scandal I still think that on the whole kosher food has been a cut above in quality for the most part, and will probably return to that status. Like the people at Hebrew National say, "We answer to a higher authority." Unfortunately they don’t always give the right answer : )

  3. Mel,
    Actually I had read this piece on your other site.  My only hunting and gathering tends to be Reeces Peanut Butter cups…

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