You Are What You Eat

The recent federal raid at the Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa, and the accompanying allegations brought against the Rubashkin family and brand, represent a particularly sorry and damaging episode in the cause of religious Judaism in this country.

The Agriprocessors story, at least for me, is not about the hundreds of illegal aliens who were arrested. That is a separate issue, and a very sad statement on the inability of our government to enact any kind of sane immigration policy. That they were allegedly mistreated is nothing short of tragic, and a black stain on those who employed them.

Nor is it about kosher meat or food. One particular family business is at the center of this story, not kosher food. That there is Chillul Hashem involved in the story- embarrassment to the cause of religious Judaism in general, and kashrut more specifically- is the collateral damage, if you will, of a particular business’ lamentable labor practices.

The truth is that the Agriprocessors story is but an egregious example of a much bigger issue for us in the traditional Jewish community, namely: what is the connection between the food that we eat, and the values that we espouse as Jews?

To be sure, this is not a new issue. Vegetarians have been preaching this lesson forever, and many people within the kosher community long ago gave up eating veal, and some all red meat, because of ethical concerns.

But the Agriprocessors incident has brought into sharper focus a different dimension of the same issue, having to deal not with the animals themselves, but with the workers involved in the plants where the food is produced.

The fundamental question is not whether the food is kosher; that is actually not the question. No one is questioning the kashrut of the product. The issue now before us is whether the means by which the food is produced need to meet ethical standards, and whether or not those standards are also part and parcel of Judaism’s understanding of what kashrut is all about.

It is exactly this issue that, in the Conservative movement of which I am a part, gave rise to the creation of the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission, a joint project of the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

The raison d’etre of Hekhsher Tzedek is to state clearly and unambivalently that issues like wages and benefits, employee health and safety, environmental impact and the like must also be a part of the kosher equation.

Our natural instinct when we think “kosher” is to associate the term with whether or not we may put the food in our mouths. But kashrut is about holiness- it’s all about holiness.

And it stands to reason that if the goal of kashrut is to sanctify ourselves and our lives, then closing our eyes to the abuse of those who are asked to produce the food is simply not acceptable. The Hekhsher Tzedek Commission’s goal is to create a new symbol to be placed on those kosher products whose producers are found to be corporately responsible, and adhering to proper treatment of workers and related employment issues.

Some have alleged that we in the Conservative movement are trying to “muscle in” on the Kashrut industry. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Others have said that rabbinic supervisors are ill equipped to do what they see as human resources work, and that we are naïve. Further, they argue, the kinds of standards that we are asking for in the industry will drive the price of kosher meat up.

Well, that just might be. But if a lower price for kosher meat and poultry (such that there is such a thing) is possible only by exploiting the most vulnerable sectors of our society, not to mention violating the kinds of laws that virtually every food provision corporation in America is legally obliged to adhere to, then perhaps the time has come to either tighten our belts and pay more, or find other ways to satisfy our appetites.

Yes, I remember Nike, and I deplore sweatshops and unfair labor practices in whatever contexts or countries they rear their ugly heads. But Nike and its ilk do not pretend to wrap themselves in a proverbial tallit and be about the quest for holiness. For them, it’s all about the money. And when the kosher food industry becomes all about the money, and loses track of the other values that are inherently a part of the kosher equation, then we are all in trouble, and so is religious Judaism. Yes, businesspeople are in business to make money. But how?

Hekhsher Tzedek is an idea whose time has come, and Agriprocessors is the proof text.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.