A gutsy op-ed in The New York Times has sharpened the debate over the Agriprocessors kosher meat factory scandal – and perhaps pointed the way toward rapprochement between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.
Written by an Orthodox rabbi, Washington’s Shmuel Herzfeld, it calls on the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union, bastions of mainstream Orthodox Judaism, to appoint an independent commission “that would make sure the plant upholds basic standards of kashrut and worker and animal treatment – and that it is in full compliance with the laws of the United States.”
It’s the conflation of two ideas – “standards of kashrut” and “worker and animal treatment” – that makes Herzfeld’s essay controversial in the world of kosher supervision. As for workers’ rights and humane treatment of animals – that’s the purview of government agencies, says the OU.
Herzfeld isn’t the first rabbi to call for an ethical dimension for kosher certification. Conservative rabbis, led by Minnesota’s Morris Allen, are pushing for a hechsher tzedek – a righteous certification – that would do just that.
AGRIPROCESSORS FOUGHT back this week, distributing a rebuttal to Herzfeld written by one of its attorneys, Nathan Lewin, a legend in Washington for his defense of Jewish religious freedoms. The rebuttal is remarkable for its focus not on the allegations against the plant, which Lewin largely ignores, but for its attack on Herzfeld’s premise that a plant’s kosher certification should be linked to its business ethics.
Lewin does this by trying to discredit the validity of Herzfeld’s reference to Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883), the pillar of the ethics movement known as Mussar. According to Herzfeld, Salanter “refused to certify a matza factory as kosher on the grounds that the workers were being treated unfairly.” Lewin can’t find a solid scholarly reference to the Salanter story, and calls it “fallacious.” Imagine the credit it would bring to Torah-observant Jews were leaders to immediately draw up their own set of labor and animal welfare standards. NON-ORTHODOX RABBIS like Allen have been way out front on this one. I grew up in a Reform synagogue and was taught why classical Reform chose to reject kashrut. That too many institutions and individuals – and that includes many Conservative Jews – have failed to take up this challenge is a loss for Judaism, and Jews.
I understand why a temple would bristle at adopting standards set by Orthodox supervisors. Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews have grown distant over the years, and the mutual recriminations over Agriprocessors won’t help.