A Step Backwards for the Ethical Production of Kosher Meat

In May of 2008, Agriprocessors, the largest kosher slaughterhouse in America, was raided by I.C.E., in what was the largest immigration raid in U.S. history at that time.

It put a stain on the moral reputation of the kosher industry in America due to frequent citations for illegal practices including violating wage laws and child labor laws, the abuse of animals, food safety violations, and environmental laws.

The fallout from the Agriprocessors scandal of 2008 was one of the most intense experiences in my career as a rabbi and activist. It consumed years of my life.

On Wednesday, when word came that Mr. Sholom Rubashkin's sentence was commuted, I was in shock. The name, which is not well known outside the insularity of the broader Jewish community, is one that conjures manifold emotions.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men wait in line at a slaughterhouse after they performed the kaparot ceremony, October 06, 2008 in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem. According to Jewish beliefs, the ritual is supposed to transfer the sins of the past year to the chicken, which is then ritually slaughtered. Kaparot is performed before the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Uriel Sinai/Getty

At the time when the Agriprocessors scandal broke, Uri L'Tzedek, the Orthodox Jewish Social Justice Movement, launched the international boycott in which thousands of other Jewish leaders from across the denominational spectrum quickly signed on.

After a short time, we called off our action after meeting the Rubashkin family representatives who finally agreed to provide transparency about how their workers were being treated and how the kosher community would not be violating Jewish law (halakhah) by buying Agriprocessor products.

As a marker of this idealistic vision, we launched the Tav HaYosher ethical seal to attest that kosher restaurants in North America treated their workers to the highest standards of decency and dignity.

At that time, and today, I think of the words of Rav Breuer, who teaches that we should not only be glatt kosher but also glatt yosher (strict in ritual and strict in ethics).

We've granted the seal—with enormous effort—to over one hundred fifty kosher establishments, but, nonetheless, the Tav has been one of the greatest failures of my rabbinical life.

What I thought would be one of the greatest harbingers of progress in the enterprise of an ethical kosher industry has stalled again and again right before my eyes.

Indeed, I was unsuccessful at convincing the many kosher consumers who care deeply about the Jewish laws and Jewish ethics concerned with following the secular law and the fair treatment of workers and with obeying secular law so that they should only order food from places that are willing to be transparent about how their workers are treated.

Why is a community that is completely loyal to the Torah prohibitions against eating non-kosher food not loyal to the Torah prohibitions against oppressing workers (Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:14-15)? It is a question I fear I will wrestle with for the rest of my life.

Today, the family, friends, and supporters of Mr. Rubashkin will be celebrating, since their ordeal has been a deeply intense, personal matter.

The rest of us, however, should separate the personal dynamic here—the celebration of a man reunited with his family—from the larger ethical issues at play.

We should mourn that our kosher systems continue to be broken, that they are consumed with ritual detail but largely neglectful and unconcerned with the ethical dynamics: worker rights, animal welfare, environmental protection, human health, among many important ethical considerations. As a rabbi, I'm ashamed to admit that kosher products today are not "a higher ethical standard."

Having inspected workers in the backrooms and basements of hundreds of establishments around the country, I can tell you that it's not pretty.

Certainly, years later, little to no ethical transparency or ethical standards are in place. The spokesman for Ultra-Orthodox rabbis in America said on a panel we both spoke on at Yeshiva University a decade ago that "no one cares if the poet stinks" (i.e. people want kosher meat that tastes good and is cheap, but don't care about the ethical route it took to the plate).

I spent the last decade trying to prove him wrong. On Wednesday, he was proven correct.

Yet, I still remember vividly the discussions I had with the immigrant workers from Agriprocessors in rural Postville, Iowa. I heard their stories. I heard the pain in their voices. I saw the fear in their eyes.

Are their stories also worth the same amount of attention in this matter? Or will they be ignored? This question haunts me deeply.

We can only move forward now. But how can the Jewish community—from Orthodox to Reform—heal after years of fissure and suspicion, with the commutation of Rubashkin being a critical point of break?

There are points of hope. First, the Jewish community should fight for prison reform, not only for Jews but for all people who have been sentenced unjustly. It sends a negative message when segments of the community are opposed to prison reform but then advocate for lone individuals treated unfairly simply because of their ethnic origin.

And, most importantly, let us keep the victims of kosher production in our consciousness as we seek to fulfill the holy words that we recite each day.

We must rigorously embrace the inherent ethics of kashrut into our homes and into our communities.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek: The Orthodox Social Justice movement, and the author of 12 books on Jewish ethics.