Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ethics of Shechita – Revisited

The Postville scandal just isn’t going away. Recently the Jewish Press ran an interesting opinion piece by Nathan Lewin, the attorney for Agriprocessors, in defense of his client. His article was in response to an argument presented by an orthodox rabbi that questioned the kashrut of the meat slaughtered at Postville. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Congregation Ohev Shalom Synagogue listed three arguments which questioned the viability of the continued production of kosher meat through Agriprocessors. Naturally, Lewin, being a sharp lawyer was able to poke holes into these arguments and thus ostensibly argue for the continued production of kosher meat by Agriprocessors.

Lewin’s arguments didn’t convince me. Those that are looking for an excuse to support the Postville enterprise will lean heavily on those arguments made by Lewin. Those who are outraged by the injustice, fraud and human debasement will tend to agree with Rabbi Herzfeld and seek other options for their kosher meat products. However, whether you are “for or against”, one must deal with the strong indictment delivered by the Forward in its editorial last week.

The investigative journalism presented in that editorial was enough to put into question the continued viability of the Rubashkin family to continue its service to the Jewish community. Assuming that what was reported is accurate the issue goes way beyond the Postville scandal. The real issue at hand is the kashrut agencies. By them continuing to license Agriprocessors as a kosher plant producing kosher product casts a giant question mark on their veracity.

The irony is that many institutions loose their kosher label for insignificant infractions. Many establishments were threatened with loss of their kosher status for things unrelated to what was being certified as kosher. In Israel many hotels over the years were threatened that there kosher certification would be yanked if they allowed New Years Eve celebrations to take place in their public areas. What does celebrating New Yeas Eve have to do with whether or not your kitchen is kosher? There is no right answer, because it was an arbitrary decision based on the whim of rabbis seeking to exercise a little control in one of the last areas open to them. Rubashkin’s involvement in organized crime, arson and extortion goes to the root of “neemanut”, and their veracity to be agents of an institution that produces “kosher “products.

While the Forward made a cogent case against Rubashkin, those who wish to continue to use their products will rely on the wily words of Lewin. Those who are already convinced that the Rubashkin products aren’t fir to be called kosher need no further convincing. However for those who still haven’t decided there are three points that they ought to be consider.

Being carnivorous in Jewish law is a default position. We were programmed to be vegetarian and so we were, prior to our exile from the “Garden”. As we matured we were to be aided by making use of specified animals only, so long as other obligations were fulfilled such as the avoidance of “tzar l’baalei chayim”. Shechita, any way you cut it, involves “tzar l’baalei chayim” albeit minimally and thus we ought not rely on this default position granted to us by God, but strive for the ideal and become vegetarian once again.

Second, there is an inherent failure within the Orthodox establishment to see beyond the rigid interpretation of the law. Take note of the arguments presented by Rabbi Herzfeld verses that of Agriprocessor’s attorney Nathan Lewin. Lewin represents the rigid interpretation of halacha, while Rabbi Herzfeld was able to go beyond and seek out the spirit of the law.

Third, we live in a post industrial age where shechita as it was envisioned by our forefathers can no longer be achieved. Initially we were an agrarian society, we shechted what was required to sustain ourselves and our village (community) – no more. The shochtim weren’t under pressure to slaughter a staggering number of animals, as they are today, in order to satisfy the needs, not of a small community but of millions seeking kosher products nationwide. Add to that the fact that the shochtim are no longer independent but work for a corporation, a large corporation. They are under guidelines which aren’t necessarily halachic guidelines found in Shukchan Aruch, but laid out by their supervisors who answer to mangers above them; all of them with the goal of satisfying the corporate need for a profitable bottom line.

Anyone sensitive to the issues raised here ought to consider the alternatives: to discontinue use of all products originating from Agriprocessors; avoid meat consumption; or become vegetarian.