Monday, August 4, 2008

Rubashkin's, Ethical Kashrut, etc.

How should we think about the appropriate Jewish response to the allegations about Rubashkin's?

In addressing this question, I write as a lawyer, a (mostly) vegetarian, a Jew, and a person who cares about human rights and the rights of workers. I'd like to think those perspectives don't contradict each other, but they certainly are not the same.
As best I can glean from news reports, the "scheme" taking place at Rubashkin's involved falsified employment papers for mostly Guatemalan workers. Because the falsification involved using identity documents or numbers of actual people, the government is treating the offense as "aggravated identity theft" -- even though there appears to be good reason to believe the workers in question had no real idea of what was going on. The prosecution of these workers is itself problematic in all sorts of ways -- so much so, that the translator hired by the government, in a possible breach of his own professional ethics, has acted as a "whistle-blower" to talk about what has gone on. The long and short of it, for our purposes here, appears to be that these workers were inveigled into an illegal employment scheme by Rubashkin's, got "caught" and are going to be punished for it (by deportation, at least).

For me, if there is reason to believe (and there is) that anyone in management was behind this scheme -- knew about it, planned it, and of course, benefited from it -- I don't want to do business with these folks. Period.

Now, as a (mostly) vegetarian, perhaps such talk is cheap. I hardly eat meat from one end of the month to the other, and went more than a decade without eating it at all. So let me try to imagine that they were, for example, my favorite ice-cream manufacturer....

Again, I think the solution is just as easy. BUY ANOTHER ICE CREAM. The idea that indulging my mere preference, when there is reason to believe it is coming at the cost of significant wrong-doing, is somehow OK, seems to me indefensible. Rubashkin's is not the only game in town, for goodness' sake. (The biggest, the cheapest, the easiest, maybe. But not the only.)

But none of what I've said so far has much to do with Judaism or kashrut. So let's turn to those topics. It is possible -- I'm no mashgiach -- that absolutely nothing Rubashkin's is accused of, would implicate the kashrut of its products. I'm willing to grant that may be true. If so, that demonstrates, at best, the incompleteness of kashrut for exhausting the moral dimension of eating. For those chafing under the yoke of kashrut, it might seem that being asked to impose still additional requirements (but is it organic? but is it fair trade? but are their workers unionized?) is just too much to ask. For those serious about halakhah, they would then appear to be choosing certain laws about food, over other, equally serious, laws about treatment of workers and more general morality. I think that's a bad choice -- and I could say a good deal about why -- but that is the choice. But for those to whom the purpose of kashrut is supposed to have something to do with "You shall be holy," it's just ridiculous to suggest that the demands of that do not encompass everything that bears on how a particular food ends up on one's table. "Halakhic man" (or woman), who will inquire into the holiness dimension of every activity in which it is possible for a person to engage, cannot be indifferent to whether the chain of events that bring a food product from earth to table includes unfair labor practices or the abuse of the earth. Putting blinders on by asking "but is it kosher?" and nothing more, is just ridiculous.

Which brings me to the last point -- one I tend not to make in very many contexts. And that is shanda. This entire episode is a classic "shanda for the goyim" (pardon my broken Yiddish) -- that is, a scandal that makes Jews look bad before the non-Jewish world. I don't think Rubashkin's is the worst meat-packing plant in the world. Probably not the worst in the U.S. But I don't care. They are Jews, and they are holding all of us up to ridicule and derision. They are making Jews appear to be people who care about ridiculous, archaic, hyper-technical rules (is the animal standing up or lying down?), while tolerating the most egregious, abusive, illegal labor practices. They make me ashamed to be a Jew. They make a travesty of our deep moral traditions, which have put Jews on the front lines of every battle for fair labor practices, for ecologically-sensitive agriculture, and so on. And they do so under the mantle of "Orthodoxy." They play into the hands of every anti-Semite and Jew-hater anywhere. And for that -- unless they are completely exonerated in a way that seems quite impossible at this point -- they should be roundly condemned and put out of business by the Jewish community acting as one.

blog comments powered by Disqus