Sunday, August 17, 2008

Something's Not Kosher?

I've been following in the "Forward", the leading weekly newspaper for the Jewish American community, the debate over the INS immigration raids and the PETA activist undercover spies who combined, if more by timing than coordination, to bring Postville, Iowa, into the national spotlight. May 12 found the INS raiding the factory and arresting 400 illegal immigrants. It's since come out that some had given papers claiming that they were old enough to work, but were underage. The trials of the workers have been criticized for their rapidity. The Catholic parish there has served as a sanctuary and recently rabbis, ministers, and human rights advocates rallied there in protest of the INS raid and the plant's practices.

In defense, the owners have turned to PR, an explanation that they cannot be held guilty for the false documents presented when the laborers were hired, and that the restaurant workers' union's been engaging in its own duplicity in setting up the raid. They claim the union, liberal rabbis and church leaders, and pro-illegal immigration defenders have conspired against them. Additionally, as reported earlier in the "Forward," a smear campaign or a boycott on moral grounds, depending on your point of view, has been brewing since earlier this year, fomented by sneak videos taken by PETA infiltrators.

I reckon few of you may know about this coverage, so that's a bit of background. Most markets outside of the (sub-)urban Jewish demographic don't carry much in the way of kosher products. If you want meat, chances are that a few fryers or cuts in the freezers in stores near where I live will sum up the total of kashrut. And, odds are that they're from Aaron's or David's brands straight outta Postville. (Stephen G. Bloom, by the way, published a book predating this latest fracas, titled after the town, as exemplifying the Latino and Third World culture clashes in the heartland, as Hasidim from New York City and Guatemalan peasants brought Iowans face-to-face with considerably exotic faces, sounds, and cuisines.) The Rubashkin family's firm distributes kosher fare to most U.S. chains and it's pretty much the only alternative you'll find beyond the Pale of Settlement, so to speak.

Now, Leo had asked me a few months ago if I tried to stop eating meat (four-foots, but that's a start, right?) for moral or health reasons, and I demurred. But, reflecting on his question, I'd probably say both, with attention to how animals are killed according to kosher standards-- or halal as Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" movingly describes-- in a manner that ensures the beasts must be conscious as they die, so as to better realize their fleeting mortality and lost chances. Rushdie's vignette disturbed me when I read it six weeks ago, and as we ate at Harris Ranch as is our family custom on the way back from SF to LA-- surrounded by enormous, smelly feed lots fittingly south of a prison or two alongside desolate Interstate 5.

So, since I still gobble turkey and nibble chicken and adore fish, am I a hyprocrite? Thanks to a picky palate and a distaste for greens, I'll never munch salad, nor can I unfortunately live as I'd like on bread and berries and beer alone. All I can say is that I am progressing, and the discipline for nearly two decades of keeping some loose degree of kosher in the broad "biblical sense," as liberal Jews finesse it, has made me more conscious of my body, my regimen, and my responsibility.
That, to me, is the "reason" for kosher-- not out of fear of some Levitical deity's wrath, but to foster an awareness of one's relationships with nature, and the possibility for one's self-control over one's appetites. And, as I still miss shrimp and loved pork chops, I still feel the sting, as I should, now and then.

So, I understand that kosher to me fits into the category of dicta told in the Torah as not a rule applicable to all people, nor one based on reason. It's a third type, the command you follow just because It Says So. I have no problem with this, despite its lack of logic. Paths towards betterment which promise spiritual rewards expect you to heighten your conscience and your consciousness. The controversy swirling over the kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa involves, then, a relevant opportunity to examine what we mean when we talk about kosher.

Adherence to Torah-true standards of killing animals and salting meat? Inclusion of fair labor laws, wages, and legal status for workers? Not eating, as some in the Jewish Renewal and environmental movements argue, meat at all, and going back to the pre-Noachide state that we were meant to begin our life on this earth with, when we ate fruits (watch that apple) and grains and vegetables in our Edenic garden?

Here's a variety of snippets from The Forward's articles on this vexed topic. In July 31st's piece,"Marching with the Faithful in Iowa," Micah Maidenberg visits the pro-workers rally.

Outside the plant gates, Rabbi Harold Kravitz of the Adath Jeshurun synagogue in Minnetonka, Minn., spoke about the Jewish basis for worker rights. As Kravitz spoke, Getzel Rubashkin, a grandson of the owner of Agriprocessors, emerged and stole the attention of many reporters.

“Agriprocessors doesn’t have any positions on immigration. Agriprocessors doesn’t have positions on ethical culture,” said Rubashkin, who had a curly beard and glasses. “It’s a business.”

Hasidic workers wearing yarmulkes and knee-high rubber boots came out from the plant to listen in, some of them smiling curiously. Responding to questions about potential legal troubles his family may face stemming from the raid, Rubashkin said, “God watches out for people who do good.”

From "Kosher Fight Turns Rabbis on Each Other," Aug. 14, Anthony Weiss discusses the bitter words between liberal and conservative Jewish leaders on the ethics of the raids and boycotts vs. the morality of eating kosher meat. The Lubavitchers have, as Bloom explored in his book, attracted considerable media exposure for their factory expansion in Iowa:

“I think there’s a general feeling that in the Orthodox community, in many Orthodox communities, and especially in the more Haredi, more extreme Orthodox communities, there’s more concern for the strict rules of halacha, for how you cut the animal’s throat and how you examine the lungs,” said David Lincoln, rabbi emeritus of New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue, on a recently broadcast episode of the “Rabbis Roundtable” on The Jewish Channel television station. “They’re not really concerned about whether you’re stealing, or whatever, or going into court and perjuring themselves.”

Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, on Aug. 14 in "What We Saw at Postville," eloquently defends the inspections of the Orthodox rabbinate to the plant. This article responds to a critical editorial. The whole piece is worth reading, but if I cited every relevant reference, I'd wind up repeating the in-depth attention that the "Forward" devotes to this important topic.

The Rubashkins do indeed have a history of past behavior, but it is far from the checkered one portrayed by the Forward. Aaron Rubashkin and his wife are famed for treating everyone with dignity. They dispensed food and charity to Jew and gentile for more than four decades. Anyone who grew up in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn surely remembers the Rubashkins’ restaurant, which has fed more non-paying customers than real patrons.

Postville’s mayor and the local Presbyterian minister reported that Aaron Rubashkin is still up to his old tricks: He helps with the local food bank and the families of the workers who have been detained still live in Rubashkin housing, many paying discounted rent. He contributed to the construction of a non-Jewish community center in Postville. As the Presbyterian minister told us, “everyone knows if they have an event in the community you call Agri and they are willing to help.”

But no matter. The past is no indication of the present, and so I and two dozen other rabbis and community leaders went to see for ourselves.

Anthony Weiss, June 5: "News From Postville May Be Treyf, but Kosher Customers Keep on Buying," quotes sociologist Steven Cohen. Of course, most buyers of kosher meats are Orthodox or at least very strict Conservative; many of these shoppers appear to shrug off their choices. They contend that any slaughterhouse engages in the same practices as in Postville, and that there's no alternative available most places. Surprisingly, many observant Jews have not even heard about the raids and charges.

Rabbi Daniel Isaak of the Conservative-affiliated Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Ore., said that one congregant e-mailed with concerns about Rubashkin’s meat but complained that the only alternatives were to give up kosher meat or stop eating meat altogether, neither of which was desirable. Isaak said the e-mail was the lone mention of the issue, though he estimates that 20% to 25% of his congregants keep kosher in some form.

[Sociologist Steven] Cohen suggested that buying patterns might not change unless a clearer message emerges from pulpits and organizations about the moral implications of eating various kosher meats.

“People are unclear about whether all kosher meats are ethically tinged or some, or whether there was a problem in the past and it’s cleared up,” Cohen said. “And people who are committed to eating kosher and having kosher meat as part of their rituals are loathe to give up a part of their religious identity for a point of moral principle.”

If we get around to cloning meat, might this end the three-thousand-year-old halachic problem? Could any vegans return from pecking at nut burgers to devouring Whoppers? Perhaps not. Yet, if most people could eat safeguarded, and perhaps "naturally" produced-- if from cells in a lab rather than in a cow's belly!-- meat without stunning it first and then knifing it, perhaps the Orthodox would well shun the results as halachically unsanctioned, and perhaps their tie-dyed cousins might agree, for environmental reasons.

I wish they'd make soy patties tastier, and as for fish and birds, I do confess I regard them at least as further down the food chain, and give me credit as it took me four-and-a-half decades to overcome my the first half of my meat-and-potatoes palate. Yet, I suspect, as with the harried consumers interviewed in the "Forward" (and there's a lot more in the way of articles there on the subject), many would scarf down whatever flesh proves cheapest and tastiest. We do follow our grazing, animals ourselves. The Torah knows we should know better, but even it makes room for human weakness. And, in Canaan, it'd have been much harder to pass up the fatted calf kebab passed around the communal campfire. As for illegal immigration, forged documents, and exploited workers, that's another debate or two.

Photo from a Trader Joe's, 2006. From an informative site, itself gaining a quarter-page by Anthony Weiss (again!) on July 24th, "Blogger Focuses on Orthodox Foibles," analyzing traditional Judaism from the inside-- by an ex-insider:

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