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The Postville Kosher Scandal — May 2008

The True Meaning of Kosher

Slaughter houses are not for the squeamish of heart. I have personally worked as a Kosher Supervisor in my twenties, and for a long time afterwards, I gave up eating meat. Many people probably would become vegetarians if they knew how their meat was obtained. From this perspective, Kosher slaughter is no worse than any other kind of slaughter.

The Kosher laws were designed to minimize pain to the animals; the blade must be so sharp, the animal loses consciousness immediately. Kosher laws are detailed and exact. In binary terms, kosher laws differentiate between the forbidden and the permitted. Just as there are permitted animals that we may eat, such as cows, chickens, sheep, and so on, so too, there are animals that are forbidden to consume, such as the pig or the rabbit. Yet, the concept of Kosher is not limited to just the Jewish dietary laws. It isn’t just what comes in the mouth that defiles; it’s what comes outside of the mouth that defiles as well. The way we communicate towards others is important. The spoken word can bring healing and strength, or it can bring death and ruination to a person’s reputation. Business also has a kosher dimension: there is a permitted way of doing business; there is a forbidden way of doing business. How we treat our workers is also governed by the same principle. There is a permitted way of how we ought to relate to workers, there are forbidden ways of treating a worker.

In light of this, the recent scandal coming out of the Postville AgriProcessors meat packing plant is offensive for many reasons. Although exploiting workers may be a common practice in many meat packing houses or factories, for a Jewish business that calls itself “kosher”, such behavior is indeed offensive. Even the appearance of impropriety is shameful in our faith. Unfortunately, Rabbi Aaron Rubashkin, a leading Chabad Hassidic rabbi of the Postville community allowed for many abuses to occur under his watchful eye.

The workers in AgriProcessors tried to unionize, but Rubashkin would not allow them to do so, for they were after all—illegal immigrants! There are many other alleged infractions that will be evaluated in the weeks to come. As a rabbinic leader in the Quad-Cities, I must say that the Jewish community is outraged and embarrassed by how AgriProcessors violated both the spirit and letter of Jewish Law—and secular law.

People were not the only victims. PETA uncovered a number of practices Rubashkin instituted that frankly, violated many of the Kosher laws governing how animals are to be morally treated. Jewish tradition teaches that animals are not machines—they are sentient creatures and how we behave toward them matters. We are forbidden to cause senseless pain to God’s creatures.

In summary, “Kosher” must be more than a method of how animals are ethically slaughtered, it ought to incorporate a dimension that is equally sensitive to the rights of the poor and marginalized members of our communities. Taking advantage of migrant workers is a moral outrage. As Kosher consumers, I think we have every right to expect that any Kosher business live by the ideals that Judaism is supposed to represent.

Rabbi Michael Samuel