Rubashkin and the “Hekhsher Tzedek”: Unethical in the Name of Ethics June 22, 2010 8:25 am
By Rabbi YY Jacobson
The following moving episode from the “other side” of the Atlantic was related by Cantor Moshe Kraus from Ottawa, who observed it first-hand. *
As a youngster, Moshe Kraus worked in the home of one of the great religious and spiritual Jewish personalities in pre-war Europe, the Rabbi of Munkatsh (a town in southwestern Ukraine), Rabbi Chaim Elazar Spira (1871-1937), known as the “Minchas Elazar.” In his duty of cleaning up and organizing the numerous scattered books in the Rabbi’s study, Moshe Kraus regularly encountered the many people who came to have the Rabbi mediate their disputes and quarrels.
One day, as moshe Kraus was organizing the books, the leader of a particular Jewish community, came to the Munkatcher Rebbe to settle an ongoing quarrel he had with the community Rabbi.
The community leader, who loathed the Rabbi deeply, has been hunting him down (what else is new in the world?). He went so far as to instruct his wife not to ask the Rabbi any questions concerning Jewish law. “Should you have any questions,” he told her, “you ask me.”
One Friday afternoon, a question arose regarding a chicken she was preparing for Sabbath, and her husband was not home. In desperation, she went to the Rabbi to receive a ruling concerning the chicken’s kosher status. The Rabbi ruled it was Kosher. So the woman went ahead and cooked it.
When her husband came home and found out what happened, he was furious. After inspecting the chicken himself, he announced that it was not-kosher. “Aha! He exclaimed. You see, I told you he’s not a competent Rabbi, as the chicken is not Kosher!” and with that he put away the chicken on the side and would not eat it.
After Sabbath, the husband, with chicken in tow, called on the Rabbi to come with him to the Munkatsher Rebbe to settle the matter. Once and for all, he would prove to the world that this Rabbi was indeed an ignoramus and unworthy of his position. Arriving at the Rebbe, the community leader proceeds to tell the whole story, showing the Rebbe the chicken. Finishing his narrative, he says: “Rebbe you see, the Rabbi is feeding us non-kosher food! He must be dismissed from his post.”
The Munkatsher Rebbe did not say a word. He simply took the chicken and examined it well. Then he took a piece of the chicken, closed his eyes, recited the blessing of shehakol (the blessing we recite before eating chicken or meat), and ate it.
The verdict has been stated: the community leader was in the wrong; the Rabbi was in the right. The community leader left the home angry and upset. His scheme to dethrone the Rabbi did not materialize.
Present at this occurrence was the Talmudic scholar Rabbi Yitzchok Sterhell (author of Kochav Yitzchok on the Jerusalem Talmud.) After the two plaintiffs had left, he turned to the Munkatcher Rebbe and asked: “Although according to basic Jewish law the chicken was indeed kosher, it was certainly not “Glatt?” It was certainly not on the highest level of Kashrut. Why did you have to eat from it; you could have merely said that it was kosher?”
The Munkatsher Rebbe slammed his fist on the table, causing all of the books to shake, and replied sternly: “And human ‘meat’ is Glatt Kosher?!”
The message the Munkatcher Rebbe was conveying was that if the laws of kosher food are being enforced while human flesh is being consumed, at the expense of human dignity and basic kindness, you ought to be weary of this type of “kashrut.” The Munkatcher was ready to lower his religious standards of kosher, in order to put an end to the ugly witch hunt of an innocent human being.
Where’s the Apology?
It is troubling to say, but such a form of “kashrut” has recently developed. A few years ago, a new kosher symbol by the name of “hekhsher tzedek” originated by rabbis within the Conservative movement and has been endorsed by the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis. Its mission statement was to introduce higher ethics into the preparation of kosher food.
The new certification resulted from the initiative of Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, following investigative reporting by Nathaniel Popper in The Forward (a weekly Jewish newspaper) regarding working conditions at the Rubashkin Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa.
In an interview with Pamela Miller from the Star Tribune, Rabbi Allen states, “While it [the team led by Rabbi Allen] was not able to verify all of the Forward’s claims, ‘we witnessed some things that went against the dignity of workers.'” Allen argues that “We should not be eating food that has been produced in a way that has denied the dignity of the laborer. We should not be more concerned about the smoothness of a cow’s lung than we are about the safety of a worker’s hand.”
Noble instincts indeed. Alas, as it turns out, this new kosher certification speaking in the name of ethics has been established on the foundations of horrific and unjust human abuse. For years, leading activists of Hekhsher Tzedek slandered the Agri kosher meat plant and its manager Sholom Rubashkin for the supposedly horrendous mistreatment of workers. Yet, on June 7th, a jury in Waterloo, Iowa proclaimed kosher slaughterhouse manager Sholom Rubashkin not guilty of all 67 child labor violations he has been charged with. It turns out that the accusations were unfounded.
[In separate charges for obtaining bank loans for the company through fraudulent reports, Rubashkin was sentenced today to 27 years in prison. The bank loans were being used to sustain the Agri plant and were paid up till the Federal government shut down the meat plant. The lawyers vowed to appeal this uniquely harsh sentence.]
We have not heard an apology from the Rabbinical Assembly for the creation of a new kosher symbol dedicated to ethics fueled, inspired and validated by the unjust character assassination of Mr. Rubashkin and his company. Does the Jewish world really want a kosher mark born of Jewish suffering?
Hath not Sholom Rubashkin eyes? Hath not Rubashkin hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? If you prick him, does he not bleed?
*) Cantor Kraus related this story to Rabbi Pinchas Williger from Montreal, who shared it with me.