What can we do? What choice do we have? Doesn't - or shouldn't - kashrut have to do with more than just the treatment of animals? What is being done about this?
There is something being done.
I received the following e-mail from Rabbi Morris Allen in Saint Paul, Minnesota, not too far over the border from Postville, Iowa. With his permission, I am reprinting the body of that e-mail here:
"[This is] a very distressing article regarding the treatment of workers at Rubashkin's. I met with Rabbis Zeilingold and Rubenfeld first thing this morning [5/26/06] regarding this, and all three of us share a common concern regarding this article and the facts it reports. None of us can tolerate a situation where the mistreatment of workers is permitted. We are committed to finding out as much as possible regarding this story, and working in any ways possible to us to help correct these attitudes and behaviors towards their labor force.
"Sadly, stories like this have been part of the American landscape for a century. Upton Sinclair would not surprised to read this story. Kashrut 'holds itself to a higher authority' and we will continue to apply pressure to make that understood at all points along the kashrut food chain.
"As I noted when I visited the plant in March, the intersection between my passion for kashrut and my support for comprehensive immigration reform and feelings for the life of those on the margin was quite evident. The kosher food industry should be at the forefront in fighting for this cause, and certainly those of us who believe deeply in kashrut must therefore be the ones to raise the issue."
It should be noted that this issue crosses all movements of Judaism and concerns not only all who keep kosher - no matter their political or denominational affiliation - but all who are concerned about the humane treatment of both animals and people.
The action in Saint Paul already involves a cross-section of the Jewish population, with Rabbi Morris Allen of a Conservative shul working together with Rabbi Asher Zeilingold of a nearby Orthodox shul.
Today, I received an update from Rabbi Morris Allen, again quoted with his permission:
"On Sunday morning, Rabbi Zeilingold called and informed me that because of our meeting on Friday, he was so concerned about the situation in Postville that he was going down there that very day. He took with him a member of his congregation to help him in speaking with the workers at the plant. I am well aware that such visits can be used in a variety of ways. I am not so naive as to believe that good fronts cannot be put onto almost any frame.
"I could not go on that particular visit; I am planning on making a trip by myself to speak with workers at the plant as well. I want to see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears how AgriProcessors treats its workers. I want to do so, not only because of my belief that kashrut must be seen as motivating us to the highest ethical standards, but also because I believe this issue is tied into the entire debate now swirling around us as it relates to immigrants.
"Clearly there are two different versions of events in Postville. Until I have an opportunity to visit, I don't know what to believe, other than I have to say that these past 6 months -- each and every encounter with Rabbi Zeilingold has been frank and above board. I have no reason to doubt that what Rabbi Zeilingold and [the congregant who accompanied him] saw in Postville is true. And yet, without personal on-site verification, I cannot dismiss the truths that may be found in the Forward's article.
"What I do know is that I am proud of our shul, in its measured responses and in the importance it places on kashrut. This entire episode reminds us of both the halachic and meta-halachic issues related to living a full Jewish life in our day and age. Our commitment to kashrut should make us the ones who demand that not only the LETTER OF THE LAW be followed, but the SPIRIT OF THE LAW be upheld as well.
"Kashrut is a difficult obligation for us as Jews to take on; articles like the one in the Forward lead some to suggest that, 'Until compassionate slaughtering and humane treatment of workers occurs, I will not eat kosher food.'
"I would suggest this as a proper response: "Because of my need to keep kosher, I am going to work exceedingly hard to make sure that the most compassionate Shehita and the most humane and civil treatment of workers occurs--for as a a passionate Jew, I have no alternative."
Actually, on Shavuot you do have an alternative: eat dairy."
There was an additional report included in the e-mail that I have not posted yet because I don't have permisson from the author. Having read the report, however, I can say that it detailed conversations between a deeply concerned, Orthodox Jew who also speaks Spanish and AgriProcessors employees regarding their working and living conditions, wages, and medical care. The results of those conversations led the report's author to believe that there is no wrongdoing, that employees have freedom to leave or stay, opportunities for home ownership and quality education for their families. He believes that employees are being treated justly and that AgriProcessors is operating within the bounds of Torah ethics.
I was not there. I'm reserving judgment. I find it hard to believe that two people can have such different views of what are ostensibly the same circumstances. What I do believe is that this is not an issue to which we can simply roll our eyes, make some crack about Iowa or meat-eaters or any particular group of Jews, and go about our lives.
We are what we eat, just as we are what we internalize. And as we celebrate Shavuot, Z'man Matan Torateinu (the Time of the Giving of the Torah), we can use this opportunity to think about how we internalize what is important to us: the sanctity of life, justice and equality for all human beings, and what it really means to aspire to what the Torah teaches us - to be the people that we have the potential of being.
I will do my best to keep you updated as I know more with the latest action being taken in Saint Paul, within the Twin Cities, and across the border in Postville.
Update: Two more articles posted yesterday (Wednesday) on this specific trip to Postville:
http://www.canonist.com/?p=871 (thanks, EK!)
Both of these articles also specifically mention the report from Rabbi Zeilingold's congregant who accompanied him on this trip. After Shavuot, I will see if it is appropriate to post the contents of that report.