A new front opens on the Jewish culture wars

Jul. 9, 2008

For weeks it's been a he-said, she-said about the nation's largest kosher meat producer. There have been all kinds of allegations about Iowa-based Agriprocessors. The critics have primarily been the union, which is trying to take over the plant, and Heksher Tzedek, a recent liberal initiative calling for new-style kosher certification.

Most of the allegations have not been substantiated. It's ludicrous to claim that mezuza cases are pipe bombs, or that there is a drug lab in a plant under constant supervision by federal regulators and nationally recognized kashrut supervisory agencies.

While there seems to be no question that illegal workers did provide false ID to get employment at the plant, that seems to be the only real issue.

What is really going on is the creation of a new frontier in the battle between the liberal and more traditional ends of the Jewish community. Maurice Allen, a Conservative rabbi from Minnesota, has led the charge. He has received some support from his movement. But his real allies seem to the union and members of the Jewish Left such as the Progressive Jewish Alliance and the Jewish Labor Committee. These groups have never had any involvement in kosher food. Nor are they known for supporting its observance. Rabbi Allen wants to create a new brand of kosher based on modern social values. In any case, the classic dictums of the Shulhan Aruch - the Code of Jewish Law - apparently do not resonate for Allen, since he reportedly eats vegetarian in non-kosher restaurants.

THE REAL issue is not Agriprocessors. The company is just a battlefield of convenience, since its plant is not far from Allen's home town of St. Paul, while a history of contention with the union and PETA make it an attractive target. The Rubashkins, the Old World hassidic family which owns the plant, seems ill-equipped to respond to questions which play into Allen's hands.

One can wonder what is driving Allen. Is it a quest to bring the Conservative movement back into the multimillion-dollar kosher supervision business? Or does he truly believe, as many liberal Jews do, that a liberal social agenda should be the central value of the Jewish community?

His alliance with the union raises serious issues. He needs to reveal to the public if he or his organization are receiving any funds or support from the union. Many have also questioned Allen's tactics, which seem far from ethical. Recently he parked himself in a church in Pottsville, and, after interviewing plant employees pre-screened by the union, declared that there were "issues" with the plant. This action ignored Jewish law, which demands one not judge a case without hearing both sides objectively.

KOSHER CONSUMERS want little to do with this new kind of hechsher. The Orthodox community has rallied around the company. Allen got some support from tiny Uri Tzedek, a new liberal Orthodox social action group. But even that has evaporated. The group dropped its call for a boycott. After a month of strenuous effort, all it could muster was a bit over 1,000 signatures on the Web - no great feat when no one knows if those who signed even keep kosher. No prominent rabbinical leaders supported it, and its claim that Rabbi Steven Riskin signed the petition turned out to be false.

The kosher community looks to reputable kosher supervisory agencies like the OU to ensure kosher standards. It does not believe that kashrut should be based on a leftish agenda of social engineering. When a food producer is given a choice of either a reputable kashrut certificate, based on historic halachic standards, or one that gives liberal rabbis and the union a vote, he will undoubtedly choose the former.

The Jewish legal principle of dina demalchuta dina, that a Jew must follow the law of the land, includes food plants owned by Jews. This means Jewish law mandates them to follow all federal and state health, safety and worker regulations. If there have been infractions, Agriprocessors should be held accountable by the proper authorities.

OVER THE last few years, tensions have diminished across the theological spectrum in the Jewish community. The ideological splits still exist, but the rancor has dropped. Rabbi Allen's new initiative - and tactics - will not gain much support in the religious community. However if he persists, there is little question that he will heighten tensions between Liberal and Orthodox Jews. If he wants to fight for unions and higher wages for workers, let him do this as part of his Temple Social Action Committee.

No food manufacture in the US has accepted his hechsher, and it is doubtful that any will. Continuing this battle will only return us to the period of denominational feuding many of us thought we had left behind.

The writer is president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County.

[email protected]