Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Kosher Quandary: Ethics vs. Kashrut

Last night was the forum "Kosher Quandary: Ethics and Kashrut in Light of Agriprocessors Scandal," held at YU. The speakers were Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Menachem Genack, rabbinic administrator and CEO of the Orthodox Union's Kashrut Division and rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, and Shmuly Yanklowitz, co-founder and director of Uri L'Tzedek.

The Curious Jew was able to put together an unofficial transcript of the discussion.
Take a look.

For myself, I had difficulty following the discussion--firstly, because I had a problem hearing everything being said; secondly, because my 1 year old son threw up on me.

In any case, the discussion seemed to boil down to the issue of to what degree ethics tie in with the reliability of Kashrut. Rabbi Shafran--who has written about the Agriprocessors scandal in The Missing Ethic and Judge-and-Jury Journalism--emphasized the fact that the facts of what actually happened are still not clear since the matter has still not been tried in court. He also stressed the idea that ethical lapses of kosher food producers have no effect on the kashrut of the food they produce. He was not opposed to the idea of addressing the ethical lapses per se, he preferred to see the issue addressed by the Gedolim.

At the other end of the spectrum was Yanklowitz, whose group Uri Tzedek has started Tav HaYosher:
Launched by Uri L'Tzedek, the Tav HaYosher is a local, grassroots initiative to bring workers, restaurant owners and community members together to create just workplaces in kosher restaurants.
When he spoke, Yanklowitz was as intense as he was sincere--and he was very, very sincere. When he addressed the group, his speech was punctuated with the phrase "Where is our moral courage."

And that is part of the problem--

While Yanklowitz, in his enthusiasm, painted Agriprocessors in the darkest terms and described their crimes broadly, Rabbi Genack pointed out the narrowness of the actual charges against Agriproccessors and offered his opinion that the penalties imposed went far overboard. While Yanklowitz claimed that Agriprocessors was fined $10 million for paying below minimum wage, according to Rabbi Genack there were only 2 charges: hiring illegal aliens and bank fraud.

This inaccuracy perhaps points to an error in the forum itself, in that it did not start off with a clear description of what the actual charges were against the company. Since the issue of the forum became addressing their misdeeds, it would have been helpful to know exactly what they are alleged to be.

Yanklowitz's enthusiasm points to a potential problem with the project of Tav HaYosher. He openly invited people to join and become inspectors. I am concerned for the level-headedness and professionalism of people who view this as a crusade. There is a potential for a Hillul HaShem here just as in the reports of the charges against Agriprocessors.

Another issue I have with Yanklowitz's project is whether it might require restaurants to spend money to install equipment or raise salaries in order to meet certification, which in the end might lead to the restaurant raising prices or letting employees go. We are beginning to see how requirements imposed on the auto industry have contributed to their current situation.

Rabbi Genack was of the opinion that the Government itself was best qualified, due the resources available to it, to do the investigation of the companies.

For his part, Rabbi Herring pointed on that the OU has in fact acted to cancel a contract in response to ethical lapses of companies--no one is suggesting doing nothing. He also pointed out the difficulty of applying standards to different countries: how do you tell a man in Thailand that his 14 year old son is too young too work when the income is desperately needed by the family?

With the conclusion of the forum, there are still many questions--but the open debate helped put the issue into perspective.

Check out also coverage of the forum by The New York Times and

Crossposted on Soccer Dad

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