A Prescription for an Ethical Religious Practice

October 5, 2009
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Irene Lehrer Sandalow

Standing in Postville, Iowa, I was faced with a fiercely rumbling stomach and a personal decision: ethics vs. halakhah.

It was June 2008, and I had traveled to Postville with some of the staff and leaders of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, a social justice organization that has advocated on behalf of immigration reform. We were planning a march and rally in solidarity with the families and workers who were victims of both the largest immigration raid in U.S. history (at that time) and of serious labor abuses by the Agriprocessors, Inc. kosher meat-packing plant.

As a Jew who observes kashrut, I was unable to join my colleagues eating at a non-kosher restaurant. Even in this small Iowa town, a number of kosher restaurants were located nearby. But they were owned by the Rubashkin family, the owners of Agriprocessors. Wouldn’t it be unethical to patronize a restaurant owned by the owners of Agriprocessors? For the first time in my life, I was forced to choose between observing kashrut and following my ethical convictions. The nation’s observant Jews were being forced to make that same decision.

The reading of Isaiah on Yom Kippur is a yearly reminder of how ritual law and ethical practices need to complement one another. Isaiah admonishes the Jewish people for abiding by the laws between God and mankind while being indifferent to the suffering surrounding them. As it is written: “Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? […] Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house?” (Isaiah 58: 4-7)

Isaiah’s words send a strong message. Practicing Jewish laws and rituals, without being guided by ethical principles, is akin to wearing glasses without the prescription lenses. While frames are essential to hold the lenses, we should not focus excessively, or vainly, on the frames. Keeping kosher is essential to my Jewish practice, as frames are to my glasses, but rigorously following the laws of kashrut should not outweigh our efforts toward creating a more ethical society.

The Jewish response to the crisis in Postville has been encouraging. It demonstrates the rising consciousness among American Jews that our ethics and values need to be vigorously upheld. The Orthodox Union devotes vast resources to safeguard the technical aspects of kashrut; should we not safeguard the ethical vision of our forbears? Our institutions — even the kashrut industry, which includes meat processing and packaging plants, shops, restaurants, etc. — must protect workers and defend human rights. If Jewish ethics and social justice are central to our identities, we must make them central to our schools, synagogues, federations, shops, factories, and foundations.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai tells a parable of a man in a boat who drills a hole under his seat. Ignoring the protest of the other passengers, he claims that the hole is not their concern because it is under his seat. That limited vision of Agriprocessors’ role in the larger community is the essence of its corruption and is what led the company to its eventual downfall.

In the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Belgium where I grew up, we were always careful not to desecrate God’s name through improper behavior. Keeping kosher connects me to the ancient community that established a covenant with God to uphold responsibilities toward both God and humanity. Kiddush haShem, the sanctification of God, can be put faithfully into practice only when the ethical and the ritual are inextricably connected.

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Irene Lehrer Sandalow, director of outreach and education at the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, jcua.org, works to educate, engage, and mobilize the Jewish community in the social justice work of JCUA.


  1. There is something faulty about utilizing the role of a frame around lenses as a metaphor for the relationship between Kashrut and ethics.
    A glasses frame literally holds the lenses in place. Thus the lenses are the raison d’être for the existence of the frame.

    The same is NOT the case for ethics and Kashrut. That there is some connection between the two is assumed rather than proven in your article.

    If ethics are in some way the essence Kashrut practices then by all means prove the association. Keeping Kosher may connect you personally to a covenant between God and Humanity. Please don’t make that personal association into a universal assertion.

    For myself Kashrut connects me to a special covenant between God and the Jewish People. I however would never force this assertion uopon you.

    Posted by
    Ish Echad
  2. Give me a break! The Rubashkin family has done lots of lots of true chessid. What about you? You are just a talker and blow hard and by the way thanks for raising the price of kosher meat. Suggestion – visit any meat processing plant. It is hard work and the conditions are always difficult. For that reason it is largely immigrant workers that don’t care what they do as long as they can make a living. Maybe you want to take that away from them – not uncommon for a do gooder.

    Posted by
    Cathy Porter
  3. Everything Cathy said is entirely true! I live in a small town where the only big business is a pork processing plant. Of course no one has been arrested, but I would definitely guarantee that at least 90% of the workers are illegal immigrants. Also, the Rubashkins never did mistreat their workers! I have actually been to their plant, and the workers are not only treated kindly and with respect, but they like the Rubashkins. Interestingly, they are being offered citizenship in this country (for no reason) immediately if they testify against the Rubashkins. Does that sound like justice? The Rubashkins really help people, give tons of tzedaka, and are true tzadikim! People have to get their facts straight!

    Posted by
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