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.email print