Friday, June 6, 2008

Sermon on Postville

Sermon on Postville
May 23, 2008
Rabbi David Jay Kaufman

In his commentary on this week’s Parasha, Behukotai, Rabbi Yehuda Appel wrote:

In the parsha, God addresses the Jewish people collectively, informing them of the severity of judgements - ranging from illness to exile - that they will face if they do not follow His path. The harshness of these afflictions can be seen as a direct correlation to the importance of the Jewish people's mission. As the nation who has been entrusted with God's instructions for creating a perfect society, the Jewish people are held to a higher standard.

Rabbi Shraga Simmons wrote:

The idea that "choices are meaningful" is so basic to Judaism that it is expressed in the very first verse of the Bible: "In the beginning, God created heaven and earth."

In my mind, in the Jewish Tradition, we are told to “Remember the stranger, for you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.” We are told to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Hillel taught us, “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn.” Maimonides Ladder of Tsedakah places giving someone the opportunity and ability to support him or herself on the highest rung. To embrace and help the needy is not only encouraged in our Tradition, but literally commanded of us. With this all in mind, how are we supposed to react to what occurred in Postville?

It is difficult to figure out where to begin responding or even from which perspective to begin. There are the immigration issues, the worker abuse allegations, questionable Kashrut practices, environmental violations, fines and criminal charges that have piled up over the past few years alone. Then there are concerns of how this event affects the Jewish community both as perceived by others and as we interact with each other. Finally, there are broader Jewish religious issues and issues of social action to address.

Not long ago, in December of 2004, a video produced by PETA during an undercover investigation at the Agriprocessors plant was released which showed animals suffering horribly as they were being slaughtered. These same practices were in principle defended as Halakhic, meaning according to the Jewish legal code, though numerous rabbinical authorities have strongly questioned that argument and challenged the Orthodox Union’s assessment.

The inhumane slaughter practices at Agriprocessors are so out of accord with proper Kosher slaughter that the Orthodox Union’s own leadership in Israel has questioned whether or not it should be allowed to be imported. Even the Orthodox Union has begun to agree with the liberal branches of Judaism that for meat to be considered “Kosher” it must be morally and ethically slaughtered.

Reports about the practices in Postville in the past few years are why many Reform and Conservative Jews are working to establish Hekhsher Tzedek, a righteous Kashrut certification, and not simply a minimally acceptable slaughter technique which in my mind, our minds, is not even minimally acceptable, but unacceptable.

On Tuesday (last week), members of the Conservative movement's Hekhsher Tzedek Commission condemned the company, saying that keeping kosher requires more than just adherence to ritual matters, but also sensitivity to the environment and respect for workers and animals. The Hekhsher Tzedek initiative is in part a response to past allegations of misconduct at Agriprocessors.

"The actions of this company have brought shame upon the entire Jewish community," the commission said."Yesterday’s discovery, along with the other violations of the ethical standards set forth by our Torah and our tradition underscore the need for Hekhsher Tzedek. To be sure, halacha has never limited its concern to the ritual elements of kashrut alone."

Yet as troubling as issues related to the nature of the Kashrut at the Agriprocessors plant are, they are far from the most problematic in my mind.

The massive violations of immigration laws and accusations of worker abuse, paying below minimum wages, and employing underage workers are simply not acceptable in any form. They not only violate the sovereign law of the land, but they violate so many principles of Jewish law that I do not have the time to list them all, violate a basic level of human ethics, violate the trust of those who would have purchased from the company, and cannot reflect worse on the Jewish Tradition and the Jewish people.

This is particularly true because our local newspaper went out of its way to reinforce the Jewish religious nature of the owners of Agriprocessors and even used decade old stock photos of Orthodox Jews at prayer in Postville to illustrate that point. In looking at reactions to the events in Postville, I checked several anti-Jewish hate sites. As you might imagine, there was no small amount of glee. The Vanguard News Network, the website for the American Nazi Party, went so far as to say its efforts in working undercover at Agriprocessors and reporting to ICE, Immigration Customs Enforcement, helped lead to ICE raiding the company and that they would continue to work hard to rid the community of the criminal Jews.

On these websites, the owners of Agriprocessors were not simply business owners that were caught breaking the rules, but they were portrayed as Jews flaunting the rules and exploiting their local community in order to make a buck off of needy immigrants.

Then this week, AFTER the arrests of hundreds of workers at the plant, Federal authorities charged that a methamphetamine laboratory was operating at the site and that employees carried weapons to work!

In the 60-page application for a search warrant, federal agents revealed details of their six-month probe of Agriprocessors. The investigation involved 12 federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the departments of labor and agriculture. According to the application, a former plant supervisor told investigators that some 80 percent of the workforce was illegal, evidently including at least some rabbis responsible for kosher supervision, who, a source included in the document suggested, entered the United States from Canada without proper immigration documents. The source also claimed to have confronted a human resources manager with Social Security cards from three employees that had the same number. The manager laughed when the matter was raised.

There seems to have been a callous disregard for the law, both Jewish law and Civil Law, at Agriprocessors. One cannot justify any of the criminal behavior that took place in Postville, nor the impact that behavior had upon the employees in the plant, their families, and the community. Our thoughts are with all of those who have been adversely impacted.

While it is clear that the centerpiece of this investigation was illegality and immorality on the part of Agriprocessors, the story is also a reflection of our nation’s failed immigration laws and practices which regularly result in trauma for illegal workers and their families as well as in reduced wages and benefits for legal workers. It is time for immigration reform.

There is another lesson in the Torah portion from this week that is relevant. Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky, talking about the curses mentioned should the people not follow the right path taught about the verse "And you shall run the flight of one who flees from a sword, yet no one is pursuing you" (Leviticus 26:36). He wrote:

Simply explained, the Torah is telling us of the inherent fear that we shall have from the suffering that we have endured. We shall run at the slightest thought, even when there is no one in pursuit.Perhaps this week, the Torah alludes to another form of curse. "When there is pain and suffering, when there is persecution and oppression, yet the world ignores the cries of those suffering - as if " no one is pursuing," -- that is a terrible curse, too. Perhaps that curse is as unfortunate as when the aggressors are clearly recognized for whom they are. Often our greatest enemies are not recognized as such. We are told that they are our partners and our fears are nothing but paranoia. Even our past experiences are being discredited by deniers, scoffers and skeptics.

We cannot control the ears and eyes of our detractors, but we can do our utmost to tell the story and make sure that they live on. And we can do our best to hear, too, the pain and suffering of those who cry to us, to make sure we understand the pursuers behind the pain.What does all of this mean for the Jews? Well, those who hate the Jews will still hate the Jews tomorrow. They have a bit more fodder to work on recruiting the next generation. The Vanguard News Network will move on to bashing Obama again.

For the most part, the broader community will treat Postville the way that it should, namely as yet another meat processing plant that employed a large number of illegal immigrants and which was raided. Granted there are some additional criminal complaints in addition to those. There will be questions about the future of Postville, a town which was struggling before the Rubashkins came to town and which now faces the loss of no small percentage of its population and wealth. Yet, the greatest problem remaining to be faced may actually be one within the Jewish community.

We have a very real dilemma. There is one Kosher deli in the metro area, Maccabee Deli. It’s owner is a member of Chabad, a friend of the owners of Agriprocessors, who sends several of his children to school in Postville and who purchases his meat from the plant there. This is not surprising since Agriprocessors provides most of the Glatt Kosher meat in this country. Many Kosher Delis are in the same boat.

The Maccabee Deli is a community institution. In many ways, it is the heart of Orthodox community. Do we boycott it? What happens to those who need Kosher food in Des Moines if we do? The meat that has come from that plant has been approved as Kosher by the Orthodox Union. Will we insist on Hekhsher Tzedek, telling the Orthodox Union, the dominant group dealing with Kosher food in this country, that we Reform and Conservative Jews, most of whom don’t even follow the Halakhah much if at all, know what should be Kosher and what should not be so and that they are wrong?

Many among us, Reform and Conservative Jews, do not even keep Kosher, yet perhaps that is only in the traditional sense. Some of us buy Fair-Trade products when we can, eat organic foods if we can, and avoid purchasing products made by companies and in places wherein workers are exploited. Many drive hybrid vehicles and many more would likely do so if we could afford one. We change out our regular light bulbs for energy efficient ones and we push for divestment from places like Darfur.

The social activist in me asks, “How can we not boycott anything having to do with Agriprocessors?”

The rebel, the prophetic part of me, asks, “How can we not condemn these actions?” and suggests further that, “Of course, we can tell the Orthodox establishment that we disagree, after all, isn’t that how Reform Judaism came to be in the first place?”

The advocate for Klal Yisrael, concerned with the implications for our Jewish community asks, “How can we take action that will harm, possibly irrevocably, an institution vital to the life of a good part of the Jewish community in which we live?”

The answers to these questions will be different for each of us. You will make your own decisions. As for me, I have decided not to knowingly consume products that come from Agriprocessors and that I will join with those pursuing Hekhsher Tzedek, a righteous Kashrut. Yet I will not act beyond those decisions in such a way that will harm our Jewish community though my own advocacy. We all, as Jewish adults, must take the responsibility for our actions and inaction.

Let us, strive for a higher standard, whether or not we feel that we should be held to one. Let us continue to “Remember the stranger, for you (WE – all of us) were a stranger in the land of Egypt.” This Shabbat may we, laboring to repair our broken world, in the words of Rabbi Kamenetzky, “Do our best to hear the pain and suffering of those who cry to us.”

Shabbat Shalom.

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