Opinion: Right Angle

Shafran: Blowing the new kashrut’s cover


Issue of Feb. 20, 2009 / 26 Shevat 5769

Anyone who raised an eyebrow at charges that the “Hekhsher Tzedek” kosher-certification initiative recasts the very concept of kashrut might want to aim an eye at the Feb. 6 Wall Street Journal.

At a column, that is, entitled “A Quarrel Over What Is Kosher” by the Forward’s Nathaniel Popper — the reporter who, in 2006, first shone a harsh light on the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse. His reportage of alleged abuse of workers there was followed, in 2008, by a federal raid on the plant, the deportation of hundreds of illegal alien workers and the filing of criminal charges against its owners and others.

In his “Houses of Worship” guest column, Mr. Popper reveals some personal cards, of the sort usually held behind the fictional screen of journalist objectivity. Like his comparison of “bearded Orthodox rabbis” who “buzzed around the Agriprocessors plant” making sure kashrut laws, but not ethical norms, were being observed with the “progressive, socially engaged and mostly clean-shaven rabbis” who rode in, so to speak, on white horses to rescue Agriprocessors from itself.

Popper also characterizes efforts to persuade a judge to grant bail to a Rubashkin official — imprisoned before his trial for months despite offering to surrender his passport, wear an electronic bracelet to track his movements and post an exorbitant bond — as a campaign “to spring Mr. Rubashkin from jail” because of “an ancient Jewish religious obligation to free Jews from gentile captivity.” No mention of the fact that Sholom Rubashkin’s Jewishness (as it made him eligible for automatic citizenship in Israel) was among the factors cited in denying him bail. (The bail denial was in fact reversed by another judge — although Mr. Popper might consider the ruling tainted, based as it was partly on the testimony of bearded rabbis.)

Mr. Popper’s personal perspective is further on display when he extols “a more explicitly universal vision of mankind, in which a Guatemalan Catholic has the same weight as a Brooklyn Jew” — as if a spiritual bond to a religious community somehow implies criminal unconcern for others.

The essential point of Popper’s piece, though, is both true and important. He characterizes the respective positions of the Hekhsher Tzedek’s proponents and opponents as a dispute over “the proper way to interpret religious law and values.” Should we, he asks, “read our ancient texts literally or adapt them to a changing world?”

Popper doesn’t mean “literally” literally, of course; presumably he realizes that the Torah’s laws are determined not by literal readings but by the intricate teachings of the Oral Tradition. He is accurate, though, to ascribe to the non-Orthodox rabbinates a willingness to jettison elements of Jewish religious law that discomfit them.

By contrast, Orthodox rabbis are, he writes (with, one suspects, less than reverence), the “Antonin Scalias of the Jewish world.” One such rabbi even told him (you might want to sit down here) that he keeps kosher not out of social consciousness but “because G-d said so.”

When, in the fall, Agudath Israel of America characterized Hekhsher Tzedek as an attempt to redefine kashrut, that judgment was pooh-poohed by some. It is, though, precisely the Popperian paradigm.

And its trumpeting in the venerable Wall Street Journal will likely deeply disturb the main proponents of the Hekhsher Tzedek, who have in recent weeks sought to unbake the cake and recast their initiative as not really a “hekhsher” (i.e. kashrut certification) at all but rather a non-kashrut-related endorsement (oddly, though, only for food), renaming it “Magen Tzedek.” “Oy,” some progressively clean-shaven clergymen are probably thinking, “Popper’s blown our cover.”

Indeed he has, and with admirable honesty about both his own bias-baggage and the Whatever Tzedek. He doesn’t bother to disguise his feelings for Jews who believe that the Torah is G-d’s will and that its laws, whether fathomable or not, are sacrosanct; and he exposes the now-it’s-a-hekhsher-now-it’s-not initiative as an attempt to “evolve” kashrut into a plank of the social liberal platform.

What Mr. Popper seems to not fully appreciate, though, is the trenchant fact that the very same set of Divine laws that Orthodox Jews believe mandate kashrut and other ritual requirements and prohibitions mandate no less interpersonal ethics (including proper treatment of workers) and respect for the laws of the land.

Whether any particular Orthodox Jew honors or fails to honor those mandates is beside the point (although the Torah’s ethical system does forbid reaching negative judgments about accused people before a trial). But Orthodox Judaism is entirely as strict about the Torah’s ethics as about its rituals. So the issue is not “adapt[ing] Torah to a changing world,” but rather applying Torah to that world.

And so Mr. Popper has the dichotomy only half right. Yes, there is a perspective — his own and the non-Orthodox movements’ — that regards the Torah’s laws as entirely mutable. But the Orthodox perspective does not, as he seems to believe, sacrifice ethics to ritual. It, rather, elevates both to the plane of Divine will.

Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.