A Kashrut Crisis: Can Kosher Still Be Treif?

When asked at the supermarket checkout if 'kosher is about killing animals humanely,’ I choked. With alleged animal abuse at Tnuva, Soglowek and Agriprocessors, I couldn’t simply say, 'Yes.’

A few weeks ago, while performing a very important spiritual ritual in preparation for Shabbat (going food shopping) I had a bit of a rabbinic crisis. I had picked up a fresh, 15-pound Empire Kosher turkey for our Shabbat meal (or more precisely, my Shabbat meal; my wife is a vegetarian) and I was standing in the checkout line.  The gentleman behind the counter was nonchalantly ringing up my food when he suddenly stopped, apparently startled by something he saw on the register. It only took me a moment to notice that what had startled him was the price of the turkey. 

“Forty-four dollars for a turkey? That can’t be right,” he said; certain that there must have been some mistake with the computer.

“No, that’s right.” I said.” 

“What kind of turkey is this?” he asked, “Does it also do your taxes?”

“No,” I said, “It’s a kosher turkey and kosher turkeys are more expensive than non-kosher ones.”

Then came the big question: “What does kosher mean anyway? Doesn’t it have something to do with the rabbi blessing the meat?”

“Well yes, but no, not exactly,” I answered, wondering just how far down the legal rabbit hole I should go. “It really has to do with the way the animal is slaughtered.”

“Oh you mean it’s killed in a more humane way?” he asked.

And this is when the crisis hit me.

How should I answer his legitimate question? What should I say? Maybe I should answer him by explaining that the actual laws in the Torah probably have nothing to do with treating the animal kindly at its time of death. After all, we all know that no matter how ‘kindly’ you kill a pig or a lobster – it still isn’t kosher. Or maybe I should just give the poor guy a break and answer him with a resounding “yes,” saying, “Actually it is the more humane way and that’s why being kosher matters to us as Jews, because we Jews are concerned about the safety and welfare of all of God’s creatures on earth.” 

But in light of some very disturbing recent events in Israel and America, to say this would simply be a lie.

An exposé on the Israeli television program Kolbotek revealed shocking examples of animal cruelty in Tnuva’s Adom Adom cattle slaughterhouse plant in Beit She’an. Last week, Haaretz reported that “The alleged abuse included repeated electric shocks to get the animals to move, including shocks to the animals’ genitals and eyes; beatings of calves and lambs with sticks and pipes; dragging lambs by the legs and various incidents of kicking, pushing, ear-pulling and other abuse.” To date, four workers have been indicted for these abuses, though it seems that, for the moment, the company’s brass will escape any criminal charges.

Additionally, in October of last year, yet another Kosher meat producer, Soglowek, was found to have widespread cases of animal abuse according a Kolbotek report. But at least in that case, the CEO apologized, saying “We regret and apologize for what was shown on Kolbotek, which doesn’t reflect Soglowek's spirit and policies.” 

These incidents will no doubt remind American Jews of the scandal regarding a 2008 raid of an Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. While animal cruelty was not the focus of that particular raid (earlier investigations, in 2004, focused on inhumane practices at the Postville slaughterhouse), the federal government arrested workers and management at the plant, including 389 illegal immigrant workers who claimed widespread worker abuse and harassment. The case ultimately resulted not in immigration or animal abuse charges, but instead in a 27-year sentence for the plant manager on financial fraud charges.

So… what was I to answer this innocent supermarket clerk?

One honest answer is that it seems that Jewish people sometimes lose sight of all 613 mitzvot, and instead myopically focus on one or two individual commandments in favor of all the others. And therefore we must reject the notion that the mitzvah of “Thou shalt not seethe a calf in its mother’s milk” is somehow more important than the mitzvah that says “The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you overnight.” We must reject the notion that the commandment “Everything in the water that has no fins and scales shall be an abomination for you” takes precedence over “You shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.” We must bring ourselves to realize that the mitzvah of “You may eat any land animal who has cleft hooves and chews its cud,” can and must be fulfilled in harmony with the law that requires us to respect all living things, tza’ar ba’alei hayyim.

And sometimes the result of these scandals serve as motivation for internal community improvement; for example, in the wake of the 2008 Agriprocessors raid, the Conservative Movement in America, under the rabbinic leadership of Rabbi Morris Allen, created the Magen Tzedek Hekhsher, a Kosher symbol that speaks to whether or not a company is compliant with the totality of Jewish ethics and social values. While this particular hekhsher (kashrut certificate) is not nearly as well known or well recognized as the ubiquitous OU, one hopes that it will gain traction as a potential answer to the kashrut crisis of our times.

There is a famous story about Rabbi Israel Salanter, father of the traditional and hyper-ethical Mussar movement, and his rabbinical role preceding the important holiday of Passover. Among the many commandments surrounding this holiday, which require a tremendous eye for detail, is that of baking the matza in a particular way. So, before each and every Passover, Rabbi Salanter would make sure that he himself personally supervised the baking of each and every matza for his community. One year, he became sick before the holiday and was unable to supervise the baking. Immediately, his students came into his room and the begged him, “Rabbi, please tell us what it is that you supervise while you watch the people making the matza. This way we can be sure to know that the matza is up to your high halakhic standards.” Rabbi Salanter simply looked at them and said, “Be certain that the workers are paid fairly,” and that was it.

So what was my answer to that supermarket clerk’s innocent question, “Does kosher mean more humane?”

I answered, “Yes, it should mean that; and maybe one day it will.”

Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the Director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Jewish Summer Camp experience under the educational auspices of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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