What has not been said about the Agriprocessors debate


The current uproar in the Jewish community regarding Agriprocessors (Rubashkin kosher meat products) is disturbing. I do not profess inside knowledge of the company and its management. I do not know the extent to which they are guilty or innocent of the violations of which they have been widely accused, violation of labor and immigration laws and of environmental protection regulations, as well as disregard for human dignity and issues regarding animal pain.

I would like to pose several questions. What instruction does Judaism offer when the welfare of laborers is in conflict with the welfare and monetary risk of owners? With whom should we side? When we do not know all the facts, in whose favor should we err?

The following story from the Talmud (Bava Mitzia 83a) seems to address this question:

“Some hired laborers negligently broke a barrel of wine while working for Rabbah son of R. Huna. Rabbah seized their garments as collateral. The workers went and complained to Rav. Said Rav to Rabbah, ‘Return their garments.’ ‘Is that the law?’ Rabba inquired. ‘Even so, return them,’ Rav said, quoting a verse in Proverbs: ‘That thou mayest walk in the way of good men.’ Their garments having been returned, the workers observed. ‘We are poor men, have worked all day, and are in need. Are we to get nothing?’ ‘Go and pay them,’ Rav ordered Rabba. ‘Is that the law?’ Rabba asked. ‘Nevertheless pay them,’ was Rav’s reply , quoting the end of the verse: ‘and keep the path of the righteous.'”

It seems, in the Talmud’s view, we must go beyond the letter of law, not in protecting the owners of a business but their workers, especially needy ones.

Secondly, I would ask, why is it that, for the most part, those Orthodox communities that regard the world outside of Orthodoxy as having intrinsic value have come down on the side of the plant’s workers, while those communities that are more insular have defended its management? It seems that one’s perspective on whether Agriprocessors has treated its employees fairly, paid its workers on time, violated the laws of the land, reflects not the individual’s research or knowledge of the facts, but rather his or her Weltanschauung, world view, and understanding of the Torah’s values and priorities.

Rabbi Zvi Zuravin observed this phenomenon in a recent article printed under his name in the St. Louis Jewish Light. He comments that Jewish groups critical of Agriprocessors appear to “have their own denominational and social agendas to advance, most notably the creation of a new food product certification based on their own liberal social values. Sadly, while they claim to be motivated by ethics, their behavior may suggest otherwise.”

I would argue that such groups are indeed motivated by ethics, but in this case it is the Torah’s ethics that motivate them. Indeed, in Judaism the commandments are divided into two major categories, those between the individual and the Divine, and those between the individual and other humans. What happens when these values are in conflict? What happens when there is not enough energy and scrupulousness to go around and give both realms their due? To which side should we lend more energy and attention, to our relationship with others or to our relationship with God? In which should we be extra careful and more conscientious, expend more religious and physical energy? In which realm should we do more than just the minimum required; in which should we go beyond the letter of the law?

What if a successful and lucrative kosher meat packing plant cannot be run without the backbreaking work of illegal laborers? What if we are told that the only way for the Jewish people to have access to affordable kosher meat is by violating the respect due to humans or animals or the environment? What if this business also supports yeshivot, Jewish institutions of higher learning? What happens when the commandments between us and God are in conflict with those between us and our fellow man? When the welfare of human beings is in conflict with making the mitzvah of keeping kosher more affordable, which would the Torah consider more important?

The obvious answer is both — but this is for idealists. Rare are the human beings who can care equally about the meat that enters their mouths and about their fellow humans and animals. One such person was Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, Chief Rabbi of Palestine in the early 20th century about whom the following story is told: Rabbi Kook was walking with the younger Rabbi Aryeh Levin when Rabbi Levin absentmindedly plucked a blade of grass. Rabbi Kook was visibly shaken. “How can you kill a blade of grass for no reason?” he asked.

We are not all Rabbi Kook. It seems most of us cannot always give equal energy to both God and His humans. On which side then should we err? Which should receive more effort and care?

The commentary of Nachmanides on this past week’s Torah portion (Deut. 6:18) is instructive:

“And you shall do what is good and right in the eyes of God…” Even with regard to that which you are not clearly commanded, go beyond the letter of the law. For God loves the straight, honest, and good. It is impossible for the Torah to mention all the ways in which humans will interact with their fellow humans, all their business dealings with each other, social norms and societal laws. The Torah does mention many interpersonal laws such as not being a talebearer, not taking revenge, not standing by the blood of your brother, not cursing the deaf, rising before the elderly, and so on. But then the Torah must tell us in a general way to do what is “good and right.” Meaning that with regard to everything (between us and fellow humans) we must go beyond the letter of the law…we must, in every situation be plain and honest.”

Thus says Nachmanides, though ritual mitzvoth must be kept to their letter, ethical mitzvoth between us and other people must be kept beyond the letter of the law. Indeed this disagreement between putting more stress on dealings with God and ritual as opposed to dealings with humans is not new. The discourse between, and the deeds of, the famous rabbis Hillel and Shamai, often reflected this divergence, with the house of Hillel placing paramount importance on the relationship between man and his fellow man. Both spoke the word of God, but the law follows the House of Hillel, for, says the Talmud, “they were nicer to people and more self-effacing.”

If anyone heard even a hint of Rubashkin’s meat not being kosher wouldn’t all kosher observant Jews stop buying it immediately? Yet when there is the whiff of abuse of the orphan, the widow, and the stranger, too many of us do not take action. Why are so many in the observant community so careful and scrupulous about one category of commandments, those between us and God, but not about the other category of commandments, those between us and other humans?

May we merit to change our ways at this time of year, may God help us all to both serve Him and respect people fully, and may we fulfill the words of the Sefer Hachinuch on this week’s Torah portion in regard to people who are immigrants from another place: “We must learn from this dear mitzvah of loving the stranger and convert to have mercy on anyone who moves to a new city where they have no family or supporters near them; just as the Torah warns us to have mercy on all people who need help…. it tells us that as we were strangers in the land of Egypt and God took us out with kindness, so too should we have mercy on any stranger in a similar position.”

Rabbi Hyim Shafner serves at Bais Abraham Congregation.