Monday, January 4, 2010

Ethics and Kashrut

By Susan Esther Barnes

Last week, a kosher poultry processing plant in New York was shut down due to health violations, including a lack of soap and sanitizers in the employee restrooms and processed chicken being stored in a tank without running water. This case brings to mind the much larger kosher meat processing plant, Agriprocessors, which was the center of a huge bruhaha a little over a year ago when it was accused of being in violation of labor laws as well as the mistreatment of animals.

At the time of the Agriprocessors scandal, the question arose, “How can meat be considered kosher if the animals and the workers are mistreated?” After all, one of the purposes of kashrut (the set of Jewish dietary laws) was to make sure the animals to be eaten would be slaughtered in a humane way, causing as little pain to the animal as possible. In other words, the animals were to be treated with compassion, and thus ethics and kashrut appear to be bound tightly together.

However, in the December 2009 issue of the journal Sh’ma, Daniel Alter writes, “Talk of the ethics of kashrut hurts Jewish ethics. It renders a tradition that possesses immense wisdom irrelevant at best and nonsensical at worst.” He later goes on to say, “Ethics is ethics; kashrut is kashrut,” as if they were two completely unrelated things.

This idea that one can separate ethics from the dietary laws – or anything else for that matter – is a foreign one to me. I would argue that ethics do, and should, permeate every part of our lives, from what we eat, to what we wear, to how we behave when we drive to work in the morning. How can we say food is “kosher,” meaning “fit” to eat, if the animals and/or the workers were treated unethically? Can something truly be considered to be ritually pure if it was prepared by someone who wasn’t paid a living (or even lawful) wage? What would be the point of ensuring an animal is killed quickly and painlessly if it were allowed to suffer needlessly in the days beforehand?

When we say laws are unrelated to ethics, or when we claim the letter of the law is more important than its ethical considerations, then we are worshipping at the altar of the idol of the law. And I think we all know bad things happen when we start worshipping idols.

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