Agro About Agri: Can Agriprocessors Do T’shuvah?*

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Agriprocessors just keeps getting better and better. Following on the heels of the recent Forward article about conditions for Brooklyn workers, the Times reports that Agri is asking the Supreme Court to deny workers in their Brooklyn distribution center the right to unionize because they are “not documented workers and not allowed to work.” According to the Times, Agriprocessors claimed “to have just discovered that…the workers were illegal immigrants,” just a few days after the 2005 union vote.(1) An image comes immediately to my mind: Captain Renault in Casablanca declaring, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

I don’t get to geshrei on my own website, so I’m going to let it out here. There’s a level of public lying which is not easily excused. A level which is so lowly and bald-faced that there really can’t be any normal or average t’shuvah process (repentance) for it. I think Agriprocessors may have reached that level a while ago.

Before all the Yidn get their britches bunched up about the eternal value of t’shuvah, allow me to quote a little halakhah (Jewish law) for y’all. Some sins cannot be repaired by t’shuvah alone. I’m not talking about whether or not Yom Kippur or issurin (suffering) completes one’s atonement, though that’s also relevant. The question here is a matter of public office. If the person in charge of the tamchui, the community charity fund, is found stealing from it, that person is never allowed to hold the position again, no matter how complete their t’shuvah. Any position that depends on a high level of trust from the community has similarly high standards and constraints. Being a butcher happens to be one of those positions.

According to Sanhedrin 25a, Rambam (Maimonides) in Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Isurei Akhilah 8:9), and the Shulchan Arukh (SA below, Y”D 119:15), a butcher who was trusted by the community and who was then found to be selling tref not only has to return the money that he was paid, he is also banned and removed from the business. He is not permitted to resume his profession, in the Talmud’s words, until he “moves to another place where no one recognizes him, and returns some lost valuable or doesn’t make use of a tref animal he has butchered for himself, even though he loses a lot of money.” The reason why, according to Rambam, is because only then can we be sure that “his t’shuvah is without false pretense or deception ha’armah.” (See the text below.)

We can debate about whether mistreating workers is like selling tref—some might say that it’s worse, and that “someone suspect of robbing is not believed in a [kashrut] matter” (SA 119:19). In any case, in my halakhic opinion as a rabbi, Agriprocessors was already found to be selling tref when it was using non-Jews to tear the trachea out of walking animals.(2) The fact that they had rabbis from the OU approving this practice is no excuse, because a butcher “is not relieved of responsibility by saying, ‘I [sold it] without knowing shogeg hayiti’ ” (SA 119:17). On the contrary, a butcher is required to be expert in the halakhah, and should be able to recognize that the mashgiach (rabbinic supervisor) is no longer to be trusted.

What is clear from the halakhah is that a slaughterer has to live up to a higher standard, and that one who fails can no longer perform kosher slaughter, even if they do t’shuvah, without going to extraordinary lengths. Complaints that Agriprocessors hasn’t been found guilty yet are really no longer relevant, for two reasons. First, the brief of their lawyers to the Supreme Court makes clear their position against worker’s rights (which is contrary to halakhah). Second, Jewish law applies penalties to a butcher who is even suspected (chashud) of dealing deceptively. Given Agriprocessors continued petition to the Supreme Court and inability to clean up its act in Brooklyn, despite the scrutiny in Postville, along with its campaign against Hekhsher Tzedek, it’s pretty clear that there isn’t any sincere t’shuvah here, b’lo ha’armah.

There’s room to debate my interpretation of Jewish law (and I’m sure Rabbi Shmuel and others will do that), but there’s no question that kosher butchers have to meet a standard that goes well beyond secular norms. I think it’s fair to say at this point that Uri L’Tzedek’s decision to call off its boycott was not only ill-advised, but also contrary to the halakhah.

In the days after the WTO protests (back when I was living in Seattle and imbibing the heady air of freedom that was soon enough stifled), we talked a lot about there needing to be a “corporate death penalty” – a penalty for a level of crime or wrongdoing in which a corporation would be forced to sell its assets and not be allowed to return to business. It’s a concept that could be applied to Charles Hurwitz’s Maxxam, and maybe to Exxon-Mobil. Maybe it also applies to Agriprocessors. At the very least, the level of t’shuvah required before Agri can be considered ne’eman, trustworthy people, should require us to keep in place a long-term boycott.

*Agro is Australian slang for being seriously angry. David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org.
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1. Here’s an excerpt from the 8/31 Times article:

“In September 2005, the company’s Brooklyn employees voted 15 to 5 to unionize, with one ballot challenged. The workers, most of them immigrants from Mexico, complained of low pay, not receiving time-and-a-half for overtime and not having health insurance or paid holidays…

“Days after the vote, Agriprocessors stunned its employees by announcing that it would not recognize the union because, it said, it had just discovered that 17 of the workers were illegal immigrants. The National Labor Relations Board nonetheless ordered Agriprocessors to recognize the union…citing a 1984 Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the right of illegal immigrants to join unions. Agriprocessors appealed the labor board’s order, with one of its lawyers…telling the board, ‘This should not be a valid vote for representation’ because ‘they’re not documented workers and not allowed to work.’

“After Agriprocessors refused to deal with the union, 14 of the workers went on strike for seven weeks. The company responded by firing the strikers. (During the strike, union officials said, management hired day laborers…, many of them illegal immigrants.) The labor board continues to insist that Agriprocessors recognize the union…”

2. The halakhic argument for allowing this practice was that the animals’ throats were already cut, so that the animal was counted as dead, and therefore this practice didn’t make the animal tref. The argument is bogus. The whole problem with Agriprocessors shechting is that the animals were turned upside down when they were being killed, which meant that the blood did not immediately rush from the head. The machine used to turn them over is called the “Weinberg Pen,” and it operates like a rotating barrel. (Its use, btw, is based on a misunderstanding of a Tosafot.) The consequence of using the Weinberg Pen is that sometimes the animal is still walking (and potentially sensitive to pain) when it’s turned out. (This is what you see when you watch the PETA video.)

Tearing the trachea and esophagus with a hook was meant hasten the collapse of the animal and so to save the meatpackers the few minutes between when the animal was initially cut and when it would bleed out naturally. To do anything like this is forbidden to a Jew, so only non-Jews performed the gruesome task. Even without these issues, the Weinberg Pen is associated with causing greater stress and pain to the animals than other methods.

3. Here’s an image of the text from Mishneh Torah (start from ‘Tet’):

Related Articles on The Jew & The Carrot

Did The Agriprocessors Boycott End Too Soon? An Interview with Ari Hart

Agriprocessors’ Shady Practices – In Brooklyn

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13 Responses to “Agro About Agri: Can Agriprocessors Do T’shuvah?*”

  1. Richard Schwartz Says:

    I wonder, respectfully, if the failure of the Jewish community to seriously consider our very long-time efforts to get a dialogue/debate on “should Jews Be Vegetarians?” and our assertions that the production and consumption of meat and other animal products violate basic Jewish mandates to treat animals with compassion, protect our health, preserve the environment, conserve natural resources, help hungry people and pursue peace has perhaaps led to a certain amount od desensitivity and made the abuses at Agriprocessors more likely.

    With this in mind, I hope that dialogue will soon begin, wspecially since animal-based diets are causing an epidemic of diseases in the Jewish community and others and contributing significantly to global warming and other environmental problems that threaten all of humanity.

    Further informaton at JewishVeg.com/schwartz and in our widely acclaimed documentary A SACRED DUTY: APPLYING JEWISH VALUES TO HELP HEAL THE WORLD, which can be seen by visiting ASacredDuty.com.

  2. Michael Croland Says:

    Great piece! I’m glad Rabbi Seidenberg has joined the crew.

    I just blogged about this piece on heebnvegan (see http://tinyurl.com/6ajokf), and as I pointed out, Rabbi Seidenberg’s sentiments are hardly unique even in terms of media coverage in the last two days.

  3. Catherine Says:

    I think that it is sufficient enough time for us
    to see know and learn, all the evidence presented and the harmful effects of a animal based diet can and is doing to our bodies and our earth.
    this should be enough for all to make a change and move toward plant based diets quickly!
    No more time to waste and we should view these incidences especially for the Jewish community agriprocessors scandals, as a Sign from G_d to change
    Stop eating meat! for the good our ourselves being kind to the animals and ourselves and others in the long term. Now more and more non kosher facilities are shutting down due to death related “Meat eating” Maple leaf foods, in January another non kosher facility Hallmark meat after the largest recall of beef 143 million pounds Tell me what more do you need?
    If Moses could speak today to all the remanent of Israel what do you think he would pronounce?
    “The plauge is comming”
    So avoid it completely!
    Its up to you
    Blessings and curse you choice.
    Choose life! and you will live
    this is the message in 2008 its pretty clear
    to many millions around the globe Jew and non Jew as they shift toward plant based diets.
    Let us take the example and warning signs and
    Do our own personal repentance and pray
    for Moshaich Today!!
    B’ezrat Hashem
    Thank you!

  4. Richard Schwartz Says:

    Hazon can do a tremendous kiddish Hashem by facilitating respectful dialogues on the many moral issues related to our diets. In view of the tremendous harm that the raising of over 60 billion farmed animals is doing to the environment, this could be a major step in moving our imperiled planet to a sustainable path.
    We have to respond to the madness and sheer insanity of so much of life today with what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called the moral madness of the biblical prophets.

  5. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    “Hazon can do a tremendous kiddish Hashem by facilitating respectful dialogues on the many moral issues related to our diets. ”

    But Hazon does just that Richard – its just that most reasonable people don’t subscribe to your extreme point of view. Your cute little curve ball “well, we should really be at a centrist position but since things are so bad, we’ve got to go all the way to the otherside to counteract. . yada yada” reeks of disingenuousness. What if I said, “well everyone should have a bit more Jewish learning and ritual in their lives and find a middle position. But since things are so “farfallen” everyone will have to be chareidi until we can find that equilibrium” – it’s an unsustainable (and dishonest) stance for you to take.

    There is clearly a problem. I have spent more than a decade trying to achieve that very same equilibrium. I sincerely believe that your rigidity and insistence on being right (at least as you see it) hurts the efforts of those who would rather be effective. I am not alone in my assessment. And you wonder why no one will engage you.

    I do have to hand you one thing – you manage to get your shopworn five talking points into every post no matter what the topic – you get an A for perseverence.

  6. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    David – a real chassid would point a finger at himself, examine his own deeds both individually and collectively and beat his his breast and say how he brought this state of affairs into being (or as Rabbi Mick says “I shouted out who killed the Kennedys when after all it was you and me”). Agri is a merely a symptom – we are the problem.

    Apparently neo-chasids are quick with the finger pointing – but at others

    gut shabbos

    shmuel

  7. Rabbi David Seidenberg Says:

    Rabbi Shmuel – You’re second comment is fine as far as its applicable, but it doesn’t say anything about the substantive halakhic issues I’ve raised. There are rules for how we deal with a butcher (or meatpacker) who doesn’t act in good faith, and the fingers we need to point at ourselves should be crooked into question marks: Why are we still buying this meat? Why did we ever buy this meat? For better or worse, since I don’t eat meat, the best I can do is to exhort others to put Agri where it belongs. Dare I also point out the contradiction in your post? You complain about finger-pointing at others, but you seem to mainly be pointing fingers at “neo-chasids”. What are you beating your breast about, personally, to change Agri? (It doesn’t matter whether you call it a symptom or disease.) I once again invite you to engage with the real issues of this post.

    To Richard – I’m writing something different than the veg issues you always raise. Your tone may always be respectful, but I don’t think it’s respectful to ignore the content and just post the same thing you always post. Look at the comments you’re getting.. Ta Shma!

    To Catherine – There are so many extraordinary problems in the world, and industrial meat is tied up with quite a few of them, but NOT ALL of them.

    To Uri L’Tzedek – You guys (Ari Hart or whomever) need to respond to this post. Uri L’Tzedek’s choice to back down from their boycott, just because Agri hired a compliance officer, seemed almost cowardly. I think Uri L’Tzedek used the concept of t’shuvah as an excuse. Perhaps the more important reason the boycott was called off is that the project was too consuming, as Ari said. In the face of the other Agri issues and the very clear halakhah, you need to come up with a new position. Here’s one: start boycotting all OU meat for their role in sustaining Agri in its desecration of animals, workers, Judaism, and Hashem.

    On Chabad – Many Chabadniks and Chabad fellow travelers are very defensive about Agri, which is run by Lubavitchers, and I understand this. No one wants to see there own guys fail. The Talmud gives a definition of chilul Hashem on Yoma 86a: someone whose friends are embarassed by his sh’mu’ato, his reputation.

    To the whole Orthodox community – Some in the community are still on the defensive, claiming that the hyper-focus on Agri is due to anti-Semitism. Start paying attention to the halakhah instead of the media. It’s no accident that we don’t just forgive and let live when it comes to something like this. Kosher butchers represent observant Judaism in a way that no other professions do, except mohel, m’lamed (teacher), rabbi or cantor. The whole assumption of the halakhah is that there will be butchers, meaning, kosher, shomer shabbos, otherwise religious butchers, who will do what they can to make an extra buck. It’s not a failure of the religion, until the Jews buying from Agri choose to turn a blind eye. Shmirat Halashon (avoiding gossip or saying negative things about others) is overridden by the halakhah related to people in public roles who need to be ne’eman.

    To myself – Now if I only could get the Orthodox folks I’m trying to reach to actually read any of this!

  8. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    “Dare I also point out the contradiction in your post? You complain about finger-pointing at others, but you seem to mainly be pointing fingers at “neo-chasids”. ”

    I fail to see the comparison between my discreet observation as to the overall incongruity of your tirade and your table-thumping, Rambam thumping “J’Accuse” of a shout out which you fee constrained to do here as opposed to your own site.

    “What are you beating your breast about, personally, to change Agri? (It doesn’t matter whether you call it a symptom or disease.)”

    I guess we have a difference in style – I like working discreetly and don’t feel the need to wear my accomplishments on my sleeve but I think my personal/professional views on sustainability and living a life of “hatznea leches” are pretty well known. I believe change has to come from within and the veggies and liberals screaming paradoxically cause the wagons to circle even tighter.

    “To myself – Now if I only could get the Orthodox folks I’m trying to reach to actually read any of this!” Ask yourself honestly why the Halachic community won’t engage you (or does that count as “finger pointing”?)

    well I’ve got to go sing “kum Baya” (my kids are still laughing)

  9. Rabbi David Seidenberg Says:

    Dear Rabbi Shmuel,

    I meant that I wish frum (observant) people who still eat Rubashkin’s would read this post, so that they could consider the halakhah. I don’t think many of those people come to the Jcarrot site. I was not writing about my own work in any personal way. For the record, I teach more in Orthodox communities than any non-Ortho rabbi I know.

    I was and am genuinely interested in your thoughts about the halakhic issues–so far you’ve avoided that. I am however not very interested in ad hominem attacks. If you’d like to share on the halakhic front, please do, but please stick to the substance. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to take a little tincture of Kum Ba Yah first!

    Shabbat shalom to you and your family,

    David

  10. Richard Schwartz Says:

    Rabbi Shmuel,

    My “extreme point of view” is NOT that Jews must be vegetarians. Thankfully, we have choices, but shouldn’t our dietary choices take the realities of factory farming into account, and consider how they impinge on Jewish values and taechings and laws?

    Can anyone deny that the way most animals are treated on factory farms is not consistent with Jewish teachings>?

    Can anyone deny that the consumption of animal products has been linked to many diseases?

    And, yes, with all the problems the world faces, is it reasonable to be raising 60 billion farmed animals annually worldwide for slaughter, using enormous amounts of land, water, energy and other resources, a;; of which are becoming increasingly scarce?

    in an increasingly thirsty world, with Israel having the worst drought in its history, is it wise to have a diet that requires up to 14 times as much water as a vegan diet?

    Why isn’t the Jewish community addressing these issues?

    Anyone willing to view A SACRED DUTY: APPLYING JEWISH VALUES TO HELP HEAL THE WORLD? It can be seen at ASacredDuty.com.

    With the world increasinly heading toward an unprecedentd catastrophe from globaal warming and other environmental threats, how can we ignore these issues?

    Shabbat shalom to all,

    Richard

    =====

  11. Leah Koenig Says:

    David, I thought you might be interested to know the actual demographic numbers:

    Of the 154 people who recently answered The Jew & The Carrot’s reader survey:
    12% identified as Orthodox
    9% identified as Conservadox

    Meanwhile:

    12% said they keep glatt kosher at home and away
    33% said they keep kosher at home, but eat non-kosher food outside of their home.

    So worry not, your message is reaching more observant people, from a kashrut perspective and otherwise, then you might think.

  12. Michael Kay Says:

    So far, no one who has commented has really engaged any of the content of the post. I’m not a halakhic authority so I cannot comment on that aspect. However, the deceitful union-busting tactics of Agriprocessors are despicable, and it seems that even without the benefit of Jewish law, one could see that this company has a serious ethical problem.

    Mr. Schwartz, seriously, the Jewish community is addressing these issues, right here, on this blog, and through many other endeavors of Hazon. Many people here do not support factory farming, and do their best to source animal products from more ethical sources. Do you ensure that the soy you consume was harvested in such a way that no small animals living in the fields died in the process? Combines, which do most of the commodity harvesting in this country, are not gentle things.

    You’re not the only one who is doing anything about global warming, factory farming, or even the Jewish community’s response to them. If Hazon is not evidence of the Jewish community (at least part of it – we’re not monolithic) responding to these issues, what is?

  13. Rabbi David Seidenberg Says:

    I just want to add as a coda to this string of comments that everything that has happened and continues to happen at Agriprocessors bears out the steadfast opposition so many of us have expressed.

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