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.
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’):
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