There is something not quite kosher about kashrut supervision these days. Treat animals with cruelty, treat workers with disrespect, and otherwise engage in poor labor practices, and exhibit one of the worst records in the United States for health violations, and you can still receive certification from the major organizations and be acceptable to the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County.
Let your waitress wear a miniskirt, play music that might cause someone to want to dance, or serve Shabbat lunch in a synagogue social hall equipped with a live microphone and you can kiss your certification good-bye.
Let us begin at the beginning — or, more correctly, the second beginning, after the Great Flood, for that was when God decided to let humans, who were supposed to be vegetarians, eat meat.
Explained the Babylonian sage Rav Yehudah, "Thus said Rav, ‘Meat was not permitted to the first human, for it is written [in Genesis 1:’9, "See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit,] they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land," [but it is not written] and the animals on land are for you. However, when the sons of Noah came along, He permitted [meat-eating in Genesis 9:1-6], as it states, "as with the green grasses, I give you all these."’" (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sanhedrin 59a.)
Why the change? It was a concession to our bloodlust — but it included restrictions meant to protect the ill-fated animals from suffering.
From that point on, the Torah takes very seriously the welfare of animals. In its wake, the sages of blessed memory set aside rabbinic-ordained Shabbat proscriptions to save animals from suffering because "[the law against] pain to animals is biblical," and thus takes precedence (see BT Shabbat 1’8b). This includes unloading a pack animal that is laboring under too great a burden, according to Maimonides. (See his Mishnah Torah, the Laws of Shabbat ‘1:10.)
The sages prohibited a person from owning an animal unless he or she could care for it (see the Jerusalem Talmud tractate Yevamot 15:3, in a statement by Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah); required that animals be given their dinner before humans get theirs (see BT B’rachot 40b, with Rav Yehudah again quoting Rav); and banned the injuring or killing of animals for no good reason (see BT Chullin 7b in which the principle is assumed in a strange conversation between Rabbi Pinchas and Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi).
The result of all this legislating is a category of law known as "tza’ar ba’alei chayim," which literally means "causing pain to living creatures."
Many of the laws of kosher slaughter were specifically designed to conform to tza’ar ba’alei chayim regulations. It follows, then, that if concern for the animal’s welfare is not apparent in the slaughtering process, the shechitah is invalid and the meat is treife. Hold that thought.
Other matters could, although not necessarily should, enter into the equation, as well.
The kosher laws fall into a category of law — the chok, or statute. The chief characteristic of this category is that there is no explanation for the law and, all too often, none is even discernible (not mixing linen and wool in a single garment, for example). Although such laws do not have specific reasons attached, there is a general reason that is obvious: These are laws that must be taken on faith. If you observe laws that perhaps make no sense to you merely because God decreed them, surely you must observe those laws He decreed that do make sense.
In other words, the laws of kashrut and their ilk function as mnemonic devices, keeping us rooted in Torah law generally, and reminding us especially of our responsibilities under tza’ar ba’alei chayim rules.
That being said, the Torah puts forth numerous laws regarding health and well-being, including the eating of foods that may have begun to spoil. The Torah also puts forth numerous laws regarding how one is to treat the laborer. It follows, then, that if concern for health and well-being, and for the laborer, are among the laws that kosher laws are meant to reference and remind us of, practices that violate these laws should be taken into consideration, at least, in deciding on certification.
And yet, the kashrut authorities do not see it that way. At least, they do not see it that way when it comes to the largest glatt kosher purveyor of meats—the AgriProcessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, owned by the Rubashkin family.
Its sometimes gross mistreatment of animals is captured on film. Its unfair labor practices — including, in another Rubashkin enterprise, withholding remittance to labor unions of the dues being taken out of employees’ paychecks — are well-documented (the Rubashkins had "a proclivity for violating" the National Labor Relations Act, according to an NLRB finding). Yet the certification remains unchanged.
Last month, the Forward newspaper published documents showing, it said, that AgriProcessors "received ’50 non-compliance records from the United States Department of Agriculture during ‘006, five of them for inadequate safeguards against Mad Cow disease, and multiple others for fecal matter in the food production area. While the entire beef, poultry, and egg industry had 34 recalls in ‘006, AgriProcessors had two during the last eight months, both of them Class 1, the highest risk level."
And still certification remains unchanged.
On the other hand, according to an article in The Jewish Standard two weeks ago, the RCBC will deny certification to restaurants in which employees do not dress according to RCBC standards of appropriateness or in which music is played that could cause people to want to dance. The RCBC also has warned caterers that they will lose their certifications if they serve food on Shabbat in rooms that have open microphones.
What constitutes "tsni’ut" (modesty) in dress is subject to a wide variety of interpretations. Whether men and women may dance together also is subject to varying opinions. There can be no disagreement — or should not be — about what constitutes cruelty to animals, unfair labor practices, or health violations. Yet the former is regulated by kashrut authorities while the latter is ignored.
Something is wrong with this picture.
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and an instructor in the UJA-Federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University. He is the editor of Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.