The horror that is the Rubashkin meat empire has been well documented on other blogs and it is not my intention to add to the detailed work others have already done and continue to do.
My interest is in the response of the Orthodox Jewish community to the ongoing revelations coming out of Postville, Iowa.
Now, it comes as no surprise that the leading official Orthodox organzations, the OU and the Agudah have chosen a "circle the wagons" strategy to deal with the problem. Their approach is simple. First, deny there's a problem. When confronted with irrefutable evidence that there is a problem, downplay the facts and emphasize that there are all allegations, not convictions. Supervision is given to ensure the meat is kosher, not that working conditions meet a certain standard. When confronted with the sheer scale of the number of allegations, then dismiss critics as loshon haro mongers interested in bad mouthing the Rubashkins.
Chief amongst the culprits is the head of public relations at the Agudah, Rav Avi Shafran. Usually a competent writer, Rav Shafran seems to be using this issue to demonstrate his complete inability to understand the power of the Internet to obtain news and information from various sources. In the old days, it was quite easy for spin doctors to reassure people who had heard bad news, usually third hand from distant sources with no way to verify the truth. And yes, there is as much unreliable information circulating through the Web as there is veriable facts. But one thing is clear: something is very wrong in the Rubashkin's plant. Yet Rav Shafran continues to deny that the problems are real.
In many ways, his continued protests remind me of Mikhail Gorbachev's denial that anything had gone wrong at the Chernobyl plant. Back in the mid 1980's, he was able to keep that farce going for a few days until the U.S. was able to confirm the extent of the tragedy. Rav Shafran clearly appears to be using Gorby's playbook for handling the Rubashkin affair. Unfortunately, the world has changed around him.
His latest missive is especially odious. The Conservatives, in an attempt to find someething, anything, to rally their members around, have developed something called the Hechsher Tzedek(HT). It is a unique form of supervision that will ensure that any kosher products under its approval are produced in a "socially responsible" fashion. This presumable means that working conditions, animal conditions and other social issues will be considered before a product can be awarded the HT.
Now, although this sounds like a great idea, it really isn't. After all, something like 95% of Conservatives don't keep kosher. Remember that the HT will only be offered to products that are already under genuine kosher supervision. If 95% of their membership isn't even looking for real hechshers, how will adding the HT symbol next to the OU or COR make a difference?
What's more, it wouldn't make sense economically. Most companies that pay for kosher supervision do it because they recognize that having their product be kosher increases their potential market. Who would pay for the HT considering that it would increase sales in a given product in only a minimal fashion?
Finally, as Rav Shafran points out, the Conservative movement is extremely susceptible to the idiocies of political correctness. While the HT is, in theory, a noble idea, in practice it will quickly be subverted and only offered to those products that meet secular liberal standards, eg. unions, specific types of drug plans, etc. For all these reasons, the HT will probably not succeed.
But that's not good enough for Rav Shafran. One can almost hear the condescension in his voice in the article:
Needless to say, a kashrus certifier certainly has a right, and in many cases a responsibility, to ensure that a food-producing company or food-service establishment seeking its certification hew not only to the laws of kashrus but to other requirements of halacha. Thus, a bakery that is open on Shabbos, a slaughterhouse that violates the dictates of tza’ar ba’alei chayim, or a restaurant where tzenius is lacking would all be rightfully subject to a machshir’s insistence that the business bring itself within the bounds of halacha.
Really? But whenever Rav Shafran and his cohorts have been confronted with evidence of animal and worker abuse in Postville, the response has always been the same: a hechsher is only about kashrut, not about other thigns like working conditions.
The proposed “ethical” certification, in fact, would require or favor (and, puzzlingly, only for producers of kosher food, not any other businesses) things that the law does not require
What could be so puzzling to Rav Shafran about the HT only be applied to kosher food? One can only imagine what he would write if they were prepared to offer it to non-kosher foods as well. The HT, again, is about offering the kosher consumer an "ethical" choice, not about changing the American food industry. (Imagine the ad: Bob's Pork and Beans! Now ethically approved by the Rabbinical Assembly!)
As he did on several occasions, Rav Shafran would like us to return to the days when the friendly voice on the radio reassured us that we could trust the leadership of the community and abandon any need to think for ourselves. But the genie is out of the bottle. One can only hope Rav Shafran will realize this before he shreds the rest of his credibility on the harsh edges of the blogsphere.