February 17, 2009

A Rabbi Takes on a Journalist

A column in the Wall Street Journal (February 5, 2009) entitled “A Quarrel Over What Is Kosher", by the Forward’s Nathaniel Popper, seemed aimed at keeping the Agriprocessors saga alive. Mr. Popper is the writer who takes credit for first blowing the whistle at conditions at the Postville plant. Rabbi Avi Shafran, affiliated with the Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, raised some interesting points about the article in his own piece that appeared in many Jewish publications. Here are some excerpts:

”In his 'Houses of Worship' guest column, Mr. Popper reveals some personal cards, of the sort usually held behind the fictional screen of journalist objectivity. Like his comparison of 'bearded Orthodox rabbis' who 'buzzed around the Agriprocessors plant' making sure kashrut laws, but not ethical norms, were being observed with the 'progressive, socially engaged and mostly clean-shaven rabbis' who rode in, so to speak, on white horses to rescue Agriprocessors from itself. Popper also characterizes efforts to persuade a judge to grant bail to a Rubashkin official – imprisoned before his trial for months despite offering to surrender his passport, wear an electronic bracelet to track his movements and post an exorbitant bond – as a campaign 'to spring Mr. Rubashkin from jail' because of 'an ancient Jewish religious obligation to free Jews from gentile captivity.' No mention of the fact that Sholom Rubashkin’s Jewishness (as it made him eligible for automatic citizenship in Israel) was among the factors cited in denying him bail. (The bail denial was in fact reversed by another judge – although Mr. Popper might consider the ruling tainted, based as it was partly on the testimony of bearded rabbis.)
Mr. Popper’s personal perspective is further on display when he extols “a more explicitly universal vision of mankind, in which a Guatemalan Catholic has the same weight as a Brooklyn Jew” – as if a spiritual bond to a religious community somehow implies criminal unconcern for others…

When, in the fall, Agudath Israel of America characterized Hekhsher Tzedek as an attempt to redefine kashrut, that judgment was pooh-poohed by some. It is, though, precisely the Popperian paradigm…
He doesn’t bother to disguise his feelings for Jews who believe that the Torah is God’s will and that its laws, whether fathomable or not, are sacrosanct; and he exposes the now-it’s-a-hekhsher-now-it’s-not initiative as an attempt to “evolve” kashrut into a plank of the social liberal platform. What Mr. Popper seems to not fully appreciate, though, is the trenchant fact that the very same set of divine laws that Orthodox Jews believe mandate kashrut and other ritual requirements and prohibitions mandate no less interpersonal ethics (including proper treatment of workers) and respect for the laws of the land.