Is It The Job Of Kashrut Rabbis To Make Sure That Workers Are Fairly Paid?

Nobody has the wisdom to decide what is fair pay outside of the employer and employee who come to a deal.

If an illegal immigrant will work for $2 an hour, then that is fair pay.

Nobody is putting a gun to the head of illegal immigrants and forcing them to violate U.S. law in their entry to their country. No rabbi has the expertise to decide what they — or any other worker — should get paid. If certain illegal immigrants choose to have sex with their employers to keep their jobs, that is their free decision. It makes them whores and their employers pigs but does it make their meat unkosher? That is proper grounds for rabbinic rulings.

I’m tired of rabbis who pronounce on matters where they have no expertise such as "fair pay" and global warming. A rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University does not convey special knowledge in climate change or give one superior understanding of the employment market.

In the Agriprocessors controversy, unless the rabbi has done extensive investigation, he should limit his public pronouncements to the following formula: "If what X says is true, then the Torah would say Y."

Letters to the NY Times in response to R. Shmuel Herzfeld’s Op-Ed (link):

To the Editor:

We take strong issue with Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld’s suggestions that the Orthodox American rabbinate, including the Rabbinical Council of America, has been indifferent to the accusations against Agriprocessors. The council issued a lengthy public statement on June 3, expressing our concern about the allegations and calling for a full investigation of the facts.

Unlike Rabbi Herzfeld, we believe that no rabbinic body — expert or otherwise — can do a better investigation than the federal and state authorities now engaged in such a review of the legal, non-kashrut aspects of Agriprocessors’ operations.

We are indeed greatly concerned about the ethical implications of the allegations, but they are still allegations — unproved and unverified.

We believe that it is also unethical to rush to judgment and deny due process to Agriprocessors. Jewish law — and the norms of American justice — requires no less than that.

By all accounts, current operations at the plant are in substantial conformity with the law and all applicable regulatory statutes.

(Rabbi) Shlomo Hochberg
(Rabbi) Basil Herring
New York, Aug. 6, 2008

The writers are, respectively, president and executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America.

To the Editor:

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld discusses the troubling accusations that have been raised against Agriprocessors and questions the response of the Orthodox Union. We believe that the various social and ethical issues — such as workers’ rights and safety, protection of the environment and animal welfare — are significant and ultimately rooted in biblical and Jewish tradition.

We also believe, however, that the definition, assessment and enforcement of these standards are best placed in the hands of the governmental agencies that have the expertise, resources and regulatory authority to deal with them appropriately.

There are various investigations in progress at the federal and state level. Due process is something to which Agriprocessors is entitled and with which the Orthodox Union will not interfere. Upon completion of these investigations, the Orthodox Union will take swift and appropriate action as warranted.

Our reaction over the past several years has been to respond with alacrity even to allegations. We were responsible for calling in Temple Grandin, a veterinary authority, to visit the plant and recommend appropriate procedures for the treatment of animals. Recently, we insisted that Agriprocessors install a competent compliance officer, and it appointed James G. Martin, a former United States attorney.

For the company to continue to function, it must do so in total conformity to ethical standards and to civil and kosher law.

(Rabbi) Menachem Genack
Rabbinic Administrator and C.E.O.
Orthodox Union Kosher
New York, Aug. 6, 2008

To the Editor:

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld’s article suggests that the organization that certifies that meat is kosher would have to certify that Agriprocessors is in compliance with secular laws as well.

In my view, the job of rabbis is not to certify that food is healthy, or the workers are fairly paid, or that they can legally work in the place that employs them, or that the treatment of the animals is ethical or even that the laws of the United States are followed.

The job of the rabbis is to certify that the food is kosher — nothing more and nothing less. I trust the government of the United States to make proper decisions about the other matters.

Michael J. Broyde
Atlanta, Aug. 6, 2008

The writer,

Rabbi Gil Student writes Haaretz:

To the editor of Haaretz, Ari Hart and Shmuly Yanklowitz wrote about their efforts in response to an immigration raid on the Agriprocessors plant (Repairing A Sacred Relationship, Aug. 9), actions for which I commend them. However, I was troubled by their unnecessary and inaccurate mention of the Orthodox Union’s failure to confront the owners on these issues. The facts are to the contrary. In response to these developments, the Orthodox Union forced management to replace its CEO and install an expert on compliance to prevent any future problems of the type of which the company is accused (for which Hart and Yanklowitz bizarrely take credit). However, the Orthodox Union is waiting for the conclusion of a federal investigation into the accusations before taking punitive action against the company. I believe that this faithfully represents the ethical requirements of Jewish law regarding someone accused of a crime – reserve judgment until an investigation is concluded but protect potential victims in case the allegations are true. In both American and Jewish law, those accused of a crime have the right to a trial before being judged guilty. The Orthodox Union seems to me to be responsibly balancing that right with the obligations it has to other parties.

Rabbi Gil Student writes:

Jewish newspapers are reporting on a rabbinic delegation that toured the Agriprocessors plant and, according to these reports, are declaring that there are no issues of concern there (5TJT, Jewish Press, JTA, Forward, Hamodia-PDF, Yated-PDF). If this is being reported properly, I’m simply at a loss. Perhaps what these rabbis meant was that, as of now, there has been insufficient investigation into the matter to justify refraining from buying Rubashkin meat. With my limited understanding, I agree (link).

But I can’t fathom how anyone, especially someone with no training or experience, can take a quick tour and render judgment on the matter. It is simply mind-boggling. There are many reports and I haven’t read each closely, but I don’t recall seeing anything about the rabbis interviewing the accusers. Or about them consulting financial records, medical records, and police reports. Did they speak to anyone at the local emergency room or at OSHA? I’m no expert but don’t these seem like things you should do before reaching a conclusion. Did they?

As I wrote before (link), it is a sign of wisdom to know what you don’t know. I’m having trouble with this whole episode and the only way I can understand it is by believing that these rabbis were somehow misunderstood and/or misquoted.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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