Wednesday, August 6, 2008

What God Has Declared Clean: Kosher Ritual and Kosher Labor Practice

Home now from the funeral. I know Steve must be far tireder than I am—which is to say, very tired. Travel is more purgatorial as one ages, and traveling in a time of bereavement doubly so. We had the ill luck to be seated beside avid talkers everywhere we found ourselves—in the Minneapolis airport, where we had a long layover, and on both flights.

What is it with folks who seem to think that everyone around them needs to benefit from their (often inane) conversations, when it’s perfectly possible to pitch one’s voice so that the person beside you can hear it, while the entire plane doesn’t? The maddening drivel we heard on the flight from Minneapolis to Little Rock—a young woman who managed somehow to get her bare feet propped onto the wall of the plane next to her, while droning at top volume to the woman next to her, using the word “like” every second statement: it just about did me in. A holy person would have been springing souls from purgatory right and left by accepting the suffering; me, I fumed and fretted and shot the woman futile looks of reproach totally wasted on someone who may never even have been taught to moderate her voice and to keep her feet off walls.

Interesting observation in what I was reading on the plane (when not fuming, fretting, and shooting withering looks)—P.D. James on the lack of theological conversation accessible to interested laypersons today:

Theology like other professions has its own obscurantism. The problem is surely that theology should impinge on the lives of ordinary non-theologians if it is to have influence. Surely it can sometimes be written in language the intelligent lay man or woman can understand (Time to Be in Earnest [New York: Knopf, 2000], p. 175).

P.D. James is exactly right, and that’s one reason I keep blogging here, even when doing so seems like an uphill battle. Far too much theology is written in abstruse code designed to baffle and conceal. Theologians today are often flatly afraid to write plainly—particularly in the Catholic church, but in other communions as well, where the push has been very strong in recent years to rein in critical discourse and discipline those who want to think across the boundaries.

In graduate school, I was advised never to write so that “ordinary” people could understand what I wrote as a theologian. It would get me fired.

And so it happened: my mentors were absolutely right. It’s when theologians make theological ideas accessible to the “masses,” when we write as if everyday churchgoers have something invested in the process of doing theology, as if theological ideas ought to be the common coinage of the entire people of God and not only of a trained elite class: it’s when we do that, that we get into trouble.

And not merely with church authorities, who certainly have a vested interest in controlling what we write and censoring our speech, but also with the powerful interest groups that fund the academic institutions that house theology as an academic discipline. The real pressure actually comes from the captains of industry and the right-wing political leaders who increasingly seek to control the governing boards of church-affiliated colleges and universities. They do not want theological discourse accessible to the laity, because they fear what “ordinary” people might do, armed with careful reflection on scripture and its implications for everyday life—including how we view the treatment of workers, our exploitative economic systems, and the rapacious approach to the environment that drives those systems.

Of course, I have also been a sitting duck for those movers and shakers of the academy, due to my “lifestyle”: a gay theologian trying to involve layfolks in theological conversations . . . a rather easy target for those who have manifold underhanded ways of controlling the decisions made by college presidents, behind the scenes.

And yet, if someone doesn’t risk struggling to make these conversations inclusive, what’s going to happen to the churches? It’s absurdly arrogant for theologians to think that our specialized discourse is the only possible, and the only important, theological discourse going on in communities of faith, anyway. Not only would breaching the walls that separate theologians from layfolks benefit the laity: it would cross-fertilize an academic theology which, in its intent to befuddle and avoid plain truth, all too often ends up becoming merely preciously jejune—altogether beside the point.

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Speaking of theology designed to reach people where we live, move, and have our being, the New York Times today carries a great op-ed piece by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld entitled “Dark Meat” ( Rabbi Herzfeld is commenting on the raid that occurred last May at the Postville, Iowa, Agriprocessors, Inc., meat-processing plant.

I’ve followed news of that raid and its aftermath with interest, and with shame for our nation and how it uses and abuses immigrant workers. Almost 400 illegal workers from Mexico and Central America were rounded up and deported. Many of them could not speak English and had difficulty understanding or responding to charges against them. Families were separated due to the raid. In many cases, these were families that had been living in Postville for years, their children attending the local schools.

Following the Postville raid, it came out that labor conditions at the Postville plant—which processes kosher meat under rabbinic supervision—were less than desirable. As Rabbi Herzfeld notes, children under 13 were working on the kill floor, and teens were working 17-hour shifts six days a week. An affidavit filed in the U.S. District Court of Northern Iowa to challenge the abuse of labor regulations alleges that a rabbi supervising the processing of meat at the plant, to assure the meat is kosher, physically abused a laborer on the kill floor.

Rabbi Herzfeld’s theological take on this story is fascinating—and is a reflection from which Christians can learn a great deal. He indicates that if the allegation that the rabbi did abuse a worker is true, “this calls into question the reliability and judgment of the rabbi in charge of making sure the food was kosher.” As Rabbi Herzfeld notes, a highly regarded 19th-century rabbi, Yisroel Salanter, “is famously believed to have refused to certify a matzo factory as kosher on the grounds that the workers were being treated unfairly.”

This is an interesting argument. It proposes that ritual action done by ritual authority figures whose behavior otherwise undercuts the fundamental ethical tenets of their religious tradition may be ritual action whose sacred significance is void of meaning. You cannot kosher meat when you treat any human being as tripe.

The ramifications of this argument for the Catholic tradition are mind-boggling: priests who persistently abuse the people of God—either through egregious unpastoral behavior or through sexual abuse—may be totally undercutting the sacred meaning of every Eucharist they celebrate, unless they admit and atone for their abusive behavior. If Rabbi Salanter’s argument is correct, then it is impossible to divorce what happens at the altar from what we do the rest of the week: when our celebration of the Lord’s Supper has no lived connection to how we embody Jesus throughout the week, then we may be engaging in empty celebrations every Sunday.

This is not to return to the theological controversies of the Donatist period, in which some Christians argued that priests that had handed over the sacred vessels or sacred books to authorities persecuting the church had lost the ability to function as valid celebrants of the sacraments. This is not to suggest that the validity of sacraments depends on the personal worthiness (or lack thereof) of the priest celebrating the sacraments.

But it is to note that ritual divorced from lived experience runs the risk of being empty ritual, when the lived experience contradicts in utterly plain ways the most fundamental ethical affirmations of the religious tradition in which the ritual celebration occurs. When the church permits priests to engage in persistently and grossly abusive behavior—in the extreme, when it tacitly permits sexual abuse of minors—and does nothing about this, but even hides (and rewards) the behavior, while protecting the abuser—the church makes it impossible for some of us to continue gathering for Eucharistic celebration.

We cannot gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper because the gap between what we see around us everyday and what we see on the altar is simply too great, too stark. It is our very belief in the sacredness of our central religious symbols that makes us unable to stomach ritual for ritual’s sake—to stomach continued church attendance, as if nothing is wrong, when everything is wrong at the most fundamental level possible.

The ultimate effect of the clerical system in the churches—with its implied claim that some Christians have the right to dominate others, and that straight males have a higher human value than do women and gay folks—is to call into question all communion celebrations in the churches. How can we celebrate communion when our lives absolutely deny what communion means, in our daily practice of the Christian life?

Until the clerical system is addressed—and until the bogus claim that straight males have an ontological status superseding all other ontologies is addressed forthrightly and with sincere repentance by the churches—the churches will continue to be in very serious trouble, when they try to convince the world of the message of God’s salvific love for all. After all, what God has declared clean cannot be unclean (Acts 10:15)—even when the “unclean” one is an illegal immigrant working to kosher meat under exploitative labor conditions about which she cannot complain, because of her lack of legal immigration status.


colkoch said...

Hertzfeld's commentary is very interesting. Intent is crucial in the formation of a true spiritual experience. I'm sure that's just as true for Mass as it is for my native friends. In any Native ceremony the first thing said is that people who can't participate in the ceremoney in a 'good' way should leave.

It's amazing what can happen when those of ill intent don't leave. It's not a good experience for them or the rest of us.

When I worked in the criminal justice system in Salt Lake, I found out that deported Mexicans were first flown to Denver and then to Mexico City. Apparently they were to fing their way home from Mexico city without any money.

I used to wonder what would happen if I had gotten deported from say France and dumped in NYC. I might have a few friends to call and bail me out, but I can guarantee most of the Mexican deportees were not going to find money for home as fast as I could.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, I appreciate the feedback. I just ran across an interesting comment from Papa Ratzi in a talk he gave years ago, long before he became pope.

He says, "Fellowship in the Body of Christ and receiving the Body of Christ means fellowship with one another. This of its very nature includes mutual acceptance, giving and receiving on both sides, and readiness to share one's goods . . . In this sense, the social question is given quite a central place in the theological heart of the concept of communion."

In other words, we can't legitimately separate Communion as a ritual from communion as the lived experience (and goal) of the body of Christ. To me, this insight has profound implications for the church's pastoral responsibility now, re: the clerical abuse crisis.

Unless the church deals with that crisis up front, transparently, without scapegoating (gay seminarians, moral theologians, etc.), all that the church proclaims about itself as a sacramental sign becomes empty words.