Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Do As I Say, Not As I Do: Debates about Kosher and the Limits of Paternalism in Making of Religious Meaning

With my recent focus on the aftermath of the California Supreme Court decision about prop 8, I don’t want to lose sight of a valuable article that updates a previous discussion on this blog. In a number of previous postings (here and here), I looked at a fascinating discussion now underway in American Judaism, following the raids at the Agriprocessor meat-processing plant in Postville, Iowa, in May 2008.

As those postings note, the plant at which immigrant workers were rounded up by federal officials processed kosher meats, in conformity to Jewish dietary laws. Following the federal raid, questions arose about the labor practices of the plant’s owners and managers. There were allegations that those working under rabbinic supervision at Postville included children, and that laborers were physically abused and forced to work 17-hour shifts six days a week.

These revelations gave rise to a discussion in American Jewish communities about what kosher can possibly mean, when food that is declared ritually pure is produced in circumstances that violate a religious tradition’s ethical norms regarding just treatment of workers. As Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld noted in a New York Times op-ed discussion of the issues last August, when ritual action is done by a ritual authority figure whose behavior undercuts the ethical tenets of his or her religious tradition, the significance of the ritual action is itself undermined. One may ask, in light of what came out following the Postville raid, whether one can really kosher meat when one treats any human being as tripe.

Other Jewish thinkers commenting on the revelations about the Postville plant called for the creation of a set of “social justice criteria” to accompany the koshering of food, so that food stamped as kosher would also receive a stamp of approval verifying that it was produced under ethically tenable working conditions.

Several days ago at Religion Dispatches, Benjamin Weiner offered a summary of this discussion, as it now stands. Weiner notes that while some ultra-orthodox believers have rejected criticism of the labor practices at Postville’s Agriprocessor plant as a “blood libel” against a pious family, other Jewish communities have continued the discussion of what kosher can mean, when a kosher food producer contravenes ethical teachings about the treatment of workers.

As Weiner indicates, some groups are now proposing that food declared kosher would receive a seal that simultaneously declares it to have been produced under fair labor conditions: heksher tzedek, a phrase that combines the terms "kashrut seal of approval", and "righteousness." Other groups are proposing the development of what is called a Tav HaYosher—an "ethical seal" that would supplement the kosher designation, assuring that the food which is declared kosher was also produced in circumstances that do not violate norms of ethical treatment of workers.

As Weiner notes,

The ancient rabbis taught that since the destruction of the Temple a Jew's own table is his or her sacred altar, and should be subject to the same degree of sanctity. Kashrut is not meant to be a system of arbitrary food taboos, but a discipline that elevates the human drive to eat above the kind of desecrations Agriprocessors may have committed.

And this observation captures why this Jewish argument should be of significance to Christians, I would argue. Christianity shares with (and borrows from) Judaism the sense that table practice has sacred significance: that a home’s table is its altar, and that when a family gathers around the table for a meal, it does so not only to eat, but to pray and give thanks, as well.

This understanding of the “secular” table of families is built into Christianity through Jesus’s own constant emphasis in the gospel stories on table fellowship with outcasts. Again and again, Jesus chose to share his meals with those pushed to the fringes of his society, those not welcome at the tables of the righteous and the “normal” or normative.

The Christian practice of Eucharist or Lord’s Supper incorporates these themes, reminding Christians every time they gather to worship that breaking bread with others in the ritual action of communion obligates us as well to share the bread of daily life with others—particularly with the dispossessed and marginalized—in our workaday lives. For Christianity—if we read the gospels aright—there is no separation between the ritual action of church and the “secular” action of breaking bread together at the family dinner table. We cannot claim to be celebrating the Lord’s Supper faithfully if our behavior at the other, everyday tables at which we sit to share food violates all that is implied in ritual communion.

I am especially taken with the argument that the very designation of a food as kosher implies that it is not merely ritually pure, but also produced in ethically defensible circumstances. One of the most significant developments in the world of religious thought during the modern and postmodern periods has been the recognition that ethics is not somewhere over there, as we determine the meaning of religious beliefs. It is part and parcel of what religion and the beliefs of a religion mean.

Prior to modernity, various religious groups established the “truth” of their religious teachings entirely apart from any consideration of the ethical behavior that lay behind those “truths,” and often without serious consideration of the ethical implications of the “truths” under consideration. With modernity and its turn to the subject in philosophical thought, the divorce of systematic theology from ethics became insupportable.

We now recognize that what a religious teaching does—what it does to real-life human beings, in their everyday lives—is part and parcel of what it means. It is no longer possible to talk about the meaning of religious ideas without examining what those ideas do to people—without examining their ethical effect on people.

This is a turn that has long been resisted by authoritarian and literalist religious traditions, including the current leaders of the Catholic church, as they continue the battle against modernity even as we enter the postmodern period. The reason for that resistance is obvious: as long as we can determine the meaning of religious ideas from some center of authority, without attending carefully to the ethical significance of those ideas—and, above all, to the ethical behavior (or lack thereof) of those occupying a community's center of authority—we do not have to look at the connection between what we proclaim and what we do and live.

But once it becomes clear that what we proclaim is inherently connected to what we do and what we live, the question of establishing authentic meaning (“truth”) in religious communities becomes much more challenging. And at the same time, far more like what the founding figures of religious traditions, like Jesus and Moses, usually envisaged as they set their communities of faith into motion . . . .