Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Non-Kosher Tragedy

If you watched Constantine’s Sword with us last Monday night – or even if you didn’t -- you’re aware that anti-Semitism continues as a problem in too many segments of American society.

If you followed the trial of Shalom Rubashkin, former head of the Agriprocessors Meat Processing plant in Postville, Iowa, than you know that anti-Semitism can be a convenient excuse for Jewish criminals nailed by the law.

Here’s some background:

For several years, Agriprocessors was the main source of kosher meat for Jewish communities across the country. The owners of the plant were Lubavitchers, and within a short period of time, regular grocery stores in most big cities developed kosher sections – featuring meat from Agriprocessors. Especially early on, most of these departments were created under the auspices of other Chabad – or Lubavitcher chasidim … and many of us appreciated their efforts! They made kashrut easier than ever!

However, by 2004, it was apparent that the Postville plant wasn’t as “kosher” as we thought. PETA, an “animal rights” group, exposed cruel and inhumane slaughter there.

Sadly, a number of Orthodox rabbanim insisted that the techniques still met the technical requirements of kashut. However, heavy pressure, mostly from the Conservative Jewish world, led to the Rubashkins reforming their practices … or so we thought.

This is important to note. People assume that Orthodox Jews are more observant and adhere more strictly to halachah than do Conservative Jews.

Often, this assumption depends on the parts of halachah we take seriously… ritual that is technically correct but unethical is NOT okay by Conservative standards.

Eventually, the Postville slaughterhouse was raided for immigration and labor violations, and the management charged with serious criminal activity, including both worker abuse and heavy business fraud. Fraud!

Yesterday (November 12), Rabbi Shalom Rubashkin, the man charged, was found guilty on 86 out of 91 criminal charges: bank fraud, making false statements to a bank, wire fraud, mail fraud, and money laundering. He will probably spend the rest of his life in prison – he could be sentenced to over a thousand years.

I’d like to share the reactions of the Chabad establishment … and then the facts. As my colleague, Rabbi Morris Allan, said, “This didn’t have to happen!” Rabbi Allan is one of many who tried to prevent the debacle in the first place.

But first, the Chabad reaction.

Rabbi Shea Hecht, a leading rabbi of the Chabad movement in Brooklyn, insisted that the charges against the Rubashkins were all due to anti-Semitism. He arranged activities to garner Jewish support:
• On September 1, members of Chabad were asked to come to the Rebbe’s grave to recite psalms and prayers on behalf of the Rubashkins.
• Two weeks later, children were bussed to the Rebbe’s grave for a children’s rally.
• And of course, a great deal of fund-raising took place.

The reason for the fund-raising? To fulfill a mitzvah – pidyon shevuyim … ransoming a captive.

Only, the captive being ransomed was Shalom Rubashkin, out on bail, but charged with 91 counts of criminal wrongdoing.

Because there was “no way to earmark the funds,” it all went to the Rubashkin “cause.” This effort was spearheaded by the same Chabad leader, Rabbi Hecht, who blamed the legal issues on anti-Semitism.

The trial was originally to be held in Iowa, but was moved to South Dakota at the request of the defendant.

Chabad – determined to show their support – drove in a number of followers to attend the trial … and to show the defendant as a pious, good-hearted rabbi.

I can certainly tell you that no rabbinical school teaches about business. However, at my own school, Jewish Theological Seminary, we took ethics very seriously!

Shalom Rubashkin claimed that he got thrust into a situation he didn’t understand. He was a rabbi of a small shul, and suddenly his father bought a company and thrust him into the top position.

Poor guy didn’t know what he was doing, he just made a bunch of stupid mistakes.

IF THIS was true, it doesn’t matter. Torah gave him an obligation to learn what he was doing and to be careful.

The Torah itself tells us that a merchant cannot even OWN false weights, let alone use them. Tradition teaches that the first question God will ask in the world to come is: “were you honest in your business dealings?”

And all through our history, Jews have accepted the maxim: dinah d’malchut dinah … the law of the land is the law.

I’ve spoken about this before – not all of our brethren take the same view. There’s Torah law and man’s law. We only have to obey Torah law.

However, this is somehow interpreted to mean: it’s okay to cheat … Let me be clear … TORAH DOES NOT ALLOW UNETHICAL BUSINESS.

Even IF it did, the law of the land is the law.

However, the sad truth is: starting in 2006, TWO YEARS before the immigration raid, Conservative rabbis tried to help Shalom Rubashkin right his mistakes.

Here’s what Rabbi Morris Allan said yesterday:

“In August of 2006, after spending the summer preparing for the visit, the RA and the USCJ "Commission of Inquiry" made a two day visit to Postville. We took our task seriously, and spent these 2 plus days going non-stop from morning to evening.
Upon our return from Postville, we formulated three recommendations which were then presented to the Agri management in September 2006. The RA endorsed those recommendations and communicated to the Rubashkin family the belief that acceptance of those recommendations could change their business for the better.

"Sadly, on November 29, 2006 the Rubashkins rejected our recommendations. In truth, had the family accepted them, this trial most likely would never have happened and the family would still be in business.”

I won’t take the time to enumerate the recommendations. Suffice it to say, the ethical and legal issues could have been easily solved.

Rabbi Allan continued: "I share all of this now--because in truth the RA was on this issue from the start. Had there not been a case of hubris a mile wide and two miles deep--and had the rubashkin family understood that we came to them as allies in the promotion of kashrut--things might have turned out completely different… It is sad that today Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin was found guilty of 86 counts--but the sadder trial will be the immigration trial which is to start in December.”

NO ONE in the Conservative movement is rejoicing. We are all saddened at the tragic unfolding of events.

For ALL of us, we CANNOT hide behind or blame: anti-semitism, ignorance, or especially not the hubris of saying that halachah doesn’t embrace and include ethical behavior.

Shalom Rubashkin is a tragic example. By all accounts, he’s a very nice man … to some. Obviously not to his workers and to other businessmen. Even more tragic, is the possibility of lador vador, generation to generation. Rubashkin’s wife and children not only support him, but have publicly affirmed their belief in their father’s goodness and righteousness … which gives little incentive for change, for teshuvah. According to newspaper accounts, Getzel, their son, stated that everything is willed by God.

It is not. We all are endowed by our Creator with free choice – which means WE can choose to do moral—or immoral – actions.

For the Rubashkin son and daughter, I pray that they will come to understand that not everything is willed by God, that the holiest action they can take is to understand that their father committed serious crimes … and to order their own lives so they do not fall into the trap of so many others in their family.
May we ALL understand the choices that are in our own hands to make … and how much our Creator wants US to make the right ones.