Rabbi Shafran Responds

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On Monday, I wrote about Rabbi Avi Shafran’s op-ed in the Jerusalem Post, which expressed discomfort with those groups calling for a boycott of Agriprocessors. The company should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, Rabbi Shafran suggested.

I also solicited and posted a response from Shmuly Yanklowitz, a director of Uri L’Tzedek, one of the groups calling for the boycott. Now Rabbi Shafran responds. In an email, he expressed regret that he did not have time to carry on a longer discussion about the issue, but he did want to respond to Shmuly — a response that I’ve posted below.

Dear Mr. Yanklowitz,

Just as a point of fact, Agudath Israel is neither in the kashrut certification business or the business of warning kosher consumers away from problematic foods.

Our constituents, though, would indeed avoid a product were some kashrut problem be rumored about it, and certainly if there were some good reason to imagine that the product’s kashrut had been compromised. That would not, however preclude us from maintaining the presumption of innocence (at least if there were no hard evidence to the contrary). What I decried in my essay, in any event, was not the suspicion anyone might have about Agriprocessors or any individual’s choice to forgo the firm’s products if he felt that there was sufficient reason to think that the company had done something unconscionable.

What I decried was a public campaign that effectively pronounced and proclaimed guilt in the absence of compelling evidence – through a public campaign to boycott or threaten one.

I did not make the case for any distinction between ritual and ethical punctiliousness; all I did was point out that punctiliousness extends also to the ethical imperative to not seek to harm another Jew based on an unconfirmed assumption. And that is, sadly, precisely was has been done here. Even if Agriprocessors turns out to have knowingly hired illegal aliens, not properly paid them and abused them, that fact will remain: they were pronounced guilty before their guilt was established. And that is an ethical sin.

Please consider a scenario. I discover that you had to pay a large number of traffic citations and, further, that the sanitation department has cited you repeatedly for not properly placing your trash out for pickup. Then someone comes to me and accuses you of beating your wife. Do I have a right, in Judaism’s eyes, to worry that you may be more than a scofflaw, that you may be a wife-beater? Perhaps (although I am not certain). Do I have a Jewish right to make a public declaration from the bima on Shabbat that you had better stand up there and declare that you will pledge to not beat your wife anymore and, after Shabbat, sign a document to that effect, or face a campaign to have your employer fire you? I am quite certain that you do not.

“Interviews� are not proofs of anything. If your group chooses, as you put it, to consider Agriprocessors guilty based on such “evidence�, that is your choice. But I do not believe that it is a defensible Jewish choice or that any true Jewish religious authority would consider it one. That is what I wrote, and I stand by it entirely.

AS

Posted on June 25, 2008

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