The great unanswered question in the Doheny meat scandal

Well, was it kosher or wasn’t it? That’s the great unanswered question in the Doheny meat scandal in Los Angeles.

After Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market owner Mike Engelman was caught last month bringing uncertified meat into his glatt kosher meat emporium, his kosher certification was promptly revoked – just a day before Passover. Engelman said the meat was kosher but just not glatt – a stricter version of kosher. But he provided no evidence to that effect, which means the meat could have been treif (non-kosher).

So, was it? The rabbis at the Rabbinical Council of California, which was responsible for kashrut at the store, say it doesn’t matter, because any meat purchased before certification was revoked was kosher anyway.

How so, if the provenance of the uncertified meat was unknown?

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They relied upon the principal of "rov": If the majority of meat in the store was known to be kosher (and they say it was, because there was enough properly labeled meat on hand), then even if there was treif meat for sale, all the meat could be considered kosher. This principle applies so long as there was more kosher meat present than treif.

This is why all milk is considered kosher even though milk from a cow with a terminal disease is considered unkosher. Because we can’t know which cows are terminal, and we do know that most cows are not, kosher consumers can rely on "rov" to drink all cow’s milk.

So why don’t kosher consumers rely upon this loophole to mix in non-kosher meat with kosher meat on a regular basis? The answer: The halachic principle of “Ein mevatlin isur l’chatila” – one can’t do this as a matter of course.

“I would have eaten it based on the rov, and I’m a makpid [exacting] guy,” Rabbi Meyer H. May, president of the RCC, told me. “Truth be told, had it been treif gamur [absolutely non-kosher], it’s the same halachah. People wouldn’t feel the same – they’d say, ‘I have to kasher my keilim’ [kitchenware] – but it would be an emotional response, not a halachic response.”

Still, the question remains: Was Engelman’s fraudulently labeled meat treif or not?

Engelman maintains it wasn’t. Menachem Weiss, the kosher certifier who stepped in to recertify the store after the RCC had pulled out and the questionable meat pulled from the shelves, said he trusts Engelman.

But why should there be trust for someone we know is a liar?

And why has the RCC not pressed Engelman for evidence of the meat’s provenance?

"We didn’t ask him for evidence," May said. "It doesn’t change anything."

Don’t L.A. Jews have a right to know?

"He owes us an explanation, but I don’t have legal power to get an explanation from him," May said.

The RCC has some self-scrutiny to do. The group’s mashgiach (kosher superviser) at Doheny was MIA when the uncertified meat was brought in, in violation of RCC protocols for Doheny. What’s worse, Engelman was able to operate at Doheny for years despite the fact that he had a previous kashrut offense. In 1983, Engelman allegedly brought non-kosher meat to another kosher establishment in the L.A. area, Los Alamitos Kosher Meats and Poultry, according to the L.A. Jewish Journal.

"Had I know that he was caught once, I would never have gone along with it," May said, referring to the decision to give Engelman certification at Doheny.

How does the RCC plan to prevent Engelman or others who have broken the rules before from doing the same thing again?

"It’s a fair question. I don’t know the answer to the question," May said. "We are going to have an extensive external review and internal review and super review on the RCC because I myself don’t like getting an A- on anything. And I’m not about to start now. One of the recommendations could be that there has to be a list that’s created of people who are serial offenders."

But, May added, if Engelman opened up another kosher meat shop in L.A. tomorrow, he’d still have customers. There are always people willing to give kosher certification, and there are always kosher consumers who are willing to dismiss the Doheny affair as "just politics."

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