Home    Jewish Vegetarianism    Online Course    FAQ    Jewish Recipes
What You Can Do    Links    Feedback    Media


Jerusalem Post Editorial
Read the original (free registration required)

Interesting Times: Cutting-edge kashrut
Dec. 16, 2004

I am an increasingly observant Jew. I don't imagine becoming fully Orthodox, but I'm a great believer in the power of the two institutions that kept Jewish communities whole throughout the centuries: kashrut and Shabbat.

I became attracted to kashrut, in particular, for two reasons: its ethical foundations and the way it brings Judaism out of the synagogue, elevating a mundane aspect of daily life. The ethical impact of kashrut is found most broadly in the simple idea that people, unlike animals, should not eat anything they want to. Automatically, this raises consciousness toward animals, as shown by the general Jewish revulsion for hunting. But the most concrete sign of kashrut's ethical basis are the laws of shehita (kosher slaughter).

The idea that it matters how an animal is killed was itself a breathtaking ethical advance for its times. In the ancient world, it was not uncommon to eat from live animals - a practice so abhorrent that its abolition became one of just seven Noahide laws that the Torah applied also to non-Jews.

Shehita took this a step further, requiring that cattle be slaughtered in a way designed to eliminate pain - a single, swift stroke with a unblemished knife, severing the major arteries and airway and rendering the animal almost instantly unconscious.

Dr. Temple Grandin, perhaps the world's best-known academic expert on humane slaughtering, writes that in the hands of the best shohtim, the animal does not move, seems not to feel the cut, and drops dead in eight to 10 seconds.

This, I must admit, was my somewhat naive image of shehita until the recent controversy over the AgriProcessors plant in Postville, Iowa, broke. A video secretly taken in the kosher plant and posted on the Web (www.peta.org) showed cattle having their throats cut, their trachea ripped out, and surviving minutes longer as they struggled to their feet while slipping, panicked, in their own blood.

Numerous rabbis and experts have responded with horror to this plant's unique and nightmarish procedure, which seems to violate both Jewish and
American law. The Orthodox Union, the most prominent of the organizations certifying the kashrut of the plant, has pledged that the ripping out of the trachea of sensate animals will be stopped.

But this is not enough.

IN THE modern world, shehita cannot be justified when, due to indifference or incompetence, it becomes less humane than the standard non-kosher slaughtering method, in which the animal is instantly killed by a bolt shot into its head. Jewish law prohibits any maiming of the animal before shehita, and so prohibits the standard procedure, called "stunning." But in many kosher slaughtering plants, particularly in South America, Europe and Israel, cattle are still slaughtered while hoisted into the air by a back leg or while wrestled or mechanically maneuvered onto their backs.

The prohibitions on injuring animals before shehita, and against cruelty to animals in general, need to be reflected in modern application of Jewish law. This means that the restraining method used in shehita has to be as humane as the shehita itself. Kosher plants that use well-designed standing restraints follow this principle. But there is no excuse for treating the many plants that use other extremely painful and stressful restraining methods as kosher, when such methods render shehita less humane than stunning.

Ironically, the AgriProcessors plant was producing glatt kosher meat: "Glatt" refers to an extra stringency in the law, in which the lungs are held to a higher standard of blemishlessness. It makes little sense, as Chaim Milikowsky of Bar-Ilan University's Talmud department has pointed out, "to insist upon the most stringent requirements with regard to the ritual portion of the slaughtering process and yet, at the same time, flagrantly not insist upon stringent requirements with regard to the crucial moral aspect." To do so makes "the entire kashrut endeavor of that person both suspect and absurd."

Further, the clear implication that "God cares only about his ritual law and not about his moral law," Milikowsky argues "is to desecrate His Name."

I want to be proud of kashrut, not just in theory, but in practice. I don't want to have to choose between my Judaism and my ethics - I find the thought that the two could be in conflict unacceptably troubling. I, along with some Jewish thinkers, already believe the notion of "kosher veal" is a contradiction in terms, since veal calves are kept in tiny pens their whole lives to keep them from developing muscles.

To me, if kashrut is not on the cutting edge of humanity toward animals, it's not kashrut. I would be happy to pay extra for "ethically glatt" meat. I have already stopped eating veal, and consider that decision part of my kashrut observance. Until I can be assured that shehita is being performed according to the full letter and spirit of Jewish law, I think I will have to avoid "kosher" beef as well.


- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11