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Times: Cutting-edge kashrut
By SAUL SINGER
Dec. 16, 2004
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
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
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
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
Numerous rabbis and experts have responded with horror to this
plant's unique and nightmarish procedure, which seems to violate both Jewish and
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
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.
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