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The recent undercover operation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals at AgriProcessors Inc., a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, was a public-relations coup for the militant animal-rights group. A volunteer who got a job at the plant used a hidden camera to videotape the slaughter of animals, which PETA posted on its website in late November.
In one stroke, the activists simultaneously managed to sicken people with graphic images of animal carnage and enrage them about the practices of Jewish ritual slaughter, or shechitah. To boot, the group promoted itself as the fearless and innovative champion of animal rights, prepared to stage clandestine operations to protect animal welfare.
To be sure, the spectacle that PETA’s undercover cameras captured looked bloody, deadly and inhumane. But while the end result of shechitah, of course, allows the first two, it positively prohibits the third. Although I agree that AgriProcessors can do more to minimize animal suffering, the impression given by PETA’s video – that shechitah is inhumane – is completely false.
My area of expertise is Jewish values and ideas, not Jewish ritual slaughter. So I will not defend AgriProcessor’s seemingly incomprehensible practice of removing the animal’s trachea after its throat is slit, or the company’s practice of using upside-down pens, in which the animal is held in the air by its feet, to facilitate the shechitah. Apparently, the rabbinate in Israel insists on this method in order to ensure that the animal’s throat is as open and accessible as possible, thereby providing for the smoothest cut which in turn minimizes the possible suffering to the animal.
However, I can state unequivocally that Jewish law requires AgriProcessors, like all kosher slaughterhouses, to do everything it can to reduce any animal suffering. And to that end, the rabbinical body that supervises the company, the Orthodox Union, has been in consultation with them about making changes.
A close look at PETA’s priorities reveals that its compassion begins and ends with animals. Its radical ideology goes far beyond concern for the welfare of animals to equate animal life with human life.
Arguably the most offensive example of the group’s selective sensitivity was PETA’s 2002 campaign “Holocaust on Your Plate,” which juxtaposed gruesome scenes from Nazi death camps with photographs from factory farms and slaughterhouses. One pairing places a starving man in a concentration camp next to a starving cow.
Under the banner “The Final Indignity,” human corpses are paired with those of pigs. Under the title “Baby Butchers,” mothers and children in striped prison garb stare from behind the barbed wire of a concentration camp. Next to them, PETA mounts a photograph of caged piglets. It’s not surprising that an organization that can trivialize the slaughter of 6 million Jews and compare those Jewish souls to pigs shows no respect for an ancient, biblically ordained Jewish practice like shechitah.
Outside the Jewish world – and even among many non-observant Jews – Jewish dietary laws, and specifically the laws of ritual slaughter, are shrouded in ignorance or misinformation. In order to understand what they are seeing in the PETA videotape, then, viewers need to know the practices’ deep religious roots.
In the Hebrew Bible, the prevention of any unnecessary pain to animals is one of the cornerstones of divine ethics. For millennia, unnecessary suffering of animals has been forbidden under strict principle of tzaar baalei hayyim, causing undue distress to living creatures. The ancient rabbis ruled that one must feed one’s cattle before feeding oneself and, indeed, even the Ten Commandments include domestic animals in the Sabbath rest.
Long ago, at the birth of the nation of Israel in the Sinai wilderness, God devised the dietary laws in the Bible as a means by which to wean human beings from their appetite for violence and aggression rather than for reasons of health or hygiene. In essence, the dietary laws (which also include laws pertaining to the eating of sea creatures and insects) mandate that a Jew can only consume those animals that chew their cud and have split hooves. Among birds, the Torah lists 24 prohibited types, all of which are birds of prey or scavengers. In addition, Jews are forbidden to eat the blood of birds and animals, and may only consume the flesh of an animal, which has been slaughtered from the neck.
Behind these laws is the divine imperative that human beings abhor the sight of blood, reject violence and recoil from cruelty toward any of God’s creatures. God is the Creator of life, man its guardian and protector. Yet the history of humankind is a history of violence, war and blood sport, for which human beings have an innate propensity.
To be sure, human aggression has its place. Human beings are charged with purging the world of evil, which sometimes requires war. Brute human strength is also necessary in building civilizations – clearing land, tilling fields and constructing buildings. God does not wish to purge humanity of its aggressiveness, only to channel it into a godly purpose.
As the architect of man, God therefore instituted laws whose purpose is to wean humans away from their fondness for gratuitous violence. Jewish law contains a code of conduct that purges man of his natural instinct for brutality and sadism.
The Jewish people’s adherence to these laws and the abhorrence for blood that is inculcated through Jewish observance are the primary reasons that among the religions of the world, Judaism has always been the most docile and the most humane. There have never been Jewish crusaders or suicide bombers. Indeed, the three most famous Jewish wars of ancient times – the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus IV in 168-165 BCE, the Jewish Zealots’ revolt against Rome in 66 CE, and the Bar Kochba revolt against Hadrian in 132-135 CE – were all fought to protect the Jews’ right to practice their religion.
Society has devised outlets for violent impulses, such as competitive sport. Crowds can cheer for their team to destroy a foe on the football field, rather than hacking each other to death with machetes. Some social anthropologists even suggest that the vast amount of violence filling today’s television and films, far from being harmful, is of therapeutic value, because it channels the primal instinct for violence into fantasy.
As a Jew, I find the biblical dietary laws far more therapeutic. Observing kashrut provides for the highest levels of self-control. Man does not merely tear the limb of an animal and eat it like a wild beast. In taking of the life of an animal, he is obligated to do so with humanity and sensitivity. Even as the animal is consumed in order to sustain human life, there is a recognition that it is likewise God’s creature.
Kashrut raises the basic need to eat to the level of a religious ritual. In Judaism, eating, like praying, is a Godly activity that must be pursued in a godly manner. In Genesis, God commanded Adam and Eve never to take the life of any animal, but to subsist on vegetation alone: “From all the herbs of the Garden you may eat.” A quandary arose after the flood, which decimated all living creatures, both plants and animals. Had God not permitted Noah and his family to partake of the animals that were rescued from the deluge, they would have perished.
God allowed Noah’s descendants to eat animal flesh as well, and ever since there has been an acceptance of the human need to consume meat as a primary source of nutrition and sustenance. But how can man be granted the license to take life without compromising his human sensitivities? Can humans kill animals and remain sensitive to the value of life?
The dietary laws were therefore put into the breach to regulate how man could take animal life without becoming less than human himself. God gave explicit commandments as to which animals man could slaughter, how he could kill them, and which parts of the animal could be consumed. In granting humans the right to devour animal flesh, God ordained that man take life only in the most humane way, and even then never consume the animal’s blood. Only non-aggressive, non-predatory animals such as goats, cattle and sheep were deemed edible. All the permitted animals are herbivorous and therefore nearer the vegetable world. The same applies to fowl. Those which were permitted for consumption subsist on berries, worms and bark. They are not scavengers and flesh-eaters.
In the New Testament, Jesus is quoted as saying that only that which emanates from the mouth of man can defile him, not what he consumes. (Matt. 15:11; Mark 7:14-15) But His pronouncement appears to be more metaphorical than literal. Jesus and his Jewish disciples kept the biblical dietary laws, and while He believed that what comes out of our mouths can defile our morals, that which becomes our very blood and flesh can defile our very person.
The most important part of the kosher laws pertains to how an animal’s life is to be taken. This is the most crucial element because it deals with the actual slaughter of a living creature. As man kills more and more animals, there exists the danger that he will become immune both to the shedding of blood and to the suffering of God’s creatures. The Torah therefore declares that Jews cannot eat even permissible animals unless they have been slaughtered from the neck, with the immediate severing of the carotid arteries and the jugular vein by one swift movement. The shochet, or ritual slaughterer, is a pious, learned man who has studied Talmud and Jewish law for many years before he can be certified for this holy undertaking.
The special method of slaughtering animals consists of an incision made across the neck of the animal or fowl with a special knife that is razor-sharp and has a smooth edge with absolutely no nicks to avoid tearing the animal’s veins. The cut must be made with a single, swift and uninterrupted motion of the knife, not by pressure or stabbing. The cut severs the main arteries, rendering the animal unconscious and permitting the blood to drain from the body.
Immediately after the slaughter, the blood is poured into the earth and the meat is salted so that all its blood is removed. The prohibition against eating blood constitutes one of the strictest and most oft-repeated commandments in the Bible. Scientific opinion has consistently indicated that this method of slaughter results in almost immediate loss of consciousness, and any after-struggle is muscle reflex only. In short, the animal does not suffer.
The traditional rabbinic and contemporary Jewish abhorrence of cruelty to animals is reflected in uncompromising opposition to hunting and blood sports. Recreational hunting is anathema to a religion that will only sanction the killing of an animal for human survival and sustenance.
Man was given dominion over the animals only to enhance the quality of human life and to serve the Creator. Thus, man may affix a plough to an ox, or a saddle to a horse, in order to lessen his own burden and workload. He may not shoot at deer with a rifle in order to pass a Sunday with his buddies, as a prelude to downing a couple of beers.
PETA’s devotion to animals may be laudable, but its so-called “expose” of shechita is shameful, distorting Judaism’s 5,000-year history of sensitivity to animals.