Why Is This Meat Different
from All Other Meats?
The debate over kosher and cruelty
by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft
KOSHER SLAUGHTER BEGINS
AND ENDS with
the single stroke of a very sharp knife, the chalef. Working
under rabbinic supervision, specially trained kosher slaughterers,
or schochets, slice the animal’s esophagus, trachea,
veins, and arteries. If there is any hesitation or failure
of killer or blade in this delicate act, the animal is judged
to be unfit for Jewish consumption.1 Much as other consumers
trust food companies to follow USDA regulations, observant
Jews trust the seals of kosher certification on the products
The laws of kashrut, including those regulating kosher
meat, are cornerstones of everyday life for many Jews. Now,
those cornerstones may be shifting.
In April, a Conservative rabbinical
council approved a new interpretation of kosher laws that embraces
the welfare of workers laboring within kosher slaughterhouses,
as well as slaughtering practices. It was only the latest in
a series of challenges to traditional understandings of kashrut.
Over the past three years — beginning with startling
revelations from inside a kosher slaughtering plant in Iowa — activists
and Jewish leaders have called for a renewed public discourse
about the nature of kashrut. The debates have shown that the
relatively mundane subject of kosher meat is intimately tied
to one of Judaism’s most persistent questions: How are
Jewish ethics expressed through our treatment of the natural
world around us?
But if killing animals through schechita
is less cruel than killing them by conventional means, wouldn’t
the least cruel path be not to kill them at all?
In 2004, PETA activists smuggled cameras into
the AgriProcessors kosher butchering plant in Postville, Iowa,
and brought back disturbing images. Cows remained conscious
while their throats were cut, wandering about inside the killing
cages and struggling to escape. It was a far cry from the quick
death schechita, or kosher slaughter, is supposed to bring.
Later that year, the New York Times exposed conditions at AgriProcessors.
Soon, the plant was under investigation by the EPA and the
target of a USDA lawsuit. Temple Grandin, one of America’s
foremost experts on the humane slaughtering of food animals,
called conditions at AgriProcessors “disgusting.” 2
may have been cruel, but had it violated kashrut? The plant’s
defenders pointed out that, in addition to using certified
schochets, rabbis were present during all AgriProcessors operations.
Representatives argued — convincingly, to
some kosher authorities — that they had always obeyed
the laws of kashrut to the letter.
For all the publicity at
the time of the PETA lawsuit and the initial Times article,
it would be two years before the AgriProcessors story evolved
into a full-fledged debate over kosher slaughter. The spark
came from a 2006 documentary produced by PETA using footage
from the plant. Featuring narration by the novelist Jonathan
Safran Foer, “If This Is Kosher...” combined
footage of animal rights violations at various slaughterhouses
with testimony from two rabbis, David Wolpe and Irving “Yitz” Greenberg.
Safran Foer called kashrut the everyday expression of the
highest principles of Judaism, which sanctifies all life, including
animals. Kashrut, he argued, represents not merely a set of
dietary laws but also a principle of stewardship, an expression
of our responsibility for the world:
To be Jewish is to strive to make the world less cruel and
more just. Not only for oneself, and not only for one’s
people, but for everyone. One doesn’t have to consider
animals equal to humans — I don’t — to
give them a place in this inspiring idea.
But if killing animals through sche-chita is less cruel than
killing them by conventional means, wouldn’t the least
cruel path be not to kill them at all?
As Rabbi Greenberg reads
it, the Torah describes the right to eat meat as a special
dispensation given to humans because of the fallen state of
the world in which we live. Genesis 1:29 reads, “God
said, ‘See, I give you every seed-bearing
plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing
fruit; they shall be yours for food.’” There were
no carnivores in the Garden of Eden, Greenberg points out.
Ideally, he says, we would not kill other living things in
order to live. Rather, we would understand animals as receiving
God’s compassion and mercy just as we do, if in lesser
measure. And what does it say about humans that we are willing
to kill other animals, particularly as cruelly as AgriProcessors?
Wolpe points to the Jewish concept that human nature encompasses
both savage and gentle inclinations, which are constantly at
war within us. The principles of kashrut, he argues, are meant
to keep our savage sides from finding expression in the abuse
of the natural world and its creatures. In staying faithful
to kashrut, Jews take proper care of both human nature and
the environment. By that logic, AgriProcessor’s treatment
of animals is particularly offensive for its violation of Jewish
ethical sensibilities. Still, Wolpe stops short of Greenberg’s
call for Jewish vegetarianism. His argument is not so much
that we would renounce meat in an ideal world, but that the
question of meat-eating cuts to the quick of human nature and
presents us with an opportunity for self-reflection.
the first time that schechita has acted as a lightning rod
for dissent among Jews.
In 18th-century Poland, Hasidim prided
themselves on checking the sharpness of the chalef and maintaining
higher standards for sharpness than their non-Hasidic counterparts.
While all knives were required to be extremely sharp, the opponents
of Hasidic Judaism, called the Misnagdim, feared that Hasidic
knives could chip during use, rendering the slaughter un-kosher
and the animal inedible to Jews.3
The anxiety about knife blades was probably just the superficial
expression of a deeper fear: that Hasidic practices were acts
of rebellion against the existing social structure. Misnagdic
leaders accused the Hasidim of arrogance, of claiming to be
more stringent in their fulfillment of kashrut than other Jews.
The same barrier that had often divided Jews from non-Jews — namely,
an inability to share food — suddenly divided the Hasidim
from their coreligionists.
As in the 18th century, the debates
spurred by the AgriProcessors revelations have sparked conflict
in different parts of the Jewish community. Coinciding with
a broader movement known as “eco-kashrut,” the
debate over kosher slaughter recalls the splintering experienced
by other religious groups as well — part of a broader “greening” trend
in American religion.4 To many Jews, it’s also been a
wake-up call to look more closely at the way humans are treated
along the kashrut process.
At the AgriProcessor plant, it was
later revealed that workers, many of them recent Latin American
immigrants, labored under harsh conditions for an unreasonably
low wage. Last year, Conservative Jewish leaders began pushing
for a new ethical-certification program for kosher facilities.
The “heksher tzedek” (from
the Hebrew term for justice certification) would be based not
only on the proper treatment of animals, but also on just treatment
and compensation for employees. An editorial in the Forward
asked whether unfair treatment of workers at a kosher slaughterhouse
might not affect the kosher status of the meat produced there.5
Perhaps the loudest of these new voices belongs to Rabbi Morris
Allen of Minnesota, chief author of the heksher tzedek. “We’re
not trying to muscle ourselves into the business that others
have developed” of certifying kosher foods, Allen told
the Washington Post in July. “We do believe that most
Jews, if given a choice between ‘This item is kosher’ and ‘This
item is kosher and also was produced by a company that respects
its workers and the environment,’ that most Jews will
choose the latter.”
Just as biblical precedent can be
found for Jewish vegetarianism, Allen observes that Deuteronomy
24:14-15 reads: “You
shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow
countryman or a stranger.” The Conservative Rabbinical
Assembly recently approved the heksher. But even Allen says
that implementing the new laws into a new certification process
along the lines of the traditional kosher certification process
may be more difficult.
The first step is convincing other prominent
Jewish groups. Orthodox organizations have objected to the
ethical certification program on the grounds that it misunderstands
the basis of Halakhah (Jewish law) in making a leap from kashrut
to social justice. An anonymous editorial in the Jewish
an Orthodox newspaper, asked, “Are issues such as minimum
wage, vacation, sick leave, and health coverage properly viewed
as matters of Halakhah? Are they on the same level of halakhic
application as shechita, mixing meat and dairy, soaking and
salting, etc.?” 6
Rabbi Allen has himself
been the subject of attacks, including the allegation that
the entire heksher tzedek movement is based on his personal
animosity toward AgriProcessors, rather than widespread labor
violations in the kosher meat industry overall.
but seldom noted subtext of the debate is, perhaps unsurprisingly,
economics: Just as it was at the time of the Hasidic-Misnagdic
debates 300 years ago, kosher meat is a lucrative business,
and alterations to the laws regulating it can have very tangible
effects, both for industry leaders and for the Jewish community
as a whole.
While the debate over the particulars of kosher
slaughter remains open, PETA and Safran Foer face much opposition
as they promote the concept of vegetarianism’s ethical
superiority, both on universal and Jewish grounds. The efforts
made by Conservative and Orthodox leaders to reform kosher
slaughtering signify a commitment to continuing the tradition
rather than curtailing it.
Safran Foer predicts that in 20
years everyone will be vegetarian. He may have to settle for
having furthered the debate over the meaning of kosher meat.
Stephen G. Bloom, Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland
America (New York: Harcourt, 2000).
“If This Is Kosher...” can be viewed at www.goveg.com/jsfkosher.asp.
1 Zoshe Yosef Blech provides a more technical description of
the process in Kosher Food Production (London: Blackwell,
2 Grandin would subsequently serve as a consultant
for the company and, in that role, find that their treatment
of livestock had improved to a satisfactory level.
3 For an extended discussion of this conflict,
see Gershon Hundert, ed., Essential Papers on Hasidism: Origins to
Present (New York: New York University Press, 1991)
4 For more on the relationship between eco-kashrut
and “greening,” see
Alan Cooperman, “Eco-Kosher Movement Aims to Heed Tradition,
Conscience,” the Washington Post July 8, 2007.
Rules,” May 26, 2006.
6 “Conservatives And Kashrut,” June 6, 2007
This article originally appeared in
Meatpaper Issue One.