Thursday, June 12, 2014

"Yet here was an Orthodox rabbi again announcing — to millions of people — that kosher has nothing to do with ethics."


Almost 40 years ago I spoke about “The Case for Judaism”  to members of the tiny Jewish community of Moncton, in New Brunswick, Canada. It was a speech I had given many times before and would give hundreds of times more. In it, I described the ethical preoccupation of Judaism, including practices dismissed as only ritual. One example I offered in almost every talk was the laws of kosher slaughtering. For example, to ensure as rapid a death as possible the shochet (slaughterer) had to kill the animal with one cut of the throat and with a blade that had no nicks, lest the animal suffer. 

During the question-and-answer period, a young man about my age (early 20s) rose and introduced himself. He had just obtained smicha(ordination as a rabbi) from Yeshiva University and was in Moncton as a potential rabbi for his first congregation. He differed with what I said about kashrut; it had nothing to do with ethics or morality, he explained. For example, he noted, a shochet could, in fact, cut the animal’s throat very slowly, causing real suffering to the animal, yet the animal would still be kosher. 

I was reminded of this rabbi’s argument last week. In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, the umbrella organization of Charedi Jews in America, wrote that “kosher has nothing to do with health or ‘ethics.’ There are Jewish ethical laws and Jewish ritual laws. Kashrut is entirely in the latter category. And it is simply not Orthodox to contend otherwise.”

My heart sank, just as it did 40 years ago. I had always believed that as much as kashrut involved ritual laws, its ultimate concern, like that of all of Judaism, was morality (and holiness). If I am wrong, why is there a law forbidding the use of a nicked blade? Isn’t it obvious that the only purpose for this law is the prevention of more suffering to the animal. Yet here was an Orthodox rabbi again announcing — to millions of people — that kosher has nothing to do with ethics.

Rabbi Shafran’s letter was written in response to an article published in the Wall Street Journal a week before by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz. Yanklowitz is an Orthodox rabbi who has given up eating kosher animal and dairy products:

“It pains me to say this,” he wrote, “but given what I have learned in recent years, I cannot pretend anymore that kosher meat, poultry and dairy is any [more] ethical than non-kosher food. ...“The fact that the modern reality of industrial food production extends into kosher facilities — which are supposed to be held to the highest ethical standards of treatment — brings me embarrassment and shame as an Orthodox rabbi and as a Jew. …“Story after story continues to emerge about kosher-slaughterhouse scandals in Israel, the primitive method of ‘shackle-and-hoist’ used in kosher slaughter, and the lack of standards for decent treatment.  

There was one other letter published by the Wall Street Journal in response to Yanklowitz’s article. It was written by Rabbi Menachem Genack, the CEO of OU Kosher. He simply denied the rabbi’s charges.

“To declare kosher slaughter inhumane and unethical,” Genack wrote, is “quite simply ... untrue.” In light of Yanklowitz’s concerns — which are shared by an ever-increasing number of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews such as myself — it would seem that Genack has the ability to alleviate many of our concerns. All he has to do is invite Yanklowitz and others to see (and video) how kosher animals are raised and slaughtered. 

In the meantime, I am certain that there are enough Jews and non-Jews who would pay extra to eat animals and products from animals (eggs, cheese, milk, etc.) that we know were treated decently prior to slaughter, and then slaughtered in as humane a manner as possible. If that is what “kosher” came to mean, wouldn’t that be a major kiddush haShem

I am no animal rights activist. In fact, I have a mistrust of most of those who are preoccupied with animal rights. While individuals who are cruel to animals almost always end up being cruel to humans, there is, unfortunately, no link between kindness to animals and kindness to humans. On the contrary, many who have been major animal rights activists have been indifferent to human suffering. The Nazis, for example, outlawed experimentation on animals while practicing it on human beings. And People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are moral imbeciles who, among other things, equate barbecuing chickens with the cremating of Jews by the Nazis (“Holocaust on your plate”).

But both elementary decency and Judaism demand decent treatment of animals. To believe, as the rabbi in Moncton and the spokesman for Agudath Israel claim, that kashrut has nothing to do with ethics is a distortion of the Torah and of the laws of kashrut.