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Really kosher?

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-12-17

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

There has been a serious public relations mess-up over Shechita ( the religious way 'preparing' animals for food) in America.

It has been simmering for the past month. An employee at the AgriProcessor abattoir in Postville, Iowa, one of the largest kosher meat processors, took secret and gruesome videos of the way animals were slaughtered. Admittedly, he was taking videos of exceptional cases but these were then used by the Animal Rights group PETA and put on its web site for all to see.

The videos show animals, after Shechita has taken place in a perfectly legitimate manner, having their trachea and aesophagus pulled out of the neck, being ejected from the holding pens while still apparently conscious, and in one case actually getting up and wandering around. The debate has gone on as to whether these are violations of kashrut and whether, therefore, the animals are religiously acceptable or not. From Israel and Britain have come condemnatory statements by various religious authorities, declaring that such meat would not be considered kosher under their standards and I should point out that in Europe generally awareness of public relations seems to be far more advanced.

In the United States, on the other hand, there was an initial knee-jerk defensive reaction that nothing was amiss. Nathan Lewin, multi-purpose Washington attorney for any ultra-Orthodox cause and attorney for AgriProcessors, declared there was nothing amiss and wrote a well publicised aggressive article attacking anyone who dared suggest anything was out of order. Rabbi Genack of the OU initially tried to shift responsibility onto Israeli authorities. It took a week or more before Rabbi Genack went to visit the site and finally came out with a statement that things were not as they should be and would be immediately rectified.

It then transpired that Dr. Temple Grandin, Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, an acknowledged expert who is sympathetic to Shechita and considers it more humane than other systems, had heard about the practices over a year ago and had asked to visit and give supportive help, but was refused permission!

Out of this episode several disturbing issues emerge. I wonder why it is that religious authorities almost always start off with a knee-jerk defense of the indefensible. They seem slow to respond to the real challenge, and when they do, they come across as almost evasive instead of proactive. Here they have allowed questionable practices to go on for so long and have only agreed to deal with them after the cat is out of the bag (to use a non-kosher simile). 

I believe the problem is that all religious authorities, without exception, tend to be defensive. Just think of the Catholic Church and how long it took them to accept the huge amount of sexual depravity within their priesthood. How long does it take to bring rabbis to book for sexual abuse? And remember all of the gurus and televangelists who have ended up unmasked as felons or hypocrites. Somehow, power of any sort, political or religious, goes to people’s heads (and other parts of their anatomy). If truth be told many schools also react initially to parents complaints by being defensive. In Britain the Army has had to be forced, reluctantly after years of denial, to concede that so called suicides of recruits at Deepcut Barracks (one ‘shot himself’ five times!) needed re-examining in the light of revelations of institutional and consistent bullying. If we expect moral standards from our politicians, how much more so from our religious leaders!

But I am even more disturbed by what seems to me to be a clear example of following the letter of the law without ensuring the correct and sensitive and halachically obligatory treatment of animals.

Because the halacha, the law, regarding how to kill animals in a kosher way is both technical and moral. You can carry out the technical but still betray the values of sensitivity to animals, avoiding cruelty and unnecessary suffering. Sadly, in many areas it is possible to act within the law but do so inappropriately. Hence the idea that you can be ‘ugly within the framework of the Law.’ For instance, you can technically fulfil your obligation to be charitable without being sensitive or supportive towards the recipient. And you can on occasion come across a  dirty kosher butcher.

This could be an example of the weakness of a halachic behavioral system-- obsession with technical behavior while missing the broader picture. Similar to the way newly religious people often behave inappropriately to those they have ‘left behind.’

But you might also argue that this lapse in Postville is what happens in a free entrepreneurial society like the United States, where commercial and industrial demands for speed, efficiency and quick turn around get in the way of sensitivity and caring.

Anyone who has seen non-Jewish abattoir knows full well it is an unpleasant thing to behold, and even so called ‘humane killers’ are not humane. And for most people the process is ‘out of sight and out of mind’. They have no idea how that vacuum packed, sanitized steak gets from field (or cage) to the supermarket freezer. And I honestly believe if most people actually saw the process Vegetarianism would increase exponentially. But I don’t think we should be measured by other standards.

It is true that after Shechita, when an animal has instantaneously lost consciousness, the nerves of the body can still react and create impressions of conscious movement. But, normally, Shochtim take care of this by keeping the animal down and restricted until these nerve reactions have passed.  At AgriProcessors this didn’t happen. Perhaps it was neglected because of the quantities and speed of the industrial process.

If this is so, then how sad that industrialism has affected the spiritual world, where Shechita is a religious obligation, not a commercial one.  Religiously one ought to expect higher standards!