A couple weeks ago I wrote about the proposed circumcision ban in San Francisco. The bill’s supporters claim that circumcision is
genetic genital mutilation, that it causes psychological problems in later years, and that it’s medically unnecessary. My opinion is that medical tests are inconclusive, that the other two reasons are not valid, and that to not provide a religious exception for an act fundamental to Jewish practice is anti-Semitic.
Yet two weeks after writing that post I saw an article on Ynetnews.com about the Dutch Parliament trying to forbid kosher slaughter—a practice also deeply ingrained in Jewish tradition—and I found myself siding with the Parliament.
The Dutch law stipulates that in an effort to not cause unnecessary pain, all animals must be stunned before slaughter. Since most butchers already stun their animals, the law essentially singles out kosher and halal butchers, whose religion requires the animal to be fully conscious throughout the process. “Religious freedom cannot be unlimited,” says Marianne Thieme, head of the Dutch Animal Rights Party.
This is the same argument the circumcision ban proponents used—that religious freedom must be curbed when it promotes unnecessary harm to living things. But Binyomin Jacobs, Chief Rabbi of the Netherlands, sees it differently: “Those who survived the [second world] war remember the very first law made by the Germans in Holland was the banning of shechita.” To Dutch Jews this is a case of an intolerant government once again trying to outlaw Jewish customs. Last month it was San Francisco, this month it’s Holland. Seems pretty clear that if I oppose one bill I should oppose the other. Right?
Here’s the rub: I’m a vegetarian.
I don’t eat meat for myriad reasons, but the overriding consideration is an ethical one. As a curious and caring human being, it upsets me to learn about animal treatment in factory farms. And as a Jew it especially pains me to hear about other Jews who believe that eating kosher meat, at least in 2011, is more ethical. It simply isn’t true. (Remember Iowa?) There’s a great documentary, distributed freely online, called If This is Kosher… I won’t pretend the video’s not disturbing; it will make you uncomfortable; but it shows, with both graphic detail and examples from the Torah, that contemporary kosher slaughter is just as ethically egregious, and sometimes even worse than other slaughter methods—precisely because the animals aren’t stunned beforehand. “If you must eat meat,” says Rabbi David Wolpe, interpreting the message of the Torah, “then you must do it in the most empathetic, kind, gentle way possible, which is to cause the animals little or no pain. And to call something kosher, when at the same time you’re subverting the very purpose of kashrut, is a powerful violation of the spirit, if not the letter of the law we were given.”
In my Jewish practice, I put a far greater importance on the spirit of Jewish laws and traditions than on the letter. (See one of my previous posts, Just Jewish, for examples.) As a Jew I believe that we’re meant to question our traditions and modify them when another form of observance seems more relevant. And as a vegetarian, I believe that factory farming is unethical, unsustainable, and unpardonable. Kosher slaughter, when undertaken in factory farms, subverts the intentions of Kashrut and embarrasses all those who look to religion as a source for ethical living.
But why does circumcision still feel relevant while Kashrut does not? Where do I draw the line? Where do we, as a society and a community, draw the line between tradition and modernity? At what point does an antiquated tradition outlast its purpose and become detrimental to a modern, ethical society? The First World has outlawed biblical practices like stoning and slavery among humans, but do those rights—which we now claim as Basic Human Rights—extend to animals? An animal can be raised and killed according to the strictest adherence to Kashrut, yet still be horribly mistreated. If that’s the case, should we still consider that animal’s meat to be Kosher? I don’t believe we should.
Yet Anonymous for Animal Rights, an Israeli activist group, raises a compelling counterargument to this bill. They mention that animal abuse begins long before slaughter; it’s hypocritical to outlaw a slaughter method that adds two minutes of suffering to an animal’s life, when that animal’s entire life, whether raised for kosher slaughter or not, was spent in suffering. So yes Dutch Parliament, I don’t like current slaughter methods either, but to only attack ritual slaughter is to insinuate that religion, especially Judaism and Islam, is the source of the problem. Kosher butchers are no more the source of animal abuse than mohels are the source of Jewish psychological problems (I’d look to overbearing Jewish mothers and grandmothers first).
So the issue again comes down to spirit vs. letter. I support the spirit of this Dutch law, but I disagree with the letter. Contemporary Kosher slaughter is disgraceful, but so too is secular slaughter. Until they realize that their actions disproportionately discriminate against two minority religious groups I have no choice but to condemn the actions of the Dutch Parliament. But this doesn’t mean that kosher butchers, and kosher eaters, are excused. Kashrut has the potential to be a model for ethical and sustainable treatment of animals. Jews, and kosher butchers, should be leading the effort to reform current factory farm conditions. Instead, those who insist on eating kosher meat give credence only to the letter of the law. If this is Kosher, then we have a big problem.