As a young adult exploring his Jewish heritage and slowly becoming more ritually observant, I was very proud to start keeping kosher, observing Jewish dietary laws. Everything I read and was learning from the books and rabbis who were enriching my life with the joys of a traditional Jewish life suggested that the essence of kashruth was showing respect and sensitivity to animal life.
Jewish tradition teaches us that God’s original plan for humanity was that we would be nutritionally sustained by the Earth’s vegetation. Permission to eat animals was hesitantly granted after the flood of Noah in the hope that the consumption of meat might curb our primordial instincts for violence and aggression.
It would be an understatement to say that it is has been disappointing to learn in recent years that animals are mistreated on farms servicing kosher slaughtering houses, e.g. calves forced to live in tiny pens so they will produce tender veal meat, or animals being mistreated on route to be slaughtered. In fact, thanks to the cyber world, 16 months ago I watched a YouTube video of a cow being slaughtered in a kosher processing plant. I have not eaten red (cow) meat since.
For those of us for whom Judaism is a way of life, a basic question we inevitably struggle with is: Is the fulfillment of Jewish law what being Jewish is all about? Or, is Jewish law a sacred resource that builds our individual and communal capacity to better serve the interests of God and humanity? How we each answer that question explains the dramatic diversity in Jewish thought and practice.
Long ago, the rabbis of the Talmud selected the word “halacha” to mean Jewish law. Though halacha literally means the path or the way. Is it possible that the rabbis of the Talmud were telling us that Jewish law is a map for us to follow and not the actual destination? Personally, I subscribe to the idea that Jewish law is an evolving resource at my disposal; not the other way around. Jewish law is a living-organic entity that responds to the human condition.
Compulsive obedience to finite applications of religious law inevitably re-focus attention away from the very values religious life was supposed to promote.
Sadly, the facts too often suggest that when it comes to the slaughtering of meat for kosher consumption loyalty to the letter of the law too often takes precedent over the intent of Jewish law. Apparently, most of the larger organizations that provide kosher certification are more concerned with how an animal was slaughtered than with how the animal was treated at any other point in its life.
For example, until just a few years ago, shochets (specially trained rabbis assigned the task of slaughtering animals,) and kosher certifying agencies, tolerated the barbaric practice of “hoisting and shackling” cows in preparation for slaughter. If you are not familiar with the practice, here is a definition from a reliable rabbinic source:
“Shackling and hoisting is a method of slaughter restraint in which a fully conscious animal is shackled with a chain around its back leg and hoisted into the air. The animal hangs upside down, often for minutes, prior to slaughter. Often, nose tongs are used to pull the head back to allow for the throat to be cut.”
This is how Jewish people show respect for animal life?
Why was such a barbaric, cruel practice tolerated in the kosher-meat industry for so long? It was tolerated because there was no law in Rabbinic Judaism that said it couldn’t be done! This is an example of placing loyalty to the letter of law ahead of obedience and respect for the intent of the law.
In 2008, the American Jewish community was shocked to learn that Agriprocessors, the largest kosher slaughtering house in the country, was guilty of numerous offenses: People for the Protection of Animals (PETA) produced videos of animals being inhumanely treated at the plant. The U.S. Justice Department charged the Rubashkin family who owned the plant with numerous financial improprieties and utilizing the labor of hundreds of illegal immigrants including minors. Many of the workers at the plant were subjected to mistreatment from drug-selling supervisors.
I cannot express in words how personally violated I felt as a kosher consumer to learn that Rabbi Menachem Genack, Director of Kashruth at the OU, the organization that certified the Rubashkin plant as kosher, proclaimed to the Jewish world at that time that in spite of the inhumane treatment of workers and animals at the Agriprocessors’ plant the meat was still kosher.
Talk about missing the forest for the trees! Rabbinic Judaism also speaks of a wife being the property of her husband. Would the OU sanction wife-beating? Why not, there’s no ruling against it?!!
After the 2008 scandal at Agriprocessors, the Orthodox Union (OU) which certifies more kosher meat and processed foods than any other organization promised that in the future it would only certify meat as kosher that came from plants that treat animals humanely.
The Jewish weekly newspaper, The Forward now reports that in spite of that promise, the OU continues to certify as “glatt kosher” meat coming from slaughtering houses in Central and South America that still utilize the inhumane practice of “shackling and dragging” animals to slaughter. In defending the OU’s continued certification of such meat, Rabbi Genack said that: 1) These plants are under the supervision of the Chief Rabbi of Israel; 2) De-certifying the meat from such plants would pose a serious disruption to meat supplies in the U.S.
I somehow doubt that the Chief Rabbi of Israel or Rabbi Genack would take such a cavalier attitude towards a plant that produces a very popular parve dessert that suddenly changed the recipe to include an ingredient that is derivative of an un-kosher beef byproduct. Would anyone really be concerned about a serious disruption in supplies of a clearly unkosher product? Why is Shechita the only criteria some Jews concern themselves with approving meat and poultry for consumption?
How can a traditionally observant Jew be meticulous about ingredients in processed kosher food but totally indifferent to how the animals we consume are treated prior to being slaughtered? Do you worship the letter of the law or God? And isn’t it ironic that the same people who insist that they are the ultimate mavens (experts) on Kashruth, the same people who insist on limiting the role of Gentiles and non-Orthodox Jews in the preparation of food that they will certify as kosher, appear to need supervision themselves to insure that Judaism’s highest ethical standards of Judaism are met?
Anyone familiar with the challenges involved with a business or an institution getting kosher certification knows all too often that the process has less to do with “facts” in the kitchen than with:
Money, community politics, money, showing favoritism to one business over another, money, who is a friend of whom, money, who eats what food privately, competition between rabbis and synagogues, money, who owes whom a favor; who davens in what synagogue, and oh yes, lets not forget -money.
So who can you trust when it comes to kashruth supervision? I respectfully suggest that the only kosher supervisor who can never and will never corrupt the intent of Kashruth, is God.
Stick with God’s original menu for humanity, fruits, and vegetables, and you can’t go wrong.
And BTW, I have it on good authority that if you wash your fruits and vegetables really well and still accidentally eat a bug you won’t be instantly zapped or condemned to Sheol. Please, live and eat like a mensch who is loved by God, not like an obsessive-compulsive nut-job living in constant fear of a merciless deity. Judaism has less to do with the punishments incurred for disobedience than with replicating the kind of forgiveness, compassion, love and justice we expect from our Creator and most important Teacher.