For a Jew, the answer is yes. This week’s Torah reading, Re’eh, contains five verses that are basis for our entire system kashrut, the dietary laws. Volumes of Talmud and chapters of law codes have been written working out the details given in these few general verses.
The discussion of what we can and can’t eat starts with a very general statement:
לא תאכַל כָּל-תּוֹעֵבָה “do not eat any abominable thing.” That’s all well and good, but how are we supposed to know what kind of food constitutes an abominable thing? That’s sort of in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it? Some people love sushi, some think it’s gross.
So the Torah continues and gives us a few details. Deuteronomy 14:6 tells us that the only animals we can eat are ones that have a split hoof and that chew their cud. In case we are unclear on the concept, the Torah gives us a few example of animals that might seem border line – camels are not kosher because even though they chew the cud, they don’t have a split hoof. Pigs are not kosher because even they have a split hoof they don’t chew their cud.
Verse 9 tells us that anything that lives in the water has to have fins and scales. Tuna is OK; catfish, Shrimp Scampi, and Lobster Newberg are out.
Verse 11 tells us כָּל-צִפּוֹר טְהרָה תּאכֵלוּ “of all tahor, ritually pure, birds you shall eat.” The Torah doesn’t give us an easy to follow rule like for land animals and fish – instead the Torah gives us a list of birds we can’t eat: eagles, hawks, owls, vultures, ravens among them. Not mentioned—and therefore kosher—are birds like chickens, ducks, geese, and so on. The rabbis in the Talmud were able to figure out the common denominator of the birds on the forbidden list – basically they are raptors, “flesh eating” birds – which was very helpful when the Jewish people encountered a new species not mentioned in the Torah: turkeys.
And verse 21 of the same chapter contains one verse which includes the final two basic rules of keeping kosher, the requirement for kosher slaughter and the requirement to separate meat and dairy. The verse reads “ לא-תאכְלוּ כָל-נְבֵלָה לַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר-בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ תִּתְּנֶנָּה וַאֲכָלָהּ אוֹ מָכר לְנָכְרִי כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה לַיי אֱלקֶיךָ לא-תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ:
You shall not eat of any thing that dies of itself; you shall give it to the stranger that is in your gates, that he may eat it; or you may sell it to a foreigner; for you are a holy people to the Lord your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
The Torah tells us that overall we follow these rules because we are an am kadosh, a people set aside for God. Rashi explains that when the verse says “for you a holy nation to me” it means that we sanctify ourselves with what is permitted to us. The Hebrew word kadosh, usually translated as “holy” in the Hebrew has more of a connotation of “set apart.” Keeping these rules is part of what sets us apart as a people, part of what gives us our group identity – part of what unites us with our fellow Jews where they may live. The verse tells us we are allowed give or sell non-kosher meat to non-Jews; they are not prohibited from eating it, and we are not prohibited from having a financial gain from non-kosher meat.
But there are also some universal values embedded in the many rules of keeping kosher, and it is one of those that I want to explore this morning. But before we can get to the universal value, we need to understand some of the details.
As I mentioned earlier, Deuteronomy 14:21 tells us lo tochlu kol neveila, do not eat a “neveila.” The simple meaning of “neveila” is an animal that died of natural causes. One might think of a neveila as just being a land animal—the commentator Ibn Ezra points out, no, it includes both birds and animals (but not fish).
But this verse is understood as prohibiting more than animals that died of natural causes. It is understood as prohibiting animals that are treifa, literally “torn,” which includes both animals that were killed by other animals and animals that were killed by people not using the particular procedure of kosher slaughter. Sifrei, a halachic midrash, says when we read the verse do not eat a “neveila” we might think it means only animals that died of natural causes; how do we know it includes the more expansive category of treifa? The verse says kol neveila, all the neveila, which includes any animal not slaughtered in a kosher way. So while deer may be kosher, we can’t eat deer killed through hunting – we could only eat deer that were raised on a farm and subjected to kosher slaughter. And no eating road kill.
When I started keeping kosher, it took me about a year to go from eating ham and cheese sandwiches to having two sets of dishes. I started out by giving up what I called the “high treif,” the foods specifically prohibited by the Torah—pork, shellfish, and so on. The next step was not mixing meat and dairy, and phase three was buying and eating only kosher beef. But for a while I did keep eating chicken in non-kosher restaurants, until I discussed it with my rabbi who said, no, you really need to give up the chicken too because chicken also has to be slaughtered properly—we learn from what Ibn Ezra and Sifrei teach us about the verse in this week’s Torah portion. So, slightly reluctantly, I gave up the Kung Pao Chicken at non-kosher restaurants.
The rules of kosher slaughter for animals are very stringent. Eating meat is seen as a kind of compromise—we are taking an animal’s life to benefit ourselves. It would be better not to do that, but since we have this strong appetite for meat, God allows us to eat it, but there are restrictions. A blessing is said before the slaughter. The animal must be killed with a very sharp knife, without even a single nick. A very clean cut must be made across the majority of the trachea and/or esophagus. If the knife drags a little in the cut, the meat is not kosher. All the blood must be removed. And the animal must be inspected to make sure it was not diseased.
Most of these rules – the requirements for a sharp knife and a clean cut in particular – clearly seem to be based on preventing unnecessary suffering for the animal. Sefer Hachinuch, a 13th century commentary on the commandments is explicit about this: “The reason that slaughter must be done at the throat with a knife that is thoroughly inspected is , כדי שלא נצער בעלי החיים יותר מדאי in order that there will not be unnecessary suffering to animals, for the Torha permits people to sustain and nourish themselves and take care of their needs, but NOT to cause gratuitous pain. The sages spoke at great length about the prohibition against tz’ar ba’alei chayim, causing pain to animals in the Talmud, and these things are prohibited by the Torah.
For most of Jewish history, the practice of kosher slaughter was clearly in line with both the details of the law of the intent of the law. But when we come to 20th century America, a problem arose. In 1906 the passage of the U.S. Pure Food and Drug Act required that animals not fall on the floor or come into contact with the blood of other animals. The way this rule was typically imp
lemented—at both kosher and non-kosher slaughterhouses—for a long time was with what is called the “hoist and shackle” method, where chains are placed around the rear legs of the animal and it is hoisted up in the air by its rear legs. This technique is patently cruel—it not infrequently breaks the leg of the animal, and clearly causes a great deal of pain, fear, and discomfort. After hoisting the animal in the air, sometimes nose tongs would be used to pull the head back to expose the throat, which could then be slit with the carefully prepared knife without a nick in it. In 1958, the US government banned hoisting conscious animals because of the cruelty involved – yet, ironically, kosher slaughter was exempted, because there was no other way to meet both the halachic requirement that the animal be conscious when slaughtered, and the sanitary requirements of the Federal government.
Talk about a great irony! Kosher slaughter—whose rules were designed to minimize suffering to animals—was exempted from a rule of the US government, and was conducted in a way that was crueler than secular slaughter. By 1963 alternative methods of kosher slaughter were developed which could keep the animal upright and calm during slaughter – but many kosher slaughterhouses failed to implement them because they were more expensive than using hoist and shackle.
To use a very sharp knife to kill an animal that is hanging upside down and thrashing in distress is clearly a case of following the letter of the law, but not the spirit!
Agriprocessors of Postville, Iowa – a plant run by rabbis affiliated with Chabad Lubavitch – was in the news a few months ago for alleged on going mistreatment of animals. A few years ago the situation at Agriprocessors—one of the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouses, which includes the Aaron’s and Rubashkin’s brands—was truly horrible. They did use the “hoist and shackle” method, and there were videos of workers ripping out slaughtered animals tracheas while the animals were clearly still alive and suffering. Is meat like that kosher? Just what are the requirements for meat to be kosher?
A few months ago I got into an email discussion with someone who presented the following case: if someone who keeps a kosher home lives in a rural area and only has access to kosher meat that was processed at a plant using inhumane technique for slaughter, would it be better for them to eat local meat and poultry that is slaughtered on farms by local farmers who demonstrate compassion and consideration for their animals?
The question is basically asking “what’s more important?—to follow the letter of the law, or the spirit of the law?”
Clearly there are Orthodox rabbis who say that the letter of the law is what’s important – they continue to certify as kosher meat that is slaughtered in cruel ways.
Just as clearly, many Reform and Reconstructionist Jews would go with eating the “eco-kosher” meat of the local farmers.
The Conservative movement has addressed the issue in a teshuva, a legal opinion, written by two of the “gedolim,” the leading lights of the Conservative movement, Rabbis Elliot Dorff and Joel Roth, who ruled “Now that kosher, humane slaughter using upright pens is both possible and widespread, we find shackling and hoisting to be a violation of Jewish laws forbidding cruelty to animals and requiring that we avoid unnecessary dangers to human life. As the CJLS, then, we rule that shackling and hoisting should be stopped.”
Personally, I don’t believe that the CJLS went quite far enough. They said shackling and hoisting violates the laws forbidding cruelty to animals – but they did NOT say it renders the meat not kosher.
My own view is that the meat is literally rendered not kosher. You might as well eat a hamburger from McDonald’s as meat that has been slaughtered using the hoist and shackle method. So here is an instance where I’m more stringent than many Orthodox rabbis – meat they would consider glatt kosher, I would consider treif.
At the same time, I would not say that it is OK to eat “compassionately raised and killed” meat from a local farmer that was not done in accordance with the rules of kashrut. It is not enough to follow only the spirit of the law, no more than it is enough to follow only the letter of the law. The intent behind the law is part of the law.
Look at speed limits for example. Why do we have speed limits? We have speed limits to keep people safe – excessive speed is dangerous. Now if you are driving a new Porsche on a long straight stretch of the interstate where there are no other cars in sight, and it’s a nice clear day, you could drive 90 miles an hour and certainly still be safe—well within the spirit of the law. But I don’t recommend you try it—the Highway Patrol will still give you a ticket. The letter of the law says the speed limit is 65 miles an hour, not 90.
Similarly, you could be driving 60 miles an hour in that 65 mile an hour zone, and get a speeding ticket. How? If it’s a very foggy day and visibility is seriously reduced, 60 miles an hour is a very dangerous speed. And the spirit of the law is the law as well. Ohio statute 4511.21 provides the details on speed limits, including 65 on highways that are part of the interstate system. But it also says in section (A): No person shall operate a motor vehicle, trackless trolley, or streetcar at a speed greater or less than is reasonable or proper, having due regard to the traffic, surface, and width of the street or highway and any other conditions.
I maintain the same principle applies in Jewish law. It is not enough to follow on the spirit or only the letter of the law. What God wants of us is both. One of the reasons we have the laws is to refine our characters. Nachmanides (Ramban) has an interesting comment on the other part of the verse that we’ve been considering, the part that deals with separating meat and dairy – “you shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Ramban says that we are given this rule in order that we will be holy – that we will not be cruel, so lacking in compassion that we could milk the mother and cook the child in the same milk.
If the laws were given to us in order that we should be kind and considerate to animals, that we should not be cruel, it is totally ludicrous to think it is OK to follow the technicalities while violating the essence.
So what should the people trying to keep kosher in a rural area do? I offered three options:
1) Go vegetarian, or just stock up on meat on those occasions then they visit the big city.
2) Order kosher meat over the internet. You can get kosher meat delivered anywhere these days.
3) Learn how to supervise the shechita of the local farmers to make it kosher, or import a rabbi to supervise.
All spirit and no ritual lacks connection to community and tradition; all ritual and no spirit is deadening and does nothing to deepen faith. But if we combine spirit and ritual the result is spiritual. We can elevate our souls and draw ourselves closer to God through the most mundane of activities – like paying attention to what we eat.
PS. Agriprocessors has stopped using the hoist and shackle method and they claim to have changed their processes. Several rabbis from the Conservative movement visited the Agriprocessors plant last week. When they report on their findings, I will share them. The meat I most wholeheartedly recommend is the Chai Chicken, which can be found at Hiller’s in Ann Arbor, which is both free range and kosher.
Ezer K’negdo has a post on this question with some comments
that can lead you to some sources of ethical kosher meat you can order over the internet…including kosher bison.
And as Sheyna points out, there is a lot of politics in kashrut.