Re'eh 5766 Kosher and Eco-Kosher

August 18, 2006

Cowandcat Does God care what you eat?

For a Jew, the answer is yes.  This week鈥檚 Torah reading, Re鈥檈h, 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鈥檛 eat starts with a very general statement:
   诇讗 转讗讻址诇 讻旨指诇-转旨讜止注值讘指讛 鈥渄o not eat any abominable thing.鈥  That鈥檚 all well and good, but how are we supposed to know what kind of food constitutes an abominable thing?  That鈥檚 sort of in the eye of the beholder, isn鈥檛 it?  Some people love sushi, some think it鈥檚 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 鈥 camels are not kosher because even though they chew the cud, they don鈥檛 have a split hoof.  Pigs are not kosher because even they have a split hoof they don鈥檛 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 讻旨指诇-爪执驻旨讜止专 讟职讛专指讛 转旨讗讻值诇讜旨  鈥渙f all tahor, ritually pure, birds you shall eat.鈥  The Torah doesn鈥檛 give us an easy to follow rule like for land animals and fish 鈥 instead the Torah gives us a list of birds we can鈥檛 eat: eagles, hawks, owls, vultures, ravens among them.  Not mentioned鈥攁nd therefore kosher鈥攁re 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 鈥 basically they are raptors, 鈥渇lesh eating鈥 birds 鈥 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 鈥  诇讗-转讗讻职诇讜旨 讻指诇-谞职讘值诇指讛 诇址讙旨值专 讗植砖讈侄专-讘旨执砖讈职注指专侄讬讱指 转旨执转旨职谞侄谞旨指讛 讜址讗植讻指诇指讛旨 讗讜止 诪指讻专 诇职谞指讻职专执讬 讻旨执讬 注址诐 拽指讚讜止砖讈 讗址转旨指讛 诇址讬讬 讗直诇拽侄讬讱指 诇讗-转职讘址砖旨讈值诇 讙旨职讚执讬 讘旨址讞植诇值讘 讗执诪旨讜止: 

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鈥檚 milk.鈥

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 鈥渇or you a holy nation to me鈥 it means that we sanctify ourselves with what is permitted to us.  The Hebrew word kadosh, usually translated as 鈥渉oly鈥 in the Hebrew has more of a connotation of 鈥渟et apart.鈥  Keeping these rules is part of what sets us apart as a people, part of what gives us our group identity 鈥 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 鈥渘eveila.鈥  The simple meaning of 鈥渘eveila鈥 is an animal that died of natural causes.  One might think of a neveila as just being a land animal鈥攖he 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 鈥渢orn,鈥 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 鈥渘eveila鈥 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鈥檛 eat deer killed through hunting 鈥 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 鈥渉igh treif,鈥 the foods specifically prohibited by the Torah鈥攑ork, 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鈥攚e learn from what Ibn Ezra and Sifrei teach us about the verse in this week鈥檚 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鈥攚e are taking an animal鈥檚 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 鈥 the requirements for a sharp knife and a clean cut in particular 鈥 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: 鈥淭he reason that slaughter must be done at the throat with a knife that is thoroughly inspected is , 讻讚讬 砖诇讗 谞爪注专 讘注诇讬 讛讞讬讬诐 讬讜转专 诪讚讗讬 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鈥檃r ba鈥檃lei 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鈥攁t both kosher and non-kosher slaughterhouses鈥攆or a long time was with what is called the 鈥渉oist and shackle鈥 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鈥攊t 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 鈥 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鈥攚hose rules were designed to minimize suffering to animals鈥攚as 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 鈥 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 鈥 a plant run by rabbis affiliated with Chabad Lubavitch 鈥 was in the news a few months ago for alleged on going mistreatment of animals.  A few years ago the situation at Agriprocessors鈥攐ne of the country鈥檚 largest kosher slaughterhouses, which includes the Aaron鈥檚 and Rubashkin鈥檚 brands鈥攚as truly horrible.  They did use the 鈥渉oist and shackle鈥 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 鈥渨hat鈥檚 more important?鈥攖o follow the letter of the law, or the spirit of the law?鈥

Clearly there are Orthodox rabbis who say that the letter of the law is what鈥檚 important 鈥 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 鈥渆co-kosher鈥 meat of the local farmers.

The Conservative movement has addressed the issue in a teshuva, a legal opinion, written by two of the 鈥済edolim,鈥 the leading lights of the Conservative movement, Rabbis Elliot Dorff and Joel Roth, who ruled 鈥淣ow 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.鈥

Personally, I don鈥檛 believe that the CJLS went quite far enough.  They said shackling and hoisting violates the laws forbidding cruelty to animals 鈥 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鈥檚 as meat that has been slaughtered using the hoist and shackle method.  So here is an instance where I鈥檓 more stringent than many Orthodox rabbis 鈥 meat they would consider glatt kosher, I would consider treif.

At the same time, I would not say that it is OK to eat 鈥渃ompassionately raised and killed鈥 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 鈥 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鈥檚 a nice clear day, you could drive 90 miles an hour and certainly still be safe鈥攚ell within the spirit of the law.  But I don鈥檛 recommend you try it鈥攖he 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鈥檚 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鈥檝e been considering, the part that deals with separating meat and dairy 鈥 鈥測ou shall not boil a kid in its mother鈥檚 milk.鈥  Ramban says that we are given this rule in order that we will be holy 鈥 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 鈥 like paying attention to what we eat.

Shabbat Shalom

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鈥檚 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.

4 Responses to Re'eh 5766 Kosher and Eco-Kosher

  1. Rabbi Dr. Barry Leff on August 18, 2006 at 1:32 pm

    My colleague Rabbi Morris Allen points out that Temple Grandin, America’s premier expert on the design of humane slaughterhouses, has now said that she is satisfied with Agriprocessors kosher slaughter techniques. You can read about it at the OU web site, here: link to tinyurl.com

    As mentioned by my colleague Rabbi Jill Jacobs at Jspot, link to jspot.org there are ongoing concerns about Agriprocessors and how they deal with union organizers, but I don’t believe those concerns effect the kosher status of the meat.

  2. Lary Lennhoff on August 27, 2006 at 1:38 pm

    Here’s a hypothetical for you:
    Let’s suppose we develop an economical method of slaughter that is provably less painful than shechita?
    Imagine some sort of EM pulse that stops all nervge activity instantly. Should it replace shechita?

    I personally don’t eat veal because of cruelty issues but I consider it forbidden, not literally treif. If I did, I couldn’t eat any kind of meat anyplace that served veal, because all their keilim would be trief. How do you handle this problem?

  3. Rabbi Dr. Barry Leff on August 27, 2006 at 3:32 pm

    Larry raises some interesting questions.

    As to the first, with the EM pulse, I would say no, it should not replace current techniques. While there is a reason to say that we should admit an improvement in technology–as with the way even most Orthodox authorities accept brain death as death–there is more to shechita than JUST tzar ba’alei chayim. The particular technique also contributes substantially to the draining of the blood from the animal. My own views tend toward being conservative — we shouldn’t change the halacha unless there is a relatively compelling reason to do so. The case to change the method of shechita is not that compelling, because properly done shechita with current techniques is relatively compassionate. An incremental improvement in compassion is probably not sufficient to justify a change in the halacha.

    Also a good point about the keilim. Since I don’t consider the dishes treifed up by meat that is not schechted properly, I suppose in essence I’ve created a new category in my mind — assur to eat, but not quite having all of the characteristecs of treif. It’s an issue which probably merits further consideration.
    –Reb Barry

  4. Lary Lennhoff on August 30, 2006 at 9:39 am

    Just a follow up on me and veal. I consider the standard way we raise veal to be a violation of tzar balei chaim (cruelty to animals). That sin is only against the people who raise the animals. But by purchasing the meat, I encourage them to continue to use that method of raising them, so I would consider my as violating lifnei ever (putting a stumbling block before the blind).

    A more meikel (lenient) person than myself might consider that they are not purchasing the meat directly from the farmer and thus what they are doing is known as (forgotten hebrew term) ‘aiding an aider’ which is usually not considered to be an averiah in its own right. Since if all restaurant purchasers refrained from buying veal the results would work their way back up the chain and actually stop the sin, I prefer to be personally strict.

    The halachic argument is why I recommend abstaining from veal as a personal stringency rather than claiming it is halachically required. It also completely dodges the issue of having the food be treif.

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