Re’eh 5771 — Eating Animals

For the last year and a half I have been struggling with a guilty conscience about what I eat. And I don’t like the feeling.

It’s not that I run off somewhere for an occasional secret bacon fix, God forbid. I still follow all the rules – at least the letter of the rules – found in this week’s Torah reading, Re’eh, which spells out the basics of keeping kosher. But I’m worried about whether everything I’m eating follows the spirit of the laws.

What happened a year and a half ago? A colleague (who is both an observant Jew and a vegetarian) recommended I read the book “Eating Animals,” by Jonathan Safran Foer. It should be required reading for anyone who is NOT a vegetarian. If you are going to eat meat – including chicken and fish – you should at least do it consciously, and you should be aware of the consequences of your actions.

The consequences are severe. The vast majority of meat we eat – including kosher chicken and beef – is raised on factory farms, in horrible, inhumane conditions. When we eat fish we are contributing to a process that may lead to a complete collapse of the oceans’ eco-systems; already populations of many fish have dropped by 90% from levels they had in the past. An illustrative excerpt from the book – which you might not want to read before eating, follows below.  If you want to read a lengthier excerpt from the book, click here.

The typical cage for egg-laying hens allows each sixty-seven square inches of floor space — somewhere between the size of this page and a sheet of printer paper. Such cages are stacked between three and nine tiers high — Japan has the world’s highest battery cage unit, with cages stacked eighteen tiers high — in windowless sheds.

Step your mind into a crowded elevator, an elevator so crowded you cannot turn around without bumping into (and aggravating) your neighbor. The elevator is so crowded you are often held aloft.

This is a kind of blessing, as the slanted floor is made of wire, which cuts into your feet. After some time, those in the elevator will lose their ability to work in the interest of the group. Some will become violent; others will go mad. A few, deprived of food and hope, will become cannibalistic.

There is no respite, no relief. No elevator repairman is coming. The doors will open once, at the end of your life, for your journey to the only place worse.

Safran Foer makes a compelling case that eating animals causes tremendous damage. It is:

  • Bad for animals (see above)
  • Bad for the environment. The UN says “raising animals for food is one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global…{animal agriculture] should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss biodiversity. Livestocks’s contributions to environmental problems is on a massive scale.” Safran Foer has some very colorful descriptions of the methane ponds found on factory farms…thousands of cows generate a lot of “waste.”
  • Bad for workers. Working conditions are often very poor; the Jewish community, of course, is very familiar with the scandal at Postville.
  • Bad for consumers. Most factory –raised animals are pumped full of all sorts of hormones and prescription drugs and not healthy to eat.
  • Bad for society (which must bear huge hidden costs)

But what would Judaism have to say about all that? The Torah certainly does not mention these issues in any kind of explicit way, does it?

This week’s Torah reading contains one verse which is the basis for the rules the later rabbis developed regarding kosher slaughter of animals (including beef, lamb, chicken, etc). Deuteronomy 14:21 tells us lo tochlu kol neveila, do not eat any “neveila.” The simple meaning of “neveila” is an animal that died of natural causes.

The 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. So while deer may be kosher, we can’t eat deer killed through hunting – we can only eat deer that were raised on a farm and subjected to kosher slaughter. No eating road kill.

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. The rabbis have traditionally understood that the ideal is to be vegetarian, but since we have a 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 are based on preventing unnecessary suffering for the animal. Sefer Hachinuch, a 13th century commentary on the commandments says: “The reason that slaughter must be done at the throat with a knife that is thoroughly inspected is in order that there will not be unnecessary suffering to animals, for the Torah 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 implemented—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!

A few years 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 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 (the laws state the speed limit is a maximum “if conditions permit”).

I maintain the same principle applies in Jewish law. It is not enough to follow only 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.

But I realize now that my response did not go far enough. Just “kosher” meat is not really kosher enough, because the kosher food industry generally only cares about the letter of the law, not the spirit of the law. And as demonstrated above, following the letter of the law is not enough.

Besides the concerns for the well-being of the animal, Jewish law calls on us to be concerned about the environment. When God gives Adam “dominion” over the earth, he is appointing Adam a steward to take care of the earth, not a despot to despoil the earth.

What the Torah expects of us – and what Jonathan Safran Foer calls for in his book – is for us to be “ethical omnivores.” If you are going to eat meat, you should only eat animals that have not been tortured during their lives, that died a death with minimal pain, and that causes minimum harm to the environment.

It is theoretically possible. There are free-range kosher chickens that live what would seem to be happy lives for a chicken. But since there isn’t much in the way of regulation for the use of terms like “free range” you can’t necessarily tell from what it says on the package: there are also some “free range” chickens that are really factory raised chickens where they leave a door open so a few chickens can wander outside but most can’t get to the door.

There is a whole “eco-kosher” movement, which seeks sources of grass-fed, free range cattle and does kosher slaughter. Unfortunately, the movement is still pretty small, and the vast majority of kosher meat you find will not be “eco-kosher.” It takes effort to find it.

Being an ethical omnivore when eating fish is also challenging. For some species of fish, to eat one fish results in the deaths of another five or ten that are not desired that are simply thrown away. There are 145 different species of fish commonly killed in the hunt for tuna. The damage of “factory fishing” to the world’s oceans is horrific. And “farm-raised” fish create a different kind of environmental damage. Eating only line-caught fish certainly helps to reduce the environmental consequences of eating fish.

So why do I have a guilty conscience? After reading Safran Foer’s book, I resolved to be an “ethical omnivore.” I have more or less given up eating beef, and at home we make an effort to only purchase free range eggs and chickens. But I still occasionally eat chicken when I’m eating out, and I still occasionally enjoy a piece of tuna sushi. I recognize I am being inconsistent; if I believe the hoist and shackle method of slaughter renders meat not kosher, I have no choice but to also believe that animals raised in the inhumane conditions of factory farms are also not kosher.

Thus, I am resolving to redouble my efforts, and not eat any meat whose provenance I am not sure of, whether at home or out.

And if you are an omnivore, I very strongly recommend you read Safran Foer’s book for yourself, and give serious thought to what you are eating. If enough of us insist on only eating meat that is raised with a concern for the welfare of the animal, the environment, and for society as a whole, we can become a movement that can change laws and change industries.


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