Embracing the Irrationality of Circumcision and Kashrut

Can Ancient Rites Be Explained in Language of Liberalism?

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By Jay Michaelson

Published May 12, 2014, issue of May 16, 2014.
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Now let’s apply the same kind of reasoning to kashrut.

In early May, protests in Berkeley, California, helped cancel Urban Adamah’s planned workshop on kosher slaughter. The situation is rife with irony. More than 23 million chickens are slaughtered each day, yet a handful of animal rights activists with time on their hands saw fit to protest the impending demise of 14 old hens. Moreover, having been part of Adamah and other eco-Jewish communities myself, I know that this conscious approach to animal slaughter is the exact opposite of the sterilized “numbness to pain” that one (Jewish) activist complained about.

More ominously, moves are afoot in Europe to ban kosher slaughter entirely — once again in the name of animal rights.

Here, too, let’s not delude ourselves. Kosher slaughter may once have been the most humane way to kill an animal, but it isn’t now. Especially because of the letter-of-the-law approach taken by most Orthodox rabbis, kosher slaughter is often more painful than nonkosher slaughter: for example, when animals are hoisted upside down to comply with the rule that one animal may not be slaughtered in another’s blood.

Nor is any of this rational. For 200 years, apologists have tried to explain how kashrut is really about health, how pigs carry trichinosis and so on. Poppycock. There is no evidence that the Bible cared about these issues, and there is significant evidence that dietary laws were about maintaining cultic taboos, separating Israelites from others and reflecting the design of Creation. Only the second rationale makes “sense” today, and many of us find it abhorrent. And anyway, the specific methods of slaughter now at issue aren’t even listed in the Bible; they are of rabbinic coinage.

Once again, though, a both-and approach makes sense Jewishly and secularly.

Jewishly, the rational critiques are valid and the nonrational factors are important as well: Jewish belonging, Jewish tradition, obedience to God, obedience to authority, a spiritual connection with food, creating discipline around food, respect for animal life (and eating fewer animals as a result), a gestural nod to the dignity of the animal…. The list goes on, and these factors are important and non-rational and they may even be good.

Secularly, whatever rights animals do or should have, our society currently allows far more violations of them than kashrut entails. We allow hunting for sport. We kill animals for pleasure. We raise them and slaughter them for ornamentation. None of these motivations is as noble or as constitutionally protected as religious values, and all hurt far more animals.

Let’s be truthful about our religious observances: Kashrut and circumcision aren’t harmless, nor are they entirely rational. But neither, at the end of the day, are we.

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor at the Forward.

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