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Defending a (Kosher) Kill

It is commonly remarked that the best lies told are those that contain some truth. And so it often seems to be with the argument, which returns like the tides every few years, that shechitah, kosher ritual slaughter, is intrinsically inhumane. That it stands apart from the modern, civilized form of animal slaughter the rest of the world engages in and that this dark, antiquated and backwards practice must be brought into the light and abolished by right-thinking, morally upright persons of conscience.

The most recent foray into this field, by James McWilliams, makes some excellent arguments that seem simple and logical to the common man. This would seem to point to his overall conclusion, that kosher slaughter is “gruesome” being true. While it is certainly true, and sad, that kosher slaughter, like any slaughter can be gruesome, it is by no means inherent to the details of kashrut. McWilliam’s sullies his valid points by mixing them with half-truths and assumptions.

Let us examine them in turn:

  • “According to kosher stipulations (and Muslim ones as well), an animal must be fully conscious when slaughtered”. This is true and, as McWilliam’s points out mostly clearly, was intended to insure that the animal was healthy and able to stand on its own. While there are certainly valid concerns for the animal’s sensation of pain when being slaughtered un-stunned, focusing on this alone ignores the larger picture of what it means to raise and slaughter an animal for food in a humane fashion. As a result of this law, animals who had been mistreated to the point of unconsciousness or who were so ill that they were unable to stand would not be fit to eat. They would also therefore be unprofitable to sell for slaughter. While it is probably true that stunning the animal before slaughter would be more humane in a perfect world, the real, rushed and dirty world of commercial slaughter does not allow for “perfect” and I have seen stunnings that did not work and were either redone (which then negated their purpose) or the animal was sent on for slaughter as-is. Kosher law, like any law, must weigh the multiple values and realities before it and legislate for the actualities that are likely to be encountered, not remain in an ivory tower. This stipulation, in my experience, is more likely to result in a more overall humane experience for the animal in a commercial setting.

  • Hoist and Shackle: Mr. McWilliams does an excellent job of describing the horrors of this all-too-common practice. The technique whereby animals are yanked off the floor by their hind legs prior to slaughter is indeed as cruel and inhumane as he describes and should, in my opinion, be outlawed. But it is in no way unique to kosher slaughter. No one should comfort themselves at the thought that they are eating animals that were stunned before being tortured in this fashion. There are now at least two methods for kosher slaughter that negate the need for this method (in addition to the USDA requirement that a slaughtered animal not touch the blood of another, kosher laws required that the animal be inverted (shechitah munachat) so that the animal could not press down on the blade, which could conceivably make the knife move, causing pain. In the old country, this was accomplished by turning the animal onto its back on the ground, both impractical in a commercial setting and admittedly not a terribly humane practice either). The first is an inversion pen, where the animal is rotated inside a confined space to allow it to be slaughtered safely by the shochet while reducing the pain and stress of the animal. The second, and far superior, is the pen designed by Dr. Temple Grandin, a leading expert in animal welfare. Dr. Grandin designed a pen that would keep the animal fully upright while also restraining its head, preventing it from being able to press against the knife. I have personally witnessed kosher slaughter using these techniques and they are both kosher and deeply respectful of animal welfare. Put simply, we are agreed that hoist and shackle is a shameful practice and should be stopped immediately. But that should not be confined to or a commentary on kosher slaughter alone. It should be condemned and stopped across the spectrum.

  • “Making matters worse, consumers who are purchasing non-kosher meat might very well be eating meat from cows slaughtered in this horrific fashion.” This is perhaps the most upsetting statement, the more so for its seemingly innocuous assumption. The illusion that non-kosher conventional slaughter is a pretty, painless process is one that needs to be shattered. While stunning an animal can certainly help them avoid the sensations of being shackled and hoisted, there is nothing to help them avoid the feelings of a failed stunning, an untrained or inexperienced worker slitting their throat with any blade on hand or a kill line being forced to run so fast the workers can’t do their jobs correctly (historically, even resulting in animals being skinned alive). In stark contrast, shochtim (kosher slaughterers) are highly trained, skilled workers, whose knives are held to an unbelievable standard of sharpness and care and whose criteria for how quickly, carefully and painlessly the animal must be killed are unparalleled.

It was hard for me to write this piece. For years, I felt much the same way that Mc Williams seems to feel about kosher slaughter — namely, that it was antiquated and inhumane by modern standards and needed to be fixed. I would often use the example that were someone to ask me how I’d prefer to be killed, by having my throat slit or being shot in the head, there’s no question I’d choose the latter. It seems to make innate sense. And, perhaps, in a perfect world, where animals are being slaughtered one by one with care for their well being, rather than rushed through a commercial kill line for profit, an argument could be made for the gun over the knife. But we are not talking about that perfect world. And animals are not humans — they do not see the knife as we would, it does not represent the knowledge it would to me- namely that I was about to die. I have seen kosher slaughter done with great care and reverence for the animal and I have seen animals exhibit not a single sign of discomfort — no lowing or thrashing — even as their throats were slit. It is a gruesome thing to kill, to watch the lifeblood leave a living creature. That is true, and let us honor that truth. Let us not sully it by pretending that kosher slaughter is somehow the chief offender and that, by extension, non-kosher meat consumers are occupying a moral high ground.

McWilliams seems to be sensitive to the fact that he’s criticizing a religious practice, one that’s not his own and he admits his ignorance of its inner workings even as he subtly dismisses or diminishes it. And he may not be aware that shechitah-criticism has historically been used as a thinly-veiled anti-Semitism. And his keen desire to prevent animal cruelty is laudable. If only he aimed his critiques in all directions. He is correct when he states that Judaism “itself should never tolerate” such injustices- indeed, the prohibitions of tsar baalei chayim, of causing pain to a living thing, are clear in Jewish text. It would be a wonderful thing if all forms of animal slaughter, kosher and non-, would adhere to these principles.

Simon Feil was the founder of Kosher Conscience, one of the first ethical, humane kosher meat ventures. Currently, he divides his time between being a dad, an actor and an entrepreneur.

Defending a (Kosher) Kill

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