Conversations with PETA about Jewish ritual slaughter

Injustices in the world of kashrut, on both sides, must be corrected.

Kapparot 311 (photo credit: Ben Spier)
Kapparot 311
(photo credit: Ben Spier)

Around a year ago, a Chabad rabbi got in touch with me and asked if I would agree to meet a senior, Jewish executive from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals named Philip Schein. Philip’s wife Hannah, who also works for PETA, is in charge of the organization’s undercover investigations.

Schein wished to discuss alleged animal abuses taking place in Shechita, orthodox Jewish slaughter, specifically pertaining to the practice of Kapparot, the slaughter of chickens for reasons of personal redemption and charity for the poor prior to the Yom Kippur fast.

I was somewhat reluctant to meet. Years earlier, I had interviewed another PETA campaign director on my nationally-syndicated radio show about the organization’s comparison of the slaughter of chickens and other animals to the gassing of Jews in the Holocaust.

I argued the campaign was offensive and outrageous, trivializing the indiscriminate slaughter of six million innocent victims, including one-and-half million children. To me, PETA was an organization with a positive message which they had undermined by taking their positions to an unreasonable and fanatical extreme. Still, I went forward with the meeting and found Schein to be gentlemanly and considerate. I was impressed with his commitment to Judaism, Jewish tradition and the Jewish community.

We acknowledged from the outset that we had differences, but we agreed that we both had a fundamental commitment to animals and their ethical treatment, something deeply enshrined in the Jewish religion from its outset.

Schein argued that a great many Kapparot chickens were not being donated to charitable institutions like homes for the elderly, orphanages or Jewish schools, but were of such great quantity that they were simply being thrown out. I told him that if that was the case it was utterly unacceptable and would have to be immediately corrected. When the subject of disgraced slaughterhouse and meat-packing plant Agriprocessors came up–a company PETA had recorded in an undercover operation–Schein thanked me for being one of the first rabbis to write a series of articles condemning any inhumane treatment of animals during the Shechita process and insisting that Agriprocessors seek out any abuses among their mangers and immediately correct it.

Indeed, the purpose of Shechitais is to minimize any and all suffering of the animal by causing it lose consciousness as soon as it's carotid artery is severed, thereby significantly minimizing any potential pain to the animal. My own understanding of the situation, having spoken to people who were at Agriprocessors during these events, was that any alleged abuses were remedied and, if they were not, I informed Schein I would speak to the supervising Jewish bodies that grant Kashrut licenses to make sure they were.

Over the past year, Schein and I have kept in contact and, a few weeks ago, he got in touch with me to say that he was extremely disappointed in my latest column on Sholom Rubashkin, in which I assailed the monstrous injustice of his 27-year-long prison sentence, which was not only grossly excessive, but was much longer than anyone who had been convicted of similar financial crimes. Schein told me that, by defending Rubashkin, I was putting myself on the side of those who defended Agriprocessor’s practices.

He asked me, at the very least, to write an article condemning further violations of ethical treatment of animals in other Jewish slaughterhouses. He sent me videos of such practices that include “shackle and hoist”, designed to help drain the blood from the animal much more rapidly by pulling it into the air with chains attached to its hind legs.

I researched “shackle and hoist” and discovered that the American supervising kosher authorities have dispensed with the practice in favor of a standing pen. There is no question that, to the extent that “shackle and hoist” is being practiced at all outside the United States, it should be replaced by the American standing pen immediately.

To be sure, the slaughter of any animal is never going to look pretty and I, who hates the sight of any and all blood, did not enjoy the videos, but there is a difference between legitimate, kosher Shechita, which may look unsavory, but which still accommodates the highest ethical concerns of the Jewish religion, versus any cold-hearted violation of ethical norms designed to speed up the process. These practices violate profound Jewish ethical teachings that demand the minimization of any and all animal suffering.

Though I have found, and continue to find, many of the methods employed by PETA to be unnecessarily extreme, I agree with Schein’s emphasis that Jewish ritual slaughter adhere to Judaism's highest ethical norms. Maimonides famously said, “Embrace the truth, regardless of its source.” It should not take any undercover investigation to induce segments of the Jewish community to adhere to Judaism’s cherished and ancient values. Having spoken to one of the leading Kashrut supervising authorities in the United States, I have been assured that every effort is being made to ensure that all kosher Shechita respects the highest Jewish ethical values.

Kapparot chickens which are not donated for a charitable purpose, but are thrown out violate the grave Jewish prohibition of ‘baal tashchis,’ wasting necessary food in a world that is still so hungry. Keeping chickens in pens without food or water is obviously unacceptable and, if it is being done, would seem to come under the rubric of ‘tovel ve’sheretz beyado,’ the Talmudic description of a man who goes to cleanse himself in a mikveh, yet holds a ritually unclean creepy-crawly creature in his hand, thereby sabotaging the purification effort from the outset. As for “shackle and hoist,” the Israeli Rabbinate has promised to do away with all such procedures.

In my book Judaism for Everyone, I explain that the Jewish laws of kashrut are designed to make human beings repulsed by the sight of blood. God only allowed us to take animal life out of the necessity of survival in a world where other food sources have not always been available. Indeed, the biblical Adam was wholly vegetarian. It was only after God destroyed the world with the flood and there was no remaining vegetation that God allowed Noah to take the life of animals so that he and his family could survive.

That right has been granted to us still to this day, but it is one that cannot be violated by trampling on the dignity of animals or causing them any unnecessary pain, even as we legitimately take their lives so that we might live. Hence, the Torah established that, as soon as we slaughter an animal, the blood must be poured on the ground where it can no longer be seen so that we human beings never become immune to the sight of blood. Likewise, Jews are not permitted to eat any animals that are predatory. Only animals that have a split hoof - built for standing rather than pursuing another animal - are permitted for consumption. God has likewise outlawed all birds of prey in order to purge from our character any predatory instincts.

We dare not violate the highly-important ethical and moral values that underpin the laws of Kashrut by treating animals with callous disregard.

I remain by my condemnation of the monstrous injustice meted out to Sholom Rubashkin, which must be corrected by the Justice Department. I know Rubashkin and his family and they are good and charitable people. His family is suffering tremendously. There can be no doubt that he made mistakes and has now paid a terrible price, but he too has rights and they are currently being violated with a sentence that has been identified as grossly excessive by some of the top legal experts in the country. Let us also remember that Rubashkin was never convicted of anything but financial crimes and was never charged with any inhumane practices against animals.

In that sense, I reciprocate Schein’s challenge to me. He was correct in approaching me and asking me to use the media at my disposal to ensure that kosher ritual slaughter adhere to Judaism’s strict emphasis on respect for animal life and minimizing of any suffering and absolute ban on animal cruelty. Let us remember that hunting is strictly forbidden by the Jewish religion and I respect Schein’s desire to spread Jewish values that pertain to animal welfare.

But humans also have rights and, just as an orthodox Rabbi speaking out against any abuses in Shechita carries an impact, an executive of PETA speaking out against human beings being unfairly and excessively punished would also make an impact. This is especially true if the people speaking out exposed the abuses in the first place, but still believe that every punishment should be commensurate with the crime and, in the case of Rubashkin, his crimes should have received, at maximum, a sentence of a few years in prison. As the New York Times itself wrote, “The sentence… was unusually high in the recent history of financial crimes - longer than the term for former Enron CEO Jeffrey K. Skilling and former Tyco CEO L. Dennis Kozlowski.”

I look forward to hosting the Schein’s at my home for Shabbat dinner where we can discuss what I, as a Rabbi, can continue to do to ensure that my community promotes and always lives by its cherished, universal values, especially as it pertains to the prevention of all cruelty to animals, and what PETA, who cares deeply for animal welfare and rights, can also do to demonstrate their commitment to undoing the injustices that trample on sacred human rights. No doubt it will be a spirited, warm and memorable Sabbath.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is regularly featured in Newsweek’s list of the 10 most influential Rabbis in America and has just published Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself. He will shortly publish Kosher Jesus. Follow him on his website and on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.