The First Word: When 'kosher' slaughter is not Jewish

Rabbis should eliminate, not defend, practices that cause gratuitous animal suffering.

A Jerusalem Post headline on March 14, "Rabbinate OKs meat despite cruelty to animals" was deeply disturbing but, unfortunately, it seems, true. The rabbi quoted in the report demonstrates how Halacha, viewed myopically and without the assistance of Judaism's own moral compass, can contradict the core values our religion is supposed to represent. The public aspect of this story began in November 2004, when a video expose revealed abusive animal handling procedures at the largest glatt-kosher slaughter facility in the US. The slaughterhouse, AgriProcessors, Inc. in Postville, Iowa, was shown using electric prods to shock the faces of cows in order to guide them into the slaughter pen. The pictures also showed an uncommon practice of speeding post-shehita blood flow by using large hooks to rip out the animals' trachea (windpipe) and esophagus (food pipe) while the animals are still conscious. Immediately after the procedure cows are seen standing and attempting to bellow and leave the killing-floor area. It is important to note that the ideal kosher cut would sever the trachea, esophagus and carotid artery, thus immediately eliminating blood flow to the brain and rendering an animal unconscious in as quickly as 10 seconds. Contrary to widespread perceptions, however, a valid kosher slaughter requires only the cut of the trachea and esophagus. The post-cut scenes on the videos of staggering, mutilated animals seem to be cases in which the carotid arteries were not severed, thus leaving the animal conscious and able to suffer pain. Two weeks ago, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published the findings of its investigation of AgriProcessors. The report declared that the abattoir repeatedly violated provisions of the Humane Slaughter Act. American animal cruelty laws do not permit "carcass dressing," such as the ripping of the throat, while the animal is still conscious. This horrible act, which has now been declared in violation of US animal cruelty laws, is not a necessary part of the shehita process. Importantly, the USDA did not criticize the process of shehita - on the contrary, kosher slaughter is affirmed by the USDA as being a humane form of slaughter. However, the investigation documented case after case of animal cruelty in the forms of pre- and post-slaughter handling of conscious animals. Reacting to these published findings, the head of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate's international ritual slaughter division, Rabbi Ezra Raful, said that he would permit the import of meat to Israel from the slaughterhouse in question, saying that "in the case of AgriProcessors, there is no halachic problem." Rabbi Raful's statement is alarming and halachically problematic on a number of levels. First, he ignores the halachic category of dina d'malchuta dina whereby Jews are required to follow the laws of their host country as long as the law does not intrude upon Jewish law. The consequence of this statement is that the Israeli rabbinate publicly gives its approval that Jewish-owned business ignore US law because it prohibits a practice that is ostensibly permitted by Jewish law. Second, the Israeli rabbinate characterizes Jewish law as holding a lesser standard of compassion to animals than even a secular government, creating the impression of moral failure in the eyes of both other nations and our own people. Third, by commenting that "there is no halachic problem," the rabbinate represents that the mitzva of tsa'ar ba'alei haim (prohibition against the unnecessary infliction of pain on an animal) as somehow non-applicable in the pre- and post-shehita process. Rabbi Raful further says, "The Torah is not subjective and the same Torah that prohibits cruelty to animals allows shehita." This statement is a nonsensical red herring. The USDA report does not criticize shehita; it criticizes the causing of unnecessary suffering to animals before the shehita occurs and the torturous carcass dressing of conscious animals after the shehita takes place. The Torah allows shehita, but the Torah does not allow cruel acts to be appended to the prescribed process of kosher slaughter. RABBI RAFUL'S statements express the view espoused by the senior haredi posek Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who opines that Halacha permits causing animals any amount of suffering if, as a result, there is some tangible human benefit. That is, the mitzva of tsa'ar ba'alei haim exists exclusively to prohibit sadistic behavior toward animals. Thankfully, many poskim, including Maimonides, believe that the prohibition against cruelty to animals informs our interactions with animals far beyond sadism. Starting with the Israeli rabbinate and including the Orthodox Union (OU) which is responsible for supervision at AgriProcessors plant, we have an irresponsible representation of Jewish law and Jewish values. The Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism voiced consternation at the time of the expose, thereby continuing the concern for animal welfare exhibited by its 2000 ruling requiring upright holding pens during shehita. Sadly, the assembly has not initiated any action toward the implementation of the ruling nor the reforming of current kosher slaughterhouse abuses - rather, the organization has depended on Orthodox agencies to correct themselves. Indeed, eventually, after the scandal broke and in cooperation with the OU and the USDA, AgriProcessors reportedly ceased the trachea-rip procedure and introduced a stun gun that immediately kills animals not rendered unconscious after the first cut. These animals are processed for nonkosher sale. Yet the cessation of cruel practices at one plant does not address the problem of rabbis who continue to defend such practices. The rabbis whom we have entrusted to interpret Halacha and represent the honor of Jewish character have been derelict in their duties. It is fair for the Jewish community to expect people of integrity, vision and courage to represent it. We have a right to expect our leadership to raise the alarm at the ethically atrocious, even in the face of popular criticism. Fortunately, Judaism has a self-correcting mechanism that does not rely solely on rabbis discerning truth. The Jewish community is empowered to voice opinion, to hold its leadership accountable and to demand reforms of abusive industries. The writer, a Conservative rabbi, is spiritual leader of Congregation Moreshet Yisrael and teaches at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, both in Jerusalem.