…Also, the goats.
We all have a huge amount to say about the goats. I’m not sure that this was planned, but in some ways, this topic has nearly taken over the Hazon Food Conference. And I do not think that this is necessarily a bad thing. The questions that have arisen throughout the past years, regarding the ethics of eating meat – especially kosher meat produced in factory farms, slaughtered in places like Agriprocessors, where the heart of kashrut seems to have bled right out are questions which are just right for the people of this new Jewish sustainable food movement to address.
And while there is a lot going on at this conference, your intrepid livebloggers (YehuditBrachah, KungFu Jew and KRG) have set aside an entire post to talk about the shchita and the conversations surrounding it.
Thursday night, the first night of the conference, Nigel Savage of Hazon started out by explaining how it came about that it was decided to shecht a goat this year at the food conference. Last year during the conference, Nigel asked meat eaters if they would still eat meat if they had to participate in the death of the animal: some said yes, others: no; he then asked the veggies if they would eat meat if they were part of its slaughtering: again, some said no, but others, yes. From this arose the idea to try to humanely schecht a goat at the Hazon Food conference.
That is how Nigel introduced the first panel of the conference: a panel including a shochet, Rabbi Yehuda ben Chemhoun, Rabbi Seth Mandel of the Orthodox Union, who oversees all American slaughterhouses, the shepherd who raised the goats Aitan Mizrahi, the woman who continued to shepherd them when the shepherd separated them from their dams (he is a dairy farmer, and this is how female goats are kept giving milk) Rachel Gall, Dr. Shamu Sadeh of Adamah and Simon Feil.
During the panel, many interesting questions were asked, but there were two that were particularly interesting, both from Rabbi Mandel (and kudos to both Rabbi Mandel and the shochet for making themselves available and accessible for these discussions). Rabbi Mandel when asked about the current problems in the kosher slaughterhouse system, made the point that the Torah did not envision a system like the one we have today. He emphasized that most of the problems with the system come about because the system is too big, because people eat too much meat. The Torah envisions a system in which a community may slaughter perhaps one or two large animals in a week – at most- instead, we now have a system where thousands of animals move through the slaughterhouse in a week, that our lust to eat not just meat, but lots of meat causes the system to try to produce too much, leaving us with an inhumane system.
The second comment of Rabbi Mandel’s is related. When asked about why the Orthodox Union is not dealing with the questions of the treatment of the animals during their raising, or even during the period of slaughter other than those that directly affect the killing, his explanation was that tzaar baalei chaim (humane treatment of animals) is distinct from kashrut. There are two things that affect the kashrut status of an animal: the first is if the animal dies on its own: that’s neveilah, and makes the animal unkosher. The second is if the animal when examined after the shechita has a flaw or is diseased (with certain diseases), or the cut is improperly done: that makes the animal treifah – torn- and not kosher.
Rabbi Mandel explained with the following example: he says there can of course be an ethical person who does not keep mitzvot, commandments. There can also be a person who keeps commandments who is not an ethical person. Neither is a complete Jew, because the goal is to do both; however, he cannot say that either is without value. His point is that we should encourage each of these types of people to become complete Jews, people who are ethical and who observe mitzvot.
But in my opinion, this is, with all due respect, a cop-out. To say that we need to encourage people to be ethical, to do the right thing is of course, true, but we are speaking here of a business, whose bottom line is apparently what their ultimate goal is, and the OU is giving its hechsher – which in most peoples’ minds – including people throughout the Orthodox and Conservative communities – means that “it’s okay.” The hechsher is a sign that everything is fine and dandy for most people, and the OU is the most trusted of supervisory bodies in the Jewish community. To say that the OU is only going to oversee kashrut and nothing but is a terrible response, because it means specifically that they are not taking responsibilty for their reputation as a body with power in the Jewish community.
What they ought to be doing is to say that while technically what, say, Agriprocessors, is doing is minimally kosher, OU is revoking its seal of approval until they clean up their act in terms of the halachot of the treatment of workers and the mishandling of animals (see earlier posts on these topics). Their statement should say that while these are not technically violations of kashrut they are absolutely violations of Jewish law, and it is not appropriate for people to buy meat from this supplier until their egregious halachic violations cease.
It seems likely that the main reason for them not doing so is not, in fact to do with halachah, but to do with 1. business decisions about the supply of meat in this country, 2. concerns about the availability of kosher meat (since Rubashkin and their subsidiaries are responsible for the great majority of kosher meat in the USA. and 3. a fear of “anti-antisemitism.”
Listening to Rabbi Mandel, I realized I was hearing words and concepts I’d not heard since business school. Rabbi Mendel spoke less frequently about Hashem, Torah, and tradition and more about competitive advantage, market share and consumer price pressure. It suddenly made sense that there are two primary forces at play in modern kashrut: not just God’s word but Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand.
Rabbi Mendel was enthusiastically in favor of social justice certifications by Jews and Jewish organizations – but objected their being provided by a rabbinic authority and certainly not done by the OU, lest these rules become confused with “kosher.” Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with him, the business reality must be answered by the social justice hekhsher and eco-kashrut proponents:
Regarding competitive advantage, he said the Conservative movement’s rabbis are not experts on kashrut, meaning simply that the hundreds of kashrut authorities are entirely orthodox. Conservatives have nothing comparative upon which to draw kashrut experience. The tzedek hekhsher, he said, should stick to ethics which they may (and I believe he meant this seriously) be much more endowed to certify. This all sounded more about competitive advantage, not God.
Regarding market share, Rabbi Mandel asked attendees what percentage of meat in America is kosher. 20? 10? The answer: 2%. No kosher market pressure, he effused, will be responsible for changing animal treatment standards. Frustrated advocates of the tzedek hekhsher insisted that something was better than nothing. He demurred. The majority of kosher industry is subsidized by the non-kosher industry in that kosher authorities can hekhsher a percentage of the output (very small) without having to own factories. Their small share is growing, but it still just a drop in the bucket of America’s food system.
To consumer price pressure, he explained that major manufacturers, like Rubashkin’s, are not in the market for high-quality meat – such as implied by the tzedek hekhsher. “Cheap, kosher meat,” he said, “is what they produce. Cheap, kosher meat.” Few major kosher meat producers would invite further certification, he explained, if it meant an increase in the bottom line. Some, maybe many, he speculated, would do it – those who market to a higher-purchasing and more discriminating consumer, but not “Shmuel from Ohio” who may or may not buy kosher meat depending on the price difference between kosher meat and its non-kosher equivalent.
This is not to say that the Conservative movement couldn’t train hundreds of Conservative shochetim (if indeed they wish to enter the kosher slaughter end of the business, or leave that to the orthodox). And it’s not to say that the struggle for tzedek hekhshers will make only a 2% impact on the total market. (PETA certainly seems to feel attacking kosher meat is worth concerted attention.) And it’s not to say that industries cannot be forced to raise their standards via public outrage. But I am indeed saying that these very practical questions must be answered before the rubber his the road, to make good intentions executable.
Secondly, I wanted to reflect on the actual shechita, which we all attended and witnessed.
We arrive very early in the morning. The three goats are friendly, and are leaning up against the shepherds, who are hugging and petting them.
One is black and white, and that’s what they call him. The other two are white. One is named Mr. Waddles, and the other Monster. The two white goats are brothers.
When the time comes, he walks easily to the shochet, led by a piece of twine tied to his collar. I myself am nervous and feel sympathy for the shochet who is in his shirtsleeves. It is very cold and there is snow and ice on the ground. I am wearing fleece gloves, wool socks a llama wool sweater and a down coat. I am still cold.
The mashgiach checks the shechita knife on his nail, all along its length for nicks. The shepherd is standing with the goat. He helps the goat lie down and it doesn’t struggle. It trusts him.
The cut is quick and the animal does not struggle as the cut is made. It does not appear to be painful.
I thought that I might be nauseated; I am not. It is not so terrible. But, I think, it is also completely unlike a slaughterhouse death. Where, in the slaughterhouse, in the shepherd who weeps for his goat? the old friend to lead him to his death? The silence of the respectful standing around to witness the death? To stand by as your consciousness drains away to nothing?
It is not quiet in a slaughterhouse. There is not time to do things like soothe the animal and pet him, and I have a hard time imagining the kavanna of the shochet in a noisy, crowded bloody slaughterhouse.
The shepherd lays the goat on the ground. They wrap him in a sheet and the shepherd kneels beside his body, head bowed. He picks up the goat and carries him away. He looks like a father carrying his sleeping child in a blanket. My eyes are hot.
That night, they prepare the meat for Shabbat supper at the conference.
The shechita was, in fact, everything its advocates say that it is. It was probably reasonably painless. It was respectful. the shochet – and the shochet in training who assisted him- clearly had holy intent, and they both believe in the work that they are doing as holy work. They were able to lend kedusha -holiness- to the moment of the goats’ deaths.
I am still bothered, though. Over shabbat, I heard people talking about the shechita as a holy business, and I was willing to agree until one conference participant compared witnessing the shechita to witnessing a childbirth. There are some parallels: they are bloody, messy businesses. They are both painful. They are scary.
But I am not willing to allow the comparison. The comparison made by this person between pushing life in and pushing life out as equally sacred is not a Jewish view. “The most upright butcher is a partner of Amalek,” says the Talmud (Kiddushin, 82a)
It is true that Judaism says that the day of one’s death is greater than the day of one’s birth, but that is because one’s death is the time at which the measure of one’s life can be taken and not before.
Killing is not equivalent to the day of one’s death. Being a shochet is a holy job, but not because killing is holy. It is holy, to the contrary, because a shochet requires an enormous level of ethics and personal integrity to not become accustomed to killing, but to always recognize it for what it is. It is said that the Baal Shem Tov when he sharpened his knife would wet the sharpening stone with his tears, asking, “How can I kill a living creature? Am I better than it?”
In Bava Metzia 85a, there is a story of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi that a calf was being taken to the slaughter, and when it broke away, hid his head under Rabbi’s Yehuda’s skirts, and lowed in fear. ‘Go’, said he, ‘for this were you created.’ Then they said in Heaven, ‘Since he has no pity, let us bring suffering upon him.’
He suffered for many years, until one day his maidservant was sweeping the house; and seeing some young weasels lying there, she made to sweep them away. ‘Let them be,’ said he to her; ‘It is written, and his tender mercies are over all his works.'(Psalms) Heaven saw this and said, ‘Since he is compassionate, let us be compassionate to him.’
We ae not permitted to be callous about the lives of animals. The ideal shochet is one who weeps at his shechita. It is one who understands that what he is doing is a compromise. During a follow up session to talk about the shechita, the shochet in training reminded us of the midrash that before the Biblical flood, we were not permitted to eat meat, but after the flood, God recognized that our lust for flesh was not to be denied and so allowed us to kill and eat animals.
I respect him most, though, because he not only said this with clear conflict, while simultaneously believing strongly in what he does, but also because he, like the BShT, choked up while speaking about this. It was not easy for him to talk about.
Jewishly, meat is a compromise from the highest ethical level. That is what kashrut is: it is to remind us that while we have the power to kill, we are not God, and there are restrictions on what we are permitted. We must get our lusts under control.
By the way, I ate the goat.