Slaughterhouse Rules

By Elli Fischer
Friday, July 29, 2011

Pending approval by its upper house of parliament, the Netherlands will join Switzerland and a handful of other Western countries in mandating that animals slaughtered for food must first be stunned unconscious, generally by a hammer blow to the skull. The law was introduced by the small, far-left Party for the Animals but won a solid majority of the lower house by drawing wall-to-wall support, including from Geert Wilders's Party for Freedom. If passed, the law would compromise the ability of the Netherlands' million Muslims and 50,000 Jews to render meat religiously acceptable for consumption.

It seems fairly clear that supporters of the proposed Dutch ban are at least as concerned with taking a tough stand against the country's burgeoning population of immigrant Muslims as with the humane treatment of animals, and that the tiny Jewish community and its lone shohet (ritual slaughterer) are seen merely as acceptable collateral victims.  But the episode inevitably raises the issue of Jewish ritual slaughter, which is our subject here. 

By the strictures of Jewish law, a shohet is a highly-trained and licensed specialist, who must use a surgically-sharp knife to incise the animal's neck quickly and effectively.  While there is every indication that sh'hitah (Jewish slaughter) minimizes animal suffering, this isn't the first time that the issue has come up before a non-Jewish court.  In 1893, Switzerland became the first modern state to pass a law forbidding the practice. The circumstances of that ban, still in force, bear clear resemblances to the contemporary case in the Netherlands: sh'hitah was defended by leading scientists (including renowned German pathologist Rudolf Virchow) as being more humane and hygienic than other forms of slaughter. Yet prevailing anxieties about Jewish immigration induced the Swiss public, voting by referendum, to ban the practice nonetheless.

There is also the German case.  Soon after rising to power in 1933, the newly-ascendant Nazi party banned slaughter (of animals) without prior stunning. There were three basic rabbinic responses to the Nazi legislation. Some rabbis, fearing that German Jews would simply abandon Jewish dietary laws or go malnourished, argued in favor of permitting sh'hitah of stunned animals. Other rabbis opposed granting such license, arguing that prior stunning invalidates the animal's kosher status. The group that ultimately prevailed argued that even if grounds for permitting stunning before sh'hitah could be established, such an accommodation might erroneously be construed as an admission that the time-honored methods of Jewish slaughter were somehow inhumane—and, more disturbingly, that Nazism could possibly have something to teach Judaism about the ethical treatment of living creatures.

In more recent times, attempts to protect sh'hitah from government regulation have relied on two basic strategies. The first is to gain exemptions for the practice on the grounds of religious freedom.  This strategy has succeeded in most European countries, which, following EU guidelines, regard the slaughter of conscious animals as inhumane but nevertheless exempt sh'hitah and other forms of ritual slaughter from regulation.  The second strategy is to get special legal recognition for the humane character of religious slaughter.  Thus, sh'hitah is enshrined in U.S. law as a humane method of slaughter. 

It is unfortunately true that the exemption of sh'hitah from regulation has on occasion allowed Jewish slaughterhouses to treat animals inhumanely. On the whole, though, and despite these exemptions, Jewish slaughter has never been indifferent to matters of animal welfare. Embedded in Judaism's laws is a deep uneasiness about killing and eating animals. Already in Genesis, meat-eating is permitted to man only as a concession after the Floodand even then, the Torah maintains a taboo against consuming blood. License for non-sacrificial killing and eating of meat is granted again in Deuteronomy (12:21), where the ban on consuming blood is repeated. But slaughtering practices go hand-in-hand with requirements for humane treatment of living animals. 

The prohibition of causing unnecessary pain to creatures is itself rooted in the Bible (which prohibits the muzzling of an animal as it threshes grain) and continues to clarify Jewish attitudes toward contemporary factory farming practices. Thus, recent decades have seen rabbinic bans on veal and foie gras due to the inhumane manner of fattening calves and geese for slaughter. The two largest kosher-certification bodies in the world, America's Orthodox Union and Israel's chief rabbinate, have responded to communal pressures by implementing systems that limit or eliminate stress to the animal as it is restrained and prepared for slaughter. An increasing number of kosher slaughterhouses in South AmericaIsrael's main source of beefhave eliminated, at the chief rabbinate's demand, the practice of shackling and hoisting animals prior to slaughter.  (This method became common when state regulations mandated that animals be off the ground when killed; the "shackle-and-hoist" method was required by American law from 1906 until 1958.)

With all these provisions for the minimization of pain to living creatures, it is all the more evident that those who seek to ban ritual slaughter often have something other than animal welfare in mind.  Indeed, while there has been political opposition to sh'hitah on humanitarian grounds for nearly two centuries, the practice has been banned successfully only when its aims have dovetailed with broader concernsmost notably, anxieties about immigration. 

In the current case in the Netherlands, the only consistent parliamentary opposition to the proposed ban has come, notably, from Christian parties, which argue that the law undermines the Netherlands' longstanding tradition of religious tolerance.  It is no less than this traditionprecisely what enabled the centuries-old Dutch Jewish community to flourish in the first placethat now stands before the law. 

Elli Fischer, who lives in Israel, is a writer and translator and blogs at adderabbi.blogspot.com.


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