Sunday, December 09, 2007

Chad Gadya

Liveblogging from the Hazon Food Conference (for more see Jewschool's posts from YehuditBrachah).

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."

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.

Here's a follow up based on some of the comments posted to the Jewschool post on this topic"

More on the goat:

Thanks to the various commenters for writing.
In fact, Hazon is talking about many of the questions you raise on other issues related to the production and consumption of meat:

* While the world faces many problems re pollution, global climate change, widening water shortages,rapid species extinction, and many more, over 50 billion animals are being raised for slaughter annually worldwide.

* According to the UN FAO, animal-based agriculture emits more greenhouse gases ((in CO2 equivalents) than all the world’s cars, trucks and other means of transportation combined.

* A typical animal-based diet requires up to 14 times as much water as a vegan diet.

* over 70% of the grain produced in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter as an estimated 20 million people die annually worldwide due to hunger and its effects.

* There is an epidemic of diseases in the Jewish community and other communities today, largely due to the high consumption of meat and other animal products.

There were a series of panels following the shechita about whether or not meat could be ethically eaten, during which some of these points were raised. There was a good deal of discussion about realistic approaches and what an ideal system might be, but taking into account that the likelihood is that meat will not be given up by most people.
Our midrash tells us that the ideal, and before the flood (of Noah fame) we were supposed to be vegetarians, but that we weren’t able to do it, and so God gave us an outlet for our lust, circumscribed by laws about how to eat meat so that it wouldn’t turn into a simple bloodlust, or to be eaten at any time or place: that there should be reverence for God and an understanding that there must be limitations on how we go about eating meat.
Even the mashgiach from the OU acknowledged that the way things have turned out is not how it was supposed to be. The shochet said he only eats meat on shabbat and holidays, as did the shochet-in-training. The shochet is clearly one of those who understands there to be an obligation to eat meat on festivals. If everyone in the Jewish world were to restrict themselves to such, instead of eating meat three times a day - or even just every day, it would have a large impact in two ways: one, because the majority (according to Rabbi Mandel, upwards of 70%) of kosher-shechted animals turn out to be treif and have to be sold to non-Jews, it would make non-kosher meat more expensive. If Jews then started demanding more humanely and ecologically raised and slaughtered meat, it would make that market more manageable. That would be a benefit.It would probably not, however have a great impact on the treatment of most meat animals in the world - since there are far more non-Jews than Jews in the world.
Nevertheless, it is a conversation worth having, and perhaps if Jews could set an example by eating less meat, demanding a more humane market, and insisting on kosher slaughterhouses actually following laws of tzaar baalei chaim (humane-ness to animals) as well as those pertaining to the fair treatment of workers, it would go far towards improving the world.

I also want to add some context to my own comments and actions that I mention above:

In the usual course of events, I don’t eat meat. I have a dairy kosher kitchen, occasionally eat fish, and eat meat if I go to the house of someone who keeps kosher who is serving meat. I have cooked meat for myself about once a year over the past ten years or so. Not that I don't care for it: I do, I'll admit, but I could hardly be considered to be a big meat eater, or even to lust for it.
When I was pregnant with my DS, the doctors kept telling me that I needed to get more protein, and based on the dietary information they gave me, it was clear that the only way to pack it in was by eating meat (for various health reasons, which I now think were probably bogus, some of the other sources were not available to me at that time). I dutifully went out and bought a meat pan and some turkey,and some plastic washable plates for meat meals. The turkey then sat in the freezer for the duration of the pregnancy, and the baby was born just fine, thank you.
I also knew going into it that goat is not particularly tasty, but I have to say that I felt obligated to eat the meat. The goat had been killed for my benefit, as humanely as possible, and I felt that I should honor the sacrifice of the animal. I did not, thus see myself as “cav[ing] in to one’s desires.”
I acknowledge (and indeed, that is a major point of my post) that most animals are not raised or slaughtered this way, and I don’t think that this post can necessarily be considered as advocating meat. I do however, think, that it can be considered as advocating discussion.
It seems to me to be unfair to simply dismiss out of hand all of the different thoughts and reactions that people had to the shechita. Some vegetarians felt that if all meat was raised and slaughtered this way,they would be willing to eat meat, but granted that that was unlikely. A few meat eaters felt they were unable to eat the meat. Some vegetarians ate the meat this one time, and still consider themselves vegetarians and feel that they will not eat meat again. Rabbi David Seidenberg, noted during the blessing after the meal that evening that he has been a vegetarian for upwards of thirty years, noted that he ate the meat, and said he did not expect to eat meat again for at least another thirty years.
Regarding the suffering, it’s true of course, that I can’t know for sure whether the goat suffered, but I can say that in both animals and humans, there are, in fact ways one can tell if there is suffering by measuring reactions. In this case, the ways of measurement are crude - I didn’t have electrodes hooked up to the goat, for example, I didn’t measure blood pressure or chemical changes in the blood from fear and stress (all of these can and are done. Dr. Temple Grandin talks about this when she discusses her designs for more humane slaughterhouses). Nevertheless, even relatively crude measures are not worthless. The goats didn’t struggle, or call out. They lay down quietly and the death was very quick. BY reasonable guess one can say that they probably did not suffer much, although I am unwilling to say that they suffered not at all.
And by the way, goat is not tasty, but I did eat it. I think, for the situation, I did the right thing. And my kitchen is still dairy kosher and will remain so.

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