By Richard Mather…

In contemporary society, more than ever before, vegetarianism should be an imperative for Jews who seek to live in accordance with Judaism’s most sublime teachings (Rabbi David Rosen)

Israel’s agriculture minister Uri Ariel has declared that  he will show “zero tolerance” towards those who harm animals, and has ordered the closure of the Dabbah slaughterhouse in northern Israel following suspected violations of both the animal welfare act and slaughtering regulations.

Disturbing video footage gathered by an animal rights group shows kosher meat men kicking and hitting cattle, dragging them across the floor by their legs, electrifying them with shockers on their way to be killed, and hanging cattle while they were still conscious.

In 2012, another Israeli abattoir, Adom Adom, was found to have mistreated animals, leading to indictments against several low-ranking employees.

The worst case was in 2004 at a glatt kosher processing  facility in the American state of Iowa. Workers at Agriprocessors were found to have been shocking cows’ faces with electric prods and ripping out their throats with meat hooks. Animal welfare expert Dr. Temple Grandin called Agriprocessors an “atrocious abomination” and worse than anything she had ever seen in over thirty kosher abattoirs.

In truth, it doesn’t matter whether slaughter is kosher, halal or conventional. There is no good way to slay an animal, especially when it is done on an industrial, fast-paced and mechanised scale. The mass killing of cattle and poultry in any kind of slaughterhouse (kosher or otherwise) is almost an open invitation for some people to abuse animals.

There are several arguments used by Jewish vegetarians/vegans regarding the ethics of eating meat. One mitzvah is tza’ar ba’alei hayyim – the injunction not to cause “pain to living creatures.” While proponents of shechita say their method of killing animals is a swift, efficient and painless procedure, this does not take into account the fact that cattle can take up to two minutes to bleed to death. Nor does it acknowledge the abuses that inevitably happen when low-paid workers are made to handle and restrain very frightened animals in a highly stressful environment.

It is true that anti-Semites often cite evidence of malpractice when they seek to delegitimise Judaism. Such people have their own nasty agenda and are abhorrent. But many people within the Jewish community find it hard to maintain the view that the kosher food industry is any less cruel than conventional slaughter. Chickens and turkeys killed in kosher slaughterhouses can writhe in agony as they hang upside down and bleed to death; cattle raised for kosher meat are castrated and their horns are torn from their heads without pain relief; and cows bred for their milk are drugged and forced to produce unnatural quantities of milk (and their calves are sent to veal farms). Such practices are also commonplace in conventional slaughterhouses and factory farms.

This kind of behaviour goes against Judaism’s many injunctions to be kind to animals. Rabbi Solomon Granzfried says that “it is forbidden, according to the law of the Torah, to inflict pain upon any living creature.” Some medieval Jewish scholars such as Joseph Albo and Isaac Arama regarded vegetarianism as a moral ideal, not just out of a concern for animal, but because the slaughter of animals might cause the person who performs such acts to develop undesirable character traits, such as meanness and cruelty.

According to Nachmanides, living creatures “possess a moving soul and a certain spiritual superiority which in this respect make them similar to those who possess intellect […]  and they have the power of affecting their welfare and their food and they flee from pain and death.” Maimonides wrote that there is “no difference in this case between the pain of people and the pain of other living beings.”

According to the Torah, God asked human beings to be vegetarians (Genesis 1:29) after he gave Adam “dominion” over the animals. This means that “dominion” does not include killing animals for food. Some authorities say that God only later gave permission to eat meat (Genesis 9:1–17) as a temporary concession to mankind’s weakness.

Many Jews and Christians say that eating meat must be OK because it says so in Genesis 9:3 (“Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat”). But context is important. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, pointed out that because people had sunk to an extremely low level of spirituality, the permission to slaughter animals for food was “transitional” until a “brighter era” was reached when people return to vegetarianism. That time is now.

Moreover, in Numbers 11, God considered the Hebrews unfit  to receive the Torah until they stopped asking for meat. And Proverbs 12:10 says that “a righteous man regardeth the life of his beast.”

Many Jews in Israel and America are giving up meat in favour of a vegetarian or vegan diet. Organisations such as The Jewish Vegetarian Society, Jewish Vegetarians of North America, The Concern for Helping Animals in Israel and The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute are all engaged in important outreach work. In the Galilee there is a moshav called Amirim, which was established by vegetarians and vegans in the late 1950s.The moshav runs guesthouses and restaurants serving vegetarian and vegan food.

In Israel, around one million people have rejected meat-based diets. According to a recent survey, 13 per cent of Israelis are either vegetarian or vegan, with another 40 per cent saying they have a friend or relative who had recently embraced veganism or vegetarianism. One of Israel’s biggest restaurant chains, Cafe Greg, has noted a significant rise in demand for vegan dishes in its restaurants.

And in February this year it was reported that Israeli army kitchens have started serving food that is suitable for the IDF’s 500 vegan soldiers.

One of the advantages of veganism is that it makes it easier  to observe the laws of kashrut. As Richard H. Schwartz (president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America) points out, a vegan doesn’t need to be concerned with using separate dishes for meat and dairy foods. Neither is a vegan in danger of eating the blood or flesh of a non-kosher animal. He says there are several examples in Jewish history when a change to vegetarianism or veganism enabled Jews to maintain the dietary laws. Daniel became a vegan to avoid non-kosher food while he was held captive in the court of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 1: 8-16). And Jewish priests on trial in Rome ate only figs and nuts in order to avoid eating non-kosher meat.

Some Jews feel that they are required to eat meat to celebrate Jewish holidays. However, according to Pesachim 109a, Jews need not eat meat but can rejoice with wine. Many vegetarian Jews use a beet on their Seder plate in place of a zeroa (lamb shank bone). Those who use a beet sometimes rely on Pesachim 114b as their proof text. Others say it is because the beet’s blood-red colour reminds them of the Paschal sacrifice. Or perhaps it is because of a moving incident that happened in 1945 when one of the women slave labourers in Buchenwald concentration camp picked up a  slice of sugar beet and said, “This is the bread of our suffering…. And then we made a vow that if we survived, a beet was going to be on our Seder table.”

If you’re still not convinced about the ethics of eating meat, then consider the wise words of David Rosen, who was the Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1979 to 1985. He said the “current treatment of animals in the livestock trade definitely renders the consumption of meat as halachically unacceptable as the product of illegitimate means.”

“We must clearly advocate dietary practices that are truly in consonance with the sublimest values of the Torah,” he added.


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