Kashrut is a compromise

INTRO: A local Jewish person wrote me to say that, in her opinion, it would be ethical and humane for rabbis to stop advocating slaughter altogether, rather than talking about humane, ethical, sustainable, kosher meat production.  I wrote back — but first I wrote to my workshop co-planner, Sharon Astyk, for her input.  Many of the words below are actually hers, and most of the details about ecosystems come from her knowledge and research.   She’s also the one who knew about the Cornell study.  I wrote about quality of life and inevitability of death, as well as about Temple Grandin (whom I have admired and been fascinated by for years).   This post, though it includes Sharon‘s words, should not be taken necessarily to reflect what she would have said, if asked.

You raise important issues.  The first is that the choice to be vegetarian is an ethical and humane one.  The Torah even suggests that vegan eating is the Edenic ideal.

But shortly thereafter, Torah gives explicit permission to eat meat — within limits.  It’s a compromise.  Not perfect.  And the issue of animal cruelty is also one that our tradition demands that we address.  Different people attempt to resolve it in different ways.

It is unlikely that the majority of humans will ever eat a vegan diet.  That’s not because of ethical failings on our part: Many of the world’s ecosystems — including upstate New York — are not well-adapted to be farmland.  Marginal land all over the world has been used for millenia to support livestock, who can utilize the scrub plants for food in a way that humans cannot.  A Cornell Agricultural College study from 2007 found that the state of NY could come closer to feeding itself if everyone was consuming a small amount of animal products, because these make good use of marginal land, turning what grows there into protein.

“Local” and “sustainable” mean feeding people on what their environment can continue to provide over the generations, rather than repeatedly trucking in food from far away.  These are important values to me, for long-term protection of the ecosystems on which we all depend.  The Native American people of this region were hunters, because that’s what the local ecosystem provides best.  Judaism rejects hunting as cruel; following the blood trail of a wounded animal to complete the kill requires that the animal suffers.  Instead, our tradition demands that we get close to the animals we eat. We’re supposed to raise them, know them, care for them, then slaughter them as quickly and painlessly as possible.  It’s not supposed to be easy or comfortable.   One of the purposes of the laws of kashrut is to focus us clearly on the fact that taking a life ought to be done with careful thought and attention.

The fact is, everybody dies — animals, you and me.  After we die, we go to feed the earth.  An animal that I eat makes a detour through me, feeding me too.  But in the not-too-distant future, we all end up in the same place.  This was all brought home to me by Barbara Kingsolver in her wonderful book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Life in nature is hard, often messy and painful — and so is death.  The animals that I raise live easy lives compared to wild animals: Food, shelter, water, and the company of their own kind are assured, along with medical treatment and limited pregnancies.  My concern, as a rabbi and as a farmer, is for the quality of their lives, including the quality of their deaths.

I think it’s less important exactly how long an animal lives than the quality of its life and death.  Dying in its own time doesn’t guarantee an instant and pain-free death; I have found chickens who had been picked apart by hawks.  In fact, the “perfect death” rarely occurs in nature — as we also know from watching people we love die.  A competent shochet who handles animals gently, after a life spent in the sun, can provide a death that is close to pain-free and fear-free. Not perfect.  But not as bad as being mauled to death by another animal.

And one wonders how animals experience time, too.  Clearly they have memories, but is that the same as having a sense of time passing?  Or do animals live in an eternal “now”?  If so, is length of life as important to them as it usually is to us?

And there are other issues to grapple with, too.  Anyone who eats dairy or eggs is part of a system which, of necessity, produces male animals who provide no value to the farmer.  Eggs hatch new chicks, and about half are roosters.  Dairy animals have to get pregnant every year to give milk, and about half their offspring are male.  One needs only a tiny fraction of the males, and one keeps the best ones only, for breeding purposes.  A farmer, whether subsistence or in business, can’t afford to feed the rest of the males for years; we’d go out of business, or starve.

The alternative is to be vegan.  That choice is possible in today’s developed world.  But many of the world’s ecosystems simply won’t support the production of the vast quantities of wheat, soybeans, etc that entire vegan societies would require.  And commercial agriculture, running combines over fields to harvest, leaves its own trail of blood, destroying ground-nesting birds, burrowing animals, etc.  Unless extensive monoculture has killed them off already by erasing their food supply.

So, as a farmer and as a rabbi, as someone concerned with the suffering of animals along with the health of the eco-system, I accept the compromise of eating some animals.  I raise my chickens primarily for eggs and my goats primarily for dairy; but I am ready to face the reality of where the meat I eat comes from, and to make a commitment that the animals have lived lives of safety and comfort, and that their deaths are as quick and pain-free and respectful as I can manage.

Interesting that you invoke Temple Grandin — she’s made her life-work the creation of slaughterhouses in which animals don’t experience unnecessary fear and pain.  Her website acknowledges that an animal may feel pain during or after kosher slaughter, but she states clearly that “From an animal welfare standpoint, the major concern during ritual slaughter are the stressful and cruel methods of restraint (holding) that are used in some plants.”  She is the number-one spokesman in the world for animal welfare, and identifies her own type of consciousness and thinking with those of higher mammals — but she does not believe that killing animals for food is something that must be avoided.

I hope this gives you some understanding of why, although I respect both vegetarians and vegans, I am involved in this project.