Kosher food is about ethics, not just rules

By Shmuley Boteach, August 28, 2008

A series of scandals at America's largest kosher meat plant raises profound questions for us all.

Ten years ago, I published a book called Kosher Sex. Many were confused by the title. Surely kosher was something that pertained to food, not sex? I had to explain that kosher is an overarching term in Judaism that connotes a certain ethical fitness. When we say something is kosher, we mean that it is not just proper but conforms to an elevated morality and holiness.

In recent years, the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, the largest producer of kosher meat in America, has faced intense scrutiny by parts of the US media.

Four years ago, an undercover operation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) produced videotape from the plant showing the removal of an animal's trachea after its throat was slit, and the company's practice of using upside-down pens, in which an animal is held in the air by its feet, to facilitate the shechitah. The plant maintained that the rabbinate in Israel insisted on this method in order to ensure that the animal's throat is as accessible as possible, thereby providing for the smoothest cut and minimising the animal's suffering.

Over the past few weeks, the plant has come under fire again after the largest raid for illegal immigrants in American history. Half its workforce was lost when 389 illegal immigrants were detained. The raid has since caused shortages of kosher meat across America.

Immigrants caught in the raid told labour investigators of lax safety measures and under-age workers. Their stories have troubled many kosher consumers, and have raised questions as to whether meat is kosher if ethical standards in its production are found to be lax - questions which should be considered in every country and every plant where kosher meat is produced.

Agriprocessors is owned by the Rubashkins, a Lubavitch family renowned for their philanthropy, kindness and meticulous adherence of Judaism. My purpose is not to kick a fine people when they are down, especially since their side of the story has yet to be told. Moreover the Orthodox Union's Kashrut administrator, Rabbi Menachem Genack, who provides the kosher stamp of approval to the plant, is a renowned scholar and one of the finest men I know. With a personality of his calibre certifying the plant as kosher, it is not something that I would question. Rather, I aim to convey an understanding of kosher food so that its ethical and moral dimensions never be overlooked.

The Torah mandates the prevention of unnecessary pain to animals as a cornerstone of divine ethics. Causing undue distress to living creatures is forbidden. The ancient rabbis ruled that one must feed one's cattle before feeding oneself, and even the Ten Commandments include domestic animals in the Sabbath rest.

In Genesis, God commanded Adam and Eve to subsist on vegetation alone: "From all the herbs of the Garden you may eat." A quandary arose after Noah's flood, which decimated all plants and animals, except for the beasts on the ark. Had God not permitted Noah's family to partake of the ark's animals, they would have perished.

Ever since, there has been an acceptance of the human need to consume meat as sustenance. But how can humans kill animals and remain sensitive to the value of life?

This is why the dietary laws were instituted. In granting humans the right to devour animal flesh, God
ordained that man take life only in the most humane way. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch clarifies, only
non-predatory animals such as goats, cattle and sheep were deemed edible. All the permitted animals are
herbivorous and therefore nearer the vegetable world. Fowl which were permitted for consumption subsist on berries, worms and bark. They are not flesh-eaters.

Behind these laws is God's desire to wean human beings away from their natural tendency to aggression. Jews are conditioned to abhor the sight of blood, reject violence, and recoil from cruelty toward helpless creatures. God is the Creator of life, man its guardian and protector.

Many would credit the kosher laws, at least in part, for the docility of Judaism, as compared with the history of some of the other great religions. There have never been Jewish crusaders or suicide-bombers. Indeed, the three most famous Jewish wars of ancient times - the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus IV in 168-165 BCE, the Jewish Zealots' revolt against Rome in 66 CE, and the Bar Kochba revolt against Hadrian in 132-135 CE - were all fought to protect the Jews' right to practise their religion.

The most important part of the kosher laws pertains to how an animal's life is taken. The Torah declares that Jews cannot eat even permissible animals unless they have been slaughtered from the neck, with the immediate severing of the carotid arteries and the jugular vein by one swift movement. The cut severs the main arteries, rendering the animal unconscious and permitting the blood to drain from the body.

And if the Torah's purpose is to sensitise humans to the value of animal life, how much more so must we
always be sensitive to the infinitely greater value of human life.

How kosher meat plants, therefore, treat their workers is a reflection on the extent to which they absorb and uphold the deeply humane values that the kosher laws reflect. To the extent that the people who run Agriprocessors may have made some errors in this regard, I have every confidence that they will immediately correct them and not only be kosher, but act kosher as well. And that other kosher slaughterhouses across the world will keep these lessons in mind.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach broadcasts ‘The Rabbi Shmuley Radio Show' on Oprah and Friends and the American national TV show Shalom in the Home on The Learning Channel. His website is


    Last updated: 5:31pm, August 28 2008