Who needs shechita anyway?

By Victoria Prever, December 20, 2012

Ashkenazi food is founded on chopped liver, chicken soup and cholent. But with shechita under attack again, could that be about to change? The traditional form of kosher slaughter is already banned in Sweden and Denmark and is under threat in the Netherlands. Poland has now jumped on the bandwagon.

Could future Shabbats see your kneidlach floating in vegetable soup and the tsimmes nestling up to a hearty slice of nut roast?

Opponents argue shechita is cruel. Animals are not stunned; instead, a single cut is administered which swiftly renders the animal insensible to pain, while also killing and draining it of blood.

Rabbi Hillel Simon, chief rabbinical inspector of London’s Beth Din, argues that shechita is at least as humane as slaughter after electrocuted stunning.

“Early in my career, I did wonder if stunning animals first might be kinder. I then visited a slaughterhouse and witnessed at least one in every three chickens still flapping wildly after being stunned. It looked like they were being tortured.”

He explains that as shechita involves careful individual handling, such mis-stunning cannot happen. “A shechted chicken or cow will be rendered insensible to pain within seconds. Shechita conforms to all the norms of animal welfare and is at least as humane as other methods.”

But Jewish carnivores are not only under attack from outside the faith. As the organic movement grows, more Jews are concerned with the treatment of both workers and animals involved in food production. A hescher doesn’t mean your green principles have been reflected in the process.

A growing number of committed Jews are turning vegetarian. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, of New North London Synagogue, was one of four panelists at a debate last month arranged by the JCC for London with the LJCC, on whether or not Jews should eat meat. For him, becoming a vegetarian was a natural extension of keeping kosher.

“Kosher is a way of asking ourselves to be ethical and conscious in the way we eat. I grew up eating meat and my decision to give it up was a principled choice which grew out of a respect for animals,” he says.

But for Rabbi Simon, meat-eating is something encouraged by the Talmud. “If people enjoy eating meat for Shabbat and Yom Tovim, it is a big mitzvah” he says. Meat “is one of the things that God has provided for us and it would be wrong to simply cut it out”.

Suzanne Barnard, director of the Jewish Vegetarian Society (JVS), was also a panellist at the debate. To her, “vegetarianism goes hand in hand with the Jewish concept of tikkun olam — repairing the world”.

To Barnard and Rabbi Wittenberg, eating kosher meat is no more acceptable than eating any other kind of meat. “Kosher slaughter is not sufficient to satisfy all ethical issues” maintains Rabbi Wittenberg. “There is no intrinsic relationship between shechita and the welfare of an animal during its life. Here the different Jewish law of tsaar baalei chayyim, the prevention of suffering to animals applies.”

Barnard, who has seen membership of the JVS grow five-fold over the past 12 months, adds that most kosher meat is factory farmed. “This makes a mockery of the Torah’s commandments to treat animals with kindness.”

Dan Jacob, who runs London’s Ruchot community cafe, believes factory farming should be banned under Jewish law. “Surely all Jews should become vegetarian until they are able to consume ethically produced meat, not just for reasons of contemporary morality but also from a point of Jewish law?”

But Rabbi Simon argues that even if meat comes from factory sources, part of the role of the LBD’s inspection is to rule out damaged animals from even being considered kosher.

“Only healthy animals are considered kosher and the better they are treated in life, the more likely they are to pass.” In his view, the kosher meat trade prefers to source animals that have been better treated.

Leon Pein has spent over 22 years attempting to bring kosher organic meat to our tables. His company, Biblical Foods (www.biblicafoods.co.uk), supplies kosher organic chickens to butchers or direct via his website. Demand has increased over the years and he currently sells 500-800 birds a month where he once sold 200 birds per quarter. “My sales have moved from miniscule to small,” he laughs.

“People who were vegetarian for reasons relating animal welfare or even for their own health are now able to eat meat again,” he adds. “If more people start to ask for organic meat from their butchers then more butchers will stock it.”

Last updated: 4:20pm, December 20 2012