Ask any non-Jewish person what they know about Jews and even those with the least knowledge of us will reply: “They don’t eat pork”.
That is true, but it is an extraordinary situation that a major world faith is known primarily for its food laws rather than its beliefs.
However, one of the key aspects of shechita, the traditional method of slaughter, is coming under increasing challenge. This is the demand to pre-stun animals before they are slaughtered, whereas shechita does not permit this. If imposed, it would, at best, alter the way Jews eat, and, at worst, lead to some emigrating.
It is not just non-Jews who are asking whether pre-stunning would be a kinder process; many Jews are too. It would be a mistake to suggest that the campaign is led by antisemites, when the motivation for most people is to lessen the pain felt by animals being killed for our benefit.
The Assembly of Reform Rabbis and Cantors therefore set up a working party, which I chaired, to explore the issue. It has just produced a report, not as official policy, but to inform both members of Reform synagogues and the wider community of the options they face.
It quickly became clear that the vast majority of scientific opinion has no doubt that animals suffer less if they are pre-stunned. Shechita — involving the use of a razor sharp knife by a trained expert — is certainly very good, but not as good. For centuries, shechita was better and the problem for Jews today is which method to prefer, given this change.
Not that pre-stunning is perfect, with some bolts missing the target and some types of electrocution leaving animals immobile but not stunned.
But mistakes can happen with shochtim too, and worst case scenarios in either case should not diminish the record of best-case scenarios.
Three decades ago, the government stipulated that cattle should no longer be slaughtered in a hoist that turned them upside down, done to slit their neck more easily. Jewish authorities initially resisted, insisting it was essential, but then accepted it. Is it time to reconsider pre-stunning too?
The main objection is that animals have to be unblemished before slaughter, so pre-stunning would render them damaged. But could it be ruled that so long as animals are perfectly healthy before being stunned, they will still be kosher? Why not?
Relevant here is the position of Muslims. Although Islamic teaching is opposed to pre-stunning in principle, most British imams have shown religious flexibility in practice. They allow it on condition that it does not kill the animal.
It means that advocates of pre-stunning can now point to Muslims accepting change and being accommodating, but Jews not doing so.
Our report also found itself forced on to wider grounds to ask if the whole concept of “being kosher” needs to be redefined. Is it enough to talk just how the animals died, or should it also take into account how they lived?
Were they able to move around freely, or cramped in a cage? Do they feed freely, or are they force-fed? Do they go into the abattoir individually and calmly, or follow fearfully in quick lines of death? Surely we need to consider not just the slaughter process, but the quality of the years beforehand. Can Jews in good conscience eat animals that are technically kosher, but morally treif?
Shechita UK was very helpful in responding to our enquiries and assured us that no caged animals are shechted and shechita boards only use those from grade-one farms. However, animals from organic farms enjoy a higher quality of life.
Of course, there has long been a noble strand of vegetarianism within Judaism, with tradition holding that was the case in the Garden of Eden and will be again in the messianic era, with eating meat being a concession in our in-between world.
One option open to us is to refrain from meat products entirely, or at least to lower our consumption by reserving it for Shabbat.
The report concludes that — looked at objectively — pre-stunning is almost certainly better for animals. If rabbis refuse to adopt it, then Jews who value both pre-stunning and the practices of traditional kashrut have to make a choice: stick with non-stunned certified kosher meat or opt for pre-stunned meat from a permitted animal (and, ideally, organic).
Those who wish both to reduce as much pain as possible for animals yet remain within the traditional framework of Jewish food face a dilemma. At present, it is simply impossible to do both. We each have to weigh up those competing values.
As methods of pre-stunning increasingly improve, so will demands to adhere to it from inside and outside the government. Rabbis of all groupings need to consider how best to adapt to the legal and moral challenges that will come our way.
Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue