Here we go again.
Two years after Israeli animal-rights investigators filmed shocking abuses of chickens and turkeys at the Soglowek kosher-meat plant, equally egregious practices were caught on film again this summer.
In a well-intentioned op-ed published in Ha’aretz on July 16, rabbinical student Ayalon Eliach observed that “the gulf between the purpose of keeping kosher and the practice of keeping kosher is now greater than ever.”
That’s an understatement.
It’s not just the morally repugnant practices we’ve observed in undercover videos shot in the largest kosher slaughterhouses, whether its Soglowek in Israel or Agriprocessors in the United States.
It’s the fact that the kosher-meat companies obtain virtually all of their animals from the same factory farms that serve the secular meat industry. And you thought kosher meat was more humane?
The Torah mandate of tza’ar baalei chayim forbids Jews from inflicting unnecessary suffering on an animal. Indeed, the Torah – both the Five Books of Moses and the Torah writ large – expresses exquisite sensitivity to the needs and natures of animals.
Yet unnecessary suffering is universal in factory farms, the source of more than 95 percent of our meat.
In the beef industry, cows are typically branded, castrated and dehorned, all without anesthetic. And, in the dairy industry, mother cows are permanently separated from their calves just hours after birth, causing extreme emotional distress for parent and child alike, all so that the farmer can monetize all the milk.
Chickens in the poultry industry have it worst of all. They are generally crammed into windowless warehouses, in which as many as 50,000 chickens are given an average of less than one square foot of space apiece. These are breeding grounds for disease, as we have seen this year in the U.S., where a bird-flu epidemic has resulted in the loss of almost 50 million birds.
And this is just scratching the surface of the tip of the iceberg. How’s that for an effective mixed metaphor?
All of these practices – which are the standard modus operandi of modern animal agriculture – constitute egregious violations of tza’ar baalei chayim. This is exactly why many leading rabbis now say that no meat can truly be considered kosher.
“Anybody with eyes in their head can see that (factory farming) is a categorical transgression and desecration of the prohibition on causing cruelty to animals.”
Last time The Beet-Eating Heeb checked, most people do have eyes in their head.
To expound on Rabbi Rosen’s statement:
In Jewish thought, we are not allowed to fulfill a mitzvah by committing an averah, a sin. Hence, even if the laws of kosher slaughter are scrupulously observed, the meat cannot be kosher if tza’ar baalei chayim was violated along the supply chain.
Simply put, kosher-meat companies are subsidizing the infliction of unnecessary suffering, every time they purchase another animal from a factory farm.
Why is this allowed to continue?
Could it be because the kosher-meat companies are a significant source of revenue for the Orthodox community, both through kosher-certification fees and through corporate philanthropy?
BEH commends Mr. Eliach for calling for reforms in the kosher establishment. However, such calls for change have been made and heard many times before, with little effect. The industry and its rabbinic allies are highly resistant to reform.
Fortunately, there is a practical solution within our reach – and it’s found in the Torah, and in the teachings of many of our greatest rabbis.
The solution is to wean ourselves off meat, dairy and eggs altogether and to move toward a vegan diet.
The Godly ideal of a plant-based diet is set forth in Genesis 1:29 and reinforced in passages across all five books of the Torah.
As Rav Avraham Kook, the chief Ashkenazic rabbi of pre-state Israel, so eloquently stated in his book “A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace”:
“The failure to heed the good and noble instinct to refrain from taking any form of life, whether for one’s needs or physical gratification, constitutes a moral lack in the human race.”
If you have ever heard of the Talmud, chances are the mere mention of the word causes your eyes to glaze over.
Most people think of it as a vast compendium of hair-splitting arguments about arcane issues in Jewish law. And they would be mostly right.
However, amid all the details and debates are some amazing stories with messages and morals that remain highly relevant.
The Beet-Eating Heeb is pleased to share such a story with you right now. (If you have a copy of the Talmud at home, you can follow along at Bava Metzia 85a.)
About 2,000 years ago, shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple, there existed a rabbi named Judah HaNasi. He wasn’t just any rabbi. This was the guy who put the Oral Torah into writing, preserving it for posterity, creating what we call the Mishnah.
On top of that, he was a direct descendant of King David, hence the name Judah the Prince. In other words, he was a big deal. A very big deal.
The calf hid himself inside the rabbi’s robe, tucking in his tail so that no part of him would be visible.
Rabbi Judah HaNasi, being a pretty smart guy, quickly sized up the situation.
This calf was trying to escape his owner, who was taking the young cow to the shochet, the slaughterer.
So what did the rabbi do?
Not what you might have hoped. Or expected.
Rabbi Judah HaNasi, in his sternest voice, lifted up his robe and scolded the calf.
“This is why you were created,” the rabbi said. “Go back to your owner!”
At least that wasn’t what the calf had expected.
The calf, with tears streaming down his face, made his way back to his owner. And met his demise later that day.
However, no sooner had the calf departed from the rabbi’s robe when a funny thing happened to Judah HaNasi. Actually, what happened isn’t that funny.
He immediately developed a painful toothache. Then kidney stones. And splitting headaches.
It seems God and His angels did not approve of the way Judah HaNasi treated that poor calf.
According to the Talmud, “They said in Heaven, ‘Since he has no pity, let us bring suffering upon him.’”
The intense pain from his ailments persisted. And persisted. And persisted some more. Year after excruciating year.
Keep in mind, there was no Vicodin or codeine back then.
Then one day, in Year 13 of The Pains, the rabbi’s housemaid came into his study, where he was struggling to concentrate on his work, as anyone who has suffered chronic pain can understand.
“Excuse me Rabbi,” the housemaid said. “I have found a nest of weasels in the spare bedroom. Should I swat them with my broom?”
The rabbi considered the matter for a moment, cleared his throat, and said:
“Leave them be. It is written (in Psalms 145:9) that His tender mercies are over all His works.”
What happened? The Talmud tells us:
“Said they in Heaven, ‘Since he is compassionate, let us be compassionate to him.’”
Quite a story, eh?
So why do you think this account of Rabbi Judah HaNasi’s misstep and redemption is recorded for posterity?
It’s because we are supposed to see ourselves as Rabbi Judah HaNasi.
Every time we choose what to eat, we face choices similar to the ones that confronted the great rabbi of yesteryear.
We can choose to eat the flesh, secretions and eggs of animals who were subjected to lives of abject misery, only to be brought to violent deaths. Or we can choose to eat the food that grows out of God’s wonderful earth, which is what God wants human beings to do, if the Torah is any indication.
Like Rabbi Judah HaNasi, we have a choice.
We can support cruelty. Or we can bring more chesed, more kindness, into the world.
The choice is yours.
The Beet-Eating Heeb is back after a long layoff, tan and well-rested.
OK, purple and over-worked.
So what provoked BEH to start writing again?
That is a link to the most damning, most disturbing, most important animal-related investigative story you will read this year. Yes, BEH knows it’s only January. But this is a real doozy.
ICYMI, The New York Times on Monday, January 19, published a startling front-page expose about the federal Meat Animal Research Center. Let that sink in for a second.
On its face, it’s absurd and offensive that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is conducting research on farmed animals for the benefit of the meat industry.
The Beet-Eating Heeb urges you to read the entire article. But, as a service to his time-conscious readers, he will summarize a few of the main findings. Brace yourself.
- Cows, which normally give birth to one calf at a time, were genetically re-engineered to have twins or triplets, resulting in an unusually high rate of still births and deformities.
- Newborn lambs were abandoned in open pastures, left to starve to death or to perish in harsh weather or in the jaws of predators.
- Pigs were bred to produce unnaturally large litters, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of piglets.
- In one case, a young female cow was placed in restraints so that a group of bulls could take turns mounting her. Her injuries were so severe that she died just hours later. All for a study on the sexual libido of bulls.
This is just a sampling of the horrors that have occurred at this previously obscure center in Nebraska.
Granted, the Standard Operating Procedure on America’s factory farms is not much better.
But that’s private enterprise. In the case of the Meat Animal Research Center, we’re talking about a taxpayer-funded, government-operated facility. This is being done in our name, with our money (if you’re an American).
The Center is a grotesque stain on the moral fabric of our country, a country that has the audacity to refer to itself as “one Nation under God.”
Excuse The Beet-Eating Heeb for pointing out that God insists we treat animals with compassion, respect and sensitivity, if the Torah/Bible is any indication.
In Jewish terms, the Research Center’s activities blatantly violate Tzaar Baalei Hayim, the prohibition against causing unnecessary suffering to animals.
It’s the heartless treatment of the little lambs that really gets to BEH. In our religion, the two greatest leaders in history, Moses and King David, were chosen by God because of the compassion they each showed for sheep in their care.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in response to The Times’ article, has ordered his staff to produce an updated Animal Welfare Strategy within 60 days. The new strategy is to include the creation of an independent panel to review research practices, according to a Reuters report.
Sorry, Tom, but this tepid, bureaucratic response is wholly inadequate. Nothing less than the immediate and permanent closure of the Center will suffice. Something is rotten in Denmark, or Nebraska. If the people running the Research Center don’t care about the well-being of the animals there – and they obviously don’t – then the problems will resurface.
The vegan-advocacy/animal-rights community has taken notice. By The Beet-Eating Heeb’s count, at least four petitions and action alerts were in circulation within 72 hours of the appearance of the Times story.
But there is a real danger, even a high probability, that this issue will fade from our consciousness by the end of next week, if not sooner.
Sustained pressure must be put on Secretary Vilsack, President Obama and Congress to do the right thing and pull the plug on the Research Center. BEH would love to see our government leaders try to defend the continued existence of that hellhole. It cannot credibly be done.
You don’t need to be a vegan or vegetarian to get this one. What the Times’ reported will shock the moral conscience of all but the most hard-hearted people.
So just don’t sit there. Here’s a few things you can do:
- Respond to one of the Action Alerts. BEH recommends this one.
- Call the White House, your Senators and your Congressional representative to demand the immediate closure of the Research Center.
- Educate people by submitting a guest op-ed to your local newspaper, by posting the Times’ article or this blog post on your social-media feeds, and by telling your friends, family members, neighbors and co-workers about this situation.
- Finally, counteract this horrible misuse of your tax dollars by donating generously to nonprofits that are working to end the exploitation of farmed animals. If you’re Jewish, BEH suggests you join Jewish Vegetarians of North America.
You know if The Beet-Eating Heeb is back at it again, that this is a serious issue.
Will this shameful Research Center be allowed to continue its sadistic experiments or be mercifully shut down? The answer may well depend on us.