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Reform the Scandal-Prone Kosher Meat Industry? Let’s Get Real.

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.

But an even greater gulf – one of tragically enormous proportions – has emerged between the core Jewish principal of tza’ar baalei chayim and the practices of the kosher-meat industry.Soglowek 3, with caption

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.

Kosher meat, with captionFor instance, in a recent interview, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland David Rosen identified himself as a vegan and said:

“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.”

Another understatement.

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When Rabbis Attack!

One sure sign that the veg movement is a growing force among Jews is the backlash we’re seeing from certain highly placed but sadly misguided rabbis.

This backlash can be traced at least as far back as 2002, when Aish.com, one of the most popular Jewish Websites, posted an essay that attempted to defend meat-eating from a Jewish perspective.

Then as recently as two weeks ago, none other than the Vice President of Communications for the Orthodox Union launched a direct yet feeble attack against Jewish vegetarianism.  The Orthodox Union (OU) is the world’s largest kosher certification agency, so the fact that it posted an essay condemning vegetarianism on its home page is interesting, although not altogether shocking.

BEH views these anti-vegetarian screeds as a positive development. The only reason these rabbis are writing articles in defense of killing animals is because an increasing number of Jews are waking up to the horrors of factory farming.

Moreover, what these articles show, by the very weakness of their arguments, is that Jews are standing on very solid ground, theologically speaking, when we advocate for plant-based diets.

OU articleTo illustrate just how weak their arguments are, let’s take a closer look at the Orthodox Union post, written by Rabbi Eliyahu Safran, their VP of Communications.

Rabbi Safran starts out with a doozy of a logical fallacy. His anecdote about an elegant-looking woman fussing over her small dog is, first of all, totally irrelevant to the issue at hand. There is no evidence that the woman is a vegetarian. In fact, odds are she is a meat-eater, like Rabbi Safran.

Moreover, the story is a perfect example of what’s known in logic as a straw-man argument.

With the anecdote, the rabbi is clumsily implying that vegetarians and vegans care more about animals than they do about people. The only problem with that implication is, it’s simply untrue. Or, as British Friends of BEH might say, “What rubbish!”

Generally speaking, veg*ns who abstain from meat for ethical reasons also care deeply about their fellow human beings.

It’s not like God gave us a limited, finite capacity for compassion. It’s not a zero-sum game. Caring about animals does not preclude caring about people.

In fact, both God and our Sages recognized that someone who is compassionate toward animals is more likely to be compassionate toward people, not less.

The two greatest leaders in Jewish history – Moses and King David – were selected for leadership at least partly on the basis of the compassion they demonstrated as shepherds.

Like those two shepherds, veg*ns have expanded their personal circles of compassion to encompass animals as well as people, exactly as the Torah commands us to do. The merciful treatment of animals is a major point of emphasis in the Torah. Or has Rabbi Safran forgotten this?

Actually, it’s not the vegans and vegetarians that the rabbi should be concerned about. He should worry about himself and his fellow meat-eaters.

Perhaps it was Rabbi Joseph Albo, the great 15th Century philosopher and Torah scholar, who put it best when he wrote:  “In the killing of animals there is cruelty, rage, and the accustoming of oneself to the bad habit of shedding innocent blood.”

Well said, even if it’s obvious.

Let’s face reality. Eating meat in our modern era entails either hardening your heart to the suffering of animals or blinding your eyes to it.

Rabbi Safran devotes about a third of his essay to a description of the ancient Egyptians’ attitudes toward animals, which is about as irrelevant as the woman-and-dog story.safran

Yet in his entire essay, he doesn’t devote so much as a syllable to the pervasive abuse and heinous mistreatment of animals in factory farming. As a leader of the OU, he is surely aware that kosher slaughterhouses get the vast majority of their animals from factory farms.

The Beet-Eating Heeb refuses to either harden his heart or blind his eyes to this reality, to this cruelty. Yet Rabbi Safran, on behalf of the OU, sees fit to attack vegetarianism. That’s chutzpah, folks. Or something worse.

And here’s the kicker.

Rabbi Safran, out of either surprising ignorance or sheer audacity, tries to justify meat-eating as an “exercise of dominion” over animals.

Surely he must know that the granting of “dominion” in Genesis 1:28 is followed immediately by the injunction to eat plants and only plants in Genesis 1:29. The Torah could not be clearer. “Dominion” explicitly excludes the right to kill animals for food.

This piece by Rabbi Safran is typical of the anti-vegetarian genre. Time and again, when rabbis seek to defend their consumption of meat, they take Torah quotations out of context, deviate from the principles of logic, and ignore the realities of modern farming.

Ah, but there is no point in getting upset at Rabbi Safran or the OU.

Rather, we owe them a debt of gratitude for showing the world, if only unintentionally, that vegetarians and vegans embody the highest ideals of the Torah.

Now can’t we all just enjoy some seitan brisket?

Should Jews Be Prohibited from Consuming Today’s Dairy Products?

Any vegan will tell you that dairy products are unfit for human consumption.

The anti-dairy position stands on at least three very sturdy legs: animal welfare, personal health, and logic.

In brief, dairy cows are continuously subjected to horrendous treatment in today’s factory farms, dairy products are inherently unhealthy, and it is logically insane for humans to be consuming something that is designed to turn a 50-pound calf into a 500-pound cow.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, much admired by The Beet-Eating Heeb

Now Shmuly Yanklowitz, a crusading Orthodox rabbi, has introduced another reason to eschew dairy products, causing The Beet-Eating Heeb to kick himself for not thinking of it first.

Simply but profoundly put, Rabbi Yanklowitz opined this week in the pages of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal that today’s dairy products are unkosher.

He rests his argument on Exodus 22:30, which states “you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field.” Over the millennia, rabbinic authorities have interpreted Exodus 22:30 as a prohibition against eating a diseased animal.

Now, consider modern dairy farming. Dairy cows are repeatedly raped to induce pregnancy, confined in small stalls, and hooked up daily to milking machines, which extract about 15 times the milk that a cow would naturally produce. Worse, those machines often cause mastitis, a painful inflammation of the udder. And that’s just to name a few of the horrors.

Suffice it to say, more than a few dairy cows are diseased.

Now take a look at the cheese on your cracker or the yogurt on your granola. The milk used to produce that is usually a mixture from several different cows.

So who can possibly say that no part of their dairy products came from diseased cows?

The Beet-Eating Heeb does not pretend to be a Talmudic scholar, but it seems to him that Rabbi Yanklowitz is exactly right. Modern dairy products should not be considered kosher.

Shmuly, whose many professional titles include Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, isn’t the only Orthodox rabbi making this case. But much to his credit, he may be the one making it most loudly, most assertively.

In The Jewish Journal, he stated, “It seems to me that, from a halakhic standpoint, it is no longer acceptable to support the dairy industry. We must communicate to the industry how we, as kosher consumers, feel about these abuses and support healthier, more ethical options. We must also consider moving toward soy, almond, rice and coconut milk alternatives until the dairy industry cleans up its act. Today, we have affordable, healthy, tasty alternatives so it is relatively easy for us to become more ethical consumers.”

The Beet-Eating Heeb would only quibble with Rabbi Yanklowitz on one small point. Realistically, the dairy industry is not going to “clean up its act,” not unless far more human beings come to their senses and wean themselves off of dairy products altogether. As long as demand for cow’s milk, ice cream, cheese and yogurt remains sky-high, the dairy industry literally cannot provide sufficient supply without industrializing the milking process. People need to be prepared to give up dairy products permanently.

That minor difference aside, The Beet-Eating Heeb applauds Rabbi Yanklowitz for challenging conventional thought and applying theology to reality. After all, that’s what Jewish theology is for.

Here’s hoping that the Orthodox rabbinate takes a close look at this dairy issue, for the sake of suffering cows.

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