Meatpaper one

Why Is This Meat Different from All Other Meats?
The debate over kosher and cruelty

by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

KOSHER SLAUGHTER BEGINS AND ENDS with the single stroke of a very sharp knife, the chalef. Working under rabbinic supervision, specially trained kosher slaughterers, or schochets, slice the animal’s esophagus, trachea, veins, and arteries. If there is any hesitation or failure of killer or blade in this delicate act, the animal is judged to be unfit for Jewish consumption.1 Much as other consumers trust food companies to follow USDA regulations, observant Jews trust the seals of kosher certification on the products they buy.

The laws of kashrut, including those regulating kosher meat, are cornerstones of everyday life for many Jews. Now, those cornerstones may be shifting.

In April, a Conservative rabbinical council approved a new interpretation of kosher laws that embraces the welfare of workers laboring within kosher slaughterhouses, as well as slaughtering practices. It was only the latest in a series of challenges to traditional understandings of kashrut. Over the past three years — beginning with startling revelations from inside a kosher slaughtering plant in Iowa — activists and Jewish leaders have called for a renewed public discourse about the nature of kashrut. The debates have shown that the relatively mundane subject of kosher meat is intimately tied to one of Judaism’s most persistent questions: How are Jewish ethics expressed through our treatment of the natural world around us?

But if killing animals through schechita is less cruel than killing them by conventional means, wouldn’t the least cruel path be not to kill them at all?

In 2004, PETA activists smuggled cameras into the AgriProcessors kosher butchering plant in Postville, Iowa, and brought back disturbing images. Cows remained conscious while their throats were cut, wandering about inside the killing cages and struggling to escape. It was a far cry from the quick death schechita, or kosher slaughter, is supposed to bring. Later that year, the New York Times exposed conditions at AgriProcessors. Soon, the plant was under investigation by the EPA and the target of a USDA lawsuit. Temple Grandin, one of America’s foremost experts on the humane slaughtering of food animals, called conditions at AgriProcessors “disgusting.” 2

AgriProcessors may have been cruel, but had it violated kashrut? The plant’s defenders pointed out that, in addition to using certified schochets, rabbis were present during all AgriProcessors operations. Representatives argued — convincingly, to some kosher authorities — that they had always obeyed the laws of kashrut to the letter.

For all the publicity at the time of the PETA lawsuit and the initial Times article, it would be two years before the AgriProcessors story evolved into a full-fledged debate over kosher slaughter. The spark came from a 2006 documentary produced by PETA using footage from the plant. Featuring narration by the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, “If This Is Kosher...” combined footage of animal rights violations at various slaughterhouses with testimony from two rabbis, David Wolpe and Irving “Yitz” Greenberg.

Safran Foer called kashrut the everyday expression of the highest principles of Judaism, which sanctifies all life, including animals. Kashrut, he argued, represents not merely a set of dietary laws but also a principle of stewardship, an expression of our responsibility for the world:

To be Jewish is to strive to make the world less cruel and more just. Not only for oneself, and not only for one’s people, but for everyone. One doesn’t have to consider animals equal to humans — I don’t — to give them a place in this inspiring idea.

But if killing animals through sche-chita is less cruel than killing them by conventional means, wouldn’t the least cruel path be not to kill them at all?

As Rabbi Greenberg reads it, the Torah describes the right to eat meat as a special dispensation given to humans because of the fallen state of the world in which we live. Genesis 1:29 reads, “God said, ‘See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.’” There were no carnivores in the Garden of Eden, Greenberg points out. Ideally, he says, we would not kill other living things in order to live. Rather, we would understand animals as receiving God’s compassion and mercy just as we do, if in lesser measure. And what does it say about humans that we are willing to kill other animals, particularly as cruelly as AgriProcessors?

Rabbi Wolpe points to the Jewish concept that human nature encompasses both savage and gentle inclinations, which are constantly at war within us. The principles of kashrut, he argues, are meant to keep our savage sides from finding expression in the abuse of the natural world and its creatures. In staying faithful to kashrut, Jews take proper care of both human nature and the environment. By that logic, AgriProcessor’s treatment of animals is particularly offensive for its violation of Jewish ethical sensibilities. Still, Wolpe stops short of Greenberg’s call for Jewish vegetarianism. His argument is not so much that we would renounce meat in an ideal world, but that the question of meat-eating cuts to the quick of human nature and presents us with an opportunity for self-reflection.

This isn’t the first time that schechita has acted as a lightning rod for dissent among Jews.

In 18th-century Poland, Hasidim prided themselves on checking the sharpness of the chalef and maintaining higher standards for sharpness than their non-Hasidic counterparts. While all knives were required to be extremely sharp, the opponents of Hasidic Judaism, called the Misnagdim, feared that Hasidic knives could chip during use, rendering the slaughter un-kosher and the animal inedible to Jews.3
The anxiety about knife blades was probably just the superficial expression of a deeper fear: that Hasidic practices were acts of rebellion against the existing social structure. Misnagdic leaders accused the Hasidim of arrogance, of claiming to be more stringent in their fulfillment of kashrut than other Jews. The same barrier that had often divided Jews from non-Jews — namely, an inability to share food — suddenly divided the Hasidim from their coreligionists.

As in the 18th century, the debates spurred by the AgriProcessors revelations have sparked conflict in different parts of the Jewish community. Coinciding with a broader movement known as “eco-kashrut,” the debate over kosher slaughter recalls the splintering experienced by other religious groups as well — part of a broader “greening” trend in American religion.4 To many Jews, it’s also been a wake-up call to look more closely at the way humans are treated along the kashrut process.

At the AgriProcessor plant, it was later revealed that workers, many of them recent Latin American immigrants, labored under harsh conditions for an unreasonably low wage. Last year, Conservative Jewish leaders began pushing for a new ethical-certification program for kosher facilities. The “heksher tzedek” (from the Hebrew term for justice certification) would be based not only on the proper treatment of animals, but also on just treatment and compensation for employees. An editorial in the Forward asked whether unfair treatment of workers at a kosher slaughterhouse might not affect the kosher status of the meat produced there.5

Perhaps the loudest of these new voices belongs to Rabbi Morris Allen of Minnesota, chief author of the heksher tzedek. “We’re not trying to muscle ourselves into the business that others have developed” of certifying kosher foods, Allen told the Washington Post in July. “We do believe that most Jews, if given a choice between ‘This item is kosher’ and ‘This item is kosher and also was produced by a company that respects its workers and the environment,’ that most Jews will choose the latter.”

Just as biblical precedent can be found for Jewish vegetarianism, Allen observes that Deuteronomy 24:14-15 reads: “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger.” The Conservative Rabbinical Assembly recently approved the heksher. But even Allen says that implementing the new laws into a new certification process along the lines of the traditional kosher certification process may be more difficult.

The first step is convincing other prominent Jewish groups. Orthodox organizations have objected to the ethical certification program on the grounds that it misunderstands the basis of Halakhah (Jewish law) in making a leap from kashrut to social justice. An anonymous editorial in the Jewish Journal, an Orthodox newspaper, asked, “Are issues such as minimum wage, vacation, sick leave, and health coverage properly viewed as matters of Halakhah? Are they on the same level of halakhic application as shechita, mixing meat and dairy, soaking and salting, etc.?” 6

Rabbi Allen has himself been the subject of attacks, including the allegation that the entire heksher tzedek movement is based on his personal animosity toward AgriProcessors, rather than widespread labor violations in the kosher meat industry overall.

An important but seldom noted subtext of the debate is, perhaps unsurprisingly, economics: Just as it was at the time of the Hasidic-Misnagdic debates 300 years ago, kosher meat is a lucrative business, and alterations to the laws regulating it can have very tangible effects, both for industry leaders and for the Jewish community as a whole.

While the debate over the particulars of kosher slaughter remains open, PETA and Safran Foer face much opposition as they promote the concept of vegetarianism’s ethical superiority, both on universal and Jewish grounds. The efforts made by Conservative and Orthodox leaders to reform kosher slaughtering signify a commitment to continuing the tradition rather than curtailing it.

Safran Foer predicts that in 20 years everyone will be vegetarian. He may have to settle for having furthered the debate over the meaning of kosher meat.

Stephen G. Bloom, Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America (New York: Harcourt, 2000).

“If This Is Kosher...” can be viewed at

1 Zoshe Yosef Blech provides a more technical description of the process in Kosher Food Production (London: Blackwell, 2004) 190-1.

2 Grandin would subsequently serve as a consultant for the company and, in that role, find that their treatment of livestock had improved to a satisfactory level.

3 For an extended discussion of this conflict, see Gershon Hundert, ed., Essential Papers on Hasidism: Origins to Present (New York: New York University Press, 1991) 253-7.

4 For more on the relationship between eco-kashrut and “greening,” see Alan Cooperman, “Eco-Kosher Movement Aims to Heed Tradition, Conscience,” the Washington Post July 8, 2007.

5 “Slaughterhouse Rules,” May 26, 2006.

6 “Conservatives And Kashrut,” June 6, 2007


This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue One.



Shohet Knife, Collection of The Judah L. Magnes Museum, Berkeley, California