Shechitah and the Desecration of God's Name

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Shechitah and the Desecration of God's Name

By Rabbi Adam Frank

Before Jewish practice would be forced to change due to public pressure, we wanted an affirmation that Jewish law prohibits the unnecessary mistreatment of animals during their pre-kosher slaughter restraint. In 2000, in a unanimous decision, the Conservative Movement's Committee of Jewish Law and Standards declared that any inversion method of restraint during the kosher slaughter process is prohibited by Jewish law's commandment not to inflict unnecessary pain on an animal. A victory?

In 1999, my brother and I had the opportunity to meet with Rabbi Menachem Genack who is head of the Orthodox Union's (OU) kashrut division. We were afforded visitation to his downtown Manhattan office because we were accompanying Dr. Temple Grandin to a meeting we arranged with Rabbi Genack in response to our research and discovery of terrible and unnecessary animal mistreatment in kosher slaughterhouses under the supervision of the OU and the concomitant endorsement of the Rabbinical Council of America.

When Rabbi Genack denied such mistreatment in kosher slaughterhouses under OU supervision, Dr. Grandin started listing names and locations of abattoirs where the violations were occurring. Dr. Genack took a moment's sidebar discussion with the head of the OU's kosher meat division, Rabbi Yehuda Kravitz, and then replied that Dr. Grandin was correct.

After describing the normative abuses occurring in these abattoirs, I used the term 'Chillul Hashem' which means a profaning/desecrating of Gd's name. The term is used to describe activity that lowers the esteem of Gd and/or Torah in people's eyes. Rabbi Genack had an immediate reaction to my use of the term and, in his most animated moment of the hour-long conversation, rebuked me for applying Chillul Hashem to the situation because, in his words, 'the term is a technical halakhic (legal) category which does not apply to this situation.'

My brother, Aaron, has a law degree and is an instructor of environmental ethics in the graduate school of The University of San Francisco. He is not a 'professional Jew' nor is he a particularly observant Jew though he is a very proud Jew. His response to Rabbi Genack was as follows: 'Rabbi, I'm not well versed in Jewish law or in matters of the Talmud. I am simply a Jew who grew up proud of our tradition with the belief that kosher food held the highest standards of humane animal treatment. For all I know, you may be correct about the technical definition of Chillul Hashem, but from the perspective of me, a Jew on the street, I tell you with absolute certainty that my opinion of Torah, Gd and rabbis is seriously injured by the unnecessary animal abuse common to kosher slaughter supervised by your staff. Hide behind halakhic terminology if you will, but if and when the horrible mistreatment of these animals during kosher slaughter is revealed to the public, both Jew and non-Jew, Orthodox to secular, will feel betrayed by the fraud that you have helped countenance about our tradition's concern for animals.' One could hear a pin drop after Aaron's comment.

Rabbi Genack was silent for the rest of the meeting. As we got up to leave he cautioned us from going public with our discoveries as they could have a 'negative effect on public perception.'

The goal of our meeting was to appeal to the OU to help change the unnecessary mistreatment of animals during pre-slaughter restraint. Unfortunately, we left the meeting understanding that only two matters would elicit concern and influence a change in OU practice: 1. Negative publicity, and, 2. Economic fallout.

For my brother and me, time was of the essence. Before Jewish practice would be forced to change due to public pressure, we wanted an affirmation that Jewish law prohibits the unnecessary mistreatment of animals during their pre-kosher slaughter restraint. In 2000, in a unanimous decision, the Conservative Movement's Committee of Jewish Law and Standards declared that any inversion method of restraint during the kosher slaughter process is prohibited by Jewish law's commandment not to inflict unnecessary pain on an animal. A victory? On paper only.

At the Conservative law committee meeting where the halakhic ruling prohibiting inverted slaughter was made we were told that a commission would be created to address implementation issues. Rabbi Joel Meyers, then executive vice president of the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly (RA) under whose rubric is the law committee, told Aaron and me that the matter would surely be addressed. Months passed and there was no movement on the matter. Our inquiries went unanswered. Finally, we learned that the RA's Kashrut committee claimed the issue was one for the Social Action committee; the Social Action committee claimed it was a matter for the Kashrut committee…

We appealed to the Conservative leadership believing that if the Movement's over 1 million constituents, 750 synagogues, 10 summer camps, 2 university accredited seminaries, and rabbinical union of over 1,400 rabbis made a coordinated effort the necessary economic pressure could force the kosher meat supervising authorities (most significantly the Orthodox Union) to take the matter seriously. The CJ leadership was unresponsive.

As 100% of the supervision of kosher meat is under Orthodox authority it became clear to us that this was an authority that Conservative leadership did not want to confront on this issue.

A matter of time...

In November of 2004, an undercover video operation at the world's largest glatt kosher slaughterhouse, AgriProcessors in Postville, IA, exposed systemic animal abuse that even we were unaware was occurring. This abuse was not just in the form of inverted slaughter, under the supervision and approval of an estimated 50-70 kosher slaughterers and overseers – including agents of the OU – cows who were still fully conscious were having their tracheas (windpipe) ripped out in order to reduce blood splash.

When asked about the animal treatment she viewed on the videos, Dr. Temple Grandin answered, "...the most disgusting thing I'd ever seen. I couldn't believe it...AgriProcessors is doing everything wrong they can do wrong." (Dec. 7, 2004)

Dr. Lester Friedlander, former kosher inspector for the USDA called it, "The most egregious violations of the USDA Humane Methods Slaughter Act I have ever witnessed."

When faced with the prospect of a kosher meat scandal, Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Kashrus Division of the OU responded, "The Orthodox Union has said all along: AgriProcessors treats its animals humanely and meets our standards for kosher slaughter." (March 7, 2005-- if you follow this link, do note that the audit upon which Rabbi Genack relies is performed by the National Council of Chain Restaurants and the Food Marketing Institute -- not impartial agents)

The Conservative Movement's only public response was to restate its 2000 ruling against inversion pens and to call upon all kosher processing plants to employ the more humane upright holding pens.

Finally, in 2007 the production of kosher meat at AgriProcessors was shut down…due to the employment of illegal workers.

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