This month Poland’s parliament rejected a government-backed bill that would permit slaughterhouses to ritualistically slaughter (shechitah) livestock. Lawmakers who opposed the bill said that shechitah is cruel to animals. This stance proved interesting for the wider Jewish world for several reasons: first, it singles out Jews (and other co-religionist minorities) who will only eat meat that is killed in a specific way, and second, as the stance ostensibly was made in the name of morality, indirectly the Polish government was rejecting Jewish morality. Of course, governments limiting the rights of Jews to practice their own religion are commonplace; but, one of the reasons that this headline was so special is because of its location: Poland. Since the Holocaust, world Jewry, rightfully so, has been extra sensitive to anything that can even be construed as anti-Semitic from the former largest hub in the world of Jews. Many feel that Poland has lost the right to single out Jews, even if said hounding fits within the country’s present moral compass. Putting aside the feelings of anti-Semitism Jews experience throughout Europe by their European brethren (according to many recent polls), the Polish Parliament insists it is acting out of a sense of moral responsibility. They believe one ought inflict as little pain upon the animal victim as possible. To an outsider, this viewpoint sounds down right righteous. It could even lead ethically minded Jews to assert that Jews should also ban shechitah if it is deemed immoral. ‘Morality over choice of food’ has to be a mantra somewhere. In fact, even according to Jewish law, there is a proscription to unnecessarily pain an animal (Tza’ar Ba’al Chaim), so for the traditional community, there is also reason to fret. Israel even proposed a ban on the import of foie gras because of the force-feedings geese endure to produce these large livers. Similarly, one can may make the argument that shechitah should be banned even according to Jewish law and that the Polish government are acting righteously (as in fact they believe).
Several years ago, I watched a video of some Philippine locals, who happened to live in a forest, killing a cow at a festival. As I watched, I realized how hard it is to kill a cow. This is something that most Westerners do not appreciate. Cows are big and don’t want to die. The aborigines group repeatedly stabbed at the cow with spears, but only after piercing it several dozen times did it finally die (or at least fall to the ground). When Jews started slicing at a cow’s jugular and letting it bleed out several thousand years ago, I promise that was an improvement from what many other Ancient peoples were doing to kill their dinner (or their children). By far, it was the most humane, and safest way (for humans) to kill the cow. Today, the world believes that it has found the next stage of evolution in the most ethical method of killing animals, namely stunning. Just as Jews all switched to shechitah several thousand years ago, perhaps Jews should get with the times and, at least add stunning to the shechitah process.
There are several types of stunning that, depending on the type and size of the animal are used throughout slaughterhouses today. A) The pneumatic stunner delivers a blow to the animal’s head. B) The captive bolt pistol shatters the brain of the animal. C) The electric water trough delivers an electric shock to poultry. D) The electric brain stunner is generally used on sheep. The actual act of killing the animal usually takes place after one of these actions has been carried out on the animal. The animal may be passed out, or on the verge of death anyways when it is killed. Accordingly, it will not feel the pain of death.
Unfortunately, stunning has been met with halachic concern from rabbis worldwide. For the purposes of shechitah, one of the key factors that must be taken into consideration is whether the stunning process is reversible; in other words, if we were to leave the animal alone after it has been stunned, would it recoup from the blow/shock or would it eventually succumb. When the process is irreversible, the animal becomes a treifa, and even if the neck is slit subsequently according to Jewish Law, it still remains un-kosher. As many stunning processes are irreversible, it has proved a sticky moral area for Jews living in countries that mandate stunning. While we are not here to question the moral center of these countries with stunning legislation, let’s take a step back and figure out why stunning became the political norm for livestock and poultry.
Even Jews know the best way to cook a lobster is to drop it live into boiling water. In fact, crustaceans can develop bacteria that would be dangerous for human consumption soon after its death. So, for health reasons (and in the name of freshness), this has long been the desired method of killing lobsters and crabs. Many of us have heard rumors (or possibly high pitch whispers) that lobsters scream when they are lowered into the boiling pot, but as they have no vocal cords, this appears reasonably impossible (even if we do hear something). On the other hand, some have tried to show that lobsters do not feel pain when put directly into boiling water. Indeed, a 2005 study financed by the Norwegian government concluded as much. Others have concludes that they do feel pain (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pain_in_animals ). Interestingly however, it appears that the only area of debate for most political institutions is whether these animals feel pain. But when we speak of treating animals justly, I believe we can list several additional issues that we might take into consideration, aside from causing unnecessary pain.
- Freedom: Impinging on the animal’s right to life, to be happy, to prosper.
- Fear: Scaring the bujeezes out of the animal by allowing it to watch other members of its species executed right before its own death.
- Egalitarianism: why do cows have special rules for a fun execution that lobsters, fish and millions of other species do not. Ought we not take the same care and consideration when we kill a small animal with that when we kill a large animal? Does size (or pain receptors) dictate how we treat others. If a human had no pain receptors, would that direct us in the way that we deal with that person, or execute that person?
- Heroism: some would prefer to look death in the face; live those extra last seconds with pride and contemplation of the present reality; stunning the animal pilfer this right.
- Dignity: Stunning an animal is not a dignified death. Defending its own life as a leopard or lion tries to rip out its jugular: that’s a dignified death. Some would rather take their chances on nature’s circle of life instead of mankind’s ego of commercialism.
- Individuality: a specific reason (aside from freshness) why one animal is killed instead of another
- Respect: should we not regulate the way that the carcass is dealt much in the same way that do for humans; it is unbecoming to just toss or disregard certain parts of the carcass; maybe, if a piece of the carcass is not used, it ought to be buried.
- Unnatural: the cow is not naturally part of the human’s food chain
Was this exercise ridiculous? Did you feel I should’ve stopped already by #2? Did you feel that you’re wasting your time as you read about caring for animals a bit more than usual? Indeed, some may feel I’m anthropomorphizing the animal victims’ situation; after all, animals don’t have the same exact feelings as humans! They don’t complain about rights or demand justice. Well that’s myopic of you, to care only about your perspective. Nonetheless, this biased starting point – that animals feel pain like humans, and therefore they should die in the way that a human would want to die if s/he was going to be eaten by someone higher on the food chain – is the reason, and the sole reason for the Polish legislation and much of the animal legislation worldwide. Simply put, according to most governments, animals have no rights. Humans have rights, and when animals remind us of humans, then those animals have rights as extensions of human rights. Animal pain reminds us of human pain; therefore, we must care about it. But, a pack of wolves roaming a forest freely do not remind us of a group’s right to self-determination, so that pack lacks the ability to determine its own sovereignty. Or, to speak of an animal’s rights of equality or pursuit of happiness, in and of itself, appears silly. But, when we speak about the way that an animal ought to experience death, politicians immediately assume a parallel to humanity: humans would prefer being stunned before death (or at least politicians would); humans would prefer pain-free deaths; therefore, that consideration is what we must take into account when slaughtering animals. Similarly, humans don’t like small houses, or limiting our range of motion. Hence, California’s 2008 proposition 2 legislated the minimum cage size for chickens. Nonetheless, regarding the basic underlying issues, we remain silent and uncaring for any other rights animals might be thought to enjoy.
Judaism never endorsed this ‘most pain-free’ model. In no Rabbinic text is it ever claimed that ritualistic slaughter is the most pain-free method of killing an animal. Recently, many Rabbis and Imams have spilled way too much ink trying to justify Judaism or Islam in the eyes of Western values on this topic. In fact, there’s a surprising, little known rule in Judaism that demonstrates Judaism’s unique perspective. If a calf fetus is found in an already slaughtered cow, the fetus has the status of ‘already slaughter.’ It does not need to be ritualistically killed again to be eaten and can be killed however one chooses, even though that calf is technically 100% alive, just not halachicly alive. In such a case, the Rabbis added that one must kill the animal in a spectacular way so that onlookers know that this is a special case, a case in that shechitah is unnecessary. The Talmud recounts that, in such a situation, a Rabbi once decapitated two cows (who had ‘already slaughtered status’) in one fell swoop of his arms. Apparently, this Rabbi (still bound by the proscription of not unnecessarily paining animals) deemed decapitation a fine way to end livestock’s life. Indeed, given the option to kill the animal however he wanted, he chose decapitation over countless other ways of killing the cows. From this account, we can conclude that shechitah is not necessarily the best way to kill an animal. Shechitah was chosen, I believe, because it is the method that kills the animal in a safe way for the human, in a reasonably pain-free way for the animal that appears dignified and shows respect for the victim and its blood.
At the function, given the status of the two cows (that need not shechitah), the Rabbis legislated that respect is not the most important function of killing these animals. Instead, making people aware that the animals have a special halachic status was paramount. The fact that the Sages chose to redefine the parameters of the how to halachicly kill an animal given some situation itself shows the subjective nature of these laws and that Judaism was not specifically overly preoccupied with the most pain free death. (And we should note that the Rabbis had no problem positing lo ploogs - that we do not differentiate a case even though some of the variables are different – thereby they could have madated that shechitah is still necessary on these two calves.)
Where Poland goes wrong, where the world goes wrong is in not dignifying the animals’ death. Everyone must die: every animal, every plant, every living thing. All we ought to wish for those deaths is a dignified death, one that shows respect for the sacrifice that living organism has made towards the circle of life. But, when we speak of rights, we simply speak of the way that humans would want other humans to deal with him. There is no reason that this should be the litmus test for the treatment of animals. It is certainly not how other animals treat each other, yet the Polish government sees no reason to infringe upon the way that one animal mutilates another.