About a year ago a Chabad Rabbi got in touch with me and asked if I would agree to meet a senior Jewish PETA executive named Philip Schein. Philip's wife Hannah, who also works for PETA, is in charge of PETA undercover investigations.
Mr. Schein wished to discuss with me alleged animal abuses taking place in Shechita, orthodox Jewish slaughter, specifically pertaining to the practice of Kapparot, the slaughter of chickens for reasons of personal redemption and charity for the poor prior to the Yom Kippur fast.
I was somewhat reluctant to meet. Years earlier I had interviewed another PETA campaigns director on my nationally syndicated radio show about the organization's advertising campaign which compared the slaughter of chickens and animals to the gassing of Jews in the Holocaust. I argued the campaign was offensive, outrageous, and trivialized the indiscriminate slaughter of six million innocent victims including one-and-half million children. To me PETA was an organization with a positive message which they unfortunately undermined by taking it to an unreasonable and fanatical extreme. Still, I went forward with the meeting and found Schein to be gentlemanly and considerate. I was impressed with his commitment to Judaism, Jewish tradition, and the Jewish community.
We acknowledged from the outset that we had differences but we agreed that we both had a fundamental commitment to animal rights and the ethical treatment of animals, something deeply enshrined in the Jewish religion from its outset. Schein argued that a great many Kapparot chickens were not being donated to charitable institutions like homes for the elderly, orphanages, or Jewish schools, but were of such great quantity that they were simply being thrown out. I told him that if that was the case it was utterly unacceptable and would have to be immediately corrected. When the subject of Agriprocessors came up -- something PETA had videoed in an undercover operation -- Schein thanked me for being one of the first rabbis to write a series of articles condemning any inhumane treatment of animals during the Shechita process and insisting that Agriprocessors seek out among their managers any abuse and immediately correct it. Indeed, the purpose of Shechita is to minimize any and all suffering of the animal by having it lose consciousness just as soon as it's carotid artery is severed, thereby significantly minimizing any potential pain to the animal. My own understanding, having spoken to people who were at Agriprocessors during these events, was that any alleged abuses were remedied and if they were not, I informed Schein I would speak to the supervising Jewish bodies that granted the Kashrut license to make sure they were.
The past year Schein and I have kept in general communication and I invited him with his wife to our home for Shabbat dinner which they have yet to accept given their residence in Virginia. But a few weeks ago Schein got in touch with me to tell me he was extremely disappointed in my latest column on Sholom Rubashkin, where I assailed the monstrous injustice of his 27-year prison sentence, which was not only grossly excessive but was much longer than anyone who had been convicted of similar financial crimes. Schein told me that by defending Rubashkin I was putting myself on the side of those who defended Agriprocessors' practices. He asked me at the very least to write an article condemning further violations of ethical treatment of animals in what he said was occurring in other Jewish slaughterhouses. He sent me videos of such practices that include "shackle and hoist", designed to help drain the blood from the animal much more rapidly by pulling it into the air with chains attached to its hind legs. I researched "shackle and hoist" and discovered that the American supervising kosher authorities have dispensed with it in favor of a standing pen. There is no question that to the extent that "shackle and hoist" is being practiced at all outside the United States it should be replaced by the American standing pen immediately.
To be sure, the slaughter of any animals is never going to look pretty and I for one, who hates the sight of any and all blood, did not enjoy the videos. But there is a difference between legitimate, kosher Shechita, which may look unsavory, as does any and all animal slaughter, but which still accommodates the highest ethical concerns of the Jewish religion, versus any cold-hearted violation of ethical norms designed to speed up the slaughter process which violates profound Jewish ethical teachings that demand the minimization of any and all animal suffering. Though I have found, and continue to find, many of the methods employed by PETA to be unnecessarily extreme, I of course agree with Schein's emphasis that Jewish ritual slaughter adhere to Judaism's highest ethical norms. Maimonides famously said, "Embrace the truth regardless of its source." It should not take any undercover investigation to induce segments of the Jewish community into adhering to Judaism's cherished and ancient values and, having spoken to one of the leading Kashrut supervising authorities in the United States I have been assured that every effort is being made to ensure that all kosher Shechita respects the highest Jewish ethical values.
Kapparot chickens which are not donated for a charitable purpose but are thrown out violate the grave Jewish prohibition of 'baal tashchis,' wasting necessary food in a world that is still so hungry. Keeping chickens in pens if they have no food or water is obviously unacceptable and, if it is being done would seem to me to come under the rubric of 'tovel ve'sheretz beyado,' the Talmudic description of a man who goes to cleanse himself in a mikveh, yet holds a ritually unclean creepy crawly creature in his hand while doing so, thereby sabotaging the purification effort from the outset. As for "shackle and hoist," the Israeli Rabbinate has promised to do away with all such procedures.
In my book Judaism for Everyone, I explain that the Jewish laws of kashrut are designed to make human beings repulsed by the sight of blood. God only allowed us to take animal life for food out of the necessity of surviving in the world where other food sources have not always been available. Indeed, Adam the first man was wholly vegetarian. It was only after God destroyed the world with the flood and there was no vegetation that God allowed Noah to take the life of animals so that he and his family could survive. That right has been granted to us till this day. But it is one that cannot be violated by trampling on the dignity of animals or causing them any unnecessary pain, even as we legitimately take their lives so that we might live. Hence, the Torah established that as soon as we slaughter an animal the blood must be poured on the ground where it can no longer be seen so that we human beings never become immune to the sight of blood. Likewise, Jews are not permitted to eat any animals that are predatory. Only animals that have a split hoof -- built for standing rather than pursuing another animal -- are permitted for consumption. God has likewise outlawed all birds of prey in order to purge from our character any predatory instincts.
We dare not violate the highly important ethical and moral values that underpin the laws of Kashrut by G-d forbid treating animals with callous disregard.
I remain by my condemnation of the monstrous injustice meted out to Sholom Rubashkin with a highly excessive sentence which must be corrected by the Justice Department. I know Rubashkin and his family. They are good and charitable people. There can be no doubt that he made mistakes and has now paid a terrible price. His family is suffering tremendously. But he too has rights and they are currently being violated with a sentence that has been identified as grossly excessive by some of the top legal experts in the country, as I detailed in my recent column on the matter. I am committed to assisting his family in obtaining justice. But let us also remember that Rubashkin was never convicted on anything but financial crimes and was never charged with any inhumane practices against animals.
In that sense, I reciprocate Schein's challenge to me. He was correct in approaching me and asking me to use the media at my disposal to ensure that kosher ritual slaughter adhere to Judaism's strict emphasis on respect for animal life and minimizing of any suffering and absolute ban on animal cruelty. Let us remember that hunting is strictly forbidden by the Jewish religion and I respect Schein's desire to spread Jewish values that pertain to animal welfare. But humans also have rights and just as an orthodox Rabbi speaking out against any abuses in Shechita carries an impact, an executive of PETA speaking out against human beings being unfairly and excessively punished would also make an impact. This is especially true if the people speaking out exposed the abuses in the first place, but still believe that every punishment should be commensurate with the crime, and in the case of Rubashkin, he was never charged with anything but financial crimes that should have received a maximum sentence of a few years in prison but instead got the astonishing sentence of 27 years. As the New York Times itself wrote, "The sentence... was unusually high in the recent history of financial crimes -- longer than the term for Jeffrey K. Skilling, the former chief executive of Enron, and L. Dennis Kozlowski, the former chief executive of Tyco."
I look forward to hosting the Scheins at my home for Shabbat dinner where we can discuss what I, as a Rabbi, can continue do to ensure that my community promotes and always lives by its cherished, universal values, especially as it pertains to the prevention of all cruelty to animals, and where PETA, who cares deeply for animal welfare and rights, can also demonstrate their commitment to undoing the injustices that trample on sacred human rights. No doubt it will be a spirited, warm, and memorable Sabbath.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is regularly featured in Newsweek's list of the 10 most influential Rabbis in America and has just published "Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself." (Wiley) He will shortly publish "Kosher Jesus." Follow him on his website www.shmuley.com and on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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