I live in New York City, and one day while walking I noticed that every pizza shop’s sign claims it has “the best NYC pizza.”
How can every store say it is the best? It’s simple, they aren’t.
These pizza stores got me thinking about how many religions and cultures — including Judaism — sometimes claim to be superior, or more ethical, in areas not actually proven. In Gemara and elsewhere, we learn how we are the “chosen nation” and that our beliefs and practices are a light unto others. I often hear as a vegetarian that the Halachic process of slaughtering animals, known as shechitah, hurts the animals less and is more humane than other common butchering practices. A few years ago, my non-Jewish violin teacher offhandedly mentioned she only ate kosher meat for this reason. This led me to research if this notion was true, and if not, why we claim it to be.
Jewish law clearly respects animals as living beings. The Torah states an animal must also rest on Shabbat and one must treat all living beings with respect because they are God’s creatures. There is also the famous halacha, or Jewish law, of not taking a bird’s eggs while the mother is in the nest. You must send her away, before taking her children. Jewish custom dictates a set of laws that all people, both Jews and non-Jews, have to follow. These rules, called the Noahide Laws, dictate the basic requirements all people must follow to get into heaven. For example, one rule states you are not allowed to eat from a living animal.
Kosher slaughter is not directly discussed in the Torah, but according to custom, it was among the laws told to Moses at Mount Sinai, which were later written down and became known as the Gemara. In the Gemara, also known as the Torah Sh’beal Peh (which in English means “Torah from the mouth,” as it was traditionally passed down orally), the Rabbis discuss the qualifications of a kosher animal. It must have split hooves and chew its cud, and can not have any improper body markings or blemishes. In addition, it must be in full health, and not have sustained any injury. The prerequisites for killing seem more humane than common practice. If an animal needs to be healthy and well-treated to be slaughtered, this results in it living in better conditions leading up to its death. PETA and other animal rights organizations like to constantly point to the brutality and maltreatment of livestock in slaughterhouses. Businesses like to cut costs, and when it is in their favor, will deny animals basic rights for money. At least, even if a Jewish slaughter service wants to cut corners, they must provide the animal with sufficient enough care to meet halachic requirements.
For hundreds of years, the shechitah, or slaughtering, process has faced intense criticism from those outside the Jewish community. This is partially due to antisemitism. The idea of a bloody, savage slaughtering method plays nicely into the medieval European trope of Jews being vicious and savage. The Nazi regime used the practice as proof of the Jew’s “otherness.” Ritual slaughter is illegal in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia and Slovenia. This is due to objections that the animal is not being stunned or sedated during the slaughter, which happens in conventional practice. For kosher slaughter, the animals are simply hung upside down and cut by the throat, a seemingly horrific and cruel method. However, the shochet, another name for a Jewish slaughterer, has to be well trained and needs to use a clean and sharp blade and a swift stroke. The cut is made in a specific place in the neck, called the carotid artery, and results in the animal losing consciousness immediately due to the sudden drop of blood pressure in the head. The blood then drains out of its neck, resulting in death.
Defenders of the practice say the animal feels little pain and is quickly rendered unconscious. But when it comes to this debate, the only ones who have experienced it are unable to answer questions.
Slaughtering, in general, is a horrific practice. I see many of my peers waking up to the realization that society’s moral standards, especially around meat consumption, are not so high and mighty. Many do not become vegetarians due to health or personal choice reasons. This is totally ok and accepted; people are allowed to make their own decisions. What they are not allowed to do is claim things that are not true. Judaism is an accepting and warm religion, that overall cares about animals and their needs. If you have to eat any meat, I would still say kosher meat is the best, but vegetarianism is always the better option.