A Beef about Kashrut

Where shall I get meat to give to this entire people when they weep to me saying “Give us meat that we may eat?” (Bamidbar 11:12)

As I read the above words in today’s Torah reading, I reflected on the state of kashrut.

On the eastern seaboard of Australia a debate is currently raging about whether the market of kashrut agencies should be competitive or monopolised.  There is another debate raging about whether the definition of kashrut should be regulated by Government through the reform of food labelling laws.

Religion and politics is never a good mix.  All too often matters of kashrut risk being compromised by commercial interests.  There are often disputes over small issues that become milestone in-principle matters that are way out of proportion to the issue itself.

Being a kosher consumer in Australia has never been easier.  There are few foods that we go without.  There are both general retail and specialist retail facilities that provide a range of kosher products.  Some specialist products cost a little more, something to be expected without a significant economy of scale – the number of kosher consumers in Australia is limited to tens of thousands. 

It would be a great shame for Australian Jewry to lose the benefit of the status quo relating to our kashrut system.  Kosher consumers can have confidence in the various agencies and standards in place, and the offering of both products and knowledge of kashrut continues to grow.

Historically speaking, kosher observance is a religious freedom.  The technology and complexity associated with food production today makes kosher observance both more important, and also a highly specialised and technical vocation.  Knowledge of food technology and halacha are required.  The self-regulated standards of kashrut that related to the traditional management of the home using prime products and raw foods are an era that is no longer with us.  The strong ethical focus of kashrut has also lost its way in the hurry and bustle of modern eating patterns.  I had a relative who wrote a guide on how to kosher pots almost 100 years ago.  He concluded his work by noting that if a person has a kosher pot full of food that they hold for themself, but also has a neighbour with an empty pot because they cannot afford to eat, then they are obliged to share their food.  If they do not follow this path, they have misunderstood the very reason they have a kosher pot in the first place.   

Also historically speaking, the religious freedoms we endure are not always guaranteed as indefinite rights.  While we in Australia bicker about who controls the kashrut industry, our neighbours in New Zealand have far more significant kashrut problems.  The right for Jewish New Zealanders to shecht their own meat has been effectively terminated by Government regulation.  

Shecitah operations in New Zealand have operated on and off for decades in various facilities and under varying structures.  The Jewish community of New Zealand has not operated its own facilities for some time, however did so for many years due to agricultural laws that restricted meat imports from Australia. 

The debate about shecitah in New Zealand has been raging for decades due to academic opinions, and is centred around the recommended (now enforced) use of stunning prior to slaughter on the premise of animal cruelty.  Proponents of kashrut will be aware that the instant severing of the sciatic nerve causes instant brain death to a creature.  Stunning causes pain prior to death.  Yet the report that surrounds this decision in New Zealand deems the removal of “sensibility” in the animal as a form of animal right.  I have personally been to a meat processing works where animals have been stunned.  They have then been shot and cut into instantly, where you can clearly see their organs still functioning.   I find this far from humane. 

The alarming issue here is not a technical one surrounding the mode of slaughter.  It is that a Jewish person in New Zealand can no longer prepare meat for kosher consumption.  Whatever the warped logic behind such a decision may be, the effective impact is that it is much harder for a Jewish person to practice their religion in that country.

For millennia Jews have faced civil law that makes their practices, and sometimes even their presence illegal.  Such laws still exist in many countries today.  It is not just despotic countries, but also overly–liberal countries that ironically “protect rights” by outlawing Judaism.  Be it food preparation, circumcision, land ownership, workplace law or other similar examples of regulation in a society, Jewish practice and freedom can be, and often is, restricted at the stroke of a pen. 

When this happens, history evidences that such countries rapidly begin to decline.  They do not deserve Jewish populations, and invariably their Jewish populations leave for places where they are free to practice their lifestyle.  Some do not leave and all too often have found themselves suddenly entrapped into a hostile environment, and on occasions persecuted. 

Whilst New Zealand is not even remotely close to a nation that is subjugating Jews, it is a country that has lost a large portion of their Jewish population, due to decisions of choice by its Jewish citizens.  There are more New Zealand born Jews in Australia than there are in New Zealand.  Whilst the Jewish population of New Zealand is estimated at 5,000 – 6,000 Jews, there are possibly twice that number of expatriot New Zealand Jews in Australia.  Even more telling is that there has been a consistent level of migration by the observant Jewish community of New Zealand to Australian communities over the past thirty years, due primarily to a desire to access Jewish educational facilities.  On the one had the community has been the victim of its own success (many Jews have left to be more Jewish, as successful products of their indigenous community).  On the other hand the NZ Jewish community has been the author of its own demise (many Jews may not have left had resources been structured to cater for needs of observant community members).   There is a sizeable contingent of former New Zealand Jews in Perth.

What has now occurred in New Zealand may not have a practical impact on the functioning of the Jewish community as they can continue to import kosher meat from Australia.  However from a philosophical standpoint this matter will have a very significant impact on the psyche of the New Zealand Jewish community.  It also sets a precedent that is dangerous for the open rights of Jewish observance everywhere, including neighbouring Australia.  Without question, this is a milestone moment in the decline of meaningful Jewish life in New Zealand. 

Perhaps it would be a good thing if the Australian Jewish community paused for a moment to think a bit about just how good we have it here.  If we drew the right conclusion then perhaps we could focus on preserving and enhancing the status quo.  Instead of fighting about who is eligible to run kashrut, we could continue to benefit from the multiple agencies that all have acceptable standards.  Instead of influencing the definition of food labelling by politicising the definition of the word “kosher”, we could focus on the way in which ingredients are listed, but leave the value of the word kosher itself to remain a pluralistic linguistic device that we still have the ability to apply our own definition over.  Perhaps we could also free up some of our energy to support our New Zealand cousins over what is a matter of real substance, being whether shechitah itself is permitted.  The alternative irony of having to watch a New Zealander ask “Where shall I get meat to give to this entire people” is probably just too much to bear!

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