A version of the essay below appeared in the Dutch-language daily newspaper De Volkskrant on June 16. For months, the Dutch parliament has debated a bill that would ban kosher slaughter on supposed humanitarian grounds. On June 23, parliament offered a compromise according to which the Jewish community will have a chance to demonstrate that this 3,000-year-old practice does not cause animals to suffer. Given that kosher slaughter is mandated in order to prevent animal suffering, the entire proceeding is grotesque. This might seem like an esoteric issue affecting a small religious minority; on the contrary, I argue, it is on just such questions that the moral survival of the West depends – Spengler.
For the first time in Western history, the physical as well as emotional pain felt by animals became a human concern three millennia ago in the Jewish Scriptures. Not only does the Hebrew Bible prohibit meat obtained by hunting – the least humane way of killing animals – but it forbids the owner of an ox from muzzling the beast while it threshes grain, or killing a calf in the presence of the mother cow.
The sanctity of all life, animal as well as human, informs all of Jewish religious law, including the painless killing of animals through kosher slaughter. The biblical heritage of the West is the well from which we draw our modern concept of the sanctity of life. Holland’s Party of the Animals now proposes to poison this well.
Jewish standards for humane treatment of animals are far more restrictive than those of the Netherlands, or indeed of any country in the world. There is no bill presently before the Dutch parliament to ban consumption of wild game, which is killed in the hunt by methods that often inflict considerable suffering. Nonetheless, there is a bill to ban kosher slaughter, which was designed from the outset to inflict the minimum of pain.
Evidence is overwhelming that kosher slaughter is just as humane as any modern method of killing animals, and more humane as a matter of practice. The standard method in today’s slaughterhouses – shooting a bolt into the animal’s forehead – has a high failure rate, and animals frequently are shot several times before losing consciousness.
Temple Grandin, America’s foremost expert on humane treatment of cattle, published the definitive study on the subject in the May 2006 issue of the journal Anthropology of Food. Professor Grandin was the subject of an eponymous 2010 feature film.
Observing the slaughter of animals by a trained Jewish specialist, she reported: “I was relieved and surprised to discover that the animals don’t even feel the super-sharp place as it touches their skin. They made no attempt to pull away. I felt peaceful and calm.” More skill is required for humane slaughter without stunning, Grandin observes, but Jewish religious law requires special implements and a very high level of skill. Muslim halal slaughter, according to Grandin, has no such safeguards.
But all this is well known, and has little to do with present proposals to prohibit kosher practices in Holland, where a single schochet slaughters a couple of thousand animals a year – against perhaps 400 million killed by a bolt in the brain delivered by a semi-skilled slaughterhouse worker who often must repeat the procedure on a suffering animal.
It is yet another blow against the tiny remnant of once-great observant Jewish community whose association with Dutch liberty and national prowess goes back half a millennium, to the arrival of refugees from the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities at the turn of the 16th century.
Three-quarters of Dutch Jews died in the Holocaust, a higher proportion than in any country except Poland. To harry the tiny observant remnant appears obscene. But the broader issue at stake is not the survival of Dutch Jewry, but whether the West has the moral resources to survive.
Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) sanctifies life as a matter of daily practice. For observant Jews, the notion that all life testifies to its creator is not an abstraction, not a philosophical argument, but a mode of living that orders the most basic of human functions, including nutrition. The Jewish people thus are a living link to man’s first comprehension of the sanctity of life.
As the American Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod explains, the Book of Genesis tells us that even if the animals are not as close to God as are we, neither are they so far from him. To kill and eat them is a grave matter; we have no rational calculus by which to weigh the human requirement for nutrition against the trace of the divine in animal life. That is why Jews may consume meat only with supernatural sanction, under restrictions imposed by God himself, with a sense of awe at the God who rules over life and death.
Those who reject religious arguments – as do the majority of today’s Europeans – should nonetheless ask by what measure they gauge the value of animal suffering. Jews observe the ancient dietary laws because they believe that God asked them to do so. Whether or not the Hebrew Bible was given to Moses on Mount Sinai by God, the rules it set forth for kindness towards animals had no precedent in human affairs. And the influence upon ethics of this innovation cannot be overstated. If we must respect animal life – not only physical suffering, but even the emotional sensibility of animals – then we must respect human life and dignity all the more.
What is the alternative to the biblical argument? The intellectual leader of the animal rights movement, Peter Singer of Princeton University, argues that a healthy piglet has more right to life than a deformed human infant. Dutch voters should ask themselves whether they really wish to exchange the biblical concept of sanctity of life for Singer’s monstrous utilitarianism. Precisely because the Western concept of sanctity of life derives from the Hebrew bible, observant Jewish communities form an irreplaceable link in the cultural DNA of the West, and to suppress their most essential practices would be an act of cultural suicide.
It would be a bitter irony indeed if the Netherlands, which first established religious freedom in the modern world, were to destroy Jewish life within its borders by prohibiting Jews from sanctifying life through kashrut – all in the specious pursuit of animal welfare.
[Bans on kosher slaughter are in place in Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. In 2010, New Zealand followed on supposed humanitarian grounds, but the ruling was partially reversed when the country’s High Court heard evidence that the Agriculture Minister, David Carter, owned shares in companies that exported lamb to Muslim countries, and was told that banning kosher slaughter of lamb would be good for his investments. The ban on kosher slaughter of poultry was suspended and a ban on beef is still in effect.
New Zealand not only permits hunting, but sponsors a thriving hunting business for tourists based in its 14 national parks and 20 forest parks. It also has private hunting preserves that cater to tourists seeking so-called trophy kills. No effort has been made to impede killing of animals by bullets, which often causes great suffering].