"I've noticed that quite a lot of people who are prominent in the animal liberation movement are Jews. Maybe we are simply not prepared to see the powerful hurting the weak." --Peter Singer (Author, Animal Liberation)


Kapparot: Unnecessary Torture of Chickens

After I scrapped my original plan to write a comprehensive analysis of kapparot, it looks like I can't get away without doing at least a short commentary. In response to my last post, a blogger inquired:

I'm sorry, what is the problem with kaparot? The chickens are usually slaughtered and given to the poor. Is it really abusing a chicken to twirl it around your head? I personally think its a silly custom, but I'm not sure why it gets so much static from animal rights activists.

I do indeed think that swinging a rooster or a hen around you in a circle three times is an abusive act. If you wouldn't do it to a dog or a cat, why is it okay to do it to a bird? Then you're killing the animal--all this so that you can pawn off your sins on another living being before passing him or her (but somehow not the transgressed sins?) on to the poor. This article delves into the issue of kapparot in much greater depth: http://www.jewishveg.com/schwartz/kapparot.html.

As for the custom of giving the animal's flesh to the poor, this is covering up for an unnecessary evil:

1) The common substitution of using money instead of live animals is practiced by many Torah-observant Jews, and thus allows you to give at least the "price" of the fowl, if not more, as a charitable donation to the poor. Humane alternative found, problem solved.

2) Too many times, the noble intentions of practitioners to donate food to the poor don't come to fruition, i.e., there is a "surplus" of birds. In The Jewish Press earlier this month, Rabbi Yaakov Klass described horrors at a kapparot ceremony last year: "Someone had set up a 'kaporos' operation on a prominent avenue in my community. The chickens were being slaughtered rapidly on site, and due to the sheer volume, were being thrown into a garbage pail right before my eyes." Perhaps the greatest mishap this year was when the ASPCA had to step in to rescue a couple of hundred chickens ("unused leftovers" from a kapparot ceremony) who had been abandoned to starve to death.

In the post-Temple era, we no longer live in an age of animal sacrifice. Considering that kapparot is not even mentioned in the Torah or the Talmud, there is no Biblical justification for this cruel act. Not causing unnecessary animal suffering (tsa'ar ba'alei chayim) is far more consistent with Jewish teachings. The more cases we see of kapparot observers absolutely disregarding the welfare of thse animals, the more we must doubt the legitimacy of an already ethically suspect ritual.


Haaretz Editorial: Rights for Helpless Animals

Haaretz had a wonderful board editorial supporting animal rights in the overall general sense this week! My two favorite quotes are in bold. Here it is, in its entirety:

Rights for helpless animals
By Haaretz Editorial

Public campaigns to defend animals often lead to improvement, but the real changes occur when the government and the courts mobilize in their defense. Israel is still not one of the more advanced states in its treatment of animals, but the courts and the government have recently made several decisions that prove that the importance of this matter is beginning to be understood.

Last week, the Nazareth District Court rejected an appeal by a man convicted of abusing a cat by putting it into a sealed plastic bag. The man appealed his conviction, but the court ruled that he injured "a helpless animal that cannot defend itself and cannot sue for redress of its pain and injury." The significance of the court's ruling was its rejection of the argument that the abusive behavior was justified in order to deal with a plague of cats in the vicinity of the abuser's residence.

Three weeks ago, the government decided not to support a bill that would enable geese to continue to be force-fed. Force-feeding causes great pain and artificially enlarges the goose's liver, all for the purpose of supplying the delicacy known as foie gras. Prior to the government's decision, the High Court of Justice, in response to petitions by animal welfare organizations, had ruled that force-feeding geese violates the law against abusing animals.

The government's decision is particularly significant because it affects the livelihoods of hundreds of people who were engaged, either directly or indirectly, in the goose-fattening industry. The government's decision thus effectively declares that the goal of preserving a source of employment cannot legitimize animal abuse. And on this note, the ongoing activity of the policemen who have been working with the Environment Ministry over the past several years to enforce the law against animal abuse deserves commendation. Their activity has led to the filing of several indictments.

Nevertheless, many shadows remain in the overall picture of the situation of animals in this country, and abuse is still widespread. This is particularly true with regard to farm animals such as chickens and cows, as humans have grown accustomed to viewing these animals as food products and have forgotten that they, too, are entitled to protection.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, people could once again be seen observing the custom of kapparot - a custom that has been criticized in rabbinical rulings for hundreds of years already and involves abusing terrified chickens with no nutritional or health justification. Veal calves are also still raised in Israel under terrible conditions, which include preventing them from drinking water in order to force them to drink a special liquid that causes them to gain weight.

One of the key problems is faulty enforcement, including the courts' tendency not to impose sentences that would deter offenders. Even when they are convicted, animal abusers are generally sentenced to fines that have no deterrent value or to suspended prison sentences. The government did indeed decide that the force-feeding of geese should not continue, but in practice, it does. From the point of view of the geese, there is thus far no comfort in the fact that both High Court justices and cabinet ministers have demonstrated compassion for their distress.


Private vs. Public Judaism

I was in a car accident last night. I have whiplash injuries to my neck and shoulders, and the internal bleeding in my right thumb sticks out ... like a sore thumb. It could be a lot worse, though, and I'm happy to be relatively okay. Funny how it works:

Right after the collision, upon simply realizing that I was alive, my immediate reaction was "Thank G-d!"

When I had a minute to break away from the police officer and the other driver, I put my hand over my head for a makeshift kippah and quietly recited the Sh'ma.

When I spoke to my mom and she asked how I was feeling, my response was "Baruch Hashem!" And by the time I spoke to her again later, I'd said it so much that even she was saying it.

When I got to the hospital, I was asked for my religious affiliation. As though I feared that being Jewish would be held against me, I simply said, "I'd prefer not to disclose that information."


Yom Kippur's Prohibition Against Leather

Last night and today for Yom Kippur, I wore non-leather sneakers to shul. I have dress-shoes that are non-leather (all my shoes are), but I chose to make the point as glaringly as possible: Jews are prohibited from wearing leather on Yom Kippur.

On Yom Kippur, we beg for God's mercy. We pray for atonement. We recognize that we have sinned, and we repent for it. And to walk the walk, we realize that it would be hypocritical to plead for forgiveness and compassion when dressed in the clothes of suffering, for which compassion is lacking. Jewish Vegetarians of North America president Richard H. Schwartz explains, "One reason is that it is not considered proper to plead for compassion when one has not shown compassion to the creatures of God, whose concern extends to all of His creatures." An e-rabbi adds:

Many people abstain from wearing leather on Yom Kippur, as required by tradition, since an animal died in order that the leather garment could be produced. Yom Kippur is a time for being especially sensitive to life and death concerns, including the lives of animals.

Leather is not a byproduct of the meat industry but rather a coproduct. Cattle killed for their leather are the same cows raised by the beef and dairy industries. They are subject to the same routine branding, dehorning, tail-docking, and castration--all without any pain-killers. Cows in the dairy industry are forced to give 10 times as much milk as they did a mere half-century ago, and between a fifth and half of them suffer from mastitis, a disease in which their udders have become so swollen that they hang toward the ground. Annually in the U.S., 37.5 million cows are stunned, hung upside down, bled to death, and skinned in slaughterhouses. The leather industry warrants opposition all 365 days of the year, not just when we are most desperate for forgiveness.

On Yom Kippur, we apologize for our transgressions in the previous year, and we hope to not repeat our mistakes. So why is it that after today, it becomes permissible to most Jews to again not show "compassion to the creatures of God"? If we are honest with ourselves on Yom Kippur and seek to avoid sins, and if we aspire to be compassionate beings so that God may treat us likewise, we should cease promoting suffering in our attire and daily decisions on a regular basis, not just one day a year.


Organic Style: Is Kosher Meat Healthier?

In its "No Stupid Questions" column, the October issue of Organic Style attempts to answer the question, "Is Kosher Meat Healthier?" The answer is a mixed bag:

But safer, cleaner meat doesn’t guarantee that it’s healthier: Kosher animals are raised on conventional farms, which often administer growth hormones and antibiotics. And kosher hot dogs can be loaded with nitrates and saturated fat. If health is your goal, choose organic kosher meat.
Organic Style is dead-on in noting that animals deemed kosher come from the same factory farms that separate babies from their mothers shortly after birth, restrict movement in tiny enclosures, and perform bodily mutilations such as debeaking, branding, and castration without painkillers.

The magazine should also be commended for saying that kosher meat isn't necessarily healthier. Just one Hebrew National Beef Frank contains 6 grams of saturated fat--about a third of the recommended amount for an entire day--which is only 1 gram less than typical hot dogs that are made from miscellaneous innards!

The magazine then goes on to push its own agenda (and it even promotes a specific brand of organic kosher meat). Whether a hot dog is made of 100 percent beef or pig intestines, and whether the animals are drugged up or not, a hot dog is still going to be high in animal fat and cholesterol. Even hot dogs that come from kosher-certified animals who have been raised under organic conditions aren't going to be healthy.

The column also conflates the relative superiority of shechita in Biblical times with its modern flaws:
Kosher meat is considered safer and cleaner than conventional meat for good reason. Strict Jewish law requires rigorous inspections: Animals must be active and healthy before slaughter and blemish-free afterward. ... The slaughtering process is also considered by some to be more humane and hygienic.
Some do contend that shechita is less inhumane, but humane it is not. As Holocaust historian Charles Patterson wrote in his book Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust:

One bitterly ironic feature of killing operations is their attempt to make the killing more "humane." By "humane," the operatives mean they want the killing to be done more efficiently and to be less stressful on the killers. The truth is, of course, they're not really interested in being "humane." If they were, they wouldn't be killing in the first place.
In 96 percent of USDA-regulated slaughterhouses, cattle are required to be rendered "insensible to pain" (e.g., stunned) prior to slaughter, but because of a technicality in kashrut, this is not the case under shechita. In kosher and halal slaughterhouses, animals fully feel the pain as the shochet slits their throats open, even if he specializes in bringing death as quickly as possible. An investigation last year at the world's largest glatt kosher slaughterhouse revealed that cattle prods were being used, cows were having their trachea and esophagi torn open (not quite an immediate death brought about by cutting the jugular vein), and animals were languishing in agony for up to several minutes after the fatal cut was made. And as I blogged about last weekend, shouldn't the vast majority of veal be rejected as traif, and shouldn't it raise suspicions that such a cruelly obtained product is so widely accepted by hechshers?

Is kosher meat safer and cleaner? Surely inspectors are more likely to rule out obviously "unsafe" meat than in conventional slaughterhouses. But if you're worried about Mad Cow disease, E. coli, saturated fat, cholesterol, heart disease, various forms of cancer, and so many other ailments, you're best off eliminating animal flesh from your diet altogether.