Chicken Soup or the Jewish Soul?

To remember animals and our concern for their well-being - not to mention the environment, and our own health - we may need to lose certain tastes and find other handles for the memories that they once helped us carry.


This article is part of a special edition of Haaretz newspaper, to mark Israel's book week.

New Zealand this week became the fourth country to ban kosher slaughter, after Norway, Sweden and Iceland. These are not exactly hotbeds of anti-Semitism, and their reasoning is not exactly unreasonable: Animals should be stunned before having their lives taken.

That animals are capable of feeling pain is scientific fact (even if we might disagree on what, precisely, that pain is ), and the notion that we should avoid animal cruelty when possible is as universally held an ethic as any. It is certainly possible to humanely slaughter an animal without first stunning it, but both common sense and scientific research tell us that it is vastly more difficult, and vastly less likely.

Chicken plant
Getty Images

Put most simply, if you were a farmed animal, you would prefer to be stunned before being slaughtered.

As I had been taught them, in Hebrew school and at home, Jewish dietary laws were devised as a compromise (with Noah as humanity's representative ): If humans must eat animals, we should do so with respect for the other creatures in the world and with humility. Don't subject the animals you eat to unnecessary suffering, either in their lives or in their slaughter.

It's a way of thinking that made me proud to be Jewish as a child, and that continues to make me proud. I am sure I am not alone in this interpretation of kashrut. When the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the world was videotaped in 2004 committing grotesque and deliberate cruelty to animals, much of the Jewish community spoke out against the Iowa plant.

The president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement, in a message sent to every one of its rabbis, wrote, "When a company purporting to be kosher violates the prohibition against tza'ar ba'alei hayyim, causing pain to one of God's living creatures, that company must answer to the Jewish community, and ultimately, to God."

The Orthodox chair of the Talmud Department at Bar-Ilan University was among those in the Orthodox community who protested, and did so eloquently, "It very well may be that any plant performing such types of [kosher slaughter] is guilty of hillul Hashem - the desecration of God's name - for to insist that God cares only about his ritual law and not about his moral law is to desecrate His Name."

And in a joint statement, more than 50 influential rabbis, including the president of the Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis and the dean of the Conservative movement's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, argued that "Judaism's powerful tradition of teaching compassion for animals has been violated by these systematic abuses and needs to be reasserted."

But how unusual was what happened at that largest of all kosher slaughterhouses? How different are the most grotesque and deliberate acts of cruelty from the simple unwillingness to stun an animal before running a knife across its neck? All this begs a difficult question, which I ask not as a thought experiment but straightforwardly: In our world - not the shepherd-and-flock world of the Torah, but our overpopulated one in which 50 billion animals are raised on intensive factory-farms every year, and are necessarily regarded as things - is it even possible to eat meat without "causing pain to one of God's living creatures," to avoid (even after going to great and sincere lengths ) "the desecration of God's name?" Has the very concept of kosher meat become a contradiction in terms?

2 I've discussed this touchy subject in my most recent book, "Eating Animals," which is coming out in Israel now. I had expected the reception in America to be controversial, but while many disagreed with my conclusions, there was a broad consensus that meat is a topic no one should ignore.

I know that in Israel it can be difficult (if not seemingly impossible ) to focus on any issue less immediately pressing than security, and the notion of expending energy on the animals we eat might seem downright ridiculous. (I'm writing this on the heels of the Gaza aid flotilla catastrophe, and am highly sensitive to the out-of-scale feeling. )

But it's not a zero-sum game. When perusing a menu, we don't think about our choices at the expense of Israel's safety, or at the expense of humanitarian causes. And that moment of thought is all that is required to solve the problem of meat: not billions of dollars, or the election of a new government, or war or peace or the acquisition of new values.

We need only a moment of reflection. We need to order something different - something reflecting who we are.

If animal agriculture isn't the most important problem in the world right now - according to the United Nations, it is the No. 1 cause of global warming and one of the top two or three causes of every significant environmental problem in the world, locally and globally; it is the No. 1 cause of animal suffering (billions of animals are treated in ways that would be illegal if they were cats or dogs ); it is the No. 1 cause of deforestation and biodiversity loss; it is a decisive factor in the creation of zoonotic diseases like bird and swine flu; it is making the antibiotics that we and our children depend on less effective; it is making us die younger - it is certainly the problem with the most deafening silence surrounding it.

Even the most political people, the most thoughtful and engaged, tend not to "go there." And for good reason. Going there can be extremely uncomfortable.

Food is not just what we put in our mouths to fill up; it is culture and identity. This is particularly true among Jews, virtually all of whose ritualistic and celebratory eating involves meat.

To give up the taste of brisket or the smell of roasted chicken is a loss that extends beyond giving up a pleasurable eating experience. Changing what we eat and letting tastes fade from memory is a kind of cultural loss, a forgetting.

But perhaps this kind of forgetfulness is worth accepting - even worth cultivating (forgetting, too, can be cultivated ).

To remember animals and our concern for their well-being - not to mention the environment, and our own health - we may need to lose certain tastes and find other handles for the memories that they once helped us carry. Remembering and forgetting are part of the same mental process.

To write down one detail of an event is to not write down another (unless you keep writing forever ). To remember one thing is to let another slip away (unless you keep recalling forever ). There is ethical as well as violent forgetting.

We are a community that prides itself on remembrance, but we can't hold on to everything. Perhaps, in this world of factory farming, we will have to choose between our grandmother's chicken and our grandmother's values.

3 It wasn't long before the stronger animals started to eat the weaker animals, two by two. At first, Noah tried to keep them apart, and was himself nearly killed in an effort to save an animal whose kind no longer exists. But ultimately, he conceded that given the dwindling supply of food, some would have to be sacrificed so that others might survive.

By the time the world had dried out, the strongest animals were like Russian nesting dolls - within their bellies were animals with animals within their bellies - and the vast majority of the species that had entered the ark were extinct.

Once the rain had stopped, Noah sent out a dove. Several hours later, it returned with an olive branch. He sent the dove out again, and this time it didn't return. This was the sign that there was ground on which to build the world anew.

On land, the animals found it impossible to relinquish the habits they had acquired during their desperation. While it was no longer necessary for their survival, the strong continued to eat the weak. Not even Noah, the one person worth saving, could abide by the ethics that had guided him before the rain began to fall.

He stood by the window, one night, unable to fall asleep. (He hardly ever slept. ) The branches of the trees reached upward, and he felt a flickering in his stomach, which he mistook for hunger, even though he'd gorged himself an hour before.

It wasn't hunger, but the memory of the dove. Noah had sent it from the ark for a second time, and when it returned with another olive branch in its beak, he broke its neck, and secretly took it down to the kitchen.

It was the faint beating of the dove that he felt by the window, the dove which had come back, providing absolutely no reason to think that the Earth was again ready for animal life.