The Belgian government’s decision last week to ban kosher slaughter has certainly led to solidarity with those who agonize over animals’ bitter fate. A priori, it would be best to avoid eating meat at all, but Jews who want to keep kosher need to admit, as with many other questions of Jewish law, that the time has come for even this difficult issue to be confronted from a place deep in the soul.
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If these poor animals have already been sentenced to death for human needs, we must at least minimize their suffering. Maybe stun them before their deaths. Such a refinement of halakha, Jewish law, isn’t intended to portray us Jews in a more endearing light. It would simply reduce the suffering of living creatures. This is the holiest principle of all.
After all, we must remember that the principles of slaughter in Jewish law were intended from the beginning to guarantee the animal's swift death. This was meant to end the barbaric practice of tearing limbs off the body while the animal is still breathing.
One of the Seven Laws of Noah on morality, which according to Jewish Law apply to all humanity, is the prohibition on eating a limb of a live animal. Judaism commands us to ease suffering, not increase it. So any opposition to such a refinement of Jewish law in the name of blind adherence to tradition inherently contradicts the spirit of Judaism.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to believe that the rabbis and most of today’s interpreters of Jewish law will understand that the time has come to reinterpret halakha to reduce the suffering of people and animals. After all, they tell us every day that women are by nature intended only for certain roles, and only the husband, if he so wishes, can set his wife free. They say that every clod of earth in the Land of Israel is by its very essence holy, and that we are forbidden to bring the dying closer to death through an act of mercy.
And it is certainly prohibited to change by even a hair the laws of ritual slaughter received from ancient times along with so many other understandings and interpretations that point to a deterioration into crude materialism. We are prohibited from interpreting the issues for ourselves.
It’s actually during Passover when we are confronted with the clearest example of man’s ability, according to Judaism, to determine from his own perspective what is reality, and to relate to this conclusion with complete seriousness. Throughout the week-long festival, the Torah commands those who keep tradition to suddenly change their attitude about bread and grain products and view them as forbidden chametz leavened foods that cannot be eaten, owned or even seen.
This is an amazing reversal: Bread, dough and flour, which are sanctified all year as mankind’s most basic food, become a severe prohibition. And when the holiday ends, almost a miracle happens: Everything returns as if nothing had changed.
This means it’s not the bread that’s kosher or chametz. This attribute isn’t inherent; we determine the attribute based on our decisions.
The same goes for our attitude toward the Land of Israel, men and women, non-Jews, the LGBT community, Jewish law, animals and actually anything else. These things have no inherent characteristics except for what we attribute to them. And this we must correct and refine out of mercy, understanding and respect.
This is the greatest challenge facing rabbis and the interpreters of Jewish tradition today. They are not required to change the truth of the supposed reality, but only their view of reality as human beings.