Kosher, Part II: Beyond the “No’s” or Why Should I Care if My Grasshopper is Sustainably Farmed?

So, what does Judaism bring to food and eating beyond the “no’s” – no shellfish, no pork, no cheeseburgers . . . ?  It brings a level of ethics that I personally feel is missing in today’s industrialized food production.  Judaism values not just what you eat and how it was killed, but how it lived and was raised.  It is a standard that bears repeating.  Over, and over, and over, and over.  Because even parts of the kosher food industry have forgotten this most basic premise.

This is a fairly lengthy post, and this beginning part seems tangential, but bear with me.  This is a video by Jamie Oliver about what chicken nuggets are made of – “mechanically separated chicken“.  If a package of chicken nuggets (kosher or non-kosher) has “mechanically separated chicken” on it’s list of ingredients, this is how it is made.

Sad fact of his experiment failing with American children aside (but believe me, it’s going to be in another post), not only is this nasty, it highlights one of the travesties of modern food production: lack of respect for the animal itself.  We would never process an animal we respected in such a horrific way.

Chef Thomas Keller, of French Laundry fame, writes the following about the day he learned to butcher rabbits:

“One day, I asked my rabbit purveyor to show me how to kill, skin, and eviscerate a rabbit.  I had never done this, and I figured if I was going to cook rabbit, I should know it from its live state through the slaughtering, skinning and butchering, and then the cooking.  The guy showed up with twelve live rabbits.  He hit one over the head with a club, knocked it out, slit its throat, pinned it to a board, skinned it – the whole bit.  Then he left.

I don’t know what else I expected, but there I was out in the grass behind the restaurant, just me and eleven cute bunnies, all of which were on the menu that week and had to find their way into a braising pan.  I clutched at the first rabbit.  I had a hard time killing it.  It screamed.  Rabbits scream and this one screamed loudly.  Then it broke its leg trying to get away.  It was terrible.

The next ten rabbits didn’t scream and I was quick with the kill, but that first screaming rabbit not only gave me a lesson in butchering, it also taught me about waste . . . I would not squander them.  I would use all my powers as chef to ensure that those rabbits were beautiful.”

Chef Keller came to respect the animal, and understood his role was to elevate it and not waste its life.  After literally, if unintentionally, torturing the first rabbit, he made quick work of the other 11, having learned his lesson.  Living beings, even those (or especially those!) we consider food, require our respect and humane treatment – from farm to plate.  The Torah understood this, and it is the foundation of much of the laws of kashrut (kosher).

We are encouraged to eat only certain animals butchered in a certain way (and grasshoppers are kosher.  Who knew?).  Animal cruelty is expressly forbidden.  We are not allowed to hunt for sport – only sustenance.  We are not allowed to eat pieces of animal that have been torn off it while alive, or from an animal that has suffered.  We are enjoined to treat animals with respect and deference.

In the Torah, that famous nay-sayer Bilaam was FIRST taken to task for beating his donkey, and only second for his plans to sabotage the Israelites – God chastised him primarily for being cruel to his animal.  Even more to the point, there are certain things even the most observant Jew is permitted to do on Shabbat to prevent an animal’s suffering (various sources here).  Here are a few quotes (note the first one makes sure you understand that even the animal of your enemy, or someone who hates you, must be relieved of a burden that causes it to suffer) :

When you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering, you must be sure to take it back to
him. If you see the donkey of a man who hates you lying helpless under its load, you must refrain
from deserting him; you must be sure to help him unburden the animal.

Shemot (Exodus) 23: 4-5

It is forbidden to sit down to your own meal before you have fed your pets and barnyard animals. As
it says, ‘and I will give feed to your animals,’ and only after that does the verse say ‘and you shall eat
and be satisfied’ (Deuteronomy 11:15.)

Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 40a

Having researched this a bit, and having read a lot of what Temple Grandin has to say about kosher meat production, I’m hopeful that the kosher meat and poultry industry is choosing to improve its treatment of animals as they go through the process of shechita, ritual slaughter (the act itself, the cutting of the jugular vein, is nearly painless).  I’m also pleased that there are several wonderful kosher providers out there who are committed to a high level of involvement in the lives of the animals they butcher or source – KOL Foods is one of them, as an example.  There are also quite a few local sources for meat and poultry (non-kosher) that are family-owned, operated and truly care for the animals they raise.  Opportunity to be a conscious eater abounds.  Being kosher is as much about being mindful of where what you are eating came from and how it was raised, as it is about not eating pork.

Ethics is, in my opinion, the foundation of responsible kashrut.  Our Torah teaches us this.  Respect for the animal is #1.  This was Chef Keller’s lesson,  and it should be ours.  It should be the foundation of our food values, not just for the health of our bodies, but for the health of our souls.

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11 thoughts on “Kosher, Part II: Beyond the “No’s” or Why Should I Care if My Grasshopper is Sustainably Farmed?

  1. This is Leah, and Nikki gave me permission to re-print an email she sent me in response to this post. Thank you Nikki! My response is below her comments. LOVE discussions like this!

    “I just read your blog and totally agree that alleviating animals’ suffering should be every slaughter plant’s goal. But if I were a sheep, pig or cow, you can bet I’d rather be stunned, then slaughtered, than face an inept kosher butcher’s knife. I’ve seen studies (and hideous video) where cows are still conscious after 60 seconds with the latter method. And “hoisting and shackling” is still used by many kosher butchers since they are not bound by the government’s humane processing laws due to religious reasons. I find this loophole utterly disturbing. So, while in theory, kosher butchering is supposed to be humane, and I’m sure it was the kindest method for the last number of centuries, I would argue that the beef I buy from Whole Foods was treated more respectfully. So, if the first goal of kosher slaughter is the animal’s welfare, I think a reassessment of its antiquated methods is in order.

    Actually, eating no animals would be the least hypocritical thing to do for people like us (those that care about animal suffering) and I tried to become vegan, but it was nearly impossible. yes, I count myself as an animal lover who backstabs them. So in my small way i try to buy the most humanely raised and slaughtered meat available, and I respectfully disagree that it’s kosher meat. (please correct me if I’m wrong, but an animal is kosher at death- it doesn’t matter if it never touched grass, had acres to roam, saw the sun or felt the rain? I don’t think these things are proscribed by Jewish law, but they should be, if the animals’ welfare is paramount. for instance, a veal calf could be kept in a dark, cramped cage, separated from its mother, all of its short life, and then slaughtered according to Jewish law and it’s considered kosher? I just can’t square some of these issues. To me, how an animal lived is nearly as important as its final minutes.)”

    • Nikki, I totally agree. In the Temple Grandin articles I linked to, she addresses these issues, including how long it takes an animal to become unconscious (both stunned and not stunned).

      Thankfully, also, many kosher meat producers have adopted her methods, which is now what the USDA recommends. The company I linked to, KOL Foods, is but one of the several kosher meat/poultry suppliers that have popped up in recent years to address these exact issues you bring up. Also, many Jews are forming co-ops in their cities to contract with local farmers to buy whole cows and poultry that are then shechted by a local kosher butcher who is up to these higher standards.

      Your choice to buy humanely raised and killed meat/poultry is exactly what I am talking about. In my opinion, how it is killed does not matter if it spent it’s life in misery. Our Torah and tradition sets out these values. How these values and laws have sometimes evolved is unfortunately a travesty. Thankfully, the trend now is a major reversal of this, as is evidenced by the establishment of companies like KOL Foods and others. I will say, that for me (remember – it’s just my opinion, not imposing it on others – I support your choices to live out your Jewish values the way that works for you) my ideal is the combo – how it lives AND dies is important to me because of my faith.

      As Michael Pollen so aptly describes, we live an omnivore’s dilemma! But I think people like you, who are so totally mindful of what you eat and how, are changing things for the better. We have an opportunity to influence not only our children, but our culture.

  2. This is the first time I have read your blog, and I really, really appreciate this post. We have an ongoing struggle to keep a kosher kitchen while avoiding “frankenfood” of all sorts. This is particularly a struggle when it some to meat. I have looked at the Kol Foods website many, many times. I live in the Midwest, and wish we could eat local too.

    Our solution so far: avoid buying meat. I sure do miss it, though.

    • Hannah, welcome! So glad you found the blog! I really respect your decision to not buy meat at all – it is something we have considered. So far, for various family reasons we have not gone that route – but it is certainly always an option!

      Nice to meet you!!

  3. I have some concerns about KOL Foods and their claims of ethical treatment of animals. It seems from their website that most of their beef comes from South America where is it shackled and hoisted during shechitah. This is terribly cruel and inhumane. I’m surprised you have chosen to feature them a company that allegedly treats it’s animals humanely.
    There are other companies, such as Grow and Behold Foods and EcoGlatt that have committed to humane and upright shechitah practices for their beef.

    • I should have pressed “reply” for my first comment! Sorry about that – see it below! I had not heard of EcoGlatt and am THRILLED you mentioned it – looks awesome I am totally checking that out. Grow and Behold looks great too – all of this is very interesting, and I SO appreciate you joining the discussion and bringing this up! Thanks!

  4. Excellent post! (Though I have to say I’m kinda grossed out by the chicken nugget video clip.) I’ve been a vegetarian for years and when I converted to Judaism, I was pleasantly surprised to learn WHY the laws of kashrut exist and what the Torah and Talmud have to say about our relationship to animals. I’ve since gone off the deep end and become a raw foodist. Now, if I could just find good non-leather shoes and a car without leather interior.

  5. Dear becomingruth: check out Stella McCartney’s line of cruelty free clothing/accessories, it’s very fashionable! And, while we don’t drive one, BMW offers fake leather in their cars. You have to pay an upgrade for cowhide.

    Love the discussion, good night, all.

  6. Pingback: Resources for Exodus 23:4 - 5

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