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.