The case for shechita as the compassionate way to slaughter animals for food

(Photo: Unsplash/Sarah Halliday)

As COP26 ends, followed immediately by Remembrance Sunday which, for the first time, the Queen was unable to attend, people's thoughts may well be on what the world has gained from this juxtaposition of the modern and the ancient.

For, if not for those who fought in two World Wars, after all, the global community wouldn't even be alive to gather in Glasgow and discuss contemporary ideas to do with energy, water, the environment and debt remission.

And some of these global activists may be surprised, to say the least, to discover that all of these issues, including the idea of the British monarchy, stem from the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, otherwise known as the Old Testament.

Before the start of COP26, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, asked me if I could summarize the Jewish teaching on the environment in two or three sentences.

I believe that the points I highlighted were later discussed at various events being held at COP26.

These included a session with the Secretary General of the United Nations, an event at Glasgow Cathedral and also an article around the subject for the New Statesman.

These points are as follows:

First, the opening of the Book of Genesis, Bereshit, can be translated not only as 'in the beginning', but also as 'bearing in mind the first fruits'. In Glasgow Cathedral, Dr Williams placed Jesus within this context, stating that Jesus would have known that with the creation of the world, G-d's message is that in all we do we should always bear in mind 'the first fruits', and that is what the world should be aiming for now.

The second point is that the State of Israel is currently in its Shemitta Year, which takes place every seven years. Shemitta means 'letting go'. The biblical injunction (Leviticus 25) is to allow the land to rest every seven years. Every 49 years (7x7) this results in Yovel, the Jubilee Year, when, in addition, all debts are forgiven and all slaves are set free.

These Jewish teachings couldn't be more relevant to COP26.

The congregation at Glasgow Cathedral listened to a guest sermon from Dr Williams in which he spoke of Jesus as Jewish and the Jews as the first to advocate at the core of their religion and way of life the idea of care for the poor, the slaves, the animals and the environment. This is not what the congregation expected to hear!

Shechita is the humane kosher way of slaughtering animals for consumption and is as fundamental to Judaism as all of the above. As well as being the first people and religion to safeguard people, water, environment, trees and energy, abolish slavery and remit debts, the same observant Jews also adhere to the practice of shechita (which sounds very much like shemitta).

And this is all bound up with the kosher (i.e. 'fitting') treatment of animals, as described in the Torah and rabbinic commentaries.

I interviewed Dr Williams on how Jesus would have regarded the subject of shechita. Of course, Jesus only ate kosher meat himself, as depicted in the Last Supper. This meal is generally regarded as having taken place at the Jewish Pesach festival, when a lamb was slaughtered in the designated fashion, in commemoration of G-d's instructions prior to the Exodus of the Children of Israel (i.e. the Jewish people) from Egypt to Israel. You can find these instructions described in the Book of Exodus.

This is what Dr Williams told me about Jesus and shechita:

"On shechita, of course Jesus must have been observing Kashruth, and there is no evidence of anything else. As I've often said, those who wax eloquent about the ethical problems of shechita would do better to focus on the barbarity of industrialised farming and mechanised slaughter - which I suspect Jesus might have had something to say about, especially as he commends his Jewish audience for rescuing trapped animals on Shabbat! A good instance, perhaps, of Jesus assuming that humane treatment of animals is compatible with shechita?"

But Jesus' injunction to prioritize the safeguarding of animals at all times is itself a quote from the Torah Book of Leviticus. This is a very important Jewish point about safeguarding the animals belonging to your enemies in order to protect the livelihoods of even those you dislike.

The verses from the New Testament are not based on an attack on 'Jewish legalism' which many Christians love to posit, in order to feel so terribly self-righteous themselves. Rather, this is a reiteration of what Jesus, if he was Jewish, must have imbibed at his mother's knee, together with his contemporaries. What Jesus is advocating is how to live life in a Jewish fashion. And as I understand it, he was not setting himself apart from the way of life which had nurtured him, but reinforcing it by word and by deed.

In other words, the concept of environmental responsibility and the connection between Jesus' sermon on caring for animals, given in Nazareth, and its basis in his knowledge and appreciation of its 100 per cent Jewish origins, based in Torah teachings around the theme of Shemittah, appeared to astonish the audience in Glasgow.

This is worth repeating, because at COP26, instead of apologizing and showing sympathy and compassion, the Minister for the Environment blamed his disabled Israeli counterpart when she was unable to access the venue with her wheelchair. This insult was the fault of the UN officials and the British Government. This is the same Government Minister who is known for his negative views on shechita and kosher slaughter.

A few years ago, I was asked by the Greater Manchester Bet Din (religious authorities) to translate from Hebrew a book on the details of shechita and other methods for one of the European governments who were looking into this issue. What really struck me at that time was that other methods of slaughter (i.e. non-kosher – the one preferred by the so-called animal rights lobby) are hideous in the extreme, as explained by Dr Williams above. They are nothing less than torture of animals.

I have talked to many adherents of vegetarianism and veganism in the State of Israel, which is the world's leader on these subjects. Without fail, their principal concern is the 'fitting' treatment of animals in one's care. As opposed to mass slaughter of animals in deleterious conditions, which is the norm for the rest of the world, kosher slaughter of animals is above all humane.

I have also discussed shechita with Israeli rabbinic experts known to be vegetarian or vegan. All said the same thing: shechita is the preferred and by far the most humane method of animal slaughter for those who aren't vegetarian or vegan. I received this message on many occasions from the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Shear Yashuv Cohen, who was for a long time the President of the Israeli Vegetarian and Vegan Society, as well as other rabbis, who either are vegetarian or are thinking of moving in that direction:

These rabbis all said the same thing: The prime object at all times is to look to the welfare of the animals in our care, as well as to safeguarding the environment.

The onus in Judaism has always been on kindness to animals. Animals should be fed before humans, looked after before humans, and of the Seven Noachide Laws incumbent on non-Jewish people, kindness to animals is paramount.

For those who would like to research the subject of Shechita, the essentials are clearly set out in easy-to-understand language by the organization Shechita UK.

So why has there been so much adverse reaction to the Jewish practice of shechita?

Here are some suggestions which I discussed earlier with Dr Williams.

Early Christian debates over Kashrut laws as reflected in the New Testament have often led to Christians simply seeing these laws as typical of what they call Old Testament 'legalism'.

Hence, there has been a lack of Christian understanding of the Jewish tradition of care and respect for the animal world.

Consequently, in the secular modern and post-Christian context, with a strongly emotional commitment to animal rights (in which human beings are often shockingly downgraded), ritual slaughter is seen both as an irrational superstition (perhaps an inherited echo of Christian attitudes to 'empty legalism'), and as a form of cruelty.

Sadly, some Christians are guilty of this type of lazy ideological thinking, but such prejudices can have far-reaching implications, including violence against Jews and worse.

Whether we are vegan, vegetarian, pescarian, or meat-eaters, to demean Jews is wrong, and to attack us for adhering to scripture and rabbinic commentaries is religious discrimination.

It seems that shechita has simply become a soft target for people who find it too difficult to challenge the more serious issues around animal welfare posed by industrial farming. 

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.