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Kosher Slaughter – Or Is It the Slaughter of Kashrus?

The outspoken rabbis of the Open Orthodox movement have a proven record of criticizing other Jews and Judaism in the public arena. Rabbis Avi Weiss and Marc Angel have repeatedly attacked the Rabbinical Council of America and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate in the non-Jewish media and in the non-Orthodox Jewish media (Avi Weiss’ January 29, 2014 attack on the Rabbanut in the New York Times was particularly egregious), and numerous disciples of these founders of Open Orthodoxy, all graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), have likewise attacked Orthodox rabbis and Jewish values in the most non-Orthodox of forums.

It therefore comes as no surprise that celebrity Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz (ordained by YCT is 2012), who is referred to as the “Social Justice Rav”and who is a diehard vegan, to the extent that he wishes there could bevegan tefillin, recently unleashed in the Wall Street Journal an attack on shechitah practices. In his May 29 article, “Why This Rabbi Is Swearing Off Kosher Meat – The reality of industrial slaughter is too far removed from traditional Jewish ethical values,” Yanklowitz writes:

“It pains me to say this, but given what I have learned in recent years, I cannot pretend anymore that kosher meat, poultry and dairy is any healthier or ethical than non-kosher food… As I learned about the reality of industrial kosher slaughter, however, I began to realize how far current practices of animal treatment and slaughter are from the traditional ethical values. I also found out that animals sent to kosher slaughterhouses are raised on the same cruel farms as those sent to non-kosher slaughter. As that reality sank in, I concluded that I would need to forgo the consumption of meat. I simply couldn’t spiritually separate what I was eating from the knowledge of its origin… The fact that the modern reality of industrial food production extends into kosher facilities – which are supposed to be held to the highest ethical standards of treatment – brings me embarrassment and shame as an Orthodox rabbi and as a Jew… Story after story continues to emerge about kosher-slaughterhouse scandals in Israel, the primitive method of ‘shackle-and-hoist’ used in kosher slaughter, and the lack of standards for decent treatment… One particularly disturbing loophole in USDA regulation that was brought to light in late 2013 relates to the horrible mistreatment of sick and injured calves. Downed calves, or calves that are too sick or injured to rise to their feet, should be immediately euthanized, rather than being brought to slaughter, according to the USDA. However, some slaughterhouses have exploited a loophole in the regulation by shocking, kicking, lifting calves by their tails and ears, or dragging the calves by chains to bring them to slaughter. The Humane Society of the United States filed a legal complaint and forced the USDA to investigate this cruelty, after taking a video at a slaughterhouse – one that does kosher slaughter – in New Jersey. It is time the USDA starts forcefully regulating this industry to prevent these cases of shocking and violent cruelty… I pray for a day when the kosher meat and dairy industries respect the sentience of the animal and venerate the divine in creation.”   

Yanklowitz, who prides himself as a humanitarian and a compassionate Jew, and who is quite worldly, is most certainly aware of the history of shechitah bans in Europe and the current attempts to ban shechitah in those European countries that allow it, where anti-Semites use animal cruelty reasons as the basis for their bans. And despite this, Yanklowitz tells the entire world via the Wall Street Journal that shechitah conditions are cruel and that he, as a rabbi, condemns current shechitah operations. Yanklowitz’s article provided more fodder to anti-shechitah forces globally than they could have ever dreamt of. They can now claim that even a famous Orthodox rabbi and ethicist has shared with the world the evils of shechitah.

If Yanklowitz is so concerned about current shechitah practices, would it not have made sense to go directly to those in charge and seek to make changes? Why did Yanklowitz not go to the major kashrus agencies and the rabbonim machshirim in his quest for better conditions and treatment? Was going to one of the most popular non-Jewish international media outlets the best way to deal with internal concerns about shechitah conditions?

Furthermore, Yanklowitz confused kosher and non-kosher practices in a major way. As Rabbi Menachem Genack of the OU wrote in a rebuttal letter to the Wall Street Journal:

“The example that Rabbi Yanklowitz brings of downed calves – calves that are too sick or injured to rise to their feet – if anything, demonstrates that kosher slaughter is more stringent than USDA rules. Under USDA regulations, certain downers, as these animals are called, may not be slaughtered, and Rabbi Yanklowitz cites the loophole that slaughterhouses exploit by shocking or lifting the calves to bring them to slaughter. To the extent that these abuses exist, they don’t involve animals slated for kosher slaughter. Under Jewish law, no downer is kosher, period.”

Rabbi Genack added:“If Rabbi Yanklowitz chooses no longer to eat kosher meat, that is his choice. To declare kosher slaughter inhumane and unethical should not be his choice. Quite simply, the assertion is untrue.”

Another very disturbing aspect of Yanklowitz’s article is his statement that “I am committed to Jewish law in general and kashrut in particular as a means of bringing ethical and spiritual consciousness to food consumption.”

Whereas our commitment to kashrus is due to being commanded by Hashem to keep kosher, Yanklowitz’s commitment seems to flow from ethical and spiritual goals attained by keeping kosher. This attitude fits with previous a previous hashkafic statement by Yanklowitz: “For me, halakhah is not about blind irrational submission but about intentional transformation (tikkun atzmi, tikkun kehilla, tikkun medina, tikkun olam). Halakha literally translates as ‘progress.’ While it’s deeply rooted in the past and guided by core Torah values, it’s primarily future looking to help solve societal problems, bring holiness into our lives, and cultivate the ethical personality.”

While we admire Yanklowitz’s desire to elevate the world and achieve tikkun olam, we also assert that we observe the mitzvos because the Ribbono Shel Olam commanded them, and not for sublime social or ethical messages associated with them. Yanklowitz’s stance on the role of mitzvos is a major departure from traditional Torah ideology.

Yanklowitz is the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, the social justice organization responsible for a boycott of Agriprocessors/Rubashkin and for drawing public attention to the company’s alleged misdeeds shortly before its prosecution and shutdown. Uri L’Tzedek is also known for its Tav Hayosher “ethical certification” seal, awarded (for pay) to food establishments (that are not necessarily kosher) which meet Uri L’Tzedek’s standards for workers’ rights and treatment. The truth is that Tav Hayosher lacks the legal experts, trained inspectors and access to records that are the nuts and bolts of the type of regulatory program it purports to run. Rather, Tav Hayosher consists of an untrained social action crew with amateur and informal procedures, lacking legal standing and proficiency.

Although the Tav Hayosher seal looks very much like a hechsher, customers should beware that the seal has nothing to do with kashrus and has no official or enforceable status as to anything else, and storeowners should beware that by retaining Tav Hayosher “certification,” they are playing into an amateur social action agenda with affiliations that may cause them to think twice.

The most recent Uri L’Tzedek activities focus on Rockland County, where Uri L’Tzedek is publicly petitioning New York State to provide oversight for the East Ramapo school board, which consists of many Orthodox Jews, and which Uri L’Tzedek alleges is working to the disadvantage of the local public school population. Why Uri L’Tzedek has again chosen to very publicly go after Orthodox Jews, rather than privately meet to express any concerns, is baffling and very disturbing.    

Open Orthodox social “justice” leaves much to be desired.