This week’s parsha, Re’eh, discusses the mitzvah of shechita, the ritual slaughter of animals.(1) While there is certainly much to say about how modern secular governments view shechita, this post will focus on a different, but related point: the nature of halacha‘s concern for the humane treatment of animals during slaughter, and its contrast to the general philosophy of the modern “animal rights” movement.
In a recent decision, a Washington appeals court dismissed a lawsuit brought by an animal sanctuary challenging a state statute that permits religious ritual slaughter.(2) The statute in question, nearly identical to the Federal Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act,(3) declares that “the slaughter of all livestock . . . shall be carried out only by humane methods . . . .”(4) It then defines “humane method” as:
“(a) A method whereby the animal is rendered insensible to pain by mechanical, electrical, chemical or other means that is rapid and effective, before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast or cut; or (b) a method in accordance with the ritual requirements of any religious faith whereby the animal suffers loss of consciousness by anemia of the brain caused by the simultaneous and instantaneous severance of the carotid arteries with a sharp instrument.”(5)
The statute then emphasizes that “[n]othing in this chapter shall be construed to prohibit, abridge, or in any way hinder the religious freedom of any person or group. Notwithstanding any other provisions of this chapter, ritual slaughter and the handling or other preparation of livestock for ritual slaughter is defined as humane.”(6) Violation of the statute is a criminal offense.(7)
The plaintiff, Pasado’s Safe Haven, sought to have the provisions permitting religious slaughter declared unconstitutional and stricken from the statute. The court, however, dismissed the complaint for two reasons. First, deleting those provisions would fundamentally alter the statute’s meaning and bring about a result that the legislature never intended. Second, striking the parts that permit ritual slaughter would result in such conduct being defined as inhumane and criminalized. Since the authority to define crimes belongs to the legislature, not the judiciary, the court rejected the plaintiff’s arguments.
The legal victory for ritual slaughter is certainly comforting to kashrus-observers, and, as Orthodox organizations have done,(8) we must applaud the Washington court for its ruling. Still, despite the fact that at least some in secular society continue to recognize shechita as “humane,” as observant Jews we must ensure that we maintain a Torah-based perspective of the mitzvah of shechita and a true understanding of why the Torah prohibits cruel treatment of animals. (For more on tza’ar ba’alei chayim, see this earlier post.)
Our sages point out that the purpose of the commandment of shechita––as well as every other mitzvah––is to perfect man by instilling within him proper character traits.(9) The Torah mandates that slaughter be performed in a compassionate manner to ensure that even when engaged in killing a living creature for human necessity, one still refrains from cruel behavior.(10)
Furthermore, the notion that the mitzvos are designed to perfect mankind contains another, perhaps more subtle aspect that may be easily forgotten in this age of “animal rights.” The Torah states that one who desires to take a young bird from the presence of its mother must first send away the mother bird.(11) Although the rationale behind this mitzvah may appear to be the desire to spare the mother the anguish of seeing her children taken away, our Sages tell us otherwise.(12)
As Ramban explains, the Torah requires us to refrain from harming animals not because of an overriding concern for their welfare. If that were so why should the slaughter of animals be permitted at all? Rather, we must show compassion for living beings because God demands that we not allow cruelty to guide our behavior. Thus, there is a vast contrast between the theory underlying the “animal rights” movement and halacha‘s concern for the humane treatment of animals. The former seeks to blur the lines between humans and animals by asserting that animals should be treated like people.(13) The Torah, on the other hand, draws a distinction between man and beast: man must overcome any animalistic tendencies of cruelty. In other words, we care for animals not because they are human-like, but because man must not become animal-like in his ways.
(1) See Devarim [Deuteronomy] 12:21; Sefer HaChinuch § 451.
(5) Id. § 16.50.110.
(6) Id. § 16.50.150.
(9) See Bereishis Rabbah 44:1; Ramban, Devarim 22:6.
(10) Ramban, ad loc.
(11) Devarim 22:6-7.
(12) See Berachos 33b.
(13) See Encyclopedia Britannica: Animal Rights.