Judaism may have a rich tradition of kindness to animals, but Paul Shapiro sees a disconnect between biblical and talmudic imperatives and the current status quo on factory farms, where 95 percent of all animal products are produced, including kosher meat.
“Animals on factory farms are treated as if they are not God’s creatures but units of production on an assembly line,” said Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States. “Most people don’t think about where their food comes from, and if they do, they envision Old MacDonald’s Farm, where cows are grazing in a pasture and chickens run around.
“But the vast majority of farm animals are subjected to extreme cruelty that few of us would want to bear witness to.”
He described chickens “crammed into cages so small they cannot even move around” and “animals that have body parts cut off without anesthesia, including genitals,” as standard practices.”
Shapiro will address Factory Farming, Judaism, and Animal Welfare on Friday, Jan. 11, at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield. He will speak at a vegan dinner following kabalat Shabbat services, which begin at 6 p.m.
In a phone conversation with NJJN, Shapiro discussed what is wrong with current standards, how kashrut as practiced today is failing animal welfare, and whether there are alternatives for observant Jews.
Shapiro pointed to Genesis 1:29, where God makes a concession after the flood, allowing people to eat meat. But Shapiro added, “There is an intricate set of rules on how it is to be done, refined further in the Talmud.” These regulations often have as their aim kindness toward animals.
Other passages have little to do with food, he said, but make it “difficult to argue that God was unconcerned with the suffering of animals.” There are, for example, rules that prohibit an ox and a donkey from threshing in pairs, farmers from covering the mouths of their plow animals in the field, handlers from injuring animals before they are slaughtered, and all humans from eating the flesh of an animal while it is still alive.
“These were among the first such regulations that existed,” Shapiro said.
Efforts to hold kosher and non-kosher companies to higher ethical standards are not an attempt to apply fashionable standards to age-old practices, he said.
“We are not talking about new concepts. Really, we are just reinvigorating the concept of tza’ar ba’alei chaim” — the mitzva forbidding cruelty to animals — “and taking it more seriously than agribusiness does,” he said.
For those concerned about placing animals on a pedestal, he added, “We do not have to accept that animals are our moral equals to accept that we should be kind and compassionate toward them. We are not worshiping them; we are treating those at our mercy with a modicum of mercy.”
On the contrary, it is “playing God” to re-engineer animals to meet our needs. As a result of selective breeding and growth-promoting drugs, he said, “chickens have difficulty walking because of their massive structure.”
“In a sense, this is the opposite of what God intended.”
While many in the observant Jewish community suggest that kashrut is the most humane method of slaughter, Shapiro, who lives in Washington, DC, and attends the Reform Washington Hebrew Congregation, questions the assumption.
“At the time kashrut was developed, that may have been the case. Back then, it was not out of the norm for people to rip body parts from the animals and eat them while still alive, so kashrut was certainly an improvement,” he said.
He cited videos that show that animals suffer “incredible abuse” during kosher slaughter.
Moreover, he pointed out, “99 percent of the animal’s life has nothing to do with kashrut. We don’t want an animal to be tortured throughout its life and then killed quickly. At the time kashrut standards were developed, there was no factory farming; it was all agricultural.”
There are alternatives to the status quo, he said. The easiest to carry out is simply to eat less meat.
Beyond that, there are several movements afoot to make the kosher industry more humane. Some small companies, including KOL and Grow and Behold, raise animals on farms where they are grass-fed and roam freely. Shapiro approves.
Shapiro is not among fans of the “hechsher tzedek,” a new seal of approval created by the Conservative movement to address standards of humane treatment and social justice. Beyond workers’ rights, “It doesn’t change much; rather, it codifies typical factory farming practices. The so-called animal welfare practices are voluntary and written by the industries,” he said.
Shapiro remains optimistic. Jews, like women, are “over-represented” in the animal rights movement. “Jews are sensitive to the argument that ‘Might makes right’ is not right. We do not have a license to dominate or to subject animals to any amount of suffering or violence or cruelty,” he said.
“This is just not a situation a merciful God would smile upon.”