Should Europeans outlaw ritual slaughter for meat practiced by Judaism and Islam as cruelty to animals?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
With such unprecedented political mayhem, Americans can be forgiven for barely noticing important events overseas. The Guy, who believes threats to religious freedom warrant especially close attention, highlights a December 17 ruling by the Court of Justice, the highest tribunal in the European Union (which covers 27 member nations with the departure of Great Britain).
The decision, on referral from Belgium’s Constitutional Court, approved a regional statute mandating that animals be stunned before they are slaughtered for meat. This requirement directly pits animal-welfare advocates against Judaism and Islam, in which longstanding tradition allows observant believers to eat only meat from ritual slaughter, which forbids such stunning. European Jews and Muslims plan to appeal the decision, which could influence policies in other nations.
The court acknowledged that religious liberty is important, but on balance stated that the crackdown in Belgium occurs in “an evolving societal and legislative context which is characterized by an increasing awareness of the issue of animal welfare.” Several European nations already require stunning before slaughtering. (In the United States, statutes require stunning but allow for religious exemptions.)
Adding to the emotions in Europe, this dispute brings to mind that in 1933 Germany’s new Nazi-influenced regime prohibited Jewish slaughter on grounds of the stunning problem. More recently, this argument has been employed by Islamophobes.
The Conference of European Rabbis, which represents believers in 40 nations, said such prohibitions “put Jewish life at risk.” Omer Yankelevitch, a member of Israel’s parliament and the government diaspora affairs minister, wrote similarly in the Jerusalem Post last week. He said the European Union is violating freedom of religion and “harms the viability of Jewish communities in Europe,” so intense diplomatic efforts will be undertaken to respect the age-old observance.
Those who enjoy eating meat may give barely a thought to the methods used to produce it, although perhaps some reflected on this reality when COVID outbreaks brought attention to slaughterhouse conditions. Stunning is intended to make the animal unconscious so it does not suffer when the killing then occurs. The two common methods are shooting a metal bolt into the brain or electrocution using electrodes clamped on the head and heart.
Jewish slaughter (shechita) is equally intended to limit the animal’s suffering. To make meat kosher, a well-trained executioner must use a razor-sharp knife to cut all together the windpipe, esophagus and carotid arteries and cause immediate death. Slaughter must be performed by a person, not machines. Islam, which arose later, has an elaborate code that follows the same basic procedure to make meat halal (“permissible”). In practice, some Muslims are more flexible about obeying this rule than observant Jews.
Why not accept stunning of the animal before applying the knife? Orthodox Jewish writers explain the following.
The problem is Jewish law’s insistence that the animal must be healthy and uninjured when slaughter occurs. If not, the meat is treif (non-kosher and prohibited for eating). Stunning unquestionably inflicts injury upon the animal. And if the stunning kills the animal, then kosher rules forbid food from animals that are already dead before slaughter.
Jews also worry that the animal may regain consciousness between the stunning and the cutting, which can cause acute pain and which they contend is less humane than cutting alone. They cite studies that claim the animal does not apparently feel the swift cutting by a trained knife-wielder and thus meets the humane rationale for stunning.
Writing in the interfaith First Things magazine, Rabbi Rafi Reis of Jerusalem’s Herzl Institute says biblical Judaism seeks to alleviate animal pain, for instance banning the slaughter of a mother and her child on the same day (Leviticus 22:28). All slaughter methods can cause some pain that all want to minimize, he writes, but the kosher process is quicker.
Why must the killing done by hand and by a person, not a machine? “This enables the slaughterer to fully appreciate” that he is taking a life, whereas “stunning the animal before killing it allows the butcher to disregard the weightiness of his act.” The kosher procedure ensures that “humans keep their indifference and cruelty at bay.”
Jews also accuse the European Union jurists of moral hypocrisy because their ruling explicitly states there’s no problem with “the killing of animals in the context of hunting.” Jewish law, by contrast, prohibits hunting for sport, as opposed to killing animals if meat is needed for sustenance, because this “degrades and harms animals,” Reis contends.
Then again, Febe Armanios of Middlebury College, co-author of “Halal Food: A History,” notes, as The New York Times put it, “that there simply is no truly humane slaughter.” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is using the occasion to promote vegetarian diets. On that, Jewish authors note the biblical Book of Genesis records that in the paradise of Eden, plants were the only food provided. God permitted people to eat meat only as a concession after the disastrous Flood of Noah.