April 20, 2006
Video Takes Bite Out of Kosher Slaughter
Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the best-selling novel, "Everything Is Illuminated" (Houghton Mifflin, 2002) and last year's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (Houghton Mifflin) released a video earlier this month in which he argues that the slaughtering practices employed by modern factory farms are out of step with the spirit of the kosher laws. The film ultimately calls upon viewers to consider vegetarianism.
The video, which features interviews with noted Rabbis David Wolpe and Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, was written by Foer and produced under the auspices of the animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Both a 25-minute version of the film and an abbreviated version have been posted at the PETA-sponsored Web site, www.HumaneKosher.com.
Titled, "If this is Kosher...," the video is likely to re-ignite the debate begun at the end of 2004, when PETA released a stomach-turning video clandestinely shot at AgriProcessors, the world's largest glatt kosher slaughterhouse, in Postville, Iowa. The undercover video, which recorded seemingly conscious cows limping and stumbling across a blood-soaked slaughterhouse floor, often more than a minute after their throats had been slit, sparked an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Last month, the USDA released a report calling a number of the practices caught on the tape inhumane. By the time of the report's release, the offending practices had been stopped.
Though it employs some footage from PETA's 2004 video, Foer's film is free of the overheated rhetoric and gimmickry often associated with the animal rights group, which launched a campaign in 2003 juxtaposing images of slaughterhouses with Nazi concentration camps. The author's call to action, which he makes seated before a bookcase full of what appear to be law books, is offered in cool, measured and often personal tones.
"To be Jewish," he says, "is to strive to make the world less cruel and more just -- not only for oneself and not only for one's people but for everyone. One doesn't have to consider animals as equal to humans -- I don't -- to give them a place in this inspiring idea."
To help buttress his argument that the Jewish conception of life is an exalted one and that ideally it should inform the way in which the laws of kashrut are observed, Foer introduces testimony from Wolpe, the religious leader of Westwood's Sinai Temple, and Greenberg, a liberal Orthodox rabbi and renowned theologian who once served as chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.
"The Torah makes clear that the very permission to eat meat is an exemption; it's a compromise," says Greenberg, now the president of the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation. "Kosher is not just a technicality. It's based on reverence for life, and therefore a kosher process that is cruel is truly a violation."
In his testimony, Wolpe argues: "Kashrut is an attempt to moderate, to make more gentle, our savagery toward the natural world."
"Kashrut is saying that if you must eat meat, then you must do it in the most empathetic, kind, gentle way possible," he says, adding, "to call something kosher when at the same time you're subverting the very purpose of kashrut is a powerful violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the law."
The film has two sets of goals: one narrow, one broad. It seeks on the one hand to take to task those allegedly responsible for Postville's failings. Here Foer singles out the family that owns the plant, the Rubashkins, and the Orthodox Union (OU), the country's leading certifier of kosher products. But the film also offers a broader call to action, one rooted in vegetarianism. In the film, Greenberg, Wolpe and Foer all discuss their decision to become vegetarians.
"Like most people, I grew up thinking that meat eating was not only normal but healthy," Foer says early in the film. "[But] as I was exposed to information and arguments about animal suffering and human responsibility, I became a vegetarian. It's been more than 15 years, and I consider this dietary choice -- which I make anew with each meal, and often against my cravings -- to be one of the cornerstones of my ethical life."
In making the film, Foer follows in the footsteps of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a famed vegetarian who once wrote that "for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka." Singer's portrait is said to hang in Foer's study.
The film has not been without its early critics.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, rabbinic administrator of the OU's kashrut division, said that though he was moved by Foer's conviction, the film was unfair in its treatment of the OU's role in the Postville affair. The film, he said, did not capture the nuance of the OU's position, which was not one of simple allegiance to the Iowa plant. Genack also argued that the film failed to note that all of the concerns voiced about the plant by the USDA have been addressed.
"Video taken at any slaughterhouse would be gruesome," Genack said. "It's inherent to the process. There's no method of sanitizing it."
Genack maintained that he must strike a very delicate balance -- among USDA regulations, rabbinic law and the economics of the meat industry.
"We'd be failing our constituency if we didn't provide affordable kosher meat," he said.
Foer, for his part, sees grounds for optimism. "For some reason," he said in an interview posted on the HumaneKosher Web site, "I hold in the back of my mind that everybody I know is going to be a vegetarian in 20 years. That's something I really believe."
Foer will kick off the "People of the Book Festival" with a lecture and book signing at UCLA Hillel, 574 Hilgard Ave., Westwood, on Monday, April 24, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. For information, call (213) 740-3405.
Gabriel Sanders is a writer living in New York. This article originally ran in the Forward.