On December 17, the Court of Justice of the European Union upheld Belgium’s ban on ritual slaughter (shechita for Jews and dhabīḥah for Muslims). In the name of animal rights, Belgium had required that animals be rendered unconscious prior to slaughter—a practice that runs counter to Jewish and Muslim law. Belgium's ban reflects a deficient understanding of religious tolerance. But it also reflects an overly narrow conception of what we owe to animals. The same Jewish law that has been deemed inhumane by the European Union does far more to prevent animal cruelty than Belgium’s law.
In Genesis, man is given dominion over the animals. But God qualifies and tells man that he gave “every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food” (Genesis 1:29). Man must be a vegetarian. The next verse similarly commands the animals to be herbivores.
Unlike vegetation, both man and animal are sentient life and it would be a violation of that sanctity to consume them. Man is superior to the animals because he is created in God’s image, but at this stage, no sentient life is to be slaughtered for food.
In the aftermath of the flood, God changes the relationship between man and animal, and declares that “Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these” (Genesis 9:3). Humans are now permitted to consume animals as they would vegetation. This comes with one caveat, that man “must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it” (9:4). This does not just mean that the animal must be dead prior to consumption. According to Jewish law, the verse also prohibits eating any limb severed prior to death (Maimonides, Laws of Kings and Wars, 9:1).
This dual prohibition gives two complementary messages. First, while humanity may now consume flesh, the animal’s life and welfare must be respected. The Bible similarly requires that animals be allowed to eat while working around food in the field (Deuteronomy 25:4). And at the end of the book of Jonah, God expresses concern for the welfare of animals as well as humans (4:11). Further, alleviating animal pain overrides certain Sabbath prohibitions (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 305:19).
Kosher slaughter addresses this concern as well. The cut must be in an area of the neck that has fewer pain nerves. The animal is killed with a swift, surgical cut with an unblemished, razor-sharp knife. The cut severs the trachea, esophagus, and carotid arteries so the animal quickly slips into death from blood loss. America’s 1958 Humane Slaughter Act, which also requires pre-slaughter electric shock, asserts, based on scientific research, that this type of ritual slaughter generates equivalent pain to pre-slaughter electric stunning. Slaughter must engender some animal pain and both methods adequately minimize it. And kosher slaughter is a quicker process. (Of course, the CJEU based its decision on other scientific evidence, which is indeed conflicting.)
God’s command to Noah, however, has a second critical message, and one that the CJEU ignores at its own peril. Were God merely concerned with animal pain, the Bible would have just prohibited the ripping off of animal limbs while the animal was alive. Instead, the Bible also prohibits consuming these limbs, even if they get amputated by accident. This prohibition is not about animal pain; rather, it forces man to reckon with the value of animal life. Once humans are allowed to eat meat, they must also have additional training to respect the life of the animal. The act of snuffing out animal life can lead to human cruelty, and this must be prevented.
Maimonides, the great medieval Talmudist and philosopher, explains “that it is prohibited to cut off a limb of a living animal and eat it, because such an act would produce and develop cruelty” (Guide for the Perplexed III:48). The prohibition is focused on training human character.
Other biblical laws along these lines are the prohibitions against slaughtering a mother and child animal on the same day (Leviticus 22:28) and the requirement of sending away the mother bird prior to collecting her eggs. These are not about animal welfare, but about inculcating human respect for animal life (Nachmanides, Deuteronomy 22:3).
Kosher slaughter similarly has a dual requirement. Not only must the animal be slaughtered in precise fashion; if it is killed in any other way, it may not be eaten. Jewish law, in fact, requires the butcher to see the loss of life (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah, chapter 17). This enables the slaughterer to fully appreciate what he is doing. He is taking a life. If he ignores the act that he is doing, he will first become indifferent to the death that he causes and eventually cruel. Stunning the animal before killing it allows the butcher to disregard the weightiness of his act.
The Talmud relates that
there was a certain calf that was being led to slaughter. The calf went and hung its head on the corner of Rabbi Judah the Prince’s garment and was weeping. Rabbi Judah the Prince said to it: Go, as you were created for this purpose. It was said in Heaven: Since he was not compassionate toward the calf, let afflictions come upon him (Baba Metzia 85a).
Rabbi Judah the Prince is permitted to slaughter livestock, but he is punished for his lack of compassion, which leads him to misunderstand the role of animals. Their purpose is not to be human food, but rather to “be fertile and increase on earth” (Genesis 9:17). The Bible requires that both man and animal increase their life on earth. Man may kill animals to support human life, like for food, shelter, and therapeutic medical experimentation. This permission, however, can never lead to cruelty. The animal must be slaughtered with care and compassion, while the slaughterer is fully aware of the seriousness of the act that he is performing.
For this reason, Jewish law prohibits hunting for sport, which degrades and harms animals (Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, Responsa Nodah bi-Yehudah [first series], Yoreh De'ah, #10). That the CJEU prohibits shechita, but has little problem with hunting for sport, highlights its moral hypocrisy. The E.U. is concerned with minimizing pain, but in the process allows the human character to become indifferent to the loss of animal life. The Bible, however, focuses on promoting life. Its precise instructions for kosher slaughter minimize animal pain while also ensuring that humans keep their indifference and cruelty at bay.
The CJEU certainly has much to learn about morality from the Bible—not just about the primacy of faith, but about the dignity of all creatures.
Rabbi Rafi Eis is the Executive Director at The Herzl Institute.
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