In one stroke, the activists simultaneously managed to sicken people with graphic images of animal carnage and enrage them about the practices of Jewish ritual slaughter, or shechita. To boot, the group promoted itself as the fearless and innovative champion of animal rights, prepared to stage clandestine operations to protect animal welfare.
To be sure, the spectacle that PETA's undercover cameras captured looked bloody, deadly, and inhumane. But while the end result of shechita of course allows the first two, it positively prohibits the third. Although I agree that AgriProcessors can do more to minimize animal suffering, the impression given by PETA's video--that shechita is inhumane--is completely false.
My area of expertise is Jewish values and ideas, not Jewish ritual slaughter. So I will not defend AgriProcessor's seemingly incomprehensible practice of removing the animal's trachea after its throat is slit, or the company's practice of using upside-down pens, in which the animal is held in the air by its feet, to facilitate the shechita. Apparently, the rabbinate in Israel insists on this method in order to ensure that the animal's throat is as open and accessible as possible, thereby providing for the smoothest cut which in turn minimizes the possible suffering to the animal.
However, I can state unequivocally that Jewish law requires AgriProcessors, like all kosher slaughterhouses, to do everything it can to reduce any animal suffering. And to that end, the rabbinical body that supervises the company, the Orthodox Union (O.U.), has been in consultation with them about making changes.
A close look at PETA's priorities reveals that its compassion begins and ends with animals. Its radical ideology goes far beyond concern for the welfare of animals to equate animal life with human life.
Arguably the most offensive example of the group's selective sensitivity was PETA's 2002 campaign "Holocaust on Your Plate," which juxtaposed gruesome scenes from Nazi death camps with photographs from factory farms and slaughterhouses. One pairing places a starving man in a concentration camp next to a starving cow.
Outside the Jewish world-and even among many non-observant Jews-Jewish dietary laws and specifically the laws of ritual slaughter are shrouded in ignorance or misinformation. In order to understand what they are seeing in the PETA videotape, then, viewers need to know the practices' deep religious roots.
In the Hebrew Bible, the prevention of any unnecessary pain to animals is one of the cornerstones of divine ethics. For millennia, unnecessary suffering of animals has been forbidden under strict principle of tzaar baalei hayyim, causing undue distress to living creatures. The ancient rabbis ruled that one must feed one's cattle before feeding oneself, and indeed even the Ten Commandments include domestic animals in the Sabbath rest.
Long ago, at the birth of the nation of Israel in the Sinai wilderness, G-d devised the dietary laws in the Bible as a means by which to wean human beings from their appetite for violence and aggression rather than for reasons of health or hygiene. In essence, the dietary laws (which also include laws pertaining to the eating of sea creatures and insects) mandate that a Jew can only consume those animals that chew their cud and have split hooves. Among birds, the Torah lists 24 prohibited types, all of which are birds of prey or scavengers. In addition, Jews are forbidden to eat the blood of birds and animals, and may only consume the flesh of an animal, which has been slaughtered from the neck.
Behind these laws is the divine imperative that human beings abhor the sight of blood, reject violence, and recoil from cruelty toward any of G-d's creatures. G-d is the Creator of life, man its guardian and protector. Yet the history of humankind is a history of violence, war, and blood sport, for which human beings have an innate propensity.
To be sure, human aggression has its place. Human beings are charged with purging the world of evil, which sometimes requires war. Brute human strength is also necessary in building civilizations--clearing land, tilling fields, and constructing buildings. G-d does not wish to purge humanity of its aggressiveness, only to channel it into a godly purpose.
As the architect of man, G-d therefore instituted laws whose purpose is to wean humans away from their fondness for gratuitous violence. Jewish law contains a code of conduct that purges man of his natural instinct for brutality and sadism.
The Jewish people's adherence to these laws and the abhorrence for blood that is inculcated through Jewish observance are the primary reasons that among the religions of the world, Judaism has always been the most docile and the most humane. There have never been Jewish crusaders or suicide bombers. Indeed, the three most famous Jewish wars of ancient times--the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus IV in 168-165 BCE, the Jewish Zealots' revolt against Rome in 66 CE, and the Bar Kochba revolt against Hadrian in 132-135 CE--were all fought to protect the Jews' right to practice their religion.
As a Jew, I find the biblical dietary laws far more therapeutic. Observing kashrut provides for the highest levels of self-control. Man does not merely tear the limb of an animal and eat it like a wild beast. In taking of the life of an animal, he is obligated to do so with humanity and sensitivity. Even as the animal is consumed in order to sustain human life, there is a recognition that it is likewise G-d's creature.