Just Injustice


As we draw nearer to the High Holy Days and lists of classes, seminars and workshops pop up on synagogues’ bulletins and Web sites, a saying of a very wise man comes to mind. He said that it is easier to study Talmud for 70 consecutive years than to change one character trait. In this week’s parsha, Ki Tetze, this concept is taken to the extreme. Anyone who reads the opening chapter of the parsha with a 21st-century mentality is utterly shocked by the seemingly atavistic and even barbaric attitude the Torah shows.

One is the case of the captive woman, in which the Torah allows soldiers to bring home captive enemy women and marry them. The second example is that of the rebellious son, in which the Torah sanctions the death penalty for a teenager who does not obey his parents and engages in hedonistic activities.

How can the Torah, people ask, be so cruel toward the captive women or the rebellious son? Wouldn’t it be better to ban the practice of capturing women for marriage and to find a way to settle the differences of the rebellious son and his parents without using the electric chair?

The answer is that there is no other way, because human nature is not easily changed. In the captive woman’s case there is recognition of the tremendously detrimental effect going to war has on our morals and values. The absolute power of having the ability to determine who shall live and who shall die, can absolutely corrupt the soldier’s soul, be it the most innocent, pure and tender soul ever. Throughout the ages, conquering armies the world over raped, tortured and killed civilians, wreaking havoc in their path, and that trend doesn’t seem likely to change in the future (remember Abu Ghraib, Haditha, etc.).

Instead of trying to uproot this tendency, the Torah goes around it. It allows the soldier to bring the captured woman back home and to marry her after she mourns her parents for a month. No longer in the heat of the battle, experiencing for a whole month the agony of his captive — and maybe also having to face his wife-to-be’s wrath — tying the knot doesn’t seem like such a good idea. Then the Torah tells the disappointed soldier to let the woman go free, not to sell her and not to cause her any more suffering. So what seemed to be a license to inhumane behavior turns out to be a genuine concern about morality and human dignity.

The case of the rebellious son plays out on a totally different level, where the Torah actually tricks the parents into revealing their personal lives to the court. Consider for a moment that these parents are willing to bring their child to justice for being a glutton, binging and maybe talking back to them (“Don’t you use that tone with me, young man!”), and demand for him the death penalty. What would have happened if they did not have that option? Their child would probably join the statistics of hundreds of thousands of kids who are reported annually as physically, sexually and emotionally abused by their parents. If the court would not execute him for them, the parents were probably capable of doing it themselves. And what child would want to live with parents like these?

The solution the Torah presents us with is brilliant in its simplicity. The parents are told that they can bring their defiant teenage son to court, where he will receive his punishment. The judges, meanwhile, find myriad reasons to reject the parents’ plea; a procedure the rabbis solidified by setting rules that require the parents to look alike, talk in sync and more. As a result, there was never an execution, God forbid, of a rebellious child. But the untold part of the verdict, which had to remain hidden from the public lest it lose its power, is that the court would take custody of the child and relieve him of his dreadful parents. Thus the Torah established the first family service system with an extremely sophisticated filter — the parents themselves. In that manner the Torah avoids the all-too-familiar problem of social workers, who forcefully separate families because of fraudulent reports or misjudging families of a lower socioeconomic level.

In both cases, what seemed a preposterous violation of human rights turns out to be an attempt to bypass our negative character traits in order to provide immediate remedy. The quest to actually change those traits is lifelong and one that it should never be too late to embark on.

Haim Ovadia is now the rabbi of Congregation Magen David of Beverly Hills.

PETA says Agriprocessors misled rabbis about slaughter procedures [VIDEO]


PETA slams N.Y. kapparot ritual [VIDEO]



PETA anti-kapporot video

NEW YORK (JTA) — For the second year, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has complained about the High Holy Days ritual of swinging a chicken over one’s head, a sin-transference ceremony.

In a letter sent Monday to the New York agriculture department’s Kosher Law Enforcement division, PETA alleges that thousands of dead chickens were thrown away after the ritual last year in one Brooklyn center. The letter singles out the kapparot center run in Crown Heights by Rabbi Shea Hecht and asks the state to investigate whether consumer fraud occurred. Jews who bought chickens for the ritual expected the birds “to be processed for meat that would be distributed as tzedakah,” or charity, the letter states.

Last summer’s complaint to the state and city was more wide ranging, alleging a variety of health and safety violations as well as animal cruelty. It spurred a meeting of more than a dozen rabbis in Brooklyn, and they sent out directives to kapparot centers saying they needed full-time rabbinic supervision.

A related letter was submitted to the Kashrus Information Center, an independent association of more than 100 rabbis that monitors kosher affairs in Brooklyn. Rabbi Moshe Weiner, the Kashrus center’s rabbinic administrator, said that Hecht’s site and others operated by communal organizations are well run. While there have been problems in the past from “fly-by-night” kapparot centers, Weiner said proactive steps taken by rabbis last year significantly cut down on such problems.

Kosher Slaughter Controversy Erupts


It’s not every day that people affiliated with a strident animal rights group talk turkey with those who oversee kosher slaughter.

But that’s exactly what happened this week, when an unpaid adviser to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) discussed allegations of improper slaughtering practices at an Iowa kosher meat plant with the head of the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division.

Tuesday’s late-afternoon talks involving Aaron Gross, a doctoral student at UC Santa Barbara, and Rabbi Menachem Genack were the latest development in a story that has placed the slaughter practices at Agriprocessors Inc. in Postville, Iowa, under question.

They came one day after PETA filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The complaint alleges that the plant is violating Jewish law by not instantly killing the animals, and therefore is violating U.S. slaughter laws, which allow for Jewish ritual slaughter.

The telephone discussion between PETA and the Orthodox Union ended in an impasse, participants said.

The controversy, which has alarmed some Orthodox institutions, is being seen as the most widely publicized dispute over kosher slaughter in the United States in a decade.

At issue is an undercover video taken by PETA-affiliated individuals over a seven-week period between July and September of this year. The video shows animals being slaughtered at the Agriprocessors plant, which processes meat for the Rubashkin/Aaron’s Best label. One of the plant’s supervisors is the Orthodox Union, a major supervisor of kosher food in the United States.

In the video, one slaughterer cuts a cow’s throat, resulting in extensive bleeding, while another takes the trachea out. Other clips show cows running around which appear to be alive after the killing is presumably completed.

“This not how shechitah is supposed to be done,” Tal Ronnen, a spokesman for the Norfolk, Va.-based PETA, said, using the Hebrew term for ritual slaughter. “If it’s done correctly, the animal is supposed to be dead in 30 seconds to one minute.”

Orthodox officials, while admitting the video isn’t pretty, don’t agree, saying that reflexive movements by animals after they are slaughtered are not uncommon.

“We thought it was in consonance with the halachah,” Genack said after viewing the video.

PETA first raised the issue with Agriprocessors in June, after being tipped off to allegations of improper procedures inside the plant. In an exchange of letters, PETA raised objections and asked that an expert on slaughter be allowed to witness the process.

Agriprocessors responded through its attorney, Nathan Lewin, who said he asked for more specifics. PETA said it followed up with that request, but Lewin said he never received the second letter. PETA said that after it did not get a response from Lewin, it pursued the undercover investigation.

On Monday, PETA filed a complaint with the USDA, complaining that government regulations were not being followed at Agriprocessors. It sought suspension of the plant’s license and possible criminal proceedings.

PETA’s letter to the USDA detailed what it called violations of the 1902 Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act. The letter claimed that by violating halachic procedures, the company was violating the legislation, under which animals can be killed according to Jewish law.

Steven Cohen, a USDA spokesman, confirmed the agency had received the PETA letter, but said it was waiting to review the video before deciding how to handle the complaint.

Genack said he had discussed the issue with USDA officials, and is confident that government guidelines are being followed satisfactorily.

For its part, Agriprocessors released a statement this week saying it follows the practices set out by its kosher supervisors.

“Agriprocessors does not control anything that happens in the kosher ritual processes,” the statement said. “We adhere strictly to the instructions given to us by the rabbinic authorities and will continue to do so. As we always have, we will also continue to follow the strict guidelines set out by both federal and Jewish law for the humane treatment of animals during the slaughter process.”

One expert in slaughtering practices, who reported that she has visited 30 kosher slaughtering plants, said that from what she can tell from the video, the practices at Agriprocessors are poor.

“I’ve never seen trachea removal before,” Temple Grandin, an associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University, said in a telephone interview.

“Nobody else cuts out the trachea, and they’re doing it while the animal is still conscious,” said Grandin, who was the expert PETA had wanted to have access to the plant.

Orthodox Union officials said that the animal is unconscious after the throat is slit. Some Orthodox officials called PETA’s campaign an attack on shechitah more generally and part of a history of anti-Semitic canards.

“Shechitah often comes under attack by elements that are unsavory, and in general, PETA is not an organization that commands our great respect,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox organization.

He and others noted that the Nazis publicized photographs of Jews performing cruel slaughter practices as part of their campaign to inflame sentiment against Jews.

“We’ll put them on the wall with Hitler,” Nathan Lewin, an Orthodox Jew and a lawyer for Agriprocessors, said, referring to PETA. “The PETA folks might not like eggs, but they have eggs all over their face.”

Lewin, citing a 1997 judgment in which the American Broadcasting Co. was ordered to pay $5.5 million to the Food Lion supermarket chain following an investigative piece that alleged food safety violations, suggested that PETA could be subject to legal action.

PETA is known for its aggressive tactics in promoting its animal rights agenda. The group generated controversy last year when it compared the meat industry to the Holocaust.

In another one of its more controversial campaigns, it displayed ads a few years ago with the phrase, “Got prostate cancer?” and showing Rudolph Giuliani, the then-New York City mayor who had been recently diagnosed with the disease. The billboards also included the line: “Drinking milk contributes to prostate cancer.”

But in this case, PETA is presenting a more moderate face. Those affiliated with PETA said the group is not going after kosher slaughter but just those practices underway at Agriprocessors. Further, they said, PETA is sensitive to issues of anti-Semitism.

“PETA has gone out of its way” to avoid anti-Semitism, and agrees that shechitah, when properly practiced, is a “better procedure than general meat industry practices,” Gross said.

Gross, who describes himself as a liberal but active Jew — and a member of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America’s advisory committee — said he became involved in the issue after the exchange of letters with Lewin failed.

Kosher consumers extend across the Jewish community, but the issue generated an immediate response among those active in the Orthodox community. Participants at the Agudath Israel of America’s annual convention voted unanimously Sunday to condemn PETA’s attack.

When Rabbi David Zwiebel, an Agudath official, announced at the conclusion of the conference that the issue was going to hit The New York Times, “you could hear the murmurings,” Shafran said. “The hands just shot up for the vote. It was unanimous with gusto.”