Just got this e-mail about the shehita fiasco. Below is the complete text, followed by my comments.
(Too long for the front page).
Note that this letter copied and pasted exactly as I received it, so the typos should have a [sic] next to them.
Erev Shabbat, Parshat Vayeshev
December 2, 2004
I am writing this letter to keep you informed about allegations made by
an animal rights group known as People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals (PETA) and what the Orthodox Union is doing in response to those
Earlier this week, PETA released an undercover video showing scenes of
cows staggering and bellowing in agony for several minutes after their
throats were cut by the shochet. PETA focused its attention on one
particular plant, AgriProcessors, Inc., but these accusations have
implications for all kosher shechita, particularly because the video has
received attention in the media world, beginning with an article in The
New York Times, on Tuesday, November 30th.
The Orthodox Union is very concerned about these accusations. We are
sensitive to the inhumane treatment of animals, and empathize with those
who are upset by the images of cruelty recorded on this video. As you
well know, the Jewish faith abjures cruelty to animals and enjoins us to
be as humane as possible in our legitimate utilization of animals. That
shechita is a very humane method of slaughtering animals has been
substantiated over the past century by numerous scholarly articles and
We are therefore carefully studying the video and reviewing the
procedures at the AgriProcessors plant. Meanwhile, an additional
supervisor has been put on duty at the facility in question, to monitor
that all proper kashrut and humane practices are being followed.
We wish to draw your attention to the following facts which help provide
a perspective on this matter for you and your congregants:
1. While unnecessary cruelty to even one animal is intolerable, one has
to look at the total picture before judging the matter. During the time
span that the video was taken, thousands of animals were slaughtered by
the plant in question. We have no way of knowing what percentage of that
number resulted in the kinds of scenes that were seen on the video.
Viewers of the video will note that it does show regular instances of
shechita where the animal expired rapidly, without the suffering observed
in other animals.
2. The United States Department of Agriculture supervises this
slaughterhouse and has found nothing amiss in its practices. We have a
very cooperative working relationship with the USDA, and know that USDA
officials visited the plant subsequent to the release of this video, and
were satisfied with the slaughtering that they scrutinized.
3. Slaughtering animals for human consumption is never a pretty sight.
An abattoir is obviously a place where one will see living, vibrant
animals transformed into meat. This is generally a bloody and unpleasant
experience, but this is universal. Indeed, PETA acknowledges that the
shechita process is better than most general slaughtering.
4. The Orthodox Union will not engage in maligning PETA in any way, nor
in questioning their motives. PETA and its adherents have a view of
animal rights to which they are entitled and which they can legitimately
espouse in a free and open society such as ours. We do, however, assert
that religious entities such as ours, or our Moslem cousins, also have
rights within a free society. Those rights, grounded in the U.S.
Constitution, include the ability to prepare animals for consumption in
the religiously prescribed manner.
5. We continue to vouch for the kashrut of all of the meat prepared by
AgriProcessors, which was never compromised. Like all the more than 6,000
plants–producing all kinds of foodstuffs–Wthat are certified by the OU, it
has always been under our regular supervision.
At this point the Orthodox Union:
a) is committed to maintaining the highest ritual standards of shechita
without compromising the halacha one whit. That being said, we will
strive to the best of our ability to see to it that any cruel or inhumane
practices, which are by definition separate from the shechita process
itself, do not occur;
b) is coordinating with other kashrut agencies, and rabbinic and communal
organizations, to assure the most effective response to this matter;
c) is preparing ~Stalking points~T which will be made available to members
of the Orthodox Union and the interested public;
d) will be placing educational materials regarding shechita on our
e) is proceeding with the good counsel of professional consultants and a
range of community leaders to effectively respond to the world-wide
concern about this matter.
Finally, we request that no one present himself to the press as an expert
on this matter, since several rabbinic figures have commented to the
press in ways that have confused the press and the public. Please refer
all such queries to Rabbi Menachem Genack, who heads OU Kashrut, at
212-613-8125, or to my office, 212-613-8264.
Of course, we remain open to input and suggestions from each of you.
I close with best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Chanukah.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Executive Vice President
I can see why this letter is necessary and how it’s supposed to diffuse the the situation, but I don’t think it works.
1. The argument to look at the “total picture” because ” we have no way of knowing what percentage of that
number resulted in the kinds of scenes that were seen on the video” is a little misleading. They are correct in that we only see a small clip of the video which essentially is only a microcosm of the entire operation.
However, we’re also dealing with a problem of “hezkat kashrut” – assuming the status quo that the shehita is valid. However, once we know that something is off, that calls into question the entire process. For example, when you check the knife for shehita it had a status as valid for slaughter. If you do shehita with this knife without checking it beforehand, you’re operating on the assumption that the knife is still valid. However, if you shecht 100 animals afterwards under the assumption that the knife is good, and then you see that the knife is invalid then all your slaughterings are retroactively suspect if not outright pasul.
2. This is immaterial. No one cares about what PETA says, nor should we after this campaign. The problem here isn’t the ethics of animals, but if the shehita from this place is kosher, and to a much larger extent, can we trust the mashgichim.
3. See 2.
4. See 2.
5. The questions here regarding the OU is who watches the watchmen. In other words, do they themselves still have a “hezkat kashrut”? They certainly don’t have the best track record when it comes to Rabbinic integrity.
I can understand and appreciate the “gag order” imposed in the last paragraph. What I find problematic is their explanation that, “several rabbinic figures have commented to the press in ways that have confused the press and the public.” First, these “figures” are better known as the chief rabbinate of Israel. They’re certainly entitled if not obligated to issue piskei halakha on such matters.
I can also appreciate not having a halakhic discussion hammered out in the press. Few people have looked at a Yoreh Deah let alone know what to do with it. Media being the way it is, misinformation is now instantly propagated worldwide. It was for this reason that R. Tendler wouldn’t discuss halakha in from of secular reporters. However, he still had a penchant for “confusing issues with facts.”
I think it’s clear that the OU is doing much needed damage control. The integrity of their entire kashrut certification is at stake, and this scandal may have ramifications for Jews worldwide.
To their immense credit – and a nice change from past experiences – the OU is admitting that something went wrong and is already taking steps to fix the problem. Even if you’re cynical of the OU’s motives, it’s still what needs to be done and the OU is doing it.
I’m hoping that in the near future the OU releases a press release/responsa of their own which should explain their position. This is an extremely sensitive and delicate issue, and the OU is doing its best it can under the circumstances.
I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. There too many half-truths floating around and I have no idea what the issues are. Certainly, everyone should just sit tight until the OU presents its side to the public.
If you don’t want to eat Lubavitch shehita in the meantime, that’s another story.
Shaya noted the irony of this letter being dated for parashat vayeshev. Rashi, citing Bereishit Rabba 84:7 on Gen. 37:2 notes that the “bad speech” Joseph brought to Jacob was regarding the brother’s negligence of ever min ha-hai. See also this derasha explaining the virture of ever min ha-hai is in patience.