(The following was written by H. van den Belt, and appeared on 4 April 2011 in Reformatorisch Dagblad. Translated by Nelson D. Kloosterman.)
In The Netherlands thousands of animals are killed each year by ritual slaughter. The carotid artery is slit while the animal is still conscious. The Animal Rights Party is protesting this practice and wants the practice banned. [The Dutch name is Partij voor de Dieren, or Party for the Animals, but the English service of Radio Netherlands Worldwide uses the title Animal Rights Party.] According to party leader Marianne Thieme, freedom of religion ends at the point where animal suffering begins.
The leader of the Animal Rights Party has a point. Unnecessary animal suffering should be prevented. She gives her cause an ideological cast, however, and for that reason orthodox Christians should be very alert.
Of course freedom of religion is not without limits. Child sacrifice is prohibited. Nevertheless, something is getting twisted when centuries-old liberties are set aside because people today find certain religious customs indecent or inhumane.
The fight against ritual slaughtering is not isolated. An organization of Dutch physicians seeks to discourage circumcising baby boys because the practice supposedly conflicts with the principle of bodily integrity. Several critics even call circumcision genital mutilation, as though the issue involved female circumcision. It is dangerous when society begins to dominate the consciences of believers on the basis of vague ideas about common decency. In that context it is especially the religious motives that become the focal point. You never hear anything about attacking bodily integrity when girls have their ears pierced.
The question of ritual slaughtering is complicated by the tension between unnecessary animal suffering and kosher eating. It is a pressing question how the freedom for ritual slaughter belongs to the freedom of religion, and whether animal suffering is a serious enough reason to restrict that freedom.
Some Christians have a quick reply: Christ has fulfilled the ceremonial law and therefore ritual slaughtering is wrong. But that is a mistake. Ritual slaughtering did not originate in the Old Testament sacrificial service. According to Judaism there are no longer any animal sacrifices because there is no longer any temple. The method of slaughtering animals does not fall under the laws for sacrifice, but under the food laws; the meat must be kosher.
Immediately after humanity’s fall into sin, God clothed Adam and Eve with animal skins. No sacrifice was needed to cover their nakedness. Apparently animals were permitted to be killed on behalf of human beings. After the flood God said that the animals could be used for food as well. The Bible nowhere explains how these animals were to be slaughtered.
Deuteronomy 12:21 says that the Israelites may eat in their homes those animals that were suitable for the sacrificial service, animals such as goats and cattle. They were to slaughter those animals as Moses had commanded them. They did not need to be ritually clean for that slaughter, unlike when they ate sacrificial meat. When slaughtered at home, the meat of an ox or a sheep was like that of a gazelle or a deer. It was only the eating of the blood that was forbidden, for that is the soul. They were to pour out the blood on the ground like water.
Judaism bases the existence of an oral Torah on the comment “as Moses commanded.” Apparently Moses had commanded other things that are not included in the Torah. That would not involve any substantive expansion of the law, but an application of the law in practical situations. This oral tradition was later written down in the Mishnah.
According to the Mishnah, for the shechita or ritual slaughter the butcher must sever the carotid artery and the windpipe without anesthesia with a single cut. Before the slaughter the animal must be able to walk a few steps. For that reason anesthesia is not permitted. For then the meat would not be kosher.
Islam is also familiar with a kind of ritual slaughter. The term halal above foreign butcher shops signifies that the meat is ritually clean. Meat is halal only if the animal was butchered according to the rules. Only a Muslim may perform the slaughter; he must say a prayer in connection with the slaughter; and he must look in the direction of Mecca. It is not entirely clear whether animal anesthesia is forbidden in Islam. In foreign countries Islamic butchers sometimes use electric shock.
Until 1975 Islamic butchering was not permitted in The Netherlands. Many Muslims evaded the prohibition by illegally slaughtering animals in sheds behind their stores. For that reason in 1975 the government permitted non-anesthetized halal slaughter in Islamic butcher shops. Equality of rights between Jews and Muslims played an important role in this change.
In recent years doubts have risen about the welfare of animals who are slaughtered ritually. If this form of slaughter unnecessarily intensifies and lengthens the suffering of these animals, there is much to be said in favor of a comprehensive prohibition. For animal suffering should be prevented as much as possible.
The scientific arm of the Animal Rights Party (the Nicolaas G. Pierson Foundation) used an undercover camera to make a movie about the ritual slaughtering occurring in various slaughter houses. The movie, available on YouTube under the title “Ritual Slaughter,” shows how sheep and chickens are killed without anesthesia and hung up to bleed out. It is not pleasant. A lot of blood is flowing and some animals continue to writhe long after they’ve been hung up.
In 2008 the University of Wageningen published a bibliographical study at the request of the Minister of Agriculture at that time, entitled “Ritual Slaughtering and Animal Welfare.” The study concluded that non-anesthetized ritual slaughtering is detrimental for the welfare of the animal for several reasons. Confinement produces significant stress, the arterial cut itself can cause severe pain, and the brains of non-anesthetized animals are more active than those of anesthetized animals.
The Wageningen report is not based on the authors’ own scientific research. It is a summary of extant literature. One of the most important sources for the report is an article of Stuart D. Rosen, who has performed physiological research. In the international scientific journal, Veterinary Record, he concluded that the Jewish shechita is a painless and effective method of slaughter.
It is very difficult to measure animal pain. If the shechita is performed properly, the blood pressure in the animal’s brain falls immediately and the animal becomes immediately unconscious. Of course it is very troubling to watch an animal writhing as it is dying, but that phenomenon should not be interpreted to mean that the animal is suffering pain. A slaughtered chicken can still walk a few steps after its head is severed, but the head will not feel that sensation any longer. On the other hand, an animal can appear to be unconscious and still feel pain, just like someone who is in a coma can be conscious of things without being able to respond to them.
Of course the plea for anesthetizing is understandable. If an animal is no longer writhing, a person feels better at that point, but whether the same is true of the animal remains the question. Animal anesthesia may not serve simply to reduce butterflies in the human stomach.
Without doubt one thing or another goes wrong when animals are being slaughtered. Rather than a comprehensive prohibition, it would be better to permit ritual slaughter under strict conditions and to monitor the implementation of those standards. Even the Wageningen report indicates that the Jewish method of slaughter is regulated by more prescriptions than the Islamic method. The Jewish butcher receives special training, the knife must be surgically sharp, and the tiniest little flaw makes it unusable. Islamic butchers also use a shorter knife. Perhaps Islam can learn some lessons here from Judaism.
“The Eternal Jew”
As long as so much uncertainty surrounds the matter of animal welfare, it is too strong a measure to ban ritual slaughter and thereby to restrict the freedom of religion. Ritual slaughter goes back to a centuries-old tradition. This method of slaughter seeks to express precisely this truth, that the life of each animal is valuable and each animal deserves respect. A person may not simply kill an animal, since there are strict rules governing that. These prescriptions presuppose a relationship between a person and an animal. The blood that flows is costly blood.
That understanding is far removed from many Westerners, who get their meat from the supermarket, whether or not it is weighed and packaged behind the counter. In farming communities people occasionally slaughter a calf for themselves. Occasionally several families will divide and process the meat of a cow. At that point you know in principle exactly what kind of animal you’ll be eating. Here there is a relationship between people and animals.
In many slaughter houses the slaughtering process is highly mechanized. No human hand needs to touch the animal. Perhaps ordinary slaughtering appears less offensive, but it is rather ironic that a centuries-old tradition that clearly expresses the connection between people and animals is now being discredited.
Because anesthetized ritual slaughter is not by definition forbidden in Islam, a prohibition against non-anesthetized ritual slaughter would affect the Jewish community in The Netherlands the most. Advocates of the ban are actually suggesting that orthodox Jews should then simply become vegetarians. That is going rather far. Not without reason the Council of State has therefore responded very critically to the concept legislation of the Animal Rights Party. The impact on animal welfare, according to the Council, is not of such a nature as to warrant a comprehensive ban on non-anesthetized ritual slaughter.
In addition there is the painful fact that in the long history of antisemitism, ritual slaughter has often been used as an argument for inciting hatred of Jews. In the 1940 movie, The Eternal Jew, there is a scene where a cow is slaughtered in a gruesome way, designed to show how beastly the Jews were in contrast to the humane Germans.
When eating meat, a Christian should not forget that human beings were created as vegetarians and that on the new earth animals will no longer be slaughtered for human consumption. Anyone who really understands that every piece of meat at one point required the letting of blood, will have to adjust their diet accordingly.
Many political parties are very agitated about the hundreds of animals that are ritually slaughtered in The Netherlands every day. In The Netherlands on every working day, hundreds of children are also killed in their mother’s wombs.
The poet of the Proverbs looks rather prophetic when he said in one and the same breath: “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel” (Proverbs 12:10).