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Dr. Isaac Lewin And The Fight For Kosher Slaughter


Fifty years ago the battle over a federal humane slaughter law came to a close. On August 27, 1958, Congress adopted, which established the “use of humane methods of slaughter of livestock as a policy of the United States” – forbidding the federal government from purchasing meat slaughtered by inhumane methods and giving the Department of Agriculture inspection authority in this area.

The law explicitly recognized that one of two humane methods of slaughtering livestock was shechita, defined in the statute as “slaughtering in accordance with the ritual requirements of the Jewish faith or any other religious faith that prescribes a method of slaughter whereby the animal suffers loss of consciousness by anemia of the brain caused by the simultaneous and instantaneous severance of the carotid arteries with a sharp instrument.”

Public Law 85-765 was not limited to the shechita cut itself. Section 6 exempted “from the terms of this Act” not only “ritual slaughter” but also “the handling or other preparation of livestock for ritual slaughter.”

My father, zichrono livrocho, was the principal spokesman for the kosher-observant community in crafting and successfully battling for this total protection of shechita and the steps needed to position the animal for shechita – which, in the 1950s, routinely required “shackling and hoisting” that enraged the humane societies and was attacked by Jews who thought that halacha should bend to more modern standards.

On my father’s 13th yahrzeit, the 28th of Av, which comes this year on August 29, the full story deserves to be told.

The battle to defend shechita in the United States against the campaign of America’s “humane societies” began in 1956, when Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota (who was to be Lyndon Johnson’s vice president and the Democratic presidential nominee in 1968) introduced a law that prohibited any method of slaughter of livestock that had not “first been rendered insensible by mechanical, electrical, chemical, or other means determined by the Secretary [of Agriculture] to be rapid, effective, and humane.”

The law went on to declare that it was not to apply “to any individual who is duly authorized by an ordained rabbi of the Jewish religious faith to serve as a shector, while such individual is engaged in the slaughtering of livestock or poultry in accordance with the practice of such religious faith.”

The secular agencies that defended Judaism in the United States against anti-Semitism were content with this explicit exemption for shechita. My father immediately recognized it was a trap – a first step in the campaign that had historically been waged against Jewish ritual slaughter. Hitler’s Nazi government immediately banned shechita in April 1933 as “inhumane,” but it is difficult in the post-World War II world to take that step directly. Instead, shechita is first treated legislatively as an “exemption” from the requirement of humaneness imposed on the rest of society. In a second phase, that “exemption” is challenged and removed.

In England, a humane-slaughter law had been enacted in 1933 with an exemption for shechita. In December 1954 legislation was introduced in the House of Commons to remove the 1933 exemption, and that amendment was vigorously supported by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other moralists in England’s humane societies. They were not ashamed to declare in their literature that “for the last twenty-one years gross cruelty has been perpetrated on cattle slaughtered in Great Britain for Jewish and Moslem consumption, and that by deliberate permission of the law.”

On May 10, 1956 – then representing only the Agudas Harabanim – my father traveled to Washington to testify before Sen. Humphrey’s Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry. He said the organization was “firmly opposed to the present measure because by implication it brands the Jewish ritualistic method of slaughter – shechita – as not humane. Such implication is indeed offensive, and has no basis in fact.” He and Rabbi Michael Munk, z”l, who supported his testimony, provided Humphrey with several hundred expert endorsements of the humanity of shechita provided in their book on the subject.

Humphrey was persuaded by the testimony and by personal meetings with my father. He replied on the record that it was not his intention “to brand [shechita] as inhumane, but to list it as one of the humane methods.” He added that “this Senator would never permit any such insinuation to exist in the record, or in the legislation, such as you have felt was in this legislation.” He expressed gratitude for the “amazing” documentation supporting shechita my father had provided and said it would be included in the hearing record.

My father then went on a campaign to educate the Jewish community agencies on the subject. And in April 1957, he was able to testify before a House subcommittee on the subject on behalf not only of the Agudas Harabanim and all other national Orthodox groups but also as representative of the American Jewish Congress, the Jewish Labor Committee, the Synagogue Council of America, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and the organization that was then the “umbrella” spokesman for American Jewish interests – the National Community Relations Advisory Council (NCRAC).

He expressed opposition to a series of House bills modeled on the legislation originally introduced in the Senate. He said that they “give a completely false impression of the Jewish kosher method of slaughtering animals … and may become the basis of restriction against one of the most important precepts of the Jewish faith, thus endangering a primary civil liberty – freedom of religion.”

The House members were persuaded and the bills were amended, as the Senate bills had been, to recognize explicitly that shechita was humane. Approximately 15 years later, a group of kindness-to-animal advocates sued to declare the shechita provision unconstitutional as favoritism to religion. A three-judge federal court explicitly relied on the fact that it had been scientifically proved, to the satisfaction of Congress, to be a humane method for its conclusion that it was not religious favoritism. My father’s prescience saved shechita in the United States.

But there is more to the story. My father recognized that it was not enough to protect the shechita cut itself. The humane societies had targeted the “shackling and hoisting” of livestock that was, at the time, the routine method of positioning cattle for shechita (because the animal could not be slaughtered while lying on the ground in blood of others that had preceded it). The “Weinberg pen” that encases the animal and rotates it for shechita munachat (the only kind viewed as permissible by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel) was still in its early stages, was not yet fully approved by the Department of Agriculture, and was extraordinarily expensive.

My father fought the moralists again on this phase of the shechita battle. There were many spokesmen from secular Jewish agencies who thought it unwise to take a position that would offend modern thinkers who believe today’s rabbis should incorporate modern standards into a system that has existed for thousands of years. They were initially willing to accept an explicit prohibition in the law against shackling and hoisting or, in 1958, a law that would only prohibit restrictions that “in any way hinder the religious freedom of any person or group to slaughter and prepare for slaughter of livestock in conformity with the practices and requirements of his religion.”

Representing this time only Orthodox organizations, my father returned in April 1958 to Washington to testify before a Senate subcommittee chaired by a hostile Sen. Stuart Symington (D-MO). My father said that permitting shackling and hoisting only if the Department of Agriculture found that it was “in conformity with the practices and requirements” of religion “would make the Jewish method of slaughtering animals virtually impossible in the United States.”

He quoted an Agriculture Department letter to the subcommittee that expressed doubts regarding the Weinberg pen. The letter also indicated that shackling and hoisting – then used universally in the relatively small kosher slaughterhouses in the United States – would have to be “in compliance with a method designated and approved by the Secretary.”

Symington said he had to rush out to a dentist’s appointment but noted that humane slaughter laws had been approved in many countries “despite your opposition.” He wanted to know when “your method of slaughtering animals first started.” My father replied that it was about 3,500 years ago. Symington then noted that science had made substantial strides in anesthesia in the past 50 years and asked my father, “Couldn’t there have been some change in the 2,500 years with respect to animals that would be acceptable to your church?”

My father replied, “We strongly believe that the divine precepts and divine commands of God have not yet been surmounted nor surpassed by any human knowledge.”

Symington rushed off to care for his teeth, but he found time to support an amendment to the Humane Slaughter law that gave full protection to the pre-shechita handling of animals – including shackling and hoisting. Credit for the legal protection of shechita in the United States in the past half-century belongs to my father. Yehi Zichro Boruch.

About the Author: Nathan Lewin, a former president of the Greater Washington Jewish Community Relations Council, has argued 28 cases in the Supreme Court of the United States and is an adjunct lecturer at Columbia Law School where he teaches “Religious Minorities in Supreme Court Litigation.”


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