Monday, June 27, 2011

The needless dichotomy between religious freedom and animal cruelty

The Netherlands is set to take an historic vote tomorrow (ok, well, it is almost time to get up there already...) on whether to ban halal and kosher slaughter. The legislation... which has pitted two small minorities against an even smaller animal rights party... is being watched worldwide. You can read more in The New York Times or the blog

The issue basically comes down to this: Jews and Muslims both believe that their methods of slaughter which - and yes, this is something of a oversimplification - basically involve a quick, deep slash of a conscious animal's throat are humane. More importantly, they are required by religious principles. Animal rights activists believe that the scientific evidence which - again, an oversimplification - shows that an animal needs to be stunned first in order to make the slaughter as humane as possible should be the guiding principle. And make no mistake, this is a passionate debate all around.

Moreover, the debate is not just between religious and animal advocates, but within the AR-AW community itself. I remember a number of years back suggesting to a colleague that, as Jews, we might be in a better position than others to try to persuade yet other Jews to endorse an effort to overturn the exemption for Kosher slaughter in the U.S., since no one could accuse us of being anti-Semitic. To my surprise, my normally very pro-animal colleague suddenly became very agitated and said kosher slaughter wasn't a problem. It quickly became very clear that I was not going to change my colleague's opinion any more than my colleague was going to change mine; we let the issue drop.

Don't get me wrong; I believe strongly that religious freedom is one of our country's most important values (and by extension, an important value for the Dutch as well). I have friends of all different religious backgrounds... I have hired staff of all different religious backgrounds... I have even gone so far as to not only encourage my gentile boyfriend to go to the church of his choice... but to accompany him on a pretty regular basis. This is despite the fact that the church of his choice is no less than an hour and a half (yes, you read that right) from our home. One way. In other words, Sunday morning church literally takes all of Sunday morning.

But I draw the line when someone says that their religious beliefs require someone else to suffer - and especially when those sufferers are even less able to defend their own interests. I don't think that is really what Islam or Judaism is about, and I encourage anyone who bristles at what I'm suggesting to really think about whether they think that's what these two belief systems are about. These two ancient traditions each claim to be based on the idea of a compassionate G-d. They have both adapted to other changing social mores without being destroyed. Why should this be any different? In other words, if it is possible to interpret a passage demanding "an eye for an eye" in a way that no longer requires blinding a wrongdoer, then surely it is possible to interpret passages demanding ritual slaughter in a way that acknowledges improvements in a process that were not available some 1,300... or 5,771... years ago.

Just as the right to free speech does not include the proverbial right to yell "fire" in a crowded theatre, there is no reason that the rubric of religious freedom should give safe harbor to a practice that would, under any other lens, be viewed as cruel.

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