Response to Brian Sewell on Shechitah

March 20, 2003
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Article published in The Evening Standard on 20th March 2003

Brian Sewell's article on religious slaughter was insidious journalism. He began reasonably enough, explaining how he used to relish eating calf's head and horse steaks until he witnessed slaughtering methods in Tunisia. Then he experienced a personal conversion to the cause of compassion to animals. In that he has the support of religious Jews.

In what, though, does his compassion consist? He offered not a word against fox hunting. He uttered no protest against the killing of animals for fur or the use of animals for medical experiments. He accepts mass transportation of animals to abattoirs and using conveyer belts in the slaughter of chickens. These are permitted in law. Sewell does not seek to ban them. Has he drawn the logical conclusion and become a vegetarian?

He argues against one thing alone - religious slaughter practised by Jews and Muslims. He labels it cruel. He states that the Bible does not condone cruelty to animals. The Bible actually contains the first systematic legislation against cruelty to animals.

What legislation it is! We must let animals rest on the Sabbath. We may not slaughter a mother and her young on the same day. It is forbidden to plough with two animals of unequal strength or to bind the mouth of an ox during threshing… Law after law, thousands of years before animal welfare had entered the vocabulary of public concern.

The first Divine covenant with Noah forbids meat taken from a living animal. Noah himself was commanded to rescue every species of animal life during the Flood.

Roger Scruton points out that the biblical law against seething a kid in its mother's milk teaches us to renounce our presumption of mastery of nature and respect the process by which animal life is made. Had we retained that sensibility we would, he says, have hesitated before feeding animals the dead remains of their own and other species. We would then have avoided BSE and the shocking mass slaughter of farm animals.

Sewell, like others, calls shechitah 'ritual slaughter' with its unmistakable suggestion of primitive and barbaric practice. Shechitah is in fact a religious discipline designed to remind us that the Bible initially forbade consumption of meat in any form. Adam and Eve were commanded to be gatherers, not hunters. Only after human beings became murderous did God permit animals to be killed for food, with the proviso that we never forget that every living thing is God's creation. Biblical ritual is institutionalised respect for the sacred.

Those who practise shechitah are only licensed after arduous training in the method itself and in ethical principle. They are under constant supervision by a committee that I chair.

The process is designed to be as painless as possible. It is done with a knife as sharp as a surgical scalpel in a single continuous action. This leads to almost immediate loss of consciousness and of the ability to feel pain. Research shows that this takes place within five seconds.

Sewell's figure of 297 seconds? He ought to know better. As children we learnt about reflex actions, muscular spasms that can continue after an animal is dead and has ceased to feel anything. Equally regrettable is the misinterpretation of scientific papers in the Farm Animal Welfare Council's report itself. Identifying detectable electrical activity in the brains of slaughtered animals with consciousness or an ability to feel pain was never accepted by the scientists who produced the data in the first place.

Is there a more painless method? Pre-stunning by captive bolt is offered as an alternative. Apart from the fact that this is unacceptable in Jewish law, it has other drawbacks. It requires absolute accuracy. It has been estimated that in as many of a third of cases it misses the mark, necessitating re-stunning thus causing the animal acute suffering.

Government inspectors tell us they consider shechitah to be as acceptable as secular methods. It is at least as humane as any other form of animal slaughter. Embedded as it is in a faith dedicated to animal welfare, it is part of a way of life that has much to teach about respect and reverence for nature as God's creation.

I was heartened by the Prime Minister's recently re-affirmed commitment to the preservation of shechitah, as well as by the Evening Standard poll in which 95 per cent of respondents voted in support of respect for Jewish and Muslim practice. They are right. Sacred traditions are often wiser than political correctness allows.