PETA: Only the OU’s Approach Was Kosher

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The only one who got the PETA thing right was Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Weinreb of the OU.

I’m glad I finally said it. I’ve been wanting to say it for weeks, and didn’t have the guts.

Everyone else made two egregious errors. First – you can’t win every battle, even when you are right. Second – not everything that we do in the name of Judaism in general or of shechita in particular is all that holy and defensible.

Rabbi Weinreb’s statement deftly addressed the problem, and blunted the force of the next wave that could be anticipated from PETA. Essentially, it told Americans that PETA had a point, we’ve corrected it, and here’s why we needn’t listen to any of their other nonsense. End of case. Pass the hotdogs. Evidence that it worked can be found here ( third letter down, written by someone who is not Orthodox..)

Up front, he offered what people look for when they think they have caught someone else doing something wrong: admission and contrition. (No one trusts anyone who somehow always insists he is right. And most people are very forgiving when wrongs are owned up to quickly, and without fudging.) The throat-ripping in conscious animals is inhumane; we are putting a stop to it immediately. Sometimes animals seem to stay conscious longer than we would like; we will immediately put them out of their misery, and not sell them as kosher.

Having said that, he could expect his audience to take seriously everything that followed, and he was masterful. He pointed out that the gruesome pictures amounted to a handful of cases among the 18,000 slaughtered during the period ; to the host of authorities who weighed in favorably regarding the general conduct of Agriprocessors; to PETA’s acknowledgement that shechita in general is the most humane method of slaughter; to the fact that the kashrus of the meat was never endangered.

Others who commented were drawn into the trap set by PETA. They wound up mired in arguments they could not win, making PETA’s next inevitable steps more believable to the public.

Arguing that we yank the trachea and esophagus out of an apparently sentient animal for its own good (so that it would bleed more quickly, and lose consciousness) is not going to work – even if it were true. PT Barnum wouldn’t get away with it. It usually pays to try your arguments out on some of the people you plan to influence before you launch them. This one had as much chance of succeeding as a Moslem telling the ACLU that cutting off the hands of thieves is good for society. (The head of one chassidishe group, conferring about ways to explain the situation in the court of world opinion, had this to offer: “Tell them that the Ramban said that shechita is humane.” Right.)

Arguing that animals attempting to right themselves after shechita was just part of residual muscular activity is just not going to work for people who saw the video – even if it would be true.

Arguing that others didn’t and couldn’t understand shechita as well as we can, is silly and demeaning. In the process, they dissed people like Dr Temple Grandin, one of shechita’s staunchest champions, who happened to be appalled by what she saw at Rubashkin.

Another line of argument was more dangerous, because it suckered the rest of us to cry wolf needlessly. “This is basically the exact way that God asked us to do it,” someone told the Los Angeles Times.

No it isn’t. Halacha leaves much unspecified. It doesn’t tell us exactly how the animal should be treated before or after, except insofar as things that will impede the shechita or the post-incision release of blood. Not so long ago, slaughterhouses shackled the rear legs of animals, and hoisted them in the air. When animal groups complained, they eventually had to introduce pens that ended the process. Not, however, without many people piously protesting that the process had to be humane, because it was part of shechita, and shechita is ipso facto humane. Pens were not used in the time of the Temple; therefore, they were unnecessary today. Any tampering with the system had to be motivated by anti-Semitism, and would inexorably lead to the banning of all shechita, just like under the Nazis.

Without minimizing the anti-Semitic agenda of some, it just wasn’t true. Halacha did not mandate that animals had to be shackled. There is no question that in the Temple, Kohanim used the best means then available to prevent unnecessary suffering by the animal. We are no more merciful today, but we do have alternative technologies available. When we don’t use them, the reason is often enough related to the bottom line, not to halachic rigor. The pens cost money; the slaughterhouse operators understandably do not want to spend it if they do not have to.

To argue that Rubashkin’s animals need to be turned upside down in what resembles a small cement mixer because they want to offer us the highest standard is disingenuous, and casts aspersions upon all the other shechita in America that is done in an upright position. Many in Israel opt for a stringency in the law (rejected by most) that requires the upside-down positioning of the animal. The Israeli Rabbinate demands it. This is enough financial incentive for Rubashkin to want to serve a lucrative market. Who can blame him? But call a spade a spade. What is at stake here is profit, not professional standards. The rest of us shouldn’t be called upon to man the ramparts to beat off the vicious attack on shechita by the anti-Semitic hordes. It is shechita itself we should be defending (because surely it is PETA’s next target), not the side-shows.

At least the OU called it correctly.

Ironically, it was one of the critics of a recent posting of mine who gave me the impetus to write this. Gedalia Litke took strong exception to my position that the resolutions of mainline churches to divest from Israel is a far more serious problem than the crazed of PETA. He saw the PETA mentality as part of the root problem that leads to divestment resolutions.

I still disagree, but the more I considered Gedalia’s point, the more merit I found in it. Part of the reason I originally rejected it is because I felt we were largely handling PETA the wrong way. We shouldn’t be fighting them on points we cannot win. We can be successful in countering the core lunacy of PETA, and try to insure that its philosophy does not enter the mainstream. To do that, however, we cannot allow them to win moral advantage over us in the eyes of other Americans. The Gemara tells us that sheker ein lo raglayim – falsehood does not have a leg to stand on. If and where falsehood persists, it is only because the little bit of truth blended in to the lies gives it a platform. If we want to succeed in combating the inanity of PETA, we can’t afford to give them standing. We have to remove the bit of truth they found – and what millions of Americans will perceive to be true is just as potent as what is actually true – in order to get back to the more important order of business of unmasking the ultimate agenda of PETA: stripping Man of his specialness.

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14 Responses

  1. Gedalia Litke says:

    Not sure if this went through the first time: At the Nefesh Conference in Baltimore this past weekend Rabbi Weinreb touched upon his view of the ‘Shchita-PETA” issue. He said that he does not view PETA as anti-Semitic, just bizarrely misguided and misinformed. I think that it is important to point out that PETA is virulently anti-Judaism, whether or not that constitutes anti-Semitism I’ll leave up to others to discuss.

  2. Gedalia Litke says:

    Ah, sweet agreement among bloggers!
    At the Nefesh Conference in Baltimore this past weekend Rabbi Weinreb touched upon his view of the ‘Shchita-PETA” issue. He said that he does not view PETA as anti-Semitic, just bizarrely mis-guided and mis-informed. I think that it is important to point out that PETA is virulently anti-Judaism, whether or not that constitutes anti-Semitism I’ll leave up to others to discuss.

  3. Don’t know what happened with my previous message, but the correct spelling of my name (if you care) is “Ra’anan”

  4. PETA’s ulterior motives are despicable, but when they uncover a real problem, the response must be to correct the problem. I agree that Rabbi Weinreb’s statement was the right thing to do, and I salute him for the courage to be forthright. I hope that the positive outcome of this episode will be that if problems do exist, the observant community will embrace humane improvements to kosher slaughter such as those suggested by sympathetic experts such as Temple Grandin.

    P.S.

    I would like to see improvements to egg production that still result in a kosher egg. The problem with “humane,” i.e., free range egg production is that it produces too many fertile eggs. It’s one thing to pay 3 times more for a dozen eggs, but if 3-4 eggs per dozen are unkosher, forget it!

  5. Dov Wachmann says:

    To Rabbi Adlerstien in particular, and many in this discussion in general, responding to PETA requires both an accurate assessment of PETA’s goal and an accurate assessment of the lengths it will go to in pursuit of that goal.

    I am mystified that both in this discussion and elsewhere there has been much argument about PETA’s agenda when it is so clearly spelled out in an action alert on a website they have devoted to this campaign.

    PETA wants US regulations on shechita to match government regulations in Australia, Canada, and the European Union. PETA urges its members to petition the USDA “The United States should follow the lead of Australia, Canada, and the European Union in developing guidelines for religious slaughter” http://www.peta.org/alert/Automation/AlertItem.asp?id=1193 This has been PETA’s aim all along and explains why in PETA’s initial letter to Rubashkin in June 18 2003, PETA insisted involving Dr Temple Grandin since she was in fact the architect of the compliance of UK shechita to UK government and European Union guidelines where use of the rotating pens is banned.

    The issue at stake as stated by PETA is clearly not limited to humane conditions in this or the other plant rather it is the much bigger issue of government regulation of religious practice. Religious freedom here in the US surpasses that in all of Australia, Canada, and the European Union and as religious Jews we should have sharp antennae for all attempts, even well-meaning attempts, to bring the US in line with those countries under whatever pretext.

    Yes Rabbi Menken, if this were only a PR issue the Tylenol defense would be just the right prescription. However the issue is not limited to PR, the issue involves legal, regulatory and political considerations. What works in PR may fail either in the courtroom or in regulatory committee.

    I am not a member of Agudah and I have engaged in many a heated e-mail thread with Agudah’s Rabbi Shafran. However, in this case, Agudah is the only organization that gets it, that has the big picture and is articulating it.

    Some will argue that the issue is not limited to strategy, we are also bound to morality and honesty, but morality and honesty are in themselves powerful arguments for recognizing the true issue in all its complexity and seeing it beyond the superficiality of how it is played out in the pages of the NYT and therefore in recognizing the morality and honesty of responding to the real issue.

    In fact if we examine the issue in the light of cold hard fact and not by whether the story has at least temporarily disappeared from the pages of the NYT the O-U has failed miserably.

    Rabbi Weinreb’s remarks were published in the NYT on December 3. The O-U followed up with a statement on December 9. On December 10 PETA attacked the O-U statement, dissecting it at length stating inter-alia, “The OU’s statement is rife with contradictions that are clear to anyone who takes a close look.
    This is not a case of “he said, she said.” This is a case of making pronouncements that the OU
    cannot defend, perhaps imagining that most people will accept its statements without checking
    its claims.”
    http://www.goveg.com/feat/agriprocessors/responseToOUStatement.asp
    In fact on December 28 PETA petitioned Allamakee County Attorney William Shafer to prosecute the
    O-U, “What AgriProcessors was doing behind closed doors is the ultimate violation of ‘Iowa nice,’ and we are calling on Mr. Shafer to take swift and decisive action against the company, its owner, and the kosher certification agencies that allowed state law to be so flagrantly violated.”
    http://www.zwire.com/site/news.cfm?newsid=13643794&BRD=1829&PAG=461&dept_id=107421&rfi=6

    Rabbi Adlerstien is probably unaware of any of these developments, but will he, in light of them, and despite them continue to insist that the O-U has scored a great victory.

    Not only has the O-U completely failed in mollifying PETA, as David correctly predicted, in addition by ignoring PETA’s agenda to have religion in the US regulated as it is in Europe and as Rabbi Menken has pointed out, dangerously equivocating between accepting that there is a problem and then declaring that it has been internally solved, the O-U in its shortsightedness may be threatening not only shechita but religious liberty here in the US.

    Lastly, a word for Shmaya and his great glee at the discomfiture of the Rubashkins. I am no Chosid of Chabad, and no more a Chosid of the Rubashkin family. But Chazal have a statement that you would do well to consider. “Hasinoh mekalkel es hashuro”. Don’t get so far carried away by your philosophical differences with Chabad, Agudah and others in the mainstream Charedi camp to the extent that you forget that we are in the same golus and the same boat. Anti-shechita movements are powerful in all the countries PETA wants the US to emulate and that is good enough reason for you to reconsider your partisan involvement in this debate.

  6. Vanity says:

    I’ve been trying to follow this issue as best as I can, but one thing that seems to be nagging at me is this: yes, we can discuss the best ways/parameters for dealing w/ PETA and the world at large is, but doesn’t anyone think that there should be some accountability in the supervising organizations here?

    I certainly try to impute the best motives to the OU and the various supervising bodies (I belive this particular plant had almost half a dozen, no?), but this whole instance—and the OU’s response—seems a bit, well, questionable. Foremost, I’m unclear: is ripping out the trachea/esophagus in this fashion a violation of U.S. law? It seems that it is, given the parameters set forth by the U.S. government for kosher slaughter, but I am no expert on this so I am unsure. If so, then halacha was explicitly sidestepped when this method was approved by the supervising authorities.

    I read the JT article and promptly checked out the site—it looks excellent and I’m thrilled to have something like this—a great idea!

  7. Yaakov Menken says:

    David,

    Actually that’s the power of the response — if you do what actually needs to be done, and own up to it, then PETA can cry from today til tomorrow and no one will listen. Joel Shurkin is an experienced reporter, and he says that they all would be very happy to ignore PETA and its grandstanding whenever possible.

    Shmarya will continue to scream that Temple Grandin opposes the rotating drum and therefore I’m following “Agudath Israel.” A similar non-sequitur appeared in the letter to which R’ Yitzchok referred above on the Jewish Journal site — since when is Nathan Lewin the Agudah’s lawyer? He’s Rubashkin’s lawyer.

    Similarly, the description of the rotating drum that I presented above comes not from the Agudah’s web site (it doesn’t have one), but from Dr. Temple Grandin’s. If it is “empirically more stressful” to have a rotating drum, then why does Dr. Grandin say it is “probably” more stressful than the “best” of upright pens, implying that this is a judgement call rather than an observed fact?

    Shmarya apparently can’t address the fact that Dr. Grandin’s own web site says the opposite of that which he claims she said to him orally. So he resorts to accusing me of ignoring the facts — another instance of Kol HaPosel, B’Mumo Posel.

  8. David Brand says:

    R’ Yakov,

    I have to admit,your point about the Tylenol defense is compelling. It certainly worked for them and generated a lot of good will. On the other hand, one of the points listed was to change the way they slaughter. As I said before, PETA might not be satisfied with some changes. They might want more. Even if Rubashkin make more changes, there is the risk that PETA will come back later, asking for more. What I’m saying is that there is a Chiluk between public relations, where the Tylenol defense would work, versus the handling of PETA itself. Tangentially, just today, McDonalds announced that they would consider a change their own slaghter methods to satisfy PETA.
    http://www.wavy.com/Global/story.asp?S=2747638
    Do you think PETA will stop bothering McDonalds?

  9. Shmarya says:

    YM writes:

    First of all, it is “probably” more stressful. That tells you immediately that if it is, it isn’t terribly visible. It’s not as if an animal goes placidly into a pen but freaks out in this inverted system – otherwise, it would be “obviously” more stressful.

    Again, Dr. Grandin has been very clear on this. She opposes the ‘rotating drum,’ and prefers an ASPC pen – as Does the OU’s Rabbi Belsky and dozens of other scientists and even rabbonim. The animal is empirically more stressed in a rotating drum – all scientists I’m aware of agree with this. I think the problem YM is having with this issue is that to accept the science and empirical evidence as true, one has to go against the leaders of Agudath Israel, not just on tactics used – but on the facts themselves.

    As for R. Alderstein’s points, PETA certainly has positions that are in conflict with Torah. But so do many other organizations we work with every day. In the end, if our rabbonim had paid even the slightest attention to tzaar baalei hayyim, PETA would not have sent in an undercover investigator, and this scandal never would have happened.

    For its part, the OU is divided, with Rabbi Weinreb taking Rabbi Alderstein’s approach and the Kashrut Division largely following the Agudath Israel line. Only time will tell how that split will play out – if at all – in the media and in the community.

  10. Yaakov Menken says:

    As far as the description of what should have been done, the methodology Rabbi Adlerstein describes would be hard to argue with. David, it doesn’t matter who made the complaint if unbiased people see it on tape and agree. As I concluded my first entry on this topic, “Sometimes it is worth looking for the grain of truth even in unfair criticism, and this appears to be such a case.” I didn’t mean that from a PR perspective, either. There’s a story of a Rosh Yeshiva who stood by the window carefully listening to the shouted diatribe of a young man who had just been expelled. When asked, the Rosh Yeshiva said that he was listening for anything the young man might say about him that was true, and needed to be fixed.

    From a PR perspective, I got this from Joel Shurkin, a journalist who also did PR for Stanford — and an article about Cross-Currents that I will blog shortly:

    The solution is taught in every public relations class in every journalism school in the country. It is under the category of crisis management and it is known as the Tylenol Defense, named for the technique Johnson & Johnson developed these 20-odd years or so to defuse the crisis when someone learned how to slip poison in Tylenol bottles. You come out with a statement saying:

    1. Our meat is still kosher
    2. Although everyone at the plant acted in good faith, mistakes were made. We regret them.
    3. Because of the unfortunate publicity and to avoid any further ambiguity, we will err on the side of caution and change the way we slaughter cattle. (And then you have to actually do it.)

    The story disappears in two days and PETA goes off to mess with somebody else.

    If they delivered that message successfully, I think they might also get away with pointing out PETA’s long record of being complete whackos who equate rats with babies. But that sort of thing should be left for third parties, not the defendants.

    I do not agree, though, that the OU pulled off the Tylenol defense successfully. I was particularly bothered by their statement that the Rabbis went “to review the procedures at the AgriProcessors plant. They found that these procedures meet all OU standards to the highest degree.”

    The trachea-excision is certainly not ideal, and was the procedure. But furthermore, the perception of that statement is an endorsement of everything that happened — even the single case of an animal getting up and walking. Obviously that was an accident, but “the highest degree” implies perfection. The drum that inverts the animal before shechita is also one of the procedures, so if one finds the drum objectionable, that’s also a problem.

    For what it’s worth, Dr. Temple Grandin indicates the drum is not inhumane. She writes, “The rotating box at Agriprocessors is probably more stressful than the best upright box, but it is much better than shackling and hoisting.” There are two conditional statements in the first phrase. First of all, it is “probably” more stressful. That tells you immediately that if it is, it isn’t terribly visible. It’s not as if an animal goes placidly into a pen but freaks out in this inverted system — otherwise, it would be “obviously” more stressful. And furthermore, she specifies the “best” upright box. That tells you that the inverted drum is superior, in her opinion, to many of the upright boxes.

    Now Shmarya has said that she told him the animal bleeds out more slowly when inverted, but that seems to be contradicted to her own writing. From her own statement, the inverted box really isn’t that bad. On her list of four changes to be made, she lists upright shechita fourth and last, after saying the first two are most important. Upright shechita may meet “the highest level of animal welfare” as she says — but even that isn’t true. The highest level would be PETA’s goal, that we all go vegetarian. So for those of us who see something positive in eating meat, I see no reason to oppose what the Israelis regard as a hiddur — it’s still more humane than what goes on with those stunning guns!

  11. I think PETA broke the law bt conducting unlawful surveillance. Furthermore, they defamed charachter of officials at rubashkin. And third, PETA interferred with the bussiness practices by attempting to cause financial loss to rubashkin.
    PETA should be on the defensive not the offensive. I hope rubashkin sues PETA.

  12. Lumpy Rutherford says:

    Rabbi Heinemann of the Star-K will be giving a שעור this Sunday, in Chicago on PETA’s attack on שחיטה.

  13. David Brand says:

    Yitzchok,
    I would argue that although certain individual in PETA are not necessarily anti-semitic, the method of attack certainly was. This is based on the historical context of attacks on shechita. The reason I make this point first is that is colors all of the other aspects of PETA’s various claims. Your comments are based on the idea of how one would respond to a reasonable person. I’ve seen this in business; if I sit across the table from a reasonable person, we can come up with reasonable solutions. So, if a reasonable person comes with claims against me, we can usually work it out. However, PETA is very much the opposite. Consider what would have happened if, rather than PETA, the US Nazi Party had made the same allegations. Could you sit across from them and say “yes, you guys have a point here, maybe we should reconsider our shechita policies”?? That’s exactly how I view PETA, and that’s why I disagree with the OU’s approach in viewing PETA’s points as worthy of being taken into account.

    Furthermore, we should understand that PETA, like many other politically savvy groups, understand that they cannot achieve their goals (in this case, nobody using animals in any way or for any reason) all at once. They practice the perfect Clintonian incrementalism, getting their way through a series of small compromises, one after the other. The upshot is that nobody should imagine that Rubaskin or any other meat-processing plant would simply implement PETA’s current “recommendations” and then expect PETA to walk away, satisfied. Like the mouse who gets a piece of cheese, PETA will only continue to come back, expecting more each time. They will only see acquiecsence as an indication of weakness.

    Finally, I’m a little surprised that not many have pointed out that PETA is also using classic Jesse Jackson/Maxine Waters tactics by “asking” Rubashikin to hire consultants that they trust. If this proceeds as I’ve seen it reported, this is classic corporate blackmail.

    If somebody reasonable came with Tainas (complaints) I think we could listen and discuss. I don’t think that’s the case here.

  14. Jeff Ballabon says:

    Leaving aside for the moment the first part of your analysis – which is fact-based (i.e., what the truth of the situation was regarding the propriety of shchita practices), I want to comment on your analysis of Rabbi Weinreb’s approach in terms of tactics.

    As I think I mentioned in an earlier post regarding dealing with groups like PETA. These are politically savvy groups and they invariably practice the tactic used by the meraglim as described by Rashi – which is to say, they tell big lies based on small truths. There is no question, that the first step to defusing any bomb they throw (and this was a huge one) is to own mistakes, errors, etc. – meaning, to fully admit any shortcomings in your own activity, because, in truth, nobody is perfect, no institution is perfect, etc., and to demonstrate sincere commitment to act responsibly. The public understands that and, as long as they sense integrity in the target, they will be disposed to listen and even reconsider. (Not so much the press, which thrives on scandal and so has interest in keeping it alive, but the public already has a healthy skepticism about the press, so that is not fatal.) I have seen that time and time again. I was not following the issue nearly as closely and I certainly can’t comment on your conclusions about anyone else’s approach, but I think that your description of Rabbi Weinreb’s approach is extremely thoughtful.

    Having said that – and in support of Litke’s original thesis, I would tell you that the struggle to unmask PETA for what it is remains a vital one – not only for our community or for shchita, but to beat back a fundamentally destructive force in society. I have to run…but I intend to explain that, hopefully a little later today.