FALLS VILLAGE, Conn. (JTA) – I was torn between my professional responsibility to attend the most experiential learning moment of the conference and my personal squeamishness.
Certainly it was noble that Hazon, the environmental group, wanted to connect participants to their food and halachically slaughter organically, pasture-raised goats and feed them to the participants. But would I be able to watch the killing of not one but three goats?
Then I learned that like me, the ritual slaughterer and the kashrut supervisor who had been brought in to kill the goats generally do not eat meat except on Shabbat, when many say it is a mitzvah to do so. Although I am no longer officially a vegetarian, I don’t eat meat very much outside of Shabbat. I can’t even eat chicken on the bone because it seems too close to a real animal to me.
Rabbi Yehuda ben Chemhoun, a prominent shochet of 27 years, and Rabbi Seth Mandel, the senior mashgiach at the Orthodox Union, made their revelation at a panel discussion the evening before the Dec. 7 ritual slaughter, or schechting. I was surprised to learn that these bearded, black-hatted, serious rabbis order the veggie option.
The organizers of the Hazon conference, “Planting Seeds for the New Jewish Food Movement, ” made the session mandatory for anyone planning to attend the ritual slaughter the next morning.
Simon Feil, the conference co-chair and creator of Kosher Conscience, an organization that provided Jews with kosher organic turkeys this Thanksgiving, said, “For those of us who eat meat, this is an opportunity to get more in touch with that. And if that’s uncomfortable for you, maybe that’s a good thing.”
Mandel said that Jews have eaten meat throughout history and are commanded to eat the pascal lamb on Passover. We can’t get away from that reality. This is where moderation comes in.
The participants challenged Mandel on the slaughterhouse system. He responded, “Maimonides said we should eat meat, at most, two times per week. Judaism is a religion of moderation. If people did that, we wouldn’t have to have slaughterhouses and could go back to pastures.”
While it was a huge step to engage the Orthodox Union in this discussion, and shocking to hear its head mashgiach call the system of mass slaughter inhumane, many participants did not understand why the O.U. didn’t simply use its power to change the system.
Mandel explained the laws of what makes meat kosher and how studies have shown the animals do not feel pain. He said the current system may not satisfy the participants, but one cannot claim it isn’t kosher.
I decided I would attend the schechting in the morning. It was the least I could do as a sometimes carnivore.
I wasn’t prepared for how upset it made me feel simply watching the goat lifted into position on the wooden bench. A green tarp lay to the side. I turned away and only saw it after it was dead. I looked back and saw them carry the green tarp to the tent off to the side. I heard banging and only later realized it was the goat hitting its hooves on the table after being slaughtered, as the rabbi had warned us in advance. But by the second shechting, I felt surprisingly at peace with the process.
Then I accidentally saw the first goat’s head peeking out from the side of the tent. Judging from the movement and angle, it must have been hanging. It looked like it was sleeping, but just with a few drops of blood on its face. Again, although I felt upset, I still thought the animal looked like it was sleeping peacefully and was not mistreated.
I didn’t eat the goats’ meat on Friday night, or the chicken. The meat was placed on a platter in the center of the room, separate from the general buffet table. It was announced that there was a limited amount, so participants should ration what they take and note all the efforts that went into the few trays of meat.
“When we were eating the goat on Friday, we had a different intent around eating it,” said participant Dassee Berkowitz, a Jewish educator in New York. “I specifically did not also eat the chicken. I’m now considering how we eat meat and how often we eat meat.”
At last year’s Hazon conference, Nigel Savage, the group’s founder, asked meat eaters if they would eat meat if they had to raise and kill the animal themselves. He also asked vegetarians if they would eat meat if they raised and killed the animal themselves. There were takers on both sides.
After Shabbat dinner this year, Savage asked of the crowd, “Stand up if you do eat meat and didn’t eat the goat.” Then, “Stand up if you are a vegetarian and ate the goat.” The numbers appeared to be even.
Aaron Philmus, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, contrasted his experience here with an earlier shechting of lambs he had witnessed in Israel at a Lag B’Omer celebration. The earlier experience, he said, felt unholy to him. People were talking and taking pictures, children were watching. One of the lambs watched another being slaughtered.
At the Hazon event, cameras were forbidden, and each goat was protected from seeing the others. Philmus lauded the Hazon environment, compared to the modern slaughterhouse, which he called “the least holy place I can think of.”
He said, “I talked to the shochet about the levels of his holy intentions. It was clear to me he considered what he was doing God’s will, God’s work. It deepened my belief in and respect for the way Jews do this.”
While the conference included more than the schechting, it was clearly the most talked-about moment. The common theme of connecting to where your food comes from, eating and living seasonally and organically, and concern for public and private health, was espoused from different angles by a series of high-profile speakers.
The wide spectrum of Jews here agreed that it is a very Jewish thing to want to know where our meat comes from and how the animal lived and died.
While I may not be able to commit to eating only seasonal, local produce from my farmer’s market, I think I will definitely quit the fake foods, such as 10-calorie frozen “yogurt.” And I certainly don’t see myself looking at another piece of beef in the same way anytime soon.
(Natasha Rosenstock is a writer living in Washington, D.C.)