Can waterfowl be force fed to produce foie gras? Can lobsters be boiled alive? Can chickens be raised in hellish conditions? what is the line between an acceptable level of animal suffering and the unacceptable? Frank Bruni writing in today's New York Times qotes two authorities on the subject:
"Foie gras and lobster are not at the heart of the real tough issues of animal welfare, which are feed lots and pigs and cattle and chickens and how billions of animals are treated," said Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," which traces the messy back stories of our meals. "On the other hand, the fact that we're having this conversation at all — that we're talking about ethics in relation to what we're eating every day — strikes me as a very healthy thing," he said last week.
Mr. Pollan is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, and the reaction to a 2002 article of his illustrates how random people's concerns over animal welfare can be. The article depicted the life on a Kansas feed lot of a young steer that Mr. Pollan had purchased, a steer slated for slaughter several months later.
After the article appeared, Mr. Pollan received appeals from readers willing to pay large sums of money to buy and save the steer. One reader, he recalled, was a Hollywood producer who wanted to let the animal graze on his lawn in Beverly Hills, Calif.
"He kept coming after me," Mr. Pollan said, describing a crusade that culminated in an offer of a meal at a famous emporium of porterhouses in Brooklyn. "He finally said, 'I'm coming to New York, we're going to have dinner at Peter Luger to discuss this.' I'm like, 'Excuse me, we're going to have a steak dinner to discuss the rescue of this steer?' How disconnected can we be?"
The dinner never happened. The steer was killed. Mr. Pollan didn't eat its flesh, but he does eat beef, trying to make sure it's not from feed lots. He said he won't eat veal, but has not sworn off foie gras. For different omnivores there are different codes.
And there is often as much sentiment as sense. The anecdote about the producer suggests the ways in which many people make distinctions and decisions based primarily on the degree to which they have become familiar with the creatures they ingest, the degree to which they have anthropomorphized them.
"People look at the lobster and try to imagine what its experience would be like, but they don't look at a package of chicken breasts and imagine what the experience would be like," said Jay Weinstein, a Manhattan caterer whose book "The Ethical Gourmet" was published this month. "It's because they're closer to the final step of the killing."
While the lives of "free-range" chickens are hardly ideal, the lives of other chickens are even worse, Mr. Weinstein said. The birds' feet are lacerated by the wire they are forced to stand on, while their beaks are clipped so they can't peck at each other in the tight quarters they occupy. He questioned whether any of that was less offensive than the force feeding of ducks.…
A question not asked (perhaps because Bruni's piece was written more than one month ago) is, Can we benefit from the work of workers who are mistreated and abused, as workers at Rubashkin and now at Smithfield Foods are alleged to be abused and mistreated?
Bruni poses his questions from a secular perspective. The answers he notes come from the secular side as well. Striking is the absence of any Jewish response to these questions, especially because Judaism both claims to have the earliest animal welfare regulations known to man and deals on a daily basis with ritual food preparation.
But this absence is not ideologically driven and it is not an oversight.
Judaism under the leadership of today's Orthodox and Conservative rabbis has again dropped the ball on a major issue the Torah speaks to, preferring to "protect kashrut" from "attacks" only made possible in the first place by gross rabbinic negligence that cuts across ideological and denominational lines.
If fewer Jews keep kosher now than pre-Rubashkin scandals, rabbis have no one to blame but themselves. They allowed horrific animal cruelty that flew in the face of their self-defined description of shechita presented to governments around the world. They stood in the midst of worker abuse and extortion and said nothing. And they benefited financially from these abuses.
Do most Jews care? I think not. But most Jews are not affiliated Jews, having long ago made a decision to opt out of the synagogues and community life these rabbis represent.
Avraham Yehoshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King. But he was in the minority. Most rabbis were silent on civil rights until much later. A whole
generation of synagogue-attending young Jews realized this because they saw it first hand. Many left, because Judaism was perceived to be too parochial to speak the needs of their generation. The Havurah movement was a small outgrowth of this much larger exodus, much as the Jewish Renewal movement is a small outgrowth of today's dissatisfaction with turgid rabbis and limp Judaism.
A reporter doing a story on civil rights in 1963 would have had a Rabbi Heschel to quote. A reporter writing about tzaar baalei hayyim (animal cruelty) has no such luxury. Judaism is now wholly irrelevant to an issue it first put on the map thousands of years ago. And you can thank your local rabbi – Orthodox, Conservative and even Reform – for that.