Looking for light

On kashrut, sustainability, and the slaughter of two goats

Photo taken at Isabella Freedman last Pesach.

I've been watching something really remarkable unfold in the Jewish blogosphere. It's moved me so much that I want to make sure you have the chance to read it too. It's a story about the schechting -- the kosher slaughter -- of a pair of goats.

The story begins here, with a post from Nigel Savage:

On the Friday night of last year's Hazon Food Conference I said, "put your hands up if you eat meat - but would not do so if you had to kill it yourself." And a good number of hands went up.

Then I said: "put your hands up if you're vegetarian - but you would eat meat if you killed it yourself." And a different group of hands went up.

And after a brief pause, everyone laughed. They laughed because the two responses revealed what a self-selected group we were - and how fascinating our different distinctions. The first group were essentially saying, "I do like eating meat - but I know the process of killing it is awful - it's actually so awful that if I had to kill it myself, I just wouldn't eat meat."

The second group were essentially saying "I'm vegetarian because I hate everything about how animals are raised and killed in our industrial food economy. But if I actually took responsibility for killing an animal myself, I would feel I was acting with integrity, and in accordance with my beliefs - and therefore, in that instance, I potentially would eat meat."

And my response, when the laughter died down, was to say "Great: next year we're going to shecht (slaughter according to kosher law) an animal here at the Food Conference."

That's from Schechting a goat at the Hazon Food Conference?, a post at The Jew and the Carrot. (Go and read the post, because it's really good, and it's where this whole story started.) For the next piece of the story, read on.

"You're telling me that if we schecht two goats at the food conference, we'll actually be extending their lives by two months -- because otherwise they'd be killed in October?"

"Yeah, Nige. You know – "no dairy without death."

(-- Schrodinger's Goat, scapegoats, and the goats of Yom Kippur)

The "Schrodinger's Goat" post, also by Nigel, asks some really good questions, and offers some valuable answers -- some straight from the mouth of Aitan, the goatherd at Isabella Freedman. The photo at the top of this post was taken at Isabella Freeman at Pesach, when the goats were new; it's the slaughter of those goats that we're talking about here. (Again, go and read that post if you haven't already.)

The next piece I want to point you to isn't directly a part of this story, but it relates. It's a guest post on JCarrot by a rabbinic student who's -- well, I'll let you read the beginning in his own words:

Earlier this year, I began training to be a shochet, a Jewish ritual slaughterer. As a rabbinical student who is passionate about culinary traditions, I felt that I was profoundly disconnected from the source of my food. Influenced by Maimondes' dictum, which states, "Anyone who desires to eat meat must take the responsibility to procure it," I felt that the challenge, though daunting, could help me relate to my food and the source of life in a more meaningful way. (-- Thoughts on becoming a shochet)

Andrew, the rabbinic student in question, has powerful things to say about killing animals and what it means to him. Reading it, I'm reminded of the story in Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma about slaughtering his first chickens. Andrew's story is a lot like Pollan's, but Andrew sees matters in explicitly religious terms. Whether or not you've ever killed your own meat, his post is really worth reading.

Okay: now we fast-forward to the posts that have gone live this weekend, starting with this one from Leah Koenig:

I spent much of tonight shivering.

Part of that has to do with being up in the Connecticut Berkshires, in December where 17 degrees is a normal morning temperature. But the shivering started in earnest when I walked into a conference session called, "Lifting the Cellophane Veil: Shecting a Goat." The session was mandatory for anyone who is thinking about attending tomorrow morning's schecting.

The Food Conference is, of course, not simply about the goat - we have four days crammed with sessions and a collection of 240 amazing people here at Isabella Freedman. But the schecting tomorrow will be - for me, and many participants - a once-in-a-lifetime and emotionally-charged event. The hope for tonight’s session was that, by introducing the key players (the goat farmer and caretaker, organizer, shochet / ritual slaughterer, mashgiach /kashrut supervisor, and lead educator), the participants would be able to enter the space tomorrow morning aware of the process and feeling prepared (as much as possible anway). (-- Hazon Food Conference Update: Schecting)

Next up: the first post that tells the story of what it was like to witness the slaughter of the goat, again from Leah:

About 70 people gathered at 7:00am, bleary-eyed and shivering (this time, because of the cold), to catch one of the shuttles down to the sadeh (Adamah's field) a mile away from Isabella Freedman. Once there, everyone huddled into small groups, wiggling their frozen toes and talking about the goat.

The shochet –dressed in shirtsleeves and a furry hat - prepared his knife.  Meanwhile, the mashgiach explained the process and answered participants’ questions, stopping to check that the knife was sharp enough by running it lightly along his fingernail... (-- Hazon Food Conference: The Latke Debate and The Goat)

The last post I want to point you toward is one from Jewschool, written by a group of bloggers covering the conference. This one, too, talks about the actual slaughter, and then about its various religious implications:

I thought that I might be nauseated; I am not. It is not so terrible. But, I think, it is also completely unlike a slaughterhouse death. Where, in the slaughterhouse, in the shepherd who weeps for his goat? the old friend to lead him to his death? The silence of the respectful standing around to witness the death? To stand by as your consciousness drains away to nothing?

It is not quiet in a slaughterhouse. There is not time to do things like soothe the animal and pet him, and I have a hard time imagining the kavanna of the shochet in a noisy, crowded bloody slaughterhouse... (-- Chad Gadya)

Taken together, these posts offer a window into something important, and I find them incredibly thought-provoking and valuable. I'm guessing others will too, regardless of your dietary practices and the beliefs that underpin them.

Yasher koach to all who were involved with this process, and to everyone who posted so thoughtfully and passionately about it. The intersection of kashrut and the sustainable food movement is a fascinating one, and I know these posts will continue to reflect and refract in my own dietary practices in days to come.

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