Call for Papers: Jewish Veganism

On the heels of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute‘s recent publication, “The Jewish Vegan,” I am proud to announce this call for papers, together with Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, for an edited volume of scholarly and profession essays on Jewish Veganism.

As more and more Jews adopt a vegan lifestyle, we can ask if Jewish veganism (and also vegetarianism) has become a distinct phenomenon. This collection of essays, submitted by scholars, rabbis, theologians, activists, and community leaders from around the world will explore new and compelling ideas about Jewish foodways and ethics, and also how various communities and individuals have put them into practice. We will discuss what might distinguish Jewish veganism as Jewish and whether or not we may now consider it, either in thought or in practice, a coherent and self-conscious movement unto itself. We will ask how Judaism, broadly defined, inspires or compels some Jews to veganism and how that lifestyle, in turn, enriches or defines their experiences and identities as Jews. We seek also to test the boundaries of Jewish veganism and to understand more about it by considering it alongside other Jewish cultures of food and food production, such as vegetarianism, the cultivation and preservation of Jewish ethnic cuisines, and the efforts to produce kosher food in a more ethical manner, including but not limited to practices associated with slaughtering animals. Jewish veganism may be situated as well within movements to safeguard animal welfare/rights or the environment. Finally, we hope to put Jewish veganism into conversation with veganism and vegetarianism in other faith and ethnic traditions. Distinctions between the cultures of different Jewish communities and traditions are welcome.

Jewish Veganism will be a unique collection, as it will feature works of scholarship alongside what may be considered valuable primary sources, such as reflections by activists and normative statements of values, theology, and politics. It is meant to reflect the breadth of contemporary discussions about Jewish veganism and also to serve as a resource for developing them further, with an eye to interdisciplinary and cross-professional collaboration. Please note that we are seeking papers which delve into the philosophy, history, and experience of Jewish veganism, as well as its contemporary communal manifestations. Personal reflections are welcome only insofar as they help address these larger themes.

Rather than a work of advocacy (although some authors may advocate), Jewish Veganism will reflect a studied intuition that Jewish veganism may have come of age. It seeks to explore its contours and scope. We anticipate that the volume will attract a wide readership. It will speak to scholars, clergy, and laypeople interested in religious, Jewish, and food studies, animal rights and welfare, the environment, social action, and identity politics. The book’s transnational scope will also help it contribute, as well, to a growing literature on Judaism and Jewishness in a globalizing world.

With pleasure, we are soliciting proposals in either English or Hebrew of no more than 250 words by 20 December 2015. Please send your abstracts in PDF format to

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Book Announcement – “The Jewish Vegan,” ed. Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

It gives me great pleasure to announce the publication of The Jewish Vegan, a collection of essays edited by dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz. The book made it to #1 on Amazon’s list of new releases in religious philosophy on its first day. Mazal Tov.

Jewish Vegan Book

The Jewish Vegan includes a foreword from Emmy-nominated Mayim Biyalik. It includes articles from academics like Princeton Professor Peter Singer, Professor Aaron Gross and Dr. Jacob Labendz (that’s me!), and from animal welfare activists like Humane Society of the U.S. VP Paul Shapiro & Jewish Vegetarians of North America’s Dr. Richard Schwartz and Jeffrey Cohen. There are articles from MDs Dr. Joel Kahn, Dr. Roy Artal, and Dr. Heather Shenkman. It includes Rabbinic commentary from Breslov Research Institute R’ Dovid Sears, R’ Adam Frank, R’ Dr. David Seidenberg, R’ Yonassan Gershom, & R’ Robyn Fryer Bodzin. And the book includes intellectual and poetic flair from Matthue Roth, Yossi Quint, Aharon Varady and Sarah Chandler. Rabbi Shmuly expressed thanks on Facebook to all who contributed and to AJ Frost for his work as managing editor. (Text adapted from FB post by Rabbi Shmuly.)

Get your copy here:

All proceeds will go to support The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New Traditions for a Vegan Passover


What is different about this night? At all other Seders we begin the meal with boiled eggs. Tonight, with edible flowers.

What is different about this night? At all other Seders we place a roasted shank bone on the Seder plate. Tonight, only a cardboard cutout upon which we have written an ethical pledge of sacrifice for the new year.

What is different about this night? At all other Seders we place a roasted egg on the Seder plate. Tonight, only a charred wooden egg which hides secrets within.

What is different about this night? At many other Seders vegan and vegetarian Jews make do by avoiding meat-based traditions or by using meat alternatives. Tonight, only thoughtful and lasting re-inventions of older rituals and deep discussions.


Vegan and vegetarian Jews can feel a certain sadness and loss due to their decisions to opt out of Jewish traditions that involve the use of animal products. Instead of seeking “alternatives” which look, taste, and feel like the “real thing,” I suggest that we get to work inventing new traditions which reflect our ethical commitments. We need a whole new Jewish cuisine! We need vegan dishes that our entire communities will associate with specific holidays and milestone and to which we will look forward all year round.

We also need to do better at replacing the animal products that appear in Jewish rituals. I understand that traditionally observant Jews may see no option when it comes to items like Torah scrolls, mezuzot, and t’filin. Fortunately, Passover offers us the opportunity to begin inventing new and lasting traditions without violating Jewish law.

The changes that I suggest accomplish three goals. They symbolically refer to the very rituals they seek to supersede. This allows us to honor and teach about our past, while also calling attention to our modern ethical commitments. The new traditions also carry the same meaning and will provoke the same sorts of conversations which have been central to the Seder for generations. Finally, they each have a special quality, which will make them feel like old traditions in no time. I anticipate looking forward to them in the coming years. Passover won’t feel the same without them. We just need to get started!

The rituals of the Passover Seder serve didactic and emotional purposes. They lead us to pose and grapple with questions, not only about the holiday itself but also about who we are, what we believe, and what we must do. Four questions, often read by children, inaugurate the retelling of the Exodus, which is the heart of the Passover ritual. The questions begin with observations that the evening’s customs depart from normative practices of communal eating. Those rituals and the objects they involve, therefore, both facilitate and limit the stories we tell and the terms of the discussions we can have.

Three Passover rituals traditionally call for the use of animal products: we place a shank bone and egg on the Seder plate and eat hardboiled eggs with salt water to start our meal. This presents a problem for vegans, vegetarians, and even for meat-eaters who want to accommodate their guests’ ethical commitments. To be clear, none of the food items just mentioned must make an appearance at Passover according to Jewish law, which allows for non-meat substitutions.

Yet, as I explained, vegans and vegetarians can nonetheless experience a feeling of loss when they abandon these iconic traditions. We may feel strange if in organizing a Seder for others, we remove from their experience the tastes, smells, and sites which for them – and even for us – constitutes and signifies Passover. Here are a few ideas for how we can solve this problem. As for the gefilte fish, you’re on your own for now.

Boiled Eggs in Salt Water

Many Jewish families also begin the Passover meal by eating a hardboiled egg dipped in salt water. The egg symbolizes the lifecycle and the salt water our tears of pain. The treat reminds us that the world is constantly renewed and gives us hope. It also recalls older, pagan rituals that mark the birth spring and fertility.

Replace the boiled eggs with fragrant and colorful edible flowers. They too recall spring and renewal, while also reminding us, in their ephemerality, that life belongs to a cycle that includes death and mourning.

I like this new tradition because edible flowers have a wonderful and meaning-making quality of uniqueness and difference. Inaugurating the holiday feast with edible flowers, rather than with the boiled eggs to which we are accustomed, will prompt questions – yet more Passover questions – from adults and children alike. This, in turn, offers another opportunity to embellish the Seder with discussion. We can even teach about the almost magical disappearance of the boiled egg.

I like this new tradition most because it has the greatest potential to be assimilated into the expected and longed for sights and flavors of Passover. I can imagine that in just one generation, Jews around the world will look forward to their annual Seder flowers. Homemakers will compete to find the most exotic specimens. And vegan Jews will find total inclusion and comfort in our rituals.

The Shank Bone

The roasted shank bone on the Seder plate reminds us of the paschal lamb described in the book of Exodus. As the ancient Israelites prepared to flee Egyptian bondage, they sacrificed a young lamb and used its blood to mark their doors. This act of faithful co-identification protected their houses from the last of the ten plagues, the death of the first born. The Israelites subsequently offered an annual paschal sacrifice, which created a symbolic link between ritual and history and through which God’s presence and plan transcended human experience.

The shank bone on our table has various meanings for different communities today. It reminds some Jews of our covenant with god. Others consider the shank bone a symbol our lost Temple and invest it with their hope for messianic redemption. Still others consider it an historical relic which respectfully celebrates the supersession of sacrificial Judaism.

Prepare paper or cardboard cut-outs in the shape of a bone. Ask participants to write or draw upon them what they might consider sacrificing this year and for what Passover-related cause. For example, someone might promise to avoid buying clothing produced in sweatshops because Passover teaches us about the horrors of slavery. Observant Jews can prepare their shank bones in advance of the Seder in order to avoid writing on the holiday, which is prohibited by traditional interpretations of Jewish law.

I like this new tradition because it fulfills the obligation to recall the Passover sacrifice, while overtly demonstrating that we now consider it wrong to use animal products in our rituals. If we were to replace the shank bone with a vegetable, traditionally a beat, we would miss the opportunity to make manifest our new ethical commitments while also honoring and teaching about the traditions of old.

I also like this new tradition because it reminds us that sacrifice, however interpreted, remains central to the Jewish tradition. It offers us an opportunity to foster deeper and meaningful Seder conversations, which can help to make Passover feel more relevant to our lives. We each will leave the Seder with a new ethical commitment.

The Roasted Egg

The roasted egg on the Seder plate, the beitzah, represents the festival sacrifice offered in ancient Jerusalem on Passover. According to Jewish tradition, eggs symbolize both mourning and renewal.

Purchase (or prepare) wooden eggs. Char them in the oven or with a blow torch and place them on the Seder plate. I suggest purchasing hollow eggs. (Choose wood over plastic, please!) These can be filled with symbols of the things that we will mourn in the coming year; things of which we will try to let go. To this we may add a symbol of something new to which we are looking forward.

I leave it to you to decide if you want to discuss the contents of your eggs at the Seder. Doing so may foster a more intimate bond between participants. You will also learn how to care better for each other in the coming year. On the other hand, there is also value in secrecy. A silent (or sealed) egg ritual will allow those of us with personal struggles to incorporate them into the Passover ritual without having to reveal too much. The yolk is the chicken’s secret.

I like this ritual because it maintains a reference to tradition by preserving the form of the egg. At the same time, however, it also directs our attention to our ethical commitments and reminds us of our obligation to renew our rituals. I like this new tradition because it transforms the Seder egg into our own egg. The universal meets the personal. Finally, I like this ritual because the knowledge that something secret lies at the center of our egg will lend a feeling of mystery to the Seder. Also by committing to reuse the same egg annually, we gain a ritual item. This is the very stuff of new and lasting traditions!

I wish you all a happy, meaningful, and vegan/animal-friendly Passover. If you adopt one of these new rituals, please let me know how it goes. I would also love to hear about other new traditions that you’ve invented. Find me on Twitter: @jacob_labendz.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

And the Walls Come Tumbling Down

This is a thought-piece that I wrote for the Wexner Foundation. I consider the meaning of the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall for contemporary (American) Jewry.

See the original here. Full text below:

Twenty-five years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Erected in 1961, it stood less than a kilometer from where I sit now. The end of the Cold War destabilized Jewish identities and politics around the world. I still recall marching on Washington in 1987 to “free” Soviet Jewry.  In a matter of moments, that sacred mission, which had been a cornerstone of American Jewish life, no longer demanded our attention. Berlin also reminds us of the Second World War and the Holocaust. The legacies of genocide still mark the city’s topography and its culture.

During the last Gaza War, the media reported pervasive public expressions of antisemitism in Berlin; not anti-Zionism or Israel criticism, antisemitism. Just a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a public debate about contemporary antisemitism in Germany, organized by the Center for Research on Antisemitism, where I am currently a post-doctoral fellow. How should we – and Germans – think about the relatively unexpected re-emergence of public antisemitism here? Are we witnessing something new or simply the unwelcomed return of the repressed? What is the relationship between anti-Zionism, criticism of Israel and antisemitism?

Regrettably, I cannot recount here all of the night’s arguments. I would like, instead, to meditate on the implications of a single line of inquiry. The Israeli philosopher Omri Boehm suggested, based on years of observation, that the single core component of contemporary, secular Jewish culture in America is a relationship with Israel. This, he contends, has had the unhealthy effect of transforming any criticism of that state into a perceived anti-Semitic attack – an offense to the basic stuff of American Jewishness. If Boehm is correct – and I believe that he is – secular American Jewry is facing a crisis of meaning and it is having a disastrous effect upon our capacity for political nuance.

In a discussion after the debate, a noted professor of Jewish history rejected Boehm’s premise. She pointed to the richness of secular Jewish life in America. I do not deny this, but would instead direct you to James Loeffler’s piece in Mosaic Magazine, “The Death of Jewish Culture.” An efflorescence of cultural production alone cannot replace the transcendent meaning that religion and nationalism once provided to our community. Is it any wonder that so many committed nonreligious and non-Zionist Jews express their identities primarily by subverting religious and Zionist narratives – the old cultural cores? What if we could grab hold of something else – something constructive?

For that, I return to Berlin. Had American Jews remained engaged with Jewish life in this city we might have experienced, rather than merely witnessed, the emergence of a playful and porous post-Soviet/Russian-Ukrainian/German/Jewish cultural sphere. The postmodern avant-garde was ours for the taking, provided, of course, that we allowed the word “ours” to change its meaning in the process. Instead, we basked in self-confident, post-Cold-War triumphalism. Fears of demographic collapse followed shortly thereafter, with the release of the first Jewish Population Survey. Our institutions sought to combat this, in large part, with Israel experiences.

Perhaps we can celebrate Berlin’s anniversary by tearing down the walls of twentieth-century identity politics which continue to constrain our communities’ creativity. A people so invested in history, in the commandment to remember, must also understand that it is subject to history. In Berlin, the absence of a wall does not testify alone to the transformative inevitability of globalization. So too do the city’s many Israeli residents who cross daily the former boundary between East and West. Labeling them traitors or cheapskates is to miss the point entirely.

The historian Charles Maier has noted that moral and structural narratives of history rarely map neatly onto one another. Globalization, a structural phenomenon, has taken its toll upon our community and yet I still find myself yearning for the aesthetics of moral and cultural certitude which characterized the previous two centuries. I wish that I could restore our community’s lost transcendent center, but I cannot. I invite you instead to join me in playfully acknowledging our shared nostalgia for the foreclosed future that it once promised, but can no longer deliver (see Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia). What a privileged and terrifying position it is to sit on a wall that no longer stands and to look into the future! Let us open ourselves to the possibility of radical transformation for our new world, twenty-five years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“The Community has Stolen my Birthright”

This is an address that I delivered alongside at Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis on 6 August 2014, alongside four allies from the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.

For background information see the original posting on Jew School.

For commentary see reposting on Mondoweiss. The views expressed are not mine.


When I was a boy, my dad bought me a cap gun. It felt real. It was blue-steel, heavy, and bore no orange, protective bits. Sparks flew when I pulled the trigger and smoke followed. I had the gun for about ten minutes, until my mother saw it, shrieked at my father, and grabbed it away. Just one year later, in Israel, my mother stood by smiling and taking pictures as a soldier handed me, a child of eleven, his unloaded but very real M-16. He carried that gun to defend Israeli citizens. In 1988, that meant repressing the first intifada, the first popular uprising against the Israeli Occupation–against checkpoints, collective punishment, statelessness, and national subordination. At the time, my heart filled with pride to be associated with the young man. Today, I’d likely call him a boy. Today, undone by witnessing acts of ethnic violence and oppression carried out in my name and without my consent, that memory shatters my youth.

My parents raised me to love Israel and I did. I wanted to move there, to serve in its army, and to raise children in Hebrew. I still remember singing ha-Tikvah, the national anthem, with prayer-like devotion. And then, slowly, I learned that our promise land came at the expense of others. I learned about the Occupation, which is now in its forty-seventh year. I am thirty-seven. If I were Palestinian, I might never have known anything but occupation at the hands of a Jewish state. We have invested so much love, so much of who we are into the institution of a particular state that to criticize it can be terrifying.

And so I turned to our community, which I have loved and to which I have dedicated my life. I found there only silence and exclusion. I faced accusations of antisemitism. I lost friends and relatives and I worried for my career. In the 1960s, a divided American Jewish community came together around three issues: Israel, Soviet Jewry, and the Holocaust. The Soviet-Jewry issue fell away with the Cold War. The Holocaust, though recalled annually with reverence, is passing from memory into history. It no longer speaks to our younger generations as it did to ours. And we are thus left with Israel as our sole uniting factor. As Rabbi Michael Lerner noted, the State of Israel–an institution of political power–has replaced Judaism and Jewish culture at the center of our Jewish lives.

We all know the birthright program, which sends young Jews to Israel for ten days at no cost. Its founders learned from a survey in the early 1990s that our younger generation held weaker attachments to our community and also that participating in an organized trip to Israel reversed that trend for individuals. But can the solution to a crisis of meaning in our community really lie overseas? Data also show that our youths tend not to identify strongly with Israel. Its simple nationalism alienates those of us who think about belonging on more nuanced terms. Israel has driven us into the streets to protest atrocities carried our in our name and without our consent. And there, heartbreakingly, we face counter-protests from our own community in defense of occupation, in support of the ethnic division of society, and, this time, in favor of a bloody war of choice. If we have placed Israel at the center of our identities and if Israel now stands on the wrong side of history, what future can we expect? Support for Israeli politics–even if accompanied by prayers for peace–threatens to extinguish much of what is worthy of preserving in our tradition. If we do not speak, we risk not only complicity, but the alienation of future our generations.

We should be able to discuss this within our own community–and I appreciate the welcome here tonight–but instead we find silence and exclusion. Hillel International, the organization for Jewish life on college campuses, prohibits working with anyone or any organization which dares to criticize Israel at a fundamental level. This includes former Israeli soldiers who speak against the Occupation. NexDor, a local group which brings together Jewish young adults refused an offer from Jewish Voices for Peace to present its mission. Whether we love Israel or not, we made a mistake when we forgot about the richness of our heritage and its temporal and geographical breadth. We made a mistake when be believed that association with a state, an institution of political power, which is temporary and flawed by necessity, can stand in for meaningful Jewish identities. Let us not make the mistake of alienating those of us who love our traditions and our communities but who also question the morality of political nationalism and who stand against Occupation. We are a people composed of smaller sub-ethnic units, each with its own rich history, and we are sacrificing this heritage on the alter of quotidian politics.

I fear that a line has been crossed that only yesterday seemed unapproachable. The past weeks witnessed calls for ethnic cleansing in the Jewish press and the Israeli Parliament. In Israel, thugs beat anti-war protesters in front of the police and peace activists suffer intimidation. At the solidarity meeting here, I overheard one of our leaders explaining to his friend that the Israeli Consul had postponed the rally due to his schedule. This made my neighbor nervous. He did not want the war to end before the rally. Peace would have undermined its impact. There is a sickness in our community.

Some history. Political Zionism emerged as a liberation movement in response to antisemitism and nationalism. The foundation of Israel included anti-colonial aspects. Yet the settlement of Palestine by European Jews was itself an act of colonization carried out with–and in opposition to–world powers. The project as it unfolded was based in ideas of Jewish supremacy and in a particular interpretation of our traditions and history. It turned on the violent exclusion of the region’s indigenous population. After 1967, Israel established an occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. After 2005, it initiated a siege of Gaza, designed to undermine Palestinian statehood. I therefore cannot remain silent when people portray this month’s conflict in isolation from the context of forty-seven years of occupation, collective reprisal, settlement expansion, and siege. We can attribute each individual failure to achieve peace to one side, the other, or both. But we cannot ignore that despite any rationalizations, Israel has occupied Palestinians for nearly fifty years. Ask what else Israel could have done from its position of strength to pursue peace. Consider what it means to accept so many deaths and the destruction of a city as collateral damage. No matter how we judge Hamas, the assault on Gaza has demonstrated Israeli disregard for Arab life. This will not bring peace. The choices that may bring peace will present serious risks, but none more dangerous, physically and ethically, than preserving the status quo.

This does not mean that Israelis lack the right to equality in their native land. It does not mean abandoning our ties to that land. However, we must pay attention to how legacies of power make certain forms of exclusion and subordination seem normal. We must remain vigilant against our own chauvinism and listen to others. Do not believe that Israel lacks partners for peace and do not stand with those who demonstrate to Palestinians that they lack such partners.

Jewish progressives can and do enjoy many ties to Israel, but Jewish progressives cannot value Jewish lives and freedoms over the lives and freedoms of Palestinians. Our self-realization cannot come at the expense of millions without citizenship, rights, and the same prospects for their children as our own. Progressives must stand against occupation, siege, and settlement expansion. There can be no progressive support for a wars of choice. There can be no solidarity with the Netanyahu government or its representatives like Consul Gilad, which has undermined moderate Palestinians, rejected offers of peace, and expanded settlements to make a two-state solution–if it is desirable–impossible. There can be no progressive partnerships with organizations like AIPAC. Jewish unity cannot come at the expense of Jewish integrity.

Work for peace and justice, not an end to resistance. I have spoken about the damage that we do to ourselves, but that should not draw attention from those who suffer and die in Gaza and beyond. Support Palestinians in their efforts to achieve liberation and equality. Listen to their voices and follow their lead. Reconsider the campaign for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. It is disingenuous to insist upon non-violent resistance and then to undermine its most effective form. BDS does not delegitimize Israel. The occupation does. Do not ask Palestinians to be Zionists. It is unfair and cruel. Ask how we can together create a society free and fulfilling for all.

Those of use who have been marginalized can come together. We can drop the illusion of Jewish unity and form communities of intention. You do not need to reject Israel–though some of us do–but I implore you to reconsider its place in our community and what it means to support Israel in its present form. I do not fear Palestinians. We can withstand European antisemitism. Yet the orientation of our community horrifies me. It is alienating our next generation and killing Palestinians. The community has stolen my birthright, because my birthright cannot come at the expense of others. No child’s birthright should be a photograph with an M-16. Stand with us for peace and compassion. Thank you.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Imploring and Questioning in the Face of Violence without End

To my Jewish friends who defend the occupation and the attacks on Gaza,

Consider for a moment that you may be wrong. I wake up with this thought every morning and it stays with me through the entire day. It’s more like a wish. Can you imagine the pain that so many of us feel protesting against our own people, fighting against a state which promises us protection and national self-realization? Do you understand what it means when the beautiful myths of your childhood shatter in the face of brutality and violence committed in our name? I do not love our heritage any less than you. What I cannot do, however, is to place a value on it greater than the welfare of other groups or the lives of fellow humans. I speak out against the occupation (and political nationalism of all kinds) precisely because it stains our history and our culture. It also threatens our future. Please, if I am wrong, educate me. Show me the error of my ways so that I can once again stand proudly by your side in advocacy for our people. Explain to me why others must suffer endlessly for us to build our own society. Bring me back into your fold, so that I can feel the joy of belonging as I did in my youth. But consider for the moment as well that you may be wrong, because you are asking for me, not to mention Palestinians, to pay a heavy price for the pride of infallibility and the guarantees of destiny.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

My Vegan-Jewish Response to Banning Ritual Slaughter

Jacob Ari Labendz, “Move to Ban Kosher Slaughter not about the Animals,” The Jewish Daily Forward (18 June 2014).

A number of European countries have recently sought, with some success, to ban the ritual slaughter of four-legged animals by Muslims and Jews. Denmark did so in February, following Poland in January. Proponents framed the discussion in terms of animal welfare. They have a point. Executed properly, animals suffer less when stunned — that is, rendered unconscious — before they are slaughtered. Mainstream interpretations of Muslim and Jewish law prohibit this practice.

Yet the bans on ritual slaughter, which are meant to protect animals from pain, have much more to do with excluding certain ethnic and religious groups and should therefore raise concern, even among activists who would normally support them.

As a vegan, I oppose industrial meat processing for its abject cruelty and indifference to animals. I should therefore support all initiatives that in any way ameliorate the suffering of those animals our society has deemed livestock. Just like the proponents of the ban, I, too, prefer that butchers stun cattle before they brandish their knives. I am even sympathetic to the Australian solution of “stunning” livestock immediately after ritual slaughter, to minimize suffering, while remaining within the bounds of religious law. Finland has provided a similar accommodation for its Jewish community since 1934.

Nonetheless, I strongly oppose banning ritual slaughter. For me, this has little to do with religious freedom. Though a bedrock of our society, religious freedom also has its limits. We outlaw female genital mutilation and compel parents to provide medical care for their children, even if they oppose doing so on religious grounds. Considered in isolation, if stunning is a “kinder and gentler” way to kill, I would insist upon its adoption despite the religious objections.

Yet we must first answer a few questions. What does it mean for predominantly Christian and post-Christian societies to ban Muslim and Jewish ritual slaughter when cruelty is inherent to the entire system of industrial animal farming, from birth until death? Why have activists seized upon this issue so fervently, and, more importantly, so successfully?

I stand with my European allies in their fight for the welfare of animals. But I am deeply concerned when they draw the lines of acceptable behavior along ethno-religious divides. They characterize Jewish and Muslim slaughter as barbaric, and their foodways — a centerpiece of cultural practice and identification — as lying outside the norm. In a time of rising ethno-nationalism on that continent, the attempt to ban ritual slaughter is yet another, tired volley in a discourse that says, simply and cruelly, “This is Europe: Assimilate completely or leave.”

Jewish and Muslim activists have joined together in opposing these bans, as they affect both communities. The bans, however, are aimed primarily at European Muslims and Muslims in Europe. They compose a far larger minority than Jews, and one less accepted by the majority. Indeed, the bans have arisen from the same hysteria that has, in part, ignited anti-circumcision campaigns in Europe. Some Finish anti-ritual slaughter activists have gone so far as to compare male circumcision and female genital mutilation, both of which they associate with Islam.

We should debate the merits of protecting young boys from potentially dangerous body modification without consent, just as we discuss all other areas of child welfare concern. Our conversation about ritual animal slaughter should proceed similarly and begin with the following question: Why draw divisive lines between communities already in tension when we can advocate for animal (and child) welfare by other means?

To that end, the attempts to ban ritual slaughter (and circumcision) are actually counterproductive. They amount to the projection of the very real concerns that we rightly have about the inherent cruelty of our own societies onto its internal “others.” This sort of activism stifles and diffuses important discussions, because it does not encourage the majority to re-evaluate its own choices. It offers, rather, confirmation to Christians and post-Christians alike that their culture is already more enlightened than others. How will banning a set of practices in which most citizens do not engage encourage those same individuals to think critically about their own behaviors? We must choose a different starting point. We can win tougher battles and achieve more profound results.

What is to be done? Those of us who identify as Jewish and animal-welfare/rights activists should oppose the efforts to ban ritual slaughter wherever they arise. Yet we should also avoid joining forces with Jewish and Muslim activists who see no problem in ritual slaughter and seek its perpetuation. They are not our allies.

This is a time for us to raise our voices as Jews within the animal-welfare/rights community, to stand firmly against bigotry and the easy solutions that it seems to offer. This is also a time for us to encourage our own Jewish communities to cease the practice of ritual slaughter voluntarily by refraining from consuming animal products.

To the public, we must speak as particular universalists, interested in constructing a more inclusive and just society. The perception of Jews as a people that have endured millennia of discrimination will add weight to our voices. Within our own communities, we must build avenues of influence for our many talented rabbis, philosophers and teachers, who articulate our values in a Jewish vernacular.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment