Jewish Ritual Slaughter: A Three-Thousand Year Old Method That Respects Animal Suffering

January 4, 2005

Rav Riccado Di Segni is Chief Rabbi of Rome and an eminent physician.

Theoretically, there is no problem whatsoever: Jewish ritual slaughter is explicitly allowed by the state agreement with the Italian Jewish community, and there is a special derogation in EU legislation. Actually, there is ongoing pressure on Italy and in Europe against the practice of shechita.

There are various reasons for this pressure. First, there is the thesis of animal welfare groups, defended and advanced by the Green Parties and other groups on the political left.

The widespread idea, a sort of dogma, is that ritual slaughter is a cruel, painful practice inflicting suffering on animals that can easily be avoided with other methods of slaughter or pre-stunning.

Defense of animal welfare is increasingly embraced by large segments of public opinion, primarily urban populations, today far removed from any relationship with animals or farming. They only see the animals they eat at the butchers and no one pays any attention to how they live, or especially to how they die.

Over recent years in Italy, even the rural population has had little direct contact with slaughter, and this is being reduced for reasons of hygiene. Until not long ago, many families living in the country raised pigs or other animals, slaughtered them at home, and prepared them for private consumption. Today, slaughter in private settings is strictly forbidden. This fact also inevitably leads to indifference to the problem and a change in the mentality. The result is a growing hostility to different, non-mechanized methods of slaughter.

Another significant wave of opposition to ritual slaughter comes from reaction to the presence of Islam in society, greeted with different levels of tolerance. Display of religious practices, like slaughtering at home on balconies during the “festival of sacrifice”, has even led to violent reactions. In this case, it is difficult to distinguish between how much is scandal over a religious practice traumatic for those observing and performed flauntingly and the desire to wage a radical attack at the traditions of what is seen as an extraneous body.

Whatever the case, there are some right-wing political forces (the Italian Lombard League and some representatives of AN—the National Alliance) that have been fighting this battle in which the Jewish community is also involved, if no other reason than to maintain a sense of balance.

There is no doubt but the increased Islamic present has serviced as a sounding board for a problem that would probably be ignored if only related to the Jews.

That is not to say that it was ignored n the past: shechita has been banned in Switzerland for many decades and was made illegal in Sweden as well, independently of the presence of Muslims in that country.

Today, any European country could prohibit shechita, for a series of political coincidences. The same thing might happen in the European Union. For that reason, Jewish institutions must be constantly alert. There is a new paradox that is developing out of this situation: circumstances are obliging Jews and Muslims to form an alliance against a common enemy, while other issues (the Arab-Israeli conflict) normally force the two groups to take opposite sides. At least, one might say, it is an ill wind that blows no good.

Luckily, there are not only attacks, but also careful thought without prejudice. That, for example, was the case in Italy where an authoritative body, the National Commission for Bioethics, approved, after many studies and hearings, a document approved in the plenary session of September 19, 2003 entitled “Ritual Slaughter and Animal Suffering”. The Commission’s decision have—or should have—notable influence in guiding the legislative and executive authorities’ the decisions on the matter. In its assessment, the Commission weighed the two issues at stake: religious freedom and animal suffering. Starting from the assumption, not to be taken for granted, that in comparison to pre-stunning, methods of ritual slaughter could lead to a small increase in suffering, the Commission held that this small possibility could be considered “bioethically permissible when all practices not in conflict with the ritual of slaughter that minimize animal suffering are adopted.” It thus called for the “development of forms of pre-stunning that are acceptable to religious laws” and declared inadmissible “spontaneous, uncontrolled ritual slaughter performed by anyone who is not a specially authorized butcher.” (The full text of the document can found at http://www.olir.it/areetematiche/42/index.php).