Peter Singer Is Wrong
The famed bioethicist nods in approval at a Dutch politician’s assertion that animal rights trump religious freedom. This was occasioned by ongoing attempts in the Netherlands to ban traditional Jewish and Muslim practices of animal slaughter. Earlier this week, a one-year moratorium was enacted as part of a compromise—and if Jews and Muslims can’t “prove” that their methods are “more humane” in that time, the ban goes into effect. We’ll bracket the fact that Dutch animal-rights activists feel that the best step is to legally prohibit religious minorities from eating meat, while letting their fair-haired fellow nationals go about it through whatever means they prefer and focus on Singer.
As both an observant Jew and a vegetarian, I feel I’m in a strong position to respond to the following:
But prohibiting the ritual slaughter of animals does not stop Jews or Muslims from practicing their religion. During the debate on the Party for the Animals’ proposal, Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs, Chief Rabbi of the Netherlands, told members of parliament: “If we no longer have people who can do ritual slaughter in the Netherlands, we will stop eating meat.” And that, of course, is what one should do, if one adheres to a religion that requires animals to be slaughtered in a manner less humane than can be achieved by modern techniques.
Neither Islam nor Judaism upholds a requirement to eat meat.
I can’t speak for Islam, but Peter Singer is wrong about Judaism. As I am periodically reminded, sometimes in jest and sometimes from concern, there is a religious requirement to be “joyous” (simcha) on the Sabbath and holidays, and a Rabbinic ruling that “there is no joy without meat or wine.” (“Joy,” here, in a precise halakhic sense.) While I hold with those who understand the obligation to eat meat as contingent on the existence of a Temple, it is far from clear that this is the case. In practice, it certainly is not. To many Jews—perhaps most Orthodox—a ban on kosher meat prohibits the complete and proper celebration of the Sabbath and festivals.
But whether or not one needs to eat meat on Shabbat is the minor issue. Prohibiting Jewish ritual slaughter would, in time, be an effective ban on the practice of Judaism.
Kosher slaughtering is necessary not just for the production of brisket. Without it, there can be no new Torah scrolls, no new Megillot (festival scrolls), no new tefillin (phylacteries, or, as I call them, magic boxes), and no new mezuzot (the “signs upon your doorposts and your gates”). These must, unequivocally, be made from leather or animal parchment. It’s true that they all last a long time—but they wear out, eventually, and need to be replaced. If a section of a Torah tears or the ink begins to run, it must be replaced. The same holds for the scrolls involved in the other objects listed; moreover, tefillin boxes and straps themselves must be leather. Animal products used in Jewish ritual objects must come from an animal that has been killed in accordance with Jewish law. To prohibit shechita is to announce the intention to prohibit a central segment of holiday prayer services, to prohibit a central aspect of daily prayer, and to prohibit the primary signifier of a Jewish home.
Judaism, whether traditional or liberal, without these things is not a Judaism that has come to grips with modernity, as Singer would have us believe. It’s a Judaism that has had its knees bashed in and will never be the same or as healthy as it once was.
Singer goes further. To him, the question of ritual slaughter is precisely analogous to the HHS contraception mandate* or (in what appears to be his preferred example) Ultra-Orthodox Israelis demanding gender-segregated buses and military exemptions:
[A]llowing men and women to sit in any part of a bus does not violate orthodox Jews’ religious freedom, because Jewish law does not command that one use public transport. It’s just a convenience that one can do without – and orthodox Jews can hardly believe that the laws to which they adhere were intended to make life maximally convenient.
Let’s be clear: allowing men and women to sit in any part of a bus does not violate religious freedom not because public transit is optional, but because Jewish law does not demand total gender segregation. Like a supposedly “necessary” exemption from military service for Torah study, this is a recent innovation in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish practice that has its roots in internal politics, not halakha. They’re different in longevity and normativity from the question of ritual slaughter. More importantly, they’re questions that have already been debated and to some degree concluded within the religious group itself.**
That internal debate is precisely the liberty that Singer thinks is outside the bounds of legitimate religious liberty. When it comes into conflict with any other claim, it must give way entirely. Rather than allowing Jews to decide whether the Sabbath requires meat-eating or allowing Catholics to decide whether they can, even at a remove of several degrees, provide contraceptive care, national governments can and should decide for them.
Religions can do whatever they want, that is—except dissent from secularist, rationalist modernity. That, as we all know, should be illegal.
*I’m in no position to comment authoritatively, but I’d be interested to know whether Catholic notions of caritas (and other Latin words I don’t know or remember) render this claim as meaningless as his others: “Catholicism does not oblige its adherents to run hospitals and universities.”
**Likud brought Kadima into the governing coalition so that it could afford to alienate one of the Ultra-Orthodox parties by letting current rules on military exemptions for yeshiva study expire. Shas, the largest Ultra-Orthodox party, will in all likelihood be annoyed—but not too much. Even they recognize, under the rhetoric, that it’s a matter of politics, not religious freedom. The buses are clearly a matter of gender politics and a recurrent misogynist impulse—not in Orthodoxy or religion, I think, but men generally—as well as an a-traditional, deeply creative hyper-textualism.