Judaism and Industrial Food Production

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by R. Gil Student

Keeping kosher has never been easier, both for the poor and the wealthy. The centralization of food production has allowed for scales of operation that greatly reduce prices for consumers. It also enables kosher certification for a wide variety of products that are prepared in industrial plants rather than locally. Many people with only marginal interest in keeping kosher do so because so many options are readily available, even if they are somewhat more expensive than non-kosher food.

However, the centralization has also led to significantly worse treatment of animals. I claim no expertise but the documentaries I have seen show animals raised in incredibly tight quarters, fed unhealthy diets and slaughtered in a production line process. Seeing this makes any normal person queasy. Some people, after learning how animals are raised and killed, abstain completely from meat consumption through vegetarian diets.

From a religious and ethical perspective, industrialized food production has weights on both the positive and negative sides of the scale. However, an argument can be made that from it is religiously preferable to localized food production. One can argue counterintuitively that the treatment of animals is ethically better when it is centralized even if it is factually worse.

I. Sending Away the Mother

Two main theories of Jewish animal ethics are widely discussed. Both suffer weaknesses and at least one may have never been intended by its main proponent. The discussion revolves around the Biblical commandment to send away a mother bird before taking its children (Deut. 22:6-7). The Mishnah (Berakhos 33b) states that anyone who prays to God that His mercy extends to a bird’s nest must be silenced. One explanation in the Gemara is that this prayer implies that the reason for the commandment is God’s mercy on animals when really it is an unfathomable divine decree.

Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:48) dismisses this attitude as a rejected opinion and explains the commandment precisely in that way. God has mercy on animals and therefore commanded us to send away the mother before taking her children.

Ramban (Commentary to Deut. 22:6) accepts the Mishnah’s admonition and Gemara’s explanation as authoritative, removing God’s mercy from consideration. He instead explains this mitzvah as a tool for character growth, a method to avoid or even remove cruel traits. The focus is not on the animals but on our own personalities. While God’s attributes are inscrutable, His plan for us can be understood. He does not want servants who will needlessly act cruelly.

These are the two main theories, which we have discussed elsewhere. However, the Rambam’s approach is actually more complex. Elsewhere in Moreh Nevukhim (3:17), he writes that tza’ar ba’alei chaim, the prohibition against harming animals, is intended to improve our personalities. This seems like the Ramban’s view. In Mishneh Torah (Hilkhos Tefillah 9:4), the Rambam writes that the commandment to send away the mother bird is a divine decree, not mercy. Because, he points out, if it were mercy on animals then God would not allow us to slaughter them at all. How do we make sense of the Rambam’s competing theories of animal ethics?

R. Yonasan Blass (Mi-Nofes Tzuf, vol. 2 pp. 851-853) sees three levels of meaning within the Rambam’s understanding of this commandment:

  1. We must display mercy in our interactions with animals
  2. On a more abstract level, these merciful actions are supposed to imbibe us, through training, with merciful personalities
  3. On an even more abstract level, we are expected to walk in God’s path and follow His trait of mercy. While God’s essence is unfathomable, we relate to it through these types of actions.

II. Animal Cruelty With a Purpose

However, common halakhic rulings pose difficulties to these approaches. Tosafos debate whether the prohibition against animal cruelty (tza’ar ba’alei chaim) is equal to that against wasting (bal tashchis) or stronger. If these two laws are equally strong, then tza’ar ba’alei chaim would not apply when there is a constructive purpose, like bal tashchis. If tza’ar ba’alei chaim is stronger, then even a constructive purpose would be insufficient to permit animal cruelty. Tosafos in Bava Metzi’a (32b sv. mi-divrei) take the position that they are equal. However, Tosafos in Avodah Zarah (11a sv. okerin) state that animal cruelty is stronger. According to this second Tosafos, human need does not override animal pain. However, this view is not accepted by subsequent authorities.

The Terumas Ha-Deshen (2:105) rules that animal cruelty is permissible whenever there is a constructive purpose, albeit with an important caveat. He discusses whether one may pull feathers off a live goose for human use. He points out that the Gemara (Kiddushin 82a) states that animals were created to serve humanity. We eat animals and use them to carry our burdens and plow our fields. I understand this to mean that the animals’ lives and deaths in service of humanity enable them to join our worship of God, providing them with meaning they cannot even understand. Therefore, the Terumas Ha-Deshen concludes, there is no technical prohibition to pull feathers off a goose because of the usage, but people still do not do it because it involves the character trait of cruelty. The Rema (Shulchan Arukh, Even Ha-Ezer 5:14) rules like this Terumas Ha-Deshen, and it seems to be the accepted ruling.

While a minority approach within Jewish law forbids animal cruelty even when it benefits humanity, the consensus allows it. According to the Rambam (simply read), this ruling is difficult. If God has mercy on animals, how can we ignore it just because people benefit? According to the Ramban, how can adopting cruel character traits be an afterthought? Character development should be the primary concern.

III. Cruel Endings

The Gemara (Chullin 7b) records a discussion about what to do with dangerous white mules. One suggestion is to maim them, which is rejected because of tza’ar ba’alei chaim, animal cruelty. Another suggestion is to destroy them, which is rejected because of bal tashchis, wasting the animals. R. Yechezkel Landau (Noda Bi-Yehudah 2:YD:10,13) infers from this passage that the prohibition of tza’ar ba’alei chaim does not apply to killing animals. The Noda Ba-Yehudah is discussing hunting, which can often cause an animal painful death. While he denounces recreational hunting as Esav’s occupation unbefitting Ya’akov’s descendants, he argues that tza’ar ba’alei chaim is inapplicable.

Similarly, the Avodas Ha-Gershuni (13) [1]Quoted by Gilyon Maharsha, Avodah Zarah 13 and others rules that one may stab an animal rather than slaughter it less painfully in order to preserve the skin for usage. We do not need to be concerned for causing necessary pain in killing animals when it serves a constructive purpose. He notes that the Gemara (Chullin 28a), when discussing possible areas on animal in which God could have commanded us to slaughter animals rather than the neck, is not concerned with the least painful method. The Shevus Ya’akov (3:71) rules similarly regarding medical experimentation on animals, although that topic is more complex and deserves its own treatment.

These rulings have broad significance. Pain inflicted as part of the slaughter process, if it happens, does not fall under the prohibition of animal cruelty, although as we will see there might still be a concern. According to the Rambam (broadly read) and Ramban, that God wishes to instill within us a merciful trait, why are we allowed to inflict pain as part of the slaughter process? [2]Note that I am not suggesting that kosher slaughter causes pain. But there are unusual circumstances in which pain can be inflicted, such as hunting or killing for the hide.

IV. Ecology and Animals

Abarbanel (Deut. 22:6) offers a different explanation for the mitzvah to send away the mother bird before taking her children, an approach that is faithful to the Gemara and consistent with subsequent halakhic development. While acknowledging that developing a merciful character is an element of this commandment, Abarbanel sees its primary purpose as protecting the environment. The world has a continuing need for an animal population. If we deplete a species, we are causing the world and ourselves great harm. God placed us here to use the world, not destroy it. Therefore, we may take the children birds but must send away the mother to have more children. Similarly, we are not allowed to slaughter a cow and its calf on the same day in order to decrease the chances of depopulation. Our stewardship of this world requires that we let one of them go and continue the species. [3]The Kol Bo (111) writes similarly that the reason for the mitzvah to send away the mother bird is to save the species and to prevent us from becoming cruel.

I believe that this theory fits in better with the post-Talmudic halakhic developments discussed above. We must avoid unnecessary cruelty to animals but only as a secondary concern. God created the world, including its animals, for our benefit. We may use it and them for our needs, even when some cruelty unavoidably happens. But we must minimize the animal suffering and avoid developing negative character traits.

The Mishnah (Kiddushin 82a) calls butchers “the partners of Amalek.” Tosefos Yom Tov explains that some people are naturally inclined to shedding blood. They can either utilize their talents for evil by killing people or devote themselves to good by preparing animals for human consumption. Butchers are potentially evil but, in practice, earn an honest and praiseworthy living by serving others. Yes, bloodshed is distasteful, even cruel. But when allowed, it is a mitzvah.

V. Animal Slaughter Today

My mother and mother-in-law tell their children and grandchildren how, in their childhood, the animals their family kept were fed better than the children. The children saw, fed and even played with the animals. Then the family would take the fattened animals to the butcher who would slaughter them, and the family would eat the animals. My generation benefited from centralized food production and never saw an animal slaughtered. We are much farther removed from the cruelty than any generation in history.

However, if the documentarians are to be believed, animals raised for slaughter today are treated more cruelly than ever in history. Granted, as we have seen, this cruelty is permitted if it serves a purpose for humans, such as providing more and less expensive food. Even cruel and painful slaughter, if it occurs, is technically allowed but should be avoided if possible.

If this is true, then the question is whether the Torah prefers less animal cruelty that is closer to the communal experience or more animal cruelty that is farther from the community. Now, I am not suggesting that my grandparents or grandparents-in-law were cruel people for having raised animals and then taken them to slaughter. However, this is, to some degree, a cruel experience that must somehow desensitize people, even if just a little, in a way that no longer occurs. Are we better off avoiding that experience if it means more animal cruelty somewhere in factory farms?

According to the Rambam as simply read, that God is concerned for animals’ pain, then perhaps we should revert to local slaughter. Less animal cruelty is better regardless of its impact on people. According to the Ramban and the more expansive reading of Rambam, centralized food production is an improvement because it decreases the development of the character trait of cruelty in the vast majority of people.

According to the Abarbanel, we must be concerned primarily with the environment. Is centralized food production good or bad for the environment? Will species disappear, will the world be permanently damaged, by centralized food production? A good argument can be made that industrial food production, as it is currently practiced, is causing irreparable damage to the environment. However, every indication I have seen is that this is caused by the massive non-kosher producers. Kosher food production, particularly kosher animal slaughter, seems to have little to no permanent environmental footprint. Even if every kosher slaughterhouse shut down, the rate of deforestation, species extinction and other similar measures would not change at all.

We have not mentioned every possible concern, such as taste, health and the economic effect on local producers. This is a passionate political issue (albeit not my issue) and I distrust every statistic presented and every lobbyist and partisan advocate. Be that as it may, we should at least recognize both the positive and negative aspects of industrial food production, and the light Jewish thought sheds on the various issues.


1Quoted by Gilyon Maharsha, Avodah Zarah 13 and others
2Note that I am not suggesting that kosher slaughter causes pain. But there are unusual circumstances in which pain can be inflicted, such as hunting or killing for the hide.
3The Kol Bo (111) writes similarly that the reason for the mitzvah to send away the mother bird is to save the species and to prevent us from becoming cruel.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. “The question is whether the Torah prefers less animal cruelty that is closer to the communal experience or more animal cruelty that is farther from the community. ”

    Despite having relatively strong feelings about industrial agriculture I thought this piece was interesting and nuanced.

    However, I would suggest that your above binary misses a crucial form of “cruelty” that is being cultivated precisely by having animal slaughter occur out of sight. That is: indifference to suffering when it is easy to ignore. Ignoring the increased suffering of animals on factory farms is of a piece with ignoring the increased risks to meat-production workers over the butchers of old, and ignoring countless other forms of suffering going on “far away” at any moment (many of which are, directly and indirectly, for our benefit). I find it very difficult to argue that the “desensitization” that is avoided by removing animal slaughter from everyday life would be worse than the desensitization that necessarily accompanies that removal – i.e., a desensitization to things that “everyone knows” but no one sees.

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