The recent ruling by the European Union Court of Justice allowing member countries to ban ritual slaughter of animals for kosher and halal meat is just one in a long line of such measures dating back at least as far as 1893, when Switzerland voted to outlaw the practice. That prohibition continues to be in effect, while the ban on kosher slaughter in Nazi Germany was rescinded after World War II. Numerous countries and governments have deliberated the issue, including the United States, with some actually adopting the prohibition.
Faced with these challenges, Jewish proponents have mounted various defenses of the ritual slaughter known as shechita. But none was more cogent and persuasive than the petition that was argued nearly 90 years ago by a young rabbi before the Seanad Éireann—the Irish Senate. The presentation was exhaustive in the sweeping scope and depth of its content, compelling in its eloquence and passion, and remarkable in the singular and extraordinary personality delivering the address. His name was Isaac Halevy Herzog, and he would later become the first chief rabbi of the State of Israel.
When he rose to defend kosher slaughter in 1934, Herzog had already made a practice of defending controversial opinions. Although raised in England, he himself strongly sympathized with the Irish Nationalists, the Sinn Féin, and he counted their leader, Éamon de Valera, among his close friends. Of the rabbi, de Valera once said, “from the moment I met him, I felt in the presence of a good and holy man.” Ireland was still in political turmoil in 1934. Officially the country was named Saorstát Éireann, the Irish Free State, and it had the status of Dominion of the British Commonwealth—a compromise reached under the Anglo–Irish Treaty that ended the Irish War of Independence in 1921. That treaty would last until 1937, when the Nationalists would abolish it and pass a new constitution (which Rabbi Herzog himself helped draft) that established the independent state of Ireland.
On a cold winter day, Dé Céadaoin, 170 Eanair—Wednesday, January 17, 1934—Herzog would be speaking as a representative of not only the Irish Jewish community as their chief rabbi but also the greater English rabbinate in a crucial bid to allow them nothing less than to maintain their very way of life. The Senate was deliberating a bill that would essentially outlaw shechita, claiming that it was inhumane and caused undue suffering to the animal.
Herzog’s presentation reads like a primer in persuasive argumentation.1 It is also a masterful display of Herzog’s unique capacity, evident throughout his career, to combine various disciplines, secular and Jewish, scientific, political, and philosophic, to make his case. Herzog’s talent for swimming in such disparate oceans of knowledge was already evident 20 years prior, in the doctorate he presented to the University of London entitled Hebrew Porphyrology—a word he coined, meaning the study of purple. That dissertation dealt with another animal-related topic—tchelet, an ancient blue dye mentioned in the Bible, which, because of the vagaries of history, had been lost for more than a millennium.
Both Jewish and secular scholars, each for their own reasons, had become interested in exploring the subject of tchelet and definitively identifying its unlikely source, a small sea snail, known in the Talmud as the hillazon. Nearly a century after it was written, Herzog’s doctorate would be published as a book and reviewed by Roald Hoffmann, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, who wrote, “Oh, if all theses were like Herzog’s! Adroitly weaving its way through the classical descriptions of the dye-producing snails, in full command of the sometimes contradictory Talmudic references, aware of the complex zoology of the snails, he achieves nothing less than a synthesis.”
Herzog began his presentation to the Irish Senate with an overview of the laws of shechita, which, he said, “are believed by us to have been handed down by Moses to whom they were divinely communicated.” He then described the Jewish method of slaughter, sparing no detail. The butcher, or shochet, he said, cuts the throat of the animal “with a single swift and uninterrupted sweep of the knife, which is of more than surgical sharpness and smoothness, horizontally across the throat in such a manner that it severs the trachea, esophagus, carotid arteries and jugular veins.” Treating the committee members to a short Talmud lesson, complete with the Hebrew terminology familiar to every Yeshiva student who has studied the tractate Hullin, he enumerated the five essential properties of kosher shechita and explained each one. According to Herzog, the clear purpose of these detailed precepts is to prevent, or reduce significantly, any possible suffering or pain for the animal. “The charges of inhumaneness levelled against shechita are either due to the lack of knowledge of physiology, to imperfect information, or to blind anti-Semitic prejudice,” he declared.
As support for this assertion, he submitted into evidence the opinions of no less than 457 “continental scientists and veterinary surgeons, mostly Gentile Christians.” He classified and indexed the disciplines represented by those authorities—among them professors of physiology, pathology, and anatomy; government officials, presidents, and inspectors of butchers’ associations; as well as British lords and one Nobel laureate. He then went on to offer a sample of these testimonies, each one emphatic that shechita in fact involves no cruelty, but quite the opposite, and asserting that the Jewish way of slaughter was devised to cause the minimum pain and discomfort to the animal. He subsequently presented evidence from several prominent scientists who, after personally observing 33 cases of shechita, examined the carcasses for bruises that would imply that the animal experienced unease or distress, and “in no single case was such a bruise found.” Herzog concluded this part of his presentation with a wonderful quote from a famous physiologist, Charles Lovatt Evans of London University: “I should be happy to think that my own end were likely to be as swift and painless as the end of these cattle killed in this way undoubtedly is,” Evans gushed. “I should say that it is granted to few human beings to reach their exitus in so swift and painless a manner.”
Moving next to legal and political arguments, Herzog maintained that since Jews are forbidden to eat meat killed through any mode other than proper shechita, prohibiting ritual slaughter would “inflict a cruel hardship” on the law-abiding Jewish community and would amount to a “dire religious persecution of Irish citizens of the Jewish race and faith.” Furthermore, such a prohibition would constitute an “infraction of the Minorities Treaties of the League of Nations,” which protected the free exercise of religious practices. This last point must have resonated with the Senate, as the nascent Irish Free State was then seeking international recognition and membership in the League of Nations.
His closing remarks highlighted a position Herzog would passionately champion again and again throughout his life. Not only did he maintain that Jewish law is inherently just and moral, but Herzog’s unwavering conviction that the Torah and its laws were given by a benevolent and compassionate God meant that, comparatively, that law is indeed the most righteous and the most ethical of any legal system that has ever existed from ancient times to the present.
For this very reason, many years later, Herzog became the leading advocate pushing for Mishpat Ivri, Jewish law, to be adopted as the official law of the newly emerging Jewish State of Israel rather than the sometimes confusing amalgam of Roman, Ottoman, and British law that existed during the years of the mandate. This, too, was an unpopular cause that he fought hard to promote, based on his steadfast belief in the intellectual and moral supremacy of Jewish law as it developed through history. “The Jewish nation continued to cultivate and develop her system of law, of such hoary antiquity, of so majestic, awe-inspiring an origin, amidst conditions so uncongenial, so adverse,” Herzog asserts in his 1936 magnum opus, The Main Institutions of Jewish Law, “and has reared a structure of rare grandeur and beauty.” Moreover, he was convinced that the traditional framework could be harmonized with modern values and conceptions: “I continue to toil over a solution to the problem of conformity between Torah law and democratic government.”
For many, this task would seem quite formidable, if not unachievable. But for Herzog, it was almost a technical matter of finding the right categories and legal methodology that could map traditional to modern. Fundamentally, he felt that the moral values underlying Torah law are fully consistent with, and are even estimable examples of, those of liberal democracy.
It was with that conviction that Herzog continued his address to the Senate, as he pivoted from a defense against the claim that shechita is inhumane to the moral high ground. He reminded his listeners that it is the biblical law that commands “thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he is threshing” and that the Sabbath be a day of rest not only for man but also for “thine ox and thine ass and all of thy cattle.” The Jew, he noted, first feeds his domestic animals before he sits down to his own meal, and that rabbinic Judaism prohibits hunting for sport. More synagogue sermon than court testimony, his address stressed that according to Jewish belief, the greatest Jewish figures, Moses and David, “were chosen leaders of Israel taken from the fold to feed God’s people because as shepherds they showed themselves kind and faithful to the sheep entrusted into their charge.”
His closing remarks are chilling, and they ring prescient considering the darkness that would fall over Europe in the decade to follow:
Lastly may I say how painful it is to the Jew to see and hear his religion charged with cruelty to animals. To those anti-shechita humanists, whoever they may be, who charge Judaism with cruelty to dumb creatures, but who are themselves so ominously dumb in the face of the suffering, the cruelty and the agony inflicted upon Jews in Christian lands, I would say that centuries before the Aryans had any idea of humaneness towards human beings, let alone animals… Israel’s Divine law commanded us to help the animal that has fallen down to rise up.
The Senate’s reaction to the rabbi’s presentation was resounding: “I should like to say that the community you represent have been fortunate in having a spokesman who put the aspects of the case with such clarity and in such absolute detail,” declared one member. Not only did they not outlaw shechita; they even published a pamphlet, The Slaughtering of Animals in Jewish Law and Practice, in support of his arguments. Moreover, the Irish Senate allocated 4,500 Irish pounds for Jewish slaughterhouses in Ireland.
In the final version of the bill, Jews were indeed exempted from the prohibition against ritual slaughter: “Nothing in this section shall apply to or render unlawful the slaughter of any animal for consumption as food by Jews, where such slaughter is carried out according to the Jewish method by a Jew who is for the time being approved in that behalf by the Chief Rabbi of the Irish Free State for the time being or in his absence by the Board of Shechita of the Jewish Community of Dublin.”
SHORTLY AFTER this triumph, Herzog would find himself chief rabbi of another territory of the Commonwealth, Mandatory Palestine, and would continue to hold that position after the founding of Israel, until his death in 1959. From the moment he assumed this role, he became far more than a religious figure and essentially took upon himself the responsibilities of foreign minister before such a position formally existed. He crisscrossed the globe, travelling from London to New York to Capetown, from Istanbul to Cairo to Mozambique, on behalf of the Jewish people. Summoning all of his eloquence and powers of persuasion, he met with President Roosevelt in the White House, with Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, and had an audience with Pope Pius XII in the Vatican, in desperate attempts to gain their help in easing the suffering of European Jewry both during and after World War II.
Perhaps his most famous undertaking came after the war’s end, when he personally organized the rescue of thousands of abandoned Jewish children and brought them to Israel. Herzog managed to accomplish all of this without compromising any of his other responsibilities. He continued to produce groundbreaking halachic rulings, wrote countless responsa and articles, valiantly mediated between different religious factions in the emerging state, and offered assistance and relief to the endless stream of people who sought his help and advice, inspiring and guiding the nation during one the most tumultuous periods in modern Jewish history.
“So great was the scope of his activities,” wrote his son Chaim, that “it may seem as though they were accomplished by many different people in different fields, and not one prolific polymath.” Herzog’s devotion to the service of the Jewish people was to rub off on his descendants, many of whom became well-known figures in Israel’s political landscape. Chaim served as ambassador to the United Nations and later became Israel’s sixth president. His brother Yaakov was an adviser to David Ben-Gurion and the Israeli ambassador to Canada. And his grandson and namesake, Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, is currently chairman of the Jewish Agency.
Eventually Herzog’s exhausting schedule caught up with him and, in 1948, on his doctor’s insistence, he took a long overdue rest in Ireland. There he met with some of his old friends, including Robert Briscoe, a prominent member of the Jewish community. Briscoe had been part of the Eire Dail—the Irish government—when Herzog delivered his shechita address and would later become Lord Mayor of Dublin. (Upon hearing that a Jew had been elected mayor of Dublin, Yogi Berra is reported to have remarked, “Only in America.”) Briscoe had not forgotten the strong impression that Herzog had made on the Senate back then and was determined to make a grand gesture of recognition to the rabbi and to do what he could to assist the Jewish displaced persons in Europe.
Arrangements were made for 27 Ultra-Orthodox butchers, shochtim, to be brought in from “Germany and Austria and other European lands,” who were trained according to the strictest standards of Jewish dietary law. Three hundred tons of tin plate were provided by the Joint Distribution Committee to be used for the manufacture of tin cans. Fourteen years after the Irish government came so close to banning ritual slaughter altogether, the Irish Kosher Meat Project was launched, and 1 million pounds of food were produced, packaged, and delivered to the Jewish refugees across Europe—1 million pounds of certified Glatt kosher beef, from Ireland.
1 In the course of our research on Rabbi Herzog, we contacted the head librarian at the National Library of Ireland to track down the original records of the speech. After quite a bit of combing, he pointed us to the “Seanad Éireann: Reports of Committees, 1929–38” on file, and a short time later we received a 20-page photocopy of the proceedings.
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