Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Shechita and Tikkun Olam-Hijacked

Shechita and Tikkun Olam, two core mitzvot, ostensibly have little in common other than the fact that they are practiced religiously by a significant number of Jews. Many of our mitzvot are intended to give tangible expression to otherwise amorphous ethical teachings. However, both of these mitzvot share a common fate-both have been hijacked and as a result altered the intended message of the mitzvah.

Slaughtering animals for human consumption through halachic practice called shechita is an example of this phenomenom. Torah, in its pristine format viewed man as a non meat eater. Evidence of this is found in the Biblical text of the creation story. Man was a tiller of soil and although there are indications that they were herders in the ante-deluvian world there is no Biblical evidence that he was carnivorous. Only in the post-deluvian world did God, by default, permit man to eat meat.

The intricate and detailed method of kosher slaughtering was intended to prevent man from becoming numb to the suffering of animal life. The subliminal ethic was that if man remained sensitive to the suffering of animals, he would have a higher regard for mankind. In a sense then, slaughtering animals for the purpose of consumption was B’dieved (by default) and not a L’chatchila. In Talmudic literature there was a shift when meat is seen more as a centerpiece to celebration, so much so that our Rabbis declared ein simcha ella bvasar uvyayin-a religious celebration should be accompanied with meat and wine. There wasn’t necessarily a negation of the non-meat products but more of an affirmation of the use of meat. If we fast forward to America in the 21st century the evolution is complete with the negation of the use of non meat products for a religious celebration. A baal teshuva asked a rav to clarify a case of situational ethics. He and his wife recently became orthodox and the community was very embracing. Over the period of many months they had accepted routinely invitations for Shabbat lunches. Although they were vegetarian, they accepted the invitations but ate “around” the meat dishes. They wanted to reciprocate but were in a quandary regarding the kind of food they would be willing to serve, so they asked the Rav if it would be acceptable to invite people for vegetarian Shabbat meals. The Rav ruled that it would be inappropriate since it is Jewish tradition to celebrate religious meals with meat. The paradigm had shifted-where meat was once considered a B’deeved, it has now become a L’chatchila.

The paradigm however shifted further. The entire purpose of shechita was to eliminate or minimize as much as humanly possible the pain and suffering of animals. Today, however, with the economic pressure of maintaining strong profit margins in our kosher slaughter houses, the concern for the welfare of the animal and laborer has all but gone by the wayside. It is not surprising that an animal rights group (PETA) documented the inhumane treatment of the animals at one of the largest meat packing companies (Agriprocessors). This same company has also been accused of poor working conditions and exploitation of unskilled and undocumented workers. This past week, Federal subpoenas against this plant and other kosher meat packing plants for collusion and anti-trust activities have been filed.

One could parallel the hijacking of the mitzvah of Shechita and its paradigm shift to a rather different mitzvah: Tikkun Olam. The earliest expression of Tikkun Olam is found in the Aleynu prayer which is recited three times daily:

As we put our hopes in thee, o Lord our God,that we may soon see the glory of thy power, the earth rid of abominations and the idols cut down and the world repaired in the kingdom of God. (Letaken Olam Bemalchut Shadai)

Essentially, this rendering of Tikkun Olam discourages a pluralistic society where there are multiple approaches to spirituality and many formats of expressing belief in God. (Not very politically correct in the liberal community of the 21st century.)

The expression of Tikun Olam is also found in the Mishne where the phrase Mipne Tikkun Olam is used in a legal context. Here the understanding of the term is that although certain actions are not required by law, Mipne Tikkun Olam, one should behave in a certain manner in order to avoid potential promiscuity. For example, if a man sends a writ of divorce (Get) by messenger to his wife and changes his mind prior to her receiving it, technically he can cancel the Get without notifying her. The Rabbis, however, in their infinite wisdom, ruled Mipne Tikkun Olam, this isn’t advised. If she assumes that she is divorced she may have a relationship with another man. To avoid this, he must notify her of his change of mind.

It was only in the 16th century with the development of Lurianic Kabbalah did Tikkun Olam take on a more popular currency. Lurianic Kabbala gave absolutely no credence to “social” aspects of Tikkun Olam. The act of repairing to which they referred was cosmic in nature and implied no social action. Lurianic Kabbalist believed that the universe was in a shattered state and in need of repair and only by practicing mitzvot can the world be repaired. This act of aiding in the repair was intended to be accomplished by developing a deep personal and emotional relationship with God.

Michael Lerner, founder and editor of Tikkun Magazine, known for his Rainbow coalition politics and attacks on Israel, exploited Lurianic Kabbala and gave new unlicensed expression to Tikkun Olam as a form of redemptive social action. Tikkun Olam was hijacked by Jewish Liberals-neither in its Mishnaic, nor Kabbalistic meaning was it ever intended as advocacy for social justice, environmentalism or redistribution of wealth.

Both mitzvot of Shechita and Tikkun Olam are paradigms that have been stood on their head, essentially robbed of their original intent and meaning. Jews are not going to become vegetarian, nor will meat packing companies be able to operate at a loss. Certainly we aren’t in a position to eradicate idol worship. The ethics of tolerance and pluralism are all values that we ought to embrace but not under the guise of Tikkun Olam. Maintaining a kosher lifestyle becomes meaningless if there is no regard for animal life and respect for humanity.