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Novelist Sharpens His Knife For Those Who Eat Animals
Foer Recruits Key Rabbis for PETA Video
By GABRIEL SANDERS
April 7, 2006
Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the bestselling novel "Everything is
Illuminated," this week released a video in which he argues that the
slaughtering practices employed by modern factory farms are out of step
with the spirit of the kosher laws. The film ultimately calls upon viewers
to consider vegetarianism.
The video, which features interviews with noted rabbis David Wolpe and
Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, was written by Foer and produced under the
auspices of the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals, or Peta. Both a 25-minute version of the film and an abbreviated
version were posted Tuesday at the Peta-sponsored Web site
The video, titled "If this is Kosher...," is likely to reignite the debate
begun at the end of 2004, when PETA released a stomach-turning video
clandestinely shot at AgriProcessors, the world's largest glatt kosher
slaughterhouse, in Postville, Iowa. The undercover video, which recorded
seemingly conscious cows limping and stumbling across a blood-soaked
slaughterhouse floor often more than a minute after their throats had been
slit, sparked an investigation by the United States Department of
Agriculture. Last month, the USDA released a report calling a number of the
practices caught on the tape inhumane. By the time of the report's release,
the offending practices had been stopped.
Though it employs some footage from Peta's 2004 video, Foer's film is free
of the overheated rhetoric and gimmickry often associated with the animal
rights group, including a controversial 2003 campaign comparing
contemporary slaughterhouses to Nazi concentration camps. The author's call
to action, which he makes seated before a bookcase full of what appear to
be law books, is offered in cool, measured and often personal tones.
"To be Jewish," he says, "is to strive to make the world less cruel and
more just - not only for oneself and not only for one's people, but for
everyone. One doesn't have to consider animals as equal to humans - I don't
- to give them a place in this inspiring idea."
To help buttress his argument that the Jewish conception of life is an
exalted one and that ideally it should inform the way in which the laws of
kashrut are observed, Foer introduces testimony from Wolpe, the religious
leader of the largest Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, Temple Sinai,
and Greenberg, a liberal Orthodox rabbi and renowned theologian who once
served as chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.
"The Torah makes clear that the very permission to eat meat is an
exemption, it's a compromise," says Greenberg, now the president of the
Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, in the video. "Kosher is not
just a technicality. It's based on reverence for life, and therefore a
kosher process that is cruel is truly a violation."
In his testimony, Wolpe argues: "Kashrut is an attempt to moderate, to make
more gentle, our savagery toward the natural world."
"Kashrut is saying that if you must eat meat, then you must do it in the
most empathetic, kind, gentle way possible," he says, adding, "to call
something kosher when at the same time you're subverting the very purpose
of kashrut is a powerful violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the
The film has two sets of goals: one narrow, one broad. It seeks on the one
hand to take to task those responsible for Postville's failings. Here Foer
singles out the family that owns the plant, the Rubashkins, and the
Orthodox Union, the country's leading certifier of kosher products. But the
film also offers a broader call to action, one rooted in vegetarianism. In
the film, Greenberg, Wolpe and Foer all discuss their decision to become
"Like most people, I grew up thinking that meat eating was not only normal
but healthy," Foer says early in the film. "[But] as I was exposed to
information and arguments about animal suffering and human responsibility,
I became a vegetarian. It's been more than 15 years, and I consider this
dietary choice - which I make anew with each meal, and often against my
cravings - to be one of the cornerstones of my ethical life."
The film has not been without its early critics.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union's
Kashrus Division, said that though he was moved by Foer's conviction, the
film was unfair in its treatment of the O.U.'s role in the Postville
affair. The film, he said, did not capture the nuance of the O.U.'s
position, which was not one of simple allegiance to the Iowa plant. Genack
also argued that the film failed to note that all of the concerns voiced
about the plant by the USDA have been addressed.
"Video taken at any slaughterhouse would be gruesome," Genack told the
Forward. "It's inherent to the process. There's no method of sanitizing
it." Genack maintained that he must strike a very delicate balance - among
USDA regulations, rabbinic law and the economics of the meat industry.
"We'd be failing our constituency if we didn't provide affordable kosher
meat," he said.
Foer, for his part, sees grounds for optimism. "For some reason," he says
in an interview posted on the HumaneKosher Web site, "I hold in the back of
my mind that everybody I know is going to be a vegetarian in 20 years.
That's something I really believe."