Is Kosher still kosher?

When it comes to animal welfare, should secular standards trump religious scruples?

The lower house of the Dutch parliament has voted by a large majority to ban the slaughter of animals without prior electric stunning, as practised by religiously observant Jews and Muslims. The Netherlands would not be the first European country to have such a law -- it is already banned in Sweden, Norway and Switzerland -- but the vote has inevitably reopened the debate on the balance that any modern society must strike between common standards and the rights of minorities to maintain their own traditions.

The debate is perhaps especially fierce in Holland, a country that has long been at the forefront of liberal modernity but which has more recently seen deep and ugly divisions on questions of immigration and culture. Last week saw the acquittal of Geert Wilders on charges of inciting religious hatred through his strongly expressed condemnation of Islam. The vote on banning ritual slaughter has been compared by the country's Chief Rabbi to Nazi legislation that began with the closing of kosher abbatoirs and ended with the Holocaust.

The comparison seems exaggerated, even offensive. But then Hitler was famously a vegetarian. Concern for animal welfare has not always gone hand-in-hand with love of human beings or the promotion of human rights. Even if -- as I strongly believe -- increasing concern about the treatment of other animals is a mark of a more civilised society, it doesn't necessarily follow that those promoting new rules act from disinterested motives.

For many people, the question is purely and simply one of reducing -- so far as is possible -- the pain and suffering of the animals being killed for food. The best scientific evidence suggests that pre-stunning animals is more humane than the religiously-decreed alternative of slitting their throats while still conscious, and that should be the end of the matter. It is widely accepted, after all, that even in a tolerant and religiously plural society some practices are off limits. There's no prospect of allowing female genital mutilation, for example, or child marriage, or the ritual use of illegal drugs. There's even a growing debate about the morality of cicumcising baby boys.

By and large, religious leaders accept that exemptions cannot be demanded as of right, or purely on the grounds of tradition and strongly held belief, but that they must pay lip-service at least to secularism. It's not enough to say simply, "This is what God has ordained". If religious slaughter were demonstrably cruel -- not merely less humane, but mandated that animals be slowly tortured to death or roasted while still alive -- then the argument would have ended long ago. In fact, before the introduction of prior stunning there was little or any distinction, in terms of animal suffering, between religious and non-religious slaughter.

The question thus is whether the religious should be forced to take on board the modern advance of electric stunning if they are to continue to eat meat. The change may in fact be easier for Muslims than for Jews, since some interpretations of Islamic law allow animals to be stunned before being killed. The practice is widespread in New Zealand, where for largely commercial reasons almost all meat is now halal. But Jewish law has historically been flexible, and one should never underestimate the ingenuity of rabbis.

The aim of both kosher and halal butchers -- they claim -- has always been to dispatch the animal in as swift and merciful a manner as possible. God, they would argue, would not have ordained a needlessly cruel death for his creatures. And this is, of course, the stated purpose of modern, secular, animal welfare regulations. Of course, being modern and secular the regulations invoke science rather than God, but the motivation is similar. One might almost call it religious.

Instead of crying religious discrimination, should the rabbis and imams not rather be grateful to the scientists for helping them to fulfil the deeper purpose behind their commandments more faithfully?

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war