In 1955, Senator Hubert Humphrey from Minnesota presented the United States Senate with a bill proposal that only humanitarian means be used to slaughter animals and birds. Through much perseverance, Torah Jewry ensured that the bill allowed shechita and it’s necessary preparations to be practiced without interference.
Precursor to Persecution
Isaac Lewin who discusses this episode was active in many religious issues and acted as spokesman for Agudas Yisroel before the United Nations Social and Economic Council after World War 2. He wrote an account of Humphrey’s shechitah legislation in his book Personalities and Historical Events.
According to Lewin, Hubert was liberal and not known to be anti-Semitic. It seemed that he sincerely wanted to further the cause of humanitarianism with his proposed law that suggested animals should be “rendered insensible by mechanical, electrical, chemical, or other means determined by the Secretary [of Agriculture] to be rapid, effective, and humane” before their slaughter.
Because such procedures can render an animal treifa, the proposed law specifically excluded ritual slaughter from its jurisdiction. It would not to apply “to any individual who is duly authorized by an ordained rabbi of the Jewish religious faith to serve as a shector (sic), while such individual is engaged in the slaughtering of livestock or poultry in accordance with the practice of such religious faith.”
Nonetheless, three things bothered Lewin and other Torah true Jews. First, a law making shechitah an exception to the required humane slaughter implied that shechitah itself was inhumane. Secondly, once a law like this is passed, even if it initially approves of shechitah, pro animal organizations might fight to “amend” the law not to include shechitah. Third, the use of shechitah might only be sanctioned only for Jews, leading to a situation where the hindquarters of animals or animals found to be treifa would be unsellable to non-Jews.
In 1956, a sub-committee of the Agricultural Counsel of the Senate headed by Humphrey was appointed to look into the proposal. As part of its investigations it called for a public discussion of the matter.
As mentioned, Jewish organizations understood that the suggested law could be dangerous despite Humphrey’s protection of shechitah. For the driving force behind the new legislation was the cadre of humanitarian societies in America. Once the law demanded humane slaughter, even if shechitah was made an exception, pro animal societies could soon demand that the exception for shechitah should be annulled.
Such a thing had already happened in England. In 1933, when England made a law demanding humane slaughter and exempting shechitah on religious grounds, animal societies began demanding the outlawing of shechitah almost immediately. Freedom of religion was not an ironclad guarantee for shechitah for in pre-World War 2 Poland, anti-Semites had got a priest to testify that outlawing shechitah would not oppose freedom of religion because shechitah is not included among the mitzvos.
The public discussion of Humphrey’s suggested law was attended by the representatives of many Jewish organizations, pro animal societies, the government, and representatives of the meat business.
The law wasn’t all that popular among many of the meeting’s attendees. The government representative said he thought the law was premature – more study was be needed to see exactly what constituted humane slaughter. This was also the opinion of the meat business representatives. Only the pro animal societies insisted that the stunning process was satisfactory — even though they had not seemed so certain about this some years earlier. Due to the resistance to Humphrey’s law, it seemed that if the Jews also put up a fight the proposed law would certainly be shelved. But this did not happen.
Three Jewish representatives were present at the meeting: 1) Isaac Lewin represented the Agudas Harabbanim. 2) The lawyer Leo Pepper represented the American Jewish Congress, the Synagogue Council of America, the Board of Rabbis of New York, and the Union of Kashrut Supervisors. Many of the Jews he represented were conservative or reform Jews who were more concerned about being politically correct than the future of kosher meat in America. 3) Rav Dr. Michael Munk represented the World Agudas Yisroel organization.
Isaac Lewin spoke first, saying that besides opposing the new law, he resented shechitah being portrayed as an exemption to humane slaughter as the Torah was first to legislate against cruelty to animals and the world’s greatest experts testified that shechitah was the most humane way to slaughter animals and birds.
Humphrey replied that it was not his law’s intention to portray shechitah as inhumane. Shechitah would be included as one of the humane methods.
Rav Munk, like Lewin, was against the law altogether. He cited experts who concurred that shechitah was humane and presented Humphrey with a book on the subject composed by Lewin and himself (I. Lewin, M. Munk, J. Berman, Religious Freedom: The Right to Practice Shehitah. New York 1946). Impressed by the book, Humphrey said he would include it among the documents relating to the slaughter issue.
Pepper prefacing his speech with the claim that he was speaking on behalf of 80% of American Jewry for after all, the organizations he represented included Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews. He not only expressed dismay at shechitah being represented as an exception to humane slaughter, but also proposed a revised text for the law, suggesting that it explicitly state that animals be slaughtered in three humane ways – 1) by mechanical, electrical, or chemical stunning of animals 2) by the decapitation of birds 3) and through kosher shechitah.
Humphrey immediately accepted Pepper’s amendment. This made the situation dangerous. Unlike the other Jewish and non-Jewish representatives at the meeting who had opposed making a law altogether, Pepper had suggested a new formula for the law, which he said was supported by 80% of American Jewry. The fact that it stated shechitah was humanitarian did not change the fact that the law was unnecessary and dangerous. Now, because of Pepper’s stance, there was a much greater chance the law might pass through Congress.
Some of the organizations Pepper represented realized this danger and urged him to rescind his suggestion. But by the time Pepper told Humphrey he wanted to withdraw his support for the law it was too late. Humphrey was already deeply involved in turning his proposal into law.
Preparations for Shechitah
During a later meeting, a House of Representative politician who favored the pro animal societies formulated a proposal that while allowing shechitah, forbade preparations for slaughter such as shackling or hanging an animal before shechitah if the animal was not rendered unconscious beforehand, unless the Department of Agriculture found that it was “in conformity with the practices and requirements of religion. ” This was a risky situation. What would happen if the Department of Agriculture decided it was not in conformity with the practices and requirements of religion. The modern machinery that encases an animal and turns it over for shechitah was not yet available.
In the end, the Senate accepted Page’s proposal 43 for and 40 against. However, it permitted preparations such as shackling and hoisting that were necessary for shechitah without restriction. According to Lewin’s son, Atty. Nathan Lewin, Lewis arranged this amendment in 1958 during testimony before a Senate subcommittee.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed in the new law on August 27, 1958. It established the “use of humane methods of slaughter of livestock as a policy of the United States,” forbade “the federal government from purchasing meat slaughtered by inhumane methods and giving the Department of Agriculture inspection authority in this area,” but permitted “slaughtering in accordance with the ritual requirements of the Jewish faith or any other religious faith that prescribes a method of slaughter whereby the animal suffers loss of consciousness by anemia of the brain caused by the simultaneous and instantaneous severance of the carotid arteries with a sharp instrument.” In addition, it permitted any necessary “handling or other preparation of livestock for ritual slaughter.”
It was also emphasized that nothing in the law should be utilized to forbid, limit, or disturb in any way the freedom of religion of any individual or group without consideration of the other paragraphs that protect this freedom.
Lewin points out that since the Agricultural Committee of the Senate opposed the law with a large majority and the senate only accepted it by a small majority of 43 against 40, this indicates that had American Jewry had been united, had Orthodox Jewry had not been alone in the fight against the law, the results may have been very different. Because so many people opposed the law, says Lewin, there was no need for the Jews to compromise out of the fear they might be viewed as inhumane.
In conclusion, Lewin writes, the damage caused by the reform and conservative Jews and certain Jewish senators who supported the bill was a fulfillment of the verse, Your wreckers and destroyers shall come from you (Yeshayahu 49:17).
(Source: Isaac Lewin, Personalities and Historical Events, Mossad Harav Kook Yerushalayim 1988)