From Babylon to Denmark

Since the early nineteenth century, gentile governments in Europe have been concerned with the question of Jewish dietary practices. This interest has been rekindled by the immigration of large numbers of Muslims into Europe in recent decades, since Muslim dietary rules resemble Jewish ones. To many Jews and Muslims, this governmental interest is unwelcome and intrusive, since it is usually aimed at prohibiting practices that are central to their faiths. Christians have also viewed such restrictions with concern, since they can threaten the religious liberties of all believers.

Against this backdrop, the Danish government issued a set of regulations for animal slaughtering last month that will have the effect of prohibiting ritual Jewish or Muslim cattle butcher. The Danish Minister of Food and Agriculture who signed the ban, a 38 year old Social Democrat named Dan Jorgensen, explained the ban on Danish television by saying “animal rights come before religion” – or, according to another version, “animal rights precede religious rights.”

Denmark’s action seems to be part of a broader trend in Europe. If the Danish government and parliament let the decision stand, Denmark will join several other western European nations, including Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Switzerland and, most recently, Poland in prohibiting such ritual slaughter. Holland had attempted to ban Jewish ritual slaughter, but a compromise was negotiated in 2012.

Denmark’s Jewish community (which numbers a mere 6,000 persons) opposes the minister’s decision. So do large numbers of Denmark’s Muslims (who constitute, overall, between 3% to 4% of the nation’s population.)  Danish Halal, an umbrella group representing 53 Muslim organizations, plans to submit a petition with 20,000 signatures in opposition to the ban. The European Commissioner on Health, Tonio Borg, questioned the legality of the ban, saying that it “contradicts European law.” On the other hand, Jorgensen’s decision was acclaimed by the Animal Welfare Intergroup, of which he had been President.

International reaction to the Danish ban has been vigorous, and highly critical.  Leaders of Jewish and Muslim organizations have met with Danish Embassy personnel in Washington DC and other capitals. Danish exports to Muslim nations and tourism from those nations to Denmark are likely to suffer. [1] Former Reagan Administration official Elliot Abrams has said: “This assault on Judaism is, of course, part of a broader assault on religion, all religions, including Christianity, and the biblical understanding of life. The basic idea is that religion is primitive and ignorant and must be repressed. This is a militant form of secularism and while Muslims and Jews are today’s victims, there will be many more tomorrow.” [2]

Denmark has defended its decision primarily on the basis of animal welfare. Under the Jewish laws of kosher butchering (shehita or shechita), cattle (and fowl) must be slaughtered in a particular ritualized manner in order for their consumption to be permitted.  Kosher butchering requires that the slaughtering be done by a pious, qualified practitioner (shohet). The shohet must use a sharp, smooth knife to sever the trachea and esophagus of the animal and to cut its carotid arteries and jugular vein. Slaughtering is intended to be accomplished quickly.  After slaughtering the animal, the shohet must examine its carcass to verify that it is free of blemishes or flaws.  After that inspection, the shohet hangs the carcass upside down in order to drain off its blood. (Christians may recall from Acts 15:13 that Jewish dietary law forbids Jews to consume the blood of animals.  See also Deut. 12:23.)

The Danish government contends that slaughtering cattle without first stunning them into unconsciousness is inhumane. Kosher butchers may not stun the animal before cutting it. Rabbis have warned that stunning an animal first might cause bruises or muscle spasms that would make it hard to discover whether the animal had been free of blemishes. Moreover, stunning could cause the shohet to make a jagged cut, injuring the animal.  Accordingly, for the slaughtering to be valid, the animal must be conscious when being killed.  (The rules for Muslim or halal butchery also prohibit stunning the animal before slaughtering it.)

To evaluate the Danish controversy, it will be useful to grasp the significance of dietary rules to the Jewish people.  We can then examine the “animal welfare” justification that the Danish government gives.

The significance of dietary rules in Judaism

As Elliot Abrams has contended, the secularists who govern Denmark (and most of the rest of the western world) may well be actively hostile to the Biblical understanding of life. Alternatively, it may be that they are simply unable to appreciate the beliefs and values of their fellow citizens who do base their lives on Biblical teaching – much as tone-deaf people may fail to understand the love of music. In other words, secularist discrimination against religion may spring from either of two sources – either animosity to religion or indifference to it.  Whatever the explanation, it is essential to understand the significance of dietary rules in Jewish belief and practice.

Jews have long held themselves as a people set apart, dedicated to God’s service and bound by His commands in ways that other peoples are not. One of the most prominent and visible ways in which the Jewish people have distinguished themselves from others has been through their dietary regulations. These regulations are ultimately founded on scriptural teachings (see Deut. 12:23-24; 14:3-21; Lev. 11; also Hos. 9:3; Ezek. 4:13-14; Isa. 52:11; Zech. 14:21), and have been fashioned over the centuries by rabbinic interpretation and legislation.  The underlying principle is summarized (admittedly, in an extreme form) in the apocryphal Book of Jubilees 22:16 (R.H. Charles trans.):

And do thou, my son Jacob, remember my words,

And observe the commandments of Abraham, thy father:

Separate thyself from the nations,
And eat not with them:

And do not according to their works,
And become not their associate;

For their works are unclean,
And all their ways are a pollution and an abomination and uncleanness.

Among the canonical books of the Bible, the Book of Daniel perhaps sheds the most light on the centrality of dietary rules to the Jewish faith. That work recounts how Daniel and his three companions, all of them young and faithful Jews, were educated to play leading roles in the service of Nebuchadnezzar, the Gentile King of Babylon.   Willing though they were to use their talents and training in the King’s service, they drew the line at partaking in “the royal rations of food and wine” (Dan. 1:13). Being tested on a diet of vegetables and water instead, they were found to be even healthier and fatter than when dining on Nebuchadnezzer’s food.

According to some interpreters, the Bible often takes Babylon to represent secular civilization.  Babylon both captures the best that such a civilization has to offer and also expresses its drive for world domination, for the elimination of any particularity and distinctiveness, including Israel’s. Daniel’s refusal to dine on the royal cuisine of Babylon thus represents the unwillingness of the Jewish people to succumb to the attractiveness and glamor of the universalizing secular world.  Daniel and his companions are willing to enjoy much of what that civilization offers.  But they decline to be wholly absorbed into it.  They will stand out – a people set apart for YHWH, owing allegiance to One higher than any earthly ruler. [3]

By conscientiously following their dietary rules, the Jewish people acknowledge God’s supremacy in their lives at every meal each day.  They enact the special calling of Israel to be a witness to the nations. They signify Israel’s refusal to be absorbed into secular culture, however great its allure. They reject the claim of the surrounding civilization, whether that of Babylon or that of the modern West, to offer a comprehensive vision of life, contrasted with the Biblical one.

Scientific perspectives on Jewish ritual rules

Secular Western governments since the Enlightenment and the emancipation of the Jews have recurrently found Jewish rituals troubling and disruptive – including Sabbath observance, the circumcision of infant males, and ritualized slaughter. These concerns are often stated, not as objections to Judaism, but in terms of purportedly “neutral” criteria. Thus, Sabbath observance has been questioned as incompatible with the obligations of citizenship; circumcision has been denounced in the name of the rights of the child; and kosher butchering has been assailed as the cruel and inhumane treatment of animals. Denmark’s ban is but a recent expression of this recurring suspicion.

Throughout the nineteenth century and continuing well into the twentieth, German governments, both national and local, were preoccupied with what was called the Rituelfragen – the question of Jewish rituals. Among these issues, of course, was whether kosher butchering should be forbidden by law. Proponents of a ban frequently argued that ritual slaughtering inflicted gratuitous suffering on animals. In an 1878 article, one advocate of a ban argued:

The [shohet] comes with his knife the length of his arm and cuts the sword into and through the neck of the animal, that [knife] however goes right through his shaking bellow. . . . Such barbaric cruelty still takes place today . . . With this kind of animal cruelty, all others are kids’ play. [[4]]

In these debates, supporters of animal rights sometimes demanded that German Jews abandon their religious teachings concerning slaughter. The Tierschutz Verband des Deutschen Reiches, a humane society founded in 1881, attacked the practice of shehita, arguing that “even religious views are not unchangeable but must conform to the progressing standards of humanity and education.” [5]

Yet the scientific basis for such claims was, and remains, uncertain.

In an excellent law review article, two Israeli legal scholars surveyed the scientific and medical evidence and found substantial evidence that kosher slaughtering is as humane as killing after stunning. [6] They also discussed the 2003 report of Italy’s National Commission on Bioethics, entitled Ritual Slaughter and Suffering, which had found that “there are no currently reliable means to determine which slaughtering methods result in what amounts of suffering by animals.”[7] In Physiological insights into Shechita, S.D. Rosen, after an extensive review of the experimental data, concluded that shehita “is a painless and effective method by which to stun and dispatch an animal in one rapid act. [8] Proponents of a ban have to ask themselves whether they are justified in repressing a core religious practice of two great world religions for the sake of such a dubious gain in animal welfare.

Furthermore, many other civilized nations, including European ones, permit ritualized slaughtering in accordance with Jewish and Islamic law, finding it to be a legitimate and humane alternative to killing that is preceded by stunning. Under an Act of Congress entitled the Humane Slaughter Act, it is considered humane to slaughter “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 and handling in connection with such slaughtering.”[9] American animal rights activists, who can hardly be said to be lacking in energy, have not assailed shehita as their Danish counterparts have done.

Kosher slaughter is also legally permissible in Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Spain.  In Germany, the occupation of Islamic butchering has been held to be constitutionally protected. [10] Article 17 of the 1979 European Convention for the Protection of Animals for Slaughter permits State parties to grant exemptions from a general requirement to stun animals before slaughtering them when the slaughtering is done “in accordance with religious rituals.”   These exemptions attest to a widespread international view that kosher and halal slaughtering methods are humane. If they were not, why would so many Western nations permit them?

Denmark’s defenses

            Faced with such objections to its new policy, Denmark has offered essentially two defenses.

First, Denmark claims that a ban on ritual slaughter achieves a gain in animal welfare. Second, Denmark claims that for a decade beginning in 2004, it had permitted the registration of Jewish and Muslim butcheries, but had received no applications from them.  Consequently, Denmark claims, its new regulation has changed nothing.

There are several reasons to question these defenses. For one thing, we have just seen that the scientific basis for the claim that ritual slaughter is inhumane is debatable. For another thing, even if ritual slaughter could be shown to cause more suffering than slaughtering after stunning, that fact alone would not decide the issue. It would remain to ask whether the gain in animal welfare was sufficient to outweigh the cost to religious freedom.

Furthermore, even if Denmark could show that its policy brought about a measurable gain in animal welfare, any such gain would be, at best, a marginal one. It would consist in the difference between animal welfare under the new policy and animal welfare under a policy that permitted ritual slaughter. Whether that gain would be large or small would depend on the demand for ritual slaughtering in Denmark if it were to be permitted. There is no sure way of saying how significant the demand would be. In the past decade, according to the Danish government itself, there was zero demand, because Danish Jews and Muslims imported their religiously prescribed meats from abroad instead of slaughtering local cattle. In fact, assuming that Denmark has not changed the status quo through its ban, it has equally done nothing to improve the welfare of its animals.

Moreover, even if the Danish ban did promote the welfare of animals in that country, it would only do so at the expense of lowering the level of animal welfare elsewhere. If Danish Jews and Muslims could no longer eat kosher or halal meat of Danish origin, then, assuming that the costs were about the same, they would presumably substitute imported kosher or halal meat for the Danish variety. And that would simply mean that the incidence of the allegedly inhumane slaughter of cattle globally would remain unaffected by Denmark’s ban. Denmark would have improved the level of animal welfare in Denmark while lowering that level outside that country. How is that a rational policy? Are Danish cattle somehow more deserving of protection than, say, German cattle?

Denmark argues that although it is forbidding ritual slaughter within its borders, it is not violating the liberties of the two minority faiths in question, because their followers remain free to import their meats from elsewhere.  (In fact, it seems that Denmark could not ban the import of meat from any other EU Member State where the method of slaughter used was valid under the laws of that State.) It may well be that by allowing the import of ritually slaughtered meat, Denmark is satisfying its legal obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights not to deny the religious liberty of its citizens. Certainly, a European Court of Human Rights decision from 2000 could be interpreted to support that view. [11] But again one must press the question, What affirmative good is achieved by the ban? Without an identifiable gain in animal welfare, the Danish ban seems merely gratuitous – or rather, an insult to that nation’s Jews and Muslims.

In fact, Denmark may have imposed its ban as a preemptive measure. Some years ago, parts of Denmark’s Muslim community began to seek governmental approval for creating a halal butchery of their own. The Danish Food and Agriculture Ministry became alarmed at the proposal, and opened a national debate on the subject.  That debate was closed down when the Ministry announced its decision last month to impose a ban. Denmark seems to have feared that its growing Muslim population would, for the first time, slaughter domestic cattle for its own consumption.

Even on that assumption, however, it is hard to see how Denmark could validly claim to be protecting animal welfare. Unless the substitution of domestic for imported halal meat substantially increased the demand for meat from Danish Muslims, how could there be an overall gain in animal welfare? Danish Muslims would simply eat more meat from domestic cattle while eating less imported meat. Again, unless there is some justification for preferring Danish cattle over (say) German cattle, the ban seems to be utterly irrational.

All else failing, Denmark might try to defend its ban by claiming that although it operated only within Danish territory, Denmark was setting an example for other countries to follow. Over time, therefore, the level of animal welfare in both Denmark and nations that followed its lead would rise. But it is pure speculation that other countries would be moved by Denmark’s example.  Denmark’s near neighbor Norway has banned kosher slaughter since 1929, and its other near neighbor Sweden has had a ban in place since 1936. It has taken Denmark roughly eight decades or more to follow the example of two nearby Scandinavian neighbors who are culturally and ethnically similar to it. Why should nations outside the Scandinavian world be likely to be influenced by Denmark’s example any time soon?

It follows that Denmark’s ban is purposeless and irrational. Unless, that is, the ban is intended to serve some other purpose than the one announced by the Danish government. That there might well be some other purpose is not hard to see. Danish Muslims are a large and growing demographic element in the Danish population.  Many of them are immigrants; others may be converts. Until recently, Denmark was, religiously and ethnically, very homogeneous. The country’s Muslims may therefore present an inviting target for opportunistic politicians.

Or it may simply be that “progressive” Danes like Minister Jorgensen simply see religion – all religion – as an outworn and obsolete relic of the past. Religious practices like kosher and halal butchering are simply vestiges of cruel and barbaric traditions. They can have no place in a nation as civilized and enlightened as Denmark.

Or Babylon.


[3] See Andre Lacocque, The Book of Daniel 26-28 (1979).

[4] Quoted in Robin Judd, Contested Rituals:  Circumcision, Kosher Butchering, and Jewish Political Life in Germany, 1843-1933 at 74 (2007).

[5] Quoted in Dorothee Brantz, Stunning Bodies:  Animal Slaughter, Judaism, and the Meaning of Humanity in Imperial Germany, 35 Central European History 167, 175 (2002).

[6] See Pablo Lerner and Alfredo Mordechai Rabello, The Prohibition of Ritual Slaughtering (Kosher Shechita and Halal) and Freedom of Religion of Minorities,  22 Journal of Law and Religion 1, 44-8 (2006/7).

[7] Id. at 17.

[9] 7 USC 1902(b).

[10] See Judgment of 16 January, 2002, 1 BvR 1783/99, English translation at http://www.bundesverfassungsgericht.de/entscheidungen/rs20020115_1bvr178399en.html.

[11] See Case of Cha’are Shalom Ve Tsedek v. France; also Carla M. Zoethout, Ritual Slaughter and the Freedom of Religion:  Some Reflections on a Stunning Matter, 35 Human Rights Quarterly 651, 665 (2013).  

About the Author

Robert J. Delahunty is a Professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he teaches International Law. His most recent article, "The Returning Warrior and the Limits of Just War Theory," will be published in the Rutgers Journal of Law & Religion.

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