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Is There Such a Thing as Mindful Slaughtering?

A New York Times story about vegans turned butchers raises new questions about the ethics of killing and eating animals

Mark Oppenheimer
August 09, 2019
(Shutterstock)New York Times
(Shutterstock)(Shutterstock)New York Times
(Shutterstock)New York Times
(Shutterstock)(Shutterstock)New York Times

Jews are now observing the Nine Days, the period in advance of Tisha B’Av, when by tradition we do not eat meat or drink wine. Because animal slaughter was central to temple ritual and communion with the Almighty, and thus associated with holiness, the rabbis decided that the period leading up the remembrance of the destruction of the Second Temple was a perfect time to modify one’s diet, leaving out elements connected with worship and rejoicing. Such time-bounded abstentions—whether Jewish fast days, the Muslim month of Ramadan, or the old Catholic tradition of not eating meat on Fridays—concentrate our minds, connecting food with ethics, body and soul.

As a vegetarian, who tries not to eat meat out of concern for animal welfare, the Nine Days are a paradoxically hopeful time: mournful, but also alive to the possibility that we’ll all continue to evolve in our awareness of our non-human friends. I don’t think everyone needs to be a vegetarian, but I do think that everyone ought to take animal welfare seriously. In that spirit, I am intrigued by those who, while not vegetarians, make a professional commitment to improve the lives of animals—I am thinking of businesses like Grow and Behold, which sells ethically raised, kosher-slaughtered meat. And so I was curious to read in The New York Times on Wednesday about former vegetarians who now work as butchers.

“The Vegetarians Who Turned into Butchers,” by Melissa Clark, the gifted Times columnist (and erstwhile guest on my Table podcast, Unorthodox), profiled a number of ex-vegetarians and vegans who have turned coat and now kill and cut animals in ways that don’t trouble their human consciences. The piece promises a serious discussion of the ethics of eating animals, but alas Clark’s subjects aren’t really interested in ethics; they are more interested in spouting therapeutic, “wellness”-inflected double-speak. In the end, Clark merely shines her spotlight on the cult of the hipster-butcher, which narcissistically takes the real concerns raised by vegetarianism and drops them on the floor, to be swept away like offal.

“At Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe in Denver,” Clark begins, “Kate Kavanaugh trimmed the sinew from a deep-red hunk of beef the size of a bed pillow … Before she was a butcher, she was a strict vegetarian. She stopped eating meat for more than a decade, she said, out of a deep love for animal life and respect for the environment.” What happened, then? “She became a butcher for exactly the same reasons.”

If it seems to you unlikely, or even impossible, that a “deep love for animal life” could lead one to profit from killing animals for food, you are onto something. The easiest way to respect animals would seem to be not to kill them. Now, as any good Talmudist knows, matters aren’t always so simple. For example, Jewish tradition exalts the human life above most everything—but to respect human life sometimes means taking a life. In war, killing is required. The death penalty, Jewish tradition argues, may be applied, but exceptionally rarely, and only if strenuous conditions are met. The point, in other words, is that all-or-nothing formulations are simplistic and must be textured, given nuance, by thoughtful people willing to wrestle with difficult choices.

Those of us who love animals and take their treatment seriously must think rigorously about whether we may kill them. The answer might not be “never.” Maybe some herds need to be culled to prevent mass animal starvation. Maybe, if human flourishing counts more than animal flourishing, traditional societies ought to keep eating animals—Eskimos might keep fishing, for example. And let’s face it, not all animals are cute puppies, or even cows: I just had an exterminator come to kill a mouse that had infiltrated my home, and I don’t feel bad about it. We humans are a species, and we have to protect our domain.

Still, while people who take animal life seriously are not required to protect it at all costs—we can slap at mosquitoes on our knees!—they need better reasons to kill and eat animals than that animals taste good. Such reasons exist, as Clark’s subjects know. For example, it is better local land use, and better for the climate, to eat anything local, provided it is farmed in an environmentally responsible way, than to truck food from across the country. If we want to stop global warming and preserve local ecosystems, better to butcher the local small farmer’s calf than to truck soybeans from the Midwest and strawberries from California. In northern climates, where vegetables are difficult to grow but fish are plentiful, there is a strong argument for traditional fishing.

I would add that, if vegetarianism is about animal welfare and not our own bodily purity, then there’s no reason not to scrounge leftover meat: At a university where I teach, I pass by a lot of rooms where good catering is about to go to waste, and I see no reason not to scarf whatever leftover sushi. I don’t think that makes me less of a vegetarian, except to the pedant or the fundamentalist. The point is to not spend my money on killing animals, and not to encourage others to (so if offered the meat or the vegetarian option for a menu, I choose the latter).

To be fair, these ex-vegetarian butchers definitely treat animals better than factory farmers do. Kavanaugh and others “have opened shops that offer meat from animals bred on grassland and pasture,” for example. But when Clark slides from praising the grassland to asserting that “animal well-being, environmental conservation and less wasteful whole-animal butchery [are] their primary goals,” I still have to ask: Wouldn’t animals’ well-being best be served by not killing them? I mean, if I am to be killed, I too would rather that my parts go to good use, and that my killing not despoil lands in the process. But I’d still rather not be killed.

But the concerns of Kavanaugh, the butcher, aren’t for the animal, or even man’s relationship to it. “I’m basically in this to turn the conventional meat industry on its head,” she tells Clark. She’s fighting a (good) war against a (very bad) opponent. She wants to fight a manifestation of rapacious capitalism. That’s terrific. But instead of owning up to her particular logic, which amounts to “People will always eat meat, so let’s make sure the profits don’t go to big, bad corporations,” she frames the stakes in the Eat Love Pray of her own journey: “‘I grew up hiking the prairies of Colorado, and I developed a really deep love for those plains,” Kavanaugh says. “When I decided to open a butcher shop, I knew I only wanted to source 100-percent-grass-fed animals from ranches that were helping regenerate the prairies.” Somehow the main concern that would turn one toward vegetarianism—not killing animals—is swept off by the prairie winds.

* * *

As expected, Clark cites Michael Pollan as the butchers’ presiding guru. “The ethical butchery movement first grained traction about 15 years ago,” Clark writes, “in the wake of the journalist Michael Pollan’s 2002 New York Times Magazine article about the abuse of factory-farmed beef cattle, and his subsequent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, published in 2006.” The problem is that while Pollan is an elegant writer, he is a weak thinker. Pollan basically argues that if we get to know our meat, and the system that produces it, we neutralize the guilt of killing—an honor-culture logic that advanced civilizations have otherwise rejected. (“Before the hit man shot the stool pigeon, he at least had the decency to look him in the eye and offer a last cigarette…”)

In his classic 2011 Atlantic essay “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies,” B.R. Myers identified the ethical fallacy according to which paying close attention to the killing of animals—being intentional about how one eats meat—somehow erases the moral problem, by elevating carnivorousness into sacred practice. For Pollan and others, Myers wrote, “the equation of eating with worship is often made with a straight face. The mood at a dinner table depends on the quality of food served; if culinary perfection is achieved, the meal becomes downright holy—as we learned from Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), in which a pork dinner is described as feeling ‘like a ceremony … a secular seder.’

“The moral logic in Pollan’s hugely successful book,” Myers continued, “now informs all food writing: the refined palate rejects the taste of factory-farmed meat, of the corn-syrupy junk food that sickens the poor, of frozen fruits and vegetables transported wastefully across oceans—from which it follows that to serve one’s palate is to do right by small farmers, factory-abused cows, Earth itself.”

We can hear this aspiration to kavanah, as Jews call intentional prayer, in Clark’s description of Janice Schindler, 28, an ex-vegan who now manages the Meat Hook butcher shop in Brooklyn. She decided to test her veganism by signing up for a Thanksgiving-time “Kill Your Own Thanksgiving Dinner” happening on a farm.

“‘I’d never killed anything before,’” Schindler told Clark. “‘Turkeys are such large animals. But when you put them in a poultry cone upside down, they completely relax. Then you can cut an artery. It stuns them and they bleed. I spent the rest of the day working the eviscerating station. It was super-gross, but I found it fascinating.’”

Schindler, who had become a vegan after raising a baby lamb to the slaughter, now put the empathic engine in reverse: soon she was butchering animals. For Schindler, to stare the fate of animals in the face is to make just another profound gesture. One year it’s veganism, the next butchering. But if her veganism ever had anything to do with sparing animal suffering, how did killing a turkey change her mind? Clark never asks what would seem to be the obvious question, and so we get no answers.

We should discard the silly and self-serving. We should cast a dubious eye on claims like those made by Belcampo Meat Company founder Anya Fernald, an ex-vegetarian who tells Clark that her “mental acuity stepped up” when she started eating meat. (Her hair also “got better.”) And to all the claims the ex-vegetarians make, we should ask whose concerns are being foregrounded, theirs or the animals? Some of the ex-vegetarians say they couldn’t maintain their health without meat. “It can be hard to balance your diet as a vegetarian, especially when you’re younger, and I wasn’t doing it right,” Joshua Applestone, founder of Fleisher’s Grass Fed and Organic Meats in Kingston, N.Y., tells Clark. Maybe he could have tried harder? My six-year-old pulls it off, and has bouncy hair, to boot.

Unlike other religions—and unlike Pollanism—Judaism does not teach us to revere the slaughtered chicken. We’re not equals. We’re the people, and we hold their fates in our hands. Our tradition is filled with calls to take care of the earth and its creatures, to give animals as well as people proper rest, and to take breaks from eating meat, and sometimes everything else besides. For me, this tradition also aligns with the call not to eat animals. But whatever one eats, Judaism cannot license the shabby lie that the slaughter is ever good for the slaughtered, or that we can cleanse our hands of blood by looking our victims in the eyes. Animals were sacrificed in the Temple because only such an awesome, terrible act could please the gods. If we’re to eat them today, we can give them no thought, or we can take their needs seriously—and in so doing, take ourselves seriously, as ethical actors, too.

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.