The Slaughterhouse Rules

I have written an article about shechita and government regulation, which is today's feature on Jewish Ideas Daily. It represents part of my efforts to educate myself about the food choices that I make on behalf of myself and my family.
Not long ago, I posted about my grandfather's job as a shochet and the tension between his slaughterhouse and government inspectors. I've done a bit more digging (not a ton) and found that there was a concerted effort around that time to get rid of small, local slaughterhouses and consolidate into larger ones. Regulations were designed to favor consolidation, as only the largest plants could afford what the government required (but only the largest plants needed all the safeguards that regulations mandated). With the proliferation of regulations, the slaughterhouse had something like 6 full-time inspectors, causing my grandfather to quip, "I wish the boys in Vietnam would get the same level of medical care that my chickens get."  This actually dovetails with what I learned from reading The Omnivore's Dilemma.
Of course, there is legislation that kosher slaughterhouses must implement, and legislation they are exempt from or actually oppose. To distinguish between actual slaughter practices and the handling of the animal before and after slaughter may fall short; for example, there was no opposition to the regulation that animals could not touch the ground after slaughter, and the shackle-and-hoist method was implemented relatively easily after 1906's  Food and Drug Act. I haven't found a distinction that works.
In any event, enjoy the article, and "od chazon la-mo'ed."


Jews with Tattoos

The tragic and untimely death of Amy Winehouse has raised the not-so-age-old question of whether Jews with tattoos can be buried in Jewish cemeteries. Apparently, this myth is so pervasive that it is even believed by large segments of the traditionally observant Jewish community. Although the "primary sources" for this myth seem to be popular culture - a line from Lenny Bruce's autobiography, an episode of the Nanny (4:9), an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm - discussions on mainstream media blogs, as well as the first question I was ever asked on an interdenominational panel, indicate that the myth is widely believed.

I am hopeful that the emerging discussion will lay to rest, once and for all, this terrible falsehood. Tattoos - perhaps because of their associations with the Holocaust, perhaps because of their indelibility, but who really knows? - remained taboo for Jews who had given up many other observances (when a distant relative started going out seriously with a non-Jew, the immediate family wasn't terribly happy, but they made their peace with it; but when they found out he has a tattoo, all hell broke loose). The tattoo taboo seems to have disappeared in recent decades, and perhaps the young generation has latched onto this myth as a way of conceptualizing the earlier generations' opposition. Alternatively, perhaps the earlier generation latched onto it because it allows them to distinguish between tattoos and the myriad observances that they abandoned. In either case, a myth is a myth, and it will hopefully be recognized as such.

My favorite Jewish teaching about tattoos is a responsum from Dayan Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss, which is reproduced and translated below. The greatness of the responsum is that it does not moralize or criticize, implicitly acknowledging that a tattoo, in the eyes of Jewish law, is a discretionary error like any other, which need not limit access to the Jewish community, living or dead:

שו"ת מנחת יצחק חלק ג סימן יא
ע"ד אחד ששימש כחייל, ובצבא שם לו כתובת קעקע ביד שמאל, במקום הנחת תפילין, תמונה של אשה ערומה, שא"א להסירה מבשרו, ועכשיו נעשה בעל תשובה, והתחיל להתפלל, ורוצה לדעת אם יכול להניח תפילין ביד שמאל, על אותה התמונה, או שיניח ביד ימין.
(א) הנה בהשקפה ראשונה נלענ"ד, דאף דהוי דבר מגונה מאד, ויש שאלה אם רשאי לברך, בשעה שהתמונה מגולה, וכמו שמבואר באחרונים מזה, דיש לומר דשייך משום טפח באשה ערוה, גם בתמונה פוטוגרפית ... אבל עכ"פ לא נסתלק המציאות מיד השמאל, שהוא היד הכהה, ולדעתי היות שמקום יש בזרוע להניח שתי תפילין, כמבואר בש"ע (או"ח סי' כ"ז סעי' ז'), וא"כ אף אם יהי' התמונה מתפשטת בכל הקיבורת, הלא אפשר לכסות חלק גדול ממנה בתמידית, ורק להניח פנוי מקום הנחת תפילין (ויעשה לו תפילין קטנים שאפשר עפ"י דין), אשר באותו מקום לא יתראה כ"כ צורתה, ושם יניח התפילה ש"י, וכמובן שבשעת הברכה יהי' מכוסה כל המקום, וגם הכסוי שמכסה החלק ממנה בתמידית, יהי' נעשה מעור דק מאד, באופן שאם בשוגג ישמטו התפילין קצת על מקום הכיסוי, יהי' אפשר לצרף השיטה דשייך בזה ג"כ משום מב"מ =מין במינו= אינו חוצץ וצ"ע עוד בזה, וכפי מה שאומרים אפשר להעביר ע"י בקיאים כתובת קעקע.
Responsa Minchat Yitzchak (R’ Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss) 3:11
Regarding one who served in the army, where he got an indelible tattoo of a naked woman on his left arm, in the place where one lays tefilliin. He has now become a baal teshuvah and wishes to know if he can place his tefillin on his left hand, on top of the image, or if he should place it on his right arm.
It seems at first glance, in my humble opinion, that even though it is a contemptible thing, and there’s a question if he can make a bracha when the picture is uncovered, as the latter authorities explain, that ‘tefach be-isha ervah’ applies to a photographic image as well…nevertheless the weaker left arm still exists. In my opinion, since there is room on the bicep for two tefillin (see Shulchan Arukh OC 27:7), so that even if the image covered the entire bicep, it’s possible to permanently cover a large portion of it, and to leave open only the place where he lays tefillin (and he should get the smallest kosher tefillin possible) in a way that her form won’t be seen that much in that spot, and there he should lay his arm tefillin. When he makes the bracha, the entire area should be covered. Also. The permanent cover for most of the image should be made of thin leather, so that if the tefillin slip onto the cover, it’s possible to rely on the opinion that a similar material doesn’t constitute a barrier…and this requires further study since they say that experts can remove tattoos.


Summer Speaking Schedule

I'll be speaking several times while visiting the US over the next few weeks. Here's the schedule:

Shabbat afternoon at 6:55pm, July 23, Beth Tfiloh Congregation, Baltimore, MD.
Topic: "Killing the Rabbis: A Reading of Berakhot 48a"

Shabbat Hazon, August 5-6, at Beit Chaverim of Norwalk/Westport, CT.
“Religion and State in Israel: Is there a Solution that can Work for Everyone?”
“What Makes a Good Jewish Community on Campus?”
“Old Mourning: What Keeps Tisha B’Av Relevant?” 

Tisha B'Av at Ohaev Shalom - The National Synagogue, Washington DC
Morning: A Tisha B'Av related topic, TBD
Late afternoon: A topic related to R. Amital's life and work, TBD.

If you're in the neighborhood, drop in.

Tisha B'Av 


Darshening Bono

Yesterday, the revamped Talmud Blog had a post about an Israeli scholar who "darshens" Israeli rock. While indeed an exciting development, it is hardly revolutionary. This is what rabbis do for a living - darshen popular culture, be it music, movies, TV, sports, literature, etc., to pull out some message that correlates with some classical text. This may be a chiddush for academics, but it's par for the course for rabbis.
Of course, some rabbis are better at it than others, and some popular cultural artifacts are easier to enlist for this purpose than others. When Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's Iron Man record, there was not a rabbi in Baltimore who didn't turn it into a mussar schmuess about the value of consistency and dedication, a la Ben Pazi in the famous midrash that appears in the introduction to Ein Ya'akov (about the most important verse in the Torah).
Similarly, when looking for rock groups to "darshen", few are as fertile as U2. And with the band's harmonic drones and searing falsettos still ringing in my ears after last night's concert in Philadelphia, I will take the opportunity to hold forth a bit on some of their more suggestive lyrics.
In a post from the first year of this blog, I wrote about the following passage in Pesachim 88a, which relates how each of our Patriarchs related to God’s Place:
Said Rabbi Elazar: What does Isaiah mean when he says, "And many peoples will go and say, 'Come let us go up to the Mountain of G-d to the house of the G-d of Jacob!'" ? Why the G-d of Jacob and not the G-d of Abraham and Isaac? The answer is: Not like Abraham, who saw it as a Mountain ("as it is said this day, On the Mountain HaVaYaH is seen" -- Genesis 22:14). And not like Isaac, for whom it was a Field ("And Isaac went out to meditate in the Field" -- Genesis 24:63). But like Jacob, who called it a House: "And he called the name of that place Beth El, the House of G-d" (Genesis 28:19).
I related this passage to the opening verses of "Still Haven't Found what I'm Looking For," in which Bono sings of his having climbed mountains, run through fields, and scaled city walls in his quest. I wondered - and still wonder - if there's something universal about these elements in man's search.
I would go further in suggesting that this particular song expresses something profoundly optimistic - Jewishly optimistic, I might add - in its intimations that human beings are on an unending search for something more. Even in Kingdom Come, and even despite our true belief, we will continue to "run", to seek what we're looking for. Indeed, "the righteous have no rest, not in this world nor in the next world [Kingdom Come]" (Berakhot 64a). The lyricist, presumably unfamiliar with the talmudic passage, certainly seems to have drawn on the same prooftext of Isaiah 40:31.
Interestingly, Bono said something last night while addressing the crowd that probably went over the head of most of the crowd. He mentioned that people were attending the concert from as far away as Israel (my wife and I were attending the concert from Israel, but he wasn't referring to us, I presume). A second later, he stopped and seemed to respond to something that someone said to him, probably a manager communicating through an earphone. Bono abruptly stopped talking about Israel, and then apologized for his "colorblindness". I believe that the following happened: a manager type told him not to mention Israel, certainly not in a positive light. Bono stopped but registered his disagreement by "apologizing" for his "color-blindness." While Bono is indeed color blind, he also sings, in that same song (which was the very next song at last night's concert), that "I believe in the Kingdom Come, when all the colors will bleed into one." Colorblind, indeed. And who else speaks of "blindness" as a metaphoric virtue? Once again, Isaiah. This time it's 42:19.
I have also (subtly) darshened the political message of "Where the Streets have no Name." The context was an article about the process by which streets and other landmarks are named in Israel (and presumably elsewhere, like Ireland). An implicit message of the song is that there's something pure and clean about places where the streets have no name; one can take shelter from the poison rain there.
U2's "In God's Country" has a line about "crooked crosses" in its refrain. He's talking about Ireland, and I can only presume that the "crooked crosses" signify a corrupt religious establishment. I am often reminded of that song when reading and blogging about the tensions between religion and state in Israel.
This next example is from my friend Yehudah, who by his own report, had a religious experience at the U2 concert at MSG during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva of 5748, when Bono was famously joined by the New Voices of Freedom gospel choir for "Still Haven't Found..." (goosebumps). Yehudah used a line from "Walk On" - You're packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been // A place that has to be believed to be seen - to frame a class on the Binding of Isaac, and the role of "seeing" in the episode, and how it is conditioned by belief.
Ultimately, though, is this real? Can one actually mine spirituality from pop culture? Well, as U2 sings in "Mysterious Ways" (and here I'm definitely taking it out of context): If you wanna kiss the sky, you better learn how to kneel."


New Article and Loose Ends

I have an article on aggadah up on JID:

A former student, Jordan Hirsch, reviews two books on imperialist gamesmanship in WWI-era Middle East, that tell a still-relevant cautionary tale about Western assumptions regarding Arab revolutions.

The new, improved Talmud blog is up and running. Good luck, Shai & co.

MK Amslaem's speech in Modiin was disappointing. His novelty is not that he's saying anything new, but that he's saying new things while wearing a black hat. I was hoping that perhaps he wasn't just another politician, but he's just another politician.

I spoke with R. Lichtenstein about the Half-Shabbos phenomenon, specifically about whether texting on Shabbat should be a de-orayta. He said that's a question for the Tzomet people, but that it's clear that it's a terrible violation of Shabbat, as it runs the risk of turning Shabbat into just another day of the week.

I've had some lively debates today about R. Zilberstein's approving that a girl cut herself to force her parents to let her wear a skirt. My take is that while the rabbi desrves the criticism he's getting, there's been no talk about the parents. You're talking about the secular parents of a girl, presumably in her late teens, who is enrolled in a Haredi kiruv seminary. Whatever the reason for this girl's dramatic lifestyle change - sincere conviction, a form of rebellion, evidence of mental health issues, or whatnot - why on earth would her parents drive her to self-mutilation by insisting that she dress a certain way? A person can pick or choose a rabbi; a parent is not chosen, and therefore parents have a much greater potential to really screw a kid up than any rabbi ever could.