Who's Afraid of Ritual Slaughter?

Insects may be welcome on European plates, but not kosher meat.



Last Word
April 28 2023
About the author

Eric Mechoulan is a professor of history and geography in Paris. He doesn’t eat meat.

It is not an easy task to respond to the remarks made by Anael Malet, Michel Gurfinkiel, and Matthew Schmitz insofar as their comments are in line with the ideas I developed in my original essay. At the same time, they all adopt different angles of approach that invite reflection.

First of all, a clarification: I was careful to write about the place anti-Semitism holds in the European offensive against ritual slaughter. It is not a form of anti-Judaism as that concept has been known in the distant (Christian) or recent (socialist, Marxist, or Nazi) past. That at the extremes of the political spectrum Jew-hatred and animal rights are intimately linked is self-evident, but it doesn’t explain why the consumer masses and Europe’s judges are also driving the offensive. I therefore fully agree with Anael Malet’s categorization of the four main families of anti-ritual slaughter activists in Europe: “nationalists, animal-rights activists, anti-religion secularists, and consumer-rights defenders.” (As for her mention of Voltaire, in my opinion it is to his great credit that one can interpret his attack on the Jews as a backhanded attack on Christians. Yet he is not innocent of the charge. Of the many people in charge of his finances, Voltaire felt entitled to defraud only one, the Jew Hirschel. And he made a murderer of his only Jewish character in Candide. There is nothing anti-Christian about this.)

In general, I would be more cautious than Anael Malet in ascribing the anti-ritual slaughter campaign to a “lack of a genuine understanding of the meaning of religion in [European] society.” Europe has good reasons for not wanting to leave too much power to religion. A Middle Ages punctuated by crusades and massacres, eight wars of religion in France, and 30 years of war between Catholic and Protestant princes in Europe are enough. The memory of the religiously motivated pogroms which spared almost no community should convince the Jews that they have nothing to lose—in theory—in a secular Europe. Today’s Europe was built against religion. It does not want it as the mortar for its social structure because it has cost too much. Europe knows very well what it is losing and says “good riddance.” The problem is that it has not found anything to replace religion. For generations now, individualism, materialism, hedonism and, it must be admitted, generalized deculturation have precipitated a distending of the social bond between neighbors and families, and within families themselves. Europe is in the grip of a moral wandering which is reflected in the contradictions of its jurisprudence; its judges are citizens like any others.

This is why in my essay I shared the thoughts of the 20th-century rabbi Y.Y. Weinberg, who saw the face of this new culture, imbued with paganism, in the burgeoning European defense of animal welfare at all costs. The preeminent nature-worshippers in Europe thankfully no longer wear the mask of Nazism, but they do still wear a mask, that of progressive ecology, and behind it remains a visceral anti-humanism. That idea, in turn, takes its full measure in anti-speciesism, a current of thought with philosophical pretensions born in the 1970s in the Anglo-Saxon world, under which the species to which an animal belongs is not a relevant criterion for deciding how it should be treated. In other words, anti-speciesism claims that there is no hierarchy among species.

It thus seems to me that the attack on the Jews via the attack on ritual slaughter is not targeted against their physical existence, their beliefs, or their particular way of life but against their idea of putting the human above everything else in the world. The philosopher Clément Rosset would probably say that the current idea of nature masks the absurdity and contingency of the world behind a network of philosophical principles whose main role is to justify our dissatisfaction with reality. The Jews, however, are content to see nature as a mere framework for the fulfillment of an ethical mission. The animal simply happens to exist in that framework.

Attached to family and community, positing the existence of a transcendent source of indisputable values, the Jews—who had everything to gain in Europe in political, economic and social terms, and who gained a great deal between the first days of the Enlightenment and the Shoah—have in the eyes of other Europeans become primitive beings, attached to practices that are now ridiculous and unjustifiable. Ritual slaughter and circumcision are the most unacceptable in a sanitized society because they are bloody. In this sense, the growing refusal of these two practices, which are understood by the Jews to be forms of humanization in the face of “nature,” is not the Christian refusal explained by Matthew Schmitz but something new. From Christians whose faith is built on a human sacrifice, this refusal could be religiously interpreted, but coming from secular Westerners, Jews can hardly understand it.

Here, the difference between the Jews and the Christians is perhaps due to the fact that, as Matthew Schmitz puts it, “Christians hold that God does not define a proper way to prepare food.” Beyond food, it is the materiality of the world that Christians have always sought to flee: their absolute ideal of holiness (even if the Church has often betrayed it) is that of withdrawal into the walls of the convent, between sexual abstinence and vows of poverty. This ideal was forged in opposition to the Jewish perseverance in reality and the Jewish laws mandating sanctification of all acts, even the most minute. Feeding oneself being one of these main acts, the attention that Jews pay to it is therefore self-evident for them.

Before becoming de-Christianized, Westerners could not understand this Jewish approach. For Christians (Matthew 15:11), “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth.” This is a misunderstanding of Judaism that Jews themselves could again hardly understand, since ritual slaughter has actually nothing to do with the pure and the impure. After having distanced themselves from Christianity, Westerners are now massively re-interested in what “goeth into the mouth,” as proven by the craze for organic food and the careful monitoring of food labels and production chains. Jewish law is about escaping the order of nature while belonging to it. For Jews, this escape makes us human, contrary to animals that grab what they can in order to feed themselves. But when Westerners pay so much attention to what they eat, it is to get closer to nature, to be in communion with it. So, the Jews see the “cult of Mother Earth, or the Planet” (Michel Gurfinkiel’s words) as a retrograde worship, and non-Jewish Europeans tend to see Judaism in exactly the same way. We don’t understand each other. Tomorrow we will be savages to each other. It is therefore to be expected that Europe should refuse to allow what the Jews consider to be a humanization of their relationship to food. Europe simply cannot perceive it as such, since the protection of nature is gradually taking ideological precedence not only over the right to exercise one’s religion but also over the well-being of humans.


About fifteen years ago, on a work trip in Denmark, I was trapped for six hours in a humongous traffic jam on the highway between Copenhagen and the island of Funen. A truck carrying pigs had overturned and the animals had wandered onto an islet supporting a bridge pier. Not only did a crane have to be brought in to clear the road and get the animals back into their truck, but also a veterinarian to catch and kill the injured pigs in the middle of the countryside, as Danish law prohibits the transport of suffering animals. It took him a long time. For this reason, a quarter of the country was blocked and tens of thousands of humans, women and children, old and sick, lacking water and washroom facilities, stayed for hours under the scorching sun. (I arrived only at the fifth hour of the jam; the first ones were there half a day). The Jews don’t want this civilization—one might say for “religious” reasons. The Europeans want it. And they appoint their judges accordingly.

Anael Malet is therefore right to say that religious freedom will “take a backseat to more important concerns,” which could be, in the words of Matthew Schmitz, “animal welfare and respect for nature.” One may object that it is better to go to court and defend shechita than to flee from anti-Semitic hordes. The near future will tell us whether there is really a choice to be made. Perhaps European Jews will get both. Meanwhile, the “margin of appreciation” of the European Court of Human Rights is a double-edged sword. Yesterday, it allowed France to avoid legalizing the Islamic veil, which, right or wrong—and right in my eyes—would have created appalling social tensions and the violence that accompanies them. Tomorrow, it could prohibit the practices specific to certain communities such as shechita. The issue here is that of a justice who took into account yesterday the cultural heritage of peoples and tomorrow perhaps “the spirit of the times.”

In this respect, Anael Malet is right again in worrying about the confinement of religious representatives within the limited framework of their communities. Nobody outside is listening to them, not in the way they used to. Their voices are often no longer required in ethics committees; instead, major decisions in bioethics are taken entirely by secular specialists with little spiritual care or insight. And Michel Gurfinkiel accurately argues that European Islam will adapt, both because it is less fussy than Judaism in terms of ritual practice and because European decision-makers, as in Brussels, will take care not to confront Islam head-on for reasons of electoral mass.

Should Michel Gurfinkiel’s rejection of ritual slaughter in the Christian West be interpreted as a remnant of Marcionism, which sees animal sacrifice as one of the rituals of the cult of evil attributed to the Jews? I think he has too high an idea of this Marcionism, which was eventually absorbed by Manichaeism and has since evaporated. In any case, there is no need for the ghost of Marcion of Sinope to demonize the Jews. The problem, in my opinion, is that Europeans denounce the evil in others in order not to recognize it in themselves. Their method of slaughtering animals is in no way more humane than that of the Jews, quite the contrary.

As a matter of fact, disgust of blood does its work. Meat consumption is declining in Europe and supermarkets are offering meat cuts in forms that make it possible to forget the animals from which they came—but insects are welcome on our plates now, without stunning. The triumph of the hamburger is not only the defeat of gastronomy, it is also part of a refusal to accept the reality of the world. The Jews assume that reality through a ritual that does not attempt to justify the death of the animal but at the same time absolves the human of murder. “The day will come,” wrote the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss in 1990 (a man by the way always anxious to erase any Jewish references in his analyses), “when the idea that, in order to feed themselves, the men of the past raised and slaughtered living beings and complacently displayed their flesh in shreds in showcases will undoubtedly inspire the same repulsion as it did to the travelers of the 16th or 17th century when they saw the cannibalistic meals of the savages of the Americas, Oceania, or Africa.” He is probably right. But if the humans of the future are to become more pagan and more willing to break with their humanistic roots instead of finding them and adopting the messianic vegetarian ideal of the Jews, we all have more to lose than to gain. Meanwhile, the vocabulary they use is more sanitized, more neutral, more politically correct. Stunning sounds better than slaughter and the evocation of anesthesia makes one forget the blood that spurts out. As Camus remarked, “To name things badly is to add to the misfortune of the world.”

More about: Europe, History & Ideas, Kashrut, Politics & Current Affairs, Ritual slaughter, The Jewish World