Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Is meat slaughtered by women kosher?

Cross-posted on DovBear

Gil Student, over at
Hirhurim, recently posted “a loose translation of notes from lectures by R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik” examining the issue of whether women can be slaughterers (shochatot). Gil, in his introduction, links it to the issue of women Rabbis and concludes that if shochatot are not allowed, neither are female Rabbis.

The Rav brings a number of sources that essentially prohibit women slaughterers based on the fact that a shochet is a communal position and women cannot hold communal positions. But the
Shulchan Aruch writes that women can be shochatot. The Rama, however, says that they may not serve in that capacity because the custom is that they haven't been doing so. That seems like an extremely poor and circular argument. We don't allow it because we haven't been allowing it. So all the arguments against women slaughterers seem to be based only on social considerations, not solid halacha. And many do allow women to slaughter for themselves, just forbidding it for the community. So Gil is right in a way, by tying female rabbis to female slaughterers. The argument against both are based only on social considerations and there seems to be plenty of halachic room to permit them now when social circumstances have changed.

(By the way, since the Shulchan Aruch permits women slaughterers, and Sephardim follow the Shulchan Aruch without the supplement of the Rama, do they allow shochatot today? If not, why not?)

So should shochatot be permitted? Basically, even according to those who forbid it, it seems to me that they would probably permit it b’dieved, after the fact. Meaning, if someone ate meat slaughtered by a woman skilled in all the halachot of shechita, there was no sin. The meat was kosher.

But despite my progressive stance on most issues relating to women and Judaism, I'm going to invoke social considerations to explain my opinion that except in limited situations, it probably would be unwise to institute it as a general custom at this time.

Let's first be clear about what we're asking and who would care about such an innovation.

There are several type of people who keep kosher. There's the "kosher by ingredients" crowd. There's the "any hechsher, as long as it's on the package" crowd. And then there's the Orthodox standard, meaning hechsherim generally accepted by the community.

Let’s break it down by denomination. The Reform movement doesn't have any official kashrut standards, though some individual members may keep some personal strictures.

The Conservative movement has official standards, but doesn't have a kashrut supervision infrastructure of their own. So they generally rely on Orthodox hechsherim, but will use ones that aren’t widely accepted in the Orthodox community. For example, while the Conservative movement
officially endorses Hebrew National as acceptable for consumption, they do so on the basis of HN's new Orthodox hechsher, Triangle-K. (While T-K isn't accepted in much of the Orthodox community, the Rabbis there are Orthodox. The issue of T-K certifying HN's non-glatt meat is another post.)

That leaves the Orthodox community, which will only consume meat certified by communally accepted agencies.

What if the Conservative movement had its own kashrut supervision agency? Then I see nothing wrong with their using women slaughterers. Orthodox people wouldn't be eating that meat anyway, no matter what gender slaughtered the animal.

But within the world of Orthodox hechsherim, it's a different story. What if Rabbi Avi Weiss decided to create a kashrut agency? (Please note that the following scenario is totally hypothetical and is just to illustrate my point and does not represent any known plans of Rabbi Weiss)

He has already created the new female equivalent of Rabbi, the Maharat, a development of which I wholeheartedly approve. And I presume that to receive smicha, a Maharat must study the same traditional curriculum as a male Rabbi, which would include Yoreh Deah, the volume of Shulchan Aruch that contains the laws of kashrut, including shechita.

So what if this hypothetical kashrut agency started using shochatot?

The institution of the Maharat is already controversial. But its effect is limited to the communities in which these women serve and doesn't spill over. But kashrut is a social intitution as much as a halachic one. People eat in one another's homes and celebratory affairs based on shared assumptions of kashrut reliability. Were Rabbi Weiss, or any figure in Left Wing Modern Orthodoxy to institute the practice of shochatot, there would immediately be a split in the social fabric of Orthodoxy. The implicit assumption of reliable kashrut upon entering the home of someone who was LWMO or observant Conservative would be gone. And the uproar would cause fissures and public discord on a huge scale. The unspoken social compact of kashrut would be broken. It is for that reason that I would be wary of such an innovation at this time.

However, what if Rabbi David Silber, of Drisha, (again, totally hypothetical) decided that a shochetet was halachically permissable, but rather than endorse the practice for the wider community, decided to have a special event at Drisha with meat slaughtered by a shochetet. If he was comfortable of the halachic permissibility, why not?

Social reasons should not hold back halachically permissible practices. However, extreme social disruption should be considered before moving too far, too fast.

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