January 07

Like an Eco-Kosher Jewish Farmer Led to Slaughter

Alexander Sharone

For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.
- Hosea 6:6

The act of milking is about as intimate as a fellow can get to a goat without suckling from the teat itself, a practice still taboo on the farm. Milking Angie – one of the resident goats on the organic farm at Adamah, a three month fellowship that integrates sustainable farming, Jewish learning, and spiritual practice at Isabella Freedman in Western Connecticut – requires more dexterity, coordination, and finesse than one might expect. Each fellow takes a turn at goat milking as part of daily chores, and I have been surprised by the development of a distinctive bulging hand muscle between my thumb and forefinger as a result of handling the moody temperament of this domesticated farm animal. The bulge marks much well-intentioned squeezing on cold winter mornings, icicles hanging from my own goatee as I empty Angie's udders of sweet milk. And in truth, it pays to abstain from quaffing the raw milk directly from Angie herself, as the eventual self-expression of the bacteria within yields yogurt, farmer’s cheese, and chèvre – just a few of the staples we have learned to bring forth from the ever-flowing goat sap at our hands.

Lady goats are royalty in Adamah's humble kingdom of animal husbandry. They always receive the finest kitchen compost scraps; and with names like Zilpah, Ness, and Omer, they hint at biblical presence even when feasting on brussel sprouts in the barn. But call these animals what you will. Despite their regal generous offering of sustenance, the true articulation of compassion and respect for them is allowing for full expression of their goaty-ness – musky aroma, butting horns, split-hoofed stomping, and nomadic foraging. Simply raising a goat to live and engender life-juice can be a practice of restorative justice. And with each bite of hand-crafted goat ice cream, justice tastes ever so sweet.

An Invitation from the Chubby Bunny
One morning word spread throughout the pasture that the neighboring Chubby Bunny Organic Farm had invited us to participate in their yearly slaughter of the lambs. Snapping out of an Edenic haze, I released Angie’s twin teats and jumped at the offer. Although morning milking had come to be meditative and earth-centering for me, I knew it could never invigorate me like the questions, suspense, and excitement of witnessing a slaughter. My sheltered existence as a goat-milker begged to be challenged by facing the ultimate act of human intervention into the life and death cycle of animals. And as a Jewish farmer adhering to an eco-kosher vegetarian diet, this was the perfect moment to put the central Judaic imperative of tsa’ar ba’alei chaim (prevention of cruelty to animals) to the test.

I was also intruiged by the philosophical underpinnings of modern-day slaughterers like the one I would meet at Chubby Bunny. He stressed the importance of personally offering deep gratitude to the lamb and of limiting its suffering through a swift, precise cut. Each part of the lamb was destined for human use from the outset – outer fleece to innermost entrails. And since the process would not be guided by shechita, any difficulties I anticipated with the stance on slaughter in Jewish law could be left at the barn door. I wanted to arrive as an eyewitness, pure and simple, and to behold the respectful killing of a lamb. Walking through the farm with no sense of judgment, opening my heart to learn from the lamb and the slaughterer both, I sought a teaching about life and death.

The Sacrificial Lamb
Each member of the fellowship that had decided to take part in the slaughter disembarked from our biodiesel flatbed truck with a slightly different intention. Leviathan, the most spiritually-inclined member of the group, was interested in the transmutation of the lamb’s soul. He wanted to bear witness to the rejoining of the animal’s essence with Hashem, a venerable rising of the holy spark of life back to its source. He advised us all to take heed in the moment of death, cognizant of when the animal's soul rejoined the oversoul.

Yoshi, on the other hand, was there to get down and dirty with the brusque physicality of slaughtering. An avid meat-eater with an ethical bent, his interest focused on taking ownership and responsibility for the killing, From the very start, Yoshi had volunteered enthusiastically to participate in each necessary function of the act – jumping at the chance to hold down the lamb in order to ensure a clean cut of the neck, sawing off of the lamb's head from its limply hanging body, and assisting in the final packaging of the loin chops.

Not everyone was so gung-ho about the operation. Rivka had been a last minute addition to our crew, tentatively climbing into the truck, her eyes dark and heavy with the burden of moral duty. As a long time vegetarian and animal rights activist she must have been coming along, if nothing else, just to make damn sure that no one would delight in the affair. Rivka could not disguise her disgust, the muscles of her face distorting with each and every slice of the carcass. Yet even Rivka's principled high ground cracked as the voyeuristic pleasure of beholding the horrific killing and its calculated aftermath. By nightfall, Rivka had checked herself into the emergency room with abdominal pains that would last for weeks – Leviathan keenly pointing out that perhaps she had embodied the pain of the lamb and taken on the tortured qualities of its soul.

The rest of our group held neutral ground, more or less taking on the roles of silent witnesses, particularly as we entered the processing stage. As the lamb was divided into choice cuts of meat and packaged for freezing, the Chubby Bunny butcher offered an informal autopsy report, inconspicuously passing around various organs, providing everyone with a first hand feel and view of the insides of the lamb, its anatomy naked before our eyes. The long, dreary dissection of the carcass did lead to its own form of barnyard absurdity as Moyra conflated the spleen she was holding to a pancake. But despite a few puerile pauses, the slaughter proceeded respectfully and professionally with precision and care.

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