Rabbi, shochet, rancher, home on the range in Colorado the Shechitah diaries: a meditation on three deaths.
Osama Bin Laden was killed May 3rd, 2011. Hearing that news, my emotions surprised me. After all, he more than any other, was credited as "mastermind" of the infamous September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S.. Ten or so years had passed, and I still clearly remember preparing for work that morning, drinking a cup of Earl Grey tea in the kitchen when I turned on the television for a quick look at "Good Morning America" before leaving for work. The first plane had already struck the first tower in Manhattan, and I was not, in any way, prepared to see the second. My mind immediately flashed back to my childhood in Brooklyn when a propeller-driven plane fell from the sky over the downtown area just blocks away from my father's office in the Fox Building and my Uncle Kurt's apartment on Grand Army Plaza.
But the attack on The World Trade Center twin towers and the Pentagon only 10 years ago was less clear in my imagination. The fires, shattered buildings and broken glass of the Brooklyn accident left no casualty numbers embedded in my memory, but the Twin Towers attack did; thousands of people had lost their lives in that vile attack that Bin Laden and his associates had carefully planned. It was not an accident, and though he himself did not take the controls of any one of the planes which struck the buildings filled with people going about their daily routines, his name became synonymous with that day of death.
As a Rabbi, rancher, and shochet, I remembered all this going about my daily routine on my ranch in the high mountain plains of Southern Colorado. I was a world away from the Big Apple's financial district on the small isle of Manhattan so long ago. Out here where life is precariously dependent on the weather, I looked skyward for some sign of what the day had in store. It is a habit I developed, looking upwards towards the sky and mountains for signs of rain, or not, warmth, or not, wind, or not, while I sought some meaning in the death of Osama Bin Laden. Death was on my mind.
Most of the time ranch life is about taking care of the artificial ecosystem we ranchers create. Straight fence lines, straight irrigation ditches, square corners on corrals, set against the infinite wilderness advancing right up to the edge of those artificial constructs threatening to turn my handiwork back to its original wilderness. Free ranging entropic forces are my constant opponent regardless of how "sustainable" my plan laid out to harmonize the construed with the infinite. The forces of nature don't present themselves in straight lines or with neat corners making the encounter between ranch boundary and its interface with unsullied creation a place of contention, an especially unstable boundary.
I especially look to my livestock guardian dogs to maintain a living boundary against which fences are impotent, since predators, that bring death to my livestock, are always lurking just a few yards on the other side of the fence. I can hear them. Often, I can see them. Certainly I can tell they have been there as their savage lifestyle precludes them from a sense of shame, badness or goodness. They are entirely part of the encroaching otherness of the "out there" against my embattled "in here." Just as the ranch ecosystem is a human fabrication, so are the animals I raise. They wouldn't survive in the wild for more than a few days. Their animal souls though energetically derived and linked to the Source of all Being are embodied in a vessel bearing the imprint of human limitation. Their animal soul is all that remains of the original as I have been sure to breed them to the point where they even lack horns with which to protect themselves in the wild. So along with the fence lines and gates and corrals and irrigation ditches they, more than any other part of my intrusion on the land, are completely dependent on me. I know it every time I scan the far side of the south fence line where cottonwoods near the river mock my barbed wire boundary as a joke compared to the river which defines the essence of what is on one side and on the other. Where once all life was part of a whole, my epistemology lays bare my rancher's bias in my designation of certain wild creatures as predators. As they threaten my livestock, so I threaten them. Electric-charged fences, large specially bred livestock, guardian dogs, and a rifle with a scope and a five-hundred yard reach assure me of my preparedness to maintain my chosen paradigm. My own boundary, constructed with intent, plan, and sweat is a sort of prison for me, a place of contention, needs, and attributed values, competing epistemologies of rancher versus hunter-gatherer and mostly, a boundary where life and death merge.
After Shabbat Emor, it must have been sometime Monday; I was startled to find Frostbite, my 165 lb. Anatolian Livestock Guardian dog tethered to a large tree near the aging adobe where my ranch-hand Rigo lives with his wife Anna and their two children. Frostbite, just a puppy, is an amazingly sleek, highly muscled work of Divine art. The size of a Mastif, speed of a greyhound and twenty year life expectancy are just a few remarks that come to mind. More than any praise for the beauty of his breed are his instinctive behaviors regarding his ability to stand off bobcats, mountain lions and least of all coyotes. I was sure I had found an excellent ranch hand in him and was quite proud to be his "owner" except for one small issue. His roughhousing with the small ram-lambs was worrisome when I first introduced them into the large cohort of mature rams where Frostbite spent his days as guard.
Whenever a new animal is introduced to an already existing group, just like children changing schools in mid year, there is a normal jockeying for position as to who is the alpha and who is not. Since ram-lambs become fertile at about 4 months they are removed from their mother's milk and watchful eye at that time regardless of the pitiful reverberation of separation cries from mother to child and from child to mother. On the ranch it was quite obvious that Frostbite was the alpha male among the rams so when I introduced two young, recently weaned ram-lambs named Ram-Barn and Ram-Ban respectively I carefully watched as the pecking order was established. A day or two after I noticed what looked like a small tear on Ram-Bam's hind leg on the inside. Noted and catalogued, I went on about my business. The very next day I found Frostbite tied to the tree outside the 5 1/2 foot protective, electric fence where he had been on guard duty so faithfully for the past months.
Rigo came walking out from behind the beit midrash with a sheepish look. "Ola" we greeted converging upon the tethered Frostbite from two directions. "Oh, he bit the leg of Ram-Bam," said Rigo looking aside. "How bad?" was my reply ...
I am very serious about my slaughtering technique. Not only do I aspire to the most proper form of kosher slaughter, but I insist that, added to that long list of strict requirements for kosher slaughter, there be humane animal handling. I realize that humane slaughter may be an oxymoron, but in the world of conscious carnivores which I inhabit it is critically important for many reasons including a number of rabbinic imprecations regarding our responsibility for the well-being of our livestock. So when I met Dr. Temple Grandin, I decided to attend her lectures at the CSU vet school on animal management relating to slaughter. I drove the three plus hours from Southern Colorado to the North and then back just to experience Dr. Grandin, and was I ever amazed. At the conclusion of each and every lecture, her students rose to applaud. I paid close attention to every detail of her lectures as well as reading all of her papers and even her autobiography. I didn't think too much about the section regarding euthanasia, but I was attentive.
"How bad?" I repeated. Rigo, always forthcoming with updates on ranch happenings, shoved some dirt with his boot, avoiding eye contact. "Go see," he whispered. I didn't have to go see. I knew because of the very sick, guilty feeling in my stomach. I knew what had happened. I saw the bite marks the day before on Ram-Barn's back left leg--right there on the inside just below the achilles tendon. I stopped at the ranch-house for my gun, picked it up, having never used it for this purpose. It felt odd in my hand as if it didn't belong there. Forget the fact that I had fired at least two thousand rounds through it over the years. My hand felt oddly disconnected that it would pick up the gun with this intent; at least it wasn't me but only my hand! Abraham's hand reached for the knife too, not Abraham full of chessed (loving kindness), but only his hand. But this time, there was no bat kol (heavenly voice) to intervene since the ram in the thicket was to be killed. I must have been entirely out of my mind, but somehow by hiding it under my jacket flap, I felt better. It was much safer there than out somewhere else, less able to do the one and only job it was meant for, and we know what that job is. And, once again because of my fences, and corners, gates, wires, and all the accoutrements of being a rancher, I was now going to be a killer because that job as well as feeding the animals on Shabbat or breaking ice off of water troughs in 20 below zero storms devolved on me. I was ultimately responsible in general and completely culpable for this scenario and the following set of acts already set in motion a day before.
I'm an optimist, says my mother, sometimes to my detriment, but otherwise I like having a positive attitude towards life. So, gun in pocket I walked the thousand or so feet from my home to the dry lot where the rams were. I have to say it was a beautiful spring day. I felt the beauty and was appreciative regardless of the nausea just under the surface. And what was really going on with me? I am a shochet. I am a ritual slaughter. I take life so others can eat and live, do good in the world, raise families, participate in their communities with full vigor. I am familiar with death, and even bring it about, so why all the difficulty?
I saw Ram-Barn across the dry lot standing next to the fence with his mother on the other side. They were calling back and forth to one another in their special lamb-ewe-ish talk. He looked good from where I stood. He seemed whole, complete like a recently weaned ram-lamb should look but I couldn't see his left side so I walked in close and closer till I was standing over him and could see his left hind leg. Actually I was able to see where his left hind leg should have been because it was completely missing. The lamb was standing on three legs. The absent leg, the one with the teeth marks in it just a day ago was only a memory. In its place was hanging torn flesh the color of mahogany coated with dirt and dried blood. The leg was gone all the way up to the hip socket. His exquisite caramel toned hide hung mindlessly over the gaping wound like a Daliesque nighterror. The word treifah flashed into my head like a computer graphic and the lesson from Temple Grandin's class rewound and played itself back very slowly. I had paid attention to my teacher so there was no question about what had to be done and how I was supposed to do it. This time the gun comforted my hand, warm, inviting itself to the task. Imaginary dotted lines crisscrossed the back of his skull, intersecting at the exact spot where the parietal cranial bones met. I was surprised at how fast Ram-Barn went down. He dropped like a flop of mud slapping on the ground. My ram-lamb, whose birth I had witnessed, who I held like a baby, whose ear I carefully tagged avoiding the large vessels in his ear, who, just a few hours before was cavorting, jumping and playing with the big boys and the big dog was dead. I blamed Frostbite's behavior as just getting too rough with the little ones though the missing leg was never found. Motionless, except for a few drops of blood coming from his nose, I realized I never heard the muzzle report from the bullet which finished him off.
Nine months earlier on a day as hot as any in Israel's Aravah, I looked out to the east pasture. In the distance, I saw Matilda our Angus-Herford mix cow standing under the lone cottonwood in the eight acre patch swaying slightly left and right in the partial shade. Heat radiated up from the furrowed pasture making her look like a black and white jigsaw slightly askew. Her long tail swatted flies of all sorts while a small black calf positioned under her belly facing her udder and the milk so important in the first hours after calving. Off about two hundred feet to the north was a large black bump on the ground. I called out to no one in particular, "twins, Matilda has twinned!" My delight quickly changed to fear as I realized the other twin was not standing, was in the hot, hot sun and laying on burning dry pasture. No time to waste! I assembled our small crew by driving wildly around the ranch center till three or so hands were in the back of the pick up and headed off to the north pasture to save the calf from certain death.
I can't tell you how many times my head crashed into the roof of the truck cab as we raced across the twelve inch high furrows towards our downed calf, but it hurt_ The folks in the bed were mostly in the air with a rhythmic cluttered crashing into the plastic truck bed liner. We were a moving percussion section. The downed calf was the female of the twin set. The male was bigger and already taking milk. He and his mother barely noticed our percussive arrival as Matilda's tail continued to swish off flies and the bull-calf sucked away. The birth had taken place about forty minutes before and had been witnessed by Ron, my neighbor to the north, who came leaping over the pasture fence to help when he saw us out there with the calves and the truck. Ron is about sixty-five and I was surprised at his agility on that incredibly hot morning.
Blood and placental tissue marked the calving spot pretty well. The cow-calf was less than twenty feet from the spot she was dropped by Matilda. She was black, sticky, hot to the touch, flaccid limbs and breathing rapidly with little depth. We were going to lose this cow-calf if we didn't act quickly to hydrate, and cool her down. So we sat Cindy in the truck bed to stabilize the calf for the drive across the bumpy terrain, and two of us picked up the one-hundred pound calf and placed it on Cindy's lap in the bed. We headed back to the barn while Matilda and her bull-calf watched us with little concern. When we got the calf off of Cindy and lifted her under the barn's overhanging awning the temperature must have been one hundred two in the sun and maybe ninety degrees in the barn's cool shade. We splashed cool water from the hydrant on the panting cow-calf all the while watching for signs of improvement. It must have been a good five anxious minutes fill she actually took to her feet and let out a long, loud, wavering, bellow which "scared the heck" out of everyone attending her. Suddenly Matilda looked up way out in the distance where the bull-calf was little more than a black spot in the shimmering heat. She came running in response to her calf's separation cry! Not just moseying along as is her trademark, but running like a house on fire. The bull-calf looked around as if he couldn't believe that his milk station had just sprinted off a half mile away. Then he decided to follow as well. It was a great family reunion that day under the eaves of the big Cleary barn. Lunch was well deserved. We all drank lots and lots of water and lemon. And both calves drank lots of Matilda's creamy milk. Peace reigned once more on the Ranch.
I watched the news that night of Bin Laden's death in disbelief. I remember the scenes of street dancing and celebration which occurred in the Arab world after 9/11. We're dead and they celebrate. I guess that is pretty normal for a "certain," foreign mind-set. I wasn't ready for our own celebratory acting-out which took place all over the country when Bin Laden was killed by Seal Team 6. Relief, just desserts, justice served, the end of a horrible chapter in world history, he-got what-was-coming-to him; these reactions were all quite OK with me. But celebrating like it was some tail-gate party at homecoming football game; that was astonishing and chilling. We, the people of America, had started to behave like those peoples whom we so scorned for their lack of value for human life. I was dumbstruck at the cheering, flag-waving, merry-making, drinking, partying. All of it was sickening to me. I self-checked. Would I have pulled the trigger on Bin Laden? Maybe yes, maybe no. Was he trying to surrender or was he participating in a fire-fight with the Seals? How much animus did I personally hold for him as a human as compared to him as a "mastermind"? How much of what I saw as "news" reporting was trustworthy? I would have had to be there under orders, whatever they were, and then act accordingly. In Mogadishu and Iraq, when bodies of our soldiers were mutilated and dragged through the streets and hung up as trophies, I was astonished that people could be so primitive and celebratory regarding death. It seemed to me that our blood-lust as a people and our vengeful spirit broke through our thin veneer of humanity as our celebrations were caught on television cameras. I self-soothed with the thought that, "we hadn't become like them, those animals, yet. We haven't hung any carcasses up on a bridge trellis for mutilation and trophy display, not yet."
What was I supposed to do now with the carcass of Ram-Bam? I looked around the dry lot for some sign, or help. I gazed off to the Wet Mountain range in the west. Perhaps some help would come from there? I was at a complete loss. Having never put one of my sheep down, I didn't know what to do. So I lifted up the tiny animal's remains in my arms and self-consciously cradled him in my arms and carried him to the pickup. One by one, drops of blood dripped from his nose hitting the dusty earth. Each drip was louder than the next as I tried to keep the other sheep from seeing the grizzly sight. They turned towards me staring with what I call the "flock eye." That is when all the animals turn towards me and stare. I was sure they knew what I had done. I kept my back towards them as I carried the little one away to my big blue Dodge twenty-five hundred diesel pickup. His twenty-five, maybe thirty pounds, seemed like a stack of cinderblocks as I lifted him across the open tailgate and pushed him further into the bed. I covered the body in the truck bed with a tarp while blood dripped onto the black plastic truck bed liner. The ground, my hands, the truck liner, and my pant leg where blood had fallen and had been absorbed cried out to me. Who else heard?
Nine months had passed and Matilda's calves had been given names. One, the cow-calf was now called Kabuki after the Kabuki performers from Japan. Her perfectly white face, in contrast to the rest of her beautiful black hide, actually gave her just the right look minus the kimono. The bull-calf had grown into a sleek, powerful seven-hundred plus young bull. Still taking his mother's milk when he felt so inclined, his calf behavior had now changed to that of the young bull. He was becoming more aggressive, sexually active, mounting his mother as well as his sister. We called him Fuji for the white-topped head he strutted around the turnout by the barn. Beautiful, simply beautiful. The only problem was that inbreeding between Fuji and either Matilda or Kabuki was something to be avoided and since there was no provision for a separate pasture for a single bull, I decided to shect (slaughter) him for our next year's meat supply.
As before all slaughter, I spent many hours contemplating my place in this life and death drama associated with my imposition of a ranching ecology as opposed to the more natural hunting-gathering ecology. I am a shochet, a ritual kosher slaughterer. As such it is my duty to neither be faint nor hardened towards the tachlis of my work, taking animal life according to an elaborate set of rules so others may eat food laden with holy sparks. This was not my first and certainly not my last act as a shochet, but nonetheless I had a special relationship with Fuji as I have with all my animals on the ranch. But the mad dash to save Kabuki in the pickup with my head banging into the cab, left a distinct impression on my consciousness. For nine months I watched him romp, play with his sister, and eye the rams suspiciously when-ever they dared approach his massive presence. I saw him disappear over the bluffs with his mother and sister looking for richer pastures on the high ground only to come sauntering back like the Three Musketeers in triangular formation. I had walked past him and his family on hikes on the south side of the river, and I saw him lounge under a huge cottonwood across the river where one of our artesian wells brought living water up from deep aquifers below our arid rangeland sprouting buffalo grass in spectacular profusion. So killing Fuji needed to be special for both of us. He was not a commodity railroaded up to some industrialized plant where kosher slaughterers took turns on two sides of an automated conveyor-belt killing line; one cow every few seconds. Not a chance. This act of slaughter was to fulfill the second part of the promise and deal I have with all my animals. I promise them a good and happy life balanced by a quick, painless and holy death.
For me, getting ready to shecht an animal is more than repeating a blessing before cutting the animal across the neck. It takes years of learning just to decipher the rules for slaughter found in numerous rabbinical treatises as well as learning Talmud and its commentaries. More than the laws of slaughter, the laws of pre-slaughter inspection of the animal and post-mortem inspection of the internal organs takes time and focused attention lest the slaughterer mistakenly declare an animal permitted for consumption, Kosher, when it is actually forbidden which we call treifah. Additionally, certain parts of the animal must be carefully removed so as to keep in line with both Torah teaching as well as rabbinical law. All of these subjects I continuously review and rehearse in my mind prior to any concrete act of slaughter. I felt especially focused on these precepts when considering the slaughter of Fuji. I needed to do it properly according to the law, but more than that, I had to honor the relationship I had with him. He didn't just appear suddenly as animals do before commercial shochetim, a head sticking through a head gate or worse spun on their backs and upside down, necks presented skyward for the knife. I knew him personally. I tended to his postpartum experience with his sister in the pasture--we had history together. And, just like the Torah tells us regarding sacrifices in times when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, he was indeed, the best of my herd, small as it was.
I am a very blessed fellow indeed. My life partner Elisheva is a rabbi as well and is a driving force in our riving an authentic life in harmony with both our ranch and our traditional Jewish practice. Troubled by the death of Ram-Barn, I sat at the kitchen table with Elisheva. I couldn't put my finger on the exact problem with the euthanasia I had carried out to the letter of my teacher. A deep uneasiness pervaded my soul as I had a bite of a Fuji burger. We talked about death that night. And after some time, I realized something about Vayikra (the Book of Leviticus) that I didn't and couldn't have gotten before. I had always considered tumah (being ritually unclean) as some sort of contagion attracted and attached to certain individuals and objects in the ancient Temple period as just so much superstition. That night with Elisheva and Fujiburgers, I got it I really did. The feeling, the malaise, uneasiness came from taking a life without any ritual preparation. Yes, I killed Ram-Bam because he would have died from a painful overwhelming sepsis, and even if he survived, he was not fit for human consumption since he was really treifah, really "torn." When I picked his little carcass up and carried it away, I became infected with tumah, defilement. I actually became a primary source of defilement to others and things called a rishon l'tumah (a first in being unclean). The emotional, psychological weight I carried with the death of Ram-Bam was my "defilement" which made me emotionally distant, preoccupied, unable to pray with intention, focus, and worst of all, kept me at a distance from my family and community. For the first time in my fifty-nine years, I understood the meaning of "pure" vs. "defiled," tahor vs. tamei.
I made an appointment to see my Rebbe, but I already knew what I had to do to realign myself from my dinner conversation with Elisheva. I needed to immerse myself in a mikvah. Later that week, I traveled to Boulder Colorado where Rebbe Zalman agreed. A mikvah (ritual bathhouse) was called for.
Though I am a kohen, one ordered in "Parshas Emor" (a subsection of Leviticus) to avoid contammination from a dead body, I have trained members of various communities in ancient Jewish burial practices. For me, the "body inanimate" is a holy vessel in need of protection as the soul remains ensconced within until burial. To place a loved one in a refrigerator in the basement of a funeral home is unthinkable. I train the members of the burial society to treat the body with the respect it deserves still holding, even after death, the Divine soul within. Washing the body, dressing it in special garments always carefully attended to even when waiting for burial, is not only the duty of every Jew but is the mitzvah shel hessed, the only good deed for which there can be no expectation of any reward on this earth.
So when I heard that the American navy ship holding the remains of Osama Bin Laden had prepared his body for burial according to traditional Muslim practice, my heart was relieved. Many Muslim burial practices derive from older Jewish practices. They are literally akin to each other. Now all three deaths were properly attended to.
HERSH MENDYL SHATZKA is a dentist, psychologist, shochet, and rabbi who lives with his wife Rabbi Elisheva on a 400 acre ranch in Pueblo, Colorado, as described in the above article. He was educated at Indiana University, Bloomington, and received a degree with Payne honors in Zoology. He was a National Post-Doctoral Fellow at Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, MO. He received an M.A. in psychology from Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado, and is a licensed professional counselor, and chaplain at local hospitals and prisons. He received smicha from Aleph in 2004 and kabbalah l'shechitah in 2011. He serves as Rabbi of Congregation B'nai Or Pueblo, Colorado and Hazzan at B'nai Vail, Vail Colorado. He is deeply involved in sustainable agricultural research especially with hydroponic barley sprouting for his livestock. He has been published in the National Proceeding of the National Academy of Science, psychology, dentistry, and DEA journals. Recently, he was published in Vol. 13 of Kerem Magazine. Currently, he is involved in the history of the Dead Sea Sect/Essenes and the Qumran library and is working on a historical novel.
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|Title Annotation:||Jewish Identity|
|Author:||Shatzka, Hersh Mendyl|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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