Veganism: A Jewish Imperative?
Richard H. Schwartz
Yes, veganism is a Jewish imperative, because the production and consumption of meat and other animal products violate basic Jewish mandates to preserve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help hungry people and seek and pursue peace. Because this is not part of the conventional thinking of most Jews, this article explains this conclusion and then addresses objections to the assertion that Jews should be vegans. A more extensive discussion of Jewish teachings related to veganism and how they are violated by the production and consumption of animal products can be found in my book Judaism and Vegetarianism (Lantern Books, 2001) and in my over 130 related articles at JewishVeg.com/Schwartz. The concepts discussed below are dramatically discussed and illustrated in the one-hour documentary that I helped produce, "A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World," which can be seen in its entirety at ASacredDuty.com.
Preservation of Health
The preservation of one's health is arguably Judaism's most important commandment. The Talmud teaches that Jews should be more particular about matters of health and life than matters of ritual. If it might help save a life, one generally must (not may) violate the Sabbath, eat non-kosher foods, and even eat on Yom Kippur. (The only laws that cannot be violated to preserve a life are those prohibiting murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality.)
In conflict with these teachings, animal-centered diets have been irrefutably linked to heart disease, strokes, various types of cancer, and other diseases. Our animal based diet has been a major contributor to recent skyrocketing medical costs, contributing substantially to local, state, and national budgetary problems.
Compassion for Animals
Many Biblical laws command proper treatment of animals. For example, one may not yoke a strong and a weak animal together for plowing (Deuteronomy 22:10) nor muzzle an ox while he is threshing in the field. (Deuteronomy 25:4) Moses and King David were chosen for leadership (Midrash: Exodus Rabbah 2:2), and Rebecca was deemed suitable to be a wife for the patriarch Isaac, because they were kind to animals. Proverbs teaches that "The righteous person considers the life of his or her animal." (12:10) The psalmist states that, "The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His creatures." (Psalms 145:9). Concern for animals is even expressed in the Ten Commandments, in a verse (Exodus 20:8-10) that is recited every Shabbat morning as part of Kiddush, that indicates that animals, as well as people, must be permitted to rest on the Sabbath.
In conflict with these powerful Jewish teachings, most animals raised to produce food in the U.S. spend their entire lives under unnatural conditions in crowded spaces, where they are denied fresh air, exercise, and freedom of movement.
Protection of the Environment
Judaism teaches that the earth is the Lord's (Psalms 24:1)and that people are to be partners and co-workers with God in protecting the environment. The Talmudic sages showed great concern for reducing pollution. While God said "It is very good" (Genesis 1:31) when the world was created, today the world faces many environmental threats.
In conflict with Jewish environmental injunctions, animal-centered diets exacerbate extensive environmental threats, including global climate change. Global warming is much more than "an inconvenient truth." We are overheating our planet with potentially catastrophic consequences. Of the warmest 23 years worldwide on record , 22 of them have occurred in the past 27 years. (extended from Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth, Rodale Press, 2006, p. 72).
Global warming is arguably the biggest social, political, economic, moral, and environmental issue facing our planet and its inhabitants. People are becoming increasingly aware of and concerned about global warming, due to record temperatures, wildfires, an increase in the number and severity of storms, widespread droughts, rising sea levels, flooding, endangered species, spreading diseases, shrinking lakes, environmental refugees, and melting of glaciers, permafrost, and polar ice caps. We may be standing at a precipice. UN weapons inspector Hans Blix has said: "To me the question of the environment is more ominous than that of peace and war.... I'm more worried about global warming than I am of any major military conflict." (http://www.mtv.com/bands/i/iraq/news_feature_031203/index5.jhtml)
In 2008 there was massive flooding from a "500-year storm" in several Midwestern states, and a record number of wildfires in California after a long drought. California's governor stated that fire season in his state used to last a few months, but is now lasts all year long. (http://wonkroom.thinkprogress.org/2008/11/17/schwarzenegger-always-wildfires/)
Humanity is threatened as perhaps never before, and major changes are needed to put our imperiled planet on a sustainable path - and soon. Scientific and environmental organizations, journals, and magazines, and all peer-reviewed scholarly journals agree that global warming is real, serious, worsening, and caused by human activity. The evidence is overwhelming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Fourth Assessment Report in February 2007, which was researched and written by about 2,500 climate scientists over six years and vetted by over 130 governments. (http://www.ipcc.ch/ ) The Report carefully delineates clear trends and potentially catastrophic consequences associated with climate change, warning of the possibility of irreversible change, unless we make concerted efforts to counter global warming. The IPCC makes it plain that the current and projected climate change is not simply "natural variation," but "very likely" (meaning at least 90%) the result of human activity. Time Magazine (http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1584992,00.html), with agreement from the Brookings Institution (http://www.brookings.edu/papers/2006/06energy_easterbrook.aspx), National Geographic (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0009/feature4/fulltext.html), and many others, declared the "case closed" on the problem of global warming, with only solutions to be debated. Scientific American magazine states that the case for global warming is "undeniable." (http://climatechangeeducation.org/science/journals.html)
Several leading experts, including James Hansen of NASA and physicist Stephen Hawking, perhaps the most famous living scientist, as well as Al Gore, warn that global climate change may reach a 'tipping point' and spiral out of control, within a few years, with disastrous consequences, if current conditions continue. (http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/2008/StateOfWild_20080428.pdf) A recent 700-page British government report, authored by a former chief economist for the World Bank, projects losses of up to 20% of world gross domestic product by 2050 unless 1% of current world domestic product is devoted to combating global climate change. (http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2007/economics-climate.html) Other economic studies have projected even worse scenarios.
Further, increased suffering and increasing numbers of environmental refugees, along with greater anxiety over access to food, water, land, and housing, often lead to unstable conditions that give rise to anger, ethnic violence, terrorism, fascism, and war. "It's the poorest of the poor in the world, and this includes poor people even in prosperous societies, who are going to be the worst hit," said IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri. (http://www.finfacts.ie/irelandbusinessnews/publish/article_10009696.shtml) The fallout from climate change may also lead to more terrorism, in addition to famine and disease, by impoverishing and radicalizing people.
A report commissioned by the U.S.-financed Center for Naval Analyses and written by eleven retired U.S. generals, states: "On the simplest level, [climate change] has the potential to create sustained natural and humanitarian disasters on a scale far beyond those we see today." (http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20070528-ex-military-leaders-call-climate-change-a-national-security-issue.html) The panel of generals, including retired General Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, depicts global warming as "a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world," which could "seriously exacerbate already marginal living standards in many Asian, African and Middle Eastern nations, causing widespread political instability and the likelihood of failed states".
All countries, including Israel, are affected by global warming. An Israeli government assessment in 2000, and a follow-up report by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense in 2007 (http://www.ynet.co.il/english/articles/0,7340,L-3421711,00.html), indicates that global warming could cause a triple whammy, each and all of which would heighten tensions and suffering in and around Israel:
a rise in temperature of between 3 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit, adding to the level of discomfort, the need for additional fuel, and the rate of evaporation;
a significant increase in the Mediterranean Sea level, which would threaten the narrow coastal strip of land where 60% of Israel's population lives, and where major infrastructures such as ports and power plants would be destroyed; and
a significant decrease in rainfall, estimated at 20-30%, which would disrupt agricultural production and worsen the chronic water scarcity problem.
The latest IPCC report states that "Changes in lifestyles and consumption patterns that emphasize resource conservation can contribute to developing a low-carbon economy that is both equitable and sustainable." (http://www.teriin.org/index.php?option=com_events&task=details&sid=14) The November 2006 book-length report of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), entitled "Livestock's Long Shadow" (http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000448) shows how personal "changes in lifestyles and consumption" can affect global warming. This report states that animal-based agriculture causes approximately 18% of greenhouse gas emissions (in CO2 equivalents), which lead to global warming, an amount significantly greater than that caused by all forms of transportation on the planet combined (about 13.5%). Senior author Henning Steinfeld, Ph.D. adds that "Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today's most serious environmental problems," from the local to the global level.
Cars are still problematic, of course, but cows and other animals raised for human consumption are contributing significantly to global warming, thereby causing more damage to our existence. Therefore, what we eat is actually more important than what we drive, and the most important personal change we could make for the environment, as well as for our own health and the lives of animals, is a switch to veganism.
Making all of the above points more serious, the consumption of animal products is projected to double in fifty years. (http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000448) If this happens, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to reduce greenhouse emissions enough to avoid the most severe effects of global climate change.
The world is feeding about 56 billion animals destined for slaughter annually (http://www.wfad.org/about.htm), while millions of people, disproportionately children, starve to death each year. Over 70% of the grain produced in the U.S. (and about 40 percent produced worldwide) (http://www.goveg.com/environment-wastedResources-food.asp) is inefficiently and immorally diverted to feed farmed animals, to satisfy appetites for money and meat. It takes up to sixteen pounds of grain to produce a single pound of feedlot beef for human consumption. (http://www.mit.edu:8001/activities/vsg/INFO/Environment/realites) The UN FAO study reports that the livestock industry, in total, uses and abuses roughly 30% of the planet's surface, thereby "entering into direct competition [with other activities] for scarce land, water and other natural resources." (http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000448) Further, overuse of the land by livestock, leading to overuse of fuel and water, also degrades the land, erodes the topsoil, and pollutes the water around it, contributing to additional environmental and health problems.
An animal-based diet also uses energy very inefficiently. It requires 78 calories of fossil fuels for each calorie of protein obtained from feedlot-produced beef, but only 2 calories of fossil fuel to produce a calorie of protein from soybeans. (Frances Moore Lappe, Diet for a Small Planet, Ballentine Books, 1991, pp. 74-74.) Grains and beans require only 2 - 5% as much fossil fuel as beef. (Ibid.) The energy needed to produce a pound of grain-fed beef is equivalent to one gallon of gasoline.(Alan B. Durning, "Cost of Beef for Health and Habitat," Los Angeles Times, September 21, 1986, p.3) Reducing energy consumption is not only a better choice in terms of fighting climate change, it is also a better choice in terms of being less dependent on foreign oil and the vagaries of both markets and dictators.
Additionally, the editors of World Watch (July/August 2004) concluded: "The human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future - deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease." (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/sep/07/food.meat) Lee Hall, the legal director for Friends of Animals, is more succinct: "Behind virtually every great environmental complaint there's milk and meat." Environmental destruction isn't kosher.
While growing concern over global warming is welcome, the many connections between the fast-spreading Standard American Diet (SAD) and global warming have generally been overlooked or marginalized. The production of meat contributes substantially to the emission of three major gases associated with global warming: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O), as well as other eco-destructive gases such as ammonia (NH3), which contributes to acid rain, and hydrogen sulfide (H2S), implicated in mass extinctions.
It is increasingly clear that eliminating, or at least sharply reducing, the production and consumption of meat and other animal products is imperative if we are to reduce global warming and other grave environmental threats. Veganism preserves and protects our now endangered environment, and therefore veganism is a Jewish imperative.
Conservation of Natural Resources
Based on a verse in Deuteronomy which prohibits the destruction of fruit-bearing trees in time of warfare (20:19-20), the Talmudic sages prohibited the waste or unnecessary destruction of all objects of potential benefit to people. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leading 19th century Jewish leader and scholar, stated that this prohibition (bal tashchit) is the first and most general call of God: We are to "regard things as God's property and use them with a sense of responsibility for wise human purposes. Destroy nothing! Waste nothing!" (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, (Horeb, Section 397, 398)) He also stated that the prohibition of bal tashchit includes using more things (or things of greater value) than is necessary to obtain one's aim. (Ibid, Section 400)
Contrary to bal tashchit, animal-centered diets require up to 20 times as much land, 14 times as much water and ten times as much energy, and far more pesticides, fertilizer, and other resources, than vegan diets require. (http://www.all-creatures.org/tytt/env-animalag.html)
Sharing with Hungry People
Helping the hungry is fundamental in Judaism. The Talmud states: "Providing charity for poor and hungry people weighs as heavily as all the other commandments of the Torah combined." (Baba Batra 9a). Farmers are to leave the gleanings of the harvest and the corners of the fields for the poor. On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, Jews are told through the words of the Prophet Isaiah, that fasting and prayers are not enough -- they must work to end oppression and to "share thy bread with the hungry." (Isaiah 58-6-7)
Contrary to these basic Jewish teachings, animal-based diets involve the feeding of over 70 percent of the grain grown in the U.S. and 40 percent of the grain grown worldwide to animals destined for slaughter (http://www.goveg.com/environment-wastedResources-food.asp), while millions of the world's people die annually due to hunger and its effects. The U.S. is a major importer of beef, and imports some beef from countries where people are starving, to satisfy the customers of fast-food restaurants. Recently there have been sharp increases in the price of many foods due to rising demand, droughts, and global warming. But the effects of feeding so much grain to animals is seldom considered.
Seeking and Pursuing Peace
While not a pacifist religion, Judaism mandates a special obligation to work for peace. Jews are to "seek peace and pursue it" (Psalms 34:15.), meaning that this is a constant obligation. According to the Talmudic sages, God's name is peace, peace encompasses all blessings, (Midrash: Leviticus Rabbah 9:9) and the first words of the Messiah will be a message of peace. (Isaiah 52:7) While the Israelites did go forth to battle, they always yearned for the time when "nations shall beat their swords into plowshares...and not learn war any more." (Isaiah 2:4)
Jewish sages noted that the Hebrew words for bread (lechem) and war (milchamah) come from the same root. Based on this, they taught that one of the roots of war is a lack of bread and other resources. As indicated above, non-vegetarian diets involve the wasteful use of land water, energy, and other agricultural commodities, resulting in the widespread hunger and poverty that frequently leads to instability and war. One might say that the slogans of the vegetarian movement and the peace movement can be the same: "Give PEAS a chance."
In view of these important Jewish mandates to preserve human health, attend to the welfare of animals, protect the environment, conserve resources, help feed hungry people, and pursue peace, and since animal-centered diets violate and contradict each of these responsibilities, committed Jews should sharply reduce or preferably eliminate their consumption of animal products.
One could say "dayenu" (it would be enough) after any of the above arguments, because each one constitutes by itself a serious conflict between Jewish values and current practice that should impel Jews to seriously consider a plant-based diet. Combined, they make an urgently compelling case for the Jewish community to address these issues.
Biblical Teachings that Point to Vegetarianism
God's first dietary law was strictly vegetarian: "And God said: 'Behold I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed -- to you it shall be for food.'" (Genesis 1:29) That God's first intention was that people should be vegetarians was stated by Jewish classical biblical commentator, such as Rashi, Maimonides, Nachmanides, and Abraham Ibn Ezra, and later scholars, such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Moses Cassuto, and Nechama Leibowitz. After giving that initial dietary regime, God saw everything that He had made and "behold, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31).
According to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel and one of the outstanding Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century, permission to eat meat (Genesis 9:3) was only a temporary concession to human weakness, He felt that a merciful God would not institute an everlasting law permitting the killing of animals for food.
The Torah connects the consumption of meat to uncontrolled lust (Deuteronomy 12:20), while vegetarian foods are looked upon favorably:
For the Lord thy God brings you into a good land, a land of brooks, of water, of fountains and depths, springing forth in valleys, and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey; a land wherein you shall eat bread without scarceness; you shall not lack anything in it... And you shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord thy God for the good land which He hath given thee. (Deuteronomy 8:7-10)
Many laws and restrictions (the laws of kashrut) are related to the preparation and consumption of meat. Rabbi Kook believed that these regulations implied a scolding and that they were an elaborate apparatus designed to keep alive a sense of reverence for life, with the aim of eventually leading people back to vegetarian diets. This idea is echoed by Torah commentator Solomon Efrain Lunchitz, author of k'lee Yakar:
What was the necessity for the entire procedure of ritual slaughter? For the sake of self discipline. It is far more appropriate for man not to eat meat; only if he has a strong desire for meat does the Torah permit it, and even this only after the trouble and inconvenience necessary to satisfy his desire. Perhaps because of the bother and annoyance of the whole procedure, he will be restrained from such a strong and uncontrollable desire for meat.
(Quoted by Abraham Chill, The Commandments and Their Rationale, Urim Books, 1974, p. 400)
According to Isaac Arama, author of Akedat Yitzhak, God established another non-meat diet when the Israelites left Egypt: manna. Manna is described in the Torah as a vegetarian food, "like coriander seed" (Numbers 1:7). This diet kept the Israelites in good health for forty years in the desert. However, when they cried out for flesh which was reluctantly provided by God (in the form of quails), a great plague broke out and many people died. The place where this occurred was named, "The Graves of Lust," perhaps providing an early warning of the negative health effects related to the consumption of meat.
Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Joseph Albo believed that people will again be vegetarians in the days of the Messiah. They base this on the prophecy of Isaiah:
And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb...
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox,...
And none shall hurt nor destroy in all My holy
mountain. (Isaiah 11:6-9)
Why Jews Think They Should Not Be Vegetarians and Why They are Wrong
The above arguments strongly support the view that vegetarianism is the diet most consistent with Jewish values and God's wishes. However, there are challenges to this assertion:
1) The Torah teaches that humans are granted dominion over animals (Genesis 1:26), giving us a warrant to treat animals in any way we wish.
Response: Jewish tradition interprets "dominion" as guardianship, or responsible stewardship. We are called upon to be co-workers with God in improving the world. Dominion does not mean that people have the right to wantonly exploit animals, and it certainly does not permit us to breed animals and treat them as machines designed solely to meet human needs. In "A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace," Rav Kook states: "There can be no doubt in the mind of any intelligent person that [the Divine empowerment of humanity to derive benefit from nature] does not mean the domination of a harsh ruler, who afflicts his people and servants merely to satisfy his whim and desire, according to the crookedness of his heart. It is unthinkable that the Divine Law would impose such a decree of servitude, sealed for all eternity, upon the world of God, Who is 'good to all, and His mercy is upon all His works' (Psalms 145:9)." This view is reinforced by the fact that immediately after God gave humankind dominion over animals (Genesis 1:26), God prescribed vegetarian foods as the diet for humans (Genesis 1:29).
2) The Torah teaches that only people are created in the Divine Image, meaning that God places far less value on animals.
Response: While the Torah states that only human beings are created "in the Divine Image" (Genesis 5:1), animals are also God's creatures, possessing sensitivity and the capacity for feeling pain. God is concerned that they are protected and treated with compassion and justice. In fact, the Jewish sages state that to be "created in the Divine Image," means that people have the capacity to emulate the Divine compassion for all creatures. "As God is compassionate," they teach, "so you should be compassionate."
3) Inconsistent with Judaism, vegetarians elevate animals to a level equal to or greater than that of people.
Response: Vegans concern for animals and their refusal to treat animals cruelly does not mean that vegans regard animals as being equal to people. There are many reasons for being vegan other than consideration for animals, including concerns about human health, ecological devastation, and the plight of hungry people. Because humans are capable of imagination, rationality, empathy, compassion, and moral choice, we should strive to end the unbelievably cruel conditions under which farm animals are currently raised. This is an issue of sensitivity, not an assertion of equality with the animal kingdom.
4) Veganism places greater priority on animal rights than on the many problems related to human welfare.
Response: Vegan diets are not beneficial only to animals. They improve human health, help conserve food and other resources, and put less strain on endangered ecosystems. In view of the many threats related to today's livestock agriculture (such as deforestation and global climate change), working to promote veganism may be the most important action that one can take for global sustainability.
5) Putting veganism ahead of Jewish teachings creates a new religion with values contrary to Jewish teachings.
Response: Jewish vegetarians are not placing so-called "vegan values" above Torah principles but are challenging the Jewish community to apply Judaism's splendid teachings at every level of our daily lives. As indicated, Jewish teachings require people to treat animals with compassion, guard our health, share with hungry people, protect the environment, conserve resources, and seek peace, are all best applied through vegetarian diets.
6) Jews must eat meat on Shabbat and Yom Tov (Jewish holidays).
Response: According to the Talmud (T. B. Pesachim 109a), since the destruction of the Temple, Jews are not required to eat meat in order to rejoice on sacred occasions. This view is reinforced in the works Reshit Chochmah , Kerem Shlomo, and Rabbi Chizkiah Medini's Sdei Chemed, which cites many classical sources on the subject. Several Israeli chief rabbis, including Shlomo Goren, late Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, and Shear Yashuv Cohen, Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Haifa, were/are strict vegetarians.
7) The Torah mandated that Jews eat korban Pesach and other korbanot (sacrifices).
Response: The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides believed that God permitted sacrifices as a concession to the common mode of worship in Biblical times. It was felt that had Moses not instituted the sacrifices, his mission would have failed and Judaism might have disappeared. The Jewish philosopher Abarbanel reinforced Maimonides' position by citing a midrash (Rabbinic teaching) that indicates God tolerated the sacrifices because the Israelites had become accustomed to sacrifices in Egypt, but that God commanded they be offered only in one central sanctuary in order to wean the Jews from idolatrous practices.
8) Jews historically have had problems with some animal rights groups, which have opposed shechita (ritual slaughter).
Response: Jews should consider switching to veganism not because of the views of animal rights groups, whether they are hostile to Judaism or not, but because it is the diet most consistent with Jewish teachings. It is the Torah, not animal rights groups, which is the basis for observing how far current animal treatment has strayed from fundamental Jewish values. As Samson Raphael Hirsch stated: "Here you are faced with God's teaching, which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours."
9) The restrictions of shechita (ritual slaughter) minimize the pain to animals in the slaughtering process, and thus fulfill Jewish laws on proper treatment of animals.
Response: This ignores the cruel treatment of animals on "factory farms" in the many months prior to slaughter. Can we ignore the force-feeding of huge amounts of grain to ducks and geese to produce foie gras, the removal of calves from their mothers shortly after birth to raise them for veal, the killing of over 250 million male chicks immediately after birth at egg-laying hatcheries in the U.S. annually, the placing of hens in cages so small that they can't raise even one wing, and the many other horrors of modern factory farming?
10) If Jews do not eat meat, they will be deprived of the opportunity to fulfill many mitzvot (commandments).
Response: By not eating meat, Jews are actually fulfilling many mitzvot: showing compassion to animals, preserving health, conserving resources, helping to feed the hungry, and preserving the earth. And by abstaining from meat, Jews reduce the chance of accidentally violating several prohibitions of the Torah, such as mixing meat and milk, eating non-kosher animals, and eating forbidden fats or blood. There are other cases where Torah laws regulate things that God would prefer people not do at all. For example, God wishes people to live in peace, but he provides commandments relating to war, knowing that human beings will quarrel and seek victories over others. Similarly, the Torah laws that restrict taking female captives in wartime are a concession to human weakness. Indeed, the sages go to great lengths to deter people from taking advantage of such dispensations.
11) Judaism teaches that it is wrong not to take advantage of the pleasurable things that God has put on the earth. Since He put animals on the earth, and it is pleasurable to eat them, is it not wrong to refrain from eating meat?
Response: Can eating meat be pleasurable to a sensitive person when he or she knows that, as a result, grain is wasted, global warming is increased, the environment is damaged, and animals are being cruelly treated? One can indulge in pleasure without cruelty. There are many other cases in Judaism where actions that people may consider pleasurable are forbidden or discouraged - such as the use of tobacco, drinking liquor to excess, having sexual relations out of wedlock, and hunting.
12) A movement by Jews toward vegetarianism would lead to less emphasis on kashrut (dietary laws) and eventually a disregard of these laws.
Response: Quite the contrary. In many ways, becoming a vegan makes it easier and less expensive to observe the laws of kashrut. This might attract new adherents to keeping kosher, and eventually to other important Jewish practices. As a vegan, one need not be concerned with mixing milchigs (dairy products) with fleichigs (meat products), waiting three or six hours after eating meat before being allowed to eat dairy products, storing four complete sets of dishes (two for regular use and two for Passover use), extra silverware, pots, pans, etc., and many other considerations incumbent upon non-vegans who wishe to observe kashrut.
13) If everyone became vegan, butchers, shochtim (slaughterers), and others dependent for a living on the consumption of meat and other animal products would lack work.
Response: There could be a shift from the production of animal products to that of nutritious vegan dishes. In England during World War II, when there was a shortage of meat, butchers relied mainly on the sale of fruits and vegetables. Today, new businesses could sell tofu, miso, felafel, soy burgers, and vegetarian cholent (Sabbath hot dish). Besides, any shift toward veganism will be gradual, providing time for a transition to other jobs. The same kind of question can be asked about other moral issues. What would happen to arms merchants if we had universal peace? What would happen to some doctors and nurses if people took better care of themselves, stopped smoking, improved their diets, and so on? Immoral or inefficient practices should not be supported because some people earn a living in the process.
14) If everyone became vegan, animals would overrun the earth.
Response: This concern is based on an insufficient understanding of animal behavior. For example, there are millions of turkeys around at Thanksgiving not because they want to help celebrate the holiday, but because farmers breed them for the dinner table. Dairy cows are artificially inseminated annually so that they will constantly produce milk. Before the establishment of modern intensive livestock agriculture, food supply and demand kept animal populations relatively steady. An end to the manipulation of animals' reproductive tendencies to suit our needs would lead to a decrease, rather than an increase, in the number of animals. We are not overrun by animals that we do not eat, such as lions, elephants, and crocodiles.
15) Instead of advocating veganism, we should alleviate the evils of factory farming so that animals are treated better, less grain is wasted, and less health-harming chemicals are used.
Response: The breeding of animals is "big business." The methods of modern factory farming are the most profitable methods. Improving conditions would certainly be a step in the right direction, but has been strongly resisted by the meat industry. Humane methods increase the cost of production.Why not abstain from eating meat as a protest against present policies while trying to bring about improvements? Even under the best of conditions, why take the life of a creature of God, "whose tender mercies are over all His creatures" (Psalms 145:9), when eating meat is not necessary for proper nutrition?
16) One can work to improve conditions for animals without being a vegan.
Response: Certainly, animal abuse is a widespread problem and there are many ways to improve conditions for animals. However, one should keep in mind that factory farming is the primary source of animal abuse in the U.S.. According to FARM (Farm Animal Rights Movement), "The number of warm-blooded animals brutalized and slaughtered each year is approximately seventy times greater than the number of animals killed in laboratories, thirty times greater than the number killed by hunters and trappers, and 500 times greater than the number euthanized in pounds." Almost ten billion farm animals are killed in the US alone annually to produce food. A typical meat-eater is personally responsible for the slaughter of twenty-two warm-blooded animals per year, 1,500 animals in an average lifetime.
17) If vegan diets were best for health, doctors would recommend them.
Response: Unfortunately, while doctors are devoted to the well-being of their patients, many lack information about the basic relationship between food and health, because nutrition is not sufficiently taught at most medical schools. Also, many patients are resistant to making dietary changes. The accepted medical approach today seems to be to prescribe medications first and, perhaps, recommend a diet change as an afterthought. Our dietary and health awareness are growing, but the financial power of the beef and dairy lobbies (and other groups who gain from the status quo) prevents rapid change.
18) I enjoy eating meat. Why should I give it up?
Response: If one is solely motivated by what will bring pleasure, then there is no compelling answer to this question. But Judaism wishes us to be motivated by far more: mitzvot, good deeds and acts of charity, sanctifying ourselves in the realm of the permissible, helping to feed the hungry, pursuing justice and peace, etc. Even if one is primarily motivated by considerations of pleasure and convenience, the negative health effects of animal-centered diets should be taken into account. One cannot enjoy life when one is not in good health.
Veganism is a Jewish imperative. It is essential that rabbis and other Jewish leaders recognize that a major shift toward vegan diets is essential if we are to avoid the unprecedented catastrophe that the world is rapidly approaching, and to move our precious, but imperiled, planet to a sustainable path. Religious leaders should help make Jews aware of how animal-based diets and agriculture violate basic Jewish mandates to preserve human health, treat animals compassionately, protect the environment, conserve natural resources and help hungry people.
It is also urgent that tikkun olam-the healing and repair of the world -- be a central issue in synagogues and Jewish schools. Judaism has splendid teachings on environmental conservation and sustainability, and these teachings must be applied in response to current environmental threats.
When we read daily reports of the effects of global climate change, such as record heat waves, severe storms, widespread droughts, and the melting of glaciers and polar icecaps; when climate scientists warn that global climate change may spin out of control with disastrous consequences unless major changes are soon made; when reports indicate that our oceans may be virtually free of fish by 2050; when species of plants and animals are disappearing at the fastest rate in known history; when it is projected that half of the world's people will live in areas chronically short of water by 2050; it is essential that the Jewish community fulfill its mandate to be a "light unto the nations" and lead efforts to address these weighty threats.
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, College of Staten Island
Author of "Judaism and Vegetarianism," "Judaism and Global Survival," and "Mathematics and Global Survival," and over 130 articles at www.JewishVeg.com/schwartz
President of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) www.JewishVeg.com
and Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV) www.serv-online.org/
Associate Producer of A SACRED DUTY (asacredduty.com)
Director of Veg Climate Alliance (www.vegclimatealliance.org)