Should Jews be Vegetarians, or Even Vegans, Chapter 13 of MY Book, “Who Stole My Religion?”
And God said, “Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of the earth, and every fruit tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food…” – Genesis 1:29
The dietary laws are designed to teach us compassion and to lead us gently to vegetarianism. – Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel
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. – Rabbi Solomon Efraim Lunchitz, in his work Kli Yakar
As a vegetarian and later a vegan activist in the Jewish community for about 35 years, I believe it is essential that Jews consider how plant-based diets are most consistent with basic Jewish teachings. Plant-based diets can improve the health of Jews and others, can help stabilize the world’s climate, and can help reduce human hunger and environmental dangers. I hope this chapter starts a respectful dialogue about if Jews should be vegetarians, or even vegans. I think such a dialogue would be a kiddush Hashem (a sanctification of God’s name), since it would help make Jews (and others) aware of the many benefits of non-meat diets, and how they can assist in creating healthier people and a healthier planet. Widespread discussions of the many moral issues related to our diets can also help revitalize Judaism by showing the relevance of eternal Jewish teachings to our most critical problems.
Six Ways That Animal-Based Diets Violate Basic Jewish Teachings
As I have been arguing for many years, animal-based diets conflict with basic Jewish values in at least six important areas:
- While Judaism mandates that people should be very careful about preserving their health and their lives, “v’nish-martem me’od l’nafsho-teichem” (Deuteronomy 4:9), numerous scientific studies have linked animal-based diets directly to heart disease, stroke, cancer, and other chronic, degenerative diseases.
- Even though Judaism forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals, animals are raised on “factory farms” where they live in cramped, confined spaces. They are often drugged, mutilated, and denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise, and any enjoyment of life before they are consumed.
- While Judaism teaches that “the earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1) and that we are to be God’s partners and co-workers in preserving the world, modern livestock agriculture contributes to climate change, soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, destruction of tropical rainforests and other habitats, and other forms of environmental destruction far more than plant-based agriculture.
- While Judaism mandates bal tashchit, that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value nor use more than is needed to accomplish a purpose, the production of animal-source protein is built on an extremely wasteful pyramid of resources (compared to plant protein production): overuse and waste of feed, land, fresh water, energy (most of it “dirty”), and other resources. For example, it takes up to thirteen times more water to produce food for a person on an animal-based diet than for a person on a plant-based diet, largely because of the huge amounts of water needed to irrigate feed crops.
- While Judaism stresses that we are to provide for the poor and share our bread with the hungry, over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is inefficiently funneled through animals to produce meat, milk, and eggs, while millions of people worldwide die each year from hunger and its effects. If we produced fewer animals and ate more “bread” ourselves (grains and beans, fruits and vegetables), we could share so much more of the loaf with the world’s nearly one billion chronically hungry people.
- While Judaism teaches that we must seek and pursue peace – and that violence can result from unjust conditions – diets high in animal protein monopolize resources, creating a shortage of affordable land, food, water, and energy for the poor, especially in the underdeveloped world. This exacerbates the tension between haves and have-nots and often produces social unrest, violence, and war.
One could say dayenu (it would be enough) after any one of these arguments. Each one by itself constitutes a serious conflict between Jewish values and current practices that should encourage every conscientious Jew to seriously consider adopting a plant-based diet. Combined, they make an even more compelling ethical case.
Animal-centered diets violate and contradict each of these important Jewish mandates: to preserve human health, to attend to the welfare of animals, to protect the environment, to conserve resources, to help feed the hungry, and to pursue peace. Therefore, it would seem to be an important mitzvah for committed Jews (and others) to replace as much of the animal food in their diets as they can with nutritionally superior plant alternatives: tofu, stir fried vegetables, veggie burgers, beans, chick pea curries, lush salads, and a variety of fruit, nuts, and seeds. These arguments are presented in more detail in my book Judaism and Vegetarianism and my over 200 articles and 25 podcasts of my talks and interviews, all of which are online at www.JewishVeg.com/Schwartz.
The Powerful Vegetarian Teachings of Rabbi David Rosen
The powerful, challenging words about vegetarianism of Rabbi David Rosen, former chief rabbi of Ireland, can make a major difference. (They can all be found in the book, Rabbis and Vegetarianism, edited by Roberta Kalechofsky.)
As it is halachically prohibited to harm oneself and as healthy, nutritious vegetarian alternatives are easily available, meat consumption has become halachically unjustifiable [contrary to Jewish law]….the current treatment of animals in the livestock trade definitely renders the consumption of meat as halachically unacceptable as the product of illegitimate means.
Indeed a central precept regarding the relationship between humans and animals in halacha [Jewish law] is the prohibition against causing cruelty to animals, tsa’ar ba’alei chayim. As mentioned, practices in the livestock trade today constitute a flagrant violation of this prohibition. I refer not only to the most obvious and outrageous of these, such as the production of veal and goose liver, but also to common practices in the livestock trade, such as hormonal treatment and massive drug dosing.
Aside from the fact that both the original Garden of Eden and the Messianic vision of the future reflect the vegetarian ideal in Judaism, it is of course such a dietary lifestyle that is most consonant with the goal and purpose of Torah to maximize our awareness, appreciation, and sensitivity to the Divine Presence in the world. It is therefore only natural for us to affirm – as did Rav Kook (Kuk), the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in [pre-state] Israel – that a redeemed world must perforce be a vegetarian world.
Today not only are we able to enjoy a healthy balanced vegetarian diet as perhaps never before, and not only are there in fact the above mentioned compelling halachic reasons for not eating meat, but above all, if we strive for that which Judaism aspires to – namely the ennoblement of the spirit – then a vegetarian diet becomes a moral imperative…[an] authentic Jewish ethical dietary way of life for our time and for all times.
…[E]vidently the more sensitive and respectful we are toward’ God’s Creation, in particular God’s creatures, the more respectful and reverential we actually are towards God.
Indeed, Judaism, as a way of life, seeks to inculcate in us a consciousness of the Divine Presence in the World, and respect for life accordingly. The more we care for life, the closer we are in fact to God. Accordingly, an ethical vegetarian way of life expresses the most sublime and noble values and aspirations of Judaism itself, bringing us to an ideal vision for society as a whole. Is it anything less than a chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s Name) to declare veal for example, which is produced through wanton human cruelty to a calf to be kosher, simply because at points “Y” and “Z” the animal was slaughtered and prepared in accordance with halachic dictates, after the commandments affecting human responsibility towards animal life have been desecrated from points “A” to “X”….Today’s concept of kashrut is more permeated with crass indulgence and economic exploitation than the ennoblement of the human spirit that our sages declare to be its purpose. Today as never before, the cruelty in the livestock trade renders meat eating and true kashrut incompatible…
Having such a distinguished Israeli Orthodox rabbi strongly arguing that eating meat today is halachically unjustifiable provides a very valuable message that should no longer be generally ignored.
Imagining a Vegan World
The late Senator Robert Kennedy often said, “Some see things as they are and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not.” So yes, why not? Why not a vegetarian world? Or even better, since we are dreaming after all, why not a vegan world? When one considers all the harm that comes from the current widespread production and consumption of animal products, it is hard to believe that many more people have not recognized the importance of moving toward such a world. So let us imagine what a vegan world would be like.
It would be a world with far healthier people.173 Numerous studies show that plant-based diets can sharply reduce the risk factors for heart disease, various types of cancer, strokes, and other chronic degenerative diseases. Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, and others have shown that a well-planned vegan diet, along with other positive lifestyle changes, can reverse severe heart-related problems. Currently about 1.3 million Americans die annually from diseases linked to the consumption of animal products. This number would be sharply reduced when people eat a wide variety of foods from what the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) calls the “New Four Food Groups”: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
It would be a far more humane world.174 We could eliminate the current abuse of the nine billion animals in the United States and 70 billion animals worldwide raised annually for slaughter. Animals would no longer be bred and genetically programmed to produce far more flesh, milk, and eggs than is natural. The many horrors of factory farming, including the force- feeding of geese, de-beaking of hens, and branding, dehorning, and castrating of cattle would be eliminated. We would no longer need to feel shame when considering Gandhi’s statement: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by how its animals are treated.”
It would be an environmentally sustainable world. If we were no longer raising 70 billion farmed animals worldwide annually for slaughter, most under very cruel conditions, there would be a sharp reduction in the current significant contributions that modern intensive livestock agriculture makes toward a wide variety of environmental crises: global climate change; rapid species extinction; soil erosion and depletion; massive pollution of land, water, and air; destruction of tropical rain forests, coral reefs, and other valuable habitats; desertification; and other ecological disasters.
Without the need to feed so many animals, we could let land lie fallow on a rotating basis, and thus restore its fertility. There would be far less need for pesticides and chemical fertilizers to produce feed crops for animals. Of course, changes would also have to be made in our production, transportation, and other systems to improve the environment as much as possible, but the shift to veganism would be a major step.
It would be a world where hunger and thirst would be sharply reduced, if not eliminated.
When we no longer feed 70% of the grain grown in the U.S. and 40% of the grain grown worldwide to animals destined for slaughter, using vast amounts of agricultural resources to do so, we will have the potential to reduce hunger for the almost one billion of the world’s people who are severely malnourished. We will also have the potential to save the lives of many of the millions of people who currently die annually of hunger and its effects. When we shift away from current animal-centered diets that require up to 13 times more water to produce the food per person than vegan diets do, we can help reverse current trends that have been leading to an increasingly thirsty world. Also, since current typical diets require large amounts of energy, a shift to vegan diets and other positive choices would reduce energy drain, and give us more time to develop sustainable forms of energy.
It would be a far more peaceful world. Some may question this point, but please consider that the slogans of the vegetarian and peace movements could be the same: “All we are saying is give PEAS a chance.” More seriously, the Jewish sages, noting that the Hebrew words for bread (lechem) and war (milchamah) come from the same root, deduced that when there are shortages of grain and other resources, people are more likely to go to war. History has verified this many times. Therefore, a vegan world, in which far less water, land, energy, and other resources are required for our diets, would reduce the potential for war and other conflicts.
Creating a vegan world may sound utopian today when so much meat is consumed in the developed world and as newly affluent people in several countries and areas, including China, India, South America, and South Asia shift toward animal-centered diets. However, our current dietary and other practices threaten major catastrophes for humanity because of climate change, loss of biodiversity, water and food shortages, and other threats that are worsened by producing animal based foods. Therefore, it is essential that we alert people to the necessity of moving toward a vegan diet. Fortunately, there has been about a 10% decrease in meat consumption in the last decade in the U.S.
As the song from the musical South Pacific says, “You gotta have a dream. If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?” So it is essential that we keep the dream of a vegan world alive. And as the Zionist leader Theodore Herzl famously said, “If you will it, it is no dream.” So, we must do more than just dream; we must work diligently to make that dream come true.
Why it is Far Easier to Be a Vegetarian or Vegan Today
Being a vegetarian or vegan is far more acceptable today. While in the past, people wondered why someone would adopt such a diet, there is more recognition of the mistreatment of animals and of the health and other benefits of plant-based diets. Upon learning that a person has such a diet, people today often defensively respond “I now eat less meat,” or “I only eat meat from animals raised humanely,” or “I do not eat red meat.”
There are far more resources today for vegetarians and vegans, including a wide variety of books, recipes, videos and other informative sources on the Internet. As indicated in Appendix C, there are now very active Jewish vegetarian/vegan groups in the U.S., the U.K., Israel, and other countries.
Under the leadership of its new executive director Jeffrey Cohan, Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) – renamed Jewish Veg in 2015 to reflect that promoting veganism is part of the organization’s mission – has become very active recently, with a new board of directors, rabbinic council, advisory council, a website (www.JewishVeg.org), and the creative use of a Facebook page and other social media. Similar increased vegetarian activism has recently occurred in the U.K., under the direction of Lara Smallman, and in Israel, under coordinator Yossi Wolfson. In addition, I have over 200 veg-related articles, 25 podcasts of my talks and interviews, and the complete text of the third edition of my book, Judaism and Vegetarianism, at www.JewishVeg.com/schwartz. Hopefully, all these resources will continue the momentum of Jews toward vegetarian and vegan diets.
How a Switch to Veganism Can Help Stabilize the Climate
Much has been written about the many health benefits of a vegetarian diet and how shifts away from animal-based diets would reduce animal suffering. One area, however, has been largely neglected in the public debate: the impact of animal-based diets on the environment and their contribution to climate change.
As discussed in Chapter 11, climate change is a major threat to the kind of world we just envisioned above. Because of the attention focused by Al Gore and others, climate change is now on people’s minds, but the many connections between typical American (and other Western) diets and climate change have generally been overlooked. Even Al Gore himself missed this important point when he produced his award-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth. (Since then he has seen the light and become a vegan.) So let’s examine how a major switch to plant-based diets can play a significant role in stabilizing climate.
Current modern intensive livestock agriculture, even on small farms, and the consumption of meat and other animal products greatly contribute to the four major gases associated with the greenhouse effect: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides, and chlorofluorocarbons. The burning of tropical forests to create grazing land or land to grow feed crops releases tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and destroys the trees that can absorb much carbon dioxide and release oxygen. In effect, trees are the lungs of our planet. Yet these forests are being cut down or burned on every continent to help the livestock industry.
The highly mechanized agricultural sector, much of which is devoted to producing feed for food animals, uses enormous amounts of fossil fuel to produce pesticides, chemical fertilizer, and other agricultural resources, as well as to transport the animals and their products. Operating the tractors, trucks, and other equipment used to produce feed also contributes to carbon dioxide emissions. The large amounts of petrochemical fertilizers used to produce feed crops create significant quantities of nitrous oxides, a very potent greenhouse gas. In addition, the increased refrigeration necessary to prevent animal products from spoiling adds more chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere, which contributes to the destruction of the Earth’s ozone layer.
“Livestock’s Long Shadow” – The Power of Our Food Choices to Reduce
Most global warming discussions over the past 20 years have focused on implementing changes in energy use, but have given little attention to the impact of our diets. This trend began to change upon publication of a landmark 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), ”Livestock’s Long Shadow.”175 The report estimated that, globally, livestock production is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in CO2 equivalents than is emitted by all the world’s cars, planes, ships, and all other means of transportation combined. The FAO report projected that the world’s current annual consumption of about 70 billion farmed animals will double by mid-century, if human population growth and dietary trends continue. The resulting increase in GHGs would largely negate reduced GHG emissions from all conservation and improved efficiencies in transportation, electricity, and other sectors. This could make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reach the GHG reductions that climate experts believe essential to avoid a climate disaster. In view of the above, it is troubling that in the face of livestock’s major role in warming the planet, many countries continue to encourage expanded consumption of animal products.
More recently, an in-depth analysis called “Livestock and Climate Change” by World Bank Group environmental specialists Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang appeared in the November/December 2009 issue of World Watch magazine.176 The authors found sources of GHGs from the livestock sector that were overlooked, underrepresented, or placed in the wrong sectors in the FAO report, and concluded that the livestock sector is responsible for at least 51% of all human-induced GHGs.
A major reason that animal-based agriculture is such a major contributor to climate change is that methane emitted by cows and other animals is far more potent per molecule than CO2 in warming the atmosphere – 23 times as potent in the standard 100 year reference periods. But since methane is only in the atmosphere for about twenty years, it is actually from 72 to 105 times as potent during that period. Leading climate experts have focused increasingly on the role of food production in causing global warming, pointing out that there is no more powerful environmental action that any individual can take than adopting a plant-based diet.
In the fall of 2008, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007, called on people in the developed world to “give up meat for one day [a week] initially, and decrease [meat consumption] from there.”177 NASA’s James Hansen, perhaps the most prominent scientific advocate of aggressive action to combat global warming, told an interviewer, “If you eat further down on the food chain rather than eating animals, which have produced many greenhouse gases and used much energy in the process of growing that meat, you can actually make a bigger contribution in that way than just about anything. So, that, in terms of individual action, is perhaps the best thing you can do.”178
More recently, economist Lord Nicholas Stern, author of the British government- commissioned Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, declared that people need to shift toward plant-based diets if the world is to conquer climate change. “Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases,” the economist told The Times of London. “It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better.”179
The aims of vegans and environmentalists are very similar: to simplify our lifestyles, show regard for the earth and all forms of life, and apply the awareness that “the earth is the Lord’s.” In view of the many negative effects of animal-based agriculture on the earth’s environment, resources, and climate, it is becoming increasingly clear that a shift toward vegan diets is imperative to move our precious but imperiled planet away from its present catastrophic path.
Jews constitute only a small percentage of the world’s population, but we have powerful environmental teachings that can make a major difference if properly applied. It is imperative that Jews strive to be “a light unto the nations” and to work for tikkun olam – the healing and repair of our unjust and endangered world. This mission must include lightening the immense burden of human diets on animals, the environment, and the world’s poor and hungry. To do so is to demonstrate the relevance of Judaism’s eternal teachings to the problems of the world today. It is urgent that Jews lead efforts to respectfully convince people to begin making the necessary changes before it is too late.
173 An excellent book on the health benefits of plant based diets is The China Study by Colin Campbell, Ph.D. Professor Campbell was the lead investigator for the Cornell, Oxford, China Study, the ‘grand prix of epidemiology,’ according to the New Your Times, the world’s largest epidemiological study, which showed the many benefits of plant-based diets.
174 The horrible ways animals are treated on factory farms was discussed in the previous chapter. 146
175 Livestock’s Long Shadow,” UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Rome, 2006.
176 Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change,” Worldwatch Institute, June 21, 2015.
177 Juliette Jowit, “UN says eat less meat to curb global warming,” The Observer, September 6, 2008.
178 Amanda Radke, “Why Ranchers Should Care About the Documentary ‘Cowspiracy,’” BEEF Daily, July 21, 2014.
179 David Batty and David Adam, “Vegetarianism is better for the planet, says Lord Stern,” The Guardian, October 26, 2009.