This summary of the case for Jews to be vegetarians (and even more so vegans) is chapter 12 from the 2002 2nd edition of my book, “Judaism and Global Survival.”
And God said: “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit — to you it shall be for food.” Genesis 1:29
This chapter addresses a widely accepted aspect of modern life that contradicts many Jewish teachings and harms people, communities, and the planet — the mass production and widespread consumption of meat. It will illustrate how high meat consumption and the ways in which meat is produced today conflict with Judaism in at least six important areas:
1. While Judaism mandates that people should be very careful about preserving their health and their lives, numerous scientific studies have linked animal-based diets directly to heart disease, stroke, many forms of cancer, and other chronic degenerative diseases.
2. While Judaism forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals, most farm animals — including those raised for kosher consumers — are raised on “factory farms” where they live in cramped, confined spaces, and are often drugged, mutilated, and denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise, and any enjoyment of life, before they are slaughtered and eaten.
3. 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 intensive livestock agriculture contributes substantially to soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, global warming, and other environmental damage.
4 While Judaism mandates bal tashchit, that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value, and that we are not to use more than is needed to accomplish a purpose, animal agriculture requires the wasteful use of grain, land, water, energy, and other resources.
5. While Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people, over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, while an estimated 20 million people worldwide die because of hunger and its effects each year.
6. While Judaism stresses that we must seek and pursue peace and that violence results from unjust conditions, animal-centered diets, by wasting valuable resources, help to perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that eventually lead to instability and war.
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 (and others) should sharply reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products.
One could say “dayenu” (it would be enough) after any of the arguments above, 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.
A VEGETARIAN VIEW OF THE TORAH
As the Torah verse at the beginning of this chapter (Genesis 1:29) indicates, God’s initial intention was that people be vegetarians. The foremost Jewish Torah commentator, Rashi, states the following about God’s first dietary plan: “God did not permit Adam and his wife to kill a creature to eat its flesh. Only every green herb were they to all eat together.”
Most Torah commentators, including Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Nachmanides, and Rabbi Joseph Albo, agree with Rashi. As Rabbi Moses Cassuto states in his commentary From Adam to Noah:
God told Adam: “You are permitted to use the animals and employ them for work, to have dominion over them in order to utilize their services for your subsistence, but you must not hold their life cheap nor slaughter them for food. Your natural diet is vegetarian….”
These views are consistent with the statement in the Talmud that people were initially vegetarians: “Adam was not permitted meat for purposes of eating.”
The great 13th century Jewish commentator Nachmanides indicates that one reason behind this initial human diet is the kinship between all sentient beings:
Living creatures possess a soul and a certain spiritual superiority [to non-human creation] which in this respect make them similar to the possessors of intellect [human beings] and they have the power of affecting their own welfare and their food and they flee from pain and death.
God’s original dietary plan represents a unique statement in humanity’s spiritual history. It is a divine blueprint for a vegetarian world order. Yet how many millions of people have read this Torah verse (Genesis 1:29) and passed it by without considering its meaning?
After stating that the original humans were to consume a purely vegetarian diet, the Torah indicates that animals were not initially created to prey on one another but rather to subsist on purely vegetarian food:
And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creeps upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, I have given every green herb for food. (Genesis 1:30)
Immediately after giving these dietary laws, God saw everything He had made and “behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Everything in the universe was as God wanted it, in complete harmony, with nothing superfluous or lacking. The vegetarian diet was a central part of God’s initial plan.
The strongest support for vegetarianism as a positive ideal in Torah literature is in the writing of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Kohen Kook (1865-1935). Rav Kook was the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi (Rav) of pre-state Israel and a highly respected and beloved Jewish spiritual leader and thinker. He was a writer on Jewish mysticism and an outstanding scholar of Jewish law. He spoke powerfully on vegetarianism, as recorded in A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace (edited by Rav Kook’s disciple Rabbi David Cohen, ‘The Nazir of Jerusalem’).
Rav Kook believed that the permission to eat meat was only a temporary concession to the practices of the times, because a God who is merciful to His creatures would not institute an everlasting law permitting the killing of animals for food.
People are not always ready to live up to God’s will. By the time of Noah, humanity had morally degenerated. “And God saw the earth, and behold it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth” (Genesis 6:12). People had morally degenerated to such an extent that they would eat a limb torn from a living animal. So, as a concession to people’s weakness, God granted permission for people to eat meat: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; as the green herb have I given you all.” (Genesis. 9:3)
According to Rav Kook, because people had descended to such an extremely low spiritual level, it was necessary that they be taught to value human life above that of animals, and that they concentrate their efforts on first working to improve relations between people. He writes that if people had been denied the right to eat meat some might eat the flesh of human beings instead, due to their inability to control their lust for flesh. Rav Kook regards the permission to slaughter animals for food as a “transitional tax,” or temporary dispensation, until a “brighter era” can be reached, when people will return to vegetarian diets.
Just prior to granting Noah and his family permission to eat meat, God states:
And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, and upon all wherewith the ground teems, and upon all the fish of the sea; into your hands are they delivered. (Genesis 9:2)
Now that there is permission to eat animals, the previous harmony between people and animals no longer exists. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argues that the attachment between people and animals was broken after the flood, which led to a change in the relationship of people to the world.
The permission given to Noah to eat meat is not unconditional. There is an immediate prohibition against eating blood: “Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall you not eat.” (Genesis 9:4) Similar commands are given in Leviticus 19:26, 17:10, and 12 and Deuteronomy 12:16, 23, and 25, and 15:23. The Torah identifies blood with life: “… for the blood is the life” (Deuteronomy 12:23). Life must be removed from the animal before it can be eaten, and the Talmud details an elaborate process for doing so.
When the Israelites were in the wilderness, animals could only be slaughtered and eaten as part of the sacrificial service in the sanctuary (Leviticus 17:3-5). The eating of “unconsecrated meat,” meat from animals slaughtered for private consumption, was not permitted. All meat which was permitted to be eaten had to be an integral part of a sacrificial rite. Maimonides states that the Biblical sacrifices were a concession to the primitive practices of the nations at that time: people (including the Hebrews) were not then ready for forms of Divine service which did not include sacrifice and death (as did those of all the heathens); at least the Torah, as a major advance, prohibited human sacrifice. God later permits people to eat meat even if not as part of a sacrificial offering:
When the Lord your God shall enlarge your border as He has promised you, and you shall say: “I will eat flesh,” because your soul desires to eat flesh; you may eat flesh, after all the desire of your soul. (Deuteronomy 12:20)
This newly-permitted meat was called basar ta’avah, “meat of lust,” so named because rabbinic teachings indicate that meat is not considered a necessity for life.
The above verse does not command people to eat meat. Rabbinic tradition understands the Torah as acknowledging people’s desire to eat flesh and permitting it under proper circumstances, but not as requiring the consumption of meat. Even while arguing against vegetarianism as a moral cause, Rabbi Elijah Judah Schochet, author of Animal Life in Jewish Tradition, (1984), concedes that “Scripture does not command the Israelite to eat meat, but rather permits this diet as a concession to lust.” Similarly, another critic of vegetarian activism, Rabbi J. David Bleich, a noted contemporary Torah scholar and professor at Yeshiva University, states, “The implication is that meat may be consumed when there is desire and appetite for it as food, but it may be eschewed when there is not desire and, a fortiori, when it is found to be repugnant.” According to Rabbi Bleich, “Jewish tradition does not command carnivorous behavior….”
Commenting on the above Torah verse (Deuteronomy 12:20), the respected Torah scholar and teacher DR. Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997) points out how odd this allowance is and how grudgingly the permission to eat meat is granted. She concludes that people have not been granted dominion over animals to do with them as they desire, but that we have been given a “barely tolerated dispensation” to slaughter animals for our consumption, if we cannot resist temptation and feel the need to eat meat. Rav Kook also regards the same Torah verse as clearly indicating that the Torah does not view the slaughter of animals for human consumption as an ideal state of affairs.
The Talmud expresses this negative connotation associated with the consumption of meat:
The Torah teaches a lesson in moral conduct, that man shall not eat meat unless he has a special craving for it… and shall eat it only occasionally and sparingly.
The sages also felt that eating meat was not for everyone:
Only a scholar of Torah may eat meat, but one who is ignorant of Torah is forbidden to eat meat.
Some authorities explain this restriction in practical terms: only a Torah scholar can properly observe all the laws of animal slaughter and meat preparation. While there are few conditions on the consumption of vegetarian foods, only a diligent Torah scholar can fully comprehend the many regulations governing the preparation and consumption of meat. However, master kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria explains it in spiritual terms: only a Torah scholar can elevate the “holy sparks’ trapped in the animal.
How many Jews today can consider themselves so scholarly and spiritually advanced to be able to eat meat? Those who do diligently study the Torah and are aware of conditions related to the production and slaughter of meat today would, I believe, come to conclusions similar to those in this chapter.
Rav Kook writes that the permission to eat meat “after all the desire of your soul” is a concealed reproach and an implied reprimand. He states that a day will come (the Messianic Period) when people will detest the eating of the flesh of animals because of a moral loathing, and then people will not eat meat because their soul will not have the urge to eat it.
In contrast to the lust associated with flesh foods, the Torah looks favorably on vegetarian foods. In the Song of Songs, the divine bounty is poetically described in references to fruits, vegetables, nuts, and vines. There is no special bracha (blessing) recited before eating meat or fish, as there is for other foods such as bread, cake, wine, fruits, and vegetables. The blessing for meat is a general one, the same as that over water or any other undifferentiated food.
Typical of the Torah’s positive depiction of many non-flesh foods is the following evocation of the produce of the Land of Israel:
For the Lord your 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 oil and date 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 your God for the good land that He has given you. (Deuteronomy 8: 7-10)
Rav Kook believes that there is a reprimand implicit in the many laws and restrictions over the preparing, combining, and eating of animal products (the laws of kashrut), because they are meant to provide an elaborate apparatus designed to keep alive a sense of reverence for life, with the aim of eventually leading people away from meat-eating. He also believes that the high moral level involved in the vegetarianism of the generations before Noah was a virtue of such great value that it cannot be lost forever. In the future ideal time (the Messianic age), people and animals will again not eat each others’ flesh. People’s lives will not be supported at the expense of animals’ lives. Rav Kook based these views on the prophecy of Isaiah:
And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them, and the cow and the bear shall feed;their young ones shall lie down together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox…. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain… (Isaiah 11:6-9)
In a booklet which summarizes many of Rav Kook’s teachings, Joseph Green, a 20th century South African Jewish vegetarian writer, concludes that Jewish religious ethical vegetarians are pioneers of the messianic era; they are leading lives that prepare for and potentially hasten the coming of the Messiah more likely.
His view is based on the Jewish belief that one way to speed the arrival of the Messiah is to start practicing the behaviors that will prevail in the Messianic time. For example, the Talmud teaches that if all Jews properly observed two consecutive Sabbaths, the Messiah would immediately come. Perhaps this means symbolically that when all Jews reach the level of fully observing the Sabbath in its emphasis on devotion to God and compassion for people and animals, the conditions for the messianic period will have arrived. Based on Rav Kook’s teaching, if all people became vegetarian in the proper spirit, with compassion for all animals and human beings, and with a commitment to preserve and honor God’s world, this might hasten the coming of the Messiah.
Although most Jews eat meat today, God’s high ideal — the initial vegetarian dietary law — stands supreme in the Torah for Jews and the whole world to see. It is the ultimate goal toward which all people should strive.
HOW VEGETARIANISM CAN HELP REDUCE GLOBAL THREATS
A. HELPING HUNGRY PEOPLE
Can a shift to vegetarian diets make a difference with regard to world hunger? Consider these statistics:
1. It takes up to sixteen pounds of grain to produce one pound of feedlot beef for human consumption.
2. While the average Asian consumes between 300 and 400 pounds of grain a year, the average middle-class American consumes over 2,000 pounds of grain, 80 percent of which comes in the form of meat from grain-fed animals.
3. Over 70 percent of the grain produced in the United States and over one-third of the world’s grain production is fed to animals destined for slaughter.
4. If Americans reduced their beef consumption by 10 percent, it would free up enough grain to feed all of the world’s people who annually die of hunger and related diseases.
5. U.S. livestock consume over six and a half times as much grain as the U.S. human population does. According to the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, an Iowa-based non-profit research group, the grain fed to animals to produce meat, milk, and eggs could feed five times the number of people that it currently does if it were consumed directly by humans.
6. While 56 million acres of U.S. land produce hay for livestock, only 4 million acres of U.S. land are producing vegetables for human consumption.
7. While one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of land growing potatoes can feed 22 people, and one hectare growing rice can feed 19 people, that same area producing beef can feed only one person.
8. Feeding grain to livestock wastes 90% of the protein, almost 100% of the carbohydrates, and 100% of the fiber of the grain. While grains are a rich source of fiber, animal products have no fiber at all.
This evidence indicates that the food being fed to animals in the affluent nations could, if properly distributed, potentially end both hunger and malnutrition throughout the world. A switch from animal-centered diets would free up land and other resources, which could then be used to grow nutritious crops for people. This new approach would also promote policies that would enable people in the underdeveloped countries to use their resources and skills to raise their own food.
With so much hunger in the world, explicit Jewish mandates to feed the hungry, help the poor, share resources, practice charity, show compassion, and pursue justice, as well as the lessons from many experiences of hunger in Jewish history, point to vegetarianism as the diet most consistent with Jewish teachings about hunger.
B. DESTRUCTIVE USE OF RESOURCES
Unfortunately, the wisdom of bal tashchit (the Torah mandate not to waste) is seldom applied today by our society. Instead we have planned obsolescence and bigger and more wasteful celebrations, homes, SUVs, and product packaging, that result in ever-swelling landfills that leave a growing blot on the landscape and the planet. Our society’s animal-centered diets are extremely wasteful:
1. About 800 million acres (40% of U.S. land area) is devoted to livestock grazing, and an additional 60 million acres is used to grow grain to feed livestock. Land that grows potatoes, rice and other vegetables can support about 20 times as many people as land that produces grain-fed beef.
2. As stated in the previous section, the average person in the United States eats over five times as much grain (mostly in the form of animal products) as a person in a less developed country; it takes up to sixteen pounds of grain and soybeans to produce one pound of feedlot beef for our plates; and more than two thirds of the grain grown in the United States is fed to farm animals, whom we then slaughter and eat.
3. The standard diet of a meat-eater in the United States requires 4,200 gallons of water per day (for animals’ drinking water, irrigation of crops, meat processing, washing, cooking, etc.) A person on a purely vegetarian (vegan) diet requires only 300 gallons per day.
4. Animal agriculture is the major consumer of water in the U.S. According to Norman Myers, author of Gaia: An Atlas of Planet Management, irrigation, primarily to grow crops for animals, uses over 80 percent of U.S. water. Almost 90 percent of the fresh water consumed annually in the U.S. goes to agriculture, according to agriculture expert David Pimentel. The production of only one pound of edible beef in a semi-arid area such as California requires as much as 5,200 gallons of water, as contrasted with only 25 gallons or less to produce an edible pound of tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, or wheat. Newsweek reported in 1988 that “the water that goes into a 1,000 pound steer would float a (naval) destroyer.”
5. An animal-based diet also wastes energy. In the United States, an average of 10 calories of fuel energy is required for every calorie of food energy produced; many other countries obtain 20 or more calories of food energy per calorie of fuel energy. To produce one pound of steak (500 calories of food energy) requires 20,000 calories of fossil fuels, most of which is expended in producing and providing feed crops. It requires 78 calories of fossil fuel 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. Grains and beans require only two to five percent as much fossil fuel as beef. The energy needed to produce a pound of grain-fed beef is equivalent to one gallon of gasoline.
6. According to a comprehensive study sponsored by the U.S. Departments of Interior and Commerce, the value of all raw materials consumed to produce food from livestock is greater than the value of all oil, gas, and coal produced in this country. The production of livestock foods accounts for a third of the value of all raw materials consumed for all purposes in the U.S.
As these facts indicate, vegetarianism is the diet most consistent with the principle of bal tashchit.
C. ECOLOGICAL DAMAGE FROM CURRENT ANIMAL AGRICULTURE
Modern agricultural methods used in meat production are a prime cause of the environmental crises facing the United States and much of the rest of the world today.
1. According to mathematician Robin Hur, nearly 6 billion of the 7 billion tons of eroded soil in the United States has been lost because of cattle and feed lot production. Agronomist David Pimentel writes that about 90 percent of U.S. cropland is losing soil at a rate at least 13 times faster than the sustainable rate. William Brune, a former Iowa State conservation official, warned that two bushels of topsoil are being lost for every bushel of corn (most of which is fed to animals) harvested in Iowa’s sloping soils. Lower yields are occurring in many areas due to erosion and the reduction in fertility that it causes.
2. Grazing animals have destroyed large areas of land throughout the world, with overgrazing having long been a prime cause of erosion. Over 60 percent of all U.S. rangelands are overgrazed, with billions of tons of soil lost each year. Cattle production is a prime contributor to every one of the causes of desertification: overgrazing of livestock, over-cultivation of land, improper irrigation techniques, deforestation, and prevention of reforestation.
3. In the United States, more plant species have been eliminated due to overgrazing by livestock than by any other cause.
4. Mountains of manure produced by cattle raised in feedlots wash into and pollute streams, rivers, and underground water sources. U.S. livestock produce an astounding 1.4 billion tons of manure per year (this amount works out to almost 90,000 pounds per second!), or about 130 times the amount excreted by the U.S. human population. Food geographer, Georg Borgstrom has estimated that American livestock contribute five times more organic waste to the pollution of our water than do people, and twice as much as does industry.
5. The tremendous amount of grain grown to feed animals requires extensive use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides, which cause air and water pollution. Various constituents of fertilizer, particularly nitrogen, are washed into surface waters. High levels of nitrates in drinking water cause illnesses to people, as well as animals. According to Norman Myers’ Gaia, fertilizers and pesticides are responsible for over half of U.S. water pollution.
6. The quantity of pesticides and other synthetic poisons used has increased by 400 percent since 1962 when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, the book that so eloquently sounded the alarm about the dangers of pesticides to human health, rivers, and wildlife. Also, in a “circle of poison”, pesticides banned or heavily restricted in the U.S. are legally exported to poor countries where they are then used on foods imported back into the United States. Because of accumulation of pesticides in the body fat of animals, people who eat meat and other animal products ingest large amounts of pesticides, which then build up in their body fat.
7. Demand for meat in wealthy countries leads to environmental damage in poor countries. Largely to turn beef into fast-food hamburgers for export to the U.S., the earth’s tropical rain forests are being bulldozed at a rate of a football field per second. Each imported quarter-pound fast-food hamburger patty requires the destruction of 55 square feet of tropical forest for grazing. Half of the rainforests are already gone forever and at current rates of destruction the rest will be gone by the middle of this century. What makes this especially ominous is that half of the world’s fast disappearing species of plants and animals reside in tropical rain forests. We are risking the loss of species which might hold secrets for cures of deadly diseases. Other plant species might turn out to be good sources of nutrition. Also, the destruction of rain forests is altering the climate and reducing rainfall, with potentially devastating effects on the world’s agriculture and habitability.
D. HOW ANIMAL-BASED AGRICULTURE CONTRIBUTES TO GLOBAL WARMING
While recent increased concern about global warming is necessary (and overdue), the many connections between typical American (and other Western) diets and global warming have generally been overlooked. Current modern intensive livestock agriculture and the consumption of meat greatly contribute to the four major gases associated with the greenhouse effect: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides, and chlorofluorocarbons.
The burning of tropical forests releases tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and eliminates the ability of these trees to absorb carbon dioxide. Also, the highly mechanized agricultural sector uses enormous amounts of fossil fuel to produce pesticides, chemical fertilizer, and other agricultural resources, and this also contributes to carbon dioxide emissions. Cattle emit methane as part of their digestive process, as do termites who feast on the charred remains of trees that were burned to create grazing land and land to grow feed crops for farmed animals. The large amounts of petrochemical fertilizers used to produce feed crops create significant quantities of nitrous oxides. Likewise, the increased refrigeration necessary to prevent animal products from spoiling adds chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere.
When we consider all of these negative environmental and climate-change effects, and then add the harmful effects of animal-based diets on human health and global hunger, it is clear that animal-centered diets and the livestock agriculture needed to sustain them pose tremendous threats to global survival. It is not surprising that the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) ranks the consumption of meat and poultry as the second most harmful consumer activity (surpassed only by the use of cars and light trucks). It is clear that a shift toward vegetarianism is imperative to move our precious but imperiled planet away from its present catastrophic path.
Jeremy Rifkin summarizes well the very negative effects of animal-based agriculture:
The ever-increasing cattle population is wreaking havoc on the earth’s ecosystems, destroying habitats on six continents. Cattle raising is a primary factor in the destruction of the world’s remaining tropical rain forests. Millions of acres of ancient forests in Central and South America are being felled and cleared to make room for pastureland to graze cattle. Cattle herding is responsible for much of the spreading desertification in the sub-Sahara of Africa and the western rangeland of the United States and Australia. The overgrazing of semiarid and arid lands has left parched and barren deserts on four continents. Organic runoff from feedlots is now a major source of organic pollution in our nation’s ground water. Cattle are also a major cause of global warming… The devastating environmental, economic, and human toll of maintaining a worldwide cattle complex is little discussed in public policy circles… Yet, cattle production and beef consumption now rank among the gravest threats to the future well being of the earth and its human population.
The aims of vegetarians and environmental activists are similar: simplify our life styles, have regard for the earth and all forms of life, and apply the knowledge 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 vegetarian diets is a planetary imperative.