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Are Jews Obligated to be Vegetarians?

In promoting vegetarianism since 1977, I have been arguing that Jews have a choice as to whether or not to be vegetarians. In support of the view that Jews need not eat meat today is the Talmud (Pesachim 109a states that since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jews are not required to eat meat in order to rejoice on festivals), scholarly articles by Rabbi Alfred Cohen and Rabbi J. David Bleich that indicate additional sources and arguments supporting the view that Jews do not need to eat meat in this period, and the fact that several Chief Rabbis are strict vegetarians. Through my book, Judaism and Vegetarianism, articles, and talks, I have tried to help make Jews more aware of Jewish mandates to take care of our health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, and help hungry people, and how far the realities related to the production and consumption of animal products are from these mandates. I have hoped that sensitive committed Jews, “rachmanim b’nei rachmanim” (compassionate children of compassionate ancestors), once they were aware of these discrepancies, would switch to vegetarian and vegan diets. While this has happened in some cases, the vast majority of Jews still consume animal products.

Hence, I am starting to think about the argument that committed Jews are not only permitted but are obligated to be vegetarians. This article aims to further respectful dialogue on this question, in order to determine a position most consistent with Jewish values. Hence, comments and suggestions are very welcome.

First we will present the case for those who take halacha (Jewish law as interpreted by Jewish sages and rabbis) seriously.A fundamental question for such people is:

Since Jews can only kill animals for an essential human need, and it is not necessary to consume animal products in order to maintain good health (the contrary is the case), aren’t observant Jews obligated to be vegetarians?

Points in support of this argument include:

1. It is generally agreed by Jewish scholars that animals can only be killed to meet a basic human need. For example, in an essay on “Animals”, in his The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues, Nachum Amsel, an Israeli Orthodox rabbi, states, “Man’s need to use animals must be a legitimate and not a frivolous one”. As an example, he points out that “hunting for sport is not considered legitimate, and is not only discouraged in the Talmud, but is also prohibited in Jewish law.’

2. There are many people who abstain completely from animal products and yet lead very healthy lives. Many degenerative diseases, including heart disease, stroke, and several types of cancer have been related to animal-based diets.

3. Jewish sages and others thought that meat was necessary for proper nutrition. Maimonides, for example, stated that it is the need of procuring food that necessitates the slaying of animals, and thus the laws of shechita were established in order to minimize the animal’s pain during the slaughtering process. However, modern science has found that all necessary nutrients can be obtained from plant foods, with the possible exception of vitamin B12, which can easily be obtained by enriched cereals,soy milk, or yeasts, or a vegetarian vitamin supplement.

Next, we will consider the possibility of obligation for Jews who are committed to being Jewish, but do not attempt to live their lives according to halacha. It is assumed that these people wish to live according to Jewish ideals and values, but don’t base their practices completely on Jewish law, although Jewish law is also based on these values. Hence, they should be impressed by the following argument:

In view of Judaism’s strong teachings with regard to preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, and helping the hungry, and the very negative effects that the production and consumption of meat has in each of these areas, shouldn’t committed Jews who take Jewish values seriously be vegetarians or vegans? It should be noted that many of the values discussed in this question are also relevant to halachic Jews, since the mandates to take care of our health (v’nishmartem meod l’nafshotechem, Deuteronomy 4:9), to treat animals with compassion, to conserve natural resources, and to help hungry people are Torah teachings.

The above question can be reinforced with the following comparisons:

1) While Judaism mandates that people be very careful about preserving their health and their lives, animal-centered diets have been linked to heart disease, stroke, several forms of cancer, and other illnesses. This has contributed to recent soaring medical expenditures in the United States and major change in the health care system, with insurance providers having a major voice in medical decisions.

2) While Judaism mandates compassion for animals, most farm animals are raised for food today under cruel conditions in small confined spaces where they are denied fulfillment of their instinctual needs.

3) While Judaism stresses that we are to share our bread with hungry people, over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, as 15 to 20 million people worldwide die annually because of hunger and its effects.

4) While Judaism teaches that “the earth is the Lord`s” and that we are to be partners with God in preserving the world, animal -centered diets contribute substantially to climate change, soil erosion and depletion, extensive air and water pollution related to chemical fertilizer and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, and environmental damage.

5) While Judaism mandates bal tashchit, that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value, livestock agriculture requires far more food, land, water, energy, and other resources than plant-based agriculture.

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.

Another concern for committed Jews is tikkun olam, the general mandate to preserve and protect the world, and, when necessary, to restore it to a less polluted state. It is becoming increasingly apparent that vegetarianism is not only an important individual choice today, but it is a societal imperative because of the severe economic and environmental costs of animal-based diets. In 1993, almost 1,700 of the world’s scientists from 70 countries, including 104 Nobel laureates, signed a “World Scientists Warning to Humanity”, which stated that “a great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” Judaism teaches that Jews are to be partners and co-workers with God in preserving the earth. This requires active involvement today, and an essential part of that involvement is a switch to vegetarian diets.

The above seems to provide a strong case for the proposition that Jews who take Jewish values and/or Jewish law seriously should be vegetarians r vegans. However, there may be a problem in terms of the all-or-nothing nature of that assertion. Someone might argue that, because of the Jewish mandate to take care of our health, we should never have a piece of cake, or because of the Jewish mandate to preserve the environment, we should never use a car except in cases of emergency or absolute necessity. In an ideal world with ideal people, we can perhaps advocate such absolutes. But in our real world, it is best to advocate that people be aware of modern realities and apply Jewish values in a conscientious but reasonable way.

In view of these considerations, rather than stating that committed Jews are obligated to be vegetarians or vegans, I believe that it is best to advocate that they are obligated to be aware of how realities related to the production and consumption of meat sharply diverge from Jewish mandates to preserve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, share with hungry people, and seek and pursue peace, and then to make a decision with regard to their diets that they believe is consistent with that awareness. A consideration of these issues should become an important part of the curriculum of Jewish schools, and rabbis and other Jewish leaders should see that it becomes part of an ongoing dialogue at synagogues and Jewish centers and in the Jewish media.

It would also be extremely helpful if a commission composed of rabbinic, health, scientific, and agricultural experts was set up to study the many issues related to animal-centered diets and how they impinge on halacha and basic Jewish values, in order to assess whether Jews today should reduce their consumption of meat and other animal products. The future of Judaism and of our precious, but imperiled, planet is at stake.

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