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Vegetarianism: Essential for Jewish Renewal

Spirituality has led to a growing awareness of the unity of all beings, of our fundamental interconnectedness. For some this reflection has stayed on the level of purely personal enlightenment without much manifestation in behavior, but for others this understanding has led to a greater sense of responsibility, first toward all other human beings, and second toward animals. One form that this awareness takes is a growing move toward vegetarianism and veganism.

No surprise, then, that the Jewish renewal consciousness that increasingly manifests in all the various denominations of Judaism has a strong proclivity toward plant-based diets. Let me explain why I believe that Jewish renewal must associate itself with such diets. Jewish renewal means a return to Jewish traditions in a process Rabbi Arthur Waskow has called “Godwrestling,” struggling with the Torah and Jewish traditions to find deeper meanings. Jewish vegetarians and vegans in particular are constantly wrestling with a tradition that, on the one hand, has been centered on animal sacrifices and the eating of meat on festivals, but that, on the other hand, contains strong indications that vegetarianism is at the heart of Jewish tradition.

God’s first dietary law allowed only vegan foods: “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). Some of the greatest Jewish sages have taught that permission to eat meat was given later only as a grudging concession to people’s weakness, and that many prohibitions and restrictions were applied to keep alive a sense of reverence for life.

–The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides felt that animal sacrifices were a concession to the practices of a time when the common mode of worship involved sacrifices and that the Israelites were not ready to worship in a way radically different from their neighbors. However, human sacrifices were eliminated, pagan practices were forbidden, and sacrifices were confined to one central location with the hope that the Israelites would be weaned from this practice.

–The prophets stressed many times that God preferred mercy and justice over animal sacrifices, and that the sacrifices were in fact an abomination to God if carried out without efforts to combat poverty and oppression.

–Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel and one of the outstanding Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century, believed that the many Jewish dietary restrictions implied a hidden reprimand designed to keep alive the feeling of reverence for life. He taught that people will again be vegetarians in the time of the Messiah, basing this view on Isaiah’s prophecy about the harmony and peace that would prevail during the Messianic time: “And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb . . . and the lion shall eat straw like the ox … and no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of God’s holy mountain.” (Isaiah 11:6-9)

–Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a highly respected Orthodox  Torah commentator has stated that “the laws of kashrut are designed to teach us compassion and to lead us gently to vegetarianism.”

Vegetarianism is not only a messianic goal, however, but one we need to pursue in the here and now. Jewish renewal emphasizes that each of us should attempt tikkun olam, the transformation, healing, and repair of the world. In response, today’s Jewish vegetarians and vegans are challenging Jews to adopt vegetarianism to protect the environment, help the hungry, take care of our health and lives, and treat animals with respect and compassion.

–Judaism teaches that “the earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1). We are to be partners and co-workers with God in preserving the world and seeing that the earth’s resources are properly used. However, animal-based diets require the wasteful use of land, water, energy, and other agricultural resources, and contribute substantially to many environmental threats, including climate change, air and water pollution, soil erosion and depletion, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, and rapid extinction of plant and animal species. Vegetarianism thus becomes part of a practice Jewish renewal calls “eco-kashrut,” which means that to minimize our damage to the environment all of our actions, along with eating, must be kosher.

–Jewish renewal, as Rabbi Michael Lerner has pointed out, “will not accept a world in which some people live in luxury and affluence while others are starving and homeless, a world in which people learn to close their ears and eyes to the pain of the physically and emotionally abused, a world that makes it ‘common sense’ to ‘look out for number one’ while ignoring the needs of others.” But even as Judaism stresses that we are to share our bread with the hungry (today an estimated 15 to 20 million people die each year from hunger), 70 percent of the grain grown in the United States and over a third of the grain grown worldwide is fed to animals destined for slaughter.

While Judaism stresses that we must work for peace and that violence is the inevitable result of unjust conditions, the waste of valuable resources caused by animal-centered diets leads to the widespread hunger and poverty that can produce instability and war. Plant-based diets, on the other hand,can help reduce hunger through the efficient use of land, water, fuel and other agricultural resources.

–Judaism mandates that we be very careful about preserving our health and our lives. Animal-based diets, however, have been linked in numerous scientific studies to heart disease, stroke, several forms of cancer, and other life threatening diseases.

–Judaism forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, causing needless suffering to animals, yet today animals are raised for food under inhumane conditions, in crowded, confined cages and stalls where they are denied fresh air, exercise, companionship, and satisfaction of their basic needs and instincts. In the most straightforward way, vegetarians show their concern for animals by not eating them.

Taken together, these examples are powerful evidence of the way that animal-based diets violate basic Jewish teachings. Few people put the matter so plainly because they are afraid to shake the status quo. Yet challenging the status quo is an important aspect of Jewish renewal too.

As Rabbi Lerner has pointed out, many Jews leave Judaism not because it is too different than the larger society, but because it is too similar. In the western world, vegetarianism has always been viewed by the majority as disturbing and even threating. As early as ancient Roman times, vegetarianism was “one of the signs of a radical thinker, the individual who criticises the status quo, who desires something better, more humane and more civilised for the whole of society.” (Colin Spencer, The Heretic’sFeast: A History of Vegetarianism, 97)

Shifting to a diet based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes is an effective way to challenge the dominant paradigm that stresses one’s own benefits without sufficient consideration for the harm that might be done to other people, animals, and the environment. By refusing to eat meat, vegetarians also can help shift the focus of Jewish life from materialism and conspicuous consumption to the sanctity of every day living. Vegetarianism is an effective way of showing idealistic young Jews how Judaism can apply to every aspect of life, not just a few sacred occasions or holy days, and how Jewish values can have an impact on some of the critical problems facing the world today.

In view of the strong case for vegetarianism that can be made based on Jewish teachings, I hope that the considerable energy, talent, and commitment of the Jewish renewal movement will now be channeled into the doing of a great kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) by strongly promoting a widespread discussion of Jewish values related to our diets. Such an effort will help many Jews decide to adopt sensible healthy, ecological, plant-based diets, with great benefits for them, for Judaism, and for our imperiled planet.

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