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By Richard Schwartz.
- A Shavuot Message: Applying Torah Values To Our Diets
Since Shavuot is z’man matan Torateinu (the commemoration of the giving of the Torah to the Israelites on Mount Sinai), many dedicated religious Jews admirably stay up the entire first night of Shavuot to hear talks about and discuss Torah teachings.
Among these Torah teachings are that Jews should preserve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help hungry people, and pursue peace. By becoming vegetarians, and preferably vegans, Jews would be partaking in a diet that is most consistent with these basic teachings. Please consider:
1. While the Torah mandates that people should be very careful about preserving their health and their lives (Deuteronomy 4:9 and 4:15), numerous scientific studies have convincingly linked animal-based diets to heart disease, stroke, many forms of cancer, and other chronic degenerative diseases.
2. While the Torah forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals (based on Exodus 23:5, Deuteronomy 22:1, 10; 23:4, and other Torah verses), 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 the Torah teaches that we are to be God’s partners and co-workers in preserving the environment (Genesis 2:15, for example), modern intensive livestock agriculture contributes substantially to climate change, soil erosion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, and other environmental damage. This is an especially important consideration today when some climate experts are arguing that we my soon reach a tipping point when climate change will spin out of control with disastrous consequences if major changes are not soon made.
4 While the Torah mandates bal tashchit, that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value (Deuteronomy 20:19. 20), and that we are not to use more than is needed to accomplish a purpose, animal agriculture involves the wasteful use of grain, land, water, energy, and other resources.
5. While the Torah stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people (Leviticus 19:9, 10; Deuteronomy 24: 17-22), over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, while almost a billion of the world’s people are chronically malnourished and an estimated 20 million people worldwide die because of hunger and its effects each year.
6. While Judaism teaches that we must seek and pursue peace (Psalms 34:14) and that violence results from unjust conditions (Pirke Avot 5:8), animal-centered diets, by wasting valuable resources, help to perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that eventually lead to instability and war.
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.
That Jews should be vegetarians is reinforced by other Torah teachings. The first chapter of the Torah has God’s original, strictly vegetarian, dietary regimen: “And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is on the face of all 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).
A comparison of humans with carnivorous animals reinforces the Torah implication that we were designed to eat plant foods. Humans do not, for example, have the claws and sharp, hard, dagger-like teeth of carnivorous animals, and our intestinal system is four times longer and our stomach acids twenty times weaker than is the case for carnivorous animals.
While God gave permission for humans to eat meat after the flood during the life of Noah (Genesis 9:3), biblical commentators believe that this was a concession. According to Isaac Arama, God provided a second vegetarian attempt in the form of manna while the Israelites were in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. When flesh was reluctantly provided in the form of quails in response to complaints, a great plague broke out and many Israelites died at a place named, “the Graves of Lust.” While the Torah speaks positively about plant foods, including the “seven species” mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8, flesh foods are associated negatively with lust, and even called basar ta’avah, the meat of lust.
According to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel and others, the Messianic Period will be vegetarian, just as was the case in the Garden of Eden. They base this on the prophecy of Isaiah that in that future ideal time that Jews yearn for, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, … 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
In view of the above considerations, Jews who wish to live lives consistent with Torah teachings should sharply reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products. Such a dietary shift would help revitalize Judaism by showing the relevance of eternal Jewish teachings to current issues, improve the health of Jews, and shift our precious but imperiled planet to a sustainable path.
2. A Dialogue on Shavuot Night About Vegetarianism
For many years Danny Shapiro looked forward to staying up all night at his synagogue with his friends on the first night of Shavuot, hearing talks about and discussing Torah teachings. This year he especially anticipated this annual commemoration of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, because Rabbi Greenberg would be meeting with Danny and other college students for an hour at 3 AM to answer any questions on Judaism that they brought up. Danny had recently become a vegetarian and had done a lot of background reading on Jewish connections to vegetarianism and he wanted to find out what the rabbi thought about the issue.
When Rabbi Greenberg acknowledged Danny raising his hand during that session, Danny said, “Rabbi, it is wonderful that we are learning so many beautiful Torah teachings tonight and at other times at this synagogue. But I have been reading about Torah teachings on taking care of our health, treating animals with compassion, preserving the environment, conserving natural resources, and helping people, and they seem most consistent with vegetarian diets. So, I wonder why Judaism does not endorse vegetarianism?”
Rabbi Greenberg responded: “You raise some very good points, Danny, but I hope that you are aware that Judaism does permit the eating of meat. Some scholars feel that it is obligatory to eat meat on Shabbat and holidays.”
Danny responded, “Yes, I recognize that Judaism permits people to eat meat. Evidently Jews have a choice, as indicated that there are Israeli chief rabbis who have been or are strict vegetarians. So, shouldn’t this choice be made considering the Torah teachings I mentioned, and the very negative effects of animal-based diets on human health, animals, and the environment? With regard to eating meat on Shabbat and holidays, according to the Talmud (Pesachim 109a), since the destruction of the Temple, Jews are not required to eat meat in order to rejoice on sacred occasions.”
In response, Rabbi Greenberg said, “We should recognize that there is much in the Torah and the Talmud about which animals are kosher and about the proper way to slaughter animals. So eating meat is certainly not foreign to Judaism.”
Danny had come prepared to answer counterarguments, so he responded, ”Yes, that is certainly true. But, there is also much in the Torah and our other sacred writings that point to vegetarianism as the ideal Jewish diet. For example, as indicated in Genesis 1:29, God’s initial intention was that people be vegetarians. And according to Rav Kook, the first Chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, based on Isaiah’s prophecy that, ‘the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, … and the lion shall eat straw like the ox’ (Isaiah 11:6-9), the Messianic period will be vegetarian.”
Rabbi Greenberg was surprised by Danny’s evident research on the issues, but he responded, “I have to tell you one thing that concerns me. Jews historically have had many problems with some animal rights groups, which have often opposed shechita (ritual slaughter) and advocated for its abolishment. Some have even made outrageous comparisons between the Holocaust and the slaughter of animals for food.”
Danny was also ready for this response. He answered, “That is certainly true, Rabbi, but Jews should consider switching to vegetarianism 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, that is the basis for observing how far current animal treatment has strayed from fundamental Jewish values. For example, 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.’”
Rabbi Greenberg next stated, “Another concern is related to two teachings in Genesis: The Torah teaches that humans are granted dominion over animals (Genesis 1:26) and that only people are created in the Divine Image (Genesis 1:26, 5:1). I fear that vegetarians are promoting a philosophy inconsistent with these Torah teachings, hence potentially reducing the sacredness of human life and the dignity of human beings.”
Danny countered, “As you know, Jewish tradition interprets ‘dominion’ as responsible stewardship: we are called upon to be co-workers with God in improving the world. While the Torah states that only human beings are created “in the Divine Image,” 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.”
Thinking that others might have questions, Rabbi Greenberg concluded: “Well, I am sure that there are other issues about vegetarianism that should be addressed. But I think that you have made the case for at least having a broad discussion of the Jewish and universal issues related to our diets. I thank you, Danny, for your diligence in raising these issues. Perhaps next Shavuot, I will make a consideration of vegetarianism the theme of my talk at he start of our all-night Torah study.”
3. Shavuot and Vegetarianism
There are many connections between vegetarianism and the important Jewish festival of Shavuot:
1. Shavuot is described as “z’man matan Toratenu” (the season of the giving of our law (the Torah)). It is this Torah that has in its very first chapter God’s original, strictly vegetarian, dietary regimen: “And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is on the face of all 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).
2.To honor the Torah, many Jews stay up the entire first night of Shavuot to study Torah teachings. It is some of these teachings -to guard our health and our lives, to treat animals with compassion, to share with hungry people, to protect the environment, and to conserve natural resources – that are the basis for Jewish vegetarianism.
3. Shavuot is also known as “Chag Hakatzir” (the Harvest Festival), since it climaxes the year’s first harvest. Hence, it can remind us that many more people can be sustained on vegetarian diets than on animal -centered diets. While the Torah stresses that farmers are to leave the corners of their fields and the gleanings of their harvests for the hungry, 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. The Talmudic sages also referred to Shavuot as “Atzeret” (the closing festival of Passover). This name implies not only that Shavuot completes the harvest begun at Passover time, but also suggests that the Torah completes the physical liberation celebrated during Passover. Yet, while the Torah has many teachings on compassion toward animals and indicates, as part of the Ten Commandments, that animals are also to be able to rest on the Sabbath day, most farm animals are kept in cramped confined spaces where they are denied exercise, fresh air, sunlight, and the fulfillment of their instinctual needs.
5. There are several other Torah teachings that are seriously violated by animal-based diets: a) While the Torah mandates that people should be very careful about preserving their health and their lives (Deuteronomy: 4-9, 4-15), animal-centered diets have been linked to heart disease, stroke, several forms of cancer, and other illnesses; b) While many Torah teachings are concerned with protecting the environment, modern intensive animal agriculture contributes significantly to climate change, soil erosion and depletion, extensive air and water pollution related to chemical fertilizer and pesticides, and the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats; c) While the Torah mandates bal tashchit, (Deuteronomy 20:19, 20) that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value, animal-based agriculture involves the wasteful use of food, land, water, energy, and other resources.
6. Shavuot is a festival of thanksgiving to the Creator for His kindness. The full Hallel, psalms of praise and thanksgiving from Psalm 113 to 118, are chanted during morning synagogue services. Since one must be in good health and have a clear conscience in order to fully rejoice and be thankful, the many health benefits of vegetarian diets and the knowledge that such diets are not harmful to hungry people or animals are factors that can enhance thankfulness.
7. On Shavuot, Jews read the Book of Ruth in synagogues. One reason is that its barley-harvest setting echoes the harvest just ending as Shavuot arrives. One of Ruth’s outstanding attributes was her acts of kindness. Vegetarianism is a way of showing kindness, because it best shares food with hungry people and it doesn’t involve the mistreatment and slaughter of animals.
8. The Book of Ruth begins with Naomi, Ruth’s future mother-in-law, and her family leaving Israel because of a severe famine. Today, agricultural experts are predicting major shortages of food in the near future are being predicted and a major reason is that people in China, Japan, India, and other countries where affluence has been increasing, are joining the US and other western countries by moving to animal-centered diets that require vast amounts of grain.
9. The Book of Ruth indicates that Naomi’s family suffered the death of her husband and her two sons because the family fled in the time of famine rather than using their leadership to help others in need. In contrast to this selfish act, vegetarianism considers not only personal well being, but also encompasses broader concerns, including the global environment, the world’s hungry people, animals, and the efficient use of the world’s resources.
10. According to the Talmud, Shavuot is the day of judgment for fruit trees and there is an obligation to pray for them. Yet, to create pastureland for cattle, tropical forests are being rapidly destroyed. The production of just one quarter-pound fast food hamburger can require the destruction of 55 square feet of tropical rain forest along with much animal and plant life.
11. Shavuot involves the highest spiritual teachings (the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai) and down-to-earth considerations – the wheat harvest and the offering of the first fruits in the Temple. This reminds us that ideally we should relate heaven to earth and translate the Divine laws to our daily lives. Vegetarianism is an attempt to do this because it applies Torah teaching to our sustenance needs.
In view of these and other connections, I hope that Jews will enhance their celebrations of the beautiful and spiritually meaningful holiday of Shavuot by making it a time to begin striving even harder to live up to Judaism’s highest moral values and teachings by moving toward a vegetarian diet.