A Shavuot Message: Applying Torah Values To Our Diets
By Richard H. Schwartz
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: 6-9)
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.