Should Jews Be Vegetarians? – a Debate
Richard H.Schwartz, PhD’s debate with Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, which appeared years ago in the Jerusalem Report
In addition to its benefits for health, animals, and the environment, vegetarianism may be called for by some of Judaism’s most cherished tenets. Is it time to reconsider our dietary traditions?
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, Rabbinic Coordinator of the Kashrut Division of the Orthodox Union in New York, debates Richard H. Schwartz, author of “Judaism and Vegetarianism” and Professor Emeritus at the College of Staten Island.
Dear Rabbi Schonfeld,
I have been a vegetarian for many years because of my firm conviction that the mass production and consumption of animal products not only harm us and our planet but also are contrary to a number of basic Jewish teachings. For example, while Judaism urges us to very diligently preserve our health and protect our lives, many scientific studies have conclusively linked animal‑based diets to heart disease, strokes, various forms of cancer and other chronic degenerative diseases.
Other important Jewish values are violated as well. Judaism forbids us to inflict unnecessary pain on animals. Yet most animals raised for consumption live in cramped spaces and are denied fresh air, sunlight and exercise, in addition to being drugged and mutilated. We are urged to be God’s partners in preserving the world, but the intensive raising of farmed animals contributes substantially to soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, the destruction of natural ecosystems, water shortages, and global climate change. Whereas Judaism teaches us to avoid waste, modem animal husbandry involves the squandering of land, water, energy and food itself ‑ which would better be channeled to the poor, whom we are commanded to assist. Did you know that 70 percent of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, while an estimated 20 million people around the world die of hunger and its effects every year?
As severe departures from Jewish ethics, any one of these points would be reason enough to eschew animal products. Taken together they are more than ample grounds for Jews to be at the forefront of a movement back to the original vegetarian diet God prescribed for humanity (Genesis 1:29).
Dear Prof. Schwartz,
Judaism does not tolerate very many “isms,” and halakhic Judaism preached very few absolute values, other than the prohibitions in Torah law and the precepts sanctioned by it. We do not have license to assign other values to the tenets of Judaism, no matter how laudable they may be.
Take indulging in alcohol, for example. While we are commanded to elevate the consumption of wine to the highest spiritual levels, as evidenced by the Kiddush for the Sabbath and festivals, we cannot extrapolate this idea to say that heavy drinking is forbidden by Jewish law. There is no question that sobriety is the norm in Jewish society; but to say that heavy drinking is condemned by Torah law is stretching the point.
Vegetarianism is no exception. While I agree that Jewish law prohibits wanton cruelty to animals, this does not mean that one may not cause suffering if it serves a normal human need. The classic example cited on this issue is the hunting of animals for sport. In his famous responsum “Noda B’Yehudah,” the l8th‑century Chief Rabbi of Prague, Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, writes that if the sport of hunting offers satisfaction to the hunter, he cannot find a reason for prohibiting it. However, he concludes: “I am amazed at the very concept … as this is not the way of the Children of Abraham.” in other words, while Landau found the idea of hunting for sport abhorrent, he could not unequivocally say that it was proscribed.
No doubt vegetarianism is a noble ideal and the health benefits of a vegetarian diet are also well worth pursuing But there is no way we can say that, as an ideology, vegetarianism is required or commended by Judaism. Neither do those who enjoy a meat meal violate any of its tenets.
I agree that Judaism permits us to cause suffering to animals to meet human needs. But what human “need” is satisfied when one can live very well, and actually be healthier, without consuming animal products? Could God possibly prefer that we choose a diet that has negative effects on our health and the environment? And as rachmanim bnei rachmanim, “compassionate children of compassionate ancestors,” can we ignore the force-feeding of ducks and geese, the taking of day‑old calves from their mothers, the crowding of hens to the point where they can’t even lift their wings?
It is increasingly clear that vegetarianism is a societal imperative.
It is arguably a spiritual one, as well. And it’s time that the Jewish community seriously addresses the many moral and social issues related to our diets.
I concur that the ill treatment of animals should be strongly condemned. In fact, the halakhah stipulates that one should not slaughter an animal in front of another, in order to spare the survivor the sight of its companion’s death. However, I suspect that most vegetarians oppose the slaughter of animals under any conditions, and this is where I take issue.
Many vegetarians will invoke the well‑known Talmudic passage (Bava Metzia 83a) concerning Rabbi Judah the Prince. For many years Rabbi Judah suffered from illnesses that caused him great pain. The Talmud attributes his suffering to an incident in which he displayed callousness toward the plight of a hapless animal. When a calf being led to the slaughter fled its keeper and took shelter behind him, Rabbi Judah returned it with the admonition: “Go, for you were created for this purpose.” For his lack of pity for a frightened animal, Rabbi Judah was punished.
This passage, however, only corroborates my position. Nowhere does the Talmud condemn Rabbi Judah, or anyone else, for condoning the slaughter of animals. He was punished for his lack of compassion, not his observation that the function of animals is to benefit man.