Biographies of Famous Jewish Vegetarians
This posting is chapter 11 of the 2011 3rd edition of my book, “Judaism and Vegetarianism.” The complete text can be freely read at www.JewishVeg.org/schwartz.
“Aside from the fact that both the original Garden of Eden and the messianic vision of the future reflect the vegetarian ideal in Judaism, it is of course such a dietary lifestyle that is most consonant with the goal and purpose of Torah to maximize our awareness, appreciation, and sensitivity to the Divine Presence in the world. It is therefore only natural for us to affirm as did Rav Kuk [Kook], the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in Israel, that a redeemed world must perforce be a vegetarian world.” 1—Rabbi David Rosen (Biography in this chapter)
THIS CHAPTER PROVIDES BRIEF BIOGRAPHIES OF
famous Jews who were vegetarians for all or a substantial part of
their lives. The author would appreciate hearing about other
Jewish vegetarians who have not been included and/or significant facts that have been omitted from these biographies.
Agnon, Shmuel Yosef (1888–1970)
Shmuel Yosef Agnon was a central figure in modern Hebrew fiction. He wrote many novels and short stories about major contemporary spiritual concerns. He won the Israel Prize for Literature in 1954 and 1958 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966, the first time that this honor was given to a Hebrew writer. His folk epic, The Bridal Canopy, was widely recognized as one of the cornerstones of modern Hebrew literature.
Agnon was a devout Jew who spent much of his life in Israel. He was extremely devoted to vegetarianism. He wove vegetarian themes into many of his stories, as in the following excerpt:
“He received the Sabbath with sweet song and chanted the hallowing tunefully over raisin wine. The table was well spread with all manner of fruit, beans, greenstuffs and good pies,…but of flesh and fish there was never a sign. The old man and his wife had never tasted flesh since reaching maturity.”3
Agnon’s great sensitivity to all creatures can be seen in the following excerpt from his speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature:
Lest I slight any creature, I must also mention the domestic animals, the beasts, and the birds from whom I have learned. Job said long ago (35:11): “Who teacheth us more than the beasts of the earth, and maketh us wiser than the fowls of heaven?” Some of what I have learned from them I have written in my books, but I fear that I have not learned as much as I should have done, for when I hear a dog bark, or a bird twitter, or a cock crow, I do not know whether they are thanking me for all I have told of them or calling me to account.4
Cohen, Rabbi David (The Nazir of Jerusalem) (1887–1973)
Rabbi David Cohen, the famous kabbalist and renowned Jewish philosopher, was born near Vilna, capital of Lithuania. He made a major contribution to Jewish vegetarianism by collecting and editing the Jewish vegetarian ideas of Rav Kook.5 He was known as “The Nazir of Jerusalem” because he adopted all the obligations of the Nazarite as described in the Torah; he did not drink wine or cut his hair for a specific period. He was also a strict vegetarian. He was the father of the present Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, and of the wife of the former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Goren.
Cohen, Rabbi Shear Yashuv6
Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, an important modern scholar and religious leader, has been a vegetarian from birth and is a patron of the Jewish Vegetarian Society. He graduated in 1947 from Rav Kook’s Universal Yeshiva in Jerusalem and was ordained a rabbi by the late Chief Rabbi Herzog. From 1948 to 1953, he was chaplain in the Israeli Defense Forces and Chief Chaplain of the Israeli Air Forces (1952–53). His many
positions include President of the Harry Fischel Institute for Research in Jewish Law and Seminary for Rabbis and Rabbinical Judges; member of the City Council of Jerusalem; Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem (1965–75); Chief Rabbi of Haifa (since 1975); and Chancellor of the Ariel United Israel Institutes (since 1973). In 1999 he received an Honorary Doctorate from Bar-Ilan University.
Gordon, Aaron David (1856–1922)
Aaron David Gordon was a Hebrew writer who wrote numerous articles on labor, Zionism, and Jewish destiny. As a strong advocate of the kibbutz (collective settlement) approach, his writings influenced the Jewish Labor Movement throughout the world. He hoped that kibbutzim would be vegetarian settlements, dependent on the land for their produce.
Gordon believed that Zionism would obtain self-fulfillment through working the land. He came to Israel at the age of forty-eight and spent many years farming. He saw the state of Israel as a challenge to Jews to make a contribution to humanity. He believed that the Jews would be tested through their attitudes and behavior toward the Arabs.
The importance that Gordon placed on vegetarianism can be seen in the following selection:
The attitude toward vegetarianism…the attitude toward living creatures is…the clearest test of our attitude towards life and toward the world as it really is….The ethical regard toward living creatures that involves no hope of reward, no utilitarian motive, secret or open, such as honor, shows us…the significance of righteousness and all the other desired traits…[How can we have] righteousness, truth, and the like [along with] eating living creatures!”7
Goren, Rabbi Shlomo (1917–1994)
Rabbi Shlomo Goren was the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1972 to 1982. He was formerly Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv–Jaffa and Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Defense Forces. In the latter capacity, he was the first person to conduct a religious service at the liberated Western Wall in Jerusalem in 1967.
Rabbi Goren wrote many responsa on issues related to modern technology and conditions of modern warfare. He also wrote and published many volumes on Halacha and Jewish philosophy. His comprehensive commentary on the section Berachot of the Jerusalem Talmud won the Israel Prize in 1961.
The Rabbi’s wife is a life-long vegetarian, having been reared in the Orthodox vegetarian home of “The Nazir of Jerusalem.”8
Kacyzne, Alter (1885–1941)
Alter Kacyzne was born in Lithuania but spent most of his creative years in Warsaw, where many of his plays were successfully staged. His works include many dramatic poems, ballads, short stories, and one full length novel, The Strong and the Weak, which won much praise for its great historical and political significance. His writing often dealt with people’s inhumanity. Kacyzne became a vegetarian at the age of eighteen, after a curious dream in which he was forced to eat a roasted child. His vegetarian beliefs were well known in Poland. He and his wife hosted well-attended vegetarian receptions. He was beaten to death with sticks and clubs by Nazis in Ukraine in 1941 and then buried in a mass grave.9
Kafka, Franz (1883–1924)
Franz Kafka was a Czech-born, German novelist whose writing had great influence on Western literature and art. His many books include The Castle, The Trial, and The Great Wall of China. His novels have been translated into many languages, including Hebrew, and have been adapted for movies, plays, and operas. The action in his books generally centers around the hero’s search for identity.
Kafka was attracted to vegetarianism for health and ethical reasons. While viewing fish at an aquarium, he said, “Now I can look at you in peace; I don’t eat you anymore.” He had little faith in conventional doctors; he was interested in the benefits of nature-cure and raw-foods diets. He was also involved in anti-vivisection activities.10
Kook (Kuk), Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen (1865–1935)
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (Rav Kook) was the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel during the British mandate. He was a very beloved person who helped inspire many people to move toward spiritual paths. He urged religious people to become involved in social questions and efforts to improve the world.
Rav Kook’s philosophy of vegetarianism is in “A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace,” edited by Rabbi David Cohen. As discussed previously, Rav Kook believed strongly that God permitted people to eat meat as a concession. He taught that the many prohibitions related to the slaughtering and eating of meat were meant as an implied scolding and as a reminder that people should have reverence for life, and this would eventually bring people back to vegetarianism in the days of the Messiah. Rav Kook was reportedly not a complete vegetarian, but there is no doubt that he was a leading advocate for vegetarianism.
Leftwich, Joseph (1892–1984)
Joseph Leftwich was an author, editor, and anthologist, who was considered an authority on Jewish and Yiddish literature. He translated works by Shalom Asch, Max Brod, I. L. Peretz, Zalman Schneur, and Stefan Zweig. He also edited several influential anthologies: Yisroel, The First Jewish Omnibus (1933, rev. 1963), which has a wide selection of Jewish literature from many countries; Golden Peacock (1939), translations of Yiddish poetry; and The Way We Think (2 vols., 1969), Yiddish essays in English translation. Leftwich was an active vegetarian and a patron of the Jewish Vegetarian Society. He wrote brief biographies of vegetarian writers, which appeared in The Jewish Vegetarian and an introduction to The Tree of Life, a collection of essays selected and edited by Philip Pick that discuss Judaism and vegetarianism (see the Bibliography).
Maccoby, Chaim Zundel (The Kamenitzer Maggid)11 (1858–1916)
Rabbi Chaim Zundel Maccoby was born in Kamenitz, Russia. He settled in London in 1890 and preached Torah, religious Zionism, and vegetarianism in the streets of that city. He taught people how to have compassion for all living creatures and how to remain healthy with little money. He was known by many as a great and saintly preacher and was a dedicated vegetarian who wore cloth shoes all year long to show his abhorrence of leather. In 1975, the Hall of Education Library opened at Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel, dedicated to his memory.
Peretz, Isaac Leib (1852–1915)
I. L. Peretz was a prolific and versatile writer of Hebrew and Yiddish stories and poems who was one of the founders of modern Yiddish literature as well as an important figure in Hebrew literature. He had many original ideas and used his rich imagination to champion the cause of the oppressed and common people. His compassion and sensitivity encouraged many aspiring authors. He wrote much about the lives of the Chassidim, and the Jewish socialist movement was greatly influenced by his ideas.
Ravitch, Melech (1893–1976)12
Melech Ravitch was considered the dean of Yiddish poetry. His poems occupy nearly a dozen pages in the Yiddish poetry anthology, The Golden Peacock (edited by Joseph Leftwich). He compiled an 850-page anthology of material about Jewish Warsaw called The Warsaw That Was and wrote about 200 short portrait sketches of Yiddish writers. Ravitch’s poems and essays expressed universal values. He was a vegetarian most of his life and a patron of the Jewish Vegetarian Society.
Rosen, Rabbi David13
Rabbi Rosen was Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1979 to 1985. He completed his advanced rabbinic studies in Israel where he received his rabbinic ordination. In addition to military service in the armed corps of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), he served as chaplain in the Western Sinai. Rabbi Rosen is an Honorary President of the International Jewish Vegetarian Society for Israel. He, his wife, and two daughters are vegetarians, which they find completely compatible with Orthodox Judaism.
Rabbi Rosen and his family currently live in Jerusalem where he directs the Israel office of the Anti-Defamation League and is the ADL’s
co-liaison to the Vatican. He was formerly the Dean of the Sapir Jewish Heritage Center in Jerusalem and Professor at the Jerusalem Center for Near East Studies on Mt. Scopus. He is President of the International Council of Christians and Jews and President of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, an all-encompassing world inter-faith body, He was also a key negotiator of the accord that established full relations between the Vatican and Israel. Many of his outspoken statements supporting vegetarianism are cited in this book.
Singer, Isaac Bashevis (1904–1991)
I. B. Singer was born in Poland and came to the United States in 1935. He was a writer for the New York Yiddish Daily Forward under the pen name of Isaac Warshavsky. He wrote many short stories and novels, including The Family Moskat, Satan in Goray, The Magician of Lublin, Gimpel the Fool, The Spinoza of Market Street, The Slave, Enemies: A Love Story, and Shadows on the Hudson. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. The protagonists of many his novels and short stories are either vegetarians or thinking about becoming vegetarian.
He was a vegetarian for the last thirty years of his life, primarily because of compassion for animals. He was a patron of the Jewish Vegetarian Society and in July 1979 received an award from the Vegetarian Information Service for his contributions to literature and vegetarianism. He also received a “Jewish Vegetarian of the Year” award from the Jewish Vegetarians of North America in 1986. He was very devoted to the vegetarian cause and was frequently quoted as saying, “I am a vegetarian for health reasons—the health of the chicken.”
The following excerpt is from Singer’s short story, “The Slaughterer”:
“Barely three months had passed since Yoineh Meir had become a slaughterer, but the time seemed to stretch endlessly. He felt as though he were immersed in blood and lymph. His ears were beset by the squawking of hens, the crowing of roosters, the gobbling of geese, the lowing of oxen, the mooing and bleating of calves and goats; wings fluttered, claws tapped on the floor. The bodies refused to know any justification or excuse—every body resisted in its own fashion, tried to escape, and seemed to argue with the Creator to its last breath.”14
Singer’s strong feelings with regard to vegetarianism are indicated in the following selection:
“The longer I am a vegetarian, the more I feel how wrong it is to kill animals and eat them. I think that eating meat or fish is a denial of all ideals, even of all religions. How can we pray to God for mercy if we ourselves have no mercy? How can we speak of right and justice if we take an innocent creature and shed its blood? Every kind of killing seems to me savage and I find no justification for it.”15
1. Rosen, Rabbi David, “Vegetarianism: An Orthodox Jewish Perspective,” in Rabbis and Vegetarianism: An Evolving Tradition, Roberta Kalechofsky, ed. (Marblehead, MA: Micah Publications, 1995), p. 57.
2. Information for this chapter was obtained from the Encyclopedia Judaica in addition to the sources noted.
3. S. Y. Agnon, The Bridal Canopy, 222–23.
4. Philip Pick, “Agnon, Teller of Tales,” in Philip Pick, ed., The Tree of Life, (New York:
A. S. Barnes, 1977), 56.
5. Joe Green, “Chalutzim of the Messiah” (lecture given in Johannesburg, South Africa, 1.)
6. Personal message
7. Jewish Vegetarian.
8. Jewish Vegetarian,
9. Jewish Vegetarian,
10. Jewish Vegetarian,
11. Jewish Vegetarian,
12. Jewish Vegetarian,
13. Jewish Vegetarian, 51 (Winter 1979): 10; further information was obtained from
material sent by Rabbi Rosen to the author.
14. I. B. Singer, “The Slaughterer,” short story in The Seance and Other Stories, New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1968.
15. Jewish Vegetarian.
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