Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Peace

This posting is chapter 6 from the 3rd edition my book, “Judaism and Vegetarianism.” it shows the connections between animal-based agriculture and the potential for violence and war.

The complete text can be found at www.JewishVeg.org/schwartz.

Seek peace and pursue it. (Psalms 34:15)

OUR AGE IS CONTINUOUSLY THREATENED BY VIOLENCE, war, and the potential for war. The application of Jewish teachings related to peace and vegetarianism can help to reduce these threats, since Judaism mandates a special obligation to work for peace. The tradition does not command that people merely love peace or merely seek peace but that they actively pursue peace. The Midrash states that there are many commandments that require a certain time and place for their performance, but with regard to peace, we are to “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:15); we are to seek it in our own place and pursue it everywhere else.1 The famous Talmudic sage, Hillel, states: “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace.”2 On the special duty of Jews to work for peace, the sages comment: “Said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘The whole Torah is peace and to whom do I give it? To the nation which loves peace!’ ”3 The Midrash uses lavish words of praise to indicate the significance of peace:

Great is peace, for God’s name is peace….Great is peace, for it encompasses all blessings….Great is peace, for even in times of war, peace must be sought….Great is peace, seeing that when the Messiah is to come, He will commence with peace, as it is said, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger of good tidings, who announces peace” (Isaiah 52:7).4

The whole Torah was given for the sake of peace, and it is said, “all her paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17).5 The important Jewish prayers, such as the Amidah (Sh’moneh Esrei), the kaddish, the Priestly Blessing, and Birkat Hamazon, all conclude with a prayer for peace. In spite of Judaism’s adamant opposition to idolatry, peace is so important that the rabbis taught that If Israel should worship idols, but she be at peace, God had no power, in effect, over her.6

The Jewish tradition does not mandate absolute pacifism, or peace at any price. The Israelites often went forth to battle and not always in defensive wars. But they always upheld the ideal of universal peace, and yearned for the day when there would be no more bloodshed or violence:

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4);

But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; And none shall make them afraid;
For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. (Micah 4:3–4)

Judaism teaches that violence and war result directly from injustice:

The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed, because of justice perverted, and because of those who render wrong decisions (in matters of Torah law).7

The Hebrew word for war, milchama, is directly derived from the word locham, which means both “to feed” as well as “to wage war.”8 The Hebrew word for bread, lechem, comes from the same root. This led the sages to suggest that lack of bread and the search for sufficient food tempt people to make war. The seeds of war are often found in the inability of a nation to provide adequate food for its people. Hence, feeding tremendous amounts of grain to animals destined for slaughter, instead of feeding hungry people, can increase the potential for war.

Links Between Animal-Centered Diets and Violence Among People

1. Jewish Views
Many Jewish sages felt that the biblical laws related to kindness to animals were meant to condition people to treat fellow human beings kindly. Several medieval Jewish philosophers including Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437–1509) and Rabbi Joseph Albo consider vegetarianism to be a moral ideal because it avoids the cruelty associated with meat consumption.9 Commenting on the biblical prohibition against taking a mother bird with her young, Nachmanides states: “The motivating purpose is to teach us the quality of compassion and not to become cruel; for cruelty expands in a man’s soul, as is well known with respect to butchers.”10 Maimonides indicates that the general obligation with regard to tsa’ar ba’alei chayim “is set down with a view to protecting us that we not acquire moral habits of cruelty and learn to inflict pain gratuitously, but that we should be kind and merciful.”11

The Sefer Ha-chinuch connects the muzzling of an ox treading corn to the negative treatment of human laborers:

When a man becomes accustomed to have pity even upon animals who were created to serve us, and he gives them a portion of their labors, his soul will likewise grow accustomed to be kind to human beings.12

Rabbis Moses Luzzato (1707–1747), Abraham Ibn Ezra, and Don Isaac Abarbanel all taught that boiling a kid in its mother’s milk is a barbaric practice that could lead people to cruel acts.13

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch stresses that vegetables are the preferable food to help make the human body an instrument of the soul and to implement its aims of holiness and moral freedom.14 He says that every food which makes the body too active in a carnal direction makes people more indifferent and less sensitive to the loftier impulses of the moral life.15 He adds: “The boy who, in crude joy, finds delight in the convulsions of an injured beetle or the anxiety of a suffering animal will soon also be dumb toward human pain.”16 Many serial killers and other violent criminals were cruel to animals when they were children. Albert Einstein stated: “The vegetarian manner of living, by its purely physical effect on the human temperament, would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind.”17

The prophet Isaiah (66:3) says, “He who kills an ox is as if he slew a person.” In its original context, this refers to insincere sacrifice. However, there are several ways of interpreting this verse from a vegetarian point of view—beyond the obvious one that it is wrong to kill an animal or a person unnecessarily:

1. By eating animals, we are consuming the grain that fattened the animal; this grain could have been used to save human lives.

2. In poor countries, the ox helps farmers to plow the earth and grow food. Hence the killing of an ox leads to less production of food and hence more starvation.

3. When a person is ready to kill an animal for his pleasure or profit, he may be more likely to kill another human being.

2. Non-Jewish Views

Many people relate the cruelty involved in slaughtering animals for food to cruelty to people and eventually to war. G. S. Arundale, late president of the Theosophical Society, discussed the relationship between the treatment of animals and war:

Whenever I see a meat- and fish-laden dining table, I know that I am looking upon one of the seeds of war and hatred—a seed that develops into an ugly weed of atrocity….When people ask me, “Is there likely to be a future war?” I answer, “Yes, until the animals are treated as our younger brothers.”18

The relationship between the consumption of meat and war is dramatized by the following dialogue from Plato’s Republic:

…and there will be animals of many other kinds, if people eat them?


And living in this way we shall have much greater need of physicians than before?

Much greater.

And the country which was enough to support the original inhabitants will be too small now, and not enough?

Quite true.

Then a slice of our neighbors’ land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves, they exceed the limit of necessity, and give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth?

That, Socrates, will be inevitable.
And so, we shall go to war, Glaucon. Shall we not? Most certainly, he replied.19

As the following poem, “Song of Peace,” indicates, the vegetarian writer George Bernard Shaw felt that the killing of animals today logically leads to the killing of men on the battlefield tomorrow:

We are the living graves of murdered beasts, Slaughtered to satisfy our appetites,
We never pause to wonder at our feasts,
If animals like men, can possibly have rights. We pray on Sundays that we may have light,
To guide our foot-steps on the paths we tread, We’re sick of war, we do not want to fight,
The thought of it now fills our heart with dread, And yet we gorge ourselves upon the dead.

Like carrion crows, we live and feed on meat, Regardless of the suffering and pain
We cause by doing so. If thus we treat Defenseless animals, for sport or gain,

How can we hope in this world to attain The peace we say we are so anxious for?

 We pray for it, o’er hecatombs of slain, To God, while outraging the moral law, Thus cruelty begets its offspring—War.20

U Nu, former prime minister of Burma, stated:

World peace, or any other kind of peace, depends greatly on the attitude of the mind. Vegetarianism can bring about the right mental attitude for peace. In this world of lusts and hatred, greed and anger, force and violence, vegetarianism holds forth a way of life which, if practiced universally, can lead to a better, juster, and more peaceful community of nations.21


In view of the enormous waste of grain and other resources related to livestock agriculture, the following statement by former Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon is relevant:

Hunger and famine will do more to destabilize this world; [they are] more explosive than all atomic weaponry possessed by the big powers. Desperate people do desperate things….Nuclear fission is now in the hands of even the developing countries in many of which hunger and famine are most serious.22

Richard J. Barnet, a former director of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies and author of The Lean Years, an analysis of resource scarcities, believes that the anger and despair of hungry people could lead to acts of terrorism and economic class wars.23 Jeremy Rifkin writes:

Feeding grain to cattle and other livestock while people starve has triggered bitter political struggles in developing countries and political strife between northern industrial nations and the poor nations of the southern hemisphere.24

Just as scarcity of food can lead to war, so can scarcity of sources of energy. A major current threat to peace is the affluent countries’ need to obtain sufficient oil to keep their economies running smoothly. Since much of the world’s oil is produced in the Persian Gulf area, in 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia, and hence Western oil supplies, the U.S. led a broad coalition against Iraq.

Animal-centered diets contribute to potential energy shortages. Producing food for factory-bred animals rather than directly for people requires far more irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides, mechanization, refrigeration, and processing, all of which consume considerable energy. It takes more than eight times as much fossil fuel energy to produce animal protein than for the production of a comparable amount of plant protein.25 Several other examples of the large amounts of energy required for producing food with intensive animal-based agriculture were given in the previous chapter.

Judaism emphasizes the pursuit of justice and harmonious relations between nations to reduce violence and the prospects for war. The prophet Isaiah declares:

And the work of righteousness shall be peace; And the effect of arighteousness quietness and confidence forever. (Isaiah 32:17)


There are many causes for war and violence, and it would be simplistic to suggest that a shift toward vegetarianism, by itself, would eliminate all conflicts. However, by adopting a diet that shows concern and loving kindness for the hungry people of the world as well as for abused, innocent animals, and by working for righteousness through more equitable sharing of God’s abundant harvests, we can play a significant role in helping to move the world toward that day when “nations shall not learn war any more.”


1. Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 9:9.
2. Pirke Avot 1: 12.
3. Yalkut Shimoni, Yithro 273.
4. Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 9:9.
5. Gittin 59b.
6. Midrash Genesis Rabbah 38:6.
7. Pirke Avot 5: 11.
8. Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, “Sanctions in Judaism for Peace,” in World Religions and World Peace, Homer A. Jack, ed., Boston, MA: Beacon, 1968.
9. Rabbi J. David Bleich, “Vegetarianism and Judaism,” Tradition, Vol. 23, No. I (Summer, 1987).
10. Nachmanides’ commentary on Deuteronomy 22:6.
11. Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, 3:17.
12. Sefer Ha Chinuch, Mitzvah 596.
13. Rabbi Elijah J. Schochet, Animal Life in Jewish Tradition, New York: K’tav, 1984), 217.
14. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, Dayan Dr. 1. Grunfeld, trans., London: Soncino Press, 1962, Vol. 2, Chapter 68. Section 454.
15. Ibid.
16. Quoted by Francine Klagsbrun, Voices of Wisdom, New York: Pantheon Books, 1980, 458.
17. G. S. Arundale, “The World Crucifixion,” The Vegetarian Way, Proceedings of the 24th World Vegetarian Conference, Madras, India (1977),145.
18. Quoted by Barbara Parham, Why Kill for Food?, Denver, CO: Ananda Marga, 1979, 54.
19. Plato, Republic 2. A historical review of the relationships among war, food production, and consumption is given by Dudley Giehl, Vegetarianism: A Way of Life, New York: Harper and Row, 1979, 95–101.
20. Quoted in The Vegetarian Way, 12.
21. Quoted in The Vegetarian Way, 19th World Vegetarian Congress, 1967.
22. Mark Hatfield, “World Hunger,” World Vision 19 (February 1975): 5.
23. Staten Island Advance, article by Susan Fogg, July l3, 1980, 1.
24. Jeremy Rifkin, Beyond Beef, New York: Dutton, 1992, 2.
25. Joanne Stepaniak, The Vegan Sourcebook, Los Angeles; Lowell House, 1998, 68, based on a statement by agricultural expert David Pimentel at the 1997 annual meeting of the Canadian Society of Animal Science.

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