The dietary laws are intended to teach us compassion and lead us gently to vegetarianism. (Rabbi Shlomo Riskin)1
JUDAISM MANDATES COMPASSION, NOT JUST FOR JEWS, but for the stranger, and even for enemies; not just for people, but for all of God’s creatures. Compassion is one of the characteristics associated with being a descendant of Abraham, the first Jew. Jews are to consider the welfare of animals and to avoid tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, inflicting pain on any living creature.
Judaism stresses the preservation of life and health. This is so important that if it might help preserve a life, Jews are commanded to set aside most commandments, including those related to the Sabbath, kashrut, and fasting on Yom Kippur.
Judaism places great emphasis on reducing hunger. A Jew who helps feed a hungry person is considered, in effect, to have fed God. Related to helping the hungry are the important Jewish concepts of pursuing justice, giving charity, being compassionate, supporting policies that reduce poverty, and sharing food and other resources.
Judaism teaches that people are to be co-workers with God in preserving and improving the earth. We are to be stewards and to use God’s bounties for the benefit of all. Nothing that has value can be wasted or destroyed unnecessarily.
Judaism emphasizes the need to seek and pursue peace. Great is peace for it is one of God’s names, all God’s blessings are contained in it, it must be sought even in times of war, and it will be the first blessing brought by the Messiah.
Vegetarianism is the diet most consistent with these important Jewish ideals:
A vegetarian diet does not require the raising of animals in closed, cramped spaces, where they are denied exercise, fresh air, sunlight, and fulfillment of their natural instincts.
- A vegetarian diet is consistent with our body structure and chemistry, and is least likely to lead to heart disease, cancer, stroke, and other degenerative diseases.
- A vegetarian diet does not require the wasteful use of grain, land, water, pesticides, fertilizer, and fuel while millions of people die annually from hunger and its effects.
- A vegetarian diet is most consistent with the concepts that “the earth is the Lord’s,” that we are to be partners with God in preserving and enhancing the world, and that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value.
- A vegetarian diet, by not wasting scarce resources and by not requiring the daily slaughter of helpless creatures of God, is most likely to lead to that day of harmony and peace when “nations shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and not study war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)
The negative effects of animal-centered diets are interconnected: the cruel methods used to raise animals lead to unhealthy animals, which in turn affects human health; the feeding of seventy percent of the grain grown in the United States to livestock contributes to global hunger; the tremendous amounts of grain grown for animal feed require large amounts of fertilizer and pesticides, whose manufacture and use cause extensive air and water pollution and depletion of soil fertility; waters polluted by pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals result in fish that are unhealthy to eat; animal-based agriculture contributes to food, energy, and water shortages, which increase the potential for violence and war. Everything is connected to everything else.
Although vegetarianism is an important step in the right direction, it is not the complete answer to current critical problems:
- Jews should also work to eliminate violations of tsa’ar ba’alei chayim related to raising animals for food, scientific testing, the use of animals for furs, and the abuse of animals for sport and entertainment.
- Although a vegetarian diet is a positive step for preserving health, Jews should also strive to improve their health through exercise, elimination or reduction of the consumption of highly processed foods, and other positive lifestyle changes.
- Jews should work to see that food and other resources saved through vegetarian diets are used to help hungry people; they should also strive for better social and economic conditions to enable people in poor countries to produce the food that they need for survival.
- In addition to improving the environment through vegetarian diets, Jews should work for better energy, transportation, industrial, and residential systems consistent with the Torah concepts of stewardship and bal tashchit.
- Finally, consistent with Torah mandates, Jews should seek and pursue peace by working for more equitable sharing of the earth’s resources, more harmonious relations among nations, and a reduction of arms budgets, which take funds from critical human needs such as education, shelter, employment, health, and proper nutrition.
Much of this book can be summed up by the following statement by Rabbi David Rosen:
We must clearly advocate dietary practices that are truly in consonance with the sublimest values of the Torah, and today more than ever before these are overwhelmingly incompatible with carnivorous indulgence.2
Based on this statement and all the material previously discussed, at the close of this book one respectful question will be addressed to Jews who plan to continue to eat meat: In view of strong Jewish mandates to be compassionate to animals, preserve our health, help feed the hungry, preserve and protect the environment, conserve resources, and seek and pursue peace, and the very negative effects animal-centered diets have in each of these areas, will you now become a vegetarian, or at least sharply reduce your consumption of animal products?