First published review of my latest book, VEGAN REVOLUTION: SAVING OUR WORLD, REVITALIZING JUDAISM, in the Jerusalem Report
Chronicling the Jewish Vegan Revolution
Review by Abigail Klein Leichner
Chicken soup on Shabbat, lox and bagels on Sundays, pickled tongue on Purim, eggs on Passover, cheesecake on Shavuot, brisket with tzimmes for Rosh Hashanah, pastrami on rye for any occasion.Animal products are as deeply ingrained in the cultural rituals of Judaism as a schmear of schmaltz on matzah.While Israel is believed to have the highest percentage of vegans per capita in the world – approximately 5% of the population – the switch to a plant-based diet mainly is confined to the secular sector and is motivated by animal-welfare, environmental or health concerns.The faith-based Jewish public, in Israel and elsewhere, has been far less receptive to such a change. And why should they be?For the past decade or so, a rising chorus of voices has endeavored to answer that question definitively.In fervently Orthodox Israeli circles, Rabbi Asa Keisar – often referred to as the religious version of American vegan activist Gary Yourofsky – uses classical sources to make the case that modern methods of preparing animals for the dinner plate clearly violate Jewish law.For many Jews in the US and Israel, the voice of veganism belongs to Prof. Richard H. Schwartz. The retired college professor with a doctorate in applied mechanics has dedicated the past 42 of his 86 years to the challenging task of bringing vegetarianism/veganism, animal rights, health and environmental sustainability into the global Jewish conversation as a Jewish issue.His newest book, Vegan Revolution: Saving Our World, Revitalizing Judaism, aims to “spotlight issues about animal-based diets and agriculture that most people seem to prefer to stay in the dark about.”This work, says the author, “reflects forty years of growing consensus about the dire consequences of ignoring climate change, and the urgency of doing something about it now rather than wait another four decades to act. Indeed, given the outsized role that animal-based agriculture plays in greenhouse gas production, habitat loss, and food insecurity, the issue of veganism has never been more urgent.” The book, in fact, is part of a larger campaign that the soft-spoken but passionate octogenarian is waging through Zoom and podcast appearances, social media and other means.“The campaign will respectfully challenge rabbis and other religious leaders, environmentalists, doctors, politicians, and the media to stop ignoring or downplaying the many extremely negative, sometimes devastating realities related to animal-centered diets,” Schwartz says. “The campaign must not fail, because the future of humanity and a more vital Judaism depend on its success.” About 25 organizations have signed on to support Schwartz’s campaign, including, for example, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, Hazon: The Jewish Lab for Sustainability, Bread and Torah Project and the umbrella group, Aytzim: Ecological Judaism. David Krantz, president of Aytzim, calls Schwartz “a modern-day prophet [who] sees Jews straying from biblical edicts for Earth stewardship and prods us to embrace divinely ordained and inspired environmental action.” From his first book, Judaism and Vegetarianism (1982) and on through other books, articles, lectures, visual presentations (he was associate producer of the 2007 documentary A Sacred Duty : Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World) and countless letters to editors, Schwartz always organizes his data in a straightforward bullet-point fashion. He doesn’t bog down readers, viewers or listeners in academic language or esoteric concepts.Schwartz summarizes Vegan Revolution as “a major effort to increase awareness that shifts to veganism are (1) a societal imperative, essential to efforts to help avert a climate catastrophe and other environmental threats to humanity, and to help sharply reduce the current epidemic of life threatening diseases afflicting Jews and others, the massive horrendous mistreatment of animals, and the very wasteful use of land, water, energy, and other resources, and (2) a religious imperative, since animal-based diets and agriculture seriously violate basic religious teachings on compassion, health, sharing, justice, environmental sustainability, and other issues.” He shares that he, too, was once “a meat-and-potatoes” guy. Preparing to teach a “Mathematics and the Environment” course at the College of Staten Island in 1973, Schwartz “became aware of the tremendous waste of grain associated with the production of beef, at a time when hundreds of millions of people were chronically malnourished.” So he stopped eating red meat. And by 1978, after learning “about the many health benefits of vegetarianism and about the horrible conditions for animals raised on factory farms and how cruelly fish were killed,” he gave up animal flesh entirely.Growing awareness of the negative effects of producing and eating dairy products and eggs led to his going vegan in 2000. Meanwhile, he had started investigating the connections between Judaism and a plant-based diet.With an emphasis on Torah precepts such as preserving human health and natural resources, not causing pain to animals, and feeding the hungry – as well as an understanding of widespread corruption and other serious issues in today’s kosher slaughter and supervision industry – he came to conclude that “veganism is the diet most consistent with basic Jewish teachings.” All well and good, but questions will remain in the mind of the ritually observant Jew. Much of the book is devoted to answering these questions alongside evidence-based science that debunks nutritional myths related to animal vs. vegetable protein, the role of dairy in the diet, and the like.Didn’t our forefathers eat meat, and weren’t animals offered as sacrifices in the Temple? Yes and yes.However, Schwartz points out, “farmed animals ran free in pastures or open country, grazed on grass, and were slaughtered only for special occasions, such as when Abraham slaughtered a calf for his angelic guests. Chickens were hatched naturally under mother hens and Jews generally ate them only on Shabbat and holidays… There was nothing remotely resembling the year-round factory farm conditions under which food animals are raised today.” In response to the oft-cited Talmudic adage that meat and wine are necessary components of a festive meal, he points out that respected rabbinic authorities, including Yeshiva University Torah scholar Rabbi J. David Bleich, cite many sources indicating meat has not been a required dish on the festival and Sabbath menu since the destruction of the Second Temple.One section of the book imagines a “dialogue” between a vegan Jew and his or her rabbi tackling tough questions, such as animal sacrifices, and answering them based on Jewish sources.For example, “Rav [Abraham Isaac] Kook and others believed that in the Messianic period, human conduct will have improved to such a degree that animal sacrifices will not be necessary to atone for sins. There will be only non-animal sacrifices to express thanks to God.” The book also presents Schwartz’s efforts to restore the ancient and largely forgotten Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah L’ma’aser Beheimot – the New Year’s Day for tithing animals for sacrifices – in effect, when the First and Second temples stood in Jerusalem – and “transform it into a day devoted to increase awareness of Judaism’s beautiful teachings on compassion to animals and how far current realities for animals diverge from these teachings.” While an increasing number of Jewish religious leaders have gotten behind Schwartz’s initiatives of late – for example, 37 Israeli Orthodox rabbis signed the statement on climate change that he drafted in 2017 – few Orthodox rabbis fully endorse his views on veganism. This will have to change if Schwartz and others are to make any inroads in the faith-based population.Among the Orthodox figures who warmly support his efforts are Rabbi David Rosen, former chief rabbi of Ireland and president for Israel of the International Jewish Vegetarian Society, and Rabbi Yonatan Neril, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and of Jewish Eco Seminars.“I applaud Richard Schwartz’s valiant efforts to raise the issue of a plant-based diet within the Jewish community,” writes Neril, who is based in Jerusalem. “He taps into a millennia-old Jewish tradition supporting compassion toward animals, and does so at a time when all life on Earth depends on wise human action. He thoughtfully examines what type of food consumption fits with the ethics of kosher, which means appropriate. May God bless his holy efforts!” Schwartz maintains that “in view of the horrible conditions under which almost all animals are raised today, Jews who eat meat are in effect supporting a system contrary to basic Jewish principles and obligations.”This argument may be hard for many Jews to stomach. Even if one accepts its philosophical and scientific underpinnings, on a practical level changing one’s diet is quite difficult. (Full disclosure: I know this personally, having become vegetarian in 2008 and vegan in 2011.) In recognition of this difficulty, Schwartz suggests a practical, gradual approach. One might try “eating meat only on Shabbat and holidays or only when eating out, eating smaller portions, stopping eating meat while continuing to consume dairy products, and giving up eating red meat… Being an advocate for improved conditions for animals is not a rejection of Judaism, but an attempt to apply Judaism’s splendid teachings.” Vegan Revolution: Saving Our World, Revitalizing Judaism
Richard H. Schwartz
Lantern Media, 2020
266 pages, $20
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