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Latest Review of My Newest Book, VEGAN REVOLUTION: SAVING OUR WORLD, REVITALIZING JUDAISM

Richard H. Schwartz, Vegan Revolution:  Saving Our World, Revitalizing
Judaism.  Brooklyn, NY: Lantern Publishing, 2020. xxxiv +230 pages.
$20.00 softcover.

This review appeared in the March/April online Quaker Publication, “Peaceable Table.”

This is now one of the basic books on veganism and Judaism for the
general reader.  With the passion of a convert–Schwartz became
vegetarian Jan. 1 1978 at the age of 41 and vegan in 2000–the author
presents a convincing case for Jewish observance of a plant-based
diet.

Along with the passion, he is always respectful of those who differ,
or perhaps one should rather say, have not yet come to his mid-life
convictions.  Schwartz is well aware that the world is beginning to
enter upon, or is on the verge of, a major change in dietary
consciousness; some may be ahead of others in this transition.

The several chapters of Schwartz’s volume reflect common vegan
concerns: health, effects of animal agriculture on the “Climate
Catastrophe” and the environment, world hunger, and peace.  Much of
this material will not be new to those familiar with even a smattering
of vegan writing, though it remains a very useful, well-organized
summary of the case.   (Schwartz, though now president of the Society
of Ethical and Religious Vegetarianism and past president of

Jewish Veg, was a professor, now retired, of mathematics rather than
religion or other humanities, and something of the mathematician’s
wholesome bent toward concision and clear structure comes through.)
We encounter the positive effects of veganism on health, the appalling
condition of animals in factory farms and slaughterhells, together
with the way in which animal husbandry devastates the environment and
induces global warming far more than plant-raising does.  We are
rightly admonished here that these negative conditions can lead to
large-scale hunger and may easily lead to war as desperate nations try
to seize what scraps of food remain.  But if the world changed
entirely to plant food, Earth could produce more than enough for all.

What is special in this book is its reinforcement of vegan values from
out of the Jewish tradition.  Regarding health, for example, we are
reminded that “Judaism regards life as the highest good, and we are
obligated to protect it,” one’s own as well as others’.  Thus, if it
is true that veganism protects one’s life better than carnivorism,
then a plant diet is really a religious obligation for this reason
alone.  Indeed, “Jews are to be more particular about matters
concerning dangerto health and life than about ritual matters.”   Later, Schwartz shows
that despite tradition, it is possible to observe sacred days, even
Passover, without consuming meat or setting out the Paschal shank bone
of a lamb.   (A beet may be used instead.)  The same applies to
“kosher”; the Torah’s permission to eat flesh, though under strict
restrictions, is seen as a concession to human weakness and archaic
ways of life, but veganism is still acceptable if not better: Eden was
vegan.

As for animals, “The Jewish tradition clearly indicates that we are
forbidden to be cruel to animals and that we are to treat them with
compassion. These concepts are summarized in the Hebrew phrase tza’ar
ba’alei chayim, the Torah mandate not to cause ‘pain to a living creature.’   

Much more is cited from scripture, the Talmud, and the
writings of rabbis throughout the ages to support the way of
compassion toward our animal kin, and to make totally clear that the
present world of factory farms and dis-assembly line mass slaughter is
completely at odds with traditions of centuries of Judaism.

In this connection Schwartz especially emphasizes that recreational
hunting and fishing are totally unacceptable to Judaism, even if they
can be, and have been, tolerated as professions when necessary for
food.  The 18th century Rabbi Yechezkel Landau wrote, “In the Torah
thesport of hunting is imputed only to fierce characters like Nimrod and
Esau, never to any of the patriarchs and their descendants. . . I
cannot comprehend how a Jew could even dream of killing animals merely
for the pleasure of hunting    . . . When sport prompts killing, it is
downright Cruelty.”

One issue in the Hebrew scriptures which has seriously troubled me,
and many, is the sacrifice of animals in worship, first on any high
hill, in the times of the patriarchs and the judges, later only in the
temple in Jerusalem, up to the destruction of that temple in 70 C. E.
The fear, pain, and callous treatment of the animals involved over a
couple of millennia or more can hardly be imagined, not to mention
conflict with the admonition to cause no pain to any living creature.
Schwartz is clearly disturbed as well, and offers a special appendix
dealing with biblicalsacrifice.  He justly points to the rejection of the sacrifices by
such prophets as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos, and cites prominent
rabbis to the effect that blood-offerings will not be commenced again
even if the temple is restored in the Messianic age.

The author also cites rabbis who claim that animal sacrifices were
practiced in the Israelite religion of old because virtually all other
archaic religions did so, which is true, so many ordinary people may
have thought killing was essential to worship whether in the cultus of
Yahweh or of the Baals, and without its own animal-deaths Judaism
might itself have died out in favor of another religion with a
bloodier altar.   Schwartz also cites rabbis who claim that sacrifices
were not mandatory–they are not mentioned in the Ten Commandments–so
no one had to honor God in this way.   Whether these rationales fully
explain the frequent mentions of animal sacrifice in the scriptures,
including the many precepts on its performance in ritual laws, the

reader will have to decide.   In any case, it is very clear, according
to Richard Schwartz (pictured) that Judaism today not only eschews

animal sacrifice, but properly understood should reject all animal
killing for human ends, and embrace veganism.  This book is a skillful
and exciting vehicle toward that end.  Schwartz’ case for Jewish
veganism–-which includes a fictional “Dialogue Between a Jewish Vegan
Activist and a Rabbi” that raises all the usual points of
contention–is, to my mind, irresistible.

(It should be noted, however, that a small subgroup among Orthodox
Jews has at some point developed a practice originating in the Middle
Ages of killing a chicken and donating the flesh for food for a needy
family on the eve of Yom Kippur, into a ritual of atonement for
personal sins.  In contemporary urban settings, the corpses of the
chickens are not given to the poor for food but trashed, to avoid
conflict with urban slaughtering regulations.  This situation
completely undercuts the original compassionate purpose, according to
Hasidic Rabbi Yonassan Gershom in his book Kapporos Then and Now:
Toward a More Compassionate Tradition.   Considerable controversy over
the present practice has arisen, with other Jews such as Gershom
together with non-Jews objecting to the practice.  Those who observe
Kapporot but reject the chicken-killing have the option of donating
money to the needy instead, which maintains the original intent.
Schwartz has worked with Gershom in the past, and is aware of the
Kapparot issue.)

Vegan Revolution is very highly recommended to any readers wishing a
manageable summary of the subject.  It belongs in public and private
libraries devoted to animal-concern and diet issues, and would make an
excellent gift to Jewish friends and loved one.

–Robert Ellwood with Gracia Fay Ellwood– 
“You must not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.”–Lev. 19:16

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