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Four-page review of my latest book, VEGAN REVOLUTION: SAVING OUR WORLD, REVITALIZING JUDAISM, in the semi-annual journal of the Central Conference of American rabbis (CCAR), a publication that goes to US reform rabbis

The Vegan Revolution

by Richard Schwartz

(Brooklyn, NY: Lantern Publishing and Media, 2020), 272 pp.

I’ve been a vegetarian for forty years. Inspired by a college boyfriend,

I then fully committed to it the year I was at HUC-JIRJerusalem,

walking down the meat aisle of the Old City Shuk with

its hanging animal carcasses. I married a man who was already a

vegetarian (thank goodness no “training” required!) and we raised

three vegetarian children who now, as adults, have all retained

their commitment to it. In true family dynamics, two of our kids

are more strict than we are, not touching fish, and one is a vegan.

I guiltily admit we do occasionally eat fish (for which I was unceremoniously

kicked out of the Toronto Vegetarian Association and

called a traitor). We try very hard not to wear or purchase leather

and have never worn or purchased fur.

I start with my vegetarian “creds” because I’ve known and read

Richard Schwartz’s work for years. I too have preached about ethical

Jewish eating, suggesting that vegetarianism is the perfection

of what kashrut is trying to achieve. I understand his passion.

Schwartz has a total, unconditional, and proselytizing belief that

veganism can literally save the world. He sets this thesis out in

the very title of the book The Vegan Revolution: Saving Our World,

So from the start you already know his end

goal—to convert you. I wonder if those whose backs go up at the

suggestion of “you are what you eat” will go near a book with

such a self-assured title, but it certainly gets your attention. In his

introduction Schwartz dedicates the book to “all the world’s vegans,

who are the vanguard of a movement that can help shift our

imperiled planet onto a sustainable path” (p. vii). If you are not

marching in that lead you may approach the book already feeling

left out, your ethical-eating choices (kashrut, pescatarianism,

vegetarianism, meatless Mondays, no red meat, local and seasonal,

organic, whatever) unrecognized as in some small way also contributing

to tikkun olam.

Although I read the book with the interest of one already converted,

I tried also to read it with the eyes of someone just dipping a

toe into the wide world of Jewish food consciousness, eco-kashrut,

and vegan values. Schwartz brings quotes from many famous Jewish

authorities who are themselves vegetarian or vegan. He amply

quotes Jewish sources like Torah, Talmud, Rashi, and Rambam.

The book is not too preachy or self-righteous; Schwartz seems to

understand that many people are simply “not there yet.” But while

it doesn’t knock you over the head with guilt—striving to convince

instead gently and with patience—it is lengthy, fact-filled, and at

times tedious and laborious reading. Some parts feel like a high

school essay written by an overzealous debating club member.

Other parts feel like laundry lists of quotes and statistics standing

at the ready for the eventual plea to the reader to change their eating

habits. There is a kind of monotonal “why can’t everyone see

how clear this is to me?” persistence in some chapters. I personally

understand his fervor, and the book makes some very important

arguments and rationales. It will certainly give any vegetarian or

vegan plenty of ammunition for a family dinnertime discussion

with less eager listeners, and it will give meat eaters who care

about the environment and the souls of animals pause. But less

is more, and tighter editing would really have helped. And for a

book striving to make us more sensitive, I found it strange and irritating

that God is constantly referred to in the masculine, as He.

The introduction takes us on a lengthy excursus into Schwartz’s

personal history, the courses he’s taught, his Jewish upbringing,

his college life, and his marriage, all of which I found tangential.

In the foreword, Rabbi David Rosen, the vegetarian former chief

rabbi of Ireland, skillfully deconstructs the argument that kashrut

is “enough” in one bold stroke. He writes: “The idea that one can

consider a product kosher because the final fulfillment of the letter

of the law is legitimate even when it is part and parcel of a major

desecration of the spirit and purpose of kashrut makes a mockery

of the precept” (p. xvii). Think of all the kosher scandals from Postville

to Israel today. Think of the hoisting-and-shackling method of

industrial kosher slaughter, which is anything but humane. It was

a helpful reminder that many who keep kosher see it as a humane

and value-laden way of eating, while many vegetarians see it as a

flawed and apologetic system that falls short of its lofty goals.

The first chapter is called “Why Jews Should Be Vegans” and

there Schwartz brings out all the good and cogent arguments of

why Judaism commands an ethical standard of eating that vegetarianism

and more so veganism achieve: bal tashchit (the command

not to waste anything from nature), tzaar baalei chayim (inflicting

pain on animals), the horrible conditions of factory farming, the

environmental ruin that raising animals for meat produces, and

the midrashic idea that we humans were actually intended to be

vegetarians in the Garden of Eden—for in Genesis we are given all

the plant-bearing tress for food (Gen. 1:29) but not allowed to ingest

meat until after the Flood and humanity’s “fall” into evil and

degeneration. Chapter 2 goes through all the ways veganism is being

promulgated around the world, and chapter 3 demonstrates

its many advantages, presenting solid research into the health benefits

of a plant-based diet, including how our bodies are designed

to be herbivorous: “Unlike omnivorous animals, humans do not

have claws that can rip flesh. Our nails are rounded, which suggests

that we are not constituted to prey upon animals. Instead, we

have hands for picking fruits, vegetables, leaves, flowers, seeds,

etc. Nor do we possess long, hard, dagger-like teeth for biting into

flesh” (p. 25).

Chapter 4 (“The Treatment of Animals”) lists every verse in the

Tanach that commands compassion for animals, followed by a

lengthy explanation of how modern factory farming is anything

but compassionate. Chapters 5 through 8 take us on a journey of

how veganism can control climate disaster, restore the environment,

and help curb world hunger; indeed in chapter 8 we learn

that it will bring world peace. [Actually, the book argues that veganism is the diet most consistent with Jewish teachings on peace and non-violence, and will reduce the potential for wars, not that it will prevent all wars.] If only it were that easy! These chapters

are heavy-handed (though true) critiques of animal agriculture

and the livestock industry, and I found myself skimming them

rather than reading his barrage of facts and figures—maybe someone

new to this argument would find these more enlightening. He

includes a “ten new plagues” that feels a bit like something we

would say at our next zoom seder.

He spends many pages (thirteen to be exact) trying to convince

the reader that climate change is the world’s most serious danger

(surpassing the coronavirus, by the way, dating his book in the

very present) but makes little reference to how veganism can actually

help us out of that mess, except for this mention: “Every aspect

of our lives must be reconsidered: a shift to renewable forms of

energy; improved transportation systems; more efficient cars and

other means of transportation; the massive reduction of the production

and consumption of animal-based foods; and lower population

growth” (p. 57).

Chapter 9 is aimed at vegetarians like me who sometimes eat

fish, and the claims that these are lower on the food chain, are not

raised in abominable conditions, and do not contribute to land despoilation.

It “debunks” the argument of the benefits of omega-3

fatty acids from fish and concentrates on the negative outcomes of

eating fish on the marine ecosystem. Fur, wool, leather and silk,

circuses, hunting, racing, and animal experimentation are all taboo,

and it is valuable to think about these “side effects” of our

meat culture. “Cultivated meat”—developed by taking a sample

of muscle from an animal that is proliferated to form fibers and

muscle tissue—is analyzed from both a positive and a negative

angle.

Schwartz ends the book with practical advice on becoming a

vegan, from the plethora of cookbooks that will help you to know

what to do when you are invited to dinner by a nonvegan. He admits

that once you become a vegan (which he heartily hopes you

do) he suspects that you will become an activist about veganism.

He is clear: “I believe the principles I’ve articulated are not only my

vision of Judaism, but are fundamental truths of the faith” (p. 133).

I admit I chuckled my way through his appendix B, “Dialogue between

a Jewish Vegan Activist and a Rabbi,” in which the vegan

successfully debunks every objection the rabbi has to promoting

veganism, and of course, in the end, wins the rabbi over. It’s simplistic

but I get why Schwartz puts it in, to equip his new vegan

activists with verbatim arguments for their not quite “woke-yet”

rabbis. Appendix C goes through the Jewish year holiday by holiday

and instructs the reader how to “veganize” each one. Appendix

D gives us a vegan view of the biblical sacrifices and would be

excellent material for a d’var Torah struggling to find relevancy in

the parashyiot of Leviticus. And finally, Appendix E deals with the

problem of t’fillin and “other animal-based ritual items.” I found it

frustrating that Schwartz does not deal with the most problematic

symbol of all: that we read all these verses used to religiously justify

vegetarianism and veganism—and the verses prohibiting cruelty

to animals—from a Torah scroll written on parchment made

of animal skins. This has bothered me for all the years I’ve been a

vegetarian, and I have yet to find an alternative, or an answer.

Schwartz argues convincingly that vegetarianism and veganism

are “not only important personal choices, but also . . . religious

and societal imperatives, essential components in responding to

many national and global problems” (p. xxi). The rest of the book

is really dedicated to asking the readers to make this choice. This

is his plea: “If you are a currently a meat-eating religious Jew, I

respectfully ask you to reconsider your dietary practice. If you are

not ready to become a vegan now, you can take some intermediate

positive steps, hopefully on your path to veganism. These include

initially going vegetarian, 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. You will set an example and perhaps convince

others to do the same, thus mitigating much suffering in the

world today” (p. 9).

To that, all this vegetarian can say is: Amen.

RABBI ELYSE GOLDSTEIN (NY83) has been a rabbinic stained-glass-ceilingbreaker

in Canada for over thirty years. She is the author or editor of four books

on Jewish feminism and past member of the Journal editorial board.

Member since 2011
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