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Why Jews Should Be Vegans
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D
I am proud to live in Israel, the eternal home of the Jewish people and arguably the vegan capital of the world, with a high percent of vegans and a leading role in developing plant-based substitutes for meat and other animal products. This is as it should be because the consumption of meat and other animal products and the ways in which they are produced today seriously violate at least six fundamental Jewish teachings:
While Judaism mandates that we preserve our health and our lives ((see, for example, Maimonides Mishneh Torah, Sefer Nezikim, Hilchot Roze’ach vShmirat haNefesh 11:4), numerous scientific studies in respected peer-reviewed journals have linked animal-based diets to heart disease, strokes, several forms of cancer, diabetes, and other life-threatening diseases. These studies include:
- When Japanese people migrate to the United States and shift to the standard American animal-based diet, their rates of chronic, degenerative diseases increase sharply.
- When the meat supply was sharply reduced in Denmark during World War 1 and in Norway during World War 2, the death rates sharply decreased, only to return to pre-war levels after the wars ended and residents returned to their animal-based diets.
- The China-Cornell-Oxford study, dubbed by the New York Times as “the grand prix of epidemiology, . . . the most comprehensive large study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease,” investigated the health and mortality conditions for 6,500 people in 65 Chinese communities, with the standard diet varying significantly from community to community. The researchers concluded that the more animal protein and fat in one’s diet the greater the risk for serious diseases. Other epidemiological studies have reached similar conclusions.
- Dr. Dean Ornish, an American doctor from California, worked with patients with severe heart problems, 28 of whom went on a mainly vegan diet and 20 of whom served as a control group adopting the diet recommended by the U.S. medical establishment, up to 30% fat and permitting chicken, without the skin, and fish. After one year, almost everyone on the mainly vegan diet saw sharp decreases in coronary blockages and a complete or nearly complete disappearance of chest pains, while none of the people in the control group saw any improvement, and some experienced increased heart problems. Other researchers found comparable results from similar studies.
Yet, despite the recent trend toward plant-based eating in recent years, humanity as a whole – including Jews – continue to consume huge quantities of animal protein. A major reason involves the belief that major amounts of protein and calcium are needed for proper nutrition. Probably the most common question that vegetarians and vegans get is, ‘how do you get enough protein?” Yet, well-balanced, nutritious vegan diets easily provide enough protein. The incorrect belief that humans need a lot of protein is because initial protein research was based on experiments with rats. While a rat’s mother’s milk has almost 50% of its calories in protein, a human mother’s milk, ideal for an infant who will double his or her birth weight in about six months, has only six percent of its calories in protein. Many plant foods, including nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, and even some fruits, including melons, and vegetables, including spinach, have far more than that six percent and have positive health effects. But excessive animal protein in the diet has negative health effects.
It is commonly believed that consuming large amounts of calcium, especially in the form of dairy products, is the best way to avoid getting osteoporosis. However, the countries that consume the most dairy products, including the United States, Israel, and Scandinavian countries, have the highest percentages of people with osteoporosis. Most Chinese people are lactose intolerant and thus consume far less dairy products, resulting in far less calcium in their diets. Yet they get far less osteoporosis. One theory is that the high amounts of protein in dairy products and other animal-based foods acidify the blood and calcium is needed to buffer or neutralize the excess acidity. If there is not enough calcium in the blood, it is drawn from the bones. Since the human body can absorb only a limited amount of protein, unlike the case for fat and carbohydrates, the excess protein is excreted, along with calcium, leading to a negative calcium balance, even when large amounts of calcium have been consumed, increasing the risk of getting osteoporosis. Since the excreted protein and calcium pass through and strain the kidneys, kidney problems also often result from high animal-based diets.
Human beings clearly aren’t carnivores, but are we omnivores or herbivores? Actually, both. Most people are omnivores in practice, eating from both the plant and animal kingdoms. However, physiologically/biologically we are closest to herbivorous animals, in terms of our hands, teeth, intestinal system, stomach acids, and other components. The differences between our eating habits and our natural conditions and inclinations help explain why many people are suffering and dying from heart disease, cancer, and other life-threatening diseases.
Another important health consideration is that huge amounts of antibiotics are used in animal feed to prevent diseases, due to modern husbandry, and to enhance the animals’ growth. This is resulting in antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, which is making it much harder for doctors to treat people for everyday infections, the curing of which we currently take for granted.
In his 2015 book, “How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reduce Disease,” Michael Greger, MD, concludes: “Most deaths in the United States are preventable and they are related to what we eat. Our diet is the number one cause of premature death and the number one cause of disability.”
Also, adopting a plant-based diet would reduce the chances for future pandemics, as many previous pandemics, including MERS, SARS, Ebola, swine flu, and bird flu, and possibly the present coronavirus pandemic, were caused by the massive mistreatment and widespread consumption of animals.
Based on the above facts, David Rosen, former chief rabbi of Ireland, has written: “As it is halachically prohibited to harm oneself and as healthy, nutritious vegan alternatives are easily available, most meat consumption today has become halachically problematic.”
Of course, for best results, vegans should eat a wide variety of plant foods, minimize consumption of oils, salt, sugar, and processed foods, and, like everyone else, have periodic blood tests to insure that all necessary nutrients are being obtained.
2. COMPASSION TO ANIMALS
Jews are to be rachmanim, b’nei rachmanim, compassionate children of compassionate ancestors, emulating God, Whose compassion its over all His works (Psalms 145:9), and to avoid tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain to animals, However, most farmed animals — including those raised for kosher consumers — are raised on “factory farms,” where they live in cramped, confined spaces, and are often drugged, mutilated, and denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise, and any enjoyment of life, before they are slaughtered and eaten.
Examples of the current mistreatment of animals include:
So that they will continue to provide milk, dairy cows are artificially impregnated annually on what the industry calls ‘rape racks,’ and then their calves are taken away shortly after birth, causing great emotional stress to both.
- At egg-laying hatcheries, male chicks are killed immediately after birth [COMMA] since they can’t lay eggs and have not been genetically programmed to produce much flesh, as “broilers” have been.
- Hens are kept in spaces so small that they can’t raise even one wing. With all their natural instincts thwarted, the birds peck at each other, spreading their misery and causing great harm to other hens. To avert this damage, the industry cuts the beaks of the hens, a very painful procedure, without the use of anesthesia or pain killers.
Because of the above and much more, Rabbi David Rosen has also stated: “These practices in the livestock trade seriously violate the prohibition regarding tsa’ar ba’alei chaim (the Torah mandate to avoid mistreating animals) and thus render the consumption of meat as halachically unacceptable.”
3. ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY
Judaism teaches that “the earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1) and that we are to be God’s partners and co-workers in preserving the world, based on Genesis 2:15, which indicates that the human being was put into the Garden of Eden to work the land and also to protect it. But, modern agribusiness, involving the raising of about 80 billion farmed animals annually for slaughter, contributes substantially to climate change, soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, extensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, destruction of tropical rain forests and other natural habitats, and other environmental damage.
Animal-based agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, largely due to huge amounts of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, emitted by cows and other farmed animals. Two studies reinforce this connection:
- As long ago as 2006, a UN Food and Agriculture report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” indicated that the livestock sector emits more greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalents), than all the cars, planes, ships, and all other means of transportation worldwide combined.
- A 2009 cover story, “Livestock and Climate Change,” in World Watch magazine, by two environmentalists associated with the World Bank, argued that the livestock sector is responsible for at least 51% of Human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. The authors recognized the opportunity cost of animal agriculture – land cleared to feed and graze animals could be freed to reforest, allowing atmospheric CO2 to decline.
Based on these and more recent studies, climate change pioneer James Hansen, former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said, “There are many things that people can do to reduce their carbon emissions, but changing your light bulb and many of the things are much less effective than changing your diet, . . .. so, that, in terms of individual action, it is perhaps the best thing you can do.” In October 2020, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced a UN plan to reduce the negative effects of food systems on climate change and other environmental threats.
We must reverse greenhouse gas levels to prevent positive feedback cycles, such as reduced albedo effect due to melting Arctic sea ice and release of methane as Greenland ice melts, or the earth’s climate will become incompatible with human civilization.
Israel is especially threatened by climate change, as a rising Mediterranean Sea could inundate the coastal plain that contains most of Israel’s population, and infrastructure and the hotter and drier Middle East that climate experts are projecting makes instability, terrorism, and war more likely, according to military experts.
With climate experts warning that the world needs ‘unprecedented changes’ by 2030 to avert a climate catastrophe, and considering the recent major increases in the frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, floods, and other climate -related events, it is essential that Jews lead efforts to produce a major societal shift toward vegan diets.
4. CONSERVATION of RESOURCES
Based on Deuteronomy 20:19, 20, which prohibits the destruction of fruit-bearing trees in wartime, Judaism forbids waste or unnecessarily destroying anything of value or using more than is needed to accomplish a purpose, bal tashchit. However, animal-based agriculture wastes great quantities of grain, land, water, energy, and other resources. For example, a person on an animal-based diet uses up to 13 times as much water, largely to irrigate land growing feed crops, 20 times as much land, largely to grow the feed crops, and 10 times as much energy, as a person on a vegan diet.
5. HELPING the HUNGRY
Judaism stresses that we are to assist hungry people. The Torah mandates that farmers leave a corner of their field and the gleanings of their harvest for the poor. The prophetic reading for Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday, includes the prophet Isaiah indicating that an important purpose of fasting is to sensitize us so that we will “share our bread with the hungry.”
However, our ability to fulfill this mandate is severely compromised, since about 70% of the grain grown in the United States and about 40% grown worldwide is fed to farmed animals, while over ten percent of the world’s people are chronically hungry and an estimated nine million people worldwide die each year due to hunger and its effects. Making it even more shameful, healthy foods, like corn, soy, and oats, which are high in fiber and complex carbohydrates and devoid of cholesterol and saturated fat, are fed to animals, resulting in unhealthy foods with the opposite characteristics.
6. PURSUING PEACE
Judaism stresses that we must “seek peace and pursue it,” and that violence results from unjust conditions. Many important prayers, including the priestly blessing, kaddish, blessings after meals (birkat ha’mazon), and the shmoneh esrei, which is recited by religious. Jews three times daily and four times on Shabbat and holidays, end with an appeal for peace. While Judaism is not a pacifist religion, Jews have always yearned for the day when “nations shall build their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks and not study war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3)
However, animal-centered diets, by wasting valuable resources, help to perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that often lead to instability and war. The Jewish sages, noting that the Hebrew words for bread (lechem) and war (milchamah) come from the same root, deduced that shortages of grain and other resources make instability, terrorism, and war more likely.
In addition, the US Pentagon and other military organizations fear that the climate change that animal-based diets greatly contribute to increases prospects for instability, terrorism, and war, as tens of millions of desperate refugees flee from heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, floods, and other climate problems. Already, severe multiyear droughts resulted in civil wars in Syria and Sudan, as farms failed and desperate farmers fled into already overcrowded cities.
Each of the serious conflicts between basic Jewish values and current practices discussed above should impel Jews to seriously consider a plant-based diet. Combined, they make an urgently compelling case for the Jewish community to address these issues.
Other Reasons Jews Should Consider Being Vegans
The case for veganism is strengthened by the fact that God’s first dietary regimen was strictly vegan: “And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit — to you it shall be for food’” (Genesis 1:29). This is consistent with the modern scientific findings discussed above that humans are closer to herbivorous animals than to omnivorous ones,
God’s original dietary regimen represents a unique statement in humanity’s spiritual history. It is a blueprint of a vegan world order. Yet many millions of people have read Genesis 1:29 without fully considering its significance. Although most Jews eat meat today, the high ideal of God—the initial vegan dietary law—stands supreme in the Torah for Jews and the whole world to see, an ultimate goal toward which all people should strive.
In addition, according to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, as well as other Jewish scholars, the other ideal time in the Jewish tradition, the Messianic period that Jews yearn for, will also be vegan, based on Isaiah’s prophecy (11:6 – 9): “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, . . . the lion shall eat straw like the ox, . . . and no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of [God’s] holy mountain.” Rav Kook believed that the veganism practiced by the generations before Noah was a virtue of such great value that it cannot be lost forever. In the future ideal period, he believed, people will again not eat flesh. Human lives would not be maintained at the expense of animals’ lives.
Another important reason why Jews should be vegans stems from the many scandals that have rocked the kosher meat industry. Israel’s 2017 annual State Comptroller Report cited widespread corruption and mismanagement in Israel’s kosher certification process. Rabbi Aaron Liebowitz, a Jerusalem council member who founded Private Supervision, an alternative supervisory agency, praised the comptroller’s report for spotlighting the “significant violations, failures, lies, and corruption” of the main kosher inspection system. He commented: “It’s very sad to see how the rabbinate and some of the local religious councils brought kosher supervision in this country to levels of extreme violation and the absurd.”
Rabbi David Stav, chairman of Tzohar, an organization of Israeli Orthodox rabbis working to bridge the gaps between Israel’s religious and secular populations, observed: “The kashrut system in this country is in a downward spiral” and needs to be privatized. In a Jerusalem Post Article, “Has the Religious Minority Taken over Israel?” Rabbi Stav is quoted as saying, “The reputation of the rabbinate supervision is very low. Most of the supervisors who give certification won’t eat in the places they certify,” and “that the [kashrut inspection] system is broken everybody knows. That it is corrupt everyone knows.”
Likewise, Israeli rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo has asserted that he has doubts “about the kosher slaughtering of animals in America and here in Israel,” because “the number of cows and chickens that have to be slaughtered every day is so enormous that I can’t see how this will ever work halachically.” He concludes: “I don’t believe that any piece of meat today is kasher l’mehadrin (perfectly kosher). We should start educating people to no longer eat meat.”
Another reason for Jews to adopt a vegan diet is that it is much easier and even
cheaper to maintain a kosher household on a vegan diet. This might attract new adherents to keeping kosher and eventually to observing other Jewish practices. A vegan need not be concerned with using separate dishes and other utensils for meat and dairy foods; waiting three or six hours, depending on their tradition, after eating meat before being permitted to eat dairy products; storing four sets of dishes, pots, and silverware (two sets for regular use and two for Passover use); and many other factors that the non-vegan who wishes to observe kashrut strictly must consider. In addition, a vegan is in no danger of eating blood or the flesh of a non-kosher animal, both of which Judaism strictly prohibits.
Also, although religiously observant Jews commendably are very careful about properly maintaining the laws of kashrut, mistakes can happen when Jews partake of meat and dairy products daily in their kitchens, year after year. Being vegan makes it far less likely that a Jew will accidentally violate the laws of kashrut.
Some Jews today reject kashrut because of the higher costs involved for kosher foods. However, they could obtain proper (generally superior) nutrition at far lower costs with a balanced, kosher vegan diet.
Another very important consideration is that it is becoming increasingly easy to maintain a vegan lifestyle. There now are an abundance of plant-based substitutes for meat, eggs, and dairy products, some with the appearance, texture, and taste so close to that of the animal products that even long-time meat-eaters can’t tell the difference. There has also been a proliferation of vegan organizations, most online, so that new vegans can easily find support groups. Many of these organizations provide starter kits with much valuable information about veganism that can be very helpful to new vegans. Because of the increasing number of vegans, most restaurants that serve meat offer at least one vegan option, clearly denoted on their menus.
In summary, to be healthier, have a healthier planet, reduce the suffering of animals reduce the wasteful use of scarce resources, and be more consistent with basic Jewish values, Jews should be vegans, or at least on the pathway to veganism. As Rabbi David Rosen puts it: “Today not only are we able to enjoy a healthy balanced vegan diet as perhaps never before, and not only are there in fact the above-mentioned compelling halachic reasons for not eating meat, but above all, if we strive for that which Judaism aspires to—namely the ennoblement of the spirit—then a vegan diet becomes a moral imperative, an authentic Jewish ethical dietary way of life for our time and for all times.”
If you are not ready to become a vegan now, you can take some intermediate positive dietary 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, and being vegan at least for part of the week. You will set an example that will perhaps convince others to do the same, thus helping to create a more compassionate, just, healthy, and environmentally sustainable world, one very consistent with basic Jewish teachings.