Is Eating Meat and Other Animal Products Halachically Justifiable Today?
Based on increasingly dire warnings from climate experts and a significant increase in the frequency and severity of climate events, it is clear that the world faces great danger from climate change. As discussed below, averting a climate catastrophe depends very much on a major societal shift to plant-based diets. That would be helped significantly if rabbis declared that eating meat and other animal products is halachically unjustifiable today. Based on Jewish teachings, there are at least six halachic reasons for rabbis to do this:
1. While Judaism mandates that we should be very careful about preserving our health and our lives, numerous medical studies in respected peer-reviewed medical journals have linked animal-based diets to heart disease, stroke, several forms of cancer, and other life-threatening diseases. The widespread production and consumption of meat and other animal products also make future pandemics, with their many negative health effects, much more likely. In addition, the widespread use of antibiotics in animal feed has increased antibiotic resistance in humans and made the antibiotics less effective.
2. While Judaism forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals, most farm 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 transported, slaughtered, andconsumed.
For example, contrary to several Torah teachings, dairy cows are artificially impregnated annually on what the industry calls “rape racks’ and their calves are taken away immediatelyafter birth, causing severe trauma to both, so that the milk that was meant for the calves can be sold commercially. At egg-laying hatcheries, male chicks are killed shortly after birth because they can’t lay eggs and have not been genetically programmed to have much flesh, The hens are kept in cages so small that they can’t raise a wing and all their natural instincts are completely thwarted. This causes the hens to peck at each other in frustration, causing great harm to other hens. Instead of improving conditions for the hens, the industry cruelty cuts off their beaks, a very painful procedure, and it does so without any painkillers.
3. While Judaism teaches that “the earth is the Lord’s” (Psalms 24:1) and that we are to be God’s partners and co-workers in preserving the world, modern intensive animal-based agriculture contributes far more than plant-based agriculture does to climate change, soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, destruction of tropical rainforests and other habitats, and other forms of environmental destruction. As discussed later, a shiftto plant-based diets is essential to efforts to avert aclimate catastrophe.
4. While Judaism mandates bal tashchit, that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value nor use more than is needed to accomplish a purpose, the production of meat and other animal products requires far more grain, land, fresh water, energy, and other resources than the production of plant foods. For example, it takes up to 13 times as much water for an animal-based diet than for a vegan diet, mainly due to vast amounts of water needed to irrigate feed crops.
5. While Judaism stresses that we are to provide for the poor and share our bread with the hungry, about 70% of the grain grown in the United States is very inefficiently fed to animals in order to produce meat, milk, and eggs while millions ofpeople worldwide die each year from hunger., and almost ten percent of the world’s people are chronically malnourished. Making this even more shameful, healthy foods like corn, soy, and oats, high in fiber and complex carbohydrates and devoid of cholesterol and saturated fat, are fed to animals, resulting in animal foods with the opposite characteristics, contributing greatly to the current epidemic of life-threatening diseases.
6. While Judaism teaches that we must seek peace and pursue it and that violence often results from unjust conditions, diets high in animal protein monopolize resources, creating shortages of affordable land, food, water, and energy. This exacerbates the tension between the haves and the have-nots and has been found historically to fuel social unrest, violence, and war.
One could say “dayenu” (it would be enough) after any one of the above arguments. Each one by itself constitutes a serious conflict between Jewish values and current practice that should encourage every Jew to seriously consider adopting a vegan diet. Combined, the six arguments make an absolutely compelling case.
Another reason why Jews should shift away from animal-based diets is that Jewish scripture makes clear that veganism is the ideal Jewish diet. God’s first dietary regimen is strictly vegan: “And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every seed bearing herb, which is upon the surface of the entire earth, and every tree that has seed bearing fruit; it will be yours for food’” (Genesis 1:29). This is consistent with modern scientific findings that humans are closer to herbivorous animals than to omnivorous or carnivorous animals, in terms of our hands, teeth, intestinal system, stomach acids, and other features.
God’s original dietary plan 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 meaning. 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.
Also, according to Rav Kook, first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel and other Jewish scholars, the Messianic period will also be vegan, based on Isaiah’s prophecy (11:6–9): “And 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.”
Reinforcing the analysis above even further are statements by two leading Israeli rabbis. Rabbi David Rosen, former chief rabbi of Ireland and current American Jewish Committee’s International Director of Inter-religious Affairs, has written:
*The current treatment of animals in the livestock trade definitely renders the consumption of meat as halachically unacceptable as the product of illegitimate means. Indeed a central precept regarding the relationship between humans and animals in halacha [ Jewish law] is the prohibition against causing cruelty to animals, tza’ar ba’alei chayim. . . . Practices in the livestock trade today constitute a flagrant violation of this prohibition.
*. Today not only are we able to enjoy a healthy balanced vegetarian diet as perhaps never before, and not only are there 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 vegetarian diet becomes a moral imperative . . . [an] authentic Jewish ethical dietary way of life for our time and for all times.
Rabbi Rosen has stressed that “products from animal sources on the market today are not truly kosher.” He has informed me that he would use the word veganism rather than vegetarianism if he wrote his above statements today.
Supporting Rabbi Rosen’s message is the statement below from Jerusalem-based Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy, in his book “Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for. Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage”:
Since when is the actual shechita [Jewish ritual slaughter] more important than the laws of tza’ar ba’alei chayim? . . . Are not [mistreated farmed animals] as treif (non-kosher) as any other animal that is not slaughtered according to Halacha (Jewish law)? Can we hide behind the laws of shechita and look the other way when the laws of tza’ar ba’alei chaim are violated?
In all honesty: How many of our glatt [strictly] kosher kitchens, including my own, are still truthfully kosher? I admire my fellow Jews who try to live according to the kashrut laws. But, I wonder, respectfully, how many can confidently answer “yes” to the above question, since it is hard to reconcile eating animals with the spirit and letter of these laws?
Another reason why Jews should refrain from eating meat is that there have been many scandals associated with the kosher meat industry. Israel’s 2017 annual State Comptroller Report cited widespread corruption and mismanagement in Israel’s kosher certification process. The first chapter blamed the local religious councils and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate for failing to create significant reforms in the system.
One of the report’s major criticisms was that the vast majority of supervisors received money from the businesses they supervised, creating a conflict of interest and the potential for bribery. Another criticism raised was that supervisors were receiving pay for hours they did not work. Incredibly, a supervisor was reportedly paid for working twenty-seven hours a day! Still another area of concern was widespread reports of nepotism, with unqualified inspectors being appointed.
Rabbi Aaron Liebowitz, a Jerusalem council member who founded Private Supervision, an alternative supervisory agency that is more attentive to restaurants, 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 story, “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, Rabbi 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 which 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.”
Based on the above, as well as the other considerations in this article,
it seems clear. that the best way to keep kosher today is to be a vegan, or at
least a vegetarian.
An additional reason for Jews to maintain a vegan diet is that it is much easier and even cheaper to maintain a kosher household on a vegan diet, which might attract new adherents to keeping kosher and eventually to 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, which is prohibited, or the flesh of a non-kosher animal.
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. Also, although religiously observant Jews try to be very careful about properly maintaining the laws of kashrut, mistakes can happen when they partake of meat and dairy products daily in their kitchens, year after year. Being vegan makes it far less likely that a Jew will violate the laws of kashrut.
A shift to a plant-based diet is easier for consumers now because there is an abundance of plant-based substitutes with the appearance, texture, and taste so close to meat and other animal products that even longtime meat eaters cannot tell the difference.
Considering all of the above points, is there any halachically viable way today for Jews to continue eating meat and other animal products?
These arguments and other Torah teachings related to veganism and related issues are presented in more detail in my books Judaism and Vegetarianism and Vegan Revolution: Saving Our World, Revitalizing Judaism, and in my over 250 articles that can be found online at www.JewishVeg.org/Schwartz. I would be happy to email complimentary copies of such material to everyone who emails me at VeggieRich@gmail.com and requests them.
Another extremely important reason for Jews to shift to plant-based diets today is that the world is rapidly approaching a climate catastrophe and the main cause is animal-based agriculture.
There is a very strong consensus, composed of 97% of climate experts, all the major science academies that have taken a position on the issue, and most importantly, over a thousand peer-reviewed articles in respected scientific journals, that climate change is largely caused by human activities and is a major threat t/o humanity.
Every decade since the 1970s has been hotter than the previous decade and the past eight years have been the hottest since at least 1880, when temperature records were first recorded worldwide. Glaciers, ice caps, and permafrost are rapidly melting, seas are consistently rising, and lakes and rivers are drying up in many regions. There has been a very significant increase in the frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, floods, and other climate events, as is clearly shown by current headlines everywhere. June 2023 was the hottest June in recorded history and July is shaping up to be even hotter, with temperature records broken almost daily. For example, Phoenix Arizona had temperatures over 110 degrees F (43 degrees C) on 20 consecutive days and that was expected to continue for many more days.
Israel is especially threatened by climate change because the Mediterranean area is warming up much faster than the world average, the hotter and drier Middle East that climate experts are projecting makes instability, terrorism, conflict, and war more likely, and a rising Mediterranean Sea could inundate the coastal plain that contains much of Israel’s population and infrastructure.
While it is generally overlooked even by most climate experts, the main cause of climate change is animal-based agriculture, for two important reasons. First, cows and other ruminants emit methane, a greenhouse gas over 80 times as potent per unit weight as CO2 during the 10 – 15 years it is in the atmosphere. More importantly, over 40% of the world’s ice-free land is now used for grazing and growing feed crops for animals. This has resulted in the destruction of about half of the world’s estimated six trillion trees that existed millennia ago. Largely because there are far fewer carbon-sequestering trees, atmospheric CO2, which was 285 parts per million (ppm) at the start of the industrial revolution, has now reached 420 ppm, far above the 350 ppm climate experts consider a threshold value for climate stability.
This is why it is essential that rabbis, Jewish educators, and other Jewish leaders help educate our communities regarding the urgency of sharply reducing meat consumption, in addition to making other lifestyle changes that reduce energy use, if the world is to have a chance to avert a climate catastrophe. This should be an important focus in any case because, as indicated above, animal-based diets and agriculture seriously violate at least six fundamental Jewish teachings.
In view of all of the above, rabbis and other Jewish leaders can do a great mitzvah, possibly the greatest kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s Name) ever by personally shifting to an animal-free diet and urging other Jews to do so as well. Such shifts would be consistent with our mandates to be a “light unto the nations,” a holy people, God’s witnesses, eternal protesters, and partners with God in working for tikkun olam, healing and improving the world.
To paraphrase Mordechai’s appeal to Queen Esther when the Jews of Persia were in great danger, perhaps our rabbis and other leaders were put in their present positions for just such a purpose. It is urgent that they act to help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path and lead a habitable, healthy world for future generations. There is no Planet B or effective Plan B.