When I heard I wasn’t surprised.

I was elated and excited and also proud.

But surprised?

No.

The fact that, per capita, Israel has more vegans than any other country in the world (4 percent of the population) makes sense to me.  To me, it’s a natural reaction and response of Jewish people living in a Jewish state to a meat and dairy industry that has gone astray, that has lost its way.  That not only disregards the well-being of millions upon millions of animals a year, but also disregards thousands of years of Jewish teachings that inform and instruct us how to treat animals.

I can’t help but wonder:

Is this a growing Israeli trend? Might we be seeing the opening steps of the next phase of the Zionist project? Would Ben Gurion be a vegan today? (I ask that half-jokingly. Which means half-serious as well.)

And while, again, I’m not surprised, I still ask myself the question: why is the Jewish state the world leader not only in hi-tech and start-up, but also in veganism?!?  What is it about Jews and/or the Jewish tradition that gives Israel this unique status?

Some readers may know, but some may not, that the Judaism is replete with teachings, from Jewish law to Kabbalah, that strive to guide us towards a compassionate relationship with the animal world.  The Jewish system of laws and values that cares about how we humans act towards each other is the same system that cares how we treat other creatures that populate planet Earth alongside us.

We see this right away, at the very beginning of the beginning, when we learn that Adam and Eve, while still in the Garden of Eden, were given specific instructions by God about what they are allowed to eat.

And I quote:

“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.”

Notice the choice of words in this verse:

Seed-bearing. Herb. Tree. Fruit.

Sounds a little crunchy-granola, right?

No burgers or shwarma here.  No schnitzels or kabobs.  A vegetarian’s paradise. In fact, noticing the absence of any dairy options on God’s menu, it seems like the Garden of Eden was the world’s first ever vegan cafe. (I bet the organic chai with rice milk was amazing.)

According to the Jewish tradition, humans were not permitted to consume animals until after the flood in Noah’s generation. The reasons for the new diet are explained in various ways by different rabbis throughout the generations, but the fact remains clear:

For the first 1,500 years or so after the creation of Adam and Eve, human beings on planet Earth were vegan.

Let’s say that again, shall we?

According to Judaism, for the first 1,500 years or so after the creation of Adam and Eve, human beings on planet Earth were vegan.

There’s something to that.

The Torah doesn’t present itself as a hippy-dippy manifesto encouraging people to hug trees and walk barefoot on the Earth (although if you haven’t tried these two things, I highly encourage you to). So the fact that God initially chooses a plant-based diet for the human race is quite significant. The fact that this is not one of those obscure facts recorded in the back of some rare Torah text that only scholars know about, but rather takes center stage amongst the opening verses of the Bible itself is, again, quite significant. Seems like God is trying to tell us something.

Yes, God eventually does deliver Human Diet 2.0 after the Flood in Noah’s generation, one that comes with a full-on meat menu (according to one opinion, because humans could no longer resist the temptation to eat flesh). But it comes with restrictions. Right away humans are instructed not to eat the blood of an animal, because in the blood is found its soul.  And eventually, after the formation of the Jewish nation upon leaving Egypt and standing at Sinai, the Jews are given even more restrictions, primarily regarding which animals they can feast on. (Interesting to note that we’re never told to stay away from certain vegetables. Imagine a world where cucumbers or carrots were not kosher!) And when we look at the list of animals that are permitted to Jews, we notice something very interesting:

They themselves are all herbivores.

The animal kingdom’s version of vegetarianism.

The mystery deepens.

Again, it seems that God is trying to tell us something. But what?

Here’s how I see it.

I sincerely believe that God/Judaism/the Torah favors a diet that is free from animal products. That’s why it is a vegan diet that is given at the beginning of the human story in the Garden of Eden, the model of perfection in this world, the reality that all of human history has been striving to return to. And while, yes, eventually permission is given to eat meat, it is only after one complies with many detailed and complicated laws.As if God is saying, “Okay, I will allow you to eat animals, but I’m not going to make it so easy. Why don’t you have a tofu stir-fry instead? Or how about a veggie burger on a toasted bun?”

As if God is reminding us that once upon a time humans followed a more ideal diet. And that this diet still remains a strong option.

But there does seem to be a problem with what I’m saying.  Throughout Jewish history we have never seen a great Jewish emphasis on being vegetarian and we’ve never seen a mass movement of Jews living by the Adam and Eve diet. In fact, throughout the thousands of years of our history, Jews have thoroughly enjoyed eating meat. Maimonides wrote that there is no joy without meat and wine. Shabbat tables, holiday feasts and cycle-of-life celebrations from Paris to Persia have always been adorned and made special with an array of meat dishes.

At the same time, however, before a steaming pot of beef chulent or a Moroccan chicken dish or a Persian meat stew arrived at the festive family table, a long list of laws, of both Torah and rabbinic origin, needed to be followed in order to not only insure that the animal was slaughtered in a kosher manner, but also that the process of raising the animal, up until the moment of death, was done in a way that was mindful and respectful to the inherent value of the life of the animal.

I think it’s worthwhile mentioning some of these laws:

  • Feeding your animals before you feed yourself.
  • Not causing unnecessary harm or pain to animals.
  • Not slaughtering a mother animal and her offspring on the same day.
  • Not allowing one animal to witness the slaughter of another animal.
  • Slaughter performed by an ordained shochet (ritual slaughterer) who is trained to kill the animal in the quickest possible way in order to minimize the pain of death.

The way I see it, these beautiful ancient Jewish laws serve to infuse some of the idealism of the Adam and Eve diet into the Human Diet 2.0. To train us to be aware and sensitive to the taking of another life to sustain one’s own. To instill in the consumers of animals a sense of humility and appreciation that another creature is dying in order that they may live and therefore the act of eating meat should be approached with mindfulness and sensitivity.

Right now, you might be saying, “Akiva, if you’re trying to convince anyone to become vegan, you’re not doing a very good job. Maybe I’ll eat meat more consciously, but give up meat altogether? Not a chance!”

But, wait, I’m not done. 🙂

Yes, I am proud that the Jewish tradition contains these above-mentioned laws and values. I am glad that my people’s spiritual heritage is sensitive to the lives of animals and goes to great lengths to make sure that we treat them well. But it seems to me that this system only really works in a certain kind of world. A world of the kind that existed before the world that we are familiar with today. A world that was based more on a local economy, before there was industrial-sized everything. A world before farms became factories; a time when the distance from farm to table could often be measured in steps.

My grandparents and your grandparents, and their grandparents and their grandparents, all the way back to the early generations of Jews, ate meat that came from animals that were raised not far from their front door. Not because they were big environmentalists, but because that was their reality. They lived in a world where it was commonplace for people to bring their own animals to the shochet and stand and watch as the animal they personally cared for is slaughtered before their eyes. The meat “industry” wasn’t much of an industry. It was small, local and in our faces.

But then things changed. Radically. And quickly. So quickly that most people didn’t even notice. The meat and dairy world was transformed from a mostly local, small-scale enterprise to a national and global, industrialized system fixated on making the largest profit possible. And this meant factory farms replaced farms. And overcrowded feedlots replaced free-range grazing. Chickens were stuffed into small cages and animals were fed enormous amounts of antibiotics to keep them from getting sick from their unnatural living conditions. The use of mass production methods in the slaughterhouses meant that the number of animals slaughtered every hour, each minute skyrocketed.

And…

And…

The list goes on and on and on.

And the question that needs to be asked is: Where is there room for the ancient and thoughtful, sensitive and compassionate Jewish laws of treating animals in this relatively new, industrialized form of meat and dairy production?

And the answer, sadly enough, is that there is not.

There is no room available in this over-mechanized, profit-driven structure to think about the lives of the animals. It takes too much time (and taking time means losing money) to think about how they feel and what they feel living in prison-like conditions their whole lives. How they feel being stuffed onto trucks (usually in the middle of the night so people don’t actually see) and brought to industrial-sized slaughter houses, where they are placed on a conveyor-belt like apparatus that brings them one by one towards the shochet, all the while hearing, smelling and seeing the slaughter of those animals in front of them until their turn comes to meet the knife that will take their lives in a split second, without much thought or emotion, without much meaning or care.  Because there’s simply no time for that.

So where does this leave us? Where do we go from here?

Seems to me, back to the beginning. Back to the beginning of the story. Back to Adam and Eve and the diet they were given. A vegan diet.

And it seems like more and more Israelis are picking up on this, tapping into this ancient consciousness and making lifestyle changes that, in their eyes, are more in line with how God meant it to be. How God meant us to eat.

Who knows, maybe Ben Gurion would be a vegan today.

L’chaim.