It’s Passover time. Many Jews go to extraordinary lengths before and during the holiday to avoid certain foods, in keeping with Torah mitzvot.
But we suggest that our community could be even more consistent with Jewish values and teachings by giving up other foods that we eat on Passover (and at other times too), including meat, fish, dairy products and eggs.
Why? A host of reasons. Here are some.
Judaism mandates us to be careful about preserving our health and our lives. But numerous scientific studies have linked animal-based diets directly to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, many forms of cancer and other chronic, degenerative diseases.
Similarly, Judaism forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals. Yet most food animals — including those destined 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. That’s all before they are transported, often under abominable conditions, to slaughterhouses and violently and cruelly killed.
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. In contrast, modern intensive livestock agriculture contributes substantially to climate change, soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, species extinction, and other environmental damage.
Judaism mandates bal tashchit, that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value and that we are not to use more than is needed to accomplish a purpose. But animal agriculture requires the wasteful use of grain, land, water, energy and other resources. It takes up to 20 times as much land, 14 times as much water and 10 times as much energy to feed a person on an animal-based diet than to feed one on a plant-based diet.
In addition, Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people. Yet more than 70 percent of the grain grown in the United States is fed to farmed animals, while an estimated 20 million people worldwide die due to hunger and its effects each year.
We could say “dayenu” (it would be enough) after any of the points above, because each constitutes a serious conflict between Jewish values and current practice. Taken together, they make a compelling case for switching to a plant-based diet.
All of this seems particularly relevant on Passover, when many Jews spend weeks cleaning their houses, cars, and other possessions to make sure that not even a crumb of chometz (foods made from one of the five grains, wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and oats, that ferment from contact with liquid) is overlooked. In addition, many Ashkenazi Jews accept the additional stringency of abstaining from eating kitniyot, a category of grains and legumes, including rice, corn, lentils and beans.
Yet if God is concerned about us getting rid of every speck of chometz on Passover, God surely must want us to choose diets that avoid harming our health, inflicting suffering and violence on animals, damaging the environment and depleting our natural resources.
It is time to apply Judaism’s important teachings to our diets not just on Passover but at all times, demonstrating the relevance of Judaism’s eternal teachings to current issues and helping move our precious but imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.
Since Passover is the holiday of freedom, it presents a wonderful opportunity to free ourselves from harmful eating habits and to shift to ones that are beneficial for our health and for our souls.