Richard H. Schwartz
Vegan, climate change,and social justice activist

A Jewish Vegan Activist and a Rabbi Discuss Veganism

It is vital to conduct respectful dialogues within the Jewish community on whether Jews should be vegtarians, or even vegans. I have imagined a dialogue as a means of encouraging readers to conduct such debates with local rabbis, educators, and other Jewish leaders.

Scene: A Jewish vegan activist meets his or her rabbi in the latter’s office.

Jewish Vegan Activist (JVA): Shalom, Rabbi.

Rabbi: Shalom. Good to see you.

JVA: Rabbi, I have been meaning to speak to you for some time about

an issue, but I have hesitated because I know how busy you are.

But I think this issue is very important.

Rabbi: Well, that sounds interesting. I am never too busy to consider

important issues. What do you have in mind?

JVA: I have been reading a lot recently about the impacts of animal-based

diets on our health and the environment and about Jewish

teachings related to our diets. I wonder if I can discuss the issues

with you, and perhaps it can be put on the synagogue’s agenda

for further consideration.

Rabbi: I would be happy to discuss this with you. But I hope that you

are aware that Judaism does permit the eating of meat. Some

scholars feel that it is obligatory to eat meat on Shabbat and

holidays.

JVA: Yes, I recognize that Judaism permits people to eat meat. Jewish

vegetarians and vegans understand that people have a dietary

choice, but we feel that this choice should consider basic Jewish

teachings and how animal-based diets and modern intensive

livestock agriculture impinge on these teachings. For example,

we should recognize the tension between the permission to

consume animals and the extremely cruel treatment they now

receive on factory farms. With regard to eating meat on Shabbat

and holidays, according to the Talmud (Pesachim 109a), since the

destruction of the Temple, Jews are not required to eat meat in

order to rejoice on sacred occasions. This view is reinforced in

the works Reshit Chochmah and Kerem Shlomo and Rabbi Chizkiah

Medini’s Sdei Chemed, which cites many classical sources on the

subject. Several Israeli chief rabbis, including Shlomo Goren,

late Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, and Shear Yashuv Cohen,

late Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Haifa, were vegetarians or

vegans. Also, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, late Chief Rabbi of

the United Kingdom, was a vegetarian, and Rabbi David Rosen,

former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, is a vegan.

Rabbi: We also should recognize that there is much in the Torah and the

Talmud about which animals are kosher and about the proper

way to slaughter animals. So eating meat is certainly not foreign

to Judaism.

JVA: Yes, but there is also much in the Torah and our other sacred

writings that point to veganism as the ideal Jewish diet. For

example, God’s initial intention was that people be vegans: “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).

     The foremost Jewish Torah commentator, Rashi, says

the following about God’s first dietary plan: “God did not

permit Adam and his wife to kill a creature to eat its flesh.

Only every green herb were they to all eat together.” Most

Torah commentators, including Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra,

Maimonides, Nachmanides, and Rabbi Joseph Albo, agree that

human beings were initially vegans.

     In addition, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, first

chief rabbi of pre-state Israel and a major Jewish twentieth-century

writer and philosopher, believed that the Messianic

period would also be vegan. He based this on Isaiah’s powerful

prophecy that “a wolf shall dwell with a lamb, . . . and a lion, like

cattle, shall eat straw. . . . They shall neither harm nor destroy

on all My holy mount” (Isaiah 11:6–9). Hence the two ideal

times in Jewish thought—the Garden of Eden and the Messianic

period—are vegan.

Rabbi: I have to tell you one thing that concerns me. Jews historically

have had many problems with some animal rights groups, which

have often opposed shechita (ritual slaughter) and advocated its

abolishment. Some have even made outrageous comparisons

between the Holocaust and the slaughter of animals for food.

JVA: Jews should consider switching to veganism not because of

the views of animal rights groups, whether they are hostile to

Judaism or not, but because it is the diet most consistent with

Jewish teachings. It is the Torah, not animal rights groups, that is

the basis for observing how far current animal treatment is from

fundamental Jewish values. As Samson Raphael Hirsch put it:

“Here you are faced with God’s teaching, which obliges you not

only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal,

but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you

see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours.”

Rabbi: Another concern is with two teachings in Genesis: The Torah

teaches that humans are granted dominion over animals

(Genesis 1:26) and that only people are created in the Divine

Image (Genesis 1:27, 5:1). I fear that vegetarians are promoting

a philosophy inconsistent with these Torah teachings, hence

potentially reducing the sacredness of human life and the dignity

of human beings.

JVA: I think that if we consider how Judaism interprets these important

verses, we can go a long way to reduce this potential problem. As

you know, Jewish tradition interprets “dominion” as responsible

guardianship or stewardship: we are called upon to be co-workers

with God in improving the world. Dominion does not mean that

people have the right to wantonly exploit animals, and it certainly

does not permit us to breed animals and treat them as machines

designed solely to meet human needs.

     This view is reinforced by the fact that immediately after God

gave humankind dominion over animals, God prescribed vegan

foods as the diet for humans (Genesis 1:29). Although the Torah

proclaims that only human beings are created “in the Divine

Image,” animals are also God’s creatures, possessing sensitivity

and the capacity for feeling pain. God is concerned that they are

protected and treated with compassion and justice. In fact, the

Jewish sages state that to be “created in the Divine Image” means

that people have the capacity to emulate the Divine compassion

for all creatures. “As God is compassionate,” they teach, “so you

should be compassionate.”

Rabbi: Yes, these are good points, but some vegans elevate animals to

a level equal to or greater than that of people. This is certainly

inconsistent with Judaism.

JVA: Vegans’ concern for animals and their refusal to treat them

cruelly does not mean that vegans regard animals as being equal

to people. There are many reasons for being vegan other than

consideration for animals, including concerns about human

health, environmental threats, and the plight of hungry people.

Because humans are capable of imagination, rationality,

empathy, compassion, and moral choice, we should strive to end

the unbelievably cruel conditions under which farm animals are

currently raised. This is an issue of sensitivity, not an assertion of

equality with the animal kingdom.

Rabbi: Another issue to be considered is that, with all the problems

facing humanity today, can we devote much time to consider

animals and which diets we should have?

JVA: Vegan diets are not beneficial only to animals. They improve

human health, help conserve food and other resources, and put

less strain on endangered ecosystems. In view of the many threats

worsened by today’s intensive livestock agriculture (such

as climate change, deforestation, and rapid species extinction),

working to promote veganism may be the most important action

that one can take for environmental sustainability. In addition,

a switch toward veganism would reduce the epidemic of heart

disease, various types of cancer, and other chronic degenerative

diseases that have been strongly linked to the consumption of

animal products.

Rabbi: Perhaps I am playing the devil’s advocate here, but by putting

vegan values ahead of Jewish teachings, aren’t vegans, in effect,

creating a new religion with values contrary to Jewish teachings?

JVA: Jewish vegans are not placing so-called vegan values above

Torah principles, but are respectfully challenging the Jewish

community to apply Judaism’s splendid teachings in all aspects

of our daily lives. Jewish teachings about treating animals with

compassion, guarding our health, sharing with hungry people,

protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, and

seeking peace are all best applied through vegan diets.

Rabbi: What about the Torah teachings about animal sacrifices and that

Jews had to eat korban Pesach (the Passover sacrifice) and parts of

other animal sacrifices?

JVA: The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides believed that God

permitted sacrifices as a concession to the common mode of

worship in biblical times. It was felt that had Moses not instituted

the sacrifices, his mission would have failed and Judaism might

have disappeared. The Jewish philosopher Abarbanel reinforced

Maimonides’ position by citing a midrash (rabbinic teaching) that indicates that

God tolerated the sacrifices because the Israelites had become

accustomed to sacrifices in Egypt, but that He commanded they

be offered only in one central sanctuary in order to wean the

Jews from idolatrous practices. Rav Kook and others believed

that in the Messianic period, human conduct will have improved

to such a degree that animal sacrifices will not be necessary to

atone for sins. There will be only non-animal sacrifices to express

thanks to God.

Rabbi: You have correctly pointed out that Jews must treat animals

with compassion. However, the restrictions of shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter) minimize

the pain to animals in the slaughtering process, and thus fulfill Jewish laws on the proper treatment of animals.

JVA: Yes, but can we ignore the cruel treatment of animals on

factory farms in the many months, and sometimes years, prior

to slaughter? Can we ignore the removal of calves from their

mothers shortly after birth, often to raise them for veal; the killing

of over 250 million male chicks annually immediately after birth

at egg-laying hatcheries in the United States; the placing of hens

in cages so small that they can’t raise even one wing; and the

many other horrors of modern factory farming?

Rabbi: As a rabbi, I feel that I must point out that if Jews do not eat

meat, they will be deprived of the opportunity to fulfill many

mitzvot.

JVA: By not eating meat, Jews are actually fulfilling many mitzvot:

showing compassion to animals, preserving health, protecting

the environment, conserving natural resources, and helping to

feed the hungry. And by abstaining from meat, Jews reduce the

chance of accidentally violating several prohibitions of the Torah,

such as mixing meat and milk, eating non-kosher meat, and

eating forbidden fats or blood. There are other cases where

Torah laws regulate things that God would prefer people not do.

For example, God wishes people to live in peace, but he provides

commandments relating to war, knowing that human beings

will quarrel and seek victories over others. Similarly, the Torah’s

permission to take a female captive in wartime is a concession to

human weakness. Indeed, the Jewish sages go to great lengths to deter

people from taking advantage of such dispensations.

Rabbi: Judaism teaches that it is wrong not to take advantage of the

pleasurable things that God has provided. Since people find it

pleasurable to eat meat, is it not wrong to refrain from eating

meat?

JVA: Can eating meat be pleasurable to a sensitive person when he

or she knows that, as a result, their health is endangered, grain

is wasted, the environment is damaged, and animals are being

cruelly treated? One can indulge in pleasure without doing harm

to living creatures. There are several other cases in Judaism

where actions that people may consider pleasurable are forbidden

or discouraged—such as the use of tobacco, drinking liquor to

excess, having sexual relations out of wedlock, and hunting.

Rabbi: As you know, the laws of kashrut are very important in Judaism.

But a movement by Jews toward veganism would lead to less

emphasis on kashrut, and eventually possibly a disregard of these

laws.

JVA: I believe that there would be just the opposite effect. In many

ways, becoming a vegan makes it easier and less expensive

to observe the laws of kashrut. This might attract many new

adherents to keeping kosher, and eventually to other important

Jewish practices. As a vegan, one need not be concerned with

mixing milchigs [dairy products] with fleishigs [meat products];

waiting three or six hours after eating meat before being allowed

to eat dairy products; storing four complete sets of dishes, extra

silverware, pots, pans, etc.; and many other considerations

incumbent upon the non-vegan who wishes to observe kashrut.

Rabbi: I must express a concern for the livelihoods of some of my

congregants and other Jews. If everyone became vegans, butchers,

shochtim [slaughterers], and others dependent for a living on the

consumption of meat would lack work.

JVA: There could be a shift from the production of animal products

to that of nutritious vegan dishes. In England during World War

II, when there was a shortage of meat, butchers relied mainly

on the sale of other foods. Today, businesses that previously sold

meat and other animal products could sell tofu, miso, falafel,

soy burgers, and vegan cholent [Sabbath hot dish]. Besides, the

shift toward veganism would be gradual, providing time for a

transition to other jobs.

     The same kind of question can be asked about other moral

issues. What would happen to arms merchants if we had universal

peace? What would happen to some doctors and nurses if people

took better care of themselves, stopped smoking, improved their

diets, and so on? Immoral or inefficient practices should not be

supported because some people earn a living in the process.

Rabbi: If veganism solves some problems, doesn’t it create others? For

example, if everyone became vegan, wouldn’t animals overrun

Earth?

JVA: Respectfully, this concern is based on an insufficient understanding

of animal behavior. For example, there are millions of turkeys

around at Thanksgiving not because they want to help celebrate

the holiday, but because farmers breed them for dinner tables.

Dairy cows are artificially inseminated annually so that they will

constantly produce milk. Before the establishment of modern

intensive livestock agriculture, food supply and demand kept

animal populations relatively steady. An end to the manipulation

of animals’ reproductive lives to suit our needs would lead to a

decrease, rather than an increase, in the number of animals. We

are not overrun by animals that we do not eat, such as lions,

elephants, and crocodiles.

Rabbi: Instead of advocating veganism, shouldn’t we alleviate the evils

of factory farming so that animals are treated better, less grain is

wasted, and fewer health-harming chemicals are used?

JVA: The breeding of animals is big business. Animals are raised

the way they are today because it is very profitable. Improving

conditions for animals would certainly be a positive step, but it

has been strongly resisted by the meat industry since it would

push up already high prices. Why not abstain from eating meat

as a protest against present policies while trying to improve them?

Even under the best of conditions, why take the life of a creature

of God, “Whose mercies are upon all His works” (Psalm 145:9),

when it is not necessary for proper nutrition?

Rabbi: If vegan diets were best for human health, wouldn’t doctors

recommend them?

JVA: Although still relatively a small number, more and more doctors

do recommend vegan, or at least vegetarian, diets. Unfortunately,

although doctors are devoted to the well-being of their patients,

many lack information about the basic relationship between food

and health, because nutrition is not sufficiently taught at most

medical schools. Also, many patients are resistant to making

dietary changes. The accepted approach today seems to be to

prescribe medications first and perhaps recommend a diet change

as an afterthought. However, there now seems to be burgeoning

awareness on the part of doctors about the importance of proper

nutrition; but the financial power of the beef, dairy, and egg

lobbies and other groups that gain from the status quo prevents

rapid changes. Experts on nutrition, including the American and

Canadian dietetic associations, stress the many health benefits of

plant-centered diets.

Rabbi: Some of my congregants would respond: I enjoy eating meat. Why

should I give it up?

JVA: If one is solely motivated by what will bring pleasure, perhaps

no answer to this question would be acceptable. But as you well

know, Judaism wishes us to be motivated by far more: doing

mitzvot, performing good deeds and acts of charity, sanctifying

ourselves in the realm of the permissible, helping to feed the

hungry, pursuing justice and peace, etc. Even if one is primarily

motivated by considerations of pleasure and convenience, the

negative health effects of animal-centered diets should be

considered. One cannot enjoy life when one is not in good

health.

Rabbi: Well, I am sure there are other questions that should be addressed. But I think you have made a very strong case for having a broad discussion of the Jewish and universal issues related to our diets. Please help form a committee with members of different viewpoints and set up a forum at which all of the issues related to our diets can be discussed.

About the Author
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal our Imperiled Planet, and Mathematics and Global Survival, and over 200 articles and 25 podcasts at JewishVeg.com/schwartz. He is President Emeritus of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) and President of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV). He is associate producer of the 2007 documentary “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.” He is also a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Staten Island, which is part of the City University of New York.
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