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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.