Back in the 1980s’, being vegan was not as common as it is today. I owned a health food store and juice bar in NYC at the time, and though we never incorporated those values into our lives during those early years, we have taken our culinary lessons with us to be applied when ready. We became vegetarian three years ago and we boarded, just last month, a holistic cruise that exposed us to the growing interest in plant-based nutrition. Each day we listened to lectures and participated in workshops, becoming educated about health and nutrition by the top experts in their field. Physicians, nutritionists, researchers and other scientists, some of whom have been pioneers in changing the health landscape in this country, were teaching us about the food choices we each make in our daily lives.
As modern orthodox Jews, we’re no strangers to dietary restrictions, where keeping kosher helps us to maintain our tradition, and continue in the long-standing heritage of our people. But, no one would argue that being kosher is in anyway synonymous with eating a healthy diet. From massive meals, rich with chicken and brisket, to family BBQ; teenagers meeting over greasy chicken wings and large pizza birthday parties; hot-dogs at sports events and essential triple-decker deli pastrami and roast beef sandwiches — for many of us, being a kosher Jew could be seen as the best recipe to obesity and being on a fast-track to the cardiologist.
Half of the U.S. population will perish from cardiovascular disease ten years earlier than expected, on the average. A third of the population is afflicted with diabetes, and a growing number of people suffer from other severe ailments, including cancer and autoimmune conditions. Cases of these ailments have increased recently, mainly due to our lifestyles, thus it can be said that the front line for our society’s priorities is in improving our health. As Jews, we pride ourselves on excelling in many fields, rightfully flaunting our achievements in education and our relatively lower incidence of crime and drug use. However, when it comes to nutrition and the deteriorating health of our people, we’re on par with the rest of the pack. We suffer from the same western diseases — even as we avoid the pitfalls of the fast food chains such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s and the rest. As matter of fact, our failure is even more profound, since most of us cannot hide behind the excuse of living below the poverty line, where the most easily attainable food for the have-not is a Happy Meal.
In the past half century, we learned to see fat and sugar as the enemy to our health, with processed food quickly becoming chief in the toxic mix, but the story is so much larger. In the recent two decades we’ve acquired overwhelming scientific evidence against all forms of animal product consumption. It is dangerous to our health and deadly for the planet at large. But while it is becoming apparent that consuming animal products is not good for a human’s health or for our planet’s sustainability, the Torah’s instructions on this subject are complex. The standard view, accepted by virtually all commentators, is that Genesis 1 envisions a vegetarian idea. This is also the Talmud’s position: “The first human was not permitted to eat meat, as it is written, ‘[The vegetation] shall be yours for food, and for all the animals of the earth…’ (Genesis 1:29-30)—and the animals of the earth are not for you. But when the sons of Noah came, it was permitted for them, as it is said, ‘As with the green grasses, I give to you everything’ (Genesis 9:3).” There are many interpretations and I do not intend to distinguish among them, but I do suggest that millennia later, having followed advancement in the evolution of nutrition and science, we have a unique perspective on the subject. Judaism teaches us that our body is our temple, and we’re not allowed to purposely cause it harm, which we do every day by consuming animal flesh and lactate other species milk.
The question is, why? Why don’t we listen to the facts? Why don’t we follow the science? We mortgage our lives for our children’s education, yet we neglect our role in providing our family and our community at large with the best diet for healthy living. Come to think of it, when was the last time we heard a rabbi give a sermon in which he or she dared critique our lifestyle? Addressing our addiction to disease — and obesity-inducing foods?
We love our cholent and, ensembled with cold cuts and hot-dogs which we share every Shabbat, our communal Kiddush have become an essential extension to our prayer service.
Clearly, I am aware that this is all very controversial. As we kept learning about our nutrition, in this university-at-sea cruise, every cell in my body fought against these new truths. I didn’t want to hear about clearing my pantry and my refrigerator from the unhealthy ingredients with which I’ve fed my family for decades. Moderation – I cried, arguing that I am already pretty small on meat footprint. However, the many thousands of peer-reviewed research papers, and entire faculties in top universities, devoted to reinforcing and double-checking the science, sadly reminded me that there is no sensible moderation in mistreating my body.
Former Austin Texas firefighter Rip Esselstyn was resolute. With his Engine 2 Diet paradigm, he reminded us that on top of many other toxins, ALL animal products have the same 70+ grams of cholesterol per three-ounce serving as red meat, (including fish and skinless white meat chicken!). Rip won his fame when he changed the diet of his fellow firefighters and saved them from the path of their dire fate, whereby history demonstrates that over 60 percent of them die from heart attacks – not from their dangerous occupation. He put his teammates on a plant-based diet, and overall, they lost weight and improved their cardiovascular conditions in a short time. Their story became national news, and Rip went on to write a national best seller, The Engine 2, Seven-Day Rescue Diet. Together with James Cameron, he helped produce the documentary, The Game Changers, which demonstrates how the best athletes in the world today are on a whole-plant diet, and they are successful because of its superior nutrition. The message is clear: the standard mantra “real men must eat meat” is passé. Those family meal planners who think that eating meat is essential for proving protein to their families are wrong. The time has come to do something to help improve our nation’s health.
The truth is that, for the most part, it is hard to change our eating habits, especially when most medical professionals promote the consumption of meat, poultry, dairy and fish, while believing that these are essential for strong sources of protein. This has been disproven by scientific studies – ten times over. Robust people are often labeled as being “strong as an ox,” but when did you last see an ox eat meat? Simply put, we’re in a similar predicament in our society as we were in the 1950s’, when it was impossible to stop smoking since most physicians smoked as well. (Remember the ad slogan: “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.”)
I have great respect for physicians but What can we do when the gatekeepers responsible for our health are closing their eyes? Ultimately, it is WE who must be in charge of navigating our health. The American Cancer Society, the Diabetes and Heart Associations are all funded by the livestock, dairy and poultry producers, and naturally their recommendations follow their financial interests. The government, too, has its priorities tied to its representatives’ donors and endorsers. Lastly, scientific evidence is clouded by doubt because an industry that is bent on instilling confusion, similar to the way the tobacco industry tried to deflect the charge that their products cause cancer. Interestingly, the same company, Exponent, which represented tobacco back in the 1980s’ and ‘90s, is using the same formula to fight today’s scientific conclusions. They’re sponsoring fake research and paying ‘experts’ to undermine the science-based evidence of thousands of conclusive studies, published by different institutions around the world.
It is doubly hard to decipher the facts when we are told by the commercially sponsored media that butter is healthy, meat is safe, and cholesterol is not a problem. Thus, we resign ourselves to maintain the status quo. Personally, until recently I’d said, “I’m waiting for science to tell me that everything is good for me.” But the reality is that it’s time to get our heads out of the sand and realize that NO animal product is good for us.
I believe that every community leader, whether a rabbi, rosh yeshiva, head of a summer camp or other heads of Jewish organizations, should join in the campaign for finding the truth and encourage their members and congregants to improve their health and lifestyles, thus leading by example. We need to remember our motto: He who saves a life, it is as if they saved the entire world.
You shouldn’t take my word for it — all of us need to do our own fact-finding with the same effort we expend when looking for the best schools for our children, or the best place to invest in our retirement. Spend time researching and reading the literature. Ask your friends who are already on this journey, or watch the documentaries that promote a plant-based diet. You will discover that it is the best you can do for your health and for your loved ones. I only wish that I could go back and do it while my children were still young and influence their nutritional choices into the future.
The truth is that plant-based diet can reverse many conditions. Dr. Michael Greger, author of How Not To Die, tells the story of his grandmother who was unable to move and waiting to die, at the age of 61, until she chanced upon and implemented this diet, recovered completely and lived till the age of 96. He was inspired and became a physician and researcher because of her experience.
Lastly, a word about the sources of our food. It has been established that industrial farming is one of the worst things that we can do to both our health and to the environment. We poison the land and water resources with antibiotic-infused waste, as well as the atmosphere into which are release gargantuan amounts of methane and other ozone layer-depleting agents. The documentary, What the Health, provides more information about this. But awareness is starting to evolve regarding animal cruelty which, until now, has been kept in secrecy. Up to this point, I believed that I was a vegetarian for my own health, and that animals were relegated to their lower station. But a young man from Australia, James Aspey, taught me to see beyond the standard clichés. If eating animal product is essential, we can overlook the cruelty, but if it is actually harming us, what justification do we have for our barbaric way of killing over one billion animals per week (we kill 76 billion land animals plus two trillion sea creatures per year). It is heartbreaking to watch how a calf is removed from her mother so that we can drink the milk produced for it, while her mother cries with a thousand other cows. Knowing that the moment her milk production drops, she’d become my brisket, while her daughter will take her place, doesn’t enhance my appetite. I chose not to see it in the past, but knowledge is irreversible, and now I have this picture, as a reminder, to never again consume animal flesh. A steak may be tasty, and cheese is addictive, but we must choose our diet on principles that distinguish between enslavement or freedom, torture or peace, death or life.
It is Maimonides who wrote: “Torah requires us to control our eating to preserve our health.” And, in his writing about food and health, he’s given us lots of great advice which, only now, with the advent of science, are we able to fully understand.
I will end with Peter Tork’s words, “Where there is clarity there is no choice…” Science is unequivocal about the benefits of a plant-based diet and the connection between disease and consumption of ANY part of animal protein. Our kosher kitchens are ready and, surprisingly, such a diet is consistent with our kosher restrictions, and it simplifies our kitchens use and our need for duplicate sinks, dishwashers, dishes and utensils. We’re all set and only need leadership to guide us.
When I take an overview of our traditions, I see how Judaism is ever-evolving, and it’s my conviction that incorporating a vegan diet into our already kosher lifestyle is the natural progression as foretold in our Torah. We certainly need to apply our halachic rules, but eating a plant-based diet is consistent with our kosher mindset. To those who suggest that the Torah is full of texts about animal use, I will remind you that it is also awash with references to slavery, lacking women’s rights to property and filled with commandments of killing and vengeance. I believe in the Torah, but it is clear to me that it is addressing people in the context of their times. Today we celebrate being an evolved people and the only question is: how many more people will die in the process until we get our act together? After all, don’t we all have a responsibility to take an active role in this fight, just as I am trying to do here?
If you are a skeptic like me, you can follow in the path of Dan Harris, a correspondent at ABC News, who wrote the book 10% HAPPIER. In essence, even if only a portion of what you will find in your search to improving your lifestyle is correct, it is a worthwhile pursuit. I feel empowered, especially as a Jew, where I am commanded to advance as I acquire knowledge and learn how to improve my own life and share it with you, hopefully contributing to improve the world around us.
Movies: Forks over knives; What the health; Earthlings; The Game Changers.
Books: China Study; How not to die; The Engine 2 Diet.
Dr. Michael Greger’s: Nutrition Facts.org
Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s: Center for Nutrition Studies
Dr. Neal Barnard’s: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
Dr. Michael Klaper’s: Nutrition-based Medicine
Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s: Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease Program
Rip Esselstyn’s: Engine 2 Plant-Strong
James Aspey’s: Vow of Silence for the voiceless.