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

Eating On Passover As If Global Survival Matters

Many Jews commendably go to extraordinary lengths before Passover to make sure that as much as possible every drop of chametz (foods such as breads, cakes, and cereals, that are made from one of the five grains (wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and oats) that ferment from contact with liquid) is removed from their homes and vehicles and then are very careful not to eat such foods during the Passover holiday.

They do this to celebrate the holiday that commemorates the Israelites escaping from slavery from ancient Egypt, and to be consistent with Torah teachings related to the holiday. Yet, most eat foods during the holiday that are produced by the enslavement and mass mistreatment of farmed animals and violate many basic Jewish teachings.

I hesitated to write this article which is crucial of Jews, many of whom are far more learned and pious than me, but I feel compelled to do so because, as explained later, there is no way that a global climate catastrophe can be averted unless there is a major societal shift toward plant-based diets.

Here are just two examples of the many cases of severe abuse of animals on modern, industrialized factory farms:   

1. At modern milk farms, farmers artificially inseminate each cow annually on what the industry itself calls “rape racks,” so that the mother cow will constantly produce milk for human consumption. She lives with an unnaturally enlarged and sensitive udder and is milked up to three times a day. The calves are taken away almost immediately after birth, often to be raised to produce veal, a very painful process for the mother and baby. As soon as their milk production wanes to an unprofitable level, after only about five years, the cows are culled and sent to slaughter to produce hamburgers, although the domestic cow’s natural life span is about 25 years.

2. Most “layer” hens (hens bred to lay eggs) live their lives confined inside rows of stacked, very small wire cages. Overcrowding is so severe that a hen cannot fully stretch even one wing. As a result of these very unnatural conditions, the birds are driven to pecking at each other, which harms and sometimes kills their fellow cellmates, thus reducing the producers’ profits. To avoid this, the chickens are “debeaked,” a very painful, often debilitating procedure that involves cutting off much of the hen’s beak with a hot knife while her head is held by hand or in a vise. There is neither anesthesia nor painkillers.         

Because male chicks have no value to the egg industry and, unlike “broilers,” have not been bred to grow fat, fast, they are killed within hours of birth, by being stuffed into plastic bags where they die of suffocation, or by being placed into macerators to be ground up alive for pet food.

The following is a discussion of the many ways that animal-based diets seriously violate basic Jewish teachings:

1. Judaism mandates that Jews should be very careful about preserving their health and their 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.

2. Judaism forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, the inflicting of unnecessary pain on animals. Yet most farm animals — including those raised 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.

3. 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. 

Indeed, as mentioned above, an essential part of efforts to avert a climate catastrophe is a major shift toward vegan diets, because it would not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions due to there being far less cows emitting methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, but would also enable reforestation of the over a third of the ice-free land currently used for grazing and growing feed crops for animals. This would sequester much atmospheric CO2, bringing it from its current very dangerous level to a safe one.

4. 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. For example, 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 a person on a plant-based diet.

5. Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people. Yet about 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to farmed animals, while an estimated nine million people worldwide die due to hunger and its effects each year.      

What makes this even more scandalous is that healthy foods like corn soy, and oats, high in fiber and complex carbohydrates and devoid of cholesterol and saturated fat, are fed to animals, resulting in meat and other animal products with the opposite characteristics.

6. While Judaism teaches that we should “seek peace and pursue it,” and that violence results from unjust conditions, animal-based diets, by wasting valuable resources, help to perpetuate the hunger and poverty that make violence and war more likely.

One could say dayenu (it would be enough) after any of the points above, because each one constitutes by itself a serious conflict between Jewish values and current practice. Thankfully, more and more Jews are shifting to a plant-based diet, recognizing that the Jewish case for vegetarianism and veganism is quite compelling.

After all, if God is concerned about our getting rid of every speck of chometz that we can, He surely must want our diets to avoid harming our health, inflicting suffering and violence on animals, damaging the environment, and depleting our natural resources. 

Since Passover is the holiday of freedom, it presents a wonderful opportunity to apply Judaism’s eternal teachings to free ourselves from eating habits that are harmful to us, farmed animals, and our imperiled planet.

And it is easier than ever to do this because of the abundance of plant-based substitutes, with the appearance, texture, and taste so close to that of the animal products that even long time meat-eaters can’t tell the difference.

In view of the increasingly dire warnings of climate experts and the recent increases in the frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, and floods, it may not be an exaggeration to say that our choice today is between a mostly vegan world and a mostly, if not completely, destroyed world. 

So, it is urgent that Jews, based on the highest of Jewish values, shift toward vegan diets and encourage others to also do so.

There is no Planet B and there is no effective Plan B.

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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