INTERVIEW OF RICHARD H. SCHWARTZ, PH.D., AUTHOR AND ACTIVIST ON HIS APPROACH TO APPLYING JEWISH VALUES IN EFFORTS TO HELP SHIFT OUR IMPERILED PLANET ONTO A SUSTAINABLE PATH. INTERVIEW BY BATZION SHLOMI
Batzion Shlomi: I understand you are making aliya soon! Mazal Tov! How did you come to this decision?
Richard Schwartz: My wife and I have been considering making aliyah for many years, largely because we have two daughters living in Israel with their wonderful husbands and our marvelous grandchildren, and they have been strongly urging us to join them for a long time. We want to join them in the wonderful adventure that Israel represents. Also, as a vegetarian, environmental, and social justice activist, I plan to be actively involved in Israel since it is an ideal place to be an activist as a small country with many synagogues, yeshivas, and other Jewish cultural and spiritual centers.
BS: Can you please tell us about yourself and your background?
RS: I am a professor emeritus of mathematics at the College of Staten Island. While teaching there I created a unique course, “Mathematics and the Environment,” as a means to motivate liberal arts students and wrote several additions of a textbook, “Mathematics and Global Survival,” for the course. This made me aware of the many major threats the world faces and motivated me to write three editions of “Judaism and Vegetarianism,” two editions of “Judaism and Global Survival,” and two editions of, “Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values To Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet,” as well as over 200 articles that can be found at www.JewishVeg.com/schwartz. I am currently president emeritus of JewishVeg, formerly Jewish Vegetarians of North America, after serving as president for many years, president of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians, and a patron and president for the Americas for the International Jewish Vegetarian Society.
BS: I understand you have been giving talks in Israel for many years while visiting family in Israel. What are the issues you have been discussing?
RS: My main topics are why Jews should be vegetarians, and preferably vegans, based on basic Jewish values, and why the world is heading toward a climate catastrophe and other environmental disasters, and why a shift toward vegan diets is essential to avert these disasters and help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.
BS: Why do you think the world is heading toward a climate catastrophe?
RS: This is the strong conclusion of leaders of the 195 nations that met in Paris in December 2015 at the climate change conference, 97% of climate scientists, 99.9% of peer-reviewed articles in respected science journals, and major science academies worldwide.
And facts on the ground bear this out:
- 2015 is the warmest year since temperature records were kept in 1880, overtaking 2014; 2016 is on track to break the record. The 12 consecutive months from May 2015 to April 2014 all broke temperature records. The 17 warmest years since 1880 are all since 1998, with all but one year this century included. Israel, for example, has experienced many recent severe heat waves.
- The warmer weather has caused the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers worldwide.
- There has been an increase in the number and severity of droughts, wildfires, storms, and floods.
- There have been so many major climate events in California that their Governor Jerry Brown stated, “Humanity is on a collision course with nature.”
BS: Why do you think that Jews should be vegetarians, and preferably vegans?
RS: Veganism is the ideal Jewish diet as it is the diet associated with the two ideal times in the Jewish tradition: the Garden of Eden, based on Genesis 1:29, and the future Messianic period, when “The wolf will dwell with the lamb, …, the lion will eat straw like the ox, …, and no one shall hate nor destroy on all of [God’s] holy mountain.” (Isaiah 11:6-9)
Also, veganism is the diet most consistent with fundamental Jewish teachings on preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, helping hungry people, and pursuing peace.
This is discussed in much more detail in my book, Judaism and Vegetarianism” and the over 200 articles at www.JewishVeg.com/schwartz.
BS: Why do you feel that a major shift to vegan diets is essential to help avert climate and other environmental catastrophes?
RS: There are now about 7.4 billion people in the world and 70 billion farmed animals are slaughtered annually. There are very negative environmental effects from these farmed animals.
Animal-based agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, largely because of methane emitted from cows and other farmed animals; methane is from 72 to 105 times as potent as CO2 in heating the atmosphere (per unit weight).
A UN Food and Agriculture Organization 2006 study, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” indicated that animal-based agriculture emits more greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalents) than is emitted by all the cars, planes, ships, and other means of transportation worldwide combined.
A 2009 World Watch cover story, “Livestock and Climate Change,” by two environmentalists associated with the World Bank, argued that the livestock sector was responsible for at least 51% of all human induced greenhouse gases.
BS: Recent reports indicate that Israel has more vegans per capita than any other country? Why do you think this is?
RS: There are many reasons, but one important one is that Judaism has many powerful teachings on compassion to animals. These teachings include:
- Jews are to be rachmanim b’nei rachmanim (compassionate children of compassionate ancestors), emulating God, “Whose compassion is over all God’s works.” (Psalms 145:9)
- The righteous person regards the lives of his or her animal.” (Proverbs 12:10)
- Moses and King David were deemed suitable to be leaders because of their compassionate treatment of sheep. (Exodus Rabbah 2:2)
- Animals as well as people are to be allowed to rest on Shabbat
BS: Why do you think that Jewish teachings can make a major difference in responding to current societal threats such as climate change and other environmental threats?
RS: Judaism has very powerful teachings about peace, justice, compassion, and environmental sustainability which can make a major difference in responding to current threats. These teachings include:
- Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)
- Seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalms 34:14)
- Be kind to the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)
- The human being was put into the Garden of Eden of work the land and to guard it. (Genesis 2:15) Hence Jews and others should be shomrei ha’adamah, ‘Guardians of the Earth.”
BS: Your most recent book is “Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet.” Why did you write this book and what do you hope to accomplish with it
RS: I wrote the book as a wake-up call, the strongest that I could make, that the world is heading toward a climate catastrophe and other environmental disasters, that a major shift toward vegan diets is essential to efforts to avert the catastrophe, and that Judaism, like other religions, has powerful teachings that can and should and must be applied to help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path. I hope that it will be a game changer in our ability to effectively respond to current crises.
BS: Any final thoughts?
RS: I would like to appeal to everyone reading this to recognize what is at stake here: the future of humanity and, indeed, all life on the planet. Please get involved. Write letters. Speak to family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc. Speak to your rabbis and other Jewish leaders and urge them to get involved. Please contact me at email@example.com if you have suggestions and/or would like to help in applying basic Jewish values to help create a better world. Thank you.