by Dan Brook, PhD & Richard H. Schwartz, PhD
Hope springs eternal. Indeed, it’s always been an integral part of Jewish history, spirituality, and politics. Without hope, there wouldn’t be a Chanukah; without hope, there might not even be a Jewish community. That’s the power of radical hope!
Jewish survival is a miracle of hope. Increasing light at the darkest time of the year to celebrate Chanukah and Jewish survival is also a miracle. This year, each year, we work and hope for further miracles.
We sincerely hope that Jews will enhance their celebrations of this ancient, beautiful, and spiritually-meaningful holiday of Chanukah, the first night of which falls on December 22nd this year, by making it a time to strive even harder to live up to Judaism’s highest moral values and teachings. For most of us, we certainly don’t need more “things” in our homes; instead, we need more meaning, purpose, and spirit in our lives. There are a variety of ways to accomplish this. One significant way we can do this, on a daily basis, is by moving towards vegetarianism and veganism.
Chanukah commemorates the single small container of pure olive oil — expected to be enough for only one day—which, according to the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), miraculously lasted for eight days in the rededicated Temple on the 25th of Kislev 165 BCE, exactly two years after it was defiled by the Syrian-Greeks, who were ruled by the tyrannical Antiochus IV. In kabalistic (Jewish mystical) thought, according to Avi Lazerson, “oil is symbolic of chochmah (wisdom), the highest aspect of the intellect from which inspirational thought is derived”.
A switch to plant-based eating would be using our wisdom and compassion to help inspire another great miracle: the end of the tragedy of world hunger, therefore ensuring the survival of tens of millions of people annually. Currently, from one-third to one-half of the world’s grain, and about three-quarters of major food crops in the U.S. (e.g., corn, wheat, soybeans, oats), is fed to animals destined for slaughter, while about one billion poor people chronically suffer from malnutrition and its debilitating effects, tens of thousands of them consequently dying each day, one every few seconds.
Maimonides, the great rabbi, physician, and scholar, who wrote that the pain of people is the same as the pain of other animals (Guide for the Perplexed), ruled that one must literally sell the clothes one is wearing, if necessary, to fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the menorah and celebrating the miracle (Hil. Chanukah 4:12). Uniting physical needs and spiritual needs is vitally important for the body, the mind, and the spirit. In the joyous process of celebrating our festival of freedom and light, other beings shouldn’t have to be enslaved and killed by our tyranny over them. No one should ever have to die on our account.
Chanukah represents the victory of the idealistic and courageous few, over the seemingly invincible power and dominant values of the surrounding society. We learn through both our religious studies and history that might does not make right, even if it sometimes rules the moment. Therefore, quality is more important than quantity; spirituality is more vital than materialism; though each is necessary. “Not by might and not by power, but by spirit”, says Zechariah 4:6, part of the prophetic reading for Shabbat Chanukah. Today, vegetarians and vegans are relatively few in number, though growing, and billions of captive factory farm animals are powerless to defend themselves, but the highest ideals and spirit of Judaism are on their side.
Still believing in brute force, materialism, and greed, the world presently wastes a staggering and nearly unimaginable over $2 trillion on total military might (with about half of that amount by the U.S. alone), while half the world’s population barely survives on $2 a day or less and, as noted, some don’t even survive. Security does not come from superior physical forces or from authoritarian political conditions, as the Chanukah story and contemporary events remind us. Collective security lies in a just and sustainable society, just as personal security lies in a healthy and sustainable lifestyle. These are deeply and intimately related.
The Jewish anti-imperialist insurgency, led by the Macabees, was sparked when a pig was killed and Rabbi Eleazar and other Jews were ordered to eat it. Those who refused, including nonagenarian Rabbi Eleazar, were summarily killed. According to the Book of Macabees, some Macabees lived on plant foods — to “avoid being polluted” — when they hid in caves and in the mountains to escape capture. Further, the major foods associated with Chanukah, latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts), are veg foods — as is chocolate gelt! — and the vegetable oils that are used in their preparation are a reminder of the pure vegetable oil (olive) used in the lighting of the Temple’s Menorah.
The miracle of the oil brings the use of fuel and other resources into focus. One day’s oil was able to last for eight days in the Temple. Conservation and energy-efficiency are sacred acts and plant-based eating allows resources to go much further, since far less oil, water, land, topsoil, chemicals, labor, and other agricultural resources are required for plant-based diets than for animal-centered diets, while far less waste, pollution, and greenhouse gases are produced. For example, it can require up to 78 calories of non-renewable fossil fuel for each calorie of protein obtained from factory-farmed beef, whether kosher or otherwise, but only 2 calories of fossil fuel to produce a calorie of protein from soybeans.
Reducing our use of oil by shifting away from the mass production and consumption of meat — thereby making supplies last longer, freeing us from our dangerous dependence on oil as well as oily authoritarian governments, and diminishing the availability of petro-dollar funds for terrorists — would surely be a fitting way to celebrate the miracles of Chanukah. By conserving oil, commemorating how one’s day’s worth of oil lasted for eight, and by reducing our dependence on it, we can create what Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center calls a “green menorah” and a green Chanukah, thereby further fighting climate change. In this way, we create ethical lifestyles and holy communities.
In addition to resource conservation and economic efficiency, a switch toward eating plants would greatly benefit the health of individuals, the condition of our environment, and would sharply reduce the suffering and death of billions of animals. Further, the social, psychological, and spiritual benefits should not be underestimated. Many people who switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet report feeling physically, emotionally, and spiritually better.
Chanukah also represents the triumph of idealistic non-conformity. Like the Hebrew prophets, the Macabees fought for their inner beliefs, rather than conforming to external pressure. They were willing to proudly exclaim: this we believe, this we stand for, this we are willing to struggle for. Like the great Prophets and the celebrated Macabees, those who eat a plant-based diet represent this type of progressive non-conformity by an inspired minority. At a time when most people, especially in wealthier countries, think of animal products as the main part of their meals, vegetarians and vegans are resisting and insisting that there is a better, healthier, more compassionate, more environmentally sustainable, and ethical choice.
Candles are lit for each of the eight nights of Chanukah, symbolizing a turning from darkness to light, from despair to hope, from oppression to miracles. According to the prophet Isaiah, the role of Jews is to be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). And, as our sages have said, it only takes a little light to dispel much darkness. Eating lower on te food chain can be a humble yet powerful way of adding light and hope to the darkness of a world still suffering with factory farms and slaughterhouses — and their attendant negative consequences — as well as with other systems and symbols of violence and oppression.
The word Chanukah means dedication, while the Hebrew root of the word means education. Each year, we should re-educate ourselves about the horrible realities of factory farming and slaughterhouses, as well as re-dedicate our inner temples. We can do this by practicing the powerful Jewish teachings and highest values of Judaism, as another way to “proclaim the miracle” of Chanukah and Jewish renewal. These sacred values and holy deeds (mitzvot) include compassion for others, including animals (tsa’ar ba’alei chayim), preserving one’s health (pekuach nefesh), conservation of resources (bal tashchit), proper spiritual intention (kavanah), righteousness and charity (tzedakah), peace and justice (shalom v’tzedek), being partners in creation (shomrei adamah), healing our world (tikun olam), and increasing in matters of holiness (ma’alin bakodesh v’ayn moridim, just as Hillel ruled we should light the menorah for the eight days in ascending order).
Chanukah commemorates the deliverance of the Jews from the Syrian-Greeks. In our time, a veg lifestyle can be a step toward deliverance of society from various modern plagues and tragedies, including climate change, world hunger, deforestation, air and water pollution, species extinction, resource depletion, heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, obesity, rising health care costs, and lost productivity, among others.
One way to achieve the wonderful aspirations of Judaism is by switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet. A shift toward veg eating can also be a major factor in the rededication and renewal of Judaism, as it would further demonstrate that Jewish values are not only relevant but essential to everyday personal life and global survival.
The letters on a diaspora dreidel are an acronym for nes gadol hayah sham, a great miracle happened there. May the celebration of this joyous holiday inspire another miracle within each of us.
May we all have a happy, healthy, and miraculous Chanukah!
Dan Brook, PhD is the author of several books and dozens of articles, including the non-profit Jewish veg cookbook Justice in the Kitchen. Dan is a Board member of San Francisco Veg Society and an Advisory Board member of Jewish Veg.
Richard H. Schwartz, PhD is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Who Stole My Religion? Applying Jewish Values To Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet, and over 250 articles online. He is President Emeritus of Jewish Veg.