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

Should Jews Be Vegetarians, or Even Vegans?

The consumption of meat and other animal products  and the ways in which they are produced today conflict seriously with Judaism in at least six important areas:

While Judaism mandates that people should be very careful about preserving their health and their lives, numerous scientific studies have linked animal-based diets directly to heart disease, strokes, many forms of cancer, and other life-threatening diseases.

2. While Judaism forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals, 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, before they are slaughtered and eaten. As one example, dairy cows are artificially impregnated annually on what the industry calls ‘rape racks,’ and then the calves are taken away shortly after birth, causing great emotional stress.

3. While 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, modern intensive livestock agriculture contributes substantially to climate change, soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, extensive use  of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, and other environmental damage. A 2006 UN Food and Agriculture report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” indicated that the livestock sector emits more greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalents) than all the cars, planes, ships, and all other means of transportation worldwide combined.

4 While 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, animal agriculture requires the wasteful use of grain, land, water, energy, and other resources. For example it can take u to 13 times as much water per person, largely to irrigate land growing feed crops for animals, for a person on an animal-based diet than for a person on a vegan (completely animal-free) diet.

5. While Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people, over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, while about ten percent of the world’s people are chronically hungry and an estimated 20 million people worldwide die because of hunger and its effects each year.

6. While Judaism stresses that we must seek and pursue peace and that violence results from unjust conditions, animal-centered diets, by wasting valuable resources, help to perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that often lead to instability and war.

In view of these important Jewish mandates to preserve human health, attend to the welfare of animals, protect the environment, conserve resources, help feed hungry people, and pursue peace, and since animal-centered diets violate and contradict each of these responsibilities, committed Jews (and others) should sharply reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products.    

One could say “dayenu” (it would be enough) after any of the arguments above, because each one constitutes by itself a serious conflict between Jewish values and current practice that should impel Jews to seriously consider a plant-based diet. Combined, they make an urgently compelling case for the Jewish community to address these issues.

A shift to vegetarianism, and even more so veganism, is especially important today since animal-based diets are contributing to an epidemic of diseases and animal-based agriculture is a major  contributor to climate change and other environmental threats to humanity.

The above case is strengthened by the fact that God’s first dietary regimen was strictly vegan: “And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit — to you it shall be for food.’” (Genesis 1:29) This is consistent with modern scientific findings that humans are closer to  non-carnivorous animals than to carnivorous ones in terms of our hands, teeth, intestional system, stomach acids, and other features. In addition, according to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, and other Jewish scholars, the Messianic period will again be vegan, based on Isaiah’s prophecy (11:6 – 9): “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, . . . , the lion shall eat straw like the ox, . . ., and no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of [God’s] holy mountain.”  

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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