How can you be a vegan and an Orthodox Jew, I was asked?
I understood the conflict. Like all observant Jews I had been raised to fulfill the culinary commandment, on Shabbat and holidays, to eat “בשר ודגים וכל מטעמים”, meat and fish and all tasty foods. Yet now I was doing the exact opposite; giving up meat, fish, poultry and dairy products.
After immersing myself in a 10-day vegan-holistic program, listening to experts in the fields of cardiology and internal medicine as they extolled the benefits of a plant-based diet, it became problematic for me to continue eating brisket, chicken soup, and cholent. According to these medical experts, the science is unequivocal; eating a plant-based diet can prevent and even reverse many life-threatening diseases without medication. On my father’s side I have strokes and heart disease to look forward to, and there’s Alzheimer’s on my mother’s side — so I was listening closely.
According to Dr. T. Colin Campbell, a biochemist and author of The China Study, “people who eat a predominantly whole-food, plant-based diet—avoiding animal products as a main source of nutrition, including beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, and milk, and reducing their intake of processed foods and refined carbohydrates—will escape, reduce, or reverse the development of numerous diseases.” I was surprised to learn that heart disease, strokes, Parkinson’s, diabetes, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s and even late stage cancers have all been treated with a plant-based diet, with very positive results. Dr. Campbell claimed that “Everything in food works together to create health or disease. The more we think that a single chemical characterizes a whole food, the more we stray into idiocy.”
I began to ask myself, how can I continue to feed my family the traditional foods of gefilte fish, chicken soup, cholent, and chopped liver? And I wondered, how was I so misinformed? Why did I not know, all these years, that animal products including milk and eggs are not healthy for human consumption.
Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn explained that “Collectively the media; the meat, oil, and dairy industries; most prominent chefs and cookbook authors; and our own government are not presenting accurate advice about the healthiest way to eat.” So I, like many others, was a good consumer of false advertising and believed that we need to drink milk for calcium and to eat meat for protein. I know now that we don’t. I learned that:
- Heart disease can be reversed through nutrition.
- A plant-based diet can ward off diabetes, obesity, autoimmune diseases, bone, kidney, eye, and brain diseases.
- There are virtually no nutrients in animal-based foods that are not better provided by plants.
- Protein, fiber, vitamins, mineral are all found in plants.
- Animal protein promotes the growth of cancer.
- People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease.
- People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest.
As an educator, I feel a responsibility to share this information. In countries where the American diet does not exist; the cancer rate is significantly lower. If we start feeding our children a healthier diet, we will begin to see a reduction in these frightening diseases. I propose that schools begin teaching about the benefits of plant-based nutrition along with the 3 R’s (reading, writing, arithmetic). And let’s offer plant-based school lunches instead of the more popular though less healthy American diet.
I realize this will not be a popular position. After all, who doesn’t love a good steak dinner or a hot dog at a family BBQ. My personal favorite, which I will miss, is schnitzel. But I realize now that these “comfort foods”, like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, are leading us straight to a heart attack, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and more.
As Modern Orthodox Jews, we’re no strangers to dietary restrictions as we keep the laws of Kashrut as commanded in the Torah. But no one would argue that keeping kosher is in anyway synonymous with eating a healthy diet. From large Shabbat meals, laden with chicken, brisket and kugels; to Saturday morning Cholent and herring Kiddush in shul; teenagers lured to meetings with BBQ chicken wings and sliders; hotdogs at sporting events, and of course the kosher deli famous for its triple-decker pastrami and corned beef sandwiches! When examined in this light, to be an observant Jew can be seen as being on the fast-track to the cardiologist, and the best recipe for obesity.
While we pride ourselves on excelling in many fields, including science, education, and the arts, when it comes to the nutritional and health deterioration of our nation, sadly we’re on par with the rest of the pack. We suffer from the same western diseases: heart attacks, obesity, diabetes, autoimmune ailments and cancer, even as we may avoid the pitfalls of the many fast food chains such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and so on. As matter of fact, our failure is even more profound, since a lot of us cannot hide behind the excuse of living below the poverty line, where the most easily attainable food for those with little means is a Happy Meal.
For many of us, the American diet is too entrenched in our lives for us to disengage — even if our lives depend on it.
Various Torah scholars suggest that we were originally meant to be vegetarians. In Bereishit (Genesis 1:29-30) it says: “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.” This is also the Talmud’s view: 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…and the animals of the earth are not for you.”
Adam and Eve followed this commandment. They did not eat animal flesh, as all humans and animals originally were commanded by God to eat only plants. It wasn’t until after the flood, upon realizing that it was too hard for us to follow, that G-d allow us to eat animal flesh. 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).”
Yet we have evolved and learned much over the past five millennia. Maybe it’s time for us to stop hurting ourselves and our environment, and to once again observe this mitzvah (commandment), as G-d had originally intended.
Tani Foger, Ed.D, LPC
School Psychologist & Educational Consultant
Founder of “Let’s Talk” Guidance Workshops
Email her at DrFoger@gmail.com