Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians

Home Links INFORMATION Contact SERV What's New

 

VEGETARIANISM: A SPIRITUAL IMPERATIVE?

Richard Schwartz

Vegetarianism is a spiritual imperative for Jews today because of the many ways in which the realities of animal-based diets and agriculture sharply deviate from Jewish values, teachings, and mandates:

1. We worship a God Who is called "Harachamon" (the compassionate One), a Creator whose compassion is over all of His creatures (as recited 3 times daily at synagogue services). Jews, are to be "rachmanim b'nei rachmanim" (compassionate children of compassionate ancestors). One of the distinguishing characteristics by which a Jew can be identified is compassion.

Can this be consistent with having a diet that involves meat from animals who have been raised under very cruel conditions on "factory farms?"

2. Proverbs 12:10 states, "The righteous person regards the life of his or her animal."  In Judaism, one who is unnecessarily cruel to animals cannot be regarded as a righteous individual. Many great Jewish heroes were chosen because they showed kindness to animals. Moses and King David were considered worthy to be leaders (Exodus Rabbah 2:2). Rebecca was judged suitable to be Isaac's wife because of other kindness in providing water to the camels of Eliezer, Abraham's servant. There are many Torah laws involving compassion to animals. An ox is not to be muzzled when threshing in a field of corn (Deuteronomy 25:4). A farmer should not plow with an ox and an ass together (so that the weaker animal would not suffer pain in trying to keep up with the stronger one) (Deuteronomy 22:10). Animals, as well as people, are to be allowed to rest on the Sabbath day (Exodus 20:10). The importance of this verse is indicated by its inclusion in the Ten Commandments and its recitation as part of kiddush (sanctification ceremony using wine or grape juice) on Sabbath mornings.

In view of these powerful teachings: Can we justify the force-feeding of ducks and geese to create pate de foie gras? Can we justify taking day-old calves from their mothers so that they can be raised for veal in very cramped conditions? Can we justify the killing of over 200 million male chicks immediately after birth at egg-laying hatcheries because they cannot produce eggs and have not been genetically programmed to be able to have much flesh? Can we justify artificially impregnating cows every year on "rape racks" so that they will be able to produce more milk? Many more examples could be given.

3. Judaism mandates that people be very careful about preserving their health and their lives. An important Jewish principle is pikuach nefesh, the duty to preserve a human life. The Talmudic sages applied the principle "You shall therefore keep my statutes and ordinances, which if a person do he shall live by them" (Leviticus18:5) to all the laws of the Torah. Hence Jews are to be more particular about matters concerning danger to health and life than about ritual matters (Chulin 9a; Choshen Mishpat 427; Yoreh De'ah 116). If it could help save a life, one must (not may) violate the Sabbath, eat forbidden foods, and even eat on Yom Kippur. (Pesachim 25a) The only laws that cannot be violated to preserve a life are those prohibiting murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality. (Yoma 85b; Sanhedrin 74a)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes powerfully in his classic book, Horeb, about the supreme importance of the mitzvah of guarding our health: 

You may not . . . in any way weaken your health or shorten your life. Only if the body is healthy is it an efficient instrument for the spirit's activity....Therefore you should avoid everything which might possibly injure your health. . . . And the law asks you to be even more circumspect in avoiding danger to life and limb than in the avoidance of other transgressions. (Horeb, p.300)

In sharp contrast to these basic Jewish teachings, animal- centered diets have been linked to heart disease, stroke, several forms of cancer, and other illnesses.

4. Judaism stresses that we are to share our bread with hungry people. The Talmud states, "Providing charity for poor and hungry people weighs as heavily as all the other commandments of the Torah combined." (Baba Batra 9a)

On Yom Kippur, our holiest day, the prophetic portion read from Isaiah reminds us that one of the purposes of fasting is to sensitize us to the plight of the needy, so that we will "share our bread with the hungry." It is a basic Jewish belief that God provides enough for all. In our daily prayers, it is said, "He openeth up his hand and provideth sustenance to all living things" (Ps. 145:16). Jews are obligated to give thanks to God for providing enough food for us and for all of humanity. In the bircat hamazon (grace after meals), we thank God "who feeds the whole world with goodness, grace, loving kindness, and tender mercy."

Again in sharp contrast to these teachings, over 70% of the grain grown in the United States (and over a third produced worldwide) is fed to animals destined for slaughter, as 15 to 20 million people worldwide die annually because of hunger and its effects.

5. Judaism teaches that "the earth is the Lord's" and that we are to be partners with God in preserving the world.  The Talmudic sages assert that people's role is to enhance the world as "co-partners of God in the work of creation." (Shabbat 10a) There is a Midrash (a story that teaches a Torah lesson based on biblical events and values) that beautifully expresses the idea that God needs people to help tend the world (ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28).

It includes with the admonition that we should not corrupt or destroy the world, because if we do, there will be nobody after us to restore it. Once again, the realities of animal-based agriculture stand in sharp contrast to these fundamental Jewish values: it contributes substantially to soil erosion and depletion, extensive air and water pollution related to chemical fertilizer and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, and global warming.

6. Judaism mandates that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value.  This prohibition, called bal tashchit ("thou shalt not destroy") is based on Deuteronomy 20:19, 20, which prohibits the destruction of fruit trees in times of war. This prohibition was extended by the Jewish sages. It it forbidden to cut down even a barren tree or to waste anything if no useful purpose is accomplished (Sefer Ha-Chinuch 530). The sages of the Talmud made a general prohibition against waste: "Whoever breaks vessels or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs up a fountain, or destroys food violates the prohibition of bal tashchit" (Kidushin 32a). In summary, bal tashchit prohibits the destruction, complete or incomplete, direct or indirect, of all objects of potential benefit to people.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch stated that bal tashchit is the first and most general call of God: We are to "regard things as God's property and use them with a sense of responsibility for wise human purposes. Destroy nothing! Waste nothing!" (Horeb; Vol. 2, p. 282) He indicated that destruction includes using more things (or things of greater value) than is necessary to obtain one's aim. (Horeb; Vol. 2, p. 280)

Once again, realities of modern livestock agricultural sharply deviate from these powerful teachings, since it requires far more land, water, energy, and other resources than plant-based agriculture.

7. The Jewish tradition mandates a special obligation to work for peace. Judaism does not command that people merely love peace or merely seek peace but that they actively pursue peace. The rabbis of the Talmud state that there are many commandments that require a certain time and place for their performance, but with regard to peace, "seek peace and pursue it" (Psalms. 34:15); you are to seek it in your own place and pursue it everywhere else.

The famous Talmudic sage, Hillel, states that we should "be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace." (Pirke Avot 1: 12) On the special duty of Jews to work for peace, the sages comment: "Said the Holy one blessed be He: The whole Torah is peace and to whom do I give it? To the nation which loves peace!" (Yalkut Shimoni, Yithro 273) The rabbis of the Talmud used lavish words of praise to indicate the significance of peace:

Great is peace, for God's name is peace.... Great is peace, for it encompasses all blessings.... Great is peace, for even in times of war, peace must be sought.... Great is peace seeing that when the Messiah is to come, He will commence with peace, as it is said, "How beautiful upon the mountains are the footsteps of the messenger of good tidings, who announces peace" [Isaiah. 52:7] (Leviticus Rabbah 9:9)

By now, it should be no surprise that these important teachings are most consistent with plant-based diets. Animal-centered diets, by wasting valuable resources, help to perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that frequently lead to instability and war.

8. Jews can only kill animals to meet an essential human need.  For example, hunting for sport is not considered legitimate, and is not only discouraged in the Talmud, but is also prohibited in Jewish law. Since it is not necessary to consume animal products in order to maintain good health (the contrary is the case), can the eating of meat be consistent with Jewish spirituality?

9. Another concern for committed Jews is tikkun olam, the general mandate to preserve and protect the world, and, when necessary, to restore it to a less polluted state.  It is becoming increasingly apparent that vegetarianism is not only an important individual choice today, but it is a societal imperative because of the severe economic and environmental costs of animal-based diets. In 1993, almost 1,700 of the world's scientists from 70 countries, including 104 Nobel laureates, signed a "World Scientists Warning to Humanity", which stated that "a great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated."

While permission to eat meat was given in the Torah, it is generally considered to be a concession to people's weakness, with many restrictions (the laws of kashrut). Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, and the first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, believed that these many dietary constraints imply a reprimand, and are designed to keep alive a sense of reverence for life so that people would eventually return to God's original vegetarian diet (Genesis 1:29). Rabbi Kook believed that the future Messianic period will be vegetarian. He based this on the words of Isaiah (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."

In summary, in view of Judaism's strong teachings with regard to preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving resources, and helping the hungry, and the very negative effects that the production and consumption of meat has in each of these areas, Jewish spirituality can best be enhanced through a diet with a minimum of and preferably no animal products.

 

 

The Order of the Cross ] Ellen G. White ] Nourishing Ourselves ] Life as a Vegetarian Tibetan Buddhist Practitioner ] Is Nothing Sacred? ] Does God Support Factory Farms ] Eighteen Reasons Jews Think They Should Not Be Vegetarians ] [ A Spiritual Imperative? ] The Universal Prayer Circle for Animals ] Press Release ] Church Silence Promotes Violence ] Spirituality and Your Diet ] How to Encourage Christians to Become Vegan ]