Vegetarianism and Religion: Judaism
By Krista Scott-Dixon

In North America at least, few other faiths are as well-known for their culinary gifts as Judaism. This is, perhaps, due to the centrality of food in Jewish life. Indeed, a Jewish comedian wisecracks that most Jewish holidays revolve around the following concepts: “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let's eat.”

“Food is very important in Jewish life,” agrees Richard Schwartz, PhD. As the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, the President of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) and Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV), he's spent a lot of time thinking about food. [note: environmental material elsewhere]

“There are blessings to be recited before eating certain foods and blessings after meals. There are special foods associated with all of the Jewish festivals. There are also a number of fast days.” There are many symbolic foods eaten throughout the yearly festivals and observant times, such as apples and honey during Rosh Hashanah or hamantaschen (triangular pastries) during Purim.

Whether it's lamb and gefilte fish at Passover, cholent (meat stew) for the Saturday shabbat meal, or even the quotidian classic chicken soup with matzo balls (see Spezzatino vol 4 for our recipe and interview with Barry Silver at Yitz's Deli), for many observant Jews, meat is a central part of both celebratory rituals and the daily menu.

Although there is some debate about finer points, Jewish dietary laws, or kashrut, are relatively explicit in their instructions. Kosher dietary restrictions generally focus on avoiding particular foods during particular times (such as leavened grains at Passover); certain animal components (such as blood and some organ meats); or some animals altogether (such as shellfish or pork). Mixing milk and meat is forbidden, and many aspects of food production are closely supervised.

While vegetarianism per se does not appear to be explicitly described in these laws, according to Schwartz, “Rabbi Abraham Kook, first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel felt that these many restrictions implied a reprimand and were designed to bring the Israelites back to their original vegetarian diet… God's first dietary law (Genesis 1:29) was strictly vegetarian and, according to Rav Kook and others, God's permission to people to eat meat was a reluctant concession, and the Messianic period will be vegetarian.” (See the section on Christianity for a fuller discussion of the Genesis 1:29 passage.)

For Schwartz, vegetarianism is part of a broader agenda that incorporates Jewish principles about ethical living. Modern meat production and consumption “contradicts many Jewish teachings and harms people, communities, and the planet.”

First, he notes, “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, stroke, many forms of cancer, and other chronic degenerative diseases.”

Jews are instructed to care for others besides themselves. “Over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter,” reports Schwartz, “while an estimated 20 million people worldwide die because of hunger and its effects each year. 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 eventually lead to instability and war.”

Care extends to all living beings. As Schwartz notes, “Judaism forbids tsa'ar ba'alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals.” The current state of meat production, he says, in which animals are typically confined, drugged and treated as commodities, certainly constitutes undue suffering.

Indeed, Judaism's broad principle of care and responsibility implies “that we are to be God's partners and co-workers in preserving the world” and “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 food, land, water, energy, and other resources.”

Thus, says Schwartz, “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, contrasted with the harm that animal-centered diets do in each of these areas, 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.”

Some might argue that given the importance of preserving Jewish traditions, switching to vegetarianism risks losing one's heritage. Schwartz himself recollects being a “meat and potatoes person” thirty years ago, and has fond memories of his mother's roasts and turkey at Thanksgiving. But in the late 1970s, he began investigating vegetarianism while teaching a course on mathematical analyses of global issues as a Professor of Mathematics at the College of Staten Island. “Increasingly, as I learned how the production and consumption of animal products threaten human health and the health of our imperiled planet, I have come to see vegetarianism as not only a personal choice, but as a societal imperative - an essential component in the solution of many societal problems.”

A move toward vegetarianism, he argues, “is actually a return to Jewish traditions, to taking Jewish values seriously. A movement toward vegetarianism can help revitalize Judaism. It can show that Jewish values can be applied to help solve current world problems... Hence, rather than a movement away from Jewish traditions, it would have the opposite effect.”

Schwartz sees no conflict between vegetarianism and Torah principles, only congruence. “Rather than rejecting Torah values, Jewish vegetarians are challenging the Jewish community to apply Torah values to their diets in a daily meaningful way.  They are respectfully challenging Jews to live up to Judaism's splendid teachings. They are arguing that vegetarianism is a fulfillment of Judaism, not a curtailment.

“What is really advocated is a return to Jewish values of showing compassion, sharing, helping the needy, preserving the environment, conserving resources, and seeking peace. Also, rabbinic enactments consistent with Jewish values and teachings to meet changing conditions have historically been part of Judaism.”

In fact, proposes Schwartz, “in many ways, becoming a vegetarian makes it easier and less expensive to observe the laws of kashrut. This might attract many new adherents to keeping kosher, and eventually to other important Jewish practices. As a vegetarian, one need not be concerned with mixing milchigs (dairy products) with fleichigs (meat products), waiting three or six hours after eating meat before being allowed to eat dairy products, storing four complete sets of dishes (two for regular use and two for Passover use), extra silverware, pots, pans, etc., and many other considerations incumbent upon the non-vegetarian who wishes to observe kashrut.”

But most importantly, he argues, “Global survival today requires the application of Torah values to our diets, as well as other aspects of our lives… Everything connects to everything else. We can't focus on just one or a few issues. Someone who takes religious values and ethical values seriously has to be concerned about health issues, hunger issues, environmental issues, energy issues, etc. and try to come up with approaches and actions that will be beneficial in all areas or at least as many as possible. Vegetarianism has benefits in all the areas mentioned and more and is also consistent with the highest of religious values.”

Thus, Schwartz suggests, Jewish vegetarianism blends a deep understanding of Jewish heritage and teaching with an informed approach to problems that we all now face.

“My hope,” he says, “is to be able to keep learning, writing, and speaking about vegetarianism, to help bring closer that day when, in the words of the motto of the International Jewish Vegetarian Society, “no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of God's holy mountain.” (Isaiah 11:9)

Further reading

[will add links/publication info to these]

Judaism and Vegetarianism

Judaism and Global Survival

Mathematics and Global Survival

Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA)

Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV)

A Sacred Duty

Veg Climate Alliance

Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD
Editor-in-Chief, Spezzatino
Research Director, Healthy Food Bank