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Dutch Vegan Society Interview with Richard Schwartz

A dialogue with Richard H. Schwartz, emeritus professor of mathematics
at the College of Staten Island, New York, author of numerous books and
articles on vegetarianism and Judaism.

By Henny van Immerzeel

Richard Schwartz's interest in an animal-friendly lifestyle was aroused when, in 1975, he began teaching a course "Mathematics and the Environment", using mathematical concepts to explore current critical issues. While reviewing material related to world hunger, he became more and more aware of the waste of grain associated with the production of meat and of the horrible conditions under which animals raised for this purpose are being kept. In 1978 he became a practicing vegetarian and started to investigate connections between vegetarianism and Judaism. He learned that the first Biblical dietary law (Gen. 1:29) is strictly vegetarian and became convinced that elementary Jewish mandates--share with hungry people, preserve your health, protect the environment, conserve resources, be kind to animals and seek and pursue peace--all point to an animal-friendly diet as a condition for their fulfillment.

Increasingly, he has become aware of the necessity to direct attention not only to the production of meat, but also to the production of eggs and dairy products, and come to see a (strict)-vegetarian lifestyle as not so much a matter of personal choice but as a social imperative that concerns everyone. In order to raise awareness of this issue, Richard the United States, gives frequent lectures and has recently started a "Campaign for a Vegetarian-Conscious Israel by 2000". Plenty of reasons, therefore, to invite Richard Schwartz for an interview.

Richard, as you know (a part of) our dialogue will be published in the
Dutch Vegan Society's Journal. In the discussion on Judaism and vegetarianism, it seems the focus is very much on the consumption of meat. In your books and articles, you point out that the mandates, given in the Torah, are not being served by lifestyles, based on the consumption of animal products. Does this mean that you agree with the idea that a vegan lifestyle would be the lifestyle most conducive to the realisation of these mandates?

Schwartz: I strongly agree with this. I believe that a switch to vegan diets has become a social imperative because of the great economic and ecological costs of animal-based diets and production processes, as well as a spiritual imperative because the realities of the production and consumption of animal products is at sharp variance from basic religious values. I try to express my concern about the production of eggs and dairy products as well as flesh in the diet. I have started to use expressions more consistent with veganism; in recent years I generally refer to "animal-based diets". I still use the term "vegetarianism" though, partly out of habit, and partly because for some, this might make it easier to take that first step.

You defend the position that strict-vegetarianism is presented as a positive ideal in the Torah. Yet there are extensive rules and regulations concerning the consumption of animal products to be found in the Torah. Do you have an explanation for this?

Schwartz: God's first dietary law was strictly vegan and the famous Jewish Torah commentator Rashi says that: "God did not permit Adam and his wife to kill a creature and to eat its flesh. Only every green herb shall they eat together". Many other Torah commentators agree with this. One of the most important supporters of a Jewish strictly vegetarian lifestyle was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook (1865-1935), a highly respected Jewish spiritual leader in the twentieth century. Rav Kook said that the permission to eat meat was only a temporary one. The Eternal, who is merciful, would never institute an everlasting law permitting the killing of animals for food. According to Rav Kook, because people had sunk to such an extreme level of spirituality that they were in danger of eating each other when deprived of meat. In order to allow them to improve the relationships between people and to develop spiritually, a temporary dispensation was given until such time had been reached that people returned to a strict- vegetarian diet. The many rules and regulations were needed, according to Rav Kook, to keep alive a sense of reverence for life and to prevent people from taking the killing of animals for granted.

Schwartz: What is more, the rules and regulations associated with meat-eating might lead people away from their lust for meat. Rav Kook was convinced that, in the days of the Messiah, people would return to a strict-vegetarian diet. This thought is also found in a Midrash (short teaching or commentary on a Torah text) stating: "In the Messianic era, all offerings will cease except the thanksgiving offering, which will continue forever".

Your publications are aimed at Jewish people who wish to live by the principles of their religion. Yet there are liberal and orthodox Jews, and there are specific traditions like the Hasidic tradition in Judaism. Would you say your message is meant for a broad public?

Schwartz: Yes, my message is such that it can and should be accepted by all Jews, no matter how great their religiosity. Some religious Jews ask if vegetarians, by putting vegetarian values ahead of Jewish teachings, aren't creating a new religion, with values contrary to Jewish teachings. My answer to that is that, on the contrary, Jewish values are served by a strict-vegetarian diet, especially in view of the many problems related to factory-farming. Rather than rejecting Torah values, Jewish vegetarians are challenging the Jewish community to apply precisely these values to their every day diets. We are respectfully challenging Jews to live up to Judaism's splendid teachings. It is not enough that a religion should have beautiful teachings; the essential is that these be put into practice.

You work hard for an official rabbinic statement in favour of (strict) vegetarianism. What would the impact of such a statement be?

Schwartz: This would be extremely important, and I often send material to rabbis in the hope that they will endorse vegetarianism. Rabbi David Rosen, a modern Israeli Orthodox rabbi and former Chief Rabbi of Ireland has already stated that "the current treatment of animals in the livestock trade definitely renders the consumption of meat as halachically (according to Jewish law) unacceptable as the product of illegitimate means.

Messianic Vision

Departing from the idea that in the Messianic era people will return to a strict-vegetarian diet, the author Joe Green has concluded that in adopting the diet that will be used during the time of the Messiah, Jewish ethical vegetarians are leading lives that make the coming of the Messiah more likely. Would you agree?

Schwartz: Yes, I do agree. The Jewish tradition teaches that one way to speed the coming of the Messiah is to start practicing the ways that will prevail in the Messianic time. For example, the Talmud teaches that if all Jews properly observed two consecutive Sabbaths, the Messiah would immediately come. This means symbolically that when all Jews reach the level when they can fully observe the Sabbath in terms of devotion to God and compassion for people and non-human animals, the conditions would be such that the Messianic period would have arrived. Hence, if all became strict-vegetarian in the proper spirit, with compassion for animals and human beings, and concern about preserving God's world, perhaps thas would mean that the Messianic period would be here.....

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