Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Peace

Why consider peace in a discussion about vegetarianism?

Reasons for becoming vegetarian generally include improving health, showing compassion to animals, and decreasing pollution. An important reason that is often overlooked is that vegetarian diets can reduce the potential for violence and war.

What is the connection between diets and the potential for violence and war?

World peace, or any other kind of peace, depends greatly on the attitude of the mind. Vegetarianism can bring about the right mental attitude for peace. In this world of lusts and hatred, greed and anger, force and violence, vegetarianism holds forth a way of life which, if practiced universally, can lead to a better, juster, and more peaceful community of nations.
U Nu, former prime minister of Burma [1]

Many people relate the cruelty involved in slaughtering animals for food to cruelty to people and eventually to war. G. S. Arundale, late president of the Theosophic Society, discussed the relationship between the treatment of animals and war:

Whenever I see a meat and fish-ridden dining table, I know that I am looking upon one of the seeds of war and hatred--a seed that develops into an ugly weed of atrocity.... When people ask me, "Is there likely to be a future war?" I answer, "Yes, until the animals are treated as our younger brothers." [2]

Albert Einstein stated:

The vegetarian manner of living, by its purely physical effect on the human temperament, would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind. [3]

As the following excerpt from the poem, Song of Peace, indicates, the vegetarian writer George Bernard Shaw felt that the killing of animals today logically leads to the killing of men on the battlefield tomorrow:

...If thus we treat
Defenseless animals, for sport or gain,
How can we hope in this world to attain
The PEACE we say we are so anxious for?
We pray for it, o'er hecatombs of slain,
To God, while outraging the moral law,
Thus cruelty begets its offspring -- War. [4]

In her acclaimed book, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson (1907-1964) stated:

We cannot have peace among men whose hearts find delight in killing any living creature.

Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) had similar beliefs:

If you have men who will exclude any of God`s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men. [5]

Richard J. Barnet, a director of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies and author of The Lean Years, an analysis of resource scarcities, believes that by the end of the century the anger and despair of hungry people could lead to acts of terrorism and economic class wars. [6]

In view of the enormous waste of grain and other resources related to livestock agriculture, the following statement by Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon is relevant:

Hunger and famine will do more to destabilize this world; [they are] more explosive than all atomic weaponry possessed by the big powers. Desperate people do desperate things....Nuclear fission is now in the hands of even the developing countries in many of which hunger and famine are most serious. [7]

What are the important Jewish teachings on working for peace?

The Jewish tradition mandates a special obligation to work for peace. The Bible 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" (Ps. 34:15); you are to seek it in your own place and pursue it everywhere else. [8] The famous Talmudic sage, Hillel, stated that we should "be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace." [9]

On the special duty of Jews to work for peace, the sages commented: "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!" [10]

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 feet of the messenger of good tidings, who announces peace" (Isa. 52:7). [11]

The whole Torah was given for the sake of peace, and it is said, "all her paths are peace" (Prov. 3:17). [12]

The important Jewish prayers, such as the Amidah (Sh'moneh Esrei ), the kaddish, the priestly blessing, and the grace after meals, all conclude with a prayer for peace.

In spite of Judaism's historical aversion to idolotry, peace is so important that the rabbis taught:

If Israel should worship idols, but she be at peace, God had no power, in effect, over them. [13]

The Jewish tradition does not mandate absolute pacifism, or peace at any price. The Israelites often went forth to battle and not always in defensive wars. But they always held to the ideal of universal peace and yearned for the day when there would be no more bloodshed or violence:

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war any more.
But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree;
And none shall make them afraid;
For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
(Mic. 4:3-4; Isa. 2:4)

What are Jewish teachings on the connection between diets and
the potential for violence and war?

Judaism teaches that violence and war result directly from injustice:

The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed, because of justice perverted, and because of those who render wrong decisions. [14]

The Hebrew word for war, milchama, is directly derived from the word locham, which means both "to feed" as well as "to wage war." The Hebrew word for bread, lechem, comes from the same root. This led the sages to suggest that lack of bread and the search for sufficient food tempt people to make war. The seeds of war are often found in the inability of a nation to provide adequate food for its people. Hence, feeding the tremendous amounts of grains to animals destined for slaughter, instead of feeding starving people, is a prime cause for war.

Many Jewish sages felt that the biblical laws related to kindness to animals were meant to condition people to be considerate of fellow human beings. Several medieval Jewish philosophers including R. Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1509) and R. Joseph Albo consider vegetarianism to be a moral ideal because it avoids the meanness and cruelty associated with meat consumption and the harsh treatment of animals. [15]

Commenting on the biblical prohibition against taking a mother bird with her young, Nachmanides stated:

The motivating purpose is to teach us the quality of compassion and not to become cruel; for cruelty expands in a man's soul, as is well known with respect to cattle slaughterers... [16]

Maimonides indicated that the general obligation with regard to tsa'ar ba'alei chayim (avoiding causing pain to animals)

...is set down with a view to protecting us that we not acquire moral habits of cruelty and learn to inflict pain gratuitously, but that we should be kind and merciful... [17]

The Sefer Hachinuch connected the muzzling of an ox treading corn to the negative treatment of human laborers:

When a man becomes accustomed to have pity even upon animals who were created to serve us, and he gives them a portion of their labors, his soul will likewise grow accustomed to be kind to human beings... [18]

Abraham Ibn Ezra, Abarbanel and Moses Luzzato (1707-1747) taught that boiling a kid in its mother's milk was a barbaric practice that could lead people to cruel acts. [19]

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch stressed that vegetables are the preferable food to help make the human body an instrument of the soul and to implement its aims of holiness and moral freedom. [20] He indicated that every food which makes the body too active in a carnal direction makes people more indifferent and less sensitive to the loftier impulses of the moral life. [21] He also states, "The boy who, in crude joy, finds delight in the convulsions of an injured beetle or the anxiety of a suffering animal will soon also be dumb toward human pain." [22]

The prophet Isaiah (66:3) stated, "He who kills an ox is as if he slew a person." There are several ways of interpreting this verse from a vegetarian point of view:

What are the impacts of scarcities of resources such as energy
and water on the potential for war?

Just as scarcity of food can lead to war, so can scarcity of sources of energy. The dependence of affluent countries on oil from the Middle East was a major factor behind the recent conflict in the Persian Gulf.

Meat-centered diets contribute to energy shortages, a prime factor in threats of war today. In the United States, an average of 10 calories of fuel energy are required for every calorie of food energy obtained. (The main contributors to this are feedlot cattle raising and deep-sea fishing, which are very energy-intensive); in many other countries, they gain 20 or more calories of food- energy per calorie of fuel energy. To produce one pound of steak (500 calories of food energy) requires 20,000 calories of fossil fuels, most of which is expended to produce feed-crops. It requires 78 calories of fossil fuel for each calorie of protein obtained from feedlot produced beef. Grains and beans require only two to five percent as much fossil fuel. Energy input to the U.S. food system now accounts for about 16.5% of the total energy budget.

Feeding people rather than factory-bred animals requires far less irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides, mechanization, refrigeration, and processing, all of which consume much energy. The tremendous effects that meat-centered diets have on energy consumption can be seen in this example: if all the petroleum reserves in the world were devoted solely to feeding a typical North American diet to the world's more than 4 billion people, all the world's oil would be used in only 13 years.

Another factor that can lead to future violence or war is growing scarcity of water in many areas of the world. One of the world`s most explosive areas, the Middle East, has suffered from severe water shortages recently.

The standard diet of a person in the United States requires 4,200 gal. of water/day (for animals' drinking water, irrigation of crops, processing, washing, cooking, etc.) A person on a pure vegetarian diet requires as little as 300 gal./day. The production of one pound of steak uses 2,500 gallons of water, while only 25 gallons are required to produce a pound of potatoes. Livestock production consumes over 80% of the water used in the U.S., and this water is becoming increasingly scarce. Studies have indicated that if the entire U.S. population were total vegetarians, no irrigation water at all would be needed to produce our food.

The relationship between the meat-based resource usage and war is dramatized by the following dialogue from Plato's Republic:

...and there will be animals of many other kinds, if people eat them?


And living in this way we shall have much greater need of physicians than before?

Much greater.

And the country which was enough to support the original inhabitants will be too small now, and not enough?

Quite true.

Then a slice of our neighbors' land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves, they exceed the limit of necessity, and give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth?

That, Socrates, will be inevitable.

And so, we shall go to war, Glaucon. Shall we not?

Most certainly, he replied. [23]

In summary, by adopting a diet that shows concern for the hungry people of the world, by eating in a way that will contribute to a more equitable sharing of food, energy, water and other resources, people can play a significant role in moving the world toward that day when "nations shall not learn war any more."


1. Quoted in The Vegetarian Way, Proceedings of the 19th World Vegetarian Congress, 1967.

2. G.S. Arundale, "The World Crucifiction", The Vegetarian Way, proceedings of the 24th World Vegetarian Conferences, Madras, India (1977); 145.

3. Quoted by Barbara Parham, Why Kill For Food? (Denver, Co; Ananda Marga, 1979), P.54

4. Quoted in The Vegetarian Way, p. 12.

5. Quoted in The Extended Circle, Jen Wynne-Tyson.

6. Staten Island Advance, article by Susan Fogy, July 14, 1980, p.1.

7. Mark Hatfield, "World Hunger," World Vision 19 (February, 1975):5.

8. Leviticus Rabbah 9:9.

9. Pirke Avot: 1:12.

10. Yalkat Shimoni Yithro 273

11. Leviticus Rabbah 9:9.

12. Gitin 59b; the quote is from Proverbs 3:17.

13. Genesis Rabbah 38:6.

14. Pirke Avot 5:11.

15. Rabbi J. David Bleich, "Vegetarianism and Judaism", Tradition, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Summer, 1987).

16.Nachmanides, commentary on Deuteronomy 22:6.

17. Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:17.

18. Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 596.

19. Rabbi Elijah J. Shochet, Animal Life in Jewish Tradition (New York: Ktav, 1984), p. 217.

20. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, (London:Soncino Press, 1962), Vol. 2, p. 328.

21. Ibid.

22. Quoted by Francine Klagsbrun, Voices of Wisdom (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), p. 458.

23. Plato`s Republic 2. Quoted by Dudley Giehl, Vegetarianism: A Way of Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 98.

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