Should Jews Be Vegetarians?

There are many powerful arguments for the proposition that the ideal diet for Jews today is vegetarianism. The following is presented in the hope of starting a respectful dialogue.

Preservation of Health

The preservation of our health is arguably Judaism's most important commandment. The Talmud teaches that Jews should be more particular about matters of health and life than ritual matters. If it might help save a life, one generally must (not may) violate the Sabbath, eat non-kosher foods, and even eat on Yom Kippur. (The only laws that cannot be violated to preserve a life are those prohibiting murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality.)

In contrast to these teachings, meat-centered diets have been irrefutably linked to heart attacks, strokes, various types of cancer, and other diseases. This has been a major contributor to recent skyrocketing medical costs, which are projected to reach 20% of the total United States Gross National Product by the gear 2005, contributing substantially to local, state, and national budgetary problems.

Compassion for Animals

Judaism has many important teachings concerning the proper treatment of animals. Moses and King David were chosen for leadership, and Rebecca was deemed suitable to be a wife for Isaac, because they were kind to animals. Proverbs teaches that "The righteous person considers the life of his beast." (12:10) The psalmist states that, "The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His creatures." (Psalms 145:9). Concern for animals is even expressed in the Ten Commandments, in a verse that is recited every Shabbat morning as part of kiddush. Many Biblical laws command proper treatment of animals.

In contrast to these powerful Jewish teachings, most animals raised to produce food spend their entire lives under brutal conditions in crowded cells, where they are denied fresh air, exercise, and freedom of movement.

Sharing with Hungry People

Helping the hungry is fundamental in Judaism. 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). Farmers are to leave the gleanings of the harvest and the corners of the fields for the poor. On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, while fasting and praying for a good year, Jews are told through the words of the Prophet Isaiah, that fasting and prayers are not enough -- they must work to end oppression and "share thy bread with the hungry". (Isaiah 58-6-7)

Contrary to these basic Jewish teachings, meat-based diets involve the feeding of over 70 percent of the grain grown in the U.S. and two-thirds of the grain exported by the U.S. to animals destined for slaughter, while 20 million of the world's people die annually due to hunger and its effects. Such diets also result in the importing of beef (the U.S. is the world's largest importer), from countries where people are starving, to satisfy the needs of fast-food restaurants.

Protection of the Environment

Judaism teaches that the earth is the Lord's and that people are to be partners and co-workers with God in protecting the environment. The Talmudic sages indicated great concern about reducing pollution. While God was able to say "It is very good" when the world was created, today the world faces many environmental threats.

In contrast to Jewish environmental injunctions, meat-centered diets involve extensive soil depletion and erosion, air and water pollution related to the widespread production and use of pesticides, fertilizer, and other chemicals, and the destruction of tropical rainforests and other habitats.

Conservation of Resources

Based on a verse in Deuteronomy which prohibits the destruction of fruit-bearing trees in time of warfare (20:19-20), the Talmudic sages prohibited the waste or unnecessary destruction of all objects of potential benefit to people. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch stated that this prohibition (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!" He also stated that destruction includes using more things (or things of greater value) than is necessary to obtain one's aim.

Contrary to the fundamental Jewish teaching of bal tashchit, flesh-centered diets require up to 20 times more land, ten times more energy and water, and far more pesticides, fertilizer, and other resources, than vegetarian diets.

Seeking and Pursuing Peace

While not a pacifist religion, Judaism mandates a special obligation to work for peace. While many commandments require a certain time and/or place for their performance, Jews are to "seek peace and pursue it" (Psalms 34:15.). According to the Talmudic sages, God's name is peace, peace encompasses all blessings, and the first words of the Messiah will be a message of peace. While the Israelites did go forth to battle, they always yearned for the time when "nations shall beat their swords into plowshares...and not learn war any more."

While the sages taught that one of the roots of war is a lack of bread and other resources, non-vegetarian diets involve the wasteful use of land water, energy. and other agricultural commodities, and thus perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that frequently leads to instability and war.

God's First Intention

There are several indications that God prefers that people be vegetarians. God's first dietary law was strictly vegetarian: "And God said: 'Behold I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed -- to you it shall be for food.'" (Genesis 1:29) That God's first intention was that people should be vegetarians was stated by Jewish classical biblical commentator, such as Rashi, Maimonides, Nachmanides, and Abraham Ibn Ezra, and later scholars, such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Moses Cassuto, and Nechama Leibowitz. After giving these dietary laws, God saw everything that He had made and "behold, it was very good." (Genesis 1:31).

Torah Views on Meat and Vegetarian Foods

According to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, first chief rabbi of prestate Israel and one of the outstanding Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century, permission to eat meat (Genesis 9:3) was only a temporary concession to human weakness, He felt that a merciful God would not institute an everlasting law permitting the killing of animals for food.

The Torah connects the consumption of meat to uncontrolled lust (Deuteronomy 12:20), while vegetarian foods are looked upon favorably:

For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks, of water, of fountains and depths, springing forth in valleys, and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey; a land wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness; thou shalt not lack anything in it... And thou shalt eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord thy God for the good land which He hath given thee. (Deuteronomy 8:7-10)

Many laws and restrictions (the laws of kashrut) are related to the preparation and consumption of meat. Rabbi Kook believed that these regulations implied a scolding and that they were an elaborate apparatus designed to keep alive a sense of reverence for life, with the aim of eventually leading people back to vegetarian diets. This idea is echoed by Torah commentator Solomon Efrain Lunchitz, author of k'lee Yakar:

What was the necessity for the entire procedure of ritual slaughter? For the sake of self discipline. It is far more appropriate for man not to eat meat; only if he has a strong desire for meat does the Torah permit it, and even this only after the trouble and inconvenience necessary to satisfy his desire. Perhaps because of the bother and annoyance of the whole procedure, he will be restrained from such a strong and uncontrollable desire for meat.

Other Vegetarian Periods

According to Isaac Arama, author of Akedat Yitzhak, God established another non-meat diet, manna, when the Israelites left Egypt. Manna is described in the Torah as a vegetarian food, "like coriander seed" (Numbers 1:7). This diet kept the Israelites in good health for 40 years in the desert. However, when they cried out for flesh which was reluctantly provided by God (in the form of quails), a great plague broke out and many people died; the place where this occurred was named, "The Graves of Lust", perhaps providing an early warning of the negative health effects related to the consumption of meat.

Rav Kook and Rabbi Joseph Albo believed that people will again be vegetarians in the days of the Messiah. They base this on the prophecy of Isaiah:

And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb...
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox,...
And none shall hurt nor destroy in all My holy
mountain. (Isaiah 11:6-9)

Challenges To Vegetarianism, and Responses

The above arguments strongly support the view that vegetarianism is the diet most consistent with Jewish values and God's wishes. However, there are challenges to this assertion that should be addressed:

  1. Inconsistent with Judaism, vegetarianism elevates animals to a level equal to or greater to that of people.

    Response: Concern for animals and a refusal to treat them brutally and slaughter them for food that is not necessary for proper nutrition and, indeed, is harmful to human health, does not mean that vegetarians regard animals as being equal to people. Also, as previously indicated, there are many reasons for being vegetarian other than animal rights, including concern for human health, ecological threats, the need to conserve resources, and the plight of hungry people.

    Because humans are capable of imagination, rationality, empathy compassion, and moral choice, we should strive to end the unbelievably cruel conditions under which farm animals are currently raised.

  2. Vegetarianism places greater priority on animal rights than on the many problems related to human welfare.

    Response: Vegetarian diets are not beneficial only to animals. They also improve human health, help hungry people through better sharing of food and other resources, put less stress on endangered ecosystems, conserve valuable resources, and reduce the potential for war and violence. In view of the many global threats related to today's livestock agriculture, working to promote vegetarianism may be the most important action that one can take for global survival.

  3. By putting vegetarian values ahead of Jewish teachings, vegetarians are, in effect, creating a new religion, with values contrary to Jewish teachings.

    Response: Jewish vegetarians are not placing so-called vegetarian values above Torah principles. They are saying that basic Jewish teachings that mandate that we treat animals with compassion, guard our health, share with hungry people, protect the environment, conserve resources, and seek peace, point to vegetarianism as the ideal diet for Jews today, especially in view of the many problems related to modern methods of raising animals on factory farms. Rather than rejecting Torah values, Jewish vegetarians are challenging the Jewish community to apply Judaism"s glorious teachings.

  4. Jews must eat meat on Shabbos and Yom Tov.

    Response: According to the the Talmud (Pesachim 109a), after the destruction of the Temple, Jews are not required to eat meat in order to rejoice on sacred occasions. Recent scholarly articles by Rabbi Alfred Cohen (The Journal of Halachah and Contemporary Society, Fall 1981) and Rabbi J. David Bleich (Tradition, Summer 1987) conclude that Jews do not have to eat meat in order to celebrate Shabbos and Yom Tov.

  5. The Torah mandates that we eat korban Pesqach and other korbanos.

    Response: Without the Temple, these requirements are not applicable today. And, as indicated, Rav Kook felt, based on the prophecy of Isaiah, that there will be sacrifices involving vegetarian foods only during the Messianic Period.

  6. Jews have historically had many problems with some animal rights groups which have often opposed kosher shechita and advocated its abolishment.

    Response: Jews should consider switching to vegetarianism not because of the views of animal rights groups, whether they are hostile to Judaism or not, but because it is the diet most consistent with Jewish values. It is the Torah, not animal rights groups, that indicate how far the treatment of animals is from fundamental Jewish teachings.

In conclusion, in view of the strong Jewish mandates to be compassionate to animals, preserve health, help feed the hungry, protect the environment, and seek and pursue peace, and the very negative effects flesh-centered diets have in each of these areas, I respectfully urge committed Jews to seriously consider switching to vegetarian diets. Hopefully, the Jewish community will start to address the many moral issues related to our diets. The future of Judaism and of our endangered planet are at stake.

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