Home    Jewish Vegetarianism    Online Course    FAQ    Jewish Recipes
What You Can Do    Links    Feedback    Media

American Rabbi Book Review

Judaism and Vegetarianism

(New Revised Edition)
By Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.
2001 by Lantern Books, New York, NY
ISBN 1-930051-24-7, lis $18.00 U.S.

Reviewed by Rabbi Hillel Norry

In "Judaism and Vegetarianism", Richard Schwartz argues persuasively that a switch toward vegetarianism is not only permissible for Jews, but is also a Jewish imperative. Schwartz, a professor emeritus of mathematics at the College of Staten Island, succeeds in developing a strong argument for vegetarianism by showing the connections between our food choices and core Jewish values. Although he shows a vast and solid understanding of the ethical, economic, medical and environmental issues that lead most vegetarians to their choice, he is most compelling when he reminds us that Judaism's most central beliefs are best served when Jews match their diet to "God's ideal diet".

In this third edition of the book that has been called the "bible" of the Jewish vegetarian movement, Schwartz argues that the Jewish ideal of non-cruelty to animals - long cited in defense of Jewish slaughter methods - is in direct conflict with the realities of the production and consumption of meat. This is not the way our great-grandparents raised and slaughtered animals. Our tradition requires that we treat animals as sentient, feeling beings created by God. Some Torah sages even believe that animals have souls. Are these teachings consistent with the values and technologies of modern factory farming?

Hundreds of the Torah's commandments address our physical body and Judaism places its highest emphasis on maintaining our health. This is not a secondary value, or an esoteric tradition, but one of the central pillars of our faith, like the prohibition against causing suffering to sentient animals. The consumption of meat is now considered a serious health risk with links to some of the most frightening degenerative diseases of our age. Vegetarian diets are increasingly recommended to promote optimal health and well being. Walter Willett, Ph.D., a Harvard University School of Health dietician stated in 1990, "If you step back and look at the data, the optimum amount of red meat you should eat is zero." Should we, as Jews, choose anything less than a diet which promotes our health and enables us to best serve God?

Looking beyond our personal health and observance, Dr. Schwartz asserts that adopting a vegetarian diet is a societal imperative because animal-based agriculture and diets have devastating effects on our air, water, and land. Animal farming contributes substantially to global climate change, requires far more land, water, energy, and other agricultural resources than plant-based diets, and hence negatively impacts on the world's food supply, and is a major factor behind rapidly rising medical costs. He demonstrates that it also is a Jewish imperative, since the realities of the production and consumption of animal products violate basic Jewish teachings which require us to protect the environment, treat animals with compassion, conserve resources, help hungry people, and pursue peace and non-violence.

Schwartz amasses an abundance of recent statistics and quotations from the Torah, Talmud, and other traditional Jewish sources to bolster his case. Thus it is hard to imagine that anyone who lives by Jewish values could read this book and not be swayed towards a healthier, more just, and kinder plant-based diet.

In this new edition, Schwartz also provides an extended section of questions and answers on a wide variety of Jewish and general issues. These questions include: Don't we have to eat meat on the Sabbath and to rejoice on festivals? Isn't it a sin not to take advantage of pleasurable things like eating meat? Weren't we given dominion over animals? What about sacrificial Temple services? Aren't vegetarians deviating from Jewish tradition in asserting that people and animals are of equal value? Schwartz's cogent answers enable vegetarians to respond effectively to the concerns of non-vegetarians.

Since vegetarians are often questioned by doubtful omnivores, Schwartz also provides questions that vegetarians can use to respectfully turn the tables on challengers. Perhaps most important is the question that is used to conclude the book: "In view of strong Jewish mandates to be compassionate to animals, preserve our health, help feed the hungry, preserve and protect the environment, conserve resources, and seek and pursue peace, and the very negative effects animal-centered diets have in each of these areas, will you now become a vegetarian, or at least sharply reduce your consumption of animal products?"

Schwartz provides additional valuable information and resources including; biographies of famous Jewish vegetarians, (Isaac Bashevis Singer, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Franz Kafka, and several present and past chief rabbis), a discussion of Jewish vegetarian groups and activities in England, where the International Jewish Vegetarian Society is located, Israel, and the United States, contact information for the leading Jewish vegetarian and vegetarian-related groups, action ideas for promoting vegetarianism, suggestions for leading a healthy Jewish vegetarian lifestyle, and an extensive annotated bibliography.

At a time when we are struggling with the devastating effects of an epidemic of degenerative diseases, soaring health care costs, a multitude of environmental threats, increasingly severe effects of global climate change, widespread hunger, and widening scarcities of water, and energy, Judaism's powerful teachings on vegetarianism and other positive societal changes should no longer be ignored. These issues should be brought to the center of our Jewish dialogues, to renew the power of our faith and vision as we bear witness to God's presence. This important, challenging book deserves a wide readership and much discussion in the Jewish community and other communities.

Oh, and you'll feel better too.


Rabbi Hillel Norry is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaare Zedek in New York City. He is a graduate of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America and has been a vegetarian for thirteen years. He is the Scholar in Residence at Camp Ramah in the Poconos for the Summer of 2001. He is on the professional skills faculty of JTS, and sits on the Committee for Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly.

Other reviews