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Jewish Forward Book Review

Judaism and Vegetarianism, by Richard H. Schwartz

Lantern, 230 pages, $18 (paper).

Foot and mouth disease is treading closely on the "hoofs" of the mad cow epidemic that recently swept Europe. Yet curiously, all around the world one species that isn't even infected is nonetheless very affected, and acting very strangely. An ocean away from the plague, we homo sapiens in America are increasingly returning to the herbivorous "roots" of Eden, as depicted in the very first chapters of Genesis.

Adam and Eve were indeed the first vegetarians, Richard Schwartz tells us in his updated and revised edition of "Judaism and Vegetarianism" But if this "Bible of the Jewish vegetarian movement" is any indication -- arguing as it does that a vegetarian diet is both a societal imperative as well as an especially Jewish one -- they won't be the last.

Mr. Schwartz, a professor emeritus of mathematics at the College of Staten Island, writes that animal-based agriculture and diets require far more land, water, energy and other agricultural resources than plant-based diets, with the result that meat consumption (and especially production) has devastating effects on our air, water and land, and likewise contributes substantially to global climate change. Thus, our current diets negatively impact on the world's food supply, and are also a major factor behind rapidly rising medical costs.

The author also seeks to demonstrate that vegetarianism is an especially Jewish imperative, since the realities of the production and consumption of animal products violate basic Jewish teachings to preserve our health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve resources, help hungry people and pursue peace and non-violence.

Since many difficult questions are asked of vegetarians, Mr. Schwartz provides 62 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? Mr. Schwartz's cogent answers enable vegetarians to respond effectively to the concerns of non-vegetarians.

In order to give as complete an analysis of Jewish connections to vegetarianism as possible, Mr. Schwartz includes biographies of famous Jewish vegetarians, including Isaac Bashevis Singer, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Franz Kafka and several present and past chief rabbis; a discussion of Jewish vegetarian groups and activities in Israel, the United States and England, where the International Jewish Vegetarian Society is located; contact information for the leading Jewish vegetarian and vegetarian-related groups; ideas for promoting vegetarianism; suggestions for leading a healthy Jewish vegetarian lifestyle and an extensive annotated bibliography.

Indeed, Mr. Schwartz amasses such an abundance of statistics and such a wide variety of quotations from the Torah, Talmud and other traditional Jewish sources to bolster his case, that after reading "Judaism and Vegetarianism" this reviewer can only agree with the assessment of Paul Peabody, editor of Fellowship magazine that "it would be hard for anyone ethically sensitive -- Jew or non-Jew -- to read this book and not take up the vegetarian cause."

At a time when the United States and much of the world is confronted with an epidemic of degenerative diseases, mad cow disease, foot and mouth disease, soaring health care costs, a multitude of environmental threats, increasingly severe effects of global climate change, widespread hunger, as well as widening scarcities of water and energy, the powerful teachings of the Jewish tradition on vegetarianism and other positive societal changes should no longer be ignored. Hence, this important, challenging book deserves a wide readership and much discussion in the Jewish community as well as other communities concerned with the ethical application of spiritual values to scientific knowledge.

Mr. Braun, former Presidential Scholar (Religion, Culture and Ethics) at Augustana University College (Camrose, Alberta), lives with his wife in Northrop Frye's former home of Moncton, New Brunswick