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London Jewish Chronicle Review

BOOKLOG: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen on Vegetarians

Before the First World War, the Kamenitzer Maggid came to London. Saintly man though he was, he was soon hounded out of town. Why? Because he was a vegetarian. If he had succeeded in spreading his views, then all the rabbis, butchers, caterers and purveyors of officially sanctioned meats would have been seriously out of pocket, or even out of work.

To this day, kosher meat remains- the main source of income for Orthodox ecclesiastical bodies. Vegetarianism is bad news for the rabbis.

But the weight of Orthodox opinion is that vegetarianism is not consonant with halachah. After all, God commanded us to sacrifice animals, and on festivals one should eat "meat and fish and all delights." (My father-in-law insists that for festive occasions smoked salmon is not a Yiddishe fish).

So I guess the late, great, saintly Rav Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, was somehow deficient in his Judaism, because of his vegetarianism, and so, too, his later successor, Rabbi Shlomo Goren. With Judaism and Vegetarianism (Lantern Books, $18), Richard H. Schwartz has produced the Jewish vegetarian's bible. It offers rationale, halachic sources and a blistering critique on the cruelty we inflict on animals to gratify our bellies. I should confess to an interest, because my brother David, a strict moral vegetarian, who won't wear leather at all - I don't grasp his justification for putting on tefillin - is heavily quoted.

I cannot claim to be a strict vegetarian. But when I had to learn the laws of shechitah, I found the experience so horrifying that I could not eat meat for years afterwards. What upset me was not the shechitah, but the non-Jewish processes of so-called humane killing, where electric stunners often did not stun, bolts regularly failed to work and terrified animals were cruelly prodded, dragged or forced towards the sounds and smells of death that lay ahead of them.

BSE should have pushed more of us to vegetarianism, but why won't most of the Torah world adopt it? Partly because any idea perceived as coming from non-Jews, secularists or loony lefties is rejected as being extraneous to Judaism.

But avoiding cruelty to animals is part of the Noachide code and of mainstream halachah. Is this another case, as with smoking, of halachah's not wanting to take an innovative stand? Is it, as with business ethics, a case of knowing what Jewish law says, but turning a blind eye.

Either way, this book challenges us to ask these questions. I suspect it will preach to the converted, but it is a pretty impressive sermon nevertheless.