Magazine Book Review
Vegetarianism Part of God's Plan?
Book Review by Margaret
Many an individual has derived inspiration
from the Sanskrit word ahimsa, or nonviolence to all
living creatures. In Eastern religions this has translated
into a deep respect for nonhuman animals that often
includes vegetarianism. But can that same commitment
be found in traditional Western religions, specifically
Judaism? In his newly-revised Judaism and Vegetarianism,
Richard Schwartz argues that the Jewish tradition
and faith are not only conducive to, but actually
espouse, moral vegetarianism. Largely meant for a
audience looking for specific answers and information,
this work acts as an encyclopedia for anyone interested
in exploring the connection between Judaism and vegetarianism.
In general, Schwartz arranges the chapters according
to the different arguments for vegetarianism, and
even includes short biographies on famous Jewish vegetarians,
like philosopher Rabbi David Cohen, and authors Isaac
Bashevis Singer and Franz Kafka.
Schwartz admits his argument may seem
counterintuitive to some, especially since, as he
says, "meat is a big part of Jewish celebration."
Despite this, he proposes that basic Jewish ethical
notions like tsa'ar ba'alei chayim (the prohibition
against causing needless suffering to animals) indicate
an essential openness to vegetarianism within Judaism.
This, combined with other fundamental moral principles,
convinced him that "basic Jewish values point
to vegetarianism as the ideal diet."
Schwartz substantiates his argument
by turning to the Bible, methodically poring over
the Torah's stories and directives from God that suggest
a vegetarian lifestyle was meant for humankind. For
instance, in Genesis 1:29, God says, "Behold,
I have given you every herb-yielding seed which is
upon the face of all the earth, and every tree has
seed-yielding fruit: to you it shall be for food."
Schwartz turns to the wisdom of centuries of Torah
commentary to illustrate that God did not want the
first people to kill animals and eat their flesh,
but rather desired harmony and kinship between all
sentient beings. Schwartz argues that the Bible shows
that it was only after the flood that God permitted
people to eat meat, and this was "only a temporary
concession." God's plan, Schwartz explains, was
a "temporary dispensation" until a "brighter
era" when humanity would return to vegetarianism.
He notes that Rabbi Abraham Kook believed that people
again will be vegetarian at the time of the Messiah
since this is what God originally intended (Gen. 2:16
Schwartz recognizes that the passage
in Genesis where God gave humankind "dominion"
over all other animals (Gen. 1:28) is something he
must address, considering it is the basis upon which
both Judaism and Christianity have traditionally justified
bestowing on nonhuman animals their lower status.
In contrast to our traditional understanding, Schwartz
argues that God shows a very high regard for animals
in Genesis, like applying the Hebrew term nefesh
chaya (a "living soul") to animals as
well as humans (Gen. 1:21-30). Schwartz contends that
animals are also God's creatures with a capacity to
feel pain, and for this reason God desires that they
be protected and treated with compassion and justice.
To support his claim he cites Psalm 145:9, "His
tender mercies are over all His creatures."
Even when permission is given to eat
meat, Schwartz points out that Jewish law prescribes
many restrictions. He quotes Rabbi Kook, who suggests
that the elaborate system of prohibitions is designed
to remind Jews that they are destroying life, andâ€because
of thisâ€it must be done with the
utmost respect. Torah Laws confirm the importance
of compassion for animals: the prohibition against
cooking milk and meat together, for example, is based
on the understanding that it is cruel to take milk
(something to nurture life) and use it in a way associated
with the destruction of life.
After establishing that it is a fundamental
component of Jewish faith and tradition that animals
be treated humanely, Schwartz turns to the standard
practices within the factory farming industry and
its abhorrent abuse of animals as something "contrary
to Jewish ideals of compassion." Describing the
horrific practices of the meat industry (a reality
well-known to any animal rights activist), Schwartz
will likely open the eyes of a Jewish
audience not familiar with how "meat" is
obtained. For example, he describes how the industry
derives pâté de foie gras from
ducks and geeseby compacting huge amounts of
food down their throats with a wooden plungeradding
that Israel is one of the major exporters of pâté.
Prominent in the Jewish faith are also
principles concerning the ethical treatment of ourselves
and of others. Eating meat conflicts with both of
these for a variety of reasons, Schwartz argues. Again,
referring to the standard practices of the meat industry,
he explains how destructive an animal-centered diet
is to human health. This is noteworthy since Judaism,
Schwartz contends, places emphasis on the prevention
of disease and practices necessary for good health.
Even more significant is the existence of a worldwide
animal agriculture industry that exacerbates (some
would even say, creates) world hunger. Considering
that nearly a billion people are chronically hungry,
it is impossible to defend the fact that 70 percent
of grain grown in the U.S. and one-third of the grain
grown worldwide is fed to animals destined for slaughter.
Because of the value Judaism places on the preservation
of the Earth, the tremendously negative impact that
agriculture has on the environment cannot be defended
from within the Jewish perspective either.
Schwartz concludes with a "Questions/Answers"
section that addresses questions Jews might have about
vegetarianism, like whether or not Jews have an obligation
to eat meat on Jewish holidays. What some animal rights-minded
individuals may find problematic in this section is
how Schwartz answers a question about whether vegetarians
raise animals to be on the same moral level as humans.
Schwartz responds that not only does Jewish vegetarianism
not necessitate this view, but that "the vast
majority of vegetarians do not"
equate human and animal life. Yet Schwartz brushes
this question aside too quickly, considering the fact
that animal rights vegetarians increasingly challenge
the line assumed to exist between human and nonhuman
life. Indeed, it is based on this reason that many
choose to become vegetarian in the first place. While
Judaism and Vegetarianism is an interesting and informative
exploration and will no doubt provide food for thought
for its intended audience, most animal rights-minded
vegetarians will likely feel it doesn't go far enough.
Margaret Betz Hull, Ph.D., teaches
philosophy and has just finished a book on