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SATYA Magazine Book Review
September 2001

Is Vegetarianism Part of God's Plan?
Book Review by Margaret Betz Hull

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 Jewish
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 and 3:18).

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, and—because of this—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 geese—by compacting huge amounts of food down their throats with a wooden plunger—adding 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 animal
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
Hannah Arendt.

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