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Vegetarians in Paradise Book Review

Each issue the VIP birds will endeavor to soar to the highest literary peak to peck out the most unique, informative, and accomplished book that contributes to vegetarian enlightenment. In this issue we review a landmark book by one of the nation's foremost authorities on Judaism and vegetarianism.

Judaism and Vegetarianism
By Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D
Lantern Books, 2001
$18.00 Paperback

Reading the appendix of Judaism and Vegetarianism, one is startled to find Richard Schwartz confessing that he was once a "meat and potatoes man." Schwartz, professor emeritus of mathematics at the College of Staten Island, New York, and now one of the nation's most prominent Jewish advocates of vegetarianism, became a vegetarian convert in the 1970's while teaching a class called "Mathematics and the Environment." While he and his students analyzed problems like pollution, hunger, energy, nutrition, and health, he himself became aware of vast resources needed for beef production, resources that could be utilized to feed the hungry in the world. This led him to eliminate beef from his diet. No more would his favorite pot roast be found at his table. All the while he was still eating chicken and fish, until 1978 when he gave up eating all animal flesh entirely. At that time he began an intensive study of the vegetarian connection to health, environment, and animal treatment. He was also determined to learn the correlation between Judaism and vegetarianism.

By 1982 he had published the first edition of this book to share his findings with the public. A second revised and expanded edition appeared in 1988.

The more he investigated, the more convinced he became that vegetarianism was a solution to many of the world's environmental and health problems and that the principles of Judaism and vegetarianism are compatible. Jewish law requires kindness to animals, protection of the environment, conservation of resources, pursuit of peace, and preservation of our health. He recognized all of these can be achieved by being vegetarian.

Schwartz divides the book into sections dealing with compassion for animals, health, feeding the hungry, ecology, and peace. He opens the volume with a "Vegetarian View of the Bible." He begins by making the statement, "GOD'S INITIAL INTENTION WAS THAT PEOPLE BE VEGETARIANS." He cites Genesis 1:29 that says, "Behold, I have given you every herb-yielding seed which is upon the face of the earth, every tree that has seed-yielding fruit--to you it shall be for food." Schwartz presents the views of a number of Torah commentators and Talmudic scholars who say that this was an admonition to Adam not to eat animals.

Scholars reading Genesis 9:3 will find what appears to be a contradiction to the previous statement. "Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; as the green herb have I given you all." This change occurred at the time of Noah and the great flood. To the scholars cited by Schwartz, meat eating was God's concession to human weakness and to show that humans were on a higher level than animals. Even then there were many restrictions on meat eating as evidenced in schechitah (ritual slaughter) and kashrut (dietary laws)

The author notes that before the flood people like Adam, Seth, and Methuselah lived over 900 years. After the flood no one seems to live more than Abraham's 175 years. Could this have been the result of a change in diet? Schwartz cites sixteen laws, some from the Talmud and some from the Torah, that clearly emphasize compassion for animals. Included are the following:

  • It is forbidden to cause pain to animals.
  • A person should not eat first before feeding his or her animals.
  • Animals must be allowed to rest on the Sabbath.
  • One must not hunt animals for pleasure.
  • If animals are to slaughtered, they must be slaughtered humanely.

The author empasizes the teachings of the Talmud that say the individual bears the responsibility for maintaining personal health, not the physician. Taking care of one's health is a mitzvah (good deed). He presents solid information and definitive studies to show that consuming animal products is hazardous to health and is frequently responsible for illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

He feels world hunger would be alleviated by not feeding grain to massive herds of animals raised for human consumption. This grain could instead be used to feed starving people. Some of the land used to grow grain could be employed to grow crops eaten by people. "With much hunger in the world, explicit Jewish mandates to feed the hungry, help the poor, share resources, practice charity, show compassion, and pursue justice, plus the trials and tribulations of Jewish history, point to vegetarianism as the diet most consistent with Jewish teaching related to helping hungry people," states Schwartz.

The author expresses his grave concern that many ecological problems are the result of current livestock agriculture methods. Schwartz enumerates statistics to support his argument that water pollution, air pollution, soil erosion, energy waste, water shortages, pesticide use, rainforest destruction, and global warming all stem from an emphasis on a meat diet.

Schwartz devotes two chapters of the book to questions and answers, one on Jewish issues, the other on general issues. Under Jewish issues he poses questions like, "If God did not want meat to be eaten, why are there so many laws concerning the slaughter, preparation, and consumption of meat?" In the general issues section he asks questions like, " If vegetarian diets are best for health, why don't most doctors recommend them?"

In the chapter B'Tay-Avon: HAVE A HEARTY APPETITE!, he deals with practical ways of making the transition to a vegetarian diet. He suggests learning about the many substitutes for animal products, becoming familiar with the principles of nutrition, coping with invitations from non-vegetarians, reading labels, and associating with other vegetarians. The chapter features an exceptional essay to aid those vegetarians who face a common dilemma, "Mixed Marriages: When Only One of You Is a Vegetarian." This essay was printed in an earlier issue of Vegetarians in Paradise and can be found at www.vegparadise.com/otherbirds22.html.

Not one to overlook valuable resources or to interject features of Jewish interest, Schwartz includes a chapter on Jewish vegetarian groups and activities and another on biographies of famous Jewish vegetarians. The Appendix features his story of how he turned to vegetarianism, a discussion of "action-centered ideas" for promoting vegetarianism, his "Resolution on Judaism and Vegetarianism" that was passed by a Jewish Vegetarian Conference in 1993, a list of Jewish Vegetarian and Vegetarian-Related Groups, and Some Significant Websites.

The book is well indexed and contains extensive notes and an excellent bibliography. You don't have to be Jewish to appreciate Judaism and Vegetarianism. Much of the message here is universal: compassion for animals, improving our health, saving the environment, and feeding the hungry are goals we can all readily achieve. A devout, orthodox Jew, Schwartz has devoted considerable time to the study of the Torah and the Talmud. This is quite evident when one looks at his notes. He also has made a considerable effort to read about vegetarianism and to show how it is linked to Judaism, also quite apparent in his citations. This volume is a culmination of over 20 years of speaking and writing about vegetarianism and has made him one of foremost experts in this field. If one wants to understand the vital connection between Judaism and vegetarianism, one must read Richard Schwartz.

Schwartz has also written Mathematics and Global Survival and Judaism and Global Survival. A number of his essays on Judaism and vegetarianism are posted on the internet at http://schwartz.enviroweb.org.

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