by Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.
With Tu B'Shevat on the horizon and the furor over People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' video of animal abuse at a kosher slaughterhouse in the recent past, it is worth again asking the question: Should Jews still eat meat?
For those unaware, in late November, the animals' activist group PETA came public with video showing the cruel abuse of animals at AgriProcessors' kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. The plant is one of the largest in the country and processes meat for the Aaron's Best/Rabushkin label.
PETA filed a complaint with the United States Department of Agriculture against the plant as well as the Orthodox Union, the New York-based agency responsible for certifying the slaughterhouse as kosher. After initially defending the plant's practices, the OU switched tracks, and started taking initial steps toward ending the abuses of animals at the Postville slaughterhouse. The OU should be commended for that. But the horrors recorded in Postville are part of a much wider pattern of animal abuse in today's meat industry.
Many Torah verses stress compassion to animals and Judaism forbids tsa'ar ba'alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals. However, most farm animals - including most animals raised for kosher consumers - are raised for slaughter on "factory farms" where they are confined in cramped spaces, often drugged and mutilated and denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise and any opportunity to satisfy their natural instincts. Can we continue to ignore the suffering and abuse that many farmed animals experience for their entire lives on factory farms?
Hence, the current controversy involving the Postville facility should be a wake-up call to end not only the mistreatment of animals at slaughterhouses, but also the widespread abuse of animals on factory farms. The Postville exposé would have an even greater value if it also resulted in a reduction or elimination of other violations of Jewish teachings associated with the production and consumption of animal products:
o While Judaism mandates that people should be very careful about preserving their health and their lives, numerous scientific studies have linked animal-based diets directly to heart disease, stroke, many forms of cancer and other chronic degenerative diseases.
o While Judaism teaches that "the earth is the Lord's" (Psalm 24:1) and that we are God's partners and co-workers in preserving the world, modern intensive livestock agriculture contributes substantially to soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, global climate change and other environmental damages.
o While Judaism mandates bal tashchit, not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value or to use more than is needed to accomplish a purpose, animal agriculture requires the wasteful use of land, water, fuel, grain and other resources.
o While Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people, an estimated 20 million human beings worldwide die each year because of hunger and its effects, while over 70 percent of the grain grown in the U.S. is fed to animals destined for slaughter. It takes up to 16 pounds of grain to produce just one pound of feedlot-raised beef.
o While Judaism stresses that we must seek and pursue peace and that violence results from unjust conditions, animal-centered diets, by wasting valuable resources, perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that often lead to instability and war.
Tu B'Shevat is an excellent time to consider shifting towards a plant-centered diet. Consider:
o The Tu B'Shevat Seder in which fruits and nuts are eaten, along with the singing of songs and the recitation of Biblical verses related to trees and fruits, is the only sacred meal where only vegetarian, actually vegan, foods, are eaten as part of the ritual. This is consistent with the diet in the Garden of Eden, as indicated by God's first, completely vegetarian, dietary law:
"And God said: 'Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit - to you it shall be for food.'" (Gen.1:29)
o The Talmud refers to Tu B'Shevat as the New Year for Trees. It is considered to be the date on which the fate of trees is decided for the coming year. In recent years, one of the prime ways of celebrating Tu B'Shevat, especially in Israel, is through the planting of trees.
One of the prime reasons for the destruction of tropical rain forests today is to create pastureland and areas to grow feed crops for cattle. To save an estimated 5 cents on each imported fast food hamburger, we are destroying forest areas in countries such as Brazil and Costa Rica, where at least half of the world's species of plants and animals live and threatening the stability of the world's climate. It has been estimated that every vegetarian saves an acre of forest per year
o Both Tu B'Shevat and vegetarianism are connected to today's environmental concerns. Many contemporary Jews look on Tu B'Shevat as a Jewish earth day and use Tu B'Shevat seders as occasions to discuss how Jewish values can be applied to reduce many of today's ecological threats
Clearly, Jewish values and meat consumption are in serious conflict. Considering the horrors of Postville and the ecological lessons of Tu B'Shevat, Jews should seriously consider shifting toward plant-based diets and promoting a switch toward vegetarianism as moral and ecological imperatives. Besides having great benefits for animals, such actions would greatly benefit the health of the Jewish people and others, move our precious but imperiled planet to a more sustainable path, and show the relevance of Jewish teachings to the problems confronting the world today.
= = = = = = = = = = = = = =
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, College of Staten Island
Author of "Judaism and Vegetarianism," "Judaism and Global Survival," and "Mathematics and Global Survival," and over 130 articles at www.JewishVeg.com/schwartz
President of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) www.JewishVeg.com
and Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV)
Associate Producer of A SACRED DUTY (asacredduty.com)
Director of Veg Climate Alliance (www.vegclimatealliance.org)