Tikkun Magazine, July/August 2009

The Planet-Saving Mitzvah: Why Jews Should Consider Vegetarianism

by Daniel Brook

Judaism has to be a daily spiritual and social practice, not simply a ritualized one, if it is to be meaningful to Jews and relevant to others. Beyond being spiritual, we are called upon to uplift ourselves and to make the world a better place for ourselves, our families, our communities, and others.

In Why Be Jewish? Rabbi David J. Wolpe writes that "Judaism emphasizes good deeds because nothing else can replace them. To love justice and decency, to hate cruelty and to thirst for righteousness-that is the essence of the human task." The human task, therefore, is to be a mensch: a good, kind, and compassionate person.

One of the ways to follow our rich tradition while putting Judaism's highest ideals into daily practice is to choose vegetarianism. In the words of Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, "I see vegetarianism as a mitzvah"-a sacred duty and good deed.

Maimonides postulated thirteen principles of the Jewish faith, while Rabbi Moses Cordovero wrote about The Thirteen Divine Attributes. Here are thirteen categorical imperatives suggesting why Jews should seriously consider vegetarianism and then move in that direction:

1. Righteousness and Charity.

Even though it is often difficult, we do all have the power to break bad habits and soul search for better ways of living. Becoming vegetarian sets a lifelong course of righteousness. Righteous people regard-and guard-the lives of animals (Proverbs 12:10). According to Albert Einstein, if people aspire toward a righteous life, their "first act of abstinence is from injury to animals." A tzadik, or righteous person, is held in the highest regard because of righteous actions.

The Torah and Talmud are filled with stories of people rewarded for their kindness to animals and punished for their thoughtlessness and cruelty to them. In the Torah, Jacob, Moses, and David were all shepherds who cared for animals. Moses is specifically praised for how he showed compassion toward a lamb, as well as people. Rebecca was acceptable as a wife for Isaac because she showed concern for animals, offering water to thirsty camels in addition to the thirsty person who asked for it. Noah is considered righteous as he cared for the lives of the many animals on the Ark.

In contrast, two hunters mentioned in the Torah, Nimrod and Esau, are represented as villains. Further, according to legend, Rabbi Judah the Prince, compiler and editor of the Mishnah, was punished with years of pain for his insensitivity to the fear of a calf on its way to slaughter (Talmud, Bava Mezia 85a).

In the words of Torah commentary from Rabbi Moses Cassuto, "You are permitted to use the animals and employ them for work, have dominion over them in order to utilize their services for your subsistence, but must not hold their life cheap nor slaughter them for food. Your natural diet is vegetarian." Indeed, all of the promises of sustenance and food for the Israelites in the Torah are vegetarian: vineyards and gardens, wheat and barley, figs and pomegranates, grapes and dates, fruits and seeds, nuts and gum, olives and bread, milk and honey. Even the manna, "like coriander seed" (Numbers 11:7), was vegan. In contrast, when the Israelites in the Sinai desert call out for and consume meat and fish, many suffer and die in a plague and are buried in the Graves of Lust.

Judaism stresses the importance of tzedakah, that we be kind, assist the poor and weak, and share our food with the hungry. Yet about three-fourths of major U.S. crops such as corn, wheat, soybeans, oats, and alfalfa are fed to the billions of animals destined to be slaughtered for meat, while millions of people worldwide die from hunger and its cruel effects each year. This is an avoidable shanda (shame) on the world.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Assi states, "Tzedakah is equivalent to all the other religious precepts combined" (Baba Batra 9a). The way of the tzadik is the way of chesed (loving-kindness), compassion, charity, and righteousness for all living beings. Vegetarianism is a major form of tzedakah, on a daily basis, which can do as much for the giver as for the receiver.

2. Tikkun Olam.

While Judaism teaches that we are to be shomrei adamah, partners in tikkun olam-re-creating, preserving, and healing the world (Talmud, Shabbat 10a)-mass production of meat contributes substantially to greenhouse gas emission and global warming (what Rabbi Arthur Waskow calls "global scorching," and what the United Nations says is "the most serious challenge facing the human race"). Meat production also contributes to air and water pollution; overuse of chemicals and fossil fuels; the deforestation and destruction of tropical rain forests, coral reefs, mangroves, and other habitats; soil erosion; desertification; species extinction; loss of biodiversity; and various other forms of global environmental degradation. Among other things, we need to re-establish and reinvigorate the earth's mayim chayim-its living waters.

"The human appetite for animal flesh is," according to the editors of the science-based environmental magazine World Watch (July/August 2004), "a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future-deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease."

In the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the great Yiddish writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature: "This is my protest against the conduct of the world. To be a vegetarian is to disagree-to disagree with the course of things today. Starvation, world hunger, cruelty, waste, wars-we must make a statement against these things. Vegetarianism is my statement and I think it's a strong one."

3. Conservation of Resources.

Judaism teaches bal tashchit (concern for the environment, based on Deuteronomy 20:19-20), that we should not waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value (in other words, engage in conservation), and that we should not use more than what is necessary to accomplish a purpose (in other words, prioritize efficiency). Yet, in contrast to these Jewish values, meat production requires the very wasteful use of land, topsoil, water, fossil fuels and other forms of energy, labor, grain, and other vital resources, in addition to various toxic chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones. For example, it can require approximately seventy-eight calories of non-renewable fossil fuel for each calorie of protein obtained from factory-farmed beef, but only two calories of fossil fuel to produce a calorie of protein from soybeans. Thousands of gallons of fresh water are wasted merely to produce a single pound of beef.

"This is the way of pious and elevated people," wrote thirteenth-century Rabbi Aaron HaLevi of Barcelona. "They will not waste even a mustard seed, and they are distressed at every ruination and spoilage they see, and if they are able to save, they will save anything from destruction with all of their power." The meat industry is exceptionally wasteful, inefficient, costly, and destructive, even while better alternatives are plentiful, easily obtainable, and healthier for consumers, workers, animals, and our environment.

4. Health and Safety.

Health and the protection of life are repeatedly emphasized, and even prioritized, in Jewish teachings. While Judaism teaches that we should be very careful about sh'mirat haguf (preserving our bodies and health), and pekuach nefesh (protecting our lives at almost any cost), numerous scientific studies have linked animal-based diets directly to heart disease and heart attacks (the number-one cause of death in the United States), various forms of cancer (the number-two cause of death), stroke (the number-three cause of death), high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, asthma, atherosclerosis, aneurysms, rheumatoid arthritis, impotence, endometriosis, gallstones, gout, Alzheimer's, and other ailments. About two-thirds of diseases in the United States are diet-related-and vegetarians are much less afflicted. Note that even meat-eating doctors almost always recommend eating less meat, not more, while advocating the consumption of more fresh fruit, vegetables, beans, and whole grains for better health.

Further, since more than half of all antibiotics in the United States are given to livestock (plus immense amounts of chemicals, steroids, hormones, and other drugs), resistant bacteria are increasing at an alarming rate, creating untreatable superbugs, like MRSA, that kill tens of thousands of people per year in the United States alone. And don't forget mad cow disease, bird flu, foot and mouth disease, E. coli, salmonella, and food poisoning. "If there were no poultry industry," concludes Neal Barnard, M.D., "there would be no epidemics of bird flu." And if there were no cow industry, there would be no E. coli outbreaks.

Packaged meat has been discovered to be injected with carbon monoxide to keep it looking red, even when it's rancid. Fish often contain mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium and toxic POPs, including PCBs, DDT, and dioxin, which can't be removed from the fish and which bioaccumulate in consumers' bodies.

The meat industry is unhealthy and unsafe. A vegetarian diet (one that does not include any animals) or a vegan diet (a vegetarian diet that does not include any animal products at all, including meat, dairy, and eggs) can help prevent, and sometimes reverse, many of these health- and life-threatening conditions. Vegetarianism also reduces the need for medical attention, medicine, and drugs throughout one's life. As Albert Einstein said, "Nothing will benefit health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as the evolution to a vegetarian diet." It's time for us to evolve toward better personal and planetary health.

5. Compassion.

As fifteenth-century Rabbi Joseph Albo writes, "In the killing of animals, there is cruelty." Centuries earlier, Maimonides, both rabbi and physician, wrote that "There is no difference between the pain of humans and the pain of other animals." It is as simple as that. Compassion is not a new concept, yet it has to be continually renewed. The Sages of the Talmud (Beitza 32b) remark that "Jews are rachmanin b'nei rachmanin [compassionate children of compassionate ancestors], and one who is not compassionate cannot truly be a descendant of our father Abraham."

While Judaism forbids tsa'ar ba'alei chayim (inflicting unnecessary pain on animals), and encourages people to be compassionate, most farm animals-including most of those certified organic or "free range," as well as most animals raised for kosher and halal consumers-are raised on factory farms where they suffer in cramped, confined, and cruel places, and are often drugged, mutilated, burned, tortured, and denied fresh air, water, sunlight, exercise, and any enjoyment of life, whether on Shabbat or any other day, before they are slaughtered on dis-assembly lines.

"Being compassionate toward animal life is not just a matter of being responsible for animal life," writes Rabbi David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, "which we have very clearly laid down in the Torah, expounded by our sages, but is a matter of imbuing ourselves with the right kind of values. If we are insensitive toward animal life, then we desensitize ourselves as human beings. And therefore a truly sensitive human being, compassionate toward other human beings, should be compassionate toward animals." And as Rabbi Rami Shapiro says, "Vegetarianism is not simply a dietary ideal. It is a practice designed to enhance your capacity for compassion." Indeed, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the Chief Rabbi of Efrat in Israel, states that "the dietary laws are intended to teach us compassion and lead us gently [back] to vegetarianism."

Just as we were strangers in Egypt and freed from our slavery, animals need to be freed from their narrow confines of slavery, suffering, torture, and untimely death, in order to feed the whole world with the spirit of compassion, love, life, and liberation. Animals should not have to suffer and die for our selfish pleasure. Consonant with the ethics of Judaism, vegetarianism offers compassion, respects the stranger, reduces suffering, and saves lives every day.

Again, Albert Einstein offers his wisdom: "Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature." Vegetarianism is an easy and effective way of putting one's highest values into action, practicing compassion with every meal, thereby reducing pain, suffering, and death for those who can't speak for or defend themselves.

6. Atonement.

Thirteen represents the number of compassionate traits attributed to YHVH (HaShem) as recounted in the covenant with Moses that is recited on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. On this day, among other things, it is traditional to fast and to refrain from wearing leather shoes, as we are to be as pure as possible while asking for forgiveness and mercy. While fasting on Yom Kippur, however, we read the Prophet Isaiah, who reminds us that the true purpose of our fast should be to sensitize us to the needs of the hungry and the oppressed, so that we will work to end oppression and "share thy bread with the hungry" (Isaiah 58:6-7). Yet, we deny bread to the hungry by feeding so much grain to livestock animals to be killed and consumed as meat. We cannot atone while continuing to engage in the behavior for which we want to atone.

Other animals should not have to suffer and die for our meals and clothes. "Living creatures possess a soul and a certain spiritual superiority," writes the great thirteenth-century commentator Nachmanides, "which in this respect make them similar to those who possess intellect, and they have the power of affecting their own welfare and their food, and they flee from pain and death." If we are sincere in seeking atonement or at-one-ment, we cannot want for ourselves what we do not grant to others. Atonement through teshuvah (turning or repentance) can be a way for us to get back to who we really are and who we really want to be. If we truly want to atone and have compassion for ourselves, and want to emulate the compassion of the Divine, it is imperative that we extend compassion to others. Vegetarianism, and especially veganism, is a much purer form of diet-one without violence, killing, or the spilling of blood.

7. Knowledge and Spirituality.

Judaism often emphasizes the interplay between thinking and doing, highlighting the vital role of kavanah (spiritual intention and concentration) as a precondition for action. That is a motivation behind the blessings, of which there is none specifically for meat-unlike for grains, fruits, and vegetables. According to Jewish tradition, meat-eating was permitted, with elaborate restrictions, after the Flood of Noah as a temporary concession to the human weakness of those with a "lust for meat." It is also part of our teaching, from Hillel's disagreement with Shamai over the lighting of the Chanukah menorah recounted in the Talmud, that ma'alin bakodesh v'ayn moridim: in sacred matters we must increase in holiness rather than decrease. We can increase our holiness by making our consumption more holy.

For those who erroneously think it might be a mitzvah to eat meat during holy days, it is a mitzvah haba'ah al y'dei aveirah, a mitzvah that derives from a sin; it is the fruit of a poisonous tree, and therefore no mitzvah at all. Citing Jewish law, Rabbi Adam Frank says, "The end user of a product knowingly derived by cruel means is a participant in the cruelty." Rabbi Frank adds: "Modern, secular thinking allows for sentient creatures to be treated like inanimate objects, but Jewish tradition does not.... My decision to abstain from the consumption of animal products is an expression of my adherence to Jewish law, and it expresses my disapproval and disdain for the cruel practices of the industry."

Our sage Rabbi Joseph Albo chimes in, "Aside from the cruelty, rage, and fury in killing animals, and the fact that it teaches human beings the bad trait of shedding blood for naught; eating the flesh even of select animals will yet give rise to a mean and insensitive soul." Neither scripture, nor science, nor our long and proud tradition commands or requires Jews or others to consume meat; quite the contrary.

In our creation story, the term nefesh chayah, living being or living soul, is applied to people and animals. Eating meat can be considered a Chilul HaShem, a desecration of YHVH's name, due to the destruction of life and spirit entailed, while eating plants could be considered a Kiddush HaShem, a blessing and sanctification of YHVH's name-however you conceive of YHVH-due to the protection of health and life of both humans and non-human animals. "When you slaughter a creature," Yiddish author and Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer said, "you slaughter God."

Our sages in the Talmud (Chulin 84a) determined that "The Torah teaches a lesson in moral conduct, that people shall not eat meat unless they have a special craving for it ... and [then] shall eat it only occasionally and sparingly." The first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, in A View of Vegetarianism and Peace, regarded the reluctant permission for some to eat a small amount of meat as a concealed reproach and an implied rebuke.

According to Rabbi David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, who is an authority on Halachah (Jewish law), "meat has become halachically unacceptable" and vegetarianism is now a "halachic imperative." As Rabbi Bonnie Koppell states, "There is no question that the Torah's ideal is vegetarianism."

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai hid in a cave with his son Rabbi Eleazar for thirteen years after being condemned to death by the Roman conquerors for speaking out against them, following the destruction of the Second Temple and the murders of Rabbi Akiva (50-135 CE) and many of his students. They were sustained by their cave, a nearby carob tree, a local stream, and their studies of the Torah. Rabbi Shimon taught that our world and the unseen "higher" worlds are unified as manifestations of the Divine Soul, and that the meaning of life is to reunify Creation with the source of Creation.

Further, it is believed by Maimonides, Rav Kook, and other Chief Rabbis and Torah scholars that in the messianic age of the Third Temple, when "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb ... and the lion shall eat straw like the ox" (Isaiah 11:6-7), Temple sacrifices as well as all other food will be vegetarian. Vegetarians live closer to the messianic age by creating it in the present, while also hastening it for the world. "Vegetarianism is a response to today's world," Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi declares. "Meat-eating, like polygamy, fit into an earlier stage of human history." While polygamy is acceptable in the Torah, it was deemed to be unacceptable 1,000 years ago. Likewise, meat will eventually be deemed as unfit and unacceptable, thereby relegated to a primitive past-yet we can live the ideal now, creating both inner and outer peace and justice.

As Rabbi Rami Shapiro reminds us, "Vegetarianism is central to holy living as Judaism has understood it for thousands of years."

8. Divinity.

The scholar and mystic Rabbi Moses Cordovero (1522-1570 CE) wrote a manual on ethics titled The Thirteen Divine Attributes. He included meditation exercises involving the visualization of one's body as the Tree of Life, while focusing on a particular aspect of the Tree, or body. The meat industry is responsible for a tremendous amount of deforestation, cutting down, burning, and clearing millions of trees each day, destroying about an acre of Amazon Rainforest every second, thereby also displacing or killing the people, animals, and plants living there.

The meat industry is making mincemeat out of the rainforests, which are often referred to as "the lungs of the planet," essentially converting this amazing life-sustaining resource into carbon dioxide and cholesterol, significantly contributing to both planetary and personal ill-health. In a miracle of continuing co-evolutionary development, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow discusses, we breathe in the oxygen that trees breathe out, while we breathe out the carbon dioxide that trees breathe in. We need each other and breathe each other into continued existence, yet the production and consumption of meat is killing the trees of life, ignoring both science and Torah.

A spiritual view of the world recognizes the awesome power and beauty of nature, while it abhors destruction and desecration, embracing what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described as "radical amazement" in the presence of the divine. The livestock industry is the antithesis of this view. As Rabbi Adam Frank says, "The environmental destruction caused by the animal-agriculture industry, by the amount of dung produced, by the amount of sewage that gets poured into our waterways and our systems [is] ... damaging our world." He adds that this environmental destruction violates "the Jewish mandate to protect and observe and care for the Earth.... We are ignoring things that are essential and that are critical to the character of Judaism, in order to meet our selfish desires and wants." It is impossible to fully elevate ourselves if we are debasing our bodies, our minds, our spirits, and our world by spilling the blood of other beings.

9. Peace and Justice.

Judaism repeatedly stresses that we must always seek and pursue shalom v'tzedek (peace and justice) and that moral degradation and violence result from unjust conditions. Animal-centered diets waste valuable resources and desensitize us to violence. Such diets help to perpetuate the widespread poverty, hunger, environmental destruction, and despair that lead to mass suffering, social insecurity, ethnic hostilities, violence, genocide, and war.

Our sages note that the Hebrew words for bread (lechem) and for war (milchamah) come from the same root and are therefore related, since shortages of food and instances of wars are correlated, with each contributing to the other.

To resolve these most important issues, we are told to "seek peace and pursue it" (Psalm 34:14). We are told, "justice, justice shall you pursue" (Deuteronomy 16:20), and we are instructed that we "shall not kill [murder]" (Sixth Commandment). We are further told to "love peace, pursue peace, love all creatures" (Hillel), that "he who kills an ox is as if he slew a person" (Isaiah 66:3), and that "one who destroys a single life is considered to have destroyed an entire world, and one who saves a single life is considered to have saved an entire world" (Sanhedrin 4:5).

According to Rabbi Adam Frank: "Judaism does not make the claim of moral superiority, rather, it makes the demand for responsibility of actions. Judaism starts from a place of concern for justice and tries to protect all members of community, both local and global, from abuses of power and privilege." The mitzvah of vegetarianism promotes this responsibility.

10. Hunger.

Hunger is a huge and growing concern in the United States, Israel, and through much of the world. Article 25 of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes food as a human right. While millions of people annually die from overconsumption, particularly consumption of fat and cholesterol, millions of excluded people annually die from underconsumption-from starvation and hunger-related diseases. Although the world produces more than enough food to feed all its people, the inequality of wealth and power, along with the inefficiency of land use and food distribution, creates conditions that lead to scarcity, chronic hunger, malnutrition, starvation, environmental degradation, and ethnic violence.

About one billion poor people chronically suffer from hunger, malnutrition, and their debilitating effects. Tens of thousands of them, disproportionately children, consequently die each day, about one every few seconds, while millions of affluent people get sick and die from the ill effects of overeating and overconsumption, primarily of animal products. In the words of rock star Chrissie Hynde, "Global hunger could be directly attributed to meat-eating."

World hunger is neither necessary, nor automatic, nor inevitable. John Cavanagh and Jerry Mander point out that "when those who have the money to enjoy meat-rich diets cause the market to redirect available supplies of grain away from the tables of people who cannot pay in order to feed livestock to provide meat to those who can, they contribute to the dynamics of hunger."

Vegetarianism creates conditions that are more fair and just, more efficient and sustainable, and more healthy, thereby potentially allowing more people to be fed, rather than using land, grain, water, labor, energy, and other resources to inefficiently and immorally produce food to be fed to animals that are later killed and fed to a smaller number of more affluent people.

11. Keeping Kosher.

The practice of kashrut, or keeping kosher, is the specific way of applying Jewish teachings and Jewish values to our consumption of food. Besides being life-sustaining, satisfying, and often joyous, eating is a holy act. And as Rabbi Pinchas Peli writes in Torah Today, "The laws of kashrut come to teach us that a Jew's first preference should be a vegetarian meal." Further, Rabbi Robert Gordis states, "Vegetarianism offers an ideal mode for preserving the religious and ethical values which kashrut was designed to concretize in human life." Indeed, as Rabbi Daniel Jezer says, "A higher form of being kosher is vegetarianism."

Vegetarianism, as a form of eco-kashrut, is an easy and effective way to keep kosher, to be more sustainable, to be more healthy, and to be more holy. In this sense, all meat is treyf, unkosher and unfit for human consumption. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, commented that "I'm a vegetarian and I stay milchik all the time." Similarly, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Israel, said, "If you don't eat meat, you are certainly kosher, and I believe that is what we should tell our fellow rabbis."

12. Fighting Fascism.

Historically, and unfortunately still presently, Jews have been common targets of authoritarian, fascist, and genocidal policies and actions, whatever their names and places. Jewish ethics, Jewish values, and even the method of the Talmud itself, respects and protects minority opinions and minority groups. "Just as the Nazis dehumanized the Jews in their propaganda and in the atrocities they committed," writes Jay Levine, M.D., "the apologists for meat consumption and the exploitation of animals have stereotyped and degraded the animal kingdom for their own purposes, declaring animals to be devoid of cognitive functioning and even of pain."

It is important to note that "the Nazis explicitly structured their industrial destruction of the Jews [and other peoples] on the model of animal slaughter," according to Rabbi Hillel Norry. "This is not to compare the suffering of animals and humans, but shows that the way we treat animals is similar to the way the Nazis treated us."

Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, the founding dean of New York's Mesifta Torah VoDaath, became a vegetarian after the Holocaust/Shoah, simply yet powerfully declaring, "There has been enough killing in the world."

Isaac Bashevis Singer powerfully declares, "In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka." The livestock industry is a chronic and widespread form of enslavement and torture, while vegetarianism is a powerful way of actively yet nonviolently opposing the daily and brutal outrage of meat production and consumption.

13. Concern for the Community.

Concern for the Jewish community (Klal Yisrael), as well as the wider community (Klal Ha'Olam), is integral to Jewish ethics and requires personal and communal responsibility.

Israel, and the rest of the Middle East, is especially threatened by global warming, as indicated by a 2007 report from the Israel Union for Environmental Defense: there will be an increase in the frequency, intensity and duration of heat waves; the number of rainy days will drop and annual rainfall may decrease by up to 30 percent; an expected rise in the Mediterranean Sea will cause major flooding of low-lying and coastal areas; Israel's flora and fauna, already widely affected by human activities, are especially vulnerable to the effects of major climate changes; and the potential economic cost to Israel due to global warming effects has been estimated to go as high as $33 billion annually.

According to Friends of the Earth Middle East's report, "Climate Change: A New Threat to Middle East Security," climate change is likely to act as a "threat multiplier" in the Middle East. The report adds that climate change will exacerbate "water scarcity and tensions over water within and between nations." Furthermore, "Water shortages and rising sea levels could lead to mass migration in the region. Economic unrest across the region, due to a decline in agricultural production from climate impacts on water resources, also could lead to greater political unrest ... thereby affecting internal and cross-border relations."

Conclusions

Vegetarianism helps us to preserve and protect our health, environment, culture, community, society, and spirit l'dor vador, from generation to generation. Ecclesiastes 3:19, which is attributed to King Solomon, says: "The fate of men and the fate of animals, they have one and the same fate. As one dies, so does the other, and they all have the same spirit." What we do to animals and the environment, therefore, we are ultimately doing to ourselves and our communities. We are fouling our own nest.

Like Leo Baeck, I am struck with "ethical optimism." We can do better.

Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, famously wrote "hayashan yitchadesh, v'hechadash yitkadesh, the old shall be made new, and the new shall be made holy." A shift toward vegetarianism can also be a major factor in the rededication, revitalization, and renewal of Judaism, as it would further demonstrate that Jewish values are not only relevant but essential to everyday personal life, communal development, and global survival.

If you want to make a powerful and positive difference and have more meaning in your life, living by Judaism's highest ideals, participating in a lifelong, life-affirming spiritual process, then vegetarianism is the best gift you could give yourself, your family, our community, and our world. To paraphrase Hillel: Do not do unto other beings what would be hateful if done to you. All the rest is dessert. Now go and eat!

 

Daniel Brook, a vegetarian since working on Kibbutz Sa'ar in Israel, is an author, speaker, and instructor of sociology at San Jose State University. He welcomes comments via vegnik@gmail.com.

For more information, please read Richard Schwartz's Judaism and Vegetarianism (www.jewishveg.com/rev.html), watch A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World (www.ASacredDuty.org), and visit Jewish Vegetarians of North America at www.JewishVeg.com and also www.ShalomVeg.com.

To read more of Daniel Brook's writing, visit the Vegetarian Mitzvah at www.brook.com/jveg, Eco-Eating at www.brook.com/veg, and No Smoking? at www.brook.com/smoke

 


Agriprocessors 2004 @ Yahoo! Video

In November 2009 a letter to the editor concerning this article developed into a Conversation on Vegetarianism between Tikkun reader Ruth Eisenbud and Michael Lerner.

 
tags: Environment, Food/Hunger, Judaism, Rethinking Religion, Spirituality  
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One Response to The Planet-Saving Mitzvah: Why Jews Should Consider Vegetarianism

  1. Laura Slitt April 30, 2013 at 5:34 am

    Reading this article on Judaism and Vegetarianism restores my faith in my religion. Why it was never discussed in Hebrew School or family discussions is suspect. It appears selfish motives have corrupted religion as much as politics. I have witnessed the savagery of slaughter, and the required human desensitization to do it, ignore it, demand products that require it. It is by far, the ugliest behavior human beings are capable of. The flood came because Gd saw humanity behaving so badly, violently, selfishly. What has changed? I am glad so many people are deciding to go vegan. I am filled with trauma that as I type, young, helpless, innocent animals are being tortured, mutilated, harmed, for things that cause disease, environmental damage, and are killing CREATION. How do we ask forgiveness for such a goliath violation of lives for so many centuries? http://www.earthlings.com

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