Shabbat Symposium: Judaism & Vegetarianism
Led by Bonnie Lindauer
March 23, 2018
Origins of Vegetarianism
The early part of Genesis, makes it clear that God’s initial intention was that people be vegetarians, as we read in Genesis 1:29:
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.”
Across the centuries, many sages and rabbis have agreed that our roots are vegetarian and some state that when the Messianic age arrives, Jews will again be all vegetarians. Cassuto, for example, in his commentary “From Adam to Noah” (p. 58) writes:
“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 you must not hold their life cheap nor slaughter them for food. Your natural diet is vegetarian…”
Reasons — Biblical
- Compassion for Animals – Tsa’ar Ba’Alei Chayim — inflicting unnecessary pain on animals. Animals are part of God’s creation and we have special responsibilities toward them — above all to avoid cruelty. In fact in Genesis 1:21, 24, the phrase nefesh chaya, a living soul, is applied to animals as well as people. Biblical/Talmud verses forbidding cruelty to animals:
- One is obligated to relieve an animal’s suffering (i.e. unburden it), even if it belongs to your enemy. (Exodus 23:5)
- If an animal depends on you for sustenance, it is forbidden to eat anything until feeding the animal first. (Talmud – Brachot 40a, based on Deut. 11:15)
- We are commanded to grant our animals a day of rest on Shabbat. (Exodus 20:10)
- It is forbidden to use two different species to pull the same plow, since this is unfair to the weaker animal. (Deut. 22:10)
- It is a mitzvah to send away a mother bird before taking her young. (Deut. 22:7)
- It is forbidden to kill an animal and its young on the same day. (Leviticus 22:28)
- It is prohibited to sever and eat a limb of a live animal. (Genesis 9:4)
- Shechita (ritual slaughter) must be done with a minimum of pain to the animal. The blade must be meticulously examined to assure the most painless form of death possible. (“Chinuch” 451; “Pri Megadim” – Introduction to Shechita Laws).
- Hunting animals for sport is viewed with serious disapproval by our Sages. (Talmud – Avoda Zara 18b; “Noda BeYehuda” 2-YD 10)
Why Change to Allowing Eating of Meat?
- By the time of Noah, humanity had morally degenerated, expressed in Genesis 6:12 as “And God saw the earth, and behold it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.”
- After the flood, It is widely believed that as a concession to human weakness, permission to eat meat was given, as we read in Genesis 9:3 “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; as the green herb have I given you all.” Moreover, some argue that after the flood there were not yet plants and fruit trees to eat from, so meat eating was permitted.
- Prevents human cannibalism – Rabbi Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel and a strong supporter of vegetarianism, explains that if people were denied the right to eat the flesh of animals, some might eat the flesh of human beings instead, because of their weakness to control a lust for flesh. He regarded the permission to slaughter animals for food as a “transitional tax” or temporary dispensation. Along with other mystics he believed that all people would return to vegetarianism in the messianic age.
This permitted meat was called basar ta’avah, “meat of lust,” so named because rabbinic teachings indicate that meat is not considered a necessity for life. The Talmud expresses this limited view associated with the consumption of meat in this way: “The Torah teaches a lesson in moral conduct, that man shall not eat meat unless he has a special craving for it…and shall eat it only occasionally and sparingly.” (Chulin 84a)
After the Exodus Through Contemporary Times
- When the Israelites were in the wilderness, animals could only be slaughtered and eaten as part of the sacrificial service in the sanctuary. (Leviticus 17:3-5).
- Another attempt by God to have the Israelites abstain from eating meat occurred when they were wandering in the desert and God rained manna down on them. When Israelites became dissatisfied with eating manna and complained, God then provided meat in the form of quail. But while the flesh was still in the mouths of the Israelites, God struck them with a great plague (Numbers 11;4-33). The place where this incident occurred was named “The Graves of Lust,” to indicate that the strong desire for flesh led to the many deaths. (Numbers 11:34).
- Prophet Isaiah wrote about the kingdom of heaven where everyone would be herbivores, esp. in Chapter 11.
- Talmud contains support for both a vegetarian and meat-eating diet. But often it’s nuanced. As Rabbi Alfred S. Cohen wrote in The Journal of Halacha, “perhaps the most famous lesson was taught by Ramban: “Be holy by abstaining from those things which are permitted to you… For those who drink wine and eat meat all the time are considered scoundrels with a Torah license. Again we find reinforcement for the view that while the Torah permitted eating animal flesh, it was always understood as permission for occasional indulgence, but certainly not something to be sought after.” (p.50).
- Contemporary Judaism reflects both a pro-vegetarian diet and the acceptance of eating meat, of course with lots of conditions: must be a species permitted by the Torah (Leviticus chapter 11); is ritually slaughtered (shechita), which involves the animal being healthy and conscious when slaughtered in a precise way (Deut. 12:21); has the non-kosher elements (blood and certain fats and sinews) removed (Leviticus 3:17; Genesis 32:33); and is prepared without mixing meat and milk (Exodus 34:26).
- Many Jewish vegetarians are influenced by the sub-standard conditions in today’s meat and poultry processing. In contrast to the Torah verses protecting the rights of animals, factory farms routinely confine animals in cramped spaces; often drug and mutilate animals; and deny animals fresh air, sunlight, exercise, and any opportunity to satisfy their natural instincts. A couple of examples include:
- Forced feeding of ducks and geese to produce goose liver (pate de foie gras). The production and sales of goose liver has been banned by the Israeli Knesset, even though some Ultra-Orthodox do not believe that this practice is a violation of tzaar baalai chayim. The sponsor of the legislation, MK Dov Lipman, an orthodox rabbi, stated in the July 10, 2013 The Times of Israel: “the time has come to get this soul-corrupting food out of Israel.”
- The inhumane treatment of calves to produce veal has been widely condemned. The great 20th century American sage, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), forbade raising veal in cramped and painful conditions, and forbade feeding animals chemicals in place of food, since this would deprive them of the pleasure of eating. (“Igros Moshe” EH 4:92).
Rabbinic and Jewish Organizational Responses to Factory Farming Abuses:
- Former Chief Rabbi of Ireland Rabbi David Rosen has written, “The current treatment of animals in the livestock trade definitely renders the consumption of meat as halachically unacceptable.” Other rabbis, while agreeing that animals should be raised and slaughtered in humane ways, do not agree that such meat is forbidden.
- Thirty rabbis signed this proclamation in The Forward, April 20, 2017:
“We, the undersigned, are committed to the observance of kashrut and its continuance as a vehicle towards just, healthy living and the service of God. We encourage the community to consider research of livestock raised in the factory farming system and to question whether food prepared in this manner meets the reverence-for-life standard on which kashrut is founded or the ethical standard we require from large conglomerates to mom-and-pop farm operations. A substantial body of research suggests there is significant and unnatural pain caused toward animals during their raising and slaughter for human consumption, that factory farming is one of the leading contributors to carbon emissions, and that the consumption of large amounts of meat is a leading contributor to cardiac disease, gastrointestinal ailments, and certain types of cancers. As a whole, it behooves the Jewish community, indeed nations all over the world, to have spirited and respectful conversations about reducing meat intake and coming together to find solutions for this global concern.”
- The Jewish Initiative for Animals (JIA) is a movement “to support innovative programs to turn Jewish values of compassion for animals into action while building Jewish American communities in the process.”
- USCJ —the Magen Tzedek Standards, originally known as Hekhsher Tzedek, “is a complimentary certification for kosher food produced in the U.S that meets Jewish halakhic standards for workers, consumers, animals, and the environment, as understood by Conservative Judaism. Launched in 2011, it’s sponsored by the Rabbinical Assembly, the American Association of Conservative Rabbis, the Central Conference of Reform Rabbis, and the Union for Reform Judaism.” However, this initiative has met with harsh criticism from Orthodox rabbis and and I could find no evidence of any product yet bearing its seal.
Other Jewish Values Favor Vegetarianism
- Environmental aspects – Another mitzvah often cited is bal tashchit, the law which prohibits waste. Vegetarians and others suggest that an omnivorous diet is wasteful, since it “uses 5 times more grain, 10 times more water, 15 times more land and 20 times more energy when compared to a vegan diet.” (Reform Judaism blog)
- Environmentally, the large-scale meat and poultry industries have resulted in more land and water being dedicated to grow feed crops. As Dr.Schwartz writes:
“The negative effects of animal-centered diets are interconnected: the cruel methods used to raise animals lead to unhealthy animals, which in turn affects human health; the feeding of 70% of the grain grown in the U.S. to livestock contributes to global hunger since these crops are not used for human consumption, the tremendous amounts of grain grown for animal feed require large amounts of fertilizer ad pesticides, whose manufacture and use cause air and water pollution and depletion of soil fertility; animal-based agriculture contributes to food, energy and water shortages, which increase the potential for violence and war. Everything is connected to everything else.” (p 180).
- Human Health – Judaism holds that human life is sacred and we should care for our health. Even the orthodox, educational organization com, states: “vegetarianism for aesthetic or health reasons is acceptable; indeed, the Torah’s mandate to “guard yourselves carefully” (Deut. 4:15) requires that we pay attention to health issues related to a meat-centered diet.” The article goes on to advise readers that “some points to consider include the risks posed by the contemporary increase in sickness in animals created by factory farm conditions, and the administration of growth hormones, antibiotics and other drugs given to animals.”
Orthodox Rabbi Alfred S. Cohen concludes his comprehensive article, “Vegetarianism From a Jewish Perspective” with this statement: ‘Following the many precedents prescribed in the Code of Jewish Law, we would have little difficulty in arriving at the conclusion that, if indeed eating meat is injurious to ones health, it is not only permissible, but possibly even mandatory that we reduce our ingestion of an unhealthful product to the minimal level.’ “(p.60-61 )
- World Hunger – Judaism encourages us to share our food with the hungry. Yet, the inefficiencies of animal agriculture waste grains and lands that could be used for staple crops, thereby depriving hungry people of food.
The Future — What are the Choices?
As I hope this presentation has made clear Judaism offers us much guidance about ethical food production and consumption. We don’t have to become vegetarians or vegans, nor do we have to purchase only kosher meats, but we are expected to care about and act in support of the ethical issues relating to animal and plant production/processing and the humane, just treatment of workers in the agricultural and meat industries. Maintaining a kosher kitchen and eating only kosher products is certainly a big part of ethical eating, but as we know kosher does NOT necessarily mean organic. If we care about the environment the land and our health AND we want to keep kosher, we would look for products that are marked kosher as well as organic.
Fortunately, the last decade has witnessed a growing awareness in the Jewish community, as well as in the general population, about issues that affect the nation’s food production and consumption. And thanks to the various organizations I mentioned earlier, there is a new kosher food consciousness that has resulted in several Jewish meat/poultry companies providing organic AND kosher certified products, (e.g. KOL Foods, Wise Organic Pastures, some Empire poultry products, etc.). Even if we do NOT care to purchase kosher-certified foods and meats, if we care to eat ethically, we might consider purchasing organic-certified foods and meats/poultry.
Recently, a change in USDA certification has made it easier for Jewish kosher and organic certified products to be approved. The U.S.DA announced in early 2017 that the kosher and halal meat produced with the well-known USDA Organic label can also qualify as kosher, even though kosher and halal slaughter methods follow religious law instead of standard USDA regulations. (stunning before slaughter).The regulations expressly permit “ritual slaughter” in organic meat and poultry production.
However, concerns about ethical food production and consumption may become non-existent and we won’t have to make choices if the Lab-Food movement becomes mainstream. I learned about this new industry from our retreat speaker Rabbi Micah Becker-Klein. According to a Dec. 19, 2017 Scientific American article,
“A handful of start-ups are now taking what have solely been medical technologies and applying them to growing animal-agricultural products like meat, milk, eggs and leather. Because these foods require so many fewer resources to produce than raising whole animals, this emerging field of cellular agriculture could do to our present day system of industrial animal agriculture what clean energy is beginning to do to fossil fuels.” If this technology gains widespread applications, there may no longer be a need for people to be vegan/vegetarian. But since this is a brave new technology, the Kashrut-certification authorities will probably need to weigh in on it.
Maimonides argued that: “Animals feel very great pain, there being no difference regarding this pain between man and other animals.” How can we be unconcerned about this pain if our tradition is so adamant about these values? As kosher or non-kosher consumers, we must start calling upon the kashrut authorities to affect real change throughout the poultry and meat industries. Oversight is needed more than ever, and we need more mechanisms in place that provide for transparency.
Berkman, Seth. “Magen Tzedek, Ethical Kosher Seal, Stalled Amid Orthodox Opposition.” The Forward,
Cohen, Alfred S. “Vegetarianism From A Jewish Perspective.” The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society. 1981. www.ethics.rabbinics.org/Cohen_Vegetarianism.pdf
Davidson, Baruch S. “Judaism and Vegetarianism.” Chabad.org. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/858870/jewish/Judaism-and-Vegetarianism.htm – Presents Biblical, philosophical and Kabbalistic approaches to eating meat.
Magen Tzedek: An Ethical Standard for Kosher Food. http://www.magentzedek.org/.
Reform Judaism Blog. “Bal Tashchit.” Feb. 24, 2016. https://www.reformjudaism.org.uk/bal-tashchit/
Schwartz, Richard H. Judaism and Vegetarianism. Revised edition. NY: Lantern Books: 2001.
Dr. Schwartz, professor emeritus at the College of Staten Island, has written the “bible” on this topic. Chapter one is an in-depth discussion of Biblical sources for a vegetarian view. Five chapters explore different aspects of the connection between Judaism and vegetarianism — connections with health, tikkun olam (e.g. feeding the hungry), ecology, and peace. Several chapters provide resources of organizations, recipes and notes. The chapter “Biographies of Famous Jewish Vegetarians” includes brief “biographies” of 14 well known writers and rabbis, such as Rabbi Abraham Kook, Rabbi David Cohen, Rabbi Shlomo Green, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Franz Kafka.
Spence, Rebecca. “Backyard Kosher: Observant Jews take meat ritual into their own hands.” The J Weekly, January 31, 2014. https://www.jweekly.com/2014/01/31/backyard-kosher-observant-jews-take-meat-ritual-into-their-own-hands/.
Strivastava, Jane. “Vegetarianism and Meat-Eating In Eight Religions.” Hinduism Today. (April/May/June 2007). https://www.hinduismtoday.com/modules/smartsection/item.php?itemid=1541.
“There Is No Kosher Meat: The Israelis Full of Zeal for Going Vegan.” The Guardian. March 17, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/17/there-is-no-kosher-meat-the-israelis-full-of-zeal-for-going-vegan
Twerski, Feige and Rabbi Shraga Simmons. “Judaism and Vegetarianism; Where’s the Beef? Examining the Pros and Cons.” aish.com. June 21, 2003. http://www.aish.com/ci/s/48916842.html
Yanklowitz, Shmuley, contributor. “Orthodox Rabbis Warn Of ‘Moral And Spiritual Dangers’ Of Eating Meat,” The Forward, April 20, 2017. https://forward.com/scribe/369525/orthodox-rabbis-warn-of-moral-and-spiritual-dangers-of-eating-meat/.