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18 Reasons Jews Shouldn't Be Vegetarians (And Why They're Wrong)
By Richard H. Schwartz
Reprinted from Tikkun Magazine May/June 2003
1: The Torah teaches that humans are granted dominion over animals (Gen. 1:26), giving us a warrant to treat animals in any way we wish.
Response: Jewish tradition interprets "dominion" as guardianship, or stewardship: we are called upon to be co-workers with God in improving the world. Dominion does not mean that people have the right to wantonly exploit animals, and it certainly does not permit us to breed animals and treat them as machines designed solely to meet human needs.
In A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace, Rav Kook states: "There can be no doubt in the mind of any intelligent person that [the Divine empowerment of humanity to derive benefit from nature] does not mean the domination of a harsh ruler, who afflicts his people and servants merely to satisfy his whim and desire, according to the crookedness of his heart. It is unthinkable that the Divine Law would impose such a decree of servitude, sealed for all eternity, upon the world of God, Who is 'good to all, and His mercy is upon all His works' (Ps. 145:9)." This view is reinforced by the fact that immediately after God gave humankind dominion over animals (Gen. 1:26), He prescribed vegetarian foods as the diet for humans (Gen. 1:29).
2: The Torah teaches that only people are created in the Divine Image, meaning that God places far less value on animals.
Response: While the Torah states that only human beings are created "in the Divine Image" (Gen. 5:1), animals are also God's creatures, possessing sensitivity and the capacity for feeling pain. God is concerned that they are protected and treated with compassion and justice. In fact, the Jewish sages state that to be "created in the Divine Image," means that people have the capacity to emulate the Divine compassion for all creatures. "As God is compassionate," they teach, "so you should be compassionate."
3: Inconsistent with Judaism, vegetarians elevate animals to a level equal to or greater than that of people.
Response: Vegetarians' concern for animals and their refusal to treat animals cruelly does not mean that they regard animals as equals. There are many reasons to be vegetarian besides consideration for animalsóconcerns about human health, ecological threats, and the plight of hungry people, to name a few.
Because humans are capable of imagination, rationality, empathy, compassion, and moral choice, we should strive to end the unbelievably cruel conditions under which farm animals are currently raised. This is an issue of sensitivity, not an assertion of equality with the animal kingdom.
4: Vegetarianism places greater priority on animal rights than on the many problems related to human welfare.
Response: Vegetarian diets are not beneficial only to animals. They improve human health, help conserve food and other resources, and put less strain on endangered ecosystems. In view of the many threats related to today's livestock agriculture (such as deforestation and global climate change), working to promote vegetarianism may be the most important action that one can take for global sustainability.
5: By putting vegetarian values ahead of Jewish teachings, vegetarians are, in effect, creating a new religion with values contrary to Jewish teachings.
Response: Jewish vegetarians are not placing so-called "vegetarian values" above Torah principles but are challenging the Jewish community to apply Judaism's teachings at every level of our daily lives. Jewish teachings that we treat animals with compassion, guard our health, share with the hungry, protect the environment, conserve resources, and seek peace, are best applied through vegetarian diets.
6: Jews must eat meat on Shabbat and Yom Tov (Jewish holidays).
Response: According to the Talmud (T. B. Pesachim 109a), since the destruction of the Temple, Jews are not required to eat meat in order to rejoice on sacred occasions. This view is reinforced in the works Reshit Chochmah and Kerem Shlomo and Rabbi Chizkiah Medini's Sdei Chemed, which cites many classical sources on the subject. Several Israeli chief rabbis, including Shlomo Goren, late Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, and Shear Yashuv Cohen, Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Haifa, have been or are strict vegetarians.
7: The Torah mandated that Jews eat korban Pesach and other korbanot (sacrifices).
Response: The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides believed that God permitted sacrifices as a concession to the common mode of worship in Biblical times.
It was felt that had Moses not instituted the sacrifices, his mission would have failed and Judaism might have disappeared. The Jewish philosopher Abarbanel reinforced Maimonides' position by citing a midrash (Rabbinic teaching) that indicates God tolerated the sacrifices because the Israelites had become accustomed to sacrifices in Egypt, but that He commanded they be offered only in one central sanctuary in order to wean the Jews from idolatrous practices.
8: Jews historically have had many problems with some animal rights groups, which have often opposed shechita (ritual slaughter) and advocated its abolishment.
Response: Jews should consider switching to vegetarianism not because of the views of animal rights groups (whether they are hostile to Judaism or not), but because it is the diet most consistent with Jewish teachings. It is the Torah, not animal rights groups, which is the basis for observing how far current animal treatment has strayed from fundamental Jewish values. As Samson Raphael Hirsch stated: "Here you are faced with God's teaching, which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours."
9: The restrictions of shechita minimize the pain to animals in the slaughtering process, and thus fulfill Jewish laws on proper treatment of animals.
Response: This ignores the cruel treatment of animals on "factory farms" in the many months prior to slaughter. Can we ignore the force-feeding of huge amounts of grain to ducks and geese to produce foie gras, the removal of calves from their mothers shortly after birth to raise them for veal, the killing of over 250 million male chicks immediately after birth at egg-laying hatcheries in the U.S. annually, the placing of hens in cages so small that they can't raise even one wing, and the many other horrors of modern factory farming?
10: If Jews do not eat meat, they will be deprived of the opportunity to fulfill many mitzvot (commandments).
Response: By not eating meat, Jews are actually fulfilling many mitzvot: showing compassion to animals, preserving health, conserving resources, helping to feed the hungry, and preserving the earth. And by abstaining from meat, Jews reduce the chance of accidentally violating several prohibitions of the Torah, such as mixing meat and milk, eating nonkosher animals, and eating forbidden fats or blood. There are other cases where Torah laws regulate things that God would prefer people not do at all. For example, God wishes people to live in peace, but He provides commandments relating to war, knowing that human beings will quarrel and seek victories over others.
Similarly, the Torah laws that restrict taking female captives in wartime are a concession to human weakness. Indeed, the sages go to great lengths to deter people from taking advantage of such dispensations.
11: Judaism teaches that it is wrong not to take advantage of the pleasurable things that God has put on the earth. Since He put animals on the earth, and it is pleasurable to eat them, is it not wrong to refrain from eating meat?
Response: Can eating meat be pleasurable to a sensitive person when he or she knows that, as a result, their health is endangered, grain is wasted, the environment is damaged, and animals are being cruelly treated? One can indulge in pleasure without doing harm to living creatures. There are many other cases in Judaism where actions that people may consider pleasurable are forbidden or discouragedósuch as the use of tobacco, drinking liquor to excess, having sexual relations out of wedlock, and hunting.
12: A movement by Jews toward vegetarianism would lead to less emphasis on kashrut (dietary laws) and eventually a disregard of these laws.
Response: Quite the contrary. In many ways, becoming a vegetarian makes it easier and less expensive to observe the laws of kashrut. This might attract many new adherents to keeping kosher, and eventually to other important Jewish practices. As a vegetarian, one need not be concerned with mixing milchigs (dairy products) with fleichigs (meat products), waiting three or six hours after eating meat before being allowed to eat dairy products, storing four complete sets of dishes (two for regular use and two for Passover use), extra silverware, pots, pans, etc., and many other considerations incumbent upon the nonvegetarian who wishes to observe kashrut.
13: If everyone became vegetarian, butchers, shochtim (slaughterers), and others dependent for a living on the consumption of meat would lack work.
Response: There could be a shift from the production of animal products to that of nutritious vegetarian dishes. In England during World War II, when there was a shortage of meat, butchers relied mainly on the sale of fruits and vegetables. Today, new businesses could sell tofu, miso, felafel, soy burgers, and vegetarian cholent (Sabbath hot dish). Besides, the shift toward vegetarianism will be gradual, providing time for a transition to other jobs.
The same kind of question can be asked about other moral issues. What would happen to arms merchants if we had universal peace? What would happen to some doctors and nurses if people took better care of themselves, stopped smoking, improved their diets, and so on? Immoral or inefficient practices should not be supported because some people earn a living in the process.
14: If everyone became vegetarian, animals would overrun the earth.
Response: This concern is based on an insufficient understanding of animal behavior. For example, there are millions of turkeys around at Thanksgiving not because they want to help celebrate the holiday, but because farmers breed them for the dinner table. Dairy cows are artificially inseminated annually so that they will constantly produce milk. Before the establishment of modern intensive livestock agriculture, food supply and demand kept animal populations relatively steady. An end to the manipulation of animals' reproductive tendencies to suit our needs would lead to a decrease, rather than an increase, in the number of animals. We are not overrun by animals that we do not eat, such as lions, elephants, and crocodiles.
15: Instead of advocating vegetarianism, we should alleviate the evils of factory farming so that animals are treated better, less grain is wasted, and less health-harming chemicals are used.
Response: The breeding of animals is "big business." Animals are raised the way they are today because it is very profitable. Improving conditions, as suggested by this assertion, would certainly be a step in the right direction, but it has been strongly resisted by the meat industry since it would greatly increase already high prices. Why not abstain from eating meat as a protest against present policies while trying to improve them? Even under the best of conditions, why take the life of a creature of God, "whose tender mercies are over all His creatures" (Ps. 145:9), when it is not necessary for proper nutrition?
16: One can work to improve conditions for animals without being a vegetarian.
Response: Animal abuse is a widespread problem and there are many ways to improve conditions for animals. However, one should keep in mind that factory farming is the primary source of animal abuse in this country.
According to FARM (Farm Animal Reform Movement), "The number of warm-blooded animals brutalized and slaughtered each year is approximately 70 times the number of animals killed in laboratories, 30 times the number killed by hunters and trappers, and 500 times the number killed in pounds." They also reported that almost 10 billion farm animals are killed annually to produce food. A typical meat-eating animal welfare advocate is personally responsible for the slaughter of twenty-two warm-blooded animals per year, 1,500 in an average lifetime.
17: If vegetarian diets were best for health, doctors would recommend them.
Response: Unfortunately, while doctors are devoted to the well-being of their patients, many lack information about the basic relationship between food and health because nutrition is not sufficiently taught at most medical schools.
Also, many patients are resistant to making dietary changes. The accepted approach today seems to be to prescribe medications first and, perhaps, recommend a diet change as an afterthought. However, there now seems to be increasing awareness on the part of doctors about the importance of proper nutrition, but the financial power of the beef and dairy lobbies and other groups who gain from the status quo prevents rapid changes.
18: I enjoy eating meat. Why should I give it up?
Response: If one is solely motivated by what will bring pleasure, perhaps no answer to this question would be acceptable. But Judaism wishes us to be motivated by far more: doing mitzvot, performing good deeds and acts of charity, sanctifying ourselves in the realm of the permissible, helping to feed the hungry, pursuing justice and peace, etc. Even if one is primarily motivated by considerations of pleasure and convenience, the negative health effects of animal-centered diets should be taken into account. One cannot enjoy life when one is not in good health.
Richard H. Schwartz is professor emeritus of mathematics at the College of Staten Island and author of Judaism and Vegetarianism and Judaism and Global Survival.
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