Humane Religion Magazine
March - April 2008 Issue
WHY NOT DEBATE “SHOULD JEWS BE VEGETARIANS?”
by Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.
This is a very respectful challenge to rabbis and other Jewish leaders to engage in a public dialogue/debate via email on “Should Jews Be Vegetarians?” This is something that Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) has been trying to organize for many years.
We think such a debate is very important today because the mass production and widespread consumption of meat harms people, communities and the planet and is in conflict with Judaism in at least six important areas:
1. 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. Efforts to cure these diseases has resulted in sharp increases in medical expenditures, contributing to huge deficits, making it difficult to fund social programs that many Jews and others depend on.
2. While Judaism forbids tsa'ar ba'alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals, most farm animals -- including those raised for kosher consumers -- are raised on "factory farms" where they live in cramped, confined spaces, and are often drugged, mutilated, and denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise, and any enjoyment of life, before they are slaughtered and eaten. A few examples of practices that are sharply at variance to Jewish teachings are that over 250 million male chicks are killed annually in the US alone immediately after birth at egg laying hatcheries because they can't lay eggs and they have not been genetically programmed to provide much meat; hens are kept in spaces so small that they can't even stretch a wing, and they have their beaks cut off without anesthesia, so they won't harm other hens by pecking in their very unnatural environment; dairy cows are artificially impregnated (raped) annually, so they will be able to continually be able to give milk, and forced to give birth to calves who are whisked away from them at birth, likely to become veal calves and live a short, tortured life; and the list could go on and on.
3. While Judaism teaches that "the earth is the Lord's" (Psalm 24:1) and that we are to be God's partners and co-workers in preserving the world, modern intensive livestock agriculture contributes substantially to global warming, soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats and other environmental damage. A 2006 UN report indicated that “livestock' agriculture emits more greenhouse gases (18 percent in CO2 equivalents) than all the cars and other forms of transportation worldwide combined (13.5 percent), and that the number of farmed animals is projected to double in the next 50 years. If that happens, the increased greenhouse gas emissions from these animals will negate reductions in other areas, and make it extremely difficult to reach the greenhouse gas levels necessary to avoid global warming's severest effects.
4 While Judaism mandates bal tashchit, that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value, and that we are not to use more than is needed to accomplish a purpose, animal agriculture requires the wasteful use of grain, land, water, energy, and other resources. As one example, in an increasingly thirsty world, it takes up to 14 times as much water to produce a person's animal-based diet than to produce his or her vegan diet.
5. While Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people, over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, while an estimated 20 million people worldwide die because of hunger and its effects each year. The need to produce so much food for farmed animals raises the price of grain, and makes it difficult for poor people to afford the nourishment they need for the health and proper development.
6. While Judaism stresses that we must seek and pursue peace and that violence results from unjust conditions, animal-centered diets, by wasting valuable resources, help to perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that eventually lead to instability and war. Seeing that the Hebrew words for bread (lechem) and war (milchamah) come from the same root, the Jewish sages deduced that a lack of grain and other resources makes it more likely that nations will go to war.
In view of these important Jewish mandates to preserve human health, attend to the welfare of animals, protect the environment, conserve resources, help feed hungry people, and pursue peace, and since animal-centered diets violate and contradict each of these responsibilities, I and JVNA argue that committed Jews (and others) should sharply reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products.
One could say "dayenu" (it would be enough) after any of the arguments above, because each one constitutes by itself a serious conflict between Jewish values and current practice that should impel Jews to seriously consider a plant-based diet. Combined, they make an urgently compelling case for the Jewish community to address these issues.
So, this is an open invitation for rabbis to engage in a respectful debate on the above issues. We are not arguing that Jews must be vegetarians; there should be a choice, but we believe that choice should be based on the realities of the production and consumption of meat and other animal products and how they impinge on the Jewish values mentioned above. We believe that engaging in such debates would be a Kiddush Hashem (a sanctification of God's Name) as it would lead to an improvement in the health of Jews and others, reduce the current massive mistreatment of animals on factory farms, help move our imperiled planet to a sustainable path and enhance the commitment of Jews to Judaism, by showing the relevance of our eternal teachings to current issues.
So rabbis, please contact me at president@JewishVeg.com to arrange a debate. Or, perhaps choose one rabbi to represent your views. If you are not willing and able to do this, we think, respectfully, that you should admit that our arguments are correct, that animal-based diets violate fundamental Jewish teachings, and tell your congregants they should shift toward vegetarian diets.
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.