Jewish Vegetarian - Vegan ArticlesResponse to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s "Confessions of a Reformed Optimist"
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Response to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s "Confessions of a Reformed Optimist"

By Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.

By respectfully challenging Rabbi Boteach who has become popular in some circles recently, I hope that there will be positive outcomes for vegetarianism and environmentalism in the Jewish community.

Rabbi Boteach’s article that I am responding to appears right after my article.

A common sentiment is "if you are optimistic today, you just do not understand the situation." So it is understandable that Rabbi Boteach has become increasingly pessimistic. However, while he makes cogent points, I respectfully disagree with some important aspects of his analysis and will discuss some important issues that he has overlooked.

Like many religious leaders and political critics today, Rabbi Boteach failed to address many of the current environmental crises that threaten humanity. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group composed of the world’s leading climate scientists, the Earth’s average temperature is projected to increase by 2.5 to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the next hundred years. Other studies have predicted even greater increases. This is very alarming when we consider that an increase of only one degree Fahrenheit in the past hundred years has resulted in the melting of glaciers and ice caps, record heat waves, the bleaching of coral reefs, and increasingly severe storms, droughts, and forest fires.

Additional reasons for great pessimism that merit attention from Rabbi Boteach and other leaders include: species of plants and animals disappearing at perhaps the fastest rate in history; the destruction of tropical rain forests, and other valuable habitats; water shortages that are projected to affect seventy percent of the world’s people by 2030; severe threats to the viability of our oceans; and many other environmental problems.

I strongly agree with Rabbi Boteach’s criticism of the "growing hedonistic degradation" and immorality that is so prevalent in society today, and his belief that "the world's future is entirely dependent on a return to religious morality." Based on his analysis, it is surprising that Rabbi Boteach does not advocate a shift of Jews (and others) toward vegetarianism, since animal-based diets and agriculture violate basic Jewish mandates to preserve our health, treat animals compassionately, protect the environment, conserve resources, and help hungry people. Since the world’s annual raising of 48 billion farmed animals contributes significantly to the environmental problems mentioned above, and the consumption of animal products has been connected to an epidemic of heart disease, stroke, and various types of cancer in the Jewish community and beyond, Rabbi Boteach, with his great influence, could do a tremendous kiddush Hashem by helping to put the many moral issues related to our diets on the Jewish agenda.

I also agree with Rabbi Boteach that there are evil forces in the world and there is absolutely no justification for terrorism against the U.S., Israel, or anyone else. However, there is room for discussions on how to best respond, but this is difficult when the rabbi appears to want to demonize those who disagree with him, rather than to seek common ground and solutions.

For example, Rabbi Boteach fails to recognize that most of the millions of people in the United States and throughout the world who opposed our invasion of Iraq recognized Saddam Hussein as an evil, murderous dictator. However, they felt that the negative factors outweighed the positives, that the "cure" might be worse than the "disease." They feared that the U.S. would become bogged down in Iraq, and, unfortunately, almost daily reports of casualties of U.S. troops and increasing feelings of Iraqis that we are occupiers, rather than liberators, seems to be bearing this out. They feared the economic costs of the war and its aftermath at a time when the U.S. national debt s soaring, almost all states and cities face severe budget deficits, education and other public services are being reduced, and unemployment is rising.

There were many other reasons to oppose invading Iraq, including fears that it would increase terrorism, rather than decrease it, that it would divert attention from the need to defend against other terrorist threats, and that it would increase anti-American feelings.

It is difficult to have a respectful dialogue on these concerns when Rabbi Boteach and others misrepresent the positions of most people who opposed the war and accuse them of "lacking absolute standards of morality, [and only seeing] through the looking glass of ‘interests.’"

Like Rabbi Boteach, I love the United States and what we stand for. However, I believe that the highest form of love, loyalty, and patriotism involves challenging one’s country, people, and religion to live up to its highest ideals. While we certainly must remain strong militarily and battle against evil terrorists, I believe that we must also work to fully put our democratic values and religious ideals of compassion, sharing, justice, and love into practice to improve conditions for the world’s people and to better our global image.

Certainly we have done and are doing many positive, compassionate things, but the world sees us as a nation that is ignoring their concerns about global warming and other environmental threats, and that has often backed dictators to further our economic, political, and strategic interests. I urge Rabbi Boteach and other rabbis and spiritual leaders to play a leading role in making the saving of the global environment and the improvement of conditions for humanity a "central organizing principle" for the United States, and in making tikkun olam (the healing and repair of the world) a central organizing principle for our synagogues and other religious institutions. While there are certainly no easy answers or surefire solutions, such an approach has great potential to improve the image of the U.S., revitalize Judaism, and perhaps lead to a more sustainable, peaceful, and just world.

Rabbi Boteach states that America [is] now run by a Christian president of deep faith, [who] looks at the world through the Biblical prism of right and wrong. If that is the case, why is this president ignoring the many environmental threats to God’s (and our) world, and why is he pursuing policies that are increasing already huge gaps between the wealthy and the poor? Why are Rabbi Boteach and some other Jewish leaders so willing to overlook many un-Jewish positions and actions, as long as there is agreement on responses to terror?

In summary, I agree with Rabbi Boteach that there are many reasons, even more than he indicates, for pessimism today, I urge him to use his great influence, many contacts, and superb communication skills to increase awareness of the many current threats to humanity, and to shift from an approach that assumes that all who disagree with him and U.S, policies are immoral, evil, misguided, or wrongly motivated, to one that seeks common ground and solutions.

Here is Rabbi Boteach’s Article That I Am Responding To Confessions of a reformed optimist

I used to believe that utopia was at hand. No more.
by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach June 12, 2003

I used to be an optimist, a believer in the perfectibility of mankind. This is right in line with Judaism's most important teaching -- that one day the world will be ideal. The messianic era will do away with war, contention, disease, and death.

While this utopian belief might strike some as unrealistic, as recently as the early nineties it was easy to be buoyant about the world's future. The dreaded Soviet Union crumbled without a shot being fired, the Arabs were moving to recognize Israel, the world's stock markets had no ceiling, and I, as a member of Chabad-Lubavitch, had a colossus of a spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, to look up to. I believed the world to be on the dawn of a Messianic awakening. The Christian dualistic vision of the world, which subdivided existence into two antithetical parts -- heaven and earth, body and soul, ambition and conscience, and ultimately good and evil -- had had its day. Monism, the Jewish mystical belief that everything has an underlying Godly nature and that there is a latent unity behind all creation, was in ascendance.

I found secular substantiation for my messianic optimism in Francis Fukuyama's epoch-defining book The End of History and the Last Man (1993). Like a prophet stepping out of the ancient Hebrew bible, Fukuyama made a convincing case that utopia was upon us. The spread of liberal democracy had ushered in an era of prosperity and peace. Evil had been vanquished. Tyrannical and dictatorial regimes were collapsing as a result of their inner hollowness.

Pessimists of the world be damned! We were living in an age when you could have it all. Even God and mammon seemed suddenly compatible, as the materialistic citizens of the United States embarked upon a spiritual journey with New Age gurus like Deepak Chopra and self-help stylists like John Gray leading the way. Along with our fancy cars and expensive vacations, we wanted God in our lives -- as well as deeper, more intimate relationships. And it was all happening. Much of what Isaiah and Jeremiah prophesied about a world of material plenty and spiritual renewal was coming to fruition before our very eyes.

But it wasn't long before the whole edifice came tumbling down, and darkness once again reigned over the earth. First, my Rebbe died, and there didn't seem to be any Jewish spiritual leader to take his place. A never-ending wave of suicide bombings in Israel reminded us that the Arabs were prepared to recognize Israel only as a giant Jewish graveyard. Then the suicide attacks of September 11th demonstrated that fairy tales about "peace in our time" had about as much credibility as they had when Neville Chamberlain, tried to "pacify" Hitler. Fukuyama's professor at Harvard, Samuel Huntington, had argued in his far more prescient classic, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1998), that violent conflicts between cultures that base their traditions on religious faith and dogma were increasingly likely. This time it was the teacher's vision of apocalypse that eclipsed his student's dream of utopia.

My fading optimism for the world's bright future was dealt another crushing blow as I watched great democracies like France and Germany use everything in their means to keep the world's foremost murderer, Saddam Hussein, in power.

And last month I watched Fidel Castro throw 85 democracy advocates into jail for terms of about 25 years each, and then execute three men whose only crime it had been to steal a boat in order to escape Cuba's island prison. The world, busy scrutinizing Israel, barely uttered a word in protest against the popular Castro whose recent visitors included both the Pope and Jimmy Carter.

My optimism sank further as I beheld the growing hedonistic degradation in my own beloved U.S.A. America has always moved me with its values, its religious freedom, and its compassion. But the age of reality TV has caused me to loathe its culture. One recent movie release is called The Real Cancun, which chronicles the escapades of America's college students in one of their favorite Spring vacation destinations. In it, thousands of women strip completely in front of cameras, simulating the most explicit sexual positions, in order to entertain libidinous men. These are not strippers, mind you. They are women who go to some of American's best universities. America is rapidly becoming a misogynistic culture of lewd reality TV shows and pornographic images on the Internet all designed to exploit women for the edification of corporate and entrepreneurial wallets.

It is this pessimistic assessment that has led me to accept, for now at least, the dualistic belief in light and darkness. To be sure, I am still at heart a messianist. But for now I am back to believing that there is a deep evil that currently stalks the earth and that must be combated tooth and nail.

Christians believe that before the second coming there must a be a slaying of the anti-Christ. And while I do not subscribe to the literalism of that view, I can appreciate its nuances. Brutal, genocidal murderers, whether or not they are designated the direct enemy of Christ, are certainly the enemies of God and all mankind. And they must be vanquished.

More than ever before, I believe that any hope for the world's future is entirely dependent on a return to religious morality with its strict emphasis on good and evil. Yes, I subscribe to the mystical idea that everything is of God and that divine sparks inhabit every part of creation. But I will subordinate that view for now to the simple truth that grotesque evil must be combated before goodness and innocence perish. Religion is no longer a way for the narcissistic personality to cleanse itself after a life of material indulgence and workaholism. Rather, it is a social necessity without which the diseases plaguing our society will never heal.

America, now run by a Christian president of deep faith, looks at the world through the Biblical prism of right and wrong, and therefore has no qualms about labeling Saddam Hussein "evil" and battling him to the death. Secular Europe, along with more liberal American New Age spiritualists, lacking absolute standards of morality, can only see through the looking glass of "interests." The same is true of the European approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, for whom it is about two sides killing each other with neither party being just or right.

The United States is divided into four principal groups. The first are the hedonists and materialists, like the youth on reality TV. The second are the huge number of New Age spiritualists who declares that evil does not exist and that even Saddam Hussein had some good in him. Third, there are the liberal religionists, both Christian and Jewish, who ultimately believe in right and wrong, but are careful never to use the terminology because they believe only God can judge. Finally, there are a growing number of religious Christians and Orthodox Jews, dismissed as reactionary and simplistic, who favor creating their own private America. They have chosen to remove themselves from the mainstream culture and started, their own television networks, their own schools, their own music labels, and their own neighborhoods.

The surprising development is that the fourth group, traditionally the most powerless, has gotten hold of the reigns of power so that for the first time in a long time, America has a moral foreign policy which expresses itself in fighting tyranny, taking on African AIDS, and disdaining the weakness and amorality of the United Nations. I am so impressed with their vision that I find myself joining their ranks, even if it means that, for now, I have to return to the belief that utopia is not at hand. I still believe in the literal coming of the Messiah (though I realize that we Orthodox Jews are in the minority among our co-religionists). But I relate to it now as an article of faith, rather than as a tangible reality whose first light has already broken.

The founding fathers of these great United States also wished to build a utopia. But they believed that any perfect society was first predicated on a belief in right and wrong, as articulated in the Ten Commandments. It was for this reason that they enshrined their values not in dogma, but in a system of law that we call the Constitution.

I have always wished that goodness could triumph through the strength of its own virtue and would not necessitate a war or struggle in order to be victorious. But if this is the only way for innocence and righteousness to prevail, then I will happily cast aside my earlier suspicions of my Christian brothers and sisters and work with them to build a more lasting Godly kingdom on this earth.


Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is a best-selling author of 14 books and hosts a daily radio show syndicated across the United States on the Talk America radio network. Boteach, whose latest book is entitled Kosher Adultery, is a contributing columnist for Jewsweek Magazine.

Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D. Author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, and Mathematics and Global Survival, and over 100 articles at . President of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) Professor Emeritus of Mathematics, College of Staten Island 2800 Victory Boulevard, Staten Island, NY 10314 Phone: (718) 761-5876 Fax: (718) 982-3631 E-mail address: [email protected]  

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