If a common thread unites the four propositions in Rabbi Schwarz’s important essay, it is this: Judaism must demonstrate its relevancy to contemporary Jews if our religion and our community are to thrive in the 21st Century.
This thread is a part of the fabric of Jewish Veg, an organization that is addressing through a Jewish lens what may be the most destructive force on our planet: animal agriculture.
What can be safely said is that no single lifestyle change has such far-reaching, profound and positive effects as a switch to a plant-based diet. Simply by eschewing animal products and consuming plants, we can spare thousands of animals from horrific conditions, improve our own health, and significantly reduce our environmental impact.
It is amazing, downright spine-tingling, to consider that the author or authors of the Torah understood that we were created to be herbivores. The first dietary instructions, embedded in the Creation story, state unequivocally that we are to eat plants and only plants.
This was written thousands of years before scientific research – in the form of the most credible, massive-scale, longitudinal studies – revealed that vegetarians and vegans live longer and have lower incidences of the most common chronic diseases. It was almost as if our most ancient Sages could foresee the lengthy misheberach lists at every Shabbat service, lists that are twice as long as they should be.
And the Torah did not stop at Genesis 1:29, where those plant-based instructions first appear. Rather, the Torah establishes veganism as a Jewish imperative for our time, based on three fundamental teachings:
- A plant-based diet is established as the Divine ideal.
- The permission to eat meat, while granted, is expressed in concessionary language and framed in a negative context.
- We are mandated to treat animals with exquisite compassion, caring for their physical and emotional well-being.
These core Jewish teachings would remain largely ignored – and in some cases intentionally suppressed – if not for the sacred work of Jewish Veg. In the language of Rabbi Schwarz, we are an organization of “covenantal Jews,” playing a lead role in the fields of animal rights, human rights, public health and environmental conservation.
Jewish Veg fits most snugly within the definition of Proposition 2. We are addressing one of the greatest social-justice issues of our generation through the values of Judaism. As the esteemed Israeli historian Yuval Hariri has written, modern animal agriculture is the greatest crime in human history. This is not meant to invoke comparisons to the Holocaust, but rather to take note of the staggering number of victims and the ongoing nature of the “crime.”
This essay is not the place to describe in detail the horrors of animal agriculture, so suffice it to say that animal agriculture involves the unfathomable oppression of animals, the unconscionable mistreatment of workers, the degradation of the environment, and the deterioration of human health – all on a massive scale. Given this, it seems inappropriate that members of any major religion would be consuming the products of such a destructive industry, especially at a point in history when plant-based alternatives abound.
For Jews, though, it is more than inappropriate, as our Torah doesn’t just call for mercy and compassion; our Torah speaks directly to the issue at hand. The Torah tells us that God gave us plants to eat, period. And tza’ar baalei chayim, the Torah mandate to treat animals with compassion, is being desecrated (in the words of former Chief Rabbi of Ireland David Rosen) in modern animal agriculture, both in its secular and kosher forms.
As Rabbi Schwarz observes in his essay, many social-justice-minded Jews will remain estranged from our community if we don’t provide a way for them to express their concerns in a Jewish context. This is clearly the case when it comes to Jewish vegans and vegetarians, among whom so many have abandoned synagogues and other Jewish organizations, precisely because our institutions are ignoring their issues. It is a bitter irony, given that those same vegans and vegetarians, consciously or not, are embodying the highest values of Judaism at every meal.
While our work might fit most cleanly in Proposition 2, our work is also about community building. Jewish vegans and vegetarians, generally speaking, greatly value social support for their lifestyle decisions, mainly because they are a minority among a minority. Our events – Hanukkah parties, Passover Seders, synagogue presentations, Shabbat dinners, and even our vegan Birthright trips – all provide occasions for Jewish vegans and vegetarians to enjoy and create community in a Jewish context.
It is hardly a stretch to say that our work also fulfills our people’s yearning for a sense of holiness, transcendence and purpose. Just two days before writing this, I was on a panel at a Tu B’Shevat retreat addressing the topic “What is a sacred Shabbat meal?” In Jewish terms, a “sacred” act (kedusha) is one that separates the Godly from the mundane. It was God who gave us every single nutrient in the form of plants, and it was God who then directs humans to eat plants exclusively. It follows that a plant-based meal is the one that is most sacred.
The vegan lifestyle, for which we provide encouragement and assistance, offers a profound sense of transcendence. Those who follow this path often come to recognize their connection to all life, to Echad. And the practitioners of a vegan lifestyle feel an equally profound sense of purpose, recognizing that they are saving animals, safeguarding their health, living lightly on our planet, and – thanks in part to Jewish Veg – upholding the highest ideals of Judaism.
Jeffrey Cohan is the executive director of Jewish Veg, a national nonprofit organization devoted to encouraging and helping Jews to transition to plant-based diets. Before joining the staff of Jewish Veg in 2012, Jeffrey spent 18 years in print and broadcast media and 5 years as a Jewish community relations council director.