Standing on the speaker’s podium at Jerusalem’s Tmol Shilshom bookstore, Prof. Richard Schwartz makes an impassioned case for Jewish vegetarianism.
“All the Jewish commentators indicate that it was God’s original intention that all people should be vegetarians,” he says.
“Even [former] chief rabbi Abraham Kook thought the messianic period would be vegetarian.”
Bespectacled and grandfatherly, the modern Orthodox professor speaks before an audience of mostly Anglos who have already committed to the vegetarian cause. The Sunday evening lecture – called “Should Jews Be Vegetarians?” – is part of a three-month speaking tour of the country, for which Schwartz has also scheduled rabbinical meetings, a book tour and advocacy sessions.
Wearing a light green sweater-vest and vegetable-adorned kippa, he acknowledges the difficulty of convincing a religious community that cherishes cholent on Shabbat to modify its eating habits.
“People ask, what’s Friday night without chicken soup or gefilte fish? It’s a part of the culture,” he says. “Many grew up with their grandparents preparing meat holiday meals, and they’ve gotten accustomed to it.”
In trying to change ingrained cultural norms, he relies on an eclectic mix of Jewish and secular philosophy. Alternating between Halacha (Jewish law) and scientific rationale, he seems intent on defending vegetarianism on any rational basis.
“Think of our body structure, our physiology,” he tells the crowd. “We don’t have the claws of carnivorous animals or the long, sharp dagger teeth. In addition, our stomach acids are only a 20th as strong as carnivorous animals’.”
He lays out the crux of his argument in a list of six halachic “mandates”: the preservation of health, compassion for animals, protection of the environment, conservation of resources, sharing with hungry people, and seeking and pursuing peace. For each point, he invokes scriptural verses from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) and the Bible.
A self-labeled ba’al teshuva, or formerly secular Jew, he frequently cites midrashic allegories, arguing that one of the mandates, compassion for animals, is exemplified by Isaac’s wooing of Rebekah.
When Abraham wanted to select a wife for his son, Schwartz explains, he created a test. Emerging from the desert with 10 thirsty camels, Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, knelt beneath a well.
One woman, Rebekah, approached to assist the stranger and his livestock before drawing water for herself. Rebekah prioritized animal compassion and hospitality, culminating in divine approval and matriarchal status.
The professor describes the world today as on the verge of environmental catastrophe and warns of impending conflict. He points out that the Hebrew word for war – milhama – is derived from the same root as the word for bread, lehem.
“When there’s a shortage of resources, people are more likely to go to war,” he explains. Because of resource shortages, “more and more vegetarianism is a societal imperative. There has to be a major shift by the vast majority of people.”
A number of Israeli rabbinical figures have supported vegetarianism, according to Schwartz. Former Ashkenazi chief rabbi Shlomo Goren abstained from meat-eating after working on a farm and hearing the cows bellow and shriek. Kook empathized with efforts to abstain from meat-eating. And Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat sympathizes with the vegetarian movement on the basis of halachic interpretation, Schwartz says.
Aside from the religious sources, the professor lists facts and figures at the drop of a hat: 60 billion farm animals are consumed annually, and 70 percent of grain is destined for animals sent to slaughter. Rattling off names and numbers, he has compiled mounds of data to support vegetarianism.
He poses a number of rhetorical questions to the audience: What if humanity stopped consuming meat and reallocated the resources on an equitable basis? The gnawing problem of world hunger would be resolved overnight, he says.
Schwartz also devotes some time to attempting to debunk popular myths on vegetarianism. Friends and family often doubt whether vegetarians consume enough protein and vitamins, for instance, but he notes that there is a wide variety of alternative protein sources – including nuts, beans, soy products and whole grains.
Still, he concedes that a strict plant-based diet could result in insufficient Vitamin B12 consumption.
Of course, he is preaching to the choir – the crowd consists mostly of vegetarians and vegans – but there are some skeptics in the audience who dispute his claims. One elderly woman asks whether shechita – ritual slaughter – and kashrut legitimate meat consumption.
“We don’t have the Temple today,” he responds. “Rabbi Kook felt that the messianic period will be vegetarian, based on Isaiah’s prophecy.”
Another activist, Inbal Cohen, insists that “animals aren’t human accessories.” A self-described “religious, vegan settler,” she says she is an anomaly in the vegan and vegetarian movements.
“The stereotype of the community is that it’s very secular and left wing,” she notes.
Schwartz agrees and, despite his religious affiliation, acknowledges the difficulty in reaching the religious public.
“Unfortunately the Orthodox community has moved to the Right,” he sighs, “and there is tremendous denial about climate change.”
However, the professor remains optimistic, noting that while “it used to be negative to say that you were a vegetarian,” today it is fashionable to say, “I’ve given up red meat – something to indicate that you’ve made a change.”