Throughout his long career, Dr. Richard Schwartz must certainly have been called a zealot and a fanatic. He has spent the past 40-plus years connecting veganism, the practice of eschewing all forms of animal-based foods in one’s diet, with the values of Judaism.
In a blurb on the back cover of Vegan Revolution: Saving Our World, Revitalizing Judaism, author Lewis Regenstein calls Schwartz, “the world’s greatest living authority on the teachings of Judaism on protecting animals and nature.”
Schwartz believes that a vegan diet is not only crucial for the future of planet Earth, but also argues in his first chapter why Jews specifically should adopt a vegan diet. He asserts that “veganism is the diet most consistent with basic Jewish teachings” and bases his foundational case on three Jewish values: the emphasis on preserving one’s health and one’s life; the ethical principle of bal tashchit, which instructs Jews not to waste resources; and tza’ar ba’alei chayim, the value of avoiding inflicting pain on animals whenever possible.
In the introductory chapter, Schwartz also presents statements by two contemporary rabbis – including Jerusalem’s Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo – who argue that, given the practices of conventional factory farming, most animal-based foods today do not truly meet the kosher standards set out by Jewish law.
Schwartz’s third Jewish-based argument for why Jews should become vegans is that “scripture makes clear that veganism is the ideal Jewish diet. God’s first dietary regimen, given in the very first chapter of the Torah, is strictly vegan.” It’s an argument that’s hard to deny.
He encourages “meat-eating religious” Jews to reconsider their dietary habits, and suggests a number of intermediate steps they can take to move in the direction of veganism, or at least in the direction of reducing the amount of meat they consume.
In subsequent chapters, Schwartz, who immigrated to Israel in 2016, highlights the growth of the vegan market, calling Israel “a center of the vegan revolution.” He delves more deeply into the adverse health consequences of a meat-heavy diet and the benefits of a vegan one. He also shines a light on the mistreatment of animals and the negative influences on the climate and the environment of factory farming.
Anyone who has watched any of dozens of vegan-positive documentaries such as Earthlings or Forks Over Knives will find some of Schwartz’s claims familiar, if hard to stomach. His distinctive contribution in this book is to connect these claims to Jewish teachings.
Sometimes, he bases his arguments on mainstream Jewish teachings and other times on minority opinions. Nevertheless, this marriage of vegan ideals with Judaism is what makes this book different from all other vegan manifestos.
Vegan Revolution: Saving Our World, Revitalizing Judaism concludes with some interesting appendices, including a discussion of a vegan view of the biblical practice of animal sacrifice. Quoting Rav Kook, Schwartz shares the rabbinic opinion “that animal sacrifices will not be reinstated in messianic times, even with the reestablishment of the Temple.”
In another appendix, he offers some creative ways that leather tefillin, that iconic ritual Jewish prayer object, could be sourced more humanely. In “Tefillin and Other Animal-Based Ritual Items,” Schwartz shares that he looks forward to a time “when the leather for tefillin and other ritual objects will come from animals who led cruelty-free lives and died natural deaths, or perhaps even from leather that has been developed from an animal cell.”
For those Jews positively inclined to consider a vegan diet, reading Schwartz’s book is like having a personal mentor.
For those who are deeply committed to the belief that Judaism requires the consumption of meat, particularly on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, if they are constitutionally able to finish reading it, Schwartz’s arguments will likely provoke significant cognitive dissonance.
And yet, throughout the book, despite the fact that veganism has been his passion for more than four decades, Schwartz, in his role as the elder statesman of Jewish veganism, is more inclined to cajole his readers to take small steps toward a vegan diet, rather than to browbeat them into guilty submission.
VEGAN REVOLUTION: SAVING OUR WORLD, REVITALIZING JUDAISM
By Richard H. Schwartz, PhD.
Lantern Publishing & Media
272 pages; $20