Israel is arguably the vegan capital of the world, with more vegans per capita than any other country. Paradoxically, Israel also has the highest per-capita consumption of chickens. These statistics indicate a disconnect that is at the heart of a growing movement, both in Israel and throughout the Jewish world, of whether it is still halachically viable to support the meat and dairy industries. Many leading rabbis and scholars are saying that it unequivocally is not.
The spokesperson for this movement in Israel is Rabbi David Rosen, president of the International Jewish Vegetarian Ecological Society for 30 years, former chief rabbi of Cape Town and Ireland, and current international director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
“It is my belief that this is the kashrut of our time because nothing else is kosher,” Rosen says. “Animal products in global industrialized food production are all in contravention of Jewish teaching. There are a few areas where you have farmyard conditions where people behave compassionately, but the industry as a whole, whether it’s the meat, dairy or egg industries, all involve violations of Jewish ethics, in regard to tza’ar ba’alei hayim [the suffering of living creatures].”
The commandment that bans causing animals unnecessary suffering is one of the central tenets of Jewish veganism. The concept, although not clearly enunciated in the written Torah, was accepted in the Talmud; linked from the biblical law requiring people to assist in unloading burdens from animals (Exodus 23:5). Rosen also cites issues that relate to the desecration of people’s health, caused by the consumption of meat and dairy products from factory farming. Then there are the environmental issues and the abuse of resources that could go toward combating poverty. Rosen emphasizes that all of these are halachic factors.
In terms of fish, Rosen believes that from a halachic point of view, there is a hierarchy of life forms and that fish are a more primitive stage of development, thus lower down on the priority line than fowl or mammals. Nevertheless, the conditions in which fish are produced leave a lot to be desired. There is also the pollution of the seas to consider.
“We’re all on a journey. There is no such thing as human perfection, therefore it’s about reducing as much as possible the egregious offenses in terms of our lifestyle,” Rosen continues. “Today, we can do that in a way we never could before. We can eat a plant-based diet much more effectively, at least in the Western world. If you can have a healthy diet without being a party to offenses and maltreatment of animals, then we have a religious obligation to do so. I’ve been vegetarian for over 40 years and vegan for the past six years. I should have been before, because if your motives are ethical, as mine are, then to be party to the dairy and egg industries is not consistent.”
Rosen points out that there is a lot of hypocrisy in meat production; the industry attempts to give the impression that animals are killed humanely. While it is possible that electrocution can stun the animals in a manner that they don’t feel their execution, in actual practice this is not the case.
“Having witnessed it in slaughterhouses, the demand forces a movement of animals through the assembly line at a very rapid pace and the electrodes that hang down from the ceiling, while there is someone standing there banging them against the heads of the cows as they pass, very often misses the mark,” Rosen states.
“The pressures of maximum delivery lead to a far more cruel and barbaric system because the electrocution is not effective. There are some very noble efforts happening here in Israel to try to create more compassionate means of slaughtering animals and I applaud those efforts, but if you can have a healthy, balanced diet without killing animals then that should be the ideal to strive for. Therefore if one wants, I think what’s more ethically legitimate is to find a means of producing animal flesh from stem cells or other forms of production that will not involve slaughter, rather than try to minimize the degree of cruelty.”
When asked what his opinion is on Israel’s propensity for veganism and how that fits into the overall equation, Rosen emphasizes that coming from a tradition that is very food-conscious helps, but that the sectors of Israeli society that are leading this important ethical revolution are not primarily the observant ones, but rather the more secular. Rosen perceives this as a spiritual impulse, coming from a genuine desire for a more ethical world. Very often that desire to be part of a spiritual improvement, in religious circles, is provided by religiosity itself, whereas within secular society there is sometimes a lack, which leads to a search to find an alternative means of giving ethical meaning to life. Thus, it is a reflection of a spiritual search.
“In terms of educating the public on these issues, within secular society, you can approach it from animal rights and ethical principles,” Rosen says. “Within the observant society, it has to be on the basis of the halachic desecration that’s involved with the meat industry. There is more understanding today within observant circles that the meat industry today involves transgressions of Jewish prohibitions. Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University was reported to have ceased drinking cow’s milk because of studies that were done among dairy cows that show that their internal organs are so distorted that it renders them treif. That’s the sort of thing that will have an impact within observant communities.”
ASA KEISAR, an Israeli religious scholar, is reaching out to Orthodox communities by speaking to them in their own language; promoting veganism as both a Torah imperative to avoid cruelty to animals and as the Torah’s ideal for the way humans should eat. Keisar became vegan after learning about the widespread animal abuse that is part and parcel of modern industrial agriculture. He then dedicated two years to collecting all the sources and scholarly works on veganism and published a book titled Velifnei Iver Hashalem, in which he states that eating animal byproducts is no longer permissible according to Jewish sources because of the cruelty inflicted on animals by the mass production of meat, dairy and eggs. The book was recently endorsed by Rabbi Daniel Sperber, professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University. Keisar distributes the book for free to thousands of yeshivot and Orthodox communities throughout Israel. His short lecture, “Religious Veganism,” has been viewed on YouTube over half a million times.
“The question is not whether the Torah allows us to eat meat, the real question is whether or not we have tza’ar ba’alei hayim. Right now, we definitely have that, this is a fact. We have videos and testimonies. Because of that, you must be vegan. You are not allowed to buy meat or dairy products. Only the Torah and the Sanhedrin can dictate whether people can or cannot eat and enjoy something, so we are talking about the purchasing.”
Keisar continues to lecture on the subject of religious veganism and fields questions on the subject and the possibilities for changing the way a family eats. Just before our interview, an ultra-Orthodox woman with three children called him. She became vegan recently after hearing one of his lectures and no longer knew how to cook for her family. Keisar provided counseling and support. For religious families it is a huge adjustment, especially in this day and age, when many people eat meat at least once a day, sometimes even twice a day. For the Orthodox, the question often becomes how to make a festive Shabbat meal without cholent on the table. Keisar assures them that there is no mandate that one must eat meat on Shabbat.
“With everything in life, if you don’t learn, you don’t know,” Keisar explains. “In this particular subject, most people don’t learn so they don’t know. In the past, we had to learn it because we were taking care of the animals, but today we don’t. We buy it in the supermarket. We have no connection to it personally anymore.”
ANOTHER PROMINENT voice and steadfast proponent of the religious veganism movement is Rabbi Yonatan Neril, founder of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development. Neril became vegan after seeing the filthy and overcrowded conditions of chicken sheds in Israel. Witnessing that made him realize that eating eggs directly contributes to the chickens’ suffering.
“According to Rav Kook, the garden of Eden was vegan and God created the world in that way,” Neril asserts. “People ate vegan for the first 1,500 years until Noah. That’s over a quarter of the Torah’s history. Rav Kook teaches that the initial vision for vegan consumption is not some ideal that the Torah put out and then was lost forever. He says it’s something that we’re going to return to in a future time. He wrote that in 1903. I’m of the opinion that the time has come. A vegan lifestyle is not a hardship, in fact it’s healthier. There are less instances of heart disease and less diabetes. It’s a good spiritual choice and better for the animals.”
Neril’s organization launched a subsidiary branch called Jewish Eco Seminars, which focuses on the issue of Jewish veganism. Neril organized a panel with Rabbi Rosen for the second-ever vegan Taglit-Birthright group. It was also the first panel of its kind for any Birthright group. While that was essentially preaching to the choir, Neril has plans to create a series of videos in the coming months with Rabbi Rosen where Rosen will answer questions on Jewish veganism. Topics will range from the impetus to become vegan, to the basis of a Jewish vegan lifestyle. On July 17, Neril led a Jewish ecological food tour in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market for a group of rabbinical students, through Jewish Eco Seminars. They began at the Natural Choice Cafe bakery and café and proceeded through the entire market, discussing where food comes from and Jewish food ethics as they relate to animal products. “I believe that the knowledge we are learning about the benefits of eating a primarily plant-based diet aligns with the Jewish notion of treating our body like a temple,” says Chanah Auerbach, manager and chef of the Natural Choice Cafe.
“My work at the Natural Choice Cafe allows me the opportunity to help people ‘add more color’ to their plates. This focus on meeting people where they’re at, while introducing plant-based foods, will bring us all to a healthier place. Through the cooking classes I’m teaching now on Monday nights at the café, people will learn how to incorporate more colorful foods (which happen to be vegan as well), into their diets!” Where I live in the neighborhood of Nahlaot, kosher, vegan-friendly restaurant options abound. Besides the Natural Choice Cafe, there is Nagila, with a wide array of delicious vegan dishes, and cafés such as Nocturno and Nadi have vegan options. But when looking at the larger Jerusalem culinary landscape, other than Village Green, the options are slim. Those in Tel Aviv fare much better, with a plethora of vegan restaurants (both certified kosher and not), each one trendier than the last. There is no question that vegan consciousness is alive and well in Israel, but it will take longer for it to take root and become evident in religious areas. There are many opinions on why that is.
“When I was in rabbinical school here in Israel, I asked the head of the program if the students could view the kosher slaughter of an animal,” Neril recalls. “He said no. There’s this aspect of not wanting to face the truth, but if we get rabbis to talk about this or invite people to talk about this subject, that would be a big step. Right now the subject just doesn’t get much bandwidth. It’s really about bringing consciousness into our consumption. God created animals and people on the same day: the sixth. That established a certain level of brotherhood and sisterhood between us and animals.”
RICHARD SCHWARTZ, author of Judaism and Vegetarianism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet and president of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians, approaches the issue from an environmental perspective. Schwartz teaches that animal-based diets are wasteful. Seventy percent of grains in the United States are used for animals that will be slaughtered, while 10% of people on the planet are malnourished. He emphasizes that Judaism has teachings that can help the world and tackle these issues.
“I became a vegetarian and the case was so strong that I had to write a book about it,” Schwartz explains. “The case for vegetarianism right now is very strong. A religion that has so many teachings about compassion and sustainability also has a strong case for vegetarianism.”
Schwartz and his wife made aliya two years ago. He cites one of the reasons for this, besides Zionism, is that it’s much easier to be an activist for subjects you care about in a smaller country. He is hoping to go on a speaking tour soon to speak about climate change and how the meat industry plays into it and is working with the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development.
“While rabbis are dedicated people committed to Jewish values and practice, I believe respectfully that their failure to increase awareness that the production and consumption of meat and other animal products are inconsistent with basic Jewish teachings might be considered ‘rabbinic malpractice’ – especially when animal-based diets are major contributors to an epidemic of life-threatening diseases among Jews and to climate change and other major threats to humanity.
“I think that it is time to take very seriously Rabbi David Rosen’s assertions that eating meat has become halachically unjustifiable today because of the way animals are so severely mistreated and the very negative effects of animal-based diets. Rabbi Rosen is one of our greatest spokespeople for this movement. Having such a distinguished Israeli Orthodox rabbi strongly arguing that eating meat today is halachically unjustifiable provides a valuable message that should no longer be generally ignored.”
In the book Rabbis and Vegetarianism: An Evolving Tradition, edited by Roberta Kalechofsky, Rosen says, “Judaism, as a way of life, seeks to inculcate in us a consciousness of the Divine presence in the world and respect for life accordingly. The more we care for life, the closer we are in fact to God.
“ Accordingly, an ethical vegetarian way of life expresses the most sublime and noble values and aspirations of Judaism itself, bringing us to an ideal vision for society as a whole. Is it anything less than a hillul Hashem (desecration of God’s Name) to declare veal, for example, which is produced through wanton human cruelty to a calf, to be kosher, simply because at points Y and Z the animal was slaughtered and prepared in accordance with halachic dictates, after the commandments affecting human responsibility toward animal life have been desecrated from points A to X?
“Today’s concept of kashrut is more permeated with crass indulgence and economic exploitation than the ennoblement of the human spirit that our sages declare to be its purpose. Today as never before, the cruelty in the livestock trade renders meat eating and true kashrut incompatible.”