The (halachic) case for veganism

Rabbis and Jewish communities are exploring the idea of meat- and dairy-free diets that agree with religious law.

Vegan-friendly restaurants and events are gaining popularity in Israel (photo credit: REUTERS)
Vegan-friendly restaurants and events are gaining popularity in Israel
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Do you picture the typical Israeli vegan as a young Tel Aviv hipster wearing an “I Don’t Eat My Friends” tank top? Perhaps many vegans do fit that image, but a growing number of kosher- keeping, Shabbat-observing Israelis – even some with black velvet kippot – are part of the reason that Israel reportedly has the highest number of vegans per capita in the world, fast closing in on 5 percent of the overall population.
At a recent strategy meeting held at Zangvil, the Ginger Vegetarian Community Center, vegan activists from a broad spectrum of Israeli society brainstormed ideas for accelerating the momentum. Reaching more people requires more than one message, since the decision to avoid animal products can be driven by one or more of a variety of concerns for animal welfare, health and the environment.
Yossi Wolfson, coordinator at Ginger, says he believes that the strides made so far result from “the good work of the animal liberation movement, because veganism in Israel is based on ethical issues of the way we treat animals. Health issues and environmental issues are very much secondary here.”
Indeed, VeganFriendly Israel founder Omri Paz was among many Israelis whose switch to veganism was catalyzed in 2012 by the release of a Hebrew-subtitled video of American animal- rights activist Gary Yourofsky graphically showing the institutional cruelty involved in producing meat, eggs, dairy and fish. (Vegetarians often eat eggs, dairy and even fish, while vegans eschew all animal products.)
RABBI ASA Keisar is often referred to as the Israeli – or religious – Gary Yourofsky. A scribe by profession, Keisar is a lifelong vegetarian and recently veganized his home in Petah Tikva once he became aware of the many animal-welfare issues in slaughterhouses, chicken coops and dairy farms.
For Keisar, these violations aren’t just objectionable on a humanitarian level, but on a Jewish level. With the backing of classical sources, he reasons that if the Torah prohibits causing animals to suffer, modern methods of preparing animals for the dinner plate clearly violate Jewish law. His personal mission is to get this message across to the religious, and particularly the haredi, public.
Based on hundreds of hours of research into biblical, talmudic and contemporary halachic sources, Keisar wrote a 60-page booklet on Judaism and veganism that he distributes free in synagogues and yeshivot to make the case that veganism, or at least vegetarianism, is a choice Torah-observant Jews are obliged to make.
Lacking access to Internet, television or secular print media, few ultra-Orthodox Jews have seen Yourofsky’s lecture or TV exposés of abuse in Israeli slaughterhouses, although haredi publications such as Kikar Shabbat have featured stories about both, with quotes from Bnei Brak rabbi Yisrael Druck and other leaders on the topic. They are not likely to have watched actress/model Rotem Sela’s “VeganFriendly” video exposing the cruelty of the dairy industry or Israeli animal-rights activist Tal Gilboa’s popular victory for veganism during the 2014 season of Big Brother.
Different sectors of the population are best reached in different ways.
VIEWING ACCESS is not the only obstacle to changing ingrained culinary habits.
There is the talmudic maxim that wine and meat are essential to a joyous holiday meal (Keisar clarifies that this refers specifically to meat from Temple sacrifices and is no longer relevant), and there is little support for a purely plantbased diet from rabbinic scholars who decide cases of Jewish law.
At the suggestion of young vegan activist Zvi Goldin, Keisar developed a talk on the topic. He presents his free hour-long “The Lecture Every Jew Has to Watch” wherever he is invited – including several Israeli universities (the lecture is also available on YouTube).
Goldin handles publicity and technical details, and professional videos of Keisar’s lectures are now being subtitled in English to be accessible to a wider audience.
A recent successful crowdfunding campaign raised more than NIS 20,000 toward Keisar’s efforts.
“A few decades ago, vegetarianism was very uncommon in Israel, and especially among religious people,” says Keisar, a married father of four. “I was raised in a religious vegetarian home and today I’m raising a generation of religious vegans. I’m very optimistic about getting my message across. I see that people listen, and many are making the change.”
One can measure progress among national-religious and less stringent haredi Israelis to some degree through social media. Facebook groups such as Tivonim Dati’im (“Religious Vegans”) and Tzimhonim/Tivonim Dati’im (“Religious Vegetarians and Vegans”) each have about 400 members.
Afula resident Batzion Shlomi and Safed resident Moshe Nachmani, an expert in the writings of Rabbi A.Y. Kook – including his treatises on vegetarianism – formed Tiv’onut Hilchatit (“Halachic Veganism”) three years ago with the goal of educating Israeli rabbis about halachic, environmental and health reasons to encourage their followers to adopt a diet free of animal products.
Few rabbis responded to their initial letter and not one agreed to issue a halachic ruling, says Shlomi. “But slowly the echoes of this did move people, and rabbis who have become vegetarian and vegan are speaking to their students about the torture of animals in the meat and dairy industry, and about the ecological aspect that is not as well known.”
Two prominent haredi rabbis speaking out in favor of avoiding meat for halachic reasons are the Breslov spiritual guide Shalom Arush of the Chut Shel Chessed Institutions and Amnon Yitzhak of the Shofar organization.
Tivonut Hilchatit also puts out a newsletter and is approaching yeshivot with sample vegan menus to show how healthy and appetizing meat-free options can be incorporated inexpensively.
In contrast to the IDF, which has started providing vegan food for an estimated 500 soldiers requesting it, Shlomi says no yeshiva has yet adopted the menu. “It has to grow on people that we’re not talking about moral ideals but about a violation of Halacha,” she says.
IT’S TIME for a full-court press in religious circles, says Prof. Richard Schwartz, president emeritus of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (which recently changed its name to Jewish Veg, to reflect its commitment to veganism as well as vegetarianism), president of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians and author of Judaism and Vegetarianism.
“Of course we should always be respectful and polite, but we should be aggressive in using personal meetings as well as emails to challenge rabbis on why they are ignoring the many moral and halachic issues related to animal- based diets,” says Schwartz, who was in Jerusalem for the meeting at Ginger and has screened the Jewish Vegetarians of North America documentary “A Sacred Duty” ( in venues such as the OU Israel Center over the past few years.
He laments that most rabbis and other influential Jews are ignoring evidence that “animal-based diets and agriculture violate basic Jewish teachings on preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, helping hungry people and pursuing peace.”
Schwarz cites studies showing that animal-based agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, emitting more greenhouse gases than do all the cars and other means of transportation worldwide combined; and that animal-based diets contribute to many chronic and fatal diseases. Producing more and more livestock for a meat-consuming world is wasteful and unsustainable, he argues.
“A meat- and dairy-centered diet requires about 17 times as much land, 14 times as much water and more than 10 times as much energy as a completely plant-based diet,” Schwartz has written.
“More than half of the water consumed in the United States is used to raise livestock, primarily to irrigate land growing livestock feed. While a typical meat-eater’s diet requires more than 4,000 gallons of water daily, a vegetarian’s diet only uses 300 gallons. In California, the production of just one edible pound of beef uses many hundreds of gallons of water, while only 23 gallons are needed to produce a pound of tomatoes.”
In Israel, statistics show that even with a growing number of vegetarians, annual per capita meat consumption (99.2 kilos) is still higher than in most other countries.
“A shift toward vegan diets would help revitalize Judaism by showing the relevance of Judaism’s eternal values to today’s critical issues,” says Schwartz.
“We have wonderful groups [in Israel] doing great work and we have great potential. The future of the world depends on us getting veganism onto the public agenda even more than it is today.”
This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post Magazine.