There is a widely accepted aspect of modern life that contradicts many Jewish teachings and harms people, communities, and the planet: Mass production of meat and animal products, and their widespread consumption. Animal-based diets conflict with Judaism in at least six important areas:
- While Judaism mandates that people should diligently preserve their health and their lives, numerous peer-reviewed studies in respected medical journals have linked animal-based diets to heart disease, stroke, several forms of cancer and other life-threatening diseases. As well, the widespread mistreatment of animals makes future pandemics more likely, with its associated negative health effects.
- While Judaism forbids inflicting unnecessary pain on animals (tsaar baalei chayim), most farm animals, including those raised for kosher consumers, are raised on factory farms where they live in cramped, confined spaces and are often drugged, mutilated and denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise and any enjoyment of life, before they are slaughtered and eaten.
An example of animal abuse is that dairy cows are artificially impregnated annually on what the industry calls rape racks, so that they can continuously give milk, and the calves are taken away shortly after birth, a very traumatic experience for both the mother and her baby.
As well, at egg laying hatcheries, male chicks are killed immediately after birth because they can’t lay eggs and they have not been genetically programmed to have much flesh, as broilers are. The hens are kept in spaces so small that they can’t raise a wing and all their natural instincts are thwarted, resulting in them pecking at other birds in their frustration. Rather than providing more space, the industry cuts off the beaks of the hens, without providing anesthetics or pain killers.
- While Judaism teaches that “the earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1) and that we are to be God’s co-workers in preserving the world, modern intensive livestock agriculture contributes substantially to climate change, soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, as well as other environmental damage.
Climate change is an existential threat to the world and the best way to avert a climate catastrophe is through a societal shift to vegan diets. This is the only approach that not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions, because there would be far less methane, a gas about 80 times as potent in heating the atmosphere per unit weight as carbon dioxide, emitted from cows. It would simultaneously enable the reforestation of the over a third of the world’s ice-free land that is currently being used for grazing and growing feed crops for animals. This would result in the sequestering of much atmospheric carbon dioxide, bringing it down from its current dangerous level to a safe one.
- While Judaism mandates that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value (bal tashchit) and that we are not to use more than is needed to accomplish a purpose, animal-based agriculture requires the wasteful use of grain, land, water, energy and other resources. For example, it takes up to 13 times more water for a person on an animal-based diet than for a person on a vegan diet, largely due to the vast amounts of water needed to irrigate land used to grow feed crops.
- While Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people, over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, while an estimated nine million people worldwide die annually because of hunger and its effects each year, and over 10% of the world’s people are chronically malnourished. What makes this even more shameful is that healthy foods, such as corn, soy and oats, high in fiber and complex carbohydrates, and devoid of cholesterol and saturated fat, are fed to animals, resulting in meat and other animal products with the opposite characteristics.
- While Judaism stresses that we must seek and pursue peace, and that violence results from unjust conditions, animal-centered diets, by wasting valuable resources, helps to perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that eventually could lead to instability and war. According to climate experts, there will be tens of millions of desperate refugees fleeing from heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, floods and other effects of climate change, and this will make terrorism and war more likely, according to military experts. Long term droughts have already led to civil wars in Syria and the Sudan. One might say that the slogans of the peace movement and the vegan movement might be the same: All we are saying is give peas a chance!
IN VIEW of these important Jewish mandates to preserve human health, attend to the welfare of animals, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help feed hungry people and pursue peace. Since animal-centered diets seriously violate and contradict each of these responsibilities, Jews (and others) should sharply reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products.
One could say dayenu (it would be enough) after any of the arguments above, because each is a serious conflict between Jewish values and current practice. It should impel Jews to seriously consider adopting a plant-based diet. Combined, these arguments make an urgently compelling case for our Jewish community to address these issues.
To reinforce the above arguments, God’s original dietary regimen was vegan (Genesis 1:29) and the messianic period will also be vegan, according to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook and other Jewish scholars, based on Isaiah 11:6-9, “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb... the lion shall eat straw like the ox... and no one shall hurt nor destroy on all of God’s holy mountain.”
In order to leave a decent, habitable, healthy and environmentally sustainable world for future generations, it is essential that there be a major shift toward vegan diets. There is no Planet B.
The writer is author of Vegan Revolution: Saving Our World, Revitalizing Judaism; Judaism and Vegetarianism; Judaism and Global Survival; Mathematics and Global Survival; and Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet. JewishVeg.org/schwartz