6 reasons why rabbis should make all Jews become vegan - opinion

We have a choice between a largely vegan world and a world filled with very frequent devastating climate events. We need to pick the right option.

 People shout slogans as they take part in a protest against global warming in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)
People shout slogans as they take part in a protest against global warming in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)

An article in The Jerusalem Post on July 31 was headlined “‘If we don’t deal with climate change, Israel will become a very unpleasant place to live in.’” As recent headlines indicate, it is the entire world that is threatened by climate change. As discussed below, averting a climate catastrophe depends very much on a major societal shift away from animal-based diets. That would be helped significantly if people recognized and took advantage of the increasing abundance of plant and cultured (lab-produced) substitutes for meat and other animal products.

There is a very strong consensus, composed of 97% of climate experts – all the major science academies that have taken a position on the issue and, most importantly, over a thousand peer-reviewed articles in respected scientific journals – that climate change is largely caused by human activities and is a major threat to humanity. Their warnings have recently become increasingly dire. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization composed of climate experts from many countries, has called the climate situation a “Code Red for humanity.” They warned in 2018 that “unprecedented changes” are needed by 2030 if the world is to have a chance to avert a climate catastrophe. Despite that and other warnings, the temperatures and atmospheric CO2 have continued to increase since then.

The past eight years have been the hottest since at least 1880, when temperature records were first recorded worldwide, and 2023 is on track to extend that record to nine years. June 2023 is the hottest June on record, and July 2023 is the hottest month on record.

Glaciers, polar ice caps, and permafrost are rapidly melting, seas are rapidly rising, and lakes and rivers are drying up in many regions. There has also been a very significant increase in the frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, floods, and other climate events.

Israel is especially threatened by climate change because the Mediterranean area is warming up much faster than the world average; the hotter and drier Middle East that climate experts are projecting makes instability, terrorism, conflict, and war more likely; and a rising Mediterranean Sea could inundate the coastal plain that contains much of Israel’s population and infrastructure.

 Workers prepare a plant-based polony used as a meat substitute at Feinschmecker, in Germiston, South Africa.  (credit: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS)
Workers prepare a plant-based polony used as a meat substitute at Feinschmecker, in Germiston, South Africa. (credit: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS)

As devastating as recent climate events have been, prospects for the future are even more frightening. While all the recent severe climate events have occurred due to an increase of 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) since the start of the Industrial Revolution, climate experts project that it will be at least three degrees C by the end of the century and possibly as high as six degrees C. They fear that self-reinforcing positive feedback loops (vicious cycles) could result in an irreversible tipping point such that global warming will rise uncontrollably, with catastrophic results.

Because of the above factors, averting a climate catastrophe must become a central focus for civilization today. Every aspect of life should be considered in terms of reducing carbon footprints. Among the many positive steps that should be taken are shifting away from fossil fuels to solar, wind, and other renewable forms of energy; designing more efficient cars, light bulbs, and other items; improving public transportation; recycling; and composting.

The main cause of climate change is animal-based agriculture for two very important reasons. First, cows and other ruminants emit methane, a very potent greenhouse gas with up to 80 times the ability to heat up the planet as CO2, per unit weight. Even more importantly, over 40% of the world’s ice-free land, much of which was previously forested, is currently being used for grazing and raising feed crops for animals. It is estimated that the world had about six trillion trees, but now this number has been reduced by about half, largely to meet the needs of animal agriculture. The loss of many carbon-sequestering trees is a major cause of the rise in atmospheric CO2, from 285 parts per million (ppm) at the start of the Industrial Revolution to its current 420 ppm, well above the 350 ppm that climate experts think is a threshold value for climate sustainability. Major reforestation would reduce atmospheric CO2 to a much safer level, greatly reducing climate threats.

Unfortunately, while we need more trees, fires are set daily in the Amazon rain forests and other areas to create additional land largely for the needs of animal-agriculture. The eating habits of the world’s people is leading us toward possible extinction,

Here is why rabbis should order all Jews to become vegan

Averting a climate catastrophe depends very much on a major societal shift to plant-based diets. That would be helped significantly if rabbis declared that eating meat and other animal products is halachicly unjustifiable today. Based on Jewish teachings, there are at least six halachic reasons for rabbis to do this:

  • 1. While Judaism mandates that we should be very careful about preserving our health and our lives, numerous medical studies in respected peer-reviewed medical journals have linked animal-based diets to heart disease, stroke, several forms of cancer, and other life-threatening diseases. The widespread production and consumption of meat and other animal products also make future pandemics, with their many negative health effects, much more likely. In addition, the widespread use of antibiotics in animal feed has increased antibiotic resistance in humans and made the antibiotics less effective.
  • 2. While Judaism forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals, 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 transported, slaughtered, and consumed.

For example, contrary to several Torah teachings, dairy cows are artificially impregnated annually on what the industry calls “rape racks,” and their calves are taken away immediately after birth, causing severe trauma to both, so that the milk that was meant for the calves can be sold commercially. At egg-laying hatcheries, male chicks are killed shortly after birth because they can’t lay eggs and have not been genetically programmed to have much flesh. The hens are kept in cages so small that they can’t raise a wing, and all their natural instincts are completely thwarted. This causes the hens to peck at each other in frustration, causing great harm to other hens. Instead of improving conditions for the hens, the industry cruelly cuts off their beaks, a very painful procedure, and it does so without any painkillers.

  • 3. While Judaism teaches that “the Earth is the Lord’s” (Psalms 24:1) and that we are to be God’s partners and co-workers in preserving the world, modern intensive animal-based agriculture contributes far more than plant-based agriculture does to climate change, soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, and other forms of environmental destruction. As discussed later, a shift to plant-based diets is essential to efforts to avert a climate catastrophe.
  • 4. While Judaism mandates bal tashchit, that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value nor use more than is needed to accomplish a purpose, the production of meat and other animal products requires far more grain, land, fresh water, energy, and other resources than the production of plant foods. For example, it takes up to 13 times as much water for an animal-based diet than for a vegan diet, mainly due to vast amounts of water needed to irrigate feed crops.
  • 5. While Judaism stresses that we are to provide for the poor and share our bread with the hungry, about 70% of the grain grown in the United States is very inefficiently fed to animals in order to produce meat, milk, and eggs, while millions of people worldwide die each year from hunger, and almost ten percent of the world’s people are chronically malnourished. Making this even more shameful, healthy foods like corn, soy, and oats, high in fiber and complex carbohydrates and devoid of cholesterol and saturated fat, are fed to animals, resulting in animal foods with the opposite characteristics, contributing greatly to the current epidemic of life-threatening diseases.
  • 6. While Judaism teaches that we must seek peace and pursue it and that violence often results from unjust conditions, diets high in animal protein monopolize resources, creating shortages of affordable land, food, water, and energy. This exacerbates the tension between the haves and the have-nots and has been found historically to fuel social unrest, violence, and war.

One could say “dayenu” (it would be enough) after any one of the above arguments. Each one by itself constitutes a serious conflict between Jewish values and current practice that should encourage every Jew to seriously consider adopting a vegan diet. Combined, the six arguments make a very compelling case.

Fortunately, it is much easier for Jews and others to shift to plant-based diets today because of the abundance of plant-based and cell-based (cultured) substitutes for meat and other animal products, some with the appearance, texture, and taste so similar to that of the animal products that even longtime meat eaters can’t tell the difference.

In view of all of the above, rabbis and other Jewish leaders can do a great mitzvah, possibly the greatest kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) ever by personally shifting to an animal-free diet and urging other Jews to do so as well. Such shifts would be consistent with our mandates to be a “light unto the nations,” a holy people, God’s witnesses, eternal protesters, and partners with God in working for tikkun olam, healing and improving the world.

Bottom line: We have a choice between a largely vegan world and a world filled with very frequent devastating climate events. It is essential that every step possible be used to reduce the consumption of meat and other animal products in order to have a chance to leave a decent, habitable world for future generations. There is no Planet B or effective Plan B. ■

The writer is professor emeritus, College of Staten Island; president emeritus, Jewish Veg (www.JewishVeg.org); president, Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV); and author of Vegan Revolution: Saving Our. World, Revitalizing Judaism.