New Year food for thought

Judaism has strong teachings about showing kindness to animals, yet these teachings are increasingly at odds with the way we live our lives when it comes to food.

Animal rights protest israel 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Animal rights protest israel 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
When Hollywood actress Mayim Bialik agreed to an interview with the Jewish Vegetarian Society last week, we were thrilled – here was a famous Jewish vegan willing to share her positive experiences about her plant-based diet with the Jewish community, as well as back us in urging Jews to consider vegetarianism at the start of the New Year. She said that being vegan is “a wonderful call to action – to put your vegetarian self out there in the world and start to see the personal, community and global benefits.”
Few people actually want to cause suffering and so, in order to eat meat, certain thoughts are often pushed to the side. For example, while we might recoil at stepping on a dog’s or cat’s tail, we might be less likely to dwell on thoughts of chickens being thrown roughly into crates, or cows being prodded and poked by slaughterhouse workers. Of course we know “stuff goes on” but we don’t want to know too much.
Earlier this year Tnuva, the Israeli food giant, surprised many with its admission that the killing of farmed animals, if exposed to the public, “would horrify most meat-eating consumers.” The company was taken to court after an undercover investigation found a number of abuses including animals hung up, still alive and conscious, after a shochet had slit their throats. Rather than defend its practices, Tnuva claimed: “Slaughtering by its very nature causes the animals great suffering.”
No explanations to help justify the eating of animals here, then, from this kosher meat producer! Judaism has strong teachings about showing kindness to animals, yet these teachings are increasingly at odds with the way we live our lives when it comes to food. Consuming animal products most certainly conflicts with the concept of tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, the obligation not to cause pain to animals, because the farming of animals for food routinely involves cruel practices such as beak trimming, branding, tagging and castration, often without anaesthetic. In her recent interview, Mayim Bialik said: “There is a strong emphasis in Judaism on humane maintenance and use of animals. We respect other creatures and, of course, Adam and Eve were vegetarian before the Fall and exile from Eden.... Tikkun Olam [repairing the world] lends itself to us using our body and lifestyle to do our part to repair the world.”
It is unfair that when we are young we are rarely presented with a true picture of what happens to animals, and so are less able to make our own informed choices.
Even as a teenager I used to think that cows produced a steady flow of milk all the time. Like many others, I had no idea that cows had to be continually impregnated and their calves (for whom the milk produced is biologically intended) taken away from them soon after birth. I always thought milk was somehow “natural” for humans to drink.
I was also shocked to learn that millions of unwanted male chicks are killed each year. With chickens now bred separately to become either “layers” or “broilers,” male chicks of the “layer” breed are not required, because they can’t lay eggs and their flesh isn’t fit for meat. And so they are usually gassed or ground up alive. The animals who aren’t discarded as “waste” at birth don’t have things much better – most will end up spending their short lives in tiny cages or crammed sheds, deprived of the possibility of doing anything which is natural to them.
With meat-eating being linked to increased risks of heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer, removing the meat from our plates is also a healthy choice. What’s more, meat production causes huge environmental and ecological damage, substantial energy outputs and the emission of climate-changing gases. So going meat-free is good for the planet.
Rosh Hashanah is the time of the Jewish year when we stop, reflect and contemplate a fresh start. And we are lucky that, in this modern era, being vegetarian has never been easier. There are so many fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts and legumes available. And there are plenty of traditional Jewish foods that can be made animal free – from juicy seitan brisket to tasty vegan gefilte fish – it’s all possible. The Jewish Vegetarian Society is urging people to make a positive and meaningful change. So how about considering a vegetarian diet with a clean slate and an open mind? The author is the director of the Jewish Vegetarian Society and the manager of the McCartney family’s Meat Free Monday campaign.
For more information about the Jewish Vegetarian Society and delicious meat-free Yom Tov recipes, visit