Because Shavuot is z’man matan Torateinu (the commemoration of the giving of the Torah), many religious Jews stay up the entire first night of the holiday to discuss Torah teachings.
Those Torah teachings include that Jews should preserve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help hungry people and pursue peace. By becoming vegetarians, preferably vegans, Jews would partake in the diet most consistent with those teachings.
- While the Torah mandates that people should be careful about preserving their health and their lives (Deuteronomy 4:9 and 4:15), numerous scientific studies have linked animal-based diets to heart disease, stroke, many forms of cancer and other chronic degenerative diseases.
- While the Torah forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim (inflicting unnecessary pain on animals, based on Exodus 23:5, Deuteronomy 22:1, 22:10 and 23:4, and other Torah verses), most farm animals, including those for kosher consumers, are raised on factory farms, where they live in cramped spaces and are often drugged, mutilated, and denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise and any other enjoyment of life before slaughter.
- While the Torah teaches that we are to be G-d’s partners and co-workers in preserving the environment (Genesis 2:15, for example), modern livestock agriculture contributes to climate change, soil erosion, and air and water pollution and involves overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, and other environmental damage. This is an especially important consideration when some climate experts argue that we may soon reach a tipping point when climate change will spin out of control with disastrous consequences.
- While the Torah mandates bal tashchit, that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value (Deuteronomy 20:19-20), and that we are not to use more than is needed to accomplish a purpose, animal agriculture involves the wasteful use of grain, land, water, energy and other resources.
- While the Torah stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with the hungry (Leviticus 19:9-10, Deuteronomy 24:17-22), over 70 percent of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, while almost 1 billion of the world’s people are chronically malnourished and an estimated 20 million people worldwide die from hunger and its effects each year.
- While Judaism teaches that we must pursue peace (Psalms 34:14) and that violence results from unjust conditions (Pirke Avot 5:8), animal-centered diets, by wasting resources, perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that lead to instability and war.
One could say dayenu (it would be enough) after any of these arguments because each constitutes a serious conflict between Jewish values and current practice that should impel Jews to consider a plant-based diet. Combined, they make an urgent, compelling case.
That Jews should be vegetarians is reinforced by other Torah teachings. The first chapter of the Torah has G-d’s original, strictly vegetarian diet: “And G-d said, ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed — to you it shall be for food’” (Genesis 1:29).
A comparison of humans with carnivorous animals reinforces the Torah implication that we were designed to eat plant foods. Humans do not, for example, have the claws and daggerlike teeth of carnivorous animals, and our intestinal system is four times longer and our stomach acids 20 times weaker than is the case for carnivorous animals.
While G-d gave permission for humans to eat meat after the flood during the life of Noah (Genesis 9:3), biblical commentators believe that this was a concession. According to Isaac Arama, God provided a second vegetarian attempt with manna while the Israelites were in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. When flesh was reluctantly provided in the form of quails in response to complaints, a great plague broke out, and many Israelites died at a place named “the Graves of Lust.”
While the Torah speaks positively about plant foods, including the seven species mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8, flesh foods are associated with lust and even called basar ta’avah, the meat of lust.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, and others said the messianic period will be vegetarian, as was the case in the Garden of Eden. They base this conclusion on the prophecy of Isaiah (11:6) that “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb. … The lion shall eat straw like the ox. … No one shall hurt nor destroy in all of G-d’s holy mountain.”
Jews who wish to live consistently with Torah teachings should sharply reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products. Such a dietary shift would help revitalize Judaism by showing the current relevance of eternal Jewish teachings, improve the health of Jews, and shift our precious but imperiled planet toward a sustainable path.
Richard H. Schwartz, the president emeritus of Jewish Veg and the president of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians, is the author of “Judaism and Vegetarianism,” “Judaism and Global Survival,” and “Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet.”