A divinity student from a Presbyterian seminary approached me one day and made a surprising comment. “I’m so impressed,” he said, “with the emphasis that Judaism places on treating animals with compassion.”
I didn’t know whether to kvell (feel pride) or to cry. Kvell, because all levels of Jewish texts, from the Torah on down, express incredible sensitivity for the welfare of animals. The divinity student knew something about Judaism—on paper. Cry, because concern for animals is almost totally absent from Jewish communal discourse, while literally billions of farm animals are suffering in abysmal conditions.
We have a Torah that clearly and repeatedly establishes the ideal of veganism and that calls upon us to show great concern for the comfort and well-being of animals. Yet most Jews continue to blithely consume meat, dairy, and eggs as if the welfare of animals were irrelevant.
I say most Jews, but by no means all Jews. In fact, a disproportionate number of rabbis have adopted vegetarian or vegan diets. Their ranks include such prominent rabbis as Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain; Rabbi David Rosen, the former chief rabbi of Ireland; and Rabbi David Wolpe, the spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, one of the flagship Conservative congregations.
Food and the Torah
These rabbis understand that when it comes to something as fundamental as how we eat, the Torah expresses God’s intentions in no uncertain terms. In Genesis 1:29, in the very first conversation with Adam and Eve, God tells them that plant-based foods are theirs to eat—period.
Just in case we didn’t get the message the first time around, God sustained the Israelites on a vegan diet—manna—to prepare our ancestors for the Revelation. And at the risk of being redundant, the Torah twice describes meat eating as emanating from human lust rather than from the divine will, in Numbers 11:34 and in Deuteronomy 12:20.
The kosher laws in Leviticus obviously permit killing animals for food, but place a variety of highly restrictive limits and conditions on eating meat. For example, pigs and shellfish are off-limits, meat may not be served with dairy products, and even some parts of a cow are not kosher. By contrast, all fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and legumes are permitted. The purpose of the kosher laws is not altogether mysterious: by making meat eating inconvenient at best, they clearly convey moral consternation over the killing of animals.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the revered founder of America’s Modern Orthodox movement, wrote, “There is a distinct reluctance, almost an unwillingness on the part of Torah, to grant man the privilege to consume meat.” It is hardly coincidental that the easiest way to keep kosher is to be vegetarian or vegan. We have no need for separate plates, utensils, or dishwashers to keep meat and dairy apart from each other.
After all, the vegan ideal speaks to the very essence—the raison d’être—of Judaism. Why did God give Jews the Torah if not to bring the divine attributes of mercy, compassion, and morality into what was—and in many ways what remains—a brutal, savage world? For thousands of years, the strong have heartlessly exploited and oppressed the weak. The Torah arrived to save the world from humanity itself. Jews should be especially sensitive to this dynamic, for reasons of both theology and history. Have we not been exploited and oppressed over the millennia?
Compassion or Oppression?
So what do we do when we encounter animals, sentient beings who are at our mercy, whose care God entrusted to us? What do we do when we’re in the position of strength?
Tragically, we cram chickens into cages so small they can’t lift a wing; we brand and often castrate cows without pain relief; we send living male chicks into grinders and steal newborn calves from nursing cows. Then, after subjecting them to lives of abject misery, we slit their throats. And for what reason? Because we like how they taste? Because it’s the conventional thing to do? Because non-Jews are doing it too?
As Jews, we should be expanding our circle of compassion, not narrowing it. We should be setting an example, not following the lead of a decadent society. Precisely because God and our sages recognized the human tendency to oppress the weak, they liberally sprinkled the Torah—writ large—with commandments to treat animals with kindness. For instance, in Exodus 23:5, we’re told to help a donkey who is struggling to bear his load, even if the donkey belongs to our sworn enemy. We are forbidden in Deuteronomy 22:10 to yoke an ox and ass to the same plow, for neither one would be able to proceed at its natural speed. This conveys exquisite sensitivity about respecting the nature of animals. Animals are even to be given a day of rest on the Sabbath, per Exodus 20:9. Collectively, the many verses in the Torah dealing with our treatment of animals are referred to as tza’ar baalei chayim, the prohibition against causing an animal to suffer.
According to the Shulchan Aruch—the authoritative, sixteenth-century codification of Jewish law—we are not only prohibited from inflicting pain on animals but also obligated to relieve their suffering. Modern factory farming—which is where more than 90 percent of kosher meat comes from—makes a mockery of these beautiful teachings. Accordingly, the aforementioned Rabbi Rosen has asserted that virtually all meat should be considered non-kosher, due to the egregious contrast between Jewish law and contemporary animal-agriculture practices.
We should not delude ourselves that the laws of shechita absolve us from complicity in this widespread cruelty. For one thing, the laws of kosher slaughter apply only to slaughter, not to the suffering imposed on the animals before they’re taken to the slaughterhouse. And second, it is virtually impossible to strictly apply the laws ofshechita in modern abattoirs, where the sheer number of animals killed in a single day is often in the hundreds or even thousands. These laws were written in and for an era when a shochet might slaughter one or two animals in a day or a week.
It seems God anticipated this. The divine wisdom is truly awe-inspiring.
The Torah prescribed a vegan diet for us, and as it turns out, a vegan diet is better not only for animals but for our own health, too. Have you ever known anyone to develop heart disease, diabetes, obesity, or cancer from eating blueberries? Or lentils? Or broccoli?
Fortunately, as veganism continues to grow in popularity, a whole host of vegan substitutes for meat and dairy products are widely available, even at regular supermarkets. Many of them are much lower in fat and completely free of cholesterol.
You don’t need to become a vegan overnight. Start with one meal a day and take it from there. Or try a vegetarian diet first, then move toward abstaining from all animal products. We all have an opportunity to bring Jewish and ethical values into our daily lives by eating in a way that aligns with the ideals and compassion of the Torah. And maybe someday soon I can look that theological student in the eye and just kvell.