Adam and Eve did it. Why shouldn’t we?
At least that’s the feeling among a growing crowd within Judaism who feel that a vegan lifestyle isn’t just a healthy choice for our bodies, it’s also an ethical choice that embodies the Jewish ideal of compassionately “healing the world” – tikkun olam. Rabbi Boris Dolin, associate rabbi at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, blogs on the subject (shalomveg.com) and talks about his 20-year journey into veganism – a diet that emphasizes fresh, organic fruits and vegetables to the exclusion of any animal products, much like the original food options in the Garden of Eden.
“Eating vegan is like a mitzvah to the animal kingdom that reflects back upon ourselves,” Rabbi Dolin says. “It brings more holiness into the world, as opposed to more suffering. Ultimately, the challenge is not to ask what is most convenient for our individual desires, but rather what can do the most good, create the most justice and bring healing to our fractured world.”
Still, it can be a hard sell when the Bible itself speaks of the Promised Land as “the land of milk and honey” (both shunned by vegans). Hashem gave Noah and his descendants permission to slaughter and eat animals, blood sacrifices were a major part of the Temple rituals and the Torah and tefillin are created from the hide and sinews of animals. On the other hand, “What may have once made sense, now can no longer be justified … today, in the vast majority of cases, ‘kosher meat’ is an oxymoron,” stated Maryland Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dob, in reaction to the shocking 2004 video footage of horribly mistreated cows at Iowa-based AgriProcessors, once the world’s largest kosher slaughterhouse.
Rabbi Dolin also points out, “When billions of animals are tortured and killed each year behind the dark walls of factory farms and slaughterhouses, we’ve wandered far from the traditional Jewish ideals of connection and compassion. We live in an era when the health of our bodies and the health of our environment demand a commitment to work for social justice, fighting for the oppressed. It’s time we re-examined the current structure of society and our broken, oppressive system of animal agriculture.”
Rabbi Dolin is hardly alone in these views. “I‘m just one voice among many Jewish leaders,” he says, “who feel that veganism might someday be considered a kind of 21st century revision to kosher dietary laws.”
As the late Yiddish writer and Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer famously quipped, “I am a vegetarian for health reasons – the health of the chicken.” Singer was also quoted in the book Judaism and Vegetarianism by Richard Schwartz, where he says more seriously, “I think that eating meat or fish is a denial of all ideals, even of all religions. … How can we speak of right and justice if we take an innocent creature and shed its blood? Every kind of killing seems to me savage and I find no justification for it.” Albert Einstein apparently agreed, when he said, “Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” Even earlier references to this line of thinking can be found in the Talmud, which came up with a concept of treatment-of-animals ethics, if not quite animal rights. “Animals were seen as living beings,
who not only felt pain but also had the capacity for emotions and suffering,” Rabbi Dolin says. “Attention to the lives of animals became part of the evolving Jewish view that all life is connected, and all life is holy.”
To those who might bemoan the narrowing of their dining options for compassion’s sake, Rabbi Dolin explains that since he became vegan, his palate has expanded tremendously as he experiments with an ever-increasing variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and other protein sources such as beans and tofu. “Just like the abnormally high consumption of sugar and salt in modern times,” he suggests, “the current consumption of meat and dairy products by contemporary humans, especially in Western nations, is simply unnatural, and a major source of the illnesses we see spreading among us. After 20 years of veganism, I feel healthy and fit, and not at all restricted in my diet. “Better still,” he says, “I feel that being a vegan allows us to live in truth with our ideals, to commit to a daily protest against suffering and pain in the world.”
Joseph A. Lieberman is a globe-trotting Eugene photojournalist who recently co-authored Jesus: First-century Rabbi (Nov. 2013, Paraclete Press), about the Jewish roots of Christianity, with Rabbi David Zaslow.