Jeffrey Spitz Cohan, executive director of Jewish Veg, shares his thoughts about the deep connection between Judaism and veganism, rooted both in ancient text and contemporary thought:
I was sitting in a Jewish adult-education class a few years ago when the teacher, a prominent rabbi in my community, made a startling statement:
“Meat-eating,” he said, “is not the preferred course of action in the Jewish tradition.”
Say what? I mean, c’mon, we’re the people of brisket, corned beef, chicken soup and lox, right?
It turns out, the rabbi was exactly right.
Gleanings from the Torah
My subsequent deep dive into the Torah and Judaism’s rabbinic tradition revealed three things:
1. A vegan diet is actually the ideal in our sacred texts.
2. While we’re permitted to eat meat, that permission is framed in a negative context.
3. The Torah mandates us to prevent the suffering of animals, a mandate that is being desecrated in modern animal agriculture.
Add it all up, and you can’t avoid the conclusion that eating plants, exclusively, is the preferred course of action in Judaism.
You need to look no further than the very first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1, Verse 29, to be exact. There it is, in unequivocal terms: A Divine directive to eat plants, and only plants.
In the second Creation story, in Genesis 2, we read that God created animals as companions for Adam – as friends, not food.
The permission to eat meat didn’t arrive until one thousand years into the Biblical story, in Genesis 9, right after God had wiped out humanity in a Flood. In other words, the permission didn’t show up as some kind of reward for good behavior, but rather as a concession to humans who had sunk to a low spiritual state.
Furthermore, the permission to eat meat is accompanied by a curse: The animals, created for our companionship, will now fear and dread us, according to Genesis 9:2.
Even if all this wasn’t plainly conveyed in the Torah, we’re still left with the mandate of tza’ar baalei chayim, the obligation to prevent animal suffering. This mandate is based on several verses of the Torah, including Exodus 23:5, which commands us to help a donkey who is struggling to carry a load, even if the donkey belongs to our sworn enemy.
Without going into the unpleasant details, suffice it to say that modern animal agriculture egregiously violates the mandate of tza’ar baalei chayim. This is true even in the context of kosher meat, since no kosher meat company raises its own animals; they take delivery of the exploited and abused animals at the door of the slaughterhouse.
We’re actually just scratching the surface of Judaism here. The case for a vegan lifestyle in Judaism is even stronger than what you’re reading here.
Explore Jewish Veg’s events
What Jewish Veg is all about
When I learned all of this, I became, well, a little upset. How is it that all Jews aren’t aware of this?
This motivated me to accept a job with a nonprofit organization then known as Jewish Vegetarians of North America and now known by the shorter and sleeker name of Jewish Veg.
Jewish Veg’s mission is to educate Jews about what you’ve just read and to help them transition to plant-based diets.
To that end, we offer lots of delicious vegan recipes on our website and we also sell lots of excellent vegan cookbooks, including a few from the truly wonderful Nava Atlas.*
I’m just so glad that I was paying attention years ago when that rabbi said what he said. He opened my ideas to the most sublime values of Judaism, which in turn led me to a vegan lifestyle.
Contributed by Jeffrey Spitz Cohan, the executive director of Jewish Veg, a 501c3 nonprofit organization.
*(thank you, Jeffrey!)
In addition to the recipes presented on the Jewish Veg website (see link above), there are lots of Jewish vegan recipes to explore on this site as well.
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