The Planet-Saving Mitzvah: Why Jews Should Consider Vegetarianism

By Brook, Daniel | Tikkun, July/August 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Planet-Saving Mitzvah: Why Jews Should Consider Vegetarianism


Brook, Daniel, Tikkun


JUDAISM HAS TO BE A DAILY SPIRITUAL AND SOCIAL PRACTICE, NOT SIMPLY A ritualized one, if it is to be meaningful to Jews and relevant to others. Beyond being spiritual, we are called upon to uplift ourselves and to make the world a better place for ourselves, our families, our communities, and others.

In Why Be Jewish? Rabbi David J. Wolpe writes that "Judaism emphasizes good deeds because nothing else can replace them. To love justice and decency, to hate cruelty and to thirst for righteousness- that is the essence of the human task." The human task, therefore, is to be a mensch: a good, kind, and compassionate person.

One of the ways to follow our rich tradition while putting Judaism's highest ideals into daily practice is to choose vegetarianism. In the words of Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, "I see vegetarianism as a mitzvah"- a. sacred duty and good deed.

Maimonides postulated thirteen principles of the Jewish faith, while Rabbi Moses Cordovero wrote about The Thirteen Divine Attributes. Here are thirteen categorical imperatives suggesting why Jews should seriously consider vegetarianism and then move in that direction:

I. Righteousness and Charity.

EVEN THOUGH IT IS OFTEN DIFFICULT, WE DO ALL have the power to break bad habits and soul search for better ways of living. Becoming vegetarian sets a lifelong course of righteousness. Righteous people regard-and guard-the lives of animals (Proverbs 12:10). According to Albert Einstein, if people aspire toward a righteous life, their "first act of abstinence is from injury to animals." A tzadik, or righteous person, is held in the highest regard because of righteous actions.

The Torah and Talmud are filled with stories of people rewarded for their kindness to animals and punished for their thoughtlessness and cruelty to them. In the Torah, Jacob, Moses, and David were all shepherds who cared for animals. Moses is specifically praised for how he showed compassion toward a lamb, as well as people. Rebecca was acceptable as a wife for Isaac because she showed concern for animals, offering water to thirsty camels in addition to the thirsty person who asked for it. Noah is considered righteous as he cared for the lives of the many animals on the Ark.

In contrast, two hunters mentioned in the Torah, Nimrod and Esau, are represented as villains. Further, according to legend, Rabbi Judah the Prince, compiler and editor of the Mishnah, was punished with years of pain for his insensitivity to the fear of a calf on its way to slaughter (Talmud, BavaMezia 85a).

In the words of Torah commentary from Rabbi Moses Cassuto, 'You are permitted to use the animals and employ them for work, have dominion over them in order to utilize their services for your subsistence, but must not hold their life cheap nor slaughter them for food. Your natural diet is vegetarian." Indeed, all of the promises of sustenance and food for the Israelites in the Torah are vegetarian : vineyards and gardens, wheat and barley, figs and pomegranates, grapes and dates, fruits and seeds, nuts and gum, olives and bread, milk and honey. Even the manna, "like coriander seed" (Numbers 11:7), was vegan. In contrast, when the Israelites in the Sinai desert call out for and consume meat and fish, many suffer and die in a plague and are buried in the Graves of Lust.

Judaism stresses the importance of tzeddkah, that we be kind, assist the poor and weak, and share our food with the hungry. Yet about three-fourths of major U.S. crops such as corn, wheat, soybeans, oats, and alfalfa are fed to the billions of animals destined to be slaughtered for meat, while millions of people worldwide the from hunger and its cruel effects each year. This is an avoidable sbanda (shame) on the world.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Assi states, "Tzedakah is equivalent to all the other religious precepts combined" (Baba Batra 9a). The way of the tzadik is the way of chesed (lovingkindness), compassion, charity, and righteousness for all living beings.

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