Vegetarianism: Essential for Jewish Renewal?

By Schwartz, Richard H. | Tikkun, March/April 1999 | Go to article overview

Vegetarianism: Essential for Jewish Renewal?


Schwartz, Richard H., Tikkun


Spirituality has led to a growing awareness of the unity of all beings, of our fundamental interconnectedness. For some this reflection has stayed on the level of purely personal enlightenment without much manifestation in behavior, but for others this understanding has led to a greater sense of responsibility, first toward all other human beings, and second toward animals. One form that this awareness takes is a growing move toward vegetarianism.

No surprise, then, that the Jewish renewal consciousness that increasingly manifests in all the various denominations of Judaism has a strong proclivity toward vegetarianism. Let me explain why I believe that Jewish renewal must associate itself with vegetarianism.

Jewish renewal means a return to Jewish traditions in a process Rabbi Arthur Waskow has called "Godwrestling," struggling with the Torah and Jewish traditions to find deeper meanings. Jewish vegetarians in particular are constantly wrestling with a tradition that, on the one hand, has been centered on animal sacrifices and the eating of meat during festivals, but that, on the other hand, contains strong indications that vegetarianism is at the heart of Jewish tradition.

God's first dietary law allowed only vegetarian foods: "And God said: `Behold I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of 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). Some of the greatest Jewish sages have taught that permission to eat meat was given later only as a grudging concession to people's weakness, and that many prohibitions and restrictions were applied to keep alive a sense of reverence for life.

The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides felt that animal sacrifices were a concession to the practices of a time when the common mode of worship involved sacrifices and that the Israelites were not ready to worship in a way radically different from their neighbors. However, human sacrifices were eliminated, pagan practices were forbidden, and sacrifices were confined to one central location with the hope that the Israelites would be weaned from this practice.

The prophets stressed many times that God preferred mercy and justice over animal sacrifices, and that the sacrifices were in fact an abomination to God if carried out without efforts to combat poverty and oppression.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel and one of the outstanding Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century, believed that the many Jewish dietary restrictions implied a hidden reprimand designed to keep alive the feeling of reverence for life. He taught that people will again be vegetarians in the time of the Messiah, basing this view on Isaiah's prophecy about the harmony and peace that would prevail during the Messianic time: "And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb ... and the lion shall eat straw like the ox" (Isaiah 11:6-9).

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a highly respected modern Torah commentator, has stated that "the laws of kashrut are designed to teach us compassion and to lead us gently to vegetarianism."

Vegetarianism is not only a messianic goal, however, but one we need to pursue in the here and now. Jewish renewal emphasizes that each of us should attempt tikkun olam, the transformation, healing, and repair of the world. In response, today's Jewish vegetarians are challenging Jews to adopt vegetarianism to protect the environment, help the hungry, take care of our health and lives, and treat animals with respect and compassion.

Judaism teaches that "the earth is the Lord's" (Psalm 24:1). We are to be partners and co-workers with God in preserving the world and seeing that the earth's resources are properly used. However, non-vegetarian diets require the wasteful use of land, water, energy, and other agricultural resources, and contribute substantially to many environmental threats, including air and water pollution, soil erosion and depletion, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, and global warming. …

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