Judeo-Veganism [PresenTense]

Here’s a piece that I wrote with the help of a couple fellow Pardesniks and took a long time to get published online.  But better late than never (see the original article here)

Imagine a world without hunger.

Imagine a world full of clean air and lush forests.

Imagine a world where the words “water shortage” don’t have a ring of truth to them.

All of this is possible through changes in lifestyle which are echoed by some of the Jewish values we hold dear. Values such as tikkun olam — repairing the world, bal tashchit (Deut. 20:19-20) — the prohibition against needless destruction, and tza’ar ba’alei chayim (Ex. 23:4) — the prohibition against cruelty to animals. These all mandate us, as Jews, to take an active role in improving our world and conserving its scarce natural resources. There is another ideology which shares these same values: Veganism.

Veganism is a diet and lifestyle that refrains from using animals for any purpose including food. Veganism also reduces climate change, pollution and resource consumption, thus helping to sustain the planet. Through refraining from the consumption and needless use of animal products, we can use the resources previously dedicated to those industries to improve the world we live in.

Consider the following: “To produce a day’s food for one meat-eater takes over 4,000 gallons [of water]; for a lacto-ovo vegetarian [not eating meat, but eating dairy products], only 1,200 gallons; for a pure vegetarian, only 300 gallons. It takes less water to produce a year’s food for a pure vegetarian [vegan] than to produce a month’s food for a meat-eater.” (Robins, John (1987) Diet for a New America: How Your Food Choices Affect Your Health, Happiness and the Future of Life on Earth.)

One student at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem sums up her thoughts on the issue “The systems which exist today, particularly in America and many other industrialized countries, are detached from the cyclical relationship that we should ideally have with the world where we eat things and are eaten. We are made out of earth and go back to the earth, right now it’s totally out of whack…we are producing too much meat.”

When one eats a burger, they do not usually think about all the effort that went into getting that burger; to them, it is in it’s ‘finished’ form. However, the above information should be all the motivation needed to begin making incremental changes in one’s lifestyle. Veganism can be a way to realize these crucial Jewish values. It is not a wholly secular and separate ideology which is un- or anti-Jewish. We call the melding of these two ideologies Judeo-Veganism.

An actively involved Jew can incorporate Judeo-Vegan values in ways that would make a tangible difference without appearing radical because of the drastic change in lifestyle. First, one could organize a synagogue sponsored Vegan Shabbat dinner on a semi-regular basis to help the environment and teach people about Judeo-Veganism. The dinner could use only recycled materials and locally produced vegan food, supply Jewish texts on the environment and animal welfare on recycled paper, and possibly invite speakers to talk on the topic. This usefully blends both ideologies in a practical and meaningful way.

Second, advocating for Jewish organizations to practice food rescue and water conservation, especially in Israel – like Leket. Leket is Israel’s National Food Bank, which addresses the problem of “nutritional insecurity.” Among other achievements they rescue over 110 tons of food that would otherwise be destroyed (leket.org/english). Many Jewish organizations have events every year where enormous amounts of food are simply thrown away. This is a clear violation of bal tashchit and can be easily remedied through the help of these food rescue practices.

A third example of how to practically incorporate these values is to petition Jewish communities to stop using live animals for kapparot (a Jewish ritual done before Yom Kippur). The unnecessary waste of life and the resources that went into producing that life is a clear violation of the biblical commandments of tza’ar ba’alei chayim and ba’al taschit.

While this argument may look convincing on paper, practically integrating this idea into Jewish life has its challenges. Eating meat is a prevalent facet of Jewish culture; as we see through the success of the kosher meat industry as well as various longstanding customs like eating meat on Shabbat and Holidays. For this reason, it is important to be educated about the shared concern for social justice within Judaism and Veganism, and about how they can work together to achieve their common goals. “Jews should strongly consider becoming vegans today, because animal-based diets arguably violate basic Jewish mandates to preserve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources and help hungry people. A major shift by Jews toward vegan diets would increase the health of the Jewish people (and later others who would follow our example), revitalize Judaism by showing the relevance of our eternal teachings to current issues, and help shift our imperiled planet to a sustainable path.” Richard Schwartz, President of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America.

It is also important to realize that this is not simply a Jewish issue. “As the global population surges towards a predicted 9.1 billion people by 2050, western tastes for diets rich in meat and dairy products are unsustainable,” says the report from United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) international panel of sustainable resource management.”# If we really want to help save the planet, we must do more than simply recycle paper and buy energy efficient lightbulbs. We need to reduce our consumption of animal products.

We’ve shown you just a few examples of how to affect change on a small scale. But these examples should not be the final objective. Rather than simply creating a social awareness once a year, once a month, or even once a week, we should make sure to bring awareness into our everyday lives.

It is possible for one person to affect change on a global scale by committing themselves seriously to embodying these values. We are all influenced to a great extent by the actions of those with whom we spend the most time. One who shows a passion for any issue is bound to have an effect on their closest friends and family. Although our direct effect might be small, we can bond together to affect real systemic change.

We know that suggesting a major lifestyle change is extreme, but in truth our situation calls for it. “The world is facing a hunger crisis unlike anything it has seen in more than 50 years. 925 million people are hungry. Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes. That’s one child every five seconds. (bread.org)”

“The ever-increasing cattle population is wreaking havoc on the earth’s ecosystems, destroying habitats on six continents. Cattle raising is a primary factor in the destruction of the world’s remaining tropical rain forests. Millions of acres of ancient forests in Central and South America are being felled and cleared to make room for pastureland to graze cattle. Cattle herding is responsible for much of the spreading desertification in the sub-Sahara of Africa and the western rangeland of the United States and Australia. The overgrazing of semiarid and arid lands has left parched and barren deserts on four continents. Organic runoff from feedlots is now a major source of organic pollution in our nation’s ground water. Cattle are also a major cause of global warming… The devastating environmental, economic, and human toll of maintaining a worldwide cattle complex is little discussed in public policy circles… Yet, cattle production and beef consumption now rank among the gravest threats to the future well being of the earth and its human population.

The aims of vegetarians and environmental activists are similar: simplify our life styles, have regard for the earth and all forms of life, and apply the knowledge that “the earth is the Lord’s.” In view of the many negative effects of animal-based agriculture on the earth’s environment, resources, and climate, it is becoming increasingly clear that a shift toward vegetarian diets is a planetary imperative.”#

It is time to put the resources that we have to the best possible use they can be put to.

We must increase our awareness of what and how we consume.

We must open our eyes to the plight of our fellow humans.

We must make the necessary changes to make the world a better place.

For additional resources to help in the quest to discover Judeo-Veganism:

By Benjamin Barer and David Bookbinder

David is beginning his first year at Yeshivat Chovovei Torah rabbinical school. He is passionately halakhic, fiercely vegan, and truly believes that through careful balance, a dedication to adaptation, and a commitment to Torah, we can change the world for the better.

Benjamin Barer is returning to Pardes for a second year after finishing his undergrad in honours philosophy at the University of British Columbia and plans to attend graduate school in Jewish Studies after Pardes. You can read more on his blog.

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