Revitalizing Judaism and applying Jewish values to help heal our imperiled planet
by Richard H. Schwartz with Rabbi Yonassan Gershom and Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz
Reviewed by Barbara Kay
Richard Schwartz, principal author of Who Stole My Religion?, is a rather odd polemical duck. He has two great passions in life: Judaism and environmentalism, which for him finds its noblest personal expression in vegetarianism.
Judaically, Schwartz is what is known as a “ba’al t’shuvah,” a lapsed or secular Jew who “returns” to the faith of his fathers, taking on traditional practices, as Schwartz did in adulthood. But since observant Jews tend generally to be as happily carnivore at table as they are fervent at prayer, Schwartz’s zealous dedication to a plant-based diet rather isolates him in his institutionally Jewish milieu. Adding to his loneliness, he is an island of political progressivism surrounded by a sea of conservatism.
Who Stole My Religion? is a treatise on Judaism as it relates – or as Schwartz believes it should relate – to climate change, anti-Semitism, the legacy of the Holocaust, Israel vis à vis her neighbours, animal rights, and the problem (in Schwartz’s eyes) of traditional Jews finding a political home in the Republican Party.
It’s unfortunate that Schwartz introduces political partisanship very early on as a criterion for who “owns” Judaism (not a word Schwartz uses, but certainly implied by the book’s title). For his insistence in the opening pages of this book that only the Democratic Party in America accords with Jewish values is bound to turn away many potential readers.
I do not share Schwartz’s political views, and nor do many other Jews far smarter and more Jewishly knowledgable than I, but we do not consider ourselves compromised as Jews on that account by any means (after all, how is gay marriage, abortion on demand, sexual libertinism, single motherhood and euthanasia, all Democratic preoccupations, consistent with Judaism?). Unless preaching only to the choir of Jewish progressives was Schwartz’s goal, gratuitously alienating a fairly populous constituency of educated and thoughtful Jews at the outset was perhaps not the wisest of writerly strategies.
Judaism & vegetarianism
But that is a quarrel for another day. My remit here, and the issue that drew me to the book, is to look specifically at Schwartz’s understanding of Judaism’s relationship to vegetarianism.
I should here note that although himself a vegan, Schwartz’s history of activism, including high-profile involvement in societies such as Jewish Vegetarians of North America and the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians, indicates comfort at the political level with the promotion of mere vegetarianism for the general population. I hope I am not misrepresenting him in saying that the main thrust of his arguments presses the ethical imperative of a “plant-based” but not necessarily plant-only diet, with abdication from animal flesh the principal objective.
Judaism is an ancient religion, and throughout its 3,000 years-plus of history a great deal of ink has been spilled on the intricacies of kashrut, but until the 20th century, flesh-eating as an ethical issue, though perhaps discussed at the margins of Jewish intellectual life after the onset of the Haskalah – the Jewish Enlightenment of the early 19th century, when culturally Jewish secularism became a life choice option – was never up for serious debate amongst mainstream Jewish authorities. I was therefore quite interested to see if Schwartz could persuade me that there was something intrinsically or distinctively Jewish about eschewing animal flesh.
I come to the issue with both experience in observing, and a great deal of prior rumination on, the rules governing kashrut. As a Jew who grew up in a kosher home, and who was therefore continuously aware of what was and what was not permitted to be eaten, I have often brooded over the apparently mysterious laws of kashrut (which means “fit” or “proper”), whose “meaning” nobody has ever been able to explain. Which doesn’t mean nobody has tried. Many have; I googled “the meaning of kashrut” and got 476,000 hits.
In my youth I had accepted the commonly believed notion that since the parasitic disease of trichinosis could be transferred to humans who ate pork, kashrut was founded in hygienic principles. Once embarked on actual inquiry, though, I rejected that theory as completely untenable, since it did not account for the majority of forbidden animals that posed no particular danger to health. Eventually I narrowed the field of plausibility down to two motifs I found intellectually attractive.
One is the fact that animals that are, so to speak, ambiguous – neither of one domain or the other – are forbidden, such as frogs that live both in water and on land, and reptiles that live on land, but move like fish. This suggests to me that one intention of kashrut is to reinforce the ambiguity-free binary nature of life the Jewish God seems to approve: male/female; permitted/forbidden; right/wrong. (Transgenderism, the ultimate ambiguity, was not dealt with in the Torah, but given homosexuality’s status as an “abomination,” according to the Torah, it is fair to assume that transgenderism would have been assigned an equally failing moral grade.)
The other is the theme of what the French call étapism – incrementalism: a program that encourages a forward movement through stages to avoid the shock of great change all at once to primitive minds. The object would be to finally arrive at the stage of truly enlightened behavior God had in mind.
For example, although slaves were allowed to the ancient Hebrews in the Torah, it became a superannuated practice in the Hebrew tradition quite quickly, even though it was practiced by neighbouring cultures. It is possible that because the Torah rules of ownership and treatment of slaves were, unlike in other tribes, so demanding, involving great owner responsibility and many entitlements owed slaves, it made more sense to end the practice, moving on to the simplicity of hiring labor. Was the reason for the complex network of rules around slavery to nudge Jews toward dropping it of their own free will? And similarly with kashrut: are the commandments so constraining because the system was designed to fail upwards, so to speak?
Not only compatible but easier
After all, vegetarianism is not only compatible with Judaism, it makes an observant Jew’s life infinitely easier and cheaper: reducing his cooking utensils, tableware and cutlery by 50%, his food costs probably by 75% (kosher meat is unconscionably costly due to monopoly sourcing). Moreover, it creates a radically more ecumenical social environment, in that one may dine at the homes of vegetarian friends and vegetarian restaurants without contravening any dietary laws whatsoever. (This last point contains its own built-in controversy, in that some Jewish thinkers believe one of the reasons – perhaps the main reason – for kashrut is to ensure that Jews socialize apart from gentiles.)
Consider too: Apart from fish with fins and scales, the meat animals we Jews are permitted to eat – cows, sheep, goats, deer, bison – are themselves vegetarian (and chew the cud, a strict criterion). We are allowed to eat vegetarian birds like chicken, ducks, geese and turkey, but not birds of prey. To me this otherwise inexplicable system holds the tantalizing possibility that kashrut was conceived as a kind of compromise for people who would find vegetarianism too difficult to embrace in their early days as a people, but would work to sensitize them in preparation for the idea of vegetarianism as a rational next step. Kashrut laws would therefore serve to instill habits of discipline and self-restraint for an evolutionary higher purpose, as a way station on the path to enlightenment, in an era – now – when we were ready to accept a truly enlightened relationship with animals.
These, if I were debating the case for vegetarianism as a Jewish value, would be the arguments I would use. So I was curious to see the case Schwartz would make.
Schwartz begins his chapter on vegetarianism by noting that the Torah commands man to show compassion to animals, as summarized in the commandment not to cause pain to “ba’alei chayim,” living creatures. Animals have general rights, even though man was granted “dominion” over them. God’s Covenant was established with man but also “with every living creature that is with you, the fowl, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you” (Genesis 9:9-10).
Compassion for animals is definitely a Jewish value
And animals also have particular rights. An ox may not be muzzled when the grain is being threshed, because it would be inhumane to prevent it from eating what it can see and smell (Deuteronomy 25:4). A farmer may not yoke an ox and a donkey together, as they are of unequal size and strength, causing an unfair burden to both animals (Deuteronomy 22:10). Animals are also commanded to rest on the Sabbath, a rule considered so important it was included in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:10).
(Schwartz surprisingly does not mention Deuteronomy 14:21, “Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” interpreted as an injunction against killing a goat’s offspring in the mother’s presence out of compassion for her feelings, and by the way the sole basis for the Talmud’s complex exegesis in creating a strict separation between dairy and meat – hence the double sets of kitchen utensils and dishes, not to mention two extra sets for Passover.)
So far, so good. We are in accord that compassion for animals is definitely a Jewish value.
Six areas of conflict
Schwartz then gets to the nub of his argument, specifying six areas in which “animal-based diets conflict with Jewish values”: Jews are commanded to preserve their health and their lives (Deuteronomy 4:9), but animal-based diets are linked to heart, cancer and other diseases; Animals are raised in factory farms in cramped quarters and denied fresh air, exercise and pleasure in life – i.e. they suffer abuse – before being slaughtered; Livestock cultivation contributes to climate change and many forms of environmental damage; Judaism teaches us not to be wasteful, but animal production is built on a wasteful pyramid of resources – water, land, energy – as compared to plant production; Judaism demands that we feed the hungry, but since most grain is allocated to the production of meat, milk and eggs, millions of people over the world are starving (i.e. by producing more grain as food, we could feed more of the world’s poor); While Judaism exhorts us to seek peace, affordable land shortages due to animal production exacerbates tensions between the haves and have-nots, producing “social unrest, violence and war.”
I am sorry to say that I do not find any of these arguments compelling.
Three meals a day at McDonald’s will certainly produce deleterious results, to be sure, just as a vegetarian diet of chocolate bars and Coca-Cola would, but a moderate, healthy diet heavy on fruits and vegetables but incorporating fish, organic chicken and lean beef, coupled with exercise, is considered an optimal lifestyle by most nutritional experts. It is quite a stretch to call such a diet un-Jewish.
Factory farms are an abomination by any feeling person’s standards, be he Jewish, Christian or atheist. Vegetarianism is one response; radical regulations based in humane measures of animal welfare are another. Many meat-eaters I know buy their meat direct from local humane-production farms, and their eggs and chickens from free-range farms. There is nothing un-Jewish about eating animals raised humanely.
Climate change! This is a non-starter. Schwartz is cherrypicking here. If eating meat is un-Jewish because cows produce climate-changing gases, then it is also un-Jewish to travel by any conveyance producing exhaust fumes. Animals may contribute to climate change, but if they can be shown to be a critical factor in planet warming, then surely it is the government’s job to regulate their numbers. In a global population of seven billion people, a few million flesh-eating Jews can hardly be expected to feel it is their religious duty to become vegetarian, since all civic-minded people share a common concern for the planet – or should. Moreover, since observant Jews don’t eat pigs, of which there are nearly as many as cows, they are already making a “contribution” to a reduction in gases.
As for waste of resources and land shortages, well, North America has a lot of land, enough to feed its own population with as much meat and plant food as they need. If the earth warms even one degree, great swathes of land in Canada – bread basket to the world – and Russia will open up for cultivation (albeit that cultivation in other regions may become more difficult if the water-saving practices already used in Israel and some other arid climates are not soon adopted).
This is a weak hook upon which to change a lifestyle for specifically Jewish reasons.
Schwartz also treats hunger as a simple matter of scarcity in poor countries, when it is actually a more complex combination of difficult growing conditions, bad governance, political corruption and an uneducated polity mired in cultural stasis. Schwartz only has to look at tiny Israel, a semi-arid nation, and its productivity, enough to feed its seven million citizens all the meat and plant foods they want and with plenty to sell abroad, as compared to many of its Arab and African nations burdened with similar geographic challenges, to see the truth of this observation. Certainly modern Zionists had the advantage of being a highly educated group, and Israelis took to technology like ducks to water, which explains their triumph over adverse conditions. But they have shown that it can be done where there is a will to national betterment.
In any case, while it is true that wealthy countries could feed the world’s poor, is such extreme socialism a Jewish value, or even the wise thing to do? The Jewish value in terms of feeding the poor was expressed by our great teacher Maimonides: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Maimonides’ exhortation is precisely Israel’s policy with regard to its poorer neighbors. I was fortunate to be present at one of Ben Gurion University’s biennial international conferences on Drylands, Deserts and Desertification, and it was thrilling to see 500 delegates from 60 arid and semi-arid countries gathered to learn “to fish,” by exposure to the latest advances in making their deserts bloom, with teams of Israeli experts to accompany them home for training.
Finally, wars are fought for many reasons, but I cannot come up with one example of a major war in progress or in the past waged over land shortages due to animal production. Wars are often fought because one tribe or nation is desirous of more land than they have and tribal disputes over water rights have occurred since time immemorial and continue to occur today, but a cursory review of geopolitical hostilities since animal production became industrialized – and that is Schwartz’s main gripe – does not produce any examples for me of that particular cause.
An example or two, or supportive statistics on this and Schwartz’s other opinions, would have been helpful. Their absence bolsters my general impression that this book is more an amateur polemicist’s emotional cri du coeur than an intellectually serious argument. I conclude that Schwartz’s real religion is not Judaism, but progressivism. Into progressivism’s ideological round holes, Schwartz pounds (the right word; he is tiresomely repetitive; this book cries out for a competent editor) square Jewish pegs in order to fold his life choices into a seamlessly unitary philosophy for his own personal psychological comfort.
Afterword, by Merritt Clifton:
Among vegetarians and vegan intellectuals, especially non-Jews, there is often a tendency to conflate the enormous influence of Jewish thinkers and activists within the cause with the mainstream trends within Judaism.
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the evolution of animal advocacy over the past two centuries, let alone the growth of vegetarian and vegan advocacy, without the contributions of Jewish leaders. The machine tool inventor Lewis Gompertz, for instance, bailed the London SPCA out of bankruptcy before it won the royal charter that made it the Royal SPCA in 1840, but was later drummed out of the organization for the purported dual offenses of being Jewish and preaching against eating animal flesh. Others of note include Peter Singer, whose 1975 book Animal Liberation is widely credited with inspiring the modern-day animal rights movement; the Holocaust survivors Henry Spira and Alex Hershaft, whose organizations Animal Rights International and Farm Animal Rights Movement showed the way for generations of other activists; and of course Richard Schwartz, whose book Who Stole My Religion? is reviewed above by Barbara Kay.
Influential early foundations for vegetarian and vegan philosophy may be traced all the way back to the Biblical stories of Adam and Eve and Noah, and to the prophet Isaiah (some say also Ezekiel.) Keith Akers in The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living & Nonviolence In Early Christianity makes a strong case that Jesus’ life and mission evolved out of a movement against animal sacrifice which had already gathered significant momentum in the several generations before Jesus’ time.
Though kosher slaughter to this day is performed under rabbinical supervision, and Kapporos (“chicken-swinging”) is still practiced by a very few people at the extreme margins of Hassidic Judaism (in itself a minority branch of the faith, including about 3% of all practicing Jews), the movement against animal sacrifice continued to gain influence for several more generations, leading to the abandonment of temple sacrifice by mainstream Judaism after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple circa 70 C.E.
Political activism toward rebuilding the Jerusalem temple and resuming animal sacrifice has gained minimal influence since the formation of modern Israel in 1948, and appears to have come at least as much from messianic Christian sects as from factions within Judaism.
Amid all this, however, it is useful to remember that while the issues pertaining to the ethics of animal slaughter and consumption are vitally important to most of us to whom they matter at all, the mainstream of Judaism, like the mainstream of Christianity and the mainstream of every other religion which does not include specific vegetarian teachings, has bumbled on along through the centuries without thinking much about animal slaughter and consumption, outside of economic and practical contexts, and of course the context of trying to avoid thinking about anything unpleasant.