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Jewish Criticism of Vegetarianism and How to Answer it

SteakIn my previous post on an overview of Jewish vegetarianism, I noted that there were 5 main reasons given by most vegetarians for why they stop eating meat.  In Judaism, too, there are 5 main reasons for becoming vegetarian. Similarly, there are 5 main arguments Jewish religious critics of vegetarianism give.  I have encountered these common criticisms many times during my travels, in Jewish communities all over the world.  Even if you want to continue to eat meat, you should be aware of the issues posed by your actions.  The existentialist in me is fond of maintaining awareness when making decisions!

1.  There is no animal cruelty because kosher laws dictate animals must be treated well during their lifetimes. Also, animals die instantly when slaughtered kosher, before they can even feel pain, so it’s not animal cruelty to eat kosher meat. 

This is a great ideal to which to aspire, but in practice it is rarely observed with the amount of reverence it deserves.  Most animals in the US today are factory farmed.  I don’t want to go into the details of what that means, but basically the animals are restrained, kept in overcrowded conditions, and fed unnatural foods.  By no stretch of the imagination can this be considered “good treatment” so as to satisfy the Biblical mandate of tsa’ar ba’alei chayim and I have never heard anyone claim it does.  Yet, the meat that gets to your kosher table comes from factory farms just like all the burgers in McDonald’s do.  So how is it possibly considered kosher?  Producers of this meat purchase the animals as they enter the slaughterhouse.  Because the livestock were previously owned by non-Jews, the Jews aren’t responsible for their treatment.  Although this loophole does follow the letter of the law, it blatantly violates the spirit of the law.  Several rabbis, including Rabbi Natan Slifkin (the “Zoo Rabbi”) have declared that even if this loophole is used, this meat still isn’t really kosher.  Furthermore, it is not certain that animals slaughtered kosher feel no pain, as time from cutting to death depends on a variety of factors, including the exact sharpness of the knife, the skill of the shochet, the species, and the manner in which the animal is restrained.  Sometimes animals may retain consciousness for 30 seconds before they finally die.

2.  G-d gave us animals and told us we can eat them, so it’s ok.

G-d initially gave us the animals so we could care for them, not eat them.  In the Garden of Eden, Adam was charged with naming the animals, giving him responsibility for them even on a spiritual level.  He definitely wasn’t eating them – G-d told him to eat from “every herb yielding seed” and every “fruit of a tree yielding seed.”  This was the ideal G-d wanted for man.  Meat-eating was only permitted after the Flood.  According to Rabbi Samuel H. Dresner, this was an accession to human weakness – if G-d hadn’t let humans eat animals, they would have sunk again to pre-Flood levels of degradation and eventually ended up cannibalizing each other.  So, yes, it’s permitted, but it’s not permitted for the nicest reason and I don’t know if I’d be too proud about “needing” to eat meat…

3.  Kosher meat is healthier, so you don’t have to worry eating too much might make you sick.

In some respects, kosher meat is healthier, but in some respects it’s not.  Because certain parts of the animal aren’t used and all blood is removed, less disease is spread.  On the other hand, by salting the meat a lot more, the higher sodium content can be harmful to people with heart problems.  In all other respects, kosher meat is processed in the same way as non-kosher meat.  Most processing is even done in the same factories.  That means that any dangers to health regular, non-kosher meat has also apply to your kosher meat.  Finally, most health hazards come from eating too much meat, not from the meat itself.  In the long run, over-consumption of meat has been linked to arteriosclerosis, atherosclerosis, several kinds of cancer, osteoporosis, and arthritis, to name a few.  Eating kosher won’t prevent these diseases or even reduce their risk – only reducing your meat intake will do that.

4.  We have to eat meat to raise the “sparks” of the animals’ souls up to a higher level by using their energy to do mitzvot. 

This comes from the kabbalistic concept that during the creation of the universe, “sparks” of holiness fell down to the lower levels and, as Jews, it’s our job to go out and find them and raise them up.  This is considered to be one of our main jobs while we’re in exile.  Alternately, it is related to the kabbalistic concept that a human soul may have been reincarnated into an animal to atone for a specific sin – if the meat is then eaten and a certain mitzvah performed, the human soul is freed from its sin to be reincarnated as a human again.  Rabbi Yonassan Gershom points out that this collection of “sparks” is cumulative and as we near the days of moshiach, there are fewer sparks to collect.  Each person has their allotted sparks and it does happen that sometimes a person has just managed to elevate all the “meat sparks” they’re supposed to.  Rabbi Gershom also notes that, unlike in the past when people had individual relationships with their animals and the shochet (slaughterer) made a new blessing over each animal, in today’s factory farms and slaughterhouses, the proper kavanah (religious intention) is no longer present and this results in there being no sparks in the meat. “The Breslover Rebbe stated that only a person who has reached a high spiritual level can be elevated by eating animal foods, and the opposite is also true: a person who lacks this high spiritual level may be further debased by eating animal foods.”  Similarly, the Gemara states that only a true Torah scholar may eat meat. In spite of the sparks that need to be elevated, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, a major 16th century Kabbalist, encouraged people to eat as little meat as possible

5.  It is a “mitzvah” to eat meat and drink wine on Shabbat and Yom Tov.

Rabbi Moshe Goldman notes that the source for this “mitzvah” comes from the prophet Isaiah, who tells us to “call the Shabbat a day of delight,” just as a yom tov, which is a “good day,” a holiday.  This means different things to different people.  At one point in Jewish history, having a big fish on Shabbat and Yom Tov was considered a “delight.”  Today, meat is considered to be more of a “delight” than fish, so it’s viewed as part of the mitzvah to enjoy and be joyous on Shabbat and Yom Tov. Even the Lubavitcher Rebbe has said that if eating meat doesn’t give you any pleasure, you shouldn’t eat it, even on Shabbat or Yom Tov. 

Bearing all that in mind, I’m a pretty “live-and-let-live” kind of person, particularly when it comes to vegetarianism.  It doesn’t bother me when other people eat meat around me (although I’m not fond of handling it, since I can’t help thinking of it as the internal organ of a dead animal).  I don’t run around trying to convince other people to become vegetarian.  In fact, Rabbi Ben isn’t vegetarian, although he isn’t a big fan of meat and is often vegetarian because he travels so much.  So I don’t recommend you take these arguments and run off to convince all your friends to give up eating meat, but rather, I hope you will use this information to make informed decisions and to raise interesting discussions with your friends and family.

Why would a Jewish and kosher world traveler become vegetarian?

Why do Jews become vegetarians?

What does the Bible say about vegetarianism?

Being a Jewish vegetarian doesn’t have to be boring! (Part 1)

Being a Jewish vegetarian doesn’t have to be boring! (Part 2)

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Happy Chanukah! Paraguay Style!

Jewish children playing in a park in Asuncion, Paraguay, during Chanukah

During a Chabad Chanukah party in the park in Paraguay, dozens of Jews showed up. I really enjoyed watching all the children play on the playground, especially these two boys who showed their good middos by playing with a little boy much younger than them.

Paraguay is a little, landlocked country in south-central South America, just above Argentina and hemmed in by Brazil and Bolivia.  In 2007, while I was living in Argentina, I packed a small bag and spontaneously flew there, without plans as to what to eat, where to sleep, or how I would celebrate the holiday. Holiday?! Yes, Chanukah!  It was December and I went to Paraguay during Chanukah.

Fortunately, as soon as I arrived, I gave the Chabad rabbi a call.  After taking a taxi to the Chabad, we all piled into his car and drove to a nearby park, usually driving on the wrong side of the road and just barely avoiding head-on collisions with the oncoming traffic.  The rabbi told me they were going to be having a Chanukah party in the park.

When we arrived, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  A larger-than-life Chanukah menorah towered above us.  I don’t think I’ve ever see one so big before!  And I certainly wouldn’t have expected to see it in a park in Asunción, Paraguay!

More and more members of the community began to arrive. The children played on the playground while teenage girls blew up balloons for them. The adults stood around, chatting.  Then, the sun began to set.  The men quickly formed a minyan and began to pray.  When they were done, it was showtime!

The menorah was so enormous that the rabbi had hired a cherry-picker truck to come lift people to the top to light it!  I was amazed.  It was incredible to celebrate the miracles of Chanukah by lighting the largest menorah I’ve ever seen, with many other Jews, in the center of a small country in South America.

Lighting the Chanukah menorah in Asuncion, Paraguay

At a Chanukah party in the park in Asuncion, Paraguay, the Chabad rabbi even let me ride up in the cherry-picker to light the menorah!

The next night, the party in the park continued.  Once again the children came out to play, the adults came out to chat, and the cherry-picker arrived for the menorah lighting.  This time, the rabbi even let me ride up and light the menorah! I will never forget how excited I was to perform this beautiful mitzvah, or how beautiful the city of Asunción looked from up so high.

When I descended to the ground again, the surprises weren’t over.  The Chabad house had cooked up a huge batch of homemade sufganiot (jelly donuts) to celebrate the miracle of the oil!  I must have eaten two or three – they were so good – and still there were many left after the party.

That Chanukah I spent in Paraguay will always be in my mind as one of my favorite celebrations of Chanukah.  It just goes to show that no matter where we live, we are still Jews and we still cling to our traditions, our beliefs, and our way of life.

Chanukah sameach!

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Do We Make a Blessing/Berocha When Giving Charity/Tzedaka?

Do We Make a Blessing/Berocha When Giving Charity/Tzedaka?

This morning after I gave some charity I thought about this. Normally we make a blessing on any mitzvah we do. Like making a blessing/berocha on lighting the menorah, eating matzah, and blowing the shofar. So if giving charity is a mitzvah, why than no blessing?

The Rashba, who is a commentator on the Talmud, says that in order to make a blessing/berocha a on a mitzvah it must be entirely 100% in our hands. When we give tzedaka it is not totally up to us. We can make the blessing, and then try and hand over the money but there is no guarantee that the person we are giving to will take it. True that this is highly unlikely as most people collecting charity will gladly accept it from you, but nevertheless we can only make a blessing/berocha on that which is 100% in our hands to complete.

For example when we make a blessing on food, the food should be in our hand and at the least in front of us. More than once, when I was younger, I recall making a blessing on water and then pushing the water fountain button and no water came out. With a water fountain it is important to first push the button so we see the water and then make the berocha.

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A Blessing for rain in Shmoneh Esrei

Riding a scooter in the rain around Bali. My back pack is in the plastic bag in the front. It was an amzing trip but it rained a alot and made the roads slippery. I stayed sometimes in guesthouses and other times in villages. Bali is a beautiful place if you can get away form the main tourist spots.

A Blessing for rain in Shmoneh Esrei

The shmoneh esrei, also known as the Amidah, is recited three times daily. In one of the blessings we ask Hashem to bless the year along with the produce of the land. Because the blessing refers to things growing from the ground we change the blessing slightly from winter season to summer season to reflect what the ground needs.

In Israel starting on the seventh day of the month of Cheshvan (this year Nov 2011) they begin to say ‘V’sein Tal Umatar’ (asking for rain). However we only begin to say this insertion outside of Israel on December 4th or 5th.

Say one is in Israel now but plans on flying outside of Israel. What should he or she say?

There are two main opinions. 1) Say it like wherever you are according to the custom of the place. 2) If you are planning to return to Israel within the year, continue saying like they do in Israel even if you have left the country.

It is best to ask your local Rabbi to find out what you should do in this situation.

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Parshas Vayera: When Avraham Teaches us that True Self-Sacrifice is Sacrificing your Ego

A street in Delhi, India, where people sleep on the streets without even a sheet

In India I learned to let go of my ego. Do you think any of these people cared about my job, my clothes, or what I own? Nobody was judging me based on those things. I had to learn to recognize within myself what is truly valuable. It is only by letting go of this ego that we can finally open up to true self-sacrifice for G-d.

We all have egos.  In fact, most of us have very big egos.  Sometimes our egos are so huge that they block out the “real” us.

When I went to India for the first time, it was the first time in my life that I really had to throw my ego away.  Up until then, if you asked me who I was, I would say, “I am an attorney. I work in one of the best law firms in downtown Miami. I have an apartment and a car and two cats. I wear nice clothes and I use an iPhone and I like photography so I have a fancy camera.”  Of course, all of that is ego speaking.  But nobody ever pointed this out to me – I don’t even think anyone noticed.  Why? Because everyone was speaking the same way. “My name is XYZ. I work for ABCorp.  I just got a new car.  Look at my nice new phone and my new laptop.”  But wait… that person didn’t tell me anything about themselves except their name!

In India, none of that external stuff mattered.  I was unemployed, so I didn’t have a job I could brag about. In fact, nobody cared whether I was an attorney or a street sweeper.  I gave up my apartment and my car and have a friend (bless her) watching my cats, so none of that stuff is with me. In India, nobody gives two hoots if I’m wearing nice clothes or even if my clothes are dirty – I am lucky that I have clothes at all.  And I lost my camera and my phone, so I couldn’t even fixate on either of those things.  Heck, I didn’t even have my family or friends around, so I couldn’t even exercise ego by association.  I had to strip all that away and come face to face with… myself.

Which is kind of what Avraham has to do in this week’s parsha.  I heard in a shiur this week given by Rabbi Shmueli Feldman on one of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s sichas all about it.  This week Avraham is asked by G-d to go sacrifice Yitzchak (Isaac), his beloved son.  The Talmud says that if it were not for this last one of Avraham’s 10 tests, then the first 9 would mean nothing.  What on earth does this mean? Being thrown in a fiery furnace counts for nothing? Leaving your home and your world behind and venturing out into the unknown means nothing? The answer to all of these questions is the same: ego.

Up until now, Avraham could have been doing the mitzvot for himself, in one way or another.  He stood to gain some benefit, even if it was just in being proved right.  He didn’t have a lot of choice about being thrown in the furnace, for example, and he could have left home to travel just because he had a midlife crisis involving too much wanderlust. But being asked to sacrifice his son? Nobody could say that was selfish, nobody could say that was ego!  It wasn’t just that he would have to sacrifice his son, when killing your own child is difficult enough, but it was that he would be sacrificing the child that G-d had told him would give him grandchildren.  He was sacrificing generations as numerous as the stars in the sky.  He was also flying in the face of everything he had spent the last 100 or so years teaching.  He had taught that human sacrifices and child sacrifices were wrong.  He had taught that murder is wrong.  He had taught so much from the Torah that was the exact opposite of what he was about to do.  So how could he possibly do it?

Avraham let go of his ego.  Publicly, in a way that everyone could see, he showed that he was willing to do whatever G-d wanted, even if he did not understand it. Without arguments, without questions, without ego, he went to do G-d’s will.  And when G-d made it clear that He did not want Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak after all, he complied with that, too.  Avraham made it clear, in his thoughts, his speech, and his actions, that he was giving of himself.  Self-sacrifice for G-d!

In Pune, India a man lives among the garbage heaps and spends his time picking through them looking for something valuable

In India, you can't look around at daily life and remain self-absorbed. If the poverty doesn't touch you, there is really something wrong. This was my wakeup call to start letting go of my ego so I would have more room within me for G-d to dwell. Avraham teaches us just how important it is to let your ego go. Where your ego exists, G-d cannot be. There is only enough space for one or the other.

This is how we must be in our lives.  If we strip away all those ego-driven externals, we can begin to see our true selves.  We can begin to see that what really matters are the mitzvot (good deeds/commandments) that we do and the middot (good character traits) that we cultivate.  How much more meaningful would it be, if you were able to introduce yourself saying, “Who am I? I help collect and deliver food to the poor. I play music to cheer up elderly and ill people.  I enjoy learning Torah.  I practice every day on controlling my anger and on being more patient.  I am very busy all the time because I am trying to say tehillim (psalms) in my free time.  I am working on smiling more, even at complete strangers.”  Meeting someone and hearing that, you can really say, “Wow! This person sounds like a great person! I want to get to know them better. I want to spend more time with them.”  The first examples, working in a fancy job, owning a nice house or car or phone, wearing fancy clothing… well, none of that really tells you anything about a person.

Avraham’s job in doing G-d’s will and taking his son as a sacrifice opened up the channels of self-sacrifice for us.  We can tap into the heavenly gates he opened for us and take advantage of them.  It is possible to let go of our own egos and dedicate ourselves to serving G-d.  We don’t even have to travel to India to do it.  We can do it right now, in our own lives.  We only have to try.

Shabbat shalom.

And I’m learning as I go,
Don’t you know there are days when it hurts so bad
Everybody changes with a chance,
And I came around…
Amie Miriello, “I Came Around”

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