Sheep at Eden Village Camp

Although Eden Village Camp is primarily vegetarian, these sheep, from a nearby farm, are raised for meat.

This is the first in a series of posts on Judaism and vegetarianism.

When I became vegetarian, it had nothing to do with my Judaism.  However, it didn’t take long for the two to come into contact.  After all, chicken soup, cholent, and brisket are pretty common features at almost any Shabbos table.  Being newly vegetarian, I had to turn down all these yummy kosher delicacies.  I’ve traveled all over the world, and the conversation about how to be Jewish and vegetarian has come up at dozens of tables, in many countries, from Canada and the US to Argentina and Chile to India and Nepal.

Before I became vegetarian, I did quite a lot of research on the subject and I identified 5 main reasons people become vegetarian:

  1. Animal treatment – Many philosophers have put forth ethical reasons why eating animals is morally wrong.
  2. Health – We have a moral obligation to care for our health and vegetarianism/veganism is the healthiest way of eating.
  3. Preventing starvation – World starvation would be a thing of the past if we stopped feeding livestock so much grain, and we could grow many more crops if we converted animal pastureland to farmland.
  4. Environmentalism – Growing more crops than necessary destroys ecosystems, grazing animals decimate grasslands, hooves of grazing animals cause erosion, and methane gasses released by cattle contribute to global warming.
  5. Feminism – Meat’s role in meals keeps women down (e.g., giving the man the biggest and best portion)

As a Jew, I’ve been slammed with lots of arguments about why these philosophical reasons don’t hold true: Kosher laws dictate animals must be treated well during their lifetimes and they die instantly when slaughtered, before they can even feel pain, so it’s not animal cruelty to eat kosher meat.  Kosher meat is healthier, so you don’t have to worry eating too much might give you a heart attack (and besides, nobody is willing to admit how much meat they really eat, anyway!).  Plus, we have to eat meat to raise the sparks of their souls up to a higher level.  And let’s not forget that it is a “mitzvah” to eat meat and drink wine on Shabbat.

However, the reasons for vegetarianism from a Jewish perspective are as prolific as they are for secular philosophers.  In fact, after some research, I’ve identified 5 main reasons for vegetarianism from a Jewish perspective:

  1. Compassion for animals – The Jewish concept of tsa’ar ba’alei chayim dictates that we should not cause sorrow or pain to any living animal.
  2. Preserving health – Judaism teaches us to take care of our health and consumption of animal fats is linked, scientifically and statistically to disease… just as the permission to consume meat in the Torah is linked to dramatically shortened lifespans.
  3. Feeding the hungry – Judaism teaches social justice as a fundamental part of our makeup and this means that feeding a hungry person is a far higher priority in the eyes of G-d than eating meat for Shabbat is.
  4. Protecting ecology – G-d gave us this earth and charged us with taking care of it, not destroying it – but large-scale livestock production is doing just the opposite.
  5. Producing peace – Judaism places making peace as one of the highest priorities, right up there with Torah study and honoring your parents.  Injustice tears peace apart and meat eating promotes a culture of injustice.

These 5 main arguments provide a close parallel to the 5 reasons most people choose to become vegetarian.

In the following weeks, I’ll explore vegetarianism from a Jewish point of view, based largely on the seminal text on the subject, Judaism and Vegetarianism by Richard H. Schwartz.  I’ll explore each of these 5 main themes, plus take a Biblical look at vegetarianism and provide some responses to those above-mentioned “kosher” arguments for eating meat.

Why kosher Jewish travelers often go vegetarian.


3 Responses to “Judaism and Vegetarianism: An Overview of the Reasons Jews become Vegetarians”

  1. : ‘Kosher laws dictate animals must be treated well during their lifetimes and they die instantly when slaughtered, before they can even feel pain, so it’s not animal cruelty to eat kosher meat.’
    This is absolutely not so. The only difference between animals that are kosher and not kosher is the way they are killed. People who make this argument are ignorant at best, because the Torah laws on how animals are treated are completely ignored when it comes to how animals are raised for human consumption. Fois gras and veal, are extremes of how cruel we are to animals, but the way chickens are raised isn’t a whole lot better. It is sickening to hear people who are observant make light of some of the Torah’s laws and criticize those from other streams of Judaism for picking and choosing which laws to observe, when this is exactly what is done in the Orhodox world when it comes to what is considered Kosher.

  2. I guess this can bee seen from many viewpoints!

    I was once vegetarian, but I cannot say that I was any healthier than when I gave up vegetarianism! As a matter of fact, I have more energy and am generally happier now that I eat meat occasionally… It is exceedingly hard to live off of a vegetarian diet: you must constantly be nibbling at veggies and fruits and pay extreme attention to nutrition/nutrient levels of everything you eat in order to ensure that you are not lacking any essential dietary necessities… and if yo do not, then you end up diseased.

    As to Cain’s attempt to marry Abels “more beautiful wife”, G-d scoffed at Cain’s (“of the evil one” ‘s) vegetable sacrafice and preferred the meat sacrafice given by Abel: G-d did not “require” a sacrafice and instead stated clearly that if you do good, you “will” be chosen, whether you make a sacrafice or not.

    Abel’s wife was probably more beautiful “and therefore, more desireable” because she ate meat… A lifetime of laboring in the fields is much harsher on the body than a life of herding and living off of livestock.

    What may be acceptable or even health to one man is completely unacceptable and possibly toxic to another.

    • I do not find it difficult to maintain a healthy, balanced, vegetarian diet. I have an upcoming post that will hopefully address this. Additionally, although health reasons are my personal motivating for becoming vegetarian, there are numerous other reasons in Judaism as to why vegetarianism is supported. Stay tuned to the blog for my upcoming posts in the series! :)

      As for Cain and Abel, I have never heard of this commentary about Abel’s wife being “more beautiful.” What is the source? My understanding is that G-d accepted Abel’s offering not because it involved meat but because he offered up the very best of what he had, while Cain offered the “leftovers,” so to speak. Had Cain also offered up the very best of what he had, G-d would have accepted it and been pleased, even if it was not meat. We see this confirmed later in the temple services where a person too poor to afford a meat offering could make a flour offering and G-d would accept it on the same level. The key is for a person to give of the very best of what he has; exactly what that is does not matter to G-d, as long as it is the very best.

      Also, there is no evidence that Abel and his wife were even eating meat. G-d had given to Adam the right to eat plants, but not animals: Abel was probably raising these animals for milk and dairy products. And it seems likely that Abel offered the entire animal as a burnt offering to Hashem, rather than taking a portion for himself. Had he kept the best parts to eat himself, G-d would not have liked his sacrifice so much. Instead, G-d was please with Abel’s sacrifice precisely because it was of the very best.

      As for farmers being less beautiful, I would DEFINITELY beg to differ! One of the most beautiful women I know is a farmer. She is in her 40s and looks like she’s 10-15 years younger. She’s in great physical shape and very healthy. The other farming women I know are also all slim, trim, fit, and beautiful (and many of them are vegans or vegetarians, too). On the other hand, I’ve met plenty of women who work in the meat industry – and I have worked in a slaughterhouse before so I have met a few! – who are fat and slovenly. So I’d reject that particular argument. :)


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