The following essay about Veganism and Judaism was written by Danielle Greenfield, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this last component can be seen below. The process improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.
You might be surprised to learn that according to Genesis, in god’s initial conversation with Adam & Eve he asked human beings to be vegan.
“I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit – to you it shall be for food.” In fact, god issued those instructions right after he gave humans dominion, or guardianship, over the animals. So, it’s pretty clear that “dominion” does not include killing animals for food.
Throughout Jewish history, many of our most educated leaders encouraged this teaching. The 13th century Jewish philosopher Nachmanides explained god’s reason for excluding meat from his ideal diet: “Living creatures possess a moving soul and a certain spiritual superiority which in this respect make them similar to those who possess intellect, and they have the power of affecting their welfare and their food and they flee from pain and death.”1
Another great Medieval sage, Rabbi Joseph Albo, offered this reason:
“In the killing of animals there is cruelty, rage, and the accustoming of oneself to the bad habit of shedding innocent blood”.2
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, who was Chief Rabbi of Pre-state Israel, believed it unthinkable that a merciful god would impose a natural order by which animals would be killed for food. He stated: “It is impossible to imagine that the Master of all that transpires, who has mercy upon all his creatures, would establish an eternal decree such as this in the creation that he pronounced ‘exceedingly good,’ that it should be impossible for the human race to exist without violating its own moral instincts by shedding blood, be it even the blood of animals.”3
When I was about five years old, I decided to follow my mom’s lead and become vegetarian. I hadn’t understood that I was eating actual animals at first, but then since I knew I’d never eat my dog, it just seemed to me that I shouldn’t be eating a chicken. Or cow, or pig.
When I was nine, my sister Morgan decided to go vegan, understanding that eating or using animal by-products was just as unacceptable as using the animal itself. I wasn’t quite ready for that yet. But after watching my parents follow her, learning about all the benefits of a plant-based life, and all the horrors of continuing my life consuming dairy and eggs, I soon joined their delicious, ethical, earth-saving team.
There’s a long-held belief that there’s a strong connection between Judaism and veganism. The Torah is full of references about respecting other lives and the earth we share with them. There are countless reasons to adopt a plant-based way of eating and living, & most of them fit neatly within the Jewish values I studied in preparation for my bat mitzvah.
I went vegan out of compassion – to not contribute to the physical or emotional pain inflicted upon animals. That’s the prohibition of Za’ar baalei chaim – literally, the suffering of living creatures.
In every ‘livestock system’, no matter how high the welfare standards are, animals will suffer mentally and physically. Ultimately, humans take away life, sentient animals do not ‘give up their life’ – they haven’t given consent to be slaughtered. Roughly 60 billion land animals and over a trillion (!) marine animals are used and killed as commodities per year, just to satisfy human palates.
But ethical veganism is about so much more than the food on our plate – it means respect for all life. Millions of other animals are kept in captive environments such as fur farms, zoos, safari parks, aviaries, breeding programs, circuses and other entertainment, in private homes, collections, and in laboratories.
The rights of other animals, people and the planet are deeply interconnected, and the solution is simple: going vegan means being compassionate, taking action for animals, and helping them the best way possible.
My dad went from omnivore to a plant-based diet for the countless health benefits – which reflects the Jewish value of Pikuach nefesh, valuing life and preserving health, and also Bree-oot, the value of health.
A well-balanced vegan diet contains all the protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals one needs. It’s usually high in dietary fiber, magnesium, folic acid, vitamins C and E, iron, potassium, and phytochemicals. It tends to be lower in calories, saturated fat and free from animal protein, cholesterol, and hormones – which means a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.
Some people, like my mentor Ray, do it for environmental reasons. That reflects the Jewish value of avoiding ecological damage, Bal tashchit. There’s also Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, and Ha-ga-not ha-the-va – Environmentalism.
We all know some ways to live a greener life, but most don’t realize that one of THE most effective things they can do to lower their carbon footprint is to avoid animal products! Raising animals for any type of production is really hard on the environment – it takes huge amounts of crops & water to feed the animals, energy and fuel for their transportation, huge amounts of dangerous gas emissions from their waste, and many other processes. According to WorldHunger.com – animal agriculture contributes to third-world hunger by making poor countries grow cash crops for animal feed, rather than food for themselves. The UN predicts that by 2050 world meat production will have almost doubled and that this trend will continue to contribute to global warming, pollution, deforestation, land degradation, water scarcity and species extinction. More animals mean more crops are needed to feed them. Earth just can’t feed both increasing human AND farmed animal populations, especially when there will be billions more human mouths to feed.
Other Jewish values supporting a plant-based life include: P’al-ta-noot – activism; Ra-cha-meem – compassion; Moo-sar – ethics; Tzeh-dek – justice; A-ha-va – love; Shalom – peace. And, of course, Heet-la-ha-voot – the Passionate Commitment that most vegans have to making the world a better place.
In addition to mine, some of the most outspoken, passionate vegan voices are Jewish. Gary Yurofsky is a world-renowned Jewish animal rights activist and lecturer who has had a major influence on contemporary veganism. In 2010, Yurofsky’s popularity spread around the world, particularly in Israel, following a speech he gave that was posted on YouTube. The video had millions of views and has been translated into dozens of languages. Yurofsky believes the Jewish history of suffering teaches Jews to be more compassionate, particularly towards animals.
Tal Gilboa, arguably the most famous vegan in Israel, submitted herself as a contestant on, and ultimately won season six, of the Israeli reality show Big Brother EXPRESSLY for the purpose of promoting veganism. The multi-award-winning documentary “One Angry Vegan” follows her transition from an anonymous pamphlet distributor to vegan movement leadership. Tal & Gary both stand for the Jewish vegan values of justice, truth, compassion, and honesty.
In 2017 more than 70 rabbis from across the world signed a declaration urging Jews to switch to a vegan diet. They called on their “fellow Jews to transition toward animal-free, plant-based diets. This approach to sustenance is an expression of our shared Jewish values of compassion for animals, protection of the environment, and concern for our physical and spiritual well-being.”
Rabbi David Rosen, the former Chief Rabbi of Ireland and now one of the leading Jewish interfaith activists, advocates veganism as “the new kashrut, kashrut for the 21st century.”
“Today, there are important ethical reasons why the whole world should be living according to a plant-based diet” Rabbi Rosen said. “But from a Jewish perspective, there are specific particular concerns that relate to specific Jewish injunctions which are born out of the religious tradition of Jewish practice law … that should demand that people should no longer if you like, collaborate or be party to an industry which is problematic ethically, environmentally, even in terms of economic justice.”
Rabbi Rosen is based in Israel where veganism is taking off with both the Muslim and Jewish populations. According to TheTower.com, a reported 5% of Israelis are choosing a plant-based diet – which means the Land of Milk and Honey needs a new name! You can find soldiers marching in animal-free boots, belts and berets, and partake in vegan-friendly selections from global brands such as Domino’s and Ben & Jerry’s.
Kosher slaughter rituals have been under scrutiny since reports emerged in 2018 revealing how supposedly humane slaughtering practices – one of the principal rules of kashrut – were anything but. The Times of Israel reported that the investigative TV program Kolbotek went undercover to document the alleged abuse of calves at a slaughterhouse owned by Tnuva, Israel’s largest food manufacturer. The nation was shocked and the Environmental Protection Ministry launched a criminal investigation after the exposé aired.
According to VeganFriendly, Omri Paz started a non-profit in 2012, after he was exposed to the workings of the animal-product industry. In the years since, the organization has developed a widely adopted accreditation system, mounted demonstrations numbering in the tens of thousands and launched Vegan-Fest Tel Aviv, the largest event of its kind in the world.
In Isaiah 11:6-9, there is a peaceful vision of the End of Days, where no one shall harm anyone else, including humans and animals.
I’m a proud vegan Jew. Having been raised as a secular, humanistic Jew – what the Torah, Talmud and rabbis say doesn’t always matter to me. I’ve been taught to question everything, and why most people dote on dogs then chop up chickens has always left me confused, and sad, and angry.
At my mom’s Bat Mitzvah, she gave a speech on the Jewish value of Ma-sor-et – Tradition. There are a LOT of traditions in Judaism, a lot of customs. But I have realized that just because something is a tradition, doesn’t mean it’s moral, or even acceptable. For that matter, just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s right.
Knowing that veganism can save trillions of animals, the planet, and my health AND is supported by a dozen values of my ethnicity – how could I not choose a plant-based lifestyle?
This essay took me months to complete. Going over it again and again made me realize why I took the time to write about this in the first place. Hopefully, when I look at this paper in the future I’ll find that I’m still dedicated to the things I am now passionate about. This process has reminded me to always keep my values front and center in my life.