A divinity student from a Presbyterian seminary approached me recently and made a surprising comment.
“I’m so impressed,” he said, “with the emphasis that Judaism places on treating animals with compassion.”
I didn’t know whether to kvell or to cry.
Kvell, because all levels of Jewish texts, from the Torah on down, express incredible sensitivity for the welfare of animals. The divinity student knew something about Judaism — on paper.
Cry, because concern for animals is almost totally absent from Jewish communal discourse, while literally billions of farm animals are suffering in abysmal conditions.
We have a Torah that repeatedly and clearly establishes the ideal of veganism, and that calls upon us to show great concern for the comfort and well-being of animals, and yet most Jews continue to blithely consume meat, dairy and eggs as if the welfare of animals is irrelevant.
I say most Jews, by no means all Jews. In fact, a disproportionate number of rabbis, including some who are very prominent, have adopted vegetarian or vegan diets. Their ranks include Lord Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Great Britain; and Rabbi David Wolpe, the spiritual leader of Los Angeles’ Sinai Temple, one of the flagship Conservative congregations.
These rabbis understand that when it comes to something as fundamental as how we eat, God made his intentions known in no uncertain terms. The very first time he speaks to Adam and Eve, he tells them in Genesis 1:29 that plant-based foods are theirs to eat — period.
Just in case we didn’t get the message the first time around, God sustained the Israelites on a vegan diet — manna — to prepare our ancestors for the Revelation.
And just in case we didn’t deign to read the Torah at all, God took it a step further by designing our bodies to resemble the herbivores of the animal kingdom, rather than the carnivores.
Look at your fingernails. Do they look anything like the flesh-ripping claws of a carnivore? You might not know this about your own saliva, but it contains digestive enzymes for processing carbohydrates, like fruits and vegetables. Carnivores in the animal world don’t have those same enzymes, but herbivores do.
The length of our intestines is 7 to 13 times the length of our torso, depending on the individual. But the intestines of bears, tigers and other carnivores are much shorter, only three to six times the length of their torsos, so that animal flesh will pass quickly through their bodies.
As compelling, and obvious, as our physical similarity to herbivores is, ethical considerations should still be the first and foremost consideration for Jews.
And the vegan ideal speaks to the very essence — the raison d’etre — of Judaism.
Why did God give us the Torah if not to bring His attributes of mercy, compassion and morality into what was — and in many ways remains — a brutal, savage world?
For thousands of years, the strong have heartlessly exploited and oppressed the weak. The Torah arrived to save the world from humanity itself.
Jews should be especially sensitive to this dynamic, for reasons of both theology and history. Have we not been exploited and oppressed over the millennia?
So what do we do when we encounter animals, sentient beings who are at our mercy, whose care God entrusted to us?
What do we do when we’re in the position of strength?
Unfortunately, we cram chickens into cages so small they can’t lift a wing, we brand and often castrate cows without pain relief, we send living male chicks into grinders and steal newborn calves from nursing cows. Then, after subjecting them to lives of abject misery, we slit their throats.
And for what reason? Because we like how they taste? Because it’s the conventional thing to do? Because non-Jews are doing it too?
As Jews, we should be expanding our circle of compassion, not narrowing it. We should be setting an example, not following the lead of a decadent society. As Rabbi Danny Schiff, Pittsburgh’s former community scholar, likes to say, Judaism is a countercultural movement.
Precisely because God and our sages recognized the human tendency to oppress the weak, they liberally sprinkled the Torah — writ large — with commandments to treat animals with kindness. Indeed, animals are even to be given a day of rest on the Sabbath.
Modern factory farming — which is where more than 90 percent of kosher meat comes from — makes a mockery of these mitzvot.
We should not delude ourselves that the laws of shechita absolve us from complicity in this widespread cruelty. For one thing, the laws of kosher slaughter apply only to slaughter, not to the suffering imposed on the animals before they’re taken to the slaughterhouse. And secondly, it is virtually impossible to strictly apply the laws of shechita in modern factory farms, where the sheer number of animals killed in a single day is often in the hundreds or even thousands. These laws were written in and for an era when a shochet might slaughter one or two animals a day, or week.
It seems God anticipated this. His wisdom is truly awe-inspiring.
In his wisdom he prescribed a vegan diet for us, and as it turns out, a vegan diet is not only better for animals, it’s better for our own health, too.
Have you ever known anyone to develop heart disease, diabetes, obesity or cancer from eating blueberries? Or lentils? Or broccoli?
Thankfully, as veganism continues to grow in popularity, a whole host of vegan substitutes for meat and dairy products are widely available, even at regular supermarkets. Many of them are as tasty, or tastier, than the original versions, while being much lower in fat and completely free of cholesterol.
Great Websites like tryveg.com and chooseveg.com have sprung up to help people transition to a plant-based diet. You don’t need to become a vegan overnight. Start with one meal a day and take it from there. Or try a vegetarian diet first, then move toward abstaining from all animal products.
In the coming year, we all have an opportunity to bring Jewish values into our daily lives by eating in a way that aligns with the ideals and compassion of our Torah.
Maybe someday soon I can look at the theological student in the eye and just kvell.
(Jeffrey Cohan of Forest Hills is the executive director of Jewish Vegetarians of North America.)