Not long ago, if one were to have denied chicken-matzah-ball soup, meat-based cholents or kibbeh their due place on the Jewish table — not to mention Passover’s boiled eggs — they might have been dismissed for having no respect for Jewish cuisine or culture. This has changed in recent decades, as Jews have joined members of other communities in asking transformative questions about how the things that we eat affect the world in which we live and those with whom we share it. Many Jews — as Jews — now eschew the brutalization and killing of animals, electing instead to eat diets based in compassion and free of animal products. This vegan or vegetarian approach to life extends even to other spheres of production and consumption, sometimes posing challenges for people who observe Jewish law closely and traditionally. Yet this lifestyle no longer demands of practitioners that they separate themselves from their Jewish communities. Our communities, rather, have begun to embrace this lofty change.
In other words, Jewish veganism and vegetarianism are no longer marginal phenomena. In time, they may even become the Jewish norm — or so we hope. The Jewish vegan movement, if we may identify it as such, comprises a broad spectrum of ideologies and practices linked by a common bond and by references to the Jewish traditions and cultures which frame them. Reform and cultural Jews often have different approaches to negotiating the melding of Jewishness and veganism than do more traditionally observant Jews. Jewish veganism looks distinct and carries varied meanings in Israel and throughout the Diaspora. The relationships between veganism and other, often-broader ideological commitments varies by individual and community. We nonetheless perceive that veganism has emerged and continues to develop as a unifying lifestyle for Jews throughout the world, bringing us together in projects of cultural, political, ethnic and ethical activism and growth.
Reflecting on Jewish veganism, we realize that our own stories form only a tiny part of a greater paradigm shift, one that has mainstreamed discussions of animal welfare and food ethics within and beyond our communities, as well as consumption practices formerly considered fringe. We notice with interest and pride how complex and multivocal Jewish vegan and vegetarian movements have become. Conversations and their source-bases have broadened, new traditions have taken root, and we have established varied communities of commitment and debate, which often extend beyond the ever-porous boundaries of the Jewish community. We love that Jewish veganism, like other minority veganisms, can challenge and transform the normative expectations around veganism, adding to its depth, beauty and inclusivity.
Convinced that Jewish veganism has come of age and fascinated with its promises, we worked with scholars, activists and rabbis to produce a new edited volume, “Jewish Veganism and Vegetarianism: Studies and New Directions.” Published by SUNY Press, this collection of essays contributed by 19 authors explores the historical, theological, cultural and intellectual roots of Jewish veganism and vegetarianism, and charts burgeoning new trajectories in Jewish thought and practice. Our project “asks what distinguishes Jewish veganism and vegetarianism as Jewish … how Judaism, broadly considered, has inspired Jews to embrace such practices and how those lifestyles in turn have enriched and helped define Jewishness.”
Co-editing “Jewish Veganism and Vegetarianism” has led us to conclude that the conversations around these topics, in the academy and within communities, has undergone an incredible transformation. The days when Jewish activists focused primarily on crafting arguments to legitimize their vegan and vegetarian lifestyles — according to Jewish laws and ethics — has largely passed, with the notable exception of Orthodox Jews in Israel. Deeply varied as they are, the perspectives, arguments and stories accessible in “Jewish Veganism and Vegetarianism” reflect only the beginning of a renewed and ever-unfolding discussion. They point to the potential of this moment for generating new vistas of Jewish culture and practice. We hope that readers will join us in charting its dynamic and ethical future. pjc
Jacob Ari Labendz directs the Center for Judaic and Holocaust Studies at Youngstown State University, where he is the Clayman Assistant Professor in the Department of History. Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash and the author of 17 books on Jewish ethics.