Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal our Imperiled Planet, and Mathematics and Global Survival, and over 200 articles and 25 podcasts at JewishVeg.com/schwartz. He is President Emeritus of Jewish Veg, formerly Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA), and President of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV). He is associate producer of the 2007 documentary “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.”
Have you always been a vegan? How was your trajectory regarding this lifestyle?
Until 1978, I was a “meat and potatoes” man. My mother would be sure to prepare my favorite dish, pot roast, whenever I came to visit with my wife and children. It was a family tradition that I would be served a turkey drumstick every Thanksgiving. Yet, I not only became a vegetarian, and later a vegan, but I now devote a major part of my time to writing, speaking, and teaching about the benefits of veganism. What caused this drastic change?
In 1973 I began teaching a course, “Mathematics and the Environment” at the College of Staten Island. The course used basic mathematical concepts and problems to explore critical issues, such as pollution, resource scarcities, hunger, energy, population growth, the arms race, nutrition, and health. While reviewing material related to world hunger, I became aware of the tremendous waste of grain associated with the production of beef at a time when millions of the world’s people were malnourished. In spite of my own eating habits, I often led class discussions on the possibility of reducing meat consumption as a way of helping hungry people. After several semesters of this, I took my own advice and gave up eating red meat, while continuing to eat chicken and fish.
I then began to read about the many health benefits of vegetarianism and about the horrible conditions for animals raised on factory farms. I was increasingly attracted to vegetarianism, and on January 1, 1978, I decided to join the International Jewish Vegetarian Society. I had two choices for membership: (1) practicing vegetarian (one who refrains from eating any flesh); (2) non-vegetarian (one who is in sympathy with the movement, while not yet a vegetarian). I decided to become a full practicing vegetarian, and since then have avoided eating any meat, fowl, or fish. In 2000 I became a vegan.
Since that initial decision, besides learning much about vegetarianism’s connections to health, nutrition, ecology, resource usage, hunger, and the treatment of animals, I also started investigating connections between vegetarianism and Judaism. I learned that the first biblical dietary law (Genesis 1:29) is strictly vegan, and I became convinced that important Jewish mandates to preserve our health, be kind to animals, protect the environment, conserve resources, share with hungry people, and seek and pursue peace all point to vegetarianism (and even more so veganism) as the best diet for Jews (and everyone else). To get this message to a wider audience I wrote Judaism and Vegetarianism, which was first published in 1982. (Expanded editions were published in 1988 and 2001.)
Increasingly, as I learned about the realities about the production and consumption of meat and other animal products discussed in my book and their inconsistency with Jewish values, I have come to see vegetarianism (and even more so veganism) as not only a personal choice, but a societal imperative, an essential component in the solution of many national and global problems.
I have recently been spending much time trying to make others aware of the importance of switching toward vegan diets, both for them and for the world. I have appeared on over 80 radio and cable television programs; had many letters and several op-ed articles in the variety of publications; spoken frequently at the College of Staten Island and to community groups; given over 40 talks and met with three chief rabbis and other religious and political leaders in Israel, while visiting my two daughters and their families. In 1987, I was selected as “Jewish Vegetarian of the Year” by the Jewish Vegetarians of North America.
I have always felt good about my decision to become a vegetarian and later a vegan. Putting principles and values into practice is far more valuable and rewarding than hours of preaching. When people ask me why I gave up meat, I welcome the opportunity to explain the many benefits of vegetarianism.
While my family was initially skeptical about my change of diet, they have become increasingly understanding and supportive. In 1993 my younger daughter was married in Jerusalem at a completely vegetarian wedding.
My hope is to be able to keep learning, writing, and speaking about vegetarianism and veganism.
In your work, there is a concern to address sustainability which is a theme that’s conquering more space in our society. How can veganism and sustainability be connected to the planet’s well-being? Do you believe that talking about the environmental point of view can attract more people to veganism?
I believe that environmental arguments are the most important for promoting veganism today because the world is rapidly approaching a climate catastrophe and other environmental disasters, and animal-based agriculture is a major contributor to these environmental threats. I have assembled below ten reasons we all should be very concerned about climate change and a brief analysis of why a major societal shift toward vegan diets is essential to efforts to help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path:
Science academies worldwide, 97% of climate scientists, and 99.9% of peer-reviewed papers on the issue in respected scientific journals argue that climate change is real, is largely caused by human activities, and poses great threats to humanity. In December 2015, 195 nations at the Paris climate change conference all agreed that immediate action must be taken to avert a climate catastrophe.
Every decade since the 1970s has been warmer than the previous decade and all of the 17 warmest years since temperature records were kept in 1880 have been since 1998. 2015 is the warmest year globally since 1880 when worldwide temperature records were first kept, breaking the record held before by 2014, and 2016 is on track to become the warmest year. Starting with May 2015, 15 consecutive months have all broken records for being the hottest month with its name (March, April, etc.). This means, for example, that April 2016 was the warmest April since 1880. July 2016 was the warmest month ever recorded.
Polar icecaps and glaciers worldwide have been melting rapidly, faster than scientific projections. This is a factor behind projections that the oceans may rise as much as ten feet by mid-century.
There has been an increase in the number and severity of droughts, wildfires, storms, and floods. There seem to be media reports about this almost daily.
California has been subjected to so many severe climate events (heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and mudslides when heavy rains occur) recently that its governor, Jerry Brown, stated that, “Humanity is on a collision course with nature.”
Many climates experts believe that we are close to a tipping point when climate change will spiral out of control, with disastrous consequences, unless major positive changes soon occur.
While climate scientists believe that 350 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric CO2 is a threshold value for climate stability, the world reached 400 ppm in 2014, and the amount is increasing by 2 – 3 ppm per year.
While climate scientists hope that temperature increases can be limited to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), largely because that is the best that can be hoped for with current trends and momentum, the world is now on track for an average increase of 4 – 5 degrees Celsius, which would produce a world with almost unimaginably negative climate events.
The Pentagon and other military groups believe that climate change will increase the potential for instability, terrorism, and war by reducing access to food and clean water and by causing tens of millions of desperate refuges to flee from droughts, wildfires, floods, storms, and other effects of climate change.
The conservative group ConservAmerica (ConservAmerica.org), formerly known as ‘Republicans for Environmental Protection,’ is very concerned about climate change threats. They are working to end the denial about climate threats and the urgency of working to avert them on the part of the vast majority of Republicans, but so far with very limited success.
As president emeritus of Jewish Veg (formerly Jewish Vegetarians of North America), I want to stress that animal agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, emitting more greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalents) than all the cars and other means of transportation combined, according to a 2006 UN Food and Agriculture report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” A 2009 cover story in World Watch magazine by two environmentalists associated with the World Bank concluded that the ‘livestock’ sector is responsible for at least 51% of all human-induced greenhouse gases.
So, I strongly believe that it is time to make averting a climate catastrophe a central organizing principle for society today and to stress that shifts to plant-based (vegan) diets are essential to avert such a result and to help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.
Your book “Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet” addresses the relation between Judaism and planet’s preservation. Could you give some examples to explain how Jewish values can contribute to the survival of the planet?
In my book I argue that Judaism is a radical religion, in the best sense of ‘radical,’ whose powerful teachings on justice, peace, compassion, sharing, and environmental sustainability can make a major difference in responding to current treats.
Among the Jewish teachings that can play a significant role are the following:
Justice, justice shall you pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20);
Seek peace and pursue it (Psalms 34:14);
Be kind to the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (this verse in various forms occurs 36 times in the Jewish scriptures, more than any other teaching);
Love thy neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18);
You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy (Leviticus 19:2);
The human being was put into the Garden of Eden to work the land and to guard it (Genesis 2:15);
You shall not destroy (Deuteronomy 20: 19).
How can animal rights be defended in accordance with the Torah?
Although it is not well known, Judaism has very powerful teachings about the proper treatment of animals. If Jews took these teachings seriously, they would be among the strongest protesters of many current practices related to animals.
According to Judaism, animals are part of God’s creation and people have special responsibilities to them. The Jewish tradition clearly indicates that we are forbidden to be cruel to animals and that we are to treat them with compassion. These concepts are summarized in the Hebrew phrase tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, the Torah mandate not to cause “pain to any living creature.”
Psalms 104 and 148 show God’s close identification with the beasts of the field, creatures of the sea, and birds of the air. Sea animals and birds received the same blessing as people: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:22). Animals were initially given a vegetarian diet, similar to that of people (Genesis 1:29-30). The important Hebrew term nefesh chaya (a “living soul”) was applied in Genesis (1:21, 1:24) to animals as well as people. Although the Torah indicates that people are to have “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1-26), there was to be a basic relatedness, and the rights and privileges of animals were not to be neglected or overlooked. Animals are also God’s creatures, possessing sensitivity and the capacity for feeling pain; hence they must be protected and treated with compassion and justice.
God even made treaties and covenants with animals just as with humans:
“As for me,” says the Lord, “behold I establish My Covenant with you and with your seed after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the fowl, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that go out of the ark, even every beast of the earth.” (Genesis 9:0-10)
And in that day will I make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and with the fowls of heaven and with the creeping things of the ground. And I will break the bow and the sword and the battle out of the land and I will make them to lie down safely. (Hosea 2:20)
The Psalms indicate God’s concern for animals, for “His tender mercies are over all His creatures” (Psalms 145:9). They pictured God as “satisfying the desire of every living creature” (Psalms 145:16), “providing food for the beasts and birds” (Psalms 147:9). and, in general, “preserving both man and beast” (Psalms 36:7).
God is depicted as providing each animal with the attributes necessary for survival in its environment. For example, the camel has a short tail so that its tail won’t become ensnared when it feeds upon thorns; the ox has a long tail so that it can protect itself from gnats when it feeds on the plains; the feelers of locusts are flexible so that they won’t be blinded by their feelers breaking against trees.
Perhaps the Jewish attitude toward animals is best summarized by the statement in Proverbs 12:10, “The righteous person regards the life of his beast.” This is the human counterpoint of “The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works.” (Psalms 145:9). In Judaism, one who is cruel to animals cannot be regarded as a righteous individual.
There are many Torah laws involving compassion to animals. An ox is not to be muzzled when threshing in a field of corn (Deuteronomy 25:4). A farmer should not plow with an ox and an ass together (so that the weaker animal would not suffer pain in trying to keep up with the stronger one) (Deuteronomy 22:10). Animals, as well as people, are to be allowed to rest on the Sabbath day (Exodus 20:10). The importance of this verse is indicated by its inclusion in the Ten Commandments and its recitation as part of kiddush on Shabbat mornings.
Based on the question of the angel of God to Balaam, “Why have you smitten your ass?” (Numbers 22:32), the Talmud states that animals are to be treated humanely. Based on Deuteronomy 11:15, “And I will give grass in the fields for thy cattle and thou shall eat and be satisfied,” the Talmud teaches that a person should not eat or drink before first providing for his or her animals.
Many great Jewish heroes were chosen because they showed kindness to animals. Moses and King David were considered worthy to be leaders (Exodus Rabbah 2:2). Rebecca was judged suitable to be Isaac’s wife because of her kindness in providing water to the camels of Eleazar, Abraham’s servant.
Fortunately, we generally do not have an “either-or” situation here; when we mistreat animals, we generally also worsen conditions for people and violate basic Jewish teachings. For example:
While Judaism mandates that we be very careful about preserving our health and our lives, animal-centered diets have been linked to heart disease, several forms of cancer, and other diseases. This has been a major contributor to major increases in medical costs in the U. S., and this has led to major budgetary problems from the national to the local levels, with the result that spending for many other human needs has had to be reduced.
While Judaism stresses that we are to share our bread with hungry people, 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, as an estimated 20 million people die annually because of hunger and its effects.
While Judaism teaches that “the earth is the Lord’s” and that we are to be partners with God in preserving the world and seeing that the earth’s resources are properly used, animal-centered diets require the wasteful use of food, land, water, energy, and other resources, and contributes significantly to climate change, extensive soil depletion and erosion, air and water pollution related to the widespread production and use of pesticides, fertilizer, and other chemicals, and the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats.
While Judaism stresses that we must seek and pursue peace and that violence results from unjust conditions, animal-centered diets, by wasting valuable resources, help to perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that eventually lead to instability and war.
In view of its strong message of concern for animals, one might wonder why Judaism doesn’t advocate vegetarianism. Actually the first dietary law in the Torah is vegetarian:
And God said: “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed–to you it shall be for food.” (Gen. 1:29)
Later, permission to eat meat was given as a concession to people’s weakness, but with many restrictions (the laws of kashrut). Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, and the first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, believed that these many dietary constraints imply a reprimand, and are designed to keep alive a sense of reverence for life so that people would eventually return to vegetarian diets.
Rabbi Kook believed that the future Messianic period will be vegetarian. He based this on the words of Isaiah (11:6-9): “…the wolf will dwell with the lamb…the lion will eat straw like the ox…and no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of God’s holy mountain.
In view of the strong Jewish mandates to be compassionate to animals, preserve health, help feed the hungry, protect the environment, and seek and pursue peace, and the very negative effects animal-centered diets have in each of these areas, many committed Jews are seriously considering switching to vegetarian (and preferably vegan) diets.
In summary, there is much in Judaism that mandates that animals be treated kindly. It is essential that this message become widely known and practiced in order to end the horrendous conditions under which so many animals currently suffer.
There are animal rights advocates in the academic environment, particularly in the humanities, such as Philosophy and Law courses, but there is still resistance on this environment. How do you evaluate this and why do you think it happens?
Many animal activists regard organized religion as an ideological opponent. Concerning Judaism, this negative presumption is largely due to the misunderstanding of two important biblical verses that, when properly conceived; actually endorse the struggle to improve conditions for animals.
The first misunderstanding is that the biblical teaching that humans are granted dominion over animals gives us a warrant to treat them in whatever way we may wish. However, Jewish tradition interprets “dominion” as guardianship or stewardship: we are called upon to be co-workers with God in improving the world. This biblical mandate does not mean that people have the right to wantonly exploit animals, and it certainly does not permit us to breed animals and then treat them as machines designed solely to meet human needs. In “A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace,” Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel and a leading 20th century Jewish thinker, states: “There can be no doubt in the mind of any intelligent person that [the Divine empowerment of humanity to derive benefit from nature] does not mean the domination of a harsh ruler, who afflicts his people and servants merely to satisfy his whim and desire, according to the crookedness of his heart. It is unthinkable that the Divine Law would impose such a decree of servitude, sealed for all eternity, upon the world of God, Who is ‘good to all, and His mercy is upon all his works’ (Psalms 145:9), and Who declared, ‘The world shall be built with kindness’” (ibid. 89:33).
This view is reinforced by the fact that immediately after God gave humankind dominion over animals (Genesis 1:26), He prescribed vegan foods as the diet best suited to humans (Genesis 1:29). This mandate is almost immediately followed by God’s declaration that all of Creation was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Adam and Eve’s original vegetarian diet was consistent with the stewardship that God entrusted to them and to all humankind.
That dominion means responsible stewardship is reinforced by a statement in the next chapter of Genesis (2:15) that indicates that humans are to work the land, but also to guard it. We are to be coworkers with God in protecting the environment.
The second error of some animal activists is the assumption that the biblical teaching that only people are created in God’s image means that God places little or no value on animals. While the Torah states that only human beings are created “in the Divine Image” (Genesis 5:1), animals are also God’s creatures, possessing sensitivity and the capacity for feeling pain. God is concerned that they are protected and treated with compassion and justice. In fact, the Jewish sages state that to be “created in the Divine Image,” means that people have the capacity to emulate the Divine compassion for all creatures. “As God is compassionate,” they teach, “so you should be compassionate.”
In his classic work Ahavat Chesed (“The Love of Kindness”), the revered Chafetz Chayim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin) writes that whoever emulates the Divine love and compassion to all creatures “will bear the stamp of God on his person.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leading 19th century Jewish thinker, also discusses this concept, that human beings were created to “serve and safeguard the earth” (Genesis 2:15), Rabbi Hirsch states that this actually limits our rights over other living things. He writes: “The earth was not created as a gift to you. You have been given to the earth, to treat it with respectful consideration, as God’s earth, and everything on it as God’s creation, as your fellow creatures – to be respected, loved, and helped to attain their purpose according to God’s will… To this end, your heartstrings vibrate sympathetically with any cry of distress sounding anywhere in Creation, and with any glad sound uttered by a joyful creature.”
In summary, as the Lord is our shepherd, we are to be shepherds of voiceless creatures. As God is kind and compassionate to us, we must be considerate of the needs and feelings of animals. In addition, religious vegetarians of diverse faiths believe that by showing compassion to animals through a vegetarian diet, we help fulfill the commandment to imitate God’s ways.
Critics of religion in the animal rights community may argue, with some justification, that the various religious communities are not doing enough to end the many horrible abuses of animals today, especially in the meat industry. However, this failure should not lead animal activists to scorn and repudiate religion altogether, but as much as possible to enlist the religious world in the common cause of eliminating the cruel misuses of animals.
It would be a major mistake for animal activists to dismiss the various religious communities as unconcerned with the plight of animals. Rather, while respectfully challenging religious adherents to live up to their religion’s compassionate teachings about animals, we all should seek ways to transcend our philosophical and theological differences, and find a common ground on which we may stand together for the benefit of animals and humanity.
Israel is considered one of the major vegan countries in the world. In 2015, a feature of Times Israel said that 4% of the population was vegan. In your opinion, what were the conditions that allowed this to happen? What is your analysis of the vegan movement in the country?
There are many reasons why Israel is a world center of veganism, but one important one is that, as indicated above, Judaism has many powerful teachings on compassion to animals, as indicated above. Others include the fact that Israel has very strong laws to prevent cruelty to animals, the effectiveness of veg and animal rights groups in Israel, the high quality of fruits and vegetables in the country, and the high cost of meat, most of which is imported..
What to do you want to achieve with your work?
My main objectives are to increase awareness that vegan diets are most consistent with basic Jewish teachings and that a major societal shift toward veganism is essential to help reduce the current epidemic of killer diseases, to help avert a climate catastrophe and other environmental disasters, and to help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.
This interview was originally written in Spanish and can be found here.
The translation was originally featured on Jewcology.