Veganism is a core Jewish value

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By Juliet Stein

As an Ashkenazi Jew, I grew up with an inherent nostalgia for an Eastern European diet. It was not that long ago that our grandparents and great-grandparents wrestled with starvation, migration, the Holocaust. And heavy, hearty fare sometimes meant the difference between life and death. We carry our ancestors with us, and we honor them with our food. The smell of brisket, the crunch of a toasted bagel slathered with cream cheese and lox, the all-powerful remedy of chicken noodle soup. Lamb chops simmering in hot, dark broths. Challahs shining under a layer of brushed egg.


The laws of kashrut make it difficult to consume animal products. In the Garden of Eden, God actually commanded veganism (Genesis 1:29). It was only after the flood that God
allowed the (restrictive) eating of animal products as a concession to people’s inability to control themselves (Gen 9:2-5). But even then, what animals can and cannot be eaten, how they must be slaughtered and prepared, and the discouragement of consuming both meat and milk together was, for its time, revolutionary in its circumscription. Newly liberated from Egypt and operating in an environment where food was scarce, God made it difficult for us to consume animals.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen believed that the laws of kashrut were a thinly veiled admonishment for meat eating, designed to highlight the importance of all life and eventually lead people away from animal consumption. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin stated that “the dietary laws are intended to teach us compassion and lead us gently to vegetarianism.”

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If Holocaust survivors like Dr. Alex Hershaft, Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer and Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz advocate for a vegan diet because they know what it is like to be treated like an animal, what does that say about, well, how we treat animals? Is Judaism not about tikkun olam, treating others with compassion and healing the world? The recent, fiery deforestation of the Amazon is speculated to be a direct result of the meat industry illegally clearing land for cattle. How can we engage in tikkun olam while also supporting the animal agriculture industry, which is not one of but the largest contributor to climate change?

If animal products were produced during biblical times like they are today, I imagine God would see the carnage and degradation and declare animals and their secretions off-limits for consumption. When Judaism prohibited tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, the needless suffering of
animals, it did not foresee the level of suffering in our modern animal agriculture. Two-thousand years ago, chickens were not packed in overcrowded factories with their legs breaking under the weight of their genetically modified bodies. Cows were not milked to death, cutting their 35-year lifespan to five years while their days-old offspring are slaughtered for low-grade veal or high-grade leather. Animals were not killed by the trillions, every year, for profit. This is not the Judaism I know. This is not the Judaism of our
ancestors.


Veganism is not about renouncing Judaism. It is about challenging Judaism to follow through with its core morals and values regarding the sanctity of life, the compassion for one’s neighbor and breaking the cycles of violence that have been inflicted upon us throughout history. If God created man from the earth, I would argue that with regard to
animals, we are creatures of the same mud. And the thing about traditions? You can always make new ones.

Juliet Stein is an archaeobotanist and a board member of the Jewish National Fund Futures Philadelphia Chapter.

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