To an outsider, the vegetarian world can be a confusing place. There are many different ways to practice vegetarianism. Vegans, for example, refrain from eating meat, dairy products, eggs or any food with animal-derived ingredients. Lacto-ovo vegetarians stay away from meat but will eat egg and dairy products. Some vegetarians eat fish. Others eat meat occasionally.
According to the Vegetarian Resource Group Harris Interactive Survey, nearly 3% of the US population is vegetarian – never eating meat, poultry, or seafood. Though it’s difficult to find specific figures, there are a number of Jewish vegetarians. A Jewish person’s choice to be a vegetarian can travel beyond a mere reflection of pro-animal activism. For some, it also happens to be part of their religious beliefs – something they believe G-d wants us to do.
Any vegetarian may cite ethical reasons for their decision to refrain from eating meat. His or her motivation may be related to animal rights, health incentives, environmental causes or world hunger issues. For the devout Jewish vegetarian, each of these reasons is directly connected to the Torah.
The Torah demands humane treatment of animals including the avoidance of unnecessary pain and suffering, an obligation called tsa’ar ba’alei chaim. Yet, most animal products come from inhumane conditions. The laws of Shechita (slaughter) by which (Kosher) Jews kill animals in the least harmful and most humane way are only the end of the process. The treatment of animals up to that point is questionable as well as how and what they are fed and the impact that has on people and animals.
Torah wisdom also teaches us to regard the land with great respect. "And G-d took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to work it and to keep (protect) it." (Genesis 2:15) We are also reminded that the world does not belong to us but – in essence – is borrowed from G-d. “The Land shall not be sold for eternity; for the land is mine and you are but strangers journeying with Me.” (Leviticus 25:23). A vegetarian viewpoint would hold that animal agriculture and all that it entails is extremely detrimental to our environment, our planet, and its future.
Tremendous emphasis in Jewish teaching is placed on human health. We are told to care of ourselves and take care of our bodies. The Torah places an emphasis on prevention. We are told not to harm ourselves or commit suicide and not to ruin or weaken ourselves. Jews have an obligation to preserve and guard life - … “be extremely protective of your lives” (Deuteronomy 4:15). The Jewish vegetarian warns us that the consumption of animal products – especially red meat – can lead to increased health risks and decreasing health, including heart disease.
The mitzvah of Tzedakah (the obligation to perform charitable acts) is a responsibility held in regard by most Jews – whether affiliated or not. Proponents of a vegetarian lifestyle insist that the concern for world hunger would be less of an issue if we all followed a plant based diet. Millions more people could be fed an adequate diet if even a small amount of land being used to raise meat products would be converted to growing fruits or vegetables. The amount of vegetables that can be grown on an acre of land is significantly greater than the amount of beef produced on the same amount of land.
An observant Jew who adheres to a vegetarian lifestyle will not only offer support from the Torah for the ethical concerns of vegetarians but will further identify places where G-d specifically indicates his desire for mankind to follow a vegetarian diet. Adam and Eve – the first people created – lived in the Garden of Eden on a plant-based diet. It was not until the time of Noah and the flood that people were permitted to eat meat, and G-d created specific procedures regarding how meat products should be consumed.
Throughout the Torah, where eating meat is mentioned, it is commonly talked about in a negative manner. Eating meat is referred to as a “lust” and we are told we can eat it “when we have the urge”. When the Jewish people left Egypt and were wandering in the desert, they requested meat when the manna G-d provided was “not enough”. G-d became angry at this request and wiped out the complainers with ‘fire’. G-d ended up providing meat to the Jewish people – enough quail to last them an entire month – until it came out their nostrils and made them nauseated (Parsha B’ha’alotkha).
The religious Jew who keeps a vegetarian diet sees very clearly how a plant-based diet is consistent with the ultimate wishes of G-d. The laws set out for us in the beginning of time, as well as the conflicts when meat cravings arose exemplify that fact that we are not supposed to be eating meat. The guiding principles G-d has provided us in the Torah are further reason to refrain from eating meat: from protecting our health, to protecting our world, to taking care of others – the moral principles behind vegetarianism can be found within words of Torah.
If eating vegetarian is enticing to you, there are many Jewish Vegetarian websites that provide reasoning, recipes and encouragement. And, if you want further reason, think about how simple keeping kosher would be. You never have to worry about mixing milk and meat.