Judaism and Vegetarianism

VegSource | Audrey Nickel | 08/21/09

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"Judaism and vegetarianism? Can the two be related? After all, what is a simcha (Jewish celebration) or holiday dinner without gefilte fish, chopped liver, cholent, roast beef, chicken and chicken soup? And what about passages in the Torah referring to Temple sacrifices of animals and the consumption of meat?"

This question, quoted here from the preface to the first edition of Richard Schwartz's seminal work Judaism and Vegetarianism, has often plagued Jews considering a switch to a vegetarian lifestyle, as well as vegetarians considering Judaism. CAN one be Jewish and vegetarian? Don't the Scriptures sanction...indeed, appear to command...the consumption of meat? What is God's will regarding His people and their relationship with the animals, the Earth, and with other peoples? How does vegetarianism fit in (or does it?)?

In this book, Professor Schwartz demonstrates that, not only is vegetarianism wholly consistent with Judaism, it may even be considered an imperative in this day of factory farming, environmental depletion, degenerating human health and worldwide hunger. Beginning, as is fitting, with the Scriptures (particularly the Torah), Schwartz takes his readers on a tour of the Bible from a vegetarian point of view. He then goes on to address specific issues, such as "Tsa'ar Ba'alei Chayim - Judaism and Compassion for Animals"; "Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Health"; "Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Feeding the Hungry"; "Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Ecology"; and "Judaism, Vegetarianism and Peace"; supporting each not only with quotes from the Scriptures, but also with insight from Jewish sages and scholars from virtually every age and tradition, as well as with substantial and timely factual material gleaned from leading authorities on animal welfare, human health, the environment and the world hunger situation. He then proceeds to address even more specific questions regarding Judaism and vegetarianism (such as "Don't Jews have to eat meat to honor the Sabbath and to rejoice on Jewish holidays?" and "If God wanted us to have vegetarian diets and not harm animals, why were the Temple sacrificial services established?") and vegetarianism in general (such as "Can't one work to improve conditions for animals without being a vegetarian?" and "If vegetarian diets are best for health, why don't most doctors recommend them?"). Finally he offers solid advice on how to make the switch to vegetarianism, including information on holiday observances and information on Jewish vegetarian groups, activities and resources, as well as an interesting and informative biographical section on famous Jewish vegetarians. He closes with this question, respectfully addressed to Jews who plan to continue to eat meat: "In view of strong Jewish mandates to be compassionate to animals, preserve our health, help feed the hungry, preserve and protect the environment, conserve resources, and seek and pursue peace, and the very negative effects animal-centered diets have in each of these areas, will you now become a vegetarian, or at least sharply reduce your consumption of animal products?" It's hard to imagine, in the face of Professor Schwartz's well-reasoned and well-documented book, that anyone could reasonably answer "no."

I highly recommend Judaism and Vegetarianism to any Jew who is considering vegetarianism (or who has already made the switch and is seeking support and advice), as well as to those who are not vegetarians themselves, but who may be concerned about vegetarian friends and loved ones. It should be required reading for any rabbi who may encounter questions about vegetarianism or find himself ministering to vegetarians. Further, I would strongly recommend this book to vegetarian Christians and Muslims, who also accept the Hebrew Scriptures as will find information here that will both challenge and support you, and perhaps a common ground upon which the work of peace can be built.

Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Staten Island, New York, and the author of Mathematics and Global Survival and Judaism and Global Survival. He is the acknowledged expert in the field of Judaism and vegetarianism and, in 1988, was chosen "Jewish Vegetarian of the Year" by the Jewish Vegetarians of North America. Visit his website at for articles of interest, as well as recipes and a free on-line course on Jewish vegetarianism.


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