Let me just get this out of the way: vegans do not eat animal products or byproducts. That means no meat, chicken, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, or honey. Many vegans (I am one of these) do not wear leather or wool or any product derived from an animal’s body, even if the animal was not killed in the process of its production.
As someone who was not raised religious but who took on observance as an adult, I spend a lot of time searching for Jewish meaning in things I held true even before I became more observant. My strong sense of right and wrong, my love for rigorous intellectual analysis, my search for purpose and meaning amidst a tragic and often heart-breaking mortal existence, and my appreciation for modesty and old-fashioned social interactions all blend well with my choices in lifestyle as an observant person.
Why am I a Vegan?
The health benefits of limiting meat and dairy are well documented, but perhaps more compelling is the environmental impact of a world devoted to massive consumption of animal products, which is truly unbelievable. Here’s an example: cattle around the world eat the amount that 8.7 billion people eat, and consume ten times the grain that Americans themselves eat. A Harvard nutritionist has stated that 60 million hungry people could be fed if meat intake was reduced by 10%. It’s unfathomable. Being vegan is truly an earth-loving act!
So is there a connection between observant Judaism and my veganism and environmentalism? There is! What I have found is that Judaism strengthens my choices to be vegan, makes the decisions I embrace daily even richer, deeper, and more fulfilling.
The Torah is overflowing with discussions of our responsibility to the planet, the beauty of the earth and all of its produce, and the need to care for the earth and treat it with utmost respect. Judaism affirms the beauty of every blade of grass and the notion of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) has a definite environmentalist flare to it.
In terms of biblical support for the consideration of the welfare of animals, sources are more scattered but in many cases, more profound.
1) In the story of Creation, humans are commanded to rule over all creatures. This is both a call to elevate our existence and to care for those dependent on our mercy.
2) Not only do we rest on Shabbat, but our animals get to rest, too (see Exodus 20:10).
3) Owners are responsible for how animals are being used: you can’t plow with an ox and mule harnessed together, as the animals are of unequal size and strength and might suffer (Deuteronomy 22:10).
4) There is a specific mitzvah to send away a mama bird before taking her chick!
5) And this one makes me all emotional: you one may not slaughter an animal along with its babies (Leviticus 22:28).
Commentary by Rockstar Rabbis:
The RaMbaM (super awesome famous medieval physician, rabbi, and really big macher) explains in Guide for the Perplexed that the human subjugation of the animal world is descriptive, but not prescriptive (we are not supposed to subjugate animals just because we can) and that animals have their own purpose and have been created for their own sake. He also argues that there is no difference between the love that a human mother feels for her child and the love that an animal mother feels for her young. (I know: I told you he was awesome!)
Rabbi Soloveitchik (the founder of Modern Orthodoxy, really amazing thinker and compassionate leader and scholar who taught a generation of people how to be both religious and modern) taught that humans are made for “majesty and humility” meaning that we have human limitations in a world that God created and controls, but can still use our capacities and responsibilities as we see fit.
Those are just a few choice examples. And yes: there are many examples of eating meat, enjoying meat, and sacrificing all kinds of animals in the Torah and in the thousands of years since then. But Judaism can handle all of it. And just as Judaism lets me learn Torah and Talmud, and just as Judaism lets me place boundaries around what you want to see of me and what I want you to see, and just as Judaism sustains my doubt and my fear and my anger and my love, Judaism lets me be me. And I am a vegan Jew.
I’m Not Alone
I have found that there are others like me. One of them is a young progressive Rabbi I have decided to join with in starting a kosher vegan institute, Shamayim V’Aretz, also devoted to social justice for animals and the workers in their factories. This guy is like me times 100: he has a hand in everything, he is a social justice crusader, an observant vegan, a young hip well-dressed down-to-earth Modern Orthodox rabbi and teacher with connections in so many areas; he is a really brilliant and inspiring guy. He also doesn’t get much sleep, I assume. That’s how we get all of this stuff done!
This institute is just starting up, and we need your help. We are looking for people interested in working with us and for us. We are looking for people interested in doing some of the awesome outings and lectures and trips and cruises (yes, they make them for vegans!) that I want to organize. We are looking for people to donate money so we can hire staff. Vegetarians and meat-lovers interested in our work are welcome to be in touch as well; but we may take you to kosher vegan restaurants at some point–know that coming in. And our first event is June 3 in Los Angeles and we will announce all those details and launch the official site soon, including a really funny video…stay tuned for all of that.
There’s a Judaism that was made for me. It came down on a mountain in a desert thousands of years ago and then it spread all over this wondrous world. It holds me in my complexity and it can hold you in all of yours.
Becoming observant as an adult is really hard. It’s lonely and scary and uncertain. But then I meet people who are enough like me that I keep going. And then I keep seeing myself in people I would never have met if I had not kept going. So I keep going.
If you would like to join us on our journey, contact Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz RavShmuly@shamayimvaretz.org and show the world what your Judaism can do for this planet.
If you want to learn more: