Vegan is the New Kosher
The Jewish dietary laws of kashrut, or keeping kosher, are a complex system of regulations with numerous theories circling around their origin. Many of the regulations seem to have the health benefits of humans in mind. Others clearly point toward a respect and compassion for the suffering the animals. There are, for instance, very strict rules surrounding the slaughter of animals. They must be killed as painlessly as possible, with a sharp blade free of nicks, and with respect for the life being taken. Rules separating dairy from meat also have compassion at their root, based on the Torah’s prohibition of avoiding “boiling a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19).
The Talmud likewise has guidelines that attempt to create a more compassionate humanity. Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim, “the suffering of living creatures,” is a Talmudic law (Bava Metzia 32) that prohibits cruelty to animals. It is meant to extend to all animals, including pets, beasts of burden, and livestock.
The evolving laws of kashrut have developed over the centuries and have been a reflection of the necessity of including animals in our diets for survival. However, with the development of modern farming practices and the great availability of supermarkets, natural food stores, and farmers markets, this is no longer a necessity. We now have a choice. Why not make the compassionate one? Vegan Jews believe that choosing not to include animals in our diets and lifestyles honors our health and respects the creatures with whom we share this amazing planet. Plants are the natural food for man, as affirmed in Genesis 1:29: “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.”
When it comes to our everyday food choices, the reality is that factory farm-produced meat, eggs, and dairy (whether kosher or non-kosher) are raised and treated in a way that is a blatant violation of the principle of Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim. This factory farming method of agribusiness views animals in terms of how much profit can be generated, and this view has created inhumane conditions that would shock most people. Animals are confined to an overcrowded and unsanitary environment and are often treated with antibiotics and hormones to produce as much meat, milk, and eggs as possible, at the lowest cost possible and in the smallest amount of space possible, and as fast as possible.
To Jewish vegans, it’s clear that the logical extension of Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim is to avoid killing animals altogether. The guiding principle for such dietary choices is “Thou shalt not murder” (Exodus 20:13). I recall a meeting that I had with my childhood rabbi, who was serving as the vice chancellor for the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, shortly after I became vegan. He pointed to an entire row of books in his bookshelf devoted to the laws of kashrut and told me that this demonstrated the mindfulness and compassion that went into the act of kosher slaughter. I replied, somewhat teasingly, that it would be simpler to have a small plaque that instead stated, “Thou shalt not murder.”
As far as our health, we now know that eating animals is not necessary. It is the official position of the American Dietetic Association that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”
As Albert Einstein eloquently expressed, “Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty ... Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances of survival for life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”
With this in mind, please enjoy my recipe for vegan stuffed cabbage!
[Editor's Note: An original version of this post stated the commandment as "Thou shalt not kill," rather than "Thou shalt not murder." The text has been updated to reflect common and accurate rabbinic interpretation.]