Friday, October 21, 2005

Vegetarianism vs Orthodoxy

I know a few people who are ostensibly Orthodox but who are also vegetarian. An interesting combination. Some of these are silly highschool girls who say they are vegetarians but really just don’t like the taste of meat or want to eat less in their speeding race to anorexia. But I also know some serious vegetarians and at least one family who are strictly vegetarian.

In general, being an Orthodox vegetarian Jew doesn't pose too many problems for daily life since there aren’t really any halachot that say a person _must_ eat meat. You don't _have_ to enjoy meat on holidays and Shabbos even though that is a strong custom. And we don't eat the korban Pesach lately, though the fact that we once did indicates a strong contradiction between the values of vegetarians and the implied values of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy typically sees korbanot as good things and that it is a damn shame that we can’t have them today. Certainly in the Torah, God sees them as good things since he commands them to be given so often.

Ok, but besides the philosophical differences between normative Orthodoxy and vegetarian values, there is a real physical issue with vegetarians in relation to Judaism. Suppose the vegetarian’s ideals were universalized among all Jews. Where would the leather for tefillin come from? Not to mention the parchment for everything from mezzuzzot to Torah scrolls. Where would you get a shofar from? And I won’t even get into suede kippas or rabbit felt black hats. Would kaparot ever be the same? I'm sure non-Orthodox groups would adapt just fine, but what would happen to Orthodoxy?


heebnvegan said...

There are tons of Jews of all stripes (Orthodox included) who are vegetarian precisely because they find it the diet most consistent with Jewish teachings and G-d's preferences for humans.

An FAQ on addresses some of your specific concerns head-on:

"Isn't much of Judaism today related to the use of animals for teaching and ritual purposes, e.g., the Sefer Torah, tefillin, the shofar, etc.?"

"The number of animals slaughtered for these purposes is minute compared to the billions killed annually for food. The fact that there would still be some animal slaughter to meet Jewish ritual needs shouldn't stop us from doing all we can to end the horrible abuses of animals. Also, most problems related to flesh-centered diets -- poor human health, waste of food and other resources, and ecological threats -- would not occur if animals were slaughtered only to meet Jewish ritual needs. Our emphasis should be on doing a minimum amount of harm to other people, the environment, and animals. The fact that some animal products are required for sacred uses (a very small amount) should not prevent a person from becoming a vegetarian. Also, tefillin and other ritual products can be made from the leather of animals that were raised without cruelty and died a natural death."

Please visit for more info.

Orthoprax said...


I've actually been in regular email correspondence with a major writer of that website, namely Richard Schwartz.

As I wrote to him and as I'll repeat here:

He said: "If a person embraces veganism except in cases where
specific mitzvot require the use of some animal product, even more good will be

I said: "You can look at it that way, but I think your dismissing the point of contradiction. If you think using animals for human purposes is wrong then how can you understand holding the same view that God commanded you to use animals for human purposes? Unless you don't think God is a moral being, then you have a serious moral conundrum here.

The very fact that such mitzvot exist is a problem for a philosophical Orthodox vegetarian.


You have to understand that I agree you _can_ make room for vegetarianism within Judaism, but there is a basic moral issue here. It's of the same steam as those issues where Jews think homosexuality is morally fine (for others) and where slavery is immoral without qualification. The Torah clearly indicates otherwise. The Orthodox Jew is effectively arguing with God about morality."

heebnvegan said...

I agree that this is a serious philosophical conundrum, and I'm glad to see you're giving it the attention that it deserves.

The reason why I'm vegan is not to strive toward some unattainable goal of moral perfection. Rather, it's because I want to try to reduce tsa'ar ba'alei chayim (unnecessary animal suffering) as much as possible. If I can subsist healthfully without supporting an industry that forces farmed animals to be raised in hideous conditions (e.g., mutilating their bodies without any painkillers, robbing them from their mothers shortly after birth, keeping them in tiny spaces where they can hardly move), then I think that's the right choice to make. The best way I know how to reduce that animal suffering is to not support the industry that causes it and to encourage others to do the same.

That being said, as Dr. Schwartz has covered, products such as Torah scrolls and shofars are not a large market. They are a very small segment of animal agriculture--and supporting these products (perhaps "necessary animal suffering," i.e., necessary to practice Orthodox Judaism)--does not seem to be the cause of mass suffering.

Believe me, I'd love to have a nonleather source for tefillin! Even Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote about that back in the day. But for Orthodox Jews, I recommend using animal-based products wherever as *needed* and stopping support (economically and morally) of animal suffering wherever feasible. Since the vast majority of animals killed in this country are for food, then by all means, that starts by embracing a plant-based diet.