Sukkot Feature: Campaign Launched to Recognize Vegetarianism As Ultimate Kashrut

The Jewish Vegetarians of North America have launched a campaign to convince more people that abstaining from eating animal products is the highest form of kashrut observance.

The campaign, launched just before Sukkot, a holiday rooted in the harvest festival, is aimed at getting vegetarianism on the Jewish agenda, according to Richard Schwartz, a member of the vegetarian organization, which has about 350 members.

Vegetarianism “is the diet that God would prefer,” Schwartz wrote in a newsletter mailed to 3,650 rabbis of all denominations in early September. He cited Jewish sources including the Bible, Maimonides’ commentary, the Talmud and articles in medical journals.

In the newsletter, Schwartz outlines five points supporting his cause, including “ba’al tash’chit,” the Jewish mandate not to waste or unneccessarily destroy anything of value, and “tsa’ar ba’alei chayim,” the prohibition against inflicting pain on animals.

“In view of these powerful Jewish mandates to preserve human health, care about the welfare of animals, protect the environment, conserve resources and help feed hungry people, and the extremely negative effects animal-centered diets have in each of these areas, we believe that committed Jews should sharply reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products,” wrote Schwartz.

It was his hope, in organizing the special newsletter, to convince rabbis to talk about vegetarianism from the pulpit.

“We’re doing this campaign because we feel it’s so important, and it’s still not in the mainstream,” Schwartz, a professor of mathematics at the College of Staten Island, N.Y., said in an interview.

In the almost 35 years since the first international Jewish vegetarian group was organized, and since they first gathered for a conference in the United States in 1979, awareness of the cause has grown — but only to a limited extent.

Some traditional rabbis have objections to complete vegetarianism that are rooted in Jewish law, or halachah.

“The Torah will not allow someone to be a strict vegetarian,” said Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a widely-respected Orthodox expert in bioethics.

The problem with what Jewish vegetarians advocate is that “they have lumped it all together, so that a meatball is the evil of evils, destroys the rainforest and causes famine throughout the world,” Tendler said.

Perhaps more daunting, say supporters of the vegetarian cause, is the deeply ingrained Jewish association between meat and holy days.

Even among those for whom awareness of the custom’s genesis — the sacrifice of animals in Jerusalem’s Temple — has long been lost, a holiday or Friday night dinner is synonymous with a nice piece of brisket or well-roasted chicken.

“The problem is that the vast majority of Jews don’t take Judaism seriously enough, and so wouldn’t recognize kosher for its true intent,” said Rabbi Rami Shapiro, one of 20 rabbis who signed on to Schwartz’s newsletter.

Others to do so include Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., and Rabbi Rolando Matalon, of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York.

Shapiro, a Miami-based Reconstructionist rabbi who has been a vegetarian for the last eight years, said that kosher is about all consumption.

“It relates to meat, cars, everything — and means that we should make all of our consuming as holy as possible, so that we do it in a way that does the least amount of damage to the environment.”

Growing awareness of what Eco-Kosher means has, perhaps, been the biggest recent consciousness-raising boon to Jewish vegetarianism.

Eco-Kosher, coined by Jewish Renewal leader Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in the late 1970s, and propagated as a term for social change in the early 1990s by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, does not directly relate to vegetarianism.

Eco-Kosher “is not restricted to food,” Waskow said in an interview.

“It’s about the mindset out of which the Jewish people generated kashruth in the first place. It’s about a sacred relationship with the earth, and food as the major nexus of that relationship.”

In ancient times “food was the major form of the relationship with the earth, but now humans `eat’ coal, oil, electric power and plastics. We consume them and that raises the question of needing to have a sacred relationship with those things as well as what we literally put in our mouths,” he said.

Waskow is director of the Shalom Center, which is part of the Philadelphia- based politically active Jewish Renewal group ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

“It is Eco-Kosher to move in the direction of the minimal use of meat without thinking it’s absolutely necessary to exclude it totally from the diet,” said Waskow, who is not a vegetarian but also signed onto Schwartz’s newsletter.

The value of a low-meat, more vegetarian orientation is making headway even in the most traditional quarters.

There are ardent vegetarians in Chasidic and other Orthodox communities across the country.

And Tendler, who is a respected posek, or interpreter of Jewish law in his hometown of Monsey, N.Y., and who is far from an ideologically-motivated vegetarian, has prohibited the consumption of white veal in his community.

White veal has been banished from the cases of Monsey’s kosher butcher because of the inhumane — and hence unkosher — conditions under which baby cows are raised in order to make their flesh pale and marketable.

And for health reasons, Tendler said he and his wife eat red meat only on the three occasions a year when they feel it is required by Jewish law — on the three festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, when Jews made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in Temple times to offer an animal sacrifice.

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