Focus on Family: Albert Einstein, Kafka and I.b. Singer: the Argument for Jewish Vegetarianism

“If God had wanted us to be vegetarians, he wouldn’t have invented animals,” announces Zack, my 15-year-old carnivorous son.

He turns the large steak sizzling on the outdoor barbecue for him and his brothers, Gabe, 12, and Jeremy, 10. My husband’s piece of fish is relegated to a far corner of the grill; my veggie burger to the opposite corner.

My fourth son, Danny, 8, opts for a can of minestrone, announcing that he’s now a vegetarian. “Eating animals is disgusting,” he explains.

I sympathize. My conversion occurred almost nine years ago, while I was preparing a Thanksgiving turkey. I took a good look at the hapless, headless bird — its legs, its wings, the cavities in which I was packing the stuffing – - and, “cold turkey,” you might say, quit eating meat.

“Never eat anything that looks like what it is,” my brother, Michael, advises. According to his philosophy, hamburgers are fine, but drumsticks, whole pan- fried trout or rump roast are not.

I have a different criterion. Never eat anything that once had a face or a mother.

That makes me a vegetarian, someone who doesn’t eat meat, poultry or fish. But I do eat dairy and eggs, so technically I’m a lacto-ovo vegetarian.

A vegan, on the other hand, is a fundamentalist vegetarian, someone who avoids eating all animal flesh and products, including eggs, dairy and even honey. Vegans also avoid using and wearing animal items such as leather, silk and wool. You usually don’t see them on Mr. Blackwell’s best-dressed list.

Even more extreme than a vegan is a fruitarian, someone who only eats foods that don’t kill the plant. An apple is permitted, for example, because it can be picked without killing the tree. A carrot is not; picking it destroys the plant.

But I’m not that evolved or botanically empathetic. Neither is my husband, Larry, who has sworn off meat and poultry but still eats fish. I call him a “fishetarian,” though the proper term is pescetarian. But he avoids raw fish; he’s reluctant to give bacteria any opportunity to start breeding in his intestines.

But despite our modern obsession with nutrition and health, vegetarianism isn’t anything new. It’s been around, well, since Adam and Eve. Indeed, 5,759 years ago, in the Garden of Eden, God gave two dietary laws.

First God announced to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:30, “To you I give every herb, seed and green thing. These shall be yours for food.” This law applied not only to Adam and Eve but also to all the animals living there, who were herbivorous and who did not prey on one another. Obviously, there were no pit bulls in the Garden of Eden.

God’s other dietary admonition, in Genesis 2:17, was, “Do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Yes, we all know the story of the duplicitous serpent. And ever since our eviction from the Garden of Eden, we’ve been covering ourselves with various forms of fig leaves and having a difficult time resisting temptation.

In Noah’s time, however, after practically wiping out the world with a major flood, God relented with the great post-diluvian compromise, allowing man to eat meat. He stated, in Genesis 9:3, “Every moving thing that liveth shall be for food for you.” He did, however, impose two restrictions: no eating of blood, which is synonymous with life; and no cutting of limbs from living animals, which was how early man kept his meat fresh. In other words, animals must be slaughtered in a compassionate manner.

This is the essence of the divine compromise and the basis of kashrut, which is related to holiness rather than health. Man is allowed to eat meat, to yield to his carnivorous lust, but he must also learn to revere life.

Thus, eating meat is a choice, not a commandment. And animals can be killed only to satisfy a human need, not to indulge a desire for sport. The Talmud, in fact, definitively discourages hunting, and any animal killed in that manner is considered treif.

For many Jews, vegetarianism is the highest form of kashrut — and not just a convenient means of avoiding the meat/dairy fuss.

Other Jews, however, believe it is important to eat meat on the festivals of Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot. Traditionally, on these pilgrimage holidays, Jews sacrificed animals on the Temple altar in Jerusalem.

But a vegetarian lifestyle, even a partial one, fulfils several significant Jewish mitzvot, including:

“Bal tashit” (not destroying). We are admonished not to be wasteful. Yet over 70 percent of all grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for the slaughterhouse, while 15 to 20 million people worldwide die of hunger every year.

“Shmirat haguf” (defending our bodies). Many people, for health reasons, want to avoid the cholesterol, carcinogens and calories associated with meat eating. Additionally, others are wary of the hormones, pesticides and antibiotics fed to today’s livestock.

“Tsa’ar ba’alei chayim” (being kind to animals). Interpretations of this commandment range from not mistreating animals while they are alive, such as crowding calves and chickens into unsanitary and uninhabitable cages, to not killing them for food.

And while I’m not a veg-evangelist, I do want to point out that vegetarians are not just mishugunah people who like to eat side dishes. A few of the world’s famous Jewish vegetarians include Albert Einstein; writers Isaac Bashevis Singer, Franz Kafka and S.Y. Agnon; visionary Zionist A.D. Gordon; and Palestine’s first chief rabbi, Abraham Isaac Kook.

Also, we all may be ultimately destined for a fleshless future. For just as the world started out vegetarian in the Garden of Eden, so may it end vegetarian in the Messianic Age. The prophet Isaiah (11:6-7) says, “And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; … and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”

But until this inviolate, idyllic time arrives, I will continue to make Sunday night barbecues an ecumenical event — with steak for the carnivores, fish for the pescetarian and veggie burgers — or minestrone — for the vegetarians.

And if anyone questions my aversion to eating animals, I’ll continue to tell them about the erstwhile Thanksgiving turkey and about Singer, who was once asked if he were a vegetarian for health reasons.

“Yes,” the Nobel laureate replied. “I do it for the health of the chickens.”

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