The Meat of the Argument: Do Jewish Enviros Have to Be Vegetarians?


I first started out in the Jewish environmental movement back in 1981 (I was already an environmentalist of the 70’s variety in high school). Back then the majority of Jewish enviros were ideological vegetarians, the backbone of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA), people like Richard Schwartz, Jonathan Wolf, and Roberta Kalechofsky. Their zeal for vegetarianism was as strong as any other passion they had for the earth.

Though I empathized with their feelings, they never rang true for me. I’ve been a vegetarian for about 30 years, well more than half my life, and well before I was into Judaism. When people asked me why, I could give a dozen reasons, related to human health, the health of the land, the suffering of animals, etc. But I’ve never been an ideological vegetarian, and I never thought it was my mission to get everyone to stop eating meat.

That’s not to say that I never thought it would be a good idea for more people to “go veg.” Especially now, when we hear about things like what happens on the killing floor at Agriprocessors, vegetarianism looks like the better option.(1) Agriprocessors is not the only great argument for vegetarianism. So is global climate change—a huge percentage of the global warming gases emitted by our civilization come from the two ends of a cow.

But there are other ways to look at these realities. For example, if we don’t want the scandal of Agriprocessors to repeat itself, we need to put an end to mass slaughterhouses. And if we want to limit the methane from cows, we need not only to reduce their numbers, but also to feed them their natural diet of pasture fodder—not grain, and not fast-growing rye grass. Both changes would alter the pattern of meat production in our society radically, but they wouldn’t make us all vegetarians.

Only rarely does the fault line between Jewish enviros and vegetarianism make itself known. But with last year’s Hazon Food Conference, and the shechting (kosher slaughter) of three goats, battle lines have been drawn. Last year, before the conference, The Jewish Vegetarians of North America issued a press release condemning the slaughter. More recently, an organization called VeggieJews broadcast a circular calling Hazon hypocritical for claiming to be an environmental organization while promoting meat consumption. Even within the conference itself, the debate about this issue was profound and deep.

I said I’ve been a vegetarian for 30 years. That’s only sort of true. I started eating fish on holidays about 20 years ago, then on Shabbat 18 years ago, and then anytime about 16 years out. (Doing so became a health necessity.) In fact, one of the reasons why I gave up fish three decades ago was so that I could stop eating shellfish without feeling being embarrassed about keeping kosher.

Last year at the Hazon Food Conference, a goat who I had seen raised was shechted in the most conscientious way one could ask for kosher slaughter to be done. I’m still not ready to eat meat, but I felt the integrity of the shechitah was high enough that I could eat it. Certainly I felt better about the life and death of that goat than I could ever feel about the fish I eat almost every week. So I decided to eat a tiny bit of him, less than a kezayit (meaning, a piece smaller than the size of an olive, the minimal amount that counts in Jewish law).

As the first meat I’d had in 29 years, it was a little anticlimactic. I wasn’t planning any big changes, and I wasn’t going to eat enough to even feel it in my belly. I simply wanted to stand behind what I hope is a sea change in how Jewish people think about the animals whose lives we use.

The bottom line is that we do use animals, pervasively, in their lives and in their deaths, not just in this society but also in the earliest incarnations of Biblical religion and every stage in between. Environmentally, herding, along with harvesting of meat and dairy from the herds, is a sustainable way of life. In fact, herding without meat eating, which culls the less important male animals, is ecologically unsustainable. Advocating society-wide vegetarianism without advocating veganism is ecologically incoherent.

In Judaism, the powerful rules we have about how we slaughter animals and prepare their flesh are meant to help us keep the sanctity of animals’ lives before our eyes, even when we use them. One of the most important rules is the prohibition of eating the blood and the requirement to separate the blood from the flesh. The Torah describes this as the way we respect the animal’s soul and life, and the principle of Life itself (ki hadam hu hanefesh), even when we eat meat. The imperative to not eat the blood, combined with the imperative to not cause an animal suffering, is what give us the method of kosher slaughter. (2)

One Jewish way of understanding meat-eating relates the story of Noah to the permission to eat meat after the Flood in this way: Because the animals were all under Noah’s hand and completely dependent on his family for their survival in the ark, their lives remained in his hands when they left the ark. This idea was translated in Jewish practice into restrictions about how we treat domestic animals, and, because their lives are truly not in our hands, the virtual banning of hunting wild animals.

(There’s a different Jewish way of understanding which sees the permission to eat meat in Noah’s time as a kind of harm reduction, which is more consistent with vegetarianism: The passion for violence that was innate in human beings brought on the Flood. After the Flood, people needed a less destructive outlet for this violence, so God gave reluctant permission to kill animals for food. In no case is meat-eating related to the concept of dominion in Genesis 1 – read more about this on

Spiritually, it seems fully possible that a person who is raising an animal and bringing it themselves to the butcher would care for the life and the death, for the soul of that animal, in a holy and loving way. Every animal, every person, will die. So would it not be acceptable for the person who raises an animal to give it a “good death” without pain, rather than let its death come in whichever way?

The concept of a “good death” comes directly from the Kabbalist Moshe Cordovero, who made it a part of his programmatic extension of ethics from people to animals.(3) Kabbalists thought that only a true Kabbalist could eat meat, because only a Kabbalist would be able to eat in a way that would elevate the animal’s soul. Since we all die, and every one of us, every animal of every species, takes food from other species and becomes food for other species, there must be a holy way to achieve this for everyone.

The drive towards holiness, which is so essential to every aspect of Judaism, is embodied in the way we kill animals for food. In a world where killing is such a thoughtless outcome of so many of our actions, where the lives of animals are treated with such utter callousness, compassion for animals is something I can feel zealous about.

If you couldn’t eat the animal if you had seen the way it was slaughtered, then you shouldn’t eat it. It’s almost impossible to find animals raised and slaughtered in the way that this level of strictness would require, but it’s not impossible. My bottom line is to tell everyone: demand the highest ethical treatment for the animals you eat and for the animals you don’t eat, and thereby bring holiness into this world.

I don’t think we can force vegetarianism on this world, despite the very high intentions of organizations like JVNA or VeggieJews, but I’m all for forcing holiness, for demanding Spirit or God be present in those actions and rites that dance on the line between life and death. Halevai that every shechting, and every other decision we make about the lives entrusted to our hands, whether animal or, kal v’chomer, human, should be carried out with such reverence and intention as we saw at last year’s Hazon Food Conference.

Before I finally sign off, I want to add one note of doubt to these reflections. When we sat in plenum the next day, Nigel asked everyone who normally ate meat, but had not eaten from the goats because they saw their slaughter, to raise their hands. A sizable group did. Then he asked everyone who had eaten from the goat stew davka because they had seen the slaughter, even though they don’t normally eat meat, to raise their hands. The group was just a little smaller, but it received almost wild cheers.

There is something joyful about people being able to go past their boundaries, but their was a part of me that worried we were giving people a reason to kvell over their own meat-eating, that the goat-eating vegetarians were affirming for them their membership in the fraternity of carnivores. In the Torah and prophets, eating meat is sometimes treated as a kind of drunkenness. When the lives of creatures are at stake, I am wary of that kind of revelry.

We say in the Yeshivah, may we all merit to partake of the feast when the righteous will eat the flesh of Leviathan. More inclusively, I wish for all of us to partake of the radiance of the Shekhinah, in every act of eating, whatever we eat.

Reb Duvid

David Seidenberg is the creator and webmaster of


1. Agriprocessors, which provided about half the kosher meat in the US, was uncovered by PETA to be employing non-Jewish workers to tear out the esophagus and trachea of the animals that were still standing after being butchered by a shochet. Within the space of a year, Agriprocessors was also raided by the Feds for illegal/undocumented workers. They were found to be employing under-age immigrants, creating coercive work conditions, and generally violating labor laws. These allegations haven’t been presented in a court of law, but I’ve heard testimony about each allegation as it was reported by rabbis visiting the plant and the workers.

2. Shechitah accomplishes both goals (if done properly) by using an extraordinarily sharp knife to cut the carotid arteries, jugular veins and trachea of an animal in one single stroke, thus allowing the blood to flow out of the brain and the heart to continue pumping while instantly rendering the animal unconscious.

3. Mitah Yafah originally referred to a rule in Talmud Sanhedrin for how capital punishment needed to be carried out, based on the principle “Love your neighbor as yourself”! Cordovero, quite radically, applied it to how we kill animals. See for the full passage from Cordovero’s book Tomer Devorah.

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36 Responses to “The Meat of the Argument: Do Jewish Enviros Have to Be Vegetarians?”

  1. Richard Schwartz Says:

    Nice thoughtful article. But, there are some essential issues that JVNA has been respectfully trying to get onto the Jewish agenda for many years, and they still have not been addressed.
    These include:

    * animal-based diets and agriculture violate Jewish mandates to preserve our health, treat animals compassionately, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help hungry people and pursue peace.

    * animal-based diets are contributing to heart disease, several types of cancer and many other chronic, degenerative disease;

    * animal-based agriculture is substantially contributing to global warming and many other environmental threats that have the potential of resulting in an unprecedented catastrophe.

    As people who are to be rachmanim b’nei rachmanim (compassionate children of compassionate ancestors), how can we ignore the horrendous treatment of animals on factory farms?

    Why does the Jewish community seem unwilling to address the question “Should Jews Be Vegetarians?

    Further information at and, where our one-hour documentary can be seen.

    Best wishes,

    Richard (Schwartz)
    President, JVNA

  2. Ben Murane Says:

    David, lovely post. It was great taking your class at the Havurah Institute this year, too. Kol hakavod again.

    I’m right there with you. Richard, much as I respect his principles, can drive us conscientious meat eaters nuts with high moral rhetoric and the cudgel of guilt. But not all of us make our decisions logically and in so narrow a focus.

    “Going veg,” as any veggie will tell you, means giving up Grandma’s beef roast, the easy to cook pizza pockets you ate in junior high, and chicken noodles as your comfort food. Those are emotional connections, not logical ones. Richard’s appeals, I feel, are too impatient (and perhaps for good reasons about the world falling apart) and don’t honor that fear of losing foods (which of course, stand for personal meaning, not just taste) which are dear to us.

    And I say this with all due respect to you, Richard. You’re definitely not a vegi-nazi in the worst of ways; you’ve always been respectful. But I have to say that complaining “Why does the Jewish community seem unwilling to address the question…” is grating on my nerves. I’m not unwilling to address it. I just disagree it’s necessary (a logical standpoint) and that I’m not ready for it (an emotional one).

    Hazon, I feel, is waging the environmental awareness war on the emotional front, which acknowledges that social change comes slowly, even when it reaches a tipping point.

  3. Kerry Says:

    TOO True

    Some of the greatest people in history
    were staunch vege’s

    Yes ADOLF HITLER was Vegetarian

  4. Michael Croland Says:

    I’ll get to the post over the weekend after I blog about it, but I had to respond to Kerry’s comment immediately.

    Kerry, Adolf Hitler wasn’t vegetarian. Hitler biographers have noted his love for Bavarian sausages, ham, liver, and other nonvegetarian foods. The Nazi propaganda machine tried to portray Hitler with an image of purity, but we should know better than to buy into it. The myth has been refuted by Rynn Berry in academic research as well as by The New York Times.

    For more information about Berry’s book, go to

  5. Michael Kay Says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful article. While Mr. Schwartz’s comment is respectful, I agree with commenter Ben Murane that the main thrust remains an attempt to guilt anyone who is NOT a vegetarian into becoming one.

    Perhaps the Jewish community appears unwilling to address this issue only to one who believes it is of primary importance, when in fact, many of us may not see it as such. I do not see my relationship with food in such stark terms as either eating or not eating meat. There is a continuum. I eat a plant-based diet, with some dairy and meat. I make a great effort to source my meat and dairy products from operations that are sustainable. These non-industrial products, as a non-primary part of a plant-based diet, are not so environmentally harmful to produce and consume.

    Because this middle way exists, I don’t see the question of vegetarianism, specifically, as the most important in the Jewish, or wider, environmental community. The purity of a person’s vegetarianism is not as important as the ethics a person brings to how he or she eats.

    Like this article, I think Hazon is trying to educate, and challenge assumptions, rather than preach. In the long run, I think it will be far more effective.

  6. leo fishman Says:

    I think we are responsible for this world, we should be working on tikkun olam, but instead, we are making our best effort to destroy it with this excessive consumption in western cultures.

    The consequence of animal consumption in any way we use it, is very bad for the animals, the planet, for our health, for the world peace, for the poor people, and for our souls, since only a few people speak about the spiritual damage provoked by eating meat that is not used to study Torah or fulfill mitzvahs and only righteous people are able to avoid that danger and elevate those “holly sparks”

    Rambam says that to heal a disease, we have to go to the opposite extreme that provoke it.
    For those of us that are been following Richard Schwartz lectures from many years, it is very clear the actual situation of the planet, the health, the hungry and many others calamities that the meat industry has a big quote of responsability, so based on Rambam, to health all those deseases, we should go to the other extreme, maybe later we can setle halfway, after the desease is gone.

    We should strongly aim to provoke the debate about “Should Jews Be Vegetarians?” and maybe, maybe after the debate we can meet half way.

  7. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    “We should strongly aim to provoke the debate about “Should Jews Be Vegetarians?” and maybe, maybe after the debate we can meet half way.”

    Indeed Richard has been trying to provoke such a debate but curiously (or not surprisingly) there are no takers. Your extremism is of little appeal to those who are in – or might gladly move – towards the center but your extremism (on either side) scares people away. Every time I see something from Richard he’s got to work in his talking points – It’s like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” got him. He had his chance – the Hazon Food Conference where he was essentially offered everything the so called JVNA (probably the only organization with less transparency than Rubashkins) professed to want and instead they came out against the shechita – their loss as such an about face cost them whatever precious little credibility they had left. Even their own Borad members were uncomfortable with the decision (for the record John Diamond disavowed it when some guy called him on it on Failed Messiah)

    When I find myself agreeing with Ben Murane, I know that moshiach can’t be far behind!

    shmuel simenowitz – a proud fundamentalist but certainly not an extremist

  8. Richard Schwartz Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful responses to my initial post.

    Yes, a middle ground involving the consumption of less meat would be a step forward.

    But, I think the Jewish community should be aware of the issues and should be giving far more consideration to it.

    If anyone can prove me wrong in asserting that animal-based diets and agriculture violate at least 6 basic Jewish mandates, I wish they would do so, because I do not want to mislead people.

    Meanwhile, as a monster storm again approaches New Orleans, as Israel faces its worst drought in 40 years, etc., and, in short, as the world rapidly approaches an unprecedented catastrophe how can we not respond to a system that raises 60 billion farmed animals for slaughter worldwide annually, that wastes so much water, land energy, etc.?

    What good are Jewish values if we do not apply them?

    Thanks for listening.

  9. leo fishman Says:

    Hey Shmuel,

    Thanks for your answer, I remember you from the Natalie Portman Post, You did not answer me if you are a real rabbie then.

    About scaring people, you may be right, but on the other side, many sensitive people are becoming vegetarian every day or at least are watching JVNA movie, “A Sacred Duty” and get touch by it.
    But again, you may be right about scaring people, it remains me about the don’t drink and drive campaigns or the ones that are against cigarettes, some friend told me that after seeing such scary a campaign, the first thing they want to do is light a cigarette, so someone could think that the campaign is not effective, but I think it is, because tend to keep away the people that don’t smoke, I am sorry if it scares you to read Richard notes, but not for it it will make it less true.

    Chodesh Tov,

  10. Lilliput Says:

    I’m an unobservant vegetarian jew and I have always wondered how religious Jews try and live a life of spiritual purity without once giving a thought to where their Shabbos meal comes from? Here in the UK Kosher Free Range chicken has only come into existence in 2008 and I dont think it was brought about by the Charedi’s.

    I have never heard the Noa reason (a way to allow man to express their violent nature) of why we started to eat meat after the garden of eden. Well we don’t keep and kill our own animals now and our violent natures are now not appeased by eating meat so I wonder what will come next……

  11. Michael Croland Says:

    It looks like the comment I tried posting on Sunday didn’t go through. Rather than writing everything out again …

    I wrote a response to Rabbi Seidenberg’s essay on heebnvegan. To read it, go to (or


  12. Hyman Rosen Says:

    I’m a confirmed meat eater of the “tasty, tasty murder” ilk. I don’t believe for a second that anyone will have luck trying to convince most Jews that eating meat is un-Jewish, when the Torah is full of rules for sacrificing animals. On the other hand, I’m willing to eat ethically if it’s not too inconvenient. That’s going to be the job of Hechsher Tzedek and similar groups – to use the power of the free market and the bully pulpit to force meat and other food to be produced more ethically, so people like me can be principled and lazy at the same time. See what Chipotle is doing, for example.

  13. Rabbi David Seidenberg Says:

    Michael Croland’s response is worth a read. Bottom line for me is that we need to focus on reduction of harm rather than purity from sin in this issue. Kind of like finding the best way to deal with teen pregnancy. ;)

  14. Lilliput Says:

    What is Chipotle and where can we read Michael Croland’s response?

  15. Lilliput Says:


    Do you see any temple and animal sacrificing going on? Furthermore – do you honestly believe that when and if Mashiach does come we’ll be back sacrificing in the temple – I certainly don’t think so as there has to be some point to the years of civilization since the last temple.

    Religios observance is grey – so say you’re very lax on the Tzaar Baalei Chaaim Mitzva but maybe better at keeping others. It makes more sense that way and you don’t come off as being the hypocrites like the rest of the religious jews.

  16. Leah Koenig Says:

    For Michael’s response, see comment 11

    For more on Chipotle:


  17. Michael Croland Says:

    Re Rabbi Seidenberg’s comment: “Bottom line for me is that we need to focus on reduction of harm rather than purity from sin in this issue.”

    I suggest that the best way to reduce harm is to avoid it to the greatest extent possible. If something inherently causes tza’ar ba’alei chayim (unnecessary animal suffering), we have a choice to steer clear of it altogether so long as it’s something that isn’t necessary.

  18. Ketzirah Carly Says:

    I’m not a vegetarian and I avoid factory farmed and slaughtered meats as much as humanly possible. This is actually much easier than many people think. It means trading 90% of the meat you eat for vegetarian fare.

    If we all could just go without meat a bit more we could make radical changes in how animals are raised and slaughtered. I think world-wide vegetarianism is not only unrealistic, but also unnecessary.

    I think sustainable agriculture being applied to animals as well is realistic, but requires a radical change of perspective about food. That’s not going to be an easy change.

  19. JT Says:

    Many people responded that they feel Richard was trying to make them feel “guilty” for their meat eating ways. That is not so. He is putting the facts out there – if anyone feels guilty, it’s there own conscious speaking.

    If you care about the environment, animals, and Jewish law, then giving up Grandma’s brisket and some other comfort foods really doesn’t seem like a big deal. You just have to put things into perspective and realize how your actions have consequences.

  20. Hyman Rosen Says:

    Never mind what I honestly believe :-) But there are lots of causes competing for people’s attention. The best way to insure ethical (or any other) behavior is to make it the default choice, or at least very easy. You can keep trying to convince people to be vegetarian, but I think that the low-hanging fruit has already been picked, so to speak. If you really want to reform factory farming, the PETA approach of using video to expose cruel practices seems to me the way to go. It sparks enough outrage that legislators might be willing to take on the industry, and then once the situation has improved individual meat eaters won’t have to be involved.

  21. Dan Brook Says:

    It seems to me that many of the people on this discussion board clinging to meat are only talking about ethics, and to a lesser extent sustainable agriculture, while ignoring human health, global warming, deforestation, species extinction, etc. that are also related to the mass production and consumption of meat. These are all Jewish issues, all Torah values, all crises fro humans and the rest of life on Earth, and therefore should all be our deepest concern.

    Please visit The Vegetarian Mitzvah at


    watch A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to help Heal the World at

    Also visit Eco-Eating at

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