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Towards a Winning Strategy – The Richard Schwartz Interview

Richard Schwartz has a new edition to his book just out called "Judaism and Vegetarianism". We spoke to him recently because we are interested in hearing what Judaism has to say about eating meat.





Q. Richard, what is your animal rights position?

A. My view is that animal rights activists are generally very sincere and committed people, but I believe that some, including several leaders, have locked themselves into positions that are actually very harmful to the just cause that they so zealously promote. We should recognise that those who exploit animals and those who feel somewhat guilty about not doing more to alleviate animal suffering are looking for ways to dismiss the legitimacy of the animal rights critique by pointing out what many consider the extreme views and tactics of animal rights advocates. Hence, we should be ready with answers that will not be self-defeating.

Q. What do you say to people who say you are more concerned with animals than you are with human beings?

A. It is not a choice between the well-being of animals or of people. When animals are mistreated, it generally also has negative effects for people. For example, the consumption of animals and animal products has been linked to heart disease, stroke, various types of cancers, and other degenerative diseases. Modern intensive livestock agriculture significantly contributes to ecological threats, such as air and water pollution, soil erosion and depletion, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, and global warming. This industry must also share responsibility for the deaths of 15 to 20 million people per year because of hunger and its effects, as 70% of the grain produced in the United States and over one-third of the grain produced worldwide is fed to animals destined for slaughter.

Q. What would you say to people who say "Why are you so concerned about animals when there are so many problems facing people today?"

A. Vegetarianism and Veganism is not only an important personal choice today, but it is increasingly a societal imperative. The production and consumption of animal products have very negative economic and ecological effects. In 1993, almost 1,700 of the world's scientists from 70 countries, including 104 Nobel laureates, signed a "World Scientists Warning to Humanity", which stated that "a great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated." A shift to veganism and vegetarianism is an essential one of the changes necessary to help steer our imperiled planet away from its present dangerous path.

Q. Do you compare the treatment of animals to the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust (or some other great human tragedy?)

A. Some people, including Isaac Bashevis Singer, who stated that for animals every day is like Treblinka, have made this comparison, because they are aware of the incredibly cruel ways that animals are raised on factory farms today. For example, dairy calves are removed from their mothers after at most one day of nursing; laying hens are crammed into spaces so small that they can't even raise their wings, over a quarter of a billion male chicks are killed almost immediately after birth, because they cannot produce eggs and have not been genetically programmed to give much meat; and geese have huge amounts of food forced down their throats to produce paté de fois gras. Hence, some make this comparison, not out of disrespect for the 6 million Jews and 5 million other people who perished in the Holocaust, but out of their disgust at the massive mistreatment of animals.

Q. What do you say to those who say "Animal rights activists are involved in acts of violence, which are inconsistent with their views that there should be no violence against animals"?

A. Most animal rights advocates do not engage in acts of violence and the destruction of property, and oppose such acts. However, many animal rights advocates are frustrated at the public apathy in the face of unbelievably cruel treatment of animals. This has lead to a relative few believing that acts of violence are necessary to strike back against animal exploiters who collectively cause far more violence to people as well as animals and/or to get peoples' attention. Besides, a movement of millions of devoted, sincere, peaceful people should not be judged by the actions of a very small segment of the movement.

Q. What if religion permits the slaughter of animals for food?

A. Then I would say "Your religion may permit the eating of animals, but you have a choice." Shouldn't this choice be based upon the highest religious teachings that mandate that we treat animals with compassion, guard our health, share with hungry people, protect the environment, conserve resources, and seek peace? These qualities all point to vegetarianism and veganism as God's ideal diet today.

Q. It's been said that in advocating Vegetarianism and Veganism, aren't you being more righteous than God, since God gave permission for people to eat animals?

A. Recall that God's first dietary law, according to the Bible (Genesis 1:29) was strictly vegan. When God fed people directly, He gave them manna, a vegetarian food. When he reluctantly provided flesh (quail), it was to punish them for their lust and gluttony.

Q. In short then what would you say to fellow animal rights advocates?

A. I'd say let us disarm our opposition by keeping the discussion focused on the fundamental points about the horrible treatment of animals, and many negative environmental and other effects of factory farming, and the many humane alternatives to these practices.

Q. What does your research show about Jews and meat-eating practices?

A. I have been promoting vegetarianism since 1977 and I have been arguing that Jews have a choice as to whether or not to be vegetarians. In support of the view that Jews do not need to eat meat today is the Talmud (Pesachim 109a states that since the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Jews are not required to eat meat in order to rejoice on festivals), scholarly articles by Rabbi Alfred Cohen and Rabbi J.David Bleich that indicate additional sources and arguments supporting the view that Jews do not need to eat meat in this period, and the fact that several chief Rabbis are strict vegetarians. Through my book, Judaism and Vegetarianism, articles, and talks, I have tried to help make Jews more aware of Jewish mandates to take care of our health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve resources, and help hungry people, and how far the realities related to the production and consumption of animal products are from these mandates.

Q. What has been your experience then of all this teaching?

A. I have hoped that sensitive committed Jews, "rachamim b'nei rachamin" (compassionate children of compassionate ancestors), once they were aware of these discrepancies, would switch to vegetarian diets. While this has happened in some cases, the vast majority of Jews still consume animal products. Hence, I am starting to think about the argument that committed Jews are not only permitted but are obligated to be vegetarian.

Q. What's the way to go then Richard?

A. It would be extremely helpful if a commission composed of rabbinic, health, scientific, and agricultural experts was set up to study the many issues related to animal-centred diets and how they impinge on halacha and basic Jewish values, in order to assess whether Jews today should reduce their consumption of animal products. The future of Judaism and of our precious, but imperiled, planet is at stake.

Check out Richard's excellent website: He gives several answers to these "Winning Strategy Questions..." and not the ones just quoted.