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Religion and Animals
By Richard H. Schwartz
Passover and vegetarianism?
Can the two be related? After all, what is a seder without gefilte fish, chicken
soup, chopped liver, chicken, and other meats? And what about the shankbone to
commemorate the paschal sacrifice. And doesn't Jewish law mandate that Jews eat
meat to rejoice on Passover and other Jewish festivals?
An increasing number of Jews are turning to vegetarianism and they are finding
ways to celebrate vegetarian Passovers while being consistent with Jewish
teachings. For many years, Jonathan Wolf, a Jewish vegetarian activist, has had
up to 50 people at his Manhattan apartment for completely vegetarian seders.
This year the Jewish environmental group Shomrei Adamah ("Guardians of the
Earth") has scheduled a vegetarian seder.
Contrary to a common perception, Jews are not required to eat meat at the
Passover seder or any other time. According to the Talmud (Pesachim 109a), since
the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jews need not eat meat to celebrate
Jewish festivals. In recent scholarly articles by Rabbi Albert Cohen in the
Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and Rabbi J. David Bleich in
Tradition magazine, this concept is reinforced. Also, Israeli chief rabbis,
including Rabbi Shlomo Goren, former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel and Rabbi
Sha'ar Yashuv Cohen, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Haifa, were or are strict
use of the shankbone originated in the time of the Talmud as a means of
commemorating the paschal lamb. However, since the talmudic scholar, Rabbi Huna,
states that a beet can be used for this purpose (Pesachim), many Jewish
vegetarians substitute a beet for the shankbone. The important point is that the
shankbone is a symbol and no meat need be eaten at the seder.
Jewish vegetarians see vegetarian values reinforced by several Passover themes:
At the seder, Jews say, "Let all who are hungry come and eat". As on
other occasions, at the conclusion of the meal, bircat hamazone is recited to
thank God for providing food for the world's people. This seems inconsistent
with the consumption of animal-centered diets which involves the feeding of 70%
of the grain grown in the United States and two-thirds of the grain that we
export to animals destined for
slaughter and the importing of beef from other countries, while 20 million of
the world's people die of hunger and its effects annually.
Although he is not a vegetarian, Rabbi Jay Marcus, Spiritual Leader of the Young
Israel of Staten Island, saw a connection between simpler diets and helping
hungry people. He commented on the fact that "karpas" (eating of
greens) comes immediately before "yahatz" (the breaking of the middle
matzah for later use as the "afikomen" (desert) in the seder service.
He concluded that those who live on simpler foods (greens, for example) will
more readily divide their possessions and share with others.
Many Jewish vegetarians see connections between the oppression that their
ancestors suffered and the current plight of the billions of people who
presently lack sufficient food and other essential resources. Vegetarian diets
require far less land, water, gasoline, pesticides, fertilizer, and other
resources, and thus enable the better sharing of God's abundant resources, which
can help reduce global hunger and poverty.
2. The main Passover theme is freedom. While relating the story of our
ancestors' slavery in Egypt and their redemption through God's power and
beneficence, many Jewish vegetarians also consider the "slavery" of
animals on modern "factory farms." Contrary to Jewish teachings of
"tsa'ar ba'alei chayim" (the Torah mandate not to cause unnecessary
"pain to a living creature"), animals are raised for food
today under cruel conditions in crowded confined spaces, where they are denied
fresh air, sunlight, a chance to exercise, and the fulfillment of their natural
instincts. In this connection, it is significant to consider that according to
the Jewish tradition, Moses, Judaism's greatest leader, teacher, and prophet,
was chosen to lead the Israelites out of Egypt because as a shepherd he showed
great compassion to a lamb (Exodus Rabbah 2:2).
3. Many Jewish vegetarians advocate that we commemorate the redemption of our
ancestors from slavery by ending the current slavery to harmful eating habits
through the adoption of vegetarian diets.
4. Passover is the holiday of springtime, a time of nature's renewal. It also
commemorates God's supremacy over the forces of nature. In contrast, modern
intensive livestock agriculture and animal-centered diets have many negative
effects on the environment, including air and water pollution, soil erosion and
depletion, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, and
contributions to global warming.
Jewish vegetarians view their diet as a practical way to put Jewish values into
practice. They believe that Jewish mandates to show compassion to animals, take
care of our health, protect the environment, conserve resources, and share with
hungry people, and the negative effects that animal-centered diets have in each
of these areas, point to vegetarianism as the ideal diet for Jews (and others)