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Friday, 21 March 2008
Vegetarianism in Israel
By ShalomVeg Member, Dan Arbel
The Jewish sources frequently mention the connection between food and healing. The Rambam, Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, 1135-1204 was unique in both Jewish and medical studies. The Rambam said that his medical knowledge was based on two sources, Jewish tradition and Talmudic sources as passed down through the generations, and medical attitudes and principles that were common in his generation were usually passed down from father to son and were validated by medical geniuses such as Hippocrates and Gallinos. Rambam said that most illnesses are the result of eating too much, rather than not enough. It is better to eat a little of harmless foods than a lot of healthy foods. Judaism mandates that people should take care to preserve their health and their lives. A Vegetarian View of the Torah states the following about God’s first dietary plan: ”God did not permit Adam and his wife to kill a creature to eat its flesh. Only every green herb were they to eat and God’s intention was that people be vegetarians. Their natural diet is vegetarian. The first rabbi in Israel, Rabbi Kook was a highly respected and beloved Jewish spiritual leader and he believed that the permission to eat meat was only a temporary concession to the practices of the times, because God who is merciful to His creatures would not institute an everlasting law permitting the killing of animals for food.
Many rabbis invoke various biblical references to justify vegetarianism, despite the fact that the Torah is dominated by sacrifices of animals that date back to the First Temple. The idea of compassion toward animals is deeply rooted in the Torah and need not benefit just the animals. Of the three mitzvoth (good deeds) which prolong life, one is based on ecological sensitivity: Rabbi Rosen suggests that prolonging life is discussed in terms of the well being of society as a whole. In his view, being sensitive to animal life leads to sensitivity to our own society.
Now I will give you a couple of examples of the Jewish attitude to animals in the sources. The Hebrew term “nephesh chaya” means “a living being” or a “living soul” and it is applied to both animals and to man in the creation story in genesis. The five books of Moses include a number of specific laws dealing with proper treatment of animals; for instance, you may not muzzle an ox as it threshes the grain. It must not be subjected to the frustration of facing food while it works and is itself muzzled. This was extended by rabbinic interpretation to other animals, even birds, working within sight of food.
The biggest challenge Jewish Vegetarians have to contend with is the fact that meat eating is mentioned in the bible and rules are established as to exactly what can and what cannot be eaten. However, the original food for man is written in Genesis (1:29): Behold I give you every herb bearing seed and the fruit of every seed bearing tree, for you, it shall be for food.”
Permission to kill and eat animals was only granted as a result of men later evil (Genesis 9:5) and then “lusting for meat” was accompanied by a curse. Jewish vegetarians, then, see their diet as an ideal that can be reattained. Jewish vegetarians argue, eating factory-farmed meat contravenes the precepts of the Torah, twice. Once by harming the animals and once by not taking care of your own health. Mass farming methods rely on injecting the animals with antibiotics, hormones and other agents, not only cause suffering to the animals but potentially cause health problems among flesh consumers such as problems of cholesterol, heart disease and salmonella poisoning. Nowhere in the Bible is the promise of meat made as a reward for keeping the commandments, only the promise of fruits and vine, garden and fields. Eating meat is halachically questionable for both the reasons mentioned above, health and mistreatment of animals.
A theme that comes up in the reading of the torah portion: Re’eh, is also having a moral dimension. Is the permission given to eat meat to satisfy the appetite (as opposed to meat eating as a sacrifice). The theme of eating meat goes through several stages in the Torah. Initially, it was forbidden to humans as food, then after the Flood it was permitted to Noah and his sons, with the warning to eat flesh torn from a live animal. In the wilderness, however, the Israelites were permitted to eat only sacrificed meat. It was only when they entered the land that they were permitted to eat meat that was not consecrated as a sacrifice. Rabbi Kook explains the significance of the developments regarding this command, changes that were related to time and place: A categorical prohibition of meat would never have been observed, would not have cultivated compassion to animals but would have driven man, uncontrolled in his appetite for bloodshed, satisfy it, not only by the slaughter of animals.
Paradoxically, it is the word of the Lord that can undergo mutations that are dependant on cultural, social and moral conditions; whereas a humanistic morality, whose authors are capable only of seeking the “right”, cannot be as flexible, since any change could open the door to moral corruption and cynical exploitation of the laws of morality.
The ranks of kosher vegetarians soar as the Industry meets the needs. Some due to health, some out of concern for animal rights, but many as part of an adopted lifestyle of living a more natural lifestyle. Biblical sources not only forbid cruelty, but demand compassion and mercy towards the animals. The welfare of animals has been a Jewish concern since biblical times, and it can be a source of pride to Jews that the issue of prevention of cruelty to animals has been addressed, discussed and ruled by rabbis for many centuries. There are other provisions, including the commandment: “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God, you shall not do any work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. In Exodus, chapter 23 it says: six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest. I can all be summed up in saying: “the decent man considers the life of the beast” It is forbidden to take a newborn ox, sheep or goat from the mother until at has at least seven days of warmth and nourishment directly from its mother.
Supermarket executives in Israel say that an increasing number of kosher consumers are asking for vegetarian replacement kosher foods, ranging from hotdogs to patties, foods that are marked as “Parve”, containing no animal ingredients including milk and eggs. Despite the fact that only 10% of Israelis define themselves as vegetarians, they spend $ 64 million a year on meat substitutes and $ 43 million on chicken breasts and ready to eat poultry products. The alternatives to meat – usually Soya-based products – have grown by some 5% in the last year and a half. Almost 50% of Israeli use products which are meat substitutes. Analysts attribute this trend to the growth of health conscious consumers.
Vegetarians in general say that they have an easier time keeping a kosher diet than conventional kosher adherents. Jews feel a certain moral responsibility for the welfare of animals and we are also more concerned with a vegetarian diet and a more healthy diet. Public campaigns to defend animals often lead to improvement, but the real changes occur when the government and the courts, mobilize in their defense. The courts in Israel have recently made several decisions. From 1 April 2006 it was forbidden to force-feed newborn geese with high caloric food by inserting a tube into the esophagus, resulting in the swelling of the liver. The process lasts about 3 months, after which the geese, who have a life expectancy of about 60 years in their natural habitat, are slaughtered. Force-feeding causes great pain to the animal and it is cruel and inhumane. This artificially enlarges the goose’s liver, all for the purpose of supplying the delicacy known as “foie gras”, since force-feeding geese violates the law, which prohibits torture, cruelty or abuse to animals. Humans have grown accustomed to viewing animals as food products and have forgotten that they too, are entitled to protection. The anti-fur lobby in Israel has become very influential, and its ethical claims are worthy of study. The root of the demand not to buy fur products is the concern for animal suffering. In Judaism, the approach to animal welfare is expressed in the prohibition on animal suffering. Animal species raised in fur farms are not domesticated but rather wild animals raised in captivity, which means that the ranch conditions themselves involved more suffering than is endured by livestock. The Talmud tells us that we should feed our animals before we feed ourselves. Rabbi Yaacov Emden explains that the reason is not to add insult to injury. Feeding our animals, he writes, is not a favor we do them; they are capable of taking care of themselves. By domesticating and captivating then we take away their ability; the least we can do is to feed them in a prompt manner. We see that taking away the independence of wild creatures creates certain ethical obligations towards then which would not apply to the same extent to a domestic animal.
Apparently, Maimonides believes that the ideal view of the Bible is not to take animal life at all for human needs; after all Adam and Eve were initially granted only fruit and vegetables for food. “It was only after the flood, when God saw the man’s instinct was deeply imbedded with a desire to kill, that He allowed humanity to spill the blood of an animal and eat its flesh, a legimite sublimation. Thus the concession. Meat for the masses. We are allowed to kill animals, but not human beings.
Thus sending away the mother bird and being permitted to take the nestlings
Is like being permitted to eat meat or to bring home the captive woman from the battle field. It’s a concession, not the ideal. Our Torah is a Torah of compassion, but it is a reality as well. And while the commandment to send away to the mother is an attempt to sensitize us to the moral ambiguities of eating fowl, it can hardly be invoked as the idea of compassion on the basis of which we are deserving of loving kindness.
Many famous rabbis are vegetarians. David Rosen, former chief rabbi of Ireland has made strong statements about eating meat, being halachically questionable for reasons of both health and mistreatment of animals.
Rabbi Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, was a vegetarian from the age of 10 years. The Nobel Prize winner and author Shai Agnon was a devout vegetarian as he was a Jew. The Israelis are proud that Smuel Yosef Agnon will rank with the greatest and those who have read his works will know that his writings will inspire future generations as long as the spirit is free to travel in the realms of beauty and imagination.
Nowhere in the Bible is the promise of meat made as a reward for keeping the commandments, only the promise of fruits of the vine, garden and fields.
Kosher laws are designed to teach us compassion and to lead us gently to vegetarianism. The laws about milk and meat play an important part in Jewish diet and in Jewish life, we refrain not only from eating milk and meat together, but even our crockery, cutlery, pots, and pans have to be kept apart.
Animal owners are required to rest their animals, as they themselves rest, on Shabbat (exodus 20:10). Acts usually forbidden on Shabbat were permitted to avoid animals’ pain, because of the precedence of biblical injunctions. Modern halachic technological solutions have been developed to allow milking cows on Shabbat, avoiding the cow’s discomfort, while not contravening the prohibition of work. And speaking about rabbis the Halacha mandates that the owner of an animal, feed those animals, which are dependent on him for their food, before eating himself. This law applies not only to farm animals, but also to pets, birds and fish. It applies to all mealtimes, whether the owner is away or at home, on Shabbat or weekdays. If his mealtime coincides with the animals feeding time, then the animal must be fed first. We are required to unload an ass struggling under its burden (Exodus 23:5)
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled on raising calves for veal and forbade the method of removing them from their mothers at birth and raising the calves in miserable conditions, in tiny darkened boxes, where they cannot move, just to produce a very light colored, tender meat.
Israel voted to protect whales at the International Whaling Commission. (J.P. 19/6/06).
In Israel too, we see more signs that vegetarianism is gaining ground. We have a complete vegetarian village called Amirim, and it is Israel’s (and possible the world’s) only completely vegetarian village. Many residents make there living by renting out guest rooms and serving completely vegetarian and vegan meals. Amirim is in the Galilee, near Zefad in the northern part of the country. Israelis are vegetable freaks. Israel has one of the highest, if not the highest, annual per capita consumption of vegetables in the world: 180 kilos 40% of this is consumed as salad. Basic foods in Israel are humus, eggplant, salads and tehina.
There are about 100.000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel and a new study on chronic disease among the immigrant has been done. It was discovered that there is a 17% rate of type II diabetes among Ethiopian Jews from the age of 15 and up, compared to 0% to 0.4%, when they lived in Ethiopia and 5% to 10% among the general Israeli population. Type II diabetes is largely due to overweight, improper diet and lack of physical activity. The higher rate of diabetes is due to the Western diet and plentiful food with much less physical work than before. There is an increase in fat and meat consumption and a sharp reduction in their vegetable consumption. The older immigrants tend to eat more of their traditional diet, but younger people, especially those born in Israel, tend to eat a lot of junk food, also causing heart disease among them.
There are 2500 Black Hebrews living in Dimona in the Northern part of the Negev desert. Members of this community are required to follow a strict vegan diet, and smoking or drinking is forbidden.
The Jewish Vegetarian Society will start to make special efforts to promote our vegetarian philosophy among these people.
There are many vegetarian restaurants all over Israel and a lot of vegetarian possibilities in all the supermarket chains. Soglowek and Tivol are two large soy producers (meat like products made of Soya) exporting to the entire world. It is the policy of most food producers to produce healthy foods with as little salt as possible. Salt is, as you know, harmful to blood pressure. Most factories produce food with low calorie content and have switched to a sweetener called sucralose, which has fewer negative properties than sugar. The food producers try to minimize use of food colors and organic food sales are increasing.
Unfortunately, Israel is among the countries (like the United States and Scandinavia) where people consume the most dairy products. This may be the reason for the highest rates of osteoporosis, while countries, where most people are lactose intolerant, such as China, have far lower rates. The answer is the large amounts of animal protein in meat and dairy products. The solution is to reduce the consumption of animal products – which are also high in cholesterol, saturated fats and, often, pesticides, hormones and other dangerous additives – and get our calcium from plant foods, enriched soy milk and orange juice and cereals. In our monthly lectures, we explain this to our members. I here refer to the recent lecture by a member of the “Black Hebrews”. A member of the black Hebrews explains: In the summer we drink water only and in the winter we do not drink at all. We fast every Shabbat. I get up at about 5 o'clock in the morning and get dressed and pray. Afterwards I drink two glasses of water and I then go to exercise. I run 45 minutes or walk in the mountains. When I return I have breakfast, which consists of fruit and nuts. During the day I eat nuts and almonds and for lunch I have all kind of natural soy products, like Tofu, soy milk and I try to add a large salad and plenty of organic fruit and vegetables. For dinner I try to eat a more heavy meal, soy beans, beans, sweet potato, corn bread, olive oil, salads and vegetables. We try to be optimistic and not get annoyed. We hardly have sweet things and instead of chocolate we eat carobs. We do not drink coffee, only herbal teas with brown sugar and we do not touch alcohol and beer. We do not smoke. We do not wear synthetic clothing. That is not healthy.
In the 37 years we have lived in Israel, we had no heart attacks and only 2 cases of cancer and we do not have one single case of aids.
(Note from ShalomVeg-The Israeli Jewish Vegetarian Society is currently shut down. They are looking for new members and support to re-start the organization. Please see connected article here .)