Should Liberal Jews Go Vegetarian?

Allen: Aron, In the wake of your decidedly grim Purim post, I’d like to follow up on a more whimsical note. I call it thus because this pet cause of mine will most likely remain on the lunatic fringe until the coming of Elijah. But, hey, that’s what they used to say about Paul Ryan’s budget proposals.

Here it is, then: I maintain that liberal Jews ought to keep a vegetarian diet if they are physically and financially able. It’s a win-win– for the planet and for Conservative Judaism. (How often do I get to write that sentence?) Read carefully: there’s a lot at steak.

Consider three basic facts. Firstly, the ethical case for vegetarianism is tough to dispute. Peter Singer puts it persuasively in his classic manifesto Animal Liberation:

“There are mentally defective humans who have less claim to be self-conscious or autonomous than many nonhuman animals. If we use these characteristics to place a gulf between humans and other animals, we place these unfortunate humans on the other side of the gulf; and if the gulf is taken to mark a difference in moral status, then these humans would have the moral status of animals rather than humans.”

Descriptively, Singer claims, we can’t point to any one trait that sets adults with profound intellectual disabilities apart from other advanced mammals (say, cows). Yet we would loudly denounce the wholesale exploitation, slaughter and consumption of the former in between bites of brisket. To those who protest that human beings are genetically distinct from the species we eat, Singer has a simple response: Men and women are genetically distinct, too, as are Europeans and Africans. But it certainly doesn’t follow that any of these groups are morally distinct from one another. On what basis, then, do we claim the right to eat highly functioning animals for our pleasure while affordable and healthy alternatives exist? If there’s a persuasive response, I haven’t heard it yet. Keep in mind, as well, that the meat industry puts out one-tenth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and takes up nearly half of its total landmass. So the choice isn’t only what we feed ourselves; it’s whether we’ll be able to.

Secondly, keeping kosher’s been long out of vogue among liberal Jews, if it ever was in to begin with. According to the much-ballyhooed 2013 Pew report, less than one-third of Conservative Jews and one-tenth of Reform Jews keep kosher in any way, shape or form. If we assume that the Jewish food laws are worth saving (a question for another post), then some action is clearly called for.

Thirdly, note that the small minority of liberal Jews who eat only kosher meat do so only at the grace of right-wing Orthodox shochtim and mashgichim. Reform and Conservative Judaism simply lack the human resources to run an operation on the scale of the Orthodox Union. (To understand why, try this one with your parents sometime: “Mom, Dad, I want to be a ritual slaughterer when I grow up!”) Instead, we outsource our religious obligations to communities with whose values we stand in profound disagreement, effectively bankrolling their worst excesses. It’s not only horror stories like the Postville factory, an inferno of worker abuse and cruelty to animals. Take my hometown suburb of Monsey, where an ultra-Orthodox enclave bloc-voted itself into control of the local school board and proceeded to eviscerate funding for the largely black and Hispanic public schools to help pay for yeshiva expansion. Yet when it came time to do serious fleishig shopping, Monsey was the only game in town.

To recap: 1) Vegetarianism is morally persuasive. 2) Most liberal Jews don’t keep kosher. 3) The ones who do keep kosher unwittingly enable groups that fail to represent our values. When liberal Jews go vegetarian, they kill all three birds with one stone. (Pun intended.) As I’ve described above, vegetarianism is an ethical no-brainer. Less frequently noted, it offers an elegant solution to the problem of liberal kashrut observance. Allow me to put on my dusty JTS alumnus cap for a moment. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), the Conservative religious court, has always followed Rabbi Agus’ method: establishing ideal goals (e.g. kashrut observance) while recognizing that Conservative Jews would only partially achieve them. Liberal rabbis know full well that the majority of the laity will never keep kosher a la Shulchan Arukh. Why not, then, propose an alternative– vegetarianism– that would get us a good part of the way there? It’s pretty tough to mix meat and milk in a kitchen without meat! This is also the simplest practical fix for communities without access to heckshered food. By marshaling halakhic support for a vegetarian diet, my teacher Rabbi Roth and his colleagues can garner the CJLS some much-needed publicity while promoting traditional observance and ethical behavior. (For basic rabbinic sources on the subject, check out TB Bava Metzia 32b and Rav Kook’s Chazon Ha-Tsimchonut veha-Shalom.)

Finally, a liberal Jewish meat boycott can put a stop to the cottage industry surrounding kashrut certification. Jewish communities could lighten the load of shochtim by taking responsibility for their own religious practice.

There you have it: a utopian dream even more likely to be booed down than Haman’s name. But you know what Herzl said about dreams… (Or was that Debbie Friedman? Hard to keep them straight.)



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