How many vegans can you name who live in Southeastern Montana, where cattle outnumber people by a ratio of about 100-to-1? (Conservative estimate.)
Think that’s tough. Try this one:
How many religious studies professors can you name who research what our sacred texts say about the proper treatment of animals?
The Beet-Eating Heeb hates to show up his beloved readers, but he can name someone in both categories. It helps that it’s the same person.
Meet Lisa Kemmerer.
Tenure-track positions are hard to find in academia, which might explain why the professor who has written one of the most authoritative books on the intersection of animal welfare and religion is on the faculty of the Montana State University – Billings.
BEH, as one of the very few bloggers who writes about the theology of veganism, feels fortunate to have found Lisa.
Her book “Animals and World Religions” (Oxford University Press) is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the role that religion can play – make that, should play – in ending the oppression of animals.
Lisa and The Beet-Eating Heeb recently talked about her important work – and about what it’s like to be a vegan advocate in cattle country.
BEH: Lisa, what’s it like to be vegan in Billings, Montana?
Kemmerer: My social life is limited. It’s a ranching place, very conservative—not always comfortable.
I know there are other vegans out there, but they’re students, in a different space in life. They can’t provide a community for me. I don’t know any vegans in Billings that I have commonality with, and of course I simply don’t eat out.
BEH: Many of your students are cattle ranchers themselves. How do they respond when you tell them that the widespread suffering of farm animals is a violation of religious principles?
Kemmerer: I have lots of ranching students in my classes and they bristle at animal ethics. They especially bristle at hearing that what they’re doing is inconsistent with their own faith.
Why am I beating my head against a wall with a bunch of ranching students? I’m needed here. It’s not socially comfortable for me, but I think it’s necessary.
BEH: If the major religions emphasize the compassionate treatment of animals, how did we get into a situation where we’re slaughtering 9 billion farm animals in the U.S. alone?
Kemmerer: People can ruin any religion. There is no religion that teaches us that what is happening in animal agriculture is OK.
Humanity has a tendency toward ignorance of religions. We have a tendency toward selfishness. We tend to be arrogant. Between ignorance, selfishness and arrogance, we create a recipe for the dismissal of religious teachings.
In Genesis 1:29, after creating a vegan world, God said creation was “very good.” People can read these passages three times, but they aren’t hearing that the world was intended to be vegan. That’s where arrogance and selfishness come in.
One of my frustrations is that the religious community isn’t generally interested in these issues. It’s frustrating and sad because it’s so important—the suffering is so great.
BEH: The Beet-Eating Heeb knows a lot about the emphasis in Jewish texts on the compassionate treatment of animals, but what about Christianity?
Kemmerer: It is true that the Jewish tradition is rich with how to relate to nature and animals. Christians share these texts with the Jewish tradition. I wish they would pay more attention to this part of scripture. Too many Christians are ignorant of Jewish texts, but they are foundational to Christianity.
BEH: Was Jesus a vegetarian? There seems to be some debate about that.
Kemmerer: The Bible doesn’t tell us what Jesus ate. And what he ate doesn’t make much of a difference, no more than it makes a difference what Jesus was wearing on his feet.
The real question is: What would Jesus think of what we’re eating today? What would Jesus think of our slaughterhouses? No sincere Christian can say, “Those slaughterhouses are fine. Jesus would only worry about human needs and suffering.”
Jesus would not like what we’re eating today, based on the suffering of animals.
BEH: What about Islam?
Kemmerer: Though Judaism does, Christianity doesn’t have laws for the protection of animals, and Christians ignore the ones they’ve inherited from the Jewish tradition.
Islamic law is very strict with regard to animals. Muslims are supposed to satisfy the basic needs of domesticated animals, which goes right to the heart of factory farming. Animals are not supposed to be targeted in warfare; we have no right to cause animal suffering through human conflicts. These are wonderful teachings! Such direct laws are very important for the protection of animals.
Muslims tend to restrict their focus to laws governing the slaughter of animals, but this is not the only issue covered by Islamic law.
BEH: That’s a problem in Judaism, too. Sigh.
Now what about Hinduism? Many of the Hindus whom The Beet-Eating Heeb knows are vegetarian, although not vegan.
Kemmerer: Hinduism has the wonderful ideas of ahimsa (not to harm) and karma.
Hindus are ahead of most of the world’s people in terms of actually living up to some of their basic religious beliefs. But milk is a huge part of their diet, and in contemporary times milk is associated with tremendous suffering. That is something Hindus need to look in order to adhere to the central tenets of their religion.
BEH: One last question Lisa. Some people in the animal-rights and veg-advocacy movement blame religion for our society’s horrible treatment of animals. That’s the wrong place to put blame, if you ask The Beet-Eating Heeb. But if we’re ever going to have a more compassionate and merciful relationship with animals, can religion be part of the solution?
Kemmerer: Yes, religion is critical to bringing change for animals.
When I show people want’s happening on factory farms and point out how these methods are inconsistent with their most fundamental religious beliefs, they’re inclined to change — they feel compelled to change. But if you are talking to an atheist, you don’t know what their ethical code is, and they can simply say, “I don’t care.” Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus—they can’t say they don’t care. Religious teachings call us to care — require that we care.
If we’re going to talk about religion with others, we need to be informed so that we can be sensitive to the beliefs and practices of others. If we are educated, we will be more effective advocates for the animals. I would like to believe that “Animals and World Religions” can help us to be more effective in our advocacy, which is to say, I hope that this book will help bring change for animals.
Bible-literate carnivores cling tenaciously to a slender verse in the Book of Genesis to justify their consumption of animal flesh.
Genesis 9:3 is the Biblical invitation to a Texas buffet. It plainly states, “Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat.”
The Beet-Eating Heeb cannot pretend that this verse doesn’t exist. In fact, faithful readers of his blog will tell you that he has never, ever stated that Judaism or Christianity prohibits meat eating.
But he is not afraid to address Genesis 9:3 head-on – and show that carnivores should take little comfort in its words.
Consider the context. In language, context matters.
For instance, if The Beet-Eating Heeb announces that he is “on fire,” it could mean that he either fell into a barbecue pit, or bowled five straight strikes.
Compare the contexts of Genesis 1:29, in which God prescribes a vegan diet, with Genesis 9:3.
Genesis 1:29 culminates the Creation story and takes place in the Garden of Eden. God describes his vegan menu as “very good.”
Fast forward to Genesis 9:3, which comes immediately after The Flood, in which God exterminated virtually all of humanity to put an end to its licentiousness. God was clearly not smiling when he granted Man permission to eat meat.
Indeed, it is a widespread view among rabbinic authorities that God granted this permission with profound reluctance, after sadly observing the flesh-eating ways of humans in the years before The Flood. If God were going to promise to refrain from wiping out humankind again, as he did in Genesis 9:11, He would have to lower his expectations and his standards.
In short, a carnivorous diet is clearly not God’s preference. It a God who is deeply disappointed in humankind’s behavior who authorizes meat eating.
The Beet-Eating Heeb isn’t finished dismantling Genesis 9:3.
This verse cannot be understood apart from Leviticus 11, in which the laws of kashrut are laid out. Those laws put meat-eating inside some narrow boundaries. Pork? No way. Shrimp? Not allowed. Cheeseburgers? Forget about it.
What is the overarching message of Leviticus 11? God wanted to make it difficult for us to eat meat, in hopes that we wouldn’t eat too much of it. You can only eat certain animals slaughtered under certain conditions.
But if God gave an inch, most of The Beet-Eating Heeb’s fellow Jews have taken a mile. So have a little meat once in a while, if you can’t live up to God’s highest ideals. But do you really think God wants you to be eating animals two or three times a day, seven days a week?
One last thing.
The Beet-Eating Heeb could not help but notice that life spans recorded in the Torah became dramatically shorter after God granted people permission to eat meat. Adam, for instance, didn’t check out until after his 930th birthday, long after he had drained his 401(k). Abraham, in contrast, passed away at the tender age of 175.
Whether or not you interpret these life spans literally, the message is clear, and verified by modern scientific research: Vegetarians and vegans live longer. And The Beet-Eating Heeb would say that’s God’s will, and His clearly expressed preference.
After all, what two words better describe Jewish veganism?
So imagine The Beet-Eating Heeb’s surprise (he won’t say dismay) when he discovered a newly published book called “Holy Eating.” And the author not only happens to be a fellow member of the Pittsburgh Jewish community, he is someone BEH is personally fond of — Dr. Robert Schwartz.
But wait a minute. The last time BEH checked, his friend Bob Schwartz was working as a sex therapist. Now he has written a book about eating?
Upon hearing about this book, The Beet-Eating Heeb immediately contacted Bob’s publicist, presented his Official Blogger Credential, and obtained a reviewer’s copy.
Then BEH dove into the book, anxious to see if the author’s definition of “holy eating” was veganism.
The book is subtitled “The Spiritual Secret to Eternal Weight Loss.” But The Beet-Eating Heeb knows that a well-designed vegan diet will help overweight people shed pounds.
As it turns out, “Holy Eating” is a 173-page elaboration of one big idea. And it’s the same big idea that undergirds this very blog.
Here it is: The most compelling intellectual, moral and personal reasons for behavioral change often won’t produce change at all if they don’t have a religious or spiritual component.
That’s hardly a novel concept. It is the core of 12-step addiction programs.
However, very few other diet books advocate a spiritual approach to weight loss. Similarly, very few other animal-welfare or personal-health blogs advocate a religious approach to veganism.
So The Beet-Eating Heeb is feeling some brotherly love toward Bob.
On the vegan question, though, Bob kept The Beet-Eating Heeb in suspense.
About a quarter-way through the book, in a chapter called “The Kabbalah of Eating,” Dr. Schwartz quotes another author as saying, “A Jewish mystic meditates on how the food has been created and is being kept in existence every minute by God’s will,” which leads to “mystic joy.”
You don’t need to be a Kabbalist or even Madonna to recognize that keeping animals confined in obscenely crowded conditions, then killing them about one-third of the way through their natural life span, hardly sounds like God’s will. Meditating about factory-farmed meat, milk and eggs does not lead to mystic joy.
But Bob did not explain the type of food the Jewish mystic was meditating on.
Not until Page 137 does the good doctor broach the subject of what a holy eater should – and should not – consume. The first 85 percent of the book focuses exclusively on how much one should eat. (In a word, less.)
Bob deserves full credit for noting, as The Beet-Eating Heeb did in his March 8 post, that God’s first dietary instructions to humankind included only fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains. Animal products were not on the list of approved items.
But the definition of “holy eating” in this book does include meat. Just not much.
Dr. Schwartz strongly urges his readers to reduce their meat consumption, for health and spiritual reasons.
At the end of a chapter titled “So What Should I Eat?,” Dr. Schwartz summarizes what he calls the “essential food guidelines derived from the Bible.” Conspicuously, meat is not explicitly mentioned in his summary, while he does urge his readers to “eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”
So you can see why The Beet-Eating Heeb believes Bob is heading in the right direction, even if he doesn’t quite reach the holiest destination.
BEH cuts Dr. Schwartz some slack. Equating veganism with holy eating would probably be a bridge too far for this book, considering Bob already risks alienating many readers by suggesting that obese people are spiritually deficient at mealtime.
So even if non-vegans are a couple of cards short of a full spiritual deck, as The Beet-Eating Heeb would say, Dr. Schwartz could not make that point without relegating his book to the worst-seller list.
What if you have no intention of becoming a vegan but you need to lose weight? Should you buy this book?
The Beet-Eating Heeb says yes, if …
The “if” is, if you consider yourself a spiritual person, preferably but not necessarily of the Jewish variety. If you are spiritual, invoking God consciousness while eating might indeed be your secret to eternal weight loss. Dr. Schwartz presents several approaches, including meditation, in an accessible writing style.
If you’re not a spiritual person, well, The Beet-Eating Heeb feels sorry for you, and out of sympathy will save you $15 by steering you away from this book.
By the way, BEH just thought of a name for his future book: “Holier Eating.”