Category Archives: Jewish Vegans and Vegetarians
During a Webinar put on by the group Farm Forward, The Beet-Eating Heeb this month finally got an opportunity to ask author Jonathan Safran Foer the question that he had been dying to put to him.
Well, maybe “dying” is a poor choice of words.
My fellow Jew, BEH asked, do you think it’s morally OK for humans to kill animals for food?
His answer was profoundly disappointing. Disillusioning in the extreme.
Safran Foer said, “The answer doesn’t really matter. Maybe it’s fun, intellectually, to consider the question. But let’s talk about what’s actually in front of us. The question is the least relevant to the choices we make on a daily basis.”
What? The matter of killing sentient beings for food “doesn’t really matter”? It’s “least relevant”?
This, from the sensitive soul and gifted writer who wrote “Eating Animals,” the book that has probably created more vegans than any other written work in history?
The veg advocacy movement can ill afford to engage in internecine warfare, outnumbered as we are by the forces that are promoting meat eating. So The Beet-Eating Heeb will try to engage in some self-restraint (wish him luck) as he critiques Safran Foer’s answer.
To state the obvious, the issue is of ultimate consequence and of grave concern to farm animals, who literally moan, bleat and otherwise beg for their lives. It’s one thing for their desperate but futile pleas to fall on deaf ears within the blood-soaked slaughterhouse. It’s quite another for these innocent animals to find a heart of stone inside the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer.
However, while his answer certainly seems surprising, even bizarre, it’s actually exactly what you would expect – when you consider the morally hypocritical corner that JSF has painted himself into.
Much to the chagrin of his legions of vegan fans, Safran Foer has firmly hitched himself to the “humane” farming movement. This movement, of which Farm Forward is a part, maintains that it’s OK to slaughter animals, as long as you raise them in a humane fashion. It’s a response to factory farming.
Safran Foer discussed this movement in “Eating Animals” with a glowing profile of Niman Ranch. Since the release of the book, he has become a spokesman for Farm Forward, even doing a YouTube video that endorses consuming poultry.
The problem with Safran Foer, Farm Forward and the rest of the “humane” farming movement is the contradiction inherent in their position.
Please explain to The Beet-Eating Heeb how you can care about an animal’s welfare for a few years, then turn around on a day of your choosing and stick a knife into the innocent creature’s throat.
The Beet-Eating Heeb, as all Jews should, finds this Jekyll-and-Hyde type of morality to be troubling, even scary. BEH favors a transcendent, consistent morality.
This whole “humane” farming movement reminds The Beet-Eating Heeb of the parable of the woman who rescued an injured rattlesnake and nursed it back to full health. For the next few months, the snake would curl up in the woman’s lap as she watched TV at night, just like a pet cat.
Then one night, out of the blue, the rattlesnake lifted its head and plunged its venomous fangs right into the woman’s neck.
“My God, how could you do that to me, after we spent all these nights together?,” the woman gasped as she died.
“Hey lady,” the rattler answered, “you knew I was a snake.”
Jonathan Safran Foer has aligned himself with the snake, metaphorically speaking.
Given all this, his answer to BEH’s question isn’t surprising, after all.
He has put himself in a position where he can’t say killing animals for food is wrong. But nor, given his obvious concern for animals, can he say it’s OK.
Characterizing the question as irrelevant was just a way of dodging it. Given the morally untenable position he has staked out, he didn’t have any good options when confronted with BEH’s query. Dismissing the question as frivolous, as he did, might very well have been the least bad option for him.
Of course, Safran Foer is entitled to believe and espouse whatever he wants. But BEH, as a big fan of his book “Eating Animals, would ask him to reconsider his ties to the “humane” farming movement and give animals the moral consideration they deserve – every day and always.
Any vegan will tell you that dairy products are unfit for human consumption.
The anti-dairy position stands on at least three very sturdy legs: animal welfare, personal health, and logic.
In brief, dairy cows are continuously subjected to horrendous treatment in today’s factory farms, dairy products are inherently unhealthy, and it is logically insane for humans to be consuming something that is designed to turn a 50-pound calf into a 500-pound cow.
Now Shmuly Yanklowitz, a crusading Orthodox rabbi, has introduced another reason to eschew dairy products, causing The Beet-Eating Heeb to kick himself for not thinking of it first.
Simply but profoundly put, Rabbi Yanklowitz opined this week in the pages of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal that today’s dairy products are unkosher.
He rests his argument on Exodus 22:30, which states “you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field.” Over the millennia, rabbinic authorities have interpreted Exodus 22:30 as a prohibition against eating a diseased animal.
Now, consider modern dairy farming. Dairy cows are repeatedly raped to induce pregnancy, confined in small stalls, and hooked up daily to milking machines, which extract about 15 times the milk that a cow would naturally produce. Worse, those machines often cause mastitis, a painful inflammation of the udder. And that’s just to name a few of the horrors.
Suffice it to say, more than a few dairy cows are diseased.
Now take a look at the cheese on your cracker or the yogurt on your granola. The milk used to produce that is usually a mixture from several different cows.
So who can possibly say that no part of their dairy products came from diseased cows?
The Beet-Eating Heeb does not pretend to be a Talmudic scholar, but it seems to him that Rabbi Yanklowitz is exactly right. Modern dairy products should not be considered kosher.
Shmuly, whose many professional titles include Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, isn’t the only Orthodox rabbi making this case. But much to his credit, he may be the one making it most loudly, most assertively.
In The Jewish Journal, he stated, “It seems to me that, from a halakhic standpoint, it is no longer acceptable to support the dairy industry. We must communicate to the industry how we, as kosher consumers, feel about these abuses and support healthier, more ethical options. We must also consider moving toward soy, almond, rice and coconut milk alternatives until the dairy industry cleans up its act. Today, we have affordable, healthy, tasty alternatives so it is relatively easy for us to become more ethical consumers.”
The Beet-Eating Heeb would only quibble with Rabbi Yanklowitz on one small point. Realistically, the dairy industry is not going to “clean up its act,” not unless far more human beings come to their senses and wean themselves off of dairy products altogether. As long as demand for cow’s milk, ice cream, cheese and yogurt remains sky-high, the dairy industry literally cannot provide sufficient supply without industrializing the milking process. People need to be prepared to give up dairy products permanently.
That minor difference aside, The Beet-Eating Heeb applauds Rabbi Yanklowitz for challenging conventional thought and applying theology to reality. After all, that’s what Jewish theology is for.
Here’s hoping that the Orthodox rabbinate takes a close look at this dairy issue, for the sake of suffering cows.
Vegans might feel virtually invisible within the Jewish community as a whole.
But The Beet-Eating Heeb is here to deliver hope.
One of the most visible Jews in the Social Media World – and these days, what other world is there? – has become a vegan. Or, as BEH likes to say, this person has joined the Great Jewish Vegan Conspiracy (1).
If you’re one of the few people who is not following William @Daroff on Twitter, you must be Amish. But, regardless, The Beet-Eating Heeb is pleased to introduce you.
William Daroff has twice been named as one of the top five most influential Jewish Tweeters. In February 2012, the National Jewish Outreach Program named him one of the top ten Jewish influencers in social media.
Perhaps even more significantly, Daroff holds down one of the most important jobs in organized Judaism. He is the Vice President for Public Policy and Director of the Washington Office of The Jewish Federations of North America. Simply put, he is The Washington Lobbyist for the Jewish People.
On a recent business trip to Pittsburgh, William met The Beet-Eating Heeb for lunch at one of the city’s finest vegan-friendly restaurants, The Quiet Storm.
The Beet-Eating Heeb turned on his tape recorder and captured the following conversation. Particularly, ahem, interesting was his advice for vegan advocates in Washington. He didn’t give the answer we necessarily want to hear. But is he right?
Here’s the interview:
BEH: The Beet-Eating Heeb has known you for years. When and how did you become a vegan?
DAROFF: About two years ago, my wife (a longtime vegetarian) and I were at a bookstore looking at diet books and came upon a book that my internist had recommended for me about a year before but I hadn’t paid any attention to it. It’s called “The Engine 2 Diet.”
My wife got all excited about the book and I decided I would give it a shot. In the book, (author Rip Esselstyn) has a method where he suggests slowly becoming a vegan, but I went cold turkey and immediately eliminated (all animal products) from my diet. I don’t go out of my way to avoid honey, so technically I’m what’s called a beegan, which is one of my favorite terms. The only animal product I consume is honey. My wife became a vegan with me. So I’m now in a house with three vegans and a vegetarian. (They have two daughters, one a vegan, the other a vegetarian.)
What I’ve found is the medical community doesn’t even look at nutrition, especially vegan diets.
They (Rip Esselstyn and his father, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn) are behind this whole plant-strong diet that is looking at a plant-based diet as central for good health.
BEH: It’s been about 18 months now since you became a vegan? How’s it been going?
DAROFF: Right off the bat, I lost about 30 pounds and my numbers improved substantially, my cholesterol and whatnot. I sleep better, I’m much less congested. The sleep I have is much more peaceful. I feel like I don’t get colds as much as I used to. The bottom line is, I feel better.
The big factor I did not take account when I became a vegan is that egg is in everything. It’s unbelievable to me, whether it’s bread, mayonnaise, cake. That’s been an issue, trying to stay egg-free.
On the other hand, a vegan diet is very easy to meld with a kosher lifestyle. When you’re not dealing with meat, and you’re not dealing with dairy, what else is there? It makes my life much easier. I think being kosher and being vegan connect very well together.
BEH: Theologically, that isn’t a coincidence.
So you cited the book by Rip Esselstyn. Since becoming a vegan 18 months ago, have you looked into what Judaism has to say about eating meat versus plants and has that had any influence on your thinking?
DAROFF: I’ve looked at the Website of Jewish Vegetarians of North America. The part that speaks to me is the idea that, unfortunately, much of the way animals are treated by the agricultural industry, by the mass food industry, is arguably cruel. My Judaism is one that tries to treat all of God’s creatures in a way that’s compassionate. Even if the cows are not being killed cruelly, the fact that they are being killed seems to me to be not optimal. To me, even if the cow, even if the chicken, even if the pig is killed in a humane way, I still don’t think it’s good. I don’t think it’s an optimal way to treat fellow creatures.
BEH: What’s it like being a vegan in Washington?
DAROFF: Most of the time I have lunch in Washington at a restaurant it’s at the one kosher deli in Washington, which is called Eli’s. Eli’s has named a veggie burger after me, It’s called the William’s Burger, which is cute because it’s William for me, but it’s also Williamsburg, as in Brooklyn, where the Orthodox community is so strong.
I get a lot of strange looks, not just from Conservative Republicans but from liberal Democrats, too, who say, “Don’t you miss having a big chunky piece of steak?” The answer is, “Pretty much not.” I miss the ease of being able to order anything, anywhere, but to a great extent, being kosher, that wasn’t the case anyway.
Over the last year and a half, I’ve tried to dispel the idea that all vegans are hippies wearing Birkenstocks and protesting with PETA on the corner.
BEH: Not that there is anything wrong with protesting with PETA on the corner.
DAROFF: Not that there is anything wrong for the most part, depending on what PETA’s current campaign is.
BEH: Are they any vegetarians or vegans in Congress or in the upper echelons of the Administration?
DAROFF: The one who comes to mind who is a vegan is Dennis Kucinich. (Kucinich, a Democratic Congressman from Ohio, just lost his re-election bid in the Democrat primary). As far as the halls of power, nobody is immediately coming to mind.
BEH: I’ve been saving the most important question for last. As someone who is extremely effective at being an advocate in Washington, what advice would you have for the vegan and animal rights movement if they want to achieve more influence in Congress and the Administration. Right now, they certainly don’t have much.
DAROFF: That’s correct. I think it’s important to recognize that there are millions of Americans who are employed by the farming industry. To recognize that they have impact, for better or for worse, the person who is making $10-an-hour at some processing plant in Iowa would be unemployed but for that processing plant in Iowa. The political interests of that person have some validity, and that’s what a lot of the policy makers, a lot of the legislators are looking at when they’re considering USDA regulations or FDA regulations or farm supports or other policies that impact the industry.
Let me talk about PETA for a little bit. I think some of their methods of shock and awe are counterproductive and they help to further the image of the veg/vegan world of one of being crazy, Birkenstock- wearing radicals who are outside the norm.
I think to the extent that are more legitimate physicians and health professionals and people like President Clinton who are very much part of the dominant paradigm of society who are pushing the benefits of veganism and vegetarianism, that helps the movement seem more mainstream, which should help with having political power.
(1) Daroff came up with the phrase “Great Jewish Vegan Conspiracy” and gave The Beet-Eating Heeb permission to it. Thanks William!