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A Primer On Orthodox Jewish Vegans

Some Jews believe they are prohibited from eating meat despite a culture that is quite fond of it

Orthodox Jews are joining the ranks of the “vegan capital of the world,” embracing the animal byproduct-free lifestyle in Israel, which boasts the highest per capita number of vegans in the world. Experts partially attribute this phenomenon to the fact that many Israeli Jews already maintain a restrictive diet based on religious laws.

Veganism, which until recently was largely confined to progressive Tel Aviv, has spread to conservative Jerusalem, where vegan-friendly restaurants and products are popping up. The shift is in no small part thanks to Orthodox activists such as Rabbi Asa Keisar, who provide observant Jews with biblical and rabbinic sources to reinforce the belief that their lifestyle is not just moral, but an essential part of Judaism.

Keisar, considered one of the leading Orthodox vegan activists in Israel, was raised in a vegetarian household. He recalls his Yemenite father receiving verbal abuse from congregants at his synagogue who said his views were antithetical to Jewish thought.

“I thought that my father was the only one in the world who said that eating meat was wrong,” Keisar told The Media Line.

The Jewish people has a long and complex relationship with animals. Many Jews relate strongly to the Talmudic concept that “there is no happiness without meat” or the one that states that animals were created for man to consume. Perhaps more importantly, ritualistic animal sacrifices used to be an integral component of worship in the Temple periods, a practice that observant Jews believe will ultimately be revived.

“The most common question that I get relating to veganism is: ‘Doesn’t it contradict Jewish law or values?’ And that’s really the biggest struggle,” Yitzchak Shapiro, one of thousands of vegans in the Israeli army, told The Media Line. Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew who has not eaten meat in two years, recalled that before giving it up he too felt that its consumption was an important aspect of Jewish life. Now, he is eager to argue with anyone who claims otherwise.

Rabbi Keisar spent over two years conducting research for his book, Before The Blind. He gathered Biblical sources and commentaries from an array of Jewish thinkers and scholars from various historical periods; including those from the Talmud to Maimonides to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi in British Mandate Palestine.

“I want to show that this [a vegan orientation] isn’t the way of a single rabbi, it’s the way of the Torah. The only way to demonstrate this is to consider many sources,” said Keisar.

The most common argument against buying or consuming animal products is the biblical prohibition against animal cruelty called “Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim” (literally, “the suffering of living creatures.”)

Keisar explained that butchering animals according to Jewish law is not the main cause of animal suffering in modern slaughterhouses, which employ a cruel industrialized process. Animals also suffer in the time leading up to their slaughter, including by being locked up in close quarters. “It’s not that their death is bad; their lives are terrible. We have an obligation to prevent the suffering of living creatures. One is simply not allowed to buy from factories that produce meat in this way,” he asserted.

But Keisar contended that the Bible does not even grant permission to eat meat for those who raise animals freely. “The permission the Torah gives you to eat animals is a concession, not regular permission,” he claims.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who was one of the most prominent Orthodox Jewish scholars and rabbinic leaders of the 20th century, argued that man was only given permission to eat animals after the great flood in Noah’s era. Soloveitchik wrote that, “man-animal became life-killer, an animal eater. He became bloodthirsty and flesh-hungry,” and therefore “a concession was made [by God] to an evil drive.”

For Yitzchak Shapiro, watching a group of young men “shove meat down their throats without forks and knives, like animals” was enough convincing. Ironically, he added, while eating, they were arguing with an atheist about how their belief in God made them better people. “It was just so hypocritical to me. That was the last time I ever ate meat.”

Rabbi Keisar said that he and other like-minded people believe man should overcome his “animalistic” state. “Times are changing as evidenced by the growing number of Jews adopting an animal-friendly lifestyle, these [Biblical] concessions about eating meat are no longer be needed,” he affirmed.

In Israel, the vegan community is growing. Dozens of Facebook groups have emerged dedicated solely to observant, animal-friendly Jews. A space is opening up for Orthodox Jews to explore veganism and how it fits into their religion.

“I saw when I was a child that the time wasn’t ripe for people to accept veganism,” Keisar concluded. “But the world has changed. The minds of people have changed. They are ready to listen now.”

(Atara Shields is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)