An Interview of Rabbi Simchah Roth, from April 7th, 2011, Monday morning, by Life Member, Janine Bronson.
JLB: Rabbi Simchah Roth, I understand that you have written a very long essay that took a long time to put together, and it is published both in Hebrew, and in English. Considering how important, and troublesome, the issues that you address in this article are, would you kindly share the purpose for which you wrote this magnificent piece, and what the next step might be from here on, in furtherance of strengthening the notion that veganism and Judaism are connected, spiritually?
RSR: First of all, my essay was not an attempt to teach or prove that the whole of Jewish tradition has been or has mandated veganism. That would be patently against the facts of history. What I was trying to do was to show a religiously motivated Jew that there is ample substance to the claim that, at this time, it is acceptable, nay, REQUIRED, for such a Jew to adopt a vegan lifestyle.
JLB: What is the difference between a human animal (man) and a non-human animal, from the point of view of how we relate to G-d, since we all have souls…
RSR: Man is an animal with a big problem: his problem is tied to his having free will. Non-human animals do have a link to connect with G-d’s blueprint in our world, for the choices animals make also play a role in how close they get to Hashem, and all creatures sing praises to G-d, as in Song of the Universe, or Perek Shirah, you know…
JLB: When and where in the Torah do we learn about man’s freedom of choice to take one path over another, and where do we find out about G-d’s laws, that we are instructed to obey?
RSR: Now, Judaism teaches that G_d created man right from the start, with the ability to choose the path of obedience to God’s law, or the path of disobedience, having been warned that God is not indifferent to man’s behaviour, deriving from his free choice. This is stated very clearly right at the beginning of the Torah. After Abel’s offering has been accepted God admonishes Cain: And God said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, you will be accepted. But if you do not do right sin couches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.” [Genesis 4:6-7]
JLB: Then when was there a significant change, at what point would you say disobedience was forthright, in the book of Genesis?
RSR: Yes. It seems to me that the rot set in, as it were, right at the very beginning: yes, Abel shed blood; and it led to Cain shedding blood, in an even worse degree than Abel. And so on, down through the centuries…
JLB: What happened since then? Have we learned our lesson, yet?
RSR: Regarding righteousness and right living, our past shows that we have never yet conquered the urge to sin. But I do believe – as I wrote in my essay – that for every two steps backwards that man takes he does also take three steps forward.
JLB: So, there’s hope for us yet, Rabbi Roth?
RSR: Yes. We are slowly and painfully progressing towards an age when we shall have conquered the urge to do what is wrong and to disobey. When “the end of days” comes, all mankind will be vegan once again. Every Jew who adopts veganism is taking one more small step towards hastening the coming of the Messianic ideal.
JLB: If I were to choose one of your four sections from your article (which is very long) to help spread your message, which one would it be?
RSR: Possibly the last one, Section IV, as follows:
SO FAR WE HAVE EXPLORED THREE REASONS WHY A GOD-FEARING JEW SHOULD ADOPT A VEGAN DIET:
THE ATROCITIES ASSOCIATED WITH THE MODERN “CONVEYOR-BELT” SYSTEM OF ANIMAL SLAUGHTER [צער בעלי חיים];
THE ENORMOUS DANGERS FROM CONSUMPTION OF MEAT TO WHICH THE HEALTH OF A MODERN PERSON IS SUBJECTED; AND THE DUTY TO STAY CLEAR OF THEM
[ונשמרתם מאוד לנפשותיכם];
THE MIND-BOGGLING POLLUTION TO PLANET EARTH CAUSED BY HERDING, KILLING AND CONSUMING ANIMALS [שלא תקלקל ותחריב את
BUT THERE IS A FURTHER CONSIDERATION THAT MUST PROMPT THE SIN-FEARING JEW TO ADOPT A VEGAN DIET. THE TORAH [_DEUTERONOMY 16:20_] COMMANDS US
MOST EMPHATICALLY: RIGHTEOUSNESS, RIGHTEOUSNESS SHALL YOU PURSUE, SO THAT YOU MAY LIVE IN THE LAND THAT GOD IS GIVING YOU. IN HIS COMMENTARY ON THIS VERSE RABBENU BEḤAYYÉ BEN-ASHER [1255-1340] WRITES:
THE PLAIN MEANING OF THE VERSE IS THAT A PERSON MUST TAKE CARE TO BE RIGHTEOUS IN HIS ACTIONS AND SPEECH. THESE ARE THINGS BY WHICH A PERSON CAN DO HARM TO HIMSELF AND TO OTHERS. THIS IS WHY THE WORD IS REPEATED. EVERYONE WHO IS RIGHTEOUS IN HIS SPEECH INDICATES THEREBY THAT HE IS RIGHTEOUS IN HIS ACTIONS. THAT IS WHY EVERY SINGLE JEW MUST BE RIGHTEOUS IN SPEECH AND ACTION. THIS IS WHAT THE PROPHET [_ZEPHANIAH 3:13_] REFERS TO: “THE REMNANT OF ISRAEL SHALL DO NO UNRIGHTEOUSNESS AND SHALL NOT SPEAK UNTRUTH”.
MOST ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS OF THIS VERSE UNDERSTAND THE HEBREW WORD _TZEDEK_ AS INDICATING JUSTICE. BUT IT IS IMPORTANT TO NOTE THAT ONKELOS IN HIS TRANSLATION UNDERSTANDS THE WORD DIFFERENTLY:
TRUTH, TRUTH SHALL YOU PURSUE…
THE TRUTH HAS BEEN STARING US IN THE FACE NOW FOR DECADES: CLIMATE CHANGE IS UPON US, WITH ALL THAT THAT MOMENTOUS CHANGE WILL ENTAIL. IF
WE WISH TO LIVE A RIGHTEOUS LIFE, WE MUST FACE UP TO THAT SIMPLE TRUTH. BUT IT MAKES NO MATTER WHETHER WE UNDERSTAND THE WORD _TZEDEK_
AS MEANING TRUTH OR RIGHTOUSNESS OR JUSTICE. THE IMPORTANT THING, AS RABBENU BEḤAYYÉ SAYS, IS TO AVOID DOING HARM TO ONESELF AND TO
OTHERS BY WHAT WE SAY AND WHAT WE DO. BUT WE SHOULD ALSO NOTE THAT IT IS POSSIBLE ALSO TO UNDERSTAND THE LATTER PART OF THE VERSE AS BEING
ABLE TO BEAR A WIDER CONNOTATION (THOUGH THIS IS CERTAINLY NOT THE ‘PLAIN MEANING’ REFERRED TO BY RABBENU BEḤAYYÉ): “RIGHTEOUSNESS,
RIGHTEOUSNESS YOU MUST PURSUE, SO THAT YOU MAY SURVIVE IN THE WORLD THAT GOD HAS GIVEN YOU.”
TO EAT MEAT – ANY MEAT – HOWEVER MUCH CAREFUL CONSIDERATION WAS INVOLVED IN ITS SLAUGHTER, IS THE HEIGHT OF SELFISHNESS AND UNCONCERN
FOR THE PLIGHT OF OUR FELLOW MAN: IT IS BLATANT UNRIGHTEOUSNESS BORN OF A REFUSAL TO SEE THE TRUTH. THE AMOUNT OF GRAIN THAT IT TAKES TO
CREATE ONE KILO OF BEEF WOULD BE SUFFICIENT TO FEED 7 KILOS OF GRAIN PROTEIN TO THOUSANDS OF STARVING PEOPLE IN THE THIRD WORLD.
MEAT-CENTERED DIETS REQUIRE UP TO 21 TIMES MORE LAND AREA PER PERSON THAN WOULD BE REQUIRED FOR A VEGAN DIET. THROUGHOUT THE WORLD, MORE
THAN 30,000 CHILDREN DIE EVERY DAY AS A DIRECT OR INDIRECT RESULT OF MALNUTRITION, WHICH COULD EASILY BE SOLVED BY DECIMATING THE AMOUNT OF
MEAT EATEN IN THE WEST. IN A VERY REAL SENSE, THE MODERN MEAT-PRODUCTION INDUSTRY IS _TZA’AR BNEI ENOSH_, CRUELTY TO HUMAN
BEINGS, AND THE VERY OPPOSITE OF TREATING OTHERS RIGHTEOUSLY, JUSTLY, TRUTHFULLY. JEWS WHO REALLY BELIEVE IN RIGHTEOUS LIVING WOULD REFRAIN FROM EATING MEAT OF ANY KIND AT ANY TIME FOR ANY REASON. THAT IS POSSIBLY THE GREATEST ACT OF RIGHTOUSNESS THAT WE CAN TRY TO DO AT THIS TIME IN OUR
HISTORY. HOW CAN ONE WORRY ABOUT WHAT IS HAPPENING IN DARFUR WHILE BLITHELY EATING MEAT? IT’S _TARTEI DE-SATREI_, THEY ARE IN MUTUAL
CONTRADICTION! HOW CAN YOU ENJOY YOUR SHABBAT ROAST AND BEWAIL THE POOR STARVING CHILDREN IN INDIA? IT’S HYPOCRISY! IF YOU REALLY BELIEVE
IN RIGHTOUSNESS – STOP EATING MEAT AND START PUSHING A VEGAN DIET AMONG YOUR RELATIVES, FRIENDS AND NEIGHBOURS. WE MIGHT THEN EFFECT A
_TIKKUN_ THAT COULD SPEED UP _MOSHIACHZEIT_, THE MESSIANIC AGE. HERE ARE A FEW COGENT FACTS TO JUSTIFY WHAT I HAVE JUST WRITTEN:
IT TAKES UP TO 16 KILOS OF GRAIN TO PRODUCE ONE KILO OF BEEF FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION. WHILE THE AVERAGE ASIAN CONSUMES BETWEEN 135 AND 180 KILOS OF GRAIN A YEAR, THE AVERAGE MIDDLE-CLASS CITIZEN OF THE WESTERN WORLD CONSUMES OVER 900 KILOS OF GRAIN, 80% OF WHICH COMES IN THE FORM OF MEAT FROM
GRAIN-FED ANIMALS. OVER 70% OF THE GRAIN PRODUCED IN THE UNITED STATES AND OVER ONE-THIRD OF THE WORLD’S GRAIN PRODUCTION IS FED TO ANIMALS DESTINED FOR SLAUGHTER. IF WE WERE TO REDUCE OUR MEAT CONSUMPTION BY ONLY 10%, IT WOULD FREE UP ENOUGH GRAIN TO FEED ALL OF THE WORLD’S PEOPLE WHO ANNUALLY DIE OF HUNGER AND RELATED DISEASES.
HERDED ANIMALS CONSUME OVER SIX AND A HALF TIMES AS MUCH GRAIN AS THE WESTERN HUMAN POPULATION DOES: THE GRAIN FED TO ANIMALS TO PRODUCE
MEAT, MILK, AND EGGS COULD FEED FIVE TIMES THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE THAT IT CURRENTLY DOES, IF IT WERE CONSUMED DIRECTLY BY HUMANS.
WHILE 56 MILLION ACRES OF U.S. LAND PRODUCE HAY FOR LIVESTOCK, ONLY 4 MILLION ACRES OF U.S. LAND ARE PRODUCING VEGETABLES FOR HUMAN
ONE HECTARE (ABOUT 2.5 ACRES) OF LAND GROWING POTATOES CAN FEED 22 PEOPLE; ONE HECTARE GROWING RICE CAN FEED 19 PEOPLE; THAT SAME AREA
PRODUCING BEEF CAN FEED ONLY ONE PERSON. FEEDING GRAIN TO LIVESTOCK WASTES 90% OF THE PROTEIN, ALMOST 100% OF THE CARBOHYDRATES, AND 100% OF THE FIBER OF THE GRAIN. WHILE GRAINS ARE A RICH SOURCE OF FIBER, ANIMAL PRODUCTS HAVE NO FIBER AT ALL. THIS EVIDENCE INDICATES THAT THE FOOD BEING FED TO ANIMALS IN THE AFFLUENT NATIONS COULD, IF PROPERLY DISTRIBUTED, POTENTIALLY END BOTH HUNGER AND MALNUTRITION THROUGHOUT THE WORLD. A SWITCH FROM ANIMAL-CENTERED DIETS WOULD FREE UP LAND AND OTHER RESOURCES, WHICH COULD THEN BE USED TO GROW NUTRITIOUS CROPS FOR PEOPLE. THIS NEW
APPROACH WOULD ALSO PROMOTE POLICIES THAT WOULD ENABLE PEOPLE IN THE UNDERDEVELOPED COUNTRIES TO USE THEIR RESOURCES AND SKILLS TO RAISE
THEIR OWN FOOD. COULD THERE BE ANY GREATER ACT OF RIGHTEOUSNESS, JUSTICE AND TRUTH AT THIS TIME?
WITH SO MUCH HUNGER IN THE WORLD, EXPLICIT JEWISH MANDATES TO FEED THE HUNGRY, HELP THE POOR, SHARE RESOURCES, PRACTICE CHARITY, SHOW
COMPASSION, AND PURSUE JUSTICE, AS WELL AS THE LESSONS FROM MANY EXPERIENCES OF HUNGER IN JEWISH HISTORY, POINT TO VEGANISM AS THE DIET
MOST CONSISTENT WITH JEWISH TEACHINGS ABOUT HUNGER. IN THE AGE IN WHICH WE LIVE, WE OFTEN HEAR THE RATHER CHAUVINISTIC CLAIM THAT JEWS NEED NOT BE CONCERNED WITH THE WELFARE OF NON-JEWS AND THAT THE NEEDS OF ERETZ-ISRAEL MUST HAVE A GREATER CLAIM ON OUR CONCERN THAN THE NEEDS OF THE WORLD AT LARGE. AND THEY ADDUCE NICETIES OF PILPULISTIC CASUISTRY TO JUSTIFY THEIR CLAIMS. IN DOING SO, OF COURSE, THEY IGNORE THE MOST BASIC OF HALAKHIC PRINCIPLES. WELL KNOWN IS THE RESPONSE THAT HILLEL GAVE TO A NON-JEW WHO WANTED TO KNOW THE ESSENTIAL TEACHINGS OF JUDAISM [_SHABBAT 31A_]:
NEVER DO TO SOMEONE ELSE WHAT YOU WOULD NOT LIKE THEM TO DO TO YOU. THAT IS THE WHOLE TORAH. THE REST IS EXPLANATION. THE ESSENTIAL TEACHNG OF JUDAISM IS ALSO DISCUSSED BY RABBI AKIVA AND SHIM’ON BEN-AZZAI. IN THE TALMUD OF ERETZ-ISRAEL (YERUSHALMI) [_NEDARIM 30B_] WE FIND THE FOLLOWING:
“YOU SHOULD LOVE YOUR FELLOW AS YOURSELF” [_LEVITICUS 19:18_]: RABBI AKIVA SAYS, “THIS IS A GREAT PRINCIPLE OF TORAH”. BEN-AZZAI SAYS,
“‘THIS IS THE BOOK OF THE GENERATIONS OF MAN’ [_GENESIS 5:1_]: THIS IS A GREATER PRINCIPLE THAN THAT ONE.” THE ‘FELLOW’ IN THE VERSE QUOTED BY RABBI AKIVA IS ONE’S FELLOW-JEW.
IN ORDER TO UNDERSTAND WHY BEN-AZZAI CLAIMS THAT THE PRINCIPLE ENUNCIATED BY HIM IS GREATER, WE MUST CONSIDER THE WHOLE VERSE, NOT
JUST THE FIRST PART QUOTED BY BEN-AZZAI:
THIS IS THE BOOK OF THE GENERATIONS OF MAN. ON THE DAY THAT GOD CREATED MAN, HE MADE HIM IN THE IMAGE OF GOD. EVERY HUMAN BEING IS A KIND OF ADUMBRATION OF THE DIVINE. IF WE FOLLOW THE PRINCIPLE OF BEN-AZZAI, WE WILL INEVITABLY ALSO BE FOLLOWING THE PRINCIPLE OF RABBI AKIVA. THEREFORE THE PRINCIPLE OF BEN-AZZAI IS GREATER BECAUSE IT IS MORE COMPREHENSIVE. IF WE CARE FOR THE FATE OF EVERY MEMBER OF THE HUMAN RACE, WE SHALL CERTAINLY ALSO BE CARING FOR THE FATE OF OUR FELLOW JEWS. ONE OF THE COMMENTARIES ON THIS PASSAGE FROM THE TALMUD, _TZIYYUN YERUSHALAYIM_, EXPLAINS:
THE HEBREW WORD FOR GOD [_ELOHIM_] IS PLURAL … NEVERTHELESS, HE IS ONE IN THE MOST SIMPLE OF SENSES AND THERE IS IN HIM NO PLURALITY
WHATSOEVER. EVEN THOUGH MANY POWERS EMANATE FROM HIM, HE IS, NEVERTHELESS, ONE AND UNIQUE. WHEN GOD CREATED MAN, HE CREATED THEM
MALE AND FEMALE, MADE THEM IN THE DIVINE IMAGE, AS IT WERE: EVEN THOUGH THEY ARE A PLURALITY – MALE AND FEMALE, AND SUCCESSIVE
GENERATIONS REACHING MILLIONS – THEY ARE, NEVERTHELESS, LIKE ONE MAN. THERE SHOULD BE LOVE AND BROTHERHOOD BETWEEN THEM AS IF THEY WERE
ONE MAN COMPOSED OF SEVERAL LIMBS. THIS IS A PRINCIPLE WHICH IS GREATER THAN “LOVE YOUR FELLOW-JEW AS YOURSELF”.
WHEN WE CONSIDER THAT EACH MEMBER OF THE HUMAN RACE IS PART OF THE DIVINE IMAGE AND THAT THEREFORE WE MUST SHOW CARE TOWARDS ALL HUMAN
BEINGS, WE UNDERSTAND THE ENORMITY OF THE CONTRIBUTION THAT WE CAN MAKE TO THE BETTERMENT OF THE LOT OF MANKIND BY ADOPTING A VEGAN DIET:
NOT ONLY DO WE KEEP OURSELVES IN BETTER HEALTH, AND NOT ONLY DO WE SAVE OUR PLANET FROM FURTHER HARM, BUT WE ALSO GIVE EXPRESSION TO THE
GREAT PRINCIPLE OF JUDAISM BY FEEDING THE TEEMING MILLIONS OF THE WORLD’S STARVING MASSES AND RESTORING THEM TO HEALTH.
SO, LET US SUMMARIZE WHAT WE HAVE LEARNED. MODERN MASS-SLAUGHTER OF ANIMALS CONSTITUTES CRUELTY TO ANIMALS [צער בעלי חיים] WHICH IS FORBIDDEN BY THE TORAH;
CONSUMPTION OF ANIMAL PRODUCTS AS WE MODERNS DO CONTRAVENES THE COMMAND OF THE TORAH TO MAINTAIN OURSELVES IN GOOD HEALTH
[ונשמרתם מאוד לנפשותיכם];
RELIGIOUS JEWS SHOULD STOP EATING ANIMAL PRODUCTS (MEAT, EGGS, MILK ETC) IN ORDER TO LESSEN GREATLY THE DAMAGE WE ARE DOING TO THE PLANET
[שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי]; IF RELIGIOUS JEWS ADOPT A VEGAN DIET, THEY WILL BE GREATLY CONSTRIBUTING TO PROMOTING RIGHTOUSNESS AND JUSTICE IN THE WORLD
[צדק צדק תרדף] AND TO A HASTENING OF THE MESSIANIC AGE.
_AND YOU SHALL BE TO ME HOLY PEOPLE_. RABBI YISHMA’EL SAYS: IT IS WHEN YOU ARE HOLY THAT YOU ARE MINE. ISSI BEN-AKIVA SAYS: WHEN GOD GIVES ISRAEL A NEW _MITZVAH_ HE INCREASES HOLINESS IN THEM. ISSI BEN-GUR-ARYEH SAYS: SCRIPTURE REFERS IN ONE PLACE [_DEUTERONOMY 14:21_] TO HOLINESS AND IN ANOTHER PLACE [_EXODUS 22:30_] TO HOLINESS. JUST AS IN THE OTHER PLACE IT REFERS TO FOOD FORBIDDEN TO BE EATEN, SO HERE TOO, IT REFERS TO FOOD FORBIDDEN TO BE EATEN. [_MEKHILTA DE-RABBI YISHMA’EL, KASPA 2_]
THE MESSAGE IS CLEAR; BUT THERE ARE NONE SO DEAF AS THOSE WHO DON’T WANT TO HEAR. OPEN YOUR HEART AND OPEN YOUR MIND: YOU WANT TO BE A GOOD JEW? YOU WANT TO BE A TRULY RELIGIOUS JEW? YOU WANT TO BE REALLY FRUM_?
RABBI SIMCHAH ROTH
12th Tevet 5771
19th December 2010