As you come into the Land, Moses instructs us, observe all the laws and rules that I have set before you this day.
Just like the story that Genesis tells us, that before creation there was תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ – chaos which led God created the Earth with a certain sense of order, this week we read in Deuteronomy that when we inherit our Land, build our own society, and become masters of our own domain that we must behave differently:
“You shall not act at all as we now act here, every person as s/he pleases.” (Deut. 12:8)
We have a responsibility to act morally, responsibly, and ethically. However, there seems to be one significant exception, permission to eat meat:
The Torah goes on to say:
When the Adonai enlarges your territory, as He has promised you, and you say, “I shall eat some meat,” for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you wish. (12:20)
Of course, the allowance for the propensity to eat meat can be seen in direct contradiction to our established diet in the pre-flood era of the book of Genesis [1:31] which clearly states:
“And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food.” And it was so.”
My friend and teacher Rabbi Yonatan Neril explains that “People ate vegan for the first 1,500 years until Noah. That’s over a quarter of the Torah’s history. Rav Kook teaches that the initial vision for vegan consumption is not some ideal that the Torah put out and then was lost forever. He says it’s something that we’re going to return to in a future time. He wrote that in 1903. I’m of the opinion that the time has come. A vegan lifestyle is not a hardship, in fact, it’s healthier. There are fewer instances of heart disease and less diabetes. It’s a good spiritual choice and better for the animals.”
Rabbi David Rosen, writing in the Jerusalem Post argues that:
“Within the observant society, it has to be on the basis of the halakhic desecration that’s involved with the meat industry. There is more understanding today within observant circles that the meat industry today involves transgressions of Jewish prohibitions. Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University was reported to have ceased drinking cow’s milk because of studies that were done among dairy cows that show that their internal organs are so distorted that it renders them treif. That’s the sort of thing that will have an impact within observant communities.”
And what about Reform Jews?
As the great Israeli Reform sage, Rabbi Moshe Zemer taught us, that we have an obligation to affirm Halakha, not to render it as anachronistic, but rather to see Jewish law as a developing and moral structure, flexible enough to accommodate the changing realities of each generation. To look at our society and acknowledge that even if there were permissible acts according to the Torah, which may have been acceptable practice in its time, today’s reality requires us to re-evaluate our practice and ensure that we are acting and behaving according to the intention of the Torah to create a world that is more just, whole, and compassionate.
Zemer’s clarion call to follow the ancient and modern principles by evolving Halakhah, which demands ethical deeds, the discovery of holiness in the Commandments, a critical approach to the Tradition, and responsibility of the entire community of Israel.
As Reform Jews and Zionists, do we not have the obligation to evaluate what may be still halakhically permissible, and prohibit (or at least curb) such harmful practices?
Not only are we leading and fighting for religious pluralism, tolerance, and equality, but we must be the prophetic voice in interpreting and practicing Torah in our times.
Rabbi Rosen makes the case even stronger.
In a 2017 interview he emphatically claims:
“Enough of the horror stories! It should be evident to anyone with eyes in his or her head that virtually all animal products on the market today are the result of practices that categorically contravene Jewish law and ethics. And even if eating these products is considered a halachic obligation (which is not the case), under these conditions, it would be a mitzvah habaah baveirah, the product of illegitimate means which disqualifies the ends.”
In modern Israel today we are being led by secular Jews who have made Tel Aviv one of the vegan capitals of the world. In fact, Israel has become one of the leading vegan countries in the world, with 5.2% of the population eschewing all animal goods in their daily diet. This number has more than doubled since only 2010 when 2.6% of the population was vegan or vegetarian. Some are primarily motivated by improving their health, others by stopping cruelty towards animals and others by their concern for the environment.
Richard Schwartz, an activist and author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, explains that “I think that it is time to take very seriously Rabbi David Rosen’s assertions that eating meat has become halakhically unjustifiable today because of the way animals are so severely mistreated and the very negative effects of animal-based diets. … Arguing that eating meat today is halakhically unjustifiable provides a valuable message that should no longer be generally ignored.”
There will be those who accuse us of “vegan washing,” or attempting to polish Israel’s often troubled image with a dose of vegan-friendliness. However, this should be seen as part of our larger effort to work for peace and end cruelty to both humans and animals. Even the Israel Defense Forces has a group to promote veganism in the army (which is slightly different from militant veganism) providing vegan meals and alternative to leather boots, etc.
Israeli activist Ori Shavit explains that “No matter where you live, the greatest effect an individual can have on the world starts on his or her plate — so no wonder that people who understand that will try to make a better choice for their food.”
As we spend these weeks reading Moses’ instructions to us as to how to set up our own ethical and just civilization, and as we enter the introspective month of Elul, let us evaluate our own behavior as Reform Jews to take seriously our commandments and work to apply them to the challenges we face as a community, a society, a country and to the world.
Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov,