Why I am a Vegan

This blog page has been quite a long time in the making and even now I don’t think it’s 100% how I would like it to be…but, nevertheless, I’ve decided to go ahead and post it.

I guess the purpose of this blog post is to help clarify for myself why I chose to be a vegetarian and why I am now becoming a vegan.  Some of my friends and even my family cannot seem to understand why I choose to be a vegan and for the longest time I’ve had some difficulty in articulating my decision.  Originally I made my choice as a way of providing me a “leverage” (that’s really the best way to put it) on my diet as I struggled to lose weight (as an aside, I’ve been a vegetarian for a few years now and when I started I was 210lbs on a 5’ 10” frame – not obese by any shade of the imagination but certainly the heaviest I had ever been in my life and now I’m down to 165lbs).  I can’t say that becoming a vegetarian has been the sole source of my weight loss – exercise has certainly played a significant role in this regard as well.  However, while weight loss was my original motivation it has now significantly evolved and my choice to be a vegetarian – and eventually vegan – has taken on a different meaning.

Let me first state that I have been restricting the amount of meat that I eat for many years.  It started as a way of making my travel for business a little more tolerable.  I had been traveling to some places where kosher food was either hard to come by or just basically non-existent.  If I wanted to eat while on business travel I would just live off of fruits, vegetables, raw nuts (not terrible mind you) and any other certified kosher food I could find in a grocery store.  Easy enough – I mean, who can’t find some sort of certified kosher packaged food in a grocery store.  Ok…there are some places in Europe where, if you don’t have the list compiled by the local rabbinic authorities, getting kosher food is harder because unlike the US and some other places the certifying agencies don’t print marks on the packaging to explicitly state that those items are kosher.  Two places come to mind off the top of my head – France and Switzerland – there are others.  But if I was invited to go out to eat with co-workers or clients I had a choice – either don’t go out to eat or go out but just sit there and not eat (which doesn’t really make others feel comfortable).  If I was with a customer or client I would simply make the excuse that I was a vegetarian outside of the home and leave it at that.  However, after a while that statement began to take on more truth to it than I would admit.  I noticed how I had reduced the amount of meat no matter whether I was at home or traveling for business.  Even at home we had reduced our meat consumption since – as everyone knows – kosher meat is significantly more expensive than non-kosher meat.    So over time I reduced my consumption of meat to where I was pretty much vegetarian except for on Shabbat.

After going along this way for a while I started reading about how factory farming works (especially in the way animals are raised and treated for the meat industry).  I started to read about how animals are kept in unsanitary conditions in some of these farms, how they’re fed antibiotics either to stave off potential infections due to their cramped conditions or to make them bigger faster in order to get them to market more quickly, and how they’re treated as they are brought to the slaughterhouse – all of these things made me wonder.  Are kosher animals treated any better?  The answer, I found, was no.  And it wasn’t just cows – it included chickens, sheep and even fish.

With that in mind I began to wonder what Judaism’s attitude about vegetarianism.  I became religious back in the mid-90s in Austin, TX when the Orthodox minyan at the University of Texas Hillel brought in a rabbi to help build an orthodox community in Austin.  This particular rabbi came from Aish HaTorah and was more “Black Hat” than most of the people in the Orthodox minyan.  To say this was a poor fit – well this guy was definitely not the right guy for that minyan.  Anyway, I fell under this rabbi’s charm – he really did provide a very warm and inclusive (at least I thought it was that way) environment for the students.  Most Friday nights and Shabbat afternoons his wife would prepare dinner and lunch respectively at his apartment for guests.  When we had dinner at his home it would always include meat – everything from steak to roast to lamb to veal.  This rabbi would exclaim that one of the joys of Shabbat was to eat meat and I accepted that on face value and that’s how I had been going along for well around 15 years.

Fast forward to 2010

I started being a vegetarian in February of 2010 when I woke up one morning and got on the scale and got an eye-popping surprise.  I weighed in at 210lbs!  That was the heaviest I had ever been in my life.  Since we moved to the D.C. metro area and I was telecommuting all the time for work I watched my weight climb up from 180lbs to 200.  Every so often I would go on a diet (I tried Atkins mostly) to bring my weight back down but invariably it would just go right back up once I was off the diet.  So, I used that moment on the scale for a serious re-evaluation of both my lack of activity and my eating habits.  I realized that I would have to do something about both.  To that end I decided to start running and that I needed to get a handle on what I ate.  For reasons that I don’t know why but I just thought back to when I was in college and I was a vegetarian.  I remembered feeling quite good (ok…yeah, I was also a serious cyclist and riding 200+ miles per week training for races – but I digress) and so I figured that in order to get a handle on my diet again I would just go back to being a vegetarian.

Jewish sources for vegetarianism

A Hassidic tale tells about a new shochet (kosher slaughterer) who arrived in the shtetl (village). To sharpen his knife between each slaughtering, he would spit on the sharpening rock. The great Baal Shem Tov approached him and said, “Your slaughtering ritual is very different from the fellow who was here before you.”
“Really?” the man replied. “What’s the difference?”
“It’s the way you wet your sharpening rock,” the Baal Shem Tov said.
“How do I do it differently?” the man asked.
“The other shochet used to wet the rock with his tears.”[1]

I started slowly becoming a vegetarian and did it for the health reason of losing weight.  But eventually I started to read about other vegetarians and their lives – Gandhi, Rabbi Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the Palestine Mandate), Leo Tolstoy, Isaac Beshavis Singer, Franz Kafka and others.  I was particularly drawn to what some of Rav Kook’s opinions were regarding vegetarianism – I was particularly moved and impressed by some of his thoughts in his work Hazon Hatzimhonut v’Shalom (A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace).  I took it for granted that Judaism frowned on vegetarianism – remember my experience of religious Judaism and meat was shaped by my experience with the rabbi in Austin, TX in the 90s.  To my surprise I found that Judaism didn’t frown on vegetarianism – in fact Rav Kook was very positive about vegetarianism and felt that in the messianic age the consumption of meat would be a relic!  Rav Kook felt that the God’s concession on the consumption of meant was meant to be temporary!  So, I started looking more deeply into the issue and I found two great books that helped me understand that, if anything, Judaism encourages vegetarianism.  The first book was Vegetarianism and the Jewish Tradition by Lewis Berman; the other book was Judaism and Vegetarianism by Dr. Richard Schwartz.

In both books the authors point to sources in the Torah indicating that the ideal condition for humans was vegetarian.  In the Garden of Eden when God makes Adam he tells him “see, I have given you all the fruits of the trees and the greens of the earth – these shall be food for you.”  It was only after the flood that God gives Noah and his descendants the permission to eat animals (but not the blood of the animals).  There are other sources in the Torah which point to vegetarianism.  Chief among these is the story of Kivrot Ha Ta’avah (Graves of Lust) when the Israelites are led out of Egypt and they complain to Moses about the lack of variety in the food they are being provided by God – the Manna.  They say to Moses “we remember the meat that we had in Egypt – the fleshpots”.  Moses prays to God who replies that he will give the people meat – so much so that they will have it coming out of their nostrils and they will be sick of it.  In fact the people eat so much meat that thousands of them die as a result of this plague!  The interpretation of this story is that God had wanted the Israelites to go back to the vegetarian diet which man ate before the flood – and when they complained and demanded meat he became angry.  The experiment didn’t work.

These are just two of the stories.  There are others as well.  But what also strengthened my decision were many of the laws in the Torah around the treatment of animals.  Among these the one that really resonated with me was the concept of the prohibition of tsa’ar ba’alei chaim – not causing an animal unnecessary suffering.  Both Berman’s and Schwartz’s books emphasized that today’s factory farming techniques were far from ideal – in fact so far from ideal that they are pretty much despicable.  Chickens crammed 8 to 12 in a small cage in huge hen houses where they have little to no room to move about; having their beaks cut in order to prevent them from pecking at each other in their frenzy from the crowded conditions, cows being kept pregnant in order to produce milk and then having their calves taken from them soon after they are born, the list can go on and on.    And the tales told in these two books are corroborated by many documented cases of animal abuse and outright torture in factory farms and slaughterhouses.  A little known fact learned as I read more and more about vegetarianism and veganism is that the bulk of the corn grown in the United States is not for human consumption – it’s for the feedlots.   We grow more food supporting the meat and dairy industry than we do for our own consumption.  This didn’t make logical sense to me.  That food (or if not that food, the certainly the land that the food is grown on) could be used to feed hungry people throughout the world rather than to fatten animals up for slaughter!   I decided that, for me, I no longer wish to be a part of the demand for meat and so I became a vegetarian and now I am taking the next logical step – being a vegan.

[1] Aaron, Rabbi David, “Meat your Morality”, Jewish World Review, April 1, 2005, found at http://jewishworldreview.com/0405/aaron_meat.php3, accessed March 14, 2013