By Richard H. Schwartz
Recently the Belgian government banned the practice of shechitah (Jewish ritual slaughter). How should Jews react?
Jewish Veg, formerly Jewish Vegetarians of North America, of which I am president emeritus, is against all slaughter, but we object when shechitah is signaled out for criticism or is banned. Shechitah was designed to minimize pain, but even if it is carried out perfectly, the many months during which animals are mistreated on factory farms should be considered.
People who think that other methods of slaughter are more humane should read the book Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry by Gail Eisnitz. It documents the many problems at slaughterhouses where animals are stunned prior to slaughter, with many of the workers becoming sadistic and cruel under the horrible conditions of their daily efforts.
There is a familiar admonition that states that when one is given a lemon they should make lemonade, meaning make the best of what appears to be a negative situation. I believe this can happen in the case of the Belgian ban on shechitah. While meat-eaters will understandably have a negative reaction to the ban, if it leads some Jews to shift to a vegetarian or vegan diet, there could be many benefits:
There would be a reduction in the widespread heart disease, several types of cancer and other diseases afflicting many Jews and others.
There would be a reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases. While the world is increasingly threatened by climate change, a 2006 U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” indicated that animal-based agriculture emits more greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalents) than is emitted by the cars and all other means of transportation worldwide combined.
There would be a reduction in environmental problems, including deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution, loss of biological diversity and desertification.
Resources would be used more efficiently. In an increasingly thirsty and energy-dependent world, a person on an animal-based diet requires up to 14 times as much water (mainly for irrigating feed crops) and 10 times as much energy as a person on a vegan (only plants) diet.
There would be a reduction in the number of animals who suffer greatly from cruel treatment on factory farms.
There would potentially be a reduction in the number of hungry people. At a time when food prices are skyrocketing, an estimated 20 million people are dying annually worldwide from hunger and its effects, and almost a billion of the world’s people are chronically hungry, since 70 percent of the grain produced in the United States and 40 percent produced worldwide are fed to farmed animal. What makes that even more shameful is that the corn, soy and oats that are high in fiber and complex carbohydrates are converted into animal products that are devoid of these nutrients, but high in cholesterol and saturated fat that are so harmful to health.
It should also be considered that plant-based diets are most consistent with Jewish teachings on preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources and helping hungry people. Also, such diets are consistent with conditions during the two ideal times pictured in the Jewish tradition: the Garden of Eden (based on Genesis 1:29) and the messianic period, based on Isaiah’s vision of a peaceable kingdom (Isaiah 11:6-9).
The shechitah ban must be opposed, but it is hoped that rabbis and other Jewish leaders will help increase awareness of the many benefits of vegetarianism and of Jewish teachings that point to it as the ideal Jewish diet. This would help revitalize Judaism by showing the relevance of its eternal teachings to current realities, bring many idealistic Jews back to Judaism, and help shift our precious, but imperiled, planet onto a sustainable path.
Richard H. Schwartz is the president emeritus of Jewish Veg, formerly Jewish Vegetarians of North America.