The horrific scenes of the mistreatment of animals videotaped by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals at AgriProcessor's glatt-kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, and the efforts of some Jewish groups to defend the facility's procedures raise questions that go to the heart and soul of Judaism. If slaughterhouse procedures are not consistently monitored for strict adherence to the ideals of shechita, Jewish ritual slaughter, are we carrying out our mandate to be "rachmanim b'nei rachmanim" (compassionate children of compassionate ancestors)? Are we failing to properly imitate G-d, Whose "tender mercies are over all His creatures" (Psalms 145:9)?
Even if shechita is carried out perfectly, and pain and distress during slaughter are minimized, can we ignore the many violations of Jewish teachings on compassion to animals as billions of animals on "factory farms" in the United States and worldwide experience pain, suffering, and agony for their entire lives? While Judaism mandates that people should be very careful about preserving their health and their lives, numerous scientific studies have implicated the products of modern intensive livestock agriculture as significant risk factors for coronary heart disease, stroke, several forms of cancer, and other chronic degenerative diseases.
If, as is recited at synagogue services every Sabbath and yom tov (religious festival) morning, "the soul of every living creature shall bless God's Name," can we expect these cruelly treated animals to join in the praise?
If "the righteous person considers the life of his or her animal" (Proverbs 12:10), how will we be judged, based on our vicarious treatment of the animals raised, trucked, and slaughtered for our tables?
And can we ignore the many other ways that animal-based diets and modern livestock agriculture severely violate Jewish values:
While Judaism teaches that "the earth is the Lord's" (Psalm 24:1) and that we are to be God's partners and co-workers in preserving the world, modern intensive livestock agriculture is widely recognized by independent scientists, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, as an environmentally unsustainable enterprise that grossly accelerates soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rainforests and other habitats, global climate change, and other forms of environmental damage.
While Judaism mandates bal tashchit, not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value, or use more than is needed to accomplish a purpose, a diet based upon animal agriculture instead of plant agriculture (which provides protein from grains, beans, tubers, nuts, and seeds) wastes many times more land, fresh water, fossil fuels, grain, and other resources. It takes up to 16 pounds of grain to produce just one pound of feedlot-finished beef.
While Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people, an estimated twenty million human beings worldwide die each year because of hunger and its effects, and nearly a billion are chronically malnourished. While the solution of widespread hunger is complex, it doesn't help that over 70 percent of the grain grown in the U.S. and almost 40 percent worldwide is produced to fatten food animals, not to feed the world's most impoverished human citizens, many of whom are displaced from their land by animal feed growers.
While Judaism stresses that we must seek and pursue peace and that violence results from unjust conditions, the global expansion of Western-style animal-centered diets is increasing the gap between food security "haves" and "have nots," a chronic injustice that can lead to political unrest and violent conflict.
If Judaism is to remain relevant to many of the great problems of today, it is my heartfelt belief that all Jews must very seriously consider adopting a sustainable vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based diet. In my view, it is a moral, social, and ecological imperative.
While Jews are a small percent of the world's people and thereby responsible for only a small part of the problems related to modern intensive livestock agriculture and other current practices, it is essential, in view of the many threats to humanity today, that we strive to fulfill our challenge to be a "light unto the nations," and to work for "tikkun olam," the healing, repair, and proper transformation of the world.