Jeffrey Cohan – Judaism and Veganism: Time for a Reunion

A DIVINITY STUDENT from a Presbyterian seminary approached me one day and made a surprising comment. “I’m so impressed,” he said, “with the emphasis that Judaism places on treating animals with compassion.”

I didn’t know whether to kvell (feel pride) or to cry. Kvell, because all levels of Jewish texts, from the Torah on down, express incredible sensitivity for the welfare of animals. The divinity student knew something about Judaism—on paper. Cry, because concern for animals is almost totally absent from Jewish communal discourse, while literally billions of farm animals are suffering in abysmal conditions.

We have a Torah that clearly and repeatedly establishes the ideal of veganism and that calls upon us to show great concern for the comfort and well-being of animals. Yet most Jews continue to blithely consume meat, dairy, and eggs as if the welfare of animals were irrelevant.

I say most Jews, but by no means all Jews. In fact, a disproportionate number of rabbis have adopted vegetarian or vegan diets. Their ranks include such prominent rabbis as Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain; Rabbi David Rosen, the former chief rabbi of Ireland; and Rabbi David Wolpe, the spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, one of the flagship Conservative congregations.

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