Can Bible-based Jews and Christians reclaim the vegan revolution?

Whether we can give up meat, fish and dairy entirely is not really the question, writes Irene Lancaster.  (Photo: Unsplash/Guus Baggermans)

The first time I encountered veganism in the flesh was around 30 years ago in the person of a supercilious 'top' academic whose philosophy seminars I occasionally attended when teaching Biblical Hebrew at Liverpool University.

To Professor X veganism was sacrosanct, a whole way of life, in which diet was only one part – he also claimed to be a Buddhist of course and had strange and potentially damaging views about bringing up children.

A few years later, when we were looking around for a suitable school for our daughter, we happened upon one that was highly recommended. To my consternation, at our preliminary interview with the formidable head teacher, I was asked if I happened to know Professor X, as I taught at the same place as he did.

On learning that I had 'bumped into him a couple of times', the head teacher implored me to have words with Professor X, as his two daughters were starving, and, in addition to their well-stocked vegetarian sandwiches, were demanding meat at the canteen for lunch, even though the school was under strict parental orders not to comply.

We didn't send our daughter to that school – apart from anything else, the head had committed a breach of trust in confiding personal details about a parent and his children. No doubt we would be in the same boat some day, and the problem in our case would no doubt be our Jewishness.

But these and other experiences (such as meat consumption being compared by many to the way Jews were treated in the Shoah) had led me to suspect the ethos and practice of veganism for a very long time.

Then, in November 2016, I was invited to give a guest lecture on Jewish-Christian relations (or not!) at Bristol University. Bristol is one of the wealthiest, 'greenest' cities in the UK, as well as being a centre of 'alternativity' and experimentation – not therefore the obvious location for someone who was both Jewish and observant.

It was therefore with a certain amount of trepidation that I approached the hotel where I was booked by the university to stay and asked if they could provide a kosher meal. But, to my delight, they could! They provided brand new pots and pans, which could be put away for future Jewish guests, and made other compromises which made me quite happy to eat there. In fact, I could heartily recommend this hotel to everyone – they provided real service, not something you can take for granted these days.

At the end of my stay, the manager declared: 'It's been a pleasure having you. So much more rewarding than those awful vegans ...!'

I don't think he meant simply the vegan diet, either, which to all intents and purposes is very similar to that of observant Jews faced with out-of-town eating environments. But a certain air of supercilious superiority appears to be the hallmark of eating a vegan diet – or so I thought.

And then, shortly after this, the Guardian reported that Israel, and more specifically, Tel Aviv, is now the vegetarian and vegan capital of the world!

Wow, was this the first time, I wondered, that the Guardian was stating anything positive about Israel, or was the preferred newspaper of the 'trendy Left' subtly hinting that Israel's pioneering steps in this field were having a detrimental effect on the adherence to a diet which has become a religious replacement for many? 

So, like many people I have always had ambivalent feelings about veganism (vegetarianism with dairy is another matter), especially when I learned that my friend, the Dalai Lama, the most revered Buddhist leader in the world today (in fact worshipped by many) had taken medical advice and, against normative Buddhist practice, started to include meat in his diet. Yes, the greatest Buddhist in the world today is a carnivore .....

And this is how the musicologist, Alex Ross, in his book The Rest is Noise (p 342) describes strictly vegetarian, tee-total, animal-rights activist and Jew-murderer, Adolph Hitler's influence on the infamous Wagner-instigated Bayreuth festival. These were nothing better than pseudo-religious gatherings, where people immersed themselves in pagan norms, all the better to further their stated aim of annihilating the Jewish people, the Jewish religion and Jewish values.

"Hitler quickly absorbed the Bayreuth lifestyle – vegetarianism, agitation for animal rights, dabblings in Buddhism and Indian lore. Later he would dote on the younger Wagners and served as a substitute father," writes Ross. 

There are therefore plenty of good reasons, given the ongoing experience of contemporary murderous antisemitism, to be skeptical about those who would force us to change our diets willy nilly.

However, on the other hand, there are plenty of reasons why Israelis might be gradually opting for a mainly vegetarian, if not for a completly vegan diet. These include the following facts. Meat and fish are expensive in Israel and much of it is imported. The country's climate is both terribly hot and terribly humid. There is a plentiful supply of fruit and vegetables in Israel. There is a wealth of excellent vegetarian and vegan restaurants in this outdoor country.

On the other hand Israelis also tend to travel abroad a great deal, and a vegetarian or vegan diet is simply the easiest option when holidaymaking. Israelis are hooked on research and development and enthusiastic about novel and 'up and coming' ideas.

To sum up, Israel is not known as the 'start-up nation' for nothing, as noted by Prince Williams when he visited a couple of years ago – and also played football on the Tel Aviv beach!

In addition, because of its climate and political situation, Israel is also paranoid about water conservation – I should know; I lived there. Water metres have been compulsory for a long time, and woe betide you if you use more than your normal quota in any one day, let alone a week. In such cases, the iriya (town council/local authority) has a habit of contacting you straight away, ordering you to reduce your usage IMMEDIATELY, or else!!

Personally, in order to avoid brickbats, I got around the Israeli strictures on water usage by rising at dawn and taking to swimming in the sea first thing in the morning (necessitating three buses, I should add), making use of the basic but brilliantly-equipped beach shower room afterwards, returning by 9.00 am at the latest, getting down to my translation and editing work, and normally not needing another shower during the day! That way, my own water consumption stayed low and everyone was happy. An added bonus was that I was contributing in my own tiny way to the preservation of the Jewish state!

For reasons outlined above, in Israel I also hardly ever ate meat or fish unless I went out to meals (mostly with the Chief Rabbi of Haifa and his wife, who were strictly vegetarian in any case), but did eat dairy products. But these strictures were not motivated by religious considerations, but mostly expediency – and frankly thirst was a more pressing need than hunger in that hot humid country, dehydration being a daily problem of everyday life.

But more recently, I have encountered Professor Richard Schwartz, a most personable and encouraging thinker, former President of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America, and highly respected in many circles. Professor Schwartz recently made Aliyah (emigrated) from New York to a retirement village near Jerusalem, from where he continues his upbeat missionary work to turn us all into vegans!

So it is the approach to life and friendship of one particular individual that has led me think more seriously about these issues, rather than the plethora of so-called Buddhists and Guardian readers, hostile Green Parties all over the world, Extinction Rebellion, or even the writings of Rav Kook and other great Jewish thinkers (who are often ambivalent about the question of eating meat in any case).

Professor Schwartz' book, Vegan Revolution: Saving our World, Revitalizing Judaism, bases itself on classical and contemporary observant Jewish sources, as well as on general concerns about the way our planet is going. He cites the great Rav Kook (1865-1935) who saw vegetarianism as the ideal state for humanity – but that is also the view of the Book of Genesis where the idyllic vegetarian state of life in Eden is described and continued until people 'sinned'.

The Biblical view is therefore that since we are only human, eating meat is to be considered a 'concession' to our less than perfect natures which have not yet returned to the ideal state of Edenic man. Rav Kook objected, for instance, to his own teenage son adopting vegetarianism as a way of life, since he did not think him yet ready spiritually to take on this mitzvah.

My friend, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen (1927-2016), Chief Rabbi of Haifa, son of the revered Nazir of Jerusalem, who was Rav Kook's closest friend, often talked to me about vegetarianism. As well as not eating meat or fish, he also eschewed alcohol, and the wearing of leather where possible. But this was part of his holistic commitment to the way of life of a Nazir – and not the latest fad based on 'animal rights'.

Rabbi Shear Yashuv told me more than once that eating meat is permissible, as long as Jews follow the laws of shechita, which is in any case the most humane way of killing and eating animals. For himself, he said, he had only ever known vegetarianism, which was part and parcel of his commitment towards leading a life based as much as possible on the Nazirite spiritual path.

It is therefore both the biblical and observant Jewish view that the main aim of shechita is to practise kindness to animals. I discovered this for myself when commissioned a few years ago to translate a book on the subject for the local Bet Din (Jewish ecclesiastical authority). What stood out was that other methods of animal slaughter are cruel beyond belief in comparison to the practices surrounding shechita, which is based on the mitzvah of kindness and care towards animals.

Other people I have questioned, and who are mentioned in Professor Schwartz' book, inform me that vegetarianism and veganism are an ideal to which we can strive. However, they all agree with the local Bet Din that the main aim is to avoid cruelty to animals. Every observant Jewish vegetarian and vegan emphasizes that shechita is the most humane way to kill animals, and that the treatment of animals and supervision of abbatoirs must always be of paramount concern.

To conclude:

Judaism is a religion based unashamedly on family and transmission of Jewish practices to future generations - 'Jewish continuity' if you will. What is a great diet for people over the age of 20 may not necessarily suit either children or very old people and may actually do harm to their health.

Very often vegetarians (and even more so, vegans) assume an air of superiority and adopt the illusion of 'superman' status which, together with their general misunderstanding of eastern religions, is often actually detrimental to Jewish values.

In addition to reducing our consumption of meat, there are many other ways in which we can do our best to try and 'save the planet'. These include giving up the use of private cars except for real emergencies, and doing without spin dryers, dishwashers and TV. We can also strive to do our best to conserve heat and light by turning down thermostats, extinguishing lights, wearing pullovers, increasing routine exercise, and installing water metres, as well as collecting rain water in butts and buckets.

In addition, gradually diminishing the amount of meat in our diet by increasing the consumption of filling vegetables such as aubergines, mushrooms and avocadoes; adding fruit or vegetables to every meal; and consuming meat only sparingly and on special occasions might also be helpful, and may even lead us to adopt a completely meat-free diet in the end.

But much of this advice is how many of us were brought up in any case. Maybe the best we can do is return to the post-WWII austerity of my own childhood, when rationing was in operation. Kids spent most of their time playing outside; cars were rare; and we took ourselves to school on foot or on bike. 'Make do and mend' was the watchword, and excess of any kind was frowned upon.

Given our experience of Covid over the last 18 months, a return to abstinence and the everyday enjoyment of the small things of life might very well be a good start on our road to the vegan ideal, and best of all, might make us feel so much better in ourselves!

With the contemporary Jewish reality of hostile aggression on the part of many in Europe who have tried their best to 'mend the world' by attacking Jewish values and practice, it is a great pleasure to be able to applaud a rare Jewish person who encapsulates in his person the same positivity he describes in his book, which I recommend to all Christians and Jews to read, and most of all to adopt as many of its suggestions as possible.

Going even further, the trends in the present Church which have caused consternation and angst among the 'Christians in the pew', might be helped with a return to the Bible-based teachings which that once august institution seems to have abandoned in its ludicrous zest for 'wokeness' and 'relevance'. No less a person than their former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, has just written in this vein for The Times of London, and a former chaplain to the Queen, has expressed his own thoughts on the matter here.

All in all, a return to Bible-based norms might assist those of us for whom Biblical norms, such as kindness to animals, are the centre of our lives on a truly religious path towards helping to safeguard our planet. Diet is but one way of doing this. Whether we can give up meat, fish and dairy entirely is not really the question. What is the question is how we can incorporate food into our lives (having taken medical advice of course) in such a way that our diets can help towards the betterment of the world.

The type of paganism encapsulated in Wagner, Bayreuth, Hitler and so many of their spiritual 'Green' and so-called 'Buddhist' descendants is not the way to go for those of us who have suffered first-hand from these types of G-d denying influences.

Better by far to read Richard Schwartz's Vegan Revolution and making up your own mind how, if at all, we think changing our diet might help us and others to thrive.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.