by Jeremy Gimpel
Did you know that Israel has more vegetarians per capita than any other Western Country in the world? Israel dwarfs Norway, Sweden and Switzerland and far surpasses the US and Canada. When an international survey was done in 2001, most countries ranged from 1%-4% while Israel was approaching 10%. In 2004 16% of Israeli teenagers defined themselves as vegetarians and this movement is not slowing down.
The topics of animal cruelty and alternative diets are burning issues across Israel. In fact, one of the most viewed YouTube videos in Israel’s history is of a speech given in English by a radical and even violent animal rights activist. Although traditionally the orthodox Jewish world has been relatively disengaged from the issue, that posture is changing and changing fast.
I grew up in Atlanta Georgia surrounded by nature. I had dogs, cats, fish, birds and even a few chinchillas. I love animals. But, I enjoyed meat more than I loved cows. One afternoon at the Aroma café on Emek Refaim in Jerusalem everything changed.
I was having lunch with one of my dearest friends and we were discussing his decision to become a vegan. After listing compelling health benefits and the environmental advantages, he pinpointed the fundamental basis for his decision having nothing to do with either. After seeing how animals are treated, even within the legal standards, in modern industrial factory farming, his conscience would simply not allow him to continue consuming animal products. He is a good man but I wasn’t convinced.
Later that day he sent me a YouTube video. That’s all it took. As I watched in horror, I wanted to believe such terrible cruelty and suffering could not happen in kosher institutions. I was wrong. One video led to another and about 100 videos later, I have not been able to eat meat or other animal products.
For several months I have been reading articles, watching videos and studying the subject intensely. Finally, after reading both practical sources about factory farming and classic Jewish texts relating to the treatment of animals, I began calling rabbis. “Tzar Ba’alei Chaim”, cruelty to animals, is a Torah prohibition and relates to a central value in Judaism- The sanctity of life. Judaism not only sanctifies human life but demands sensitivity to all life. Every rabbi was receptive and attentive to my concerns although not all were aware of the severity of the problem.
My next target was Beit Hillel, a premier modern orthodox organization in Israel, with over 200 rabbis and public figures in their ranks. After several meetings and hours of conversations with Rabbi Ronen Neubert, the founder of Beit Hillel, I was asked to present the topic at their Annual Rabbinical Conference last Shabbat.
Addressing leaders like Rabbi Shlomo Riskin the chief Rabbi of Efrat, Rabbi Yakov Meidan the Rosh Yeshiva of Har Etzion, Rabbi Shmuel David, the chief Rabbi of Afula and Rabbi Ze’ev Viteman, head rabbi of Tenuva, increased the pressure on me to prepare but also meant increased exposure and awareness of an issue gaining in prominence.
Since the conference was held over Shabbat I was not able to show the graphic disturbing videos. In trying to make the abstract concept of animals in pain a concrete vision, I made a square from four chairs in the room that measured about a square meter. I asked: Considering the Torah prohibition of inflicting pain on animals, how many chickens should be put into a cage that is one square meter in order to produce the eggs we eat? Most of the audience estimated close to four chickens per square meter.
One of the rabbis added that he remembers from his younger days on the kibbutz seeing six or seven. When I informed them that the standard today allows for a one meter cage to hold 18 chickens, the rabbis were shocked into silence.
They all agreed something needed to be done. While the rabbis recognized the need to balance raising the standards against their price impact on families already struggling to buy kosher, they were also challenged to find solutions.
It was inspiring to see a sensitive, creative and bold Rabbinic leadership in Israel. Some suggested a call to consume less meat, perhaps even join the “Meatless Monday” initiative. Others suggested a star system for kosher products. Farms that are good to their employees, demonstrate concern for the environment, and are humane to animals will receive a 5 star kosher seal while other products will receive fewer stars. The rabbis concluded to visit the factory farms and alternative farms to see the issues with their own eyes.
Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the first chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, once walked into a slaughter house in Canada. He walked out a vegetarian. The cruelty of factory farming is driving many Jews and non-Jews around the world to vegetarianism, which may ultimately be the ideal Jewish life.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakoen Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, maintained that the Torah’s laws and regulations related to the consumption of meat were a reprimand for the unnecessary taking of life. In his book, the Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace, he states that the laws were created to guide humanity in the hope that this would eventually lead people back to vegetarianism in the messianic period.
One of the most profound messages was delivered in the conference was by Rabbi Ya’akov Meidan. He said, “The Torah has succeeded in bringing humanity to a higher level of sensitivity of life. In today’s world, if kosher is not synonymous with the welfare of animals, the world will continue to try to ban Shchita (ritual slaughter). Judaism must not fall behind the world but rather lead as an example through Jewish law.”
The author is a film maker, an educator and the host of ‘Israel Inspired Radio’ on iTunes. He is the Deputy Director of the World Mizrachi Movement. The opinions expressed herein are his own.