All the world is nuts about
Vegetarians in Paradise proudly presents its 24 Carrot Award to Professor Richard Schwartz for his tireless efforts to promote vegetarianism through his writing, speaking, and organizational work.
Dr. Schwartz is a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Staten Island. He is the author of three books: Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, and Mathematics and Global Survival.
He frequently contributes articles and speaks to groups on issues related to vegetarianism, nutrition, health, ecology, and the treatment of animals. His writings on Judaism and vegetarianism can be found at http://www.jewishveg.com/schwartz
What follows are the questions asked by Vegetarians in Paradise (VIP) and the answers by Richard Schwartz (RS).
VIP: What influenced you to become a vegetarian?
RS: Until about 1977, I was a "meat and potatoes" person. My mother was sure to prepare my favorite dish, pot roast, whenever I came to visit with my wife and children. It was a family tradition that I would be served a turkey drumstick every Thanksgiving. Yet, I have not only become a vegetarian and a near-vegan, but I now devote a major part of my time to writing, speaking, and teaching about the benefits of veganism.
VIP: What caused this drastic change?
RS: While reviewing material related to world hunger for my course, "Mathematics and Global Survival," at the College of Staten Island, I became aware of the tremendous waste of grain associated with the production of beef. It takes as much as sixteen pounds of grain to produce one pound of edible beef in a feedlot. In spite of my own eating habits, I often led class discussions on the possibility of reducing meat consumption as a way of helping hungry people. After several semesters of this, I took my own advice and gave up eating red meat, while continuing to eat chicken and fish.
VIP: What encouraged you to take the final step toward vegetarianism?
RS: I began to read about the many health benefits of vegetarianism and about the horrible conditions for animals raised on factory farms. I was increasingly attracted to vegetarianism, and on January 1, 1978, I decided to join the International Jewish Vegetarian Society. I had two choices for membership: (1) practicing vegetarian, one who refrains from eating any flesh; (2) non-vegetarian, one who is in sympathy with the movement, while not yet a vegetarian. I decided to become a full practicing vegetarian, and since then have avoided eating any meat, fowl, or fish. Since that decision, I have learned much about vegetarianism's connections to health, nutrition, ecology, resource usage, hunger, and the treatment of animals.
VIP: What was the catalyst that led to the writing of your book Judaism and Vegetarianism?
RS: After becoming a vegetarian, I started investigating connections between vegetarianism and Judaism. I learned that the first Biblical dietary law, Genesis 1:29, was strictly vegetarian, and my research convinced me that important Jewish mandates to preserve our health, be kind to animals, protect the environment, conserve resources, share with hungry people, and seek and pursue peace all pointed to vegetarianism as the best diet for Jews and everyone else today. To get this message to a wider audience, I wrote Judaism and Vegetarianism published in1982. A second expanded edition was published in 1988, and a third thoroughly revised and expanded edition came out in 2001.
VIP: How did you make the connection between vegetarianism and Judaism?
RS: All the reasons for being a vegetarian can be based on very important Jewish values. These include taking care of our health, showing compassion for animals, working as coworkers with God in protecting the earth, conserving resources, sharing with hungry people, and even seeking and pursuing peace.
VIP: You mention compassion for animals. How does Judaism deal with this subject?
RS: Judaism has very powerful teachings about compassion for animals. The greatest Jewish teacher, Moses, was selected for leadership according to the Jewish tradition because as a shepherd he showed great compassion for his animals. The same thing is true of King David. And Rebecca was deemed suitable to be a wife for Isaac, the son of the first Jew, Abraham, because she rushed to provide water to ten thirsty camels. There are many laws in the Torah that command proper treatment of animals, and this is so important that it is part of the Ten Commandments that state that animals as well as people are to rest on the Sabbath day. And, of course, these powerful teachings are a far cry from the realities of modern factory farming.
VIP: How does preservation of our own personal health relate to Judaism?
RS: Taking care of one's health and protecting one's life are very important Jewish mandates. To save a human life is so important that it takes precedence over many other commandments, including those to observe the Sabbath, eat Kosher foods, and even to fast on our most sacred day, Yom Kippur. So, if it's a question of possibly saving a human life, then one must -- not may, MUST -- violate laws of the Sabbath, for instance, using a telephone or driving to a hospital.
VIP: What does Judaism teach about environment, conservation, and world hunger?
RS: There are very strong Jewish teachings about the preservation of the environment, and conserving resources. We are forbidden to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value. And the realities of modern livestock agriculture are completely contrary to these basic Jewish values.
Just one more example: the Torah teaches that we must share with hungry people. But, to raise cattle today as much as 70% of the grain produced in the U.S. is fed to animals destined for slaughter, as an estimated 20 million people die from hunger and its effects every year.
So, a shift to a nutritious plant-based diet would be far more consistent with basic Jewish values.
VIP: What conflicts exist between vegetarianism and Judaism?
RS: There are some common arguments that are supposed to show a conflict between Judaism and vegetarianism. I would like to respond to those arguments.
Argument #1. Jews must eat meat on Shabbos (Sabbath) and Yom Tov (holidays).
According to the Talmud, since the destruction of the Temple, Jews are not required to eat meat in order to rejoice in sacred occasions. Recent scholarly articles by Rabbi Alfred Cohen and Rabbi J. David Bleich, both non-vegetarians, conclude that Jews do not have to eat meat in order to celebrate the Sabbath and Jewish festivals. The fact that several chief rabbis, including Shlomo Goren, late Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, and Sha'ar-Yashuv Cohen, Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Haifa, have been or are strict vegetarians reinforces this argument.
Argument #2. The Torah mandates that we eat korban Pesach (sacrifice on Passover) and other korbanos (sacrifices).
The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides believed that God permitted sacrifices as a concession to the common mode of worship in Biblical times. It was felt that had Moses not instituted the sacrifices, his mission would have failed and perhaps Judaism would have disappeared. The Jewish philosopher Abarbanel reinforced Maimonides' position by citing a midrash (rabbinical commentaries on the Scriptures) that indicated that the Israelites had become accustomed to sacrifices in Egypt. G-d tolerated the sacrifices but commanded that they be offered only in one central sanctuary in order to wean the Jews from idolatrous practices.
Without the Temple, sacrifices are not required today. And, Rav Kook felt, based on the prophecy of Isaiah, that there will only be sacrifices involving vegetarian foods during the Messianic Period. There is a midrash that states: "In the Messianic era, all sacrifices will cease, except thanksgiving offerings which could be non-animal, which will continue forever."
Argument #3: Inconsistent with Judaism, vegetarianism elevates animals to a level equal to or greater than that of people.
Concern for animals and the refusal to treat them cruelly and slaughter them for food that is not necessary for proper nutrition and, indeed, is harmful to human health, does not mean that vegetarians regard animals as being equal to people. There are many reasons for being vegetarian other than animal rights, including concern for human health, ecological threats, and the plight of hungry people.
Because humans are capable of imagination, rationality, empathy, compassion, and moral choice, we should strive to end the unbelievably cruel conditions under which farm animals are currently raised. This is an issue of sensitivity, not an assertion of egalitarianism with the animal kingdom.
Argument #4. Vegetarianism places greater priority on animal rights than on the many problems related to human welfare.
Vegetarian diets are not beneficial only to animals. They also improve human health, help hungry people through better sharing of food and other resources, put less stress on endangered ecosystems, conserve valuable resources, and reduce the potential for war and violence. In view of the many global threats related to today's livestock agriculture, working to promote vegetarianism may be the most important action that one can take for global survival.
Argument #5. By putting vegetarian values ahead of Jewish teachings, vegetarians are, in effect, creating a new religion, with values contrary to Jewish teachings.
Jewish vegetarians are not placing so-called vegetarian values above Torah principles. They are saying that basic Jewish teachings that mandate that we treat animals with compassion, guard our health, share with hungry people, protect the environment, conserve resources, and seek peace, point to vegetarianism as the ideal G-d directed diet for Jews today. Rather than rejecting Torah values, Jewish vegetarians are challenging the Jewish community to apply Judaism's glorious teachings.
Argument #6. Jews have historically had many problems with some animal rights groups which have often opposed kosher shechita (slaughter) and advocated its abolition.
Jews should consider switching to vegetarianism not because of the views of animal rights groups, whether they are hostile to Judaism or not, but because it is the diet most consistent with Jewish values. It is the Torah, not animal rights groups, that indicate how far the treatment of animals is from fundamental Jewish values.
VIP: Your book Judaism and Vegetarianism is now in its third edition? How has the book changed over the years?
RS: The most recent edition has many new developments related to health and to ecological threats linked to animal-centered diets and major changes in the Jewish vegetarian world. The bibliography has been updated, expanded, and reorganized by subjects, and the Question and Answer section has been expanded. In many cases, updated sources and more scholarly sources have been cited.
VIP: How much of your time is devoted to writing and speaking about vegetarianism?
RS: I have recently been spending more and more time trying to make others aware of the importance of switching toward vegetarian diets. It is really the main focus of my non-family-related life today. Among my activities to promote vegetarianism are writing letters and articles, giving talks and classes, sending out updates to hundreds of vegetarian activists via e-mail as part of the newsletter of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America, and interacting and sharing information daily with other vegetarians.
VIP: You also are quite active on the internet.
RS: I currently have over 100 articles and book reviews related to vegetarianism at http://www.jewishveg.com/schwartz. Among these are articles connecting vegetarianism to all the Jewish holidays that I send to rabbis and the Jewish media prior to each holiday. The web site also includes the complete course on "Judaism and Vegetarianism" that I taught to about 700 people several years ago. Recently, I have been active in helping organize a new group, tentatively called Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians or SERV.
VIP: Could you tell us about your education and teaching career?
RS: I have a Masters and Ph.D. in Civil Engineering, but most of my recent teaching has been in mathematics. In 1975, I created and began teaching a course, "Mathematics and the Environment" at the College of Staten Island.
VIP: We understand that in one class you were able to tie mathematics to vegetarianism. Could you explain how you accomplished this connection?
RS: The course uses basic mathematical concepts and problems to explore current critical issues, such as pollution, resource scarcities, hunger, energy, population growth and, increasingly nutrition and health. I use a wide variety of graphs to show how many degenerative diseases are linked to animal-based diets.
VIP: Has your influence resulted in any of your students becoming vegetarian?
RS: Some, but far too few. It has been said that it is harder to change a person's diet than to change his or her religion. But, many seeds have been planted, and one never knows what the end result may be in each case.
VIP: How has your decision to become vegetarian affected your family?
RS: While my family was initially skeptical about my change of diet, they have become increasingly understanding and supportive. In 1993, my younger daughter was married in Jerusalem at a completely vegetarian wedding. My wife and my younger daughter are vegetarians and my other two children are "partial" vegetarians.
VIP: What personal benefits have you derived from vegetarianism?
RS: Generally my health has been good and I have lost weight and kept it off since becoming a vegetarian, especially after giving up dairy products and eggs in most cases.
I have always felt good about my decision to become a vegetarian. Putting principles and values into practice is far more valuable and rewarding than hours of preaching. When people ask me why I gave up meat, I welcome the opportunity to explain the many benefits of vegetarianism.
VIP: We understand that you have presented resolutions on vegetarianism to groups of rabbis. What are the highlights of these resolutions, and how have they been received?
RS: The Resolution on Judaism and Vegetarianism was unanimously passed at a Jewish vegetarian conference in July, 1993. Based on this resolution, the Central Conference of American Rabbis brought up a modified version that they are in the process of considering for possible adoption. The complete text of the resolution is available at http://schwartz.enviroweb.org/resolution_diet.html.
VIP: What individuals have had the most influence on you?
RS: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has greatly influenced my thinking about applying Jewish values to today's critical issues. He was a great philosopher and brilliant writer, and he also was an early worker for Soviet Jewry, a strong opponent of the Vietnam War, and a marcher with Martin Luther King for civil rights.
Reverend King and Gandhi influenced my thinking about non-violence and protests.
Ralph Nader influenced my thinking about corporations, consumerism, and environmentalism.
The writings of John Steinbeck, especially The Grapes of Wrath, and the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington influenced my thinking about injustice and corruption and the importance of protesting.
VIP: What activities do you enjoy in your leisure time?
RS: I enjoy reading, staying up with current events, walking, playing racquet ball, and visiting my children and grandchildren in Israel. I wish I had more time for these activities.
VIP: What vegetarian organizations do you actively support?
RS: The Jewish Vegetarians of North America, the International Jewish Vegetarian Society, and the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians. I am a Coordinator of this new group that I helped found and organize. Also EarthSave, and the Vegetarian Resource Group.
VIP: What personal accomplishments give you the most pride and joy?
VIP: What do you predict for the future of Judaism and vegetarianism?
RS: Well, it has been said that nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. And I believe that the time has come for the idea that vegetarianism is essential for people, for animals, for the environment, for our natural resources. We have to help make people aware that a shift to plant-based diets is one of the most important things, if not the most important thing, that we can do for people, for animals, and for our imperiled planet. Vegetarianism is not only a personal choice, but also a societal imperative, an essential component in the solution of many national and global problems.
Recently, I have noted some signs of increased interest in vegetarianism, and many people are concerned about dietary connections to health, nutrition, animal rights, and ecology. Yet, McDonald's is rapidly expanding in many countries, including Israel, China, and Russia. So there is much that still needs to be done. My hope is to be able to keep learning, writing, and speaking about vegetarianism, to help bring closer that day when, in the words of the motto of the international Jewish Vegetarian Society, " . . . no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of God's holy mountain." That's from Isaiah 11: 9.
Those who gain from the status quo unfortunately have the power of money, publicity, and the establishment on their side, but we have truth, justice, morality, compassion, and, I hope, fervor and dedication on our side. And the case for vegetarianism based on Jewish values is so strong that it must eventually prevail. We shall overcome!
VIP: What essential messages do you wish to convey:
RS: My essential message is that the world is threatened today as perhaps never before, that too few people recognize the threats, that a prime reason for current problems is that the values and actions of the world are contrary to basic Jewish values. Therefore, Jews must be actively involved in fulfilling our historic roles: to be a light unto the nations, to be God's witnesses, and to be co-workers with God in applying Jewish values in working for tikkun olam, the repair and healing of the world. A shift toward vegetarian diets is an essential part of our response.