If there’s one thing we know about Jews, it’s that they love their food. Every holiday revolves around food – sufganiyot and latkes on Chanukah, the seder on Pesach, fruits dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah. Every Friday night Jewish families gather around their tables to celebrate Shabbat with either gefilte fish, chopped liver, and chicken soup or moroccan fish, kibbe, and cigars, all of which are animal based or include animal byproduct. Shabbat day brings us cholent or chamin, also typically meaty. Every Jewish occasion is celebrated with a meal – a brit, a wedding, a kiddush – and rightly so, food is delicious!
But Jews have an interesting relationship with food. We can’t just eat whatever we want. Keeping kosher means certain animals are prohibited, mixing milk and meat is prohibited, most restaurants are off limits, and food is generally more expensive because it requires a mashgiach, a supervisor. It also means that we need to bring food with us wherever we go because we’re not sure if there will be kosher food available. Basically, Jews think about food all of the time.
The typical Orthodox Jewish response makes it seem as if Judaism and veganism are at odds with one another. But I’ve never understood that because based on the rules of Judaism, it seems to go hand in hand with ethical eating.
But do we think about where our food comes from? I think not. That’s not to say that people don’t know where their food comes from – they do know. But they don’t think about it. Because if they do think about it, they would have to immediately change their diets.
As an Orthodox Jew, I have gotten some very interesting responses from other Orthodox Jews when I told them I was vegan. (Disclaimer: I absolutely do not tell anyone I am vegan unless they offer me dead flesh on a plate or ask me why I’m not eating. I try hard to not be that vegan.) Jews especially have gotten extremely defensive and start quoting all sorts of lines from the Torah. They tell me it’s a mitzvah to eat fish and meat on Shabbat. They ask me if I’ll participate in karbanot, animal sacrifice, when moshiach comes. They tell me that God put animals on this earth for the sole purpose of feeding us. They tell me it’s allowed.
And it is.
But that’s not the point. The typical Orthodox Jewish response makes it seem as if Judaism and veganism are at odds with one another. But I’ve never understood that because based on the rules of Judaism, it seems to go hand in hand with ethical eating. Besides the idea that the world was created as a vegan one until the sin of Adam and Eve, the torah never says to eat animals. What it does say is “if you’re going to eat the animals, do it this way.” This way is the most humane way, the way that will allow the animals to suffer the least, the way that will not cause them any unnecessary pain, or tza’ar ba’alei chayim. In the internet age of today, a quick Google search will show you videos of the conditions in slaughterhouses, videos of the animals suffering, videos of pure and undeniable tza’ar ba’alei chayim. No matter what anyone says, this is most definitely not allowed.
The most common rebuttal I hear is “but it’s not like that in kosher slaughterhouses.” That’s what I told myself for a few years leading up to my transition to a vegan diet. It’s easier to believe that the kosher meat industry treats the animals perfectly and that every slaughterhouse is animal heaven. It’s easier to not have to change. It was only when I started viewing the hidden recordings of kosher slaughterhouses, even ones in Israel, that I didn’t have any excuses left. I had no choice. If I was going to live ethically, I needed to change.
In just the past year and a half since I became a vegan, in addition to much of the world going through a major shift towards plant-based eating, the Jewish world has largely opened up to the idea. Kosher chefs and gurus have all released veganized recipes for Shabbat and Chag. I see friends on Facebook asking for advice on how to lower their meat/chicken/dairy intake. Kosher companies have embraced and are now marketing towards plant-based diets. I’ve had people message me personally asking me to help them transition to a vegan diet.
I’m not going to lie and say everyone is totally on board with the whole vegan thing. People have declined my Shabbat meal invitations because they assume I only serve vegan food. (My husband is not a vegan and he cooks plenty of non-vegan meals in our house. Regardless, why would that stop you?) Someone else almost didn’t even try my latkes this past Chanukah because I said that they were vegan, which means all I did was replace the egg. I get it. It’s different from the norm and it’s not easy to embrace a new norm. Especially for Jews, since food makes up so much of our tradition, it’s very hard to let go and start making new traditions. But when I think about Jewish tradition and how far we’ve come as a nation, I don’t think about food. I think about doing the right thing, living an ethical life, and passing down the knowledge of what is right and wrong. Thankfully, based on what I’m seeing across the broad spectrum of Jews, I’m not the only one.