Rabbi I Have a Problem

Should shuls take a leaf from vegans and drop the fishballs at kiddush?

An Orthodox, and a Reform, rabbi discuss issues in contemporary Jewish life


Question:  A number of rabbis have said we should be adopting a largely vegan diet both for environmental reasons and for animal welfare.  Is it time for synagogues to take a lead and remove the herring and the fishballs from the kiddush table?  

Rabbi Brawer: It is undeniable that the production of meat comes at an environmental cost. The water footprint to produce beef is considerably larger than the production of vegetables. While the latter is estimated at 322 litres per kilogram, the former requires some 15,415 litres of water per kilo.

It should be noted however, that nuts are not far behind, at 9,063 liters per kilo. But it’s not just water consumption that is of concern in the rearing of beef, but also water pollution which is affected by drug residues, hormones and feed additives. Raising cattle for beef consumption also takes up enormous tracts of land. According to one estimate, almost 80 per cent of all agricultural land is now dedicated to feeding livestock. And finally, the raising of livestock adds significantly to greenhouse gasses. All of this should certainly be of concern to a Torah-abiding Jew who takes seriously the Torah’s exhortation to look after the environment. 

Cruelty to animals is another factor to consider. I am not referring to the way in which animals are killed (if an animal is to be killed, shechitah is a humane  method), but rather the way in which the animals are raised prior to their killing.

In the mass production of meat, animals are crammed into tight spaces, unable to move about naturally. In many cases they are genetically manipulated to grow larger than they would naturally, causing pain and distress. All of which is in contravention of the Torah’s prohibition against causing unnecessary pain to animals.

Does this mean that the only avenue available to a committed Jew is veganism? I would stop short of drawing that conclusion. While there are enough studies that link processed meat to ill health, non-processed meat is packed with protein and necessary nutrients which are important in a healthy diet and I don’t think Jewish law or ethics demands that we give that up. 

However, I do think that we have a responsibility to minimise the environmental cost as well as animal suffering. We do not need to consume as much meat as we have become accustomed to. 

When meat was expensive, before the advent of mass production, most people ate it sparingly. Meat was not a staple, it was a treat. A sensible position would consider only buying ethically farmed, free-range meat. Such meat is considerably more expensive, which would restrict its consumption to special meat. Such meat is considerably more expensive, which would restrict its consumption to special occasions.

Rabbi Brawer is Neubauer chief executive of Hillel, Tufts University

Rabbi Romain:  As it happens, herrings are extremely good for you (fishballs, less so), and the command to “love your neighbour as yourself” has always been interpreted by the rabbis as not just the basis for altruism, but also an insistence on self-preservation. We must look after our own wellbeing. Judaism sees our bodies as sacred vessels containing the soul, the gift of God.

That is why it is right Jewishly not to over-eat, or binge-drink, or smoke, or take drugs. It also includes avoiding high sugar content and processed foods, as well as consuming foods that are healthy.

However, the environment is important too. “See My world, how fine it is,” says the Midrash. “Do not destroy My world, for if you do damage it, there is no one to set it right after you.”

Equally precious is animal welfare. We may have been given dominion over the animals according to Genesis, but they are still God’s creatures and need to be respected. The concept of treif should therefore apply not just to forbidden foods, but to permitted animals that are force-fed, battery-farmed or transported long-distances in cramped conditions.

As for veganism, there is no objection on Jewish grounds providing, as is possible, one still has sufficient, nutrients and vitamins. The rabbis have long asserted that we were vegetarian in the Garden of Eden — the ideal existence — and we will return to being so in the messianic age. Eating animals was a concession in between these two points.

 It means that being a carnivore or pescatarian is permitted in Judaism, but is not an obligation. Whereas vegetarianism is a fairly recent phenomenon in Western society, it has always held a respectable place within Judaism, practised by several prominent rabbis, including Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine.

The question is do we have to choose between these competing factors — the environment, animals and our diet — or is it possible to strike a balance? This might mean less meat-consumption, along with buying only kosher meat that is free-range and locally produced.

An all or nothing insistence might simply result in people dismissing it and carrying on as before, whereas a mixed approach may be more likely to lead to beneficial changes, which gradually increase. 

So keep herring on the kiddush table, but dispose of the crisps and fizzy drinks, and eat less red meat back home.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue 

If you have a question you think our rabbis should tackle please ring 020 7415 1676 or email 

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