Torah or Vegan — Which Came First?
Editor’s Note: The Beet-Eating Heeb is the nom de plume of Jeffrey Cohan, a former journalist in Forest Hills, PA. He also blogs about Judaism and veganism on his own Web site.
Invoking the which-came-first, chicken-or-the-egg paradigm is probably an unfortunate choice for The Beet-Eating Heeb, and not just because it’s a shopworn metaphor.
The Beet-Eating Heeb is a vegan, and thus eschews the use of animals, even in cliches. But for this blog, he tried a carrot-seed paradigm, and it just didn’t work.
The fact is, the ol’ chicken-egg thing certainly applies to the question that Jewish social activists should confront. The question is, does the passion we feel for a certain issue constitute an authentic expression of our Judaism, or do we cherry-pick Jewish texts to buttress our preconceived bias? Which came first? Torah or PETA?
For The Beet-Eating Heeb (BEH, for short), the answer is truly the former. He is an advocate of veganism because he studies Torah.
First, a little background is in order.
BEH intimately understands the mindset of meat-eaters. For 40 years, he enjoyed brisket and corned beef as much as the next guy, maybe even more so, as his former cholesterol count of 243 would attest.
Only because he was an avid distance runner was The Beet-Eating Heeb able to remain somewhat fit while chowing down on chicken and slurping milkshakes.
Then came Rosh Hashanah, 5766.
Maybe it was because BEH was newly married to a health-conscious, very pretty, wife. Maybe he had just never paid much attention to Parashat Bereshit, beyond the “let there be light” verse, anyway.
Whatever the cause, when the Torah reader came to Genesis 1:29-30 that Rosh Hashanah morning, the words leapt off the page and slapped him in the face, words The Beet-Eating Heeb had seen before but blithely ignored.
Genesis 1:29-30 states:
“And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed–to you it shall be for food;
and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food.’ And it was so.”
God didn’t need to slap The Beet-Eating Heeb in the face twice. Not this time, anyway. Immediately after the verse was read, he looked at Wife of Beet-Eating Heeb and whispered, “We’re supposed to be vegetarians.” She said, “Let’s do it.” And just like that, Team Carnivore lost two longtime members.
Goodbye, turkey. Hello, tofu.
Still, a vegetarian is one thing, a vegan is another.
Here, one of America’s pre-eminent Jewish novelists had a hand in BEH’s evolution.
Jonathan Safran Foer might not be a vegan himself, but his only book of non-fiction, “Eating Animals,” makes an utterly compelling case for veganism. He pries your eyes open to the unspeakable cruelty that is Standard Operating Procedure in modern factory farms.
Suddenly, cheese wasn’t looking so pleasing.
It still goes back to Genesis 1:29. If you read the verse carefully – and what other way is there to read Torah? – it clearly constitutes a vegan menu, not a vegetarian one.
OK, so maybe BEH did need to be slapped in the face twice.
As evolution is an ongoing, never-ending process, The Beet-Eating Heeb wasn’t finished.
The reality is, the road from vegan to vegan-advocate is shorter than the Sh’ma.
Many people become vegans for health reasons, which is a good reason. The Beet-Eating Heeb saw his cholesterol drop about 30 percent in his first year of eschewing all animal products.
The environmental basis of veganism is also persuasive. Relatively few people realize that animal agriculture spews more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere than does the entire transportation sector. The voluminous amounts of animal waste and the rapacious destruction of natural habitats associated with livestock also should offend anyone with a whit of concern about the environment.
But what keeps vegans committed to veganism is the incredible cruelty perpetrated against animals in modern factory farms. In Torah terms, animal agriculture in today’s industrialized world is simply an egregious violation of the Jewish principle of tzaar baalei hayim, or compassion for animals.
It’s hard to quietly go about your veganism when you know that cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys are suffering horrible abuses throughout their prematurely terminated lives. Only vegans can speak up for them.
And because Torah principles are at stake, advocacy becomes not just a moral but also a religious activity.
The Beet-Eating Heeb is one Jewish social activist who can look in the mirror and say the Torah came first and activism followed, rather than the other way around.
Jeffrey Cohan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @beeteatingheeb.