Want To Save The World The Jewish Way? Become A Vegetarian
My summer camp had a funny mealtime tradition. When the kitchen staff was planning a special dessert, for which we would need to hang onto a utensil after the dishes were cleared, they would ask one table of campers to announce it to the dining hall. Those campers would, in unison, pound on their table and shout out “SAVE YOUR SPOONS” for all of camp to hear. At that point, some other group of witty campers would inevitably pound on their table and shout “SAVE THE WHALES,” and another would answer with “SAVE THE EARTH,” and so on, and so forth.
We thought we were funny. But it turns out we were right: If we want to save the earth, we are going to have to start at our dinner tables.
I am a rabbi and a vegetarian. When I stopped eating meat, it was a decision made out of Jewish values and out of my abhorrence for the cruel treatment of animals. But there is another, equally compelling Jewish argument for eating less meat. Not only is it better for the animals; it is also better for our planet.
Deeply embedded in Jewish thinking is a sense of awe for the created world and responsibility to preserve it. The Torah expresses this idea in the opening chapter of Genesis (1:31): “God looked over everything that had been made, and it was very good.”
Tov meod — very good. This is Judaism’s first description of the earth: A place created with wisdom and forethought; a place that God was proud of. The Rabbis expand on this idea in the Midrash, asserting their belief that God created various forms of life to complement each other in finely balanced ecosystems, and that “even those things that you may see as superfluous, such as flies, fleas, and gnats, have an appointed role in Creation” (Exodus Rabbah 10).
The outgrowth of this line of thinking is a deep sense of responsibility to care for the earth. Here’s another Midrash:
“When God created the first human being, God led him around the Garden of Eden and said “Look at my excellent works! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one after to repair it” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13).
Judaism teaches that we humans are responsible to preserve the world we have been given, that we are stewards of a loving, beautiful gift that was handed to us. And yet, we haven’t been good stewards at all. Rather than preserving the land we have ravaged and polluted it. Our daily activities are our planet but also endangers all life on it, ourselves included.
A few months ago, Vann Newkirk wrote in the Atlantic that we are living “in [a] new global reality, where each passing year is the hottest on record…” and where we are dealing regularly with “heat waves, droughts, storms, floods, and other extreme events.”
Every year, the hurricanes are getting bigger. Every year the summers are getting hotter. Every year’s wildfires seem to be the largest and most destructive on record. Food disparities are growing, especially in poor and vulnerable places. There is an island of plastic in the Pacific Ocean. And up to 150 species of plants and animals are going extinct every single day. In 2019, we are living on a planet that is changing on a daily basis, and not for the better. It is becoming less hospitable to human life. It is becoming less biologically diverse. And it is our fault.
Which brings me back to vegetarianism. One of the areas of human activity that is most damaging to the planet is consumption of meat. This damage happens on several levels: The clearing of land, the extensive use of pesticides, chemicals, antibiotics, and other harmful substances and the release of greenhouse gasses by billions of farm animals. And, slightly more hidden but perhaps most devastating, the huge amounts of feed crops — corn and soybeans — that are grown using carbon-burning, petroleum-based fertilizers. According to the Washington Post, about a third of all greenhouse gases come from the food industry — especially beef. In fact, many experts have asserted that eating less meat is the single greatest thing that an individual can do to help slow the damaging effects of Global Warming.
Of course, becoming a vegetarian isn’t a panacea. If you stop eating hamburgers and replace them with fruits and vegetables imported from across the world, you’ve swapped carbon for carbon (though you’ve maybe still decreased your footprint). And yet, eating less meat is a decisive and meaningful way for an individual to reduce his or her carbon footprint. In a world where much economic and environmental policy seems beyond our control, we can still vote with our stomachs.
But just as importantly, vegetarianism it’s an expression of Jewish values. For those who care about Tikkun Olam — who want to save the earth — it’s worth considering what dinner-table changes might move us in that direction.