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This rabbi is betting $5,000 he can convince you to go vegan

Shmuly Yanklowitz has been an animal rights activist for years. Now, he’s putting his money where his mouth is

Forget the brisket, this vegan rabbi is hoping to win other Jews to his side and he’s putting his money where his mouth is.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, president of the animal advocacy group Shamayim issued a challenge this week to any contemporary across the United States and Canada: Debate me on veganism, in front of your congregation, with the winner getting $5,000. 

Yanklowitz, who has been vegan since his wedding day 12 years ago, said his reasons for adopting the diet were “partially about health and partially about environment, but primarily about animal suffering.”

While advocates for kosher meat claim that the method is as humane as any, not everyone is convinced: Several European countries have moved to outlaw the kosher and halal methods of slaughter, citing animal cruelty.  Yanklowitz found himself disturbed by “the assimilation of kosher America into the worst sides of American capitalism.”

“Just keeping kosher is not necessarily more ethical than not,” he said, a conclusion that led him to realize “the next level of Jewish actualization of food ethics was going to require a move towards veganism, ultimately.”

Jewish scripture on what is permissible to eat is comprehensive, including not just which animals are kosher, but also how they are slaughtered. But Yanklowitz believes that has led to “a misunderstanding that, if the Torah permits something, then the Torah thinks it’s good.”

“I think there’s many things that the Torah permits,” he said. “But the Torah calls us to a higher ethic beyond it. And so I think this is a perfect example where nobody could argue that the Torah forbids meat. But I want to make the case for a higher ethic that emerges from Torah.”

Yanklowitz has spent years making this point, which ultimately led him to found Shamayim along with actress and Jeopardy! host Mayim Bialik and pop singer Matisyahu. A conversation with one of the organization’s donors resulted in the debate idea. The goal is to have five to 10 such debates in front of congregations within the next year — a goal that Yanklowitz said is within reach, as there have already been intrigued rabbis reaching out. But Yanklowitz said he’s not necessarily expecting to convince his rabbinical colleagues to switch to veganism. Rather, he’s hoping to get his ideas wider exposure.

“I think my goal is to win over about 25 to 50% of attendees, such that they’ll realize that this is the most authentic form of Judaism.”

Yanklowitz is especially eager to get invites from Orthodox rabbis, who he said he will likely view a debate as “as a Grand Slam win for them. Because obviously, everybody Orthodox eats meat. Whereas in the Reform world, which is very liberal, there’s already many people who are vegetarians, at least.”

The prize money, which is fronted by a donor, will go to the winning side’s congregation, with the congregation itself voting on the winner. That might seem like a bit of a conflict of interest, but Yanklowitz said the main point isn’t winning, it’s exposing Jews to new ideas about their food and where it comes from.

“I’ve heard your arguments,” he said. “And so that’s kind of the idea, is to ensure that people have heard this side of the argument, because I think a lot of people have been taught some myths and misconceptions around what Judaism’s ideals are.”

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