Jewish vegetarians seek meatless seders

Passover and vegetarianism: Can the two be related? After all, what is a seder without gefilte fish, chicken soup, chopped liver, chicken and other meats? And what about the shank bone to commemorate the paschal sacrifice? And doesn't Jewish law mandate that Jews eat meat to rejoice on Passover and other Jewish festivals?

An increasing number of Jews are turning to vegetarianism, and they are finding ways to celebrate vegetarian Passovers while being consistent with Jewish teachings. For many years, Jonathan Wolf, a Jewish vegetarian activist, has invited up to 50 people to his Manhattan apartment for completely vegetarian seders.

Contrary to a common perception, Jews are not required to eat meat at the Passover seder or any other time. According to the Talmud (Pesachim 109a), since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jews need not eat meat to celebrate Jewish festivals.

In recent scholarly articles by Rabbi Albert Cohen in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and Rabbi J. David Bleich in Tradition magazine, this concept is reinforced.

Also, Israeli chief rabbis, including Rabbi Shlomo Goren, former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel and Rabbi Sha'ar Yashuv Cohen, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Haifa, were or are strict vegetarians.

The use of the shank bone originated in the time of the Talmud as a means of commemorating the paschal lamb. However, since Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Huna, states that a beet can be used for this purpose (Pesachim 114b), many Jewish vegetarians substitute a beet for the shank bone. The important point is that the shank bone is a symbol, and no meat need be eaten at the seder.

Jewish vegetarians see vegetarian values reinforced by several Passover themes:

First, at the seder, Jews say, "Let all who are hungry come and eat." As on other occasions, at the conclusion of the meal Birkat Hamazon is recited to thank God for providing food for the world's people. This seems inconsistent with the consumption of animals: Seventy percent of the grain grown in the United States and two-thirds of the grain exported is fed to animals destined for slaughter. On top of that, the United States imports beef from other countries. Meanwhile, 20 million of the world's people die of hunger.

Second, many Jewish vegetarians see connections between the oppression that their ancestors suffered and the current plight of the billions of people who presently lack sufficient food and other essential resources. Vegetarian diets require far less land, water, gasoline, pesticides, fertilizer and other resources, and thus enable the better sharing of God's abundant resources, which can help reduce global hunger and poverty.

Third, the main Passover theme is freedom. While relating the story of our ancestors' slavery in Egypt and their redemption through God's power and beneficence, many Jewish vegetarians also consider the "slavery" of animals on modern "factory farms."

Contrary to Jewish teachings of tsa'ar ba'alei chayim (the Torah mandate not to cause unnecessary pain to a living creature), most animals are raised for food today under cruel conditions in crowded confined spaces. They are denied fresh air, sunlight, a chance to exercise and the fulfillment of their natural instincts.

According to the Jewish tradition, Moses was chosen to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, because as a shepherd he showed great compassion to a lamb (Exodus Rabbah 2:2).

Fourth, many Jewish vegetarians advocate that we commemorate the redemption of our ancestors from slavery by ending the current slavery to harmful eating habits through the adoption of vegetarian diets.

Fifth, Passover is the holiday of springtime, a time of nature's renewal. It also commemorates God's supremacy over the forces of nature. In contrast, modern intensive livestock agriculture and animal-centered diets have many negative effects on the environment. They include air and water pollution, soil erosion and depletion, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, and contributions to global warming.

Jewish vegetarians view their diet as a practical way to put Jewish values into practice. They believe that Jewish mandates to show compassion to animals, take care of our health, protect the environment, conserve resources and share with hungry people, and the negative effects that animal-centered diets have in each of these areas point to vegetarianism as the ideal diet for Jews (and others) today.