Vegetarianism is not just a lifestyle choice or the latest fad, but rather a mitzvah that is in line with the ethical and moral teachings of the Torah and halacha - so says a new documentary, "A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Save The World," which was screened for the first time at the Israel Center in Jerusalem this past Monday.
With environmental activism increasingly gaining traction in the public consciousness, "A Sacred Duty" trains a critical eye on the consumption of meat, which it claims is a far bigger hazard to the environment which also poses complex moral questions.
"It is important that people know the realities behind their foods," said Dr. Richard H. Schwartz, who serves as president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America, the Virginia-based organization which underwrote the making of the film. "If these realities are so shocking that people would greatly prefer not to see it, perhaps people should not eat these foods."
Indeed, to drive home the point, the film makes use of footage gathered by animal rights organizations capturing the prevalent abuses and animal cruelty practiced by the meat industry. One scene depicts the forced debeaking of laying hens to prevent them from fighting one another in the crammed cages into which they are held. Viewers are also shown the mass discarding of live male hens who do not lay eggs nor do are they suitable for meat production, the force-feeding of geese so as to enlarge their liver to meet the demand for the pricy delicacy, and dairy cows and sheep who have their tales curbed.
"A basic question for Jews should be is tsa'ar ba'alei chaim, the mandate to avoid causing ay unnecessary pain to animals, being violated," Schwartz said. "Unfortunately, the facts have been hidden far too long from the public."
"One can't deny that Judaism condones meat eating," Rabbi David Rosen, the former chief rabbi of Ireland and a contributor to the film, said. "Nevertheless [Judaism] seeks to regulate such provision under circumstances that will minimalize animal suffering. That indicates Judaism's concern not just with point Z in the process [of meat production] but A to Y."
"Even if meat eating was a mitzvah, this would be a situation of a mitzvah haba b'aveira, a legitimate ends that comes through illegitimate means, and therefore could not be considered to be halachically justified under those circumstances," Rabbi Rosen said.
Rosen recalled his experiences visiting slaughterhouses for the first time as a member of the Bet Din in Cape Town, South Africa.
"This was quite a shocking experience for me," Rosen said. "It posed initially a simple moral question for me. If what you see you find horrific and if you could avoid it is it right for other people to do it and for you to benefit from it?"
"As a believing, practicing Jew, religion is not something segmented from the rest of one's life," Rosen said. "It relates to questions of ethics, of health, and certainly of treatment of animals. All these are religious issues."
The film notes the correlation between countries whose high incidences of cancer is proportional to its high intake of animal fat. Recognition of the health dangers of meat consumption thus mandates Jews apply the halachic principle of pikuach nefesh, the saving of a life.
"If we want to reverse the epidemic of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and other degenerative diseases that have been afflicting the Jewish community and other communities, it is essential that we recognize the connections between animal-scented diets and disease, and act accordingly," said Schwarz, who is also the author of the book Judaism and Vegetarianism.
"I think that religious Jewish vegetarianism is really a pioneering role in terms of the Messianic vision that Judaism has for human kind," Rosen said. "It's a role that was almost impossible to undertake in eras past for various social and cultural reasons. Today it's possible to do so. I believe that Jewish vegetarianism is a religious imperative for the person who is a religiously responsible Jew."
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