The Rise of the Vegan Seder
by Andrew Michaels
It’s probably safe to say that most Jews gathering around the table this Passover expect to see a shank bone as the zeroa, representing the Paschal sacrifice, and an egg as the beitzah, a reminder of the festival offering at the Temple in Jerusalem. For some Jews, the traditional seder plate may even feel mandatory. But with one in ten millennials in the United States eating vegan or vegetarian diets, it may be time for a change in expectations.
The Talmudic passage of Pesachim.114b specifies that beets and wild rice may be used as a replacement for the shank bone and egg, as they constitute two cooked foods. For Jews avoiding kitniyot, which rules out rice, a popular replacement for the egg is an avocado, which represents fertility through both its visual similarities to the egg and its roundness. Mushrooms have also been suggested by some Jewish vegans, with their wild growth perhaps bringing to mind fertility.
“Passover is obviously intended to remind us of our experience in slavery and to celebrate freedom,” says Jeffrey Cohan, executive director of Jewish Veg, an organization encouraging vegetarian and vegan diets within the Jewish community. “That makes it particularly ironic to consume animal products on Passover, which are created through exploitation and enslavement and treated very cruelly, even in a kosher context.”
Still, many feel that meat continues to play an important spiritual role in the Jewish community. Naftali Hanau, a trained shochet and the owner of Grow and Behold Foods, a kosher pasteurized meat company, says that kosher slaughter is not just an element of tradition, but an act of respect. “No system is perfect, but [kashrut] requires that the person doing the slaughter has to be highly trained, be known (and be held accountable) by the community, and have a ‘fear of heaven,’ that is awe and reverence for our traditions and the holiness of the task,” Hanau wrote in an e-mail. “The fact that it is such a highly trained, learned, and respected person who performs this work shows the value that our tradition places both on the life of animals, and the people who eat them,” says Hanau.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the founder of the Shamayim V’aretz Institute, a California-based organization that has lobbied for reductions in meat consumption and revoking kosher certifications for slaughterhouses using inhumane methods, along with all types of veal. He is also a member of the Jewish Veg rabbinic council. I spoke with him to learn a bit more about the Jewish angle on a vegan or vegetarian diet.
With vegetarianism on the rise among millennials, are we seeing a growth in vegan and vegetarian diets among American Jews?
Absolutely. There is an enormous surge in the Jewish community with vegetarianism, veganism and meat reductionism: those who are not vegetarians but who are reducing their intake. There are a couple of factors: One, Israel is the leading country per capita in terms of vegans. So Israel has really shaped this discourse. Also, the number of studies that have come out that show the harmful health impacts of consuming animal products have been very well read and discussed in the Jewish community. And the Jewish values around compassion to animals have been really emphasized over the past couple of years. It used to be that vegetarians and vegans were kind of marginalized in their communities, and more and more we’re seeing that we’re growing micro-communities within every community that hold these values.
Can you speak a bit about Shamayim V’aretz and what you do?
Essentially, we are promoting campaigns around animal welfare, we are doing national education, we’re doing an annual leadership retreat, we put together curriculum for schools, and we have videos and awareness campaigns. Essentially, not just promoting reducing meat intake, not just promoting vegetarianism and veganism, but also to be a part of creating change. Making sure the animals that are in factories are treated better than they are.
Do you think it’s more effective to target the Jewish community because you’re already speaking in similar terms?
Exactly. There’s a big social justice movement in the Jewish community, and it’s very important, but it’s limited to humans. And I’m a part of that, but it’s also important to promote compassion to animals.
You’ve spoken of meat reductionism for people who aren’t ready to become vegetarians or vegans. Can you speak to that as a goal?
I think we’re finding that everyone is not going to go vegetarian or vegan. But everyone can, and responsibly should, reduce their meat intake. Not only for the health of the body, but also because of the cruelty happening in the industry. And the factory farming industry produces worse environmental impacts than the automotive industry. So people are now thinking about getting hybrid cars, but they should also think about how they’re going to cut down on their meat intake.
On March 28 you put forward a petition on Care2 asking for more transparent ethical policies for kosher certification. Can you speak a bit about that?
There’s been a lot of questions about the ethics in the kosher industry, and all we’re calling for here is that every kosher certification agency put forward a transparent ethics policy. We’re not even telling them what that should be, but in terms of fraud, in terms of labor abuse, in terms of animal abuse, there should be a red line on where they should pull their kosher certification. As of now there are no ethical policies that are transparent to the community. So I’ve organized heads of virtually all of the Jewish denominations to call on these agencies to put forth their policies with this petition.
Do you think that the immigration raid at Agriprocessors and the subsequent allegations against the company—which included allegations of child labor and animal rights abuses and ended with their executive Sholom Rubashkin being sentenced to 27 years in prison—changed the Jewish dialogue surrounding the meat industry?
Dramatically. There are a lot of people who have become disillusioned with how things are operating. Uri L’Tzedek started something called Tav HaYosher, an ethical seal that is given to restaurants that obey labor laws. It’s still not even close to enough, we haven’t scratched the surface of really having any victories in improving the industry. It’s why we put this petition forward, because we don’t feel the industry is adequately responding to the consumers.
When people hear about ethical standards for kosher foods, one response they give is that it’s a solely ritual matter, and shouldn’t be entangled with ethics. How would you respond to this critique?
There’s no doubt that from the traditional perspective—and I myself am a Modern Orthodox rabbi—the kosher laws are separate laws from the ethical concerns. However, even though they’re separate, they seem to be intertwined. There’s a famous story about Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Musar movement, who was asked to certify a matzah factory, and after he inspected it, and saw everything was kosher, they asked for the certification. He said, “I will not, because even though everything is kosher, I’ve seen how you treat the women who work here, so I will not certify this factory as kosher.” So there’s precedent for saying something can be ritually kosher, but it betrays Jewish law and values in other respects.
And how do you think this all connects to Passover?
I think that Passover is a time to consider liberation from suffering. And I think it behooves all Jews, not only vegetarians and vegans and animal welfare activists, but those who care about Jewish values, to raise a voice of consciousness for the suffering of animals today and do their part and try to bring more compassion into the world.