With several caveats, the central halachic authority in Conservative Judaism, Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), issued a nearly unanimous ruling permitting Jews to eat in vegan or vegetarian restaurants even if they are not under rabbinic supervision. While the end result is a desirable one—opening up another avenue for plant-based foods to become a more standard part of communal fare—this teshuvah’s impact speaks to a much larger question: in the face of the widespread harm caused by industrial animal agriculture, in what ways can Judaism promote more sustainable and ethical eating?
Practically this decision affects a small segment of the liberal Jewish population: Jews who only eat in heckshered/supervised restaurants. And it also reflects what is already practiced by many in the Conservative Jewish community.
Biblically, it brings us one step closer to how we were first instructed to eat.
In the Torah we read:
Then God said, “I give you (humanity) every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. Genesis 1:29-30
In a word: in Eden we were all plant-based!
The vision here is of a world where life is sustained without violence. The garden of Eden, humanity’s first home, is an idyllic place of peace and harmony where there is no struggle, no conflict, no competition. Though humans are instructed to “tend and till the land,” (Genesis 2:15), there is no sense that great effort is required to bring forth sustenance. On the contrary, prior to humanity’s punishment for eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the earth would provide them all that was needed.
With this ruling, the CJLS takes a step toward Eden, by implicitly acknowledging the innate sanctity of a plant-based diet. No rabbis needed!
This step also brings us closer to addressing the underlying issues within our food system. For if Eden is the ideal on earth, then our current food system based on factory farming is the opposite—hell on earth. Factory farms, or CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) are a vicious and violent assault on the core Jewish values of compassion and stewardship. The Torah commands us to care for all the other animals with whom we share this earth and to not treat them cruelly. And yet tens of millions of animals are kept in appalling conditions, abused, and injected with antibiotics and other drugs on factory farms. Chickens have their beaks cut off with hot knives, cows are forcibly impregnated in order to give birth in order for us to have milk, and pigs are kept in gestation crates that do not let them move … at all. If you saw anyone treat your pet the way these animals are treated, you would be not only incensed, but morally outraged. And that is putting it mildly.
Judaism’s original vision of all life as plant-based does not mean that Judaism is a vegan tradition. It is not. As the Torah unfolds, a divine concession allows for the consumption of meat, dairy and eggs. However, that permission comes with the command to be as kind, caring, and compassionate as possible. Just because we consume does mean we can abuse. It is the exact opposite: because we consume, we must be all the more diligent to not abuse.
There is much about this teshuvah that is emblematic of Conservative Judaism and its rabbinate. It is thoughtful, well argued, and well-founded. There are skilled legal arguments as well as wisdom and deep insight into human nature. In addition, the teshuvah also raises issues concerning truth in labeling, an important issue given the deceptive and manipulative practices that animal agriculture uses to kosher humanewash their products. And to its great credit, the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Rabbis, recently passed a resolution to begin exploring ethically sourced food and is considering concrete and meaningful ways to bring this awareness to reality.
However, beyond the specifics addressed in this teshuvah is the larger question about factory farms which do not live up to our standards of compassion and stewardship. This teshuvah concerns itself eating in restaurants that lack rabbinic supervision – all well and good. And let’s also address a larger question; how kosher can the food in our own homes be if it comes from factory farms?