Welcome to the first Pacific Roots Magazine podcast episode!
A few hours before the sixth night of Hanukkah in December 2019, we chatted with Jeffrey Spitz Cohan, Executive Director of Jewish Veg. We learned more about the various dynamic programs of Jewish Veg, talked about scripture (in particular Genesis 1:26 and Genesis 1:29). We talked about kosher as “the new vegan”, the oxymoron that is the term “humane slaughter” and more. Listen to our talk & read the transcription of the interview below.
Pacific Roots Magazine Podcast Talk with Jeffrey Spitz Cohan of JewishVeg
Recorded on December 27, 2019
Annika: Thank you for meeting with me and for this chat. This is going to be one of the first podcasts for Pacific Roots Magazine so I am really excited.
Jeffrey: I’m excited too, thank you for your interest and for having me. I am really honored.
Annika: Also, happy Hanukkah! It’s the sixth day of Hanukkah correct?
Jeffrey: Yes, tonight is the sixth night of Hanukkah.
Annika: How are you celebrating? Any special foods?
Jeffrey: Well we haven’t yet made latkes at home although we might this weekend. We certainly have been lighting the menorah every night.
Annika: Wonderful, any other special food?
Jeffrey: The only other food that commonly associated with Hanukkah are jelly filled donuts which in Hebrew are called sufganiyot. On our website JewishVeg.org we have vegan versions of, of course latkes, and also these donuts.
(at this point in the video chat, Nala, official Jewish Veg cat shows up climbing on Jeffrey’s shoulders to say meow)
Annika: The reason I am talking with you is because you are the Executive Director of Jewish Veg, Pittsburgh based. How long have you been with Jewish Veg?
Jeffrey: Since 2012.
Annika: I do want to read the mission statement for listeners and viewers who are not familiar with Jewish Veg: “The mission of Jewish Veg is to encourage and help Jews to embrace plant-based diets as an expression of the Jewish values of compassion for animals, concern for health, and care for the environment.”
So anyone familiar with veganism knows this trinity of values- animals, health and environment. So it is a very straightforward but also broad and all encompassing mission statement. I love learning about the connectivity between Judaic tradition and plant-based consumption and lifestyle. So I would love to just start out with that. You even have a graphic on the website “What’s Jewish about veg?” So let’s just dive right in about plant based eating and its roots in Judaism.
Jeffrey: Well it’s not terribly complicated. It really comes down to three foundational pillars of what we call the Torah, or the Jewish Bible. The first is that a plant-based diet is definitely established as the ideal. You see this in the very first chapter of the Bible which is common to Jews and Christians- Genesis 1:29. The very first chapter of the Bible, in the creation story, we are told- our God is quoted as saying that we should eat plants exclusively. In fact, we were created to be herbivores. You see this also echoed in the Book of Isaiah, where in the Jewish tradition, it’s the most authoritative depiction of what the Messianic Era might look like. And in Isaiah we see the iconic verse “That the lion shall lie down with the lamb and eat straw like the ox.” So even the carnivorous animals will be vegan in the Messianic Era. And it says in the Book of Isaiah that the reason for this is that in the Messianic Era, the Earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, which goes back to Genesis 1:29 where God expressed the divine will, which is to eat plants. So that’s the first pillar and there’s no question that it’s the ideal.
The second pillar is this. We were given permission to eat meat in Genesis 9 for the first time, so one thousand years into the biblical story, but it’s given to us as a very reluctant concession with a lot of restrictions. So even in giving the permission it was made very clear that this is not the way to go.
And in the third pillar (in case the first two were not persuasive enough) is the Jewish or Torah mandate called tza’ar baalei chayim, which is Hebrew for ‘the prevention of animal suffering’. This is a mandate based on multiple Torah verses where we are instructed not only to prevent animal suffering but to intervene on behalf of the animal whenever we can. So when you contrast this mandate against what’s happening today in animal agriculture, it could not be more clear. Animal agriculture, even the kosher kind, is desecrating this Torah mandate. To live up to this Torah mandate, we need to consume a plant based diet.
So it’s really pretty simple. It’s those three pillars and the rest is just details.
Annika: I want to go back to Genesis 1:29, the mandate to be herbivores essentially. So we have strayed from this if we are going to look at what scripture says. In your experience communicating with people- various religious circles as well as fellow Jews – what is the discussion about Genesis 1:29 and how we have forgotten the very basic decree.
Jeffrey: With respect to Genesis 1:29 itself, there is no debate and never has been about what it means. There is no question that the original dietary instructions were to eat plants, period. But what has confused the issue for some people, is that the permission to eat meat is granted subsequent to that in Genesis 9. So because that is more recent in a sense in the biblical story, there is confusion that that takes precedence.
Really, the two should not be separated because the divine will has been, in the Jewish understanding, to eat plants, period. That has never changed. We were given permission to eat meat as a concession but people seemed to have forgotten that.
Annika: You and I spoke briefly before in a prior conversation that perhaps this is related to Genesis 1:26, which you mentioned as often misunderstood as well.
Jeffrey: Yes, thank you for bringing that up because it is so important to get that message out. Genesis 1:26, which is the dominion verse in the Bible, is the most misunderstood, mistranslated and misapplied verse in the entire Bible. I am pretty confident in saying that. The dominion verse, where we are given dominion, to use the King James translation, over the animals, it occurs in the exact same conversation (it is only three verses away) where we are told to eat plants. So it could not be more clear that the dominion verse and the granting of dominion did not give human beings license to kill animals for food. After all, it’s part of the same conversation.
The second thing is this- you do hear people now discussing that a better translation would be stewardship. Of course, the Bible was not written in English. It was written in Hebrew and the Hebrew word is yirdu. Yirdu connotes kingship. A king, in the biblical sense, is not a tyrant. In the biblical sense, a king’s first obligation is to take care of the widow, the orphan and the marginalized. Take care of the flock, his people. So, ‘this is our dominion’ needs to be understood. We were given authority from God to take care of the animals, essentially we were given the responsiblity to take care of the animals, the same way a king has responsibility to take care of his subjects.
Annika: Right, I think that’s great to point out about stewardship – in fact I have this series which this will be a part of that I have titled “Faith, Sustainability and Stewardship” and I chose the term ‘stewardship’ precisely for the spiritual and religious connection with humanity and the environment – the planet.
Moving forward, I would love to talk more about theology but also address organizationally what you are doing at Jewish Veg because it’s fascinating. It’s really exciting so maybe we can briefly touch on some of the activities.
Jeffrey: We are in the middle of Hanukkah and we just completed 3 vegan Hanukkah parties – in Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C. – where we brought people together to celebrate the holiday in a vegan fashion. And of course the themes of Hanukkah really lend themselves to this issue. Because we light the menorah around the Winter Solstice to be spreading light, just when things are darkest. And when you think about it, what we are doing at Jewish Veg is shining a light on really the darkest places on our planet which are the factory farms and slaughterhouses. Spiritually, these are some of the darkest places. So to be shining a light on these issues, we feel is very consistent with the themes of Hanukkah.
We have something called the Jewish Vegan Holiday Initiative, where we are helping people celebrate all the Jewish holidays, in a vegan fashion. Most notably that includes Passover which is the most celebrated Jewish holiday. Last year we held 5 vegan Passover Seders around the States and I think we will do maybe 6 or 7 this year. So we are helping Jews celebrate all the holidays. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Tu B’shvat, Sukkot – all of these holidays in a vegan fashion.
A couple of other initiatives (I could talk about all of them but I don’t want to spend two hours doing that) – we are very well known for our vegan Birthright trips. As you may know, Israel has become, by some measures, the most vegan friendly country in the world. Yet Birthright, which sends thousands of young adults to Israel every year, was not even touching on this. So we, in partnership with an organization called Mayanot, which runs Birthright trips, we created the first Vegan Birthright trips. These are trips in which not only the foods are 100% vegan but it also showcases the vegan movement in Israel, which Birthright loves, and we love it.
Annika: Do you coordinate other types of trips to Israel?
Jeffrey: It’s funny you mention that as there is an age cap on Birthright, so yes, lots of (more than we can count) adults have contacted us, asking us if we can organize a vegan tour of Israel, which we are going to do. I can’t give you an exact date but our Board of Directors has heard the call of so many people saying ‘It’s great you are doing Birthright, but what about us adults?’, so yes we intend to do that. It makes sense.
Annika: That’s really exciting. I know you are based in the USA and work with these trips to Israel, but do you foresee expanding to other countries?
Jeffrey: Yes, in fact we have had some presentations in Canada. Another one of our signature programs is our Speakers Bureau. We give presentations, mainly about the Jewish basis for a vegan lifestyle, in synagogues, at Jewish Community Centers, at Hillels on college campuses- wherever Jews are gathered and organized. So we have given presentations in Canada, specifically Vancouver, and we are organizing now in Toronto to do some presentations in 2020. Certainly, all our resources, our website, our rabbinic statement, all these things have circulated around the world. So we have a global impact in that sense. We are happy to go, to the extent our resources permit us, anywhere. The one place they do not need as so much is Israel itself as they have such a robust vegan movement themselves.
Annika: You and I have spoken before also about one issue that is very controversial- the oxymoron that is ‘humane slaughter.’ Of course this is all around the world and as a marketing tool in the US, but we have touched on the controversy around kosher slaughter, and some of the work you are doing on awareness related to this issue.
Jeffrey: I think it is important to say that Jewish Veg is agnostic on the question “Is kosher slaughter better or worse?”, because it is our position that there is no good way to slaughter an animal. So its kind of absurd to argue that this way is better than that way. I will say that when the kosher laws were written about 1000 years ago, the actual details of slaughter, it was an improvement over what was happening in the world at the time.
Here is the issue. The laws of kosher, of kashrut, were intended to make eating meat difficult. The restrictions are numerous. What happened to subvert this and undermine it, is the kosher meat industry rose after the Industrial Revolution, making kosher meat readily available in stores, especially kosher stores. So now kosher meat, especially if you live in a big city, is very easy to obtain. It was never supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be difficult to produce. It has turned kashrut almost upside down.
The second thing we have seen, most notably in the case of Agriprocessors, which was the largest kosher meat company by far in the States, is that it was discovered that they were slaughtering animals in a way that did not look kosher but also that they were abusing Guatemalan and Mexican immigrant labor. Eventually the CEO of Agriprocessors was prosecuted, convicted and sent to federal prison. This just goes to show how the kosher meat industry has gone astray.
Annika: Well that goes right in with entire animal ag systems- slaughterhouses are not healthy places for humans either. It’s very interesting to hear how kosher meat fits into this bigger picture as well of animal agriculture really getting completely out of hand. But this is in part why Jewish Veg (and other organizations) exist now. We are talking about these issues and awareness is growing.
I saw this quote on the Jewish Veg website by Rabbi David Rosen “Veganism is the new kosher.
Jeffrey: Yes, I love Rabbi David Rosen. He is a very prominent orthodox Rabbi based in Jerusalem now. He used to be the chief Rabbi in Ireland. He says “Veganism is the new kashrut” and any other type of kashrut or kosher is highly problematic. The reason he says this and the reason you see 75 rabbis on that rabbinic statement, is that if Tza’ar ba’alei chayim (which you heard me talk about a moment ago, this mandate to prevent animal suffering) – if that is being violated in the process of producing meat and how the animals are treated, then it doesn’t matter how you slaughter them because the entire process was enabled by a violation of Tza’ar ba’alei chayim.
To back up a second, to put this in context, no kosher meat company raises its own animals. This is not widely understood. No kosher meat company raises its own animals. They buy their animals from factory farms primarily, the same place any of the secular meat companies get their animals. So the kosher meat company takes ownership of the animal at the door of the slaughterhouse.
So of course, Tza’ar ba’alei chayim is being violated from day one of the animals life in the factory farming system. So the entire process is being enabled by a sin. This will make sense to anybody, religious or not. In the Jewish ethical system, you cannot have a mitzvah, a good deed, enabled by a sin. Right? You can’t rob a bank to get money to give to a charity. So even if you consider kosher slaughter to be mitzvah in the Jewish context, if it is enabled by a sin it can’t be a mitzvah. So therefore, thats why David Rosen said, any other kosher other than veganism is highly problematic. Its really the way the animal is slaughtered which is what makes it kosher but it’s a moot point as it only got to that point because of violations of the Torah mandate.
Annika: Yes, the entire raising of the animal was a sin, the entire way the animal was treated prior to arriving at the slaughterhouse. Why do you think people don’t think about this? You have been vegan since 2010, I have been vegan since 2014. But broadly speaking we as humans are kind of divorced from this very basic awareness. You at some point in your life were buying kosher not thinking about, ‘Hmm, how was the animal raised?’. I certainly know I wasn’t- I spent many years consuming meat and dairy etc, the common vegan story that there was a period in our lives when we didn’t think about this. So in the Jewish reference are you seeing a lot of A-ha moments when you discuss this aspect of kosher?
Jeffrey: Well here’s the interesting thing. Although Jewish Veg stands on such a strong foundation, we shouldn’t even need to exist, when you think about it. But, in reality, people are motivated by a personal value system which has its sources in different places, including Judaism. So when we are talking with people about the way the animals are treated, it offends their very basic personal principles, their own internal values. So in a sense, our job is very difficult. We are asking people to change what they eat 3 times a day, whenever they eat. But at the same time, we are not trying to change anyone’s mind. We are just trying to get them to connect what they are doing with what they already believe. Because what is happening in animal agriculture today is gravely offensive to virtually any decent person’s own value system.
Annika: One of my final questions was talking about just that- Jewish Veg’s role in the paradigm shift. You are part of the paradigm shift of awareness. There is nothing new about plant based eating or humans existing as primarily herbivores but this movement of veganism is really growing. So, as you said, Jewish Veg shouldn’t need to exist but you do, as with many of these other faith based animal and vegan advocacy organizations which are really exciting. At the same time, it would be nice to envision a world where this advocacy did not need to exist.
I am very fascinated and excited though by what you are doing and it signals to me the shift. I just want to touch on that in closing. I know you work with other organizations and we might like to think of a world where these things didn’t exist and where we had a more holistic relationship with fellow species and were not dealing with these huge looming issues. But what I like about your organization is that you are making an impact and in this very fascinating way- through Judaism, through religious and cultural beliefs, which extend to so many people on the planet. Any thoughts about this?
Jeffrey: I love that term ‘paradigm shift’ because that’s exactly what we are seeing. Certainly on one level, this work can be very depressing, because we know what’s happening out there and it’s happening on a massive scale in animal agriculture. But the thing that really gives us hope. actually its not hope it’s happening, is that the vegan movement is growing at an incredible pace. Just what I have seen in my seven years on the job is remarkable and it seems like there are new things happening practically every day or certainly every week- there’s a new announcement about chains announcing vegan dishes, or designers no longer using fur. I could go on and on, it’s really amazing. And this makes our job much easier. Because in Judaism, it actually says that the Rabbis cannot impose a restriction that the people cannot accept. Even if it is a highly ethical thing, if people cannot implement it, you can’t impose it. That excuse actually applied to this issue for maybe centuries. You couldn’t ask people to make this transition as it would be very difficult to do. But today, that excuse is out the window. The marketplace has, thankfully, furnished us with so many plant-based options. The same within restaurants, the supermarkets, the vegan cookbooks in our bookstores, the recipes online, on and on. There is no excuse not to do it. The resources are there and the products are there for your shopping cart and table.
Annika: Exactly. Speaking of resources, as we close of our conversation here, Jewish Veg resources people can find at the website correct?
Jeffrey: Yes, we really encourage people to do that. The most visited part of our website are the recipes. So of course a lot of traditional Jewish recipes have animal products in them but we have vegan versions of virtually all of them. And you can make them, sometimes even better than the original version, without hurting an animal.
A few key resources of note discussed in our dialogue:
At the Jewish Veg Website https://www.jewishveg.org/ you can find the following resources:
-Download or order a 4 page infographic which explains in a ‘colorful, almost whimsical way’ what the Jewish basis for a vegan lifestyle is. Jeffrey explains that people love these infographics because you can digest the whole thing in 3 or 4 minutes and then have a good fundamental grasp.
-Vegan Passover cookbook (in the online store at Jewish Veg), a bestselling cookbook at Jewish Veg. The recipes are great all year long but are also specifically kosher and for Passover. People love this book, Jeffrey explains, because it’s all they truly need for a vegan Passover seder in their home.
Visit link for Vegan Passover cookbook here
-Recently added to the book collection in the store is a children’s book which presents compassion to animals in a very gentle way, specifically farm animals. The book is not Jewish but was written by two Jewish authors who support the work of Jewish Veg.
Visit link for Children’s book here
Visit Jewish Veg online for more information & resources: https://www.jewishveg.org/