Sacrificing a sacred Cow: The New Jewish Dietary Imperative

By Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz

“The term sacred cow has passed into the English language to mean an object or practice which is considered immune from criticism.” (Wikipedia)

“Can you imagine a supermarket allowing ‘Attention, Planet-Destroying Carnivores’ on the in-store radio?” (Hank Stewart, Green Team Advertising)

“We do not find lecturing people about personal consumption choices to be effective.”
(Carl Pope, Sierra Club)

Greetings to all you planet-destroying carnivores… and now that I have your attention, thank you for this opportunity to lecture. The subject of dictating to people what they should eat is one of the last great taboos in our society. Our diet is, ironically enough, a sacred cow. People positively bristle at criticism of their consumption.

Meat eaters resent vegetarians. Vegetarians look down upon meat eaters.

Junk food consumers resent health nuts. Organic types look down upon fast food addicts.

Kosher observers resent treif eaters. Non-kosher Jews look askance at their dietary challenged fellows.

The sacrifice of a sacred cow is always a messy affair. People take it way too personally. In light of all these sensitivities, since I’m talking about food and what you should eat, permit me to present at the outset what this brief essay is, and is not.

This essay is a call for new Jewish dietary imperative. It is not a call for vegetarianism, but is a call for a significantly reduced meat diet.

This essay is an examination of environmental ethics. It is not judgment on the personal ethics of meat eating, or the personal health implications of dietary choice, but is a critique of the global consequences of such consumption.

My two-fold thesis is simple: We should eat less meat to save the planet, and eating less meat may be (surprisingly) the single most important thing you can personally do to reduce global warming.

I don’t think you will hear a single major environmental organization say that. Nor will you hear a single major Jewish organization say that. The freedom of dietary choice is a sacred cow. The sacrifice of this sacred cow for the welfare of our planet is the reason I am writing this article.

Even Al Gore won’t talk about it. When pressed, he declines comment. Gore’s press secretary says only that a suggestion to “modify your diet to include less meat” appears on page 317 of Mr. Gore’s book version of “An Inconvenient Truth.”

More importantly, a landmark study on the subject was released by the United Nations two years ago. The study has been essentially ignored both in the environmental world and the Jewish community.

Do you call yourself an environmentalist? I will argue that to do so with integrity means modifying your current diet in favor of a more eco-tolerable one.

Do you call yourself a Jewish environmentalist? I will argue that to do so means re-reading the Torah with a planetary kavannah (intentionality).

Do you “keep kosher”? I will argue that whether you are glatt kosher or eco-kosher, or anything in between, you need to eat lower on the food chain.

Every society, and every religion, has its sacred cows. Yet Judaism has historically shown no reserve to both prescribe and proscribe what we eat. On the other hand, the culture around is much more inhibited. What we eat is our personal business. That is the ethic most Jews buy into. The problem is the planet. We are now discovering that what we eat is also the planet’s business. Our meat guzzling diets are affecting global pollution, and therefore global warming, like never before. The inconvenient truth is that what we put in our mouths may have more effect on our planet than anything else we do.

Given our dietary heritage, the link Judaism has always drawn between food and faith, consideration of modifying our diet should be considered a religious duty. Given our emerging planetary consciousness, such a duty becomes an ecological imperative as well. As Jews and as world citizens we should longer be worshipping the sacred cow of unbridled dietary indulgence. This is one cow that needs to be sacrificed. No one can stop us from our destructive idolatry except ourselves. A new voluntary Jewish dietary ethic, like most self-imposed disciplines (especially diets), is neither easy nor reliable. But that is where we must start.

“Kavod Kal Habriyot”: A Jewish planetary ethic.

In “Food and Faith: The Ethical Foundations of the Biblical Diet Laws,” esteemed scholar Jacob Milgrom posits that the basic tenets of biblical kashrut (the prohibition against ingesting blood, the severe limitation on permitted species, and the prescribed method of slaughter) “can only be explained by an ethical hypothesis.” (1) Milgrom identifies that hypothesis as “reverence for life.” He notes that the three fundamental restrictions on how we eat all teach reverence by acknowledging that “bringing death to living things is a concession of God’s grace and not a privilege of human whim.” Like ancient and contemporary thinkers before him, Milgrom understands the Torah to be deeply concerned that the carnivorous desires of the human species can easily desensitize us at best, dehumanize us at worst.

What the Torah and its commentators could not imagine is that our carnivorous inclination could threaten not only ourselves, but our planet. If we accept that contention (see part two of this article), then it seems to me that contemporary Judaism is in need of a new, even broader ethical hypothesis. I will call that principle “kavod kal habriyot -reverence for all creation.” The expression “kavod habriyot” is most often used as a technical term in rabbinic literature for “human dignity.” I propose an expansion of the term, linguistically and spiritually, to embrace the planet as a whole. The dignity and basic well being of the entire earth is what is at stake here.

In the same way that “reverence for life” led to biblically imposed limitations on what and how we eat, so “reverence for all creation” should lead to new self-imposed restrictions on what we ingest.

The Torah’s ethical hypothesis in no way challenged the radical monotheism of the Bible. In fact, it only affirmed it by insisting that the daily act of feeding ourselves must always be an acknowledgment of God’s grace. Likewise, our new Jewish ethical hypothesis in no way challenges Judaism’s traditional teaching, but extends it. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” Reverence for the earth is not worship of the planet any more than reverence for life is worship of the human being or animals. Rather, it is an affirmation of God as creator and sustainer by insisting that even our daily act of eating must bring minimal harm to our world.

Meat and the Planet

In November of 2006 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization released a groundbreaking report entitled “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” (2) The 390 page study, by six leading researchers and scores of contributors, aimed to assess the full global impact of the livestock industry on the environment. The executive summary concluded that “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” Among the more startling findings of the report:

1. Air pollution: Livestock agriculture emits more greenhouse gases than all the world’s transportation sources combined (18 percent vs. 13.5%).

2. Deforestation: Livestock production accounts for 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the total land surface of the planet. This production is arguably the leading cause of global deforestation today. In the Amazon alone, 70% of previous forested land is occupied by pastures, with feed crops covering a large part of the remainder.

3. Water pollution: In the United States, livestock is responsible for 55% of soil erosion and sediment buildup, 37% of pesticide use, and 33% of nitrogen and phosphorous contamination of freshwater. By 2025 2/3 of the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas.

The UN Report notes that per capita consumption of meat has doubled worldwide since 1961. The rate is twice that in the developing world during the last twenty years. Global production of meat (already 40% of the world’s agricultural gross domestic product) is projected to double again by 2050. The Report warns that “the environmental impact per unit of livestock production must be cut by half, just to avoid increasing the level of damage beyond its present level.” About the only optimistic note of the Report is the conclusion us that while livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale, so too its potential contributions to their solution is equally large. The proposed policy changes detailed in the study could result in major reductions in impact at “reasonable” costs.

Add to the UN’s global wake-up call these other astonishing figures (3):

1. Some 800 million people on the planet still suffer from hunger or malnutrition. Yet the vast majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds livestock, not humans. Yet it takes two to five times more grain to raise livestock than feed people directly. That ratio rises to ten times more in the case of America’s favorite: grain-fed beef.

2. Beef meals can often use 15-20 times the amount of fossil fuel energy in their preparation as vegetarian meals.

3. Americans eat close to 200 pounds of meat per capita per year, an increase of 50 pounds per person from 50 years ago. We each consume about 110 grams of protein (most from animals) a day, twice the government’s recommended allowance. Many dietary experts say we would do fine with 30 grams a day.

Geophysicist Gidon Eshel of the Bard Center has calculated that the reduction of our collective meat consumption by just 20% would be comparable to every American driving an ultra-efficient Prius instead of a standard sedan. Aware of the science that suggests that we can cut our meat consumption in half and still meet the government’s generous protein guidelines, Professor Eshel maintains that “The good of people’s bodies and the good of the planet are more or less perfectly aligned.” So too, the UN report states: “There are reasons for optimism that the conflicting demands for animal products and environmental services can be reconciled. Both demands are exerted by the same group of people…the relatively affluent, middle-to-high-income class, which is no longer confined to industrialized countries….This group of consumers is probably ready to use its growing voice to exert pressure for change and may be willing to absorb the inevitable price increases.”

A Challenge to the Jewish Community

My congregation recently passed a resolution pledging to lower its carbon footprint. We worked to calculate our synagogue’s environmental impact, and sponsored a workshop to measure our personal footprint as well. The personal exercise was an eye-opener for all involved. Worldwide there are 4.7 biologically productive acres available per person to sustain the world’s population (excluding the needs of the rest of the animal and plant kingdom). My lifestyle resulted in a need for 28 acres; even higher than the United Sates average of 24 acres (the most inflated in the world). (4)

Not unexpectedly, the greatest culprits in the calculation were the size (energy use) of my house, and the amount of my family’s travel. Close behind was food. In fact, for many people in the exercise food was #2 or even #1 in terms of ecological impact. This fact was the most disconcerting of the day for almost every participant.

Few people can change their home, especially during child rearing years, or change their work, which accounts for most travel. But we can change what we eat. Many Americans have grown accustomed to eating meat three times a day. As noted previously, we ply our bodies with twice the protein we need. The choice of meat-like substitutes is greater than ever (and the taste is getting better and better).

This essay is a call for the institutions of American Judaism to take the lead in recognizing the dietary impact of excessive meat consumption on global warming and pollution.

Can the American Jewish community be in the vanguard of diet based ecological change? The sacrifice of a sacred cow is involved. Our diets should not be immune to criticism. We come from an ancient tradition that eschews idolatry, promulgates dietary restrictions, and reveres life. The foundation is there, but the will to make it happen is up to us.


1. Jacob Milgrim, “Food and Faith: The Ethical Foundations of the Biblical Diet Laws,” Bible Review (December, 1992) pp.5,10.

2. H. Steinfeld, P. Gerber, T. Wassenaar, V. Castel, M. Rosales, C. de Haan, Livestock’s Long Shadow (New York: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 2006).

3. Mark Bittman, Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler,” New York Times (January 27, 2008).

4. Calculation from worksheet at Resolution can be viewed at