Rabbi Yossi Feintuch says vegetarianism is a religious ideal.
“When you read about the abuse of animals in our own industrial meat production, then you cannot say that God’s idea about compassion for animals is achieved,” he says.
Feintuch blames the nature of modern-day factory farming. “When a shepherd slaughters his sheep, he has some personal sentiments for her, and he will do his best to make sure that she suffers the least, but that is not a value in the meat factory,” Feintuch says. “Judaism cannot be a part of that, as I see it.”
Born in Israel, Feintuch has been the rabbi of Columbia’s only synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom, for the past 11 years, where he often discusses vegetarianism as a Jewish ideal. He was ordained in 1994 by the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati and spent three years at a congregation in the Caribbean, on the island of Curacao. He also holds a bachelor’s degree from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a master’s degree from New York University and a doctorate from Emory University.
Feintuch considers himself to be a vegetarian with a vegan ideology: no meat, limited eggs and limited dairy. Feintuch recalls his pre-vegetarian love for meat. He said he was living in Atlanta with his wife, Judy, when he heard a radio station offer a free dinner to anyone whose name the DJ couldn’t pronounce. “So they sent us actually to a restaurant because, of course, they mispronounced my last name,” Feintuch says. “The steaks that came, it just came as a steak, not even potatoes or french fries or a salad. This was an expensive restaurant, this was a gourmet restaurant, but the steak was so delicious you didn’t need anything but the steak.”
The vegetarian shift came to the Feintuch family through Yossi’s two sons.
“We weren’t as intense about it as we are now because we didn’t know as much as we do now about the meat industry,” says Zevi Feintuch, now 24. “I was 15, and my brother (Eran) was 13. It was originally his idea, and we basically just really loved animals, so we didn’t want them to be killed for us anymore.”
Feintuch says that once his children stopped eating meat, he and his wife decided to join them. Feintuch then decided to look for ideological and religious reasons that supported his new decision. “I wanted something more solid, and I went to investigate what the Jewish tradition has to say about it,” he says. “I saw that, actually, I have very solid ground to walk on.”
Now, at the mere mention of vegetarianism, Feintuch can quickly list biblical passages that speak to his cause. In Hillel’s student lounge at MU, he pauses only to look behind him for text to pull out and support his points. “I teach this stuff, and this is a part of the Torah,” he says, somewhat combatively. “This is not extrapolation. This is what you read in text, so you don’t need to stretch your mind too much to understand it. This is really the facts as they are.” He often mentions the biblical prohibition of “tsa’ar ba’alei chayim,” or inflicting unnecessary pain on animals.
Feintuch explains that in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Adam (“the two of them, the he and the she, the two were called Adam”) ate only fruit and vegetables. He says Noah brought only vegetarian food on the ark for himself and the animals.
“Not that I necessarily read it as a true, factual story, historical story, but it’s the messages that I derive from it, and so the message is that the animals on Noah’s ark did not eat meat.”
He says the Israelites wandered in the desert with flocks they didn’t want to eat but that when they cried out for meat, God sent them quail. He said this teaches that meat-eating should not be an everyday occurrence.
“The association is that you have to crave it, like you have to lust for meat,” he says. “It’s only when you really, really want it so badly, then ultimately secular slaughtering is permitted.”
Feintuch uses the term secular slaughtering to refer to killing done for a purpose other than sacrifice.
He adds that animal sacrifices were not originally a Jewish tradition but a pagan tradition that Jews used to imitate. Feintuch says Isaiah described the Messianic era as vegetarian.
“How do we know that this is not a redeemed world and that the Messiah has not come yet? We still eat meat.”
Zevi Feintuch is now a vegan – no meat, milk or eggs – and disagrees with his father’s emphasis on vegetarianism as a religious ideal. He says to his father: “The one thing about taking the religious aspect is that you can only affect people in your religion with that.”
Yossi Feintuch responded by saying that other religions, not just Judaism, place emphasis on animal welfare.
National organizations share Feintuch’s belief in religion-based vegetarianism. In an e-mail to religious leaders, Richard Schwartz, president of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America, writes: “This dietary change would be consistent with important Jewish mandates to preserve our health; treat animals with compassion; protect the environment; conserve natural resources; help hungry people; and pursue a more peaceful, less violent world.” His Web site, along with that of the Society for Ethical and Religious Vegetarians, offers statistics and text to support a commitment to spiritual vegetarianism.
While explaining his religious rationale, Feintuch pauses to admit that meat eating is, in fact, a big part of Jewish tradition. The laws of keeping kosher outline procedures for killing, preparing and eating animals. He reconciles this apparent disconnect by referring to Moses Maimonedes, a 12th-century Jewish philosopher. Feintuch says Maimonedes thought the complex dietary restrictions were meant to frustrate people enough to give up meat altogether. Feintuch says he agrees with this interpretation. “Animals are far and far from being an afterthought in the Torah,” he says. “We are to consider their existence as our core fellow creatures.”
Feintuch says that whether it outright encourages or enforces vegetarianism, the Jewish tradition clearly teaches God’s compassion for animals.