Brumberg Kraus on Labendz and Yanklowitz, 'Jewish Veganism and Vegetarianism: Studies and New Directions'

Author: 
Jacob Ari Labendz, Shmuly Yanklowitz, eds.
Reviewer: 
Jonathan Brumberg Kraus

Jacob Ari Labendz, Shmuly Yanklowitz, eds. Jewish Veganism and Vegetarianism: Studies and New Directions. Albany: SUNY Press, 2019. xxiii + 348 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4384-7361-1.

Reviewed by Jonathan Brumberg Kraus (Wheaton College, MA) Published on H-Judaic (April, 2020) Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54677 

This collection of essays is an outstanding introduction and report on past and current trends in Jewish vegetarianism and Jewish veganism, including many original and thought-provoking reflections on the convergence of animal rights, Jewish traditions, and performances of contemporary Jewish identities, especially through food choices. Hence, it makes a substantial contribution to Jewish food studies, Jewish identity studies, and the comparative cultural study of the ethical treatment of animals.

The editors, Jacob Ari Labendz and Shmuly Yanklowitz, leading scholars and activists of the contemporary Jewish vegetarian and vegan food movement (or Jewish “veg’ism,” to use Aaron Gross’s shorthand for “the spectrum of plant-based diets that run from vegan to ovo-lacto vegetarian,” p. 325), have organized their book into two parts. “Studies” is comprised of seven essays on the “historical, literary, and sociological contexts” of Jewish veg’ism from the Talmudic era to modern Israel, Europe, and North America (p. xv). The second part, “New Directions,” consists of seven more essays “reflective” of current ethical, theological, and cultural issues and debates in Jewish veg’ism from a variety of perspectives (pp. xv-xvi). Following that is a brief and useful history of the Jewish vegan and vegetarian movements in North America (Sarah Chandler and Jeffrey Cohan), inf which many of the contributors were active participants. They are sandwiched between an introductory essay by Labendz and Yanklowitz and an afterward by Gross that provide a coherent thematic and programmatic framework for the collection as a whole. It is work of scholar activism, which is part of the nature of vegetarian and vegan studies, since most of the scholars in this field have personal commitments to these practices and advocate them generally. However, this in no way diminishes the scholarship in this book. In fact, it enhances it, since the contributors generally not only acknowledge their stake in the game but also use the tools of critical scholarship to distinguish carefully between what the sources in texts and lived practices say and what they would like them to say.

In this light, many of the essays are exemplary in the way they present compelling integrations of the authors’ personal autobiographies and veg’ist commitments and sound critical scholarship. Particularly successful are the ways Adrienne Krone, Sherry Colb, and Jacob Labendz interweave their personal stories and practices to support the critical points they make in their essays. Irad Ben Isaak’s essay on the Yiddish poet Melekh Ravitch’s “conversion” to vegetarianism in a way provides a kind of paradigm to recognize the trope of vegetarian or vegan conversion stories typical in the rhetoric of many of the veg’ist essays in this book and other veg’ist writing. It’s a thing, as Adrienne Krone points out in her references to the scholarship on the formation of vegan identities.[1]

The essays in the book offer a thorough and wide-ranging introduction to Jewish vegan and vegetarian studies. Most of the basic sources for vegan/vegetarian arguments in Jewish interpretation are covered in one or usually more of the essays, namely, vegetarianism as concession in the Bible (Gen 1:29-30; 9:3); the future messianic vision of the lion lying down with the lamb in Isaiah; the concept of tza’ar ba’alei chayyim (not causing pain to animals) in the Talmud and post-Talmudic interpretations; the biblical prohibitions against cooking a kid in its mother's milk and removing a chick from its nest (kan tzippur) and their post-Biblical interpretations; and the vegetarian teachings of Rav Kook, to which the founder of the Jewish vegetarian movement in North America, Richard Schwartz, and David Sears devoted an essay.

The essays in the book do a nice job paying attention to the influence of different historical and cultural contexts, though they do skew a bit toward modern Jewish history. However, given the subject matter, that is to be expected. And many of the relevant early biblical and other premodern Jewish sources are dealt with in David Seidenberg’s theological argument for a “covenantal” approach to treating animals and plants justly. That said, the book begins with a careful reading by Beth Berkowitz of the Talmudic sources for tza’ar ba’alei chayyim that cautions against reading concern for animal suffering as anything more than a minority opinion in what the rabbinic sources actually say. As for the essays on modern and contemporary Jewish vegetarianism and veganism, Nick Underwood contributes a thought-provoking analysis of the connection between early twentieth-century anti-Jewish laws (especially those restricting kosher slaughter) and European Jewish vegetarianism; Michael Croland looks at the striking frequency of veganism among Jewish punk rockers in often explicit expressions of their Jewish punk identities; and Adrienne Krone shows that contemporary Jewish ecologically oriented farm schools are places where young Jews come to veganism or vegetarianism with different rationales. Other essays deal with vegetarian tendencies in the nineteenth-century Mussar movement (Geoffrey D. Claussen) and in modern Jewish art and literature (Irad Ben Isaak, Hadas Marcus), contemporary Israeli vs. North American Jewish language and practices regarding animal welfare (Victoria Greenstone and Shlomi Shmuel), and the current state of Jewish vegan and vegetarian movements in North America (Sarah Chandler and Jeffrey Cohan). 

Moreover, the essays as a whole frequently engage scholarship in the broader field of vegan and vegetarian studies, with references to important works on animal rights ethics[2] and vegan identities and identity formation (Zeller, MacDonald, Wright). Indeed, this was one of the collection’s greatest strengths, as it provides a helpful conceptual and bibliographical introduction for Jewish studies and Jewish food studies scholars who may not yet be familiar with this work. I certainly found it incredibly useful in this regard.

Given the personal commitment of many of the contributors to vegetarianism and veganism, this volume is to be commended for its intellectual honesty in recognizing that classical Jewish sources are neither unequivocally pro- or antivegan or -vegetarian, as shown by Berkowitz’s discussion of tza'ar ba’alei chayyim in rabbinic sources; Seidenberg’s distinction between “covenantalist” vs. “abolitionist veganism” (the Jewish sources are more compatible with the former); Krinsky’s take on the “speciesism” of the traditional Jewish sources; Colb’s suggestion that preferences for “abolitionist” vs. “welfarist” veganism correlates with secular vs. religious Jewish tendencies (p. 268); Labendz’s case for “Jewish veganism as an embodied practice” as a “vegan agenda” specifically for “cultural Jews”; and the balanced views of Labendz and Yanklowitz’s introduction and Aaron S. Gross’s afterword that nicely frame all the essays sandwiched in between. Similarly, I appreciated the acknowledgment by several contributors that data did not always fit their initial vegan/vegetarian hypotheses (Krone, Greenstone, and Shmuel).

Finally, perhaps this book’s most significant contribution to Jewish studies is its sophisticated, critical understanding of the role of plant-based food choices in identity construction in general and of Jewish identity in particular (e.g., Krone, Colb, and Labendz especially). As Colb puts it so well, “Perhaps one way I can meld the two ‘Jewish’ and ‘vegan’ identities … is by observing that many of us who are Jews, vegans, or both, to be a Jew and to be a vegan are ways not only of ‘being’ but of ‘doing’ as well. In other words, Jewishness is not simply a status that one inherits (whether through blood or through trauma); it is a set of ways of conducting one’s life, whether religious, cultural, or some combination of the two” (p. 283).

In particular, vegetarian or vegan food choices lend themselves especially well to expressions of “alternative” Jewish identities—that is, secular, intersecting, not necessarily Zionist Jewish identities, as Labendz and others argue. Jewish vegetarianism and veganism are quintessential examples of what I call “culinary midrash,” ways of interacting, interpreting, and selectively applying inherited traditions to perform Jewish identities gastronomically.[3] I see this in Yanklowitz’s recognition that we can choose to interpret and apply pro-animal tendencies in Jewish sources to vegan ethics in today’s situation; Colb’s idea of a “new kosher” that stresses plant-based food “choices” to avoid violence, which are holy, and not evil (p. 284); or what Labendz says is the “reinvention of tradition” (p. 302).

The book and its individual contributors—every one of whose essays is worth reading and together make the book as a whole far exceed the sum of its parts—are themselves participating in this Jewish veg’ist “reinvention of tradition.” It is a reinvention of tradition that integrates critical scholarship, ethics, and activism by rooting them in critical and creative readings of Jewish sources that emphasize what Gross characterizes as the “generative tension between … human violence to and domination over animal creation (Genesis 1:26-28 in which humans are given dominion) and … a lesser violence and greater benevolence (Genesis 1:29-30 in which humans, and it seems animals, are commanded to be vegan) [that] constantly repeats itself in Judaism’s textual corpus” (p. 328).

Jewish vegetarianism and veganism according to this book are compelling expressions of modern Jewish identity that are moral, self-aware, and have a “transcendent” dimension (Labendz, pp. 289, 308). Whether one is looking for a comprehensive critical analysis of the history and current state of Jewish vegetarianism and veganism primarily in North America, or for an agenda and fruitful models for how to be a Jewish vegetarian or vegan in the twenty-first century, they will find what they are hungry for here.

Notes

[1]. For example, Benjamin E. Zeller, “Quasi-Religious American Foodways: The Cases of Vegetarianism and Locavorism,” in Religion, Food, and Eating in North America, ed. Ben Zeller et al. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014); Barbara MacDonald, “‘Once You Know Something, You Can’t Not Know It’: An Empirical Look at Becoming Vegan,” Society and Animals 8, no. 1 (2000): 1-23; and Laura Wright, The Vegan Studies Project: Food, Animals, and Gender in the Age of Terror (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015).

[2]. Peter Singer, Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of The Animal Movement (New York: Ecco, 2009); Gary Francione, owner, Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach website, accessed Febraury 21, 2020, http://www.abolitionistapproach.com; and Elisa Aaltola, Animal Suffering: Philosophy, and Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[3]. Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus, Gastronomic Judaism as Culinary Midrash (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018).

Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus is Professor of Religion at Wheaton College.

Citation: Jonathan Brumberg Kraus. Review of Labendz, Jacob Ari; Yanklowitz, Shmuly, eds., Jewish Veganism and Vegetarianism: Studies and New Directions. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. April, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54677

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