Book Review

Vegetarian Judaism: A Guide for Everyone

By Roberta Kalechofsky, Ph.D.
Micah Publications, Marblehead, MA, 01945, 1998
Fax: 781-639-0772. E-mail:
Softcover. 256 pages. Bibliography, Index, Recipes, Menus
ISBN: 0-916288-45-5
Reviewed by Karen Davis, PhD

Vegetarian Judaism is a gold mine of information and ideas about Jewish history as a guide to modern dietary choices and values. It is of central importance in the effort to understand the role of religion (Hebrew and others) in meat consumption and the ethical treatment of animals. To be a vegetarian--is this to defy the principles of Judaism or to embody them more fully? Kalechofsky brings Jewish history and Talmudic and rabbinic commentary to life in this inquiry into the relationship between animals, humans, and diet. The book proposes, and gives substantive evidence for the proposition, that "A vegetarian Judaism is the historical fulfillment of our dietary commandments and of our ethos, because it restores respect for non-human creatures and for the holiness of all creation."

A touchstone in this book is the tradition of kashrut, one's view and maintenance of the world and oneself as "fresh, pure, and strong." Kalechofsky argues and shows how kashrut can and must be updated. Whatever took place in the actual past, animal food production in the modern world is filthy, cruel, degrading, disease-producing, and environmentally destructive. So-called kosher slaughter is ugly and sickening; so is non-kosher commercial slaughter. Kalechofsky shows why there is no true choice between these two killing methodologies. True choice lies elsewhere.

If you are concerned about the health care issues of diet, this book documents the interaction between harmful bacteria, antibiotics, and immune system breakdown in modern animal food production and consumption. Should people be concerned about eating the brain tissue of chickens and turkeys as well as sheep, pigs, and cows via animal feed? The August issue of Harper's Magazine describes the grinding up of chickens' heads and faces at the slaughter plant to be fed back to chickens, and the "horrible fumes released by the decomposing blood" in the room where this is done. For poultry slaughterhouse workers, "a common reaction to the bacteria in chicken carcasses" is to lose their fingernails. Kalechofsky reminds us that "When we eat a chicken or an egg today, we do not eat a symbolic life-giving force. If we incorporate this symbolism into our psyches, we do so with deception and should adjust the symbolism of chicken and egg to that of disease and death." Pathogens--disease-causing microbes-- are invisible to the naked eye, but so are many other evils, including masking them with "antibacterial sprays" (more likely to increase bacterial resistance than to eliminate bacteria) and lies.

Kalechofsky is a distinguished author and publisher of many books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and scholarly studies. Vegetarian Judaism is a meditation on the meaning and a guide for the making of things that are "fresh, pure, and strong" in the modern world and the millennium. It is about honoring Jewish history--all history--by using it effectively to create a much better future for humans, non-human creatures, and the environment. Buy the book and see for yourself.