By Stacey Dresner
STATEWIDE -- Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, was one.
So was Rabbi David Rosen, the former chief rabbi of Ireland.
Famed Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer was one as well.
Besides their prominence, these Jews shared another thing n they were all vegetarians.
People choose to be vegetarians for several reasons. Some have chosen not to eat meat or animal products due to health reasons, others because of their commitment to animal rights. But some Jewish or kosher vegetarians also do it for another reason n they say the Torah tells them to.
“I became a vegetarian in 1988 after serious studies of the book of Genesis, particularly the earliest chapters,” said Rabbi Stephen Fuchs of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford. Fuchs talks of the first 11 chapters of Genesis n before Chapter 12 when G-d makes his covenant with Abraham -- and refers to the three attempts G-d made at setting up societies n the Garden of Eden; after Eden until the time of the Flood; and during and after the flood.
In the first two, there was no eating of meat n G-d gave Adam and Eve fruit and berries to nourish themselves with.
“We find different ground rules which govern these societies. Only in the third society n after the flood n does G-d give us permission to eat meat,” Fuchs explained.
“It is clear to me that the Torah’s mission, if you will, is that we be partners with G-d in creating a just, compassionate society…I find it an enhancement to my spirituality to try to live as G-d had originally intended.”
For many years Fuchs was a lacto-ovo vegetarian, with a diet that included dairy and eggs. In 2000, for health reasons, Fuchs became a vegan n eschewing animal products of any kind.
“I found that there was a real health benefit to a vegan lifestyle,” Fuchs said. “I have seen a decrease in headaches, weight loss -- generally feeling better all around. And I have been feeling more spiritually attuned as a vegan.”
‘For the health of the chicken’
Rabbi David Small of the Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford recalls a joke that helped him to consider becoming a vegetarian.
“Isaac Bashevis Singer was at a dinner and was asked by the server if he wanted fish or chicken. He said, ‘I would just like vegetables.’ The server asked, ‘Is it for your health?’ And Singer said, ‘No, it is for the health of the chicken.’”
Rabbi Small himself became a vegetarian more than 12 years ago.
“It started with my wife’s brother. He became a vegetarian and was coming to our Pesach seder, so we decided to make everything at the seder vegetarian,” Small recalled.
“We had been aware of the issue of animal rights n my wife is a real animal lover -- so we had been thinking about not eating animals if we didn’t have to,” Small continued. “And a couple of years before, I had stopped eating red meat for health reasons.”
The Smalls decided to try vegetarianism for that whole Pesach to see if they could do it n “and we decided to keep going,” he said.
Six months ago, Rabbi Small, concerned for his health, decided to become a vegan. Small said his diet is “95 percent vegan” -- mostly fruits, vegetables, nuts and soy.
Judaism also factors into his decision not to eat meat.
“There is plenty in the Torah that resonates with vegetarianism. G-d says to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, ‘I give you all these plans and fruits to eat.’ Eating meat doesn’t come up,” he said. “I find that the way I eat is in keeping with my Jewish practice…I don’t think Judaism tells you you have to be a vegetarian, but there is a whole variety of clues in the literature that tell us it is a good thing.”
Small added, “Kashrut becomes a snap when you are a vegetarian n kashrut is only hard if you eat milk and meat all of the time… There are times when the Torah says to eat animal products in a special sacrificial setting n but maybe we weren’t meant to do it all the time.”
Dr. Arlen Lichter of West Hartford became a vegetarian as a teenager after spending summers working with his father who was in the meat packaging business n an experience that turned him off to eating meat.
When Arlen married his wife, Audrey, more than 30 years ago, they decided not only to keep a kosher home, but a vegetarian home as well.
“I gave up meat in my early 20s,” said Audrey, director of Yachad, the community Jewish high school program in greater Hartford. “I haven’t had meat in over 30 years.”
None of the Lichter’s three children n Sherry, Jenny or Simon -- have ever eaten meat.
“They are very committed,” Audrey said. “They have accepted this as a value of their own.”
Many years ago, Audrey and Arlen even ran the West Hartford branch of the Jewish Vegetarian Society, which held meetings where members exchanged recipes and discussed the vegetarian lifestyle. The local groups like the Jewish Vegetarian Society aren’t as needed as they were 30 years ago. Today, with stores like Wild Oats and Whole Foods, and the plethora of vegetarian cookbooks and websites, being a kosher vegetarian is much easier that it was years ago, Audrey said.
She and her husband recently began eating fish again n “we call ourselves ‘milchig’ vegetarians” n she said.
They added fish to their diets because of “boredom” with their diet, she said.
She added that Passover can also get a little boring in the food department n vegetarians whose diets are made up of lots of whole grains are precluded from eating them during those eight days.
“Passover can get a little boring,” Audrey said. “You can’t eat any of the grains so we end up eating a lot of eggs.
“But,” she added, “Passover is hard for everybody.”
Nearly every Shabbat Paul Bass of New Haven makes challah for his family. For Bass, a vegan, that means making some changes to the basic challah recipe.
“I make vegan challah with egg replacer,” said Bass, who said that it took him a while to finally find the right formula for the vegan bread.
While Bass, who is the editor of the news website newhavenindependent.org eats no animal products at all, his wife, Carole, and his two daughters, Annie Rose and Sarah Rachel, are vegetarians who still eat dairy and egg.
“I do most of the cooking and happily cook dairy for them,” he said.
Bass’ diet consists of a lot of soy-based products like seitan, tofu, fruits, vegetables, pasta and cereal. He said that since becoming vegan his allergies have improved and he feels “lighter.”
But becoming vegan was a gradual thing for Bass.“I was a vegetarian first. I never felt I was totally consistent. Also, my cholesterol level was high, even with non-fat dairy. So both reasons led me to become vegan,” he said. “I don’t believe that it is necessarily wrong to eat dairy and eggs, although I do buy eggs from cage-free chickens for the family.”
Bass adds that although he and his family are vegetarians, he doesn’t judge those who eat meat.
“I don’t necessarily believe that other people should be vegetarians,” he explained. “There are countless ethical decisions a person makes every day upon waking up. This is one I happen to focus on for spiritual and ethical reasons.”
Kashrut is simplified
Before the age of ten, Jon-Jay Tilsen ate meat.
“Around age ten, I grew repulsed by the idea of killing and eating animals, so I stopped,” said Tilsen, now rabbi of Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel in New Haven.
Today, Tilsen eats “almost any fruit or vegetable, and in small quantities I sometimes eat dairy products or eggs. I don't eat any animal except the microscopic ones treated as negligible by Jewish law.”
Tilsen’s four children are also vegetarians, but they do eat dairy products and eggs. Tilsen’s wife, Miriam Benson, executive director of the Connecticut Valley Region of United Synagogue, “eats meat out once in a while, usually when we are guests at kosher events or at her work at United Synagogue at their conventions.”
Tilsen said that being vegetarian simplifies kashrut.
“We have one set of dishes (plus Passover dishes) and never have to worry about the status of leftovers in the fridge or whether a guest will mix the utensils or food items,” he said. “By not eating meat, I am much more certain to never violate, even accidentally, the Biblical and rabbinic prohibitions concerning non-kosher meat. The traditional production of kosher meat never envisioned mass slaughterhouses or factory farms. It is questionable whether most meat or poultry produced in this country that is sold as kosher is actually in compliance with the traditional rules of kashrut as well as the prohibition against cruelty to animals.”
Tilsen said being a vegetarian is his own personal choice and that he does not judge what others do n or eat.
“There was one fellow who did not eat meat because, he would say, ‘I don't want to use my body as a cemetery for dead animals.’ I don't say things like that,” Tilsen explained. “Although I find meat repulsive aesthetically, I don't think it is a great sin to eat it. If I wanted to be judgmental about others, there is a very long list of concerns I would address before getting to diet.”
As far as what Jewish literatures says about eating meat n well, Tilsen has his own take on that.
“Although there is a Talmudic tradition of ‘ein simha ela be-vasar -- there is no joy without flesh,’ which was used to suggest that meat eating was mandatory on Shabbat and festivals, I follow the suggestion of the Baal Shem Tov that ‘flesh’ in this context can be, let us say, the legitimate enjoyment of physical intimacy with the flesh, and one hopes spirit, of another,” he explained. “That is, it refers to the "conjugal enjoyment" of Shabbat and festivals. Believe me, it is better than bacon.”
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