Such major world religions as Judaism, Christianity and Islam prescribe dietary restrictions for the faithful, many based upon scriptural prescriptions for eating (or avoiding) certain foods as a rule or at specific times of the year. The rise of vegetarianism, however, has some believers adopting eating habits often associated with Eastern religious traditions. This week’s clergy discuss how abstaining from meat in favor of a plant-based diet fits into their religious dietary guidelines.
Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi
Buddhist scholar-monk, Chuang Yen Monastery, Carmel
It is commonly believed that Buddhists are vegetarian, but this is largely wrong. The first Buddhist precept requires abstaining from the destruction of life, but this is not understood to mandate vegetarianism.
The Buddha himself prohibited his monastic disciples only from eating the meat of an animal that had been killed specifically for them. Otherwise, they were not prohibited from eating meat. For the Buddhist laity, the Buddha did not lay down any dietary rules, only the precept not to take life. The decisive factor in moral assessment, according to Buddhism, is intention, and most Buddhists who are nonvegetarian do not think that by eating meat they are at fault for intending the death of the animal.
Vegetarianism came into vogue at a later time among Buddhists and today is strictly observed in the monastic traditions of China, Korea and Vietnam, but with a few exceptions not by lay Buddhists in those countries. Many contemporary Buddhists have adopted vegetarianism, contending that it is the more compassionate choice. Others, however, appeal to the Buddha’s permissive attitude and believe that as long as they do not cause the death of an animal, they are free to eat meat without blame for violating the Buddha’s moral code.
Rabbi Susie Heneson Moskowitz
Temple Beth Torah, Melville
The Torah says that all humans were originally vegetarian. As God says in Genesis, “I have given you every herb bearing seed that is upon the earth . . . to you it shall be for food.” (Genesis 1:29) It was only after the Flood that God allowed humans to eat meat as a concession to their desires. But even then, dietary laws (keeping kosher) were given that limited which meat could be eaten.
Today there are many reasons to be vegetarian that connect to Jewish values. The reasons stem from the Jewish value of bal tashchit — do not destroy — and they include sustainability for the planet, eliminating world hunger, health concerns and animal rights. While animals are different from humans, Judaism teaches that they still have souls and should be treated with respect. The Nobel Prize-winning author, Isaac Bashevis Singer said, “I did not become vegetarian for my health, I did it for the health of the chickens.”
In more recent times, the concept of Eco-Kashrut has entered the Jewish world. It involves making food choices that make the act of eating a sacred endeavor. It takes into consideration the way animals are treated, the rights of workers in restaurants and food plants, eating organic food and thinking about environmental concerns. It doesn’t mandate vegetarianism but encourages it as an ethical way to eat. This approach elevates eating to a holy act.
Chaplain, Islamic Society Interfaith Center, Stony Brook University
Muslims are mostly a meat-eating community with some exceptions. A fundamental tenet of Islam involves coalescing your diet with spirituality. How you eat is a blueprint for your commitment to faith. Islam regulates meat consumption through the categorization of Halal, referring to how the meat is slaughtered: The meat should be humanely slaughtered through its jugular vein and with simultaneous recital of prayer. In connection with this tradition, it is recommended that an animal not witness the slaughter of others. This touches on a lineage of an early form of animal rights in Islam. Animals are understood to be God’s creation, and it is prescribed that they should not be abused or mistreated.
Although Muslims are permitted to eat meat, pork is restricted along with the consumption of animals that eat meat. And there are plenty of Muslims who gain sustenance on diets made up of lentils and other vegetables. This reflects the lack of restrictions on a vegetarian diet in Islam. In this vein, prophet Muhammad encouraged Muslims not to eat meat often. It appears then, that habits of vegetarianism live in the Islamic tradition.