Hope springs eternal.
Indeed, it's always been an integral part of Jewish history, spirituality, and
politics. Without hope, there wouldn't be a Chanukah; without hope, there might
not even be a Jewish community. That's the power of radical hope!
Jewish survival is a
miracle of hope. Increasing light at the darkest time of the year to celebrate
Chanukah and Jewish survival is also a miracle. This year (2008/5769), Chanukah
begins on Sunday night, December 21st, which is also the Winter Solstice. Each
year, we should work and hope for further miracles.
We sincerely hope that
Jews will enhance their celebrations of this ancient, beautiful, and
spiritually-meaningful holiday of Chanukah by making it a time to strive even
harder to live up to Judaism's highest moral values and teachings. For most of
us, we certainly don't need more “things” in our homes; instead, we need more
meaning, purpose, and spirit in our lives. There are a variety of ways to
accomplish this. One significant way we can do this, on a daily basis, is by
moving towards vegetarianism.
the single small container of pure olive oil - expected to be enough for only
one day - which, according to the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), miraculously lasted for
eight days in the rededicated Temple on the 25th of Kislev 165 BCE, exactly two
years after it was defiled by the Syrian-Greeks, who were ruled by the
tyrannical King Antiochus IV. In kabalistic (Jewish mystical) thought, according
to Avi Lazerson, “oil is symbolic of chochmah (wisdom), the highest
aspect of the intellect from which inspirational thought is derived”.
A switch to
vegetarianism would be using our wisdom and compassion to help inspire another
great miracle: the end of the tragedy of world hunger, therefore ensuring the
survival of tens of millions of people annually. Currently, from one-third to
one-half of the world's grain, and about three-quarters of major food crops in
the U.S. (e.g., corn, wheat, soybeans, oats), is fed to animals destined for
slaughter, while about one billion poor people chronically suffer from
malnutrition and its debilitating effects, tens of thousands of them
consequently dying each day, one every few seconds.
Maimonides, the great
rabbi, physician, and scholar known as the Rambam, who wrote that the pain of
people is the same as the pain of other animals (Guide for the Perplexed), ruled
that one must literally sell the clothes one is wearing, if necessary, to
fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the menorah and celebrating
the miracle (Hil. Chanukah 4:12). Uniting physical needs and spiritual needs is
vitally important for the body, the mind, and the spirit. In the joyous process
of celebrating our festival of freedom and light, other beings shouldn't have to
be enslaved and killed by our tyranny over them. No one should ever have to die
on our account.
the victory of the idealistic and courageous few, over the seemingly invincible
power and dominant values of the surrounding society. We learn through both our
religious studies and history that might does not make right, even if it
sometimes rules the moment. Therefore, quality is more important than quantity;
spirituality is more vital than materialism, though each is necessary. “Not by
might, and not by power, but by spirit”, says Zechariah 4:6, part of the
prophetic reading for Chanukah. Today, vegetarians are
relatively few in number, though growing, and billions of captive factory farm
animals are powerless to defend themselves, but the highest ideals and spirit of
Judaism are on their side.
Still believing in
brute force, materialism, and greed, the world presently wastes a staggering and
nearly unimaginable $1 trillion on total military might annually (over half of
that amount is by the U.S. alone), while half the world's population barely
survives on $2 a day or less and, as noted, some don't even survive. Security
does not come from superior physical forces or from authoritarian political
conditions, as the Chanukah story and contemporary events remind us. Collective
security lies in a just and sustainable society, what Martin Luther King, Jr.
described as “positive peace”, just as personal security lies in a healthy and
sustainable lifestyle. These are deeply and intimately related.
anti-imperialist insurgency, led by the Macabees, was sparked when a pig was
killed, and Rabbi Eleazar, and other Jews were ordered to eat it. Those who
refused, including nonagenarian Rabbi Eleazar, were summarily killed. According
to the Book of Macabees, some Macabees lived on plant foods - to “avoid being
polluted” - when they hid in caves, and in the mountains to escape capture.
Further, the major foods associated with Chanukah, latkes (potato
pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts), are vegetarian foods - as is
chocolate gelt! - and the vegetable oils that are used in their
preparation are a reminder of the pure vegetable oil (olive) used in the
lighting of the Temple's Menorah.
The miracle of the oil
brings the use of fuel and other resources into focus. One day's oil was able to
last for eight days in the Temple, a miracle of resource conservation.
Conservation and energy-efficiency are sacred acts and vegetarianism allows
resources to go much further, since far less oil, water, land, topsoil,
chemicals, labor, and other agricultural resources are required for plant-based
diets than for animal-centered diets, while far less waste, pollution, and
greenhouse gases are produced. For example, it can require up to 78 calories of
non-renewable fossil fuel for each calorie of protein obtained from
factory-farmed beef, whether kosher or otherwise, but only 2 calories of fossil
fuel to produce a calorie of protein from soybeans.
Reducing our use of
oil by shifting away from the mass production and consumption of meat - thereby
making supplies last longer, freeing us from our dangerous dependence on oil as
well as oily authoritarian governments, and diminishing the availability of
petro-dollar funds for terrorists and others - would surely be a fitting way to
celebrate the miracles of Chanukah. By conserving oil, commemorating how one's
day's worth of oil lasted for eight, and by reducing our dependence on it, we
can create what Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center calls a “green menorah”
and a green Chanukah. In this way, we support ethical lifestyles and holy
communities on this festival and throughout the year.
In addition to
resource conservation and economic efficiency, a switch toward vegetarianism
would greatly benefit the health of individuals, the condition of our
environment, and would sharply reduce the suffering and death of billions of
animals. Further, the social, psychological, and spiritual benefits should not
be underestimated. Many people who switch to a vegetarian diet report feeling
physically, emotionally, and spiritually better. And more and more Jews and
others are doing just that!
represents the triumph of idealistic non-conformity. Like the Hebrew prophets,
the Macabees fought for their inner beliefs, rather than conforming to external
pressure. They were willing to proudly exclaim: this we believe, this we stand
for, this we are willing to struggle for. Like the great Prophets and the
celebrated Macabees, vegetarians represent this type of progressive
non-conformity by an inspired minority. At a time when most people, especially
in wealthier countries, think of animal products as the main part of their
meals, vegetarians are resisting and insisting that there is a better,
healthier, more compassionate, more environmentally sustainable, and ethical
choice, one that better fits with our religious values and philosophical
Jewish sages compared candles to our souls, and the
light to the Torah (Proverbs 20:27), noting that the fire of a candle always
strives to go upward. In this way, we kindle souls with the ethical light of our
tradition. Candles are lit for each of the eight nights of Chanukah, symbolizing
a turning from darkness to light, from despair to hope, from oppression to
miracles. According to the prophet Isaiah, the role of Jews is to be a “light
unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). “Light is sown for the righteous” (Psalm 97:11)
and, as our sages have said, it only takes a little light to dispel much
darkness. Vegetarian activists are like the shamesh, the servant candle, which
helps to spread light without itself being diminished. We do not lose anything
by helping ourselves and others; indeed, we gain in righteousness. Vegetarianism
can be an effective way of adding light, and hope to the darkness of a world
still suffering with factory farms and slaughterhouses - and their attendant
negative consequences - as well as
with other systems, and symbols of
violence, and oppression.
The word Chanukah means dedication, while the Hebrew
root of the word means education. Each year, we should re-educate ourselves
about the horrible realities of factory farming, and slaughterhouses, as well as
re-dedicate, and beautify our inner temples. We can do this by practicing the
powerful Jewish teachings, and highest values of Judaism, as another way to
“proclaim the miracle” of Chanukah and Jewish renewal. These sacred values, and
holy deeds, (mitzvot) include compassion for others, including animals (tsa'ar
ba'alei chayim), preserving one's health (pekuach nefesh), conservation of
resources (bal tashchit), proper spiritual intention (kavanah), righteousness
and charity (tzedakah), peace and justice (shalom v'tzedek), being partners in
creation (shomrei adamah), healing our world (tikun olam), and increasing in
matters of holiness (ma'alin bakodesh v'ayn moridim, going from strength to
strength, just as Hillel successfully argued that we should light the menorah
for the eight days in ascending order).
Chanukah commemorates the deliverance of the Jews from
the Syrian-Greeks. In our time, vegetarianism can be a step toward deliverance
of society from various modern plagues and tragedies, including global warming,
world hunger, deforestation, air and water pollution, species extinction,
resource depletion, heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, obesity, rising
health care costs, and lost productivity, among others.
One way to achieve the wonderful aspirations of Judaism
is by switching to a vegetarian diet. A shift toward vegetarianism can also be a
major factor in the rededication and renewal of Judaism, as it would further
demonstrate that Jewish values are not only relevant but essential to everyday
personal life and global survival.
The letters on a diaspora dreidel are an acronym for nes
gadol hayah sham, a great miracle happened there. May the celebration of this
joyous holiday inspire another miracle within each of us.
May we all have a happy, healthy, and miraculous
For more information, please visit the Jewish
Vegetarians of North America web site at www.JewishVeg.com and The Vegetarian Mitzvah
site at www.Brook.com/jveg
Daniel Brook, Ph.D., is the author of Modern Revolution (2005), Understanding Sociology (2007), and dozens of articles. He maintains The Vegetarian Mitzvah at www.brook.com/jveg, is a member of the Advisory Committee of Jewish Vegetarians of North America, and can be contacted via Brook@california.com. Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, and over 150 articles located at www.JewishVeg.com/schwartz. He is President of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) (www.JewishVeg.com), Coordinator of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV) (www.serv-online.org), and can be contacted via President@ JewishVeg.com.