Wednesday, June 29, 2011

I love animals, but I'm not a vegan - and here's why

Recently I received a review copy of  Vegan Cooking For Dummies, a new book in that series.   As I have discussed in previous blog posts, I am an ovo-lacto vegetarian, which means that I eat vegetables, eggs and dairy,  but not meat, poultry, or fish. Over the years, various people have tried to convince me to go all the way and become a vegan -- which means not eating or using any animal products, period.    But the more I read about veganism, the more I have become convinced that it is an upper middle class urban phenomenon that just won't work for low income people like me who live in places like northern Minnesota.

This book is a case in point.  Written by a gourmet vegan chef, it assumes you can find all those exotic ingredients and afford to use them.  But that just isn't so if you are on a tight budget.  For example, a lot of these recipes call for pure maple syrup instead of sugar.  But  the only reason we have pure maple syrup in my house is because I make it myself from our own trees every spring (See my previous blog post on that at   At $10 or more per pint in the store, we could never afford to cook with it as often as this cookbook calls for.  As it is, most of the time we still use sugar.

As for a lot of the other ingredients in this book, you are simply not going to find them in rural America.  It's hard enough being an ovo-lacto vegetarian out here, let alone vegan. I am lucky enough to live near a small health food store, but even then, I have to special order certain vegetarian "meat" products because, the shopkeeper says, they do not sell well enough for her to carry them on the shelf. Special orders must go by the case and that can really kill a limited budget. Not to mention the cost of the necessary freezer space.

But beyond the question of ingredients, there is a much bigger question:  Do I really believe in vegan philosophy?  Do I believe that it is wrong under all circumstances to never, ever use animals or their products for any reason?   The answer is no.  Although I do not wear leather or fur, I have no problems with feathers that are naturally-shed,  nor do I have a problem with riding horses or training service dogs.  (My old sheep dog, Grett, enjoyed patrolling the yard and guarding the geese and chickens.  He got depressed when he didn't have some kind of work to do.  The same is true of a lot of other working dog breeds, as well as many horses who enjoy being with their riders.)

Over the years, I've had many debates about this with hardcore vegans who believe that ahimsa  (the Jain philosophy of total harmlessness) is the only way to go, or else you are a total hypocrite with no compassion for anything.  Maybe for people in a tropical climate like India, where Jainism originated, this philosophy would work, although even there the Jains are a small minority.  But not everyone lives in a warm climate where veggies and fruits are available year-round.  I believe this is why God permitted Jews to eat meat.  God knew that we would end up in harsh climates where a totally plant-based diet would have been impossible.  Meat was not the ideal (the Garden of Eden was vegetarian) but neither was it forbidden, as long as one stayed within the limits of permitted species.   For this reason, I consider my own vegetarianism to be a personal chumra (extra strictness) that I voluntarily take upon myself, but not a comandment per se.

My land in winter -- no veggies growing here!

I have often looked out the window at my Minnesota landscape in mid-winter and asked myself:  What would I be eating if there was no modern food storage or transportation?  To answer that question, all I have to do is look at the traditional diet of the Native tribes who lived around here before  my ancestors arrived.  Yes, they grew corn and squash, harvested berries and wild rice.  But meat and fish were also a big part of their diet, especially in late winter.  As much as the animal rights people idealize the spiritual relationship between Indians and animals, I have never yet met a vegetarian Indian, let alone a vegan.  The only vegetarianism reference I've seen is a T-shirt that read: "Vegetarian: Old Indian word for Lousy Hunter."

The American Indian philosophy about animals is not that different from the Jewish/biblical one, namely,  that the Creator permits us to use animals, but we must not abuse them in the process.  We must remember that animals are living beings, and be respectful of their feelings and well-being.  If we find it necessary to kill them, it must be done humanly and with respect.  (The word "sacrifice" comes from the same root as "sacred.")   If we do not treat them with respect, the Indians say, the souls of the animals will not reincarnate, and the people will starve.  This is not unlike Deuteronomy 11:13-17:

If, then, you truly heed My (God's) commandments which I enjoin on you today, loving and serving the Lord your God, with all your heart and all your soul,  I will give the seasonal rain to your land, the early rain and the late rain, that you may have your grain, wine and oil to gather in; and I will bring forth grass in your fields for your animals. Thus you may eat your fill. But be careful lest your heart be so lured away that you serve other gods and worship them.  For then the wrath of the Lord will flare up against you and he will close up the heavens, so that no rain will fall, and the soil will not yield its crops, and you will soon perish from the good land he is giving you.

Part of those commandments includes the proper treatment of animals, and the prohibition against cruelty to animals (tsaar baalei chaim.)  This respect issue was the main reason that I gave up eating meat, because, in the modern meat industry, there is no longer any respect for the animals.  Kosher meat comes from the same cruel factory farms as non-kosher meat, the only difference is in the processing.  So I choose not to eat it.  I believe that, in this modern age, vegetarianism is the best diet for Jews (and others should they so choose.)  

But as for "using" animals, I do not believe it is "animal slavery" to ride a horse, shear a sheep (who, in hot weather, really appreciates it!), or collect honey from bees.   I sometimes wonder if the purist vegans ever really have personal relationships with animals.  If you do not keep dogs, cats, horses, birds or chickens in your home or your immediate environment, can you really connect with them?  Or do they just become subjects of politcal theory?


Nekkid Chicken said...

HUMMMMS, I am by no means a vegan nor in thinking about your post could I be. We too are limited in our income but, we treat our animals humanely though no longer regard them as pets.

I too think you are right about folks never really having a personal relationship with an animal outside say a dog, bird, fish, cat or rodent. We just killed a rattler in our yard. I am guessing we would be considered in humane but, I think we made a prudent choice to keep our young sons safe.

The said viper was in our yard for 10 hrs and thus very dangerous if we were in the yard with it.

People just amaze me sometimes with their prejudgements.

Take care,

Karima said...

One reason I'm not a lacto-ovo- vegetarian (was for a year once and would rather be, really) is that just when I was getting reading to make a longer term commitment to it, somebody told a story about a cow searching for her calf. So, what about all those calves the cows have to have to keep the milk coming? Would I have just been supporting the veal industry? We eat free range meat now, and I do think 'work animals' are fine as long as there's no cruelty. But how can this be achieved? Hope this isn't a downer, peace.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Nekkid: We have no poisonous snakes here, but if we did, I would do the same. Ditto for aggressive roosters I've given away and which probably became somebody's dinner but if they attack me they will attack kids, so away they go. I have also eliminated wasp nests if they were in areas where people might get stung. On the other hand, the ones on the second-sory eaves i leave, because they are caterpillar predators and useful in the garden.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Karima: I, too, have struggled with the dairy issue, it is one of the areas where I am probably a hypocrite at this point, but Caryl (my wife) feels that having given up so much to keep kosher, be vegetarian, and now dealing with a diabetic diet in her old age, she just can't give up anything else. She just does not make it well on a vegan diet (and please, people, do NOT send us your latest fad diets, we have heard it all before, most of those are WAY to expensive for us anyway.)

The Torah says a baby calf, goat or sheep must remain with its mother at least 8 days before separating them. A longer time would be even better, perhaps until weaned? So people who take away the calf at birth are violating God's commandments.

I thought about getting my own goat, until I realized I'd have to breed her periodically and there would be the same issue of what to do with babies when they grow up -- and billy goats REALLY STINK when older.

So I guess the bottom line is, as I've said before on this blog, this world is not the Garden of Eden. We all just have to make our own decisions based on our situations.

Dan said...

Vegetarianism is a life saver — for humans and animals. I am a strict vegetarian because it reduces the suffering and death of animals, as well as being better for spiritual, personal, public, and planetary health, but I am not strictly vegan because I choose not to have a higher standard for animal exploitation than I do for human exploitation. Knowing that they are not mutually exclusive, I nonetheless still consume products sometimes made by human super-exploitation, even while advocating against it, and therefore won’t totally eschew products made by animal exploitation or draw an uncrossable line for animals that I’m not unwilling to cross for humans.

Yonassan Gershom said...

I can respect that stance, Dan. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov told the story old how, when he was young, he got to worrying about possible leaven in the village well during Passover (thereby rendering it unfit to use.) What if somebody had dropped some bread down there or something?

After a long convoluted trail of rabbinical reasoning, he came to the conclusion that the only way to be absolutely sure there was no leaven in the water would be to camp by a mountain spring during Passover. But the he would be away from his family, friends, the synagogue services, etc. He would be doing the Seder alone. And what kind of holiday was that?

He used this example to say, "Don't be a fanatic." In today's language, we might say, don't be obsessive-compulsive about things. It is impossible to be a complete purist about everything we do. We all just have to do the best we can in our own circumstances.

When I have a choice between fair-trade products or exploitative ones, I choose fair trade. Ditto for humane versus cruel. But I do not drive myself insane worrying about the origins of everything I use.

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