January 15, 2004
Mad People Disease
In the Torah's story about Joseph, Pharaoh has a dream in which seven sickly cows consume seven healthy cows. Joseph interprets this, and Pharaoh's other dream of seven withered ears of corn consuming seven full ears of corn, to indicate that there will be seven years of plenty in Egypt followed by seven years of severe famine.
Today, we do not have a Pharaoh's dreams to warn us of impending dangers, but we have a somewhat comparable situation in which cows with "Mad Cow Disease" in England, Canada, the United States and other countries are having devastating effects on cattle industries in these countries. Just as Pharaoh's advisers were unable to interpret his dreams, today's "experts" assure us that people have little to fear from Mad Cow Disease and that everything is under control. Kosher meat industry representatives assure us that the likelihood of exposure from eating kosher beef is especially small because the laws and practices of kosher slaughter, such as not slaughtering sick animals, reduce such risks.
As Joseph recognized Pharaoh's dreams as a wake-up call to take steps to save people from a future severe famine, perhaps we need a modern-day Joseph to recognize that recent instances of Mad Cow Disease should awaken us to the many ways that the widespread production and consumption of meat and animal products threatens humanity.
I believe that a major reason that we are not able to foresee the devastating effects of modern intensive livestock agriculture and the widespread consumption of animal products is that many people today, including many Jews, are afflicted with what I call, with some writer's license, "Mad People Disease" (MPD).
MPD enables many intelligent people to be greatly concerned about eating meat after one "mad cow" is found in the United States, while they ignore the many scientific studies that link heart disease, stroke, many types of cancer and other chronic degenerative diseases, as well as various digestive problems, to animal-based diets.
MPD enables otherwise compassionate people to ignore the fact that 10 billion animals in the United States alone are raised for food annually under cruel conditions, in crowded, confined spaces, where they are denied fresh air and exercise.
MPD enables people normally concerned about the well-being of their fellow human beings to disregard the fact that 70 percent of the grain grown in the United States and more than one-third of the grain grown worldwide is fed to animals destined for slaughter, as an estimated 20 million of the world's people die annually because of hunger and its effects.
MPD enables people who are concerned with the sustainability of the planet to ignore the significant contributions of animal-based agriculture to air, water and land pollution, species extinction, destruction of tropical rain forests and other precious habitats, shortages of water and other resources, global climate change and many other threats.
MPD enables Jews, many of whom are very knowledgeable about Judaism, to ignore the inconsistencies between animal-based diets and agriculture and important Jewish mandates to preserve human health, treat animals compassionately, protect the environment, conserve resources, help feed hungry people and pursue peace.
Consistent with our charge to be a "light unto the nations," a holy people" and "rachmanim b'nei rachmanim" (compassionate children of compassionate ancestors), and keeping the wise advice of the biblical Joseph in mind, I hope that the current Mad Cow Disease publicity will alert the Jewish community to the need to shift from current dietary and agricultural practices. This challenge to "Mad People Disease" would be a tremendous kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God's Name) and would greatly improve the health of Jewish and other people and the sustainability of our imperiled planet.
Richard H. Schwartz is president of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America, professor emeritus of mathematics at the College of Staten Island and author of "Judaism and Vegetarianism" (Lantern Books, 2001).