VeggieJews: Why Hyphenated Judaism Fails Every Time

I got banned from the Yahoo VeggiJews list today. Why? The list is populated and controled by extreme vegans. One of them wanted non-leather tefillin. In an exchange, I pointed out that, by definition tefillin must be made of leather. Then another vegan wrote to say she had been told that the verse commanding us to wear tefillin could be translated as "bound with streams of light." I suggested she pick up a Hebrew dictionary and try to make that translation work. I also noted that it was  better to not wear tefillin than to pervert the meaning of the mitzvah. Another list member wrote in with this:

People do indeed define down Judaism and often use the
"buffet method" for their mitzvot.

Someone very honestly said on this list some time ago
that he indeed understood that non-leather tefillin
were not the mitzva in its purest form, but he felt
something is better than nothing.

That is the essence of Judaism and the message of Yom
Kippur. On Yom Kippur, my Rabbi talked of how it is
nearly impossibly for anyone, even a great tzadik
(righteous person) to fulfill all the commandments;
therefore, we should think in terms of bettering
ourselves rather than achieving perfection.

The Hebrew word "Chet" which we often define as "sin"
is actually a "missing of the mark." Due to some
peoples convictions, they are willing to "miss the
mark" on tefillin being made completely from leather
in order that they should at least pick up the mitzva
of binding of the arms with the proper words. The
only caveat is that you should not fool yourself into
thinking you are getting the full mitzva.

To the question at hand, a quick web search turned up
a Jewlicious blog entry by an anti-Zionist who
mentioned seeing a non-leather tefillin at a
"progressive" minyan. That was all I could find.

I do know that you can get klaf (the parchment) that
is vegan fairly easily (and cheaply) at any Judaica
store. As for the boxes themselves, that may prove
tricky. I would ask your local Judaica craftsperson
to try to make something up for you. Let them know up
front that you are quite aware that the tefillin won’t
be "kosher" but you prefer "half a mitzva" to none,
and you are not willing to wear leather.

This was too much even for me in my present state of non-observance to bear. I answered him:

Vegan klaf? Not possible. Again, by definition, it must be made from animal hide. Why not write the words on a Post-it Note and attach that to your arm and head?

What you are arguing for is ridiculous. Just don’t put on tefillin.

Look at it this way, let’s say the messiah comes, all Jews go back to Jerusalem and the Temple is rebuilt. But, unlike the minority view that holds we won’t do animal sacrifice, God tells us to kill animals and burn them on his altar. No exceptions. Then what? Is being a vegan more important than listening to God?

The way you answer that question determines how you relate to Judaism.  Think about it.

Of course, telling him to write the words on Post-it notes and affix them to his head and arm was impolite. But rather than edit that section of the message, the moderator banned me from commenting. Of course, it wasn’t the Post-it note remark that really caused the ban. It was this:

[L]et’s say the messiah comes, all Jews go back to Jerusalem
and the Temple is rebuilt. But, unlike the minority view that holds we
won’t do animal sacrifice, God tells us to kill animals and burn them
on his altar. No exceptions. Then what? Is being a vegan more important
than listening to God?

The way you answer that question determines how you relate to Judaism.  Think about it.

This is what many radical vegans and vegetarians can’t handle. What if mashiach comes and God, the Creator of the universe, really says fire up the grill?

Most of these people will immediately answer that they’d rather not be redeemed, that they would leave the world as it is rather than roast a lamb. And they will reject any God that asks them to roast one, even if that God created the world, us and the lamb in question.

So why, then, put on plastic tefillin with paper parchments and microfiber straps? What’s the point? Tefillin are supposed to bind you to God and remind you to follow his orders. At least in this case, you’re not willing to do that anyway. Why pretend?

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32 Comments

Filed under Religion

32 responses to “VeggieJews: Why Hyphenated Judaism Fails Every Time

  1. Aharon Varady

    I’ve long wished for t’fillin to be made from either recycled leather or leather from kosher animals known to have died naturally (or at least under humane conditions). This way Jews could help fund animal sanctuaries which save domesticated animals from farm life and provide a stronger economic base for animal sanctuaries.

  2. DK

    Sometimes I just can’t decide who I *love* more. The far-Left or the far-Right.

  3. DK

    Also, never make jokes in far-Left company, like you did with the post it note (Very funny!). They consider it (humor) a form of historical oppression. Not in their name!

  4. My imagined answer if I was a vegan (I’m actually a happy omnivore) is ‘what if Moshiach arrived and he announced it was his second trip, and that the first time he was an carpenter in Palestine?” Some questions we just rule out on faith. For a vegan, the idea that Hashem the just yet merciful would re-institute animal sacrifice is no more likely than that he would institute child sacrifice. So we wait with perfect faith for the coming of the messiah, sure that when he arrives he will agree with our beliefs.

  5. Howie

    It seems to me that there’s more than a little confusion here. Shmarya’s posts regularly lambast Haredim and frum types for their absurdities and insistence on nonsense – including, by the way, nonsense that entails classical Jewish beliefs(i.e. “evolution is heresy” “the Exodus is indisputable as dictated in the Torah”, etc). Shmarya does a good job of deconstructing/exposing a good deal of silliness here. Why, then, go frum on us when it comes to vegans?(full disclosure – I’m one). Yes, vegan tefillin sound ridiculous, and it probably is better to skip this mitzvah rather than engage in silliness – but, how can you argue this with the argument that “this is God’s command” – when you regularly lambast this very idea in every other instance? Additionally, if we “must” eat the meat of korbanot in a restored Temple becuae “God says so” – must we also slaughter everyone – men, women and children – deemed to be Amalekites in the Moshiachzeit – also because “God says so”? If any of this were said by Haredim, you’d be (justly) denouncing it in the most shrill terms possible. Why, then, resort to frum/Haredi ways of thinking when it comes to vegans?

    Howie

  6. Lawrence M. Reisman

    I once saw a note(in Kashrus Magazine, I think) that said tefillin made entirely from the hides of stillborn calf fetuses were available. Isn’t this at least a partial solution?

  7. This, Shmarya, is part of the problem with people raised entirely in normative, non-Orthodox Judaism in the US. They are taught (in Hebrew school, at home) that Orthodox Judaism is backwards and barbaric. People have told me this very matter of factly.

    I wrote a post about a similarish experience I myself had a couple years ago called, “Nappy Judaism” at: http://treifalicious.blogspot.com/2004/04/nappy-judaism.html

    Sometimes, when you are part of a minority group and you don’t try hard enough to minimize that which makes you different from the majority, members of your own minority group will be the toughest on you, way more so than the majority group with whom you are “supposed” to want to assimilate.

  8. nachos

    In the election a referrendum was passed in Arizona to require hog farmers to have pigs farrow in pens that they can turn around in rather than in farrowing crates. The amendment passed overwhelmingly and now animal rights activists feel theyt made a great victory. By requiring pen farrowing a mother pig now has the ability to eat her piglets or squash them. Furthermore a farmer will be very reluctant to treat a sick pig because the farmer can get seriously injured getting into a pen with one. So much for animal rights!!!

  9. Stephen Mendelsohn

    BS”D

    Nachos is incorrect about Arizona Proposition 204. The amendment banned cruel veal and gestation crates. The farrowing crate was specifically exempted from the ban. It was an extremely modest measure, which is why it passed with nearly 62% of the vote.

    http://www.yesonproposition204.com

  10. nachos

    Stephen:

    I guess you were right and my coffee clatch was wrong.

    Either way, I dare you to get into a pen with a 500lb sick sow to treat her. It isn’t going to happen.

    Personally, I allow my sows to farrow in a pen, but I only have 13 pigs. However, I have experianced piglets getting eaten or squashed by their mother.

  11. Yos

    Before I went all apostate, I was a Veggie. I guess I still am, but anyway. I was always defending myself against people who thought I was a vegan nut.

    The problem with Vegan Jews is the same problem with all weird revisionist subsects. They’ve learned whatever little bit of Torah they know in a backwards fashion. They were taught mitzvot but not the reason for them.

  12. Yochanan Lavie

    Why not interpret tefillin metaphorically, the way the Karaites do? See kariatekorner.com. (BTW, I am not a vegan, or a fully blown Karaite.)

  13. michael be drosai

    c’mon shmarya – ya gotta admit that the irony is beautiful – I mean after all your rubashkin bashin, you should have been inducted into the vegan hall of fame – but you getting kicked out of webevegans.com – priceless!

  14. Not really. I publicly fought with them for most of the last 2 years.

  15. Neo-Conservaguy

    “Vegan klaf? Not possible. Again, by definition, it must be made from animal hide. Why not write the words on a Post-it Note and attach that to your arm and head?”

    By who’s definition and for how long? There is a position that holds tefillin are entirely rabbinic in their creation and that there is zero evidence of their use pre-BCE. If so, what’s the big deal if they want to observe the mitsva of wearing ritual objects to focus prayer?

    As for sacrifice at a 3rd temple, if one thinks about the word “sacrifice”, it doesn’t take much exposition to see that money the the current type of sacrifice that most modern people would understand. The point wasn’t to make the streets run red with blood – it was to provide a tax for the temple work force and to create an opportunity for people to submit to a higher ideal by giving up things precious to them. At their time, that was often livestock rather than another medium of exchange.

    Barukh haShem in all of his glorious delight – I’m defending the radical veggies! What next – tofu on Thanksgiving?

  16. Joel Roth? David Weiss HaLivni?

  17. Stephen Mendelsohn

    BS”D

    There is actually a middle position one can take here. One could hold that because of the cruelties involved in modern factory farming, it is impossible to properly observe the mitzvah of tefillin without violating other halachot against aiding and abbetting aveirot. That is, even if one’s tefillin came from a neveilah and not one of Rubashkin’s throat-ripped cattle, the routine castration, dehorning, and branding of cattle, all without anesthetic, are so unacceptable that laying tefillin from the hides of such animals would constitute a mitzvah ha-ba’ah ba-aveirah. I would certainly be more open to this argument than the one from VeggieJews. Please realize that these folks are anything but Orthodox to begin with, and so the anything goes, buffet style of “Judaism” is acceptable to them regardless of the issue, not just on vegan purity.

  18. Now that’s a strong argument.

  19. Nachum

    Neo-conservaguy, it’s pretty clear that tefillin were worn way back when. The very word “totafot” proves it, and they found them among the Dead Sea Scrolls. So even by the most secular view, it goes back to at least 500 BCE.

    I’d love to know what “commonly available vegan klaf” is. Paper?

    On the other hand, the Rashbam…

  20. Neo-Conservaguy

    No one even knows exactly what “totafoth” meant as an actual translation. It’s inferred, but that word is a singleton in the text.

  21. Yos

    “I’d love to know what “commonly available vegan klaf” is. Paper?”

    Actually, I think it is.

  22. Yochanan Lavie

    I read somewhere that “totaphot” is an Egyptian word for decorative headband. But the way the posuk is phrased, one can read it metaphorically: “it shall be AS a totaphot…”

    As for sacrifices, they’re much more than a sacrifice of wealth. If you read Rene Girard’s “Violence and the Sacred” the animal stands in for a human victim. The celebrant should see himself in place of the animal. (I think some mepharshim also say that). Greek tragedy, and later Western literature, memorializes the archaic impulse to human sacrifice, according to him. Howard Eilberg-Schwartz elaborates on Girard’s ideas in “The Savage in Judaism.”

    Modern Jews are squeamish about korbanot (esp. non-Ortho). Meat is something that comes in packages, for the (post)Modern. People in an agricultural society are much more in tune with birth, copulation, and death. Today we have irony, anomie, and other forms of disconnection. I don’t want to fall into the Noble Savage fallacy, but with our comforts, we’ve lost something in return.

  23. Yochanan Lavie

    Bear with me: I don’t want to fall into the Noble Savage fallacy, but with our comforts, we’ve lost something in return.

    Primitive life is, as Hobbes observed, “…poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (It’s not so solitary- in fact it’s stiflingly communal). However, as Freud observed, civilization is vaguely dissatisfying, which is why primitivist ideologies have an appeal. (Examples of which today are Islamism, extreme environmentalism, fundamentalism, even urban “Gangsta” life with its primitive honor code). Ritual, drama, literature, and other arts turns the basic human impulse towards violence into a metaphor. The korbanot are an example of that, as the Rambam might have said had he lived today. (Islamic suicide-homocide bombing is a horrifying reliterilization of human sacrifice).

    (The violent impulse is probably a survival mechanism from “caveman” times, when we had to survive as hunter-gatherers, and defend limited resources against interlopers).

    It is easy to Romanticize the violent-primitive as being “authentic.” Frantz Fanon did that with post-colonial violence; Hitler did that in defending the “Volk” and today’s Islamists do that in the name of “tahweed” (Arabic for monotheism, but connoting authentic, “pure” Islam).

    Too little connection with a tradition, however, leads to alienation, anomie, hedonism, suicide, substance abuse, juvenile delinquency, and anti-social behavior. Since nature abhors a vacuum, the isolated post-modern individual will then gravitate towards extremism. That is why Islamists, Neo-Nazis, and gangs recruit in prisons, for example. (It can partially explain why baalei teshuva go off the deep end, too). Paradoxically, the lack of tradition can lead to hyper-traditionalism.

    What the arts, and religion, can and must do is re-metaphorize these impulses (Freud called in sublimation). Unfortunately today, religion and the arts are enemies, which leads to exacerbation of the problem.

    Unlike Dennet, Dawkins, and Sam Harris I think religion is hardwired and therefore cannot be expunged. Attempts to do so are disasterous (look at post-Communist Russia, with its plunging birthrate and social pathologies). I also believe in the Flying Kasha Varnishkes Monster, and want to connect with Him. We need a non-corny, satisfying, aesthetically pleasing, and intellectually honest faith. I haven’t found it yet, but I am not giving up.

  24. C-Girl

    The earliest known parchment use goes back to Egypt, in about 2750 BCE, when it was used primarily for religious purposes- ie The Book of the Dead. It didn’t catch on for “everyday use” in the rest of the geographical region until about 6 BCE (many scholars believe that Jews began using it about then). (Source: http://faculty.biu.ac.il/~barilm/parchmen.html)

    Prior to that, papyrus- a plant product- was used, beginning at about 4000 BCE, for all you Bereishit non-literalists. (Actually, literalists should have stopped reading at the end of the last paragraph- sorry for failing to warn you). (Source: http://72.14.209.104/search?q=cache:fKWoQsnIvr4J:
    http://www.matse.psu.edu/matse81/Spring_2004/
    Homeworks/CRRA3Sample.pdf+history+of+
    papyrus&hl=en&gl=us&ct=clnk&cd=7&client=
    firefox-a)

    Which leaves us with the possibility that tefillin inserts may have actually been written on papyrus (gasp! klaf scrolls! the heresy!). I don’t know for sure; I wasn’t there. And neither were you.

  25. Yochanan Lavie

    C-Girl has convinced me that the Karaites are correct about tefillin, and Chabad is incorrect. However, as a longstanding Jewish custom maybe it should be preserved? It is just the literalization of an important metaphor- but maybe it’s an important physical reminder? Or maybe it’s “baal tosaf,” and should be abandoned? Not rhetorical questions- what do you people think?

  26. John K. Diamond

    Parchment made from animal skins from kosher animals raised without cruelty may have been decided on some time in Jewish history based on a simple economic calculation.

    I’m no expert on parchment longevity, but if animal-based parchment was found to last much longer than any alternative, then it probably was adopted for economic necessity. Torah Scrolls, by their very nature, are very expensive, and a Synagogue or individual investing in one, would have preferred something having a very long lifetime.

  27. TM

    I think the only person to have ever posted on Jewlicious as an “anti-Zionist” is D. Kelsey.

    I wonder why teffilin can’t be made from material other than leather. Do we keep all biblical mitzvot? Do we, for example, stone people? On the other hand, as a devoted meat lover, I heartily look forward to the coming of the mashiach.

  28. TM

    Oh drats, I just realized, Kelsey is the non-Zionist and Mobi is the anti-Zionist. I always get confused. 😀

  29. Yos

    “As for sacrifices, they’re much more than a sacrifice of wealth.”

    You didn’t even address the metaphysical elements, the almost karma-like attitude of splling blood by proxy. In rejecting those elements, how much more of Judaism would one be rejecting.

    “Which leaves us with the possibility that tefillin inserts may have actually been written on papyrus (gasp! klaf scrolls! the heresy!).”

    The advocate in me would argue that the halacha might’ve been defined according to the period. But I’d like to see a Haredi Rabbi squirm at the question.

  30. Yochanan Lavie

    “You didn’t even address the metaphysical elements, the almost karma-like attitude of splling blood by proxy. In rejecting those elements, how much more of Judaism would one be rejecting.”

    Yos, you didn’t read on. I wrote immediately afterward:

    “If you read Rene Girard’s “Violence and the Sacred” the animal stands in for a human victim. The celebrant should see himself in place of the animal. (I think some mepharshim also say that).”

    We are actually in agreement. As a Levi, I emphatically don’t reject the heritage of sacrifices. In fact, I am impatient with non-Ortho Jews who want to sanitize Judaism by expunging all references to them.

  31. Yos

    Well, I didn’t mean to say you were rejecting anything. I just mean to expand on your point. And for some reason my eyes glanced over your whole comment and didn’t take in that line.

  32. “To the question at hand, a quick web search turned up
    a Jewlicious blog entry by an anti-Zionist who
    mentioned seeing a non-leather tefillin at a
    ‘progressive’ minyan. That was all I could find.”

    Jesus Christ on a pogo stick. I’m that “anti-Zionist,” and if our dear vegan crusader didn’t realize that entire post was a lampoon of crunchy New York indie Jews (I mean, did he really think there was such thing as a dodecachitza?), then you’re really wasting your time. There’s no penetrating a mental fog that thick. I only thought up “non-leather tefillin” because I thought it was too ridiculous for anybody to actually demand. I guess I was wrong.

    And I’m a vegetarian too. Yuck.

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