The Vegetarian Cinephile
A Review of "A Sacred Duty"
In 1968, the social philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote, "As it goes with Israel so will it go with all of us." While he was writing about the geopolitical situation, his observation also applies to the looming environmental crisis facing the world.
This is the perspective from which the film A Sacred Duty (2007)—which was written, photographed, directed, and narrated by Lionel Friedberg and available at www.jewishveg.com/asacredduty - begins. Subtitled "Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World," this hour-long documentary explores the connection between a potential future environmental catastrophe and one simple step that all people of good will can take to avert this: change to a plant-based diet and vastly reduce the use of animal products.
Sponsored by the group Jewish Vegetarians of North America (of which I am a member), the film is narrated against a backdrop of gripping photography and a moving original soundtrack. It begins by establishing the religious underpinnings of the subject, that it is a religious mandate in the Jewish faith to care for the earth. There are scenes of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews in prayer, the Western (wailing) Wall, and the text of the Torah (holy scriptures that are often referred to as the Old Testament of the Bible), with English translation voice-overs by Theodore Bikel as he recounts the commandments to care for the earth.
Then, the film shifts to exploring Israel as a paradigm for environmental issues: rivers so polluted they are unsafe for swimming, air pollution, garbage, and the consequences of global warming. We visit the Arava Institute in Southern Israel, where members of all nationalities-Jews and Arabs from Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority-can explore environmental solutions. The issue transcends borders and ethnicity, affecting everyone. Climate change in the United States is also addressed.
After approximately a half hour, A Sacred Duty begins to explore the role of animal agriculture in global warming. Startling facts are recounted: 18 percent of greenhouse gases come from livestock alone, and overall, animal agriculture generates more pollution than all the cars, trucks, and aircraft in the world combined. Ten pounds of grain and between 2,500 and 5,000 gallons of water are needed to produce a single pound of beef. Furthermore, one third of the world's arable land is used for growing meat.
Then, the film moves beyond the environmental harm of animal agriculture to the harm that consuming an animal food-centered diet has on human health. Here again, we are reminded of the Jewish mandate to take care of one's own health. Chronic degenerative diseases like heart disease and cancer-and their connection to an animal food-centered diet-are reviewed by medical and other experts.
But there is one final Jewish mandate that A Sacred Duty tackles head on: the prohibition against animal cruelty. I expect this part of the film will be difficult for most people to watch. A foie gras factory is shown, while the narrator informs us that the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled these practices illegal. This is followed by brutal scenes of factory farming and slaughter. One of the experts goes so far as to say that you cannot even justify kosher certification for meat prepared from factory- farmed animals. It is hard to imagine how any meat-eater could see these scenes and not re-examine his or her diet. I am reminded of the Paul and Linda McCartney quote: "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian."
There are no glass walls on slaughterhouses, but a film like A Sacred Duty shines a beacon of light on the adverse consequences of an animal food-centered diet—it is bad for the planet, bad for our health, and bad for our spiritual well-being. I hope the film finds a wide audience, not just among Jews.
Disclaimer: I am acknowledged in the credits on a list of those who provided " cooperation and assistance."