One man’s vegetarian journey from Seventh-Day Adventism to Orthodox Judaism

I was scheduled to speak at Sinai Temple at 2pm Sunday.

Here’s more info.

I arrive at Sinai Temple at 1:45 and the security guard says nothing is scheduled for that afternoon.

Six people show up for my talk. The average age of the attendees is about 55.

I end up giving the talk on the steps of Sinai.

Here are my notes:

Vegetarianism is the last topic I ever thought I’d speak about publicly, even though I am a life-long vegetarian. I have never eaten meat or fish in my life but I’ve never thought about it much.

Until now. You’re forcing me to think, to examine my ways.

By the way, I don’t get why people always ask me, after they hear I’m vegetarian, if I eat fish.

Seventh-Day Adventists take it for granted that if you say you are a vegetarian, that you don’t eat fish.

I was raised a Seventh-Day Adventist. I was raised a vegetarian. I’ve always taken it for granted. My family is vegetarian.

I heard so much as a kid about the benefits of vegetarianism that I tuned out. Since my teens, I’ve had no interest in hearing about the benefits of vegetarianism.

I was in therapy the other day. And I said to my therapist, just don’t talk about healing my wounded inner child. As a teenager, John Bradshaw specials would constantly pop up on PBS during fundraising drives and I heard more than I ever wanted to about the wounded child within.

You can hear beautiful things so often that they lose their meaning.

It’s that way for me with vegetarianism.

My vegetarianism is something that comes up in conversation almost every time I eat with people. It came up at kiddish yesterday when I asked if the cholent was vegetarian. It wasn’t.

I don’t proselytize for vegetarianism. I’m a vegetarian by habit. Yes, I think it is a good thing, but it is not something I am passionate about.

Why am I a vegetarian? Because I was raised that way. I was brought up a Seventh-Day Adventist. That’s a type of Protestant Christianity.

Let’s deconstruct the term “Seventh-Day Adventist.” The “Seventh-Day” part means that Adventists keep the Seventh day Sabbath. From sundown Friday night to sundown Saturday night is holy time. You don’t work. Now Seventh-Day Adventists are not as strict about the Sabbath as observant Jews. Seventh-Day Adventists drive on the Sabbath. They’ll turn on lights on the Sabbath. They’ll heat up food on the Sabbath, though they generally won’t cook on the Sabbath. Some Adventists will even watch TV on the Sabbath, but if they’re religious as opposed to simply cultural Adventists, they’ll only watch one of the three satellite Seventh-Day Adventist channels.

The “Adventist” part of Seventh-Day Adventist means that they believe in the imminent advent of Jesus Christ. They think he’s coming back soon and that he will take them away to Heaven. Adventists are into eschatology. That means the study of the time of the end. Adventists are into apocalyptic. Apocalyptic means the disclosure of something hidden. The apocalypse can refer to the final battle that will end all battles – Armaggedon.

Christianity as a whole is a subset of Gnosticism. Gnosticism means there is special knowledge, gnosis, that brings salvation to the next world, the much much better world.

My father the Christian evangelist did two PhDs. He did one PhD in Rhetoric from Michigan State University in the rhetoric of Paul, the founder of Christianity. Non-Christian scholars regard Paul as the founder of Christianity. That he created the theology that claimed that Jesus was divine and that belief in Jesus brings heavenly salvation. My father did his second PhD in New Testament studies at Manchester University. My father has devoted his life to explaining the books of Daniel and Revelation. These are very big books in Seventh-Day Adventism with their lurid images of the end times.

There is a great 2008 biography of my father called Desmond Ford: Reformist Theologian, Gospel Revivalist.

Even though Christianity and Judaism share the Hebrew Bible in common, they read it completely differently. Christians read it primarily for the stories, particularly the stories that they believe predict the coming of the Messiah. Jews study the Hebrew Bible particularly for the laws.

Seventh-Day Adventism emerged out of the Millerite movement of the 1830s. That was started by the preacher William Miller who said the world was coming to an end.

On what basis did he say this? Daniel 8:14: “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.”

Using the year-day principle, 2300 days becomes 2300 years. 2300 years from 456 BCE means 1844 CE. On Yom Kippur, 1844, Jesus was supposed to come back.

He didn’t come back. Adventists asked themselves why not. They searched the Bible. They found a text in Jeremiah that said that if all Israel kept two Sabbaths, the Messiah would come. The Adventists regarded themselves as the true Israel. They are supercessionists. That’s why they don’t care about modern state of Israel. It has no religious significance to Adventists.

They said, hey, we have to start keeping the Seventh day as the Sabbath. They looked into the Old Testament and decided they have to take more of these laws seriously, including the laws against unclean meats.

The Millerite movement had a this-worldly aspect – health reform. It was big into abstaining from meat, nicotine, alcohol, and spicy foods.

There was an Adventist epileptic named Ellen G. White who had visions, including one vision that these abstentions from meat, nicotine, alcohol etc were God’s will.

SDAs believe in progressive revelation. That God gets better. His will for humanity becomes clearer. That the Torah was a primitive revelation. Ellen G. White is the latest and greatest revelation.

Ellen White had many visions. They all came after the Adventist church had decided on some fundamental dogma, and her visions always confirmed the church’s decision.

Ellen White said that on Yom Kippur, 1844, Jesus moved from the holy place to the most holy place in the Heavenly Sanctuary to begin the final work of judging the saints, the 144,000 righteous on earth, 12,000 from each tribe of Israel.

Ellen G. White created the Seventh-Day Adventist church. More than anybody else, she created the rubric for my childhood — the rituals, the rhythms and the permitted foods. She published dozens of books. She’s like the Talmud of Adventism. She gave instructions on such things as how to make your bed in the morning.

Adventism is a feminine faith. There is a 3-2 ratio of women to men in Adventism. That’s also my sense of vegetarians. It is very male to want to kill your dinner. Women tend to be more protecting and nurturing. Like women, Seventh-Day Adventists tend to be caring, healing, nurturing people.

Traditional Adventist texts link meat eating with lust. Adventists are very against lust. Even husbands should not lust after their wives, said Sister White. Instead, they should be nurturing.

My mother got sick on my first birthday. She was soon diagnosed with bone cancer. Over the next three years, she withered away to 60 pounds and died.

Perhaps this is a reason I’ve never taken vegetarianism seriously. My mom was a vegetarian. She died of cancer.

I’ve never had any illusions about vegetarianism protecting you from illness.

Still, until I was 14, all of my friends were Seventh-Day Adventists and they were all vegetarians who also abstained from alcohol, nicotine and caffeine.

I’m a little bit like Rabbi Boruch Cunin, head of Chabad on the West Coast, who didn’t know there were non-Jews until he was five.

As a child, I thought that the way we did things in my home in every matter was the right way for everybody. We brushed our teeth after every meal. We didn’t own a TV. We ate a lot of beans and rice and fruit.

On Yom Kippur, 1979, my life forever changed. My father gave a big talk in front of about one thousand people at Pacific Union College in the Napa Valley. He denied the church’s Heavenly Sanctuary doctrine, the one about Jesus moving from the holy to the most holy place in the Heavenly Sanctuary. My dad said that Seventh-Day Adventists are not God’s chosen people. Anyone who believes in Jesus is saved and hence there is no need for a heavenly sanctuary and heavenly judgment.

My father lost his job as a Seventh-Day Adventist preacher and teacher. We moved out of the Seventh-Day Adventist world. For the first time, I had friends who ate meat.

Around this time, we got our first TV. I remember one night we were watching a 60 Minutes program about illegal immigrants in the United States and how they were so poor that they could only afford to eat rice and beans.

“Hey, that’s all we eat!” was my response to my parents. They laughed.

I went to public school for the first time in tenth grade. People kept saying to me, “I can’t believe you’ve never had a hamburger!”

People did everything they could to tempt me to eat meat but I was never tempted.

While there were many things I yearned to do that were against the rules of my home, eating meat was not one of them. I used to leave my home on Friday nights, telling my parents I was going to a Bible study, and instead I would run two miles to my school to cover a basketball game for the local newspaper.

Then I went to college and I decided to throw out my childhood. I proclaimed that I was an atheistic communist. I worked on the Sabbath. I did a lot of naughty things but I had no temptation to eat meat.

My vegetarianism is so ingrained that the mere thought of eating meat makes me ill. I feel nauseous when it is close to me, as it inevitably is at kiddish and in Jewish homes.

I remember one evening in 2003, a very attractive woman invited me to dinner. It was at a non-kosher restaurant. We both had salad, but she ordered salad with bacon bits in it. All of a sudden, my teyve, my desire, for this woman completely disappeared and even though we spent the evening in her hot tub, I did not want to touch her.

I’m 44. I’ve never been married. I’ve been on a lot of dates. Another part of my Adventist heritage that I hold on to is that I don’t drink alcohol (beyond a sip for kiddish). So my dates rarely drink when we’re out for that awkward first dinner. I’m convinced that my lack of success with women is because we don’t get toasty that first date.

I met this great Jewish woman in yoga the other night. We had this terrific conversation. I did most of the talking. I asked her what she did for a living and she said her mission in life was to get people to eat more bugs. She has a channel on youtube where she shows people how to cook scorpions and the like.

Poor old me, I am impaled on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, she’s super hot and smart and nice. On the other hand, she’s into bugs, mainly non-kosher ones. I’m pretty squeamish.

So even after I went to college and threw out my Christianity and started exploring the wider world, I didn’t eat meat. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t drink. I’ve never done any form of illegal drug. I’ve never smoked marijuana. I never became comfortable with swearing publicly. I went to nightclubs a few times when I was 18, but I could never get comfortable with that scene.

My Seventh-Day Adventist heritage has left an imprint on me that I can’t escape.

One day in February 1988, my life forever changed. I woke up with what I thought was the flu. I stayed home for a couple of days and then feeling better, returned to school. Within a day, I was sick again. Eventually I had to leave school and for the next few years, I was confined to bed. I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

In my first years with this illness, I was so desperate for help that I returned several times to the Seventh-Day Adventist world. After all, it’s all about health and caring. I hoped it would make me better. I even got myself an Adventist girlfriend.

None of it worked.

I tried all sorts of different diets and natural remedies. None of it worked.

While living with my parents, I converted to Judaism in 1993.

I remember coming home from the Beit Din and telling my father what I had done. He looked up from his book and said, ‘Well, they’re certainly not like the Adventists, out there proselytizing.’

He knew how difficult my journey into Judaism had been.

In the summer of 1993, I moved to Florida to be with this Jewish woman 12 years my senior. I’d met her through a singles ad. She insisted I see her psychiatrist. He put me on the medication Nardil and over the next few months, I made a gradual recovery to about two-thirds of normal health, which is where I am at today.

A lot of people have asked me, if eating meat would restore you to normal health, would you do it? I guess I would. I just have no reason to believe that eating meat would do me that much benefit.

The Biblical foundation for Adventism’s practice of vegetarianism is the Garden of Eden story in Genesis which depicts a diet of fruits and vegetables. Also, the prophet Isaiah says that in the Messianic Age, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and, as Woody Allen adds, the lamb will get up in the morning!

Adventists don’t depend on hashgacha – kosher certification for prepared foods. They will look at the ingredients and the more religious the Adventist, the less likely he is to eat anything with lard in it and the like.

In my home, I was told that “lard” was just a chemical and not to worry about it if it was the ingredient in a prepared food. We would never eat meat, but we’d eaten at this taco restaurant near my high school, and it didn’t bother us to learn that there was lard in the beans. Christ had freed us from the bondage of the Law.

There are three types of Seventh-Day Adventists – traditional Adventists who subscribe to the church’s traditional teachings and practices, evangelical Adventists who feel great kinship with other evangelical Christians and are not so particular about their Adventism, and liberal Adventists who tend to be Adventists principally for the lifestyle. My family was evangelical.

When I became Jewish, I had to become much more rigorous about what I ate and now I always look for kosher certification on packaged foods.

Health was a religious value in Adventism. It was something preached about all the time from the pulpit. By contrast, it doesn’t get as much emphasis in religious Jewish life. I’ve never heard a rabbi preach on preventative health nor on Salvation by Faith and the other staples from my childhood.

And for that I am very glad.

Jewish food seems much less healthy to me. I don’t know much about nutrition, but when I eat around the Jewish community, I find a lot more foods soaked in oil, filled with sugar and the like. These were no-nos in my upbringing, so much so that my mother gave up cooking because she’d always get grilled about what she put in the food. She’d complain, you want food without ingredients.

As a Seventh-Day Adventist, we didn’t eat chicken soup and brisket and chulent and lox. I don’t remember eating kugel. I’ve had to adjust to a different diet.

Frankly, I am very happy to be part of a religion that doesn’t preach about health all the time. It is harder to be chronically ill in a religion obsessed with health. Many people treat you like you’ve sinned by getting sick.

I don’t have as much energy and strength as I did as a kid, so I want to use my limited resources for other things than worrying about health. I want to get something done in this world. I want to write. I want to speak. I want to grow in my practice of Alexander Technique.

I don’t put any value on my vegetarianism. It’s a habit. I think it’s a good habit. I think vegetarianism can make you more sensitive to life. I’ve never felt comfortable hunting and fishing. I recoil from the taking of life. To see a fish on a hook flopping around makes my stomach turn. But in my 44 years on this planet, I haven’t seen vegetarians be any more ethical than any other group.

As we all know, Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian. There’s a whole entry in Wikipedia on his vegetarianism. One of the first sentences in this entry reads: “Hitler believed that a vegetarian diet could both alleviate personal health problems and bring about a spiritual regeneration.”

The Nazis were passionately against animal experimentation. They experimented instead on human beings. It reminds me of that verse from Hosea 13:2: “Those who offer human sacrifice kiss calves!” The Nazis were also passionately against smoking. They shared many Seventh-Day Adventist ideals, many of the current ideals in the Western world.
I want to read to you from pages 193-194 of the best book published on Adventism – Seeking A Sanctuary: Seventh-Day Adventism and the American Dream:

For example, in Hitler’s Germany, the wish to avoid confrontation was undoubtedly a factor in the development of the church’s open support for the Nazi party. German Adventist leaders completely associated themselves with the aims and objectives of their nation at that time. They denounced the Treaty of Versailles, accepted the theory of Aryan purity, and particularly welcomed the arrival of a Fuhrer who abstained from tea, coffee, alcohol, and meat. They fully supported the Nazi notion of “living room” and applauded the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the annexation of Austria, and the march into the Sudetenland. They also merged their welfare activities with those of the state and replaced the Jewish sounding “Sabbath” with the German word for rest day, Ruhetag, all in what turned out to be a successful effort to evade proscription.

So, in conclusion, do I think that there are ethical and spiritual benefits to vegetarianism? Yes. I think it can make you more sensitive to life.
I think there are spiritual and ethical benefits to keeping kosher. But knowing that someone keeps kosher, do I then think he is more likely to be ethical in the way he treats people? I don’t think so.
I think that praying three times a day as Jewish law requires of men can also bring spiritual and ethical benefits, but are people who do this more likely to be ethical? I don’t think so.
Rituals can point the way to God and to goodness, but unless you are doing them with the intent of becoming holy and godly, I don’t think that in themselves they will transform you for the good.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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