Judaism and Animals:
from the article "Judaism and Vegetarianism," by Richard Schwartz, PhD
This article addresses a widely accepted aspect of modern life that contradicts many Jewish teachings and harms people, communities, and the planet — the mass production and widespread consumption of meat. It illustrates how high meat consumption and the ways in which meat is produced today conflict with at least six important Jewish teachings:
In view of these important Jewish mandates to preserve human health, attend to the welfare of animals, protect the environment, conserve resources, help feed hungry people, and pursue peace, and since animal-centered diets violate and contradict each of these responsibilities, committed Jews (and others) should sharply reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products.
One could say "dayenu" (it would be enough) after any of the arguments above, because each one constitutes by itself a serious conflict between Jewish values and current practice that should impel Jews to seriously consider a plant-based diet. Combined, they make an urgently compelling case for the Jewish community to address these issues.
A Vegetarian View of the Torah
As the Torah verse at the beginning of this article (Genesis 1:29) indicates, God's initial intention was that people be vegetarians. The foremost Jewish Torah commentator, Rashi, states the following about God's first dietary plan: "God did not permit Adam and his wife to kill a creature to eat its flesh. Only every green herb were they to all eat together."1
Most Torah commentators, including Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Nachmanides, and Rabbi Joseph Albo, agree with Rashi. As Rabbi Moses Cassuto states in his commentary From Adam to Noah:
These views are consistent with the statement in the Talmud that people were initially vegetarians: "Adam was not permitted meat for purposes of eating."3
The great 13th century Jewish commentator Nachmanides indicates that one reason behind this initial human diet is the kinship between all sentient beings:
God's original dietary plan represents a unique statement in humanity's spiritual history. It is a divine blueprint for a vegetarian world order. Yet how many millions of people have read this Torah verse (Genesis 1:29) and passed it by without considering its meaning?
After stating that the original humans were to consume a purely vegetarian diet, the Torah indicates that animals were not initially created to prey on one another but rather to subsist on purely vegetarian food:
Immediately after giving these dietary laws, God saw everything He had made and "behold, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). Everything in the universe was as God wanted it, in complete harmony, with nothing superfluous or lacking.5 The vegetarian diet was a central part of God's initial plan.
The strongest support for vegetarianism as a positive ideal in Torah literature is in the writing of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Kohen Kook (1865-1935). Rav Kook was the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi (Rav) of pre-state Israel and a highly respected and beloved Jewish spiritual leader and thinker. He was a writer on Jewish mysticism and an outstanding scholar of Jewish law. He spoke powerfully on vegetarianism, as recorded in A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace (edited by Rav Kook's disciple Rabbi David Cohen, 'The Nazir of Jerusalem').
Rav Kook believed that the permission to eat meat was only a temporary concession to the practices of the times, because a God who is merciful to His creatures would not institute an everlasting law permitting the killing of animals for food.6
People are not always ready to live up to God's will. By the time of Noah, humanity had morally degenerated. "And God saw the earth, and behold it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth" (Genesis 6:12). People had morally degenerated to such an extent that they would eat a limb torn from a living animal. So, as a concession to people's weakness,7 God granted permission for people to eat meat: "Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; as the green herb have I given you all." (Genesis. 9:3)
According to Rav Kook, because people had descended to such an extremely low spiritual level, it was necessary that they be taught to value human life above that of animals, and that they concentrate their efforts on first working to improve relations between people. He writes that if people had been denied the right to eat meat some might eat the flesh of human beings instead, due to their inability to control their lust for flesh. Rav Kook regards the permission to slaughter animals for food as a "transitional tax," or temporary dispensation, until a "brighter era" can be reached, when people will return to vegetarian diets.8
Just prior to granting Noah and his family permission to eat meat, God states:
Now that there is permission to eat animals, the previous harmony between people and animals no longer exists. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argues that the attachment between people and animals was broken after the flood, which led to a change in the relationship of people to the world.9
The permission given to Noah to eat meat is not unconditional. There is an immediate prohibition against eating blood: "Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall you not eat." (Genesis 9:4) Similar commands are given in Leviticus 19:26, 17:10, and 12 and Deuteronomy 12:16, 23, and 25, and 15:23. The Torah identifies blood with life: "... for the blood is the life" (Deuteronomy 12:23). Life must be removed from the animal before it can be eaten, and the Talmud details an elaborate process for doing so.
When the Israelites were in the wilderness, animals could only be slaughtered and eaten as part of the sacrificial service in the sanctuary (Leviticus 17:3-5). The eating of "unconsecrated meat," meat from animals slaughtered for private consumption, was not permitted. All meat which was permitted to be eaten had to be an integral part of a sacrificial rite. Maimonides states that the Biblical sacrifices were a concession to the primitive practices of the nations at that time: people (including the Hebrews) were not then ready for forms of Divine service which did not include sacrifice and death (as did those of all the heathens); at least the Torah, as a major advance, prohibited human sacrifice.10 God later permits people to eat meat even if not as part of a sacrificial offering:
This newly-permitted meat was called basar ta'ava, "meat of lust," so named because rabbinic teachings indicate that meat is not considered a necessity for life.11
The above verse does not command people to eat meat. Rabbinic tradition understands the Torah as acknowledging people's desire to eat flesh and permitting it under proper circumstances, but not as requiring the consumption of meat. Even while arguing against vegetarianism as a moral cause, Rabbi Elijah Judah Schochet, author of Animal Life in Jewish Tradition, (1984), concedes that "Scripture does not command the Israelite to eat meat, but rather permits this diet as a concession to lust."12 Similarly, another critic of vegetarian activism, Rabbi J. David Bleich, a noted contemporary Torah scholar and professor at Yeshiva University, states, "The implication is that meat may be consumed when there is desire and appetite for it as food, but it may be eschewed when there is not desire and, a fortiori,13 when it is found to be repugnant." According to Rabbi Bleich, "Jewish tradition does not command carnivorous behavior...."14
Commenting on the above Torah verse (Deuteronomy 12:20), the respected Torah scholar and teacher DR. Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997) points out how odd this allowance is and how grudgingly the permission to eat meat is granted. She concludes that people have not been granted dominion over animals to do with them as they desire, but that we have been given a "barely tolerated dispensation" to slaughter animals for our consumption, if we cannot resist temptation and feel the need to eat meat.15 Rav Kook also regards the same Torah verse as clearly indicating that the Torah does not view the slaughter of animals for human consumption as an ideal state of affairs.16
The Talmud expresses this negative connotation associated with the consumption of meat:
The sages also felt that eating meat was not for everyone:
Some authorities explain this restriction in practical terms: only a Torah scholar can properly observe all the laws of animal slaughter and meat preparation. While there are few conditions on the consumption of vegetarian foods, only a diligent Torah scholar can fully comprehend the many regulations governing the preparation and consumption of meat. However, master kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria explains it in spiritual terms: only a Torah scholar can elevate the "holy sparks" trapped in the animal.19
How many Jews today can consider themselves so scholarly and spiritually advanced to be able to eat meat? Those who do diligently study the Torah and are aware of conditions related to the production and slaughter of meat today would, I believe, come to conclusions similar to those in this article.
Rav Kook writes that the permission to eat meat "after all the desire of your soul" is a concealed reproach and an implied reprimand.20 He states that a day will come (the Messianic Period) when people will detest the eating of the flesh of animals because of a moral loathing, and then people will not eat meat because their soul will not have the urge to eat it.21
In contrast to the lust associated with flesh foods, the Torah looks favorably on vegetarian foods. In the Song of Songs, the divine bounty is poetically described in references to fruits, vegetables, nuts, and vines. There is no special braha (blessing) recited before eating meat or fish, as there is for other foods such as bread, cake, wine, fruits, and vegetables. The blessing for meat is a general one, the same as that over water or any other undifferentiated food.
Typical of the Torah's positive depiction of many non-flesh foods is the following evocation of the produce of the Land of Israel:
Rav Kook believes that there is a reprimand implicit in the many laws and restrictions over the preparing, combining, and eating of animal products (the laws of kashrut), because they are meant to provide an elaborate apparatus designed to keep alive a sense of reverence for life, with the aim of eventually leading people away from meat-eating.22 He also believes that the high moral level involved in the vegetarianism of the generations before Noah was a virtue of such great value that it cannot be lost forever.23 In the future ideal time (the Messianic age), people and animals will again not eat each others' flesh.24 People's lives will not be supported at the expense of animals' lives. Rav Kook based these views on the prophecy of Isaiah:
In a booklet which summarizes many of Rav Kook's teachings, Joseph Green, a 20th century South African Jewish vegetarian writer, concludes that Jewish religious ethical vegetarians are pioneers of the messianic era; they are leading lives that prepare for and potentially hasten the coming of the Messiah.25
His view is based on the Jewish belief that one way to speed the arrival of the Messiah is to start practicing the behaviors that will prevail in the Messianic time. For example, the Talmud teaches that if all Jews properly observed two consecutive Sabbaths, the Messiah would immediately come.26 Perhaps this means symbolically that when all Jews reach the level of fully observing the Sabbath in its emphasis on devotion to God and compassion for people and animals, the conditions for the messianic period will have arrived. Based on Rav Kook's teaching, if all people became vegetarian in the proper spirit, with compassion for all animals and human beings, and with a commitment to preserve and honor God's world, this might hasten the coming of the Messiah.
Although most Jews eat meat today, God's high ideal — the initial vegetarian dietary law — stands supreme in the Torah for Jews and the whole world to see. It is the ultimate goal toward which all people should strive.
13 Rabbi J. David Bleich, "Vegetarianism and Judaism", Tradition, Vol. 23, No. 1, (Summer, 1987), 86. This article can also be found in Bleich, Rabbi J. David, Contemporary Halakhic Problems. Volume III. New York: Ktav, 1989, 237-250b.
23 Kook, A Vision, Sections 1, 2, 4, 6, and 32; also see Rabbi Alfred Cohen, "Vegetarianism from a Jewish Perspective," Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Vol. 1, No. II, (Fall, 1981), 45; this article can also be found in Kalechofsky, Roberta, Judaism and Animal Rights: Classical and Contemporary Responses. Marblehead, Massachusetts: Micah Publications, 1992, 176-194.
Richard H. Schwartz, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics, The City University of New York; author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, and Mathematics and Global Survival; and a member of CHAI's Israel-American Advisory Board.