QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS:
JUDAISM AND VEGETARIANISM
1. Don’t Jews have to eat meat to honor the Sabbath and to rejoice on Jewish holidays?
Rabbi Yehuda Ben Batheira, one of the outstanding sages of the talmudic period, stated that the obligation to eat meat for rejoicing only applied at the time when the Holy Temple was in existence. (Pesachim 109a) He added that after the destruction of the Temple one could rejoice with wine. Based on this, Rabbi Yishmael stated, “From the day the Holy Temple was destroyed, it would have been right to have imposed upon ourselves a law prohibiting the eating of flesh.” (Baba Batra 60b) The reason that the rabbis did not make such a law was that they felt that most Jews were not ready to accept such a prohibition. (Ibid)
Other sources who maintain that it is no longer necessary to eat meat on festivals are Ritva, Kiddushin 36 and and Teshuvot Rashbash, No. 176. In a scholarly article in The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society (Fall, 1981), Rabbi Alfred Cohen, the publication’s editor, concluded: “If a person is more comfortable not eating meat, there would be no obligation for him to do so on the Sabbath” and “we may clearly infer that eating meat, even on a Festival, is not mandated by the Halacha [Jewish law].” He also points out that “the Shulchan Aruch, which is the foundation for normative law for Jews today, does not insist upon the necessity to eat meat as simchat Yom Tov (making the holiday joyful).”
In a responsum, an answer to a question based on Jewish law, Rabbi Moshe Halevi Steinberg of Kiryat Yam, Israel, stated, “One whose soul rebels against eating living things can without any doubt fulfill the commandment of enhancing the Sabbath and rejoicing on festivals by eating vegetarian foods….Each person should delight in the Sabbath according to his own sensibility, enjoyment, and outlook.” In the same responsum, Rabbi Steinberg pointed out that there is no barrier or impediment to converting a non-Jew who is a vegetarian, since vegetarianism in no sense contradicts Jewish law.
Can sensitive, compassionate people enhance a joyous occasion by eating meat if they are aware that, for their eating pleasure, animals are cruelly treated, huge amounts of grains are fed to animals while millions of people starve, the environment is negatively affected, and their own health is being harmed?
All of the above is reinforced by the fact that there are Chief Rabbis, including Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Haifa, and Rabbi David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, who are strict vegetarians, including on Shabbat and Yom Tov. Also, the late Rabbi Shlomo Goren, former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, was also a strict vegetarian.
2. If Jews don’t eat meat, won’t they be deprived of the opportunity to do many mitzvot (commandments). If God did not want meat to be eaten, why are there so many laws concerning the slaughter, preparation, and consumption of meat?
Rav Kook stated that God provided many laws and regulations related to the consumption of meat as a reprimand, as a reminder that animals’ lives are being destroyed, and in the hope that this would eventually lead people back to vegetarianism in the messianic period. He and others maintained that vegetarianism is the Jewish ideal diet and that God permitted the eating of meat as a temporary concession, with many associated regulations, designed to keep alive a sense of reverence for life.
There are other cases where laws were provided to regulate actions that God would prefer people not do. For example, God wishes people to live at peace, but he provides commandments related to waging war, because he knows that human beings quarrel and seek victories over others. Similarly, the laws in the Torah related to taking a beautiful captive woman in wartime are a concession to human weakness. We cannot conclude from this that we are therefore obligated to make war or take captive women. In the same way, the laws related to meat consumption do not mean that we must eat meat.
By not eating meat, Jews are acting consistently with many mitzvot, such as showing compassion to animals, preserving health, not wasting, feeding the hungry, and preserving the environment. Also, by not eating meat, a Jew cannot violate many possible prohibitions of the Torah, such as mixing meat and milk, eating non-kosher animals, and eating blood or fat.
It should be noted that the laws of kashrut involve not only the technical details of preparing foods, but also the blessings to be recited before and after eating. None of these blessings would cease with vegetarian diets, since the blessing for meat is the same as that for several other foods, such as soup and juice. Also, vegetarianism would not affect “food orientated” mitzvot, such as kiddush, Birkat Hamazon (blessings after meals), or Passover Seder observances.
3. Judaism considers it sinful not to take advantage of the pleasurable things that God has put on the Earth. As He put animals on the Earth, is it not a transgression to refrain from eating meat?
Can eating meat be pleasurable to a religious person when he or she knows that as a result animals are being cruelly treated, his or her health is endangered, the environment is polluted, and grain is wasted? There are many other ways to gain pleasure without harming living creatures. The prohibition against abstaining from pleasurable things only applies when there is no plausible basis for the abstention. Vegetarians abstain because eating meat is injurious to health, because their soul rebels against eating a living creature, and/or because they wish to have a diet that minimizes threats to the environment and that best shares resources with hungry people.
There are other cases in Judaism where actions that some people consider pleasurable are forbidden or discouraged, such as the use of tobacco, drinking liquor to excess, sexual relations out of wedlock, and recreational hunting.
4. Weren’t people given dominion over animals? Didn’t God put them here for our use?
Dominion does not mean that we have the right to conquer and exploit animals. Immediately after God gave people dominion over animals (Genesis 1:26), He prohibited their use for food (Genesis 1:29). Dominion means guardianship or stewardship – being co-workers with God in taking care of and improving the world. (Shabbat 119; Sanhedrin 7)
The Talmud interprets “dominion” as the privilege of using animals for labor only.(Sanhedrin 59b) It is extremely doubtful that the concept of dominion permits breeding animals and treating them as machines designed solely to meet our needs. Rav Kook stated that dominion does not imply the rule of a tyrannical ruler who cruelly governs in order to satisfy personal desires. He also indicated that he cannot believe that such a repulsive form of servitude could be forever sealed in the world of God whose “tender mercies are over all His work.” (Psalm 145:9)
Rabbi Hirsch stressed that people have not been given the right or the power to have everything subservient to them. In commenting on Genesis 1:26, he stated, “The earth and its creatures may have other relationships of which we are ignorant, in which they serve their own purpose.” Hence, people, according to Judaism, do not have an unlimited right to use and abuse animals and other parts of nature.
Commenting on Genesis 1:26, Rashi stated: “If a person is found worthy, he has dominion over the animals. If he is not found worthy, he becomes subservient before them, and the animals rule over him.”
5. If God wanted us to have vegetarian diets and not harm animals, why were the Temple sacrificial services established?
During the time of Moses, it was the general practice among all nations to worship by means of sacrifices. There were many associated idolatrous practices. The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote that God did not command the Israelites to give up and discontinue all these manners of service, because “to obey such a commandment would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is accustomed.” For this reason, God allowed Jews to make sacrifices, but “He transferred to His service that which had [previously] served as a worship of created beings and of imaginary and unreal things.” The elements of idolatry were removed. Maimonides concluded:
By this divine plan it was effected that the traces of idolatry were blotted out, and the truly great principle of our faith, the existence and unity of God, was established. This result was thus obtained without confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of a service they were accustomed to and which was familiar to them.
The Jewish philosopher Abarbanel reinforced Maimonides’ argument. He cited a midrash that indicated that the Jews had become accustomed to sacrifices in Egypt. To wean them from these idolatrous practices, God tolerated the sacrifices but commanded that they be offered in one central sanctuary:
Thereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, said “Let them at all times offer their sacrifices before Me in the Tabernacle, and they will be weaned from idolatry, and thus be saved.”
Rabbi J. H. Hertz, former chief rabbi of Great Britain, stated that if Moses had not instituted sacrifices, which were admitted by all to have been the universal expression of religious homage, his mission would have failed, and Judaism would have disappeared. After the destruction of the Temple, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai stated that prayer and good deeds should take the place of Temple sacrifices.
Rashi indicated that God did not want the Israelites to bring certain sacrifices; it was their decision to do so. He based this on a statement by Isaiah in the Haftorah (portion from the Prophets) that is read on the Sabbath when the section in Leviticus which discusses sacrifices is read: “I have not burdened you with a meal-offering, nor wearied you with frankincense.” (Isaiah 43:23)
Biblical commentator Rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1235) also suggested that certain sacrifices were never mandatory, but voluntary. He ascertained this from the words of Jeremiah:
For I spoke not unto your fathers, nor commanded them on the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt- offerings or sacrifices; but this thing I commanded them, saying, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well unto you. (Jeremiah 7:22 -23)
Kimchi noted that nowhere in the Ten Commandments is there any reference to sacrifice. Even when sacrifices are first mentioned (Leviticus 1:2) the expression used is “when any man of you brings an offering.” The first Hebrew word ki, being literally “if”, implies that it was a voluntary act.
While Jewish scholars including Maimonides believed that with the Third Holy Temple, animal sacrifices will be reestablished, other Jewish scholars such as Rav Kook believed that animal sacrifices will not be reinstated in messianic times, even with the reestablishment of the Temple. They base this on a midrash that states that during the messianic period human conduct will have advanced to such high standards that there will no longer be a need for animal sacrifices to atone for sins and, thus, all offerings will cease except the Thanksgiving offering, which will continue forever. The abolition of animal sacrifices is consistent with Rav Kook’s view, based on the prophecy of Isaiah (11:6-9), that people and animals will be vegetarian at that time, and “none shall hurt nor destroy on all My holy mountain.”
Sacrifices, especially animal sacrifices, were not the primary concern of God. As a matter of fact, they could be an abomination to God if not carried out together with deeds of loving kindness and justice. Consider these words of the prophets, the spokespeople of God:
I desire mercy, not sacrifice. (Hosea 6:6)
“To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me?” says the Lord. “I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs or of he -goats. . . bring no more vain oblations… Your new moon and your appointed feasts my soul hates; … and when you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; yes, when you make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood.” (Isaiah 1:11-16)
I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Though you offer me burnt offerings and your meal offerings, I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace- offerings of your fat beasts. Take you away from me the noise of your song; and let Me not hear the melody of your psalteries. But let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.
(Amos 5:21- 4)
Deeds of compassion and kindness toward all creation are of greater significance to God than sacrifices: “To do charity and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Proverbs. 21: 3).
Perhaps a different type of sacrifice is required of us today:
When Rabbi Shesheth kept a fast for Yom Kippur, he concluded with these words: “Sovereign of the Universe, You know full well that in the time of the Temple when a man sinned he used to bring a sacrifice, and though all that was offered of it was fat and blood, atonement was made for him. Now I have kept a fast and my fat and blood have diminished. May it be Your will to account my fat and blood which have been diminished as if I have offered them before :you on the altar, and favor me.”
6. Don’t the laws of shechitah provide for a humane slaughter of animals so that we need not be concerned with violations of tsa’ar ba’alei chayim?
It is true that shechitah has been found in scientific tests conducted in the United States and other countries to be a relatively painless method of slaughter. But can we consider only the final minutes of an animal’s life? What about the tremendous pain and cruelty involved in the entire process of raising and transporting animals and forcing them into the slaughterhouse to be robbed of their lives? When the consumption of meat is not necessary and is even harmful to people’s health, can any method of slaughter be considered humane? Is this not a contradiction in terms?
Some animal rights advocates have been critical of shechitah because of the practice of shackling and hoisting, a very painful process in which the animal is raised off the ground by its hind leg prior to slaughter. It is important to recognize that shackling and hoisting is not a part of shechitah. It was instituted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1906 in order to avoid the blood of diseased animals contaminating other animals when they were cast upon the floor.
Fortunately, an alternative, more humane method that is acceptable to Jewish law has been developed and put into practice in many slaughterhouses, especially for large animals. Holding pens have been produced that meet the requirements of ritual slaughter and also Department of Agriculture requirements, while avoiding the use of shackling and hoisting. These pens have been endorsed by the Jewish Joint Advisory Committee on shechitah, the Rabbinical Council of America, and prominent Orthodox rabbis.
Several animal rights groups have pushed for legislation banning shackling and hoisting. Unfortunately, some anti-Semitic groups have used the issue to try to attack shechitah, and this has caused some Jews to see any criticism of shechitah as anti-Semitic. The Jewish community must work to extend the use of humane alternatives to shackling and hoisting, primarily to avoid tsa’ar ba’alei chayim. However, the improvement of living conditions imposed by “Factory Farming” methods is no less important, and this is everyone’s responsibility. Of course, as indicated earlier, the best way to be consistent with Jewish teachings concerning animals is to be vegetarian so no animals need be mistreated and killed for one’s diet.
7. Doesn’t vegetarianism place greater priority on animal rights than on the many problems related to human welfare?
Vegetarian diets are not beneficial only to animals. As previously discussed, they also improve human health, help hungry people through better sharing of food and other resources, put less stress on endangered ecosystems, conserve valuable resources, and reduce the potential for war and violence. In view of the many global threats related to today’s livestock agriculture, working to promote vegetarianism may be the most important action that one can take for global survival. Also, a concern for animal suffering hardly excludes concern for human suffering. There is no limit to human moral concern.
8. Doesn’t vegetarianism elevate animals to a level equal to that of people, an idea inconsistent with Judaism?
While some vegetarians equate human and animal life, the vast majority of vegetarians do not. Concern for animals and a refusal to treat them brutally and slaughter them for food that is not necessary for proper nutrition (indeed, is harmful to human health) does not mean that vegetarians regard animals as equal to people. Also, many people are vegetarians for reasons other than animal rights, such as preservation of health, reduction of ecological threats, and help for hungry people.
As the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748 -1832) put it, our behavior toward animals should not be based on whether they can reason or talk, but “can they suffer?” And, as noted earlier, the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides felt that animals are like people in fleeing from pain and death. Also, as English author Brigid Brophy (b. 1929) indicated, “We are the species uniquely capable of imagination, rationality, and moral choice – and this is precisely why we are under the obligation to recognize and respect the rights of animals.”
While Judaism does not assert the moral equivalence of the species, this does not negate the ethical mandates to treat animals with empathy and good will. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch expressed the case for sympathy toward all creatures powerfully:
Compassion is the feeling of empathy which the pain of one being awakens in another; and the higher and more human the beings are, the more keenly attuned they are to re-echo the note of suffering, which, like a voice from heaven, penetrates the heart, bringing all creatures a proof of their kinship in the universal God. And as for people, whose function it is to show respect and love for God’s universe and all its creatures, his heart has been created so tender that it feels with the whole organic world… mourning even for fading flowers; so that, if nothing else, the very nature of his heart must teach him that he is required above everything to feel himself the brother of all beings, and to recognize the claim of all beings to his love and his beneficence.
9. Won’t a movement by Jews toward vegetarianism mean less emphasis on kashrut (kosher laws) and eventually a disregard of these laws?
Quite the contrary. One of the purposes of the laws of kashrut is reverence for life. Another purpose is to avoid pagan practices, which often involved much cruelty to animals and people. These concepts are consistent with vegetarian ideals.
In many ways, becoming a vegetarian makes it easier and cheaper to observe the laws of kashrut. This might attract many new adherents to keeping kosher and eventually to other important Jewish values. As a vegetarian, one need not be concerned with separate dishes, mixing milchigs (Yiddish for dairy products) with fleischigs (Yiddish for meat products), waiting 3 or 6 hours after eating meat before being allowed to eat dairy products, storing four sets of dishes and utensils (two for regular use and two for Passover use), and many other considerations that must concern the non-vegetarian who wishes to observe kashrut strictly. In addition, a vegetarian is in no danger of eating blood or fat, which are prohibited, or the flesh of a non-kosher animal. It should be noted that being a vegetarian does not automatically guarantee that one will maintain the laws of kashrut as, for example, certain baked goods and cheeses may not be kosher. Also, checking vegetables and grains for insect infestation is an important kashrut concern. When in doubt, a trusted rabbinic authority should be consulted.
A growing problem in the American Jewish scene today is the possible unreliability of kashrut supervision. As diligent as supervising agencies attempt to be, there is always the chance of an error. An issue of the Jewish Press listed 84 food establishments that paid fines related to violations of the kosher laws. Some observant Jews have chosen to avoid all possible problems by not eating meat.
Some people reject kashrut because of the high costs involved. Since a person can obtain proper nourishment at far lower costs with a vegetarian diet, this may prevent the loss of many kashrut observers.
In a personal letter to the author, Rabbi Robert Gordis, late Professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote that he believed that vegetarianism, the logical consequence of Jewish teaching, would be a way of protecting kashrut. He stated, “Vegetarianism offers an ideal mode for preserving the religious and ethical values which kashrut was designed to concretize in human life.”
There are several examples in Jewish history when a change to vegetarianism enabled Jews to adhere to kashrut. As indicated in the Book of Daniel, Daniel and his companions were able to avoid eating non-kosher food by adopting a vegetarian diet. (Daniel 1:8 -16). The historian Josephus relates how some Jews on trial in Rome ate only figs and nuts to avoid eating flesh that had been used in idol worship. Some Maccabees, during the struggles against the Syrians, escaped to the mountains where they lived on only plant foods to avoid “being polluted like the rest,” through eating non-kosher foods.
10. Isn’t a movement toward vegetarianism a movement away from Jewish traditions with regard to diet? Isn’t there a danger that once some traditions are changed, others may readily follow, and little will be left of Judaism as we have known it?
A move toward vegetarianism is actually a return to Jewish traditions, to taking Jewish values seriously. A movement toward vegetarianism can help revitalize Judaism. It can show that Jewish values can be applied to help solve current world problems related to hunger, waste, and pollution. Hence, rather than a movement away from Jewish traditions, it would have the opposite effect.
11. Weren’t the Jewish sages aware of the evils related to eating meat? If so, why does so much of Talmudic literature discuss laws and customs related to the consumption of meat? Are you suggesting that Judaism has been morally wrong in not advocating vegetarianism?
Conditions today differ greatly from those in biblical times and throughout most of Jewish history. Only recently has strong medical evidence linked animal-centered diets to many types of disease. Modern intensive livestock agriculture results in conditions quite different from those that prevailed previously. To produce meat today, animals are treated very cruelly, they are fed tremendous amounts of grain (and chemicals) while millions of people starve, and pollution and misuse of resources result. When it was felt that eating meat was necessary for health and the many problems related to modern intensive livestock agriculture did not exist, the sages were not morally wrong in not advocating vegetarianism. Also, people did not eat meat so frequently then.
12. By putting vegetarian values ahead of Jewish teachings, aren’t vegetarians, in effect, creating a new religion, with values contrary to Jewish teachings?
Most Jewish vegetarians do not place so-called “vegetarian values” above Torah principles. They are saying that Jewish mandates to treat animals with compassion, guard our health, share with hungry people, protect the environment, conserve resources, and seek peace, make vegetarianism as the ideal diet for Jews today, especially in view of the many problems related to modern methods of raising animals on factory farms. Rather than rejecting Torah values, Jewish vegetarians are challenging the Jewish community to apply Torah values to their diets in a daily meaningful way. They are respectfully challenging Jews to live up to Judaism’s splendid teachings. They are arguing that vegetarianism is a fulfillment of Judaism, not a curtailment.
13. Aren’t vegetarians trying to be more righteous than God, since God gave permission to eat meat?
There is no obligation to eat meat today. As discussed before, God’s first dietary law (Genesis 1:29) was strictly vegetarian and, according to Rav Kook and others, God’s permission to people to eat meat was a reluctant concession, and the Messianic period will be vegetarian.
Jewish vegetarians believe their diet is most consistent with God’s desires that we protect our health, be kind to animals, share with hungry people, protect the environment, and conserve resources. Rather than being more righteous than God, they are urging people to live up to God’s highest ideals.
This viewpoint is conceded by Rabbi Alfred Cohen: “If a person tends toward vegetarianism because he sees it as a lifestyle consonant with the way the Almighty really wanted the world to be, there can be no denying that he has a valid point of view.”
14. How can you advocate making changes in Judaism?
What is really advocated is a return to Jewish values of showing compassion, sharing, helping the needy, preserving the environment, conserving resources, and seeking peace. Also, rabbinic enactments consistent with Jewish values and teachings to meet changing conditions have historically been part of Judaism.
Global threats today – pollution, hunger, resource scarcity, violence – are so great that a new thinking or rethinking about values and new methods is necessary. Albert Einstein’s statement, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything except our ways of thinking; hence we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe,” has a parallel to the effects of our diets today.
Jewish vegetarians are not advocating changes in the Torah, but want the Torah be used to master present world conditions, as it has in the past. Global survival today requires the application of Torah values to our diets, as well as other aspects of our lives.
15. Wasn’t Genesis 1:29 (the first dietary law) overridden by later Biblical commandments and teachings?
While God’s original intention was that people be vegetarians, God later gave permission for meat to be eaten as a reluctant concession to people’s weakness. Many Biblical commentators look at vegetarianism as the ideal diet, and modern science has verified that our body structure and digestive system are most consistent with this type of diet.
In the responsum previously referred to, Rabbi Moshe Halevi Steinberg expressed his belief that the fact that meat was initially forbidden and later permitted indicates that each person is thereby given a free hand to either be a vegetarian as was the first human, or to eat meat, as Noah did.
The question is, on what basis should that choice be made? Should it be on the basis of convenience, habit, and conformity, or on considerations of basic Jewish values and teachings?
Rabbi Alfred Cohen wrote: “The Torah does not establish the eating of meat as a desirable activity, only as something which is not forbidden to do.” As a matter of fact, the less meat eaten, the better; one who eats meat too often is considered a “glutton”, though he or she is within the technical limits of the Torah.
Perhaps the talmudic laws relating to the consumption of meat on the Sabbath were for the benefit of the poor, who depended on charity to appease their hunger. Hence, the needy would be provided with what was then considered nutritious food, at least once a week.
16. While vegetarians are not violating Halacha (Jewish law) by not eating meat, isn’t their failure to eat meat at least on Yom Tovim (holidays) and the Sabbath in violation of the spirit of Jewish law?
This question is based on the fact that many Jewish sages felt that one could only experience joy by eating meat on holidays. Maimonides, for example, states that “There is no joy except with meat and wine.”
Once again we must recognize the tremendous changes that have occurred in livestock agriculture and our medical knowledge. Health problems related to the consumption of meat have become far worse since the time of Maimonides. In the time of our sages, animals were not raised under horrible conditions on factory farms, and modern problems related to the production of meat such as widespread hunger, ecological threats, and resource scarcities were not as prevalent. Since we are, or should be, aware of these modern problems, it is vegetarian diets that are most consistent with the spirit of Jewish tradition and values.
It should be noted that while in the days of the talmudic sages vegetarians were generally ascetics who rejected life’s joys, today vegetarianism is viewed as life sustaining and life enhancing.
It is also important to note that (1) the above quote from Maimonides fails to include the previously mentioned Talmudic qualifier in Pesachim l09a that the obligation to eat meat to rejoice on holidays only held “in the time when the Temple is standing”, and (2) that earlier in the same quote, Maimonides indicated that people rejoice in different ways: sweets and nuts for children and new clothing for women.
Also, as mentioned before, there have been a number of chief rabbis who were strict vegetarians, and ate no flesh products at all.
17. Because the majority of Jews will probably continue to eat meat, isn’t it better that they do so without being aware of the Jewish principles such as bal tashchit, (the mandate not to waste resources), tsa’ar ba’alei chayim (the mandate to avoid causing unnecessary harm to animals), and pikuach nefesh (the mandate to protect human life) that are being violated? Shouldn’t a Jewish vegetarian abstain from meat quietly and not try to convert others to his or her type of diet?
This is a common attitude that the author has found. Many people feel that if there are benefits to vegetarianism, and if some people want to have such a diet, fine, but they should keep it to themselves and not try to convert others.
The question really becomes one of how seriously we take Jewish values. Are we to ignore Torah mandates to preserve our health, show compassion for animals, conserve resources, help feed hungry people, preserve the earth, and others that are violated directly or indirectly by animal-centered diets? Is it proper that people be kept uninformed about the many violations of Torah law so that they can continue their eating habits with a clear conscience?
The following powerful talmudic teaching shows the importance of speaking out when improper actions occur:
Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of his own family and does not do so is punished for the transgressions of his family. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the people of his community and does not do so is punished for the transgressions of his community. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not do so is punished for the transgressions of the entire world. (Shabbat 54b)
The Talmud also relates a story of how apparently righteous individuals were punished along with the wicked because “they had the power to protest but they did not.” (Shabbat 55a) Related to these principles are the following teachings of the Jewish sages:
If a man of learning participates in public affairs and serves as judge or arbiter, he gives stability to the land. But if he sits in his home and says to himself, “What have the affairs of society to do with me?… Why should I trouble myself with the people’s voice of protest? Let my soul dwell in peace!” If he does this, he overthrows the world. (Tanchuma to Mishpachim)
If the community is in trouble, a man must not say, “I will go to my house, and eat and drink, and peace shall be with you, …” But a man must share in the trouble of his community, even as Moses did. He who shares in its troubles is worthy to see its consolation. (Ta’anit 11a)
18. Since Rav Kook felt that a vegetarian period would come later, after people had advanced to a higher ethical level and there was much progress in solving problems affecting people, shouldn’t we refrain from promoting vegetarianism today?
Many of the problems related to modern intensive livestock agriculture have become far worse since Rabbi Kook died in 1935. One can only wonder what his view would be today if he were aware of the diseases, soaring medical costs, increasing environmental threats, widespread hunger, cruel treatment of animals, and other negative effects of animal-centered diets.
As discussed previously, a consideration of vegetarianism is not a retreat from seeking to benefit people. Vegetarianism is one of the most important changes for improving the lot of the world’s population and our imperiled planet, as well as for showing that the Torah’s message can help combat today’s many threats. Also, a shift to vegetarianism often empowers people to see other issues more clearly and act more effectively.
19. How would a Jewish vegetarian celebrate Pesach (Passover)?
Today there is no need to cook or eat meat on Passover. The eating of the Paschal lamb is no longer required now that the Temple is not standing. One is required to commemorate this act, not participate in it. The late Dayan Feldman stated that mushrooms, which have a fleshy appearance can be used on the Seder plate to commemorate the Paschal lamb. Rabbi Huna, a Talmudic sage, stated that a beet can be used for the same purpose.(Pesachim 114b) In a personal note to the author, Rabbi David Rosen pointed out that the objects on the seder plate are symbolic, and hence there is no sin in improvising. He suggested that vegans use a beet to represent the Paschal offering (instead of a shank bone), and a mushroom to represent the Festive offering (instead of an egg).
The proper celebration of Passover requires the absence of leaven and the use of unleavened bread, which we are commanded to eat “throughout your generations.” There are many vegetarian recipes that are appropriate for Seders and other Passover meals, a number of which can be found in several books listed in the Bibliography at JewishVeg.com/schwartz.
Because Passover is the celebration of our redemption from slavery, we should also consider freeing ourselves from the slavery of harmful eating habits. As our homes are freed from leaven, perhaps we should also free our bodies from harmful foods. Because Passover is a time of regeneration, physical as well as spiritual, the maximum use should be made of raw fruits and vegetables, which have cleansing properties.
There are other Passover themes related to vegetarian ideas. The call at the Seder for “all who are hungry to come and eat” can be a reminder that our diets can be a factor in reducing global hunger. The Passover theme of freedom may be extended to the horrible conditions of “slavery” under which animals are raised today.
The Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb (see Bibliography) has many ideas and concepts related to Passover themes from a perspective of treating animals compassionately and can be used to supplement traditional Haggadahs. Low-fat vegetarian Passover recipes can be found on the internet at http://www.vrg.org/recipes/passover.htm and www.vegsource.com/passover.htm.
20. In Jewish literature, it is stated that with the advent of the Messiah a banquet will be given by God to the righteous in which the flesh of the giant fish Leviathan, will be served. (Baba Batra 75a; Sanhedrin 99a) Isn’t this inconsistent with the idea that the Messianic period will be vegetarian?
These legends concerning the Leviathan are interpreted as allegories by most Jewish scholars. According to Maimonides, the banquet is an allusion to the spiritual enjoyment of the intellect. Abarbanel and others consider the expressions about the Leviathan to be allusions to the destruction of the powers that are hostile to the Jews.
21. Some people believe that vegetarians are supposed to aspire to become vegans (people who don’t use milk, eggs, leather, or any product from an animal). How can an Orthodox Jew be a vegan since he would not be able to use tefillin, a shofar (ram’s horn), a Sefer Torah, and other ritual items that are made from animals?
If a person became a vegetarian but not a vegan, he or she would still do much good for animals, the environment, hungry people, and the preservation of his or her health. If a person embraces veganism except in cases where specific mitzvot require the use of some animal product, even more good will be done.
It is important to emphasize that, for hiddur (enhancement of) mitzvah, it is preferable for the religious items mentioned above to be made from animals that were raised compassionately and died natural deaths. (Shabbat 108a)
The number of animals slaughtered for Jewish ritual purposes is minute compared to the billions killed annually for food. The fact that there would still be some animals slaughtered to meet Jewish ritual needs shouldn’t stop us from doing all we can to end the horrible abuses of factory farming. Also, most problems related to animal-centered diets – poor human health, waste of food and other resources, and ecological threats – would not occur if animals were slaughtered only to meet Jewish ritual needs. Our emphasis should be on doing a minimum amount of harm to other people, the environment, and animals.
22. During the Messianic Period, when the Temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt, won’t the sacrificial services be restored and won’t people have to eat meat?
As indicated previously, Rav Kook and others believed that in the Messianic period, human conduct will have improved to such a degree that animal sacrifices will not be necessary to atone for sins. There will only be non-animal sacrifices to express thanks to God. As mentioned before, Maimonides believed that the sacrifices were only a concession to human weakness to begin with, and, had we not fallen back into idolatry and built the Golden Calf, we might not have had sacrifices at all. So we must ask ourselves: If the Messianic era represents a return to the pristine holiness of Sinai before the Golden Calf was built, why would we need to restore the sacrifices?
While most Jewish scholars assume that all Jews ate meat during the time that the Temple stood, it is significant that some (Tosafot, Yoma 3a, and Rabbeinu Nissim, Sukkah 42b) assert that even during the Temple period it was not an absolute requirement to eat meat. Rabbeinu Nissim characterizes the “requirement” to eat the meat of festival offerings as mitzvah min ha-muvchar, that is, the optimal way of fulfilling the mitzvah of rejoicing on the festival, but not an absolute requirement.
Rabbi Moshe Halevi Steinberg, in the responsum previously mentioned, points out that vegetarianism for health reasons did not conflict with Halacha even in Temple times. He wrote that one could be a vegetarian the whole year, and by eating a kazayit (olive-size portion which, due to its size, would not damage one’s health) of meat, he or she would fulfill the mitzvah of eating the meat of sacrifices. Even a Kohen (priest), could be vegetarian except when his turn came to eat of the sacrifices, during his period of duty (about 2 weeks), when he, too, could eat just a kazayit. According to the Hatam Sofer, since many Kohanim could join together to eat the required amount, the vegetarian Kohen could eat even less than a kazayit. Rabbi Steinberg noted that, among the things listed as disqualifying a Kohen from service in the Temple, vegetarianism is not included, since he could arrange the problem of the eating of the sacrifices in one of the ways listed above. However, Rabbi Steinberg adds, a Kohen who became a vegetarian because his soul recoiled against eating meat would not have been allowed to serve in the sanctuary since, if he forced himself to swallow a kazayit of meat, it would not fulfill the halachic definition of “eating.”
23. How can an Orthodox Jewish vegetarian sincerely recite synagogue prayers for the restoration of the Temple sacrificial services?
This response is based on an essay by Rabbi David Rosen. He reminds us that (1) Maimonides believed that the sacrifices were a concession to the times (2) Rabbi Kook felt that the Messianic period in which the Temple would be rebuilt will be a vegetarian period, and (3) the Temple service can be maintained without animal sacrifices, as is indicated by the rabbinic teaching that in the future all sacrifices will be abolished, except for thanksgiving offerings. He argues that the liturgy in the Sabbath and Festival Musaph (additional) service need not be understood as expressing a hope for the restoration of animal sacrifices. Rather, it can be interpreted as a recognition on our part of the devotion and dedication to God that our ancestors showed, and an expression of our hope that we may be inspired to show the same spirit of devotion in our own way.
24. Do you believe that flesh should not be served at Jewish functions and that all Jews should be vegetarians?
Because the realities of livestock agriculture are inconsistent with basic Jewish values, Jews should ideally be vegetarians and flesh should not be served at Jewish functions. But since the Torah does give permission for people to eat meat (as a concession to human weakness), people have been given the freedom to choose. In fact, the purpose of these questions and answers is to give Jews and others information to help them make a decision that is informed and based on Jewish teachings.
25. For improved health, isn’t it better to advocate that people reduce their meat consumption rather than that they become vegetarian? Doesn’t Judaism advocate moderation, the golden mean, in such matters, rather than complete abstinence?
Certainly a reduction of meat consumption would be a step in the right direction. If many people did this, it would sharply reduce many of the problems that we have been discussing. However, as mentioned in Chapter 3, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch stressed that “even the smallest unnecessary deprivation of strength is accountable to God. Every smallest weakening is partial murder. Therefore you should avoid everything which might possibly injure your health.”
Responding to a similar argument with regard to smoking, Rabbi Moses Auerbach, a teacher at Hebrew Teachers College in Baltimore, stated that only deliberate self-delusion can persuade a person that there are “safe” limits in smoking. He adds that there is absolutely no safety in moderation, since even a limited intake of cigarette poison can seriously aggravate an existing condition of heart or lung disease that a person may not be aware of. Rabbi Auerbach also argued that even if there is a given point below which there is no risk, the peril of addiction and gradual increases beyond “safe” levels would remain.
The argument for moderate meat consumption would need to address similar concerns before asserting that such a diet is consistent with Jewish values.
26. What about the Chassidic view that, when one is pious and performs Torah mitzvot, he or she elevates the animal by consuming its flesh, since the energy produced from the animal is used to perform mitzvot which the animal could not perform in any other way?
This concept is related to the following Kabbalistic teachings: during the Creation of the universe, the Holy Vessels (Sephirot) which were intended to contain the Divine Light were shattered. “Sparks” of holiness (netzotzot) fell to lower levels, ultimately becoming entrapped in material things. When done with the proper intention (kavannah) by a pious person, mitzvot can “elevate” these sparks back into their proper place in the universe. This process culminates in the coming of the Messiah, and the restoration of spiritual harmony among all Creation. Kabbalists see meat eating as part of this process, since they believe that animals are thus elevated into their proper levels of holiness.
There is also a reincarnational aspect to this teaching. According to the Kabbalists, sometimes a human soul is reincarnated as an animal, but retains its human consciousness, in order to atone for a specific sin. In Shivchei Ha-Ari (16th century collection of stories about Rabbi Isaac Luria), there are several tales about the Ari communicating with human souls in animal bodies. Similar stories are also recorded about the early Chassidic masters. In many of these cases, the soul in the animal asks the Rebbe to use the meat for a specific mitzvah, in order to offset the sin and set the soul free to reincarnate as a human being once again. This, too, is part of the process of “elevating holy sparks.”
Yonassan Gershom, a vegetarian Chassidic rabbi from Minnesota, believes that these concepts can be reconciled with vegetarianism. He notes that the process of raising sparks is cumulative, not a self-perpetuating cycle for all eternity. It is also an individualized process. Each human being is born with the mission to elevate specific sparks, and not others. As we come closer to the time of the Messiah, the process of raising sparks through the consumption of meat is also nearing completion. In his book, Jewish Tales of Reincarnation, Rabbi Gershom cites the story of a Chassid who lost his taste for meat, and was later told in a dream that this was because he had completed the elevation of the specific sparks in meat that he was intended to elevate. The Chassid then became a vegetarian.
Rabbi Gershom points to the recent increase in vegetarianism as a possible indicator that many people, like the Chassid in the story, are naturally losing their taste for meat precisely because they have already elevated the sparks assigned to them. In addition, he notes the very cruel treatment of animals today, which is not the way animals were raised and slaughtered in the days when the Chassidic stories originated. At that time, animals were treated as individuals. When the time came to butcher the family cow, the person eating the meat had personal interaction with the animal. Today, however, this relationship no longer exists. Most of us do not take our own cow or chicken to the shochet, nor is there much interaction between the shochet and the animal.
After visiting a modern slaughterhouse and viewing current methods of meat production, Rabbi Gershom asserts that the shochtim, no matter how ‹sincere and dedicated they may be, cannot maintain a spirit of holiness while slaughtering hundreds of animals under the mass-production conditions of today’s slaughterhouses. In past centuries, an individual blessing was said with kavannah (intention) before slaughtering each animal. But, in today’s high-speed industry, many shochtim can only make a single blessing for the whole day’s quota of animals. If this is the case, how can there be proper kavannah for the elevation of the souls? Rabbi Gershom asserts that we are now left with the empty shell (klippah) of flesh pots without holiness.
Even in cases where the slaughtering is performed with the proper kavannah, the process does not necessarily go on forever. Rabbi Yehuda Hirsch of Strettana, a 19th-century Chassidic Rebbe (Rabbi), had once been a ritual slaughterer. So pure and holy was he that flocks of wild doves came of their own accord to lie down under his knife. The Seer of Lublin, upon seeing this miracle, urged Reb (Rabbi) Yehudah’s teacher, Reb Urele of Strelisk, to ordain his disciple as a rabbi. But Reb Urele refused, saying that there were thousands of poor human souls reincarnated in the kosher species of animals, and that being a shochet was the proper work for Reb Yehuda. The time came, however, when the flocks of doves ceased to come. Reb Yehuda then gave up the butcher’s business and was ordained as a rabbi.
One is tempted to ask whether Reb Yehuda would have been willing to participate in the kosher meat industry as it exists today, given that he would scarcely have time to properly focus his thoughts before slaughtering each animal. It once happened that one of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s followers was thinking about becoming a shochet and asked the Rebbe for his opinion. The Rebbe responded by giving lesson #37 of Likutei Moharan, which explains that the soul of the animal is attached to the blood and that the shochet must have true kavannah in wielding the knife in order to raise the sparks properly. Failure to do so affects not only the animal, but the livelihood of the whole Jewish people because “where there is no Torah, there is no bread” (Pirke Avot 3:17). After hearing this lesson, the disciple decided against becoming a shochet.
Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Ari) felt that “only a Torah scholar who is God-fearing and eats with proper intent can elevate the sparks of holiness within animals.” There is also a Kabbalistic concern about the spiritual effect of meat eating on the person. The Breslover Rebbe stated that only a person who has reached a high spiritual level can be elevated by eating animal foods, and the opposite is also true: a person who lacks this high spiritual level may be further debased by eating animal foods. Rabbi Chaim Kramer, a respected contemporary Breslover scholar, notes in his commentary to Likutei Moharan 37:6 that “when a person eats the meat of an animal which lacks proper shechitah (ritual slaughter), he also ingests the aspects of animal matter, darkness, foolishness, judgments, forgetfulness, and death.” In the cases where a sinful soul has reincarnated as an animal, there is the additional danger that, if one is not holy enough to elevate the soul in the meat, then that soul may attach itself to you and, in turn, drag you down into sin. For this reason, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, a major 16th century Kabbalist, expressed the opinion that one should eat a minimum of animal flesh.
Not only is the sinner debased by eating animal foods, but the animals themselves are debased by misuse of their energy, for which the person who ate them will have to answer in the next life. In his book, My Prayer, Lubavitcher Chassid Rabbi Nissim Mindel notes that if one eats a chicken and then uses its energy to cheat or steal, the chicken can demand at the Heavenly Court, “By what right have you taken my life, and involved me in crime, which I would never have committed otherwise?” Rabbi Gershom cites a similar story about animal souls which accused the false Messiah, Shabbetai Zevi, before the Heavenly Court, complaining that he had used their energy to mislead the Jews into heresy. These teachings strongly indicate that raising sparks through eating meat is not something to be taken lightly. This is why the talmudic sages taught, “One who is ignorant of Torah is forbidden from eating meat.” (Pesachim 49b) This raises the question as to how many of us in this day and age are holy enough to eat meat with the right consciousness to raise the sparks.
As a non-Chassid, I would respectfully agree that it seems hard to see how sparks of holiness can be elevated under modern conditions that involve so much cruelty to animals and do so much harm to people and the world. Also, based on recent nutritional studies, one would be better able to perform mitzvot and other sacred activities through a sensible, nutritious vegetarian diet, rather than by eating meat, with all its negative health connections.
Vegetarians, especially those who have recently changed their diets, are generally on the defensive. They must deal with many questions, such as the ones in this chapter. Those who eat meat have the support of society, and thus they never consider the consequences of their diet. It is vegetarians who are asked to explain the reasons for their diet, rather than those who support the cruel treatment and unnecessary slaughter of animals that an animal-centered diet requires.
Perhaps there are times when vegetarians should take the offensive in conversations with meat eaters. To that end, responses to questions can be used to teach others basic ideas, which can help show the benefits of vegetarianism and its consistency with Jewish values.
Here are some questions that can help politely and respectfully to “turn the tables” on non vegetarians:
* Do you know about the cruelty related to raising animals for food today?
*Are you aware of the links between meat eating and heart disease, cancer, and other degenerative diseases?
*Could you visit a slaughterhouse or kill an animal yourself?
* Do you know that while millions die annually of starvation, most grain grown in the United States and most affluent countries is fed to animals destined for slaughter?
* Are you aware of the consequences of animal-centered diets with regard to pollution, destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, use of land, water, and other resources, and global climate change?
* Since Jews are only permitted to kill animals to meet an essential human need, and it is not necessary to consume animal products in order to maintain good health (the contrary is the case), can we justify the slaughtering of animals for food?
* Can we justify the force-feeding of ducks and geese to create pate de foie gras? Can we justify taking day-old calves from their mothers so that they can be confined in cramped crates and killed so that people can eat veal? Can we justify the killing of over 250 million male chicks immediately after birth at egg-laying hatcheries because they cannot produce eggs and have not been genetically programmed to have enough flesh to make it profitable to raise them for slaughter? Can we justify artificially impregnating cows every year so that we can continue to drink milk intended for their calves? Can we justify the many other horrors of factory farming?
* Since our sages state that we do not know the true value or reward for one mitzvah as compared with another, why do we seek to build fences around certain ritual mitzvot while often ignoring other mitzvot such as tikkun olam (repair the world), bal tashchit (do not waste resources), bakesh shalom v’rodef shalom (seek peace and pursue it), and tsa’ar ba’alei chayim (do not cause “pain to living creatures”)? By doing so, do we miss the forest for the trees?
* Do you know that vegetarianism is the diet most consistent with Jewish values?
It is essential to try to keep the focus on questions and issues such as these and to avoid being distracted by relatively minor issues.
— Richard Schwartz
October 11, 2011 at 6:31 pm