The Jewish Vegetarians of North America once published a “Top 10 Reasons for Being a Kosher Vegetarian.” First on the list: “Two words – buttered challah!” I welcomed this moment of levity about an issue that often generates a tremendous amount of passion on both sides of the table. When the plates are cleared, though, it seems to me that there are some compelling Jewish reasons for shifting our diets toward vegetarianism.
Understanding the Torah’s portrayal of both the beginning and climax of history is helpful in formulating a Jewish perspective on the issue of vegetarianism. Man’s original diet in the Garden of Eden did not include the flesh of animals. “And God said: ‘Behold I have given you every herb-yielding seed which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed – to you it shall be for food.’” (Genesis 1:29)
When God led the Jewish people out of Egypt in their journey toward the Promised Land, He sustained them for 40 years without meat on a diet of manna from heaven. Based on these two passages, Rabbi Isaac Arama asserted in his Akedat Yitzchak (15th century) that the ideal human diet would be vegetarian.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, wrote about vegetarianism ultimately emerging as the human standard in the idyllic Messianic future. His tract A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace views the permission given to mankind to consume meat as a concession that would be transcended in the future. To support this, he cites the passage: “I will make a covenant for them with the animals of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; I will also banish the bow and sword, and war from the land.” (Hosea 2:20)
Rav Kook’s successor, Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, wrote that “Jews will move increasingly to vegetarianism out of their deepening knowledge of what their tradition commands.” The ethical treatment of animals in Judaism is primarily an issue of human responsibility rather than one of animal rights. The Bible prohibits “tzaar baalei chaim” – causing any needless pain to animals. The Torah also contains numerous injunctions that govern how we treat our animals, including the prohibition against plowing with two different sized species (Deuteronomy 22:10), the requirement to feed our animals before we eat (Deuteronomy 11:15) and the prohibition of muzzling animals employed to thresh our fields (Deuteronomy 25:4).
According to Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero’s Tomer Devorah and numerous other sources, the Torah’s method of ritual slaughter was designed to kill animals as humanely and painlessly as possible. Unfortunately, the conditions under which animals are raised commercially for food production today (crowding, lack of fresh air, and painful shackling and hoisting prior to slaughter) routinely violates the prohibition of “tzaar baalei chaim.” It is hardly consistent to abuse animals from birth and then only be concerned about minimizing their pain when we end their lives. Until these objectionable practices are cleaned up, the consumption of mistreated animals should be questioned.
Even more basic to Jewish values than compassion for animals is the primacy of human life. The ultimate value that Torah places on human life leads to the principle of pikuach nefesh – with three notable exceptions, we violate every Jewish law whenever there is the possibility of saving a life. The biblical directive to “carefully guard your souls” (Deuteronomy 4:15) is understood as an urging to do everything possible to maintain our health.
The Talmud (Chulin 10a) even teaches us to be more concerned about the potential health risks of a food than whether it is kosher. Many people go to extraordinary lengths to ensure the kashrut of their food, but pay little attention to whether it may be unhealthy. Today, the critical role diet plays in health is well-known. Animal products high in saturated fats and cholesterol have been linked to heart disease, stroke and various cancers. The widespread use of growth hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals in the meat production industry pose additional health concerns. Research has shown the positive relationship between vegetarian diets and longevity. This should certainly affect our responsibility to carefully weigh the costs and health benefits of everything that we consume.
Humans are also charged to care for and maintain the earth’s environment (Kohelet Rabbah 7:28) and Jewish law strictly prohibits needlessly wasting or destroying anything that has potential value (baal tashchit). Ecologists have demonstrated the inefficiency of using so much of the earth’s resources to support meat-centred diets, not to mention the huge amounts of waste and pollution that are by-products of modern meat production. And lest we forget, there are still countless people in the world today who suffer from malnutrition and starvation. Might the limited amounts of land and water available feed more people if they were used for growing grains and other crops rather than raising beef cattle?
I don’t know if these issues necessitate the total elimination of meat from our diets. But it seems clear to me that Jews who seek to order their lives according to the teachings of our religion need to at least give some serious thought to these questions.