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Judaism and Vegetarianism

Judaism and Vegetarianism

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Question:

How does Judaism view vegetarianism? Is it favored or discouraged by the Torah?

Response:

The kosher dietary rules do rule out shrimp, lard, cheeseburgers, and lobster, but plain old beef is not on the Torah’s “don’t” list—if prepared following certain guidelines. For better or for worse, meat is an undeniable favorite on the kosher menu. Is this good? Let’s have a look.

The History

Upon his creation, Adam, the first man, is taught by G‑d the ways of the world: “Behold, I have given you every seed-bearing herb which is upon the surface of the entire earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; it will be yours for food.”1 Seed, herb, tree, and fruit—yes; anything else—no.

Several chapters (and over 1600 years) later, upon surviving the devastation of the great flood, Noah leaves the ark and is told by the Almighty, “Every moving thing that lives shall be yours to eat; like the green vegetation, I have given you everything.”2 His diet now includes meat as well.

It would seem that G‑d’s original (and ideal) plan was that we should not eat meat.3 One problem with this approach is that many statements in the Torah imply that meat-eating is ideal and encouraged, for example, to honor Shabbat and the holidays.4

So what is the deal? Would G‑d rather we be vegetarians like Adam, or meat-eaters like Noah?

The Philosophical Approach—Distinction of Responsibility

The fifteenth-century philosopher Rabbi Yosef Albo, author of Sefer ha-Ikkarim (“The Book of Principles”), understands G‑d’s instructions to Adam as an implication that the original G‑dly plan was that man should refrain from killing and eating meat. In his view, the killing of animals is a cruel and furious act, ingraining these negative traits in the human character; in addition, the meat of certain animals coarsens the heart and deadens its spiritual sensitivity.

The people of the first generations mistook this, however, to mean that human and animal were equal, with equal expectations and standards. This led to the degeneration of society into violence and corruption—for if the human being is but another beast, then killing a man is the equivalent of killing an animal. It was this attitude and behavior which prompted G‑d to cleanse the world with the great flood.

After the flood, G‑d laid down a new world order. People needed to recognize the moral obligations and divine purpose entrusted to humankind. To make this clear, G‑d told Noah that humankind can—indeed, must—eat the flesh of animals. Our dominion over animals highlights our superiority, and reminds us that we are charged with divine responsibility to perfect the world. To minimize its negative effects on the human being, when the Torah was given, G‑d forbade the flesh of those animals that have a coarsening influence on the soul.

(Is man really greater than animal? If so, how is he infused with energy by eating it? See footnote 5.)

According to this approach, meat-eating is not good, but it does serve a very important function.

The Kabbalistic Approach—Cosmic Perfection

While some question the right of man to kill an animal to fill his belly, the great sixteenth-century mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria questions the right of man to consume any organism for his own self-preservation. If everything in this word was created deliberately by G‑d, why is your blood redder than the purposeful existence of a tomato? And he answers that . . . it’s not. One who eats solely for his own selfish desires has swallowed the meaningful life of a vegetable with no excuse. “It’s not fair!” cries the helpless plant.

On the other hand, when we eat with the intention to use the energy to further our uniquely human service of G‑d, we have lifted the food up. When a person performs a G‑dly deed—a deed which transcends his natural self—the food he eats is elevated along with him, and is reunited with its G‑dly source.5

But there’s a difference between animal-based and vegetation-based foods. For starters, you can’t live without bread. If you’d eat bread only when you’re ready to elevate it, you might starve to death and never get a chance to try again. So we can’t restrict bread-eating to the spiritual-minded. Moreover, when eating simple, necessary foods like bread, it is easier to maintain a purposeful perspective. But meat is a luxury. And indulgence in this luxury makes one more materialistic than he was before eating. Therefore, one should only eat meat if one will be able to accomplish more with the meat than he would be able to with vegetation. One way to make your meat-eating worthwhile is to elevate not only its physical components, but its pleasure factor as well. Click here to read more about this. If you can do that, you have brought yourself and your lunch to greater spiritual heights and sensitivity than you can achieve by eating sprouts. On the other hand, if you don’t, you drag yourself—and the animal—to a more materialistic plane.6

Why is it that only the post-flood world can take the beef challenge?

The human race from Adam until Noah had the potential and charge to eat that which is indispensable to basic survival, with the intent to live a life of purpose; in this way, the man and food would have achieved their purpose. But eating meat requires much more than this. Meat, with its pleasure-inducing properties, naturally draws one towards materialistic lust. Elevating meat requires the ability to rise above the natural order, to bring new and altruistic life into something which is naturally the embodiment of materialism and self-indulgence. Pre-flood humanity and pre-flood meat didn’t allow for this.

Noah emerged from the ark to a changed world, a world where everything has the creative ability to go beyond its natural state of being and to assume a much greater identity. A new era of earthly potential was born.7 The world was now a place where man could elevate the very nature of earth’s components to supernatural heights—and even elevate their power of enticement and pleasure as well. Now man was given the ability to eat even meat and elevate its energy.8

Even for us, rarefied by the flood, eating meat is no simple feat. Before you sink your teeth in to that pastrami burger, here are a couple of things to keep in mind.

The sages declared that an empty-minded person has no right to eat meat.9 They also taught never to eat meat out of hunger; first satisfy your hunger with bread.10 (On an empty stomach, it is very difficult to keep focus on anything other than stuffing your face.) Only when “eating mindfully,” focusing on our divine mission, are we doing more for the animal than the animal is doing for us.

According to this approach, it may be cruel to not eat meat, because doing so robs the animal of its chance to serve a higher purpose.

Don’t be scared off. Get your act together and focus; the completion of G‑d’s universal plan is at “steak.”

Bon appetit!

Baruch S. Davidson

Author’s disclaimer: If for health purposes you do not eat meat, or you are absolutely repulsed by it, the above ideas are not meant to compel you to do so in disregard of your health or the like. Under such circumstances, the pleasure factor can be elevated through ice cream, soda, potato chips, etc. For alternative resources of the passionate love for G‑d which is fueled by meat, see your local Kabbalist.

FOOTNOTES
1.

Genesis 1:29.

2.

Genesis 9:3.

3.

In his writings, the late Chief Rabbi A. I. Kook (1865–1935) takes this approach, but insists that this ideal is not to be assumed as the norm until the coming of Moshiach, when human nature will be completely refined. Until then, he warns, such restrictions may have detrimental effects on man’s moral behavior. (Chazon ha-Tzimchonut veha-Shalom)

4.

See Deuteronomy 27:7 and Nehemiah 8:10.

5.

Lurianic Kabbalah teaches that creatures which are lower on the food chain originate on a level that is in fact higher. Their lofty origins enable them to journey forth to low and distant states, because a stronger source is capable of sending its offspring much further than a weaker source.
When we view the hierarchy from this perspective, we discover that the origin of the animals and vegetation is in fact higher then that of man. Man is not sustained by the food’s substance, but by G‑d’s energy within it, the spiritual origins contained within, which are indeed higher than he. To paraphrase the Psalmist (139:5), “You formed me before and—yet—after the rest of creation.”

6.

According to the Kabbalah, the characteristics of physical objects are a result of their source in the spiritual realms. Red meat, once a home to warm blood, is a mirror of its source in the spiritual element of fire—leaping flames, which correspond to a passionate yearning for a higher existence. In a realm where the primary dimension is a yearning for a truth beyond its current state, there is less focus on illuminating the current reality, which leaves much room for the failings of those standing on the sidelines. Therefore, the meat of luxury, standing on the periphery of mindful and focused eating, is much more likely to fail and drag down its consumer, instead of being elevated by him or her.
If, however, when eating the meat one maintains focus, and succeeds at converting and harnessing the meat to further his or her uniquely human service of G‑d, than the leaping flames inherent in the meat translate into a passionate love of G‑d, a much greater love than one could achieve through harnessing “cold” vegetation-based foods. See R. Schneur Zalman of Liad, Likkutei Torah, Behaalotecha 31d and Vezot Haberachah 97d.

7.

Alternatively, some explain that the animals became more refined, making possible their elevation. See R. Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (Tzemach Tzedek), Ohr Hatorah, Bereishit 3:1270.

8.

The change of potential which the flood brought about is expressed in the rainbow, the sign of G‑d’s covenant to never again destroy the world (Genesis 9:15). The spiritual density of the pre-flood matter was reflected in its physical properties. Pre-flood water vapor was too coarse to allow the light to sift through it and create a rainbow. Only after the refining effects of the flood could the moisture in the atmosphere refract the sunlight to make a rainbow.
The rainbow also symbolizes the new humanity. Moisture rises from the earth, catches the light of the sun, and creates a rainbow. This represents man’s ability to contribute to creation beyond its natural state, to produce new vistas of beauty and color.

9.

Talmud, Pesachim 49b.

10.

Ibid., Chullin 84a.

Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson is a member of the Chabad.org Ask the Rabbi team.
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Discussion (121)
June 2, 2014
How so?
@Michal,

"sounds like a little adaption"
an adaptation? No, not quite. Non vegetarian Jews simply go by alternate readings and Jewish scripture gives them all the freedom to do so. :)
Anonymous
May 31, 2014
Michal
Two things. 1) It's impossible to "murder" an animal. "Murder" is defined as the intentional, unjustifiable killing of a human being. Maybe if a wild animal attacks your baby, you'll be able to figure out the difference. 2) If you'd been a slave in Egypt, you'd never have made it out alive. HaShem commanded us to kill sheep - the Egyptian gods - to have their blood smeared on our ancestors' doorposts. You're commanded to have the shankbone on your Seder plate to this day. Perhaps HaShem knows what He's doing.
Anonymous
Southeastern PA
May 29, 2014
I am so proud to see so many responses in favor of abstaining from a cruelty filled life. GDs original plan makes more sense to me mainly because I dont see why GD would change his mind by guiding his people towards the murder of animals. Sounds a little like adaptation, similar to the "new testament." I would much rather face Hashem without the blood of his beautiful creatures on mine or my families hands.
Michal
FL
January 3, 2014
neutral view
How about a more neutral interpretation?

People who happen to be Jews and eat meat operate within gods' second plan with man.
People who happen to be Jews and don't eat meat operate within gods' original plan with man.
Obviously the vast majority of Jews back in the days were meat eaters. Does this mean Jews MUST be meat eaters? No, only that meat eating in Judeaism was seen as conventional, regarded as ideal by man backed by gods second plan he created grudgingly ("man is evil") and was later turned into a rule, by intolerant Jews that formed the majority.
Anonymous
July 31, 2013
Judaism and vegetarianism.
If we were forbidden to eat meat Hashem would not have permitted us to do so, giving us specific laws for the method of shechiita,checking and koshering the animals also clearly stating which animals are permitted and which are forbidden to be eaten. Indeed, the shochet must have extensive training and be a learned and G-d fearing Jew.
Anonymous
Liverpool , U.K
lubavitchliverpool.com
July 31, 2013
Author’s disclaimer
Those that have gained and reached such a pure and true lofty spiritual level and are not confused with "animal rights" nonsense, achieve similar levels of awareness of God regardless of their meatless diet. My daughter is that righteous woman. I ask you to consider this "disclaimer". (similar to women who need not don Tallit and Tefillin and other requirements of the more spiritually challenged man.)
Daniel Masri
modiin Israel
July 30, 2013
HaShem Knows Best
In Genesis 9:3 HaShem says it's ok to eat meat. A few verses earlier it says that "the devising's of mans mind are evil from his youth" I think it is a bit presumptuous of humans to think we are smarter than HaShem. That's probably where the "evil from their youth " comes from. The people who built the Tower of Babel thought they were smarter than HaShem too. If I recall that did not work out well.

As for me, I'll take HaShem's suggestion and enjoy the gifts that he has given me, including meat.
Simcha
Sun Lakes, AZ
March 28, 2013
Richard Schwartz
Thank you for your insightful comments Richard Schwarts. Also thank you to David from NYC. Slaughter of animals is horrendous. Any one who twists this fact around to suit their own purposes is lying to themselves. I love the taste of meat but can no longer do so because I think of the torture and suffering of the animals.
Anonymous
Staten Island
January 2, 2013
relationship with sustenance
My cousins still live in a small village in which they procure most of their food in harmony with their environment. They live on a mostly protein diet from the sea, salmon being their staple as well as other fish & seaweed also. Farming is not an option since it is too rocky. They are very robust, strong & live to be about 100 yrs old & still fishing! So to say protein is the cause of degenerative diseases is misinformation. Rather, my cousins are in harmony with where they live & have a relationship with the living animals/fish that sustain them. The problem in urban, industrial societies is that there is no relationship between the consumer & what is consumed causing a spiritual schizophrenia. This lack of rapport in which people come into contact with the packaging (styrofoam & shrinkwrap) & not the living creature comes with dire consequences. I am urban & do not procure my sustenance but procure a salary & purchase my sustenance therefore I must choose wisely to elevate sparks.
Peter
Brooklyn
May 19, 2012
Why Jews SHOULD be vegetarians
As president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America, I found Rabbi Davidson's article interesting, but I believe respectfully that he is ignoring that the production and consumption of meat and other animal products violate basic Jewish mandates to preserve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources and help hungry people and that animal -based diets and agriculture are causing an epidemic of diseases in the Jewish and other communities, and contributing significantly to climate change and other environmental problems that threaten all of humanity. I believe it is essential that the Jewish community address these issues and consider shifts to plant-based diets to help shift our imperiled planet to a sustainable path.
Richard Schwartz
Staten Island, NY/USA
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