If Judaism requires us to be kind to animals, shouldn't we be commanded to be vegetarians?


I have the utmost respect for anyone who chooses not to eat meat out of concern for animal welfare. And there have been some who have suggested that this is in keeping with Judaism's ideals (although all agree that Judaism allows eating meat).

But there is another way of looking at it, a more spiritual angle, that indicates that eating meat is not just an accommodation to human desire, but has a holy purpose.

The Talmud teaches that the reason Adam and Eve were created after all other creatures was to teach them a dual lesson: humans can be either the pinnacle of creation, or its lowest life-form. If they act appropriately, then everything was created just to serve them; but if they debase themselves, then they should remember that "even a flea preceded you."

The human being is the only creature with free choice. This means we can either work on ourselves and become better than our nature, or abuse our gifts and become worse. Only a human can be generous, kind, selfless and act higher than his or her instincts; and only a human can be cruel, destructive and murderous. (Although sometimes animals do what seem like acts of kindness or destruction, they are invariably just following their instinct for survival — there is no altruism or malice in their actions.)

When we use our freedom to act in a kind, holy and selfless way, we are the highest life form, and the rest of creation is there to serve us. Then, by eating other creatures we are in fact elevating them to places where they couldn't go by themselves.

For example, if I eat a tomato, and then expend the energy that that tomato gave me in performing an act of kindness, the tomato has become a partner in my action, thus making the world a better place — something a tomato can't do on its own.

On the other hand, if I use my energy only to further selfish goals, or to oppress or inflict harm, then what right do I have to eat a tomato? The tomato never hurt anybody, and by eating it and causing harm I am corrupting an innocent tomato!

This is why Judaism doesn't see eating animals as necessarily being cruel. In fact, it could even be cruel not to eat animals, because you are robbing them of a chance to serve a higher purpose (unless of course it is for health reasons). However if you yourself are not living a life of purpose, then it is just as cruel to eat a tomato as a chicken!

If the physical world is your only reality, then you have reason to feel guilty when you consume other life forms. But when you see the spiritual world as just as real (if not more), then even eating can become holy.