Rabbinic Teachings on Vegetarianism
Edited by Richard Schwartz, Ph.D.
Introduction: Many Jews think that vegetarianism and animal rights issues are not part of basic Judaism. To counter this belief the following quotations of important rabbis are presented.
Hirsch, Rabbi Samson Raphael
While not a vegetarian, Rabbi Hirsch, one of the most important Orthodox rabbis of the 19th century, expressed very eloquently and powerfully ideas based on Torah values that are consistent with vegetarianism and seem to be inconsistent with realities of modern intensive livestock agriculture and the consumption of animal products. One can only wonder what Rabbi Hirsch's attitude toward vegetarianism would be today, based on his strong views and modern realities related to the production and consumption of animals.
On the Need to Show Compassion to Animals:
On the Importance of Taking Care of our Health:
On compassion to Other Human Beings (relevant because an estimated 20 million people die annually due to hunger and its effects as 70% of the grain produced in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter):
On not Wasting or Destroying (relevant because modern intensive livestock agriculture is so wasteful of water, energy, and other natural resources):
Kook (sometimes spelled Kuk), Rabbi Abraham Isaac (1865-1935)
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Pre-state Israel, after the British mandate. Rav Kook was a highly respected and beloved Jewish spiritual leader in the early 20th century. He was a mystical thinker, a forceful writer, and a great Torah scholar. He was a very prolific writer who helped inspire many people to move toward spiritual paths. He urged religious people to become involved in social questions and efforts to improve the world. The strongest support for vegetarianism as a positive ideal anywhere in Torah literature is in the writing of Rav Kook. Among his many significant writings is "A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace," in which he gave his philosophy of vegetarianism. He believed strongly that God wants people to be vegetarian and that meat was permitted as a concession to people's weakness. He thought that the many prohibitions related to the slaughtering and eating of meat were meant as a scolding and reminder that people should have reverence for life; this would eventually bring people back to vegetarianism in the days of the Messiah.
Indeed a hidden rebuke is to be found within the folds of Scripture regarding the eating of meat. For only after "thou shalt say, I will eat meat, because my soul longest to eat meat", only then, "thou mayest eat meat". Behold you can only inhibit your appetite for meat by an act of moral self control, and the time for the exercise of this power of self-control has not yet arrived. It is still required for those nearer to you. Rav Kook believed that the permission to eat meat was only a temporary concession; he feels that a God who is merciful to his creatures would not institute an everlasting law permitting the killing of animals for food.
In this lies the virtue of a morality anchored to its Divine source, in that it knows the correct timing for every design. Sometimes it withholds its impetus in order to husband its strength for a alter period. But the impatience of a morality divorced from its source cannot endure.
According to Rav Kook, because people had sunk to an extremely low level of spirituality, it was necessary that they be given an elevated image of themselves as compared to animals, and that they concentrate their efforts into first improving relationships between people. He felt that were people denied the right to eat meat, they might eat the flesh of human beings due to their inability to control their lust for flesh. He regards the permission to slaughter animals for food as a "transitional tax" or temporary dispensation until a "brighter era" is reached when people would return to vegetarian diets.
Once man's appetite for meat has been aroused, than had flesh of all living creatures been prohibited, the force of moral disintegration which is waiting for an opportune moment would make no distinction between man and beast, fowl or reptile, . . . All violations would be committed, at one fell swoop, in order to surfeit the gluttony of "civilized" humanity.
Rabbi Kook believed that the high moral level involved in the vegetarianism of the generations before Noah, is a virtue of such great value that it cannot be lost forever. In the future ideal state, just as at the initial period, people and animals will not eat flesh. No one shall hurt nor destroy another living creature. People's lives will not be supported at the expense of the lives of animals.
The progress of dynamic ideals will not be eternally blocked. Through general, moral and intellectual advancement, "when they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother saying, Know the Lord; for they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them" (Jeremiah 32:34) shall the latent aspiration of justice come out into the open, when the time is ripe.
There is a dispute as to whether Rav Kook was a consistent vegetarian, but there is no doubt that he was a leading advocate for vegetarianism.
Rosen, Rabbi David
Rabbi Rosen was the Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1979 to 1985. He completed his advanced rabbinic studies in Israel where he received his rabbinic ordination. In addition to military service in the armed corps of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), he served as Chaplin in the Western Sinai. Rabbi Rosen is an Honorary President of the International Jewish Vegetarian Society for Israel. He, his wife, and two daughters are ethical vegetarians, which they find completely compatible with Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Rosen and his family currently live in Israel where he is involved in many activities, including: (1) Anti-Defamation League's co-liaison to the Vatican, responsible for the ADL's inter-faith relations in Israel; (2) Dean of the Saphir Jewish Heritage Centre in Jerusalem; (3) Professor at the Jerusalem Center for Near East Studies, Mount. Scopus, Jerusalem; (4) President of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, the all-encompassing world inter- faith body; (5) a member of Israel's delegation on the Permanent Bilateral commission with the Holy Sea which negotiated the recent accord and normalization of Israel-Vatican relations; founder of Clergy for Peace as well as of the Rabbinical Human Rights, an Organization on whose executive board he serves. The following are among the many powerful statements that Rabbi Rosen has written about vegetarianism (They can all be found in Rabbis and Vegetarianism, edited by Roberta Kalechofsky (Marblehead, Massachusetts: Micah Publications, 1995) pp. 53-60.
Aside from the fact that both the original Garden of Eden and the Messianic vision of the future reflect the vegetarian ideal in Judaism, it is of course such a dietary lifestyle that is most consonant with the goal and purpose of Torah to maximize our awareness, appreciation, and sensitivity to the Divine Presence in the world. It is therefore only natural for us to affirm as did Rav Kuk (Kook), the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in Israel, that a redeemed world must perforce be a vegetarian world.
. . . the current treatment of animals in the livestock trade definitely renders the consumption of meat as halachically unacceptable as the product of illegitimate means. . .
Indeed a central precept regarding the relationship between humans and animals in Halacha is the prohibition against causing cruelty to animals - tsa'ar ba'alei chayim. As mentioned, practices in the livestock trade today constitute a flagrant violation of this prohibition. I refer not only to the most obvious and outrageous of these, such as the production of veal and goose liver, but also to common practices in the livestock trade, such as hormonal treatment and massive drug dosing.
As it is halachically prohibited to harm oneself and as healthy, nutritious vegetarian alternatives are easily available, meat consumption has become halachically unjustifiable.
Today not only are we able to enjoy a healthy balanced vegetarian diet as perhaps never before; and not only are there in fact the above mentioned compelling halachic reasons for not eating meat; but above all, if we strive for that which Judaism aspires to -namely the ennoblement of the spirit, then a vegetarian diet becomes a moral imperative - - the authentic Jewish ethical dietary way of life for our time and for all times.
. . . evidently the more sensitive and respectful we are toward's God's Creation, in particular God's creatures, the more respectful and reverential we actually are towards God.
Indeed, Judaism as a way of life, seeks to inculcate in us a consciousness of the Divine Presence in the World, and respect for life accordingly. The more we care for life, the closer we are in fact to God. Accordingly, an ethical vegetarian way of life expresses the most sublime and noble values and aspirations of Judaism itself, bringing us to an ideal vision for society as a whole. Is it anything less than a "Chillul Hashem" (desecration of God's Name) to declare veal for example, which is produced through wanton human cruelty to a calf to be kosher, simply because at points "Y" and "Z" the animal was slaughtered and prepared in accordance with halachic dictates, after the commandments affecting human responsibility towards animal life have been desecrated from points "A" to "X". . . . Today's concept of Kashrut is more permeated with crass indulgence and economic exploitation than the ennoblement of the human spirit that our sages declare to be its purpose. Today as never before, the cruelty in the livestock trade renders meat eating and true Kashrut incompatible . . .
. . . at the same time we must clearly advocate dietary practices that are truly in consonance with the sublimest values of the Torah, and today more than ever before these are overwhelmingly incompatible with carnivorous indulgence.
BRIEF BIOGRAPHIES OF FAMOUS JEWISH VEGETARIANS
Cohen, Rabbi David (The NAZIR)
Rabbi Cohen made a major contribution to Jewish vegetarianism by collecting and editing the Jewish vegetarian ideas of Rabbi Kook. He was known as the "Nazir of Jerusalem" because he adopted all the obligations of the Nazarite as described in the Torah; he did not drink wine or cut his hair for a specific period. He was the father of the present chief rabbi of Haifa, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, and of the wife of the former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Goren.
Cohen, Rabbi Sha'ar Yashuv
Rabbi Sha'ar Yashuv Cohen has been a vegetarian from birth and is a patron of the Jewish Vegetarian Society. He was graduated in 1947 from Rabbi Kook's Universal Yeshiva in Jerusalem and was ordained a rabbi by the late Chief Rabbi Herzog. From 1948 to 1953, he was chaplain in the Israeli Defense Forces and chief chaplain of the Israeli Air Forces (1952-53). His many positions include dean of the Harry Fischel Institute for Research in Jewish Law and Seminary for Rabbis and Rabbinical Judges; former member of the City Council of Jerusalem, deputy mayor of Jerusalem (1965-75); and Chief Rabbi of Haifa (since 1975).
Goren Rabbi Shlomo (1917- 1994)
Rabbi Shlomo Goren was the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1972 to 1982. He was formerly the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa and the Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Defense Forces. In that capacity, he was the first to conduct a service at the liberated Western Wall in 1967. Shortly before that he became a strict vegetarian after visiting a slaughterhouse in Canada to inspect their kashrut. Rabbi Goren has written many responsa on issues related to modem technology and conditions of modem warfare. He had published a collection of essays on the festivals and holy days. His comprehensive commentary on the section Berachot of the Jerusalem Talmud won the Israel Prize in 1961. The Rabbi's wife is a life-long vegetarian, having been reared in the Orthodox vegetarian home of her father, the Nazir, in Jerusalem.
Maccoby, Chaim Zundel (The Kamenitzer Maggid)
Rabbi Chaim Zundel Maccoby was born in Kamenitz, Russia. He settled in London in 1890 and preached Torah and vegetarianism in the streets of that city. He taught people to have compassion for all living creatures and how to remain healthy with little money. He was known by many as a great and saintly preacher. He was a dedicated vegetarian who wore cloth shoes all year long to show his abhorrence of leather.In 1975, a Hall of Education Library was opened at Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel, dedicated to the memory of the Kamenitzer Maggid.
STATEMENTS BY CLASSICAL TORAH COMMENTATORS
The great 13th century Jewish philosopher Nachmanides stated that this initial dietary law was because:
Maimonides comments on Lev. 22:28 as follows:
It is prohibited to kill an animal with its young on the same day, in order that people should be restrained and prevented from killing the two together in such a manner that the young is slain in the sight of the mother; for the pain of animals under such circumstances is very great. There is no difference in this case between the pain of people and the pain of other living beings, since the love and the tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning but by feeling, and this faculty exists not only in people but in most living things.
Maimonides summarized the importance that Judaism places on the preservation of health:
Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of G-d - for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator if he is ill - therefore he must avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which is helpful and helps the body become stronger.
Solomon Efraim Lunchitz, author of K'lee Yakar:
Joseph Albo indicates that in the era before the flood, people developed the mistaken belief that the reason that they were not permitted to eat meat was that human beings and animals are on the same moral level and therefore that human beings are no more responsible for their actions than are animals. Albo believed that such a view led to moral degeneracy and ultimately the flood. After the flood, the prohibition against eating meat was lifted so that human beings would realize that they were on a higher level than animals, and that they therefore have a greater degree of responsibility. However, the laws of kashrut later greatly limited people's right to eat meat.
Isaak Hebenstreit was a Polish rabbi who wrote Kivrot Hata'avah (the graves of lust) in 1929. He states that God never wanted people to eat meat, because of the cruelty involved; people shouldn't kill any living thing and fill their stomachs by destroying others. He believed that God temporarily gave permission to eat meat because of the conditions after the flood, when all plant life had been destroyed.
Rabbi Moses Cassuto
Apparently the Torah was in principle opposed to the eating of meat. When Noah and his descendants were permitted to eat meat this was a concession conditional on the prohibition of the blood. This prohibition implied respect for the principle of life ("for the blood is the life") and an allusion to the fact that in reality all meat should have been prohibited. This partial prohibition was designed to call to mind the previously total prohibition.
Cassuto, in his commentary From Adam to Noah (p. 58) stated:
STATEMENTS BY MODERN RABBIS AND TORAH COMMENTATORS:
Riskin, Rabbi Shlomo
Bleich, Rabbi J. David
A critic of vegetarian activism, Rabbi J. David Bleich, a noted modern Torah scholar and professor at Yeshiva University, concedes, "the implication is that meat may be consumed when there is desire and appetite for it as food, but may be eschewed when there is not desire and, a fortiori, when it is found to be repugnant." In short, again according to Rabbi Bleich, "Jewish tradition does not command carnivorous behavior..." (These quotations are from "Vegetarianism and Judaism", Tradition, Vol. 23, No. 1, (Summer, 1987).
Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, a modern Torah scholar living in Jerusalem, states:
It seems doubtful from all that has been said whether the Torah would sanction 'factory farming', which treats animals as machines, with apparent insensitivity to their natural needs and instincts. This is a matter for decision by halachic authorities.
Rabbi Alfred Cohen is editor of the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society. While he is not a vegetarian nor an advocate of vegetarianism, he wrote a very comprehensive article on the subject - "Vegetarianism From a Jewish Perspective", Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Vol. 1, No. II, Fall, 1981. The following selections are all from that article:
Following the many precedents prescribed in the Code of Jewish Law, we would have little difficulty in arriving at the conclusion that, if indeed eating meat is injurious to one's health, it is not only permissible, but possibly even mandatory that we reduce our ingestion of an unhealthful product to the minimal level.
If a person tends toward vegetarianism because he sees it as a lifestyle consonant with the way that the Al-mighty really wanted the world to be, there can be no doubt that he has a valid point of view.
We may therefore conclude that when a vegetarian is loath to eat meat because he does not want to take an animal's life merely for his own pleasure, that person is acting well within the spirit of Jewish belief and philosophy. He is not denigrating a Torah value, for the Torah does not establish the eating of meat as a desirable activity, only as something that is not forbidden to do.
A popular rabbinic preacher of the 18th century, known as the Maggid of Dubno, once explained this concept with the help of the following parable:
Source: The Schwartz Collection on Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights