Why go­ing veg­gie is a siz­zling is­sue

Ar­gu­ment is rag­ing over whether it is morally su­pe­rior for Jews to avoid meat. By Nathan Jeffay

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features -

THERE WAS a day when it was so rare that it stopped con­ver­sa­tion at any Shab­bat din­ner. Stunned si­lence would f ol l ow i f the of­fer of dark or light meat was fol­lowed by: “Nei­ther. I’m a veg­e­tar­ian.” To­day, by con­trast, it is the ul­ti­mate con­ver­sa­tion-starter. We are fas­ci­nated by the fact that ever-grow­ing num­bers of Jews, who seem to have enough di­etary re­stric­tions to cope with from our re­li­gion, are tak­ing on ex­tra ones. Ev­ery­one has an opin­ion on the mer­its and de­mer­its of veg­e­tar­i­an­ism in Ju­daism.

But how much of the dis­cus­sion is ac­cu­rate, and how much is a game of Chi­nese whis­pers? Here are some of our an­swers to com­mon con­cerns:

“The To­rah says that man was veg­e­tar­ian be­fore the flood, so that makes it a pos­i­tive thing...”

There is a Tal­mu­dic claim by one rabbi that man was not per­mit­ted to eat meat un­til “the sons of Noah”. But there is no ex­pla­na­tion of why, nor is there any in­fer­ence that ei­ther diet is su­pe­rior. Also, the pre­sump­tion that the way things were done be­fore the flood were bet­ter than af­ter­wards — mak­ing it more ad­mirable to be a veg­gie — misses the point that God would beg to dif­fer, which is why he started the rains in the first place.

“But some rab­bis con­sid­ered veg­e­tar­i­an­ism an ideal...”

It is true that 15th-cen­tury schol­ars Rabbi Is­sac Abra­banel and Rabbi Joseph Albo wrote that veg­e­tar­i­an­ism was an ideal. This is be­cause meat needs slaugh­ter­ers, and the act of slaugh­ter could, they be­lieved, cul­ti­vated cruel char­ac­ter­is­tics. How­ever, they op­posed veg­e­tar­i­an­ism. Rabbi Albo says that fail­ing to un­der­stand that man is su­pe­rior to an­i­mals is a grave mis­take, and claims that meat was per­mit­ted to mankind af­ter the flood to teach that les­son.

“Ex­actly. Ju­daism is con­cerned with the wel­fare of peo­ple, not an­i­mals...”

This is wrong. Jewish law de­mands that peo­ple feed an­i­mals be­fore they tuck in to their own meal, and tsar ba’al ha-chayim, cru­elty to an­i­mals, is pro­hib­ited. This has led some con­tem­po­rary rab­bis, most no­tably Bri­tish­born Jerusalemite Rabbi David Rosen, to say that what­ever the other pros and cons of veg­e­tar­i­an­ism in gen­eral terms, farm con­di­tions to­day give the ob­ser­vant Jew no other op­tion. He wrote: “The cur­rent treat­ment of an­i­mals in the live­stock trade def­i­nitely ren­ders the con­sump­tion of meat as ha­lachi­cally un­ac­cept­able.”

“Rabbi Abra­ham Isaac Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Bri­tish Man­date Pales­tine, never ate meat, and was a strong ad­vo­cate of veg­e­tar­i­an­ism...”

It is true that Rav Kook, as he is uni­ver­sally known, wrote ex­ten­sively on the value of veg­e­tar­i­an­ism. He was fond of cit­ing the verse in Deuteron­omy that states: “You will say: ‘I will eat meat be­cause my soul longs for meat,’ you may eat meat, what­ever your soul lusts af­ter.” He read it as a con­ces­sion to man’s de­sires and a tem­po­rary one at that — its re­ver­sal would be the ic­ing on the cake of a mes­sianic age. But he warned against jump­ing the gun, writ­ing that he pre­sumed that a veg­gie in his day “has al­ready made ev­ery­thing bet­ter in this world, has al­ready re­moved the king­dom of wicked­ness and of lies, na­tional ha­tred, racial prej­u­dice”. His veg­gie vi­sion was a bit like li­ons ly­ing down with lambs — a nice ideal but don’t try this at home… un­til the Mes­siah ac­tu­ally ar­rives. And he ate meat on Shab­bat and Yom­tov any­way.

“Good job. It’s wrong to be a veg­gie be­cause there is a ha­lachic obli­ga­tion to eat meat on Yom­tov...”

It is true that there is a ha­lachic re­quire­ment of “re­joic­ing on Yom­tov”, and that in Tem­ple times this meant eat­ing sac­ri­fi­cial meat. Some au­thor­i­ties — in­clud­ing Mai­monides — rule that an obli­ga­tion to eat meat con­tin­ues, at least for men, even now there is no Tem­ple. How­ever, an author­ity in the Talmud states that this re­joic­ing was now ful­filled sim­ply by drink­ing wine, a po­si­tion held by many later rab­bis, which could be cited by any veg­e­tar­ian fend­ing off the ac­cu­sa­tion that he fails to ob­serve Yom­tov.

Veg­gie ke­babs: but would God mind if you had lit­tle chicken too?

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