Why going veggie is a sizzling issue
Argument is raging over whether it is morally superior for Jews to avoid meat. By Nathan Jeffay
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?