When I was 17, I happened upon a book I received for my Bar Mitzvah (!) by the name of “A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace“, written by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook. In it, he discusses vegetarianism as a religious ideal; its origins, merits, and dangers.
Here’s the (very!) short version:
- Man was never intended to eat meat as it is immoral to derive pleasure from the suffering/death of other living creatures
- Humanity failed to live up to the high moral standards set forth by God, leading to the flood
- Man was permitted, temporarily, to eat meat for 4 reasons:
- Each “level” of creation needs to contribute its part to the gradual development and elevation of the world. In his current state, man depends – physically and emotionally – on eating meat for the world to develop.
- It is futile to try and maintain a moral standard of sensitivity towards animals while the world is filled with cruelty between humans. Humanity must first purge itself from far greater injustices before doing so towards animals.
- A prohibition to eat meat reinforces an equation between the species, legitimizing humans seeing themselves and acting no different than animals. Permission to eat meat instills the distinction between the species and therefore, an understanding that man is more than an animal, with greater expectations.
- Abstention from eating meat can create a false sense of morality which would – consciously or unconsciously – serve as an excuse for other immoralities. Eating meat serves as a “vent” for mans lower, animalistic, aggressions. Left without that “vent” people would find other, human, aggression vents, while still convinced they are moral due to their vegetarianism. (remember the stories of the vegetarian SS commanders walking their dogs through the camps?)
- The Torah’s laws pertaining to animals incorporate both aspects – allowing man the use of meat while minimizing the cruelty involved in it while forcing him realize the moral compromise it involves. By following these “balance keeping” laws, man’s sensitivity towards animals can slowly develop, alongside humanity’s general moral development, towards the day when the full ideal of vegetarianism is natural and obvious.
- In the meantime, vegetarianism should not be adopted by the masses but only by pious individuals who already lead lives of higher moral and religious standards. If the masses were to adopt it, he warns, it could lead – like during the generation of the flood – to the denigration and moral corruption of humanity.
Being the 17 year old idealist that I was, I knew for a fact that when Rav Kook spoke about the pious individuals who could take on vegetarianism, he was, obviously, talking about me… Six months later, after rereading the essay, I realized that – no, he wasn’t. I found myself looking down judgmentally at non vegetarians, excusing certain behaviors and avoiding guilt trips due to a new found sense of self righteousness. Thus ended my romance with vegetarianism.
Ever since, I have struggled with the topic and the degree to which I should or should not re-adopt it. Recently, inspired by the public display of vegetarianism by Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin, the following thought has begun to haunt me:
How are we to understand the fact that animal cruelty today is the worst in history. Due to factory farming and the mass production of meat for human consumption and commercialization, animal cruelty is more severe and more systematized then could possible be previously imagined (I dare you to go on youtube and search “factory farming” or “animal cruelty“. Let’s see how long you can bare to watch)
Keeping in line with Rav Kook’s philosophy, the fact that, through industrialization, animal cruelty has become:
1. So severe
2. So well known and undeniable
One must say 1 of 2 things:
Either we are in greater danger than before of “blurring the species lines” (reason no.3) and in greater need of “non-human aggression vents” (reason no.4), or, these new scale cruelties are a divine “nudge”, forcing us to realize what was always there to a tolerable degree has now reached a horrible epoch, one that can no longer be rationalized by moral philosophy and that we have no choice but to move towards adopting vegetarianism on a larger scale.
Considering that Rav Kook also holds that the world – as a whole – is constantly moving towards greater moral refinement (something I believe with every fiber of my being, especially since the establishment of the State of Israel)
The alternatives for a non-vegetarian diet are so easily accessible or even produced,
I wonder if we are ready to take on a greater moral standard and progress towards vegetarianism. Meaning, if in past generations there was a certain correlation between man’s lower moral standards and limited- “personal use”- animal cruelty, we now find ourselves with an opposite correlation – higher moral standards on the one side but increased animal cruelty on the other.
Personally, I feel less and less capable of rationalizing the support of and participation in the industrialization of animal cruelty, while aspiring to the loftiest moral and religious ideals.
What about you?
One response to “Religious Vegetarianism – is it time?”
Hi Rabbi Spitz,
Liked your post but just wanted to raise another question. No doubt that farming, especially when it comes to animals, changed and grew drastically in the past 100 years to the point that instead of a farm it now can almost be viewed as a torture house where soulless people mistreat animals for the entire duration of their lives only to ruthlessly slaughter them at the end. No doubt that the conditions and practices employed by commercial farmers are far from humane. But does that mean that the average person would feel neither disgust by such a process nor pity for the animals? Could it be that modern people just don’t think of meat that way? Does a person look at a veal chop and picture a baby cow?
I can only look at current society through the prism of economics but it seems to me that people lost touch with the real world at least when it comes to understanding of the nature. Kids learn about farms in school and spend some vacation time outside the city but that is it. Most of our time is spent in the artificially created environment that uses nature only as a decoration. Do we really need to know how our food is produced?
In the recent past, some of the major scientific breakthroughs were accomplished by theoretical scientists. Our brain utilization expanded beyond what could be possible imagined 1000 years ago. But does it mean that we became more spiritual? I don’t think that anybody can answer this question. Just as previous generations viewed the next generation as “lost”, so do we. But I guess my point is that we can only do our best, teach our children kindness towards not only to fellow people but to animals as well. As time goes by we may actually become vegetarian.