Text/Context October 2009: Kosher Equals Vegetarian


I grew up as a vegetarian in India. However, after I came to the United States, my eating habits changed. As long as I could make a distinction between the meat, fish and fowl on my plate from the cow with a bolt shot through its head, or the fish gasping for breath on the boat deck or the bird with its head cut off and spurting blood, I was able to eat flesh and fish. Once I lost the ability to do this, though, I was drawn irresistibly back to the vegetarianism of my youth.

My beef-eating phase didn’t last long: my respect for the Hindu faith led me to give that up pretty quickly, and I gave up non-kosher meat due to my Jewish faith. But, in spite of my deeper feelings, I still continued to eat kosher chicken and fish. When I got married and had kids, though, I had to think about what they would learn from my carnivorous habits. Not wanting to burden my children with an insensitivity to animal suffering, I stopped eating chicken within a couple of years of the birth of my oldest daughter.

Ultimately, I gave up fish, too. One day, I had bought a whole fish, intending to gut it, prepare it and cook it. Deep down I knew that if I could not do these steps myself, I could not justify eating the fish. I could not make a distinction between killing a living being directly and having a living being killed on my behalf for food; if I were not ready to kill it, I should not eat it. On that basis, I wanted to at least prepare the fish, even if I had not actually caught it and killed it. However, I found that I could not go ahead with my plan. In fact, the fish languished at the back of the refrigerator for several months until my wife finally threw it out.

So what do my personal experiences and feelings have to do with anybody else? Are my feelings Jewish in any way? Should Jews be vegetarians? Does the Jewish God care about animals and their suffering?

The first thing to realize is that humankind has not always been allowed to eat flesh—there have been different stages in the rules regarding human beings and meat consumption. In the beginning, Adam and his descendants were not permitted to eat meat at all (Rashbam on Genesis 1:30). However, Noah and his succeeding generations were allowed to eat meat as a concession to their frailty (Genesis 9:3). Later on in the desert, after the revelation at Sinai, this permission to eat meat was vouchsafed to the Jewish nation as well. However, it was hedged with a lot of restrictions. First of all, the list of meats that they were allowed to eat was very circumscribed. As far as animals were concerned, they were restricted to cud-chewing creatures with split hoofs. Regarding permitted fowl, the Torah gives us a list, which essentially consists of some birds that do not prey on other creatures.

However, this is not the whole story. The animals and birds have to be slaughtered in a particular fashion that seems to be designed to minimize their pain. Meat torn from a living animal may not be eaten—even if it was not torn by a human being. Certain parts of the creature may not be eaten. In particular, its blood may not be consumed; the symbolism indicated by the Torah itself as regards this prohibition seems to be designed to arouse Man’s compassion towards the animals. Furthermore, if birds and certain animals are killed, their blood must be covered over as if to say, in Rabbi Kook’s words, “Cover up the blood! Hide your crime!”

Once the Jews came into the land of Israel (Deuteronomy 12:20), there was no requirement to eat meat except as part of the Temple sacrificial regime. And now that the Temple is destroyed, there is no commandment at all to eat meat. Some people do believe that we are required to eat meat on Shabbat and holidays, but this is not as straightforward as it might seem. On Shabbat, we are commanded to indulge in whatever is conducive to our oneg: good food, good clothes etc., but not necessarily meat.

If we believe Rabbi Kook, meat eating is not a natural state for Man. If so, then why did God permit him to eat of the flesh of animals? Rabbi Kook explains that this was due to the exigencies of the times. By the time of the Flood, mankind’s sensibilities had dulled—if Man had been required to restrain himself from eating meat, he would not have realized the difference between human beings and animals. Not being able to control his need to eat meat, he might even have descended to cannibalism. Permission to eat meat was thus necessary to show Man that human beings were different from animals.

However, Rabbi Kook believed that over time, it would not be necessary for Man to eat meat. The moral message that the Torah gives Man regarding the consumption of flesh would be internalized, and he would of his own accord desist from eating meat. Temporarily, man is permitted to eat meat because he is weak and needs meat to sustain himself physically in order to advance the purposes of God in this world. While a person is contributing to the world’s spiritual advance, he may eat meat—otherwise, it is better that he not.

However, it is well known now that human beings do not need to eat meat for their sustenance. In fact, meat is commonly identified as a major source of harmful cholesterol. While previously, it was thought that the only source of complete proteins was animal meat, it is now known that the required complementary protein combinations can be obtained by eating grains and legumes together or by eating grains and dairy products. The South Indian meals of my childhood, in fact, commonly included these combinations. In light of our new knowledge, Rabbi Kook would probably agree that even Torah scholars need not eat meat.

That’s as far as the (non)requirement for a believing Jew to eat meat. Is there perhaps a mitzvah to actually refrain from eating meat? Although there is no explicit commandment requiring that Jews abstain from eating meat, there are lots of places in the Torah that would lead a person to the conclusion that it would be preferable to abstain from meat. The consumption of meat and fish are inextricably linked with the killing
and hurting of a living creature. Should we, as Jews, participate in such infliction of pain?

According to the Talmud (Shabbat 128b), we are biblically commanded to avoid animal suffering. Furthermore we are told (Shabbat 151b), “He who has mercy on his fellow creatures obtains mercy for himself.” In this connection, the Talmud relates an illuminating story about Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. A calf, on its way to be slaughtered, broke loose and hid its head under the rabbi’s skirt. It cried out in terror. The rabbi said, “Go, for you were created for this purpose.” In heaven, the response was, “This man has no pity, let suffering come upon him.” The rabbi then began to suffer from disease for the next 13 years. One day his maidservant was going to sweep away some young weasels. The rabbi said to let them be, quoting Psalm 145:9, “ . . . and His tender care rests upon all His creatures.” The rabbi’s health was then restored.

While this story is graphic in its injunctions regarding animal welfare, it is hardly a stray example. Leviticus 22:28 prohibits slaughtering an animal and its child on the same day. Deuteronomy 22:6 requires sending away a mother bird before taking its eggs. The Sefer haChinuch says that a reason for these two commandments is so that one should keep in mind that God watches out for all kinds of living creatures, not just human beings. Animals are to be rested on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8–10, 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:12–14). When an animal is threshing the grain, it is to be allowed to eat from it (Deuteronomy 25:4). If an animal is straining from a heavy load, we are required to unburden it (Exodus 23:5). In looking for the right mate for Isaac, Eliezer picks Rebecca because she draws water not only for him, but for his camels as well. And God, Himself, in reprimanding Jonah (4:11) shows his compassion for the animals of Nineveh: “And I—shall I not take pity upon Nineveh the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and many animals as well?”

What are we then to do, as Jews in this day and age? The Bible asks and answers this very question: “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) Similarly, Deuteronomy 28:9 tells us “If only you keep the commandments of God your Lord and walk in His paths, God will establish you as His holy nation, as He promised you.” And what does it mean to walk with God in His paths? Says the Rambam (Hilchot Deot, 1:5,6), “Just as He is considered gracious, so too should you be gracious. Just as He is merciful, so too should you be merciful. Just as He is holy, so too should you be holy.”

Next time we are confronted with the question of vegetarianism or some other aspect of animal welfare, let us walk with our God, let us be merciful and let us say in the words of Hosea (2:20): “Then I will make a covenant on behalf of Israel with the wild beasts, the birds of the air and the things that creep on the earth, and I will break the bow and sword and weapon of war and sweep them off the earth, so that all living creatures may lie down without fear.”

Meylekh (PV) Viswanath is a professor of finance at Pace University and director of the Global Portfolio Analysis Center. He is currently agonizing over his leather belt and wondering about the relative advantages of a gartl versus a cummerbund.