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Is Vegetarianism Dangerous?

 

I. Vegetarianism and Values

Judaism demands a strict kosher diet but no one claims that this exhausts the values that should guide your consumption. Advocates for Vegetarianism argue that your morals should prevent you from eating animals, even if the Torah permits it. However, one important scholar argues in the opposite direction.

R. Ya’akov Ariel was recently quoted as opposing an Israeli ban on importing goose liver because Israel has many problems of human suffering it needs to resolve before addressing animal suffering (link). I have no doubt that this quote was mangled in the transmission and that R. Ariel’s original statement contained the great nuance and profundity for which he is famous. Nevertheless, if his message has been roughly maintained, then I believe its source is in a surprising position of R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook. Proponents of Vegetarianism often quote R. Kook as an authoritative precedent, a rabbinic giant who shared their cause. I have recently learned that this claim is far from accurate. While scholars of R. Kook may have known this all along, I believe that laymen like me were fooled.

II. R. Kook on Vegetarianism

A relatively recent publication of some of R. Kook’s writings on Vegetarianism reveals his surprising opinion. R. Kook’s words are notoriously opaque. His combination of idiosyncratic terminology, poetic style and oblique references scares away most readers, including me. R. Shlomo Aviner published Ha-Tzimchonus (Vegetarianism), which contains R. Kook’s writings with a single phrase per line and commentary on difficult terms. This bite-size version is much more digestible. For the first time, I found R. Kook’s writing inviting. And I was very surprised with what I found.

Ha-Tzimchonus contains excerpts from Talelei Oros (Ma’amarei Ha-Ra’ayah, 62-72) and Afikim Ba-Negev (chs. 6-8, 10-11). In the former, R. Kook advances his thesis that Vegetarianism is the human ideal. We were vegetarians in the Garden of Eden and will eventually return to this state. Many of the commandments surrounding food–kosher slaughter, covering blood, separating meat and milk, etc.–are intended to sensitize us to the problematic nature of animal consumption.

R. Kook consistently maintains this message in the second selection, brilliantly offering further details of how the commandments awaken in us an awareness of animal consumption. He makes here substantive contributions to the literature of ta’amei ha-mitzvos, explanations of the commandments. Covering the blood is a divine protest that an animal is a living, feeling creature. Kosher slaughter minimizes pain, a reminder that we must be concerned with animals’ pain. The forbidden fat (cheilev) is a reduction in the choicest area of the animal, a part that is only eaten out of desire and not necessity, highlighting that people eat animals out of lust and not need. The sha’atnez prohibition against mixing wool and linen prevents theft. A sheep’s wool should not be taken for personal use, only to lighten its burden or for a mitzvah, such as for tzitzis or the kohen’s garments.

III. R. Kook Against Vegetarianism

But R. Kook cautions against a looming moral hazard. When human morality progresses to a natural revulsion from eating animals, Vegetarianism will be universally appropriate. But in this unredeemed world, adopting this stringency is wrong and dangerous. It demonstrates a moral confusion, a failure to distinguish between people and animals. When people created in the divine image are suffering, R. Kook asks, how can we focus our energies on animal rights? It is “as if we have already corrected everything, already removed the reign of wickedness, falsehood, hatred and jealousy of nations, racism and tribal fighting that leads to so many deaths and the flowing of rivers of blood — as if all this disappeared from the land and there is nothing left with which this ‘human’ moralist to become righteous other than upholding ethics with animals” (p. 23).

R. Kook adds that if Vegetarianism is adopted inorganically, if the desire for meat is willfully suppressed rather than erased, then a terrifying danger exists. When the desire for flesh overwhelms someone, he will not distinguish between killing animals and humans. If all killing is equally wrong, if eating all living animals is equally wrong, then cannibalism becomes a real possibility.

Vegetarianism risks erasing the distinction between man and beast. Animal rights are important but human rights moreso. Additionally, if animal rights are raised as a priority, some people will satisfy their instinct for generosity with animals while treating fellow people cruelly. We would find horrible humans who think they are righteous because of their kindness to animals.

IV. Vegetarianism as an Ideal

R. Kook argues that Vegetarianism is appropriate in its right time, when peace and righteousness fill the earth. Once we learn how to treat each other well, then we can focus on treating animals well also. Until that time, we should eat animals but recognize that Vegetarianism is an ideal. Our imperfections prevent us from realizing that ideal. When we eat meat, we should feel bad about it, recogniizing that we are consuming God’s creatures.

We have much to improve about ourselves and our society. But if we mistakenly order our priorities, if we focus on lesser evils while allowing greater evils to continue, we demonstrate a deep moral confusion. Misplaced priorities lead to grosss perversions of justice. Our hearts should go out to geese who are mistreated. But our tears should be shed and our efforts expended for people who are suffering.


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Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

 
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29 Responses

  1. emma says:

    “But in this unredeemed world, adopting this stringency is wrong and dangerous. It demonstrates a moral confusion, a failure to distinguish between people and animals. When people created in the divine image are suffering, R. Kook asks, how can we focus our energies on animal rights? ”

    Here’s the thing: It takes very little “energy” to be vegetarian. In fact, at least for me, it is a very easy habit to develop. In contrast, it is not at all clear what I am supposed to do about most of the human suffering in the world, other than feel bad about it.

    This same kind of argument can be made about any small changes – how can we devote our energies to saying thank you to the bus driver when people are dying in africa?!

    Also, I believe I have heard that R Kook himself a vegetarian (at least on weekdays) – is that true?

  2. emma says:

    (and, of course, some of the contemporary arguments for vegetarianism, or at least against factory farming, have the health of humans, especially poor and marginal humans, in mind…)

  3. David Ohsie says:

    R. Student: Two simple things that you can perhaps elaborate on:

    1) Was R. Kook saying that it is dangerous or harmful for an individual inclined to vegetarianism to simply not eat meat? Based on the arguments that you listed, it seems as though that would be fine; what is problematic is a movement to try to stop people who naturally desire to eat meat (probably a vast majority) to stop doing so. The reasons listed would not apply to an individual who simply decided to stop eating meat.

    2) Does R. Kook address what happens when the Bais HaMikdash is rebuilt? The Rambam’s controversial opinion on the purpose of Karbanos naturally raises this questions, and vegetarianism as an ideal raises some of the same questions. Does R. Kook address this?

    [Disclaimer: I am not a vegetarian.]

  4. Ephrayim says:

    A synthesis of the two articles about vegetarianism by Rav Kook was put out by the Nazir. It was called חזון הצמחנות והשלום and is freely accessible here http://bit.ly/15nU58U . There is also a commentary on it on Wikitext http://bit.ly/13ynx9p.

    @David
    Rav Kook goes with the Rambam and elaborates on it.He famously said וערבה לה’ מנחת יהודה וירושלים כימי עולם וכשנים קדמוניות, –מנחה דייקה

  5. wolfling says:

    As Emma pointed out, the strength of this argument rests solely on the reasoning toward vegetarianism as a messianic ideal. Put in terms of waste of resources, of bal taschit, there is a wholly different moral principle to consider. Further, if vegetarian diets, in utilizing far fewer resources, meant there was more food to go around and feed the hungry of the world, we would have another factor to consider. Rav Kook’s reasons, profound as they may be, a only one justification. I doubt if Rabbi Sacks, another prominent orthodox vegetarian, can be accused of equating human and animal suffering.

  6. Shlomo says:

    There is no bal tashchit argument for vegetarianism. Not if you are logically consistent and you live in a Western society.

    There is also a giant surplus of food in the world. When people starve, it’s because wars or repression have prevented the food from getting to them.

  7. Adam Frank says:

    Rav Kook’s ‘caution against a looming moral hazard’ was his way of protecting the amcha of meat eaters from being classified as transgressors. He defines the halakhic and moral ideal and even puts it into practice in his own life — the only way he can avoid casting aspersions on the rest of the observant Jewish world is by qualifying his position and practice even to the point of criticizing his own behavior. לפי עניות דעתי, Rav Kook would approve of those people who avoid eating food products that are derived from a modern food industry that is knowingly cruel and abusive of animals.

    2 more points:
    לפני משורת הדין – to understand Rav Kook’s ‘caution’ the way you present above would mean eliminating this principle of elevated halakhic and moral practice because who are we do go beyond what KB”H requires?

    מידת חסידות — ditto.

  8. Nachum says:

    I don’t doubt that Gil’s reading is correct, but it would be very helpful to state explicitly where R’ Kook ends and R’ Aviner begins. There has been- for decades- a concerted effort on the part of some to paper over “problematic” statements of R’ Kook.

  9. FSG says:

    Emma I think rav kook is referring more to peta type people here, who characterize a sort of dangerous anti speciesism.

  10. wolfling says:

    Shlomo, there is a surplus of food in the world, but only if most people are not eating a Western diet heavy in meat. Sure we have excess soybeans and corn we can ship around the world, but the simple fact is that meat (which, yes, I do at times eat) is a very inefficient means of providing the world with food nowadays.

    Bal Tashchit is thrown around today like Tikkun Olam often has been. I grant that. But it can probably apply to industrial farming practices that regularly grind up thousands upon thousands of unwanted male chicks alive because, well, they’re not going to produce much in terms of eggs…not to mention tzaar baalei haim. I think my point stands–that there are many valid halakhic motivations for vegetarianism that are not Eden-based.

  11. FSG says:

    This same kind of argument can be made about any small changes – how can we devote our energies to saying thank you to the bus driver when people are dying in africa?!

    Emma, this is not at all analogous, as you reflect the same values here by saying thank you as you would be by helping dying people,namely respect for the human being, vegeterianism reflects a completely different value system (unless of course your reasons are based on human concerns)

  12. Gil Student says:

    Emma: I agree with your criticism. However, Rav Kook has other arguments. I think his strongest is that of misplaced priorities. It is very hard to adopt Vegetarianism as no big deal. Realistically, it becomes a primary value, always at the top of your mind. This, he argues, causes moral confusion which is very dangerous. And we see with PETA and the like that the concern is very real.

    Also, I believe I have heard that R Kook himself a vegetarian (at least on weekdays) – is that true?

    According to Prof. Lockshin (link at the bottom of the post), Rav Kook was not a vegetarian.

    David Ohsie: 1) Was R. Kook saying that it is dangerous or harmful for an individual inclined to vegetarianism to simply not eat meat?

    I am not certain whether Rav Kook was saying that righteous person should not be a vegetarian. I suspect he would agree that someone with proper priorities, who is filled with Torah and fear of God, can be a vegetarian. But I am not sure.

    2) Does R. Kook address what happens when the Bais HaMikdash is rebuilt?

    He contradicted himself so it isn’t clear (to me) what he held. He accepted the Rambam’s statement that the entire sacrificial order would be reinstated, and that includes daily animal sacrifices. But he also emphasizes the non-animal sacrifices. Perhaps he meant that there would be different stages. Or maybe that individuals would not bring animal sacrifices but the community would. I’m not sure.

    Wolfling: As Emma pointed out, the strength of this argument rests solely on the reasoning toward vegetarianism as a messianic ideal

    I disagree. I think the strength of his argument was on a moral basis and the confusion Vegetarianism causes.

    Adam Frank: Rav Kook’s ‘caution against a looming moral hazard’ was his way of protecting the amcha of meat eaters from being classified as transgressors

    I find that an impossible reading. His language is very strong and clear on this.

    Nachum: I don’t doubt that Gil’s reading is correct, but it would be very helpful to state explicitly where R’ Kook ends and R’ Aviner begins

    R. Aviner has almost no presence here. His commentary is minimal and Rav Kook’s words are very clear in general, even if specific words are occasionally obscure.

  13. emma says:

    “It is very hard to adopt Vegetarianism as no big deal. Realistically, it becomes a primary value, always at the top of your mind.”

    Based on personal experience, I disagree. I think this argument/criticism makes most sense in a culture in which everyone is eating basically the same omnivorous diet, and being vegetarian is both difficult and weird. In the US today, at least in my circles, there is a much greater variety of food, including plant-based protein, available and “normal” to eat, and people are on all sorts of crazy diets, so being vegetarian is neither difficult nor weird (for those who are not true meat lovers).

  14. groinem says:

    I am not overly familiar with Rav Kook’s writings, but these quotes seem to be homiletic and not based on Chazal and Rishonim. The reason for Kisui HaDam is in the Rambam and Ramban and not because of animal sensitivities. If everyone can create his own theology, we are in particular danger. Chazal and Rishonim is the way to go, not ערכאות של דעת תורה or cute homiletics.
    Even if he were correct in his טעמי המצוות, that would not have an effect on the halochos. At best, it would explain a midas chassidus to refrain from meat. Refraining from a דבר היוצא מן החי is one of the סיגופים quoted in the Rishonim as a Kaporo for aveiros, making the parameters of this מדת חסידות relevant only for those who never did an Aveira and are looking for a midas chassidud to follow. Not for the average Jew, whose main job should be keeping the Mitzvos as beast as possible before looking for extras.
    When I was a young teen, I asked a Rebbi of mine about chumros. He told me “Most chumros are just additions on Mitzvos. Chumros in בין אדם לחבירו are almost always a kiyum of a de’oiraysa. Stick to those and your chances are better.” That means Chumros in Lashon HoRa, chumros in honesty in business, chumros in chessed etc. Stick to those before dubious midas chassidus in not eating meat.

  15. Hoffa Fingerbergstein says:

    It is reported that Rav Kook ate meat on Shabbos and Yom Tov. I saw on google, quoting a book called “Around the Shabbat Table: A Guide to a Fulfilling and Meaningful Shabbat Table” by Aryeh Ben-David that he did this to show a longing for Gan Eden existence but that mankind is not there yet.

    However, I have also heard he did to fulfill the mitzvoh of simchas yom tov.

  16. hagtbg says:

    But R. Kook cautions against a looming moral hazard. When human morality progresses to a natural revulsion from eating animals, Vegetarianism will be universally appropriate. But in this unredeemed world, adopting this stringency is wrong and dangerous. It demonstrates a moral confusion, a failure to distinguish between people and animals.

    I must confess that I don’t “get” this argument. As Emma noted – and Gil agreed – in the very first comment, avoiding meat is something a person can control. Stopping all war and human suffering is a harder task.

    Vegetarianism on the back of human suffering indeed shows skewed values (beyond, perhaps, the loss of jobs of those raising cattle for beef) – but that is not generally the issue today in the West. (You do see it sometimes where vegetarian parents must be very careful that they provide the proper nutrients for their children.)

    Emma: I agree with your criticism. However, Rav Kook has other arguments. I think his strongest is that of misplaced priorities. It is very hard to adopt Vegetarianism as no big deal. Realistically, it becomes a primary value, always at the top of your mind.

    If that is his strongest argument, then you must concede his arguments are non-applicable today.

    As for the problem with it being a primary value if that is all you do … I am not sure about that … first off, once we concede there is a certain value to avoiding meat, I am not sure why that is a problem if it did become a primary value to someone. Everyone has their mitzva. Conversely, one can apply the argument of “overvaluation” even to mitzvot that one believes there is to much emphasis on. The Reform, for instance, used that argument against the “ritual” mitzvot like kashrut.

    Second, its not clear it would become a primary value, particularly if many people are vegetarian… I am not sure the large segments of India that are basically vegetarian have the masses walking around all day thinking of meat. In fact, no vegetarian I know appears to me deeply troubled by their lack of meat. Emma seems to echo that.

    Third, even if I accepted wholesale this critique, that would still not go against the argument of *limiting* the consumption of meat for the reasons R’ Kook mentioned (not to mention reasons stemming from health, environment, etc.). Wheras today, the overall trend continues to be having a large quantity of meat.

  17. IH says:

    Does anyone know when an average Jew started eating 8 to 10 ounces of red meat even once a week?

  18. liatrsegal says:

    Being vegetarian does not mean you cannot act on, let alone care about other causes. In its most basic form, it means cutting something out of your diet (quite like kashrut, I might add). It does not mean that our lives and minds are entirely consumed by this issue, or that we have no room in our hearts or schedules to care and take action on other valuable issues. Similarly, my keeping kosher does not mean I cannot take action on human rights causes. The argument that we should not be vegetarian because there are other things to worry about is an inane excuse. This pretense at humility of not reaching the ideal, when we are admitting that we know vegetarianism is the ideal, is nothing more than a cop-out.

  19. Zvei Dinim says:

    1- “Judaism demands a strict kosher diet but no one claims that this exhausts the values that should guide your consumption”

    Kashrus doesn’t exhaust values that should guide your consumption, where the other values simply other Torah values that just happen to be relevant to food, such as Venishmartem Meod Lnafshoseichem… . I think anyone familiar with either Torah SheBaal Peh or Bichtav should see clearly that vegetarianism is according to the Torah not a moral issue.

    Furthermore “דיקא מנחת” is seriously problematic in light of זאת התורה לא תהא מוחלפת, i’m sure someone already made that point.

    2- I remember reading in Thinkig Aloud R’ Soloveitchik’s opinion that animals are machines without consciousness. However it seems to me to contradict the Ramban on Shiluach Hakan.

    3- I don’t want to kill this lively theological discussion, but I think we can circumvent the moral issue entirely, I think I have a simple argument,

    Assuming earth’s resources were hijacked by aliens, wouldn’t we wish they develop a taste for human flesh and cultivate us, so as to ensure our sustenance and continuity? When you go to the butcher and support cattle cultivation, you are supporting cattle life, not the opposite.

  20. Shlomo says:

    Does anyone know when an average Jew started using HVAC every day?

  21. Shlomo says:

    Just like I don’t think all day about the pork I cannot eat, I don’t think vegetarians think all day about the beef they can’t eat.

  22. emma says:

    Zvei Dinnim, would we want the aliens to maintain us knee-deep in our own feces, cramped shoulder-to-shoulder, feeding us food that makes us sick (but also makes us tasty), never let us outside, etc?

    (I realize the theoretical issue of vegetarianism is separate from modern (post r. kook?) farmiing, but in practice arguments for “meat eating” today have to come to terms with the new reality…)

  23. hatzappar says:

    “It is very hard to adopt Vegetarianism as no big deal. Realistically, it becomes a primary value, always at the top of your mind.”

    None of the vegetarians I know treat it as a primary value. In my experience it is the omnivores, when encountering a vegetarian, who assume that this must be the thing they care about the most.

    “If all killing is equally wrong, if eating all living animals is equally wrong, then cannibalism becomes a real possibility.”

    I respectfully but strongly disagree with R’ Kook on this point.

  24. IH says:

    Some context is missing in this discussion. Emma is correct on her point about industrial meat production. But, there also seems to be an underlying presentism underlying the post and discussion — assuming that what we consider normal meat consumption has any historical antecedents — and, in particular, what Rav Kook would have understood to be non-vegetarianism.

  25. emma says:

    ““It is very hard to adopt Vegetarianism as no big deal. Realistically, it becomes a primary value, always at the top of your mind.”

    None of the vegetarians I know treat it as a primary value. In my experience it is the omnivores, when encountering a vegetarian, who assume that this must be the thing they care about the most.”

    YES. (For the record, in case i have been presenting myself as vegetarian, I do eat chicken about 5 times a year.)

    btw, where does fish fit in according to rav kook?)

    Re: presentism, I believe this discussion is meshing two related questions: (1) is absolute vegetarianism on ethical grounds required and/or permitted (r kook says no, for reasons whose logic, and certainly applicability to today, can be questioned), and (2) is it “dangerous” to suggest eating less meat to people today. Many of the defenses of meat-eating are answering not just #1, but #2 with a resounding “don’t even worry about it.” Given the historical changes re: how meat is produced and, relatedly, how much of it people consume, it’s not clear that there is such a direct link…

  26. ADCWonk says:

    “It is very hard to adopt Vegetarianism as no big deal. Realistically, it becomes a primary value, always at the top of your mind.”

    Put me down, also, for those who don’t understand this statement. All you need to do is: don’t buy meat when you go to the grocery store. And order salad or pasta when at a restaurant. How hard is that?

    I also think that a closer examination into what goes on with industrial meat production would certainly lead to at least have some kashyas regarding tzaar baalei chaim and bal tashchis. I’m not convinced that the kind of production that goes on nowadays was much like meat production during R Kook’s day.

  27. Nachum says:

    Gil- thanks for that. I wasn’t specifically talking about this case, of course, but thanks for giving the information here.

  28. Lucy Star says:

    I have never known a vegetarian to become a cannibal. And by this logic, I guess any man who is faithful to a spouse is courting the danger of running amok and molesting every woman and child in sight. With all due respect, this just seems like an excuse for dismissing the consideration of the feelings and dignity of animals.

  29. chardal says:

    >I am not certain whether Rav Kook was saying that righteous person should not be a vegetarian. I suspect he would agree that someone with proper priorities, who is filled with Torah and fear of God, can be a vegetarian. But I am not sure.

    Indeed, one of R’ Kook’s greatest students, haRav haNazir, was indeed a vegetarian (as was his son in law, R’ Goren).

    R’ Kook himself was not a vegetarian, but the Nazir’s vegetarianism began during R’ Kook’s lifetime and, I presume, with his agreement.

 
 

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