I was not the only observer surprised by the outcry against the killing of Harambe the gorilla in order to save a child who had wandered into the gorilla enclosure in the Cincinnati Zoo. While only a few people asked whether the child’s life took precedence over the gorilla’s, more asked about our general practice of killing animals for food when human life is not at stake. And they are right. This brought to mind a passage I recently came across in a 19th century polemic against biblical criticism by Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer, who is most famous as a forerunner of Religious Zionism.
In his Emunah Yesharah, Rav Kalischer offers a number of arguments for the divine origin of the Torah. In the following argument (vol. 2, ch. 7, par. 4), he denies philosophical legitimacy to eating meat absent divine permission. Without God and the Torah, he asks, by what right does one creature kill–often cruelly–and eat another creature? And if we accept that there is divine permission, then we have to eat kosher (in particular, refrain from eating blood).
I do not find this argument compelling because there are non-theistic philosophical justifications for humans to eat animals. Others might consider it convincing, such as those who argue for vegetarianism today for precisely these reasons. However, I find Rav Kalischer’s subsequent points very noteworthy. Anticipating the possible objection that a person may choose to be a vegetarian, Rav Kalischer states that this is an improper attitude. Once we receive divine permission to eat (kosher) animals, we are wrong to deprive ourselves of this pleasure. Vegetarianism confuses the religious mind with incorrect priorities, leading to other wrong moral choices.
We were given instructions on how to live in this world that include values and priorities. Human lives take precedence over animal lives. And human consumption validates the killing, even somewhat cruelly, of animal life.
This brief but important essay serves as a precedent to Rav Kook’s view that vegetarianism is morally dangerous in our I redeemed world. The following is a loose translation of Rav Kalischer’s poetic Hebrew:
I ask the person who says, “My wisdom is sufficient to guide me to walk in the straight path to acquire perfection and I have no need or requirement of the Torah.” However, for the great masses of humanity on this earth, their intellect will not help them to attain eternal bliss in their experience of life. I ask him many questions.
One question is: who permitted him to kill a living creature that is a creature like him? Who told you the divine will, that you may spill the blood of His creations for your benefit and pleasure? Is it because you are stronger than it, or have weapons? Shall a man overpower another man by might? Is it permitted to him to spill the blood of one weaker than him for the sake of his benefit and pleasure? So how is it permitted to do something to living creatures that feel pain?
Is there any greater cruelty than this, like a sheep brought to slaughter, and the ox tied by thick rope, bound hand and foot and he hits it on its head, felling it to the ground without mercy and the person does with it what is good in his eyes and he has no mercy for its suffering and he does hear its cry? And from its meat he makes delicacies for himself. Does the intellect decree this–to be like a wild animal to devour one’s prey?
Except that God, may He be blessed, came in His glory with the spirit of prophecy to Noach when he left the ark and gave him the laws–the seven commandments–and permitted to him to eat meat. Only he may not eat from the blood. The soul is in the blood will return to its root in the ground, for the soul of an animal is from the earth and to the earth it returns, as the wise know. What intellect is there that knows to rule like this?
And if a stubborn person will say, indeed I will not eat meat or anything of a living creature, behold also in this you are not correct. This is not a day for man to afflict himself and to deny himself that which is permissible. For if he is granted divine permission, he commits a terrible sin to treat himself badly and cruelly. And then he will not know how to take heed anymore, what is the straight path that a man should choose for himself. (And the people of Egypt and many nations like them indeed did not eat meat, saying that the animal soul is greater than the human soul which is lacking perfection, like we wrote in volume 1, Ma’amar Ha-Nefesh, ch. 14.)
It is possible to see this in the words of the Sages that it is prohibited for an Am Ha’aretz to eat meat (Pesachim 49b). An Am Ha’aretz is someone who is drawn after earthliness, who doesn’t observe the Torah at all and his eye does not look heavenward. His eyes gaze on the material earth to work the ground; he is compared to the animals, and he does not desire to listen to the voice of the Torah. If so, that he does not accept that Torah is from heaven, rather he follows his own intellect in all actions, how can he eat meat? Who permitted him to slaughter the ox or kill the sheep if there is no divine law? And the One who permitted to eat meat prohibited the blood, and so how can he eat meat with the blood?
Whichever way you view it, if he doesn’t have faith in the Torah there is no permission to eat meat and if there is a Torah there is no permission to eat blood.