Vegetarianism and Judaism: The Rav’s Radical View
Articles about ideological vegetarianism[i] and Judaism are replete with citations from the Bible, Talmud, and Rabbis Kook and Albo. Yet, of the numerous books,[ii] journal publications,[iii] and online articles[iv] that regurgitate these sources, one important thinker is conspicuously left out: R. Yosef Soloveitchik. R. Soloveitchik had much to say regarding ideological vegetarianism, but his views were not published until 2005. As a result, R. Soloveitchik’s important voice on this topic has yet to become as well-known as that of Rabbis Kook and Albo, who maintain that vegetarianism is good as an ideal but not as a practice. R. Soloveitchik, however, holds that Judaism believes that man should practice ideological vegetarianism, but, in acknowledgement of the evil inclination, the Torah allows man to follow his desire for meat. Compared with other popular views of vegetarianism published by Rabbis Albo and Kook, R. Soloveitchik’s views are avidly supportive of vegetarianism.
In order to comprehend the uniqueness of R. Soloveitchik’s views, one must first fully understand the views of Rabbis Albo and Kook on vegetarianism. Joseph Albo (15th century, Spain), in his Sefer ha-Ikkarim,[v] explains that the consumption and slaughter of animals lead to the development of many negative traits in man. As man consumes more and more meat, Albo claims, he becomes emotionless and is transformed into a merciless killer, with an increasingly weaker connection to his soul. Yet, Albo warns his readers against thinking that man and animal are equals. The concern for animal welfare, which he feels comes from an equalization of man and animal, is not the reason, he argues, to renounce the consumption of meat. Such thinking is not only morally erroneous, but repugnant.
In demonstrating its repugnancy, Albo turns to the Cain and Abel story. Albo interprets Cain killing Abel as an act motivated by belief in the equality of man and animal. Cain thought it would be immoral to kill an animal and bring it as an offering, so when he saw Abel slaughter and sacrifice an animal, he killed his brother for what he considered murder of a fellow living being; he simply took Abel’s life for the life of the animal. Based on this, Albo concludes that anyone who follows the reasoning of Cain, believing that man and animal are of equal rank, will end up just as murderous as Cain. Thus Albo, years before vegetarianism’s popularity,[vi] unquestionably validates it, but for reasons dissimilar to those of many modern movements.
Though Albo’s opinion can be used as a rabbinic precedent for acceptance of vegetarianism in the Torah world, R. Kook, in his treatise entitled Hazon ha-Tsimhonut ve-ha-Shalom (The Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace),[vii] advocates for vegetarianism with powerful arguments affirming even the conventional vegetarian contentions. R. Kook claims that vegetarianism is a Torah ideal and that many mitsvot, such as shehitah,[viii] sha’atnez,[ix] and kisuy ha-dam,[x] are based on this ideology. Despite this belief, however, R. Kook has reservations whether vegetarianism should be practiced out of moral conviction, and instead feels that vegetarianism should be practiced only in the context of other reasons, such as dislike for the taste of meat. He provides three reasons for why vegetarianism as a moral credo is best solely as an idea, but not as a practice or norm.
First, R. Kook argues that while vegetarianism is important, it is of greater importance that the ills of society are healed, war and malevolence are eradicated, and justice reigns.[xi] There should be prioritization and, in R. Kook’s opinion, vegetarianism is of a lower priority. Since R. Kook’s higher-priority have not yet been fully addressed, it would be safe to say that, even today, R. Kook would feel that vegetarianism should not be practiced.
R. Kook then goes further and claims that vegetarianism as a norm may not even be possible. When animal and man are made equal, man may be led to think that there is no difference between the two, and will turn cannibalistic.[xii] After all, argues R. Kook, what would logically stop man from eating of his kind if he is no different from the animal he once ate? This argument of R. Kook is somewhat tenuous since the Carib people, the prime historical example of cannibalism in the world, did not eat human flesh to feed their hunger, but as a part of their war ritual in which they would eat the flesh of the enemy to gain the defeated warrior’s bravery.[xiii] R. Kook, though, still maintains this as his second reason to doubt whether man is capable of being a vegetarian.
Finally, R. Kook argues that when man and animal are equated, man may reason that he is on the same moral plane as animals, leading man to actually act like an animal. This barbarism, R. Kook predicts, would lead to man acting callous with regard to human welfare and life, but cautious of animal welfare and life.[xiv] The reasoning of the barbarians would be that if animal and man are equal, then there is no difference between the killing of a man and the swatting of a fly: Both can be justified as acts that rid the world of a nuisance and abomination. This logic is not immediately obvious, though, since one would be more inclined to say that equalization of man and animal will cause equal treatment of the two. As a result, it would seem more plausible that if ideological vegetarianism is accepted, both man and animal will be treated well.
For these three reasons, R. Kook feels that vegetarianism is an ideal that man cannot achieve. As explained, his last two reasons are somewhat tenuous, while the first reason that R. Kook gives seems to be the most convincing.
Unlike Rabbis Kook and Albo, R. Soloveitchik has no reservations concerning vegetarianism, and affirms it both as an ideal and a practice. He believes that all life, even animal life, is sanctified.[xv] In explaining his point, R. Soloveitchik cites Sanhedrin 59b, which says that Adam did not eat meat, and it was only when Noah entered the biblical narrative that meat was permitted. Commenting on this, R. Soloveitchik states that the natural reality of Adam’s distaste for meat became the ethical norm with the phrase, “and it was so.”[xvi] R. Soloveitchik explains, “Thus the verse concludes ‘and it was so’: the ethical norm became a behavior pattern, an expression of the ontic order.”[xvii] The ethical imperative against eating meat becomes the physical and biological reality of man’s world—no one would eat meat. Yet, as the history of man continues through dor ha-mabbul (the generation of the flood), man begins to overreach himself, to take what is not his,[xviii] including the life of another living being. Thus, God eventually gives in and allows Noah to eat meat: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.”[xix] R. Soloveitchik explains, “At once the Torah began to regulate the ‘murder’ of other lives, to restrict its practice by complicating the procedure… ‘[the Torah succumbed to the Evil Inclination by allowing for certain things, hence] the Torah provided for human passions: [reasoning that] it is better for Israel to eat the flesh of animals that are ritually slaughtered than the flesh of animals which have perished [i.e. nevelot (the dead unslaughtered carcass of an animal)]’ (Kiddushin 21b-22a).”[xx] R. Soloveitchik explains that the Torah allows man to fulfill his desire for meat, but out of a care for animal life, it complicated the process of acquiring meat.
R. Soloveitchik, unlike Rabbis Albo and Kook, takes a very strong position regarding carnivorous practices. He calls it “ta’avah” (lust)[xxi] and an “illicit demand.”[xxii] “The insistence upon flesh, his [man’s] lusty carnal desire,” R. Soloveitchik says, “arouses the divine wrath.” [xxiii] Those who choose to eat meat, the “animal hunters and flesh-eaters” are “people that lust.” [xxiv] This strong language is not found in the writings of Rabbis Kook and Albo; they are only harsh towards those who ideologically refuse to eat meat.
R. Soloveitchik’s severe stance is based on the story of Kivrot ha-Ta’avah (the graves of those who craved [meat]), the tragic account of Benei Yisrael’s lust for animal flesh.[xxv] In the story of Kivrot ha-Ta’avah, Benei Yisrael protest to God and Moshe, demanding meat instead of the manna that God had been supplying. Moshe prays to God and, although God is angry with the people, He gives them the meat. Once satiated, the people die as a result of a plague that God sends. In his explanation of this story, R. Soloveitchik says that God admonished Israel for their dissatisfaction with their vegetarian diet of manna and their need to have meat. Deuteronomy 12:20, in discussing God’s commandments for when Benei Yisrael will live in the land of Israel, supports this point: “And you shall say: ‘I will eat flesh’, because your soul desires to eat flesh; you may eat flesh, after all the desire of your soul.”[xxvi] The Torah uses the word “desire” to characterize man’s hunger for meat; it is the dominating physical desire. Hence, according to R. Soloveitchik, vegetarianism should be practiced, yet man, too desirous for meat, refuses to stop eating animal flesh.
Moving from the theoretical level to a practical level, R. Soloveitchik defends his strong opinion against potential halakhic challenges. First, the Torah’s sanction and, according to most commentators,[xxvii] desire for sacrifices is problematic in the face of the aforementioned opinions. Is it possible that the Torah really cares about animal welfare and yet still commands Benei Yisrael to slaughter animals wantonly to God? In response, R. Soloveitchik posits that sacrifice is the returning of one’s body—God’s property—to its Owner out of a debt to Him for His priceless gift of life, yet the ethos of sacrifice is the value for life. Man, in reciprocation for the life given to him, must offer up his life, but paradoxically cannot since by expressing thanks to God, man is stating his value for his own life.[xxviii] Hence, God forbids human sacrificial suicide, and, as a replacement, commands that an animal should be placed on the altar.[xxix] In support of his idea, R. Soloveitchik brings a unique interpretation of the story of the Binding of Isaac: Abraham sacrifices Isaac to pay the debt that he owes his Creator, Who finally granted him the life of his child. But the angel stops Abraham from slaughtering his son, since God values life, and Abraham sacrifices a ram in place of Isaac. A life needed to be taken in order to reciprocate for the precious gift that God gave Abraham, but the life of Isaac—of every man—has more moral value than that of an animal because, R. Soloveitchik suggests, men are the messengers of God to the world. Similarly, Abarbanel, in his introduction to Leviticus, explains that different sacrifices symbolize man’s redemption of his life. For example, an olah (burnt offering) is meant to symbolize man giving over his whole body, and the blood splashed onto the altar is meant to symbolize man’s life force. However, outside of this clear requirement to return, through sacrifices, the infinite debt that man owes to his Creator for giving him life, sustaining him, and helping him, the Torah may still frown upon the consumption of meat outside of the context of sacrifice.[xxx]
There is another issue that, although not raised by R. Soloveitchik himself, proves challenging according to his view on vegetarianism: the commandment to eat meat on yom tov. Rambam holds that one is obligated to eat meat on yom tov even after the Temple’s destruction.[xxxi] Many other Rishonim, however, disagree with Rambam. Ritva to Kiddushin 3b and Rashba in his Teshuvot[xxxii] explain that since there is no festival-offering today, there is no requirement to eat meat in order to fulfill the mitsvah of simhat yom tov (rejoicing on yom tov). Tosafot to Yoma 3a and Rabbeinu Nissim to Sukkah 42b go even further and cite Gemarot in Pesahim 71a and Hagigah 8a, which state that even when the Temple stood, there was no requirement to eat meat on yom tov; it was just a mitsvah min ha-muvhar (choicest mitsvah fulfillment). Hence according to the latter opinions, which are also cited in Aharonim,[xxxiii] there is no problem with a vegetarian not eating meat on yom tov.
This mahaloket is especially important regarding conversion: If eating meat on yom tov is a hiyyuv (obligation), then a vegetarian would not be allowed to convert,[xxxiv] since a convert is not accepted if he fails to accept any provision of Jewish law.[xxxv] Yet, according to the above presentation, a convert who is a vegetarian does have sources upon which to rely with regard to the hiyyuv of simhat yom tov.
R. Soloveitchik’s view on vegetarianism is radically different from that of his predecessors. R. Soloveitchik accepts vegetarianism without any reservations, and sees it as the ideal modus vivendi of every Jew. There are, of course, some halakhic issues that may arise when considering the issue, but they are mitigated by the existence of opinions that avoid necessitating the consumption of meat. With R. Soloveitchik’s view, the issue of vegetarianism and Judaism takes new light: Not only can one say, based on Rabbis Kook and Albo that vegetarianism is a Torah ideal, but also one can use R. Soloveitchik’s opinion to claim that vegetarianism should be an actualized way of life.
David Errico-Nagar is a sophomore at YC, majoring in Pre-Engineering and Philosophy.
[i] For the purpose of this paper, the stipulative definition of “ideological vegetarianism” will be the abstinence from consumption of meat out of concern for animal welfare.
[ii] See, for example, Roberta Kalechofsky (ed.), Judaism and Animal Rights: Classical and Contemporary Responses (Marblehead, MA: Micah Publications, 1992) and Dovid Sears, The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism (Spring Valley, NY: Orot, 2003).
[iii] See, for example, David J. Bleich, “Vegetarianism and Judaism,” Tradition 23.1 (Summer 1987) and Alfred Cohen, “Vegetarianism from a Jewish Perspective,” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 1.2 (Fall 1981).
[iv] See, for example, Richard Schwartz, “The Vegetarian Teachings of Rav Kook,” ed. by David Sears, Jewish Vegetarians of North America, available at: www.jewishveg.com and Feige Twerski and Shraga Simmons, “Where’s the Beef? Examining the Pros and Cons,” Aish.com, available at: www.aish.com.
[v] Sefer ha-Ikkarim 3:15; Abarbanel to Gen. 9:3 and Isa. 11:7 make the same arguments as Albo.
[vi] Vegetarianism was popularized in the twentieth century by two vegan activists: Henry Stephens Salt and George Bernard Shaw (Jon Gregerson, Vegetarianism: A History (Fremont, CA: Jain Pub. Co., 1994), 78-79).
[vii] Abraham Isaac Kook, Ḥazon ha-Tsimḥonut ṿe-ha-Shalom (Jerusalem: Mekhon Binyan ha-Torah, 2009).
[viii] R. Soloveitchik explains that shehitah is a humane way to slaughter animals, implying that the laws of shehitah are designed for the humane treatment of animals (Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, Community, Covenant, and Commitment, ed. by Nathaniel Helfgot (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Pub. House, 2005), 61-67). R. Kook also makes this point, but only in passing (Kook Ch. 8).
[ix] R. Kook explains that sha’atnez was enacted so that man will not mix two different textiles—one which is moral and another which is immoral. Wool is immoral since it is painfully taken from an animal and leaves it bare, while linen is taken from a plant and, therefore, does not harm or steal from any living being (Kook Ch. 12).
[x] R. Kook explains that kisuy ha-dam was enacted in order to “teach us to see the shedding of a [non-domestic] animal’s blood as an act akin to murder; thus we should be ashamed to shed the blood of a [domestic] animal, as well.” (R. David Sears’s translation, available at: http://jewishveg.com/DSvision.html.) A domestic animal’s blood, however, is not covered, since it is slaughtered in a common area and people will be visibly reminded of the similarity of slaughter to murder (Kook Ch. 17).
[xi] Kook Ch. 4.
[xiv]Abraham Isaac Kook, Mishnat ha-Rav, eds. Abraham Reiger and Yochanan Fried (Jerusalem, 5721), 217.
[xv] R. Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, The Emergence of Ethical Man (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Pub. House, 2005), 45. Interestingly, he even feels that vegetable life is sanctified.
[xvi] Gen. 1:30, translation found in Soloveitchik 32.
[xvii] Soloveitchik 32.
[xviii] R. Y.D. Soloveitchik interprets the word hamas as overreaching oneself—not just as stealing but as violating personal rights (Soloveitchik 33).
[xix] Gen. 9:3, translation found in Soloveitchik 34.
[xx] Soloveitchik 34.
[xxi] All of the quotations are from Soloveitchik 36.
[xxv] See Numbers 11.
[xxvi] JPS translation.
[xxvii] See, for example, Abarbanel in his introduction to Leviticus and Ramban to Lev. 1:9.
[xxviii] Soloveitchik 42-43. He formulates this differently in Worship of the Heart (Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav Publishing House, 2003), 161-162, by explaining the requirement as the demand of God for man to return His “deposit”—his life.
[xxix] Soloveitchik 43. He also deals with such issues in Worship of the Heart and Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Doubleday, c2006), Ch. 4. In the former, he bases the connection between surrendering one’s life to God and korbanot (sacrifices) on Rashi to Lev. 26:42, which states that Isaac’s ashes are forever visible to God. In other words, although Isaac was not sacrificed literally, he was sacrificed in the figurative sense; Isaac was embodied in the ram that was offered in his stead.
[xxx] Rashi to Deut. 12:20 and Ramban to Lev. 17:2 say that the only meat that Benei Yisrael were allowed to eat was the meat of sacrifices. This may indicate that the Torah does maintain that one should sacrifice animals, but still does not happily sanction consumption of any meat besides for sacrificial meat.
[xxxi] Rambam, Sefer ha-Mitsvot, Mitsvot Aseh, no. 54 and Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:18.
[xxxiii] Magen Avraham, Orah Hayyim 696:15 sides against Rambam, although he contradicts himself in Orah Hayyim 249:6 when he disproves the opinion of the Levush, who says that eating meat on yom tov is not obligatory. Bet Yosef, Orah Hayyim 529 questions Rambam and Tur, who claim that one is obligated to eat meat.
[xxxiv] For a discussion of the matter, see R. Moshe ha-Levi Steinberg’s Hukkat ha-Ger, Kuntres ha-Teshuvot, no. 1.
[xxxv] This halakhah is derived from Bekhorot 30b and Mekhilta, Parashat Kedoshim 19:34.