From a young age, I have always had a special fondness for animals. My grandfather and uncle were veterinarians, and my mother owns a company that produces pet products. At one point, my house was home to an entire zoo of creatures, including a dog, birds, fish, and guinea pigs. However, while animals have always been a constant part of my life, the prospect of vegetarianism rarely entered my mind.
A friend once asked why I never considered it, and I initially had trouble responding. Knowing that the Orthodox community rarely discussed the topic, I said that I was able to compartmentalize my love for my pets away from the animals on my dinner plate. But after reading more books and seeing more arguments on the subject, I have begun to change my feelings. I am no longer able to casually detach my emotions from the humanness of animals, and my appetite has taken note.
When I first began reading more on the subject, I discovered that Judaism seemed to be overwhelmingly disapproving of vegetarianism and animal rights, with large segments of the Torah devoted toward describing animal sacrifices. Two of the most widely discussed opinions on the matter are those of Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook and Rabbi Joseph Albo. Both of these Jewish luminaries discussed the issue in depth and, despite differences in methodology, came to the same conclusion: Vegetarianism is a nice idea but far too impractical. They often showed the similarities between people and animals, but never suggested to stop eating them.
But I soon discovered one Jewish thinker who stood out with a different, maverick approach. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik believed that vegetarianism is in fact a religious ideal, one that we all too often fail to realize. Looking up and down the pages of his book, I immediately saw that I had struck gold. Finally, I thought, a pro-vegetarian leader within the fold of traditional Orthodoxy.
R. Joseph B. Soleveitchik
In Deuteronomy 12:20, the Torah says , 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. Soloveitchik, unlike his predecessors, interprets the word “desire” as a negative emotion - a lust. He claims that this verse demonstrates how Judaism is fundamentally pro-vegetarian, because the Torah only permits man to eat animals as a last resort to satisfy a carnal craving. The sacrifices mentioned in earlier parts of the Torah, Soloveitchik clarifies, give us the initial Biblical recommendation for a meat-free diet, highlighting the similarities between animals and people. In support of this view, many scholars point out that the ancient commandments to sacrifice animals are markedly symbolic. Animal sacrifice is meant to draw an equivalency between man and animal, two similar beings of the same creator.
A couple of years ago, a friend told me that he had begun a new diet that challenged him to eat meat only once a week, on Shabbat. He cited Soloveitchik and said that this practice would broaden his moral compass. “Animals are just as holy as people or the Sabbath,” he claimed.
Not particularly liking the food I was already eating, I decided to give his diet a shot. For the next month, I stuck to a strictly vegan diet during the week and noticed that I felt better about myself at meals. Every bite I took reminded me of my ethical decision, and the experience was surreal.
I continued this until I noticed that I was physically weaker and that my body was more lethargic than ever. After a short time, and more physical suffering from a lack of needed protein, I returned to my omnivorous self. Although I did find the overall experience edifying, it showed me that vegetarianism isn’t for everyone and that some people simply don’t have the stamina to live without meat.
To this day, I have a great appreciation for vegetarianism and believe that it presents us with a wonderful opportunity to expand our morality. What Rabbi Soloveitchik showed is that our religious values can extend beyond a rigid interpretation of text. And in an age that continues to make this lifestyle more convenient, perhaps it is something that should be encouraged. Becoming a vegetarian may not be for you, but why not consider the option? My short time as a vegetarian showed me the potential religious and moral implications, and presented me with a way to feel better about myself and what I ate.