THE TORAH is replete with commandments that relate to animal life, and indeed most rabbinic authorities are of the opinion that the prohibition of causing suffering to animals, known in Hebrew as tzaar baalei chayim, is an injunction of the Torah and not a later rabbinic interdiction.
In Deuteronomy 13:18 it is written “and He will give you mercy and have mercy on you.”
Our sages use this verse to indicate the compassion is an identifying characteristic of authentic Jews, and they declare that “he who has compassion on God’s creatures demonstrates that he is of the seed of Abraham our Father; and one who does not have compassion on God’s creatures, demonstrates that he is not of the seed of Abraham our Father. (Talmud Bavli Beitza 32b)
The great 16th century Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, known to us as the Maharal, expounds on the idea of “love of God” and states: “Love of all creatures is also love of God, for whoever loves the One God loves all the works He has made. When one loves God, it is impossible not to love His creatures. The opposite is also true. If one hates the creatures, it is impossible to love God Who created them.” (Netivot Olam, Ahavat Hare’a)
The Torah gives permission for humans to consume animal flesh under certain circumstances and restrictions. Probably there were times and places when people were not able to obtain enough plant-based nutrients, as opposed to the situation for us today. However, many commentators see the very language of the Torah as demonstrating that this permission is given as a concession to a negative carnivorous human need.
The Baal Haturim (on Deuteronomy 12:20) points out that this permission is followed by the words “ki yirchak” meaning “when far away”, and states “that is to say that a person should keep far away from eating meat, as it is stated (TB Chullin 84a ) ‘a person should not instruct his son to eat meat.’” Rabbi Joseph Albo in his Sefer Ha’ikkarim bases himself on another Talmudic statement (TB Kiddushin 21b) that the permission to eat meat is given due to the fact that “the Torah declares (concessions) for the evil inclination (in humans).”
Many commentators reiterate this idea, and in more modern times people are aware of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook’s writings – in particular, those collected by his close disciple the Nazir Rabbi David Hacohen, in a booklet titled The Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace, which includes the passages in which Rabbi Kook explains how the commandments relating to kashrut are all designed to wean humans away from consuming animal products.
People are less aware of the passionate position against consuming meat expressed by Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik in his article “The Emergence of Ethical Man,” in which he reiterates that the permission is a concession to the evil inclination and human lust, and refers to the desire to eat meat as an “illicit demand.”
The idea of the purpose of kashrut as being designed to inculcate ethical qualities in humans is clearly expressed by our sages, who declare: “What does God care whether a man kills an animal in the proper way and eats it, or whether he strangles an animal and then eats it? Will the one benefit Him or the other injure Him? What does God care whether a man eats kosher or non-kosher animals? But you learn that the commandments were given only to refine God’s creatures, as it says ‘God’s word is refined. It is a protection to those who trust in Him.’” (Midrash Tanhuma, Parshat Shmini, 15b. Similarly, Genesis Rabbah, Lech Lcha 44:1. Leviticus Rabbah, Shmini 13:3)
In keeping with this text, Nachmanides emphasizes the purpose of the mitzvot as improving human character. Concerning the mitzvah of shiluah haken (driving away the mother bird from its nest before taking the eggs, Deuteronomy 22:6), he explains that the purpose of the commandment is precisely in order to educate us to be compassionate people. Maimonides had already highlighted this idea beforehand in his Guide for the Perplexed (111:17), even though as opposed to Nachmanides, he was of the opinion that animals suffer pain and distress similarly to humans.
This teaching of compassion to animals is accordingly presented in the 15th century Jewish ethical work Orchot Tzaddikim (Shaar Rachamim) as central to the authentic Jewish way of life.
Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein in his Torah Temimah elaborates upon the Talmudic commentary on the verse with which I began, namely that he who is not compassionate cannot be of the seed of Abraham. Obviously, this is not a comment about legal status, but rather indicates that being Jewish is about more than simply keeping the letter of the law. Above all, as already stated, Judaism is meant to instill in us the most noble of qualities, compassion being at the very pinnacle. If a person keeps the letter of the law but desecrates its spirit, then in fact he undermines the authentic character of true love of God that Abraham sought to bring to the world.
Of course, not all Jewish authorities share the above negative views regarding meat consumption. Well known is the statement that “there is no celebration without meat and wine.” To be precise, the Talmud states that this was the case when the Temple was standing and that since its destruction, celebration is just with wine (TB Pesahim 109a.) Moreover, Rabbi Hezkiah Medini in his encyclopedic work Sdei Hemed (under the heading “basar”) brings the many rabbinic authorities who state that this is only the case for those for whom eating meat is truly a pleasure.
However, even for those who are of the opinion that it is still a mitzvah to eat meat on sabbaths and festivals, this would only be valid when the process does not involve flagrant violation of Jewish law (a mitzvah haba’ah b’aveirah) The current conditions of livestock (factory) farming involving cruelty on a scale heretofore unknown that desecrates Jewish ethics; the use of massive doses of antibiotics and hormones fed to the animals that are retained in the animal flesh and passed on to humans threatening their health which Judaism demands us to protect (Deuteronomy 4:9, 15); and the environmental dangers of the livestock industry in terms of water and land waste, deforestation and air pollution, which according to the UN research papers are a cause of global warming more than all the forms of transport put together and thus threatening the very Creation that we are meant to protect; mean that there can be little halachic justification today for a carnivorous diet, especially when so many plant-based alternatives are available.
Rabbi David Rosen is the American Jewish Committee’s Jerusalem-based Director of International Interreligious Affairs, and directs AJC’s Heilbrunn Institute for International Interreligious Understanding.