Ask the Rabbi: Does Jewish law promote vegetarianism?

In short, Jewish law allows for a vegetarian diet, even as it continues to emphasize the uniqueness of humans and the primacy they are owed over animals.

A vegetable vendor restocks his supply in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A vegetable vendor restocks his supply in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market.
While it imposes strict instructions on which animals may be consumed and how to slaughter them, the Torah clearly permits the eating of meat. “You will say: ‘I will eat meat,’ for you have the desire to eat meat – you may eat whenever you desire” (Deuteronomy 12:20).
Beyond personal indulgence, the Torah also sometimes mandates consuming meat, as in the case of sacrifices. Today, of course, we do not have a sacrificial order.
(The question of whether animal sacrifices will be restored in the Messianic era is discussed in my book A Guide to the Complex.) Yet decisors debate whether there is still an obligation to eat meat on festivals.
The Torah commands Jews to rejoice on the festivals, which one talmudic sage declared includes eating sacrificial meat in Jerusalem. This same sage, however, continued to state that following the Temple’s destruction, our joy is manifested through drinking wine.
Many medieval commentators thus asserted that meat is no longer required, with some further contending that meat was always only one type of pleasure that could fulfill the festive requirement. However, Maimonides and Rabbi Yosef Karo codified the requirement of consuming meat.
Several later decisors disagreed, and while purchasing meat for the holiday remained a widespread practice, many maintained that one may find other methods of rejoicing on the holiday. Indeed, within the same talmudic passage, the sages describe different types of treats that allow men, women and children to rejoice on this day.
The more fundamental question relates to whether the Torah views meat-eating as an ideal. When humans are created in Genesis 1, they are given a unique role as masters of the earth, with the status of being created in the “divine image” (Gen. 1:26). Biblical commentators have offered varying interpretations of this unique trait, which include intelligence, language, free will, moral thinking and imaginative creativity. The notion that humans do not have fundamental differences from animals, advocated by some animal rights advocates, is anathematic to biblical theology.
Despite their status, God only permitted humans to eat vegetative life and fruits while in the Garden of Eden, giving them a similar diet to animals (1:29-30). After the Deluge, God tells Noah that he may consume animals, even as he must avoid eating their blood or shedding human blood (9:3-6). This interpretation was confirmed by the talmudic sages, even as they gave no explanation why God allowed humans to become carnivores.
So perplexing, in fact, was this question that Gersonides denied that God had ever prohibited meat. Instead, he claimed the Torah was merely being descriptive – humans ate vegetation – but that the all-perfect God would never change his mind and give new instructions.
This perspective was entirely ignored or rejected by other commentators, with the exception of 19th-century exegete Shmuel David Luzzatto. Yet it should be noted that the medieval Tosafists believed humans were only prohibited from killing animals for food, but not from eating those that died in nature.
Most exegetes tried to rationalize God’s permissive directives after the flood. Two 19th-century commentators, Malbim and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, gave naturalistic explanations: Once humans had left the Garden of Eden and hostile climates, they required a carnivorous diet for nutrition. Rabbi David Kimhi (d. 1235) asserted that it was always God’s plan to allow humans to consume meat, but He only revealed this after humans saved the animal kingdom to deserve this right.
Nahmanides and many others disagreed, arguing that God’s original intent was for all sentient beings – who desire pleasure for themselves and flee from pain or death – to be spared from consumption.
After Noah saved the animals, humans gained greater entitlement over them, yet remain commanded to care for their general welfare and avoid unnecessary pain, tza’ar ba’alei haim. (The propriety of contemporary factory farming under these regulations requires a separate treatment.) Most commentators and thinkers accepted these changes with moral equanimity, even as a few contended Jews should minimize meat consumption to avoid the unnecessary killing of additional animals. Rabbi Yosef Albo (d.
1444), however, maintained that vegetarianism was in fact the ideal, but that humans, beginning with Cain and Abel, had misunderstood the initial divine directives to believe that humans and animals were fundamentally equal. Rather than ensuring greater animal welfare, these rules led humans to treat other humans in a degrading manner.
God thus chose to allow humans to eat animals to stress human superiority, and the need to respect their fellow species. But this remains a concession to human nature, and despite the various biblical commandments aimed to protect animal welfare, vegetarianism remains a more ideal diet.
Similar sentiments were later expressed by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (d. 1935), who believed vegetarianism would become the norm in the Messianic era. Until that time, however, he averred that attempts to overly promote the standing of animals would be counterproductive and lead to lack of sensitivity to human suffering.
Kook’s students took this message in very different directions. While he and his son ate meat only on Shabbat and the festivals, a prominent student, Rabbi David Hacohen and his son, Haifa’s Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Hacohen, became strict vegetarians, while a third (majority) group continued to believe in consuming meat at pleasure.
In short, Jewish law allows for a vegetarian diet, even as it continues to emphasize the uniqueness of humans and the primacy they are owed over animals.
■ The writer teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, directs the Tikvah Overseas Seminars and is a junior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. His first 130 columns were recently published as A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halachic Debates (Maggid Books).