The Surprising Views of the Rav (Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik) on Vegetarianism
This article was written with the editorial asistance of Rabbi Dovid Sears
Rabbi Joseph Ber (Yosef Dov) Soloveitchik, simply known as “the Rav” by his wide circle of colleagues, students, and admirers, was generally regarded as one of the leading religious philosophers, Talmud scholars, and rabbinic leaders of the 20th century. He stressed that Torah values were in many ways compatible with world culture and secular studies, and promoted Jewish interaction with the broader community — while asserting the need to preserve the purity of halakhah (religious law) and the core teachings of the Torah.
The Rav was regarded as a seminal figure in the Modern Orthodox community. During some fifty years of leadership, he addressed various momentous religious challenges, ordained almost 2,000 Orthodox rabbis, and served as a mentor, guide, and role model for tens of thousands of Jews.
Given the Rav’s great respect and influence among so many in the Modern Orthodox community, his strong support for vegetarianism is very significant.
That strong support is indicated in his statement in a posthumously published essay, “There is a distinct reluctance, almost an unwillingness, on the part of the Torah to grant man the privilege to consume meat. Man as an animal-eater is looked on askance by the Torah. There are definitive vegetarian tendencies in the Bible.”
Based on Genesis 1:29, which mentions God’s initial strictly vegan dietary regimen, the Rav indicated that people were initially meant to eat plant foods. But, he pointed out, people overreached and “acquired new drives and began to display new demands,” so “God … gave in and compromised with man,” and permitted the eating of meat. Thus, according to the Rav, “Man-animal became life-killer, an animal-eater. He became bloodthirsty and flesh-hungry,” and “a concession was made [by God] to an evil drive.”
The Rav points out that, consistent with the concession God made to allow people to eat meat, the Torah displays a dislike for meat eaters, and associates the strong desire for meat with ta’avah, “lust” and “illicit demand.” He stresses that when the Israelites cried out for meat in the desert, God reluctantly supplied quail, but while the people were about to chew the flesh between their teeth, a great plague broke out and many people died at a place named Kivrot ha-Ta’avah, “the Graves of Lust.” When the Israelites were in the desert after the exodus from Egypt, meat could only be eaten if it was part of a sacrificial service. Later, when their borders were expanded, permission to eat meat was expanded, but the meat was called basar ta’avah, the “meat of lust.” According to the Rav, “while the Torah “tolerates [meat-eating], it is far from fully approving it.”
In taking this position, the Rav echoes kindred sentiments in the commentaries of a number of illustrious medieval authorities (Rishonim), including Rav Joseph Albo and Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, as well as later authorities (Acharonim) Rabbi Ephraim Lunschitz, Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar, and in twentieth century, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook. (These sources have been translated and discussed in “The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism,” by Rabbi David Sears.) Therefore, the Rav’s view cannot be dismissed as marginal or without significant precedent.
In summary, according to Rav Soloveitchik, vegetarianism is the Torah’s ideal — and it follows that to be consistent with this ideal, Jews should be vegetarians. However, he acknowledged that, because of the lust for flesh, most took advantage of the Torah’s reluctant concession to eat meat.
Unfortunately, most Jews are unaware of the Rav’s teachings on vegetarianism, and relatively few Jews are vegetarians. It is the purpose of this article to increase that awareness with the hope that many more Jews will apply the Rav’s teachings and become vegetarians.
Why is this important? Several reasons:
Jews would be adopting the diet most consistent with basic Jewish teachings on preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, and helping hungry people.
Jews would be showing the relevance of Judaism’s eternal teachings by applying them to our diets.
Jews would be healthier, because animal-based diets have been linked to heart disease, several types of cancer, and other killer diseases.
Jews would be contributing toward a healthier planet, since animal-based agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, soil erosion, rapid species extinction, deforestation, water pollution, and many other environmental threats.
It would, according to some Jewish sages, hasten the coming of the Messiah when, according to Isaiah (11:6-9), “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, …, the lion will eat straw like the ox, … and no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of God’s holy mountain.”
The Rav was one of the most influential Jews in modern history. If his influence expanded to convincing many Jews to become vegetarians, it would arguably be his greatest contribution, because it would result in a healthier, more compassionate, just, peaceful, and environmentally sustainable world.
It must be said that despite his strong support of vegetarianism, the Rav was reportedly not a vegetarian. It is puzzling why he would act contrary to his own teachings. Therefore, it is hoped that this article will result in former students of the Rav coming forward to shed light on this apparent mystery. The fact that the Rav’s vegetarian views were not published until 2005 (in the collection, “The Emergence of Ethical Man,” edited by Michael S. Berger [Ktav], from which the quotes above were taken) seems to be a factor in their having been little-known beforehand.
Please note that this is a work in progress, as I am seeking additional information about the Rav’s vegetarian views and practices. Suggestions and new information always welcome.