What Diet Does God Prefer for People?
The most basic line of demarcation in the realm of Halacha (Jewish law) is the one between the permitted and the forbidden. Yet, in the realm of the permitted, we also find a further line between the accepted and the ideal. At this point, we do not simply ask what does God allow but what does God prefer.
Within this context, it is essential that we not only ask which foods God permits but that we also consider the diet that God prefers for us. The following arguments are submitted in furtherance of my view that God’s preference for people is veganism. Vegans and vegetarians eat plant-based diets. Vegetarians eat no animal flesh, while vegans also avoid dairy products and eggs. My hope is that this presentation will start a respectful dialogue on this important issue.
Argument #1: People were originally vegans
God’s first dietary law was strictly vegan: “And God said: ‘Behold I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed – to you it shall be for food'” (Genesis 1:29). That God’s first intention was that people should be vegan, or at least vegetarian, was stated by Jewish classical Biblical commentators, including Rashi, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, and Nachmanides, and later scholars, such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Moses Cassuto, and Nehama Leibowitz. It is significant that after giving these dietary laws, creation was complete and God saw everything that He had made and “behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31).
Argument #2: God’s allowance to eat meat was only a concession.
What about God’s permission, given to Noach and his descendants, to eat meat? According to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (Rav Kook), first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel and one of the outstanding Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century, this permission was only a temporary concession to human weakness. He felt that God who is merciful to all His creatures (Psalms 145:9) would not institute an everlasting law which permits the killing of animals for food.
The Torah connects the consumption of meat with uncontrolled lust (Deuteronomy 12:20), while vegetarian foods are looked on with favor:
For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks, of water, of fountains and depths, springing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey; a land wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness; thou shalt not lack anything in it… And thou shalt eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord thy God for the good land which He hath given thee (Deuteronomy 8:7-10).
Rav Kook believed that the many laws and restrictions related to the preparation and consumption of meat (the laws of kashrut) supported this outlook. To Rabbi Kook, these regulations implied a reprimand and served as an elaborate apparatus designed to keep alive a sense of reverence for life, with the aim of eventually leading people away from their meat-eating habit. This idea is echoed by Torah commentator Solomon Refrain Lunchitz, author of K’lee Yakar:
What was the necessity for the entire procedure of ritual slaughter? For the sake of self discipline. It is far more appropriate for man not to eat meat; only if he has a strong desire for meat does the Torah permit it, and even this only after the trouble and inconvenience necessary to satisfy his desire. Perhaps because of the bother and annoyance of the whole procedure, he will be restrained from such a strong and uncontrollable desire for meat.
This argument is further supported by the belief of Rav Kook and Rabbi Joseph Albo that in the days of the Messiah, people will again be vegans, or at lest vegetarians. They base this on the prophecy of Isaiah:
And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, …
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox, …
And no one shall hurt nor destroy in all My holy
mountain. (Isaiah 11:6-9)
Argument #3: Manna was the preferred food in the desert.
According to Isaac Arama, author of Akedat Yitzchak, God established another non-meat diet, manna, when the Israelites left Egypt and were in the desert for 40 years. This would seem to further indicate G-d’s preference for this diet. Manna is clearly described in the Torah as a vegan food, “like coriander seed” (Numbers 11:7), This diet kept the Israelites in good health for 40 years in the desert.
When the Jewish people cried for flesh, God reluctantly provided it (in the form of quails). While the Israelites were eating the quails, a great plague broke out and many people died. The place where this occurred was named, “The Graves of Lust,” perhaps an early warning of the negative health effects related to the consumption of meat.
Argument #4: Veganism provides a healthier diet.
Judaism regards the preservation of health as a religious obligation of the highest importance. The Talmud teaches that Jews should be more particular about matters of health and life than ritual matters. If it could help save a life, one may violate the Sabbath, eat non-kosher foods, and even eat on Yom Kippur. The only laws that cannot be violated to preserve a life are those prohibiting murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality, the three “cardinal sins.”
In view of these teachings, could God possibly want people to eat meat, when such diets have been strongly linked to heart attacks, strokes, various types of cancer, and other diseases? In this regard, it is interesting to note that Chapter 5 of Genesis tells of the very long lives of people in the generations of the vegetarian period from Adam to Noach.
Argument #5: Modern livestock agriculture is cruel to animals.
Judaism has many beautiful teachings concerning the proper treatment of animals. Jews are to be rachmanim b’nei rachmanin (compassionate children of compassionate ancestors), imitating God, Whose compassion is over all His works (Psalms 145:9). Moses and King David were chosen for leadership, and Rebecca was deemed suitable to be a wife for Isaac, because they were kind to animals. Proverbs 12:10 teaches that, “The righteous person considers the life of his or her animal.”
Concern for animals is even expressed in the Ten Commandments, which indicates that animals, as well as people, are to rest on Shabbat. Many Biblical laws command proper treatment of animals. Shechitah, Jewish ritual slaughter laws, stresses that when animals are slaughtered for food, it is done in the swiftest and most painless way possible.
In strong contrast, animals are raised today to ensure the highest return on investment, with little, if any, consideration for their personal needs. In view of the above stated arguments, would God favor the consumption of flesh when it involves raising animals under cruel conditions in crowded cells, where they are denied fresh air, exercise, and any emotional attachments?
Argument #6: Veganism favors the environment.
Judaism teaches that the earth is the Lord’s and that people are to be partners and co-workers with God in protecting the environment. The Talmudic sages indicated great concern about reducing pollution. While God was able to say, “It is very good,” when the world was created, today the world faces many environmental threats. Thus, could God favor animal-based diets which contribute substantially to climate change, extensive soil depletion and erosion, air and water pollution related to the widespread production and use of pesticides, fertilizer, and other chemicals, and the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats?
Based on Deuteronomy 20:19, 20, which prohibits the destruction of fruit-bearing trees in time of warfare, the Talmudic sages prohibited the waste or unnecessary destruction of all objects of potential benefit to people (bal tashchit). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch stated that this prohibition is the first and most general call of G-d: We are to “regard things as G-d’s property and use them with a sense of responsibility for wise human purposes. Destroy nothing! Waste nothing!” He also stated that using more things (or things of greater value) than is necessary to obtain one’s aim also violated the prohibition of bal tashchit.
Hence, could God favor animal-based diets which require up to 20 times as much land, 13 times as much water, and 10 times as much energy, and far more pesticides, fertilizer, and other resources, than vegan diets?
Argument #7: The non-economical use of resources to support meat consumption yields many negative repercussions for humanity.
Helping the hungry is fundamental in Judaism. The Talmud states, “Providing charity weighs as heavily as all the other commandments of the Torah combined” (Baba Batra 9a). Farmers are to leave the gleanings of the harvest and the corner of their fields for the poor. On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, while fasting and praying for a good year, Jews are told through the words of the Prophet Isaiah, that fasting and prayers are not enough; they must work to end oppression and “share thy bread with the hungry.” (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Hence, could God possibly favor a diet that involves the feeding of about 70 percent of the grain grown in the U.S. to animals destined for slaughter while an estimated nine million people die annually due to hunger and its effects and over 10 percent of the world’s people are chronically malnourished? Using grain and similar resources to directly feed human beings rather than in the production of meat and other animal products could greatly reduce hunger.
While not a pacifist religion, Judaism mandates a special obligation to work for peace. While many commandments require a certain time and/or place for their performance, Jews are to “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:15). According to the Talmudic sages, one of God’s names is shalom (peace,) peace encompasses all blessings, and the first words of the Messiah will be a message of peace. While the Israelites did go forth to battle, and not always in defensive battles, they always yearned for the time when “nations shall beat their swords into plowshares … and not learn war any more (Micah 4:3,4). Since the sages taught that one of the roots of war is the lack of grain and other resources, could God support a diet that involves the wasteful use of land, water, energy, and other agricultural commodities, and thus perpetuates the widespread hunger and poverty that frequently lead to instability and war?
The above arguments strongly indicate that veganism is the diet most consistent with Jewish values and God’s preferences. If Jews shifted to this diet, it would encourage many others to follow their example and result in a healthier, more compassionate, just, peaceful, and environmentally sustainable world.