Prof. Yael Shemesh, Bible Department, Bar-Ilan University
I have read the words of Prof. Richard Schwartz, an observant Jewish vegan who dedicates his life to promoting the vegetarian-vegan idea in accordance with Jewish values, as well as the words of Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld clearly demonstrating that he is a non-vegetarian. He even asks not to be preached to about stopping to consume meat.
I will begin with my bottom line impression – both are right. Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is right that Judaism is not a vegetarian religion and does not require its adherents to be vegetarians; however, Prof. Schwartz is right that a vegetarian-vegan diet fits Judaism’s values, for the reasons he has mentioned. Among those reasons, to me the most compelling is the abuse that animals undergo in the modern food industries, which stands in stark contrast to the halakhic requirement to be considerate of both the physical and the emotional needs of animals.
Unfortunately, Rabbi Schonfeld did not address this critical point at all. And even if Judaism allows eating meat, it does not allow the abuse of animals. This abuse in the present-day animal food industries is a game changer which requires us to reconsider our food choices. Ignoring the overcrowding, the genetic manipulations, the suffering that the animals go through at every moment of their lives due to the disregard for their most basic needs – negates Judaism’s teachings +regarding the prohibition of Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim.
In fact, even before referring to modern industrialization, one can sense the dissatisfaction expressed in our sources regarding the consumption of meat, which the Bible associates with lust (Gen. 11; Deuteronomy 12:20). Therefore, Rabbi Yosef Albo explains the permission given retrospectively to eating meat as follows:”The Torah took into account people’s evil inclination and thus allowed it, just as it allowed to take a beautiful captive woman at wartime” (Sefer Ha’Ikarim, article 3, chapter 15). This is also the opinion of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (Ein Aya, Brachot 6, 65).
I was therefore amazed at Rabbi Schoenfeld’s assertion that Rabbi Kook did not consider vegetarianism an ideal, while it is well known and documented that Rabbi Kook expressed strong moral reservations regarding meat consumption, and saw vegetarianism as an ideal for the future to come. Moreover, he even expressed strong moral reservations as to the use of milk and wool, which he considered “the animals’ natural property.” He defined their use as “robbery stemming from the force of the powerful over the weak” (The Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace).
I agree with Moshe Nachmani, director of Or HaOrot Organization for the Research of Rabbi Kook’s writings and history, who has concluded that if Rabbi Kook were alive today he would oppose eating meat, due both to the animals’ shocking conditions in modern food industries, which did not exist in his time, and to the significant ecological damage this industry causes, as well as all the other reasons Prof. Schwartz has explained. This conclusion also emerges from what Rabbi Kook wrote about the justification he found for eating meat, which was based on the medical knowledge of his times, that meat was necessary for human health, and in his words: “If there were any food to replace meat in nutrition, slaughtering animals would be considered unacceptable, since man could leave the animal alive and be nourished from other food. Indeed, the nourishing power found in animal flesh for body and mind is not found in anything else” (Ein Aya, Blessings Chapter 6, 65). Clearly, according to medical knowledge today this justification is null and void.
In his commentary on the commandment in Leviticus 19:2 “You shall be holy” Ramban remarked that a person may be a “villain within the permission of the Torah” and abound in intercourse, wine-drinking and devouring of meat, on the pretext that these actions are not forbidden by the Torah.
However, in light of the serious problems of the animal food industry nowadays, Prof. Schwartz’s position regarding meat consumption takes on new validity. Hiding behind the claim that eating meat was not forbidden, while completely ignoring the present context which Prof. Schwartz has explained, which did not exist until the Industrial Revolution – is not the Judaism that strives to rectify the world and do the moral, good and right thing in the eyes of God to which I connect. Thus I thank Prof. Schwartz for presenting the relevant and beautiful face of Judaism.