In Parashat Re’eh the Torah takes a deep plunge into kashrut. It enumerates the animals that are kosher alongside those that aren’t. Let’s ask a more general question: What does the Torah feel about eating meat altogether? Can one be a vegetarian and still be observant? Perhaps we should ask: Can one be a carnivore and still be observant?

At first glance, it seems that meat is an integral part of Judaism. There are certain mitzvot that require the eating of meat. For instance, on the first night of Pesach a person is required to eat an olive’s volume[1] of meat from the Korban Pesach, which comes from either a lamb or a goat. A person who does not eat from the Korban Pesach warrants the Karet penalty, perhaps the most severe punishment in the entire Torah, in which a person’s soul is somehow “cut off” from the rest of the nation. As opposed to the mitzvah of sukkah, in which people who suffer from extreme heat or cold are excused from the mitzvah, there are no waivers with Korban Pesach. Even if eating meat disgusts a person to the point that just thinking about it makes him nauseous, he must still eat from the Korban Pesach.

What about eating meat when a mitzvah is not involved? What does the Torah think about eating chulent on Shabbos or having a couple of burgers at a tail-gating party before the game? The answer is the subject of debate. A number of authoritative Rabbis support vegetarianism. The earliest and most famous of these Rabbis is Rav Yosef Albo. Rav Albo, writing in “Sefer Ha’Ikarim”, asserts that the consumption of meat separates man from his emotions and turns him into a cold-blooded killer. His soul becomes hardened and he finds it increasingly difficult to become attuned to holiness. It is absolutely critical to understand that Rav Albo would never have joined PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) because the value of the lives of man and animal can never be equated. Rav Albo writes that “…such thinking is not only morally erroneous, but repugnant” and that Cain suffered from this mind-set. When he saw Abel bring an animal sacrifice, he thought that Abel was acting immorally. Cain responded as if Abel had murdered a human and so he killed him in retribution. Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook is another supporter of vegetarianism. Writing in “Hazon HaTzimchonut v’HaShalom” (Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace), Rav Kook extols the virtues of vegetarianism while at the same time warning that the world is not yet ready to stop eating meat[2]. Rav Kook’s reason for not eating meat stems from the teachings of Rav Albo, that eating meat has an adverse effect on a person’s spirituality. Rav Kook’s reasoning against the application of vegetarianism also reflects the teachings of Rav Albo. Rav Kook argues that when man and animal are equated, man may reason that he is on the same moral plane as animals, leading man to act like an animal. This barbarism would lead to man acting callously with regard to human welfare and life, while simultaneously being cautious of animal welfare and life. If animal and man are equal then there is no real difference between the killing of a man and the swatting of a fly.

When a person reads of the goings-on at the world’s largest kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, the words of Rav Albo and Rav Kook resonate: Here is a report from the internet: Cows remained conscious for as long as two minutes after their throats were cut open. A worker ripped into conscious cows’ throats with a metal node hook in order to make the bleeding process go faster. Cows were handled roughly, resulting in fear and stress just prior to slaughter. Workers removed identification tags by mutilating live cows’ ears. A person who can read these lines and then eat a steak and not be repulsed has a callous soul, indeed.

There is another way of looking at vegetarianism. Before its discussion on kashrut, the Torah introduces the concept of “Basar Ta’avah” [Devarim 12:20-21]: “When Hashem expands your boundary, as He has spoken to you, and you say, ‘I will eat meat,’ because your soul desires (t’aveh) to eat meat, you may eat meat, according to every desire of your soul. If the [Beit HaMikdash] will be distant from you, you may slaughter of your cattle and of your sheep, which Hashem has given you, as I have commanded you, and you may eat in your cities, according to every desire of your soul.” The Talmud in Tractate Hullin [16a] brings a disagreement between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael. According to Rabbi Akiva, these verses teach that an animal must be ritually slaughtered in order for it to be considered kosher[3]. Rabbi Yishmael, on the other hand, explains that until this law was given, meat could only be eaten if the animal was offered as a sacrifice. These verses come to permit the eating of meat from animals that were not consecrated as sacrifices. The phrase “Basar Ta’avah” means “eating meat just because it tastes great”[4].

The Ramban in his explanation on Vayikra [17:2] expounds upon the explanation of Rabbi Yishmael. When Am Yisrael lived in the desert nobody lived more than a couple of kilometers from the Mishkan. If a person had a sudden craving for a burger, he could grab a sheep, hop over to the Mishkan, offer a sacrifice, and in a few minutes the burgers would be roasting on the barbeque. In the Land of Israel, however, people are more dispersed and most live too far from the Beit HaMikdash to offer sacrifices whenever they have a craving for meat. And so the Torah must detach meat from its sacrificial syntax.

Last week we went to a shiur given by Rabbi Hagai Londin. The topic of the shiur was “Judaism and Aesthetics”. The question was whether beauty is good for the Jews or bad for the Jews. On the one hand, the Torah is effusive in its description of the beauty of the Matriarchs[5]. Similarly, the Talmud in Tractate Bava Batra [4a] boasts that whoever has never seen the [second] Beit HaMikdash has never seen a beautiful building in his life. On the other hand, King Solomon writes in the Book of Parables [31:30] “Charm is false and beauty is futile”. Rav Londin reconciled the two opposing views by linking beauty to holiness. When beauty is connected with holiness, as in the Beit HaMikdash, then it becomes a positive force, serving to amplify the spiritual effect of the holiness. But when beauty is disconnected from holiness, it takes on a life of its own and becomes something that has a nearly unlimited destructive potential.

We can reflect Rav Londin’s thoughts onto the Ramban. Eating meat was originally limited to sacrifices in order to ensure that the aesthetic value of the meat remained attached to holiness. The dispersal of Am Yisrael, albeit a natural result of entering the Land of Israel, forced the Torah to separate meat from holiness, making the act of eating meat one fraught with spiritual danger. The way to counter this danger is by reattaching meat to holiness. How do we go about doing this? The Rambam, writing in Hilchot Yom Tov [6:18], gives us some direction: “[On a holiday] men should eat meat and drink wine, for there is no happiness without partaking of meat, nor is there happiness without partaking of wine. When a person eats and drinks [in celebration of a holiday], he is obligated to feed converts, orphans, widows, and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is [not indulging in] rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather the rejoicing of his belly.” While we no longer offer sacrifices, we do have other mitzvot with which to bind the eating of meat, among them Shabbat, holidays, and guests. As long as we use meat to elevate our souls and not to degrade them, feel free to throw those burgers on the grill.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Adi bat Ravit.

[1] The size of an “olive” is the subject of debate. Some say that an “olive” is the same size as an olive. Others assert that an “olive” is the size of a small horse.

[2] Rav Kook ate a symbolic small amount of chicken on Shabbat.

[3] The laws of ritual slaughter are discussed in intricate detail in Tractate Hullin.

[4] Rav J.B. Soloveichik looks at things more insidiously, interpreting the word “ta’avah” as “lust”, and calling the desire to eat meat “an illicit demand”. He writes in “The Emergence of Ethical Man” that with “the insistence upon flesh, [man’s] lusty carnal desire arouses the Divine wrath.”

[5] Other than Leah.