Butchering of sources in a failed attempt to demonstrate that Judaism demands vegetarianism: An analysis of Asa Keiser’s booklet Velifnei Iver

The phenomena of vegetarianism and veganism are on the rise in Israel, particularly amongst the young. This lifestyle is adopted for a variety of reasons including health, environmentalism, and ethics – all honorable values which may lead one to such a diet. It is troubling, however, when vegetarianism/veganism is aggressively promoted with the claim that Judaism mandates such a lifestyle. Asa Keisar, his booklet, and his lectures have received a great deal of attention in both the Hebrew and English press (twice featured in the Jerusalem Post in December 2015) in the last year as he has gone on a mission to convince Torah observant Jews that if they are true to their beliefs they must become at least vegetarian if not vegan. As Jews, we are proud of the fact that Judaism was one of the earliest legal systems to advocate for a balanced treatment of animals. But the overwhelming gestalt of Judaism is such that meat consumption is normative and acceptable.

Keisar, via public lectures, a small, free booklet, and posters has gone on a massive campaign to convince Israelis to buy his message. In support of his contention, he marshals traditional Jewish sources that he contends support of his position. Even a cursory glance at his booklet and videos will reveal a serious misrepresentation of the sources, as we plan to show.      First two caveats. One – the corpus of Torah literature is vast, and if one dives into the entire sea including the Bible, Talmud, midrashim, halachik codes and all their commentaries, spanning over 2000 years, one can in fact find pearls to support almost any position. But will these truly represent the message of Judaism? Will they sound different if placed back in context? These are important points to consider when perusing the quotes in Keisar’s 50 page booklet, “Velifnei Iver – [do not put a stumbling block] in front of the blind”.

Second – just to be clear, if one wants to be a vegetarian it is possible that according to halacha that is acceptable. Furthermore, it is true that there is an halachic imperative, most likely Biblical in nature, against causing unnecessary pain and suffering to animals, a prohibition known as tza’ar ba’alei chaim. But that does not necessarily add up to a requirement to become vegetarian. And that does not justify misrepresenting and distorting Torah sources. The same Torah that prohibited tza’ar ba’alei chaim permitted the consumption of meat. Keisar is preying on a trusting public who will usually not look up the sources he quotes. Having checked a few of the sources, herein are some examples of sources that were twisted, taken out of context, and misrepresented.

No joy without meat

An entire chapter of Keisar’s booklet (p. 33-36) is devoted to disproving the “myth” that on the holidays one is required to celebrate with meat and wine. While Keisar is accurate that the oft-quoted saying “there is no joy except with meat and wine” does not exist in that precise formulation in the Talmud, he fails to mention that the Rambam (Hilchot Yom Tov 6:17-18) has an awfully similar phrase: “there is no joy without meat and there is no joy without wine.” Yet Keisar, in his summary (p.51) proudly announces that he taught the readership that there is no source that simcha (joy) is through meat when there is no Temple. With all due respect, multiple sources to the contrary are cited in the responsa written by former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Yechaveh Da’at 6:33). As was Rav Ovadia Yosef’s style, he brings an exhaustive list of sources (from the Talmud through later responsa), all of which Keisar neglected to quote. Rav Ovadia, after quoting sources in both directions, concludes exactly the opposite of Keisar – in his opinion there is a biblical commandment even today to enjoy meat on the holidays. In the name of intellectual honesty, Keisar might have mentioned the complete picture instead of pretending it is all one-sided.

Another example where the complete picture is lacking is Keisar’s (inaccurate) citing (p. 10) a quote from Rav Yaakov Weil (early 15th century) suggesting that wearing leather clothing is not ideal. Rav Weil bases this idea on the verse (Psalms 145:9) that God’s mercy extends to all of His creatures. Conspicuously absent from Keisar’s work, however, is the fact that the Rema himself, when quoting (OC 223:6) this reason in the name of Rav Weil, says that it is very weak and rejects it!

Is eating meat only a concession?

In what would appear to be a very strong proof for Keisar’s contention but turns out to be one of his most egregious twisting of sources, Keisar (p. 35) purports to quote the Sdei Chemed (19th century Jerusalem/Hebron; Rabbi Chaim Hezekiah Medini) who cites R. Chaim Benveniste (17th century Turkey) who brings the very important 16th century Lithuanian R. Solomon Luria (Maharshal) as saying that today we only eat meat as a b’diavad, a concession, relying on a position of the Ran (one of the most important halachik authorities, the 14th century Rabbenu Nissim of Girona). This indeed seems quite a strong proof to his position – that it is only because of some unspecified position of the Ran that we permit ourselves to consume meat. Wow. What might that position be? It is certainly worth looking up the original sources.

The Maharshal was commenting on a section of Talmud that warns against eating too much meat. Why? Not for the reasons Keisar would want you to believe. Rather the reason is lest one become impoverished due to the high cost of meat. However, Rav Yochanan, viewing meat as important, opines that even a person with only a little bit of money should eat meat. And Rav Nachman goes out on a limb and says that in his opinion, even if a person has to borrow, he should do so and purchase meat. Keisar apparently misinterpreted the abbreviation for Rav Nachman (R”N) as Rabbenu Nissim. He also apparently misunderstood the context. This is a section of Talmud that was quoted throughout the ages to encourage the eating of meat to the point of borrowing so as to purchase meat. Keisar misquoted it and presented it as a proof that meat eating is only permitted by Judaism as a less than ideal (“b’di’avad”). The crucial word “b’di’avad” appears nowhere in the original source, Keisar misattributed the authorities, and inverted the connation of the sources, which actually encourages the eating of meat. This is not simply a matter of misunderstanding an acronym and writing Ran instead of Rav Nachman, an error that can be corrected. Rather this is quoting a source that encourages going into overdraft so as to eat meat and claiming it advocates the avoidance of meat.

An animal witnessing slaughter

The pamphlet opens (p. 7) with quotes from the 19th century Ben Ish Chai and Aruch Hashulchan that one may not slaughter one animal in sight of another because of the prohibition of tza’ar ba’alei chaim.  And since, according to Keisar, this is how all meat is slaughtered today, all meat should be prohibited. While those are actual quotes, context is again lacking. That halacha was first articulated only in 1818! Hillel, Rashi, and the Ba’al Shem Tov never heard of that law and would likely have had no problem slaughtering one animal in front of another. In the 19th century, rabbis sensitive to animal suffering assumed that observing the slaughter of a conspecific animal causes such suffering to the observing animal that such an act should be prohibited. Today, most rabbinic authorities think otherwise, as do scientists. Anthropomorphic projection is not always accurate. Based on recent studies, the British Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) believes that the law in England and Wales should be amended to permit slaughtering sheep in sight of other sheep. Furthermore, contrary to what Keisar writes, in most modern cattle plants, due to the restraining devices employed, bovine do not see other animals slaughtered. Thus, even if he were to worry about an animal seeing his cohort slaughtered, that is not standard practice in today’s beef plants and would not be a reason to avoid beef.

Sacrifices

Keisar invests great effort (p. 21-29) to show that animal sacrifices were a historical concession to a weak people that needed to be weaned from idol worship and that sacrifices have no intrinsic value in Judaism. Here too Keisar does a great job of mining a few select quotes.  And again it is misleading. He starts by citing the Rambam in the Guide for the Perplexed, where sacrifices are indeed presented as described above. Perplexingly, he does not quote the Rambam’s other major works. In the Rambam’s halachic work, Mishneh Torah, also known as Yad HaChazakah, Rambam describes (Hilchot Melachim 11:1) what the Messiah will accomplish. Lo and behold, Rambam thought animal sacrifices are coming back. Rambam writes that the Messiah will build the Temple and gather in the dispersed Jews. Then, he says, laws will “be in effect as in the days of yore; sacrifices will be offered…”. Elsewhere (Hilchot Meilah 8:8) Rambam approvingly quotes the rabbinic adage that the world exists due to the merit of the sacrificial service. Rambam’s Yad is not a history book and it only includes laws that in his opinion are or will be relevant. Of the fourteen books that constitute the work, two (Avodah and Korbanot) are devoted entirely to sacrifices.

Keisar quotes (p. 28) the Meshech Chochmah’s seeming negative attitude towards sacrifices, but omits Meshech Chochmah’s introduction to Leviticus in which he explains that the position of the Rambam in the Moreh Nevuchim that sacrifices were a concession related only to sacrifices out of the Temple, but those brought in the Beit Hamikdash have an intrinsic value as described in great detail in the Yad, and will never be abolished.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook

As is typical in Jewish vegetarian polemics, Rav Kook is quoted extensively. And out of context. While Rav Kook believed that in the far distant future humans will reach an exalted level and animals will attain spiritual heights and at that point animal sacrifices may be abolished, he responded to Rav Chaim Hirschensohn (a little known early 20th century NJ rabbi), by stating that “And regarding sacrifices, it is more correct to believe that everything will return to its place, and God willing, be fulfilled when the redemption comes, and prophecy and the Divine spirit return to Israel” (Iggrot HaReiyah vol. 4, [Jerusalem, 1984], 23-5, letter 994; Rav Chaim Hirschensohn, Malki Bakodesh vol. 4 [Ramat Gan, Jerusalem], letter 1, p. gimmel). Needless to say, the vast majority of Jewish thinkers throughout the ages have believed that there is intrinsic value to sacrifices and that they will be reinstated. Many (e.g. Sefer Ha-manhig, Bnei Yissaschar, Ben Ish Chai, the Tiferet Shlomo, etc.) even believed there will be make up sacrifices for those that have been missed over the centuries.

Rav Kook is of course quoted in almost every chapter. He indeed expressed feelings of compassion towards all creatures. But nowhere in Keisar’s work is the complete truth stated. Rav Kook was not a vegetarian. He told his son not to be a vegetarian. And he did not believe that vegetarianism should currently be advocated for the masses. He specifically wrote against that. So too, there is a lengthy quote from Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (p. 45) which is brought apparently to indicate that he too believed that a good Jew should refrain from eating meat. It seems odd to bring a theoretical, philosophical quote when the author himself not only ate meat on Shabbat and yom tov, but was a strong proponent of eating turkey on Thanksgiving. To use either of these two Torah giants to support a position that they personally did not uphold seems misguided.

Tza’ar ba’alei Chaim: Stating it does make it so

While tza’ar ba’alei chaim is a serious prohibition, calling something such does not make it so. Keisar claims (p. 14) that killing day old male chickens (as part of the commercial production of eggs) violates the prohibition of tza’ar baa’lei chaim. It simply does not. They are killed in as painless a way as possible in a process that takes under a second. The same is true regarding killing spent layers. The overwhelming majority of halachik authorities rule that causing unnecessary pain to animals is prohibited, whereas killing an animal in the best way possible is not. It may bother Keisar that millions of chicken are killed that way, but it is not prohibited on the grounds of tza’ar ba’alei chaim and is permissible according to halachah. Keisar’s emotional distress does not make it prohibited. And for him to play on people’s emotions and call it halachik is disingenuous.

He accuses all commercial dairy farmers, egg farmers, and cattle raisers of violating tza’ar ba’alei chaim, and hence those who purchase such products are in violation of “strengthening the hand of a sinner”. But he fails to prove his assertion. No farmer wants unhealthy animals. A pained or even a stressed cow will produce less milk. Similarly regarding egg layers and growth of beef cattle. Stress hormones lead to poor tasting beef. There may be what to improve in the system, and there continue to be improvements, but overall, farmers want animals that are healthy and functioning well, as they are concerned about their animals and it is good for business. Thus, contrary to his assertion, farmers do not regularly violate the prohibition of tza’ar ba’alei chaim.

Separating a newborn from its mother

Keisar also creates prohibitions ex nihilo. He refers (p. 11-12) to a “prohibition of separating a newborn calf from its mother.” No such law actually exists. The verses (Exodus 22:29 and Leviticus 22:27) that seem to be his “source” teach the prohibition that only from day eight and onwards may an animal be brought as a sacrifice. While a newborn animal may not be sacrificed before day eight, it may be slaughtered and eaten (if we know it was the product of a full term pregnancy), and even the animal intended for sacrifice may be separated from its mother at any time, just not sacrificed. Keisar quotes a few commentaries who explain that the reason behind this rule is because of the sensitivity not to remove a newborn from its mother. While those quotes may be accurate, Keisar would have the reader believe that there is some sort of global prohibition to separate a mother and its newborn offspring. There is no such thing. Furthermore, most commentators who suggest a reason for the prohibition of sacrificing a newborn animal base it on the fact that a young animal is still of questionable viability. –It is worth noting that while it is true that on dairy farms the newborn calf is separated from its mother within the first day or two, the maternal secretion is not yet milk that will be sold to the public, but rather is colostrum that is fed to the calf. What Keisar does is truly shocking – he invented a new prohibition, and then, based on his fabricated prohibition, accuses the dairy industry of actions that would place them in breach of it!

God’s original plan

The booklet includes the assertion that God’s original plan was for humans to be vegetarian. It should be noted that Tosfot and Ralbag believe otherwise; they explain that Adam and Eve were permitted to eat the meat of animals that died and were only forbidden to kill animals for meat.  And it may be that they were allowed to kill animals for other purposes; after all Abel brought an animal sacrifice that pleased God (Genesis 4:4). This implies that prior to the flood, killing animals was permitted for ritual but not food purposes. There are, of course, opinions that antediluvian meat was prohibited. Nonetheless, the world today is post-Noah and the rules for the Garden of Eden should be irrelevant. In that vein, Keisar seems enamored by statements about “what if”. What if there was no flood? What if Moses had entered the Land of Israel? What will be after the Messiah? And he asserts that in all these scenarios meat would be prohibited. Those thought experiments are, of course, irrelevant. We are living in a period after Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, after the flood, Moses did not enter the Land, and unfortunately the Messiah has yet to arrive. Why does Keisar advocate acting as if we are pre-flood, why not pre sin of Adam and Eve and all walk around naked? The logical course of action is to live in the world in which we indeed live.

Bottom line on Judaism and meat

The bottom line is that Judaism does not require a vegetarian diet and does not hint at such. Keisar’s book (and lectures) are full of misquotes, out of context quotes, and distortions. Judaism permits the consumption of meat, but recommends moderation, just as in all of life’s pleasures, each person according to his level. As the Talmud famously stated (Yevamot 20a) “Kadesh atzmecha bamutar lach– sanctify yourself by limiting (even) those things that are permitted to you” (and highlighted by the Ramban (on Leviticus 19:2)). In addition, Judaism does require that animals be treated appropriately. However, this does not preclude using them for human benefit and thus, animal experimentation, wearing leather, the production of tfillin, and eating of meat are all absolutely permitted. Of course, care must be taken to ensure that no unnecessary pain or suffering is caused to the animal in these endeavors. In instances where this is not the case, there is an obligation to try to fix the system, but not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

What is discussed here is just a sampling of the problems with this intellectually dishonest presentation that is being marketed in writing and orally throughout the country. This article is not intended to be a complete refutation, but merely to offer a tasting of the methods used by those who would pervert Jewish sources in the service of their aim of converting people to their religion of vegetarianism.

If a Jew wants to be a vegetarian, that is his prerogative and it is probably permitted. If he wants to convert others to his belief, he should at least be honest that he is not accurately portraying Judaism. We live in a postdiluvian era in which the overwhelming position of Torah scholars is that meat consumption is permitted, and implying otherwise is a distortion of Judaism. While it may be that it is permissible to be a vegetarian, choosing such an option should not blur the qualitative difference that Judaism sees between man and beast in which man occupies a unique pedestal in the creation as a tzelem Elokim. It is the fear of such confusion, which is philosophically far, far worse than consumption of meat, which led Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook to refrain from advocating vegetarianism in the pre-messianic world. And in the future? When the lion indeed lies with the lamb (cf. Isaiah 11:6-9), that may be a Divine sign to humanity to give up eating meat. Until then …

About the Author
Ari Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar Ilan University. Also trained as a rabbi and shochet, he has a masters degree in Jewish history. He has written extensively on topics of Jewish history, culture, and traditions, in particular in his regular column (now running 20 years) in the OU magazine Jewish Action and in Mishpacha magazine.
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