As a child, I ate at New York delis, and enjoyed it. Like many people, I came to see a six-inch tall corn beef sandwich as the quintessential Jewish food. Eating that sandwich felt Jewish. Indeed, most Jews eat meat. Some eat copious amounts of it.
Yet, while I continue to like the smell of meat on the grill or a pot of beef cholent, I have come to reconsider the meat on my fork, based on a gap that I sense between Jewish ethics and meat production. Genesis chapter 1, verse 29 makes clear that the prescribed diet for people is plant-based: “And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you [the human being] every seed-bearing vegetation, which is upon the surface of the entire earth, and every tree that has seed bearing fruit; it will be yours for food.”
In the beginning, God established a vegetarian diet for people, as understood by most rabbinic commentators. For the first ten human generations, we were not meant to to kill animals for food. This was a period of about 1,500 years, or over a quarter of human history, according to the Bible. Following the moral decline of Noah’s generation, God eventually permitted people to eat meat.
Since loving-kindness is the substrate of existence, and animals experience pain, could it be that God allowed us to consume meat knowing that we would need to kill? Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, asked in “A Vision for Vegetarianism and World Peace,” “Is it possible to conceive that a highly valued moral virtue, which had already existed as a part of the human legacy, should be lost forever?” He wrote in 1903 that in some future time, people would expand their spiritual awareness and return to the original Divine vision for a plant-based diet. Many rabbis in our times and through the ages have questioned and critiqued meat eating. Rav Shlomo Efraim Lunchitz (the Kli Yakar), wrote “It is far more appropriate for people not to eat meat.” In our times, hundreds of rabbis have become vegan or vegetarian.
Yet, in the past century, our consumption of meat has increased dramatically. The desire for meat created a vast and growing (kosher) meat industry. Empire Kosher Poultry is the largest kosher chicken company in the United States. There, each of the twelve kosher slaughterers (shochet) on duty, kills a chicken every six seconds, as the JTA reported. (Kosher slaughter of chickens supervised by the Israeli Rabbinate is even faster—likely about three seconds per chicken.) Twelve shochets on duty times one chicken every six seconds adds up to 60,000 chickens each day; 240,000 each week; a million each month; 50 million a year, and 500 million in a decade. During a human lifetime, billions of chickens will be slaughtered at this one kosher plant.
The name ‘Empire’ is appropriate, although industrial animal raising and slaughter and kosher, ethical meat are a contradiction in terms. Why a contradiction? The act of shechita, kosher animal slaughter, is a mitzva (commandment) and therefore has a blessing that precedes it. Yet the vast majority of Jews do not say this blessing to fulfill this mitzva. Instead, we rely on others we do not know to slaughter the animals we consume. Yet, the mitzvot are not intended to be mass produced and heaped on the shoulders of one person to satisfy the consumer’s demand.
Israel has the highest per capita consumption of poultry in the world (57 kilograms per person per year, based on OECD data). Is this what the Creator of the world intended? Rav Kook weighs in: “The failure of human nature to fulfill a fine and noble sentiment – refraining from taking the life of living beings for human needs and pleasures – is a universal moral shortcoming.“
Jewish law forbids ‘tzar ba’alei chaim,’ causing pain to animals. Keeping a chicken in a small metal cage for its entire life should be considered significant pain, especially in light of studies indicating that birds do experience pain. This past July was among the hottest months every recorded in Israel, and millions of chickens in Israel sat painfully in metal cages with no air conditioning in the heat of the day. Our disconnect from this reality—never seeing chickens eye to eye—is what enables most people to consume them without a blink of an eye. When I passed a hen warehouse outside of Jerusalem and saw the hens, each confined to her cage, I was revolted. Can I live in integrity knowing that my personal consumption creates this reality for one hen?
There are winners and losers in factory farming. The winners are corporations, their senior management, and shareholders who profit from the raising and sale of tens of billions of animals each year. Other winners are the people who eat meat, eggs, and dairy, at least at the moment of consumption. They enjoy food that tastes good and provides ample protein and nutrients. The losers are those same people who will feel the health effects of their consumption.
The animals that suffer are among the losers of mass consumption, as well as current and future generations of people and all species that will feel the brunt of climate change, air, and water pollution caused by industrial animal production. Meat and dairy production has a disproportionate effect in causing climate change, because the methane released by cows is such a potent greenhouse gas. It’s not just us changing the climate– it’s the animals we factory farm.
Rav Kook envisioned an altogether different relation between people and animals. He wrote, “Then, with all its store of wisdom, its collective insight and experience, humanity will turn toward its brothers on lower levels of Creation, the mute and the downtrodden, including the animal kingdom. And they will seek means to share wisdom with them, to instruct and enlighten them according to their abilities, thus to elevate them from level to level. Beyond all doubt, humanity will share the enlightenment of the Torah with the animal kingdom, affecting their physical development and, all the more so, their ethical and spiritual development… All beings shall receive a new, exalted form – a new world.”
The Book of Proverbs teaches, “The righteous person is sensitive to the feelings of animals” (12:10). How can we begin to put this into practice? First, we might want to start by looking the chicken in the eye, by finding out where it lives, and giving it a visit. Second, learn more about Jewish teachings on compassion towards animals.
Third, try to decrease the frequency of eating meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs. Try a plant-based diet one day a week. What would our next Shabbat dinner look like without meat? Removing the animal from the food groups has been a wonderful experience in my life that opened doors to new foods, spices and even cultures. Through awareness of what we buy and put in our mouth, we can live out our religious values, demonstrate compassion to animals, and help bring our world to a more redeemed state.