“An atheist, a vegan and a cross fitter walk into a bar. I only know because they told everyone within two minutes”. This quote was posted on a sign outside a restaurant. It’s a telling reflection of some of the hot issues of our lives today: religion, veganism, fitness. It’s also a sharp insight into the intense debate around these issues and how fanaticism or extremism isn’t restricted to what we believe in but also what we eat and how we treat our bodies. (Cross Fit is a training philosophy that concentrates on cardiovascular fitness “in a hard-core and encouraging environment”).
In this article I’m going to focus on veganism and its’ lesser brother vegetarianism and especially what the Torah says about them and the consumption of meat. Full disclosure: I’m a flexitarian! A person who favours a vegetarian diet but occasionally eats meat or fish. Even then, I’m not a frum flexitarian since I tend to eat fish more regularly than occasionally which may actually make me more of a pescatarian: someone who doesn’t really eat meat but does eat fish. For some of my friends this fine pilpul or tortuous Talmudic logic makes me a pestarian or simply a pest about food…
Let’s be straight: Judaism is not a vegetarian religion and certainly not a vegan faith. Many of the Torah and Rabbinic texts are, in fact, pretty favourable about the consumption of meat. A well-known adage (which is a combination of Talmudic texts) is that there is no rejoicing (“Ein simcha”) without meat and wine. Many of my congregants – especially the men – wouldn’t dream of a simcha without a shtikel fleish (a piece of meat).
Nevertheless, there is a growing body of individuals who argue that meat–eating is incompatible with Jewish values. They reason that the pain inflicted on animals in the modern food industry, the environmental damage caused by the meat industry and the health problems associated with the consumption of meat (especially eating too much of the “wrong” kind of meat) all call for a re-assessment of what the Torah’s perspective would and should be today.
These are important considerations. The Torah is unequivocal in its approach to animals being treated humanely and fairly. It is entrenched in Halacha or Jewish Law under the rubric of tzaar baalei chaim, causing suffering to animals. Two of the classic cases in the Torah are relieving the distress of a donkey which is overburdened (Exodus 23:5) and not hitching an ox and a donkey to your plow at the same time (Deuteronomy 22:10) since their differing strengths would cause pain to the donkey.
Notwithstanding this, the Torah permits the consumption of meat which seems contradictory. In fact at the time of Creation, Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat meat and had a strictly vegan diet. Rabbi Kook, First Chief Rabbi of Israel who was a champion of vegetarianism writes he can’t conceive how a compassionate God would enact an “eternal law” that the human race can only survive by shedding the blood of animals. He calls it an affront to our moral sensibility. I don’t think Rav Kook wrote about the environmental damage caused by our industrialisation of meat production (which is a more recent phenomena). I do believe he would consider it an important moral issue.
So how do we square the Torah’s approval of our meat-eating habits with its disapproval of damaging our ecology, causing distress to our animals, harming our bodies?
Firstly, it’s important to recognise that even while the Torah allowed a meat diet, the rabbis suggested it be one of balance and moderation. In this week’s Daf Yomi Talmudic discussion the Rabbis teach that proper or ethical behaviour demands that “one should not eat meat except to satisfy a craving” (Chullin 84a) and only if one can afford it. Furthermore, they recommend we only eat meat “from one Sabbath eve to the next” (Ibid) ie only on Shabbat or on a festive occasion.
Secondly, the Torah only permitted man to eat meat as a concession to human frailty. As humanity descended into violence and brutality, God recommended that we first work on our human relationships and then turn to improving our relationship with animals. Rabbi Kook presciently observed that the moral level of the world is so distorted that some people have the tendency to be good to animals and bad to people (many in the Nazi party loved their pet dogs). He suggests they appease their conscience by treating animals kindly and then go out to rob, slander and kill. It’s only in the future that the world will be morally elevated and we will treat animals better perhaps as equals – the Kabbalists apparently say that animals will evolve to the point where they will talk and embrace moral virtues. The prophet Isaiah’s famous vision for Messianic times is one in which “the wolf and the lamb shall live together… and the lion shall eat straw like the ox” (Isaiah 11:6-9). Peter Singer would approve of that!
I would like to suggest that we don’t wait for the Mashiach but prepare the way right now. We can’t afford to blunder our way through life damaging and destroying the world we’re entrusting to our children and grandchildren. We dare not be neglectful custodians of this precious blue planet God has gifted to us. Let’s invest our energy and appetite in improving our diet and healing our earth…