Our ‘Permission’ to Eat Meat

Parshat Noach, which gives us the very symbol of peace. (Royalty-free image from Shutterstock.)

It seems, at first glance, to be a cruel joke, like I’ve been set up to fail. Fail miserably.

What I’m referring to is the fact that every year, on the Shabbat of Parshat Noach, I’m invited to give the Dvar Torah at a synagogue, a different synagogue each year.

What’s the problem with that?

We’ll, I’m the executive director of Jewish Veg, and Noach happens to be the parsha when we’re first given the permission to eat meat.

Over the years, I’m sure many of the committed carnivores in the pews were relishing the chance to see me squirm. After all, it says right there in Noach, in Genesis 9:3, “Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat.”

OK, Mr. Jewish Veg, let’s see you talk your way out of that one. Gotcha.

I hate to disappoint anyone, but the reality is, I love speaking in synagogues during Parshat Noach, and here’s why:

The permission to eat meat is framed negatively, to put it mildly.

Consider first what the Torah says immediately before Genesis 9:3. You know those animals, the ones who were created to provide companionship to humankind in Genesis 2? Well, those same animals, according to Genesis 9:2, will now fear and dread you.

You don’t need to be a yeshiva graduate to understand what’s going on here. If we’re going to be sticking knives into the throats of innocent animals, our furry, feathered and finned friends will be none too pleased with us.

Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the towering rabbinic figures of the 20th Century, weighed in on this very problem in his book “The Emergence of Ethical Man”:

“Man‑animal became a life‑killer, an animal‑eater. He became bloodthirsty and flesh‑hungry. Is the Torah very happy about this change? Somehow we intuitively feel the silent tragic note that pervades the whole chapter. The Torah was compelled to concede defeat to human nature that was corrupted by man himself and willy‑nilly approved the radical change in him.”

Then consider what comes immediately after Genesis 9:3 – the first restrictions on meat-eating. “You must not eat flesh with the life-blood in it.”

In Judaism, we can eat fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds without limit or boundaries. But the permission to eat meat is accompanied by a slew of restrictions, known as the kosher laws. This stark dichotomy is a clear reminder that there is a moral problem with consuming animal products.

In Genesis 9:5, we encounter the prohibition on killing our fellow human beings. This is not a non-sequitur. We see that God is concerned that shedding the blood of animals will desensitize us to violence in general.

Centuries before the onset of factory farming and its insanely cruel practices, the renowned Rabbi Yosef Albo (1380-1444) wrote:

“Killing animals involves cruelty and anger and rage. Eating meat makes the soul thick, murky and occluded.”

One needs only examine our violence-loving society – its mass shootings, its video games, its blood-soaked movies and television shows – to realize that the rabbis’ worst fears have been realized.

The vegan movement is trying to bring about a nonviolent, peaceful world. Please don’t mock us. Join us.

But I digress. We’re not done with Parshat Noach.

Still in Genesis 9, we find what’s known as the Noahide Covenant. God says:

“As for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you; and with every living creature that is with you, the fowl, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that go out of the ark, even every beast of the earth.”

God, in essence, is saying that although the permission to eat meat has been given, animals remain objects of Divine care and concern, just as humans are. Meat-eating, the Torah states here and elsewhere, emanates from human lust, not from Divine intent or will.

Keep in mind, we still haven’t left Genesis 9. This is all connected.

And here’s the kicker: The Noahide Covenant and its inclusion of animals is repeated five times in the chapter. It’s supposed to get our attention. We were supposedly created in the Divine image. We too are supposed to care about animals.

By this point in my Dvar Torah, the carnivores are the ones squirming, not me.

That’s OK. Everyone reading this can transition to an animal-free diet, and align themselves with God’s plan for humankind and with Judaism’s highest values.

About the Author
Jeffrey Spitz Cohan is the executive director of Jewish Veg, an international nonprofit organization whose mission is to inspire and assist our fellow Jews to transition to plant-based diets.
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