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Richard H. Schwartz
Vegan, climate change,and social justice activist

The Vegetarian Views of the Leading 20th Century Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveichik

Rabbi Joseph Ber (Yosef Dov, in Hebrew) Soloveitchik, affectionately known as “the Rav” by his wide circle of colleagues, students, and other admirers, is widely regarded as one of the leading religious philosophers, Talmud scholars, and rabbinic leaders of the 20th century. He related Torah values to both world culture and secular studies, and promoted Jewish interaction with the broader community — while stressing the importance of preserving the purity of halakhah (religious law) and basic Torah teachings.

The Rav was considered a seminal figure in the Modern Orthodox community. During about 50 years of leadership, he addressed various religious challenges, ordained almost 2,000 Orthodox rabbis, and served as a mentor, guide, and role model for tens of thousands of Jews.

Because of the great respect for the Rav and his substantial influence among so many in the Modern Orthodox community, his views on vegetarianism are very important to consider.

His strong support is indicated in his statements in the posthumously published book, The Emergence of Ethical Man, edited by Michael S. Berger [Ktav]. For example, the Rav stated, “There is a distinct reluctance, almost an unwillingness, on the part of the Torah to grant man the privilege to consume meat. Man as an animal-eater is looked at askance by the Torah. There are definitive vegetarian tendencies in the Bible.”

Based on Genesis 1:29, God’s initial vegan dietary regimen, the Rav indicated that people were initially meant to eat plant foods. But, people overreached and “acquired new drives and began to display new demands,” so “God …  gave in and compromised with man,” and permitted the eating of meat. Thus, according to the Rav, “Man-animal became life-killer, an animal-eater. He became bloodthirsty and flesh-hungry,” and “a  concession was made [by God] to an evil drive.”

The Rav pointed out that, consistent with the concession God made to allow people to eat meat, the Torah displays a dislike for meat eaters, and associates the strong desire for meat with ta’avah, “lust, ” which the Rav considered an “illicit demand,” something “repulsive and brutish.”

He stressed that when the Israelites cried out for meat in the desert, God reluctantly supplied quail, but while the people began to chew the flesh between their teeth, a great plague broke out and many people died at a place named Kivrot ha-Ta’avah, “the Graves of Lust.” 

When the Israelites were in the desert after the exodus from Egypt, they could only eat meat if it was part of a sacrificial service. Later, when their borders were expanded, permission to eat meat was expanded, but the meat was called basar ta’avah, the “meat of lust.” According to the Rav, “while the Torah “tolerates [meat-eating], it is far from fully approving it.”

In taking this position, the Rav echoes kindred sentiments in the commentaries of a number of illustrious medieval authorities (Rishonim), including Rav Joseph Albo and Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, as well as later authorities (Acharonim) Rabbi Ephraim Lunschitz, Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar, and in the twentieth century, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook. (These sources have been translated and discussed in The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism, by Rabbi David Sears). Therefore, the Rav’s view cannot be dismissed as marginal or without significant precedent.

In summary, according to Rav Soloveitchik, vegetarianism is the Torah’s ideal — and it follows that to be consistent with this ideal, Jews should be vegetarians. However, he acknowledged that, because of the lust for flesh, most Jews take advantage of the Torah’s reluctant concession to eat meat.

There are some mysteries associated with the Rav’s vegetarian views. One is that, despite them, he himself was not a vegetarian. Also, he apparently never presented his strong vegetarian views in any of the many classes he conducted, talks he gave, and articles and books he published. Therefore, his colleagues and students were unaware of his vegetarian views until his notes on the issue were found and published posthumously. Perhaps the Rav kept his vegetarian views to himself since he was not a practicing vegetarian.

This makes me wonder if the Rav would have become a vegetarian, or even a vegan, if he lived longer and learned about the current increases in plant-based eating as people become more aware of the negative effects of animal-based diets on animals, human health, the environment, including climate change and the very inefficient use of resources.

I also wonder if the Rav’s colleagues, students, and other admirers might shift toward plant-based diets once they become aware of the Rav’s strong criticism of animal-based diets.

Why is this important? Several reasons:

  • Jews would be adopting the diet most consistent with basic Jewish teachings on preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, and helping hungry people.
  • Jews would be showing the relevance of Judaism’s eternal teachings by applying them to our diets.
  • Jews would be healthier, because animal-based diets have been linked to heart disease, several types of cancer, and other life-threatening diseases.
  • Jews would be contributing toward a healthier planet, since animal-based agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, soil erosion, rapid species extinction, deforestation, water pollution, and many other environmental threats. Recent reports have argued that the only possibility of averting a climate catastrophe is through a society-wide shift to plant-based diets.
  • It would, according to some Jewish sages, hasten the coming of the Messiah when, according to Isaiah 11:6-9,  “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, …, the lion shall eat straw like the ox, … and no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of God’s holy mountain.”

As one of the most influential Jews in modern history, if the Rav’s impact expanded to convincing many Jews to become vegetarians, or even vegans, it would arguably be his greatest contribution, because it would result in a healthier, more compassionate, just, peaceful, and environmentally sustainable world.

About the Author
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal our Imperiled Planet, and Mathematics and Global Survival, and over 200 articles and 25 podcasts at JewishVeg.com/schwartz. He is President Emeritus of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) and President of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV). He is associate producer of the 2007 documentary “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.” He is also a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Staten Island, which is part of the City University of New York.
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