First of all, there are great rabbis who are vegetarians, so from there we can see without complication that there is no terrible contradiction. But motives and mindsets are important and there is a lot to learn from pondering the issue, so let’s do it.
Many of the following arguments cannot be easily narrowly categorized so their placement under one or another heading may be quite arbitrary.
It can’t be, an omnivorous rabbi told me, that eating meat is unhealthy when the Torah permit it.
I will sidestep the simple rebuttal that the Torah permitting something does not mean that it’s the best option. The Torah also goes extra stringent on Jews who, by mistake, received too much change from another Jew – one must return it. But one doesn’t need to correct such a mistake by a Gentile. However, every rabbi agrees that though Jewish Law permits that, that doesn’t count (pun not intended) for when the Gentile discovers it or otherwise it gives a fuss. And in any case, it seems a better option to return it. We are an honest People and it is worth it to go by the highest standard, also when not obligated. So permission doesn’t always mean, recommendation.
But, let’s for argument’s sake say that the Torah advocates eating meat. Let’s be fair, it sometimes obligates. Workers in the Temple, Cohanim, must eat from certain offerings and every Jew, when the Temple stands, must eat a tiny piece of the Pesach offering on the eve of Passover.
Eating of meat may be permitted, kosher or even obligatory, that doesn’t include that one should eat it all day long every day, that the animals should be mass-bred, injected with hormones and antibiotics, fed meat themselves or mass-slaughtered or that their meat should be stuffed with preservatives, coloring, burned until it collects as many carcinogens on the outside as are in cigarette smoke, etc.
One could say that eating meat is problematic when plant products can give you all you need. One could hold that eating meat is only OK if one has no other options. With that position, Judaism cannot argue.
Saying “Eating a carrot is murder too” or “Carrots have feelings too” is almost too ridiculous to discuss but I hear it a lot. It’s like cigarette smokers who say “Everything is unhealthy” and “From being alive one dies.” That’s addicts trying to deny what is obvious for non-addicts.
The Israeli anti-meat lobby has as one of its slogans, meat is murder. That is a bit overdone but it does speak to certain people. I want to make a more moderate point.
It seems very true that being casual about killing animals teaches many humans at a tender (pun not intended) age that murder is OK under certain circumstances. Some have gone so far as to claim that without that, there would be less war and murder. That early justification of killing contributes to warfare and people going easy on killing people.
Actually, Judaism is very cautious about eating meat (or any action) leading to insensitivity and trigger-happiness. Jews are forbidden to consume blood – it is equated with the soul. We may not eat a limb of a living animal. (Jewish Law had difficulty permitting milk because it could be blood or a limb.) We can’t eat (or even cook or profit from) meat-milk mixtures. Meat symbolized death and milk stands for (feeding) new life. Don’t confuse them. We cannot kill a mother and her calf on the same day. To wipe out two generations is already going too easy on killing. We are only allowed to eat vegetarian beasts – eating meat-eaters could make us cruel. And consuming insects could make us immoral and stupid. On Shabbat, we cannot kill animals if they disturb us unless they may be dangerous or it’s inevitable (a million ants in front of our door.)
Chief Rabbi Cook (pun not intended) makes the opposite point. He teaches that when people stop eating meat, the violence that is implicit and sublimated in eating animals would go over into bloodshed vis-à-vis people. This is something I’ve seen numerous times. “Animal lovers” who hate – even kill – people. So, I’d say, going vegetarian might only be good for people who don’t have a lot of internal hostility (nice people).
There is this mystical-Jewish argument that humans eating meat elevates the soul of that animal. Orthodox-Jewish carnivores who don’t know any other sentence from Jewish mysticism, too often quote this principle – which looks a bit hypocrite. One could easily answer that by now, so many animal souls have been “elevated” that the question arises (pun not intended) if that principle still stands. Also, a human and a Jew must be completely righteous to stand morally not below animals – are all people who so eagerly want to “elevate” animal souls at such a level?
There are vegetarians who don’t want to eat meat because they are philosophically against taking another life for food. Jewish Law has a problem with that. This seems to equate humans and animals. If heart valves of a pig could save your life, you should use that option. (Saying, I’m not such a saint that I could let an animal die for me is false modesty. Let the animal save your life and make sure that you’re saintly. You can.) We must treat animals with empathy and respect. Farmers often named and knew each cow – until the market forced them to fold or to start mass-breeding. They loved their animals. Just don’t equate beasts with humans.
Often one hears quoted that the Sages teach that there is no happiness than through [consuming] meat and wine. This may be true for people fond of them but those revolted by alcohol or eating meat do not get happy from this and are clearly exempt. And, as with learning the laws of forbidden slander, once one learned enough of the damage done by this, “enjoying” its produce is off the table (pun not intended). NB: There are leading rabbis who explain that the happiness that we must have on Jewish Festivals actually comes not from what we consume but rather from having guests, being hospitable, being generous. Jews who violate most of Jewish Law will have a hard time making anyone believe that they eat chicken on Shabbat since they are commanded. Let them admit that they like the taste (they don’t love chicken; if they really loved it, they wouldn’t eat it) or do it for sentimental romantic reasons.
There is a dispute between the codifiers of Jewish Law if inflicting pain on animals is Biblically or Rabbinically forbidden but forbidden it is.
The present industrial scale of meat, egg and milk production in most parts of the world is so large that it must inflict pain on animals.
Let’s start with eggs. It is not my task to spell out the gruesome details but once one learns what happens to half of all bred-out chicks that turn out to be males (and so are “worthless” when one seeks egg producers to use in battery cages or for “free” roaming), one wouldn’t like an omelet so much anymore. Let me just say that their death is often unkind and prolonged. As far as I know, Jewish Law cannot justify this or permit looking the other way. So why does it?
Actually, “milk cows” often suffer more than “meat cows.” The latter are often allowed to roam around because it develops their muscles (future meat). They’re not artificially impregnated once a year as their milked-dry sisters are, to stimulate milk production. (The calf is taken away from the mother immediately – just imagine who of the two will suffer more.) How one could principally reject meat but happily drink milk is beyond me.
Non-kosher ways of slaughter often make the animals suffer tremendously. Some sizeable percentages of cows who get the bullet, survive it at first. Kosher slaughter is supposed to minimize this suffering. (Cut yourself with a Stanley utility knife – you won’t feel it. And bleeding the head must feel like fainting – it looks gruesome but for the animal should be the least painful.) But in mass-slaughtering, often corners are cut (pun not intended). How in the world could this give “kosher” meat?
Much is made of the Commandment not to inflict cruelty on animals but the prime reason for that injunction is often overlooked, I feel. It’s not just that the blood of the animal would cry out. It’s that committing cruelty corrupts us. It makes us less humane – morally less than an animal.
The present mass-production of meat, milk and eggs (and by extension possibly, selling, buying and consuming them) is unethical on many levels, besides what I mentioned above already. Poor people are often told that if they want to prioritize their health, they should consume animal produce. This is such a lie. What makes it worse is that these products are extra expensive. A meatless lentil or pea soup is not only much more nutritious and healthy but is also much more economical.
The environmental damage from the present bio-industry is staggering. The amounts of flatulence and excretion by animals is simply not sustainable. The commercial destruction of rainforest for the meat industry helps threaten the survival of all of humankind. Disturbance of the ecological equilibrium by poultry industry pollution and overfishing are at levels hard to rectify.
At grounds where cows romp around or their food is cultivated, crops for human consumption could be grown. Note that hundreds of millions of people around the world still got to bed hungry every night today. Hunger is the single gravest threat to the world’s public health. Half of all small children who die, die of starvation. Undernutrition is a contributory factor in the death of 3.1 million of them a year.
Just, if you already bought milk, eggs, fish and meat (and even prepared them), don’t throw them out when you discover what you’ve done. To hurt people, our future, killing them aren’t lessened when you throw the produce in front of you in the wastebasket. Consume it with pleasure (!) or give it away to others who would enjoy or need it. Worse than contributing to the bio-industry is to do so and then let it go to waste.
Many vegans will not frown on a poor person who has a couple of goats, sheep or chickens and who treats them well and gets nourishment and clothing from them. That will not be so terrible for the environment, for the atmosphere and climate, for one’s health and the life of the animals.
If and when Jews are commanded to eat (Shabbat, Festivals – see above) or use (Torah scroll, Mezuzot, Tefillin, Tzitzit need animal stuff) animal produce, ethical objections are easily overridden. Minimalistic ritual observance of a percentage of a small People won’t need to lead to bad health, animal suffering, wasting money or environmental destruction.