Judaism: Vegetarianism for Moral Reasons
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish...
The Census in ‘Bamidbar‘
The Torah portion of ‘Bamidbar‘ (Book of Numbers) is replete with numerical accountings of the Tribes of Israel. Seemingly, one could ask: Why does the Torah need to ‘waste’ so many verses calculating the exact numbers of each and every tribe, and afterwards, mention the entire amount of people? And as if that was not enough, the Torah once again mentions their numbers according to the order of encampment in the desert, and then counts them once more according to the four separate camps! Instead of telling us at such great length how many Children of Israel there were, the Torah could have clarified a bit further in depth the practical laws of Shabbat and kashrut?!
However, this is exactly what the Torah wanted to teach us: the importance of every individual Jew, and the significance of the entire number of Israel!
“Fit for Service”: To Conquer the Land of Israel
Every census has its purpose. The census in the desert was meant to organize the army of the Jewish nation before entering the Land of Israel. We are commanded to inherit the Land, namely, to conquer and settle it – and therefore, Moshe was commanded to count all the men from the age of twenty years or older, for they would compose Israel’s army. For the army to be organized properly, each tribe was numbered “according to the records of their paternal families”.
First, the number of men in each family was counted, and then, all the families connected to that specific division were included and counted together; afterwards, all the divisions within the tribe were counted, in order to know how many soldiers there were in each tribe. Finally, they calculated the sum total of soldiers in Israel’s army: “The entire tally was 603,550″ (Numbers 1:46).
The Torah portion of ‘Bamidbar‘ comes to teach us the importance of serving in the army, and the significance of the mitzvoth to conquer and settle the Land of Israel.
A Story about the Chafetz Chaim
Our teacher and mentor, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Hakohen Kook said that he heard from Rabbi Yaakov Shorkin, one of the Chafetz Chaim’s top students, that a yeshiva student was once drafted into the Russian army, and asked the Chafetz Chaim how to escape the decree. The Chafetz Chaim replied: “Surely, very soon the Mashiach is coming, and there will be a Jewish state. We will have a Jewish police force, and a Jewish army, and you will need to know how to carry a weapon – will you then go and learn all this?! Behold, now you have an opportunity!” (L’Nitivot Yisrael 2, article 3).
Apparently, this also alludes to the custom of shooting arrows on Lag B’Omer – in order to prepare for the establishment of a Jewish army.
The Significance of the Army Stems from the Yeshiva
Together with the army, whose purpose is to conquer the Land, we find that the Torah separately numbered the Levites – “Those from 30 to 50 years old, all who enter service (la’tzavah) to work in the Tent of Meeting (Numbers 4:3). My revered teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Hakohen Kook, pointed out that the Torah uses the same word –tzavah (army) – in regards to both the soldiers who conquer the Land, and the Levites whose task is to perform the holy work in the Tabernacle and learn and teach Torah.
In this way, Rabbi Kook would strengthen the yeshiva students, so they would realize their own importance – that everything starts from the p’nimiyut (inner-side) – from the study of Torah. He said that “out of the Divine army (those engaged in the sacred service, and Torah) which illuminates and emits spiritual light on all our surroundings, it [the light] reaches the soldiers in the army, who are engaged in training exercises to conquer… out of Israel’s sacred, inner, fundamental army…the great enlistment in all of the army receives its value, in its military sense…”.
Similarly, we have seen that Yehoshua bin Nun, who began his career as a diligent Torah student, as the Torah testifies: “But his [Moshe's] aid, the young man, Yehoshua bin Nun, did not leave the tent [of Torah study] (Exodus 33:11), as a result, merited conquering the Land of Israel (Sichot HaRitzya, Naso 2; 5-3).
However, someone who wants to belong to the spiritual army in a yeshiva by detaching himself from Israel’s army, his Torah learning is not Torah at all, for he makes a mockery of the Torah, disgracing all the verses dealing with yishuv ha’aretz (settling the Land), the census of the soldiers, the entire Book of Joshua, and all the prophecies about the return of Israel to its Land. And as we know, someone who erases even one letter from the Torah, invalidates the entire Torah.
From the Beginning of Creation Man was Vegetarian
In the beginning, man was meant to eat vegetation, as the Torah says: “God said, ‘Behold. I have given you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit. It shall be to you for food” (Genesis 1:29). But man was forbidden to eat animals (Sanhedrin 59b). The commentators wrote that even the animals at that time made do by eating vegetation, and did not devour each other (Rashi and Ramban, ibid).
The Effect of the Sins of Adam Harishon and Others
However, sins increased, and the entire world declined. It began with the sin of Adam Harishon, and continued with the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. In the generation of Enosh, the grandson of Adam, people began to commit idolatry, and later, the sins of adultery, murder, and theft increased. Parallel to man’s transgressions, the nature of animals also became more closed and brutal, and they began to devour one another – until extinction was decreed upon all flesh, as it is written: “The world was corrupt before God, and the land was filled with crime. God saw the world, and it was corrupted. All flesh had perverted its way on the earth. God said to Noah, ‘The end of all flesh has come before Me. The world is filled with crime. I will therefore destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood” (Genesis 9: 1-6).
After the Flood
Only Noah, his son’s, and all that was with him in the ark were saved from the waters of the Flood. When they exited the ark, the task of building the world from scratch was placed upon them along with meticulously keeping the seven basic commandments which are the basis of human morality, for only after basic morality between human beings is developed properly, can man continue to rise in his moral relations towards animals. To this end, it was necessary to establish a clear boundary between man, who was created in the image of God, and animals – to emphasize man’s role and responsibility, for he alone was given the task of repairing and elevating the world.
The clearest expression of this was that after the Flood, humans were allowed to eat the flesh of animals, together with a stern warning not to murder their fellow man, who was created in the image of God, as the Torah says: “Then God blessed Noah and his sons and told them, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth. All the animals of the earth, all the birds of the sky, all the small animals that scurry along the ground, and all the fish in the sea will look on you with fear and terror. I have placed them in your power. I have given them to you for food, just as I have given you grain and vegetables… And I will require the blood of anyone who takes another person’s life… Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:1-6) (according to Rabbi Kook’s “The Vision of Vegetarianism” 6-9).
It must be further explained that following the sins of Adam and the generations before the Flood, nature itself has changed. In other words, the moral decline affected all aspects of life, including the nutrition system. Up until the generation of the Flood, people could receive all their nutritional needs from plants. After the sin and the collapse of all systems of nature – plants were no longer sufficient for a person, and therefore, God allowed Noah and his sons to eat the flesh of cattle, birds, animals and fish.
In other words, the moral decline of the world created a completely new eco-environment in which the consumption of meat is necessary. And although this is not ideal, it cannot be condemned. There is also a bit of justice in this – since thanks to Noah the animals were saved from destruction in the Flood, his sons are allowed to consume them in order to survive.
In the present situation, if we stop eating meat, it is not clear that it would benefit those species we normally eat, because if we do not continue raising and growing them for consumption, their numbers among other animals will decrease sharply. At present, they breed under human supervision, but if all the animals and chickens were let loose, within a short time, very few would be left (see, Rabbeinu Bechayeh, Radak, Malbim, Genesis 1:29; and Malbim and Rashar Hirsch ibid, 9:3).
Should Righteous Individuals be Encouraged to be Vegetarians?
Our master Rabbi Kook wrote that indeed, consistent with the grand ideal, it would be proper for man not to eat the flesh of animals; but according to our current moral level, people should not be encouraged to avoid eating meat. The reason for this is that after the Flood, when it became clear just how low man can decline, the Torah needed to direct man towards his main function – to improving relations between human beings. For clearly there is an immense difference between the virtues of man over animals, as man was created in the image of God, his intelligence and emotions are developed, and when wronged, his hurt is far greater than that of animals. Furthermore, when people treat each other decently and caringly, productiveness is created between them, which can bring redemption to the world.
Therefore, to properly emphasize the moral demand of “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) and, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor” (Shabbat 31a), the Torah instructed us to abandon for now the moral ideal of not harming animals (Rabbi Kook, The Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace, 6-7). Thus, one is permitted to slaughter animals in order to eat them, or as our Sages said, all creatures were created to serve man, and given the world’s current moral level, this is interpreted as being allowed to eat them (Kiddushin 82a).
The Damage in Educating Towards Vegetarianism
Moreover, if we are overly concerned about educating towards compassion and love for animals, instead of helping them, we would destroy ethical relations between human beings, because people whose sense of morality is not fully developed could think to themselves: “Since in any event, we aren’t warned about killing animals and eating them, we can also kill people who stand in our way, and maybe even eat their flesh.” And there would be other evil individuals who would focus all their good qualities towards animals – because ultimately, every wicked person possesses a spark of conscience and compassion. But after silencing their conscience, they could steal, exploit, and kill people without any ethical dilemma, because in their hearts, they take pride in the great mercifulness they show towards their pets.
Therefore, as long as murder and cruelty remain in the world, people should not be encouraged to refrain from eating meat. One might say that as long as people have a desire to eat meat, it is a sign that we have not yet reached the ethical stage in which it is morally important to refrain from eating meat (Vision of Vegetarianism 4; 6; 11).
In the future, however, the entire world will be spiritually elevated, and as the Kabbalists said, animals will progress and develop to a point where they will be able to speak, and their moral behavior will also change completely. Consequently, no one will want to eat their flesh. As the Prophet said: “On that day I will make a covenant with all the wild animals and the birds of the sky and the animals that scurry along the ground so they will not harm you. I will remove all weapons of war from the land” (Hosea 2:20) (The Vision of Vegetarianism 12:32).
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.