Question & Answer With Rabbi Dovid Sears
Rabbi Dovid Sears, Director of the Breslov Center for Spirituality and Inner Growth, and author of many books on Jewish thought has agreed to participate in question and answer sessions on this blog in the future. While is he preparing an answer to a question I sent him, he shared a reply that he gave on the subject of eating meat in light of teachings found in Jewish mysticism.
The following email interchange is posted here because it may be of interest to those seeking to better understand the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and his derech in avodas Hashem.
The RaMaK [sixteenth century Rabbi Moshe Cordovero of Safed] in "Shiur Komah" advises the "baal nefesh" (seemingly someone who is not an "am ha-aretz" incapable of elevating the holy sparks) to refrain from meat, due to dangers posed by a reincarnated soul of a human sinner in the animal. The editorial note on that page also advises one not to eat meat unless a "divine secret" has been revealed to the consumer that the animal didn't contain the soul of a sinner. I find it interesting that some of the Chassidic sources you translate [in "A Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism"] suggest that by saying the appropriate brachot and eating with kavannah, one can elevate such reincarnated souls. They make it sound fairly easy, but the RaMaK and his editor appear to suggest that it isn't so simple. In fact, the editor's emphasis is on a special revelation required if one wants to avoid the danger that the RaMaK mentions, not on the blessings and intention of the person eating meat or on those of the shochet. This suggests to me that at least some Kabbalists have regarded eating meat as quite spiritually dangerous, even for one who isn't an "am ha-aretz", i.e. one who is capable of the appropriate brachot and kavannah required to eat kosher meat. What do you think?
Rabbi Dovid Sears answers:
I think the problems are as the RaMaK defines them.
However, the Baal Shem Tov was born 150 years after the RaMaK passed away, at a time during which the kabbalists of Eastern Europe had become an ascetic elite, plagued by "new yetzer horas" that probably were not so commonplace in the circles of the RaMaK, ARI, Rav Chaim Vital, Rav Eliyahu de Vidas, RaMA mi-Pano, etc. Moreover he had a new mystical vision of his own. All of this led him to take a more complex and subtle stance regarding prishus / self-denial and segufim / self-mortification, etc. He did not want us to develop a negative, joyless attitude toward life -- or to become afflicted by pride in pursuing lofty spiritual goals beyond the grasp of the masses (like the punchline in the old joke, "Look who thinks he's nothing!").
So the Baal Shem Tov tried to "take the edge" off asceticism, and taught his followers how to experience Divinity through the very things of this world, rather than by entirely rejecting the world because of its impurity and spiritual risks. Yet this does not mean that we should think that it is now alright to "sink our teeth" into ta'avos olam hazeh / worldly pleasures, either! To paraphrase Rabbi Isaac of Homil, physicality is not a "lens through which to perceive G-dliness" unless one has the firm resolve to do so, as well as the eyes to see.