Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Vegetarian Activist & The Vegetarian Chassid: A Conversation In The Vegetable Garden – Part I

Based on an email dialogue between a passionate secular Jewish vegetarian activist and a more equivocal Orthodox vegetarian


Some teachings in Jewish religious literature say animals have no intellect and cannot speak. Yet recent scientific studies clearly show that animals are intelligent and some species do have language.

Animals plan and strategize, solve problems, learn from experience, adapt to new situations, and demonstrate other elements of intelligence. Some primates can remember and repeat sequences of numbers faster and more accurately than human college students, and there is no question that dolphins, bonobos, gray parrots and other animals are intelligent creatures.

As for language, some animals have been taught an English vocabulary exceeding a thousand words, and certain birds can tell the difference between languages such as Japanese and English. Studies show that primates can communicate with humans using sign language or by pressing symbols in sequence on keyboards. Certain animals communicate in a range above human hearing, and faster than our hearing can register. So for every note we hear, for example, a bird might hear as many as ten. Other animals communicate in ranges too low for human hearing. And like human children, animals are not born knowing what they need to know to survive and prosper. They must be taught or learn on their own.

Vegetarian Chassid:

The Talmudic sages do not say that animals have "no intellect," but implicitly consider the human intellect as superior. If one occasionally comes across statements from later Jewish religious thinkers that man possesses "sekhel (intellect)" and animals don't, this should not be taken at face value. These authors only mean to say that there is a categorical difference between humans and animals. The donkey of Rabbi Pinchos ben Ya’ir would have remained undistinguished if the rest of its long-eared brothers, too, refused to eat untithed barley, nor would Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s donkey have had much claim to fame if other animals commonly refused to eat or drink stolen foods. And despite the unusual intellectual abilities of these animals of the tzaddikim, we do not find that they passed the entrance exams to the local yeshivah.

Jewish philosophers, as well as the kabbalists, define man as "medaber," the "speaking being." At the same time, they and the sages of the Talmud before them acknowledge that animals and birds, too, have some sort of speech. King Solomon is said to have understood that speech. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai even understood the “speech” of leaves rustling in the wind!

You are right that animals also communicate, and some more highly-developed species have their own kinds of language; but you must admit that these communication systems are far less sophisticated than those of humans -- prairie dogs notwithstanding. We must teach those parrots and myna birds our human words. This is not their natural way of communicating with each other. The complex sounds certain animals make are not the equivalent of human speech.

It is fundamental to Jewish thought that despite the encompassing unity of life, there is a hierarchy in creation, and the dignity -- and responsibility -- of humanity stands at the top of the ladder. Yet Judaism places G-d at the center of everything. Thus, our greatest characteristic is that we are created "in G-d's image (be-tzelem Elokim)." As Rav Kook states in his "Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace," we exist not in order to dominate the rest of creation like tyrants, but to recognize and "reconnect" to G-d -- "be-gin de-ishtimodin lei," as the Zohar states -- and to fulfill the great task G-d has given us: to perfect His kingship on earth according to the guidance of the Torah.

We need not reject this idea of a hierarchy for fear that it will lead to wanton exploitation because we, as religious Jews, bring unity and harmony to the entire matrix of life through the mitzvos that we perform and through the compassion that the Torah instills in us.

And if a Jew should behave in a way that violates the mitzvos, or merely remains insensitive to the spirit and intent of the Torah, that individual has failed to understand his mission in life -- even if he puts on talis and tefillin every morning, even if she lights the Shabbos candles and keeps a kosher kitchen, etc. As the Ramban states in his commentary on the Torah portion "Kedoshim" (Leviticus 19:2), the Torah demands that we strive for holiness, and one who does not take this to heart could easily remain a menuval, a coarse and depraved person, without actually breaking the laws of the Torah.


So you consider Orthodox supervisory rabbis and kosher slaughterhouses that mistreat animals to be violating the Torah?

Vegetarian Chassid:

I would hesitate to condemn anyone without carefully studying the facts. However, if it would be proven that such supervisory rabbis and kosher companies have shown a lack of concern for avoidable tza'ar ba'alei chaim – such as by willfully ignoring existing animal welfare regulations, or by making no effort to reduce animal distress indicated by bellowing, or by using electric prodders unnecessarily, etc. -- I would say that yes, they are in the wrong, and that this is a tremendous chillul Hashem, a disgrace of G-d's Name.

This does not make the meat produced treif -- kashrus is an entirely separate matter -- but it does mean that these individuals have failed to recognize and to do what the Torah wants from us. As I've said before, when it comes to tza'ar ba'alei chaim, we have certain explicit laws, such as the prohibition to allow animals to see other animals being killed (Yoreh De'ah 36:14), for example -- and then there is the category of "lifnim me-shuras ha-din," going beyond the letter of the law in order to prevent avoidable animal suffering. Only an achzor and a baal ga'avah, a cruel and arrogant person, would fail to recognize this and act accordingly.


There is a tradition that that prior to their creation, animals agreed to G-d's plan that that they would be slaughtered (see Rabbi Yosef Gikatilla, Sha’arei Orah, Gate 6). In addition, the kabbalists say that eating animals raises their “holy sparks” and their da'as, or consciousness -- so the implication is that we are doing animals a favor by eating them, and this is why they consented to be slaughtered. Most animals, however, are certainly not passive in the face of slaughter – at least when they understand what is going on. They try their best to escape! How are animals' terror and flight responses to be reconciled with the claim that they gave their consent and are being granted a "favor" to serve human needs?

Vegetarian Chassid:

Just because on some awesome transcendent plane the animals collectively agreed to their earthly destiny before they were created doesn't mean that they shouldn't be motivated by the basic pleasure-pain response that characterizes all sentient beings. For example, when I go to the dentist, I know that what he's doing is good for me -- but I still don't like the experience one bit! A wise person knows that everything we go through is ultimately for the good -- "gam zu l'tovah," as the Talmudic saint Nochum Ish Gamzu used to say -- yet our self-preservation instincts still tell us that pain hurts!

According to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (Likutey Moharan I, 4, based on the Gemara in Pesachim 50a), realizing that everything is ultimately good, whether we experience it as good or bad, is an experience of "World to Come" – the World of Oneness -- right here in this world. But there is a spiritual barrier that separates these two domains or modes of experience, and for this reason, it is difficult for a mortal human being to grasp that sublime reality. Why shouldn't this be the case with animals, too?

Again, practically speaking, I believe that a great deal of animal distress in the meat industry, both kosher and non-kosher, can be eliminated by improving handling and restraint systems. Those who are unwilling to opt for vegetarianism should at least be supportive of proposals for such improvements.

Part 2 continued here.


At March 12, 2009 at 8:33:00 AM EDT, Blogger Anarchist Chossid said...

Some teachings in Jewish religious literature say animals have no intellect and cannot speak. Yet recent scientific studies clearly show that animals are intelligent and some species do have language.

No studies showing animals having language exist. One must carefuly distinguish language and communication. Even inanimate molecules (let alone unicellular organisms) communicate. Language implies something else.

Also, it’s not clear what is meant by “intelligence” and what the nafka mina is. My computer can be considered intelligent. So what?

Animals plan and strategize, solve problems, learn from experience, adapt to new situations, and demonstrate other elements of intelligence. Some primates can remember and repeat sequences of numbers faster and more accurately than human college students, and there is no question that dolphins, bonobos, gray parrots and other animals are intelligent creatures.

That’s true. But none of this has anything to do with language specifically and with higher, abstract reasoning. No species of animals have mesoira.

Also, we don’t know whether animals have consciousness, simply because it’s scientifically impossible to determine whether someone has consciousness (despite the study of the so-called “neural correlates of consciousness” — which remain exactly this, correlates; also, the works of people like Tononi and Eidelman really describe not the consciousness itself, but the contents of the consciousness; so, animals are really “ready” to be conscious, but whether they are, we don’t know).

Regarding animals fighting — Just like the animal within you was created only for the purpose of being subdued and transformed, or like the forces of concealment and darkness, including the big S. guy, were created only as servants of Hashem, to be fought or subdued, but eventually to lead to a greater good, so have animals been created to be elevated and subdued. If animals willfully agreed to slaughter, there wouldn’t be a point — this would not result in dira b’tachtoinim, just as if your yetzer ha’rah didn’t try in earnest to confuse you.

“A chassidic vegetarian” is an oxymoron.

At March 12, 2009 at 3:14:00 PM EDT, Blogger tea mad hatter said...

2 teaching i have heard in the name of Rebbe Nachman ZTL. i have seen neither in the text, so stand to be corrected as to their existence and the accuracy of what i remember
1. that a shochet who does not have the correct kavona, is equivelent to a murderer standing over his victim with a knife
2. that one should refrain from eating meat during the week and only eat on shabbos and yom tov.

i personaly do not believe that we have carte blanche to slaughter animals and eat them as we will for pleasure. but i do believe that with the correct respect and using the energy to do mitzvos we are then allowed to eat meat. only problem is if you arent a tzadik i dont see how you can truthfuly be of that level to elevate the animals soul.thats my personal thought.

At March 12, 2009 at 3:22:00 PM EDT, Blogger Anarchist Chossid said...

We don’t have carte blanche to enjoy anything ever in this world for the sake of its pleasure. During the week, this is literally true. On Shabbos, we are allowed/required to enjoy, but also not for the pleasure, but because it’s a mitzva.

At March 12, 2009 at 4:36:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Axe

"Vegetarian Chassid" is an oxymoron?

Do you know how many Orthodox rabbis have been vegetarians?

The "Baal Shem" of Michelstadt and talmidim of Rabbi Noson Adler (many of whom were almost vegetarians, but permitted themselves to eat poultry on the Shabbos and Yomim Tovim),
Rabbi Dovid Cohen the "Nazir" (a talmid muvhak of Rav Kook), Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen (his son), Chief Rabbi of Israel Rav Shlomo Goren, Chief Rabbi of Ireland Rav Dovid Rosen, present Chief Rabbi of England Rav Jonathan Sacks, Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaath Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, and from what I have heard from Rabbi Akiva Tatz, it sounds like his mentor, Rabbi Simcha Wasserman, was, too.

The late Bobover Rov, Reb Shlomo Halberstamm, and many other Rebbes refrained from eating red meat altogether either due to ascetism or to kashrus chumros.

In addition, I have many friends in the Chassidic world who are vegetarians. My blog name is not an oxymoron!

Having settled that (I hope), please tell me: what's a "Crawling Axe?"

At March 12, 2009 at 5:02:00 PM EDT, Blogger Anarchist Chossid said...

And therefore what? Those of them that were chassidic couldn’t contradict themselves? :)

I was going to respond seriously, but I don’t feel like starting machloikes over nothing. Let’s assume I was joking (which is mostly true).

CA is my screen name that I use on Blogger.

At March 12, 2009 at 6:39:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a Breslover Chasid and a veggie. I do not think my choices are a oxymoron. I do it from a halakic point of view. Please read Visions of Eden by Reb Dovid Sears.

At March 12, 2009 at 7:34:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Vegetarian Chasid: The Sudilkover Rebbe also does not eat meat or chicken. However, I have never asked him to explain his reason for doing so.

At March 12, 2009 at 8:13:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...


As president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America and author of the book “Judaism and Vegetarianism,” I am very happy to see this respectful dialogue.

I think the key question is "Should Jews be Vegetarians?" I think so, since arguably animal-based diets and agriculture arguably violate Jewish mandates to preserve our health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help hungry people and pursue peace. Also, the production and consumption of animal products is having devastating effects on the environment and human health.

Unfortunately, most Jewish leaders, the media and the general public seem to be ignoring important realities related to the production and consumption of meat and other animal products, that are doing immense harm to individuals and our planet:

* Animal-centered diets are contributing to an epidemic of heart disease, several types of cancer and other diseases in the Jewish and other communities;

* At a time when food prices are skyrocketing, food riots are occurring in many areas and an estimated 20 million people are dying annually worldwide from hunger and its effects, over 70 percent of the grain produced in the United States and about 40 percent produced worldwide are fed to farmed animals.

* In an increasingly thirsty and energy-dependent world, animal-based diets require up to 14 times as much water and 10 times as much energy as vegan (all plants) diets.

* While the world is increasingly threatened by global warming, animal-based agriculture emits more greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalents) than all the cars and other means of transportation worldwide combined (18 percent vs. 13.5 percent).

* Even if animals are slaughtered strictly according to Jewish law, with minimum pain, billions of animals still suffer greatly from cruel treatment on factory farms.

* Making all of the above points more serious, the consumption of animal products is projected to double in 50 years. If this happens, it will make it very difficult, if not impossible, to reduce greenhouse emissions enough to avoid very severe effects from global climate change.

I think that it is essential that our rabbis and other Jewish leaders recognize that a major shift toward plant-based diets is essential to avoid the unprecedented catastrophe that the world is rapidly approaching and to move our precious, but imperiled, planet to a sustainable path.

When we read daily reports of the effects of global climate change, such as record heat waves, severe storms, widespread droughts, and the melting of glaciers and polar icecaps; when some climate scientists are warning that global climate change may spin out of control with disastrous consequences unless major changes are soon made; when a recent report indicated that our oceans may be virtually free of fish by 2050; when species of plants and animals are disappearing at the fastest rate in history; when it is projected that half of the world's people will live in areas chronically short of water by 2050; it is essential that the Jewish community fulfill our mandate to be a “light unto the nations” and lead efforts to address these critical issues.

It is urgent that tikkun olam-the healing and repair of the world -- be a central issue in synagogues, Jewish schools and other Jewish institutions. Judaism has splendid teachings on environmental conservation and sustainability, and it is essential that they be applied to respond to the many current environmental threats.

JVNA (Jewish Vegetarians of North America) urges rabbis and other Jewish leaders to make Jews aware of how animal-based diets and agriculture violate basic Jewish mandates to preserve human health, treat animals compassionately, protect the environment, conserve natural resources and help hungry people.

It is time that a consideration of the many moral issues related to animal-based diets be put on the Jewish agenda. For more information, please visit, where I have over 130 articles and about 20 taped interviews and talks. To see our one-hour documentary A SACRED DUTY: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World, please visit Thanks, and kol tuv.

At March 12, 2009 at 9:22:00 PM EDT, Blogger Shmerl said...

Crawling Axe: “A chassidic vegetarian” is an oxymoron.

I don't think so. While Yiddishkeit and Chassidus don't advocate vegetarianism for the sake of it, there are other issues which can cause a person to refrain (totally, or partially) from eating meat. Such as kashrus, prishus etc. In fact, mekubolim straightforward advocate refraining from meat at least during the week for kdusho reasons (see Reb Chaim Vital ztz"l).

I have few friends who stopped eating meat altogether or almost so after the scandal with the treif chicken. So the issue of kashrus plays an important role here.

Someone told me, he knew an alter Yid who would eat only from certain shoychet who knew some special simonim for shchita which are brought in Chazal, which most today shoyctim don't know anymore. After that shoychet was niftar he stopped eating meat at all.

Chernobyler Rebbes had some very strict chumroys regarding meat (they almost didn't eat it).

So abstaining from meat is not in contradiction with Chassidus. While there is an avoydo of haloas hanitzoytzoys until they are all rectified, and that's why vegetarianism for it's own sake doesn't really fit with that, but there are other numerous Toyro and avoydo related issues which can lead some to stop eating meat.

At March 12, 2009 at 11:40:00 PM EDT, Blogger Anarchist Chossid said...

In my hubmle opinion , one question here is which definition of vegetarianism and which definition of Chassidus we use. If you take the left-most definition of Chassidus (belonging to a certain group which follows certain minhogim) and the right-most definition of vegetarianism — for Halachic or ruchniusdike reasons (at least during the week… as in “an am ha’aretz shouldn’t eat meat”), the two are clearly compatible. In my mind, however, such a definition of vegetarianism is no different than not eating any meat, if there is only treif meat available around. This is not really vegetarianism, i.e., not eating meat for some absolute principle.

On the other hand, if we take the right-most definition of a Chossid — a person, for whom it is obvious and apparent, in theory and practice, in every moment of his life, that ein od milvado, and whose goal in life is to make dwelling for Hashem in this world — together with the left-most definiton of vegetarianism, i.e., saying that killing and eating animals is morally wrong and cruel (and unhealthy), I would say that these two definitions are clearly incompatible. Not only is such vegetarianism clearly incompatible with the deepest level of Chassidus, they are incompatible, in my humble opinion, with Judaism overall.

Things get interesting with other combinations, though.

At March 13, 2009 at 2:06:00 AM EDT, Blogger Batya said...

Very interesting. Please send it in to KCC!

At March 13, 2009 at 4:22:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A really interesting post - I have been thinking a lot lately about the connection between what we eat and how we relate to the world, with Pesach coming up.

At March 13, 2009 at 5:16:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ASJ - please ask your Rebbe :-D It would be fascinating!

At March 14, 2009 at 9:45:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re. Vegetarian Chassid's mention above that Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz of Torah Vodaas also did not eat meat at all after the holocaust --the reason he gave was "There has been enough killing in the world."

I seem to recall that the Kashauer Rov in Mount Kisco also did not eat meat, but for kashrus reasons.


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