Friday, March 13, 2009

The Vegetarian Activist & The Vegetarian Chassid: A Conversation In The Vegetable Garden – Part 2

Continued from Part 1 here.


Another teaching of the Talmudic sages has it that in the future non-kosher animals will become kosher, and humans will be able to eat any animal they want (Midrash Shocher Tov, Tehillim 146). On the other hand, we are given to understand in the Messianic era everyone will be vegetarian. Isn't this a contradiction?

As a vegetarian activist, I believe that by promoting vegetarianism, we are bringing people closer to the time when “the lion will lie down with the lamb.” If people are told they can eat any and all animals, isn't this encouraging them to go in the opposite direction?

Vegetarian Chassid:

The idea that all species are destined to be kosher doesn't necessarily mean that humans will eat them -- although according to that viewpoint, this would reflect the principle of "elevating the holy sparks" that at present are too far submerged in gashmiyus, in physicality, for us to reach.

The idea of their becoming "kosher" goes together with a more far-reaching concept in the Torah: the division between the sacred and the profane, good and evil, and more subtly, other basic dualisms such as inner and outer, etc., all exist primarily for the sake of human free will -- so creation should appear to be a davar nifrad, something apart from G-d and His encompassing Oneness.

However, our sages tell us that in the future, "the holiness of Eretz Yisrael will extend to all the earth" (Sifrei on Deuteronomy 1:1, as discussed by Rabbi Nachman in Likkutei Moharan II, 8), and animals will attain human-like levels of intellect, Jews and gentiles will serve G-d in harmony and compete spiritual accord; the realm of kedushah, holiness, will no longer be at odds with its opposite, but everything will be transformed to the holy -- everything will become a channel for the divine. This also means that the present division between kosher animals and non-kosher ones will dissolve, and they all will become "kosher," i.e., sanctified in the spiritual sense. In the Zohar's language, the Sitra Achara, or "Other Side" of creation, will be nullified.

As for your question about how the Torah's permission for us to eat meat seems to lead us away from the goal of a world without killing and strife, we must understand that the unfolding of the tikkun of all creation takes place in stages. And in each stage different conditions exist, which must be addressed in different ways. Thus, in the words of Koheles (Ecclesiastes), "To everything there is a season . . . a time for war and a time for peace."

As Jewish vegetarians, we must recognize that the slaughter of animals for legitimate human needs is also part of G-d's plan -- and look forward to the day when this stage of creation will come to an end, and humanity will return to the original vegetarian state of the Garden of Eden.

As to whether our adoption of vegetarianism hastens that day, I would say – maybe yes, maybe no. Sometimes taking on things we’re not ready for, or “jumping the gun” in our spiritual practice, can lead to disaster. Rav Kook was worried about this when it came to vegetarianism. In a sense, that’s what Adam and Eve did by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge on Friday instead of on Shabbos (see Rabbi Chaim Vital, Eitz Chaim 49:3 and elsewhere in the writings of the Arizal). Therefore, personally, I'm not inclined to preach the "vegetarian gospel" to other Jews who don't share my sensitivities. Neither does Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen or Rabbi Jonathan Sacks or most other vegetarian Orthodox rabbis. First, let’s try to keep kosher and learn to eat in moderation, with sanctity. Vegetarianism is a higher level, which is praiseworthy, but which many people might actually resent.


Given the prohibition in Jewish law to cause harm to an animal (tza'ar ba'alei chaim), shouldn't Jews adopt ethical vegetarianism?

Vegetarian Chassid:

Torah-observant Jews do not embrace ethical vegetarianism, because the Torah does not tell us to do so. On the contrary, in the past it required us to perform certain sacrifices, and it goes to great lengths to detail the Jewish dietary laws, which include the slaughter and consumption of certain animals; it also mandates the use of other animal-derived materials, such as the shofar we are obligated to hear on Rosh Hashanah, the parchments we must use for kosher Torah scrolls, mezuzot, Tefillin, etc., and it permits us to slaughter animals for other basic human needs, such as clothing or medicine or medical research.

Ethical vegetarianism exists in Judaism, but it sort of comes out of "left field" -- as we mentioned above, it is a component of the messianic age, echoing the original vegetarianism of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

As Jews, we must do what G-d has told us to do to fix this damaged world and our damaged souls through the mitzvos of the Torah, not just out of our own man-made ethical philosophies or moral sensitivities. Therefore, if a Jew is a vegan but doesn't recite the prescribed blessings before and after eating, or cooks on the Shabbos, or consumes produce of a fruit tree less than three years old, or performs certain types of grafting that the Torah forbids, he or she may be a good and sensitive and kind person -- but nevertheless spiritually destroys creation.

The mitzvos are the healing factor, not our personal ethical sensitivities, as noble and praiseworthy as they may be.


Is true vegetarianism a recognition that man should not take the life of one of G-d's creations simply to indulge his gastronomic desires?

Vegetarian Chassid:

I don't know about that adjective "true." There are many reasons why people elect to be vegetarians. As important as it is, the refusal or reluctance to take life is only one of them.

However, as Jews, we don't regard the consumption of meat as a base indulgence, plain and simple. The Torah permits us to eat meat for many reasons – out of need; or as a concession to desire, hedged around with restrictions; or for the enjoyment of Shabbos and Yom Tov, when it may even be a mitzvah; or for kabbalistic reasons, such as the elevation of the “holy sparks.” Yet as Rav Kook points out, there is something within us that instinctively recoils from killing other creatures, and senses that a system of life that requires one species to eat another cannot be what G-d truly desires for his creation. Therefore, vegetarianism has a certain appeal as an aspect of living in a more perfect, harmonious world. According to many classic commentators, this is what Isaiah means when he states that "the wolf will lie down with the lamb," etc.


Do you think that vegetarianism helps develop a Jew's spiritual sensitivity?

Vegetarian Chassid:

I think that for a spiritual person, vegetarianism may be the result of a more highly developed sensitivity. If this diet has further spiritually beneficial effects on us, I couldn't really say. There are many vegetarians who seem to be extremely hedonistic and "unspiritual" people, whose philosophy might be: "Eat (fruits, whole grains, and vegetables), drink (spring water, plus a little single-malt scotch now and then), and be merry, for tomorrow you die!"

So I would hesitate to say that vegetarianism is intrinsically connected to spirituality. To be edifying, it must exist within a broader view of life and be part of an encompassing spiritual path. It must be the outcome of a genuine feeling of the interconnectedness and holiness of all life. I think that's what Rav Kook envisioned in his writings about vegetarianism and peace.


At March 13, 2009 at 10:13:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As i understand it, the health and safety of a person is very high priority withing Jewish practice.

I was diagnosed with anemia after being vegetarian for ten years. I was on supplements, but my anemia returned, so supplements didn't help.

I was wondering the vegetarian and omnivorous scholars felt about vegetarian and when it can potentially harm someone's health.

Good Shabbos!

At March 13, 2009 at 11:48:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any chassid gets his emunah belief system through a mesorah of tzadikim, not based on his logic or modern day trends. Please provide us with some, at least one major chassidic mesorah of such belief in regards obstaining from meat.

At March 13, 2009 at 2:42:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A recent study, widely reported in the media, showed that vegan women are more likely to have children with birth defects.

At March 13, 2009 at 4:25:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I don't know of any Chassidic mesorahs about vegetarianism -- and I doubt if any exist, because in the Chassidic world it is associated with asceticism (prishus) or stringencies in kashrus (chumros). And prishus and chumros are a personal thing, not what the Chassidic rebbes would impose on their communities. Thus, certain rebbes, past and present, have refrained from eating meat, but no entire groups that I have ever heard of.

The concept of "ethical vegetarianism" in the Chassidic world is something abstract, associated with l'asid lavo, the future world after Moshiach comes. In the meantime, it is a mitzvah to use all permissible things in serving the Ribbono shel Olam in order to be mevarer nitzotzos, to "raise up the holy sparks."

However, followers of Rav Kook did recognize a certain validity in the ethical vegetarian position (although not without equivocation). That is what we find in his "Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace."

You might want to read it some day, if you haven't already.

Then there are the other reasons for vegetarianism, such as health concerns or the desire not to be part of a system that entails more tzaar baalei chaim than it should. These are matters that we all should take seriously, Chassidim and non-Chassidim alike.

Have a good Shabbos!

At March 13, 2009 at 4:45:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, my last comment was a response to "Anonymous."

At March 15, 2009 at 9:09:00 PM EDT, Blogger Long Beach Chasid said...

Vegetarianism is a higher level?

So every great Tzaddik that ate meat wasnt able to get to that level?

I know thats not what you meant but your words come across that way.

Doesnt the Torah say that we will remember leaving Mitzrayim even when Moshiach comes? This includes eating the Korbon Pesach.

By this it seems we will never be fully vegetarians.

With that said I think the Kosher Meat Industry has destroyed the level of Kashrus our ancestors enjoyed in Europe.

If I could have it my way I would live on an organic farm and shecht my own cows and chickens.

Alas, not so easy.

At March 16, 2009 at 12:59:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Long Beach Chasid:

According to those authorities who consider the Torah's heter to eat meat a concession (Rav Albo, Akeidas Yitzchok, Kli Yakar, and others), vegetarianism is a "higher level" of kedushah -- because it entails overcoming an inferior desire -- while other authorities disagree.

From another angle, throughout the Torah prishus is an aspect of kedushah. So those who restrict their consumption of delicacies, such as meat, are gaining a certain degree of kedushah. This is what the Sdei Chemed brings out in his remarks about vegetarianism (see "Inyan Achilah"). (Shabbos and Yom Tov are another matter, but the Sdei Chemed also brings an example from a great ascetic who maintained his abstinence then and added "we cannot criticize him for this." I don't think the Chassidic rebbes would take kindly to this sort of thing, but we can't say that there is no basis for it.)

And then there is the perspective that vegetarianism is a component of the future world of "lo yareihu ve'lo yash'chisu" -- world peace and no more killing. So connecting to that bechinah (to the extent that it is possible) is also a higher darga.

Yet certainly those tzaddikim and k'sheirim, past and present, who have consumed animal products b'kedushah are also doing something praiseworthy, for in so doing they are elevating the "holy sparks" -- which means spiritually refining the world, reconnecting the profane with the sacred. So it is not a matter of one being good and the other bad, or one being holy and the other unholy. Maybe the best thing to say is that they are different avodahs, reflecting different aspects of Hashem's plan and purpose.

At March 17, 2009 at 12:32:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon and Yehonasan: I think vegetarianism is healthy for most people, and if adopted by everyone people would live longer and healthier lives, but I also think that some people for whatever reason do better if they eat a little meat. For what it's worth, there is research demonstrating that vegetarians do not have higher rates of anemia on average. About the birth defects, that's only one study, about one kind of birth defect, so let's not get carried away. I would guess that the results are due to excessive consumption among some vegetarians of soy products, which contain estrogen-mimicking compounds.

Long Beach Chassid: About the sacrifices, Rav Kook suggested that eventually, in the messianic age, not only will we be vegetarians, only the plant-based sacrifices will be offered. I'm not aware of any one else saying this, but it's an interesting view.

At March 17, 2009 at 8:11:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The prophets speak about the renewal of the animal offerings in the messianic age. In addition, Maimonides wrote that animal offerings will be renewed in the messianic age. In fact, Rav Kook prayed with great fervor all the traditional prayers for the renewal of these offerings! I therefore asked a friend of mine to consult with his teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Israel Tau, a noted expert on the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, and who heads the Har HaMor yeshiva in Jerusalem. At my request, my friend asked Rabbi Tau to resolve this difficulty, and this is what he replied: There will be two stages within the messianic age, and Rav Kook taught that in the first stage, the animal offerings will be renewed, but in the second stage, the offerings will be vegetarian.

At November 25, 2012 at 12:22:00 PM EST, Blogger Unknown said...

This issue is obviously a very complex one that may never have a definitive answer. I wonder, though, if perhaps a kind of middle position might be the best way out of this problem. By middle position, what I mean is, to continue to eat fish, eggs, and dairy products, and to give up eating meat/poultry altogether, except on the Sabbath and other major religious Jewish holidays.


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