Dear Rabbi Fried,
I am considering becoming a vegetarian for a number of reasons, have given it a lot of thought and discussion with my friends. It would be a little difficult, as the Hillel where I go to college serves a lot of meat. But it’s something I would still like to do, if it’s Jewishly acceptable. I’d appreciate your input.
As you mentioned, there are numerous reasons which may influence one to want to become a vegetarian. Some of those reasons could coincide with Jewish values, and other reasons may clash with Judaism’s worldview.
The real issue is when it becomes an ideology — that it’s wrong to eat meat. This contradicts the Torah on many levels. Firstly, the Torah mandates the slaughter and consumption of meat as part of the Temple worship, through the many offerings which take up an entire book of the Torah (the Book of Leviticus and many other sections as well).
One of the classical commentaries to the Torah explains that the renunciation of the consumption of meat for reasons of animal welfare was the root of the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. Cain brought an offering from the land, unlike Abel who brought from his sheep, because Cain regarded men and animals as equals, and felt he could not take the life of an animal even for divine worship. Once he saw that G-d accepted Abel’s offering, and he equated killing animals with killing a fellow man, this caused a breakdown in the social order which eventually led to the killing of his own brother.
This idea smacks of a recent situation where a woman cried out to a firefighter to go into her burning home to save her children, which he selflessly did, putting his life on the line. It turns out that her “children” were her pets, which in her mind were worth endangering the life of the firefighter to save them.
Once G-d told Noah he could eat meat upon leaving the ark, He was establishing the ultimate moral criteria for all time. Since it was man, i.e., Noah, who was responsible for the existence of animals — he was then allowed, for the first time, to partake of them.
The Kabbalistic reason for this is that the entire world was created to serve mankind. Man’s obligation is to elevate the world to higher spheres and infuse the physical with the spiritual.
When a human, containing a divine soul, partakes of an animal, which was not endowed with a soul, for the reason of strengthening his or her body to serve their Creator, that meat is elevated to its ultimate possible heights.
For this reason, the Talmud says that an ignoramus should not partake of meat. This is because when one lives his own life similar to an animal, with no spiritual goals and involvement, he would not be elevating the meat by his consumption! He, then, has no right to consume it!
When one partakes of meat properly prepared through the laws of kashrut, recites a blessing and enjoys it as one of G-d’s gifts to him, that consumption of meat becomes part of one’s spiritual estate for all eternity.
(For further research I recommend you see the chapter “Vegetarianism and Judaism,” Chapter 10 of “Contemporary Halachic Problems,” Vol. 3, by Rabbi J. David Bleich, published by Ktav Publishing House of Yeshiva University, for a more in-depth study of the issues.)
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is the dean of Dallas Area Torah Association.