Vegetarianism, The Torah’s View
Short Essays written on a variety of different Jewish concepts.
[Genesis 6:9 – 11:32]
19th October 2017 | 29 Tishrei, 5778
Prior to the flood, our Sages tell us, human beings were forbidden to eat animals. They were vegetarians – seemingly for moral reasons. In this week’s portion however, Noah is told that ‘every moving thing that lives will be food for you’. Later on, in Deuteronomy, we are again told, ‘if you desire to eat meat, you may do so’. So why the change and what’s the Torah’s view on vegetarianism?
Personally, I was a vegetarian for almost a year when I was fourteen. I didn’t feel it was right for human beings to kill animals in order to eat them – even though animals have no compunction about doing that themselves. Given the opportunity, they would be just as eager to eat us as we are to eat them. But I still felt that our standards should be higher than those of animals and so I stopped eating meat. The problem was that I was living in LA at the time, and McDonalds created a new product – Chicken McNuggets! They went on a full-blown marketing campaign to sell them to the public. Billboards, TV, magazines, McNuggets were ubiquitous. I went to bed thinking of them, woke up thinking of them and, at times, dreamt of them in between. And so, one fine day, I stopped being a vegetarian because I could no longer resist the Chicken McNuggets marketing campaign. Sad, I know, but we are all human.
Getting back to Torah’s view, I would suggest that it goes as follows. On a higher plane of human spiritual existence, we would not eat animals. We would have compassion for them and feel that we do not wish to kill them just to satisfy our desires. That’s certainly the ideal and that ideal was in place prior to the flood.
However, as humanity sank deeper into depravity prior to the flood, its moral challenges became much larger than whether or not to eat animals.
And, so, the Torah says, ‘if you desire to eat meat, you may do so’. Not that you should. Not that it’s an ideal. Far from it. It simply says to choose your battles. And to battle a desire to eat meat is low down on the moral strategic agenda. If you don’t desire meat, then all the better; don’t eat it. But if you do desire meat, then turn your attention first to loving human beings, to speaking kindly with them, to praying with meaning and connecting to God, to humility and selflessness. Once you have perfected all of these – at the next level of spiritual development would be no longer eating meat.
Personally, I look forward to getting to that level in my own spiritual development – and at that point I can only pray that McDonalds does not find another new product to make me reconsider.