Thursday, July 15, 2004

Judaism and Vegetarianism

One day, about a year ago, I was learning on the Subway and a fellow, who was on his way out the door and whom I had never before spoken with, handed me a synopsis of an halakhic article he had written and recommended that I read it. I read it, and when I got to work I downloaded the entire article and read it carefully. The article argues that vegetarianism is an halakhic mandate. Since this is not only incorrect, it is a distortion of halakhic methodology, I wrote a response and e-mailed it to him. You can find the article here. My response follows (his words are in italics before each response).

Although the Garden of Eden was strictly vegetarian and the Messianic era will reinstate a similar vegetarian paradise

However, as Maimonides writes in Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 11:1, the sacrificial order - including animal sacrifices - will be reinstated at that time. As these sacrifices are eaten, it is clear that vegetarianism will not be reinstated. On Rav Kook’s view of this, which is frequently misstated, see for a translation of a relevant letter of his.

As the Rabbis of the Talmud noted, any obligation to consume meat was extinguished after the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. No person whose sensibilities are offended by an animal-based diet has an obligation to consume meat; and the commandment to rejoice on the Sabbath can be fulfilled by vegetarians.

First, Maimonides rules in Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:18 that one is obligated to eat meat on holidays. While this is disputed by most other authorities, many are strict and fulfill this obligation even according to Maimonides. This is as much of a praiseworthy lifnim mi-shurat ha-din as what is advocated in this paper.

The obligation on the Sabbath is to eat food that you enjoy. While vegetarians who do not enjoy consuming meat may certainly refrain from doing so, those who enjoy meat over vegetarian options are obligated to eat meat. That is how they enjoy the Sabbath, which is a biblical mandate.

The third assumption is that modern agricultural practices comply with the letter of the law, including ts'sar ba'alei chayim. This is doubtful in the vast majority of cases.

It has yet to be demonstrated that, even if the author is absolutely correct that modern agricultural practices are blatant violations of tsa'ar ba'alei hayim, the resulting food becomes prohibited. There are some prohibitions whose violation causes the resultant to be prohibited from consumption - assur ba-hana'ah. However, most prohibitions are not of that severity and there is no evidence, to my knowledge, that implies that food produced through prohibited acts of tsa'ar ba'alei hayim are not allowed to be eaten.

The fourth assumption is that Jewish ethics requires no more than compliance with religious codes. To the contrary, there is an obligation of "lifnim meshurat hadin" i.e., to exceed the letter of the law. As Rabbi Yochanan lamented: "Jerusalem was destroyed because the residents limited their decisions to the letter of the law of the Torah . . . ."

This is, indeed, an important statement and one that deserves profound thought. However, in addition to pointing out that Jewish ethics, and frequently law, requires following the spirit in addition to the letter of the law (see this letter in the Elul 5763 issue of The Edah Journal), since this is not an inherently obligatory issue there are many public policy matters that need to factor into the equation. Is this a top priority or are there other pressing issues that require more immediate attention? Will the inevitable denial of certain pleasures make Orthodox Judaism appear even more ascetic and unpleasant than it already appears, in this hedonistic age? Will this deter non-observant Jews from becoming more observant or even encourage observant Jews to leave the fold? Is this plan of action realistic or will it add to the distance between ideal Jewish observance and the reality in observant homes? Will this make rabbis appear even more distant from the laity than they already are? Etc. Etc. These are serious questions that need to be answered before any plan of action is taken.

While codes of Jewish law have not, to date, specifically addressed consumption of factory farm animals and their byproducts, the ancient Biblical laws are instructive.

As above, I see no instruction at all from Biblical or Rabbinic laws. Just like a forbidden hybrid mixture of fruit species is forbidden to make but, once made, is permitted to be eaten, food produced through unfortunate acts of tsa'ar ba'alei hayim are also permitted.

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