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Is Vegetarianism Dangerous?

I. Vegetarianism and Values

I was not the only observer surprised by the outcry against the killing of Harambe the gorilla in order to save a child who had wandered into the gorilla enclosure in the Cincinnati Zoo. While only a few people asked whether the child’s life took precedence over the gorilla’s, more asked about our general practice of killing animals for food when human life is not at stake. 

Judaism demands a strict kosher diet but no one claims that this exhausts the values that should guide your consumption. Advocates for Vegetarianism argue that your morals should prevent you from eating animals, even if the Torah permits it. However, one important scholar argues in the opposite direction. Proponents of Vegetarianism often quote Rav Kook as an authoritative precedent, a rabbinic giant who shared their cause. I have recently learned that this claim is far from accurate. While scholars of Rav Kook may have known this all along, I believe that laymen like me were fooled.

II. Rav Kook on Vegetarianism

A relatively recent publication of some of Rav Kook’s writings on Vegetarianism reveals his surprising opinion. Rav Kook’s words are notoriously opaque. His combination of idiosyncratic terminology, poetic style and oblique references scares away most readers, including me. Rav Shlomo Aviner published Ha-Tzimchonus (Vegetarianism), which contains Rav Kook’s writings with a single phrase per line and commentary on difficult terms. This bite-size version is much more digestible. For the first time, I found Rav Kook’s writing inviting. And I was very surprised with what I found.

Ha-Tzimchonus contains excerpts from Talelei Oros (Ma’amarei Ha-Ra’ayah, 62-72) and Afikim Ba-Negev (chs. 6-8, 10-11). In the former, Rav Kook advances his thesis that Vegetarianism is the human ideal. We were vegetarians in the Garden of Eden and will eventually return to this state. Many of the commandments surrounding food–kosher slaughter, covering blood, separating meat and milk, etc.–are intended to sensitize us to the problematic nature of animal consumption.

Rav Kook consistently maintains this message in the second selection, brilliantly offering further details of how the commandments awaken in us an awareness of animal consumption. He makes here substantive contributions to the literature of ta’amei ha-mitzvos, explanations of the commandments. Covering the blood is a divine protest that an animal is a living, feeling creature. Kosher slaughter minimizes pain, a reminder that we must be concerned with animals’ pain. The forbidden fat (cheilev) is a reduction in the choicest area of the animal, a part that is only eaten out of desire and not necessity, highlighting that people eat animals out of lust and not need. The sha’atnez prohibition against mixing wool and linen prevents theft. A sheep’s wool should not be taken for personal use, only to lighten its burden or for a mitzvah, such as for tzitzis or the kohen’s garments.

III. Rav Kook Against Vegetarianism

But Rav Kook cautions against a looming moral hazard. When human morality progresses to a natural revulsion from eating animals, Vegetarianism will be universally appropriate. But in this unredeemed world, adopting this stringency is wrong and dangerous. It demonstrates a moral confusion, a failure to distinguish between people and animals. When people created in the divine image are suffering, Rav Kook asks, how can we focus our energies on animal rights? It is “as if we have already corrected everything, already removed the reign of wickedness, falsehood, hatred and jealousy of nations, racism and tribal fighting that leads to so many deaths and the flowing of rivers of blood — as if all this disappeared from the land and there is nothing left with which this ‘human’ moralist to become righteous other than upholding ethics with animals” (p. 23).

Rav Kook adds that if Vegetarianism is adopted inorganically, if the desire for meat is willfully suppressed rather than erased, then a terrifying danger exists. When the desire for flesh overwhelms someone, he will not distinguish between killing animals and humans. If all killing is equally wrong, if eating all living animals is equally wrong, then cannibalism becomes a real possibility.

Vegetarianism risks erasing the distinction between man and beast. Animal rights are important but human rights moreso. Additionally, if animal rights are raised as a priority, some people will satisfy their instinct for generosity with animals while treating fellow people cruelly. We would find horrible humans who think they are righteous because of their kindness to animals.

IV. Vegetarianism as an Ideal

Rav Kook argues that Vegetarianism is appropriate in its right time, when peace and righteousness fill the earth. Once we learn how to treat each other well, then we can focus on treating animals well also. Until that time, we should eat animals but recognize that Vegetarianism is an ideal. Our imperfections prevent us from realizing that ideal. When we eat meat, we should feel bad about it, recognizing that we are consuming God’s creatures.

We have much to improve about ourselves and our society. But if we mistakenly order our priorities, if we focus on lesser evils while allowing greater evils to continue, we demonstrate a deep moral confusion. Misplaced priorities lead to gross perversions of justice. Our hearts should go out to geese who are mistreated. But our tears should be shed and our efforts expended for people who are suffering.