I’d like to know if and why vegetarianism may be a positive ethical choice for an observant Jew. Even if eating meat is permitted, could it be morally better to abstain?
G-d initially intended that people be vegetarians: "Behold, I have given you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit to you for food" (Gen.1:29). Rashi (1040-1105), citing the Sages who noted, "[Initially] Adam was not permitted to eat meat", explains that G-d "did not permit Adam and his wife to kill a creature and to eat flesh. Only every green herb shall they all eat together".
Ramban (1195-1270) offers a reason for this initial dietary law: "Living creatures that possess a ‘moving’ soul have a certain spiritual superiority in which they are similar to [humans] who possess an ‘intellect’ soul — they pursue their welfare and food, and they flee from pain and death". According to Rabbi Joseph Albo (1380-1440), the prohibition to eat meat was because, "In the killing of animals there is cruelty, rage, and the accustoming of oneself to the bad habit of shedding innocent blood".
By the time of Noah, humanity had degenerated greatly: "And G-d saw the earth and behold it was corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth" (Gen. 6:12). As a concession to people's weakness, G-d permitted meat: "Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; as the green herb have I given you all" (Gen. 9:3). Rabbi Albo explains that eating meat was permitted to emphasize humans’ higher moral level and degree of responsibility.
The permission given to Noah was not unconditional — eating blood was immediately prohibited: "But flesh with life in it, which is its blood, do not eat" (Gen. 9:4). Additional laws also teach us sensitivity when taking life for food. Ritual slaughter with an absolutely smooth blade is designed to minimize pain. It is forbidden to kill a cow and her calf on the same day (Leviticus 22:28); likewise one must send away a mother bird before taking her young (Deut. 22:7). Indeed, our Sages taught that eating meat is justified only when we demonstrate respect for life, and pursue holy and spiritual lives — then it is likened to sacrifice on the altar.
This being said, there are many reasons offered for refraining from eating meat. They include health reasons, unacceptable living conditions for animals, alleviating world hunger, and preserving the environment and natural resources. While Judaism places great importance on health, kindness to animals, helping the needy and preserving the environment, it is beyond our scope to explore the effect of vegetarianism on these factors. If after thorough research one becomes convinced of these claims, any of them could be a valid reason for refraining from eating meat.
Another valid reason is if one feels refraining from meat helps one’s own spiritual improvement either by increasing self-control or sensitivity, as expressed by Rabbi Solomon Efraim Lunchitz (Prague, 1550-1619) author of Kli Yakar: "What was the necessity for the entire procedure of ritual slaughter? For the sake of self-discipline. It is far more appropriate for man not to eat meat". However, it is important to realize that refraining for humane reasons doesn’t necessarily make one more kind. While the Nazis passed laws protecting animals, they were murdering millions of human beings.
- Judaism and Vegetarianism, Richard H. Schwartz
- Sanhedrin 59b
- Ramban, Genesis 1:29
- Rabbi Joseph Albo, Sefer Ha-Ikkarim, Vol. III, ch. 15
- Pesachim 59b, also see Tanya ch. 7
- Kli Yakar, quoted in The Commandments and Their Rationale, Abraham Chill, p. 400