Many of us associate Shabbat and holidays with heavy meat meals, to the point where meat-eating almost seems like an integral part of the Jewish religion. But here’s something you may not know: about a hundred years ago, a leading rabbi wrote that eating meat was far from the Jewish ideal.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, a renowned scholar and the founder of a Zionist yeshiva in Jerusalem. In 1902-03, he published articles in which he declared vegetarianism to be the ideal Jewish way to eat.
Rabbi Kook wrote that in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were told that they could eat from any of the trees in the garden but there was no mention of animal consumption. Eating of animals was not mentioned until after the flood when Noah and his sons were commanded to avoid eating meat from live animals.
The flood was a result of the reduced morality of humanity, and, according to Rabbi Kook, permission to eat meat derived from the same source. A clear division between human and animal was necessary in order to allow for equal relationships between people.
The ideal was the vegetarianism of the Garden of Eden, but the imperfection of mankind caused God to allow the eating of meat under certain circumstances. The laws of kosher are meant to reduce the suffering of the animals and show our compassion even as we utilize them for food.
According to Rabbi Kook, in messianic times human morality will return to the elevated state of the Garden of Eden, and meat-eating will no longer be necessary. At this point, humanity will become vegetarian (with the exception of sacrifices in the Temple). Rabbi Kook wrote, “When humanity reaches its goal of complete happiness and spiritual liberation…Then human beings will recognize their companions in Creation: all the animals.”
Rabbi Kook did not preach vegetarianism for the masses, and was in fact not a complete vegetarian himself. He felt that the injustices which must be fixed in the world were so numerous that eating of animals was not high on the list. However, some of his students (and their students) did choose to become vegetarian or partially vegetarian as a result of his teachings.
Looking at movements around the world, it’s clear that more and more people see veganism and vegetarianism as attractive health and ethical choices. As this trend continues and grows in strength, we may see more and more people joining the ranks of vegetarianism and veganism. And Rabbi Kook’s vision of a world where men, women and children choose to abstain from eating meat might just come true.
Your turn: Do you it would be positive if more Jewish leaders addressed how the Jewish community eats today?