1: The Torah teaches that humans are granted dominion
over animals (Gen. 1:26), giving us a warrant to treat animals in any
way we wish.
Response: Jewish tradition interprets
"dominion" as guardianship, or stewardship: we are called upon to be
co-workers with God in improving the world. Dominion does not mean
that people have the right to wantonly exploit animals, and it
certainly does not permit us to breed animals and treat them as
machines designed solely to meet human needs.
In A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace, Rav Kook
states: "There can be no doubt in the mind of any intelligent person
that [the Divine empowerment of humanity to derive benefit from
nature] does not mean the domination of a harsh ruler, who afflicts
his people and servants merely to satisfy his whim and desire,
according to the crookedness of his heart. It is unthinkable that the
Divine Law would impose such a decree of servitude, sealed for all
eternity, upon the world of God, Who is 'good to all, and His mercy is
upon all His works' (Ps. 145:9)." This view is reinforced by the fact
that immediately after God gave humankind dominion over animals (Gen.
1:26), He prescribed vegetarian foods as the diet for humans (Gen.
2: The Torah teaches that only people are created in
the Divine Image, meaning that God places far less value on animals.
Response: While the Torah states that only
human beings are created "in the Divine Image" (Gen. 5:1), animals are
also God's creatures, possessing sensitivity and the capacity for
feeling pain. God is concerned that they are protected and treated
with compassion and justice. In fact, the Jewish sages state that to
be "created in the Divine Image," means that people have the capacity
to emulate the Divine compassion for all creatures. "As God is
compassionate," they teach, "so you should be compassionate."
3: Inconsistent with Judaism, vegetarians elevate
animals to a level equal to or greater than that of people.
Response: Vegetarians' concern for animals
and their refusal to treat animals cruelly does not mean that they
regard animals as equals. There are many reasons to be vegetarian
besides consideration for animalsóconcerns about human health,
ecological threats, and the plight of hungry people, to name a few.
Because humans are capable of imagination,
rationality, empathy, compassion, and moral choice, we should strive
to end the unbelievably cruel conditions under which farm animals are
currently raised. This is an issue of sensitivity, not an assertion of
equality with the animal kingdom.
4: Vegetarianism places greater priority on animal
rights than on the many problems related to human welfare.
Response: Vegetarian diets are not beneficial
only to animals. They improve human health, help conserve food and
other resources, and put less strain on endangered ecosystems. In view
of the many threats related to today's livestock agriculture (such as
deforestation and global climate change), working to promote
vegetarianism may be the most important action that one can take for
5: By putting vegetarian values ahead of Jewish
teachings, vegetarians are, in effect, creating a new religion with
values contrary to Jewish teachings.
Response: Jewish vegetarians are not placing
so-called "vegetarian values" above Torah principles but are
challenging the Jewish community to apply Judaism's teachings at every
level of our daily lives. Jewish teachings that we treat animals with
compassion, guard our health, share with the hungry, protect the
environment, conserve resources, and seek peace, are best applied
through vegetarian diets.
6: Jews must eat meat on Shabbat and Yom Tov (Jewish
Response: According to the Talmud (T. B.
Pesachim 109a), since the destruction of the Temple, Jews are not
required to eat meat in order to rejoice on sacred occasions. This
view is reinforced in the works Reshit Chochmah and Kerem Shlomo and
Rabbi Chizkiah Medini's Sdei Chemed, which cites many classical
sources on the subject. Several Israeli chief rabbis, including Shlomo
Goren, late Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, and Shear Yashuv Cohen,
Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Haifa, have been or are strict vegetarians.
7: The Torah mandated that Jews eat korban Pesach and
other korbanot (sacrifices).
Response: The great Jewish philosopher
Maimonides believed that God permitted sacrifices as a concession to
the common mode of worship in Biblical times.
It was felt that had Moses not instituted the
sacrifices, his mission would have failed and Judaism might have
disappeared. The Jewish philosopher Abarbanel reinforced Maimonides'
position by citing a midrash (Rabbinic teaching) that indicates God
tolerated the sacrifices because the Israelites had become accustomed
to sacrifices in Egypt, but that He commanded they be offered only in
one central sanctuary in order to wean the Jews from idolatrous
8: Jews historically have had many problems with some
animal rights groups, which have often opposed shechita (ritual
slaughter) and advocated its abolishment.
Response: Jews should consider switching to
vegetarianism not because of the views of animal rights groups
(whether they are hostile to Judaism or not), but because it is the
diet most consistent with Jewish teachings. It is the Torah, not
animal rights groups, which is the basis for observing how far current
animal treatment has strayed from fundamental Jewish values. As Samson
Raphael Hirsch stated: "Here you are faced with God's teaching, which
obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on
any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever
you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours."
9: The restrictions of shechita minimize the pain to
animals in the slaughtering process, and thus fulfill Jewish laws on
proper treatment of animals.
Response: This ignores the cruel treatment of
animals on "factory farms" in the many months prior to slaughter. Can
we ignore the force-feeding of huge amounts of grain to ducks and
geese to produce foie gras, the removal of calves from their mothers
shortly after birth to raise them for veal, the killing of over 250
million male chicks immediately after birth at egg-laying hatcheries
in the U.S. annually, the placing of hens in cages so small that they
can't raise even one wing, and the many other horrors of modern
10: If Jews do not eat meat, they will be deprived of
the opportunity to fulfill many mitzvot (commandments).
Response: By not eating meat, Jews are
actually fulfilling many mitzvot: showing compassion to animals,
preserving health, conserving resources, helping to feed the hungry,
and preserving the earth. And by abstaining from meat, Jews reduce the
chance of accidentally violating several prohibitions of the Torah,
such as mixing meat and milk, eating nonkosher animals, and eating
forbidden fats or blood. There are other cases where Torah laws
regulate things that God would prefer people not do at all. For
example, God wishes people to live in peace, but He provides
commandments relating to war, knowing that human beings will quarrel
and seek victories over others.
Similarly, the Torah laws that restrict taking
female captives in wartime are a concession to human weakness. Indeed,
the sages go to great lengths to deter people from taking advantage of
11: Judaism teaches that it is wrong not to take
advantage of the pleasurable things that God has put on the earth. Since
He put animals on the earth, and it is pleasurable to eat them, is it
not wrong to refrain from eating meat?
Response: Can eating meat be pleasurable to a
sensitive person when he or she knows that, as a result, their health
is endangered, grain is wasted, the environment is damaged, and
animals are being cruelly treated? One can indulge in pleasure without
doing harm to living creatures. There are many other cases in Judaism
where actions that people may consider pleasurable are forbidden or
discouragedósuch as the use of tobacco, drinking liquor to excess,
having sexual relations out of wedlock, and hunting.
12: A movement by Jews toward vegetarianism would lead
to less emphasis on kashrut (dietary laws) and eventually a disregard of
Response: Quite the contrary. In many ways,
becoming a vegetarian makes it easier and less expensive to observe
the laws of kashrut. This might attract many new adherents to keeping
kosher, and eventually to other important Jewish practices. As a
vegetarian, one need not be concerned with mixing milchigs (dairy
products) with fleichigs (meat products), waiting three or six hours
after eating meat before being allowed to eat dairy products, storing
four complete sets of dishes (two for regular use and two for Passover
use), extra silverware, pots, pans, etc., and many other
considerations incumbent upon the nonvegetarian who wishes to observe
13: If everyone became vegetarian, butchers, shochtim
(slaughterers), and others dependent for a living on the consumption of
meat would lack work.
Response: There could be a shift from the
production of animal products to that of nutritious vegetarian dishes.
In England during World War II, when there was a shortage of meat,
butchers relied mainly on the sale of fruits and vegetables. Today,
new businesses could sell tofu, miso, felafel, soy burgers, and
vegetarian cholent (Sabbath hot dish). Besides, the shift toward
vegetarianism will be gradual, providing time for a transition to
The same kind of question can be asked about other
moral issues. What would happen to arms merchants if we had universal
peace? What would happen to some doctors and nurses if people took
better care of themselves, stopped smoking, improved their diets, and
so on? Immoral or inefficient practices should not be supported
because some people earn a living in the process.
14: If everyone became vegetarian, animals would
overrun the earth.
Response: This concern is based on an
insufficient understanding of animal behavior. For example, there are
millions of turkeys around at Thanksgiving not because they want to
help celebrate the holiday, but because farmers breed them for the
dinner table. Dairy cows are artificially inseminated annually so that
they will constantly produce milk. Before the establishment of modern
intensive livestock agriculture, food supply and demand kept animal
populations relatively steady. An end to the manipulation of animals'
reproductive tendencies to suit our needs would lead to a decrease,
rather than an increase, in the number of animals. We are not overrun
by animals that we do not eat, such as lions, elephants, and
15: Instead of advocating vegetarianism, we should
alleviate the evils of factory farming so that animals are treated
better, less grain is wasted, and less health-harming chemicals are
Response: The breeding of animals is "big
business." Animals are raised the way they are today because it is
very profitable. Improving conditions, as suggested by this assertion,
would certainly be a step in the right direction, but it has been
strongly resisted by the meat industry since it would greatly increase
already high prices. Why not abstain from eating meat as a protest
against present policies while trying to improve them? Even under the
best of conditions, why take the life of a creature of God, "whose
tender mercies are over all His creatures" (Ps. 145:9), when it is not
necessary for proper nutrition?
16: One can work to improve conditions for animals
without being a vegetarian.
Response: Animal abuse is a widespread
problem and there are many ways to improve conditions for animals.
However, one should keep in mind that factory farming is the primary
source of animal abuse in this country.
According to FARM (Farm Animal Reform Movement),
"The number of warm-blooded animals brutalized and slaughtered each
year is approximately 70 times the number of animals killed in
laboratories, 30 times the number killed by hunters and trappers, and
500 times the number killed in pounds." They also reported that almost
10 billion farm animals are killed annually to produce food. A typical
meat-eating animal welfare advocate is personally responsible for the
slaughter of twenty-two warm-blooded animals per year, 1,500 in an
17: If vegetarian diets were best for health, doctors
would recommend them.
Response: Unfortunately, while doctors are
devoted to the well-being of their patients, many lack information
about the basic relationship between food and health because nutrition
is not sufficiently taught at most medical schools.
Also, many patients are resistant to making dietary
changes. The accepted approach today seems to be to prescribe
medications first and, perhaps, recommend a diet change as an
afterthought. However, there now seems to be increasing awareness on
the part of doctors about the importance of proper nutrition, but the
financial power of the beef and dairy lobbies and other groups who
gain from the status quo prevents rapid changes.
18: I enjoy eating meat. Why should I give it up?
Response: If one is solely motivated by what
will bring pleasure, perhaps no answer to this question would be
acceptable. But Judaism wishes us to be motivated by far more: doing
mitzvot, performing good deeds and acts of charity, sanctifying
ourselves in the realm of the permissible, helping to feed the hungry,
pursuing justice and peace, etc. Even if one is primarily motivated by
considerations of pleasure and convenience, the negative health
effects of animal-centered diets should be taken into account. One
cannot enjoy life when one is not in good health.
Richard H. Schwartz is professor emeritus of
mathematics at the College of Staten Island and author of Judaism and
Vegetarianism and Judaism and Global Survival.