By Richard H. Schwartz
1) The Torah teaches that humans are granted dominion over animals
(Genesis 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' (Psalms 145:9)." This view is reinforced by
the fact that immediately after God gave humankind dominion over animals
(Genesis 1:26), He prescribed vegetarian foods as the diet for humans (Genesis
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" (Genesis 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 vegetarians regard animals as being equal to
people. There are many reasons for being vegetarian other than consideration for
animals, including concerns about human health, ecological threats, and the
plight of hungry people. 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
Response: Jewish vegetarians are not placing so-called "vegetarian values"
above Torah principles but are challenging the Jewish community to apply
Judaism's splendid teachings at every level of our daily lives. Vegetarians
argue that Jewish teachings that we must treat animals with compassion, guard
our health, share with hungry people, protect the environment, conserve
resources, and seek peace, are all best applied through vegetarian diets.
6) Jews must eat meat on Shabbat and Yom Tov (Jewish holidays).
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
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
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
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 factory farming?
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 non-kosher 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
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
discouraged - such 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 these laws.
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
non-vegetarian who wishes to observe kashrut.
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 other jobs.
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 crocodiles.
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 used.
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" (Psalms 145:9), when it is not necessary for proper
16) One can work to improve conditions for animals without being a
Response: Certainly, 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 ten 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 average lifetime.
17) If vegetarian diets were best for health, doctors would recommend
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.
Go on to: Cheap Grace
Return to: September - October 2008 Issue
Return to: Humane Religion Magazine