By: Vasu Murti firstname.lastname@example.org Please feel free to contact the author with you comments or to obtain a complete copy of this book (see ordering details at the end)
The ethical basis for vegetarianism and animal rights is secular and nonsectarian. The religious basis for vegetarianism in the Western religions, however, has its origin both in the Bible and the Jewish tradition. To this day, the largest number of religious vegetarians outside India can be found in Israel. According to the Bible, God intended the entire human race to follow a vegetarian diet.
"And God said: ‘Behold! I have given you every plant-yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree-yielding seed; you shall have them for food.’" ---Genesis 1:29
Paradise is vegetarian. Rashi (Rabbi Solomon von Isaac, 1030-1105), the famous Jewish Bible commentator, taught that "God did not permit Adam and his wife to kill a creature and to eat its flesh. Only every green herb shall they all eat together." Ibn Ezra and other Jewish biblical commentators agree.
According to the Talmud (compilations of rabbinical dialogue and commentary on the Bible), "Adam and many generations that followed him were strict flesh-abstainers; flesh-foods were rejected as repulsive for human consumption." Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), Judaism’s greatest and most influential theologian thus far, taught that meat was prohibited because living creatures possess a degree of spiritual superiority, resembling the souls of rational beings.
Although man was made in God’s image and given dominion over all creation (Genesis 1:26-28), these verses do not justify humans killing animals and then devouring them, because God immediately proclaims He created the plants for human consumption. (Genesis 1:29) Dr. Michael Fox of the Humane Society has argued that the word "dominion" is derived from the original Hebrew word "rahe" which refers to compassionate stewardship, instead of power and control. Parents have dominion over their children; they do not have a license to kill, torment or abuse them. The Talmud (Shabbat 119; Sanhedrin 7) interprets "dominion" to mean animals may only be used for labor.
Man was made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26) and told to be vegetarian (Genesis 1:29). "And God saw all that He had made and saw that it was very good." (Genesis 1:31) Complete and perfect harmony. Everything in the beginning was the way God wanted it. Vegetarianism was part of God’s initial plan for the world.
"It appears that the first intention of the Maker was to have men live on a strictly vegetarian diet," writes Rabbi Simon Glazer, in his 1971 Guide to Judaism. "The very earliest periods of Jewish history are marked with humanitarian conduct towards the lower animal kingdom...It is clearly established that the ancient Hebrews knew, and perhaps were the first among men to know, that animals feel and suffer pain."
After humans ate of the forbidden fruit, the earth gradually became "corrupt...and full of violence." (Genesis 6:11) The peace of the garden was destroyed. (Genesis 3:17) Conflict began between humans and animals. (Genesis 3:15) The violence described above quite possibly included the drinking of blood and the tearing of limbs from animals, because both these practices are forbidden in the Bible.
The sacrifice of animals began. (Genesis 4:4) The skins of animals began to be used as clothing. (Genesis 3:21) Human beings began to murder one another. (Genesis 4:8,23) This violence increased to such a degree that God regretted having created humankind. (Genesis 6:13,16) So God decided to destroy the human race; choosing Noah and his family to survive the great Flood.
After the Flood, God revised His commandment against flesh-eating. Human beings, since eating of the forbidden fruit, seemed incapable of obedience on this issue. One Jewish writer comments, "Only after man had proven unfit for the high moral standard set at the beginning, was meat made a part of the humans’ diet." Others claim flesh-eating was permitted to prevent cannibalism. We read:
"The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth...Into your hand they are delivered...Only you shall not eat the flesh with its life, that is, its blood." ---Genesis 9:2-4
This commandment against consuming blood is repeatedly given throughout both the Old and New Testaments: Genesis 9:3; Leviticus 17:10-12, 19:26; Deuteronomy 12:16,23,25, 15:23; Acts 15:19-20,29. The Bible identifies blood with life itself: "...for the blood is the life..." (Deuteronomy 12:23). The blood of a slain animal, which symbolizes the essence of life, must be returned to the Giver of Life. This commandment against consuming blood was first given to Noah, who was not Jewish; it was intended for all mankind. (Acts 21:25)
Rabbi Samuel Dresner makes this observation: "The removal of blood...is one of the most powerful means of making us constantly aware of the concession and compromise which the whole act of eating meat, in reality, is...it teaches us reverence for life." According to Dresner: "...the eating of meat is itself a sort of compromise...
"Man ideally should not eat meat, for to eat meat a life must be taken, an animal must be put to death." Rabbi Milgrom regards the commandment against blood as a law that permits man to "indulge in his lust for meat and not be brutalized in the process."
It is important to note that before the Flood, when humans were vegetarian, lifespans were measured in terms of centuries. Adam, for example, lived to be 930 years old. Seth (Adam’s son) lived to 912. Enoch (Seth’s son) to at least 905. Kenan (Enoch’s son) lived to 910, all the way up to Methusalah, who lived for 969 years. After the Flood, when flesh-eating was permitted, human lifespans were reduced to decades. Abraham, for example, lived to be only 175. Genesis 1:29-31 was a blessing; Genesis 9:2-4 a curse.
Thus, the Lord reluctantly allowed His creatures to become innocent victims of human tyranny and brutality. It would be erroneous, however, to assume God became indifferent to the plight of the animals, or that humans have no moral obligation towards them. The Lord is good to all and "His tender mercies are over all His creatures." (Psalm 145:9,16-17) God provides food for the beasts and birds. (Psalm 104:24-28, 147:9) God considered animals as well as humans when admonishing Jonah: "...and should I not have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons...and also much cattle?" (Jonah 4:11)
Rebecca was judged to be a good wife for Isaac because of the kindness she showed to animals. Abraham’s servant Eleazar asked Rebecca for water. She not only gave him water, but also went to provide water for his camels as well. Rebecca’s concern for the camels indicated she had a tender heart and felt compassion for all God’s creatures. It convinced Eleazar that Rebecca would make a suitable wife for Isaac. (Genesis 24:11-20)
Jacob also showed concern for animals. After their reconciliation, his brother Esau said to him, "Let us take our journey and let us go, and I will go before thee." But Jacob was concerned about his flocks and his children. He replied: "...the children are tender... the flocks and the herds giving suck are in care to me; and if they overdrive them, one day, all the flocks will die...I will journey on gently, according to the pace of the cattle that are before me, and according to the pace of the children, until I come unto my Lord, unto Seir." (Genesis 33:12-14)
"A righteous man cares for his animals, but even the mercy of the wicked is cruel." (Proverbs 12:10) A Jewish legend says Moses was found righteous by God through his shepherding. While Moses was tending his sheep of Jethro in the Midian wilderness, a young kid ran away from the flock. Moses ran after it until he found the kid drinking by a pool of water. Moses approached the kid and said, "I did not know that you ran away because you were thirsty; now, you must be tired." So Moses placed the animal on his shoulders and carried him back to the flock. God said, "Because thou has shown mercy in leading the flock, thou will surely tend My flock, Israel."
Animals are to be rested on the Sabbath. (Exodus 20:8-10, 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:12-14) One is forbidden to kill a newborn ox, sheep or goat until it has had at least seven days of warmth and nourishment from its mother. (Leviticus 22:27) The Bible also forbids killing a calf or a lamb with an ox or an ewe on the same day. (Leviticus 22:28) It is a biblical commandment to help an animal in pain, even if it belongs to an enemy. (Exodus 23:5) If one sees an injured animal, it is his duty to help. (Deuteronomy 22:4) One is even promised a long life for not disturbing a mother-bird with her children. (Deuteronomy 22:6-7) Moses Maimonides commented that if the Torah teaches that even animals should not be caused grief, "how much more careful must we be that we should not cause grief to our fellow men."
In the Book of Numbers appears the well-known story of Balaam, the pagan soothsayer sent by the Moabites and Midianites to visit and place a curse upon the Israelites. God sends one of His angels to stop Balaam, and the ass upon which he is riding suddenly sees "an angel of the Lord standing in his way." The animal turns away from the path, and crushes Balaam’s food against a wall, finally lying down beneath his rider. Balaam, angry and confused, strikes his ass three times, and finally, "the Lord opened the mouth of the ass and said unto Balaam, ‘What have I done unto thee? Am I not thine ass upon which thou hast ridden all thy life long unto this day? Was I ever wont to do this unto thee?’ And he said, ‘Nay.’ Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way...and he bowed his head and fell on his face. And the angel of the Lord said unto him, ‘Why hast thou struck thine ass three times?’...and Balaam said unto the angel of the Lord, ‘I have sinned, for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me.’" (Numbers 22:23-35) Maimonides quotes this passage as a basis for the "rule laid down by our sages, that it is directly prohibited in the Torah to cause pain to an animal."
The sages noted animals were created before humans. Fish and birds were created by God on the fourth day (Genesis 1:20-25), while other animals were created on the fifth. The Israelites were commanded to leave fields untilled and unharvested for the poor and the animals every seventh year. (Exodus 23:11) Balaam compared Israel to "a wild bull full of towering might;" its people are like lions. (Numbers 23:22,24) According to the Bible, God provides for animals and their ensoulment. Psalm 104:21-30 praises God for providing animals with food and a life-giving spirit.
The apocryphal Book of Judith similarly praises God, saying, "Let every creature serve You, for You spoke and they were made. You sent forth Your spirit and they were created." Throughout the Bible, the Lord is called a Shepherd and Israel His flock. The Lord’s protection of His people is compared to that of an eagle towards its young. (Deuteronomy 32:10-12) Isaiah favorably compares the ox and the ass to Israel. (Isaiah 1:2-3) God shields Jerusalem like a bird (Isaiah 31:5) and wild beasts honor the Lord for providing water in deserts and wastelands (Isaiah 43:20).
The prophet Joel says in times of crisis, "even the beasts of the field" cry out to God. (Joel 1:20) Animals, along with men, were even involved in repentance. (Jonah 3:7-8) In Proverbs, the ant is praised for its diligence (6:6-8), while ants, rock-badgers, locusts and lizards are said to be "wise beyond the wisest" (30:24-28).
"For man is a creature of chance and the beasts are creatures of chance, and one mischance awaits them all: death comes to both alike. They all draw the same breath.
"Men have no advantage over the beasts, for all is emptiness. All go to the same place: all came from the dust, and to dust all return."
"But now ask the animals to teach you, and the birds of the air to tell you. Or the reptiles on earth to instruct you, and the fish of the sea to inform you.
"Which of all these does not know that the hand of God has done this? In His hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind."
The Bible teaches that Divine Wisdom—the answer to life’s most pressing questions—is known only by God. (Job 28:23-28) It is not known to man (Job 28:13) or the animals (Job 28:7,8,21). God speaks to Job and asks him:
"Who puts wisdom in the heart and gives the cock its understanding? Who provides nourishment for the ravens when their young cry out to God and they roam about without food? Do you know about the birth of the mountain goats, watch for the birth pangs of hinds...they deliver their progeny in the desert. Who has given the wild ass his freedom and who has loosed him from bonds? I have made the wilderness his home, and the salt flats his dwelling. Will the wild ox consent to serve you and to pass the nights by your manger? Do you make the steed to quiver while his thunderous snorting spreads terror? Is it by your discernment that the hawk soars, that he spreads his wings toward the south? Does the eagle fly up at your command, to build his nest aloft?"
---Job 38:36,41; 39:1,3,5-6,19,20,26-27
According to the Torah (Genesis 6:9), Noah is honored as a "tzaddik," or a righteous man. Commentators say this is because he provided charity ("tzedakah") for so many animals on the ark. The high level of awareness and concern given to the care and feeding of the animals aboard the ark reflects the traditional Jewish value of not causing harm to animals, or tsa’ar ba’alei chayim. This moral principle—officially set down as law in the Bible and elaborated upon in the Talmud (Shabbat 128b), the medieval commentaries and the Responsa literature—permeates the many legends that grew up around the leading figures in the Torah and in Jewish history.
Kindness to animals has always been valued by the Jewish tradition; it has also been considered an important measure of a person’s piety, compassion and righteousness. From this value emerged the stories about how shepherds such as Moses and David were elevated to national leadership because of their compassion for their lambs. There are also many "maysehs," or moralistic folktales in Judaism about sages who rescued or fed stray cows and hungry chickens, watered thirsty horses and freed caged birds.
The Talmud (Baba Mezia 85a) contains the story of Rabbi Judah. A calf was being taken to be slaughtered. It broke loose, and hid its head under the rabbi’s skirt. It cried out in terror. The rabbi said, "Go, for you were created for this purpose." In heaven, the response was, "This man has no pity, let suffering come upon him." The rabbi then began to suffer from disease for the next thirteen years. One day his maidservant was going to sweep away some young weasels. The rabbi said to let them be, quoting Psalm 145:9, "and His tender care rests upon all His creatures." The rabbi’s health was then restored.
In the Talmud (Eruvin 100b), Rabbi Yochanon teaches, "Even if we had not been given the Torah, we still would have learned modesty from the cat, honesty from the ant, chastity from the dove, and good manners from the rooster. Thus, the animals should be honored."
According to the Talmud (Shabbat 77b), the entire creation is to be respected: "Thou thinkest that flies, fleas, mosquitos are superfluous, but they have their purpose in creation as a means of a final outcome...Of all that the Holy One, Blessed be He, created in His world, he did not create a single thing without purpose."
The Talmud (Avodah Zorah 18b) also forbids association with hunters. Rabbi Ezekiel Landau (1713-93) was once asked by a man if he could hunt on his large estate. The rabbi replied:
"In the Torah the sport of hunting is imputed only to fierce characters like Nimrod and Esau, never to any of the patriarchs and their descendants...I cannot comprehend how a Jew could even dream of killing animals merely for the pleasure of hunting...When the act of killing is prompted by that of sport, it is downright cruelty."
The Talmud (Gittin 62a) further teaches that one should not own a domestic or wild animal or even a bird if he cannot properly care for it. Although there is no general rule forbidding animal cruelty, so many commandments call for humane treatment, the talmudic rabbis explicitly declared compassion for animals to be biblical law (Shabbat 128b).
According to the Talmud (Shabbat 151b), "He who has mercy on his fellow creatures obtains mercy for himself." The first century Jewish historian Josephus described mercy as the underlying principle of all Jewish laws. These laws, he says, do not ignore the animals: "Ill treatment of a brute beast is with us a capital crime."
The Tanchuma, homilies from the 5th century AD, teach:
"If men embark on a sea voyage and take cattle with them, and should a storm arise, they throw the cattle overboard, because people do not love animals as they love human beings.
"Not so is the Lord’s love. Just as He is merciful to man, so is He merciful to beasts. You can see this from the story of the Flood. When men sinned, the Lord decided to destroy the Earth. He treated both man and beast alike. But when He was reconciled, He was reconciled to both man and beast alike."
During the Middle Ages Yehudah Ha-Chassid taught, "The greatest sin is ingratitude. It must not be shown even to the brute. That man deserves punishment who overloads his beast, or beats or torments it, who drags a cat by the ears, or uses spurs to his horse..."
The medieval work Sefer Chasidim, or The Book of the Pious, says, "Be kind and compassionate to all creatures that the Holy One, Blessed be He, created in this world. Never beat nor inflict pain on any animal, beast, bird or insect. Do not throw stones at a dog or a cat, nor should ye kill flies or wasps."
According to Shulhan Aruch, the Orthodox Code of Jewish Law, no special blessings are given for meat dishes. "It is not fitting to bless God over something which He created and which man has slain." It is also forbidden to celebrate the acquisition of a leather garment. Similarly, it is a custom never to wear leather shoes on Yom Kippur. "One does not ask for forgiveness of sins while wearing articles made from the skins of slaughtered animals." Shulhan Aruch teaches: "It is forbidden, according to the Torah, to hurt any living creature. It is, on the contrary, one’s duty to save any living creature, be he ownerless, or if he belongs to a non-Jew."
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch taught, "The boy, who in crude joy, finds delight in the convulsions of an injured beetle or the anxiety of a suffering animal will also be dumb towards human pain." British historian William Lecky noted, "Tenderness towards animals is one of the most beautiful features of the Old Testament."
There is considerable evidence within the Bible suggesting God’s plan is to restore His Kingdom on earth and return mankind to vegetarianism. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Chief Rabbi of prestate Israel, wrote: "It is inconceivable that the Creator who had planned a world of harmony and a perfect way for man to live should, many thousands of years later, find that this plan was wrong."
Rabbi Kook believed the concession to eat meat (Genesis 9:3) was never intended to be a permanent condition. In his essay, "A Vision of Peace and Vegetarianism," he asked: "...how can it be that such a noble and enlightened moral position (Genesis 1:29) should pass away after it once has been brought into existence?"
The Hebrew words "nephesh chayah," or "living soul" are used in reference to animals as well as humans in Genesis 1:21,24, 2:7 and four hundred other places in the Bible. The books of the bible emphasize vegetarian foods. Flesh-foods, however, are mentioned with distaste and associated with bloodshed, lust, slaughter and sacrifice.
Right after Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit, God tells them: "Cursed be the ground because of you. In toil shall ye eat its yield, all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to you, as you eat of the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat." (Genesis 3:17-19)
The Bible contrasts the divinely favored Jacob, a man of peace, with his brother Esau, a hunter. (Genesis 25:21-34; Malachi 1:2-3) In Genesis 27:28, the patriarch Isaac blesses his son Jacob, that God may give him the dews of the heavens, the fertility of the earth and an abundance of grain. Jacob prays for bread. (Genesis 28:20-21)
"Do not mix with winebibbers or with gluttonous eaters of meat."
In his essay, "The Dietary Prohibitions of the Hebrews," Jean Soler finds in the Bible at least two times when an attempt was made to try the Israelites out on a vegetarian diet. During the period of exodus from Egypt, the Hebrews lived entirely on manna. They had large flocks which they brought with them, but never touched.
The Israelites were told that manna "is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat." (Exodus 16:5) For forty years in the desert, the Israelites lived on manna (Nehemiah 9:15,21). The apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon (16:20) calls manna the food of the angels. Manna is described as a vegetable food, like "coriander seed" (Numbers 11:7), tasting like wafers and honey (Exodus 16:31).
On two separate occasions, however, the men rebelled against Moses because they wanted meat. The meat-hungry Hebrews lamented, "Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots." God ended this first "experiment in vegetarianism" through the miracle of the quails.
A second "experiment in vegetarianism" is suggested in the Book of Numbers, when the Hebrews lament once again, "O that we had meat to eat." (Numbers 11:4) God repeated the miracle of the quails, but this time with a vengeance: "And while the flesh was between their teeth, before it was even chewed, the wrath of the Lord was kindled against the people, and He struck them down with a great plague." (Numbers 11:33)
The site where the deaths took place was named "The Graves of Lust." (Numbers 11:34; Deuteronomy 12:20) The quail meat was called "basar ta’avah," or "meat of lust." The Talmud (Chulin 84a) comments that: "The Torah teaches a lesson in moral conduct, that man shall not eat meat unless he has a special craving for it, and shall eat it only occasionally and sparingly." Here, according to Soler, as in the story of the Flood, "meat is given a negative connotation. It is a concession God makes to man’s imperfection."
Rabbi Kook taught that because humans had an insatiable desire to kill animals and eat their flesh, they could not yet be returned to a moral standard which called for vegetarianism. Kook regarded Deuteronomy 12:15,20 ("Thou mayest slaughter and eat... after all the desire of thy soul,") as poetically misleading. He translated this Torah verse as: "because you lust after eating meat...then you may slaughter and eat."
In his book Judaism and Vegetarianism, Dr. Richard H. Schwartz notes that God’s blessings to man throughout the Bible are almost entirely vegetarian: products of the soil, seeds, sun and rain.
"For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey; a land wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness, and thou shalt not lack anything in it."
In the Bible, Israel is repeatedly called a "land flowing with milk and honey." (Exodus 3:8,17; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:27, 14:8; Deuteronomy 11:9, 26:9,15, 27:3, 31:20; Baruch 1:20; Ezekiel 20:15) God Himself describes Israel as a "garden land," saying He brought His people there to "eat its goodly fruits." (Jeremiah 2:7)
"The lambs will provide your clothing, and the goats the price of a field. You shall have enough goat’s milk for the food of your household, and the nourishment of your maidservants...
"He who tills his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows frivolity will have poverty enough!"
---Proverbs 27:26-27, 28:19
God sent ravens to feed the prophet Elijah. Elijah lived on bread and water; by the grace of God, he provided a widow with flour and oil. (I Kings 17:4-16) When fleeing for his life in the desert, Elijah fell asleep under a tree. An angel later awoke him and gave him a hearth cake and a jug of water. (I Kings 19:3-8) Elijah never died, but was lifted up into heaven. (II Kings 2:11) Elisha raised a child from the dead (II Kings 4:32-37) and multiplied twenty barley loaves to feed one hundred men (II Kings 4:42-44).
God is loving and forgiving: "Come now, let us see things right, says the Lord. Though your sins be as scarlet they may become white as snow; though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool. If you are willing and obey, you shall eat the good things of the land. But if you refuse and resist, the sword shall consume you; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken!" (Isaiah 1:18-20)
God can provide for man’s needs: "The Lord will give you the bread you need and the water for which you thirst. He will give you rain for the seed that you sow in the ground and the wheat that the soil produces will be rich and abundant." (Isaiah 30:20,23) The Lord’s threat to a disobedient Israel? "No grapes on their vines, no figs on their fig tree." (Jeremiah 8:13) God commanded Ezekiel to live on bread made of wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet and spelt. (Ezekiel 4:9) God spoke to Jerusalem as His beloved (Ezekiel 16:1-14), saying, "Thus you were adorned with gold and silver; your garments were of fine linen, silk and embroidered cloth. Fine flour, honey and oil were your food."
"He causes the grass to spring up for the cattle, fruits and vegetables for man to cultivate, that he may derive sustenance from the land...and bread to improve a man’s health."
The prophet Joel describes God’s blessings as green pastures, grain, oil and fruit-bearing trees. God’s "immense good gifts" are described by Ezra as vineyards, olive groves and fruit trees. (Nehemiah 9:25)
The Song of Songs poetically depicts the mutual love between God and Israel as a relationship between the lover and the beloved. The prophets Isaiah (5:1-7, 54:4-8), Jeremiah (2:2,32) and Ezekiel (16:23) also characterized the covenant between God and Israel as a marriage. The divine bounty is mentioned in terms of figs, honey, spices, milk, saffron, cinnamon, fruits, apples and pomegranates.
Philip L. Pick, founder of the International Jewish Vegetarian Society, writes: "The practice of vegetarianism is implicit in the teachings of Judaism and is evident from the oft-repeated phrases in Genesis ‘to man and all creatures wherein there is a living soul.’ This indicates a common life and a shared destiny and the principle is exemplified throughout biblical writings. Nowhere is it stated that the abundance of flesh shall be the reward for observing the Law; rather, there are promises of fruits of the vine and pomegranates, wheat, barley and oil, and peace when each man shall sit under the shade of his own fig tree, not, let it be noted, under the shadow of his own slaughterhouse."
"And they shall beat their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks Nation shall not lift up sword against nation Neither shall they learn war any more
"But they shall sit every man under his vine And under his fig tree And none shall make them afraid For the Lord of hosts has spoken."
---Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3-4
God’s desire is to extend His spirit of divine peace to mankind and the rest of creation. A reconciliation. To return the world to a vegetarian paradise, so all His creatures may again live together in perfect peace:
"Then I will make a covenant on behalf of Israel with the wild beasts, the birds of the air, and the things that creep on the earth, and I will break the bow and sword and weapon of war and sweep them off the earth, so that all living creatures may lie down without fear."
It is important to note that God plans to make His covenant with the animals themselves. This is not the first time God deals directly with animals—He made a similar covenant after the Flood:
"I now make My covenant with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, all birds and cattle, all the wild animals with you on earth, all that have come out of the ark. I will make My covenant with you: never again shall living creatures be destroyed by the waters of the Flood..."
The future Kingdom of Peace is described clearly by Isaiah:
"The wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid and the calf and the lion and the fatling together And a little child shall lead them.
"The cow and the bear shall feed their young shall lie down together and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The suckling child shall play over the hole of the asp and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den
"They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain For all the earth shall be in full knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea."
According to the prophet Jeremiah:
"The day is coming, sayeth the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt, for they broke My covenant and I had to show Myself their master.
"But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel...I will place My Law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God and they shall be My people."
The prophet Ezekiel speaks similarly:
"I will make a covenant of peace with them and rid the country of ravenous beasts, that they may dwell securely in the desert and sleep in the forests.
"I will place them about My hill, sending rain in due seasons, rain that shall be a blessing to them. The trees of the field shall bear their fruits, and the land its crops, and they shall dwell securely on their own soil...
"They shall no longer be despoiled by the nations or devoured by beasts of the earth, but shall dwell secure with no one to frighten them. I will prepare for them peaceful fields for planting...Thus, they shall know that I, the Lord, am their God, and they are My people, the house of Israel, says the Lord God."
The Bible thus begins and ends in a Kingdom where slaughter is unknown, and identifies the one annointed by God to bring about this Kingdom as "Mashiach," or the Messiah. Humanity’s very beginning in Paradise, and destiny in the age of the Messiah are vividly depicted as vegetarian. "In that future state," taught Rabbi Kook, "people’s lives will no longer be supported at the expense of the animals." Isaiah (65:25) repeats his prophecy again. This is God’s plan.
"The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise."
What, then, are we to make of the ancient practice of sacrificing animals? According to the Christian scholar Erdman, the life, teachings and death of Rabbi Y’shua (Jesus) are "the perfect sacrifice." He regards the entire Book of Leviticus as prophecy.
Y’shua taught that God desires "mercy, and not sacrifice," (Matthew 9:13, 12:7) and he opposed the buying and selling of animals for sacrifice (Matthew 21:12-14; Mark 11:15; John 2:14-15). Christian doctrine implicitly teaches that Y’shua came to do away with animal sacrifice. (Hebrews 10:5-10) Clement of Alexandria, an early Christian theologian, wrote: "...I believe that sacrifices were invented by men to be a pretext for eating flesh."
Rav Yoseph Albo (c. 1500 AD), the great Jewish mystic, taught that God acknowledged sheer human weakness, and therefore, decided to permit humans to eat meat. Albo cites the story of Cain and Abel, arguing that when Cain saw Abel kill an animal as a sacrifice—and receive a reward—Cain misunderstood, and assumed that killing was permissible. Albo states that Cain, "conveniently interpreted" the whole situation. Albo warns us not to do the likewise.
Some scholars believe the sacrifices were of Egyptian origin. The medieval Jewish philosopher Abarbanel cites a Midrash (a teaching based on Jewish values and tradition) that indicates that the Hebrews had become accustomed to animal sacrifices while in Egypt. To wean them from their idolatrous practices, God tolerated the sacrifices, but commanded that they be offered to Him in one central sanctuary. Abarbanel writes: "Thereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, said, ‘Let them at all times offer their sacrifices before Me in the Tabernacle, and they will be weaned from idolatry, and thus be saved.’"
Moses Maimonides writes that by redefining the sacrifices, "idolatry was eradicated, and the vital principle of our faith, the existence and unity of God, was firmly established—without confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of sacrificial worship to which they were accustomed." Maimonides further teaches that animal sacrifice served as a substitute for child sacrifice, a practice which was widespread among ancient peoples.
The story of Abraham and Isaac implies animal sacrifice was replacing human sacrifice. The ram caught in the thicket suggested to Abraham that he could substitute an animal as an offering to God. God never commanded Abraham to sacrifice the ram. Abraham saw the ram caught in the thicket, and concluded that it could serve as a substitute for his son.
Rabbi Joseph Hertz writes that human sacrifice was a religious practice, "rife among the Semitic peoples, as well as their Egyptian and Aryan neighbors." Among these ancient peoples, the sacrifice of animals was a well-established mode of religious worship, much like the reciting of prayers or the singing of hymns is today.
According to Rabbi Hertz, the sacrificial cult was necessary to ancient religious practice, and unless the laws of Moses included this "universal expression of religious homage," Moses’ mission "would assuredly have failed, and his work would have disappeared."
Animal sacrifice was an acceptable form of worship in biblical times. At no place in Leviticus, or any of the other books of the Bible, is the ritual of animal sacrifice formally explained. Like prayer and praise, animal sacrifice was regarded as a "universally current expression of religious homage." The rabbis say animal sacrifices were too prevalent in the ancient world to be abolished. Thus, they had to be reformed, replacing pagan values with those of Judaism.
Other scholars are of the opinion that animal sacrifices were never divinely ordained. In his 1961 book, Moses and the Original Torah, Abba Hillel Silver refers to biblical texts such as Jeremiah 7:21-22 and Amos 5:25, and cites differences in the style and content of passages referring to animal sacrifice when compared with other parts of Torah, to prove his thesis that the original Mosaic Law contained no instructions concerning sacrifice. The sacrificial cult, Silver insists, was a pagan practice which became absorbed into Torah. Few rabbis, of course, would agree with Silver’s analysis. They would voice the traditional view, that the Hebraic sacrificial system differed considerably from those in the pagan world.
In his book, Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant, Jewish theologian Martin Buber explains that most historians believe the tale about the Exodus and the Passover was a legend used to make an ancient pagan festival appear to have been ordained by Moses. "Moses reintroduces the holy and ancient shepherd’s meal," Buber observes, "renewed in meaning and form." Ancient shepherds annually slaughtered the first-born of their flock.
During the night of the full moon, shepherds would smear the blood of the animal to keep demons from hurting their own first-born. The original meaning of the word "pessah" (Passover) has been lost. Buber asserts that Moses took already existing practices in the pagan world and merely centered them around God. "Moses did not change the custom of the ages into a cult," writes Buber, "he did not add any specific sacrificial rite to it, and did not make it dependent on any sanctuary; but he consecrated it to YHVH."
In his excellent A Guide to the Misled, Rabbi Shmuel Golding explains the orthodox Jewish position concerning animal sacrifices: "When G-d gave our ancestors permission to make sacrifices to Him, it was a concession, just as when he allowed us to have a king (I Samuel 8), but He gave us a whole set of rules and regulations concerning sacrifice that, when followed, would be superior to and distinct from the sacrificial system of the heathens."
The Hebraic sacrificial cult followed certain basic rules of conduct:
1). Human sacrifice was completely forbidden. Leviticus 20:2 declares, "Whosoever of the children of Israel...that giveth his seed (children) unto Moloch, he shall surely be put to death." And in Psalm 106, human sacrifice is described as one of the sins of past generations: the worship of the golden calf, the worship of Baal, and the offering of "the blood of sons and daughters...to the gods of Canaan."
2). Blood rituals were limited to only "clean" animals; grazing animals—the herbivores. The meat of carnivorous creatures is forbidden, since heir predatory habits might become a part of man’s already too aggressive nature. This may be seen as a step towards vegetarianism.
3). No eating of fat or drinking of blood—blood symbolizes the essence of life, and must be returned to the Giver of Life.
4). Animal sacrifices were first supplemented by vegetarian offerings—first fruits and fine cakes of flour.
Thus, the Book of Leviticus radically transformed the pagan ritual of animal sacrifice, and used this ritual to confront man with the glaring contradiction between his desire for animal flesh and God’s designation of life as something holy. Animal sacrifice was once an occasion for indulging in magical, sadistic and gluttonous impulses. It was subsequently redefined as a rite of atonement performed by Temple priests.
Animals were supposedly sacrificed primarily to celebrate the glory of God, and only secondarily to satisfy the cravings of the worshippers. Select portions of the carcass, and sometimes entire carcasses, were offered before God on a flaming altar. Blood, believed to contain the essence of life, was ceremonially separated from the flesh. The blood was returned to the Giver of Life. With wine, bread, and music, the corpse of the animal became part of a banquet of thanksgiving. In this reshaped and reformed sacrificial cult, the pagan values were replaced with those of Judaism: monotheism, holiness, cleanliness, thanksgiving, etc.
Significantly, one could not slaughter an animal whimsically, outside of religious sacrifice. To do so was to commit a very sinful act: "Bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man; he has shed blood, and shall be cut off from among his people." (Leviticus 17:3-4) Indeed, throughout the Bible, the spilling of innocent blood is condemned. The exact Hebrew in Exodus 20:13 ("Thou shalt not kill,") is "lo tirtzach." One of the greatest modern Hebrew scholars, Dr. Reuben Alcalay, writes that "tirtzach" refers to any form of killing whatsoever.
A Midrash states: "In the Messianic era, all offerings will cease, except the thanksgiving offering, which will continue forever." God makes it known throughout the Bible that He values acts of love, justice and mercy more than bloody rituals:
"Doth the Lord desire holocausts and victims, and not rather that the voice of the Lord should be obeyed? For obedience is better than sacrifice: and to hearken rather than to offer the fat of rams."
---I Kings 15:22
"To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? Saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts, and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats.
"When ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear, for your hands are full of blood."
"Add whole-offerings to sacrifices and eat the flesh if you will. But when I brought your forefathers out of Egypt, I gave them no commands about sacrifices. I said not a word about them.
"The children of Judah have done evil in My sight...they have set abominations in the House which is called by My name, to pollute it."
"Loyalty is My desire, not sacrifice. Not burnt offerings, but the knowledge of God."
"As for sacrificial gifts, they sacrifice flesh and eat it. But in these the Lord has no delight."
"I hate, I spurn your pilgrim feasts, I do not delight in your sacred ceremonies. When you present your sacrifices and offerings, I will not accept them, nor look on the buffaloes of your shared offerings...
"But let justice roll down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream. O house of Israel, did you offer Me victims and sacrifices for forty years in the wilderness?"
"With what shall I come before the Lord and bow before Him? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, with baby calves? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil?
"Shall I give Him my firstborn for my transgression? The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, o man, what is good. And what does the Lord require you to do, but justice, love, kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God?"
"God, the Lord God, has spoken and summoned the world from the rising to the setting sun...
"‘Shall I not find fault with your sacrifices, though your burnt offerings are before Me always?
"’I will not take a calf from your house, nor a he-goat from your folds. For all the animals of the forest are Mine, and the cattle in thousands on My hills.
"’If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the earth and its fullness are Mine. Shall I eat the flesh of bullocks or drink the blood of goats?
"Offer the sacrifice of praise to God, and pay your vows to the Most High.’"
"Sacrifice and offering Thou hast not desired... Let my prayer be prepared as an incense offering before Thee, the lifting of my hands as the evening sacrifice."
---Psalm 40:6, 141:2
"To practice righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice."
"Guard your steps when you go to the House of God: to draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know they are doing evil."
Rabbi Zalman Schachter makes no apologies for past injustices inflicted upon animals in the name of religion. Much of the Bible was spoken to primitive tribes, wandering through the desert. "Our forefathers were a pastoral people," he writes. "Raising animals for food was their way of life. Not only did they eat meat, they drank water and wine from leather flasks, they lived in tents and wore clothes made from skins and sewed together with bones and sinews. They read from a Torah written on parchment, used a ram’s horn as a shofar, and said their morning prayers with leather tefellin." He adds, "Are we ashamed to recall that Abraham had two wives because in today’s Western world he would be called a bigamist? Vegetarianism is a response to today’s world...Meat-eating, like polygamy, fit into an earlier stage of human history."
The Bible calls for compassion towards animals and exalts vegetarianism as a moral and spiritual ideal. The healing powers of a vegetarian diet are not ignored. We have the example of Daniel, who lived as a vegetarian, and refused to eat the meat (or drink the wine) that King Nebuchadnezzar ordered his servant to give him while he was imprisoned in Babylon. We read in Daniel 1:8-15: "he would not defile himself with...the King’s meat... (lived on) beans, lentils and pulse." After ten days, Daniel and his companions looked healthier and stronger than those who ate the king’s food.
But it is Isaiah, who consistently denounces the slaughter and bloodshed of humans and animals. He declares that God does not hear the prayers of animal-killers (1:15), repeating this again: "But your iniquities have separated you and your God. And your sins have hid His face from you, so that He does not hear. For your hands are stained with blood...their feet run to evil and they hasten to shed innocent blood...they know not the ways of peace."
Elsewhere, we read, "You have not honored Me with your sacrifices...rather you have burdened Me with your sins, you have wearied Me with your iniquities." (43:23-24) Isaiah laments that in a time of repentance he saw "joy and merrymaking, slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep, eating of meat and drinking of wine, as you thought, ‘let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’" (22:13) Isaiah equates the killing of animals with murder: "He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man. He that sacrificeth a lamb is as if he cut off a dog’s neck..." (66:3) On two separate occasions (11:6-9, 65:25), he speaks of a future world, where "the lion shall eat straw like the ox," and the whole earth is returned to a vegetarian paradise.
With the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, the sacrificial system of the Hebrews came to an end. Since the killing of animals outside of sacrifice was forbidden (Leviticus 17:3-4), many Jews gave up meat-eating altogether. Meat consumption virtually died out at the time. In the Talmud (Tracte Babba Bathra 60b), Rabbi Yishmael is quoted as saying, "From the day that the holy Temple was destroyed, it would have been right to have imposed upon ourselves the law prohibiting the eating of flesh."
A complicated set of dietary laws and ritual slaughter evolved to replace the sacrificial system as a means of atonement for killing God’s innocent creatures. The process of slaughter is strictly regulated. The procedures are described in the Talmud. The slaughterers must be specially-trained, God-fearing, observant Jews. The knife used in killing the animals must be sharper than a razor, with no indentation.
The killing involves cutting the esophagus and the trachea, severing the jugular vein and carotid arteries. This is intended to cause virtually instantaneous unconsciousness. The only pain the animal is intended to experience is the cutting of its skin—a pain minimized by the sharpness of the knife. "Humane slaughter," an oxymoron, is the intention behind such ritual killing.
In "Kashruth and Civil Kosher Law Enforcement," Sol Friedman explains the meaning behind ritual slaughter: "In Judaism, the act of animal slaying is not viewed as a step in the business of meat-preparation. It is a deed charged with religious import. It is felt that the flame of animal life partakes of the sacred, and may be extinguished only by the sanction of religion, and only at the hands of one of its sensitive and reverential servants."
Rabbi Zalman Schachter writes: "When our grandmother brought a live chicken to the schochet (slaughterer), she witnessed a sacred and skillful act intended to minimize the distress that is felt by both the victim and the meat-eater when an animal is killed for food. By direct observation, she was thus qualified to transmit to her family the sentiment that, unlike everything else on the table, animal food comes to a Jewish table as a special dispensation and through the hands of a person dedicated to the service of God."
Rabbi Schachter further states: "The ranks of the vegetarians might be swelled considerably if one had to watch a creature being killed before one could eat of its flesh."
Dietary laws replaced the sacrificial system. Leviticus 17:10 states, "And whosoever...that eateth any manner of blood, I will even set My face against the soul that eateth blood." The talmudic literature even declares that the soul or life-force can be found in the blood. This concept is also found in early Hinduism, in which it is taught that as the heart pumps the blood throughout the body, it also pumps the symptom of the life-force—consciousness. Therefore, the blood of living creatures is considered sacred. To free the meat from blood, it is salted and soaked in water several times. This process is defective, however, in that all the blood is never completely drained out.
"Thou shalt not boil a kid in his mother’s milk." (Exodus 23:19; Deuteronomy 14:11) According to Rabbi Kook, this practice is forbidden because it reflects both the moral wrong of denying a calf the natural enjoyment of its mother’s breast as well as the "hard and cruel" practice of eating animal flesh. The very same concern for the relationship between the mother and the offspring is expressed in Leviticus 22:28; a cow and its calves or an ewe and its lambs cannot be killed on the same day.
These concerns have led to dietary restrictions separating the consumption of meat and dairy products. Meat cannot be touched by any utensil or cooked in any pot used in the preparation of dairy foods. This also applies to serving vessels and utensils. No butter, milk, or cream can be on the table, and dairy products can only be eaten no less than three hours after a meal has been served.
Implicit in the separation of meat from dairy products in the Jewish dietary laws is the moral question of consuming the milk of animals while eating their flesh. In the Hindu traditions which also call for vegetarianism, the cow is especially revered as the mother of humanity, because she provides humans with her milk.
"Thy righteousness is like the mountains of God; Thy judgements are a great deep; Lord, Thou dost preserve man and beast."
Expressing concern for cruelty to animals, the Jewish dietary laws also forbid the consumption of animals that have been killed by hunters, even if they are "clean" or "kosher" animals. Similarly, Jewish law mandates that when catching fish, the fish be netted and not hooked, because hooks cause injury and pain to the fish. The word "hook" is mentioned in the Bible only as a symbol of cruelty or as an instrument of torture used by foreigners.
On the one hand, it would seem that talmudic law discourages killing animals and eating their flesh, by surrounding the practice with all sorts of prohibitions and taboos. Conversely, one could also argue that the dietary laws facilitate flesh-eating by ritually undoing a moral wrong—the killing of a living creature—with acts of atonement to make eating the corpses of animals fitting for a holy people; a people worshipping a God who has mercy on everything that lives.
The inconsistency in Judaism’s sanctioning the slaughter of animals while worshipping a God who has mercy on all His creatures is dealt with in Rabbi Jacob Cohen’s The Royal Table, an outline of the Jewish dietary laws. His book begins: "In the perfect world originally designed by God, man was meant to be a vegetarian." The same page also quotes from Sifre: "Insomuch as all animals possess a certain degree of intelligence and consciousness, it is a waste of this divine gift, and an irreparable damage to destroy them."
In her 1975 book, The Vegetable Passion, writer Janet Barkas observes: "The first law in the Bible is a dietary one—do not eat the forbidden fruit. It is a ‘hukim,’ or an unexplained edict with the purpose of inspiring man’s obedience and building his character. There is no reason to avoid that infamous fruit except that it is the ‘will of God.’
"Significantly, it is only after Eve defies God and eats the apple that killing animals for food is recorded in the Old Testament. Then, until the time of Noah, he who killed an animal was as guilty as he who killed a man. Abel killed an animal; Cain slew Abel; and the chain of retribution for both crimes is, allegorically, responsible for all the evils that follow.
"The rabbis explain that meat-eating is a punishment to a Jew, not a reward," concludes Barkas. "All the rules of kosher are attempts to make the punishment more palatable to the animals as well as man. It is as a consequence of original sin that man eats meat; it is not supposed to be a pleasure, and throughout history, Jews have rarely been hunters."
During the 1970s, Rabbi Everett Gendler and his wife studied talmudic attitudes towards animals, and came to "the conclusion that vegetarianism was the logical next step after kashrut—the proper extension of the laws against cruelty to animals." After becoming a vegetarian, a rabbinical student in the Midwest said, "Now I feel I have achieved the ultimate state of kashrut."
In their book, The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, Dennis Prager and Rabbi Telushkin explain: "Keeping kosher is Judaism’s compromise with its ideal vegetarianism. Ideally, according to Judaism, man would confine his eating to fruits and vegetables and not kill animals for food."
Along with the concession to eat meat, many laws and restrictions were given. Rabbi Kook taught that the reprimand implied by these regulations is an elaborate apparatus designed to keep alive a sense of reverence for life, with the aim of eventually leading people away from their meat-eating habit. This idea is echoed by Jewish Bible commentator Solomon Efraim Lunchitz, author of K’lee 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; only if he has a strong desire for meat does the Torah permit it, and even this only after the trouble and inconvenience necessary to satisfy his desire. Perhaps because of the bother and annoyance of the whole procedure, he will be restrained from such a strong and uncontrollable desire for meat."
A similar statement was made by a modern rabbi, Pinchas Peli:
"Accordingly, the laws of kashrut come to teach us that a Jew’s first preference should be a vegetarian meal. If however, one cannot control a craving for meat, it should be kosher meat which would serve as a reminder that the animal being eaten is a creature of God, that the death of such a creature cannot be taken lightly, that hunting for sport is forbidden, that we cannot treat any living thing callously, and that we are responsible for what happens to other beings (human or animal) even if we did not personally come into contact with them."
In the face of cultural assimilation, Rabbi Robert Gordis does not believe the dietary laws will be maintained by Jews today in their present form. He suggests that vegetarianism, a logical conclusion of Jewish teaching, would effectively protect the kosher tradition: "Vegetarianism offers an ideal mode for preserving the religious and ethical values which kashrut was designed to concretize in human life."
In his 1987 book, Food For the Spirit: Vegetarianism and the World Religions, writer Steven Rosen makes a well-reasoned case for Jewish vegetarianism, concluding:
"...even if one considers the process of koshering to be legitimate, it is an obvious burden placed upon the Jewish people, perhaps in the hope that they will give up flesh-foods altogether. If eating meat is such a detailed, long, and drawn-out process, why not give it up entirely?"
Stanley Rubens of the Jewish Vegetarian Society says: "I believe man’s downfall is paralleled by his cruelty to animals. In creating slaughterhouses for them, he has created slaughterhouses for himself...What is the future for mankind? When the Day of Judgement comes, we will be given that same justice that we gave the less fortunate fellow creatures who have been in our power." According to Rubens, "it is essential for an orthodox Jew to be vegetarian."
Rabbi Chaim Zundel Maccoby settled in London around 1890. He was a great and saintly preacher and a dedicated vegetarian, who wore shoes of cloth to indicate his revulsion towards leather. He brought happiness into the lives of London’s East End Jews by teaching them compassion for all living creatures. A deeply religious man, he had an enormous following. The crowds were so large that traffic was held up whenever he preached in the streets.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, became a vegetarian in 1962. He asked, "How can we pray to God for mercy if we ourselves have no mercy? How can we speak of rights and justice if we take an innocent creature and shed its blood?" Singer has compared humanity’s mass slaughter of 20 billion animals every year to the Nazi Holocaust. In 1987 he wrote, "This is my protest against the conduct of the world. To be a vegetarian is to disagree—to disagree with the course of things today. Nuclear power, starvation, cruelty—we must make a statement against these things. Vegetarianism is my statement. And I think it’s a strong one."
Singer has also expressed the view that unnecessary violence against animals by human beings will only lead to violence in human society: "I personally believe that as long as human beings will go on shedding the blood of animals, there will never be any peace. There is only one little step from killing animals to creating gas chambers a la Hitler and concentration camps a la Stalin—all such deeds are done in the name of ‘social justice.’ There will be no justice as long as man will stand with a knife or with a gun and destroy those who are weaker than he is."
Shlomo Goren, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel is vegetarian. Rabbi David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, and Shear Yashuv Cohen, the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, endorse the vegetarian way of life. One of the greatest modern Jewish thinkers, Martin Buber, advocated vegetarianism, as did Albert Einstein. Austrian writer and poet Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was vegetarian. The late Rabbi M. Kossowsky, who was not a vegetarian, called vegetarianism, "The very pinnacle of ethical achievement."
The Pythagoreans, Neoplatonists, Hindus, Buddhists and Jains have all forbidden animal slaughter at various times in human history because of a belief in transmigration of souls and, consequently, the equality of all living beings. The doctrine of reincarnation is held by the Kabbalists, and was used to justify vegetarianism in Sedeh Hermed; a huge talmudic encyclopedia authored by Rabbi Hayyim Hezekiah Medini (1837-1904).
In Wheels of a Soul, Rabbi Phillip S. Berg, a renowned contemporary Kabbalist, explains: "...the concept of reincarnation is by no means exclusive to Judaism. The idea was prevalent among Indians on the American continent; and in the Orient, the teaching of reincarnation is widespread and influential. It is the basis of most of the philosophical systems of India where hundreds of millions accept the truth of reincarnation the way we accept the truth of gravity—as a great natural and inevitable law that only a fool would question."
According to Rabbi Jacob Shimmel, "We are reborn until we reach perfection in following the Torah...In Hebrew, reincarnation is called gilgul, and there is a whole section of the Kabbala entitled Sefer HaGilgulim. This deals with details in regard to reincarnation."
One remarkable figure from this mystical school of Jewish thought is Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-72). Born in Jerusalem, he became a brilliant student, noted for his intelligence, logic and reasoning abilities. By the age of 15, Luria had surpassed all the sages in Egypt in his understanding of talmudic law.
With a thirst for higher knowledge, he studied the Zohar and the Kabbala. For seven years, he lived as an ascetic on the banks of the Nile River; fasting often, seeing his wife only on the Sabbath, and merely for brief conversation, if necessary. During this time, he experienced many strange voices and ecstatic visions. At times, the prophet Elijah appeared to teach him the secrets of the Torah. Luria later went to Safed (in Palestine) and became the spiritual master of the community of mystics there. He taught that the good souls in heaven could be brought down to inhabit human bodies.
Luria saw spirits everywhere. He heard them whispering in the rushing water of rivers, in the movement of trees, in the wind and in the songs of birds. He could see the soul of a man leave the body at the time of death. Intimate conversations were often held with the souls of past figures in the Bible, the talmudic sages and numerous respected rabbis.
His disciples said he could perform exorcisms and miracles and speak the language of animals. They wrote: "Luria could read faces, look into the souls of men, recognize that souls migrated from body to body. He could tell you what commandment a man had fulfilled and what sins he had committed since youth."
Many of Rabbi Luria’s contemporaries were convinced he was "Mashiach," the Messiah or the one annointed by God to establish His Kingdom on earth. It’s been said Luria’s respect for life was so great that he would avoid stepping on insects, or treading on grass. Rabbi Y’shua also taught that only the meek and gentle would inherit God’s Kingdom (Matthew 5:5), and this is consistent with Genesis 1:29-31, Psalm 37:11 and the prophecies of Isaiah 11:6-9, 62:25.
The late Rabbi Isaac ha-Levi Herzog once predicted that "Jews will move increasingly to vegetarianism out of their own deepening knowledge of what their tradition commands...Man’s carnivorous nature is not taken for granted or praised in the fundamental teachings of Judaism...A whole galaxy of central rabbinic and spiritual leaders...has been affirming vegetarianism as the ultimate meaning of Jewish moral teaching."
"...I am the Lord, who practices kindness, justice and righteousness in the earth...in these things I delight, sayeth the Lord."
According to Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg: "’Whoever is merciful to all creatures is a descendant of our ancestor Abraham.’ (Bezoh 32b) In the sacred writings of Judaism, Jews are described over and over again as ‘merciful people, the children of merciful people’ (Yebamot 79a, Shabbat 133b)."
Man is said to have been made in the image of God. (Genesis 1:26) Humans are to be holy, because God is holy. (Leviticus 19:2) Humans are commanded to walk in God’s ways. (Deuteronomy 10:12) "After the Lord your God ye shall walk." (Deuteronomy 13:5) The Talmud (Sota 14a) asks, "How can man walk after God? Is He not a consuming fire? What is meant is that man ought to walk after (imitate) the attributes of God. Just as the Lord clothes the naked, so you shall clothe the naked. Just as he visits the sick, so you shall visit the sick. Just as the Lord comforted the bereaved, so you shall also comfort the bereaved; just as He buried the dead, so you shall bury the dead." Rabbi Y’shua also taught his disciples:
"...for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink...naked and you clothed me; in prison, and you visited me... insofar as you do it to the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me."
In Judaism, this spirit of compassion extends to animals. A New York monthly, The Jewish Spectator, stated in June 1969:
"Cruelty to animals is forbidden by Jewish law... Cruelty to animals is known...as tza’ar ba’aley hayim—pain inflicted upon living creatures. This is a grave sin according to Jewish law."
Dr. Richard H. Schwartz reported in The Jewish Spectator in 1980 that legislation outlawing meat-eating had been unsuccessfully introduced in the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) by Mordecai Ben Porat. In secular, political language, Porat argued that Israel’s fragile economy was impaired by rising health care costs—the increasing expenditures went primarily to combatting diseases caused by eating animal flesh.
Dr. Schwartz makes a very rational case for Jewish vegetarianism on moral, economic, and physiological grounds, as well as religious grounds, in his own book, Judaism and Vegetarianism.
Unfortunately, Judaism does not yet condemn meat-eating as a sin, nor are animals unequivocally given the right to life. However, a strong case can be made that Judaism does revere vegetarianism as a moral ideal. It may be argued that whereas Christianity desperately needs more personalities like St. Basil, St. Filippo Neri, John Wesley, and Dr. Albert Schweitzer, to awaken believers’ God-given compassion for animals, Judaism has never excluded animals from moral concern.
Many Jewish teachings on tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, or concern for animals, are consistent with the animal rights ethic. The talmudic rabbis interpreted the permission to eat meat given in Genesis 9:3 as a concession to human lust and brutality. Man’s earliest beginnings in Paradise, as well as his destiny in the coming Kingdom of Peace are vividly depicted in the Bible as vegetarian.
Commandments and teachings that clearly define compassion towards animals, including dietary laws to determine what kind of animals humans may eat and how to slaughter and prepare them, were deemed necessary to guide the human race through this dark period of time that will eventually give way to an era of peace among men, and peace among all creatures.
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