Vegetarianism: An Alternative Kashrut

The author argues that our evolving religious sensibilities should bring us to recognize vegetarianism as a new mitzvah.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with permission from Seek My Face, Speak My Name: A Contemporary Jewish Theology, © 1992 by Jason Aronson, Inc. (The italicized portion is italicized in the original.)

I believe the time has come for us to reconsider the question of whether we should continue to consume animal flesh as food. Our tradition has always contained within it a certain pro-vegetarian bias, even though it has provided for the eating of meat. In the ideal state of Eden, according to the Bible, humans ate only plants; we and the animals together were given the plants as food. Only after the expulsion from Eden, when the urge overwhelmed humans and led them toward evil, did the consumption of flesh begin. 

The very first set of laws given to humanity sought to limit this evil by forbidding the flesh of a still-living creature, placing a limit on acts of cruelty or terror relating to the eating of animal flesh. The Torah's original insistence that domestic animals could be slaughtered only for purpose of sacrifice, an offering to God needed to atone for the killing, was compromised only when the Book of Deuteronomy wanted to insist that sacrifice be offered in Jerusalem alone.

vegetarianismRealizing that people living at great distance could not bring all their animals to the Temple for slaughter, the "secular" slaughter and eating of domestic animals was permitted. Even then, the taboo against consuming blood, and later, the requirement to salt meat until even traces of blood were removed, "for the blood is the self" of the creature, represent a clear discomfort with the eating of animal flesh.

Most significantly, the forbidding of any mixing of milk and meat represents a proto-vegetarian sensibility. Milk is the fluid by which life is passed on from generation to generation. It may not be consumed with flesh, representing the taking of that life in an act of violence. The fluid of life may not be mixed with that of death. As the Torah says of the hewn-stone altar, "For you have waved your sword over it and have profaned it."

The reasons for acting upon this vegetarian impulse in our day are multiple and compelling, just as compelling, I believe, as the reasons for the selective taboos against certain animals must have been when the Community of Israel came to accept these as the word of God. This is what we mean, after all, when we talk about a mitzvah being "the word of God" or "God's will." It is a form of human expression or a way of acting that feels compellingly right. This rightness has both a moral and a spiritual dimension; it is an expression of values we choose, but it also makes a more profound statement about who we are. We then come to associate it with divinity, and it becomes a vehicle through which we express our spiritual selves.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Arthur Green

Rabbi Arthur Green, Ph.D., is Lown Professor of Jewish Thought at Brandeis University and Dean of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College. Among his many books are Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, Seek My Face, Speak My Name: A Contemporary Jewish Theology, and Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow.