Vegetarianism: An Alternative Kashrut

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

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With the passage of time, origins are shrouded in mystery, and the form becomes the "will of God." Israelites of ancient times felt that way about the taboos widely current in their society against the consumption of certain animals that they saw as repulsive, against the eating of blood, the mixing of milk and meat, and so forth. They associated this series of taboos with the God of Sinai. Over the centuries, kashrut as we know it became a mitzvah, a way in which Jews are joined to God.

Our situation has certain important parallels to this one. We are urgently concerned with finding a better way to share earth's limited resources. We know that many more human lives can be sustained if land is used for planting rather than for grazing of animals for food. We are committed also to a healthier way of living and are coming to recognize that the human is, after all, a mostly vegetarian species. But for us as Jews, the impulse is largely a moral and religious one.

We have a long tradition of abhorring violence. Cruelty to animals has long been forbidden by Jewish law and sensibilities. Our tradition tells us that we must shoo a mother bird away form the nest before we take her eggs so that she does not suffer as we break the bond between them. We are told that a mother and her calf may not be slaughtered on the same day. The very next step beyond these prohibitions is a commitment to a vegetarian way of living.

We Jews in this century have been victims of destruction and mass slaughter on an unprecedented scale. We have seen every norm of humanity violated as we were treated like cattle rather than human beings. Our response to this memory is surely a complex and multitextured one. But as we overcome the understandable first reactions to the events, some of us feel our abhorrence of violence and bloodshed growing so strong that it reaches even beyond the borders of the human and into the animal kingdom. We Jews, who always looked upon killing for sport or pleasure as something alien and repulsive, should now, out of our own experience, be reaching the point where we find even the slaughter of animals for food morally beyond the range of the acceptable.

If Jews have to be associated with killing at all in our time, let it be only for the defense of human life. Life has become too precious in this era for us to be involved in the shedding of blood, even that of animals, when we can survive without it. This is not an ascetic choice, we should note, but rather a life-affirming one. A vegetarian Judaism would be more whole it its ability to embrace the presence of God in all of Creation.

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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.