What Diet does God Prefer for People? by Dr. Richard H. Schwartz
Volume 3 , Issue 3 (Jan, 1990 | Kislev, 5750)
This article gives eleven arguments for the proposition that G‑d prefers that people be vegetarians:
1. G‑d's first dietary law was strictly vegetarian: ?And G‑d said: `Behold I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed ‑ to you it shall be for food,'? (Genesis 1:29). That G‑d's first intention was that people should be vegetarians was stated by classical Biblical commentators, such as Rashi, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, and Nachmanides, and later scholars, such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Moses Cassuto, and Nechama Leibowitz. It is significant that after giving these dietary laws, G‑d saw everything that He had made and ?behold, it was very good.? (Genesis 1:31).
2. According to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, first Chief Rabbi of pre‑state Israel and one of the outstanding Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century, permission to eat meat (Genesis 9:3) was only a temporary concession to human weakness. He felt that a G‑d who is merciful to all of His creatures would not institute an everlasting law permitting the killing of animals for food.
The Torah connects the consumption of meat with uncontrolled lust (Deuteronomy 12:20), while vegetarian foods are looked on with favor:
For the Lord thy G‑d bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks, of water, of fountains and depths, springing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive‑trees and honey; a land wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness; thou shalt not lack anything in it... And thou shalt eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord thy G‑d for the good land which He hath given thee.
3. Many laws and restrictions (the laws of kashrut) are related to the preparation and consumption of meat. Rav Kook believed that these regulations implied a reprimand and that they were 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 Torah 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.
4. According to Isaac Arama, author of Akedat Yitzhak, G‑d established another non‑meat diet, manna, when the Israelites left Egypt. Manna is described in the Torah as a vegetarian food, ?like coriander seed? (Numbers 11:7). This diet kept the Israelites in good health for 40 years in the desert. However, when they cried out for flesh, which was reluctantly provided by G‑d (in the form of quails), a great plague broke out and many people died. The place where this occurred was named, ?The Graves of Lust?, and it provides an early warning of the negative health effects related to the consumption of meat.
5. Rav Kook and Rabbi Joseph Albo believed that in the days of the Messiah, people will again be vegetarians. They base this on the prophecy of Isaiah:
?And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, ...And the lion shall eat straw like the ox,...And none shall hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain.
6. Judaism has many beautiful teachings concerning proper treatment of animals. Moses and King David were chosen for leadership, and Rebecca was deemed suitable to be a wife for Isaac, because they were kind to animals. Proverbs teaches that ?The righteous person considers the life of his beast.? (12:10). The psalmist states that, ?The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His creatures? (Psalms 145:9). Concern for animals is even expressed in the ten commandments. Many Biblical laws command proper treatment of animals.
In view of all of the above, would G‑d favor the consumption of flesh when it involves raising animals under cruel conditions in crowded cells, where they are denied fresh air, exercise, and any emotional attachments?
7. Judaism regards the preservation of health as a religious command of the highest importance. The Talmud teaches that Jews should be more particular about matters of health and life than ritual matters. If it could help save a life, one generally must (not may) violate the Sabbath, eat non‑kosher foods, and even eat on Yom Kippur. (The only laws that cannot be violated to preserve a life are those prohibiting murder, idolatry and sexual immorality.)
In view of these teachings, could G‑d possibly want people to eat meat, when such diets have been strongly linked to heart attacks, strokes, various types of cancer, and other diseases?
In this regard, it is interesting to note that Chapter 5 of Genesis tells of the very long lives of people in the generations of the vegetarian period from Adam to Noah.
8. Helping the hungry is fundamental in Judaism. The Talmud states, ?Providing charity for poor and hungry people weighs as heavily as all the other commandments of the Torah combined? (Bava Batra 99). Farmers are to leave the gleanings of the harvest and the corners of the fields for the poor. On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, while fasting and praying for a good year, Jews are told through the words of the Prophet Isaiah, that fasting and prayers are not enough; they must work to end oppression and ?share thy bread with the hungry? (Isaiah 58:6‑7)
Hence, could G‑d possibly favor a diet that involves the feeding of over 80 percent of the grain grown in the U.S. to animals destined for slaughter while 20 million people die annually due to hunger and its effects? Could He support a diet that involves the importing of beef (the U.S. is the world's largest importer) from countries where people are starving, to satisfy the needs of fast‑food restaurants?
9. Judaism teaches that the earth is the Lord's and that people are to be partners and co‑workers with G‑d in protecting the environment. The Talmudic sages indicated great concern about reducing pollution. While G‑d was able to say, ?It is very good? when the world was created, today the world faces many environmental threats. Thus, could G‑d favor meat‑centered diets which involve extensive soil depletion and erosion, air and water pollution related to the widespread production and use of pesticides, fertilizer, and other chemicals, and the destruction of tropical rain forests?
10. Based on a verse in Deuteronomy which prohibits the destruction of fruit‑bearing trees in time of warfare (20:19‑20), the Talmudic sages prohibited the waste or unnecessary destruction of all objects of potential benefit to people. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch stated that this prohibition (bal tashchit) is the first and most general call of G‑d: We are to ?regard things as G‑d's property and use them with a sense of responsibility for wise human purposes. Destroy nothing! Waste nothing!? He also stated that destruction includes using more things (or things of greater value) than is necessary to obtain one's aim.
Hence, could G‑d favor flesh‑centered diets which require up to 20 times more land, ten times more energy and water, and far more pesticides, fertilizer, and other resources, than vegetarian diets?
11. While not a pacifist religion, Judaism mandates a special obligation to work for peace. While many commandments require a certain time and/or place for their performance, Jews are to ?seek peace and pursue it? (Psalms 34:15). According to the Talmudic sages, G‑d's name is peace; peace encompasses all blessings; and the first words of the Messiah will be a message of peace. While the Israelites did go forth to battle, they always yearned for the time when ?nations shall beat their swords into plowshares...and not learn war any more.?
Since the sages taught that one of the roots of war is the lack of bread and other resources, could G‑d back a diet that involves the wasteful use of land, water, energy, and other agricultural commodities, and thus perpetuates the widespread hunger and poverty that frequently leads to instability and war?
Richard Schwartz, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at the College of Staten Island. He is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival and Mathematics and Global Survival.