RABBIS AND VEGETARIANISM: AN EVOLVING TRADITION
by Roberta Kalechovsky
[Micah Publications, 225 Humphrey St., Marblehead, MA 01945, $10.00, plus $2.25 for shipping and handling]
This book is a collection of essays by 17 rabbis—Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox—on the subject of vegetarianism in the framework of the Jewish tradition. As the author, Roberta Kalechovsky, notes. “Food is a political issue today. For Jews it has always been a religious issue, related to concepts of holiness.” Beginning with a discourse on the work of Rabbi Yitzhak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935), a giant among Jewish scholars, the contributors discuss the impossibility of the co-existence of holiness and meat-eating today.
The contributors come from varying theological backgrounds, and became vegetarian for an assortment of reasons—a concern for human health, for the environment, or for non-human animals— yet, despite differences, certain touchstones appear repeatedly throughout the essays: that vegetarianism, for example, was clearly the diet in the biblical Garden of Eden; meat-eating was permitted only after the Flood, as a moral compromise with a humanity which had become evil. That the laws of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) act as a reminder of the seriousness of eating animal flesh and animal products, and are a concession to meat eating. That there has always been, in the words of Rabbi Arthur Green, a “pro-vegetarian bias” in Judaism, and “a clear discomfort with the eating of animal flesh.” And that, finally, early Jews ate a grain-and-vegetable-based diet, whereas today’s Jews in the U.S. eat meat much more often, and, as Rabbi Harold Kushner points out, have lost sight of the distinction between eating a once-living animal and eating a bowl of cereal.
Judaism is a religion rich in blessings, including many to be said before eating certain foods, but there is no blessing for eating meat. The way in which animals designated to be food are treated today is so cruel as not to be consistent with the laws of kashrut. As Rabbi David Brusin eloquently writes, “We are being challenged to rethink what we now label as kosher, Jewishly fit and proper for human beings to eat. given current methods of meat and poultry production. Our physical well-being and our moral sensibilities hang in the balance.”
Marjorie Cramer is a plastic surgeon and is the president of the National Organization of American Mohalim and Mohalot [ritual circumcizers].