The first time I became a vegetarian I was 14. I liked to think it was for ethical reasons, but it was because I had a crush on a girl.
I sat beside her in a kosher deli during a 9th grade class trip to New York. Our rabbi was also there, and as I hungrily chomped on a corned-beef sandwich, I listened as he affirmed her plant-based selection by explaining how vegetarianism is a Jewish value. “According to the Torah,” I remember him saying, “God originally intended for us all to be vegetarians. In the Garden of Eden nobody ate meat. It was only after the flood, when people were given a second chance, that they received permission.” I glanced over at the girl, then sheepishly down at my sandwich, then didn’t eat meat for six years.
The second time I became a vegetarian it was almost 25 years later. As a congregational rabbi, I have made it my life’s work to teach about thoughtful, values-based Jewish living. I never forgot my 9th grade rabbi’s explanation in that deli. And though I don’t know what “God originally intended” – I don’t even really think God works that way – I have spent many years thinking about the Jewish values inherent in the choice to stop eating meat.
Sanctity of Life: Meat as a Compromise
The Torah’s Garden of Eden is a vision of an ideal state, in which humans are given everything on a proverbial silver platter:
“See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food” (Genesis 1:29).
This is a world without agriculture, without farming, without toil or work of any kind, and certainly without killing. Our ancient ancestors apparently believed that the ideal would be for all life on this planet to coexist without eating each other. It’s ironic, then, that ancient Judaism was essentially built around animal sacrifice. Yet by allowing the killing and eating of animals, Judaism was able to place significant limits on it as well. In an ancient world where some nations were engaged in such cruel practices as human sacrifice and cutting limbs off live animals, the Torah came along and said: You may only eat certain animals, and you must kill them in the most humane way possible.
In the Jewish view, eating meat is a compromise, a departure from that ideal state of the Garden of Eden. It is an acknowledgement that humans have a taste for killing, and an attempt to control it through rules and restrictions. By placing these limitations, our tradition upholds an important value: that all living things have sanctity. Jewish law actualizes this value through the laws of kashrut, the prohibition against eating blood (which was considered the “life force”), and through a set of laws called Tzaar Ba’alei Chaim, which forbid causing unnecessary pain to animals.
A View From a New Century
So how do I, in the 21st century, uphold that ancient value? One way could theoretically be by keeping kosher – following those ancient laws that restrict which animals we may eat and how we may kill them. But a few high profile cases of “shackle and hoist” in kosher slaughterhouses have brought sharply into question whether kosher slaughter is really so humane. What about eating free range or cage free meat? Sadly, these terms are not always consistently regulated, so it’s hard to know what you’re really getting. Plus, it often (though not always) involves a move away from kosher meat, which challenges my traditional Jewish sensibilities.
So in the end I stopped eating meat entirely. That way there’s no question about which animals may or may not be eaten, or which slaughterhouses are acceptable. It is a choice that is based deeply in Jewish values – the most honest and authentic way I know to uphold the sanctity of all life. In fact, you might even say it’s a small step back toward the Garden of Eden.
I think my 9th grade crush would be proud.