The Morality of Diet and Humane Eating
I have written on the topic of diet in the past. I am not going to read what I have written in the past before writing today. I think I have new thoughts on the topic. If there is repetition here, it probably means that I really believe in what I am saying. I'm not going to back up everything I say with references. The Internet allows you to easily see the pros and cons of my arguments.
Before presenting my own thinking on the issue, I would like to tender some background from three dissimilar sources.
The View of Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook
Rav Avraham Yitzhak haCohen Kook (I believe he spelt it Kuk, but no-one seems to follow this spelling) the first chief rabbi of the Holy Land in our era, and the foremost Jewish and Zionist thinker of the generation prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, wrote a short treatise called The Vegetarianism and the Peace. Though not a vegetarian himself, Rav Kook saw the non-eating meat as the ideal situation for mankind, a developmental stage which man must reach some point in the future, a precursor to the attainment true redemption, which is the fundamental goal of humanity. The Rav's closest student was Rav David Cohen, known by most simply as the Nazir, the Nazarite, due to his Biblical vow to leave his hair uncut, to abstain from wine, and to practice an extraordinary purity of life and devotion. In addition to his other Nazarite obligations, the Nazir was also a vegetarian. The student was one step ahead of his mentor.
While I must admit I have difficulty in understanding much of Rav Kook's prose — he uses very flowery Hebrew and his ideas are often lofty, beyond the grasp of the average reader — I understand that the rabbi sees the process of weaning mankind from meat, in the same light he sees other aspects of human development — a multistage process, sometimes moving forward faster, sometimes perhaps at a snail's pace, but always advancing towards the ultimate, promised, redemption of humankind.
One of the levels Rav Kook states we must achieve before vegetarianism can become the norm is, in his words, "we must stop eating people before we can hope to stop eating animals". I believe he is speaking here figuratively, and not referring to cannibalism, which has, fortunately, largely vanished from our world. Man must learn to relate to other human beings with respect and honour, and not attempt "swallow up his fellow man, whole, alive". "Love your neighbour as you would want to be loved yourself."
The designation vegan was originally derived in England in 1944, from the word "vegetarian". Elsie Shrigley and Donald Watson, frustrated that the term "vegetarianism" had come to include the eating of dairy products, and sometimes fish, and in certain cases even fowl, founded the "Vegan Society". Combining the first three and last two letters of "vegetarian", they coined the term vegan, implying "the beginning and end of vegetarian".
The Society defines veganism as
... a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.
Note then that veganism is a philosophy that relates to a greater Weltanschauung — worldview — than merely to diet. It encompasses the abuse of animals in every form, and sees diet merely as a by-product of a moral approach to the world.
The Biblical Approach to Animals — the Tora, Talmud and Midrash
When haShem created the world, concluding with Man, "in Our image, after Our likeness", He assigned to humanity the task to "fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea [but not rivers?], the birds of the sky, and all living things that creep on the earth". However in the next verse, He adds, "I have given you every seed-bearing plant ... and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food" But do not eat the animals! Your rule over them does not include the right to eat them.
He explicitly did not give the animal kingdom to us for food. Man's dominion over animals does not extend to taking the life of an animal, nor to eating it after its death. Animals are to be harnessed to work, plough, ease man's burdens on this earth, in a humane fashion. Rav Dr Harry Freedman, in his commentary on the Tora, says, "the mastery [Man] is to enjoy is not an arbitrary gift, capriciously bestowed, but the natural result of his intellectual and moral superiority; a creature fashioned in haShem's image has the natural right to rule over lower creatures". Given that this is an intellectual right, Man must use his superiority to make the world a better place for all its creatures, emulating haShem in continuing the creative process. haShem equally blesses all of his creation, indicating His wish for survival of the species.
"haShem blessed them ... And haShem saw all that he had made and found it very good."
The Talmud, in tractate Sanhedrin, emphasises haShem's position on Man's eating of meat, quoting Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav, "Adam was not permitted to eat flesh ... but the sons of Noaḥ [following the flood] were so permitted, as it says [to Noaḥ and his sons], 'Every creature that lives will be yours to eat, as the green grasses, I give you all these'". Some conditions, strings are attached. "You must not however eat flesh with its life-blood in it", usually understood to mean the prohibition of eating the limb of animal while the poor creature is still alive, a barbarous practice common in ancient times. Again Rav Freedman, "to eat blood would be tantamount to denying the very right of animal life to exist".
So while eating animals is now permitted to mankind, his jurisdiction has moral limits. Why has haShem "changed his mind"? The Midrashim offer some possible answers, but nothing I have seen, in all humility, I find satisfying. I would postulate that man was already eating animals, illicitly, on the side. Now, by allowing consumption of meat albeit with some restrictions, haShem was, so to speak, steering the middle course. The Tora in a number of places refers to eating meat outside the Beit haMikdash, the Holy Temple in Yerushalayim, as "lustful consumption".
When the Children of Israel received the Tora on leaving Egypt, further dietary constraints were imposed on them: the type of animals to be consumed, the method of slaughter, limits on preparation and restraints on partaking. Were the Jewish people already then being taken on the path towards vegetarianism, or to in the least, a more moral, gentle approach to the animal kingdom?
It is clear that haShem created Man with the ability to survive by only eating vegetable material, that eating higher life forms is not necessary for his survival. It is also clear that haShem created a world in which all His creatures were to live in mutual respect, but where one species, namely Man, has a dominant, though responsible, rôle.
Today, much research has been carried out on the negative effects of meat, egg and dairy products on humans, leading to a wide range of disease. I strongly urge everyone to read the China Study by Campbell and Campbell. It connects many of today's dominant ailments, cancer, heart disease and diabetes, directly to the "Western diet".
Today however the issue is far greater than detrimental effects of these products on humans. Factory farming is now a mega dollar industry, no longer "simple" agriculture. Squeezing every extra drop of milk from a cow or every additional ounce of flesh from a calf, translates into more money for the corporation, and a more favourable financial report to the shareholders. Animals are loaded with growth hormones, injected full of antibiotics and other drugs, provided feed to increase factory output but damaging to their health and wellbeing, held in confinement lest their valuable flesh turn into inedible, or lower dollar achieving, muscle. Calves are kept in the dark to bring about anaemia so that their valuable meat will be white and not red. And please do not imagine that you are not ingesting these chemicals.
And do not think it is just farm animals. Tuna is now contaminated with such high levels of mercury metal that most countries have issued warnings on consumption by pregnant women, and in Australia, for children up to six years of age. Salmon, once called the "Chicken of the Sea", is no longer fished fresh from the sea, but farmed, the close proximity of the fish in their cramped environment again necessitating antibiotics, the lack of their natural "real" environment requiring artificial colouring because the consumer is prepared to pay more for "red" or still worse, will not purchase white.
The use of DDT, toxic to humans and animals when swallowed or absorbed through the skin, and other pesticides, are used unsparingly, driven purely by the greed of the manufacturers. While DDT has been banned in the U.S. since 1972, its effects from runoff spread far and wide into the ecosystem — and please do not assume that the replacement chemicals are any better for you, even if approved by the Authorities. Today many are blaming childhood diseases on these chemicals. Some even tie the end of polio to the end of DDT use.
The food industry presents a huge and powerful lobby. And America's democracy is driven by these powerful interest groups, who donate to every political party. And do not assume it is all only America. Today the food industry is international!
I stick to organic food as much as possible. Some fruits and vegetables are known to suck in more muck than others from their growth environment. Extreme examples include strawberries, apples and peaches.
Farm workers are at the bottom of the social scale. Manual agricultural work in Israel today is largely carried out by imported Thai and other south Asian labourers — and we are not the only country importing cheap farmhands. No-one is too concerned about the effects on them of these diverse noxious substances. As Rav Kook told us all those years ago, we need to "stop eating people" before we can achieve our own redemption as faithful Tora observing Yisraelim and in general as true humans, creations of haShem achieving a just world.
The Rav wrote his treatise about eighty years ago. The world has progressed somewhat since then. Perhaps! In the meantime many are sacrificed on this altar of progress. Communications have improved, universal education has advanced. People are more open to ideas, new concepts, different notions. On the one hand obesity is rampant, especially in America, but on the other, more and more people are interested in diet and exercise. Many, not fully understanding the implication of their actions, have adopted fad diets, many which are damaging to their health. The desire is now there and on the increase. In the long term, a serious educational process is required.
I always return to my initial premise. Man was created with the ability to survive, and survive well, consuming only produce grown in the earth. The Tora refers to the consumption of meat, and other meat by-products, a lust. A part of human development involves the overcoming of this unnecessary longing.
Our farming methods, our lifestyle, must be in harmony with the earth and with all its inhabitants. Our dominance is guaranteed only if we use it to everyone's advantage, to benefit every creature.
The world is today in turmoil, and not just economically. We need to return to our human roots, to restructure and reorganise our societies, our interpersonal and intertribal relationships. I believe our attitude to our fellow travellers in this world, all our peers, is a fundamental element in our attitude to the world, its creatures — and ultimately to our common Creator.
Menachem Kuchar, 4th March, 2009
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