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What about the Chassidic view that,
when one is pious and performs Torah mitzvot, he or she elevates the animal by consuming its flesh, since the energy produced from the animal is used to perform mitzvot which the animal could not perform in any other way?

This concept is related to the following Kabbalistic teachings: during the Creation of the universe, the Holy Vessels (Sephirot) which were intended to contain the Divine Light were shattered. "Sparks" of holiness (netzotzot) fell to lower levels, ultimately becoming entrapped in material things. When done with the proper intention (kavannah) by a pious person, mitzvot can "elevate" these sparks back into their proper place in the universe. This process culminates in the coming of the Messiah, and the restoration of spiritual harmony among all Creation. Kabbalists see meat eating as part of this process, since they believe that animals are thus elevated into their proper levels of holiness.

There is also a reincarnational aspect to this teaching. According to the Kabbalists, sometimes a human soul is reincarnated as an animal, but retains its human consciousness, in order to atone for a specific sin. In Shivchei Ha-Ari (16th century collection of stories about Rabbi Isaac Luria), there are several tales about the Ari communicating with human souls in animal bodies. Similar stories are also recorded about the early Chassidic masters. In many of these cases, the soul in the animal asks the Rebbe to use the meat for a specific mitzvah, in order to offset the sin and set the soul free to reincarnate as a human being once again. This, too, is part of the process of "elevating holy sparks."

Yonassan Gershom, a vegetarian Chassidic rabbi from Minnesota, believes that these concepts can be reconciled with vegetarianism. He notes that the process of raising sparks is cumulative, not a self-perpetuating cycle for all eternity. It is also an individualized process. Each human being is born with the mission to elevate specific sparks, and not others. As we come closer to the time of the Messiah, the process of raising sparks through the consumption of meat is also nearing completion. In his book, Jewish Tales of Reincarnation, Rabbi Gershom cites the story of a Chassid who lost his taste for meat, and was later told in a dream that this was because he had completed the elevation of the specific sparks in meat that he was intended to elevate. The Chassid then became a vegetarian.

Rabbi Gershom points to the recent increase in vegetarianism as a possible indicator that many people, like the Chassid in the story, are naturally losing their taste for meat precisely because they have already elevated the sparks assigned to them. In addition, he notes the very cruel treatment of animals today, which is not the way animals were raised and slaughtered in the days when the Chassidic stories originated. At that time, animals were treated as individuals. When the time came to butcher the family cow, the person eating the meat had personal interaction with the animal. Today, however this relationship no longer exists. Most of us do not take our own cow or chicken to the shochet, nor is there much interaction between the shochet and the animal.

After visiting a modern slaughterhouse and viewing current methods of meat production, Rabbi Gershom asserts that the shochtim, no matter how sincere and dedicated they may be, cannot maintain a spirit of holiness while slaughtering hundreds of animals under the mass-production conditions of today's slaughterhouses. In past centuries, an individual blessing was said with kavannah (intention) before slaughtering each animal. But, in today's high-speed industry, many shochtim can only make a single blessing for the whole day's quota of animals. If this is the case, how can there be proper kavannah for the elevation of the souls? Rabbi Gershom asserts that we are now left with the empty shell (klippah) of flesh pots without holiness.

Even in cases where the slaughtering is performed with the proper kavannah, the process does not necessarily go on forever. Rabbi Yehuda Hirsch of Strettana, a 19th-century Chassidic Rebbe (Rabbi), had once been a ritual slaughterer. So pure and holy was he that flocks of wild doves came of their own accord to lie down under his knife. The Seer of Lublin, upon seeing this miracle, urged Reb (Rabbi) Yehudah's teacher, Reb Urele of Strelisk, to ordain his disciple as a rabbi. But Reb Urele refused, saying that there were thousands of poor human souls reincarnated in the kosher species of animals, and that being a shochet was the proper work for Reb Yehuda. The time came, however, when the flocks of doves ceased to come. Reb Yehuda then gave up the butcher's business and was ordained as a rabbi.

One is tempted to ask whether Reb Yehuda would have been willing to participate in the kosher meat industry as it exists today, given that he would scarcely have time to properly focus his thoughts before slaughtering each animal. It once happened that one of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov's followers was thinking about becoming a shochet and asked the Rebbe for his opinion. The Rebbe responded by giving lesson #37 of Likutei Moharan, which explains that the soul of the animal is attached to the blood and that the shochet must have true kavannah in wielding the knife in order to raise the sparks properly. Failure to do so affects not only the animal, but the livelihood of the whole Jewish people because "where there is no Torah, there is no bread" (Pirke Avot 3:17). After hearing this lesson, the disciple decided against becoming a shochet.

Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Ari) felt that "only a Torah scholar who is God-fearing and eats with proper intent can elevate the sparks of holiness within animals." There is also a Kabbalistic concern about the spiritual effect of meat eating on the person. The Breslover Rebbe stated that only a person who has reached a high spiritual level can be elevated by eating animal foods, and the opposite is also true: a person who lacks this high spiritual level may be further debased by eating animal foods. Rabbi Chaim Kramer, a respected contemporary Breslover scholar, notes in his commentary to Likutei Moharan 37:6 that "when a person eats the meat of an animal which lacks proper shechitah (ritual slaughter), he also ingests the aspects of animal matter, darkness, foolishness, judgments, forgetfulness, and death." In the cases where a sinful soul has reincarnated as an animal, there is the additional danger that, if one is not holy enough to elevate the soul in the meat, then that soul may attach itself to you and, in turn, drag you down into sin. For this reason, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, a major 16th century Kabbalist, expressed the opinion that one should eat a minimum of animal flesh.

Not only is the sinner debased by eating animal foods, but the animals themselves are debased by misuse of their energy, for which the person who ate them will have to answer in the next life. In his book, My Prayer, Lubavitcher Chassid Rabbi Nissim Mindel notes that if one eats a chicken and then uses its energy to cheat or steal, the chicken can demand at the Heavenly Court, "By what right have you taken my life, and involved me in crime, which I would never have committed otherwise?" Rabbi Gershom cites a similar story about animal souls which accused the false Messiah, Shabbetai Zevi, before the Heavenly Court, complaining that he had used their energy to mislead the Jews into heresy. These teachings strongly indicate that raising sparks through eating meat is not something to be taken lightly. This is why the talmudic sages taught, "One who is ignorant of Torah is forbidden from eating meat." This raises the question as to how many of us in this day and age are holy enough to eat meat with the right consciousness to raise the sparks.

As a non-Chassid, I would respectfully agree that it seems hard to see how sparks of holiness can be elevated under modern conditions that involve so much cruelty to animals and do so much harm to people and the world. Also, based on recent nutritional studies, one would be better able to perform mitzvot and other sacred activities through a sensible, nutritious vegetarian diet, rather than by eating meat, with all its negative health connections.

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