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Kedushah and Vegetarianism
Richard H. Schwartz

You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, thy God, am holy.
(Leviticus 19:10)

As the above verse indicates, kedushah (holiness) is fundamental to God's nature, and the Jewish people are to imitate God by also being holy. Thus Israel may fulfill the Divine imperative to become a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation," (Exodus 19:6) whose example will shine forth to all humanity.

A rabbinic teaching that we should imitate God is Hama bar Hanina's interpretation of the verse, "After the Lord your God you shall walk" (Deuteronomy 13: 5): "How can man walk after God?" the ancient sage queries. "Is He not called a 'consuming fire'? (Deuteronomy 4:24) Rather, what is meant is that man ought to emulate the attributes of God. Just as God clothes the naked, so you shall clothe the naked. Just as God visits the sick, so you shall visit the sick. Just as God comforts the bereaved, so you shall comfort the bereaved. Just as He buries the dead, so you shall bury the dead."

In his classic work Ahavat Chesed ("The Love of Kindness"), the revered Chafetz Chayim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin) discusses this teaching at length. He writes that whoever emulates the Divine love and compassion to all creatures "will bear the stamp of God on his person." Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leading 19th century Jewish thinker, also remarks on this concept: "You can know God only through His acts of love and justice; and, in turn, you too are called upon to act with love and justice."
Since the mandate to imitate God's attribute of holiness was given to "all the congregation of Israel" (Leviticus 19:2), it is incumbent on every Jew. There is not to be an elite group of specialists who dwell apart and do holy acts on behalf of the community, while everyone else goes about his or her own business. Israel is called upon to form a spiritual democracy in which each person strives for holiness. In this regard, we might consider how one can imitate God's attribute of holiness in terms of common everyday acts, such as eating. Indeed, the laws of permitted and forbidden foods are the scriptural context of the command to holiness that is this essay's subtitle.

God's initial intention was that people subsist only on plant foods (Genesis 1:29). After the Flood, God gave the Children of Noah -- all humankind -- a concession to eat meat (Genesis 9:3,4). However, in keeping with our mandate to imitate God, perhaps we should reconsider what diet God would prefer for human beings today:

  • Since Judaism mandates that people should be very careful about preserving their health and their lives, would God want people to have a diet that numerous scientific studies have linked directly to heart disease, stroke, many forms of cancer, and other chronic degenerative diseases?

  • Since Judaism forbids tsa'ar ba'alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals, would God want that most farmed animals - including those raised for kosher consumers -- be raised on "factory farms" where they live in cramped, confined spaces, and are often drugged, mutilated, and denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise, and any enjoyment of life?

  • Since Judaism teaches that "the earth is the Lord's" (Psalm 24:1) and that we are to be God's partners and co-workers in preserving the world, would God be pleased with modern intensive animal-based agriculture which contributes substantially to soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, global warming, and other environmental threats?

  • Since Judaism mandates bal tashchit, that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value, and that we are not to use more than is needed to accomplish a purpose, would God favor a diet that requires the wasteful use of food, land, water, energy, and other resources?

  • Since Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people, would God support a diet that involves the feeding of over 70% of the grain grown in the United States to animals destined for slaughter, while an estimated 20 million people worldwide die because of hunger and its effects each year?

In view of powerful Jewish mandates to preserve human health, care about the welfare of animals, protect the environment, conserve resources, and help feed hungry people, and the extremely negative effects animal-centered diets have in each of these areas, it appears that Jews who wish to strive to imitate God's attribute of holiness should sharply reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products.

Just as "the Lord is our shepherd," (Psalms 23:1) we are to be shepherds of voiceless creatures. As God is kind and compassionate to us, we must be considerate of the needs and feelings of animals. By showing compassion to animals through a vegetarian diet, we help fulfill the commandment to imitate God's ways.

While the Torah states that only human beings are created "in the Divine Image" (Genesis 5:1), animals are also God's creatures, possessing sensitivity and the capacity for feeling pain. God is concerned that they are protected and treated with compassion and justice. In fact, our sages state that the essence of being "created in the Divine Image," is this very
capacity to emulate God's compassion. Rabbi Hirsch states that the biblical concept that human beings were created to "serve and safeguard the earth" (Genesis 2:15) limits our rights over other living things. He writes: "The earth was not created as a gift to you. You have been given to the earth, to treat it with respectful consideration, as God's earth, and everything on it as God's creation, as your fellow creatures - to be respected, loved, and helped to attain their purpose according to God's will... To this end, your heartstrings vibrate sympathetically with any cry of distress sounding anywhere in Creation, and with any glad sound uttered by a joyful creature."

Another important aspect of kedusha is that of separation. The Torah asserts: "And you shall be holy unto Me, for I, the Lord, am holy, and have set you apart from the peoples, that you be Mine" (Leviticus 20:26). A shift toward vegetarianism is an effective way to separate oneself from a diet that is inconsistent with the important Jewish teachings discussed above, a diet related to cruelly treated factory-farmed animals, epidemics of chronic diseases, destruction of ecosystems, wasteful resource usage, rapid global
climate changes, wasteful resource usage, increasing world hunger, and a more violent world.

Back to the Schwartz Collection on Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights