A Fictional Dialogue on Shavuot Night About Vegetarianism
For many years Danny Shapiro looked forward to staying up all night at his synagogue with his friends on the first night of Shavuot, hearing talks about and discussing Torah teachings. This year he especially anticipated this annual commemoration of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, because Rabbi Greenberg would be meeting with Danny and other college students for an hour at 3 AM to answer any questions on Judaism that they brought up. Danny had recently become a vegetarian and had done a lot of background reading on Jewish connections to vegetarianism and he wanted to find out what the rabbi thought about the issue.
When Rabbi Greenberg acknowledged Danny raising his hand during that session, Danny said, “Rabbi, it is wonderful that we are learning so many beautiful Torah teachings tonight and at other times at this synagogue. But I have been reading about Torah teachings on taking care of our health, treating animals with compassion, preserving the environment, conserving natural resources, and helping people, and they seem most consistent with vegetarian diets. So, I wonder why Judaism does not endorse vegetarianism?”
Rabbi Greenberg responded: “You raise some very good points, Danny, but I hope that you are aware that Judaism does permit the eating of meat. Some scholars feel that it is obligatory to eat meat on Shabbat and holidays.”
Danny responded, “Yes, I recognize that Judaism permits people to eat meat. Evidently Jews have a choice, as indicated that there are Israeli chief rabbis who have been or are strict vegetarians. So, shouldn’t this choice be made considering the Torah teachings I mentioned, and the very negative effects of animal-based diets on human health, animals, and the environment? With regard to eating meat on Shabbat and holidays, according to the Talmud (Pesachim 109a), since the destruction of the Temple, Jews are not required to eat meat in order to rejoice on sacred occasions.”
In response, Rabbi Greenberg said, “We should recognize that there is much in the Torah and the Talmud about which animals are kosher and about the proper way to slaughter animals. So eating meat is certainly not foreign to Judaism.”
Danny had come prepared to answer counterarguments, so he responded, ”Yes, that is certainly true. But, there is also much in the Torah and our other sacred writings that point to vegetarianism as the ideal Jewish diet. For example, as indicated in Genesis 1:29, God's initial intention was that people be vegetarians. And according to Rav Kook, the first Chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, based on Isaiah’s prophecy that, ‘the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, … and the lion shall eat straw like the ox’ (Isaiah 11:6-9), the Messianic period will be vegetarian.”
Rabbi Greenberg was surprised by Danny’s evident research on the issues, but he responded, “I have to tell you one thing that concerns me. Jews historically have had many problems with some animal rights groups, which have often opposed shechita (ritual slaughter) and advocated for its abolishment. Some have even made outrageous comparisons between the Holocaust and the slaughter of animals for food.”
Danny was also ready for this response. He answered, “That is certainly true, Rabbi, but Jews should consider switching to vegetarianism not because of the views of animal rights groups, whether they are hostile to Judaism or not, but because it is the diet most consistent with Jewish teachings. It is the Torah, not animal rights groups, that is the basis for observing how far current animal treatment has strayed from fundamental Jewish values. For example, as Samson Raphael Hirsch stated: ‘Here you are faced with God's teaching, which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours.’"
Rabbi Greenberg next stated, “Another concern is related to two teachings in Genesis: The Torah teaches that humans are granted dominion over animals (Genesis 1:26) and that only people are created in the Divine Image (Genesis 1:26, 5:1). I fear that vegetarians are promoting a philosophy inconsistent with these Torah teachings, hence potentially reducing the sacredness of human life and the dignity of human beings.”
Danny countered, “As you know, Jewish tradition interprets ‘dominion’ as responsible stewardship: we are called upon to be co-workers with God in improving the world. While the Torah states that only human beings are created "in the Divine Image," 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.”
Thinking that others might have questions, Rabbi Greenberg concluded: “Well, I am sure that there are other issues about vegetarianism that should be addressed. But I think that you have made the case for at least having a broad discussion of the Jewish and universal issues related to our diets. I thank you, Danny, for your diligence in raising these issues. Perhaps next Shavuot, I will make a consideration of vegetarianism the theme of my talk at he start of our all-night Torah study.”