Richard H. Schwartz
You shall be holy, for I, the
Lord, thy God, am holy.
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
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
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
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