Rav Kook & Vegetarianism

This major 20th-century Jewish thinker saw vegetarianism as the biblical ideal to which humankind should work to return.

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This article is reprinted with permission, and with slight changes by the author, from the Jewish Vegetarian website. 

The strongest support for vegetarianism as a positive ideal anywhere in Torah literature is in the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935). Rav Kook was the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel and a highly respected and beloved Jewish spiritual leader in the early 20th century. He was a mystical thinker, a prolific writer, and a great Torah scholar. 

Rav Kook helped inspire many people to move toward spiritual paths. He urged religious people to become involved in social questions and efforts to improve the world. His powerful words on vegetarianism are found primarily in A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace (edited by Rabbi David Cohen).

Rav Kook believed that the [biblical] permission to eat meat was only a temporary concession; he felt that a God who is merciful to his creatures would not institute an everlasting law permitting the killing of animals for food. He stated:

rav kook

It is inconceivable that the Creator who had planned a world of harmony and a perfect way for man to live should, many thousands of years later, find that this plan was wrong." (A Vision, section 1)

According to Rav Kook, because people had sunk to an extremely low level of spirituality (in the time of Noah), it was necessary that they be given an elevated image of themselves as compared to animals, and that they concentrate their efforts into first improving relationships between people. He felt that were people denied permission to eat meat, they might eat the flesh of human beings due to their inability to control their lust for flesh. He regarded the permission to slaughter animals for food as a "transitional tax" or temporary dispensation until a "brighter era" is reached when people would return to vegetarian diets. Perhaps to reinforce the idea that the ideal vegetarian time had not yet arrived, Rav Kook ate a symbolic small amount of chicken on the Sabbath day.

Rabbi Kook believed that the permission to eat meat "after all the desire of your soul" was a concealed reproach and an implied reprimand. He stated that a day will come when people will detest the eating of the flesh of animals because of a moral loathing, and then it shall be said that "because your soul does not long to eat meat, you will not eat meat." Along with permission to eat meat, Judaism provides many laws and restrictions (the laws of kashrut). Rabbi Kook believed that the reprimand implied by these regulations is an elaborate apparatus designed to keep alive a sense of  reverence for life, with the aim of eventually leading people away from their meat-eating habit (Rav Kook, "Fragments of Light").

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Dr. Richard H. Schwartz

Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Staten Island, in New York City and the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism.