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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According to Rav Kook, all the laws and restrictions serve to raise the consciousness of Jews, to get them to think about what they are eating, and to decide if the fare meets religious requirements. The eating of meat is thus not taken for granted, and this mandated consideration of what is on the plate can be a first step toward rejecting meat consumption.

This idea is echoed by [the 16th-17th century Polish] Torah commentator Solomon Efraim Lunschitz, author of K'li Yakar [a commentary to the Torah]:

"What was the necessity for the entire procedure of ritual slaughter? For the sake of self-discipline. It is far more appropriate for man not to eat meat; only if he has a strong desire for meat does the Torah permit it, and even this only after the trouble and inconvenience necessary to satisfy his desire. Perhaps because of the bother and annoyance of the whole procedure, he will be restrained from such a strong and uncontrollable desire for meat."

Rav Kook saw people's craving for meat as a manifestation of negative passions rather than an inherent need. He and Joseph Albo [a Jewish philosopher in Spain, c.1380-1444] believed that in the days of the Messiah people will again be vegetarians. Rav Kook stated that in the Messianic Epoch, "the effect of knowledge will spread even to animals...and sacrifices in the Temple will consist of vegetation, and it will be pleasing to God as in days of old..." (from Rav Kook's prayerbook commentary, Olat Hara'yah). They based this on the prophecy of Isaiah:

"And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb. and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together. And the lion shall eat straw like the ox…. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain." (Isaiah 11:6-9)

Rabbi Kook believed that the high moral level involved in the vegetarianism of the generations before Noah is a virtue of such great value that it cannot be lost forever. In the future ideal state, just as at the initial period, people and animals will not eat flesh. No one shall hurt or destroy another living creature. People's lives will no longer be supported at the expense of the lives of animals. In his booklet "Chalutzim of the Messiah--The Religious Vegetarian Concept as Expounded by Rabbi Kook," Joe Green, a recent Jewish vegetarian writer, concluded that, in adopting the diet that will be used during the time of the Messiah, Jewish religious ethical vegetarians are pioneers of the Messianic era; they are leading lives that make the coming of the Messiah more likely.

Today most Jews eat meat, but the high ideal of God, the initial vegetarian dietary law, still stands supreme in the Bible for Jews and the whole world to see, an ultimate goal toward which all people should strive.

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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.