Rejecting the Vegetarian Label

I don't eat meat, but I'm no vegetarian.

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I last ate meat twenty-five years ago, but I am not a vegetarian. 

Vegetarianism as a Way to Keep Kosher

When I came home from Camp Ramah as an enthusiastic twelve year old, I informed my parents that I wanted to keep kosher. After some initial struggles, I chose being a vegetarian as an easy way to bypass the issues of forbidden species, kosher shechitah (slaughtering), and the prohibited combination of meat and milk. I continued to eat the permitted species of fish. When I went back to camp, I maintained my vegetarian diet; I thought the transition back and forth from eating meat to not eating meat would be too difficult.

no meat stickersIs Vegetarianism Even More Kosher?

But then I picked up a copy of Louis Berman's Vegetarianism and the Jewish Tradition. Berman argued that vegetarianism was part and parcel of Jewish tradition. He argued that the desire for meat was a craving and that kashrut was a way to atone for eating meat. Jews had slaughtered animals in worship, but that was also a passing phase in Israelite development, a "bone" thrown to a primitive culture. He argued that "the gap between human and animal life seems very small indeed."

Berman's work provided a philosophical context for my choice. I began to think like a vegetarian. For a short period of time, I had qualms about the leather tefillin I wore while praying in the morning. More significantly, I began to see vegetarianism as an ideal. Judaism was working towards moral perfection, and eating meat just could not be part of that. During my last year of high school, I stopped eating even kosher fish.

Learning the Lesson I was Teaching

But something happened that radically changed my perspective. I went back to camp as a counselor and found myself actively engaged in the informal education of young Jewish teens.  As I prepared discussion and programming materials for our Shabbat program on the theme of kashrut, I was confronted with my own practice and the need to teach these campers about kashrut, not vegetarianism. Ultimately, I presented vegetarianism as an option for kids who, like me, wanted to "keep kosher" in a non-kosher home. I would not, could not present vegetarianism as an ideal. As a Jewish educator, I had to ask myself: who was I to say that although kosher was good, "veggie" was better?

Berman did argue that vegetarianism was the ideal, both in Eden and in the prophetic vision of the future. But as I see it, the road back to Eden is blocked; God permitted meat to all the descendants of Noah.

Vegetarian is Simply Not a Jewish Category

In my eyes, "vegetarian" is not a Jewish category, no matter how many eminent Jewish vegetarians could be identified.  Having read Louis Berman's work and having interacted with many ardent vegetarians, I am convinced that vegetarianism is, at its core, an ideology that equates animal life to human life--a stance that is hard to reconcile with Judaism's emphasis on the supreme value of human life.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.