Vegetarianism and Jewish Ethics

An American Reform rabbi argues that it is a mitzvah to refrain from eating meat.

Modern Reform Judaism has seen a swing back to many traditional observances. Yet with regard to the observance of particularistic mitzvot [commandments], Reform Judaism has always accepted the right of the individual to choose those that add meaning to one’s life. Thus, for example, there are many Reform Jews today who observe at least some degree of kashrut; everything from biblical kashrut out of the home [eating only permitted animals] to full rabbinic kashrut [with all the traditional restrictions] is observed in many Reform households. The autonomous individual hopefully, through a commitment to study and learning, makes educated choices to observe these mitzvot as a means to enhance his/her life, but Reform Judaism has never stated that such observance is obligatory upon any Reform Jew.

In the case of ethical mitzvot, however, Reform Judaism from its inception has accepted them as having been given by God and binding upon all Jews. Even as autonomous individuals, we do not have the right to choose which ethical mitzvot can be observed and which cannot. As a Reform Jew, one cannot choose to observe “Thou shalt not murder” and ignore “Thou shalt not commit adultery” or “Thou shalt not steal.” Through all of the developments that have taken place, that which has not changed is the unequivocal belief of Reform Judaism that the ethical and moral laws of the Torah are binding and obligatory. Indeed, Reform Judaism can and still does call itself ethical, prophetic Judaism.

As a Reform Jew, I understand “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed–to you it shall be for food” [Genesis 1:29, the original eating instructions to Adam and Eve, before human beings were granted the right to eat meat as, some would argue, a concession to human weakness] as an ethical mitzvah that is given by God. To violate that ethical mitzvah, for me, would be a sin.

As a Reform Jew, I cannot ignore my understanding of vegetarianism as an ethical mitzvah, and ethical mitzvah which commands me not to kill another living, sentient creature. An ethical mitzvah that commands me to preserve and protect human life, not harm or destroy it by filling my body with harmful fats and chemicals. An ethical mitzvah that commands me not to waste food that could be used to feed starving children by feeding it to livestock destined for the slaughterhouse. An ethical mitzvah that commands me to protect and maintain, not contribute to the wholesale destruction of our global environment–for this world is a gift that cannot be replaced.

Excerpted with permission from CCAR Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly, Spring 1992, © The Central Conference of American Rabbis

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