This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Vegetarian Kook-ing?*

When Noah and his family disembarked from the ark, they entered into a new relationship with their creator. To these new ancestors of the human race God offered the reassurance that he would never again alter the dependable seasonal cycles of nature. In this solemn declaration he also confirmed humanity's mastery over the rest of the animal realm, while stipulating that "all that moves on the earth shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything."

The rabbis of the Talmud, like most other exegetes, were sensitive to the contrast between this passage, which permitted the eating of animals, and the instructions that had been issued to the first couple in the garden of Eden. At that time, Adam and Eve, though they were also granted dominion over the animal kingdom, were placed on the same dietary plane as the other beasts and permitted to eat only fruits but not flesh.

Most commentators have read this reversal of the policy towards the consumption of meat not as a progressive stage in the evolution of the human spirit, but quite the contrary, as a reluctant concession to human weakness. This implies that humanity's ideal state, as embodied in the original divine plan for creation, was one of vegetarianism.

Of course, from the perspective of traditional Judaism, this premise seems very theoretical at best. A substantial part of Jewish religious practice (especially when sacrifices were offered in the Temple) involves the slaughtering, eating or burning of birds and animals, as well as the utilization of different parts of those animals to fashion ritual articles like parchment scrolls or leather t'fillin. It is understandable that the Jewish populace over history produced a very small proportion of practicing vegetarians.

Arguably the most famous and distinguished Jewish vegetarian was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the revered spiritual leader of the Land of Israel during the early twentieth century.

In an essay published in 1910, Rabbi Kook proposed an ambitious new philosophy to explain the religious significance of the commandments. In that context, he devoted a special section to exploring the Torah's model of human-animal interrelations. As with most aspects of his thought, Rabbi Kook conceived of this relationship as a dynamic, progressive evolution. Ideally, humanity should dwell in perfect harmony with animals. Indeed, he employs the bold terminology of "animal justice" as a sublime ethical objective. Unfortunately, however, our earliest ancestors proved themselves unready to realize this lofty ideal of meting out justice equally to humans and animals; and therefore, as a provisional compromise, we were commanded to limit the scope of our immediate quest for justice to the human race alone.

This imperfect situation, however, will not remain in force permanently. In fact, according to Rabbi Kook, one of the purposes of the Torah's commandment system is to wean us away gradually from carnivorous behaviour. This objective is implicit in the precepts that place obstacles in the way of our instantaneous consumption of meat. Among these obstacles are the complex laws of ritual slaughter and the requirement to cover the blood of non-domestic birds and animals, which Rabbi Kook interpreted as a token of our shame for killing blameless beasts whose upkeep is not a burden on us.

Rabbi Kook cites numerous scriptural passages in which the ancient prophets envisaged eventual harmony between the species. Even while we are still in the carnivorous age, moral sensitivity to our animal friends is constantly being instilled in us by means of humane commandments that take into account the beasts' emotions and instincts, such as the prohibition against taking the young in presence of their mothers, or the insistence on employing the most painless procedure for slaughtering.

In light of these statements, it is readily understandable how Rabbi Kook is so often adduced as an example of a learned and pious Jew who eschewed the eating of meat.

Evidently, however, that widespread claim has no foundation in historical fact. Quite the contrary, all indications are that Rabbi Kook personally ate meat and had little patience for those who refrained from doing so.

This fact is revealed clearly in a series of letters to his son Zvi Yehuda who had begun in 1916 to dabble in vegetarianism. The elder Kook (who was in Switzerland at the time) saw this as stemming from an inappropriate desire to hasten the redemption. At around this time he composed a small treatise in which he argued that in our current historical epoch, the ingestion of animal flesh plays a crucial function in integrating the physical and spiritual domains, as well as in fortifying our bodies to face our challenges in this world. The ideal age of vegetarian concord has not yet arrived; and it is improper to initiate it before we are truly ready to fulfill our higher spiritual calling.

During this period, Rabbi Kook was repeatedly urging his son to master the laws of ritual slaughter, a vocation that he esteemed highly on account of its mystical and moral functions of instilling qualities of compassion toward lesser species. He exhorted Zvi Yehuda to eat some meat every day, if only out of consideration for his health. In his instructions to his son, Rabbi Kook kept stressing that though he attached great theological importance to vegetarianism, it should not be implemented prior to the advent of the final redemption, when the world will be restored to its primal perfection.

In fact he was extremely distrustful of the motives of people who profess fanatical devotion to animal rights, since their outward compassion was often accompanied by misanthropy or concealed antisemitic agendas. As regards the latter suspicion, he was probably alluding to European efforts, already evident in the nineteenth century, to outlaw Jewish slaughter on grounds of its alleged inhumaneness. Several figures who would later achieve prominence in the Nazi party were vocal advocates of animal rights, which became a favourite subject of German legislation immediately after Hitler's seizure of power.

In common with many of his contemporaries, religious and secular alike, Rabbi Kook was imbued with a powerful and naïve conviction that the inexorable course of progress was rapidly approaching its culmination. According to the traditional Jewish symbolism, this would involve humanity's restoration to Adam and Eve's Paradise and to the idyllic state of harmony with nature.

At the present moment, however, it is still not entirely clear which food we should be packing for that long hike from Noah's ark back to the garden of Eden.

This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

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