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15.08.2017 12:11    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  reeh  zivotofsky  

Human Nature and the Ways of the Torah—Put Some Meat on the Platter

This week’s reading lists the animals that we are permitted and those that we are prohibited to eat.  The Torah’s point of departure is that eating meat is permitted by law, as stated explicitly in the introduction to this subject:  “you may eat meat whenever you wish” (Deut. 12:20).

It has been asserted in recent years that true Judaism is opposed to eating meat and that those who wish to follow the spirit of the Torah should not consume flesh.  Another argument concerns the meat industry today.

This article is not intended to encourage the consumption of meat, rather to deal with the moral question of eating meat.[1]

A good point of departure for determining what are proper Jewish values is to learn from the actions of biblical figures who might serve as a personal example.  From such figures it appears that there is not the slightest hesitation about eating meat.

When our patriarch Abraham wished to feed his guests, he served them meat (Gen. 18:7).  The Sages even increased the amount of meat Abraham served them beyond the simple reading of the text, saying that Abraham slaughtered thirty calves in honor of his guests (Bava Metzia 86b).  When Isaac sought to bless his son, at one of the important feasts in his life, he asked him to bring him freshly hunted meat (Gen. 27:3), and Rivkah, as per his request, prepared him two kids (Gen. 27:9).  Even Joseph, in the midst of a great famine, prepared meat for the reception for his brothers (Gen. 43:16).  If eating meat is contrary to Jewish values, would we not expect different behavior on the part of our patriarchs, the founders of our nation?

The Bible and the writings of the Sages contain countless examples of meat being the principal food at rites and celebrations.  There are even certain times and occasions when eating meat is obligatory, such as the commandment to eat at least an olive’s worth of meat from the Pascal sacrifice—the punishment for not doing so being karet, to be cut off from the Jewish people—and the duty of the priest to eat of the sacrificial offerings.

Moreover, if the ideal were to not eat meat, why is the eating of meat also widespread in the Talmud?  The first example given of mishloah manot (Purim presents of food) is the leg of calf that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi sent to Rabbi Oshaia (Megiallah 7a), and pheasant is mentioned as a respectable food by which a son may honor his parents (Kiddushin 31a).  The Talmud stresses that vowing to abstain from eating meat is considered affliction of the soul (Ketubbot 71a), indicating that eating meat was the norm in the world of the Sages.  Furthermore, criticism of eating meat is minimal in Jewish sources, the instances of this in the Talmud being the minority and not the message conveyed by the Torah.  If one must work so hard to find examples of vegetarianism, this indicates that the Torah does not advocate it.

Sometimes it is argued that eating a lot of meat is harmful to one’s health, and since Judaism advocates a healthy way of life, meat should be removed from our menus.  This argument is absurd, since eating anything to an extreme is not healthy and everything ought to be consumed in proper measure.  For example, too much beta-carotene, found in yellow and leafy green vegetables and in yellow fruits, can increase the chances of becoming sick with cancer.[2] Likewise, eating too many beets aggravates kidney disease, and consuming too much milk is dangerous to women’s health.[3] Too much vitamin C can ruin the kidneys,[4] and even too much water can lead to poisoning and even death.

Maimonides recognized that eating large quantities of meat is unhealthy.  He wrote:  “When a person takes vows in order to establish his character traits and correct his conduct, he is considered eager and praiseworthy.  How so?  If a person was a glutton and took a vow to abstain from meat for a year or two…” (Hilkhot Nedarim 13:23).  On the other hand, consuming too little of an essential component is also dangerous.  For example, a person who does not eat meat may suffer from a lack of vitamin B12.  Although vitamin deficiencies can be supplemented in our day, meat is a natural necessity for the human body, and the Holy One, blessed be He, created humans to eat meat.

Rav Kook, although he was not a vegetarian, is considered one of the great vegetarian sympathizers.  Although he cared greatly about the well-being of animals and about how they were treated, and even had a utopian vision of the distant future in which mankind would be vegetarian, he was opposed to vegetarianism in our time, writing[5] that there is no place for widespread vegetarianism and opposing such trends.

Another argument made by the advocates of vegetarianism is based on the structure of the human body.  In the final analysis, the Holy One, blessed be He, created man, and so we ought to clarify what “natural nutrition” is appropriate to the characteristics that the Holy One, blessed be He, created in mankind.  This is the approach taken by Malbim (mid-19th century), who wrote in his commentary:  “Scholars have established that mankind, by the way he was fashioned, was not created to live off of meat, for this is evident from the way his teeth and dentition were created” (Gen. 1:29).  This is a surprising claim, and scientists of the twenty-first century challenge this assertion by nineteenth-century scientists.

The structure of the human head and its dentition attests that humans are not naturally vegetarians.  True vegetarians have hypsodont teeth that are suitable for grinding plants and grains and that continue to grow throughout the creature’s life.  Beasts of prey (carnivores) and omnivores (that eat everything, both plants and meat) have brachydont teeth, as do human beings.  Herbivores have a differently shaped skull and jaw and attached musculature than carnivores.  Humans have a unique structure in this regard, attesting to humans being omnivorous.

The physiology and anatomy of the human digestive system is fully suited to an omnivore, containing elements similar to carnivores and to herbivores.  The digestive system of carnivores is short and breaks down fats and proteins efficiently, so that they remain in the digestive system for only a short while.  Herbivores have to break down complex proteins, such as cellulose, and therefore spend a long time eating and digesting.  (A carnivorous mink takes three hours to digest its food, whereas a cow takes 48 hours.)  Carnivores’ intestines are approximately three times the length of their upper body, whereas with herbivores the relationship is 1:15, and in humans, 1:10.

There are also significant differences in vision:  the eyes of herbivores are generally situated on the sides of the head, providing a broad field of vision that enables them to distinguish beasts of prey.  Beasts of prey, in contrast, have their eyes situated side by side in order to provide depth perception, essential for hunting.  Human eyes are situated side by side, on the front of the head, as in beasts of prey.  Of course there are exceptions, since in nature there is great variety.  On the continuum between herbivores and carnivores, physiologically and anatomically humans are situated in the middle, just as Shadal said (on Gen. 1:29):

Many people have believed that slaughtering animals was not permitted prior to the Flood, but this is far from the case, since human beings, according to their nature, the composition of their bodies, and the form of their teeth are equally adapted to eating seeds and meat.  Were it not the will of the Creator that Man eat meet, He would not have made his body suitable for such.

Indeed, humans are the only species that regularly eat cooked food in order to make it easier to digest.  From all that we have said, it appears that humans are by nature omnivorous, and that eating meat is natural for them, as Maimonides said (Guide for the Perplexed, 3.48):

…the natural food of man consists of vegetables and of the flesh of animals…No doctor has any doubts about this.

Sometimes the “original” condition of humanity is invoked as proof that mankind was created herbivorous, but it is not the least bit obvious that primordial man was forbidden to eat meat.  It is quite logical that even Adam and Eve were permitted to eat the flesh of an animal that had died, and were only forbidden to kill a living animal.[6] It is evident that they were permitted to kill animals for other objectives, for Abel offered animal sacrifices, and this action was found pleasing in the eyes of the Lord (Gen. 4:4).

This hints that prior to the flood killing animals was permitted for ritual purposes but not for food.  Ralbag wrote that the Lord never forbade eating meat, and that to suggest such is “a huge lie, from which any sensible person should flee” (Gen. 1:29).  The Talmud cites an opinion that the angels brought Adam meat and wine (Sanhedrin 59b).  However some say that humans did not eat meat prior to the Flood (Maimonides, Hilkhot Melakhim 9.1; Maharsha on Sanhedrin 59a), but we, after all, are living after the Flood.

In short, the Torah does not command human beings to adopt a vegetarian way of life, nor does it hint so anywhere.  If a person wishes to be vegetarian, it seems that is permitted, especially in our day when there is no Temple or sacrifice.  We live in an era when according to Judaism there is no halakhic or philosophical problem with eating meat, and whoever maintains the opposite is simply distorting Judaism.

Vegetarianism may perhaps be permitted, but in choosing to be a vegetarian one must not obscure the uniqueness of human beings in contrast to the animal world, their higher level of existence “in the image of G-d”—something which does not pertain to any other living creature.  The danger is such confusion is far worse, from the point of view of values, that consuming flesh; and this has led some rabbis to refrain from being vegetarians in an era prior to the coming of the Messiah.

What can be said regarding the future?  From the prophet Isaiah it follows that even in the Messianic era, when death will cease, the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself will provide meat (Isa. 25:6), and only when the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid (Isa. 11:6), only then will mankind have to stop eating meat.  Until then…

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