When the Lord enlarges your territory, as He has promised you, and you say, "I shall eat some meat," for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you wish. If the place where the Lord has chosen to establish His name [the Temple in Jerusalem] is too far from you, you may slaughter any of the cattle or sheep that the Lord gives you, as I have instructed you; and you may eat to your heart's content in your settlements....But make sure that you do not partake of the blood, for the blood is the life, and you must not consume the life with the flesh. (Deuteronomy 12:20-21, 23)
I am writing this commentary just after giving a lecture on end-of-life issues to the staff of a hospital in Los Angeles. A physician who had taken an active role in the discussion of the issues I had raised came up to me after the lecture, and I presumed that he wanted to continue the conversation about medical dilemmas at the end of life. Instead, he told me that he wanted to ask me something on a completely different topic. He identified himself as a Jew and a vegetarian, and he wanted to know how, with the emphasis on life so deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition, any Jew could eat meat. "You wouldn't eat your dog," he said to me, "so why may we Jews eat cows?"
There are, of course, many problems in the question as he phrased it. Yes, the Jewish tradition values human life so much that saving a life supersedes all but three of the commandments, so any of the others may be violated if necessary to save a person's life. Even though Peter Singer, a professor of philosophy at Princeton and a Jew, has written that giving greater status to human life than to animal life is "specieism, as unjustified as racism or sexism, the Jewish tradition - and many others - do just that. That is, Judaism does assign a greater value to human life than to the life of animals. So the doctor began with a premise that Judaism does not share - namely, that our valuing of human life should translate to our valuing of all animal life on an equal basis. Additionally, his comparison of a dog to a cow is problematic, for dogs are mostly pets in our culture, unlike cows, and people who have pets have a very different relationship to them - Buber would call it an "I-Thou" relationship - than farmers have to their cows, where the relationship is primarily, if not exclusively, "I-It" - that they use the cows for their milk and or meat rather than forming a personal relationship with them.
Still, I could not help but feel a degree of sympathy with his question, given that I too am a vegetarian (although, in a compromise with my wife, I eat fish). I used to eat meat, but it always had to be well done (and committed carnivores usually prefer it rare). Moreover, I always like dairy foods more than meat, and so I did not eat very much meat.
The factor that finally tipped the scales for me to becoming a vegetarian is based on one rabbinic interpretation of the verse from our Torah reading with which I began. In B. Hullin 84a, the Talmud says this:
Our Rabbis taught: "When the Lord enlarges your territory" (Deuteronomy 12:20), the Torah taught you ethics (derekh eretz, literally, "the way of the world"), that a person should not eat meat except with a strong desire for it (l'ta'avon). You might think that he may buy it from the market and eat it, but the Torah says [otherwise]: "...that you slaughter any of the cattle or sheep [literally, "from your cattle or from your sheep"] that the Lord gives you" (Deuteronomy 12:21). You might think that he may eat all of his cattle or sheep, but the Torah says [otherwise]: "from your cattle" but not all your cattle, "from your sheep" but not all your sheep.
I hesitate to affirm that this position did not become the law, for Jews are permitted to buy kosher meat from a butcher or market; they need not slaughter the animal themselves. Still, what this Rabbinic source is asserting is that you should eat meat only if you have a great desire for it - which, in my case, was always iffy - and only if you slaughter the animal yourself - and even then, you should not eat too much meat. I have been queasy since I was a child, so I do not think I could slaughter an animal except possibly in the direst of circumstances - and even then, I am not sure. So it was then (at Ramah in 1986) that I decided that if I could not take the moral responsibility to kill the animal, I should not eat its flesh.
That sounds very principled, but I have to add one thing. When I told my wife about this decision, she said: "If you will eat fish, then I will still cook for you, but if not, you are cooking for yourself." Marlynn is a much better cook than I am, so for that not-very-principled reason I still eat fish.
My point here is that we need to be thoughtful about what we eat - for moral and Jewish reasons as well as dietary ones - but we also need to understand that intelligent, morally sensitive, and Jewishly committed people may decide about these matters in a way different from the way each of us does. My problem with the doctor's question was not so much the question, but the haughty tone in which he asked it, and I am afraid that I have heard the same tone from many of my fellow pescetarians, let alone vegetarians and vegans.
Perhaps a bit of context will help to motivate the understanding that I seek from each of us. The Jains in India are not only vegans, but they do not eat potatoes because they think that there are organisms in them. Then, moving along a spectrum, there are vegans, who eat no animal products. Then there are vegetarians, who will eat the products of animals (dairy and eggs) but nothing that requires the death of an animal. Then there are pescetarians, who also eat fish - and Jewish pescetarians who will eat only kosher fish. Then there are those who will also eat fowl - and, again, Jews who will eat only kosher fowl, slaughtered and prepared according to Jewish law. Then there are those, like Jews and Muslims, who will eat animals but only within certain restrictions. For Jews those restrictions include a limited list of fish, fowl, and animals, as detailed in chapter 14 of Deuteronomy, which is also part of this week's Torah reading, and then slaughtering the animals "as I have instructed you" and draining their blood, both of which are based on the verses I cited at the beginning of this commentary. The food must then be cooked, served, and eaten with the meat/dairy distinction. Then there are those, like Christians, who will eat any kind of animal. And then, theoretically at least, there are cannibals, who will also eat humans. Whole human communities vary along this spectrum, and each has its rationales for drawing the line as to what they will eat and what they will not eat in the particular place they draw it. And one must surely acknowledge that there are plenty of morally sensitive and intelligent people in other cultures, people who have made decisions different from your own.
Thus although I choose not to eat meat or fowl for the reasons I explained, I have tremendous respect for those Jews who keep kosher, for they are affirming their Jewish heritage in restricting their consumption of meat to only a limited list of animals, slaughtered in a particular way with the blood then drained out of them, and then cooked, served, and eaten with a dairy/meat distinction, rather than eating any fish, fowl, or animal that is available in any combination. They may do that because God commanded them, because this is the tradition of their family and/or community, because they want their friends and family to be able to eat in their homes, and/or for a variety of other reasons. Whatever their motivation, I honor and appreciate their choice to keep kosher, and I would ask that those Jews who, like me, choose to restrict their eating yet further respect them as well.
That said, Shabbat is a particularly poignant time to think about what we are eating. On the one hand, because meat has always been more expensive than most other foods, Jews, who historically were mostly poor, could afford meat, if at all, only once a week, and so eating meat on Shabbat became a significant way to honor the day. On the other hand, Shabbat is precisely the day when we think of our connections to the world God has created, a day that, as the Rabbis said, is a foretaste of the World to Come in the future, when we eat only of the flesh of the fish Leviathan, and of the Garden of Eden in the past, when Adam and Eve were allowed to eat only what grows from the ground. So this Shabbat, think about your decision to eat meat - or not to eat it - and then be sure to respect other Jews who have decided, differently from you, either to eat meat but keep kosher, to eat only fowl, or fish, or dairy products, or a vegan diet.