This special Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) Online Newsletter is devoted to a major article about Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook’s Vegetarian writings. As indicated in the article, some opponents of vegetarianism are trying to use some of Rav Kook’s writings to oppose vegetarianism. So, I think that it is very important to have such an article.
I want to express much appreciation to Rabbi Dovid Sears for his major contribution to this article. His dedication and scholarship are reflected in virtually every section of the article.
Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the JVNA, unless otherwise indicated, but may be presented to increase awareness and/or to encourage respectful dialogue.
As always, your comments and suggestions are very welcome.
The Vegetarian Teachings of Rav Kook
Richard Schwartz, Ph.D.
with the editorial assistance of Rabbi David Sears
Some of the strongest support for vegetarianism as a positive ideal in Torah literature may be found in the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935). An outstanding student of the Netziv of Volozhin and other Lithuanian Gedolim, Rav Kook was first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel and a revolutionary Orthodox Jewish thinker in the early 20th century. He was a profound mystic, innovative halakhist, prolific writer and poet, and one of the foremost Torah scholars of modern times.
Rav Kook saw himself as a bridge between two worlds: the old world of the European shtetl and the new world in which once-rigid religious, intellectual, and cultural boundaries were rapidly dissolving. Thus, he addressed the diverse questions of Jewish intellectuals torn between tradition and modernism, and inspired many people to pursue spiritual, rather than materialistic goals. He also urged the religious community to become more involved in social questions and efforts to improve the world. And he championed the return of the Jewish people to Israel, not only to escape persecution, like the proponents of secular Zionism, but to fulfill our religious destiny as individuals and a nation. His boldly stated teachings on ethical vegetarianism are found primarily in Chazon ha-Tzimchonut vi-ha-Shalom ("A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace"), edited by his saintly disciple Rabbi David Cohen (1887-1973), "The Nazir of Jerusalem."
Based on careful scriptural analysis, Rav Kook contended that the Torah's permission to eat meat was only a temporary concession; it was patently unthinkable to him that a Merciful God would forever impose a natural order by which animals would be killed for food. He stated:
It is impossible to imagine that the Master of all that transpires, Who has mercy upon all His creatures, would establish an eternal decree such as this in the creation that He pronounced "exceedingly good," that it should be impossible for the human race to exist without violating its own moral instincts by shedding blood, be it even the blood of animals.
Rav Kook inferred that the Torah's phraseology -- "after all the desire of your soul you may eat meat" -- contained a concealed reproach. He predicted that a day would come when people will detest eating the flesh of animals because of a moral loathing -- "and then it shall be said that 'because your soul does not long to eat meat, you will not eat meat.' "
Along with permission to eat meat, Judaism mandates many laws and restrictions concerning the slaughter of animals and preparation of meat, which make up the bulk of the kosher laws. Rabbi Kook explained that the reprimand implied by these elaborate regulations is meant to raise the consciousness of the Jewish people, to get us to think about what we are eating and how we are eating, with the aim of eventually leading us back to God’s initial vegetarian regimen (Genesis 1:29).
This echoes the words of the illustrious Torah commentator Rabbi Solomon Ephraim Lunchitz of Prague (d. 1619), author of K'li Yakar ("A Precious Vessel"):
What was the necessity for the entire procedure of ritual slaughter? For the sake of self-discipline. It is far more appropriate for man not to eat meat. Only if he has a strong desire for meat does the Torah permit it, and even this only after the trouble and inconvenience necessary to satisfy his desire. Perhaps because of the bother and annoyance of the whole procedure, he will be restrained from such a strong and uncontrollable desire for meat.
Rav Kook saw the craving for meat as a manifestation of spiritual decline, rather than an inherent need. Like medieval authorities Rabbi Isaac Arama, author of Akeidat Yitzchak ("Binding of Isaac"), and Rabbi Joseph Albo (1380-1444), author of Sefer ha-Ikkarim ("Book of Fundamentals"), he believed that in the days of the Messiah, all humanity would return to a vegetarian diet. Rav Kook stated that in the Messianic Epoch, "higher knowledge (da'at) will spread even to animals." This echoes Isaiah's prophecy: "And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox . . . They shall neither hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain (Isaiah 11:6-9).
According to the preeminent kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), this may be taken literally: animals, too, will attain levels of wisdom and understanding that are now exclusively associated with humans, and they will return to the Edenic vegetarian diet. Rabbi Kook believed that the vegetarianism of the generations before Noah represented a high moral level, and that a virtue so precious could not be lost forever. Therefore, in the Messianic Age, as in the beginning of creation, humans and animals will no longer eat flesh. Just as men will cease exploiting one another, the predatory instinct will be removed from the animal kingdom, and creatures will no longer kill one another to live.
Indeed, in another of his philosophical works, Rav Kook asserted that during the Messianic Age, the sacrificial offerings in the Third Holy Temple in Jerusalem will consist of vegetation alone.
Rav Kook’s Critique of Vegetarianism
Yet despite Rav Kook’s sympathy toward vegetarianism, he did not take an unequivocal position. He understood vegetarianism as representing a higher level of piety for those inclined toward it on ascetic grounds, and because it is associated with the peace and harmony of the Messianic Age. However, he regarded the widespread adoption of vegetarianism with caution. Rav Kook's vegetarian ideal is primarily associated with the "End of Days." Therefore, recent critics of vegetarianism have used some of Rav Kook’s other teachings and personal practices to oppose this diet. Below are some examples, with responses from a pro-vegetarian point of view following in each case.
1. Rav Kook was not a vegetarian.
Response: While Rav Kook ate a small amount of chicken on Shabbat as a symbolic reminder that the Messianic Age had not yet arrived, his diet was primarily vegetarian, and he felt that vegetarianism represented a Jewish ideal. Moreover, his leading disciple Rabbi David Cohen, the "Nazir," was a devout vegetarian, with his master's blessing. (As mentioned above, the Nazir compiled and edited Rav Kook's "Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace," based on two earlier essays.) According to all authorities, we are now much closer to the Messianic Age; what the world is going through is only the "darkness before the dawn." Therefore, if personal practice were the only problem with enlisting Rav Kook in the vegetarian camp, this would not constitute an insurmountable problem. Given all that has happened in the last one hundred years, we cannot state with certainty that Rav Kook would still hesitate to fully embrace vegetarianism if he were alive today.
2. Rav Kook did not allow his son Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook to become a vegetarian, and even encouraged him to study ritual slaughter.
A leading authority on Rav Kook's thought, Rabbi Bezalel Naor, has recently mustered evidence that Rav Kook did not approve of his son's youthful desire to become a vegetarian, objecting that just such "poetic souls" are obliged to eat at least a modicum of meat in these times. This appears to be consistent with Rav Kook's personal custom (although one letter indicates that he also was concerned for his son's health). The reason for this attitude apparently reflects the kabbalistic doctrine of the "elevation of the holy sparks" present in such foods. Their ascent is only accomplished when those of high spiritual attainments consume them and then use the energy derived from the food to study the Torah and perform the mitzvot.
Being central to Jewish mysticism, the argument of "elevating the holy sparks" is an unassailable one. However, its "flip side" is that most of us lack the qualifications to bring about this tikkun (spiritual rectification). The kabbalists warn that the entire enterprise of eating is a risky business. If one fails to elevate the transmigrated souls and holy sparks trapped in food, one may be harmed by them. This is especially true of meat. Therefore, many great Jewish mystics minimized or entirely avoided eating meat, as Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyahu Medini (1833-1903) states in his masterwork, S'dei Chemed ("A Desirable Field"). This caution would seem to apply particularly to an ordinary person, lacking the requisite attainments to elevate the holy sparks in meat.
What complicates things is that Rav Kook seems to have taken contradictory positions. On the one hand, he understood vegetarianism as befitting those more highly evolved individuals who are closer to the Messianic ideal. (This view is reflected in the works of the medieval sages Rabbi Isaac Arama and Rabbi Joseph Albo, mentioned above.) An example that immediately comes to mind is his disciple, the Nazir. Just to double-check, we recently called the Nazir's son, Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen, Chief Rabbi of Haifa and president of Ariel Institute. He informed us that Rav Kook was entirely approving of his father's vegetarianism, since he knew the Nazir to be a spiritually refined person and an accomplished Torah scholar. At the same time, though, Rav Kook apparently considered eating meat to be the spiritual responsibility of individuals of this caliber for example, his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehudah. (This view represents many kabbalists and Chassidim, the school of Chabad in particular.)
Rav Kook's self-contradiction is not lost on Rabbi Naor, although he does not attempt to resolve it. The sources Rabbi Naor presents overtly address the issue of shechitah, but they go hand in hand with Rav Kook's views on the spiritual and ethical aspects of eating meat. In a letter dated Jaffa, 1909, Rav Kook writes to his disciple, Benjamin Menashe Levin:
It goes against the clear emotions of the heart that a talmid chakham (Torah scholar), a spiritual man, should be permanently engaged in the taking of animals' lives. Though shechitah (ritual slaughter)—and in general the consumption of animals—remains a necessity in this world, nevertheless, it would be fitting that this work be done by men who have not yet evolved to the level of refinement of feeling. Educated ethicists, on the other hand, should be supervisors (pekidim) to insure that the killing of the animals be not barbaric, and that there enter into this entire area of meat consumption an ethereal light which might one day illumine the world. This [light] is truly contained in the laws of shechitah and tereifot (unfit animals), as is well known to us. (Igrot Rayah, vol. I, p. 230)
This clearly indicates that the shechitah inevitably goes against the grain of a spiritually evolved person's sensibilities. However, in a series of letters written between 1916-1917 to his son studying in Switzerland, he states:
"I am pleased that you agree to study shechitah. I accept that you delay the study until after the holidays of Tishrei. These days do not afford the tranquility necessary for one starting this expertise, especially if he be a poetic soul…" (Ibid. p. 53)
"It is several letters now that I have forgotten to inquire whether you are practicing shechitah. How does the matter appear to you? How do you relate to this holy work? For sensitive, thinking people, it requires will power, strength of character blessed with patience." (Ibid. p. 79)
One might speculate that Rav Kook may have felt that to become an "educated ethicist," his son needed to gain hands-on knowledge of shechitah. Or perhaps he was being disingenuous. The elder Kook may have felt that for religious or emotional reasons, his son needed to engage in such tasks. In addition, he may have felt that the young man could not be relied upon to practice vegetarianism responsibly, especially while living away from home.
Whatever the case, it must be acknowledged that despite these ambiguous remarks about shechitah, Rav Kook clearly sees animal slaughter and the consumption of meat as moral concessions. Consider his concluding words in "A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace" (italics added):
At that time [i.e. the Messianic Age] human beings will recognize their companions in creation: all the animals. They will understand how it is fitting from the standpoint of the purest ethical standard not to resort to moral concessions, to compromise the divine attribute of justice with that of mercy [by permitting mankind's exploitation of animals] for they will no longer need extenuating concessions, as in those matters of which the Talmud states: "The Torah speaks only of the evil inclination" (TB Kiddushin 21b). Rather they will walk the path of absolute good. As the prophet declares: "I will make a covenant for them with the animals of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; I also will banish the bow and sword, and war from the land" (Hosea 2:20).
3. Rav Kook considered vegetarianism as an ideal for the Messianic Age when people will have a heightened spiritual awareness, but he argued that vegetarianism should not be widely adopted as a norm of human conduct before that time.
Response: A pragmatic reply would be that as we become increasingly aware of the devastating effects of animal-based diets and animal agriculture on human health and environmental sustainability, waiting for the Messianic Age to shift toward vegetarianism appears to be something that the world can no longer afford to do.
Many of the problems related to modern intensive livestock agriculture have become far worse since Rav Kook died in 1935. One can only wonder what his views would be today if he were aware of the diseases, soaring medical costs, increasing environmental threats, widespread hunger, cruel treatment of animals, and other negative effects of animal-centered diets and agriculture. Rav Kook did not address these practical issues, which no doubt seemed less urgent one hundred years ago.
There is a spiritual reply, as well. In a booklet that summarizes many of Rav Kook's teachings, the late Joe Green, a Jewish vegetarian writer, concluded that by adopting the vegetarian diet that will be practiced during the Messianic Age, Jewish religious vegetarians are "pioneers" of that long-awaited time. They are leading lives that reflect some of our loftiest religious ideals, and thus hasten the coming of the Messiah.
More decisively, in recent times there have been a number of vegetarian Chief Rabbis, all of whom have ties to Rav Kook's school of thought -- including the late Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel; Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Haifa; Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of England; and Rabbi David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland. None of them have advised "ordinary" Jews not to be vegetarians. On the contrary, by their word and example they have shown that vegetarianism is a legitimate Jewish option, even today.
4. Rav Kook asserted that at present, other societal issues such as the enmity between nations and racial discrimination should be of greater moral concern to humanity than the well being of animals. Hence, he advocated that people first work on such societal issues rather than on improving the lives of animals.
Response: Vegetarian diets are not beneficial only to animals. They also improve human health, help the hungry through better sharing of food and other resources, put less stress on endangered ecosystems, conserve valuable resources, and in so doing reduce the potential for war and violence. As Chassidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) wryly observes, "The fighting doesn't begin until the food runs out!" In view of the many global threats related to today’s livestock agriculture, involving the raising of 50 billion farmed animals worldwide annually, working to promote vegetarianism may be one of the most important actions one could take for the benefit of humanity and our imperiled planet.
Without a doubt, Rav Kook is correct is stating that there is a hierarchy of moral concern. Judaism clearly rejects the moral equivalence of animals and humans. However, it could be argued on firm rabbinic grounds that the two spheres of concern are not mutually exclusive. Compassion is "contagious." Showing kindness and sympathy toward anyone or anything tends to increase similar sentiments toward other living things.
This concept is implied by Maimonides in Moreh Nevuchim ("Guide of the Perplexed"), where he discusses the Noachide Commandment of eiver min ha-chai, the prohibition of eating the limb of a living animal. He says this is prohibited "because such an act would produce cruelty and develop it." The same idea is reiterated by the author of Sefer ha-Chinnuch ("Book of Instruction"). This reflects the interpretation of the Midrash Tanchuma that Israel was given the laws of shechitah (ritual slaughter) in order to refine their moral sensitivities. Some authorities also understand this to be among the reasons for the scriptural prohibition of tzaar baalei chaim (cruelty to animals). This assumption is supported by scientific studies showing that those who abuse animals as children often go on to commit violent crimes as adults. The converse is also true: compassion toward animals leads to compassion toward other humans. This is stated by the Sefer ha-Chinnuch concerning the law of not muzzling an ox while it is treading grain and elsewhere.
Often one hears comments that the Nazis were kind to their animals, yet were cruel to humans. The implication is that for some reason, those who are kind to animals lose all compassion for humans. This is the antithesis of the principle espoused by Maimonides and other authorities above. However, even if there were cases in which a Nazi was nice to his dog or cow, this would not invalidate compassion to animals as a moral virtue. Rav Kook himself said that even in the worst of people one could find some admirable traits. The claim that Hitler was a vegetarian happens to be spurious: his biographers have pointed out that he enjoyed Bavarian sausages, and ate pork, liver, and the flesh of animals taken in hunting. Hitler was the antithesis of an ethical vegetarian. But even if we should find that certain cruel and deluded people nevertheless have felt sympathy toward animals, what would this prove?
If critics of vegetarianism must resort to "character assassination," no doubt it is possible to find some immoral or wrong-headed people who are also vegetarians. Let us say it openly: vegetarianism does not validate all of the opinions and habits of its adherents -- nor is it the solution to all of the world's problems! However, when judged on its own merits, vegetarianism may rightfully be perceived as an important part of that solution.
5. Rav Kook criticized people who promote vegetarianism these days, in our imperfect world, fearing they might use vegetarianism as an excuse not to be involved in other important societal issues.
Response: Certainly Rav Kook was right in criticizing anyone so deluded as to think such a thing. However, in fact, many famous vegetarians have also been great humanitarians, concerned about improving conditions for people as well as animals. Some examples are Leo Tolstoy, George Bernard Shaw, Mahatma Gandhi, Leonardo da Vinci, Plutarch, Franz Kafka, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and S. Y. Agnon. One would assume that without exception this includes Orthodox Jewish vegetarians, who are dedicated to upholding all of the Torah's commandments, whether they apply to our relationship with God, our fellow men, or animals and nature.
Vegetarianism need not be a retreat from our responsibilities toward humanity. Rather, it is an important way to improve the lot of the world's population. Moreover, what ethical vegetarian claims that issues affecting the well being of people should be ignored so that greater attention can be given to improving conditions for animals? If such individuals exist, they are few and far between. Indeed, their main claim to fame would be in providing an "easy target" for those who seek to delegitimize ethical vegetarianism.
In reality, animal activists tend to be deeply concerned about the problems of their fellow humans. One example immediately comes to mind: for most of history there has been a prevailing attitude that children do not have "rights," just as many people feel that way today about animals. Yet, it was the animal welfare people who spearheaded the drive to institute child labor laws and avoid the shameful exploitation of poor children in the United States, all this at a time when others saw nothing wrong with the way children were being treated. If we look at the human plight in the world today, no reasonable person, vegetarian or otherwise, could possibly think that all of the problems affecting us have been solved.
6. Despite his strongly pro-vegetarian stance, Rav Kook considered this diet to represent a spiritual rung that is presently too difficult for most human beings to attain.
Response: As we have mentioned, there is a time-honored tradition of ascetic vegetarianism in Judaism, particularly among the kabbalists. Certainly this type of vegetarianism is appropriate only to a spiritual elite. However, the vegetarian of today is not so restricted as his forebears (at least not in modern western societies). Virtually every supermarket offers an increasingly varied selection of vegetarian foods, some with the texture and taste of animal products. Most of these products have a hechsher (kosher supervisory symbol). Therefore, it does not require such a great sacrifice for a person to switch to a vegetarian diet today.
Yet even if a person felt that a completely vegetarian regime would be too restrictive, it would be beneficial to reduce the amount of meat in one's diet, perhaps limiting it to the Shabbat, Yom Tov, and special festive occasions. The health benefits alone of such "semi-vegetarianism" would still be significant. Moreover, this is consistent with the practice of many devout Jews even today, who consider indulgence in meat during ordinary weekdays to be a form of gluttony.
Several authorities, including Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1509), Rabbi Ovadia Sforno (1470-1550), and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), point out that the Torah's concession for humans to slaughter animals for food is dictated by need. Since the biblical Flood, the world's climate has been radically altered, as well as man's physical constitution. Therefore, indigenous populations of places like the Himalayas or the Andes that have short growing seasons may have no recourse but to raise animals for food. Let us concede this. Yet what percentage of the world's population lives under such extreme conditions? According to the Worldwatch Institute:
Global meat consumption is highly concentrated, dominated by only a few nations. The United States and China, which contain 25% of the world's population, combine to consume 35% of the world's beef, over half of the world's poultry, and 65% of the world's pork. If Brazil and the European Union are included, this group consumes over 60% of the world's beef, over 70% of the world's poultry, and over 80% of the world's pork.
Most of us eat meat not because we must, but because we desire it, we're used to it, and despite the annual warnings of the American Dietetic Association, we don't know better.
7. Rav Kook believed that when people take on austerities for which they are insufficiently prepared, their uncorrected evil traits inevitably will manifest themselves in other, possibly more harmful ways. He also observed that a common psychological strategy for a corrupt person is to whitewash his self-image by finding an extremely idealistic cause to champion. He felt that these dangers apply to ethical vegetarianism. If the premature embrace of this lofty expression of compassion for animals should fail, Rav Kook warned, it could lead to moral regression -- even to cannibalism.
Response: One would be hard pressed to find any religious Jewish vegetarians who advocate that the consumption of animal products be banned, based on halachah (Torah law). The law is clear that animals may be slaughtered to serve any legitimate human need, that of food in particular. Jewish vegetarians fully acknowledge that we have a choice -- but this choice should not be made on the basis of desire alone, but only after considering modern-day realities of the production and consumption of meat, and how such procedures too often impinge on basic Jewish teachings. Ethical vegetarianism belongs to the category of lifnim meshurat ha-din -- going beyond the "letter of the law" in order to emulate the divine attribute of mercy and compassion. However, should a person feel unable to remain on a vegetarian diet, he or she certainly has the option of returning to the former meat-based diet.
As for the assertion that people deprived of the ability to eat meat might become cannibals, it has not been demonstrated that there have ever been cannibals who were formerly vegetarians. If anything, the opposite is true: carnivores deprived of meat have been known to become cannibalistic.
In fact, as Rav Kook acknowledges, humans have a deeply ingrained ambivalence toward eating meat. We try to suppress our awareness of everything that went into the production of that meat -- suffering on factory farms and during transport, pain of slaughtering, etc. This is one of the reasons why meat products are packaged and served the way they are. When one stops eating meat, such thoughts no longer have to be suppressed.
Yet there is something to Rav Kook's equivocation. It must be admitted that vegetarianism may be used for self-serving psychological ends. Some may even use vegetarianism an outlet for their anger at social convention, or even the human condition as a whole. However, here, too, one must acknowledge that this can be true of any worthy cause -- and often is. It is unfair to single out vegetarianism for such criticism.
8. According to Rav Kook, because people had fallen to an extremely low spiritual level, it was necessary that they be given an elevated image of themselves as compared to animals. He feared that vegetarians might forget their human superiority and come to think of themselves as beasts.
Response: This argument was previously made by 14th century Jewish philosopher, Rabbi Joseph Albo. Yet he acknowledges that once a person has come to realize and embrace the higher spiritual calling of human beings, the need to consume meat as a reminder of that higher calling falls away.
The reason why we should concern ourselves with the plight of animals is precisely because we are human. If Jewish teachings regarding both people and animals were more widely known and put into practice, people would become aware of both the sanctity of every person, created in the image of God, and the fact that our mandate to imitate God’s attributes of compassion and justice dictates that we improve conditions for animals. A vegetarian diet should only reinforce our humanness, and thus elevate our moral sensitivities and standards.
Moreover, if we look at the behavior of most animals and compare it with the behavior of mankind, animals might not fare so badly. Many years ago (and perhaps today), the Bronx Zoo had a cage labeled "the world's most dangerous animal." Looking between the bars, all you could see was your reflection in a mirror! Animals kill for food and for reasons of survival, whereas humans also kill for power and even pleasure. Humans have the faculty of speech, but it is often used for evil, be it slander, lashon hara (badmouthing), profanity, or just plain humiliation. This echoes the words of our sages in the Talmudic discussion of the laws of damages: "A human being is always considered dangerous (mu'ad, literally "forewarned"), whether inadvertently or intentionally, whether asleep or awake."
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, Israel, infers the human potential for great good or great evil in the biblical command that human beings have "dominion" over other creatures (Genesis 1:26). He points out that vi'yirdu, the Hebrew word for "have dominion," can also mean "to descend." Thus, he observes, "The very ability to rise above our animal instincts can also cause us to sink to levels of depravity far below an animal's capacity." It may be argued that one of the ways we may affirm our human moral superiority is by showing greater compassion toward animals, rather than by yielding to our own base instincts in wantonly and heartlessly exploiting the animal kingdom.
In conclusion, the present state of animal agriculture and the excessive consumption of meat in our society lead to the violation of basic Jewish values, and have disastrous consequences for human health and environmental sustainability. Rav Kook believed that vegetarianism is the diet most consistent with Jewish teachings, and none of his secondary concerns -- expressed before the widespread expansion of factory farming with all its attendant problems, as well as animal slaughter by mass production -- should prevent Jews from electing to follow vegetarian diets, in anticipation of that time when "none shall hurt nor destroy in all of God’s holy mountain" (Isaiah 11:9).