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On Ethical Eating

Reprinted with permission from 

Published: June 2, 2017.
Author: Rabbi Jeffrey B Kamins.

Rabbi Jeffrey B Kamins is Senior Rabbi at Emanuel Synagogue and a Director of the Board of Voiceless, an animal protection institute.

On ethical eating

This is an “eat or be eaten” world. We need to consume from the material world to sustain our physical bodies; when we leave this world, our bodies themselves will be consumed. But what are our responsibilities regarding how we sustain ourselves, knowing that our material choices have ethical and spiritual ramifications? Judaism is the way in and of life that guides me and others as Jews, and the wisdom of Judaism begins in the Torah. However, the Torah itself is multi-vocal, and the rabbinic tradition that expands upon it even more so. This is particularly true when it comes to eating animals.

The tension begins with our opening mythic stories in the book of Bereshit, or Genesis, and even the very first letter of the book itself. There are many rabbinic commentaries to explain why the first letter of the Torah is a bet, which is the second letter of the Hebrew aleph-bet and has the numerical equivalency of two, instead of the aleph, the first letter with the numerical equivalency of one. Two suggests duality, differentiation and separation, whereas one suggests the singularity that is the source of the universe itself, as when we recite the Shema Israel prayer: “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one.” The tension between the singularity of being and the differentiation that allows for human consciousness and ethical decision-making is at the heart of our received tradition, Judaism. As we move from singularity toward differentiation, we run the risk of disconnecting from the ultimate being of the other.

The first chapter of the book of Genesis is all about differentiation: beginning with the difference between light and dark, and moving toward that between humans and other life forms. Speaking to the first human prototype, God says: “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”1 The ultimate extension of this verse has led to what we now call speciesism, the notion that humans have the (God-given) right to do as they please with and to other life forms, which are here for our benefit. However, that is a non-contextual reading of Judaism. The teachings of Judaism on the relationship of humans to other living beings are vast and complex.

After teaching of our dominion over animals, the next verse of Torah seemingly commands a vegetarian diet: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.”2 According to one great 20th-century mystic, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, vegetarianism is the ultimate ethical way of eating. Unfortunately, this has not been the majority position of Judaism, in which we see only limited restrictions on the consumption of animals.

One of the “seven Noachide laws” (the laws Judaism applies to all humanity) prohibits causing unnecessary suffering to any creature, but as part of the limit permission to sacrifice and to eat them. Fresh off the ark, Noach offers animal sacrifices as a burnt offering of pleasing odour to God, who then says to Noach: “The fear and dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky – everything with which the earth is astir – and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat…”3 The restriction upon Jews of what animals may be eaten, discussed in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, does not deeply affect our attitude of superiority toward the rest of the sentient world. In fact, reading the Torah one sees a move from an “idealised” world in the Garden of Eden, to a “descriptive” world of human separation from other living beings, in which we are allowed to consume them within certain limits. Some even think this is prescriptive more than just descriptive.

To paraphrase from Chapter 7 of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady’s work, Likkutei Amarim (commonly known as “the Tanya”): If a God-fearing individual eats meat to broaden their heart to God and God’s Torah, or to fulfil the mitzvah (commandment) of pleasure on Shabbat and festivals, then that flesh has been affected by a measure of radiance and goes up to the Almighty as a sacrifice. In other words, through our consumption of animals as part of a mitzvah, and with that intention, we actually elevate the soul of an animal. While giving a spiritual understanding of animal consumption, this position clearly reflects an understanding of humans as separate from and superior to other animals.

Rabbi Kook held the minority position when he argued that shechitah, the Jewish law dictating compassionate slaughter of animals, were intended to stress that despite the human desire to eat meat, killing animals is morally wrong, an act of cruelty and shame. He taught that the rules of shechitah will ultimately lead human beings to reject inflicting any pain on animals and therefore to abandon the consumption of meat, for the aim of shechitah is to create a realisation that one is not dealing with an inanimate object but with a living being.

So far, this brief review of Judaism’s attitude on consumption of animals for food has focused on the reality of our lives before the impact of the industrial world. Since the mid-20th century, the industrialisation of animal production has led to far greater consequences for animals consumed. Many advocacy groups have amply demonstrated the incredible cruelty involved in the factory production of animals. No matter how an animal is slaughtered, Judaism must come to terms with the reality that factory farming is an absolute violation of the prohibition of avoiding unnecessary suffering to animals, a prohibition that applies to Jew and gentile alike. If the word “kosher” has come to mean that which is fit for consumption, we must, in the 21st century, take into concern issues beyond how an animal is slaughtered, and focus on how it has lived.

Further, when one considers the larger environmental and societal impact of animal consumption, other ethical issues regarding animal consumption are raised. The increased consumption of animals as a food source over the past decades has had a massive negative impact on the environment, both through its use of water resources diverted from other life-sustaining purposes and its impact on global warming with greenhouse gas emissions. For example, based on statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, research has shown that if everyone in the Netherlands (with a population smaller than Australia’s) had one meat-free day per week, it would result in the same carbon savings as taking 1.25 million cars off the road for one year.4 In addition, consuming animals that consume grain feeds far fewer people than if those humans ate the grain directly. All this does not even address the issues of land clearance, fertilisers, antibiotics, and social justice questions of worker conditions in the food industry.

The more humans see ourselves as separate from animals and our environment, the less conscious and ethical our decisions concerning what we eat will be. We should recall the words of Albert Einstein, which give insight into the difference between the aleph and the bet, the ultimate singularity of being and the necessary duality by which we perceive it:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us the “Universe”, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.5

In the 21st century, ethical eating requires us to move toward an organic vegan diet. The more we as consumers choose that way – and each of us is a work in process – the more we will give back to this planet: in our eating, and when our turn finally comes to be eaten.


  1. Genesis 1:28.
  2. Genesis 1:29.
  3. Genesis 9: 2–3.
  4. Soeters K, editor. Meat the Future: How Cutting Meat Consumption Can Feed Billions More. Amsterdam: Nicolaas G. Pierson Foundation, 2015: 223-225.
  5. Einstein A. Letter of 1950, as quoted in The New York Times (29 March 1972) and the 2013 Voiceless Anthology, page 1 (with apologies for gender-based language).

Image credits

Light and dark; Adam with animals: Distant Shores Media/Sweet PublishingCC BY-SA 3.0.

Animal farming: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals.

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