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On vegetarianism

It’s been 115 years since the publication of the remarkable work, “A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace”. The author was Abraham Isaac Kook – better known as Rav Kook – would go on in 1921 to become the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of what was then British Mandatory Palestine (he died in 1935) and one of the most celebrated rabbis of the twentieth century.


This vision of vegetarianism and peace doubtless seems less outlandish than in 1903. Israel claims to lead the world with 5% of its population who are fully vegan, and with 400 vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Tel Aviv alone, it probably isn’t joking when it calls itself the plant-based capital of the world. Naturally it helps when high-quality fruit and vegetables are locally produced – it is said that tomatoes, for example, are eaten in a restaurant in Israel the same day they are picked in the field – but “farm to table” is a way of life in many countries. But there must be more to it than this, what is so special about the Jewish attraction to Veganism?


Now before I go on, I should lay out my cards that I am not vegan or vegetarian myself, and have never been. Although the scarcity of kosher meat in many periods of my life has meant that I have probably eaten fewer animal products than many of you here today. I should also point out that Rav Kook was also not strictly vegetarian – he used to confine himself to a small portion of meat each Shabbat and on Jewish holidays, in order to be able to celebrate the festival. It is written into Jewish folklore that Shabbat should be celebrated with wine and fish and meat – and that these bring joy and happiness, at least to those still conscious at the dining table.


So the arguments for veganism do not come from a position of vehement fanaticism, but neither do they stem from pure hypocrisy – not looking to get preachy in a “do what I say, not as I do” manner. Look at me, I know all too well what it is to crave meat, a good steak, chicken wings, a hamburger, a hot dog, lamb…and while it wasn’t Elijah’s portion today I’m sure many of you remember the story of the quail – sent down from the skies to the Israelites craving meat in the desert…and how those who stuffed themselves (as I surely would have done too) ended up choking on those very quails of which they were so desirous. It’s a cautionary tale about being careful what you wish for, and that as human beings we try not to be animals, be it wolfish or ravenous, but rather practice moderation in our basest if natural needs and yearnings for particular types of food.


Rav Kook notes that the permission to eat meat was granted as a concession to human weakness and imperfection. He sees how in the Bible, originally Adam and Eve were not permitted to eat meat, but that this allowance comes only in Genesis chapter 9 as a response to human behavior, as a modification to the original vegetarian diet that was intended for all creatures.


Elijah, you know, as many of your classmates do, that I like to fill your heads with the terrors of the meat industry, of factory farming, chicken coops, and the horrors of modern-day industrial processes through which many animals pass before reaching your plate. Your generation, more than any before, have the opportunity to put ethics before taste as the world slowly comes around to these ideas. Even you yourself have answered – perhaps somewhat wearily given the frequency of my tirades – yes, of course vegetarianism is more ethical and better for the planet but I’m going to keep eating meat because it tastes good. And, of course there is truth in your statement.


I wonder whether the laws of Kashrut, or keeping kosher, some of which you read for us in Deuteronomy chapter 14 today, understood this basic truth as well. And perhaps they were designed to limit the ill-effects of meat, of animals, as a tasty treat. By making it more difficult for humans to find animals to eat – for putting most of them besides the cattle of the farmyard beyond limits – the laws of keeping kosher restricted hunting and chasing after every piece of meat. Rather, what was permitted was what could be tamed and slaughtered not with a wild lasso or a slingshot or a poacher’s gun, but with a sharp knife, designed both to limit the pain and maintain the dignity of the animal that would be eaten, and also to regulate the process to the kind of animals whose throats could be slit in a controllable fashion.


This could be mere musing, but the kashrut laws have survived so many attempts to rationalize them. Some people are sure they’re about hygiene, others are sure they’re about respect for animals and maintaining their dignity. As with Rav Kook, they offer us part of the answer in working towards the ideals of the future Messianic Age, where – and the zoo is a perfect setting for this – in Isaiah’s vision the wolf and the lamb will live together, the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them. In this zoo this is happening – although we should keep the enclosures just for now!


Elijah – with your name you could be here for the Messianic Age – but it will be coming too late for you to be that little child leading them (although maybe if we are quick, Emy has a chance!). You have worked hard this year in your transition from childhood to adulthood, and it has been a pleasure to work with you and see you flourish. This time last year you knew no Hebrew, and who would have thought that you could stand before us this morning and read so confidently your Torah and Haftarah and lead the prayers with such accomplishment.


One of my favourite comedians is a British Jew called Simon Amstell. In 2016 he produced a mockumentary, a vegan comedy let’s say, called Carnage. It is set in the year 2067 when veganism is the norm, and it looks back on the meat-eating of our times, when the older generations are suffering the guilt of their carnivorous past. It’s actually funny, and I recommend it to all of you. And it’s my hope that your generation, Elijah, will take your own steps on the path of Rav Kook and others – to invest your lives not just in veganism and in ethical eating, but in all the steps necessary to improve the world we live in, not just for humans, but for our whole environment and especially the animal kingdom.


Shabbat shalom!


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