By 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 ‘[leading scholars],[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. [vii] 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.
Read more: The Vegetarian Teachings of Rav Kook