This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh (Deut. 11:26 - 16:17) includes, for the first time in the Torah, instruction on how to slaughter and eat meat when it is not part of a sacrificial ritual. “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” (Deut. 12:20).
Rav Avraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel and a devoted vegetarian, commented on this verse as follows:
The Torah alludes to the moral concession involved in eating meat, and places limits on the killing of animals. If “you desire to eat meat", only then may you slaughter and eat (Deut. 12:20). Why mention the ‘desire to eat meat’? The Torah is hinting: if you are unable to naturally overcome your desire to eat meat, and the time for moral interdiction has not yet arrived — i.e., you still grapple with not harming those even closer to you (fellow human beings) — then you may slaughter and eat animals.
In parshah Bereshit, Adam and Eve are vegetarians; God lets them know that all that grows from the earth is theirs to eat. After the flood, God tells Noah and his family that they may add certain animals to their diet as long as they do not eat the blood or tear a limb from a living animal. Rav Kook understands this as a temporary concession to human moral frailty. In the future, he says,
This suppressed concern for the rights of animals will be restored. A time of moral perfection will come, when “No one will teach his neighbor or his brother to know God — for all will know Me, small and great alike” (Jeremiah 31:33). In that era of heightened ethical awareness, concern for the welfare of animals will be renewed.
Both the Torah and subsequent Jewish law put great restrictions on the consumption of meat – strict requirements for humane slaughter, stringent removal of the animal’s blood, and separation of utensils used for its preparation.
Those concerned with ecology also tell us that a reduction in raising animals for slaughter would greatly benefit the health of the planet, and nutritionists tell us that eating fewer animal products would benefit our personal health. Perhaps this is something we should all consider.