God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

I think it's time to encourage Christians and Jews to be vegetarians. The Fifth Commandment says, "Thou shall not kill." If God meant only people, he would have said so.

-- C., via email


Let's begin by remembering that the Bible was written in Hebrew, not English. The commandment translated into English in the King James Version as, "Thou shalt not kill" actually means something quite different in Hebrew. The Hebrew word for killing is harag, but the word used in the commandment is ratzach, which means "to murder." Therefore, the prohibited action is murder, not killing. The difference is huge. Killing is obviously taking a life -- any life -- for any reason. Murder is the unjust taking of a human life, and that is what God forbids us to do.

Killing animals for food is not murder by any normal or biblical understanding. It may be wrong, of course, and I deeply respect your vegetarian instincts. However, I've heard many vegetarians chant the slogan, "Meat is murder," which is not biblically valid. The case for vegetarianism must be made outside the biblical commandments.

The strongest argument for not eating meat, I believe, is the clear fact that animals feel pain, and it's wrong to cause needless pain to an innocent sentient being. The need for food doesn't meet this objection because vegetarian diets can provide all necessary proteins and fats, thus making the inflicting of pain on animals a cruel and unnecessary act.

Another good argument for not eating meat is that meat animals are subjected to pain and suffering long before they're slaughtered. Meat processing plants, factory farms and transportation systems all subject food animals to terrible suffering.

There's also the ecological argument for vegetarianism. Rain forests have been chopped down to open up grazing land for cattle. Slaughter houses and factory farms release massive amounts of animal waste into the ground water. In addition, it takes about 30 pounds of grain to raise one pound of meat. If that grain were distributed to human beings as food, much of the food shortage in the world could be eliminated.

Finally, eating large amounts of highly saturated animal fat in red meat is bad for our health.

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These are all powerful arguments and must be taken seriously by those seeking both moral and physical and spiritual integrity in our world.

The case against vegetarianism is also strong. We're clearly carnivorous animals evolved to eat meat like lions and tigers and bears. Our canine teeth are different than the crushing molars of grazing animals. We don't have two stomachs like ruminants that evolved to eat grasses and digest the cellulose in plants. Sugar and corn syrup come from plants and they cause us far more health concerns than eating animal protein.

If we decide that animals are full and complete bearers of moral rights, then we also have no right to domesticate them and use them for hard work, put them in zoos, or hold them prisoners as pets. The moral distinction between animals and people is clearly not arbitrary or immoral.

Animals are important creations of God, but they are not ensouled beings made in the image of God. Animals are not on our level of moral rights. This is confirmed by our biology, our moral intuitions and our sacred texts.

The solution to this powerful moral dilemma, it seems to me, is to go back to the Bible and realize that God set before us not just permitted and prohibited acts, but also a range of acts that, while permitted, can be transcended in favor of a higher, more virtuous life.