Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
If God loves all of His creatures, why did he create a fierce life situation where to remain healthy his creatures must (kill and) eat other living things?
-- N., West Babylon
One of the reasons I love the Bible is that it teaches us on many levels how to do the right thing. There's a low level teaching for most ethical problems that shows us how to do the right thing on a morally correct level. There are also teachings that challenge us to do the right thing on a much higher level.
The teachings of God in the Bible are a ladder lifting us to ever higher levels of kindness, love and forgiveness without ever forgetting the low level of moral weakness where all of us begin our journey to a life of virtue. Such is the case with vegetarianism. Genesis shows this two-tiered approach to the moral issues of deciding what we will eat perfectly. In Genesis 1:27-30, we read: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. And God said, behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so."
So even though people and not animals are made in the image of God, the original intent of God for our diet is clearly vegetarian. There's no permission here for people to eat animals . . . yet. However, later in Genesis (chapter 9:3-7), in the covenant with Noah after the flood, we read God's carnivorous concession to human weakness: "Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man. Who so sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man. And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein."
Eating meat is the low-level ethical choice. It is permitted because animals are lower on the order of creation, but it is not the high-level choice that God intended at the beginning of creation. I agree with God. Killing animals for meat is not murder. Animals are proper food for humans, but they're definitely not the most proper food.
We can ingest all the protein we need from plants, and we can save animals from the torture of factory farms and save the earth from the depleting effects of raising large numbers of animals for meat. It would be easy to go the next step and claim that eating meat is not ethical, but that would not be true.
In our real world, there's almost always a high moral goal and a lower moral minimum. The Bible teaches this high/low version of morality over and over again. We should not wage war, but if we go to war, we're forbidden to cut down our enemies' fruit and olive trees (Deuteronomy 20:19). If we eat meat, we must only eat meat raised in stress-free conditions, but we must always remember that eating meat is a concession to our moral weakness. It is moral, but only barely.
I believe this text lesson from Genesis is true for people who don't even read the Bible or believe in God. I believe it's philosophically true that eating meat is ethical, but on a low level. Just like giving only a little to charity is ethical, but also only ethical on a low level. Because we can do better doesn't mean that what we're doing now is morally corrupt. This extreme dichotomy is false to the ethical complexities of life.
Good people eat meat, and some thieves are vegetarians. Life is messy, and one of the things I truly love about the Bible and the wisdom of God's teaching in the Bible is the gentle way it tries to instruct us from the place we are in the hopes that it can bring us to the place we should be.