When the Lord enlarges your territory, as (God) has promised you, and say. “I shall eat some meat.” for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you wish. (Deuteronomy 12:20)
Though the Jewish dietary laws of kashrut allow for meat-eating, Jewish tradition is generally ambivalent about humanity’s carnivorous inclinations. To wit, the verse above from this week’s Torah portion Parashat Re’eh: note that it does not command but rather permits the consumption of meat.
According to Jewish law, the meat referred to in the verse above is known as b’sar ta’avah, “meat of lust.” By all indications, the Rabbis did not consider meat-eating to be a necessity for life; it was, rather an accommodation to our “lesser angels.” Orthodox rabbi and Torah scholar, Rabbi J. David Bleich puts it well: “Jewish tradition does not command carnivorous behavior.” Likewise, noted Torah commentator Nehama Leibowitz comments on the above Torah verse by pointing out that the Torah grants permission to eat meat rather grudgingly. She concludes that while humanity has been granted dominion over the animal world, we may not treat them with wanton disregard – and that God allows a “barely tolerated dispensation” to slaughter animals for our consumption. (“Studies on Bereshit,” p. 77)
It’s particularly noteworthy that Adam and Eve, the world’s first humans who lived in an idealized Edenic world, were in fact vegetarians. (Genesis 1:29) It was not until after the Great Flood that God told Noah and his descendents that they would be allowed to eat meat:
Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. (Genesis 9:3)
Even here, however, God makes it clear that animals cannot be eaten along with their blood (a commandment that is repeated in this week’s portion.) Later in the Torah, more explicit dietary rules will be commanded through Moses.
It might be said that one of the lessons God learns from the Noah story is that humankind has, if you pardon the expression, a taste for blood. Some posit that this new permission to eat meat was a kind of divine compromise – allowing humanity to satiate its bestial, carnivorous desire, while at the same time restricting our blood lust so that it will never again run amok à la the generation of Noah.
At the end of the day, however, it’s worth asking: can we even conceive of such a thing as “restricted blood lust?” If Torah considers vegetarianism the ideal, could it be that b’sar ta’avah really just little more than an oxymoron at the end of the day?
Noted vegetarian Leo Tolstoy famously stated,
As long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields. A vegetarian diet is the acid test of humanitarianism.
A more contemporary writer, Jonathan Safran Foer, has become an eloquent advocate for the socio-ethical imperatives of vegetarianism. Click above and below to hear him discuss these ideas as explored in his latest book, “Eating Animals.”