An abundance of meat sold at kosher delis and served in Jewish homes on the Sabbath amounts to one of the delights of Jewish life, but a prominent rabbi has suggested that the moral thrust behind Judaism's dietary laws really should lead to some form of vegetarianism.
Judaism already restricts meat-eating by prohibiting swine, crab, lobster, shellfish, rabbits and any animal characterized as a scavenger, such as catfish and birds of prey.
But Rabbi Harold Schulweis has suggested that eventually "the Sabbath ought to be the occasion for vegetarian meals." The senior rabbi at Encino's Valley Beth Shalom raised the issue in a sermon Dec. 17 after a vegetarian meal at the synagogue.
"I am not an extremist on these matters," Schulweis said from the pulpit, adding that a gradual change in dietary laws should be responsive to moral and hygienic concerns.
"It can begin with things like veal," said the rabbi, who described in detail the confined raising of baby calves to produce veal. "It is not kosher to feast on the tortured."
Indeed, Jewish law prescribes that animals and fowl be slaughtered in ways to reduce their trauma and pain.
The sensibility of Judaism "recognizes that there is something wrong with killing a living creature," observed Schulweis, a well-known rabbi in the Conservative branch of Judaism. Thus, Jewish tradition has no blessings for leather garments and speaks against wearing leather shoes on Yom Kippur, he said.
The discussion after his sermon at the synagogue, the San Fernando Valley's largest Jewish congregation, was "quite positive, especially among the young people," Schulweis said in an interview. "I mentioned that tradition says you remove the knife from the dinner table before reciting grace, and I think they were quite taken with that," he said.
At least 75 of the 1,000 young people expected at a dinner-dance for synagogue youth Thursday night at Valley Beth Shalom requested vegetarian meals, a synagogue official said.
However, at Drexler's, a kosher restaurant in North Hollywood, owner Rena Drexler said she didn't think eating less meat or no meat has anything to do with kosher rules.
"Only for health reasons, some people don't eat meat," she said. "I myself don't eat a lot of meat."
Most Jews look forward to eating meat on Friday night and Saturday, she said. "I was born in Poland and we couldn't afford to eat meat during the week. And in Israel, during the week we'd eat fish and dairy foods but we celebrate Shabbat by having meat on Friday night," she said.
Vegetarianism is not unknown in world Jewry. Literary figure Franz Kafka as well as two Nobel laureates in literature, Isaac Bashevis Singer and S. Y. Agnon, were vegetarians.
The chief rabbi in Palestine in the 1920s and early 1930s, Abraham Isaac Kook, was a committed vegetarian, according to Rabbi Sidney Jacobs and wife, Betty, Southern California authors of "Clues About Jews for People Who Aren't," published in 1985. The Jacobs claimed then that there were an increasing number of Jews, themselves included, who rejected eating animals for ethical and health reasons.
"Vegetarianism . . . is the ultimate in kosher practice!" they wrote.
Rabbi Joel Rembaum, president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, said in an interview that he knows a small number of Orthodox and Conservative rabbis who are vegetarians and see that practice as an extension of kashrut , the Jewish dietary laws.
"I'm sympathetic to this," said Rembaum, rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. "If vegetarianism enhances one's spiritual sense, it would be difficult to argue against it--as long as it provided joy.
"The other side of the coin is that Judaism recognizes the physical nature of the human being, allowing for it to be met in a spiritual framework that elevates those needs and channels them in proper ways," Rembaum said. "Gluttony is something we definitely frown upon."
The rabbinical definition of a glutton is one who eats an inordinate amount of meat, according to "The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion." Yet, meat-eating is also associated with joy in rabbinical commentaries. "Thus, meat should not be eaten following the death of a close relative until after the funeral," the encyclopedia says.
The ideal world described in the Garden of Eden was a vegetarian one. Although the first humans were given dominion over the animals, green plants and fruit were to serve as the first humans' food in the biblical version, according to Genesis 1:28-30.
Only after the Flood does God make a covenant with Noah permitting humans to supplement plant food with meat as long as no blood is consumed, according to Genesis 9:3. Consequently, a kosher butcher removes all major veins and arteries from a carcass, and the meat must be further treated to complete the process.
The biblical permission to eat meat "is a concession to the carnivorous character of the human being," Schulweis said. "If you must eat meat, do so with awareness that you are taking the life of another."
Yet, the rabbi contended, the ideal was not forgotten and reappears in a prophetic vision of the end of history. In Isaiah (11:6-7), the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the calf with the beast of prey; the cow and bear shall graze together, "and the lion shall eat straw like the ox."
While other interpreters see the biblical vision as a metaphorical image of universal peace, Schulweis said that he can visualize the Sabbath becoming "a vegetarian day, especially since it is a day of tranquillity and harmony with nature."