Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Our "ghostly" light bulb mystery is finally solved!

My last few blog posts have been rather heavy reading, so I thought I'd lighten up today with this true story.

In the past few months, the light over our kitchen sink mysteriously went on and off at all hours of the day and night -- seemingly on its own.   Most disturbing was the fact that the light often went off on Shabbos (the Sabbath) -- a time when observant Jews do not turn lights on and off.  I would come downstairs in the morning and the light would be off, even though I knew it had been on when I went to bed.  Later in the day, it would be back on again.  There was no discernible pattern to this, it just seemed to randomly happen.

No, there wasn't a short in the wiring or the light socket.  No, the bulb wasn't loose.  Nor was it defective -- we actually tried replacing it.  No effect, the same thing happened.  My wife and I each "accused" the other of accidentally turning it on or off, and each of us denied it -- multiple times.  I began to wonder if the house was haunted.  Either that, or we were both getting very absent-minded in our old age.

Busted!  The  furry culprit
 is caught at last!
Then one day, I caught the culprit.  The light has a pull cord, and one of our cats had discovered that if he grabbed the little ball at the end and pulled, he could turn the light off -- or on.  There he was, plain as day, pulling it multiple times -- on, off, on, off, on, off... and apparently having a great time!

This is a kitty we had recently taken in, so we had not yet learned all his quirks.  He arrived with the name "Waif," but nobody could remember that around here, so he started to be called "Tommy."  Well, after the light bulb mystery was solved, he got a new forever name:  Tesla! (For all you non-nerds, Nikola Tesla was a Serbian American scientist who discovered alternating electric current, among other things.)

As for safeguarding the light on Shabbos, we now loop the string around a nail up high on the wall so he can't reach it.  There's no rule against animals turning the light off on Shabbos, but we humans don't want to be left in the dark.  During the week, however, we leave the string down -- and at least once a day we catch Tesla pulling it on and off.  Then he gives us a look that is almost laughing.  Clearly he enjoys the game.

Tesla resting -- and looking so-o-o innocent...

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

In Memory of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi -- once the B'nai Or Rebbe, always a radical teacher

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, often hailed as "the father of the Jewish Renewal Movement," passed from this earth on July 3, 2014 (5th of Tammuz 5774).  He was radical, controversial, and sometimes a little bit crazy -- but undeniably a brilliant genius who made a tremendous impact on all branches of Judaism.

This post is not so much a eulogy as a personal memoir of my experiences with Reb Zalman and how he impacted my life and work.  Although I eventually drifted away from the movement he founded, I never forgot all that I learned from him.

The first connection

I first wrote to Reb Zalman in 1976, and finally met him at the University of Minnesota Hillel in 1980.  Back then, he was still "Zalman Schachter" and not yet "Schachter-Shalomi."  His organization at that time was called "B'nai Or" -- "Disciples of Light" -- and he was the B'nai Or Rebbe.  That was how I related to him -- as a Hasid coming to a spiritual master.  Which indeed he was.  In that first meeting, he asked me to take a  walk around the block with him and then asked, "Who are you?"  I began the usual intro bio stuff and he stopped me and said, "Who are you?  Inside!" Then he read my soul in a way that nobody has done before or since.  He also knew that my wife Caryl and I would marry -- even though we had not yet announced our engagement. (We were married July of that same year.)

The name "B'nai Or" originally came from the Dead Sea Scrolls (thought by many to be Essene writings), where the Children of Light battle the Children of Darkness in the Last Days.  Those Scrolls were discovered in 1948, right after World War II, when the Nazis had destroyed the Jews of Europe and Hasidic culture was in danger of being lost forever.  Reb Zalman was deeply touched by the story of the Essenes retreating to the wilderness at Qumran to preserve their writings and teachings.  He felt that something similar was needed to preserve the teachings and contemplative techniques of Hasidism as it had been before the Holocaust.  He originally envisioned B'nai Or as a semi-monastic Jewish community, a sort of ashram, which he described in a paper called Toward an Order of B'nai Or.  It was an idea that I eagerly embraced.

In 1982, Caryl and I moved to his center in Philadelphia with the intention of becoming part it.  For almost a year we lived in the old B'nai Or House on Emlen street, where we had daily contact with Reb Zalman (his family lived upstairs) and I sometimes got to travel with him.  it was during this time that I presented my first workshop on "Jewish Tribal Consciousness" (discussing parallels with Native American culture) and wrote the first version of my book 49 Gates of Light while walking daily in nearby Fairmount Park.  At the annual B'nai Or retreat at Fellowship House Farm, I presented my model for integrating the chakras with the sephirot on the Kabbalah Tree of Life, upon which 49 Gates of Light is based.

It was also in Philly that I started hearing that Judaism had reincarnation teachings, which set me on the road to eventually writing Beyond the Ashes: Cases of Reincarnation from the Holocaust, the book for which I am best known.  In all of this, Reb Zalman was always very supportive.  I was only at B'nai Or House for a year, but it was a year that impacted the rest of my life.  Without his encouragement, my books might never have been written.

What it was like in the old days

The old B'nai Or was much more orthodox than the Jewish Renewal movement of today.  It was closer to what is now called Traditional Judaism (or Conservadox) except that it had a more mystical bent to it.  It has also been called neo-Hasidic and I think the term fits well, although I cringe at the sound of neo-anything.  But Reb Zalman did manage to be a bridge between the Hasidic philosophy and practice of the Old World and the post-Holocaust Judaism of today.  Hasidim before the Holocaust --even in Chabad, where Reb Zalman was ordained -- was much more contemplative than it is now.

The semi-monastic community that Reb Zalman envisioned never materialized, but his teachings did spread through workshops and "spiritual labs" where we would explore our inner feelings about God and Torah.  At the time I was in Philly, B'nai Or was not so much a movement or a denomination as a spiritual path in terms of daily discipline.  Nor was it so political as Jewish Renewal of today.  Jews of all backgrounds came, experienced, and then took that energy back home to their own communities.  "Bring it all home to davening (Jewish worship), Reb Zalman would say.  "Bring it all home to davening."

There were a lot of experiential exercises that we tried during the week in his "spiritual labs," then we brought the insight and energy of that experience into the traditional liturgy.    Reb Zalman also taught a method of chanting the prayers in English, but using the traditional tunes and cadences, in order to make the davening more accessible to people who did not know Hebrew.  All of this was very helpful in opening up the texts to a living tradition.  I have continued to use some of these techniques in my own classes and workshops.

If I had only known back then that I'm autistic...

But somewhere along the line, in the transition from "B'nai Or" to "Jewish Renewal," the lab experiments became the davening itself, which was just too strange for me.  For example, Reb Zalman began to teach a technique where two people recited the Shema while staring deeply into each others' eyes.  This I could not do -- and I know now it is because I am autistic.  (I have Asperger's, which was undiagnosed at the time.)  Eye contact in general is difficult for autistic people, and staring into somebody' eyes is extremely uncomfortable.  Doing that makes me feel like we are two roosters squaring off for a fight -- exactly the opposite of the "trust" it was supposed to build.  For similar reasons, I could never really "get into" some of the other exercises where we davened in "twosies" and "threesies."  The more we moved into this sort of partnered davening, the more I retreated into myself.

This was not about "refusing to be open" as some people misinterpreted my reluctance to participate.  It was about the fact that my brain functions very differently from "normal" people.  What is inspiring to others is not always that for me.  Had I known about my autism back then, I might have approached things very differently.  And others, in turn, might have had a better understanding of my lack of social skills and quirky personality traits.  But as it was, I became increasingly alienated from the people and the movement, although never from Reb Zalman himself.  He always accepted me for who I was.

From "B'nai Or" to "P'nai Or" to "Jewish Renewal"

In 1983, Caryl and I returned to Minneapolis.  When I went back to Pennsylvania in 1985 to attend the first national Kallah gathering in Radnor, PA, much had changed.  Political correctness had arrived, and the feminists objected to the word "B'nai" because it literally means "sons."  So "B'nai Or" became "P'nai Or" ("Faces of Light").  Current biographies describe Reb Zalman as having "founded P'nai Or in 1962" but that is revisionism.  B'NAI Or was founded in '62. The name change did not take place until 1985.  I was there when it happened.

 "B'nai" does literally mean "sons" but it also means "disciples," and I have always felt that this was more than just a name change.  Over the years, the energy has shifted away from a focus on discipleship toward one of humanism.   Eventually the B'nai-P'nai name was dropped entirely, and the organization became "The Aleph Alliance for Jewish Renewal" as it is called today.

I go my own way -- but never forget what I learned

The 1985 Kallah was the last event even billed as "B'nai Or," and the last I ever attended.  I was ordained by Reb Zalman in 1986, and for a while I remained connected to his work.  But as things became less and less comfortable for me, I went my own way, eventually to become a Breslov Hasid.  This was something Reb Zalman had apparently foreseen, because in 1983 he referred to me as "a master of prayer in the way of of Nachman of Breslov."  When I asked him what he meant by that, he said he saw me as someone davening alone in the forest, like the "Master of Prayer" in the Breslov story.  (Rebbe Nachman taught his followers to go alone to a field or forest and pour out their hearts to God.)  Which, now that my wife and I live in rural Minnesota, is exactly what I have become.  Not a congregational rabbi, but a reclusive "Jewish Thoreau" who writes about Judaism and nature.

What I still carry with me

Although I broke with Jewish Renewal as a movement, Reb Zalman and I remained in touch behind the scenes.  I always sent him my latest books, and he was always supportive.   I, in turn, supported his work, sometimes giving feedback on current projects.  I remember especially a conversation we had back in 1982 about how, in tribal cultures, people don't try to remain eternally young.  In Native American tribes, people accept the stages of life and transition into being elders.  Grey hairs become a mark of wisdom and honor, not something to hide in shame.  I do not know if this conversation eventually influenced his workshops on "eldering," but I do know we both shared a lot as we aged.  Reb Zalman was always open to new ideas and truly followed the line in Pirkei Avot: "Who is wise?  He who learns from all people."

Reb Zalman's Rainbow
Tallis design and how it
corresponds to the sefirot on
the Tree of Life diagram
And many, many people have learned from him, even if they do not realize it.  When I brought my 49 Gates of Light book back into print for its 4th edition, I included the story of the B'nai Or rainbow tallis (prayer shawl) so that story would not be lost.  After all, the book itself is based on his design and how it integrates with the sefirot (see diagram).  Back in 1982 he had explained this to me in an interview, which I then wrote up and published in the old B'nai Or Newsletter.  Newsletters get lost, however, and I wanted the story to be told to a wider audience.

Many people do not realize that he was the first Jew in modern times to make a tallis in colors other than black or blue and white.  At the time it was so radical, he was unable to find a tallis weaver willing to make them, and had to go to a non-Jewish vestment company instead.  He never copyrighted his design, so now everyone is making them, but he did it first back in the 1950s.  Today  the idea of a multi-colored tallis has entered popular culture and is taken for granted.  So much so, that someone once walked up to the aging Reb Zalman and asked, "Where did you get your rainbow tallis?  Yours is exactly like mine!"

I could go on forever, but this essay is already getting too long.  Reb Zalman was way ahead of his time, and always a loving, caring, compassionate teacher.  He impacted my life forever, and I will deeply miss him.

*  *  *

Portions of this post were adapted from my longer essay, "What B'nai Or Was Like in the Old Days," included in the fourth edition of 49 Gates of light: A Course in Kabbalah.

For more on the life and teachings of Reb Zalman, see: 

On the Death Of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi by Rabbi Michael Lerner. Personal memoir.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Father of Jewish Renewal, Dies at 89 -- Huffington Post.  Excellent biographical review of his life and career.

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi brought Old World Gravitas to New Age Judaism by Ben Harris


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Vegetarianism leads to terrorism, says Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

On June 8, 2014, the Israel National News published a follow-up article by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed entitled The Significance of Eating Meat, in answer to criticisms of his previous article on May 26, Vegetarianism for Moral Reasons.  As I pointed out in my rebuttal on this blog, the first article was actually an attack on the entire vegetarian movement.   As is the second article.   Rabbi Melamed believes it is morally wrong to teach vegetarianism.  In his latest article, he goes even further, linking the vegetarian movement with supporting terrorism.  In his mind, being kind to animals leads to cruelty to people.  In order to understand his basis for this bizarre claim, we must first take a foray into Jewish mysticism.

"Raising holy sparks" and eating meat

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed,
head of the Har Bracha
yeshiva in Israel
In The Significance of Eating Meat, he opens with a long kabbalistic explanation of the concept of "raising holy sparks" through eating meat  to effect a tikkun, or cosmic repair of the universe.  This is pretty standard Jewish mystical thought, so I won't go into it here, except to say that he misses two crucial points:  1) the process is cumulative, not self-perpetuating, and 2) it is individualized, that is, each person is born to raise particular "sparks" and not others.

This implies that, as more and more sparks are raised and the process nears completion,  there will be fewer and fewer people assigned by "heaven" to raised sparks in meat.  This may well account for the rise in vegetarianism in recent years.  It may also account for the rampant cruelty in the meat industry.  Could it be that there are no longer any holy sparks in meat, and what is left is only negative energy (klippot)?

Rabbi Melamed would strongly disagree with this stance.  He feels that  it is still necessary for humans to eat meat ("extremely vital for man" in his words), in order to complete the tikkun.   By preaching vegetarianism, he says, the activists are impeding the whole process of repairing the universe -- which puts them on the side of wickedness in his eyes.  "Accordingly," he states, "at the present stage of time, individuals can conduct themselves with an additional measure of piety and not eat meat, but they must refrain from preaching vegetarianism, so as not to harm the primary effort of tikkun olam (repairing the universe.)"  

This is an argument I have heard before.  So much so, that I posted a video on this topic  on YouTube.  (There is also a dialogue with me on "raising sparks" and vegetarianism in Professor Richard Schwartz's 2010 book, Who Stole My Religion?  The entire interview can be downloaded for free at this link.)   Ironically, this argument has the same sort of apocalyptic energy as the Christian fundamentalists who claim the Jews are impeding the "Second Coming" by refusing to convert to Christianity.  It's pretty hard to reason with somebody who thinks you are out to destroy the universe.

 Who is qualified to say what is cruel?

Rabbi Melamed then goes on to discuss what he calls "allegations of cruelty in the meat industry."  He does acknowledge the possibility of such cruelties, but severely limits who can determine what is or is not cruel:

"Indeed, if it becomes clear that in a certain place, animals are treated with immense cruelty, it is proper to instruct people not to purchase the meat. However, this matter must be clarified by Torah scholars who are knowledgeable and familiar with raising animals and the laws of shechita (ritual slaughtering), [to be sure he is not referring to a mistaken understanding of the shechita itself, ed.]. But someone who is not familiar with raising animals lacks the criterion required to determine what exactly excessive cruelty is."

OK, I can go along with that -- in any type of decision-making, it is important to consult with experts.  And it is true that some people define kosher slaughter itself as cruelty.  (We should note here that even PETA has affirmed that, when done properly, it is humane.)  But what about the conditions on the farm before slaughter?  Or the conditions under which animals are transported to the slaughterhouse?  Who, in his opinion, are the experts to determine whether these things are cruel?

He defines them as "Torah scholars who are knowledgeable with raising animals and the laws of shechita [kosher slaughtering.]"  That narrows it down to his own circle of colleagues.  Given this definition, he apparently puts no trust whatsoever in secular animal scientists who might have valid opinions about what does or does not constitute cruelty, since they are not Torah scholars.  Forget about consulting animal behavioral scientists like Temple Grandin (who, by the way, has upheld kosher slaughter -- but not the often inhumane conditions prior to it.)   And since experts in shechita are most likely meat eaters who are connected to the kosher meat industry in one way or another, this becomes a case of the fox guarding the henhouse.

But don't consult any animal rights people....

In the Haredi [rigidly Orthodox] world that this rabbi lives in, science is not well-regarded anyway, so it comes as no surprise that he writes off secular researchers with a few taps of the keyboard.  That's bad enough.  But he goes even further about whom he would disqualify as an "expert":

"And certainly, animal rights activists should not be relied on in this matter, seeing as they are exactly the ones to whom the argument of morality is addressed, for they have confused and obscured the boundaries of morality, turning an act of divrei chassidut (an additional measure of piety i.e. vegetarianism) into an absolute requirement, and in consequence, come to despise the foundations of morality, and offend their friends who do eat meat. And thus, their practice of vegetarianism has no sensitivity to it whatsoever, but rather, arrogance and wickedness."

So now we know that this really is an attack on the vegetarian movement and not just my own paranoia.  He repeats his allegations from his first article, namely, his belief that  teaching vegetarianism leads people to "despise the foundations of morality."   What he apparently means by that is that it is "moral" to be doing tikkun olam by eating meat, and "immoral" to refuse to eat meat.  Nowhere does he discuss other ways that one might help with repairing the universe.

Nor does he say how he would react to a vegetarian activist who is also  a Torah scholar and who knows about raising animals.  Presumably the supposed "arrogance and wickedness" of such a person would, in Rabbi Melamed's mind, overrule any expertise he might have.   Or he would probably rely on the principle of going with the majority -- who, in his circles, would be meat-eaters.  Either way, vegetarians have no voice, period.

Be a vegetarian -- but shut up about it?

It comes as no surprise to me that a Haredi rabbi would discount the opinions of anyone who is not also a Haredi rabbi.  This happens all the time.  But what really sticks out here is how he feels vegetarian activists "offend their friends who do eat meat" and therefore, in his eyes, their vegetarianism "has no sensitivity whatsoever" but rather is full of "arrogance, wickedness."  I find myself wondering if this whole diatribe might have been triggered by some vegetarian guest who came out of the closet and "offended" Rabbi Melamed at the Sabbath table by not eating the meat.  He certainly does seem to have a lot of emotional energy invested in the issue.

It may well be true that standing up for a cause -- any cause -- might "offend" your friends and neighbors.  That is the nature of protest.   Segregationists in the American South were so "offended" by the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s that they beat up, jailed, and sometimes even lynched the protesters.  But in the long run, the Civil Rights activists were proven right, even if they were at first in the minority.  Being in the majority does not always mean you are on the right side.

Yes, it is true that some segments of the vegetarian movement do act in self-righteous and arrogant ways.  In fact, I myself have sometimes been offended by the more extreme elements in the movement, as well as blatant ignorance about Jews and Judaism.  A great deal of my activist energy lately has gone into educating gentiles about Jews -- and not just the vegetarians, either.  But this does not invalidate the movement itself.   As they say, ignorance is curable.

Unfortunately, it is the extremists who always get the media coverage.  Then the whole movement is judged by the actions of a few.  But this is the case with just about any movement you can name.  Every group has its extremists.  [One of whom is Rabbi Melamed himself for his own political cause -- more on that below.]  But does that mean we should never speak out against animal cruelty because it might offend somebody?  Does that mean we should all just shut up and sit on our hands and say nothing?  Isn't that what people did during the Holocaust?   Remember all those "good Germans" who did not speak out against cruelty toward Jews for fear of offending their neighbors -- or worse?

Apparently Rabbi Melamed does think exactly that way, because earlier in the article, in a section called "The Place of Vegetarians," he does acknowledge that "there are individuals whose delicate, moral sensitivities touch their hearts deeply and thus refrain from eating meat, and most certainly they avoid offending others who do eat meat."  (I am not sure how he determines this.  Does he personally know any of these inoffensive vegetarians?  How would he meet them if, as he says, they should not talk about vegetarianism?)  Thus he presents vegetarianism as a mystical stance that one might adopt for onesself, but not one that a person should try to teach to others.  So it would seem that as long as we keep quiet and "know our place" he has no objections to individuals being a vegetarians -- just don't talk about it with anybody, lest you offend your meat-eating listeners.  (On the other hand, he has no problem offending vegetarians with accusations of arrogance and -- get this -- terrorism!  Read on...)

Linking vegetarianism with terrorism -- OY VEY!

However, "offending" people is not the real agenda for Rabbi Melamed's vehemence against vegetarians.  His attack is based in Israeli politics, because in the next paragraph he goes on to say:

"Here in Israel, quite a few vegetarian activists support the terrorist organizations of the P.L.O. and Hamas, while at the same time, claiming that the settlers are the biggest culprits, hindering peace of the world.  Incidentally, this type of evil is the most serious and dangerous, because it wraps itself in the guise of righteousness.  In the same way that some of the greatest villains in history took pride in their compassion for animals."

Here he takes of the velvet gloves and swings with both fists.  Read that paragraph again.  Rabbi  Melamed is claiming that teaching vegetarianism will lead to people to support terrorism!  He really believes this!  A patently absurd assumption that turns psychology on its head.   Kindness to animals does not lead to violence towards humans.  The opposite is true: cruelty to animals leads to cruelty toward humans.

One of the first signs of a developing psychopath is a tendency toward torturing animals.  Part of the initiation into Hitler's Death's Head SS squads was to be given a dog to raise and train, then be ordered to shoot it.  The purpose being, to teach the young soldiers to follow orders and have no compassion whatsoever, nor even for their friends.    It was not kindness to the dogs that hardened their hearts; it was the act of betraying those dogs in order to be accepted into the group.   The same kind of callous behavior can be seen in gang initiations today.

Hitler was NOT a vegetarian!

No doubt Rabbi Melamed would counter with the claim that Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian.  Hitler is most likely one of those "greatest villains in history" that his article refers to.   The rabbi apparently believes in the classical example of false logic (I actually saw this in a math book once):  "Hitler was evil.  Hitler was a vegetarian.  Therefore all vegetarians are evil."

But, false logic aside,  Hitler was neither a vegetarian nor an animal rights activist.  Although he sometimes refrained from eating meat because of problems with flatulence, he was also fond of liver dumplings, sausage, and roast pigeon.  When he came to power, he outlawed all the vegetarian organizations in the Reich.  Film footage of Hitler and his dog show the dog cowering in fear.  And Hitler absolutely hated cats -- probably because you can't bully them around the way you can a dog.  When deciding how he would commit suicide if captured, he tested the cyanide on his own dog first.   So he was hardly a man who had compassion for animals, not even his own pets.  Yet this urban legend about Hitler's supposed vegetarianism  continues to circulate, sucking in gullible people like Rabbi Melamed.

Vegetarianism does NOT cause terrorism

In fact, I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of terrorists eat meat.  I certainly have not heard of any Al Qaeda videos advocating vegetarianism!   True, there are some vegetarians -- as well as many, many avid meat-eaters -- who advocate negotiating with the Palestinians for a two-state solution to the conflict.  And since Hamas and the PLO are now the elected governments in the West Bank and Gaza, any treaty signed would have to include them, whether you consider them terrorists or not.  As Moshe Dayan said decades ago, you do not make peace by talking to your friends.  You have to talk with your enemies.  And you have to be willing to hear both sides.  There are many cases in history where the bitterest of enemies  sat down and made peace.  And most of them were carnivores.

This I believe, is the rabbi's true reason for attacking the vegetarian movement: he hates the very idea a Palestinian state, and by extension he opposes anybody -- vegetarian or not -- who advocates a two-state solution.  As I explained in my previous article, Rabbi Melamed is a disciple of the late Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, founder of the Gush Emunim settlement movement in Israel.   Although Gush Emunim as a political party is now defunct, their philosophy lives on in the settler movement itself.  They believe that the Jews have a God-given right to "greater Israel," that all Arabs are evil and out to kill the Jews, and that Israel should not give back one single inch of the land captured in the 1967 war.  Anybody who disagrees with this extreme stance is labeled a heretic and a traitor.  Or worse.

Rabbi Melamed is certainly entitled to his political opinions.  But scapegoating the vegetarian movement makes no logical sense.  In his mind, cause and effect have become strangely warped.  He seems to think that people become vegetarians, then go off and join "terrorist" groups.  But this rarely happens in the real world.  Most of the time, people first become involved in various political and peace movements (whether they are "terrorists" is beyond the scope of this article) and only later do they begin to develop any sensitivity to animals -- if at all.   To claim that vegetarianism leads to terrorism is simply not true. 

2005 cartoon lampooning "Homeland Security"

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Refuting Rabbi Eliezer Melamed's attack on the vegetarian movement

On Monday, May 26, 2014, the Israel National News printed an article by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed  entitled Judaism: Vegetarianism for Moral Reasons.   This title is misleading, however, because it turns out that Rabbi Melamed is against encouraging vegetarianism for moral reasons.  His reasoning is, in my opinion, one of the best examples of why everyone should be required to take a course in basic logic before putting fingers to keyboard.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed,
head of the Har Bracha
yeshiva in Israel
The article begins, not with vegetarianism, but with an argument from the book of Numbers about why every Jew should join the Israeli army.  This is hardly surprising coming from this rabbi, given that he is a disciple of the late Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, founder of the Gush Emunim settlement movement in Israel. In other words, Rabbi Melamed is a radical right-wing activist.  Were this the only content of his article, I would not be bothering to write this blog post, except maybe to refute his militaristic interpretation of the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer (see below.)*

However, right in the middle of this discussion about Jewish armies, he makes a switch to vegetarianism.  He begins with the usual story of how Eden was vegetarian, but after the Fall both humans and animals degenerated into killing and eating each other.  Then comes Noah, the Flood, etc.  All pretty standard theology until we get to this:

 "Up until the generation of the Flood, people could receive all their nutritional needs from plants. After the sin and the collapse of all systems of nature – plants were no longer sufficient for a person, and therefore, God allowed Noah and his sons to eat the flesh of cattle, birds, animals and fish. In other words, the moral decline of the world created a completely new eco-environment in which the consumption of meat is necessary." 

Here is where I take issue.  Given the huge number of perfectly healthy vegetarians and vegans in the world today, it can hardly be argued that plants are "no longer sufficient for a person" or that "the consumption of meat is necessary."  It may be true that in past generations, when the principles of balanced nutrition were less understood, it was more difficult to be both vegetarian and healthy, but this was due to lack of knowledge and, in some cases, lack of year-round access to fresh vegetables -- not to the impossibility of living on a plant-based diet.

The good rabbi also does not seem to be bothered by the horrible conditions in today's factory farms.  On the contrary:  He seems to think this benefits the animals, and that we are somehow protecting them and doing them a big favor by raising them for meat:

"In the present situation, if we stop eating meat, it is not clear that it would benefit those species we normally eat, because if we do not continue raising and growing them for consumption, their numbers among other animals will decrease sharply. At present, they breed under human supervision, but if all the animals and chickens were let loose, within a short time, very few would be left."

Not only does Rabbi Melamed need a course in logic, he would also benefit from some basic ecology.  His argument might hold true in the case of factory farm chickens who have spent their whole lives crammed in cages and have no idea how to survive in the wild.  But feral chickens in many places on earth are doing just fine.  My own free-run flock is in no danger of dying out.  The opposite is true:  I have hens who keep sneaking off to raise broods of chicks in the woods.  (I eat eggs but not meat.)

Stopping meat consumption would mean that there might be fewer chickens in the world than the billions that are raised for slaughter each year, but that is an artificially inflated number to begin with.  If chickens were released (or maybe sent to sanctuaries to live out their lives) and the mass production stopped, their numbers would eventually adjust to the natural population that is supposed to be in the ecosystem.  And those that do survive would be a whole lot happier.

Rabbi Melamed then goes on to argue that not only is meat-eating "necessary," it is, in his opinion, morally wrong to encourage people to be vegetarians.  And here we find the strangest case of false logic that I have seen in a long time.  He states:

"Moreover, if we are overly concerned about educating towards compassion and love for animals, instead of helping them, we would destroy ethical relations between human beings, because people whose sense of morality is not fully developed could think to themselves: “Since in any event, we aren’t warned about killing animals and eating them, we can also kill people who stand in our way, and maybe even eat their flesh.” And there would be other evil individuals who would focus all their good qualities towards animals – because ultimately, every wicked person possesses a spark of conscience and compassion. But after silencing their conscience, they could steal, exploit, and kill people without any ethical dilemma, because in their hearts, they take pride in the great mercifulness they show towards their pets."  

As bizarre as this argument may seem, I have heard it before -- in connection with the Holocaust.  People using it like to point to Hitler's supposed vegetarianism (for the record, he was not a vegetarian  -- read more here) and then say, "See?  Hitler was a vegetarian and he certainly was not moral."  They also like to point to Nazis who loved their dogs while at the same time hating and killing Jews.  This was true in some cases -- but let's not confuse cause and effect.  Loving a dog (or any other animal) does not lead to cruelty toward humans.  People who split their consciences like this are in a state of denial, disassociation, or even psychosis, but loving the dog did not cause this.  For that matter, such Nazis also loved their families -- so are we to say nobody should love their children because it might lead to mass murder?

Rabbi Melamed then goes on to say:

"Therefore, as long as murder and cruelty remain in the world, people should not be encouraged to refrain from eating meat. One might say that as long as people have a desire to eat meat, it is a sign that we have not yet reached the ethical stage in which it is morally important to refrain from eating meat." 

By this circular logic, we would never try to improve ourselves or overcome our base desires.  We would all just keep on justifying our bad behavior by reasoning that if we are doing it, then it must be what we are supposed to be doing.  So where would it end?  Shall we say that as long as people have a desire to make war, it is morally wrong to try to make peace?  Or as long as people want to buy slaves, we should not try to end slavery?  Try telling that to the parents of those girls who were recently kidnapped in Nigeria.

However, Rabbi Melamed inadvertently provides a loophole big enough to drive a truck through, namely, that "as long as people have a desire to eat meat" they are not morally advanced enough to cease eating it.  (This must be the case with Rabbi Melamed himself, since, as far as I know, he is not a vegetarian nor does he express any desire to become one.)  By his own logic, the reverse must also be true:  if a person does lose his or her taste for meat and no longer desires to eat it, then it must be a sign that he or she is now morally advanced and should consider becoming a vegetarian.  As more and more people are doing every day.

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*Regarding Lag B'Omer, he states that the custom of shooting arrows on Lag B’Omer alludes to preparing for the establishment of a Jewish army.  This completely turns the story on its head.  The custom originated during the Roman period when it was forbidden to teach Torah.  So the rabbis would pretend they were taking the boys out to target practice as a ruse to fool the Roman soldiers.  Rather like the story of the Hanukkah dreydel, where toys and games were used as a ruse to cover teaching Torah.  I have never, until now, heard of anybody attaching a theme of military training to the archery story.


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UPDATE, June 20, 2014:  On June 8, 2014, the Israel National News published a follow-up article by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed entitled The Significance of Eating Meat, in answer to criticisms of his previous article on May 26, Vegetarianism for Moral Reasons.   In this latest article, he goes even further, linking the vegetarian movement with supporting terrorism.  In his mind, being kind to animals leads to cruelty to people.  Read my latest response, Vegetarianism Leads to Terrorism, says Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, in which I refute this absurd claim.