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.