Religion and Eating Meat
January 27, 2015 | Philosophy/Religion
As a copywriter and editor at Prager University, I am occasionally asked to reply to emails we get from viewers who visit the Prager University website. A few weeks ago, a young woman, Alexa, sent an email, asking what the Biblical position is on eating meat. I was happy to send a reply. Although I am by no means a Biblical scholar, I have thought about the issue and I've written about it elsewhere on this blog. My response to Alexa is below.
I’m the Communications Coordinator at Prager University. I read your email about whether Christianity permits meat eating. I am Jewish, so I can’t speak as a Christian, but given that you’re quoting Genesis and Isaiah, I am confident that I can help give some clarity. (You might want to email some Christian thinkers and ask for books or websites that discuss this issue from a Christian perspective.)
There are two separate activities you raised in your email: animal sacrifice and eating meat. The Bible permits both, but there are a lot of rules governing them, along with a heavy emphasis on treating animals ethically. These rules are spelled out in the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy -- what Christians call the Old Testament and what Jews call the Torah). Jewish thinkers (such as Maimonides) also discuss the ethical treatment of animals.
Among Jews, animal sacrifice stopped about two thousand years ago when the Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem. Animal sacrifice was a way for people to get closer to God and atone for their sins. The long passage you quote from Isaiah is not a rejection of sacrifice per se, it is a rejection of hypocrisy. God does not want people to think that they can be cruel to each other, reject His commandments, and then try to find favor with God by making animal sacrifices. It would be analogous to a serial killer going to church or confession once a week and expecting that God will forgive him for his evil behavior the week before.
The Genesis portion you cited, with regard to Noah, talks about the prohibition on drinking an animal’s blood. In Judaism, it is permitted to eat certain animals such as cows and sheep, but it is forbidden to consume the blood of any animal, since blood contains the life force that belongs to God.
There are many laws in Judaism that explain which animals may be killed and eaten, how animals must be treated, and what constitutes humane slaughter. The bottom line is, Judaism forbids animal cruelty, but it does not prohibit killing and eating certain animals. Judaism puts a heavy emphasis on minimizing the pain and suffering of the animal, especially during slaughter. In fact, in order for beef, chicken, or lamb to be considered kosher, the animal must be slaughtered by a specially trained person called a shochet. It would take a lot of space to describe all the Biblical laws of kosher slaughter and the treatment of animals, but there are books (besides the Torah) that discuss it. One is Sue Fishkoff’s book, Kosher Nation, in which she dedicates a chapter to describing what kosher meat is all about and how a shochet is trained.
Chapter 64 of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s book, Jewish Wisdom, talks about Jewish ethics towards animals. In his other book, The Book of Jewish Values, he has this to say on p. 323:
On two occasions when the Bible describes a utopian world, the creatures inhabiting it are vegetarian, Thus, in the Garden of Eden, God instructs Adam and Eve to restrict their diet to vegetables and fruits (Genesis 1:29). Later, during the time of Noah, God gives humankind permission to eat meat (Genesis 9:3). But the prophet Isaiah, envisioning a future messianic age, sees it as one in which even the animals will be herbivorous, a world in which “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard lie down with the kid . . .” (11:6).
Speaking on a personal note, I believe that the ethical treatment of animals is important, and I respect those who choose to become vegetarian. I was at one time a vegetarian myself, but I am not any longer. As a carnivore, I try to only eat meat that was raised and slaughtered humanely. You might want to take a look at Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin. Ms. Grandin is an animal scientist whose mission is to make the farming and slaughter of animals as humane as possible. She has done a lot to ensure that animal cruelty is minimized in the food industry, including designing slaughterhouses that keep the animals calm and free from fear. She is not a vegetarian, and her perspective on the treatment of animals and the human/animal relationship is fascinating.
I hope this helps. Best of luck.