Ecology According to the Baal Shem Tov

Ecology According to the Baal Shem Tov

Dovid Sears

The unity of life

The father of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) lived in villages and towns in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains (and at one point, in seclusion in those mountains), far from the centers of European  culture. Although this was the beginning of the modern era, the Baal Shem Tov’s milieu was basically the medieval rural world of Eastern European Jewry. At that time, there was no science of ecology—the term would not be coined until more than a century after the master’s death. Yet the Baal Shem Tov’s doctrine may strike a chord with certain principles of this relatively new science, as well as with contemporary environmentalism.

One of the distinguishing features of this great Jewish mystic’s teaching is the essential unity of life, which he described as a “garment” for the Divine Oneness.[1] This has been summed up by one Chassidic leader as “one teaching that can be expressed in two ways: Godliness is everything, and everything is Godliness.”[2] That is, although God transcends this world and all worlds (the kabbalists describe four worlds, of which this physical universe is the lowest), God is at the same time immanent within creation. According to the Chassidic view, a corollary of the foundational belief that “God is One” is that creation is energized by and suffused with God’s Oneness.

Most of us probably don’t sense this hidden unity, or if we do, it is intuited only vaguely. We are easily driven to distraction by the bombardment of conflicting stimuli and information we experience every day. Yet the spiritual life demands that we get in touch with our own inner world. This requires a concentrated effort on our part, a desire to penetrate the confusion and get through to the eye of the storm. This is actually possible. The widespread contemporary condition of alienation need not be the end point of our spiritual life. If we come to recognize and take to heart the unity of which the Baal Shem Tov speaks, we will start to see things in a very different light—including ourselves and our place in the universe.

The perception of unity goes hand in hand with a sense of humility. We come to realize that we are not the center of the universe after all. As the Baal Shem Tov taught his disciples: “Do not consider yourself superior to anyone else … In truth, you are no different than any other creature, since all things were brought into being to serve God. Just as God bestows consciousness upon you, so does He bestow consciousness upon your fellow man. In what way is a human being superior to a worm? A worm serves the Creator with all of his intelligence and ability; and man too is compared to a worm or a maggot, as the verse states, ‘I am a worm and not a man’ (Psalms 22:7). If God had not given you a human intellect, you would only be able to serve Him like a worm. In this sense, you are both equal in the eyes of Heaven. A person should consider himself, and the worm, and all creatures as comrades in the universe, for we are all created beings whose abilities are God-given.[3]

In saying this, the Baal Shem Tov seems to have been worried about the possibility that his disciples, who were “souls on fire,” to use Elie Wiesel’s phrase, might succumb to pride—which would undermine the entire spiritual enterprise. So the Baal Shem Tov nips this in the bud by invoking the kinship of all God’s creatures, each of which serves God in its own way. This realization does away with alienation and division and produces a sense of “comradeship.”

(As one contemporary scholar has pointed out, there is a connection between the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings about divine immanence and universal kinship and the fact that the Shulchan Arukh HaRav, authored by Chassidic leader Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi [1745-1812], was the first such halakhic compendium to include a separate section on the laws of tza’ar baaley chaim, cruelty to animals.)[4]

The recognition of the kinship of the species and indeed, of all creation—interconnectedness—is one of the underlying principles of ecology. Ecosystems are made up of dynamically interacting parts as related to the matrix within which they exist. Every element is inseparable from its environment; what may seem to be a separate entity is inevitably and inextricably part of a greater whole. And another, and another.

Like many aspects of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings, we can find a precedent for this holistic view in the thought of the saintly kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570), known by his acronym as the RaMaK. And like the above teaching from the Baal Shem Tov, the RaMaK’s teaching too has an ethical spin: “One should respect all creatures, recognizing in them the greatness of the Creator Who formed man with wisdom. All creatures are imbued with the Creator’s wisdom, which itself makes them greatly deserving of honor. The Maker of All, the Wise One Who transcends everything, is associated with His creatures in having made them. If one were to disparage them, God forbid, this would reflect upon the honor of their Maker.[5]

The preciousness and worth of every creature is also stressed by the Talmudic Sages. The verse states, “And the superiority (Hebrew: yisron) of the earth is in everything” (Ecclesiastes 5:8). The Midrash explains, “The Rabbis rendered the word yisron interpretively: Even creatures you see on Earth that seem superfluous (meyusarin, a construct of yisron), such as flies, gnats and mosquitoes—they too are part of God’s creation.”[6] For this reason, the great kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), known as the holy ARI (“lion,” an acronym for “the godly Rabbi Isaac”), would not kill a mosquito or any other insect, even if it was causing him pain.[7]

In this connection, a story is told about Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz (1886-1948), Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaath and a key figure in the regeneration of Torah education in America after World War II. One summer night, the students were gathered on the grass listening to Rabbi Shraga Feivel. While he was speaking, mosquitoes descended on the boys, and driving them all to distraction. In the dark, Rabbi Shraga Feivel could not see what had happened, but he sensed the disturbance. When later told what had happened, he was perplexed: “If there was a swarm of biting insects here, I too would have felt it.” For their part the boys were equally amazed that he had not been bitten at all. The next day, however, as they were studying a Midrash on Proverbs with Rabbi Shraga Feivel, they had their explanation. On the verse, “When a man’s ways are pleasing to [God], even his enemies make peace with him” (Proverbs 16:7), the Midrash interprets the word “enemies” as referring to mosquitoes. Rabbi Shraga Feivel himself once offered another explanation for the fact that insects never bothered him. He could not recall ever having killed a fly.[8]

Respect for all creatures is not merely a lofty idea, appropriate for a spiritual elite (in which case it probably wouldn’t get make much headway in this world). It is a perception that should be an intrinsic part of who we are, each one of us, conditioning our actions in daily life. This requires a shift in our habitual way of thinking.

From the standpoint of modern man’s estrangement from the natural world, and given our basic self-serving tendency, we may feel that we are entitled to exploit the world around us for our own needs and desires. Civilization has always exacted a heavy toll on nature, particular since the Industrial Revolution and the rapid technological developments of the modern age. Some would even say that this sense of entitlement is endorsed by the Torah, which describes God as instructing Adam and Eve to “fill the Earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea, the bird of the sky, and every living thing that moves on the Earth” (Genesis 1:28). Yet rabbinic tradition rejects the surface reading of these verses, seeing God’s concern as extending to all creatures. This is reflected by the prohibitions of tza’ar baalei chaim and bal tash’chis (wastefulness), as well as by many verses in the Book of Psalms and in the daily prayer book.

Thus, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook (1865-1935), wrote: “No intelligent, thinking person could suppose that when the Torah instructs humankind to dominate—‘And have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves upon the Earth’ (Genesis 1:28)—it means the domination of a harsh ruler, who afflicts his people and servants merely to fulfill his personal whim and desire, according to the crookedness of his heart. It is unthinkable that the Torah would impose such a decree of servitude, sealed for all eternity, upon the world of God, Who is ‘good to all, and His mercy is upon all His works’ (Psalms 145:9), and Who declared, ‘The world shall be built upon kindness’” (ibid. 89:3).[9]

The Torah surely endorses human creativity and the development of constantly improving societies and cultures, as guided by the Seven Laws of Noah.[10] But that affirmation of humanity doesn’t mean that we may ravage the rest of God’s world.

The preciousness of every creature is similarly espoused by Rabbi Pinchas Elijah Horowitz of Vilna, author of Sefer HaBris (circa 1731-1802): “Before the Blessed One there is no difference whatever between a large creature and a small creature; and the unseemliness of a place is no obstacle to Him, as the author of the ‘Song of Unity’ wrote in the section corresponding to the third day: ‘The mighty wind does not repel You; even all foulness does not befoul You.’ The meaning is that of all lower creatures, none is repulsive before Him but a transgressor, a proud man, and evildoer – he alone is despicable to God and ‘foul-smelling’ … This is the meaning of the verse: ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts…’ (Isaiah 6:3).  The term ‘holy’ (kadosh) indicates the separation and removal of His Essence from everything, due to the loftiness of His sublime and wondrous station, reaching unto infinity. Nevertheless, the same verse concludes: ‘The entire world is full of His glory’ — as if to say: while God utterly transcends all the worlds, His providence is constantly bound to all the worlds and all His works, down to the smallest detail, even unto this lowly world, which in its entirety is full of His glory.”[11]

Thus, all things are deserving of esteem and bespeak the glory of their Creator, being God’s handiwork. (This is the meaning of Perek Shirah, an ancient collection of biblical verses that describe the praises of various animals.) Given the struggle to survive, we may be prone to think of our relationship to the environment—within which we live all our days on this imperiled Earth, and upon which we depend—as an adversarial one. But truly this is a form of blindness, to other creatures, to the planet and to ourselves.

It is also a form of ingratitude, in that we fail to appreciate the countless ways in which we benefit from the natural environment. The classic medieval guide to inner growth, Chovos HaLevavos (“Duties of the Heart”), states that the basis of our entire divine service is hakaras ha-tov, recognizing and showing gratitude to God above all, but also to other creatures.[12]

It is imperative that we seek more ecologically sound ways to obtain the resources needed for our survival and betterment. As wanton pollution of the air we breathe and the water we drink, as well as various global environmental crises, confront us with increasing insistence, this quest seems to be more urgent than ever.

Preservation of woodlands and the wild is not only a romantic, aesthetic, or even an “anti-business” political cause, as some would claim. It is a basic part of our sadly belated response to global climate change and enormous ecological devastation, affecting countless species—and most tellingly, the human populations that live in those regions that have been most severely affected. These problems ultimately have an effect upon us all. This is both a spiritual concern and an extremely practical one.

Moreover, the author of Sefer HaBris is implicitly telling us that protection of our planet and the diverse forms of life it supports is actually a religious act, since God’s “providence is constantly bound to all the worlds and all His works, down to the smallest detail, even unto this lowly world.” By striving to conserve and not destroy the Earth’s resources and habitats, we are emulating God’s providential concern.

Kinship of all creatures

Rav Kook expressed the vision of the unity of creation most vividly. In Orot HaKodesh (“Lights of Holiness”), a diverse collection of teachings edited by his disciple Rabbi David Cohen (1887-1972, known as the “Nazir of Jerusalem”), he wrote: “The lights of life that animate the entire hierarchy of living creatures according to their species are but shards of one lofty collective soul possessed of all wisdom and talent, divided into many separate parts.”[13] Within all diversity resides an encompassing unity.

Rav Kook goes on to declare, “Man stands and wonders: what need is there for the diversity of creation? He is unable to understand how everything comprises one great unity… If you are amazed at how it is possible to speak, hear, smell, touch, see, understand and feel—tell your soul that all living things collectively confer upon you the fullness of your experience. Not the least speck of existence is superfluous, everything is needed, and everything serves its purpose. ‘You” are present within everything that is beneath you, and your being is bound up with all that transcends you.”[14]

This statement refutes the “common sense fallacy” of individual separateness. In reality, we are all part of a symbiotic, interactive matrix in which every element is connected to every other—despite the uniqueness of each element—and the realization of this truth precipitates a radical shift in our sense of our place in the universe. One whose eyes are opened to this fundamental unity will no longer feel like he or she is “coming out of a corner” into an alien and often hostile arena, struggling to survive and to fulfill the incessant demands of ego-driven desire. Rather, one will sense the kinship of all beings and wish to seek their benefit.

Rabbi Menashe of Ilya, Lithuania (1767-1832), a leading disciple of the Vilna Gaon (and therefore not a devotee of the Chassidic movement), eloquently expresses this sensibility in his writings: “What am I in comparison to the many forms of sentient life in the world?” he reflects. “If the Creator were to confer upon me, as well as my family members, loved ones, and relatives, absolute goodness for all eternity, but some deficiency remained in the world—if any living thing still were suffering, and all the more so, another human being—I would not want anything to do with it, much less to derive benefit from it. How could I be separated from all living creatures? These are the works of God’s hand, and these too are the work of God’s hand.”[15]

Lacking such wisdom and compassion, we are left to our all-consuming self-interest—the “big fish eats the little fish” mentality, and the ongoing catastrophes of world history.

A spiritual problem lies at the root of all this, and it is a problem that each of us must ultimately address personally. Do we live compassionate lives, recognizing the innate worthiness of other people and other forms of life? Are we truly concerned with their plight? Or are we so absorbed in the illusory sense of self that we fail to recognize anything beyond the “magic circle” that the ego constantly draws around us? Do we ever stop to think about other people and other forms of life in terms of their “otherness”—their inherent worthiness in simply being whoever or whatever God created them to be? Or do we embrace only the groups to which we belong, or with which we identify, which are imaginary extensions of our self-definition? Do we regard the universe and all that it contains with reverence and wonder, or do we favor only those life forms that we imagine to be useful to ourselves? We need to ask ourselves these questions.

As planet Earth continues to be threatened by pollution, multifarious environmental damage, nuclear testing, nuclear accidents and the threat of nuclear war, we must contemplate our collective destiny. Even those who question the many scientists who attribute global climate change to man-made causes, it is clear that exploitation of nature and wasteful depletion of natural resources must inevitably have extremely serious long-term negative effects. The behaviors that have led to this state of affairs reflect a spiritual problem—a lack of humility and a lack of concern for all of life. Rather they are driven by egotism, greed and the fundamental delusion of separateness. As Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (1985-1954), author of the Sulam on the Zohar, laments: “The inborn nature of every individual is to exploit the lives all creatures in the world for his own benefit. And all that he gives to another, he gives only out of necessity. Even then, exploitation of others is present, but it is done cleverly, so that his friend will not sense it and concede willingly.”[16] Our technological knowledge has increased exponentially, while our knowledge of the “inner world” is still in its infancy. We must take the next step forward in our spiritual evolution.

A wonderful story is told about Rabbi Aryeh Levin (1885-1969), one of the saintly figures of old Jerusalem. As a young Talmud scholar, Rabbi Aryeh left his native Lithuania in 1905 and came to the city of Jaffa. He sought out his future mentor, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, who received him with great warmth. Once, while they were walking together in the fields engaged in Torah discussion, Rabbi Levin picked a flower. At this Rav Kook remarked, “All my days I have been careful never to pluck a blade of grass or a flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom. You know the teaching of our sages that not a single blade of grass grows here on earth that does not have an angel above it, commanding it to grow. Every sprout and leaf of grass says something meaningful, every stone whispers some hidden message in the silence, every creation utters its song.” Rabbi Levin concludes, “These words of our great master, spoken from a pure and holy heart, engraved themselves deeply in my heart. From that time on, I began to feel a strong sense of compassion for all things.”[17]

An almost identical story is told about the above-mentioned Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz and a student who had unthinkingly torn a leaf from a tree. “Don’t you know,” Rabbi Mendlowitz asked the youth, “that the whole creation sings a song to the Creator—every plant, every blade of grass? When you pulled that leaf off the tree, you cut off its song in the middle.”[18]

Inner change

How can we wake up from our lack of awareness and disconnectedness from the world around us? How can we turn around our unthinking destructive behaviors?

I once read that Sigmund Freud, when lecturing on psychoanalysis, would sometimes project on a screen an image from post card. It depicted a hillbilly in a hotel room frustratedly trying to blow out an electric bulb. The caption was, “Try using the switch!” Freud would then tell his audience, “We see the symptoms of neurosis. But psychoanalysis attempts to find the switch so that we can change them!”

Whatever the merits of psychoanalysis (which didn’t turn out to be the panacea that its founder hoped it would be), we still need to find the “switch” for our spiritual malaise.

The quest for inner transformation was one of the Baal Shem Tov’s main concerns as a mystical mentor, informing nearly all of his teachings. For example, the verse states, “I, I (anokhi, anokhi) am the one that consoles you” (Isaiah 51:12). The Baal Shem Tov explains, “When one realizes that the true “I” (anokhi) is God and nothing exists but Him—the rest of the verse is fulfilled, “I (anokhi) am the one who consoles you.”[19]

Another example: “When you realize that the Master of the Universe is actually present in your every word and gesture, however great or small, all confusions disperse that eclipse the light of the Mind.”[20]

Such teachings attest to the core experience of what is often called nonduality—a basic awareness or intuition of the underlying unity of “me” and “you,” subject and object, inner and outer, and what Jewish mystics call yesh (“somethingness”) and ayin (“nothingness”). That is, each opposite term is part and parcel of the other, and they share a common unity of being.

One of the “radical” ideas that recur in the Jewish discussion of nonduality is mentioned by Rabbi Noson of Breslov (1780-1844), the leading disciple and scribe of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810). Reb Noson writes, “When the verse states that ‘there is none but He’ (‘ein ode milvado,’ Deuteronomy 4:35), it means to say that nothing exists but God. Above and below, in heaven and on Earth, everything is absolutely naught and without substance. This is impossible to explain but can be grasped only according to the intuition of each person.”[21]

Although there are a number of earlier sources for this concept, especially in the writings of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero and his school,[22] it appears again and again throughout Chassidic literature—especially in the teachings of the Great Maggid of Mezeritch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad school of Chassidism, as well as their disciples and successors.

This is sometimes presented as a rarefied mystical concept, compared and contrasted by academic scholars with other theological or metaphysical ideas, but in a practical sense, all of this is beside the point. “Ein ode milvado” is a perception of reality that everyone can attain, at least to some degree.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, following the lead of his great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, taught a method by which we can remove the blinders of the ego and ego-based desires and negative character traits. In Hebrew, that method is called hisbodedus, meaning “seclusion.” As outlined by Rabbi Nachman, this is a form of self-examination and contemplation, ideally practiced alone at night in the forests or fields. But if this proves impractical, hisbodedus can be practiced alone in any private place where one won’t be disturbed. The ultimate goal of this inner work is the realization of the “Imperative Existent (mechuyav ha-metziyus),” or the Essential Reality—which is Divinity.[23] Rabbi Nachman tells us that through hisbodedus we can come to dissolve even the subtlest trace of the ego and thus obtain this realization experientially, and not just intellectually. When we awaken to this greater truth, everything in our lives will begin to fall into place.

It also should be noted that Rabbi Nachman’s teachings, like those of the Baal Shem Tov, often reflect a sense of closeness to nature. In the case of hisbodedus, the ideal setting is “off the beaten path,” literally—far from places people congregate, even by day. “How good it is to pray in the field!” Rabbi Nachman exclaims.[24] “Then all the grasses and plants enter your prayers and assist you. This is why prayer is called sichah [“speech,” as in Genesis 24]. For each shrub [si’ach, a word-play] of the field empowers and assists one’s prayer.” Perhaps among the many reasons for Rabbi Nachman’s emphasis on hisbodedus in a natural setting is that this practice can help us to access the spiritual wilderness within ourselves, there to discover the untrammeled, sacred precincts of the soul.

One summer day while they were strolling through a meadow, Rabbi Nachman remarked to his disciple, Reb Noson: “O, that you might have the privilege of hearing the songs and praises of the grasses! How each blade of grass sings a paean to God without any self-serving motives, without any foreign thoughts, without any consideration of reward. How beautiful and lovely it is to hear their song! It is so good to be among them and to serve God with awe…”[25]

When was the last time you went strolling through a meadow or forest? How often do you go off alone? As Rabbi Nachman once asked one of his followers (a once poor man who had become successful in business, but a “workaholic”), “How often do you look at the sky?”

We all have many needs—not the least of which is for solitude, so that we may stop and take stock of our lives. So that we may stop and take stock of the universe. And perhaps so that we may stop taking stock altogether. This is where Rabbi Nachman’s advice comes in. For many of us, especially urban dwellers, we also need to get back in touch with nature and in so doing, with our own inner world. It would be good indeed to hear the “songs and praises of the grasses” instead of the sounds of emergency vehicles and trucks, car and house alarms, radios blasting, and cars honking. How refreshing it would be to purify our ears beside a mountain stream. Especially a stream that is not polluted!

Diet and minimizing harm

Vegetarianism (and particularly veganism) is often extolled as a diet that avoids causing harm to other creatures, as well as to the environment. Thus, it strikes a chord with the perception of the underlying unity and harmony of creation.

The Book of Genesis describes the diet of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden—where God, man and woman, animals, trees and plants, and all of nature coexist in harmony— as vegetarian. Only ten generations later, after the Flood, does God grant permission to Noah and his descendants to slaughter animals for food.

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) notes the tragic language by which this consent is given. “Is the Torah very happy about this change?” he asks rhetorically. “Somehow we intuitively feel the silent tragic note that pervades the whole chapter. The Torah was compelled to concede defeat to human nature that was corrupted by man himself and willy‑nilly approved the radical change in him.”[26] Animal slaughter and the consumption of meat are far from the Torah’s ideal. The biblical story of the manna from heaven and the divine wrath provoked by the people’s demand for meat reinforces this idea.

Rav Soloveitchik’s remarks are but a more recent echo of similar readings of the Torah that are sympathetic to vegetarianism in the works of several Rishonim (medieval authorities), in particular Rabbi Yosef Albo (1380-1444), author of Sefer HaIkkarim, and Rabbi Yitzchak Arama (1430-1494), author of Akeidas Yitzchak; and among the Acharonim (later authorities), Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Lunschitz (d. 1619), author of Kli Yakar; Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar (1696-1743), author of Ohr HaChaim; Rabbi Simcha Wasserman (1900-1992); and especially Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, whose ideas on this subject are collected in The Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace.[27]

Despite the prevalence of killing of animals for food throughout history, many ancient thinkers and religious sects in various parts of the world practiced vegetarianism. It was not unknown to the Jewish people, either. Indeed, Rabbi Yitzchak Arama writes, “From time immemorial, men of spiritual attainment, possessed of divine wisdom and removed from worldly desires … refrained from consuming the flesh of animals.”[28] Although it is possible that he meant non-Jewish mystical ascetics, it seems more likely that he meant their Jewish counterparts.

All this is aside from vegetarianism by reason of asceticism or health, which are also significant. The Torah associates meat eating—apart from the sacrifices in the Holy Temple—with self-indulgence and physical coarseness. Rabbenu Bachaya (1255-1340) comments on Deuteronomy 21:18: “We are enjoined to ‘know God in all your ways.’ However, one who consumes wine and meat to excess does not know the way of God.”

Rav Albo’s language is stronger: “In the killing of animals, there is cruelty, rage, and habituation to the evil of shedding innocent blood. Moreover, the eating of certain animals produces emotional coarseness, physical ugliness and intellectual weakness.”[29]

Yet to view animal slaughter and the consumption of meat as a mere concession of the Torah would be an oversimplification. The kabbalists see kosher animal slaughter (shechitah) and eating meat, as well as other uses of animal products, as a tikkun—a way to elevate fallen souls incarnated in those animals, as well as the life-energy within the animal level in creation as a whole. This is particularly so when eating meat is related to a mitzvah, such as to celebrate Shabbos or Yom Tov or a religious event. The inherent sanctity of the commandments and these holy days accomplishes an aliyah, or spiritual ascent, for those fallen souls and animals.

Reb Noson of Breslov observes, “The ultimate truth is that shechitah is an act of great mercy toward the animal being slaughtered, since this act brings about its tikkun for eternity.”[30] Thus, what appears to be extreme cruelty turns out to be an act of compassion.

However, there are spiritual risks involved in this task. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov states: “A person who possesses the ‘divine image’ [i.e., our deepest spiritual potential] can attain greater heights of wisdom by eating animal foods. However the opposite is also true.”[31] That is, one who has not reached this lofty rung will become further debased through animal foods.

Moreover, killing for food or other human needs requires taking responsibility for what we are doing. Again, to quote Rabbi Moshe Cordovero: “One should not disparage any creature, for all of them were created with divine wisdom. One should not uproot plants unless they are needed, or kill animals unless they are needed. And one should choose a humane manner of death for them, using a carefully inspected knife, in order to be as compassionate as possible.”[32]

The uncomfortable questions we must ask are: Is this commonly the case today? Is compassion for animals even on the map? Or is the rule more likely to be “business as usual,” supported by halakhic leniencies based on the principle that anything related to animal slaughter to serve human needs (tzorekh chiyuni) is exempt from the prohibition of tzaar baaley chaim?

Despite some deplorable scandals that have been reported in the news, I refuse to believe that kosher slaughter is less humane than non-kosher slaughter in the modern food industry, where animals are slaughtered by the millions through mass production methods, after they have been subjected to the trauma of “stunning.” In non-kosher slaughter plants, a metal bolt is shot into the brains of cattle, after which the animals are bled to death; chickens are suspended upside-down on conveyor belts where their throats are cut mechanically after the birds have been rinsed in electrified water; whereas pigs are usually rendered docile by inhalation of gas. Yet these systems all have a significant margin of error, causing hideous forms of suffering.[33] And scandals involving human cruelty toward animals in such facilities are not infrequent. By comparison, shechitah when properly performed is probably the most humane method of slaughter known to mankind. Yet killing is killing. Moreover, what goes on in the real world, day in and day out, is a far cry from our religious ideals. The “pluses” of potentially elevating the holy sparks must be weighed against the many “minuses” involved in animal slaughter.

It must be admitted that the Baal Shem Tov was not a vegetarian, nor do we know that anyone in his immediate circle was. One of the things the Baal Shem opposed was the potentially gloomy asceticism of previous generations of kabbalists, as well as the world-rejection this approach implied. Some pre-Chassidic kabbalists were vegetarians for ascetic reasons. (One significant example of this ascetic vegetarianism is discussed by Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyahu Medini (1832-1904) in his encyclopedic Sdei Chemed; see there.)[34]B’khol derakhekha da’eihu—Know Him in all of your ways” (Proverbs 3:6), meaning in both sacred and mundane activities, summed up the Baal Shem Tov’s approach. Additionally, he accepted the kabbalistic doctrine of elevating the holy sparks through using the things of this physical world in a spirit of sanctity. (Indeed, the Baal Shem Tov discussed this idea in a number of teachings preserved by his followers.) The ethos of elevating the holy sparks extended to the use of animals for food.

Yet in the last century, a number of prominent rabbis did embrace vegetarianism.[35] A passionate early 20th century vegetarian and outspoken animal welfare advocate was Rabbi Hayim Maccoby of Lithuania and later, London. Another pro-vegetarian voice was Rabbi Simcha Wasserman, who agreed with the view that the Torah’s consent for animal slaughter is concessional. Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz (mentioned above), became a vegetarian after World War II, saying, “There has been enough killing in the world.”[36] Rav Kook’s disciple Rabbi David Cohen, the Nazir became a vegetarian after moving to an apartment near a slaughterhouse and witnessing the distress and suffering of animals awaiting slaughter (as well as due to his asceticism). The Nazir’s family included several other vegetarians: his daughter and her husband, the late Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Shlomo Goren; and today, the Nazir’s son, former Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Rav Shear Yashuv Cohen. Former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, is a vegetarian, as is former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Rabbi David Rosen, among others.

Perhaps one of the main reasons that vegetarianism has failed to attract many followers in the Chassidic world (although I have known a few) is that Chassidism esteems tradition (mesorah) so highly. This may seem ironic, since the Chassidic movement was decidedly anti-establishment in its early days. Yet like so many revolutions, it wound up with many iron-clad conventions of its own—chicken soup on Shabbos running a close second to the style of clothing of an earlier time and place. Nevertheless, I would argue that as a religious value, vegetarianism is consistent with the holistic view of life and creation that is central to Chassidism.

Environmental effects of meat consumption:

There is no dearth of studies and statistics to support the view that animal agriculture and the meat industry are a hazard to the entire planet. Since others have presented these findings at length, I will summarize just a few of them.[37]

The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 2006 report, Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, estimated that 18% of all emissions globally can be attributed to livestock. This is more than the emissions from the entire transportation sector (planes, trains, automobiles, and boats combined)

Because the majority of crops grown in the U.S. are produced for animal feed, livestock production further contributes to global warming through crop production. 80% of corn and at least 50% of soy grown in the U.S. goes directly to animal feed.

It takes an estimated 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat. By comparison, it takes only 25 gallons of water to produce one pound of wheat (enough to make one loaf of whole wheat bread). Irrigation for feed crops contributes significantly to this overuse of water. Soy and corn are heavily irrigated crops in the U.S. and are used extensively for livestock feed.

The meat industry is also a major source of pollution. More than 35,000 miles of rivers have been contaminated by waste from livestock in the U.S., and drinking water in at least 17 states has been contaminated by this same source. Raising livestock is also responsible for the use of vast areas of land—as much as 50% of the nation’s acreage—that could otherwise support far more abundant harvests to feed more hungry people. Global meat consumption is steadily increasing. As the world population grows and people eat more animal products, the consequences for climate change, pollution, and land use could be catastrophic.

Through our complicity in the meat industry, we become willing partners in the ecological crises the meat industry generates. By disengaging from the system, we are taking a stand ethically, and also—as in all of our actions—spiritually. By breaking our addiction to meat, we begin to improve the world right where we stand, here and now.

Ecological consciousness and everyday life

A favorite quote of Jewish environmentalists comes from a late Midrash (although the compilation also includes some very old sources), and it is a favorite of mine, too: “At the hour when God created Adam, God took him and led him around all of the trees in the Garden of Eden. God told him, ‘See how beautiful and praiseworthy are My works! And all that I have created, I created for your sake. Think of this, and do not corrupt or destroy My world—for if you corrupt it, who will repair it after you?’”[38]

To solve the world’s problems, we must start with ourselves. The truth is that we can only start with ourselves. One might ask, “What difference does one person make in this world?” But the world is made up of individual men and women and children, like you and me. If we can learn to change individually, the world will change.

Moreover, the Talmudic rabbis taught, “Adam olam katan—each person is a miniature world.” [39] Each person is precious in his or her own right. Every person counts.

We could trivialize any of our individual religious or ethical obligations. But it is these “small things” that are our foremost responsibility, given that they are the challenges and duties we face in everyday life. To shrug them off as inconsequential would amount to what the Chassidic masters call “anavah pesulah,” “non-kosher humility.”

There is an ecology of everyday life: respect for other people, as well as animals, plants, water and mineral existence. This consciousness is something we have often seen exemplified by our great teachers. Rabbi Bezalel Naor once told me about when, as an American yeshiva student in Israel, he first met Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook’s son, Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook (1891-1982). The young student commented on how deeply Rabbi Zvi Yehudah’s father had loved the Jewish people. The octogenarian Rabbi Zvi Yehudah burst out laughing. “Mai revusa ika? (What’s the big deal?) My father loved the whole world, even tzomeach (vegetation), even domem (earth and stones)!”

This universal love was born of the deep knowledge that all creation makes up one symbiotic whole, brought into existence ex nihilo and animated by the Creator for one encompassing purpose. According to the Zohar, that purpose is the perception of Godliness (“be-gin de-ishtimod’in lei”).[40]

As for our personal responsibilities toward the environment, we should live with the Talmudic Sages’ remarks about the preciousness of all things, and not waste the resources we use. Surely we must heed the laws of bal tash’chis (not to be wasteful or destructive), but also the values that underlie these laws should become part of who we are, in all areas of our lives. We need to see the “forest through the trees,” both figuratively and literally—while there still are forests to see.

Avoiding wastefulness is a spiritual practice, in that it reflects our awareness of the world around us—of other creatures and their needs. In so doing, we get beyond our self-concern and glimpse the larger picture. Avoiding avoidable harm or damage is a spiritual practice, in that we act in keeping with a greater awareness of the value of all creation that God has brought into existence.

How can we implement these teachings in our daily lives? There’s a whole literature about “going green” today, including several works that address these concerns from a Jewish point of view. To be brief, one way is through conservation of resources, such as water and electricity in our homes. Energy-efficient bulbs and fluorescent lighting are readily available today. Similarly, we should consider more energy-efficient means of transportation. We may wish to invest in more fuel-efficient cars, particularly hybrids and electric cars, which surely are the way of the future.

Another thing most of us can do is reduce the amount of garbage we produce. At least we shouldn’t overdo it when it comes to plastics and disposables. And for those who feel the need to use disposables (especially larger families, or when making group events), we should opt for recyclable paper goods.

I have never been much of a politico—and single-issue voting is ill-advised—but political activism on behalf of the environment is also an imperative for a person of conscience. At the very least, we should support candidates who take a pro-environmental stance, whether they are to the left, right or middle of the political spectrum. We may disagree with each other on all sorts of issues, but how can we disagree on matters that impact the survival of the planet? In America today, there are environmentally-conscious candidates in both major political parties. And the more pro-environmental voters there are, the more pro-environmental politicians there will be.

Showing considerateness toward other people is a form of ecology. Considerateness is also a spiritual practice, in that we put into practice the biblical mandate to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).[41] This can be as simple as thinking of others by not standing and conversing in doorways or places where others need to pass; respecting others in often-frustrating group situations, such as waiting in long lines, and appreciating that others are probably just as frustrated; trying not to disturb others in public places; and showing considerateness in how we drive our cars and how we park them, by not taking up space that someone else might need.

In an extended sense, these acts are a form of tzedakah (charity), which is a mitzvah that symbolically includes all the rest.[42] Altruism is the cure for selfishness.

There are really no limits to these things. Whatever level of ecological consciousness we possess, we can all do better (I surely know that I can). But as Rabbi Nachman of Breslov would say, “A little is also good.” We all have plenty of other problems to contend with, and for some of us, taking on this seemingly extra “noble cause” may seem like swimming upstream. But we must take a stand on something important, I would guess that most of us will take that stand. The issues we have discussed affecting our diet, lifestyle and spiritual practice are vitally important. However, redressing these problems is not an “all or nothing” task, but one in which we may keep improving, one step at a time.


The Mishnah states: “With ten sayings the world was created. What does this come to teach us? Indeed, could it not have been created with one saying? It was to exact punishment from the wicked who destroy the world that was created with ten sayings, and to bestow goodly reward upon the righteous who sustain the world that was created with ten sayings.”[43]

On the advantage of these “ten sayings” of creation, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1833-1900) comments that God “created an abundance of forces, intermingled and functioning closely together, according to His Word—and then He separated them, so that each had to sustain the other: none was henceforth able to exist and function by itself, but had to be sustained by its fellow creatures and, in turn, had to help them exist and function. In this way everything contributes according to its strength, however much or little, to the existence of the whole; and if it destroys a fellow creature, it robs itself of what it needs for its own existence.”[44]

This is really the foundation of Jewish ecological awareness, from which all practical action springs forth. We create what the kabbalists call the “World of Tikkun (Repair)”—a world in which all elements can interact and not remain isolated, separate entities—when we see ourselves in context of the whole system of life, within which we exist like notes in a vast symphony; and in consequence, we learn to cooperate and become “givers,” not merely “takers.”

The science of ecology guides us so that we may perceive our interconnectedness at the most practical, physical level. But this principle informs our entire avodah, our path of divine service altogether. This is one of the meanings of “all [the Torah’s] ways are peace” (Proverbs 3:17). The Torah, the essence of which is prophecy, brings creation in all of its diversity into harmony with the Creator, Who is “One and His Name is One.”

[1] Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Bereishis 12, citing Chesed le-Avraham; ibid. Bereishis 15, citing Likkutim Yekarim 17c; et al. Following the Baal Shem Tov’s approach, which scholars classify as a form of mystical monism, later Chassidic leader Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi states: “The essential thing … is to habituate your mind and thought constantly, so that it will be fixed in your mind and heart at all times, that everything your eyes see—heaven and Earth and all they contain—all are ‘outer garments’ for the King, the holy Blessed One. In this way you will constantly remember their inner dimension and their vitality” (Likutey Amarim-Tanya, Chap. 42). By following this advice we can transform our spiritual life entirely.

Two Lurianic teachings that accord with this perspective are Rabbi Chaim Vital, Sha’ar ha-Hakdamos, Gate 1, Hakdamah 4, and Limudey Atzilus 20a; Rabbi Noson Zvi Kenig includes them in Toras Noson, Erkhey ha-Arizal, Vo. I, nos. 382 (end) and 383.

[2] Cited by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Likkutei Dibburim, Vol. IV, sec. 36. This does not mean to corporealize Divinity (hagshamas Elokus). Paradoxically, although God creates everything and pervades all that exists, at the same time God transcends His creation entirely; God’s unity is absolutely simple, and not a compound; and the finite is subsumed within God’s Infiniteness (Eyn Sof)—which the rational intellect cannot grasp. The medieval Jewish philosophers and mystics, as well as the Chassidic masters, discuss and debate these issues at length.

[3] Tzava’as HaRiVaSH #12.

[4] Elijah Judah Schochet, Animal Life in Jewish Tradition: Attitudes and Relationships (Ktav 1984), Chapter 13, pp. 249-250.

[5] Tomer Devorah, chap. 2.

[6] Vayikra Rabbah 22:2, which scholars date at approximately the time of the redaction of the Talmud. Similarly, see Zohar II, 93b: “Everything was created for a reason; therefore, it is forbidden to kill any creature unnecessarily.”

[7] See Rabbi Chaim Vital, Sha’ar HaMitzvos, Noach.

[8] Based on Yonoson Rosenblum, Reb Shraga Feivel: The Life and Times of Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, the Architect of Torah in America (Brooklyn, NY: Artscroll/Mesorah, 2001), p. 296. The Midrash is found in Yalkut Shimoni.

It should be mentioned that it is permitted in halakhah to kill insects if they are disturbing a person or infesting his or her living quarters. Rabbi Yaakov Emden in She’eilas Ya’avetz, Vol. I, no. 110, rules that one may kill harmless insects (although not on the Sabbath), contending that insects and all non-domestic animals are excluded from the prohibition of tza’ar baalei chaim. This view is disputed by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Graubart, Chavalim BaNe’imim, Vol. I, no. 43; see Rabbi J. David Bleich, “Animal Experimentation,” Contemporary Halakhic Problems, Vol. III, pp. 216-217, n. 33. However, gratuitous killing of insects is strictly forbidden; see Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat, Vol. 2, no. 47. I have been told by Rabbi Aharon Pam that his father, the late Rabbi Avraham Pam, Rosh Yeshiva of Mesivta Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn, NY, was careful not to use any means of exterminating mice, flies, or insects that might cause tza’ar baalei chaim.

[9] Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Chazon ha-Tzimchonut vi-ha-Shalom, chap. 2.

[10] These include six prohibitions: idolatry, blasphemy, murder, theft, sexual immorality, eating the limb of a living animal; and one positive commandment to establish courts of justice. For details, see Aaron Lichtenstein, The Seven Laws of Noah (Rabbi Jacob Joseph School Press 1986). In a general sense, these are the basic laws shared by most societies, as mentioned by Rabbi Yisrael Lipschutz, Tiferes Yisrael, Avos 3:17. The principle area of disagreement, Rabbi Lipschutz points out, is only in defining the parameters of these laws.

[11] Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz of Vilna, Sefer HaBris I, Maamar 14, “Eikhus HaChai,” sec. 8, s.v. vi-klal gadol, p. 224.

[12] Rabbenu Bachya Ibn Paquda, Chovos ha-Levavos, Gate 3: Sha’ar Avodas Hashem  (beg.).

[13] Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Orot HaKodesh, Vol. II, p. 358.

[14] Ibid. p. 361.

[15] Author’s Introduction, Ha’amek She’eilah, cited in biography printed with Alfey Menashe, Vol. II.

[16] Kakh Kasuv (Kabbalah la-Am), “Teva ha-Adam vi-Teva ha-Borei,” p. 162-163.

[17] Based on Simcha Raz, A Tzaddik In Our Time (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1976), pp. 108-109.

[18] Yonoson Rosenblum, Reb Shraga Feivel (Brooklyn, NY: Artscroll/Mesorah, 2001), p. 232. Yet another story in a similar vein was told by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch about a stroll in the countryside he took as a boy with his father, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber of Lubavitch; see Likkutei Dibburim, Vol. I, sec. 4a [Brooklyn, NY: Kehot 1987, trans. by Uri Kaploun].

[19] Cited by Rabbi Gedaliah of Linitz, Teshu’os Chein, Tzav, which is included in the anthology Me’iras Eynayim, “Emunah.”

[20] Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik Yehudah Yechiel Safrin of Komarno in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, Nesiv Mitzvosekha, cited in Sefer ha-Baal Shem Tov, Vayelekh, note 6.

[21] Likutey Halakhos, Matnas Shekhiv MeiRa 2:2. Reb Noson mentions having come across this concept in Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz’s Shnei Luchos ha-Bris (“Bi-Asarah Ma’amaros” 1:5 (Jerusalem 1993 ed., Vol. I, p. 179a).

[22] In The Essential Kabbalah (HarperSan Franciso 1996), pp. 24-30 et passim, Daniel Matt translates several early teachings on nondualism, including from Rabbi Moshe de Leon’s Sefer ha-Rimmon; Rabbi Moshe Cordovero’s Elimah Rabbasi, Shiur Komah, and Ohr Yakar al ha-Zohar, and elsewhere. Also see MaHaRaL of Prague’s Shabbos Teshuvah sermon of 1589 (beg.), printed in some editions of the MaHaRaL’s Haggadah.

In Chassidic works, see Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, Likutey Amarim 14d (cited in Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Va’eschanan, sec. 13); Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, Me’or Einayim, Noach, s.v. vi-hinei isa shekhinah ba-tachtonim; Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya: Sha’ar ha-Yichud vi-ha-Emunah, chap. 1; et al.

[23] See Likutey Moharan I, 52; also ibid. II, 25. An anthology of Breslov teachings about such secluded meditation and prayer is Hishtafchus HaNefesh, compiled by Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua (“Alter”) Bezhiliansky of Teplik. The first part was translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and published as Outpouring of the Soul (Breslov Research Institute). The term “Imperative Existent (Mechuyav HaMetziyus)” is apparently taken from Maimonides. See further, Bezalel Naor, Appendix 2 to Shir Na’im: A Song of Delight (Orot 2004), pp. 123-126.

[24] Likutey Moharan II, 11.

[25] Sichos HaRan 163.

[26] See at length Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Emergence of Ethical Man (Ktav/Toras Horav Foundation 2006), chap. 2, pp. 31-37.

[27] I have translated much of this material in The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism, chap. 6, with related source texts.

[28] Akeidas Yitzchak, Beshalach, Gate 41.

[29] Sefer HaIkkarim 3:15.

[30] Likutey Halakhos, Hil. Tolaim 4:10. Cf. Rabbi Nachman of Tcherin, Nachas HaShulchan, Shechitah 19; Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Tomer Devorah, chap. 3.

[31] Sefer Alef-Beis (Sefer HaMiddos), “Akhilah” B, 1.

[32] Tomer Devorah, chap. 3.

[33] See The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism, chap. 3, with sources.

[34] Sdei Chemed, Vo. 5, “Inyan Akhilah,” from which I translated an excerpt in The Vision of Eden (Orot 2002), pp. 327-329.

[35] See further, The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism, chap. 6, which describes these rabbis at greater length.

[36] Aharon Soraski, Shluchah de-Rachmana (Jerusalem: Feldheim 1992), p. 249; similarly, Yonoson Rosenblum’s biography of Rabbi Mendlowitz in the Jewish Observer, Oct. 1998, p. 19.

[37] All statistics that follow were obtained from the website of Physicians for Social Responsibility, based on EPA, USDA and other reliable sources (see hyperlinks).

[38] Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28.

[39] Avos de-Rabbi Nasan 31:2. This concept also appears in the Midrash and in medieval rabbinic works, as well as in kabbalistic sources.

[40]  Zohar II, 42b. This concept is often cited by the Chassidic masters; for example, see Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, Me’or Einayim, Chayei Sarah, ma’amar “Vi-Avraham Zaken.”

[41] This especially reflects the view of Sefer HaBris (Part II, Maamar 11) in the section “Ahavas Re’ah” (“Love of a Neighbor”).

[42] Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi in the name of the Jerusalem Talmud, Likutey Amarim-Tanya, chap. 37.

[43] Avos 5:1.

[44] Letter Three, The Nineteen Letters, trans. Karin Paritzky, with commentary by Rabbi Joseph Elias (Jerusalem: Feldheim 1995).