One of the most celebrated rabbis of the early twentieth century was Rabbi Abraham Isaack Kook. Born in Poland in 1865, his genius was recognized before he enrolled in the fabled yeshiva of Volozhin. After serving a congregation in Lithiania at the age of 23, he soon emigrated to Palestine where eventually he was appointed as the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi. In Chapter 17 of his influential book entitled “A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace,” Rav Kook makes the extraordinary claim that slaughtering animals for food is “an act akin to murder.” To be sure, Rav Kook was aware that slaughtering animals for food is authorized by the Torah (Deuteronomy 12:21). It would thus be incomprehensible that Rav Kook would condemn an act that God, as author of the Torah, permits. Moreover, murder is a term typically reserved for the unlawful taking of human life. To apply the term to the slaughter of animals for food is odd indeed.
The critical word in Rav Kook’s essay is “akin.” Slaughtering an animal for food is not actually murder. But taking an animal life ought to be so offensive to human beings that, like murder, if should be avoided.
Rav Kook explains that the offensiveness of killing animals for food is supported by the fact that the Torah (Leviticus 17:13) commands that the blood shed in the process of animal slaughter must be covered with earth. As Rav Kook puts it: “the obligation of covering the blood teaches that this is a shameful act.” Only acts that are a source of embarrassment are covered up. Thus, covering up animal blood admits to the shame human beings ought to feel in slaughtering an animal.
For Rav Kook, the immediate and inescapable conclusion is that all people should abstain from eating meat and revert to the vegetarianism that was practiced in the Garden of Eden. But for people unwilling to go that far Rav Kook preaches a message of compassion. In becoming attuned to the sanctity of animal life, people deepen their sense of compassion for human life. Hence, the dietary laws do more than delineate menu; they promote the highest ethical values.