Practical Issues > Things to do > Religion and Animals 

The First Hamburger
A guilt-ridden carnivore makes the spiritual case for vegetarianism

Marc Gellman

April 20, 2006

Reflecting on the Earth Day to come and on the lamb-besotted Easter and brisket-baked Passover that has passed, and still being emotionally tender from the death of my dog, I need to confess my steak-loving sins. Sins because there is simply no spiritual defense in either the Western or Eastern religious traditions for eating meat. The reason is not that meat is murder as some of my vegan friends claim. To say that is to also say that there is no moral distinction between cannibalism and dinner at The Palm. Eating animals may be right or wrong, but it is not wrong for the same reasons it is wrong to eat people. This is morally absurd and trivializes what is on its face an already daunting problem. The problem is that animals, though obviously not people, are also obviously not things. Animals are sentient beings and their deaths, particularly in the grotesquery of what is euphemistically called food processing causes them great pain and suffering. That is the nub of the spiritual problem. Animals are God's creations that, unlike plants, suffer when they die just to become food for us.

I have long believed that the Torah was not just given by God, but given by God on different levels simultaneously. There is a low Torah and a high Torah in the same Holy Writ. For example, the high Torah teaches us that there should be no war, "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation neither shall they learn war anymore." (Micah 4:3). The low Torah, on the other hand, teaches that if you must make war, you must allow besieged people to go free, never cut down your enemy's fruit trees, and treat captives of war with respect. (Deuteronomy 20:19-20 and also Maimonides "Laws of Kings 6:8). The same is true for eating meat. As Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of the State of Israel taught, in Genesis 1:29 God clearly limits the diet of the first people to fruits and vegetables. Only after ten generations of corruption from Adam to Noah, at the end of the flood God offers a low Torah carnivorous concession to Noah and his descendants, "Every living thing that moves shall now also be yours for food." (Genesis 9:3) However, God quickly adds the limitation of not eating meat with its blood in it (v.4) and the caution that there will be a reckoning for all blood we shed (v.5). The end result is a clear though subtle spiritual message that we can eat meat if we must, but we should work toward the high Torah goal of not wanting to.

Gandhi wrote that "There is no transcendence without renunciation." This means to me that we, natural or habitual or meat-imprinted-from-childhood, carnivores should constantly try to overcome our baser instincts and rise to the level where we eat as low down on the sentience food chain as we can. It just makes sense to cause the least suffering possible to get through lunch or dinner.

As for me, I consider my love of meat a morally corrosive habit. I went eight years once as a vegetarian, but I ended up chiefly a dessert-atarian. I know however, that God is not finished with me, and I keep trying to love lettuce, humbled in the knowledge that when I die and am judged, a long line of chickens and cows will be clucking and mooing when I pass, "That's the man!! He's the guy who ate me!" Hey, if you want a teacher who knows what is true, stick with me. If you want a perfect teacher you'd better go somewhere else…I have burgers on the grill.

The first children's story about the Bible I ever wrote is a tribute to Rav Kook, and all the vegetarians living the high Torah in a broken world. And it goes something like this…

The First Hamburger
Once animals talked just like people. Once every living creature ate only grass and nuts and a few berries when they could find them. No living thing ever thought about killing another living thing to eat it, until the day Noah wanted a hamburger.

One night Noah dreamed of a hamburger, and when he woke up, he wanted one really badly. But Noah wasn't exactly sure how to get a hamburger, so he asked his friend the cow, "I dreamed about a hamburger last night. Do you know where I can get one?"

The cow gave Noah a puzzled look and asked, "What's a hamburger?"

"I don't know exactly," Noah replied. "All I know is that in my dream the hamburger was something delicious between two buns with lettuce, onions, pickles and some special sauce."

"Have some more grass and forget about it," said the cow.

Noah asked the snake, who was the smartest of all the animals, "What's a hamburger and how can I get one?"

The snake whispered in Noah's ear, "To get one you have to make one."

"I don't know how to make one." Noah sputtered.

The snake laughed, pointed at the cow who was peacefully munching some grass, and said to Noah, "To make a hamburger, you have to kill that cow, chop up her meat, and fry it in a pan--or flame broil it!"

Noah's mouth opened wide, "But...but...the cow is my friend! She is a living thing just like me! I can't kill her, chop up her meat and fry it in a pan! And what is flame broiling anyway?"

By now the snake was rolling around on the ground laughing, "Kid, if you want a hamburger, that's what you gotta do."

Well...Noah really wanted a hamburger and so that's what he really did! The first hamburger tasted delicious. But when Noah came again to the fields everything was different. When he walked towards the birds, they flew away. When Noah went over to say hello to the cows and the sheep and the buffalo, they ran away from him. Even the fish swam away when they heard Noah coming.

Noah could not understand what had happened to his friends the animals, and he could not find one single animal that would explain it to him. In fact, since the day Noah ate the first hamburger, no animal has ever talked to a person. They are still too angry.