In answering your question about Jewish values and being a vegetarian, I should like to approach the matter from my personal reading of the Torah, at least from the earliest verses in the Five Books of Moses.
We know that the first chapter of the Book of Genesis deals with the Creation Story. This chapter is not to be read as a scientific account of how God created His world, rather as a chapter setting up God’s relationship to His world and our relationship to God and God’s creation. There are naturally many approaches to reading the Creation narratives, but as our greatest commentator, Rashi, of 11th century France writes, “the Scriptural verse never loses its plain meaning—ayn hamikra yotzei mi’dei peshuto.”
On the fifth and sixth days of creation, the animal kingdom was created. This culminates with the end of the sixth day with the creation of humankind. Let us look at a few pertinent Torah verses.
“God said, ‘The water shall teem with swarms of living creatures. Flying creatures shall fly over the land, on the face of the heavenly sky. God [thus] created the great sea monsters, along with every particular species of living thing that crawls, with which the waters teem, and every particular species of winged flying creature, God saw that it was good.
God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and become many, and fill the waters of the seas. Let the flying creatures multiply on the land.’
It was evening and it was morning, a fifth day.” (Genesis 1:20-23)
Continuing on, the Torah moves into the creation of land animals on the sixth day. Let us look at a few of these verses and noting that the humans were originally permitted to only eat vegetation.
“God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind’; and it was so. God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind; and God saw that it was good.” (Verses 24-25)
With verse 26, God creates human beings charging them, “… to rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
God declares beginning with verse 29 that humans and animals will be herbivores, “‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to everything that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food’; and it was so. God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. “(Verses 29-31)
With this we clearly see that God intended his humans and animals to be vegetarians. Nowhere in this do we see permission being granted to humans to eat animal kind. So we must ask, Where do we find permission granted by God to eat animals? Are humans, including religiously practicing Jews who happen to be carnivores, violating God’s commandments? How could this be so?
There must be a different answer or source. In fact, there definitely is and it comes in the aftermath of the destruction coming from the worldwide flood at the time of Noah—‘the Mabul.’ While we cannot at this juncture get into everything mentioned about the flood, let us at least see the verses applicable to the matter of eating meat. These are found in the ninth chapter of Genesis. A new covenant is made with humankind and its symbol is the rainbow.
“God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the terror of you will be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given. Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” (Genesis 9:1-4)
It certainly appears from this that God is making a concession to human beings from this point onward that they may eat meat. Not only this, in many ways, they are required to eat meat, at least in the form of animal sacrifices that are to be offered in the Holy Temple—‘the Mikdash.’ All of this is delineated in the other books of Torah, especially in the Book of Leviticus.
There are many restrictions and regulations as they pertain to the preparation and consumption of animal flesh. These are all to be found in the Laws of Kashruth—Jewish Dietary Laws.
I would like to point out that even the Torah Scroll itself must be written on animal parchments, as are the scrolls found in mezuzah cases affixed to our doorposts and the phylacteries or tefillin worn on the arm and head during weekday morning prayers.
That being said, many religiously observant people find animal consumption off-putting or even abhorrent, or at least undesirable for themselves from many standpoints, including concern for the environment and the prudent use of resources.
There is much to be said for this attitude and there is an ever-growing literature giving form and direction to those in search of a Jewish concern for animals and their treatment.
In the last century, it came to the attention of many, that great, noted rabbis became vegetarians later in life. In at least one instance, it was due to the rabbi’s inspection of a ritually approved slaughterhouse. This visit and experience was so off-putting that the rabbi swore off meat for life. However, he never forbade the practice of eating meat for other Jews or impugned the eating habits of others. This is very important to note.
There is much that can be said for vegetarianism and the values that vegetarians holds dear. We, however, must always bear in mind that Jewish religious practice as handed down and practiced throughout the millennia of Jewish history and existence is dedicated to minimizing the pain and suffering of animals and humanizing as much as possible, the process of providing food for caring and loving human beings.
Whether one is a meat eater or a vegetarian, the practice of Torah and mitzvot gives meaning to our lives. We must live our lives guided by the teachings of God as interpreted by competent rabbinic authorities.