Tuesday, April 26, 2016

On heroes and political correctness: Nobody's perfect!

Lately there has been a lot of discussion about removing the names of political figures from various monuments, schools, and buildings, because the people so honored are not politically correct by 21st century standards.  For example, there was the recent demand by some students at Princeton University to rename the Woodrow Wilson public policy school because of Wilson's "racist" attitudes.  Students claimed that the very presence of Wilson's name was offensive and made them feel "unsafe." In the end, the board of regents at Princeton decided to keep the name but also do more education and discussion about Wilson's mixed legacy.

In my opinion, this was the right choice.  Wilson, like everyone else on earth, was not perfect.  He is best known as the 38th U.S. President, who helped found the League of Nations, and also received a Nobel Prize.  But it is also true that he supported and encouraged segregation.  However, nobody would argue that Wilson is being honored at Princeton for his racism.  That was a flaw in his personality that we can justly criticize.  But to allow this flaw to overwrite and erase all the good he did is, in my opinion, taking things too far.  If we start doing that, where will it end?

In Minnesota, where I live, Charles Lindbergh's name probably crops up as often as Wilson's at Princeton.   He is fondly remembered as the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in his little single-engine plane, the Spirit of St. Louis.  In 1957, a film by that name was released, with James Stuart playing the role of Lindbergh.  To this day, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport has a terminal named after him, and a reproduction of his plane (one used in the film) is on display there.  The original plane is at the Smithsonian's Aeronautics and Space Museum.  Clearly, this daring flight is why we remember and honor Lindbergh.

But there is a dark side to this story.  Lindbergh was also a Nazi sympathizer and an antisemite -- a fact that was recently well-documented in the PBS American Experience segment, Fallen Hero: Charles Lindbergh in the 1940s.  In 1936, Lindbergh visited Nazi Germany and was so impressed with the country's industry and revitalized economy that by 1938 he and his family were making plans to move to Berlin.  Also in 1938, Lindbergh was awarded the Service Cross of the German Eagle for his contributions to aviation -- presented by Hermann Goering on behalf of the Fuehrer.  Lindbergh became so convinced that Hitler would inevitably win the war, he advocated for America to follow an isolationist policy and stay out of it.  And he blamed the Jews for getting us into it.

As a Jew myself, I most certainly do find this side of Lindbergh offensive.  But I do not feel "unsafe" in the Lindbergh Terminal because of it.  Nor do I advocate erasing his name from our history or renaming the terminal.*  As with Wilson, Lindbergh is not being honored for his racism.  I see him as a genius in one area, and a flawed human being in other areas.  

Insisting that historical figures of the past must stand up to the scrutiny of 21st-century values is a very slippery slope.  For that matter, a lot of modern heroes don't measure up in every way, either. If we insist that all of our heroes be absolutely perfect, then we shall soon have no role models at all.  Sometimes it is necessary, as Rabbi Akiva once said, to keep the kernel and throw away the chaff.

*  * *

*Although in a way it was renamed, as Terminal 1, because apparently out-of-state people could not distinguish between the Lindbergh Terminal and the Humphrey Terminal and got lost.  But apparently they can tell the difference between 1 and 2.  As of this writing, there is currently a movement to rename Lindbergh Terminal-1 after Prince: see http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2016/04/22/msp-terminal-prince-petition/

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Why I just shut down my eBay store

For over eight years I had a listing running on eBay called "Buy a cruelty-free feather to help feed a colony of cats on my hobby farm in Minnesota USA!" Customers got a feather and an autographed thank you card for $2 -- and yes, it did help feed, spay/neuter, and vaccinate all the cats that people dumped here over the years. (The current kitty count is 10.)

The description very clearly said that we are not a charity and not tax deductible, that it is a private sale by a private person wanting to help some cats. My customers understood that, and many came back again and again.  Some simply paid the money and requested  I send nothing, because their real motive was to help animals.

And for eight years that was OK with eBay.  Then, once again, eBay changed the rules and, without warning, pulled the listing last week.  There were still seven "feed cats" sales waiting to be shipped (which I did) but I could not leave feedback, nor could I mark them shipped.  I can't even delete them from the list.

That was the last straw for me. As I have written before on this blog, I have become more and more disgruntled with eBay over the years.  Used to be, eBay was fun.  For me it no longer is. They did away with downloads, giving sellers only ONE WEEK to take them down and requiring us to go back into the Stone Age and ship files on disks.  So much for selling downloads of my books.

Next they closed the eBay blogs, probably under pressure from Google so they could link with them and their blogs. Lately eBay started requiring one-day shipping (impossible in rural areas) and tracking numbers (not available for First Class envelopes) in order to be a Top Seller. There went my Power Seller status even though I have excellent feedback.  But that doesn't count anymore.  It's not what the customers like or need anymore, it's what eBay demands.  And now they push sellers to offer free shipping.

In short, they want their sellers to compete with Big Box stores. Sorry, folks, I'm just one guy with some cats on a hobby farm.  I don't have a fleet of trucks planes and drones like Amazon or Walmart.

Each time eBay updates their service agreement, it becomes more and more draconian, as they punish everyone for the offenses of a few bad sellers.  Canceling the ""help feed cats" listing was the last straw.  It was time for me to pick up my business and go elsewhere.

As of today, my store domain name, Rooster613.com, points to my eBay profile page.  (Which is also very anemic compared to what we used to have.  Gone is the ability to write more than a couple sentences, instead of the nice HTML page we used to be able to customize with graphics, colors, etc.)  The store is now empty of listings, and the homepage will vanish as of April 1.  Most fitting, I think, to be done with it on April Fools Day. I may still list things occasionally, but I'm not paying them for a store page anymore.

[Updated 3/25/16]

For those who would still like to help the cats, you can donate on GoFundMe at: 


The graphic I used for years on eBay.  These kittens are,
of course, long ago adopted out to forever homes,
after which their mother, Chayah Cat, was spayed. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Kapporos and storytelling: A reply to Shmarya Rosenberg's critical review of my book

Kapporos Then and Now:  Toward a More Compassionate Tradition
Shmarya Rosenberg, creator and webmaster of the Failed Messiah website, completely missed the point of my new book, Kapporos Then and Now: Toward a more compassionate tradition, in his September 22, 2015 review on his blog. (Read the full review here.)  Although admitting that, quote: "the actual halakhic and theological information on kapparot and the information on animal handling and welfare issues Gershom included in Kapporos Then and Now is quite good," he ridicules me for telling midrashic and Hasidic stories, which he writes off as "fairy tales" and calls me "childish" for citing them.

Rosenberg would much rather have me drag in things like cases of pedophelia and other criminal behaviors that have nothing to do with the topic at hand.  (Then again, his whole website is about muckraking the Orthodox world, so I suppose he had to find something about me to nitpick.) Such omissions were not, as Rosenberg accuses me, due to "cognitive dissonance" or "making excuses" for Hasidism.  I am perfectly aware that the Orthodox world, like all communities everywhere, has its share of bad apples.  I failed to discuss pedophiles and other such criminals because this was not the topic of the book.  That's called good writing.  You don't throw in everything but the kitchen sink.

Normally I don't bother to reply to such reviews, but he so completely misread me that I feel a reply is in order.  I am not, as Rosenberg states, living in a Fiddler on the Roof fantasy (his words.)  I am perfectly aware of the difference between history and folklore, as anyone who has read my other works would know.  However, I am also aware that Hasidim live in a basically non-historical universe, where these stories carry a lot of weight.  As I said at the beginning of the book, I was going to look at both sides of the issue from within the viewpoints of each side.  For the Hasidic side, that includes storytelling. 

Whether or not the stories are literally true is beside the point.  Even outright parables carry weight when discussing religion.  When Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was asked if the stories he told were true, he replied, "Not all of the stories are true, but when the people tell them, they are holy." Religious teaching stories are not documentaries, but they do contain truths.

Hasidic stories and other midrashim are the examples held up as ideals by Hasidic rabbis and others.  My purpose in citing them was to compare the tales we tell about the sages of old with the realities of the meat industry today.  No, things were not perfect in "the good old days," but neither were there any factory farms back then, either.  So I was asking the basic question, "How would the early sages and Rebbes react to today's conditions?"

I said at the very beginning of the book that I was going to approach it as a combination theologian and anthropologist.  And, as any anthropologist knows, storytelling is central to any culture.  Whether written or oral, stories are how the values of a culture are passed down. The Torah itself is basically one long story of the Jewish people -- a story that we minutely dissect and discuss over and over in a perpetual yearly cycle.  Stories are the heart of a culture, as is the way we tell them.  As someone once said, "Change the story and you change the world."

Rosenberg states that the rural Jewish world I describe never existed, and that, in his words,  "most 'shtetls' were really commercial towns, some of significant size and importance, where Jews were overwhelmingly urbanized. Some families clearly kept their own chickens, but by the end of the first half of the 19th Century, many others did not." 

I have no argument with that. I never said everyone had chickens in their backyard.  But even in the urban centers, chickens came from nearby farms, for the simple reason that there was no refrigeration back then.  It's pretty hard to transport live chickens hundreds of miles by horse and wagon.  Most people were, by necessity, basically locavores.  I am old enough to remember ice boxes, home deliveries by the milkman, and our first family refrigerator -- and that was right here in the good ol' USA during the 20th century.  So even in the big city (I'm talking about Philadelphia in the 1950s) it has not been that long since food got industrialized.

There were indeed many small villages in Eastern Europe as well as larger "commercial towns."  I have actually been to rural Ukraine where Rebbe Nachman of Breslov lived, and the area around it is still mostly farmland.  People there still do have chickens in their backyards, as well as goats, sheep, and other animals.  In addition, I have personally talked with Holocaust survivors who described exactly what I say in the book.  Plus there are plenty of published firsthand accounts -- many of which I have on my own bookshelves -- about pre-Holocaust Jewish life in small villages.  So it is not out of line for me to make references to such.

The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidim, lived in the first half of the 18th century, and spent his early years wandering in the Carpathian mountains, not the big cities like Warsaw and Brody.  In fact, the urban rabbis were at first opposed to Hasidism, with the Vilna Gaon actually excommunicating the Baal Shem Tov and his followers.  Only in later generations did Hasidism spread to the bigger cities. 

And therein lies a possible reason that Rosenberg, as an ex-Chabadnik, might not be familiar with the more rural, nature-oriented themes of the early stories.   It has been my experience that the Chabadniks of today pretty much stick with studying sources by their own line of Rebbes.  And, as I said in the book, the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady, was not very much interested in animals or nature -- an attitude that has carried down through the Chabad line.

In fact (as I also say in the book), more than once I have been told by Chabad rabbis that the Baal Shem Tov wasn't really "that guy out in the woods."  They prefer to portray him as a scholar.  Which he may well have been, but he was also in tune with animals and nature.  I would argue that much of our sensitivity toward God's creation was lost when Hasidism went from rural to urban in later generations. Much was also lost within Chabad when Schenur Zalman intellectualized an ecstatic revivalist movement into the intellectualism of Tanya, the "bible" of Chabad.

Which brings us to another area where Rosenberg misread me.  He seems to think I'm calling for everyone to move to the country and live off the grid.  That is not my intent.  Yes, I do live in the country myself and yes, I do have my own chickens and other animals. This has given me firsthand experience that most urban Jews lack.  That experience has enriched my narratives and made them more authentic.  But I am not expecting everyone to live as I do.

What I am calling for is an emotional and spiritual re-connection with animals as living, breathing, sentient beings and not Cartesian machines.  It is perfectly possible to do this in the city, and many people do.  But you have to make the effort.  When you have people who never leave the confines of the few blocks they call home -- not even to go to a museum or a park -- then there is a serious disconnect from the natural world.  And that, I do believe, is at the heart of many animal welfare problems in the  Orthodox Jewish community.  Especially Chabad, where their last Rebbe forbade children from looking at pictures or playing with toys in the shape of non-kosher species of animals.  (Read more on that...)

Rosenberg states, regarding the abominable conditions of the kosher meat industry: "The problem is not lack of technology, added cost, or some gross inconvenience to humans. The problem is a near-complete lack of rabbinic will to do better."

Rosenberg is living in his own fantasy world if he thinks that all it would take to "fix" the kosher meat industry would be for rabbis to have more "rabbinic will" to do better.  As I explained in the book, animals used for kosher meat come from the same commercial sources as non-kosher.  Whch means factory farms. And it is not very likely that Jews are going to begin raising their own animals on humane farms.  Even in Israel, where some Jews do raise animals, the factory farm system has become the norm.

He is also wrong to think that it would not cost any more to produce humane kosher meat.  Technology is indeed the problem, and it does add cost to raising animals more humanely.  The Chipotle restaurant chain recently found that out.  They pledged not to use pork from pigs raised in tiny crates -- and soon discovered that pig farmers in the USA were not willing to make the more costly changes necessary to raise them humanely.  Chipotle is currently importing their pork from England. (See http://chipotle.com/carnitas)  As for chickens, in my local grocery store the free-range, humane-raised eggs cost twice as much as eggs from "battery hen" cages.  So much for cost not being a factor.

Rosenberg also felt I was unfairly biased toward Karen Davis and her anti-kapporos campaign, and not critical enough of Rabbi Hecht, who promotes the ritual.  So I did a search of the whole book by names.  Yes, I did mention Davis more often, for the simple reason that she is pretty much a one-woman show.  The vast majority of protest articles are by or about her, and she has made it very clear that she is in charge.  Her opinions have pretty much defined the movement.  So naturally most of the quotes I refuted were coming from her.

Rabbi Hecht, on the other hand, is part of a vast organization called Chabad, which in turn is part of Orthodox Judaism, which in turn runs the kosher meat industry.  So there were far more sources I could cite besides Hecht -- and I did.  If you add those references, the criticisms are about equal on both sides.  There are whole sections where I describe in detail the horrors seen at kapporos centers, the way chickens are raised and transported there, etc.  And while it is true, as Rosenberg complains, that I did not specifically name the Agriprocessors plant and the scandals there, I was very critical of the whole industry in general, as well as taking Hecht specifically to task for some of his statements.

What comes through in Rosenberg's review is his own personal bias against Chabad.  He is himself an ex-Chabadnik, and there is no greater critic of any philosophy than a disillusioned former disciple. If you read his online About Me page, it is clear that he had a bad experience which caused a crisis of faith that he never really recovered from, (To be fair, his criticism of the Rebbe is well-deserved in his case.)  So it is understandable that, having been completely turned off by Chabad Hasidism, he would resent any attempt to show it in a positive light.  

True, there were places where I defended Hecht's point of view and theology, even though he is a villian in the controversy.  But I also defended Davis and the animal rights people in several places, too.  Ironically, I have received emails from Orthodox Jews who thought I was too easy on Davis because I defended her against accusations of antisemitism.  I suppose this is bound to happen with any book that tries to look at both sides of a problem.  One often ends up writing a book that pleases neither side.  But at least the book has gotten some discussions going, and that was really my goal.  People may not be willing to completely cross the bridge to the other side, but some, at least, are meeting in the middle.