Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Be Kind to Animals Week: a Jewish perspective


I did not grow up Hasidic.  There are those who immediately discount me for that reason, arguing that I am “tainted” by the secular world and therefore not a “real” Hasid.   However, I would quote back to them the adage that “The baal tshuvah (repentant sinner) stands in a place where the perfect Zaddik (saint) cannot stand.”  And both places are good, both have something to teach us.  Besides, I've been observant for decades now, so that should count for something.

Growing up in the 1950s in America, I went to public school, spent part of my summer at Scout camp, and otherwise participated in the world at large.  I was what is now called a “free range kid,” roaming the neighborhood on my bike, playing in the nearby woods, and spending a lot of time alone in nature.  For part of my early childhood we lived on the edge of what my father called a “game preserve,” where deer and pheasants were a common sight in the backyard.  The exact location was long ago lost to urban sprawl, but the memories are still with me.

Vintage ASPCA poster
"The cat they left behind"
One of my fondest childhood memories is Be Kind to Animals Week.  This was a nationwide event sponsored by the American Humane Association and the ASPCA, with posters and contests, public service announcements on TV by celebrities, and local animal-oriented events.  I hadn’t heard much about it lately, being mostly involved in the Jewish community, and I got to wondering if it still existed.  Yes, it does, and this year (2015) is the 100th anniversary!   In fact, Be Kind to Animals Week is the oldest commemorative week in all of U.S. history.

It is observed during the  first week in May, which means it starts this Sunday.

Next I wondered if it is observed in Jewish schools.  Do yeshiva students ever enter posters in the contest?  Does your school do anything to celebrate it?  I found a lot of older references to Jews participating, but very little about it in today’s curriculum.  This is not to say that no Jewish schools observe it, but it does not seem to be much of a priority nowadays, at least not enough to write about it on their websites. That’s too bad.  It would be wonderful to see some Jewish kids design posters about kindness to animals, which is, after all, a Torah teaching as well as a secular one.   It would be a great opportunity to teach the greater society about tzaar baalei chayyim, the Jewish prohibition against cruelty to animals.

It was suggested to me that the reason this event is no longer celebrated as much among Jews is because environmental issues have gotten linked to the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees, which has become a sort of Jewish Earth Day.  That is possible.  But Tu’B’Shevat focuses more on planting trees and recycling trash than on animals.  Still, there is no reason why animals could not be more actively included in it.

There is also a recent movement to make the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, which the Talmud calls the New Year for Animals,  into a humane education event.  This seems a bit topsy-turvy to me, since this was originally the day that Jewish farmers tithed their flocks, so it was hardly “Animal Rights Day.”  But it would not be the first time that a Jewish holiday got re-defined after the Temple was destroyed.  Shavuot, the “Feast of Weeks,” was originally celebrated with processions of people bringing their firstfruits to the Temple.  Today it focuses on receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, which also took place on the same date.  Tu B'Shevat, the “New Year for Trees” is now a form of Jewish Earth Day, when people not only plant trees, but also focus on current environmental issues.  So it would not be out of line to transform "Rosh Hashanah for the Animals."

However one may choose to approach it, there is definitely a need for more humane education.   While researching my new book, Kapporos Then and Now: Toward a more Compassionate Tradition (due out in June, God willing),  I found some appalling stories about Jewish children poking sticks at Kapporos chickens, throwing stones at stray cats, chasing pigeons in the park, and behaving badly at zoos.  Not all Jewish kids do this, of course, but there were far more such stories than there should be.  Kids will be kids, and wearing a yarmulke does not transform them into saints.  However, it does make them visible as Jews and it reflects badly on the community.

So I am suggesting that if your school or synagogue is not observing Be Kind to Animals Week, then this year would be a good time to start.  Why invent another holiday when we already have a national tradition that is a century old?  In fact, it is rapidly become an international event; in my searches I found posters and articles in many languages.  Really, it should be a global event, since we all share the same planet and the animals on it.  So if you are celebrating "Kindness 100" this year, I'd love to hear about it.  Tell me what you are doing to bring more kindness to God's creatures.





Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A "Seven Levels of Life" universal Arrow of Light Ceremony

Below is an Arrow of Light Ceremony I wrote for our Cub Scout pack this year.  A lot of the usual ceremonies are based on Indian lore, but we live in an actual Indian area (Minnesota) where it is controversial for non-Natives to dress up as Natives.  One of our families is Ojibwa and they find it offensive.   (I can understand that, since, as a religious Jew, I have mixed feelings about Christians wearing Jewish symbols.)

So I researched alternatives.  I looked at a lot of other Arrow ceremonies that were posted online to get ideas, and then created my own.  I liked the "Seven Virtues" that many packs use, but the order of the Virtues as they did it seemed rather odd to me in my own tradition (Judaism.)   Putting "love" at the top is probably based on Christianity, where love is considered supreme.  But in Jewish thought, the Mind is above the Emotions.  Although this is not a "Jewish" ceremony per se, I wanted it to make sense in my system of thought while still being universal enough for others to relate to.

 So I used a Jacob's Ladder motif, where the seven rungs of the ladder correspond with Seven Aspects of Life (and the chakras, if you know yoga.)  The ladder rests on the Earth and goes to God Above.  Symbolically, we are climbing it together. 

To do this ceremony, the main prop is a candle holder for seven candles.  It need not be curved like the symbol.  We used a small birch log (about 5 inches in diameter) with seven holes drilled in.  You also need an eighth candle for the "Spirit of Scouting" that is used to light the others.  This is separate from the log -- A regular candle holder worked fine.  Set it in front or to the side of the main holder.  We used all blue candles, but you could also use rainbow colors, or alternating blue and gold, or whatever -- there are a lot of possible variations.  Here is a pic of how ours turned out:



You need a table, perhaps with a blue-and-gold cloth, for setting the candles on.   And matches!  (Yes, I've actually goofed on that one in the past.  A checklist of props helps!)  I though of making a large poster of a ladder with the themes to put on the wall, but time got tight and I never got around to it.  (There's always next year.  From bottom to top the order of themes is:  Action, Feelings, Self Control, Heart, Speech, Wisdom, Faith.)  And be sure to print out scripts so participants can read it in case of stage fright.  Feel free to use this ceremony and/or adapt it to your own needs.






Arrow of Light Ceremony for Pack 185 
Audubon Center of the North Woods 
Pine County, Minnesota 

 Cubmaster: This candle represents the spirit of Scouting, the light we carry along the trail. (Lights the extra candle). The Arrow of Light is the highest award a Cub Scout can earn. It is the only Cub Scout award that he can wear on his Boy Scout uniform after he crosses over. An arrow that is straight and true will hit the target. This is why we all want to be straight arrows. We will always aim to do our best.

 Webelos Leader: Stop and think about the inner meaning of the word Webelos. It means “We'll be loyal Scouts” – loyal to our country, loyal to our home and family, and loyal to God. Now, as we look back down our Cub Scout trail, we see how bright the path we followed really is. It is bright because you Webelos have helped to make it so. You light the trail through Cub Scouting by doing your best and giving goodwill to everyone you meet on the path.

 Third Leader: The Bible tells the story of how Jacob was crossing the desert and went to sleep on a hilltop. He dreamed about a ladder that reached from earth to heaven, with angels going up and coming down it. Jewish tradition says that this ladder has seven rungs or steps. Each rung has a special lesson attached to it. Seven is a sacred number in many traditions. There are seven days of Creation, seven days of the week, and seven candles on the Arrow of Light symbol. The rays of the Arrow of Light stand for wisdom, courage, self-control, justice, faith, hope, and love. We have combined these with the seven rungs of Jacobs’ Ladder, to create a ceremony that is unique to our Pack. Together we will now climb Jacob’s Ladder.

 (Leader hands Spirit of Scouting Candle to the First Reader.  After each person reads and lights his Arrow candle, he passes the Spirit Candle to the next person)

 First reader: The first rung represents the earth, where the bottom of the ladder stands firm. As Scouts, we take good care of the earth. We leave no trace at our campsites. We are helpful and clean up litter that others leave in order to make the world a better place for everyone to live in. (lights candle)

 Second Reader: The second rung represents our good feelings and love for each other. A Scout is cheerful, friendly and kind. He welcomes new boys into the Pack. He greets everyone with a smiling face. He is kind to animals and happy to help others who are less fortunate than he is. (lights candle) 

Third Reader: The third rung is for self-control. Control means knowing when to stop. We follow instructions. We learn to be quiet and listen when others are speaking. We are willing to listen to ideas we do not agree with. Learning to control ourselves makes it easier to work together as a team. (lights candle)

 Fourth Reader: The fourth rung stands for a brave heart. Being brave does not mean you are never afraid. It means you face your fear and do what must be done. A Scout is strong-hearted, kind and loyal. He stands up for his friends, family, and country. He treats everyone fairly. (Lights candle) 

Fifth Reader: The fifth rung is for good words and good speech. A Scout is trustworthy. When he makes a promise, he keeps it. When he says “Scout’s Honor” he always tells the truth, no matter what. He does not gossip about others or say bad things about people. He does not use curse words. He is clean in thought, word, and deed. (Lights candle)

 Sixth Reader: The sixth rung stands for wisdom. In Scouting we learn many new things. We teach each other and share our knowledge about the world and about ourselves. But wisdom is much more than just learning facts. Wisdom means using our knowledge in the right way. (Lights candle) 

Seventh Reader: The seventh rung stands for hope and faith in serving God. Faith is when you believe in something, even if you cannot see it or prove it is true. A Scout is reverent. This means he does not make fun or laugh at religious beliefs. He serves God on his own religious Path and respects the ways that others worship, too. He understands that Scouts around the world serve God in many different ways, but all are praying to the same Creator of the Universe. (Lights candle)

Cubmaster: When these seven rungs are true and straight like an arrow, they make a path of light that stretches from earth to heaven, just like Jacob’s Ladder. When we remember the lessons of each rung, we can become like the angels who climb from earth to heaven. We become Good Scouts, trustworthy, strong, and true.

Pack 185 Webelos receiving their Arrow of Light
March 8, 2015  in Hinckley, MN

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Selma": Was omission of Heschel on purpose -- or a Hollywood blooper?

As I discussed in my previous article, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was front and center in the iconic photo of the Selma march, but was apparently replaced by a generic rabbi extra in the movie.   I have puzzled over this for several days, read lots of discussion about it, and come up with a few theories about why it might have happened.

The original photo:  John Lewis of SNCC, an unidentified nun, 
Rev. Ralph Abernathy; Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., 
Ralph Bunche (former U.S. Ambassador to the UN), 
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttleswort


Please note that these are only my personal theories, because Ava DuVernay has not, as far as I know, given any explanation other than "this is art not a documentary" and she did not want to make a "white hero movie."   But that does not explain why there is no actor made up to look like Heschel in this scene.  Especially since there are other white people in the lineup with King in her version.  So why no Heschel?  That's all it would have taken to avoid all this controversy.  Just show it like it was.

I would sure love to have DuVernay come here and tell us why she made this bad decision.  But since neither she nor Oprah answered my tweets on the subject, I suppose I'll just have to guess on my own.  Yes, I've read all the antisemitism and conspiracy theories, but I find myself wondering if it isn't something much simpler:  a major Hollywood blooper.  It would not be the first time.  But if so, it's a whole lot bigger blooper than a water bottle on Downton Abbey.  So here goes:


A still from the movie.  That guy on the right is no Heschel.
 And what's with that suitcase he is carrying?
Theory #1:  Maybe DuVernay didn't know who Heschel was, and thought she could just plug in some generic rabbi to fill the slot.  I'm pretty sure she had no idea how iconic his image is to Jews, or she would not have made this blooper.  I mean, would she have substituted some generic priest for the Pope in a famous scene?   Heschel was, in his own way, equally important, as one of the foremost theologians of the 20th century.  But what if DuVernay did not know that?

Theory #2:  Maybe Heschel did not look "rabbinical" enough for her take on the scene.  If you compare her version with the original, you'll see that Heschel is not the only change in the lineup.  The original doesn't have an Eastern Orthodox priest in clerical garb or a minister (priest?) in a visible clerical collar.  On the other hand the movie version does not have the "unidentified nun" dressed in a habit like the original.  So it appears that DuVernay was doing a sort of visual smorgasbord, plugging in what she thought would be easily recognizable to her viewers as an interfaith scene.  ("A rabbi, a minister, and a priest marched at Selma...")

Theory #3:  If she didn't know who Heschel was, then maybe DuVernay did not recognize the Heschel figure as a rabbi, and thought he was just some old hippie.  So she did a switcheroo to fit her visual imagery.  After all, Heschel usually wore a beret, not a yarmulke, which is what most gentiles think of as Jewish clergy garb.  But if this is the case, then her research crew really blew it.

Theory #4: Maybe DuVernay thought Heschel was too disheveled and hippie-like for her 21st-century take on the scene.  Again comparing the original to the still, there has been quite a bit of sprucing up.  The original characters all look a bit wrinkled, as indeed they would be, after hours of getting ready for the march.  Heschel himself flew out immediately after the Sabbath ended on Saturday in order to be there on Sunday -- no time for a trip to the barber.  But Duvernay's actors are as natty as can be, not a wrinkle or speck of dirt in sight, not a hair out of place.  And the substitute rabbi is perfectly neat and clean-shaven.  Maybe that is the "art" part of it that DuVernay refers to.  Creating a tableau instead of a recreation of history.

But if personal appearance was why Heschel was removed, then I wonder what she would have done with a movie about Einstein?  Given him a shave and a haircut?  But then, she would have known who Einstein was, would have realized how instantly recognizeable his "disheveled" appearance is.

Heschel and King
Which brings us back to my original question:  Did DuVernay even know who Heschel was?  Of course, I have no way of knowing what was in her head.  I just have a hard time believing she would purposely edit out Heschel if she knew how close he was to King, who called him "my rabbi" and compared him to the biblical prophets.   I really do think she had no idea how important Heschel was in the Jewish community, or how well-known the original photo is.  This does not excuse ignorance or bad research, but maybe it does explain why she made such a terrible blooper on this famous historical scene.