Thursday, June 4, 2015

New Book: "Kapporos Then and Now: Toward a More Compassionate Tradition" by Yonassan Gershom

Every year, right before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, there is a cultural war in certain Jewish neighborhoods over a ceremony called Kapporos, in which a chicken is slaughtered just before the holy day. The animal rights people show up claiming, “Meat is murder!” while the Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who practice this ceremony accuse the activists of antisemitism and violating their freedom of religion. Epithets fly and confrontations occur across the barricades, but nobody is really listening to each other.

In this book, I seek to build a bridge of understanding between these two warring camps. On the one hand, I oppose using live chickens as Kapporos, as I have written on this blog before. (Reade More...)  Like many other religious Jews before me, I advocate giving money to charity instead. But on the other hand, I am a Hasid who understands and believes in the kabbalistic principles behind the ceremony and Hasidic life in general. In fact, it is that very mysticism that has led me not to use chickens for the ritual.  And I believe it is essential for activists to understand and respect this mystical worldview if they want to be effective.

On the surface, my task in writing this book would seem easy: Explain to animal rights people the reasons why some Orthodox Jews use chickens in a religious ceremony, and explain to Orthodox Jews why animal rights people find this offensive and cruel in modern times. But there is much more to it than that. Beyond this specific ritual lies a vast chasm between two very, very different worldviews. On both sides of the issue I have found sincere, caring people who, in all good faith, believe in what they are doing. But at the same time, each side is appallingly ignorant of the other. Could I possibly write a book to bridge the gap?

To do this successfully, the book could be neither a vegetarian manifesto nor a "Torah-true" religious tract.   My methodology was to approach the subject as a combination of theologian, cultural anthropologist, and participatory journalist, examining the issue from the perspectives of both sides.   As Richard H. Schwartz, author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, wrote in his Foreword to my book:

“Rabbi Gershom has a very clear, conversational style of writing, scholarly yet very readable, and he explains complex issues very well. He is careful to put issues in context. He is not a polemicist, but seeks common ground and solutions. He uses examples from his own personal experience and also cites authorities.”

Chapter 1 opens with my involvement with the Alliance to End Chickens as Kapporos (Karen Davis' org), my reasons for leaving the Alliance over theological issues (read more on that...) but not the movement itself -- and how this ultimately led me to write this book.

In the rest of the book I trace the history of Kapporos and the impact of the modern meat industry on the ceremony, comparing it to my own experience raising and observing chickens in natural, free-range flocks on my hobby farm in Minnesota.   I explain how the very un-Jewish ideas of Descartes have affected Jews and gentiles alike.  And because I believe it is essential for activists to understand the mystical worldview of Hasidism, I devote an entire chapter to "raising Holy sparks," the question of whether animals have souls and/or consciousness, and how this relates to Kapporos.

In short, I explore the issue from many different perspectives and present what I believe to be a number of convincing arguments for why, in modern times, this ritual can best be accomplished by using money instead of chickens.  This will not be an easy book for either side to read, but I believe it fills an important educational gap on both sides.

You can order your copy now  on  It will eventually be available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. but if you order from Lulu you get a discount and I get a better deal as an author.

And if you would like to help me send copies to various Orthodox rabbis, Jewish publications, and activists, please consider donating through the GoFundMe link below.  (If for some reason the widget is not there, you can also use this link:  $10 will pay for a book and the postage to ship it.  As I have written on this blog before, I am not rich, nor do I have any congregation or organization supporting me.  My wife and I are on a very small fixed income with little to spare for projects like this,   So I need your help to get this book into the hands of people who really need it.

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