Sunday, September 28, 2014

On Kapporos: The Baal Shem Tov did it with a chicken, so why do you tell me not to?

As has been my custom for the past few years, I am writing my annual essay against using chickens for kapporos, the atonement ceremony before Yom Kippur.  My previous articles dealt mostly with the history and philosophy behind the ceremony, directed at activists who were planning protests and/or educating themselves about the history and philosophy behind this practice.  This time around, I am going to address my fellow Orthodox Jews from within our own tradition.  (Although, of course, everyone else is welcome to read it as well.)

When I suggest to fellow Hasidim that we should no longer use chickens for kapporos, the most common answer I get is this:

"The Holy Ari did it with a chicken; the Baal Shem Tov did it with a chicken; the Rebbe did it with a chicken -- and weren't they holy people?  So why do you say it is wrong now?"

The 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe
making kapporos
My vegan friends would probably reply that killing a chicken is cruel, period, and that our ancestors were a bunch of barbarians for ever doing it in the first place.  However, that is not an answer that would satisfy us as religious Jews.  In fact, it is downright counterproductive, sometimes even antisemitic.  I believe our sages and ancestors were holy people, who were in tune with God and would never be intentionally cruel to animals.  So my Torah-based answer to the question is this:

Yes it is true that many of our greatest rabbis and teachers did kapporos with a chicken.  But they also treated the chickens with care and respect.  

They understood that chickens are living beings with feelings.   It is said that when the Holy Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, sharpened his knife, he moistened the stone with his own tears.  (Shivchei Ha-Besht) Our religion acknowledges that Eden was vegetarian, and that in an ideal world, this is what we would all be.  But this world is not Eden.  Eating meat was a necessity in Old Russia and Ukraine in the 1700s.  Before the days of year-round fresh veggies flown in from everywhere, being a healthy vegetarian was virtually impossible in northern climates.  So the Torah does permit slaughter.  But the Baal Shem Tov at least felt deep sadness that something had to die in order for the people to live.
Now look around you at the kapporos centers.  Is anybody weeping for the deaths of the chickens like the Holy Baal Shem Tov did?  

Probably not.  I have been laughed at and ridiculed by fellow Hasidim for saying that chickens have feelings.  One heckler even asked, "Do you really think chickens are smart enough to know what is happening to them?"  Yes, I do.  Modern research shows that chickens have an intelligence level at least as high as that of a three or four year old child.  Think about that next time you see a pre-schooler or bounce your own child on your knee.  That child is certainly aware enough to suffer pain, hunger, and fear of death.  And so is a chicken.  The Baal Shem Tov understood this.  His modern followers do not.

Yes, it is also true that the Holy Ari also did it with a chicken back in the 1500s.  But he, too, was sensitive to the suffering of animals.  Consider the following story: 

It happened one day in Sfat, Israel, that Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great kabbalist known as the Holy Ari (Ari-Hakodesh), ordered one of his students to leave him immediately.  The student felt terrible.  What sin had he committed to deserve this?  All that day he wept and prayed to G-d that his sins should not keep him banished from his Rebbe’s presence.

The next morning he came to the Holy Ari and begged to be told what wrong he had done.  The Holy Ari said,” It is because of your chickens.  Three days now they have been without food.  They cried out to HaShem and because of this, you have been under a ban (karet) from Heaven.  Now, if you promise to feed your chickens even before your morning prayers, I will loosen the ban on you.”  The student promised to do so, and the ban was lifted.  (From Shivchei Ha-Ari)

From this we learn how much HaShem our Creator, Who “has compassion for all the creatures,” cares about the suffering of chickens.  The student’s sin was tzaar baalei chayyim, cruelty to animals.  The cries of those starving chickens were canceling out his Torah learning and banning his prayers from reaching Heaven.
Now, stop and listen to the voices of all the hungry, thirsty chickens at the kapporos centers. 

Those are NOT the sounds of happy birds, they are NOT singing in joy at "helping us do a mitzvah," as some people have been taught to believe. You are hearing the anguished cries that chickens make when they are in fear and pain.   Last year (2013) thousands of chickens in New York kapporos centers died of thirst and hunger during a prolonged heat wave.  In previous years, chickens that were not sold by the eve of Yom Kippur were abandoned in warehouses.  There they spent our most holy day of repentance slowly dying of neglect.  Again, recall the story of the Ari and the chickens above.  How is this any different?

Are those sad cries rising to Heaven and canceling out your Torah and mitzvot, Heaven forbid?   Even worse, are they canceling out the prayers of the whole Jewish community?  

This is a very serious question.  We are taught in kabbalah that when we use the things of this world -- mineral, vegetable, or animal -- for serving God, then we elevate the Holy Sparks (netzotzot) within those things and effect a tikkun olam -- a repair of the universe.   This is a classic Hasidic teaching,  we find it in the writings of all our Rebbes, starting with the Baal Shem Tov himself.

But the reverse is also true:  If we do not use the material world with holiness and respect, the sparks are not raised, and we drag the world down.   Rebbe Nachman of Breslov said that if shechitah (kosher slaughter) is not performed correctly and with the proper kavannah (focused intention), then the sparks are not elevated, and we absorb negativity (klippot) from the life-force of the animal.  (See Likutei Moharan #37).

Combined with the story of the Ari above, I interpret this to mean not only the actual moment of slaughter must be proper, but also how the chickens are treated beforehand.  I am pretty sure that Rebbe Nachman would not have approved of using today's abused, starving chickens.

So we must indeed ask ourselves:  Is the mistreatment of chickens at today's kapporos centers elevating sparks, or is it blocking our prayers from reaching Heaven?

Portrait of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer,
the Baal Shem Tov
There are many Hasidic stories about how prayers were being blocked from rising upward, usually due to some sin blocking the way.  The Baal Shem Tov himself once refused to enter a synagogue because it was so full of such prayers that there was no room for him to go in.  He said, "Those prayers are all dead prayers. They have no strength to fly to heaven. They are crushed, they lie one on top of the other, the house is filled with them." (Meyer Levin, Classic Hasidic Tales) 

So:  Would the Baal Shem Tov be able to enter today's kapporos centers?  Or would his entry be blocked by dead prayers that do not rise upward to Heaven?

Today we have hardened our hearts to the suffering of God’s creatures.  Kapporos chickens are crammed into small cages, shipped for miles in open trucks, stacked for days in hot warehouses without any food or water, then handled roughly like cheap  merchandise.  People stand around gossiping, while they carelessly hold the chickens by the wings as if they were nothing but shopping bags.  Dangling them this way is very painful for the bird, and can result in torn muscles and ligaments in the wings, because a chicken's wings are not strong enough to support its body weight.

This gross disrespect for living things is NOT the way our ancestors held chickens in the past.  All of the old drawings I have seen show the chickens being held upright by the legs, or supporting the body with their hands, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe is doing in the picture above.  This dangling them by the wings is a modern cruelty learned, most likely, from the factory farm industry.  (I have seen gentile farmers doing this.)

Such cruelty does not elevate the Holy Sparks!   It drags us down into sin.  You cannot commit a sin to do a mitzvah! 

Or a minhag, for that matter.  Any validity the ceremony might have had in the past is canceled out by the cruelty to the chickens in modern times.  Precisely because of how the chickens are transported and sold nowadays, many rabbis recommend using money instead. 

In addition, there is the issue of waste.  In the past, people often gave their kapporos chicken to a poor family as tsedakah (charity). This charity was part of the kapporos ritual, it completed the tikkun. 

"Repentence, prayer, and charity avert the evil decree."

Bags of dead kapporos chickens in
garbage truck, 2013
But today, the chickens often end up in the garbage. The reasons often given is that there is no time to kasher them properly, or that they were somehow injured or damaged and not kosher to begin with. Think about that.  In the past, families would take their slaughtered chickens home, to pluck and kasher them for the pre-Yom Kippur meal.  But in this day of shrink-wrapped meats, few people do that themselves anymore.  So the chickens are simply tossed into garbage cans.

That violates the prohibition against needlessly wasting something  (bal tashchit).  Last year, under several news articles about how these chickens were ending up in the city dump, there were numerous comments asking:  "Why didn't they give them to the homeless shelters?  Or the local soup lines?"  Such blatant waste of food while people go hungry is a shanda, a public disgrace that reflects badly on the Jewish people.  Here there are people going hungry, and we throw the chickens in the dump?  Where is the holiness in that?

Sickly, injured chickens crammed in a
cage, waiting to be used for kapporos.
These are not the happy free-range
chickens our ancestors used.
Even in the days of the sacrifices in the Holy Temple, the meat was never just thrown away.  On the contrary.  It was holy, and had to be eaten as a sacred meal in a place that was ritually purified.   And because the sacrifices had to be perfect specimens without any blemishes, the animals were no doubt treated very well before the sacrifice -- not like the factory-farmed, miserable, starving kapporos chickens of today.

As our Sages teach us, the world is like a set of scales.  Every good deed tips the world to the side of good, and every sin tips it to the side of evil, heaven forbid.   

Is the cruelty in today's kapporos centers canceling out our prayers on Yom Kippur?  Is it adding to the burden of sin in the world?

Again, these are serious questions.  Giving money to charity instead of using a chicken eliminates all these questions of cruelty and kashrut. You can avoid absorbing negative klippah energy into your life and that of your family.  You can be sure that the monetary value of the chicken really is going to the poor and not to the city dump.  You can be more certain that your prayers are not being blocked from rising to Heaven.  You can be sure you are making a real tikkun -- the act of charity that averts the evil decree -- and not contributing to the burden of sin in the world.

For all these reasons,  I feel it is time for us to stop using chickens for kapporos and give money instead.  

May you have an easy fast, and may you be sealed for a good new year!

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I have written a condensed one-page printable version of this article, suitable for a flyer or small poster.   Download the PDF here.   Feel free to print and hand it out, adding your own local contact info at the bottom.

See also: Kapporos Chickens don't Sing! -- my 2013 article on the misconceptions about chickens that you may hear at kapporos centers, etc.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Got allergies? Don't blame the goldenrod!

It's mid-September and the goldenrod is now in full bloom -- right about the same time that the pollen count hits the roof.  Over and over, I hear people blaming their hay fever on goldenrod.   But they are wrong!  Read on...

A field of goldenrod on my land in Minnesota --
haven for many butterflies & other insects
 Everyone can see the bright yellow of a field of goldenrod plants in full bloom.  As they look at all those yellow flowers along the road, they visualize clouds of pollen choking the air.  Just the sight of it all is enough to make some people sneeze.

But the fact is, goldenrod pollen is not spread by the wind at all.  This is why weather reports that include a pollen count never even mention goldenrod as a source.

A Goldenrod flower
Don't believe me?  See for yourself: Touch a goldenrod flower and you will not have any pollen on your hands.  Shake one and you won't see any clouds of pollen hitting the air.  It just doesn't blow around.   It spreads by sticking to the bodies of insects.  Unless you are a bug with lots of tiny hairs on your body to pick up the pollen, it doesn't leave the plant very easily.  Ecologically speaking, Goldenrod is an important nectaring flower for wasps, bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects.  So please -- don't yank it out!

Ragweed plant in full bloom
The real culprit is ragweed, a coarse weedy green plant that blends into the background in fields and woodland edges.  Unlike the showy flowers of goldenrod, the rather nondescript flower stalks of ragweed are just loaded with pollen, and it does indeed spread on the wind.

Ragweed is not particular about habitat, and will grow just about anywhere.  The plant in this photo grew next to my compost pile, so it got to be over 6 feet tall from all that rich chicken manure.  Along the road you might see flowering ragweed only about a foot high, eking out an existence in the hard-packed gravel on the shoulder.  But once you learn to recognize it, you'll see it growing just about everywhere.

(Well, maybe not in the high desert -- but it crops up in irrigated areas like Las Vegas.  In fact, according to The 30 Worst Cities for Ragweed, Las Vegas ranks #2.  The top city on the list is Phoenix, Arizona.)

The stuff is very easy to pull up, so if you learn to to recognize it before it pollens out, you can at least eliminate it from your garden.  But with all the acres and acres of wild areas where it can flourish, you will probably have to wait until frost kills the plants before your "hay fever" finally goes away for the season.  Just don't blame your misery on the innocent goldenrod!

Typical distribution of ragweed pollen in
the USA in September

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Aronofsky's "Noah": A modern Jewish midrash


I missed this movie when it was in the theaters, because it came out right in the middle of cleaning for Passover, so I had to wait for the DVD.  Meanwhile, I had read dozens of reviews by both Jews and gentiles.  The Christians hated it.  The Jews loved it.  And one thing became very obvious:  Never has a movie so clearly illustrated the vast difference between how Jews and Christians read the Bible.  One could build a whole course in Jewish-Christian dialogue based on this movie. 

Having now viewed the film twice, I want to address this difference. Christians tend to see the Bible as the be-all end-all of scripture.  If it's not in the Bible, it isn't real, it's mere fiction, even heresy.  Jews, however, have a vast oral tradition as well as the Written Torah. There is a  process of interpretation called "midrash" which means literally "from searching." In Judaism to "search the Scriptures" does not mean "thumb through your Bible," it means to search out hidden or implied meanings, sometimes with imagination, ("visualization" might be a better, more spiritual word) in order to get a better understanding of the story.  This process is not heresy; it is the soul of Judaism.

An example of this would be the ancient (dating to at least the Roman period) midrash of "How did God create the world? He wrapped Himself in a robe of light and it began to shine." (see Genesis Rabba 3:4, based on Psalm 104:2).  Now obviously nobody was there to see that happen, we don't really know if it even DID happen that way -- but it is a way of visualizing the Creation process without the "Finger of God" in the Sistine Chapel ceiling.  (Which, BTW, is ALSO a form of midrash, since Michelangelo was not there at Creation, either.   And technically it is not accurate, since Genesis says God "breathed in" the soul of Adam so literally it should look more like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, right? But that would not have made a very good painting.)

What Aronofsky has done -- and other rabbis besides me have already called it this -- is to create a modern midrash.   He did what Jews have done for thousands of years:  He fleshed out the bare bones of the story to explore it in the light of his own generation, a generation concerned with pollution, climate change, extinctions, the fear of global destruction.  Those themes were always there, but past generations did not focus on them in the same way because not until modern times was there the possibility that we really could destroy the Earth.  Suddenly this part of the story becomes much more relevant.

Regarding Noah's "nervous breakdown" depicted in the movie, We do not KNOW what went on among the family members on the Ark -- the Bible does not say -- so ANY drama depicted there is fictional in the modern sense.   Previous versions of the Noah story -- both print and in film -- have also made up the events aboard the Ark.  The talmudic rabbis say that Noah and his family got no sleep the whole time, because they were busy feeding the diurnal animals by day and the nocturnal ones by night -- and that the predators reverted to drinking milk (from the cattle) as it was in Eden.  That is no more factually probable than putting them to sleep with some sort of herbal anesthesia (as seen in the movie.)   But both versions deal with the very real issue of how so many animals could be kept peacefully in a small space for so long.

Not the children's version! 
So what was Aronofsky's purpose in making this film?  He has stated that the story of Noah has fascinated him since his Hebrew school days (Read more...).  But the "kiddie version" did not go far enough to satisfy him as an adult.  Most of the time, we gloss over the very real horror of millions of people drowning -- not to mention all the animals and plants being wiped out.  Most likely, the raven did not come back because it found plenty of floating carrion to feed on.  (See Genesis 8:7).   But we don't go into that.  We focus, instead, on the cutsie image of lions, tigers, elephants and giraffes on deck, watching the dove come back with an olive branch and a rainbow overhead.  But the reality was much more dark and gritty.

My sense is that Aronofsky wanted to explore that darkness, to delve into the bare emotions of a family who had just witnessed all of humanity die.  He wanted his viewers to really feel that, to experience -- and recoil -- at the horror of it.  The scene in the Ark where Noah tells the Creation story is reminiscent of the scene around the Passover table in DeMille's "Ten Commandments" -- in both cases, they are surrounded by the screams of the dying.

That has to have an effect on a person's psyche.  But the Bible doesn't really deal with emotions or psychology, it is more of a historical narrative.  There is no character development in the biblical narrative.  However, we are a generation steeped in psychology, so we expect more depth in a character than "just the facts, ma'am." (Think about that.  The rather emotionless detectives in "Dragnet" would not be very popular if the show were debuting today.)

I think what disturbs so many people about this movie is that Noah has such a dark misunderstanding about what God wants.  WE would never think God wanted us to kill a baby, would we?   And yet in the story of Abraham He apparently does -- a story that Jews struggle with every year in the liturgical cycle, a story that has generated VOLUMES of midrashic explanations as Jews confront the Abraham story anew each generation.

Christians also believe in a form of human sacrifice --what else is Jesus on the Cross? So there can be some very dark aspects to the biblical stories when we view them as adults and not as children in Sunday school.  We can put them in historical context -- as I usually do, explaining that human sacrifice was considered "normal" in many ancient cultures -- but if it is all just ancient history, then the Bible becomes just another tome gathering dust on the shelf.

But maybe Aronofsky is not so far off in his interpretation of Noah.  Such a negative reaction could  happen.  It often does happen to people who witness the horrors of war and natural disasters.  We are still getting over watching the Twin Towers explode and fall on 3000+ people.  So what must have been the impact on Noah after listening to millions drown?  Perhaps he has a form of survivor guilt, coming to feel he had no right to survive, that to survive is to go against fate, to go against God's will. This certainly happens in real life.  There are cases from the Holocaust where only one or two members of an entire family -- an entire village even! -- survived.  Some people managed to pick up and move on with their lives.  But others went mad, even committing suicide.  All were changed forever by the experience.

So as we watch this movie, we can begin to ask ourselves some serious questions.  How do we really know God's will?  When is it time to question a harsh judgement?  How do we move past the horror and find healing? Noah understands justice, but he has to learn to understand mercy -- and that, to me, is the whole point of the end of the movie.

As the Passover Haggadah says, each person must imagine him/herself as if he/she were a slave in Egypt, and he/she were personally freed. That's not just history, that's emotional -- to really feel what it is to be a slave, or, in this case, to be Noah, who is ordered to save his family and let the rest of humanity die.  Aronofsky put himself in Noah's place and came up with the dark side -- but also the light of hope.  Because we know from the beginning how the story will end: hope wins out, humanity lives on.  But not until Noah reconciles himself to that will the rainbow appear -- which is why we do not see it until the final scene, where he passes his legacy on to his grandchildren.

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Google "Noah movie Jewish" to bring up dozens of articles about the Jewish sources of  Aronofsky's interpretation of the story.  Here are a few to start:

"The "Terror" of Noah: How Darren Aronofsky interprets the Bible in The Atlantic.  This three-page article goes into some depth about how Aronofsky has been fascinated by Noah since childhood, how he saw the horror in the story early on, how he views the Bible and midrash, how he developed the idea for the movie, etc.  One of the best interviews with him online.

For a blow by blow explanation of midrashic details in the movie (snakeskins, magic swords, Nephilim "rock giants," a barge-like Ark, and such), see my review on Amazon - and all the discussion, pro and con, that it has evoked (smile).

For a similar rundown from a Christian perspective, see The Noah Movie Controversies: Questions and Answers  by Steven D. Greydanus for the National Catholic Register.

For a good round-up of Jewish reviews and reactions, see The Jewish Roots of and Response to "Noah."

Tsohar: Gem of Noah, Light of Heaven is a very good article explaining the Jewish sources for the glowing mineral that Tubal-Cain's people are mining.

Noah comes to the Big Screen with the help of a Dallas Rabbi  looks at the Jewish sources for the fallen angels, noting, among other things, that six-winged angels are mentioned in Isaiah.

And see also my previous blog post,  From Noah to Moses: An ethical evolution

And just to be "fair and balanced" (to parody Fox News), here are two articles by right-wing fundamentalist Christians who really, really, really hate this movie:

Sympathy for the Devil  by Brian Mattson, who sees the movie as a bunch of heretical gnosticism, and believes that  "Aronofsky did it as an experiment to make fools of us [Christians]: 'You are so ignorant that I can put Noah (granted, it's Russell Crowe!) up on the big screen and portray him literally as the ‘seed of the Serpent’ and you all will watch my studio’s screening and endorse it.'"

Aronofsky's Noah: A panolopy of Jewish Paganism by Joel McDermon.  The title says it all.  This guy hates the Jewish influences in the movie so much that it borders on -- or even crosses the line into -- antisemitism, stating: "And while they [Aronofsky and Handel] say they intended to stick to the text, they do with it what so many Talmudic, Kabbalistic, and/or Hasidic mystic Jews do: twist, torture, and turn the text a thousand ways but what it [the Bible] plainly says."

Dayenu.  Enough.  Time to log off and go do chores.  Peace.