Sunday, October 23, 2011

On children, dying pets, and the Circle of Life

On Friday morning, it was very clear that one of our cats, Tigger, was dying.  It was expected.  He was old and his health had not been good lately, but it was still sad.  As it turned out, we were babysitting two grandchildren, Chris (age 8) and Nick (almost 3), that same day.  So my wife and I debated:  Should we show them the dying cat or not?  Would it be a trauma, or a lesson in compassion?  We decided it would be best to tell them and let them say goodbye to their friend.

Tigger in 2007
He was barely alive when the kids arrived, but still aware enough to respond to petting.  I explained that he would probably slip into a coma soon and die in his sleep before the day was over.  And that's what happened.   Cats often go off and hide when they die, and I did not want that happening where I could not find him.  So we put him in the cat carrier when I was not holding him.  He willingly went in there, instinctively wanting some privacy.   By mid-afternoon, he was gone. 

We couldn't bury him right away because the Sabbath was coming, but it was cold enough outside that we could store his body in the shed until Sunday morning.  I wrapped him in a small blanket with his head sticking out, and 3-year-old Nick said, "Bye, meow," which is his word for cat.   8-year-old Chris understood death better, and could see that the spirit was gone from Tigger's eyes.  It was a very sad time, but also an opportunity to talk about death.  Chris asked if he could help me bury Tigger on Sunday, and I said he could.

So this morning we did just that.  It had been raining but God gave us a window of opportunity when the rain stopped and we could go into the back field where we have our pet cemetery.   Chris and I went together, leaving my wife with the toddler, since she has trouble walking on rough terrain and we weren't sure when the rain would start again.

Chris and I dug the hole together, then lined the bottom with dried goldenrod flowers.  We laid Tigger in the grave, wrapped in one of his favorite cat blankets.   Chris is part Cree Indian on his mother's side, and he wanted to follow the Native custom of putting tobacco in the grave, so he did.  This is not my custom, and frankly it's a bit pagan from the Jewish point of view, but when it comes to funerals, I think it's important for the mourners to be able to express grief in ways meaningful to them.  Tigger was as much his cat as mine, maybe more so, since it was Chris' mother who had found him abandoned as a kitten in a gas station parking lot.  They couldn't keep him at the time, so the cat came to live with us, but Chris always looked for him when  he came to visit.

As we filled in the grave, we talked about the Circle of Life, and how everyone eventually dies, to make room for new animals and people.  I told him the story of the Rainbow Bridge, which, although it is a piece of modern poetry and not Scripture per se,  is as good a metaphor as any for animals going to heaven.   Personally, I do believe the souls of our animals will join us in the Next World.  After all, the Jewish metaphor for heaven is the Garden of Eden, and it had animals in it, right?  Perhaps that is where the lion really can lie down with the lamb.

We marked the grave with rocks and I told Chris how, when Jews visit a grave, we leave a small stone in remembrance -- a custom dating all the way back to biblical times.   So the funeral had both Native and Jewish elements, expressing each of our beliefs.  Then the rain started again.  We headed back to feed the chickens, then returned to the house.  We didn't talk much on the way back, but there was a sense of closure and we felt Tigger's soul was at peace. 

Some people may wonder why I didn't have the cat euthanized when it was obvious that he was going downhill.  The answer is the same that I would give for a dying human:  I believe it is better for the soul to transition naturally into the Next World whenever possible.  And yes, I do believe animals have souls, as I have written before on this blog.  Although Tigger had health problems, he was not in serious pain as far as I could tell.  Up until the last day, he responded to being held, purred in happiness when petted, and slept next to me on the couch.  So I felt it better to accept that he was dying, and give him the hospice care he needed for comfort.  It was a good decision -- for all of us.

Tigger (right) and Bugsy, a feline friend
who crossed the Rainbow Bridge in 2009.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Building my own Sukkah from stuff in the woods

Last week I spent three days building my sukkah, the little booth that Jews erect for the Festival Sukkot.   The sukkah has many meanings.  First of all, it reminds us of the days of wandering in the wilderness with Moses.  It also teaches us that this life is a journey through a world that is not permanent.  And it is a celebration of the harvest, the time when we have gathered in our crops and can enjoy the fruits of our labors.

White pine for shchach --
courtesy of road maintenance!
The basic requirements for building a sukkah are simple:  It must have 3 walls, and the shchach (roof covering) must be made of natural materials cut from the earth.  The sides can be made from anything handy, including the wall of an existing building if you build it against the house or other structure.  However, the location must be open to the sky, not under a tree or other obstruction.

Nowadays you can buy prefab sukkah kits made out of plywood or various other materials in a variety of designs.  However, these are rather pricey and way beyond our tight budget.  Besides, my wife and I are getting a bit old to be hauling heavy plywood panels in and out of the shed each year.  So, I called upon my old Boy Scout skills to lash together a framework of saplings that I cut from the woods on my own land. 

I use nylon twine instead of the old sisal kind, because, although it is harder to tie permanent knots with, it does not rot or stretch, although some kinds will degrade in a couple years from exposure to sunlight.  But for a sukkah it's fine.  Through trial and error, I found that tying it off with a square knot, followed by three overhand knots up tight against the first knot, pretty much keeps the ends from untying.

This creates a rather permanent frame that I leave up after the holiday, making repairs each year as needed.  However, last winter the snow was so unusually heavy, it collapsed the whole thing (read that story), so I had to start over from scratch.  But I can't really complain, because the old sukkah frame had lasted over 10 years.  Still, it is a lot of work to drag all those new poles in from the woods.  Not to mention finding appropriate trees in the first place.

Andy Cat, one of my "helpful"
construction workers who loves string!
Luckily, I had a bit of help from a road maintenance crew.  About two  weeks before I began my sukkah-building project, they came through and cut down a bunch of trees and brush along our road for fire control.  This gave me a set of nice straight maple poles -- all the verticals in the new sukkah frame are made from this free material.  I also got a good supply of white pine branches from trees they trimmed that were overhanging the road.  That, plus prunings from my own white pine that had bent down too low to mow under, gave me enough shchach to cover the sukkah.  Not only was this economical, it was also ecological, because I used materials that would otherwise have gone to waste.  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

Here is what the sukkah looked like after I got the basic framework up.  Four cinder blocks help to anchor it in place.   It still needs some more diagonal braces, which I installed after this picture was taken.  (I used a flash at early dawn,  to show up the frame better against the trees in the background.)

Covering the sukkah was a challenge this year, because most of the old sheets and bedspreads I used before were either torn or moldy.  My wife is very allergic to mold, so I had to throw most of it out and start over.   Because Rosh HaShanah had come back-to-back with the Sabbath, and Yom Kippur was on the Sabbath itself this year, I could not take advantage of all those Friday garage sales to find more used cloth.   Not to worry --  I did have a lot of feed sacks and some clear plastic on hand, so I used those instead.  To keep the wind from tearing these rather fragile materials off the frame, I put a strip of corrugated cardboard over the plastic where I was stapling to the wood.   That reinforced it very well.  The cardboard, of course, came from old boxes I got at the grocery.

Here is how the sukkah turned out.  The outside table has a bucket of water for the ritual handwashing, and there is room for more chairs around the card table if needed.  The side table is very handy for setting dishes aside.  Both of the low gray tables, by the way, are ones we already had for flea market sales,  A fourth wall could be added in front, perhaps by hanging a blanket, but that would have prevented me photographing the inside for this blog post.  Besides, we enjoy looking out at the scenery.

Definitely primitive, but functional.  And much closer to what Moses actually used.  He certainly didn't have any plywood on hand.  Then again, he didn't have any plastic, either.  (He probably used animal skins.)   But still, this sukkah did well to evoke the story of wandering in the wilderness.  Spiritually, what I got from this whole project is that we are to bloom where we are planted, and that God will provide for us, be we must also be creative in using what is available.  "Who is rich?  He who is satisfied with his portion!" (Talmud, Pirkei Avot.)  And by the way:  The whole thing only cost me about $15 out of pocket, for the nylon twine and some staples.  Thoreau would have been so proud!

(UPDATE 2012:  This year, the sukkah got an upgrade:  I was able to find enough old sheets at the thrift store to cover it with cloth instead of old feed sacks.  Since we took "salvage" quality rejects, we got enough for the whole sukkah for $5. The schach this year is tall grass and goldrenrod stalks.  My wife added the "woman's touch" with some fall-themed decorations.  It was also her idea to use the flowered sheet for the front -- making it nice and homey-looking.   And BTW, although the frame now leans a bit where it has settled in since last year, it is still good and sturdy, although I did add a few more diagonal braces.)

The sukkah upgraded in 2012
Here's a picture from 2019.  When we put in a ramp a couple years ago, we had to move the sukkah.  The only place near the house not shaded by a tree was farther away, so we set up a row of solar garden lights leading to it, and a solar spotlight inside. Also got a better folding table.

Revised version with solar lights

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Kapparot ritual -- how tradition has become a travesty

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is coming soon, and with it comes the annual culture war over a ceremony called kapparot, in which a chicken is slaughtered just before the holy day.    The PETA and animal rights people will  be shouting "Meat is murder" while the Hasidic Jews who practice this ceremony will shout about antisemitism and accuse the activists of trying to shut down the whole kosher meat industry.  And nobody will really be listening to each other.  As a Hasidic Jew who is also a vegetarian, I understand both sides of the issue, and would like to share some suggestions for better communication.  (For basic background information on the history and meaning of the ceremony itself, see The Custom of Kapparot in the Jewish Tradition , by Dr. Richard Schwartz, Ph.D, and me.)

Respect, not insults, please

First of all, animal rights people, for outsiders to call any traditional culture "barbaric" or "medieval" or "primitive" or whatever never really works.  It only causes the traditionalists to circle the wagons.   And it goes without saying that sending nasty, obscene, anti-Jewish and/or personally insulting messages to various rabbis is not going to win any converts to your cause.  Would you stand outside a Native American (Indian) ceremony and shout about "primitive barbarism" because they wear feathers and furs?  Of course not, that would be "politically incorrect" now, wouldn't it?   So what makes you think it is any better to do it to the Jews?

If you yourself are Jewish but not Hasidic, please try to keep negative stereotypes out of the dialogue.  Even I, who am both a vegetarian and an opponent of using live chickens for kapparot, will get turned off if you start shouting anti-Orthodox epithets at me.  Stick to the specific issue at hand and don't go dragging in feminism, gay marriage, dress codes, Israeli politics, "who is a Jew" or references to the movie Yentl.  In other words, don't use the opportunity to dump on me everything you always wanted to yell at an Orthodox Jew.   I care about the welfare of chickens the same as you do -- even if I do dress funny in your eyes.  (In fact, all the pix in this article are of my own birds on my vegetarian, no-kill farm.)

Both sides would do well to visit the site of the Alliance to End Chickens As Kapporos, an org that has both Jews and Gentiles participating.  However, please be aware that the Alliance is sponsored by United Poultry Concerns, a  radical vegan org run by Karen Davis, who tends to mix in that agenda with the anti-kapporos campaign, to the point of not using any materials (including links to this article) that are not 100% vegan in approach.  In spite of this rather narrow dogmatic viewpoint, the org is doing some good work, and has an excellent set of reference links on their page.  Just remember:  You do NOT have to become a vegan in order to stop using chickens for kapporos!

Ridicule does not work

In a recent dialogue with an animal rights activist, he told me the best way to handle this would be to use rubber chickens to make fun of the ceremony ala Mark Twain, so that it would be rendered ridiculous through satire.  But that is exactly the WRONG way to go about it.  Most Hasidic Jews have probably never read Mark Twain (if they even know who he is) and won't see this as satire, they will see it as "a bunch of ignorant goyim ridiculing the Jews again."  If you really want to change minds and hearts, then you need to educate yourself first.  Learn how to respectfully dialogue from within the context of the culture and maybe, just maybe, they might listen to you.  Keep in mind that for the people practicing kapparot, it is a serious religious ceremony, even if you do not understand it.

Neither does playing the "antisemitism card"

On the other hand, my Hasidic brethren, it is unfair to judge the whole animal rights movement by a few nuts who send nasty messages to your email box.  PETA is not trying to shut down the entire kosher meat industry.  In fact, PETA has affirmed that kosher slaughtering, when done properly, is humane.  Animal scientist Temple Grandin, who has worked with PETA as a consultant on slaughterhouse issues, also affirms this.  The key words are "done properly."  Animal rights activists (including me) see this as referring not only to the moment of slaughter, but also to how the animals are treated before slaughter.  And we should also point out that it is not only secular activists who have concerns about using chickens in modern kapparot ceremonies.  Numerous Orthodox rabbis have also condemned it for various reasons of Jewish law.  (For a partial list of articles, see Orthodox Rabbis rethink chicken kapparot)

 From rural villages to urban communities

In order to have respectful dialogue, both sides need a bit of history first.  In the days when Jews lived in small towns (stetls), the kapparot chicken was a locally-raised bird slaughtered and eaten for the pre-Yom Kippur meal, same as any other chicken dinner.  (Chicken, at that time, was a luxury saved for special occasions like the Sabbath and festivals.)  A person would simply choose a bird from their own flock, or buy it from a neighbor, then walk across the village square, have it slaughtered, and take it home to be cleaned, plucked, and prepared for dinner.   In fact, the Shulchan Arukh (16th-century Code of Jewish law) says not to specifically seek out a white chicken (in reference to Isaiah 1:18, where "though your sins be scarlet,  they shall be white as snow") or pay more for it than usual, because this resembles the superstitions of the pagans (darchei ha-Emori).  Instead, people should use whatever chickens they already have on hand, the same as for any other meal.   This clearly indicates that raising and slaughtering chickens was an ordinary part of everyday life.

A mixed flock of chickens
The problem today is that most Hasidim are living in urban areas where live chickens are a rare sight, period.  The majority of urban Jews (even non-Hasidim) probably never see a live chicken except for this ceremony once a year.  These birds come,  not from local free-run flocks as in the old days, but from commercial factory farms located many miles away.  Nowadays the poor chickens are crammed into tiny cages so tightly they can hardly move, then piled onto open trucks, and driven to town, sometimes for days without any food or water.  In some cases, shopkeepers selling these chickens have left them out in the sun and rain for many days, again without food or water. 

Cruelty to animals is forbidden by Judaism

In Shivchei Ha-Ari, there is a story about Isaac Luria, the 16th-century Jewish mystic, telling a student that he had lost his place in the World to Come for failing to feed and water his chickens properly.  The cries of those suffering chickens were canceling out all the prayers and Torah learning of that student.   This is based on the general principle that one cannot commit a sin -- in this case, cruelty to animals -- in order to do a mitzvah (religious commandment, in this case, studying Torah.)   While Luria did approve of kapparot in his day, I find myself wondering if he would still give his approval under modern conditions.  I suspect not.  Trucking in factory farm chickens and mistreating them along the way nullifies any spiritual value in kapparot, and turns tradition into a travesty.
Humanely holding a chicken

The birds may also suffer while they are being handled for sale or during the ceremony, because many urban Jews are unfamiliar with the proper, humane way to hold a chicken while waiting in line.  Which should be by holding the bird upright, holding the feet to prevent kicking, and supporting the weight of the body -- as I am demonstrating in the photo here.  A chicken should not be held with the wings painfully pinned back, as is done at Rabbi Shea Hecht’s New York Chabad kapparot centers. 

I suspect that Hecht's method has more to do with not getting one's clothes dirty than with the comfort of the chicken.  Imagine somebody holding your arms behind your back and then suspending you by the elbows to get an idea what Hecht's method would feel like.  The feet of a chicken are made to support its weight; the wings are not.  The proper way to hold a chicken is to have the bird upright, holding the feet and tucking the body under the arm to control the wings if flapping is a problem.  

It's waving, not "swinging" a chicken

On the other hand, I must point out to the animal rights people that the chicken is not "swung"or "slugged" over the head (as is often mistranslated on the Internet lately), giving the wrong impression that it is whirled around like a pitcher winding up for a fastball.  Not so.  The chicken is gently waved in a small circle over the head, in imitation of a "wave offering" as was done over the altar in biblical times.  Older pictures and paintings of this ceremony, show the bird being held properly and waved in this way.  Continuing to call it "chicken swinging" for sensationalist purposes only makes you look ignorant and foolish to the people who actually practice this ceremony.  Plus, it might even mislead some Jews to think they are supposed to swing the chicken, which would be doing it wrong.  Again, if you want to change something, get your facts straight first!  (This article continues below the picture.)
This old engraving from the Middle Ages
clearly shows the chickens being held upright by the feet,
not dangled by their wings as some people do today.

Using money instead of chickens

 Using money for the ceremony instead of a live chicken has long been an acceptable substitute, and this is what I do.   So do many other Orthodox Jews.  An amount of money equal to (or better than) the value of the chicken is waved over the head and then donated to charity. 

However, Rabbi Shea Hecht, who is a major promoter of kapparot in the New York City area, doesn't feel he gets enough emotional kick out of using money.   "The main part of the service," he said in a 2009 MPR interview, "is handing the chicken to the slaughterer and watching the chicken being slaughtered.  Because that is where you have an emotional moment, where you say, 'Oops, you know what? That could have been me.' "

Frankly, this statement disturbs me deeply, for the following reason:  What kind of message are we sending to our children about Judaism?  And yes, there are children present at kapparot ceremonies.  Are we telling them, "If you don't behave, you could end up dead like that chicken"?  Are we telling them that Judaism is a religion of fear, that they should live in terror of God slaughtering them like a helpless bird if they step out of line?   Do we want them to harden their hearts against the suffering of animals?  I seem to recall a child abuse case several years ago where a daycare facility made kids watch a rabbit be killed.  How is this any different? 

It is well known than abuse of animals leads to abuse of people.  This was probably not the case with kapparot when raising animals for food was a part of village life, and seeing a chicken slaughtered was nothing out of the ordinary.  But nowadays, it is being done completely out of context, as a strange, scary, bloody ceremony meant to frighten us into obedience.   The majority of modern Hasidim not only do not raise chickens, they rarely keep pets or have any personal contact with animals at all.   Witnessing the slaughter of a kapparot chicken may well be the only contact with animals that these children have all year.  And they are not healthy, happy, beautiful birds like the ones in the pix on this blog.  Very often, they are sickly, scraggly birds with ragged broken feathers, half-starved  from being kept in "battery hen" cages. 

What kind of message does that send to our children?    Certainly it does not teach them that chickens are sentient, feeling beings with a social structure in their flocks, over 40 different calls, and the ability to pass learned behavior down to the next generation of chicks.  Nor does it teach them about the love a mother hen has for her chicks -- an image we sometimes use of God, who shelters us like a mother bird. 

The true means of repentance
The heart of kapparot for me is not slaughtering a bird for the shock value, but in repenting of my sins.  The Yom Kippur liturgy says that "repentance, prayer and charity averts the evil decree," So giving charity can nullify any bad karma coming to me from my wrong deeds.  Not only does killing a chicken not atone for my sins, it would seem that the cruelty involved in this ceremony nowadays compounds the sins I might already have, heaven forbid.

Some Jewish leaders have also felt that people would misunderstand the significance of the ritual. The belief that the ceremony of kapparot can transfer a person's sins to a bird, and that his or her sins would then be completely eradicated, is contrary to Jewish teachings.  For, if the ritual could remove a person's sins, what would be the need for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement?  What would be the need for soul-searching and repentance?  Repentance does not come from abusing and killing a bird, but from a true change of heart. 

This is why, if you still use chickens for this ceremony, I ask you to have a change of heart this year, too.  Use money instead, and don't lose your place in the World to Come because of cruelty to animals.   Show mercy to God's creatures, as God shows mercy to you.  Treat the chickens kindly, and let them live.

See also my one-minute 2013 video, "Kapporos: A Heartfelt Plea For Mercy", produced by the Alliance to End Chickens as Kapporos.

To learn how you can be effective in this campaign, get my new book, just out on June 4:  Kapporos Then and Now: Toward a More Compassionate Tradition available on  Neither a vegetarian manifesto nor a "Torah-True" religious tract, I approach the issue as a combination of theologian, cultural anthropologist, and participatory journalist, offering numerous reasons why using money is a better option today -- but also critiquing both sides for both their strong and weak points.  WARNING:  Whether you are for or against using chickens as Kapporos, this book requires an open mind to read. 

UPDATE 2014:  I have written a one-page handout directed at Hasidim on the issue of not using chicken for kapporos. No, it is not vegan or even vegetarian , but it is not directed at vegetarians, it is intended for Hasidim and argues from within the context of Hasidic thought.  Download the PDF here.   Feel free to print and hand it out, adding your own local contact info at the bottom. 
A free-range rooster named Star takes
a walk on my Minnesota hobby farm.