Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Koko and Appleblossom, my two latest rescue kittens

A couple weeks ago, some cruel, heartless person dumped a box of kittens outside the laundromat in Sandstone, Minnesota (nearest town to where I live).  My daughter-in-law Leona was there and saw the car pull up, throw out the box, and drive away.  She tried to get the license number but it was too dark outside.  (In Minnesota, dumping animals is a crime.  As it should be.  A curse on people who do this cruelty!)

Leona went and got the box, which was fastened shut and moving as the poor cats struggled to get out.  Inside were three kittens -- two grey tabbies about 6 weeks old and an older kitten who looks like a purebred Siamese.   She brought them to me that same night.  All three were cold, thin, sick, and frightened.  It's a mitzvah to help an animal in need, even if it is a stray and even if the suffering is not your fault.  So of course I took them in.

The smallest grey tabby (in the middle of this picture) was just skin and bones and had diarrhea.  In spite of my best efforts, he died two days later.  This is the only picture I have of him, taken the day after the rescue, and you can see how weak and tiny he was.  But at least he had warmth, food, cuddling and love for the last days of his little life.  I had been calling him and his sister "Majnun and Layli" after characters in a Middle Eastern legend, but when Majnun died, it was just too sad to keep calling his sister Layli.   So she became "Appleblossom" after the cat in the book by that name written by Shulamit Levi Oppenheim.  (One of my all-time favorite Jewish children's stories.)

The Siamese we named Koko after the famous cat detective in the "Cat Who" series.  And he certainly does love to snoop around!  Both cats are now doing fine and very bonded to me -- they cuddle when I lie down and sit on my lap whenever they can.  And they come running every time I go in the bathroom, which is where I feed them so the other cats don't take their special kitten food.  It did not take them long to learn where the goodies are!

My other cats have accepted them pretty well, with varying degrees of attention.  Annabelle, who has always been a little grump, growls if they get too close, so she's not too happy about it.  But Sapphire, my old blue-eyed neutered male, licks their faces and cleans them.  Angel Cat doesn't go that far, but she lets them sit next to her.  As for all the others, they seem to just sigh and say, "Here we go again!"

Koko and Appleblossom curled up together.
I'd call this pic "A Tail of Two Kitties!"

Friday, December 5, 2014

Orion launch: One small step toward Mars, one big nostalgic moment for me

This morning I woke up at 5:50 AM, just in time to tune in and watch the launch of the Orion spacecraft at 6:05 (Central time).  This was both a big moment for NASA and a nostagic one for me.  The newscaster said this was the farthest out in space that the USA had sent a spacecraft since the last Apollo mission in 1973.  The thing is, I'm old enough to remember those Apollo flights, as well as the earlier Mercury and Gemini programs.

I grew up in the space era.  The sound barrier was broken by Chuck Jaeger on October 17, 1947, just 13 days before I was born.  (That was also the year of the supposed alien landing at Roswell in July.  It has always been a family joke that I'm weird because I got zapped by an alien mind beam.  I was in my mother's womb in California at the time, so who knows?)

Ten years later, Sputnik orbited the earth.  I can still remember the day that my father showed me the story in the morning paper.  The same paper had times listed for when you could see the tiny satellite cross the sky.  That was a big deal back then, as we went into the backyard to look for that pinpoint of light.

Then the space race was on, and every kid I knew (and a lot of adults, too) were tuned in to the space program.  Like everyone else, I went through a phase of wanting to be an astronaut.  That never happened, but I still fulfill my love of outer space with Star Trek and movies like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13.  (I've lost track of how many times I've watched that movie, but I will say that Gene Kranz's line, "Failure is not an option!" has become a watchword around our house.  It's my favorite movie for how a group of people working together can achieve the seemingly impossible.)

"Earthrise" by Frank Borman
One of the interesting things about space flight back then was that the famous picture of Earth rising over the moon wasn't even on the original agenda.  Until the Apollo 8 astronauts actually saw that from the lunar orbit, nobody had thought to include it in the list of photographic goals because nobody could picture it.  But Frank Borman knew a good picture when he saw one, so he pointed the camera and clicked.  That photo -- as well as many others of the "blue marble" -- has become a universal symbol of the unity we might one day have on our planet.  It was no accident that the first Earth Day happened in April 1970, less than a year after the Apollo moon landing.

I was 22 and living in South Dakota when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969.  People today who claim the moon landing was faked don't know what they are talking about.  Sure, the pix are fuzzy, but that's because the cameras and transmissions back then weren't a good as today.  But for those of us glued to our TV sets during the live transmission, there was no doubt it was real.  Cynics ask who was taking the photos of that first step, but the answer is simple:  The Eagle lander took them, the same as there was a camera on board Orion that took pix of the earth receding as the craft rose into the sky, etc.  No, my conspiracy theory friends, the Apollo moon walk was very real.

Photo of Mars showing a thin atmosphere.
What else will we discover there?
Today's Orion mission was a test flight for new equipment -- including a heat shield and a re-design of the Mercury-type capsule -- that may eventually be used for a trip to Mars.  A lot of people will ask, why go there?  It's so expensive, what do we get from it?

True, it is expensive.  But the technological  advances we got from previous space missions have long since paid for themselves.  One example being those thin, light, but very warm materials we now use for so many things.  (I've got a pair of winter boot liners made of the same stuff as astronaut space suits.)  Learning to put satellites in orbit has given us GPS, cell phones, global communications.  Etc.  And the quest for lighter payloads has given us smaller and smaller electronics.

So who knows what we will learn from the Mars mission?  I say, let's go!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Jewish view of cats

While checking the traffic sources for this blog today, I noticed that somebody got here by searching  for "Jewish view of cats."  That's interesting, I thought to myself.  Is there a "Jewish view" of cats?  Are cats even "Jewish" at all?

Well, as Rabbi Ben Bag Bag said of the Torah 2000 years ago:  "Turn it over and over, for everything is in it" (Pirkei Avot 5:22)  So I decided to do just that -- not just in the literal Torah (Five Books of Moses) but "Torah" in the broader sense, as all of Jewish learning.  Here are a few of the interesting things I found.

Lions and Tigers and Leopards -- Oh My!

The Torah itself does not mention house cats, although it does mention big cats like lions, tigers, and leopards. The Lion is the symbol of the tribe of Judah, lineage of King David.  In Genesis 49:9, Jacob blessed his son Judah with:

Judah is a young lion,  
on prey, my son, have you grown. 
He crounches, lies down like a lion, 
like the King of Beasts -- who dares arouse him?

the Lion of Judah
on the symbol of  Jerusalem
This verse, by the way, is how the idea of the lion as "King of Beasts" entered the English language.  Not only Jews but many other ancient peoples as well associated lions with royalty -- and many still do.

Lions also appear in Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly beings attending God’s Presence.  To this day, lions are used in Jewish art and heraldry to represent the Jewish people.  The Hebrew for lion is Aryeh, which is also a common given name for Jewish men.

Leopards are mentioned in six places in Scripture: Song of Songs 4:8; Isaiah 11:6; Jeremiah 5:6; 13:23; Daniel 7:6; Hosea 13:7.  Tigers are mentioned only once -- in  Job 4:11.

No house cats in the Hebrew Scriptures

Sand Cat
But what about those cuddly purrballs we keep as pets nowadays?  My guess is that Jews first encountered small cats in Egypt, perhaps during the time of Joseph or Moses.  It is known that cats were already domesticated in the Middle East at that time.  When I was in Berlin in 1997 I visited the zoo there and saw Egyptian Sand Cats, an endangered species that look pretty much like ordinary tabbies.  I can easily imagine them as the ancestors of my own feline companions.

Then why are no cats mentioned in the Bible?  One theory is that, because cats were worshiped as gods by the Egyptians, they were purposely left out by Jewish writers because they were seen as idols.  But that doesn't make any sense, because the Egyptians worshiped a lot of other animals and birds that are mentioned.  So this remains a mystery.

But in the Talmud -- yes!

By the time we get to the Talmud (Greco-Roman period) there is mention of house cats who are honored as teachers of virtue.  We are told that if God had not given us the Torah, then we would have learned modesty from the cat.  (Eruvin 100b)  This is probably the most-often-quoted Jewish reference to cats -- and it is very positive.  Rashi, a major 9th-century commentator, interprets the cat's "modesty" as referring to her habit of burying her feces.  But other interpretations also exist, so feel free to develop your own.  For myself, I think her "modesty" is the reserved habit cats have of sitting back and observing things first.  They certainly don't come pouncing on strangers like some dogs do!

On the other hand, cats were believed to have bad memories because they ate mice!   In Tractate Horiot we read:

"The disciples of Rabbi Elazar ben Zadok asked: Why does the dog know his master, and the cat does not? and his answer was:  It is certain that he who eats from what is left by a mouse is apt to have a poor memory, so much the more so the cat that himself consumes the mouse."

Frankly, this is not all that "certain" nowadays, when we have a much better understanding of brain function.  It's just a silly superstition.  The same tractate also says you can lose your memory by eating the leftovers of the cats' food.  (Yuck!  Was it even kosher?  Not the mice, certainly.  Maybe it means kosher food nibbled by a cat?)  And yet, I did once hear a Jewish boy tell his younger brother not to pet the cat before he went to school or he would flunk his math test.  So it lives on as a superstition among children.

At any rate, we are not required to believe this.  In the 12th century, Maimonides, a major Jewish scholar who was also a physician, stated that when it came to science and medicine, the sages of old were limited in their knowledge to what was commonly known, and did not speak with "prophetic voice."  (Guide for the Perplexed.  See also my previous article, Voting for Darwin, Evolution, and Modern Science)

As for a cat "knowing her master," they certainly do recognize their human companions.  But unlike dogs, cats don't obey commands very well -- as any cat owner can tell you.  So there is some truth in the idea that they do not know or obey a "master" -- but eating mice doesn't cause it.  A cat is simply made differently than a dog.  (Note: Some older translations rendered it as a cat "not knowing God" instead of "master" -- probably because God is "master of the universe"  (Ribbono shel Olam) but that makes no sense.  Why would a dog obey God but a cat not?  Both are God's creations.)

Black cats, witches, and Jews

This is Nightshade, a black cat who lived with us
until she passed away in 2013.  She crossed my path
every day with no ill effects LOL!
Many cultures have superstitions about cats, such as, "If a black cat crosses your path, it brings bad luck." Judaism forbids such beliefs because it violates the prohibition against looking for omens (Leviticus 19:26).  As Jewish comedian Groucho Marx once said, "If a black cat crosses your path, it means the animal is going somewhere."

During the Middle Ages, when Christians were seeing cats as the familar spirits of witches, Jews were much more practical.  I remember reading somewhere that the reason Europeans were so superstitious about cats was because cats were not native to that part of the world, so they were seen as something strange and threatening.  Well, if Jews had already encountered cats in ancient Egypt, maybe that is why we were not superstitious about them.  Cats were sometimes reviled for eating baby chicks, but they were not seen as anything but cats.  (Even today I keep my mother hens with new chicks in big cages until the chicks are older.  A cat is a cat is a cat...)

So, in contrast to medieval Christians who were killing all the cats as demons, Jews kept them around to hunt rodents and protect the holy books from mice.  To this day, Torah scrolls are made of parchment, and books back then were all bound in leather with glues made from animal hides, which made them very tempting for rodents to chew.  So it was common to have a shul katze (synagogue cat) to protect the congregation's library.

The Shulchan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law) does say that one may kill an "evil cat" if it harms children.  This is not about cats-as-demons, though.  An "evil cat" (khatul ra) would presumably be a vicious feral cat, or maybe a rabid one.  In general, Jewish Law forbids keeping any animal that is dangerous, and Talmudic references to "evil dogs" are all about dogs that bite or attack.  So there is no injunction to get rid of cats in general as "evil."  Among the medieval Jews, they flourished.

The ancient Jewish text, Perek Shirah  (The Song of the Universe), in which everything in Creation is singing a song to God, includes both lions and house cats. The cat is portrayed as singing, "I pursued my foes and overtook them, and did not return until they were destroyed" (Psalm 18:38.)  Which is a pretty good description of a stalking cat.   Perek Shirah fell out of use in modern times, but has recently been re-discovered by Jewish environmentalists and ecology groups.  It is also popular among Breslover Hasidim, because it was a favorite of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

Keeping cats helped control the rats that carried the Black Plague, so the Jewish communities of Europe were not as badly devastated as the Christian communities.  (In addition, Jews do not eat rats, but in medieval times the gentiles often did.)  Unfortunately, since nobody back then knew how the Plague was spread, this difference just reinforced the idea that Jews were witches with demon cats who had brought the Plague as a curse on the Christians -- resulting in a lot of innocent Jews and cats being cruelly put to death.

Jews and cats in modern times

A lot of Jews nowadays have cats.  Generally speaking, Jewish attitudes toward cats are more positive than toward dogs.    Among Orthodox Jews, cats are more common than dogs because there is a cultural phobia about dogs, based on bad experiences in past history, when dogs were used to track down and attack Jews.  I have been told by elderly Jews from Eastern Europe that the first thing they heard before a pogrom (attack on the Jewish community) was the dogs howling in the distance before the peasants with pitchforks showed up to sack the town.  So dogs barking is a scary sound to a lot of Jews.  Nazis also used dogs to track and attack Jews.  So although non-Orthodox Jews often have dogs, they are not very common among more traditional communities. (However, I do have three of them along with my eight cats.)

Unfortunately, Israel is overrun with feral cats.  Legend has it that the British introduced cats into Palestine to control rats.  I do wonder about this story -- why would the British have had to introduce them, since cats are mentioned in the Talmud, indicating they were around already in ancient times?  Were they later killed off as demons by the Christian Crusaders?  Who knows?   At any rate, they did their job of rat control but the cat population has now exploded.  There is a Jewish  organization, Concern for Helping Animals in Israel (C.H.A.I.) that offers spay-neuter services and education.  It was founded by an American Jew, Nina Natelson, who was appalled by all the hungry stray cats she saw in Jerusalem and wanted to do something about it.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe and animal toys

Yes, the giraffe is kosher, but Jews don't
eats giraffe meat, because it is not known
where on the neck to make the cut
to slaughter it. Which is just as well.
The Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson (d. 1994), leader of Chabad Hasidism, was opposed to Jewish children playing with toys or pictures in the shape of non-kosher species of animals.  (A cat is not kosher.)  He wrote: "Because what one sees leaves lasting impressions, especially on young children, the toys that a child plays with, and the pictures that he looks at, should not be of impure animals."

"Impure" (tameh) meaning animals that could not be eaten in a kosher home and/or offered as sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple.  He believed that playing with such toys would somehow damage the child's innocent soul, or lead him/her to idolatry.  (By worshiping animals?)

The objection was triggered originally by a cartoon mouse named Mendel (in a popular Jewish children's magazine called Olomeinu, "Our World"that the Rebbe found offensive because it personified a mouse  -- an animal he saw as "unclean" -- as a Jew (read more...)   In general, he objected to cartoons and books that personified animals in human roles.

Mendel the Mouse
The Rebbe expanded his ruling to include all non-kosher species (unless directly connected to illustrating Torah texts) and it became a general prohibition among his followers that continues to this day.  Unfortunately, this includes cartoon cats like Garfield and Daniel Tiger, as well as stuffed animals like teddy bears and other animal-shaped toys,  Some people take this idea about "seeing" non-kosher animals to extremes and won't even visit the zoo. 

This is an unfortunately narrow view of nature, but it is not mainstream Judaism!  It is not even typical Orthodox Judaism.  Breslover Hasidim, who are more in tune with God's creation than Lubavitchers, have no such prohibition.  Neither do other branches of Judaism. (See In defense of unkosher animal toys, San Diego Jewish Press, January 8, 2012.)  Personally, I think it has produced a whole generation of Chabad Jews with a serious case of "nature deficit disorder" (read my blog post on that.)  If you can't learn about the different kinds of animals in our world, how can you appreciate God's creation?

Cats in Jewish children's books

Cats do appear in Jewish children's literature, such as the award-winning book, Mrs. Katz and Tush by Patricia Polacco, featured on "Reading Rainbow."  It's about an elderly Jewish woman who is given a kitten by an African American boy named Larnel who lives in her building.  The cat has no tail, so she names her Tush ("bottom").  Caring for the cat together, the woman and boy become good friends, and find common themes in their two cultures.  When Tush gets out of the house one day, the whole neighborhood helps look for her.  She is found and returned -- and eventually has kittens, making Mrs. Katz a happy "Bubbe" (grandmother in Yiddish.).

My all-time favorite Jewish cat book is Appleblossom by Shulamith Levey Oppenheim.  In this delightful tale, an eight-year-old boy named Naftali and  his mother want a cat but his father does not -- and Papa's decision rules.  Well, not really.  The boy meets a stray female cat and names her Appleblossom.  The cat talks to the boy (and who is to say not?  After all, King Solomon is said to have understood the language of animals), and she wants very much to be his cat.  So together they plan, and Appleblossom comes up with a clever way to wins the heart of Papa on the eve of Passover.  A great classic that should be in every cat lover's library.

*  *  *


How did I miss this one?  A well-known Mishnah exhorts us to "be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven." (Pirkei Avot 5:23).  That is certainly a positive use of big cat metaphors for how to serve God! 

*  *  *

Regarding the name Aryeh (Lion) the diminutive is Ari.  There was a great Torah scholar and mystic known as the "Holy Ari"  (Holy Lion) -- Rabbi Isaac Luria (16th century.)  His philosophical system is the basis for Lurianic kabbalah, a major form of Jewish mysticism that strongly influenced Hasidism.

*  *  *

Regarding Mendel the Mouse (discussed above), I suppose the Lubavitcher Rebbe would also have objected to the award-winning graphic novel, Maus by Art Spiegelman, where Jews during the Holocaust are portrayed as mice and the Nazis are cats.  I have never read anywhere that the Rebbe was familiar with this book, and since it appeared only shortly before the Rebbe had a debilitating stroke in March of 1992, I rather doubt he read it.  But it does seem to fall into the parameters of the Chabad prohibition.

Still, it is another example of cats used as metaphors in a Jewish context -- this time negatively -- so it deserves a mention here.  However, this is not really a commentary on the nature of cats per se.   Spiegelman used these animal metaphors to emphasize the predator-prey relationship between  Germans and Jews during the Nazi regime.  This is a common technique in political cartooning.  Maus has proven to be an excellent educational tool about the Holocaust for young people, and is often used in schools, both Jewish and not.

*  *  *

"Der Furrer" -- a kitler
owned by Sandy Weinberg
And speaking of Nazis, Adolf Hitler absolutely hated cats.  I'm pretty sure the feeling was mutual; cats have better taste when it comes to trusting humans.  

On the other hand, there is a weird website called Cats that look like Hitler with pictures of, well, cats that supposedly look like Hitler -- called "kitlers."  Perhaps the greatest irony of all:  a hated dictator is now being parodied by the very animals he would have hated in real life.  And parody, as we all know, is a very Jewish form of humor!

So nu -- are these cats reincarnations of  Jewish comedians?  Even in his lifetime, Hitler was lampooned and ridiculed on stage.  So much so, that one of the first things he did when he came to power was to shut down all the cabarets.  What a sourpuss.  So maybe the cats are finally getting the last laugh.

I care for a cat colony on my hobby farm.  People keep dumping them in the woods, and when they show up, I spay/neuter and vaccinate them.  This gets expensive on my limited income, so of you would like to help, go to: 


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. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Karen Davis, anti-kapporos activist, misses the mark on Jewish theology

For the past few years I have been a part of The Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos, (hereafter referred to as "the Alliance"), a protest group headed by animal rights activist Karen Davis, campaigning to end the use of live chickens in a pre-Yom Kippur Jewish atonement ceremony practiced by some groups of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews.  (Read more on that...)  I advocate using the alternative, fully acceptable by Jewish law, to use money for the ceremony instead, then donating it to charity.

Anti-kapporos protest on Brooklyn Parkway, 2014.
Karen Davis is in the center holding a chicken.
(Photo by Matthew Taub)
I was among the early founders of the Alliance org -- I even helped think up the name.  In 2013, I narrated a one-minute slide show for them called A Heartfelt Plea for Mercy, and provided text and images for some of their protest posters.  (Including the one with the mother hen and chicks in this photo.)  I do not deny or retract those things, because I still believe in everything I said back then.

However, this past year [2014] before Yom Kippur, I found it necessary to distance myself from Davis' campaign.  This article explains why.

Let me be very, very clear that I still oppose using chickens as kapporos and will continue to do so.  But I have come to believe that Karen Davis -- who is not Jewish and does not understand Judaism or Jewish culture -- is the wrong person to be leading a campaign about an Orthodox Jewish ceremony.  Especially since she draws wrong conclusions about Hasidic beliefs and refuses to listen to real Hasidim -- like me -- who try to correct her.

I do recognize that Davis has done a lot of very good work for sensitizing the public to the suffering and exploitation of chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys and other domestic fowl.  If she would just stick to science and secular animal issues, everything would be fine.  But when it comes to Jewish theology -- which she confuses with Christian thought (more on that below) -- she is like a runaway tank in a minefield.  And this year, it all blew up in my face.

Preaching to the vegan choir?

Karen Davis is a vegan.  A very radical vegan.  To her, veganism is not just a diet, not just a personal lifestyle choice -- it's a religion, complete with dogmas, taboos, and its own special terminology.

Although there is no mention of veganism on the Alliance website, the group is in fact a vegans-only club, rejecting any argument that is not 100% vegan in content.  Although nobody ever insisted I had to become a vegan (I am an ovo-lacto vegetarian, eating only eggs from my own chickens), neither would they listen to any viewpoint that was not vegan.  Over the past three years Davis, who runs the group with an iron fist, has refused to use or forward links to any of my articles on this blog that even mentioned  slaughter.  Not even if such articles were effective within the Hasidic community.  Davis, it seems, prefers preaching to the vegan choir rather than preaching to the people who actually do this ceremony.

The problem with this approach is that the vast majority of Hasidim are not vegetarians, let alone vegans, and the idea of mixing this issue with veganism is counterproductive.  If you use this "all-or-nothing" approach, most Hasidim will chose "nothing."  Going vegan means a lot more in Judaism than just giving up meat, because so many traditional Jewish foods and holy days center around meat.  It can be exceedingly disruptive to a family to go vegan cold turkey (pardon the expression.)  .

On the other hand, if you can start with simply giving up using a live chicken and substituting money for kapporos, this is not so threatening.  And it can be one step toward vegetarianism in the future.  I have seen it happen.  In fact, this has long been a Hasidic method of bringing Jews back to Torah observances:  Start with a few practices, rather than hit people with all of it at once.

When I first joined the Alliance, on the recommendation of Richard H. Schwartz, then president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America  (JVNA), I had no idea that veganism would be the litmus test for whether or not an argument could be used.  Since this was a specifically Jewish issue, I naturally assumed the keystone would be Judaism.

I had worked with Schwartz before and, although he himself is a vegan, he does not insist that this is the only way to present animal issues to Jews.  In his now-classic book, Judaism and Vegetarianism, he covers many different philosophical approaches -- from health to theology to world hunger -- as to why a person should give up meat.  And he considers them all valid.  He does not condemn Judaism for permitting meat, nor does he villify the rabbis and sages who ate it in the past.  He simply argues that in today's modern world, vegetarianism -- or even veganism -- is the best way to keep kosher.

So I naively assumed that we, in the Alliance, would take a similar approach, arguing from within the multi-faceted aspects of the Jewish worldview.  But I was wrong.

Inadvertently arousing antisemitism

I also assumed -- wrongly -- that Davis was Jewish, because "Davis" is a common Jewish surname.  Only later did I learn she is not.  This is not to say that a non-Jew cannot work on this issue, but I do feel that he or she should take the advice of those who are Jewish and who know the culture from within.  Which Davis does not.  To her, veganism is a religion, complete with dogmas she will not violate.  One of those dogmas is that you should never, ever appear to allow slaughtering anything for any reason.  You cannot ever believe that any kind of slaughter could be humane, or you become a heretic.  And that includes kosher slaughtering.  Even PETA does not go as far as Davis does.

The result is, that Davis has said and written some gross misinformation about Hasidism that has aroused antisemitism, even if that was not her intent.  I do believe her when she says she is not an antisemite and is just concerned with the abuse of animals by anybody anywhere.  But she is cluelessly naive about how her words can be twisted by those who are Jew-haters.  Targeting kapporos is not the same as protesting outside McDonalds.  Kapporos is a Jewish ceremony, practiced in some communities of Orthodox Jews who are already seen as highly visible "outsiders" by many Americans.  Unless handled with care and respect, the issue can spill over into hatred against all Jews -- which, in some cases, it has.

My attempts to educate Davis and the protesters

Early on, I raised the point that Davis was doing nothing to educate the protesters about the positive things in Hasidic culture, and that if their only contact with Hasidim was to show up once a year and yell "meat is murder" at the kapporos centers, then she was arousing hatred toward Hasidim in general.  She replied in an email that she was not the one abusing chickens, so I should direct my anger at the Hasidim, not the protesters.  She took absolutely no responsibility for the numerous vicious, antisemitic remarks coming from the vegan community in support of her cause.

We may all look alike to you,
but we do not THINK alike.
I am not the face of the enemy
Davis herself is not an antisemite, but a lot of her readers sure are.  The first time I visited the Alliance Facebook page I got flamed as "the enemy" based on my profile picture.  To her credit, pagemaster Rina Deych removed the offending comments and added to the "About Us" page a statement that the Alliance is against the ceremony only, not Hasidic culture in general.  But the fact that this happened at all was disconcerting, to say the least.  Apparently they saw only the clothes and not the face on the posters they were carrying.  If this happened with a member of any other group it would be blatant racism.

When I suggested we write some educational materials to send to protest organizers before the next year's events, she showed no interest.  So I took it upon myself to write a series of articles on my blog, as well as post a download link to Richard Schwartz's interview with me, Raising Holy Sparks: Hasidism and Vegetarianism, included in his 2012 book, Who Stole My Religion: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet.  (Visit the book homepage.)

Davis' response was to write off the whole "Raising Sparks" thing as "a solipsistic conceit" (her words.)   It wasn't vegan, so it wasn't valid, period.  She even refused to forward the link to my 2013 article, Kapporos chickens don't sing! to activist Rina Deych, who told the story that inspired the article in the first place.  (However, to be fair, it does appear that other activists read the article and understood it, as witnessed by this poster in the 2014 protests.)

Whenever I posted a new article, Davis's only response would be to nitpick why it was not vegan enough.  When she viewed my 14-minute video on Raising Sparks and why I believe it leads to vegetarianism, she asked if she could use just the "Forward to Eden" part at the end and cut out the rest.  Which of course would have gutted the whole thing, so I refused.

The one exception to all this was Kapporos protests: What works and what doesn't, where I carefully danced around the vegan issue in order to get it past the Davis censorship.  That one she did link to, but not any of the materials that attempted to educate the protesters about Hasidic theology.

The last straw

The last straw for me came in August 2014, when I designed a flyer specifically directed at Hasidim, speaking from within that worldview. (View and/or download it here).  Davis would not use it because I had told the story of how the Baal Shem Tov used to cry when he had to slaughter an animal.  She accused me of "pulling a knife" (her words) on her for even mentioning slaughter in the same sentence as "compassion" and stated that the Baal Shem Tov could not have possibly have had any compassion if he was willing to slaughter at all.

She thereby wrote off the founder of Hasidim and with it, the entire culture and worldview.  (Not to mention that she also, by this argument, would write off Jesus as having no compassion, since he also ate meat.  So did Francis of Assisi, the Roman Catholic patron saint of animals.)

Davis kept citing the Mission Statement of her org, United Poultry Concerns which funds the Alliance.  That Statement reads: ""Promoting the Compassionate and Respectful Treatment of Domestic Fowl."  It was then that I realized that "compassion" is a code word for "vegan."  She could not say the Baal Shem Tov has compassion when he slaughtered because compassion, to her, means no slaughtering, period,.  And, I suppose, one cannot be "respectful" in her eyes if one is not vegan, either.  Her "About us" page says "We inform people about and actively promote alternatives."  But in reality "alternatives" is not really a plural.  Veganism is the Only Way

Comparing the Holocaust and 9/11 victims to chicken slaughter

The problem is, Davis sees any use of animals as "exploitation" and cruelty.  There are no degrees of difference in her mind between a Native American who prays for the soul of the animal he kills, reverently thanking it for giving its life so the people may live, and a psychopath who abuses animals for personal pleasure.  Beyond that, she sees no difference between animals and humans, and has compared factory farms to the Holocaust, as well as stating that the people who died in the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers did not suffer any more than chickens in the meat industry.  On a physiological level that may be true -- pain is pain -- but it shows a terrible disregard for human feelings to say that the life of a child in a daycare center was worth no more than that of a chicken.  Talk about lack of compassion!

Inadvertently (?) citing gnostic canards about Judaism

It became obvious to me that because Judaism permits eating meat, Davis feels this invalidates everything else.  At one point she told me to "get in touch with the God of Genesis" -- in opposition to the God who permits slaughter.  I doubt she realizes that she had just invoked a very antisemitic gnostic Christian belief from the Middle Ages, namely, that the "real" God of compassion who made the universe was not the "God of the Jews."  Davis is not sophisticated enough in theology to realize -- or even recognize -- the pitfalls of this type of thinking.  I doubt she would actually call Jews "children of Satan" or burn them at the stake as witches like the medieval Christians did.  But as I said before, when it comes to theology, she is a runaway tank in a minefield.

Davis confuses Jewish and Christian theology about Atonement

More recently, she has taken to stating that Jews are purposely "punishing" the chickens as "objects" and that "abuse" is part of the ceremony.  She is basing this on references she found where kapporos is compared to the biblical scapegoat.  She wrongly assumes that means it takes on all the suffering of the practitioner on a physical level.  In October 2014 she was quoted as saying, referring to kapporos chickens:  “They’re treated like what they are intended to be in the ritual, punished objects,  The only role of the chicken in the ritual is to be a symbolic recipient of the sins or wrongdoings and the punishment of the practitioner, to be mistreated, to be punished.”
Mistreating chickens like this is NOT part of
the ceremony, nor is it "punishment."  It is
a by-product of the modern secular meat industry.

Yes, it is true that the chickens suffer terribly when being trucked in without food or water, then stacked in piles of little cages -- again without food or water -- for days.  But this mishandling is not part of the ceremony!  All that is required is to say the blessing and slaughter the bird, period.  Even if is done with the most gentle care, with a healthy. well-cared-for, free-range bird handled properly, it is still kapporos -- and that is what it used to be before modernization.

There is NO requirement for the bird to tortured or "be punished."  There is NO requirement for the birds to mishandled, starved, etc. -- in fact, those are things that invalidate the ceremony, which is why rabbis who oppose it will focus on the cruelty of the pre-slaughter suffering.  Everything that happens before the actual saying of the blessing is NOT part of the ceremony.  To the contrary.  The cruelty in transporting and handling the chickens under modern conditions is frequently cited as an argument against using live chickens, based on the prohibition against cruelty to animals in Jewish law.  I myself have argued that the modern cruelty of mass production cancels out any value the ceremony once had in the past -- as I explained in my 2014 article, The Baal Shem Tov did it with a chicken, so why are you telling me not to?

Because the article quoting Davis was in The American Free Press, a white supremacist pub, I thought maybe she had been misquoted, or that the interviewer had distorted her words.  So I queried her.  It took almost a month for her to reply, but she did eventually say that she had no idea of the nature of this pub at the time (which I do believe, since their title is deceivingly innocuous) and was sorry she had give them an interview.  But she did not deny the statement about punishment.  On the contrary. she defended it and referred me back to a book she had previously quoted to me in an email, where the kapporos chicken is compared to the biblical scapegoat.  (Davis thinks I do not know my own theology and is forever trying to "correct me.")

Judaism and Christianity read biblical texts very differently!

However, once again, she misunderstood the reference, because she insists on equating "atonement" with "punishment."  Davis, who, I remind you once again, is not Jewish, simply cannot comprehend that the word "sacrifice" means one thing in Christianity and another thing in Judaism.  This is a common problem in general with Bible studies, where the issue is not only translation itself, but also the nuances of words in the different cultures.  The most common example being "eye for an eye," which, in the Christian world means tit-for-tat revenge, but in Jewish law means monetary compensation for the loss of the eye -- a very big difference!   In the same way, the words "sacrifice" and "atonement" have very different meanings in Judaism and Christianity.

The words translated as "sacrifice" also have different roots in Hebrew and Greek, a detail I won't go into here.  Suffice it to say, the scapegoat was not tortured, because it had to be a perfect specimen without any blemishes.  It was not even slaughtered.  Sins were symbolically placed on its head, but only by a laying on of the High Priest's hands.  Then it was sent off alive into the wilderness.  A second goat was slaughtered, but that was not the scapegoat.  And it was not tortured, either.

Once again:  All biblical sacrifices had to be perfect unblemished specimens (Leviticus 22), which means they must have been well-treated before being brought to the Temple in Jerusalem.  There was nothing in biblical times that even comes near to the horrors of today's factory farms.

Atonement does not mean torture

Yes, some people do see kapporos as an atonement sacrifice -- but in Judaism, that does NOT mean hours of torture.  This is not like Jesus on the Cross, where suffering in agony is part of the "sacrifice."  There is nothing in Judaism even remotely resembling Mel Gibson's R-rated film, Passion of the Christ.  And just because money -- which is an "object" -- can be substituted for a chicken does not mean the chicken is also a mere "object."  The bird can be redeemed -- ransomed -- with money, but that does not imply that the chicken is the same thing as money.

The Jews doing this ceremony do not wake up in the morning and say, "I'm going to go torture a chicken today so I can get rid of my sins."  Yes, some people do see the chicken as a substitute for their own death (which is theologically wrong but people believe it anyway).  And yes, some people do believe the chicken's soul benefits spiritually from this through helping to "raise the Holy Sparks," as I have written about.  But that does NOT mean they believe the chickens have to suffer or be punished.

But again, all my attempts to try to explain these things to Davis have fallen on deaf ears, and she continues to say this thing about Jews "punishing" the chickens.  Her mind is made up and she does not want to be confused by the facts.  More recently she has also claimed (in the American Free Press interview I mentioned earlier) that the whole thing is just made up "in the guise of religion" and the real purpose is for the rabbis to make a lot of money -- also wrong, but analyzing that charge will have to wait until another article, as this one is getting overly long.

Conclusion:  The difference between me and Davis

In conclusion, I will say that the big difference between me and Karen Davis is this: I protest out of love for my fellow Hasidim, seeking to lead them toward a more gentle way of life from within the Hasidic worldview.  I understand that these communities see themselves as the last remnants of a culture destroyed by the Holocaust, and that any change in religious practice can be seen as a betrayal of their martyred ancestors.  I respect that, and try to find arguments from within the tradition.

And I have had some success in this.  Right before Rosh Hashanah this year, a Chabad Hasid called from California to thank me for putting my materials online.  He had first found my videos on YouTube, then spent three hours reading this blog.  The result?  He said it "changed his thinking."  He also said the materials he found on on PETA, The Alliance, and other sites dd not move him because it was "all politics."  I was the only one he had found who came at it from the stand point of Jewish spirituality.

Davis should take a clue from this and similar stories.  But she cannot, because she has imprisoned her mind in the narrow vegan worldview.  She has no respect for Hasidim because they eat meat, and she comes at the issue filled with anger and rage.  She insists on projecting her own biases onto somebody else's culture.  As any anthropologist will tell you, that's a great big no-no.  To understand a culture, and to meaningfully dialogue with members of that culture, you need to be willing to see things from their point of view.  Davis is incapable of doing this.  Her  agenda is to make everyone vegans and, judging from the articles she has published,  she has no real respect for any other viewpoint.  Which makes her  very ineffective.

Not long ago another Chabad Hasid called me from Boro Park, NY, asking about my stance against kapporos.  We dialogued on the "Holy Sparks" doctrine and although we disagreed on how to interpret it, the conversation was mutually respectful.  During the course of the debate he asked me point blank if I thought the protests had ever convinced anybody not to use chickens as kapporos.  And I honestly had to say no, they have not.  I cannot think of a single instance where shouting "meat is murder" has changed anybody's mind in the Hasidic world.  On his end, he told me that nobody in his New York neighborhood takes the protests seriously, either.

The Alliance gets a lot of press, but has no real effect on Hasidim. It has become simply an annoyance to put up with -- one of many for a people who get harassed on the streets every day.  If anything, the disrespect of many protesters has caused the community to "circle the wagons" and hold on tighter to the tradition.  In the end, neither side is really listening to the other.

*  *  *

ADDENDA, added November 14, 2014 

Here is yet another place where she insisted on including the shipping of the chickens as part of the ritual.  This is from a mailing she did to her own org, United Poultry Concerns back in September 2006.  So this is not a one-time blooper on her part, it is a pattern of distortion she insists upon.   She stated:  "Kapparot includes the pre-ritual cruelty to the chickens, who are forced to sit crammed together in their own excrement for days without food, water or shelter awaiting their terrible death."

NO, as I explained above, kapparot as such does NOT include any "pre-ritual cruelty."  There is no requirement to "force" chickens to "sit in their own excrement," etc.  In the past, there were no factory farm cages, no open trucks, no sitting for days in warehouses.  As I explained in The Kapparot Ritual: how tradition has become a travesty, things were very different in pre-Holocaust Europe, where Jews lived is small villages and chickens were all locally raised free-range.  The problem today is urbanization, where people do not raise their own chickens and must truck them in from miles away.

To repeat:  NOTHING that happens before the blessing is said is required as part of the ritual, period.   Everything before that is secular and has no bearing at all on the ritual itself. 

Yes, cruelty happens nowadays in transit, because that is how ALL chickens are shipped and handled in the meat industry. The Jews are no worse than anybody else in this.  Yes, it is terrible.  Yes, it is cruelty for anybody to do that to a chicken, including those who slaughtered the secular meat sitting on your own plate.  But it is NOT part of the ceremony,  It is not "Jewish."  And it is NOT required that the birds be "punished" by starving them in cramped cages for days.

Granted, this was written in 2006 before I became involved with her, so maybe she was ignorant back then?  Maybe.  But since she said it again in 2014 (as cited in the article above), she has not become any more educated on the topic.  She certainly has not listened to me or anybody else.  

ADDENDA #2, added January 4, 2015

After writing this article, I found this by Davis in another interview from 2014  where she reveals that not only does she twist and misinterpret the ceremony, she has no respect for Hasidim in general:

Davis:  Rabbi Shea Hecht of the Lubavitch community, whose father began trucking chickens to Crown Heights, Brooklyn in 1974 and whose family is regarded as the leading cause of the growth of using chickens for Kapparot in the U.S., told NPR in this September 2009 report:

“The main part of the service,” he says, “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.’”

Now, it is true that Rabbi Hecht said this on NPR, in answer to why he does not use money instead.  However, what he meant -- and what it has always meant -- is that the death of the chicken should remind us of our own mortality -- that's the "emotional moment."  But she interprets it to mean something it has never meant in Judaism,   Once again, she projects her own vegan values on another culture.  She goes on to say:

In short, Rabbi Hecht, and probably many (though not all) other Kapparot practitioners who use chickens, enjoy the experience of making and watching a helpless creature suffer and die “for them” (be punished in their stead for their sins). They like the control and are gratified by the pain and suffering they can inflict with impunity in the guise of religion. Obviously it is not necessary to cause needless suffering and death in order to improve yourself — just the opposite.

There is NOTHING in Hasidism about "enjoying" the suffering or being "gratified by the pain and suffering" and it is not done in the "guise" of religion.   Those who do it are sincere and do regard it as a form of worship.  Yes, there are differences of opinion about the validity of the ritual BUT this is true of just about everything in Judaism.  Rarely do Jews speak in one voice.  And just because one group rejects something does not mean it is invalid for everyone.

But this is not the end of it her diatribe.  It gets worse:

INTERVIEWER: Why don’t they just use bags of coins instead of the chickens?

DAVIS: As I just mentioned in the example of Rabbi Hecht, many Hasidic rabbis insist on swinging and slaughtering chickens for Kapparot instead of swinging bags of coins for symbolic atonement and charity: there is a liking for the slaughter, the power, the blood. As human psychology, it is about the desire to have an innocent victim (Lamb of God, Scapegoat, Jesus Christ, Thanksgiving Turkeys, Experimental Animals, Young Boys sent to war to be slaughtered) suffer and die for oneself/community/nation/society. It’s about the age-old system of belief in cleansing/purifying/expiating sins, vices and diseases by transferring them to an innocent victim or class of victims.

So here she actually says what I have deduced all along:  She is indeed confusing it with Jesus on the Cross, as I discussed above.  And this bit about the "liking for the slaughter, the power, the blood" is, again, NOT part of Judaism.  It is HER projection, her prejudice against anyone who eats meat, religious or not, whether in the present or in all past centuries.

When asked if all Jews do this, she says most are Hasidim but also some are "Conservative and Modern Orthodox."  I have never heard of any Conservative synagogue advocating kapporos with chickens -- most don't even do it with money.  Nor do most Modern Orthodox do it that way, if at all.  Where she gets this idea, I do not know.  Maybe she confusing Modern Orthodox with Haredim (who do use chickens)?  What I do know is that she is abysmally ignorant about the different kinds of Jews.  She often relies on third-hand information from books or uniformed non-religious token Jews in the vegan world.  Just because someone is born Jewish does not mean they know what they are talking about.

She then goes on to disparage not only the ritual, but all of the Hasidic community:

In addition, Hasidic communities/members will rarely depart from/defy what their specific rabbis tell them to do. Even if a member personally winces or objects, he or she won’t speak up publicly. These communities live strictly defined lives like the Amish, Jehovah Witnesses, and other extremely insular groups. Women are not respected as persons in their own right. Fear of being shunned/ostracized, having no other options or imaginings but to conform, stay, and obey, are motivations....

I am probably partly responsible for that last part.  At one point I tried to explain that while it was easy for her to come in once a year, scream "meat is murder," then disappear until next Yom Kippur, for people who actually live in the neighborhood, it is harder to go against the grain.  People have to live with each other, and Hasidim are not the only people on earth who avoid confrontations in order to get along with their neighbors.  That, plus the fact that public protests are not the way things get changed in traditional Jewish communities.  People do discuss things behind the scenes, there are differences of opinion, and variations within families.   Hasidim are not clones.  But neither are they going to join Davis on the barricades when she is so openly disparaging of their way of life.  As I noted above, the arguments that work are the ones she has rejected.

I explained this to her in order to get her to tone down the anti-Hasidic rhetoric but here she twisted my explanation to suit her own anti-religious attitudes -- even getting in a dig about how women are supposedly "not respected as persons" and thereby insulting my wife, who is a critical thinker and most certainly a "person in her own right."  (She just does not like a lot of publicity nor does she want her picture plastered all over the Internet.)

Davis then goes on:

Finally, the temples that do the ritual are said to make a lot of money from it — purchasing chickens very cheaply at a few cents on the dollar, and “selling” them to practitioners for a lot of money.

In another interview she quoted prices as $18 and $36 at some center -- unaware that these are normal amounts Jews give to charity.  Jewish fundraisers always ask for donations in multiples of 18,   Even those of us who use money instead often give $18 -- so that is not seen as exhorbitant in our culture.  I would prefer everyone just give the money and skip the chicken slaughter, but I am not offended by it being used as a fundraiser and certainly not for asking $18.  And, we should note, not all kapporos centers charge this much.

Besides, Davis get money off this issue, too.  By her own admission in her newsletter (Poultry Press, Winter 2014 issue, p. 12), she spent $23,532 on the anti-kapporos campaign in 2014.  If she has the funds to do this, then she, too, is making money off kapporos --  through her sensationalist tactics.  This figure came at the end of an anti-kapporos article, and right below it there was a plea for funds.  My bet is, kapporos is one of her best sources of income for her org, because it is so easy to arouse public opinion with graphic photos and inflammatory rhetoric.  So the pot calls the kettle black...

She then ended with:

(For the record, I am not Jewish or religious. I grew up in a family that attended the Methodist Church down the street from us, but religion never influenced me as a worldview. No religion even if proven “true” would reconcile me in the slightest to the way things are.)

Note that she would not accept any religion even if it were true.   A rather odd statement if she is really interested in truth, but that is certainly her privilege.  However, with an attitude like that, she is never, ever going to make any kind of impact on religious people.   She has certainly turned me off -- and I am against using chickens.  But if forced to choose between her antagonism and my faith, I choose Hasidism.  And so, I shall continue to educate my people about why we should use money and not chickens, but henceforth I'll do it without Karen Davis.

*   *  *

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 Lulu.com.  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. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

John Kline's attack on Obermueller over "bird breeding book" is misleading

Minnesota Representative John Kline (R) recently ran an ad attacking his opponent, Mike Obermueller (D), accusing him of wasteful "pork" votes, including "a book about bird breeding." That caught my attention in the political maelstrom of attack ads, because I live in rural Minnesota and I care about birds.   So I decided to find out exactly what this "bird breeding" book was about.

I found the allocation vote in the Journal of the Minnesota House of Representatives, Tuesday, February 16, 2010.  It's in section (c) of bill H.F. 2624 and  reads:

"$372,000 is from the trust fund to continue development of a statewide survey of Minnesota breeding bird distribution and create related publications, including a book and online atlas with distribution maps and breeding status.  Of this appropriation, $211,000 is to the commissioner of natural resources for an agreement with Audubon Minnesota and $161,000 is to the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota for the Natural Resources Research Institute.  The atlas must be available for downloading on the Internet free of charge."

So this wasn't some little book about how to breed your parakeets.  This is a major ecological study to produce a state-wide resource guide that will be available to the public free of charge.   The project site describes it this way:

"The Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA) is a critical bird conservation project designed to document every species that currently breeds in Minnesota and where in the state each species breeds. Surprisingly, Minnesota is one of only seven states, and the only state along the Mississippi Flyway, that has not developed a breeding bird atlas."

Get that?  We were the only state along the Mississippi Flyway that had not done this kind of survey. And one of only seven states in the whole country lacking such an atlas.  So this was not -- excuse the pun -- a fly by night project.  (For more on the Minnesota Bird Breeding Atlas project, now completed, click here.)

My next question was, how was this project funded?  The "trust fund" referred to in the appropriation cited above is The Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund, established in 1988 by constitutional amendment (with 77% approval) "for the public purpose of protection, conservation, preservation, and enhancement of the state's air, water, land, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources."  So this project is coming from money that is already earmarked for environmental projects.

John Kline's ad ends with saying, "Mike Obermueller:  Wherever you look, it costs you money," followed by the usual "I'm John Kline and I approve this message."  So we know it isn't some PAC claiming this, it's the man himself.  But is it really costing you money?  Where does the money for the Trust Fund come from?  Is it really a waste of taxpayer dollars like the Kline ad claims?

Hardly.   It's funded by the Minnesota State Lottery, not your taxes.  Playing the lottery is completely voluntary.  So if you don't want your money going to help the environment by producing things like the Bird Breeding Atlas, then don't play the lottery.  It's that simple.  Nobody is forcing anybody to pay for this project!  (More on where the Minnesota lottery funds go...)

But beyond the question of the accuracy of the ad is the greater concern: John Kline apparently doesn't care about Minnesota birds or the environment.  He doesn't even care enough to do the simple online research it took for me to write this article before "approving" his ad to air.  Not even after it aired and many others besides me have pointed out the error.  On Minnesota's At Issue program this week, during a discussion between Kline and Obermueller, moderator Tom Hauser asked Kline if he still stands by the ad and he said "yes." (Although I do note that a more recent attack ad about "pork" left out the reference to birds.  Apparently his campaign managers are more savvy than he is.)

The very fact that he would choose this project to ridicule Obermueller is in itself telling. Apparently Kline has no idea how we Minnesotans really feel about the natural resources of our state.  After all, 77% of Minnesotans voted for the Amendment that created the Trust Fund that paid for this and other environmental projects. And he is certainly not aware of the economic impact of birds on our economy. Tourism, travel, and purchases related to birds account for an estimated $400 million to our state economy. Not to mention other outdoor activities not directly related to birds, but where the presence of birds certainly enhances the experience, such as camping, hiking, skiing, boating, etc.  Maybe he has been in Washington so long he has forgotten what most of Minnesota looks like.

Oh, and by the way, John Kline voted for the infamous Alaskan "bridge to nowhere" and also voted to continue funding NASCAR sponsorships -- wasteful things that really did come from taxpayer money. That's a whole lot more pork than a survey of wild birds funded by the lottery.

Monday, October 27, 2014

In Memory of Mac Hill, a Good Scout

Mac at Barnum Day Camp, 2013,
showing off his design project
Mac Hill, former member of Cub Scout Pack 185 (Pine County, MN), died on Thursday, October 23 in a heartbreaking accident.  He was an active member of our Pack at the Audubon Center of the North Woods before changing schools, when schedule conflicts intervened, but we kept in touch.

Mac was very interested in science and ecology and once told me he wanted to be a scientist.  I can remember him getting really excited the first time he met with us at Audubon and saw the solar panels and other "green" technologies (Audubon is completely off the grid.)

Here you see him showing off his design for a bridge made of marshmallows and toothpicks at the "Gizmos, Gadgets, and Goo"  STEM-themed Cub Scout Day Camp in Barnum, MN in 2013.  He also did a great job of designing a container for the camp egg drop that year -- it survived the fall from the top of the grandstand just fine!

Mac was a great kid and will be deeply missed by all of us.

A memorial fund has been set up at:


Cards and donations can also be sent to:

Wendy and David Hill
c/o The Red Thread
P.O. Box 52
Askov, MN 55704

Please keep Mac's family in your prayers.  And feel free to share this post.

Rabbi Gershom, Cubmaster,
Pack 185

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Father Goose adopts flock of Guinea Fowl

Junior and Prince
This is the story of an inter-species friendship between Prince the Goose (white bird in photo on the right) and a flock of guineas.  Prince and his son, Junior (grey bird in photo), are the last of a small flock of geese we have had on our hobby farm.  Geese live a long time -- Prince is now 14, Junior 13 -- and I'm not getting any younger, so I have let the flock slowly dwindle from old age. (We are vegetarians.  We eat the eggs but do not slaughter.)

With geese, the ganders help care for the young.  Since Prince no longer has a mate and there are no goslings around, he has turned his affections toward my guineas.  From the moment I brought home four half-grown guineas last fall, he has taken a most paternal instinct toward them.

When they first arrived, I had to keep them in a cage inside the coop for a couple weeks before letting them free range -- otherwise they would try to "home" back to where they came from -- and Prince stood guard by the cage every night.  When I finally did let them loose, he followed them around the yard.  Junior went along, but it was primarily Prince who set the pace.  And he made sure they went back in the coop, too.  If they tried roosting in a tree, he stood at the bottom and raised a ruckus!  By the time the first snow came, they were well trained to go inside.

The guineas turned out to be three males and a female.  I really had no intention of breeding her, but she had other ideas.  Her first nest she built too close to the road for comfort.  Prince was having a fit because the road is his boundary and the males were going across it to my neighbor's yard.  That's how I found the nest.  I took the eggs before she started setting, hoping that would be the end of it.

Can't find Molly?  Click photo to
enlarge and try again!
So what did she do?  She hid her second nest closer to the coop in the tall grass.  I didn't find this one until she was incubating, so I let her be.  If you look really, really closely in the photo, you can see her in there.  That brave bird sat through two very strong rainstorms and held fast to her eggs -- I thought for sure I'd find her drowned the second time, when high winds brought four inches of rain within hours.  But she built well, on top of a little rise, earning her the name "Molly Brown"  (of Titanic fame, since both survived dangerous waters.)  Why didn't I move her inside?  Because moving a guinea nest is very risky.  They are wild, flighty birds who often abandon the eggs if disturbed.  Better to leave nature alone.

Molly's well-hidden nest
There were 15 eggs.  12 hatched but one baby died, leaving 11.  I wasn't sure exactly when she started sitting, so I checked every day.  Luckily I found them right after hatching, because the grass is cold and wet in the morning this late in the year.  That can mean death to new keets. So I caught them all with mother Molly and put them in a large cage inside.

Prince stood by them outside the cage, often not even wanting to come outside the coop.  When they were feathered out and big enough, I turned them loose -- and here you can see both ganders herding the flock around the yard!

Prince herds the flock home toward evening, fall 2014.

Prince and Junior guarding the flock
in the chicken yard, fall 2014. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Blood Moon was beautiful on the morning before Sukkot starts, 5775

Tonight the Festival of Sukkot (booths) begins.  Because the Jewish calendar is lunar, Sukkot always begins on a full moon.   So nothing unusual about that.  What was special this year was the beautiful "blood moon" eclipse this morning (October 8, 2014).  It reached totality at 5:55 AM here in Minnesota, and is currently trending all over the Net.  In some places, people gathered for "blood moon parties" to watch and enjoy it.  That would have been fun, but out here in rural Minnesota, it was a solitary experience for me.

Here on our little hobby farm, I was up at 4 AM cooking food for the Festival so that I could use the daylight hours to finish setting up my sukkah booth.   The local news stations were covering the eclipse, so every half hour or so there was a live update during the weather report.

Just before totality, I went outside to take a look.  The sky was clear but the trees were in the way, so I had to walk out to the road to get a good view.  (We have a much better view of the sky in the east, where I often take wonderful dawn photos.  But this time around, the eclipse was happening as the moon was setting in the west, where we have a windbreak of trees and bushes.)

We live out of town on a dirt road with zero traffic this time of night, so I could stand there moon gazing, but it was also pretty cold  -- in the mid 30s -- so I didn't stay out long.  In fact, it was so chilly that there were no crickets chirping.  Nor were there any other nature sounds.  The wind, which had been blowing hard the last few days, was now still.  No traffic sounds, either -- even the freeway, which I can sometimes faintly hear at night if a noisy truck goes by, was silent.

Then, for some reason known only to himself, one of my roosters crowed.

According to an old superstition, a rooster crowing at night is a bad omen.  So is a blood moon in some cultures.  So a blood moon and a rooster crowing at the same time -- oy vey, is that a double whammy?

Hardly.  I'm not superstitious.  I see these things as natural phenomena, period.   One of my favorite stories is the one about the Jewish archer in the Roman army who asked why they had stopped marching.  His commanding officer pointed to a certain bird in a tree and said that it was an omen telling them to stop.  Whereupon the archer shot the bird and said, "That bird could not even protect itself from my arrow, so how can it protect an army?"  (Sad that the bird had to die, but the point was made:  Looking for omens in natural events is not a Jewish practice.)

Returning to the eclipse, I did take time to make the brochah (blessing) osseh ma-asseh bereshit -- praising "The One (God) Who creates the works of Creation" -- that Jews are supposed to say upon seeing a wonder of nature.  It may not be an omen, but it is a wonderful thing to look at.

My wife, who has difficulty walking and some balance problems when walking in the dark, opted to stay inside.  So I downloaded this beautiful photo on space.com taken in Nebraska by John W. Johnson of the Virtual Telescope Project.  I set it up as the desktop wallpaper on the computer, where we can both enjoy it today, as we continue to prepare for the holiday tonight.

Peace and blessings! 

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.

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To learn more about this issue, get my new book, just out on June 4:  Kapporos Then and Now: Toward a More Compassionate Tradition available on Lulu.com.  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.