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  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.