Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Kapporos and storytelling: A reply to Shmarya Rosenberg's critical review of my book

Kapporos Then and Now:  Toward a More Compassionate Tradition
Shmarya Rosenberg, creator and webmaster of the Failed Messiah website, completely missed the point of my new book, Kapporos Then and Now: Toward a more compassionate tradition, in his September 22, 2015 review on his blog. (Read the full review here.)  Although admitting that, quote: "the actual halakhic and theological information on kapparot and the information on animal handling and welfare issues Gershom included in Kapporos Then and Now is quite good," he ridicules me for telling midrashic and Hasidic stories, which he writes off as "fairy tales" and calls me "childish" for citing them.

Rosenberg would much rather have me drag in things like cases of pedophelia and other criminal behaviors that have nothing to do with the topic at hand.  (Then again, his whole website is about muckraking the Orthodox world, so I suppose he had to find something about me to nitpick.) Such omissions were not, as Rosenberg accuses me, due to "cognitive dissonance" or "making excuses" for Hasidism.  I am perfectly aware that the Orthodox world, like all communities everywhere, has its share of bad apples.  I failed to discuss pedophiles and other such criminals because this was not the topic of the book.  That's called good writing.  You don't throw in everything but the kitchen sink.

Normally I don't bother to reply to such reviews, but he so completely misread me that I feel a reply is in order.  I am not, as Rosenberg states, living in a Fiddler on the Roof fantasy (his words.)  I am perfectly aware of the difference between history and folklore, as anyone who has read my other works would know.  However, I am also aware that Hasidim live in a basically non-historical universe, where these stories carry a lot of weight.  As I said at the beginning of the book, I was going to look at both sides of the issue from within the viewpoints of each side.  For the Hasidic side, that includes storytelling. 

Whether or not the stories are literally true is beside the point.  Even outright parables carry weight when discussing religion.  When Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was asked if the stories he told were true, he replied, "Not all of the stories are true, but when the people tell them, they are holy." Religious teaching stories are not documentaries, but they do contain truths.

Hasidic stories and other midrashim are the examples held up as ideals by Hasidic rabbis and others.  My purpose in citing them was to compare the tales we tell about the sages of old with the realities of the meat industry today.  No, things were not perfect in "the good old days," but neither were there any factory farms back then, either.  So I was asking the basic question, "How would the early sages and Rebbes react to today's conditions?"

I said at the very beginning of the book that I was going to approach it as a combination theologian and anthropologist.  And, as any anthropologist knows, storytelling is central to any culture.  Whether written or oral, stories are how the values of a culture are passed down. The Torah itself is basically one long story of the Jewish people -- a story that we minutely dissect and discuss over and over in a perpetual yearly cycle.  Stories are the heart of a culture, as is the way we tell them.  As someone once said, "Change the story and you change the world."

Rosenberg states that the rural Jewish world I describe never existed, and that, in his words,  "most 'shtetls' were really commercial towns, some of significant size and importance, where Jews were overwhelmingly urbanized. Some families clearly kept their own chickens, but by the end of the first half of the 19th Century, many others did not." 

I have no argument with that. I never said everyone had chickens in their backyard.  But even in the urban centers, chickens came from nearby farms, for the simple reason that there was no refrigeration back then.  It's pretty hard to transport live chickens hundreds of miles by horse and wagon.  Most people were, by necessity, basically locavores.  I am old enough to remember ice boxes, home deliveries by the milkman, and our first family refrigerator -- and that was right here in the good ol' USA during the 20th century.  So even in the big city (I'm talking about Philadelphia in the 1950s) it has not been that long since food got industrialized.

There were indeed many small villages in Eastern Europe as well as larger "commercial towns."  I have actually been to rural Ukraine where Rebbe Nachman of Breslov lived, and the area around it is still mostly farmland.  People there still do have chickens in their backyards, as well as goats, sheep, and other animals.  In addition, I have personally talked with Holocaust survivors who described exactly what I say in the book.  Plus there are plenty of published firsthand accounts -- many of which I have on my own bookshelves -- about pre-Holocaust Jewish life in small villages.  So it is not out of line for me to make references to such.

The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidim, lived in the first half of the 18th century, and spent his early years wandering in the Carpathian mountains, not the big cities like Warsaw and Brody.  In fact, the urban rabbis were at first opposed to Hasidism, with the Vilna Gaon actually excommunicating the Baal Shem Tov and his followers.  Only in later generations did Hasidism spread to the bigger cities. 

And therein lies a possible reason that Rosenberg, as an ex-Chabadnik, might not be familiar with the more rural, nature-oriented themes of the early stories.   It has been my experience that the Chabadniks of today pretty much stick with studying sources by their own line of Rebbes.  And, as I said in the book, the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady, was not very much interested in animals or nature -- an attitude that has carried down through the Chabad line.

In fact (as I also say in the book), more than once I have been told by Chabad rabbis that the Baal Shem Tov wasn't really "that guy out in the woods."  They prefer to portray him as a scholar.  Which he may well have been, but he was also in tune with animals and nature.  I would argue that much of our sensitivity toward God's creation was lost when Hasidism went from rural to urban in later generations. Much was also lost within Chabad when Schenur Zalman intellectualized an ecstatic revivalist movement into the intellectualism of Tanya, the "bible" of Chabad.

Which brings us to another area where Rosenberg misread me.  He seems to think I'm calling for everyone to move to the country and live off the grid.  That is not my intent.  Yes, I do live in the country myself and yes, I do have my own chickens and other animals. This has given me firsthand experience that most urban Jews lack.  That experience has enriched my narratives and made them more authentic.  But I am not expecting everyone to live as I do.

What I am calling for is an emotional and spiritual re-connection with animals as living, breathing, sentient beings and not Cartesian machines.  It is perfectly possible to do this in the city, and many people do.  But you have to make the effort.  When you have people who never leave the confines of the few blocks they call home -- not even to go to a museum or a park -- then there is a serious disconnect from the natural world.  And that, I do believe, is at the heart of many animal welfare problems in the  Orthodox Jewish community.  Especially Chabad, where their last Rebbe forbade children from looking at pictures or playing with toys in the shape of non-kosher species of animals.  (Read more on that...)

Rosenberg states, regarding the abominable conditions of the kosher meat industry: "The problem is not lack of technology, added cost, or some gross inconvenience to humans. The problem is a near-complete lack of rabbinic will to do better."

Rosenberg is living in his own fantasy world if he thinks that all it would take to "fix" the kosher meat industry would be for rabbis to have more "rabbinic will" to do better.  As I explained in the book, animals used for kosher meat come from the same commercial sources as non-kosher.  Whch means factory farms. And it is not very likely that Jews are going to begin raising their own animals on humane farms.  Even in Israel, where some Jews do raise animals, the factory farm system has become the norm.

He is also wrong to think that it would not cost any more to produce humane kosher meat.  Technology is indeed the problem, and it does add cost to raising animals more humanely.  The Chipotle restaurant chain recently found that out.  They pledged not to use pork from pigs raised in tiny crates -- and soon discovered that pig farmers in the USA were not willing to make the more costly changes necessary to raise them humanely.  Chipotle is currently importing their pork from England. (See  As for chickens, in my local grocery store the free-range, humane-raised eggs cost twice as much as eggs from "battery hen" cages.  So much for cost not being a factor.

Rosenberg also felt I was unfairly biased toward Karen Davis and her anti-kapporos campaign, and not critical enough of Rabbi Hecht, who promotes the ritual.  So I did a search of the whole book by names.  Yes, I did mention Davis more often, for the simple reason that she is pretty much a one-woman show.  The vast majority of protest articles are by or about her, and she has made it very clear that she is in charge.  Her opinions have pretty much defined the movement.  So naturally most of the quotes I refuted were coming from her.

Rabbi Hecht, on the other hand, is part of a vast organization called Chabad, which in turn is part of Orthodox Judaism, which in turn runs the kosher meat industry.  So there were far more sources I could cite besides Hecht -- and I did.  If you add those references, the criticisms are about equal on both sides.  There are whole sections where I describe in detail the horrors seen at kapporos centers, the way chickens are raised and transported there, etc.  And while it is true, as Rosenberg complains, that I did not specifically name the Agriprocessors plant and the scandals there, I was very critical of the whole industry in general, as well as taking Hecht specifically to task for some of his statements.

What comes through in Rosenberg's review is his own personal bias against Chabad.  He is himself an ex-Chabadnik, and there is no greater critic of any philosophy than a disillusioned former disciple. If you read his online About Me page, it is clear that he had a bad experience which caused a crisis of faith that he never really recovered from, (To be fair, his criticism of the Rebbe is well-deserved in his case.)  So it is understandable that, having been completely turned off by Chabad Hasidism, he would resent any attempt to show it in a positive light.  

True, there were places where I defended Hecht's point of view and theology, even though he is a villian in the controversy.  But I also defended Davis and the animal rights people in several places, too.  Ironically, I have received emails from Orthodox Jews who thought I was too easy on Davis because I defended her against accusations of antisemitism.  I suppose this is bound to happen with any book that tries to look at both sides of a problem.  One often ends up writing a book that pleases neither side.  But at least the book has gotten some discussions going, and that was really my goal.  People may not be willing to completely cross the bridge to the other side, but some, at least, are meeting in the middle.