Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Kapporos Protests: Reflections on a New Approach

Note from the Editor: As readers of this blog know, I was a founding member of the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos in 2010, but broke with the organization in 2014 over what I saw as disrespect of Hasidism and Hasidic culture on the part of Karen Davis, who was their primary spokesperson at the time.  In the past year, however, some members of that organization have re-evaluated their aggressive approach (which, quite frankly, was not working) and decided to try using love and compassion instead.  In this guest column,  Rina Deych, also a founding member of the Alliance, describes what they did in the fall of 2018, and how it was received by the Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities in New York. (Rabbi Gershom)

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Kaporos Protests: Reflections on a New Approach

Guest Column by Rina Deych

Since 2010, the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos has been protesting the use of chickens in the custom of Kaporos (background info here.)  Although at times we did get into some great discussions with practitioners, interactions were often angry and contentious.   Last year, for the first time, we partnered with The Save Movement and Jewish Veg, and our approach was very different.

Compassion instead of anger

Author Rina Deych (left)
and Anita Krajnc 
Anita Krajnc, co-founder of The Save Movement, met with a group of us to promote a love-based initiative inspired by the writings of Leo Tolstoy.  It was a truly eye-(and heart)-opening experience to hear her speak.  She encouraged us to have love and respect for practitioners and to approach them from a place of compassion.

It made me remember a conversation I’d had with a friend who insisted that if she were brought up in a community that used chickens in the ritual she would “know” they were suffering and she’d refuse to do it.  I told her at the time (and mentioned when I spoke at our meeting) that no one can say that for sure.  I explained (to her, at the time, and later to the group) that if one is indoctrinated from birth to believe (or ignore) certain things, it’s very hard to change – especially when one lives in a community that reinforces those things. Therefore, difficult as it is, we need to feel compassion for these people.

Teaching a how to properly
hold a chicken by supporting
her body
Last Kaporos, we visited groups in Boro Park, Williamsburg and Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where the ritual was being performed.  Activists opened crates and gave food and water to as many chickens as they could reach.  Sadly, that wasn’t many, because they are so tightly crammed into crates that are stacked several high and many across.

A more positive response

I noticed almost immediately that the practitioners’ reactions to us were completely different than in previous years.  Children gathered around, wide-eyed with curiosity and both kids and adults were asking us questions.

Chickens drinking water
offered by protesters
Sage Max of Jewish Veg gave out flyers with historic information supporting the use of money (instead of chickens) in the ritual. There were activists showing practitioners the correct way to hold a chicken (under and around his or her body, instead of by their fragile wings).  One butcher (some of the rituals occur outside of butcher shops) with a long white beard came over to me and showed me that he was giving the birds challah (bread) soaked in water.  I was touched by his compassion and thanked him.

There were some angry words from practitioners, but we tried our best to respond to them with kindness.  This is what I call putting water on the fire.  In previous years, some of us have thrown gasoline on it… not intentionally, but in response to seeing the chickens suffering.   That approach was counterproductive and did not help the chickens.

Continuing postive outreach

This year, we plan to continue our feeding, watering, and outreach efforts.  We planted many seeds of compassion and this Kaporos we plan to water them.  I thank Rabbi Gershom for his wonderful book Kapporos Then and Now, which I have given to rabbis and some key members of the community to inspire them to use money, instead of chickens.  It has been an invaluable tool in helping to spread compassion.

Rina Deych
Founding Member
Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos


"Hasidic Man Speaks Out Against Mass Animal Sacrifice Kaporos" -- a video of last year's actions, produced by Donny Moss of  Their Turn. Note especially the outspoken young Hasidic man at the beginning of the video, who is protesting the custom.  It is important to remember that not all Orthodox Jews do this ceremony.

Also check out this well-written article by Donny Moss, about how the footage of the Hasidic man in the video came about, behind the scenes discussions with Hasidim who disapprove of using chickens, etc.  Very well-balanced, informative, and accurate.

For practical suggestions on organizing effective protests and other actions you can take, see Rabbi Gershom's activist manual online here. 

For more on Rabbi Gershom's Book, Kapporos Then and Now: Toward a More Compassionate Tradition, click here, where you can read a synopsis by the author and order copies at a discount.

Monday, May 20, 2019

On Jewish Theology and Abortion

Stand up for religious freedom
Religious freedom applies to ALL religions
not just Christian fundamentalists

To begin: Judaism permits abortion

That is a given.  Different rabbis might rule differently as to when it is permitted (usually handled on a case-by-case basis) but all agree that there are circumstances where it is kosher.  In  some cases it might actually be required by Jewish law; cases which, if  abortion is universally outlawed, might infringe on the religious freedom of Jews.

The main thesis of this essay is that, because Jewish theology interprets the abortion issue differently from fundamentalist Christian theology, the US government should not be deciding questions about when the soul joins the body.  To do so violates the First Amendment.

WARNING: If you plan to hit me with antisemitic crap over this about how "wrong" the Jews are according to your religion, don't bother.  Been there, done that.  But if you are seriously interested in my more mystical take on this regarding body and soul, then read on.

When does human life begin according to the Torah? 

 Genesis 2:7 says that God "formed Adam from the dust of the earth, breathed a breath of life into his nostrils, and he became a living soul" (or a living being: Hebrew nefesh chayah) .  So we have two aspects of humans: body and soul.  The body comes from the material world, the soul from the "breath of God" or spiritual world.  For literally millennia, the first breath was considered the beginning of life as an independent human being. This is still the way that Jewish law views it. (For more details on that, see this excellent article by Danya Ruttenberg "Why are Jews so Pro-Choice?")

Anti-abortion Evangelicals quote Psalm 139:13 and Job 31:15, which speak of God saying, "I formed you in the womb." These verses are regarded as poetry by Jews and play no role in Jewish law which, as I said above, we base on Genesis in the Torah.  While Christians see the Bible as a single book, and give equal weight to all material in it, Jews understand that the Bible is really a library, with different categories of material: Torah, Prophets, and Writings.  The Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) forms the basis for Jewish canon law (halachah.)  The other books are considered to be various genres of literature: mostly history, sermons by the prophets, and inspirational writings like Psalms and Proverbs.  These materials are secondary to the Torah and are not cited in legal decisions.

I actually had an Evangelical tell me that Job is the oldest book in the Bible - trying to prove that it overrides the idea that life begins with the first breath as in Genesis - but that is wrong. The literary style of Job is like a Greek play (more on that) which puts it way later than the Torah.

So lines from Job and Psalms do not count in determining the Jewish stance on abortion.  But for the sake of argument, if we are going to discuss "knew you in the womb" verses, then what about Jeremiah 1:4-5, where God says, "“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you..."? Some Christians also cite this verse to oppose abortion.  But read it again: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you..."  How could God know Jeremiah before he was in the womb?  How can he be synonymous with an embryo that does not even exist yet?  What did God know of Jeremiah BEFORE gestation? His soul.  Which we can probably assume was "breathed in" by God at birth.

The bottom line is, the question of when the soul joined the body is theology, and gets into First Amendment issues.  Should the govt be deciding a theological question over which various religions disagree? No.

Influence of Roman Catholicism

The Catholic Church was more deeply concerned with the question of ensoulment than were the Jewish scholars.  "Life begins at conception" was not always their official doctrine (read more on that) but they were moving in that direction, and in 1974 it became official.  Pope Paul VI ratified the "Declaration on Procured Abortion," making it required doctrine for all Roman Catholics that abortion is forbidden because the soul joins the body at conception.

So why do I, a Jew, care about Roman Catholic theology?  Because, with the Pope's declaration, the political debate heated up. Back in the 1970s and 80s, the anti-abortion protesters were almost always Roman Catholics.  But gradually, their theology jumped denominational lines into fundamentalist Christian groups.  Although Catholics today still oppose abortion, it is the Evangelicals who are leading the charge to legally ban it.  As Cynthia Ozick once put it, we should oppose anyone "who proposes that the church steeple ought to begin to lean on the town hall roof."  Which is exactly what is happening now.  Hence the reason that Jews are concerned.

Today, the Catholic stance that "life begins at conception" has pretty much taken over the Pro-life movement. As an outsider looking in, I find it ironic that fundamentalist Christians, who have historically been anti-Catholic, are now basing their argument against abortion on a declaration by the Pope. Or are they?

The impact of embryology and DNA studies

Parallel to the Catholic Church's decision on abortion was the science of embryology.  Even in antiquity, people had seen miscarriages at various stages of development, but the process was not well understood.  When Watson and Crick unraveled the double-helix mystery of DNA in 1954, which led to the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, we suddenly had a better understanding of how the human body develops.  We could finally explain, scientifically, exactly what happens when the sperm and egg unite.   And we understood, at least to some extent, how genes carry our hereditary traits.

So the Pro-lifers seized on conception as the moment of full personhood, claiming that everything you are going to be is created in the union of sperm and egg through your DNA.

Again ironic, because we now have very religious people -- many of whom are anti-science in other areas -- relying on science to argue that the fetus is fully a person either at physical conception, or when there is a heartbeat.  Both of these are purely materialistic arguments. If you believe you are nothing but your physical body, that your DNA is all there is to your human existence, then the heartbeat argument works. An odd stance for a religious person. no?

Body and soul -- again

But what if you believe a human being is not simply a matter of biochemistry? What if you believe there is such a thing as a human soul?  Then we are back in the realm of theology.  When does the soul join the body? And how do you prove that?  You can't, really.  Which is why Jewish law bases life on the first breath, which can be observed without the use of theology or mysticism.  Even atheists can agree whether a child is breathing or not.

I suspect this is also why Republicans focus on the heartbeat benchmark, because it can now be measured by ultrasound.  But what about the brain? Nowadays brain activity is a better marker for life. Does a six-week-old embryo with a heartbeat think?  A brain dead person has a heartbeat, but are they still alive?  Is there a difference between an adult kept alive by machines and a not-yet-viable fetus kept alive by a womb?

In the case of the brain dead person, family members get to decide, along with their doctors and clergy, whether to terminate life support - even though the patient still has a heartbeat. So why is that not also true of an embryo in the womb? Why is it murder to end the life of an embryo without a thinking brain but not an adult who is brain dead?

In fact, Judaism does not consider the death of an unborn child to be murder, based on  Exodus 21:22-25, which the New American Standard Bible (NASB) renders this way: "And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no [further] injury [to her], he shall surely be fined as the woman's husband may demand of him; and he [the guilty one] shall pay as the judges decide."  Fined, not executed for murder.  "Thou shalt not murder" simply does not apply here.

In conclusion 

We are back to the original questions once again: When does the soul join with the body? When does it leave? Is the body the whole essence of a person, or is it a merely a garment for the soul? These are questions we should leave to the clergy, not the politicians. True, abortion is ultimately a woman's choice, sometimes along with the father of the child or other family members, sometimes not.  Religious women will also take their faith's teachings into consideration.  And they should be free to do so according to their own theologies, not dictated to by fundamentalist Christianity.

* * *

Addenda: Seems I am not the only one thinking in this vein.  A recent New York Times article discussed whether Jewish and Muslim doctors and women should get religious exemptions in Alabama under their new strict anti-abortion law.  After all, Christians have claimed exemptions from Civil Rights laws (such as refusing to bake cakes for gay couples) based on their faith.  So why shouldn't religions that allow abortions also get similar exemptions? Good question.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

On Why I No Longer Do Speaking Engagements

"Hello.  I'm Rabbi Gershom, and I'm autistic..."

This is how I often introduce myself to a group nowadays, because I find that being upfront about my autism helps people get beyond my personal quirks.  Those of you who dislike labels should try being me without any kind of explanation.  Believe me, owning the label is much better.

Back in 1992, when my first book, Beyond the Ashes: Cases of Reincarnation from the Holocaust came out, I did not yet have a diagnosis.  Asperger's Syndrome (now considered a form of autism) wasn't even on the radar yet.  I was aware of my lifelong struggle with clumsy social skills, but nothing could have prepared me for the humiliating experiences I had on the speaking circuit.  Once the book came out, everybody and anybody wanted to meet the author -- and were deeply disappointed that a jabbering nerd like me was the guy who wrote it.

Within the Jewish community, I had functioned reasonably well, since we tend to be intense debaters who sway a lot and wave our hands around when we talk.  During worship we pace, shout, rock to our own inner rhythms -- what autistic people now call "stimming."  I have often joked that if  an uninformed person walked into an Orthodox study group, he or she might mistake it for a support group for autistic adults.  Which is probably another reason why my own autism went undiagnosed for so long.  In Jewish culture, rocking and swaying are considered normal.

And it was in a Jewish context that the book was written, where I was seen as a Jewish teacher talking about Jewish kabbalah.  Most of the reincarnation interviews were done one-on-one, which I'm good at.  Some people sent me written stories of their past-life memories, too, or copies of their past-life regression tapes.  Plus there were many phone interviews, also one-on-one.  From this material and my own academic research, the book Beyond the Ashes was born.

But when the book came out in 1992, everything changed  People read books in their own inner voice.  They form an idea of what the author is like, based on their own feelings and impressions.  This image becomes a sort of idol that they expect the author to live up to.  When it comes to spirituality, the New Age image is one of a calm mellow, laid-back personality, a sort of guru sitting cross-legged on a pillow, chanting "Om."  Google "spirituality images" and you get this:

An image that I do not fit at all.  Not one photo in there of Orthodox Jews dancing, swaying, rocking back and forth in ecstasy.  Which is why I was mostly a one-gig speaker.  A guy who disappointed his audience and was rarely invited back.

At one workshop, a participant flat out told me that if he had known I was a "typical New York Jew," he would never have signed up.  (I am not from New York. And yes, I do see the antisemitism in this attitude, but that's a whole other story.)  At another workshop, my bluntness was seen as insensitivity.  In Germany, where my book had just been translated, my mannerisms were mistaken for nervousness.  As for the written feedback forms...  I could go on and on, but you get the point.

 There were times when I regretted writing Beyond the Ashes, this book that took over my life and typecast me so completely that nobody wanted to hear about anything else.  Yes, it helped many people, but it also left me tired and drained.  I came to understand why Leonard Nimoy wrote I Am Not Spock after the original Star Trek series ended.  I began to see myself as something separate from the "Rabbi Gershom" who wrote about Holocaust reincarnations.  He became a role I was playing -- not very healthy, to be sure.  I was disassociating from myself as author of the book.

The final straw came in the late 1990s, when I was castigated in front of the audience by a program organizer for not being "spiritual enough," and for going "off topic" on a question that didn't have to do with reincarnation per se, but which was relevant to explaining the Jewish worldview.   He actually said, "This is not what we hired you to talk about."  All they wanted to hear was Holocaust reincarnation stories, without much Jewish context. I came home from that gig emotionally drained and vowing never to do that again.  Dayenu!  Enough already!

The diagnosis changes everything...

It was during the 1990s, in the middle of all this chaos, at the age of 45, that I was diagnosed, first with ADHD, and later Asperger's (which I now believe can overlap each other.)  Suddenly a light went on in my head.  Things began falling into place.  I went online and read everything I could find on autism, joined numerous discussion groups and began putting my life back together.   Had I known more about my autism during those years on the speaking circuit, had I been able to give a name to the mannerisms that the audience found so uncomfortable, things might have gone differently.  Heck, if I had known about it in childhood, my whole life might have been different.  But that is, as they say, water under the bridge.

In the year 2000, as my millennium resolution, I pulled out of the spirituality workshop circuit altogether.  I had given 20+ years of my life to this
topic and it was time to move on.  There were now plenty of therapists and psychiatrists who were getting paid way more than me to do this Holocaust reincarnation stuff.  So let them have it. My book opened the door. Others walked through.  My role was over. And I was, quite frankly, tired of being typecast as “The Holocaust reincarnation rabbi.” I was tired of getting calls in the middle of the night from people who wanted free counseling and did not bother to check time zones. It was time to pass the torch to the next generation and begin a new chapter in my own life. So I did.

What is "spirituality" anyway? 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "spirituality as "The quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things."  There is nothing in that sentence about body language, eye contact, voice inflections -- all of which are, after all, the very "physical things" that spirituality is supposed to leave behind.  So why judge me for not fitting into the New Age stereotype?

Nevertheless, that's what happened.  It traumatized me to the point that I no longer want to do workshops and have pretty much become a recluse, living with my wife and my animals in northern Minnesota.  What I have to say, I communicate through my writing.  It was, after all, a book that originally started all this, and, if I may say so myself, I'm a darned good writer.  Let people read in their own inner voice, without the distraction of my autistic personality.  Maybe in that way, I can get something of my true spirituality across.

There are probably readers out there now thinking to themselves, "Well, he can't be much of a spiritual guide if he can't even handle a little criticism."  First of all, I never claimed to be some sort of guru.  And second of all, there is no reason I should have to put up with emotional abuse.  Constructive criticism of my work I can take, but all this personal rejection did very little for my self-esteem.  If anyone is being "unspiritual," it's those people who insist on projecting their own expectations on me.

Today, I find myself wondering how many other autistic people have been rejected because of New Age stereotypes about what it means to be spiritual. We are frequently misread as "having no empathy" or being "unable to love" because we don't look people in the eye or enjoy being spontaneously hugged.  Many of us are unable to sit still without fidgeting, which pretty much rules out Zen meditation.  I was also seen as "unsocial" at all those speaking events because I didn't hang around the hotel bar to chitchat afterward.  After the intensity of doing a speech and/or leading a workshop, I need solitude to recharge.  The last thing I need is to be surrounded by the audio-visual chaos of a party.

I  puzzled for years over why God would have chosen me to be the person to write Beyond the Ashes.   I finally came to the conclusion that God did not want this thing to turn into a cult.  So he chose an autistic nerd with zero charisma, a guy with a memory for details who could put it all together with a certain amount of emotional detachment, but not become a cult leader.  The Aspie tendency to hyper-focus on one topic at the exclusion of all other interests served me well in making Beyond the Ashes a useful book that remained in print for 18 years.

Not many people get to "write the book" on a topic.  I did exactly that, not only opening the door to talk about Holocaust reincarnations, but also, as so many people have told me, opening up Jewish spirituality.  At the time Beyond the Ashes first came out, there was very little available in English about Jewish reincarnation teachings. This made it a groundbreaking work in the spirituality field. The book has had a profound and positive effect on how people in the New Age and past-life therapy communities are now interpreting the “karma” of the Holocaust.  Today it is a classic.

Yes, I can see the irony in that.  "Autistic nerd writes major book on spirituality."  If I were a true New Ager, I would claim that I channeled it, that some other entity besides Yonassan Gershom is the true author.  But I know differently.  The book happened precisely because of my autism, which provided a perfect storm of just the right abilities at just the right time.  That is my genius.