Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Chickens Are For Eating

As a follow up to my last post and being it's only a few days after Yom Kippur I'd like to bring another pertinent example regarding being machmir and meikel at the same time.  That example is the time-honoured pre-Day of Atonement ritual called kapparos.
A detailed description of the ritual and some of its history can be found here and here.  It's important to note that many major authorities opposed the ritual as it was performed while others wholeheartedly supported it.  It's also noteworthy that the ritual can be performed with money but even if one uses a chicken one is supposed to be an humane as possible.
That's what makes the modern incarnation of the ritual so problematic.  It's one thing to gently take a chicken by its body and wave it over one's head three times.  It's another to yank it around by its wings or legs, definitely causing the chicken pain and distress and also possibly fracturing its bones.  Of course this is above and beyond all the reported cases of inhame transporting conditions that wind up killing the birds en route to their holy destinations.
This is all part of something I've written about recently - the obsession with ritual to the exclusion of all other considerations even if it means transgressing actual mitzvos.  After all, tza'ar ba'alei chayim is a mitzvah d'oraisa while kapparos is, at best, an establishing custom which isn't even truly obligatory.  Really, does anyone believe that the Master of the Universe will refuse to forgive one's sins if one takes the chicken straight to the dinner table?  Yet ask anyone who performs the ritual to forgo the bird and use money and they look at you as if you had just told them to skip Yom Kippur altogether.
This is troubling for me as well because it exemplifies the extent to which the mystical part of Judaism, something which should be reserved for the highest level learners and practitioners of halacha, has seeped into common every day Judaism without bringing along the requisite safeguards it should have.
In short, we would be made to believe that there is an irreplacable spiritual outcome to performing kapparos while no good explanation is offered as to how that happens when active transgressing might be obviously accompanying it.
As I noted in the last post, one must sometimes evaluate halachic actions like one evaluates a difficult chess move.  Note the obvious, immediately outcome but also sit back and consider all future possibilities, positive and negative.  Which outweighs which?


Atheodox Jew said...

What I believe this comes down to:

1) People's gullibility in believing that any and all strange customs in the mesorah must have "mystical" properties.

2) People's attachment to cultural norms and taboos (i.e. what I wouldn't dare do / what I wouldn't dare NOT do) as being FAR stronger than their concerns about what is or isn't "on the books" in terms of actual Halacha.

One other thought...

"Really, does anyone believe that the Master of the Universe..."

...cares whether I say Kriyat Shema within the zman? No.

...cares whether married women cover their hair? No.

...wrote the Torah? No.

Meaning, this line of reasoning ("Does God really X?") opens a serious can of worms. Not sure if you really want to go there!

Chag sameach,

Temujin said...

Greetings and a chag sameach to you as well, Atheodox Jew. A serious can of squirming worms indeed, but what makes the First Principle most interesting is not so much the old existence vs non-existence invite to an endless debate that one, if Temujin ever saw one...but that respectable fellows such as Ibn Ezra and Levi Ben Gershon seem to have believed that the universe was created by God from pre-existing matter. Gulp! And nary a protest about that one to be heard nowadays.

As for the importance of zeman, as Dr Sacha Stern would have it in his Time and Process in Ancient Judaism, the concept of time as a general category, the way we conceptualize it (and foolishly imagine it's the only way to do so), did not exist in biblical Judaism and that it is only in early rabbinic literature that time appears as specific or finite points of time. No clue how much the Almighty cares about our punctuality, but He appears to have kept to schedules and chronologies in bringing us about and setting up our digs and so too many a prayer and ritual seem to be time-dependent...inseparable from it even, one might say. Not to mention holy days, which is why you kindly wished us a chag sameach at the proper time and season rather then, let's say, on July 23rd. All moot, of course, if one rejects the first bit of the First Principle, the one pertaining to existence...which puts the poor chicken in a rather unfortunate predicament of being unable to provide any finite rationale or indisputable basis for a humane treatment!

Atheodox Jew said...

Temujin, a thoughtful and colorful comment, as usual!

The issue of precise clock time (even the halakhic clock with its ever-changing durations of hours and minutes) is something whose emphasis must be relatively new. Yes, such precision is recorded in early rabbinic literature, but until very recently we've lacked the instruments and technology to be so exacting in actual practice. Which makes me wonder... Could it be that once upon a time, not so long ago, we were less neurotic?

As far as "chag sameach", one could easily extend the "Does the Master of the Universe really care" idea to when, how or whether we observe festival holidays. We observe them when we do because that is the mesorah we've received/accepted. Likewise, we recite kriyat shema when we do because that is our mesorah - not for reasons of what any Big-Guy-in-the-Sky does or doesn't "want" us to do. (At least that's how I make sense of it.) So yes, I could extend a hearty "good yontif" in July, or "Thanksgiving sameach" for that matter, but any greeting is only meaningful when people deem it to be so.

About the chicken, are you supposing that if there is no "absolute" (i.e. God-given) morality, then the chicken's fate is somehow in greater jeopardy? If so, I think we may need oversized barrel for all them worms!

Best, AJ

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your compliment, Atheodox Jew, and for your precise reply written with an economy of words, but a rich abundance of ideas which Temujin has come to enjoy (and be jealous of) when reading your work (more often than he would openly admit).

One is fortunate to have spent summers as a child in a region stuck for a long time in the pre-industrial era where few had clocks or watches and electricity came late. As with daily halachic time, an "hour" (simply called "segment" in the vernacular of the region) the day was divided between dawn and dusk, with the "hours" ascertained by a glance at the sun or ground shadows. But one suspects that the absence of stress over time was more due to the nature of pre-industrial economic activity; agriculture and animal husbandry, and even crafts and metal work do not require precise time-telling. And we are quite certain that economic activity and to some degree ritual requirements in large communities (e.g., towns and monasteries) preceded time-keeping technologies.

Temujin's take on the "does the Master of the Universe really care" about matters which we have (socially and philosopically) determined to be details of questionably utility, is a resounding "yes." Even at the most secular materialistic level of inquiry, it is plainly evident that rules and customs serve as powerful social binders and reduce friction between individuals and classes. Beyond this, they serve to organize our overly big brains and keep them from veering off into stupidities more than they already do, lubricate interpersonal and family relations and so on. If you can accept the God hypothesis as a theoretical possibility, you might see why God would care about a society's ability to stay functional and "mission-capable" by adhering to seemingly arbitrary rules. It's the effect of such in the aggregate that may be the goal, although mystics will of course tell us that each and every apparently mundane or irrelevant action is intrinsically valuable to God and the Universe. And they may not be too far off, for just to clarify, it is not Temujin's contention that the minutiae of halakha and minhag are intrinsically arbirtrary. Each and every rule creates empirically verifiable patterns of economic and social activity which are immediate as well as far reaching; kashrut creates internal economies, Shabbat observance keeps Jews in geographic proximity, etc. A yet-to-be explored cultural materialistic meta-analysis of Jewish law, one ventures to speculate, is the next frontier, a kind of a "rationalist mysticism," as it were.

As for the chicken, yes and no. No, in the sense that Temujin does not believe that humankind would reduce itself to self-destructive, anarchic state of chaos; band level societies which lack religious moral codes show us that this is not the case. Yes, in the sense that what one may call secular morality in our era is still in the early stages, only a generation or two removed from the strictures of Jewish and Christian morality. But after a long enough absence of belief and with the loosening of tradition, and given powerful enough material pressures, things will certainly change for us as they did for the demographically stressed Mesoamerican civilizations which reasoned out that supplementing their collapsing food production with fats and calories from thousands of human war captives is not only necessary, but ethical and even theologically sound. Just look at how abortion on demand miraculously appeared as an untouchable human right precisely at a time when children became an economic liability rather than a benefit, and sit back and observe in real time how quickly "euthanasia" with its metaphysical principle of "dignity" will gain traction and evolve into an expectation in the West, just at a time when the baby boomers are becoming a hefty medical expense eating away at their kid's promised inheritance. A big can of worms, indeed.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

Just a note regarding our interaction with the animal kingdom. It would seem that there are two halachic concerns in this regard -- tza'ar ba'alei chayim and, what has been termed, achzariyot. The former prohibits behaviour that causes pain to animal in which there is no tangible benefit to the person undertaking this action. The second offers a higher standard in which it further judges the action in regard to its effect upon the one doing the act and whether it will further the development of an attribute of callousness or cruelty within the person. Sport hunting is a classic example of the distinction between these two considerations. If, after the hunt, the carcass is sold, the hunt can not be defined as tza'ar baalei chayim as the action towards the animal had purpose. On the other hand, if the motivation was just sport, such an activity would still be prohibited for it can develop cruelty. This is the concern that should be considered also with kapporos

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

Just a further note in regard to kapporos. The halachic issue would be this concern for achzariyot but nonetheless there were many who accepted this minhag -- the question is why? This may be a basis for Garnel's critique that concern for kabbalah is trumping ethical rational considerations. The original introduction of this practice, though, may have not flowed from this perception. Ramban states that one of the reasons for karbanot was so that people would be motivated to do teshuva for it could have been them rather than the animal. Applying this thought to kapparos, it may be that the origins of the practice arose with the intent that people should think 'better the chicked than them.' Notwithstanding this that this was an act of achzariyot, the minhag may have developed with this intent, which still has some connection to sensitivity. With all this in mind, I have a real problem with kapporos when it is done with a sense of joy. If you wish to take a chicken for kapporos, do it with the the mind set that it could have been you. Feel bad for the chicken -- and concern for your sins. It shouldn't be fun.

(I still personally use money -- and advocate this form of the minhag.)

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Atheodox Jew said...


Intriguing and cogent points! Forgive me for responding to just one, re: arbitrariness.

Each and every rule creates empirically verifiable patterns of economic and social activity

That is no doubt true, but it would be every bit as true even if the halakha were radically different! In other words, codified arbitrariness will yield distinct concrete realities. So while I'm all for opening up new areas of study and inquiry, I'm a bit skeptical of "rational mysticism," at least in the way you've framed it.

That said, the word "arbitrary" needs defining here. I certainly wouldn't assert that halakha was simply made up on a whim, or that (to give an example) Tefillin was determined to be square as opposed to round on the basis of a coin toss. Clearly these things came about in an organic fashion, in accordance with historical, cultural, theological and ideological considerations.

However, if Tefillin were round, we would no doubt "darshen" all sorts of meaning and symbolism out of that. And I don't believe the celestial wheels would spin any differently whether Tefillin was one shape or another, or whether we tied them (or any other set of psukim) to our ankles, or dangled them from the tusks of elephants. So in that sense (the "meaning" sense), you might say there is a certain arbitrariness to many of the rules, particularly the ritual-related variety.

Temujin said...


Actually, a pair of cylindrical tefillin has been found in the Cairo Geniza (although we have no other examples or literary references). And while one's "rationalist mysticism" label was tongue-in-cheek, the idea that material conditions have contributed to the shaping of law and custom is hardly revolutionary. The Torah certainly acknowledges physical and economic realities and we can empirically observe that its commandments have real-life, physical consequences. We know, for example, from archeological finds and chemical analyses of Second Temple period bones of sacrificial animals, that the Temple monopoly on sacrifices fueled Jerusalem's economy and that these animals were brought from far and wide, as far as Saudi Arabia even. Obviously, Judaism would have looked very different (assuming it would be able to continue), had not a ceremonial and financial centre emerged. Hence, it is a disappointment to Temujin that weird forms of mysticism from which such things as segulas, "Bible codes" and other forms of augury emerge get a welcoming reception, but the study of economics...which so obviously relates to the Almighty's laws which govern our relation to Jewish history is ignored and even opposed as irrelevant secular nonsense.

Temujin said...

Greetings, Rav Hecht, a pleasure to see a fellow Torontonian. This man always looks forward to your articles in the Jewish Tribune and has for a long time intended to contact you or your organization, Nishma.

To comment further on the origins of kapparot, its connection to legitimate sacrifices appears somewhat weak, as it was first mentioned in Babylonia in the 9th century ACE. The reasonable charge that it was a local Gentile custom and the opposition to it by the Ramban and the Shulchan Aruch certainly dents the mystics familiar claim to antiquity and unquestionable legitimacy.