It’s a classic curse: You should live in interesting times. The Jewish world has never had a dull moment, and this week was no exception.
Earlier in the week a curious piece of news crossed my screen. A group of Brooklyn residents, Jews and non-Jews, are suing four Brooklyn rabbis over the performance of one of the more curious (and offensive) rituals in the Jewish world: that of shlogn kapores, where one swings a chicken over one’s head and recites the phrase,
זה חליפתי, זה תמורתי, זה כפרתי, זה הכסף ילך לי ואני אלך ואכנס לחיים טובים ארוכים ולשלום.
Zeh halifati, zeh temurati, zeh kapparati, zeh hakkesef yelekh li va-ani elekh ve-ekkanes lehayyim tovim arukkim ulshalom.
This is in my stead. May this be my substitute; may this be my atonement. This money will go to tzedaqah / charity, that I may enter the path to a good, long life, and to peace.
The meat of the dead chicken is to be donated to a needy person, or (even better), it is sold and then the money is to be donated. (Calls to mind the scapegoat; goal is that tzedaqah helps us with atonement - lessens the severity of the decree. So why the chicken?)
Now it is worth pointing out, first of all, is that this is nothing new. My mother tells me that when she was a little girl, she witnessed her grandmother perform this ritual in Boston. And it is enshrined in the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 605:1), the 16th-century codification of Jewish law and custom that features voices from both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic world. The custom was apparently widespread, and goes back much further than the 16th century. (I have also been told by members of this community that it was performed in Iran not only before Yom Kippur, but also to help sick family members.)
Today, many rabbinic authorities (including myself) agree that this practice is outmoded, and surely violates the mitzvah of tza’ar ba’alei hayyim, our obligation to refrain from causing unnecessary suffering to animals. As such, the traditional chicken-swinging is not permissible under Jewish law. The preferred practice is to put some money in an envelope and swing the envelope over your head, and then donate the money to tzedaqah. (Not quite as dramatic, of course, but equally effective.)
Nonetheless, there are many in the Jewish world who still use chickens, and the aforementioned lawsuit alleges that the number of practitioners in Brooklyn has been growing, and that it is becoming a public nuisance: live or half-dead chickens running around city streets, blood and chicken parts left to foul the environment, and so forth. Furthermore, many of the chickens are not donated to charity or to people in need, but merely end up in the garbage. They estimate that as many as 50,000 are being used in Brooklyn. If this latter charge is the case (and given the volume, it seems likely, since the logistics of donating and processing 50,000 chickens at once for charitable purposes seem daunting at best), then this ritual on such a scale also grossly violates the mitzvah of bal tashhit.
So that was one piece of news. The second came from Israel, where the newly-appointed Minister of Religion, David Azoulay of the Shas party, who in an interview on IDF radio dismissed Reform Jews as being not really Jewish:
“The moment a Reform Jew stops following the religion of Israel, let’s say there’s a problem. I cannot allow myself to call such a person a Jew.”
When he was asked specifically about American Reform Jews, Mr. Azoulay referred to people who “try to fake and do not carry out the religious law properly, and give it other interpretations. These are Jews who erred along the way.”
When the inevitable uproar ensued, including a rebuke from PM Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Azoulay offered a sort of half-apology:
“It’s clear to everyone that Jews, even though they sin, are Jews. Having said that, we see with great pain the damage that Reform Judaism has done, which has brought the greatest danger to the Jewish people of assimilation. We will continue to pray that the entire Jewish people returns to the faith and we will do everything to be a beacon of light and values to everyone.”
Not much of an apology, eh?
It is worth noting that lest we might be inclined to think that he directed his remarks solely at Reform Judaism, he was merely speaking in shorthand. I am certain that Mr. Azoulay feels the same way about us (i.e. the Masorti / Conservative movement): that we are misguided sinners who have been led astray by contemporary rabbis such as myself. It is likely that anybody who dares think that it might be better to swing some money in an envelope over your head rather than a chicken prior to Yom Kippur might be a sinner.
And add to this that the Israeli cabinet earlier in the week reversed certain reforms aimed at making conversions easier for non-Jewish Israelis, and we can see a definite shift to the religious right under PM Netanyahu’s new coalition, which includes members of the religious parties.
The good news for all these guys is that we have no shortage of zealots in our national history to refer to, and we encountered one of them in today’s parashah. In fact, he’s the title character: Pinehas.
You see, we did not actually read the complete tale about him today. The real story about Pinehas was buried at the end of last week’s parashah. And there is a good reason for it. When the rabbis divided up the Torah into 54 parashiyyot, they often (or so it seems) placed the most interesting, relevant, or homiletically potent tidbits in the opening passages. Now that is not always the case, and of course I cannot prove this, but it makes sense - we’re more focused on the first aliyah because we read it four times over the course of the week.
In this case, it seems as though the rabbis who came up with the division of parashiyyot deliberately placed the introduction of Pinehas prior to the parashah named after him, which of course leads us to ask why?
Last week, at the end of Parashat Balaq, the Israelites had taken up with Moabite women (the Torah uses the word “liznot,” to whore), and God was not happy. In an egregious demonstration of zeal, Pinehas killed a such an illicit couple by sticking a spear through both of them at the same time. At the beginning of today’s parashah, God seems to reward Pinehas.
But then something curious happens: you can’t see this in your humash, but in the Torah scroll itself, the “vav” in the word “shalom” is broken in half.
The suggestion is this: God rewards Pinehas for standing up for the mitzvot, for fulfilling God’s word and turning back God’s anger, and so forth. The medieval commentators generally praise Pinehas for his zeal. But they miss something: that the passion of Pinehas is, quite simply, murderous. It is destructive. Rashi describes him as “burning with anger to get revenge,” but that characterization is positive because Pinehas shares God’s anger. The broken vav suggests that although Pinehas stood up for God and against the poor behavior of the Israelites, his shalom, his peace, is fractured. It’s broken.
The theology to which I subscribe does not include God as condoning murder and anger. I don’t believe in the God of anger, of jealousy, of murderous passion, even though those episodes are described frequently in the Torah.
Rather, I believe in the God of love, of compassion, of healing, of wisdom, of derekh eretz, respect. And so do you, and so do they ancient rabbis who were involved with producing our liturgy: when we recite the Shelosh Esrei Middot, the Thirteen Attributes of God, quoted in Exodus 34:6-7, on holidays and particularly on Yom Kippur, we include the good attributes and leave off the negative ones that follow it. We effectively truncate our understanding of God to moderate God’s apparent anger, vengefulness and zealotry.
We are not zealots, like Pinehas. We do not fulfill our Jewish obligations through violence and terror. We do not blindly pursue what we perceive to be God’s word with no appreciation for the damage it may cause. We can leave that for fringe groups like the Islamic State, which rules through terror and violence.
Rather, we have to consider the world in which we live, a world in which thousands of dead chickens left for sanitation workers to take care of is unacceptable. A world that is much more universalistic in its outlook, in which we have to try to get along with each other, even when we do not see eye-to-eye. A world in which my understanding of God and halakhah may not match yours, but we still agree to live side-by-side respectfully. That’s the world of those who do not subscribe to the mindset of Pinehas.
The Jewish world is fractured enough, and there are fewer and fewer of us. I understand that some in this world may not approve of our brand of Judaism, or of Reform. Some members of our tribe do not want to accommodate modernity. But I hope that we can all agree that zealotry in all its forms is bad, and it is our duty as contemporary Jews, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, and Haredi, to prevent the zealots in our midst to gain a foothold.
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 7/11/2015.)