Just Injustice

As we draw nearer to the High Holy Days and lists of classes, seminars and workshops pop up on synagogues’ bulletins and Web sites, a saying of a very wise man comes to mind. He said that it is easier to study Talmud for 70 consecutive years than to change one character trait. In this week’s parsha, Ki Tetze, this concept is taken to the extreme. Anyone who reads the opening chapter of the parsha with a 21st-century mentality is utterly shocked by the seemingly atavistic and even barbaric attitude the Torah shows.

One is the case of the captive woman, in which the Torah allows soldiers to bring home captive enemy women and marry them. The second example is that of the rebellious son, in which the Torah sanctions the death penalty for a teenager who does not obey his parents and engages in hedonistic activities.

How can the Torah, people ask, be so cruel toward the captive women or the rebellious son? Wouldn’t it be better to ban the practice of capturing women for marriage and to find a way to settle the differences of the rebellious son and his parents without using the electric chair?

The answer is that there is no other way, because human nature is not easily changed. In the captive woman’s case there is recognition of the tremendously detrimental effect going to war has on our morals and values. The absolute power of having the ability to determine who shall live and who shall die, can absolutely corrupt the soldier’s soul, be it the most innocent, pure and tender soul ever. Throughout the ages, conquering armies the world over raped, tortured and killed civilians, wreaking havoc in their path, and that trend doesn’t seem likely to change in the future (remember Abu Ghraib, Haditha, etc.).

Instead of trying to uproot this tendency, the Torah goes around it. It allows the soldier to bring the captured woman back home and to marry her after she mourns her parents for a month. No longer in the heat of the battle, experiencing for a whole month the agony of his captive — and maybe also having to face his wife-to-be’s wrath — tying the knot doesn’t seem like such a good idea. Then the Torah tells the disappointed soldier to let the woman go free, not to sell her and not to cause her any more suffering. So what seemed to be a license to inhumane behavior turns out to be a genuine concern about morality and human dignity.

The case of the rebellious son plays out on a totally different level, where the Torah actually tricks the parents into revealing their personal lives to the court. Consider for a moment that these parents are willing to bring their child to justice for being a glutton, binging and maybe talking back to them (“Don’t you use that tone with me, young man!”), and demand for him the death penalty. What would have happened if they did not have that option? Their child would probably join the statistics of hundreds of thousands of kids who are reported annually as physically, sexually and emotionally abused by their parents. If the court would not execute him for them, the parents were probably capable of doing it themselves. And what child would want to live with parents like these?

The solution the Torah presents us with is brilliant in its simplicity. The parents are told that they can bring their defiant teenage son to court, where he will receive his punishment. The judges, meanwhile, find myriad reasons to reject the parents’ plea; a procedure the rabbis solidified by setting rules that require the parents to look alike, talk in sync and more. As a result, there was never an execution, God forbid, of a rebellious child. But the untold part of the verdict, which had to remain hidden from the public lest it lose its power, is that the court would take custody of the child and relieve him of his dreadful parents. Thus the Torah established the first family service system with an extremely sophisticated filter — the parents themselves. In that manner the Torah avoids the all-too-familiar problem of social workers, who forcefully separate families because of fraudulent reports or misjudging families of a lower socioeconomic level.

In both cases, what seemed a preposterous violation of human rights turns out to be an attempt to bypass our negative character traits in order to provide immediate remedy. The quest to actually change those traits is lifelong and one that it should never be too late to embark on.

Haim Ovadia is now the rabbi of Congregation Magen David of Beverly Hills.

Human Atonement or Animal Cruelty?

Early morning on the day before Yom Kippur, groups of Jews will be gathering to hold squawking chickens by the feet and twirl them over their head while chanting a prayer. After the twirling, the chickens will be ritually slaughtered and given to the poor.

Kaparos, literally atonements, which has been performed in Los Angeles at the Santa Monica Chabad House and at Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad, is one of the strangest-looking customs in Jewish liturgy. It is done to inspire repentance and to impress upon its adherents the seriousness of Yom Kippur. However, the practice has inspired the ire of animal rights groups, who consider it cruel to the chickens, and many are urging that Jews who practice this custom do so using money instead, which is an acceptable substitute.

Kaparos is not a mitzvah but a post-talmudic minhag (Jewish custom). It originated sometime during the middle ages. The idea was that since the Hebrew word for man (gever) and rooster were the same, a man’s sins — and his punishments — could be symbolically transferred to the rooster, in the same way that during the times of the Temple, people bought animal sacrifices as penance for their sins. Therefore, while slinging the chicken during kaparos, the person chants, "This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This chicken shall go to its death, and I shall proceed to a good, long life and peace."

Today, some people perform kaparos by swinging a bag of money over their head and then donate that money to charity.

Yet, kaparos is not a substitute for repentance, and it should not be assumed that someone could achieve penance and absolution by having a chicken take the rap for all their transgressions.

"The chicken does not replace me," said Rabbi Shneur Zalman Schmukler, a shochet (ritual slaughterer) who arranges kaparos with chickens at Yeshivat Ohr Elchonon Chabad. "The chicken is an innocent chicken. The chicken will not take the sin away from me, but what the chicken does is impress upon me, that what is happening to the chicken [should be] happening to me and this will arouse in me feelings of teshuvah [repentance]. Watching the chicken get slaughtered awakens you to the physical gravity of Yom Kippur."

Schmukler said that using chickens for kaparos is a deep and mystical kabbalistic custom, that combines the maximizes the forces of chesed (lovingkindness) in the world.

"Early morning is a time when God’s middos hachesed [kind attributes] shine, and the reason we slaughter the chicken is to oppress the powers of gevurah [restrictions]," he said. "Blood is a symbol of anger, because when you are angry the blood goes to your face, and when we take the blood out a chicken, we make a tikkun [spiritual correction] and sweeten the energies of the world. This is what kaparos is on a spiritual level."

But animal rights activist feel that kaparos produces particularly sour physical energy. Los Angeles kaparos locales are often the site of protests and demonstrations against the way the chickens are handled. These activists say that the chickens are cooped up in cages that are too small, without enough air or water, and that chickens are often harmed before they are slaughtered in the general chaotic atmosphere of the kaparos ceremony.

"Typically, we get a whole lot of letters [protesting kaparos] from grass-roots animal-rights groups at this time of year," said Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles (SPCA), a law-enforcement organization. "The theory is if you swing the chickens around, then you can use the chickens to eat. But if the swinging around causes them injury and suffering, then they are no longer qualified for kosher slaughter…. People have found suffering chickens with their necks broken but still alive. We wish that it would stop. While we are constantly assured that they are swung gently, it doesn’t preclude accidents."

Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns (UPC), a Virginia- based organization that, according to their Web site, is "dedicated to the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl," said that her organization has been lobbying the SPCA and rabbis for years to intervene and require some basic humane treatment of kaparos birds.

"It is great if people choose a compassionate alternative, and instead of twirling a chicken they toss up a coin instead," said Matt Prescott, campaign coordinator for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

But Schmukler says that the really proper way to do kaparos is with chickens, and that the protesters are wasting their time.

"People slaughter and eat chickens all over the city," he said. "What is the difference [between us and them]? They should go to packing houses and demonstrate there."

Kaparos with chickens will take place at Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad, 7215 Waring Ave., Los Angeles, on Sunday, Oct. 5, 6 a.m.-noon. For more information, call (323) 937-3763.