Erev Yom Kippur 5774 -- Kavod Shomayim or Public Relations?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
September 13, 2013
Few chareidim today are doing more to break down stereotypes of the chareidi world than Yehuda Shine, a young avreich from Beit Shemesh – you remember, the one who unfurls a long banner at social justice protests reading, "Chareidim and secular Jews refuse to hate another."
At one of those rallies, a secular animal rights activist approached Yehuda and demanded to know why chareidim are so indifferent to the suffering of innocent animals. Yehuda initially had no idea what the activist was talking about: He then knew nothing about commercial production methods using animals. And the secular activist could not understand Yehuda's confusion, since he knew nothing of the Torah's commandment to avoid tzar ba'al chayim (pain to animals) – among the first mitzvos every cheder yingel learns about and a concept at the root of many different halachos.
Eventually, Yehuda grasped some of the issues that so exercised the young activist, and announced that he was forming "B'Chemla – Chareidim mitnadvim l'ma'an chayot (Chareidim volunteering on behalf of animals). He printed a flyer jammed with Torah sources discussing different aspects of preventing tzar ba'alei chayim. At the top of the flyer in big letters is the logo: Rachamim (mercy) is a Jewish value. Below is the verse: "And His mercy is on all His creations."
Ostensibly, the flyer was designed to attract chareidi volunteers (which it did to some extent), but primarily it was for distribution at secular gatherings to present the wealth of Torah material on the subject to those completely unfamiliar with it.
For his first project, Yehuda chose the treatment of the chickens used in kapparos prior to Yom Kippur, a practice that has long targeted by Israel's proliferation of animal rights groups. The latter view the swinging of the chickens itself as cruel, and many of them are vegetarians opposed to the killing of birds for food. Their approach could obviously not be Shine's.
Instead he focused on the treatment of the chickens, both before and after use. The chickens are often kept stuffed in containers for days prior to use, many are shlugged more than once, and often they are dumped unceremoniously in garbage bins, without ever being slaughtered for the poor. Where the chickens either became treifos as a consequence of their rough treatment or are not schected, the whole purpose of the mitzvah is defeated.
Efforts at raising the consciousness of the Torah community proved successful. The last two years, Rabbi Eliezer Schlesinger of the Jerusalem Religious Council arranged places for the purchase of chickens supervised by veterinarians. And the BaDaTz (hardly an organization suspect of being inordinately sensitive to the opinions of non-religious outsiders) published prominent notices that anyone who performed the kapparos on a chicken used more than once risks transgressing the prohibition against theft [from the poor] on Erev Yom Kippur.
SHINE'S WORK WAS BROUGHT to the attention of David Amichai, director of Jerusalem's Museum on the Seam (near the old Mandelbaum Gate) by various animal rights activists. When the museum opened an exhibit on the treatment of animals, Amichai, the son of the celebrated poet Yehuda Amicha and himself a ba'al teshuva, came up with the idea of an evening on the Torah approach to the treatment of animals. He invited both Yehuda Shine and veteran Eidah HaChareidis leader Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim to speak.
The museum was packed, with the overflow sitting on the fire escapes to listen to the lengthy presentations. They were not disappointed. Rabbi Pappenheim related that his children wanted to buy him a new shtreimel to replace the worn from his youth, but he told them he would accept only a synthetic shtreimel. He continued that, in his view, there is an element of chilul Hashem in the production of shtreimels today when the world has become far more sensitized to the suffering of animals.
The secular animal rights activists were astounded. They had long thought of the chareidi community as their principal adversaries in the fight for animal rights, and here many were learning for the first time that the Torah is the original source for concern with the suffering of animals. David Amichai told me the audience would have kept Rabbi Pappenheim and Yehudah Shine there all night. They bombarded them with questions about the sources they had quoted: Who's Rambam? What's Midrash?
Since then, both Shine and Rabbi Pappenheim have been flooded with invitations to speak to secular groups. The day I spoke with Yehudah Shine, he told me that he had already received four such invitations. Rabbi Pappenheim's comments were carried around the world on some of the most widely viewed sites, collecting hundreds of thousands of "likes."
Shine's agenda is to breakdown the fear of chareidim and the aura of strangeness that hangs over the community so that chareidim will one day be welcome to speak about Jewish ethics in every school in Israel. The response to the evening at Museum HaTefer only strengthened his belief in that vision.
AS ONE WHO HAS WORKED over the last fifteen years, in presenting the Torah and the Torah community to the outside world, I sometimes worry that in trying to present the Torah in a favorable light to outsiders I may end up distorting the Torah. And I wonder whether being on the frontlines constantly fielding questions has not made me too ready to accept criticisms of our world.
I confess I had some of the same misgivings reading news reports of Rabbi Pappenheim's presentation. I wondered how he could link chilul Hashem to the standards of secular animal rights organizations, many of which deny the greater value of human life over those of animals. I also wondered how it was possible to suggest that yareim and shleimim going back to the Ba'al Shem Tov did something wrong, much less created a chilul Hashem..
Fortunately, I have known Rabbi Pappenheim for years and long admired him as one of the most original thinkers in the Torah world. So I called him up with my questions.
I quickly learned that there was not one word of pandering in his presentation to the secular audience. He described to me, with a good deal of passion, how the animals whose fur is taken for shtreimels are caught in traps, where they often remain for days, literally ripping themselves apart in an effort to escape. Moreover, the tails or other parts of fur from which the shtreimels are made in countries like China are often removed from the animal alive to preserve a more beautiful sheen. He greatly doubts that was done in the Ba'al Shem Tov's time because the shtreimels that he has seen from earlier generations do not have the same quality of sheen.
Rabbi Pappenheim readily agreed that there can be no question of chilul Hashem with respect to any action we are commanded to perform. That is why Hashem told Avraham to listen to Sarah and send away Yishmael, despite Avraham's misgivings that he would be perceived as treating his child cruelly. On the other hand, just because something is permitted does not mean that there can be no chilul Hashem, he told me. He cited a Rema which speaks of permitted acts from which we should refrain because of the quality of mercy. And he pointed out that the examples of chilul Hashem cited by the Gemara in Yoma involve acts which are halachically permitted.
Rabbi Pappenheim explained why he believes the standards of chilul Hashem can change as societal norms change. It is permitted to benefit from acts of a gentile, involving tzar ba'alei chayim, as long as the gentile acted for his own benefit, and not as the agent of a Jew. In earlier times, when cruelty to animals was not on the gentile world's radar screen – as evidenced by widespread hunting for sport, cockfighting and dog-fighting -- Jews, as a small minority among the gentiles, did not have an obligation to enlighten them. But today, when sensitivity to animal suffering is widespread, Rabbi Pappenheim argues, Jews, who brought the concept of tzar ba'alei chayim to the world, should be no less sensitive.
ABOUT TWO THINGS RABBI PAPPENHEIM was clear. Human life takes precedence over animal life. The use of animals to benefit man is the fulfillment of their highest purpose, as long as suffering is kept to the minimum.
He strongly urged the animal rights activists present not to press for anti-fur legislation in the Knesset that would outlaw religious items. Such an approach, he argued, would be perceived by Torah Jews as a frontal attack on religion and prove ineffective. Only an informational campaign about what is involved in the production of shtreimels would have an impact over time, he argued. That argument proved successful. David Amichai told me that the biggest secular animal rights groups are now pushing anti-fur legislation with an exemption for religious items.
Nor was that the only cooperation with secular groups as a result of the meeting at Museum HaTefer. A few days after the presentation, Yehuda Shine was approached by the Israeli ambassador to Poland for more information about the Torah's prohibition of tzar ba'alei chayim to help him combat anti-shechitah legislation in Poland. Here too, a number of secular Israeli animal rights groups joined in taking the position that shechitah is the most humane form of animal slaughter and opposed the Polish legislation as motivated by anti-Semitism.
As yet another outgrowth of the meeting, a group of investors has gotten together for the purpose of creating synthetic shtreimels that will be virtually indistinguishable from fur ones and cost one-third the price. Rabbi Pappenheim, whose memories of Jerusalem go back eighty years, can still remember the gradual replacement of the traditional silk brocade Yerushalmi garb by much cheaper synthetic materials and fully expects the same thing to one day happen with shtreimels.
All these results demonstrate once again how much can be achieved today by individuals blessed with imagination and a spirit of entrepreneurial initiative to "do for Torah."
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Jewish Ethics, Social Issues
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