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My foreword for Rabbi Yonassan Gershom’s Book, “Kapporus Then and Now: Toward a More Compassionate Tradition”

Kol hakavod (kudos) to Rabbi Yonassan Gershom for writing this splendid, much needed book, arguing that Jews should practice the ritual of Kapporos using money rather than chickens. He is the ideal person to write such a book for many reasons:

1. He is very knowledgeable on Jewish teachings, especially with regard to those about the proper treatment of animals. These include:

Jews are to be rachmanim b’nei rachmanim (compassionate children of compassionate ancestors), emulating God, Whose compassion is over all His works (Psalms 145:9).

Compassion to animals is a test for righteousness because, as Proverbs 12:10 indicates, “The righteous person considers the life of his or her animals.”

Compassion to animals is so important in Judaism that it is part of the Ten Commandments, which indicates that animals, as well as people, are to be permitted to rest on the Sabbath day.

A Jew must feed his or her animals before sitting down to a meal. The great Jewish heroes Moses and King David, were deemed suitable to be leaders because of their compassionate treatment of sheep during the time they were shepherds. In short, Jews are to avoid tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, causing sorrow to animals.

2. Rabbi Gershom is a Breslov Hasid, so he is very familiar with the thinking of Hasidim about the use of chickens for Kapporos. He is not an outsider who feels he can and should tell practitioners of Kapporos that their practice is irrational and has no redeeming positives. He recognizes that one cannot change a traditional practice without first understanding what it is, where it came from, and what it means to the practitioners. So he carefully explains the history of the rite and why Hasidim and other religious Jews find it meaningful. Most importantly, he eloquently explains how the purpose of seeking compassion from God during the “Ten Days of Repentance” between the start of Rosh Hashanah and the end of Yom Kippur can better be carried out using money rather than chickens.

3. He and his wife have long lived on a hobby farm where they raise chickens and other animals, consistent with the powerful Jewish teachings on compassion mentioned above. Hence he is sensitive to how serious the mistreatment of chickens is, before and during the Kapporos ritual. He explains that while initially the ritual was carried out using chickens that were raised and treated with care by the practitioners, nowadays massive numbers of chickens in cages are transported long distances by trucks, are often not given sufficient food and water, and mishandled during the ritual by people who are not used to handling chickens. As Rabbi Gershom explains, holding chickens by the wings during the ritual is very hurtful to the birds and they only appear calm because they are playing dead, as they instinctively do when they are attacked by another animal.

4. He properly sees his role as a bridge between animal rights activists, most of whom are secular and/or non-Jewish and often act in ways that are counterproductive, and practitioners of Kapporos, who do not recognize that they are performing a custom based on transgressing Jewish teachings about compassion to animals, and thereby committing an act that is not recognized as positive in the Jewish tradition.

5. Rabbi Gershom has a very clear, conversational style of writing, scholarly yet very readable, and he explains complex issues very well. He is careful to put issues in context. He is not a polemicist, but seeks common ground and solutions. He uses examples from his own personal experience and also cites authorities.

In summary, he is the ideal person to argue that Jews should use money rather than chickens for Kapporos and he does it splendidly in this groundbreaking book. I strongly recommend it, hope it will be widely read, and that his message will be heeded.

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