Tuesday, March 05, 2013

What the stork can teach us about the mind and morals of (some) Orthodox Jews

Here's a classic example of sloppy OJ thinking. It was provided in an earlier comment:
The חסידה bird is traife because it only shows compassion for those residing in her own nest.
So many mistakes, so little time. But lets begin at the beginning.

The bird in question (commonly believed to be the stork) is not treif for the reason provided here, but  because the Bible says so. (Lev 11:19 and Duet 14:8.) It is listed with a score of other birds (20 total in Leviticus, 21 total in Deuteronomy) all of which are identified as unfit for consumption by Jews. No special reasons are given.

Later, the Mishna (Chulin 3:6) explains what the listed and unlisted birds have in common. It says kosher and non-kosher bird can be recognized by four features: "every bird that is 1) dores ("a predator") is not kosher. Every bird that has 2) an extra toe, 3) a zefek (crop)  and 4) a korkuvan (gizzard) that can be peeled, is kosher."

A stork is a predator. It eats frogs, reptiles and other birds. Per the Mishna this qualifies it as non-kosher.

Nonetheless, the stork developed a reputation for kindness, a reputation that is evidenced in both Torah and non-Torah sources. It's Hebrew name, hasida, seems derived from hesed the word for kind or pious. On BT Chulin 63a R' Hisda is quoted, saying:
The hasidah is the white stork. And why is it called hasidah? Because it shows
kindness [hasiduth] to its companions. The anafah is the heron. And why is it called anafah?
Because it quarrels [mean'efeth] with its companions.
Several hundred years later Rashi develops this idea, writing on Lev 11:19:
The stork: Heb. הַחֲסִידָה. This is a white dayah, [called] zigoyne [in Old French, cigogne in modern French]. And why is it called חֲסִידָה ? Because it does kindness (חִסִידוּת) with its fellow birds [by sharing] its food (Chul. 63a)
Concurrently, non-Jews were attributing similar characteristics to the stork. For instance, the ancient Greek law about how children must care for their parents, Pelargonia, is derived from pelargo, their word for stork. R' Hisda's idea (above) seems based on a different interpretation of the same observation, namely the fact that storks continue to feed and care for their offspring for a very long time. The Greeks seem to have noticed that the young birds stay with their parents, and imagined the children were providing their parents with care. Meanwhile R' Hisda seems to have believed the storks were feeding each other, rather than their own, older offspring (as Rashi says outright)

In the 18th century Yitzchak Meir Alter (Chidushei Harim),  the first Ger Rebbe, introduced a new wrinkle. 

Following Rambam, he says all of the non-kosher birds have a cruel nature, and asks: What then is the cruelty of the stork which shares food with its companions? 

The obvious answer, of course, is that the stork's cruelty is identical to the cruelty of every other non-kosher bird. Like the eagle, and the heron, and the falcon, the stork is a predator. Predators (arguably) are cruel to the animals they hunt and eat.

But for reasons unknown (I confess to never having seen this particular teaching inside; maybe its clearer there) R' Alter rejects this obvious answer and suggests the stork is cruel because it only cares about its own kind.* I suspect R' Alter was mussering his people and encouraging them to take more responsibility for the well-being of other Jews, but this is just a guess.

*It would be interesting to see if R' Alter criticizes the stork for carrying only about its own family or only about its own species. 

The sloppy-thinking OJ, on the other hand, sees it differently. Instead of exploring the historical context and seeking to understand R' Alter's message, he makes unfounded claims about the nature of storks and the basis of its kosher status. 

Worse, R' Alter's apparent lesson goes right over his head. Instead of doubling down on chesed or making a point to go out and do something charitable for people who belong to other subsects, sects or (horrors) other religions, the sloppy-thinking OJ goes back to his cholent, congratulating himself on having decoded and explained a mystery of kashrus.

Nearly, every OJ knows R' Alter's teaching, but how many take it to heart and seek opportunities to help people from other Jewish groups? Eg: After Sandy, I noticed that areas like Far Rockaway and Sea Gate received assistance from black hat neighborhoods like Monsey, while modern neighborhoods like Oceanside and Long Beach were helped by modern people from Teaneck. Isn't R' Alter discouraging this sort of behavior? Isn't that his real message? Yet, it seems to fall on deaf ears. 


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