Thursday, April 19, 2012

Flawed Idealists, Hasidim, Prejudice & Storks

The Hasida and the Hasid kind to one's own kind,
ignore the the outsider
Today the 27th of Nissan, is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust remembrance day. Last night I attended a moving ceremony in Sydney. Writer Eliot Perlman told a compelling and vivid account of one aspect of the Holocaust told from the perspective of two witnesses, one a registrar at Birkenau and the other a worker in the crematorium. We heard of a polish grandmother and her brave grandson Tadeus who saved the life of the mother of one of the speakers. Along with remembering, the compelling message was to fight prejudice in whatever form it takes. I dedicate this discussion to those who were murdered and those who survived, and to the victims of other genocides and ethnic based inhumanity including Rwanda, Bosnia, and Liberia that the world failed to prevent in spite of the lessons of the Holocaust.  

My effort to counter prejudice begins with me, extends to my own group, then wider. Over the Passover festival I read a moving story called the “The Ballad of the Monkey’s Wedding”.[1] A Black maid named Willomeena is portrayed with deep respect and affection. This should not be a big deal but unfortunately, it is somewhat rare in recent ultra-orthodox and Hasidic Jewish literature. In one inspiring story a Roma woman named Chungarabi saves the life of the main protagonist at great risk to herself and her husband. Yet, the translator can’t help herself and suggests that perhaps Chungarabi was not a ‘real Gypsy, instead she might have been a descendent of a Jewish child kidnapped by the Gypsies’[2]. I wanted to scream when I read that.

More broadly, I want to explore how people who are conscientious in certain aspects of our lives get it wrong in other areas. I will consider the example of my Hasidic community. My exploration will touch on the stork as a symbol, because this bird is called חסידה Hasida in Hebrew, essentially the same word as Hasid[3], both words relating to kindness and piety. 

UnKosher but kind Stork/Hasida and the Hasidim
Description of the Stork in
morality tale  from 1831
The Hebrew word for the White Stork Hasidah, means "kind" and the reason given for this name is because it does kindness with “her friends”[4]. It is said to actively gather food for its friends[5]. This view extends beyond Jewish sources; the stork has been described as affectionate in a book from the 1830’s that encourages children to be kind like the stork[6].

Despite the positive characterization of the stork, it is a non-kosher bird[7]. This is puzzling, as Non-Kosher birds were thought to have cruel characteristics, “they eat their prey while they are still alive[8], their blood is hot to cruelty and black…it puts cruelty in to the heart” (of the person eating it)[9].  A Hasidic resolution of this problem focuses on the limited scope of the stork’s kindness; “its friends”[10]. Kindness that is restricted in this way is certainly not kosher.

This criticism of the stork resonates for me. In my Hasidic community we have great generosity, giving to the poor is considered simply an act of justice rather than charity[11]. An enduring image from my childhood is of people throwing dollar bills into Mr. Shimshon Stock’s bag as he walked on the backs of the benches, then he came back for a second round with the line “there is a hole in the bag”.  In my own experience, I would spend lunchtimes almost every day as a 14-15 year old visiting sick Jews in hospital, praying with them and chatting. Yet our kindness focused almost exclusively within the community. I find it staggering that I was never told about Martin Luther King Jnr’s “I have a dream speech” and the change he called for.  

While other teenagers have focused their idealism outwardly, our moral teachings directed me inward. For example when I was in London as a 16 year old, I never bothered to visit the sights because I saw that as a distraction from worship. More broadly, we learned to view the sensual with suspicion. In Hasidism we are taught that nothing is neutral. Everything, either contributes to worship or is seen as aligned with “the other side[12]”.

The stork is said to be the most pious of birds, therefor angels have been compared to it[13]. In some commentaries the stork is said to immerse itself in water after mating[14]. Many Hasidim will immerse in water prior to prayers every day, at least in part to purify themselves of any spiritual impurity relating to emission of semen. I wonder if the degree of priority Hasidim devote to the focus on the containment of the physical aspects of life, risks leaving less head space for issues like prejudice. Of course, self-denial could work the other way and sensitize Hasidim to others, including non-Jews and minorities. Either way, meticulous attention to any one area of virtue, be it social justice, ritual or any other cause, does not make us “Kosher”.

Transcendence, idealism, the letter Chet and the number 8
According to the mystics the Hebrew names of everything tells us about its character, the first letter is the most significant[15]. The first letter of both Hasida/the name of the stork and the Hasid is Chet ח. It is the 8th letter and symbolizes transcendence, coming after seven which relates to the days of a week and the normal cycle. The appearance of the letter ח is related to a gateway to another dimension[16].

In striving to go higher, some idealists neglect more mundane worldly obligations to family or others. Nadav and Avihu the two sons of Aaron (the brother of Moses) passionately wanted to add “love to love[17]” and spontaneously brought an authorized offering to the temple[18] with great joy[19]. These two men were said to be closer to God than Moses and in such spiritual ecstasy that their souls left their bodies out of intense longing for God[20].  Yet, in their enthusiasm, they disregarded the authority of Moses, might have been drunk, neglected the ritual washing (unlike the stork), and are even said to show impatience to replace their father and Moses.  “A bit more, and these oldies will die and we will lead the congregation[21]”.

Nadav and Avihu neglected one critical bit of the letter Chet. It is linked strongly to the word for life, Chai, or Chayim as it represents the pulse of life, which includes both running to God but then returning to the world to carry out our obligations here[22].     

Humility and Self criticism
One of the strengths of Hasidim and many idealistic people is an emphasis on humility and Self- criticism. We are told that Aaron was hesitant to carry out his role as the high priest in the initial offering of the new temple. He was concerned of his past failings. Moses tells him, not to worry, “for this, you have been chosen[23]”. Another take on Moses’ reassurance is that it is precisely, “this”, namely, Aaron’s concern that he might not be worthy that is his most admirable quality and makes him worthy to undertake his high role[24].

As we strive to be better, we need to be alert to how we might fall short, especially in areas that are we not focused on. I need to contribute to and care for my own community and “friends” as the Hasida does, but also beyond its limits. There is value in activity, ritual and “washing”, but it takes more than that to be “Kosher”. Like life itself, there is a pulse and a rhythm, one moment to try to ‘touch heaven’ but then the next minute to get back to our task here on earth with all its challenges and its great diversity of precious people.

May the memory of all who perished be for a blessing.

[1] Shapiro, S ed., (1991), An Anthology of Jewish Women’s Writings, Our Lives, Targum Press, Southfield, MI, p.15
[2] Cohen, M, (2007) A Daughter of Two Mothers, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem
[3] Another connection between Hasidim and the stork relates to the Aramaic translation of the word Hasida/white stork as “White/chivarta ”. Hasidim typically face ridicule because of their devotions to the point that “the color drained from their faces”, yet they do not abandon their pious practices (Paneach Raza, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol 28, p.105).  The early history of the Hasidism includes many episodes of mockery, even violence from others who did not share their convictions and practices. This aspect could motivate Hasidim to work for the dignity of all, such Hasidic pioneer of coexistence, Lee Wiseman of Jihadi Jew and .
[4] Talmud, Hullin 63a, Rashi on Leviticus 11:19
[5] Maor HaAfeila, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol 28, p.105
[6] Simpkins, N.S, S.G., (1831), Descriptive Scenes for Children, Boston,
[7] Leviticus 11:19
[8] This is the interpretation of Dores by Rabbenu Tam, Rashi has an alternative view
[9] Ramban on Leviticus 11:13
[10] Chidushei Harim, also attributed to the Rishiner
[11] The Lubavitcher Rebbe in Likutei Sichos
[12] Tanya, R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, chapter 6, “Similarly, all words and all thoughts that are not directed to Gd and to His Will and His service are all garments for the animal soul. For this is the meaning of the term sitra achra — literally “the other side,” i.e., not the side of holiness. Thus, whatever does not belong to the realm of holiness is sitra achra. But what, in fact, does the realm of holiness encompass? (In the Lessons in Tanya version)
[13] R. A, of Germaiza, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol 28, p.105
[14] Chemdat Yamim Part 1, p.69, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol 28, p.105. I have not been able to find any clear reference to this practice in other sources. I found the following statement “Breeding White Storks prefer lowland open habitats of wet pastures, flooded meadows, and shallow lakes and marshes with scattered trees for roosting and nesting.”
[15] Ginsburgh, Rabbi Y, The Hebrew Letters,
[17] Torat Cohanim
[18] Leviticus 10:1
[19] Torah Cohanim
[20] Ohr Hachayim on beginning of Acharie Mot
[21] Torat Cohanim
[22] Ginsburgh, Rabbi Y, The Hebrew Letters,
[23] Rashi to Leviticus 9:7
[24] Mincha Belula, cited in Greenberg, A, Y, Torah Gems, Vol. 3, Y Orenstien/Yavneh Publishing/Chemed Books


  1. At the end of the day, empathy is what was missing in the story of Aaron's sons. It is also missing from those who confine their kindness to those in one's immediate circle. What is kindness exclusively to one's own if not a type of insurance policy - that the kindness will be rewarded in one form or another? As my late grandmother used to tell me: "I don't want you to be good for a reward. I want you to be good for nothing". :)

    1. I like your idea of an "insurance policy" about such kindness being less that the real thing.

      And what a great line, "...want you to be good for nothing". I would imagine she missed the pun, but it helps give her message an extra zing.

  2. I searched "Daughter of Two Mothers" for the phrase ‘real Gypsy, instead she might have been a descendent of a Jewish child kidnapped by the Gypsies’. But it did not appear on the Googlebooks version. Can you provide a page number?

    1. Sorry, I don't have the page number. I read the book at the time I posted. Apart from that one comment, I thought it was a great story.