SHEMINI: Why the Chasida Isn’t a Kosher Bird

Among the creatures listed in the kashrut section of our sidra is a bird called the chasida (Lev 11:19) which Rashi identifies as the stork. “Why is it called chasida?” asks R’ Yehuda rhetorically in the Talmud (Chullin 63a). Relating the name to the root chesed, he replies: “Because it performs kindness with its fellows”.

A massive question presents itself. Lest we have forgotten, the Torah does not list the names of any kosher birds. Those which are kosher are known to us from the oral tradition. Thus the chasida, this ‘pious’ bird that does kindness with its mates, is, like all the others listed, a non-kosher bird. But if it is compassionate, why isn’t it kosher?

This question is addressed by R’ Yitzchak Meir Alter, the first Gerer Rebbe, known as Chidushei haRim (1799-1866), as well as R’ Yisrael of Ruzhin (1796-1851). Both supply identical answers, no doubt following a common source unknown to us: This bird directs its kindness exclusively towards its fellows and does not help other species.

In showing chesed to others of its kind, this bird has done enough to be labelled chasida. But this is insufficient to be classified as a kosher bird, fit to grace the sanctified table of a Jew.

There is a powerful lesson here which on the one hand appears so obvious it hardly needs to be spelt out, and yet on the other hand is so infrequently articulated it surely does merit elucidation.

One would surmise that the chasida primarily directs her chesed to her young. There is no closer bond, both in the animal world and in human society, than between mother and child. The prophet Isaiah (49:15), speaking in G‑D’s name, compares His deep attachment for the ruins of Zion and the Temple to the attachment of a mother for her baby. Can a woman possibly forget her nursling? Can she withdraw from feeling solicitude for the child of her womb? Indeed the Hebrew word rakhamim, compassion, is derived from rekhem, womb, the quintessential sanctuary of selfless compassion where mother and unborn child bond as one.

Similarly husband and wife are described in the opening chapters of Genesis (2:24) as basar ekhad, one flesh. So it is in an ideal marriage. He is happy when she is happy; when he is in pain so is she.

We haven’t left first base in the Torah’s scale of human relationships if we haven’t forged a close bond of chesed with our immediate family unit, if our closest kith and kin fail to serve as a rock-firm bulwark of protection, a tower of strength against outside hostile forces.

But that is only the beginning. Our chesed net now needs to expand to take in our “extended family” the brotherhood and sisterhood of klal Yisrael. For if we only show chesed to our own immediate loved ones, maybe it isn’t true chesed at all but simply a self-protectionism. Otherwise why do the parameters of kindness suddenly stop? After all, we share with our fellow-Jew a bond which goes back 3,300 years to our origin as a nation, a shared history of peaks and troughs, despair and renewed hope.

If we experience this sense of closeness with our fellow-Jew no matter who he or she is – not only Jews who share our ethnic background, level of observance, outlook on Israel and socio-political ideology – then we have reached the human equivalent of the chasida. We may justly feel that we can puff out our chests and apply to ourselves the description chasidim (with a lower-case c) because, like the chasida, we perform kindness with all members of our species – in our case, our fellow-Jews.

But lest we have forgotten, the chasida, despite its illustrious name, is not a kosher bird. As the Chidushei haRim and the Ruzhiner clarified for us: its kindness does not extend beyond its own species.

So to whom should we look for examples of ‘kosher’ chesed?

There are today many on the secular left – typically white, middle-class and fervently feminist – who claim to fight for universal peace and global social justice while at the same time actively seeking to undermine heterosexual marriage, gender distinction and the normal family structure. Many of them come from dysfunctional families or have a history of fractured family relationships, bitter divorces and separations, siblings from whom they are estranged or a community with whom they feel angry or embittered. They are usually conflicted souls who have never even learned to love themselves, let alone their nearest and dearest. They will show the most favour to those whom they are most unlike, ethnically and culturally, while scorning those with a similar background who are well-adjusted. If they are left-wing Jewish secularists they will tend to show sympathy to Palestinian Arab terrorists while despising their Israeli fellow-Jews who are defending their common homeland.

This vision of universal brotherhood and sisterhood is not what we are after. It is flawed from the word go. Having often not known the closeness of genuine, nurturing family relationships sans political overtones, these folk cannot even lay claim to the term chasida in human terms. A chasida shows kindness to its own because it is the very basis of chesed. The radical left fight for global revolution not out of any sense of chesed (would they favour the Iranian regime over Israel if such were their motive?) but to further their subversive political agenda.

Those of us, on the other hand, who have the Torah‑revealed will of G‑D as our main or only agenda, know that in order to fulfil the mitsva of loving our neighbour as ourselves we first have to learn to love ourselves, be comfortable in our skin, be happy with our lot. Then we can radiate our love outside. First, like the chasida, to our spouses, our children, our parents, our siblings. Then, also like the chasida, to our fellow-Jews, members of our own tribe.

But it cannot stop there. Because the chasida is not, after all, a kosher bird.

My revered teacher, R’ Eli Munk z.l. used to render the Golden Rule, ve-ahavta le-rei’akha kamokha (Lev 19:18) as “love your fellow human-being like yourself”. In doing so, he was following the precedent of his own mentor, R’ Samson Rafael Hirsch, who writes on this seminal verse (Lev 19:18): This is something which is expected from us towards all our fellow-men in the Name of G‑D who has given all humanity the mutual calling of re’im. Yet I believe R’ Munk’s thinking was subtly different from R’ Hirsch’s. When challenged by a student who queried whether this verse really only applied to fellow-Jews (the literal meaning of rei’akha) R’ Munk fixed him with a penetrating stare and responded firmly in his rich Germanic accent: But you know, one cannot have a split personality! 

R’ Hirsch died in 1888, a quarter-century before the First World War. He could still believe, with Schiller and Beethoven, in the ideal of universal brotherhood. R’ Munk lived through the Holocaust. He saw these universalistic ideals crumble and perish together with the Six Million.

Yet he remained a universalist – for a very pragmatic reason. You cannot have a split personality.

If, as a Torah Jew, you have spent years cultivating the genuine quality of love and compassion – firstly for your nearest and dearest and then, radiating outward to fellow-students and members of your own community and then still further outward to all fellow-Jews, you can’t suddenly stop and say: But he’s a goy! I don’t have to show any consideration for him. Or at least you can. But if you do, it just proves that your chesed isn’t real, hasn’t been internalised. It hasn’t penetrated your inner core, become a part of the true you. Your piety is impious. It is merely external. You are a chasida in name only. You’re not kosher!

It is in the interests of our own neshamot, more than out of any aery-faery feelings of universal love, that we daren’t allow ourselves to develop a split personality.

On Succot, the most joyous of all our festivals, the quintessential Yom Tov of Jewish unity, we equalise great and small, rich and poor within the frail walls of our humble Succa and we caress together in our hand four plants symbolically representing all types of Jew. But we don’t stop there. We wave the arba’a minim plants in all four directions of the compass and up and down in silent petition to G‑D for kind winds – not hurricanes – and benign rains – not floods or droughts – for the whole world. When our Temple stood in Jerusalem we offered up seventy bulls during the festival in symbolic atonement for the sins of the seventy nations of the world as well as in prayer for their wellbeing and for universal peace and harmony between them all. Only after Succot, on Shemini Atseret, did we get around to offering a bull in atonement for our own nation.

The 13th century author of Sefer haChinuch, R’ Aharon haLevi, writing from Barcelona, Spain where, ironically, the Jews were to suffer persecution, torture and expulsion within two centuries, declares (mitsva 431, Loving the Convert): Scripture alludes to the reason… by stating “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10:19) We are thus reminded that long ago we were scorched by that great pain that comes upon every person who finds himself among strangers in a foreign land. Remembering then… what we experienced… we shall be moved to compassion for every human (kol adam) who is so situated. Significantly, R’ Aharon haLevi expands consideration for the ger, the formal convert to encompass every stranger from whatever background. He had no split personality! Nor even more pointedly where he writes (mitsva 527): The quality of mercy is a good characteristic and it is befitting for us, holy progeny, to behave with it in all our affairs, even with idol-worshipping enemies, for our own nobility of character.

In this way does our nation in macrocosm and its members in microcosm – you and I – outgrow the chasida mentality. The superficial, semi-pious piety of the chasida isn’t enough. The chasida isn’t, after all, a kosher bird!

Only once, in Megilat Esther (8:5), does the word kasher appear in Scripture. It does not appear in a food context. Rather it is employed in the same way the word kosher is bandied around colloquially nowadays – a ‘new’ usage which is actually as old as the holy Hebrew tongue and the most authentic of all. To be kosher means to be morally and ethically fit and proper.

Thus there is a level of conduct expected of the Jew over and above external piety. That is when all facets of our moral and ethical personality blend together fittingly and properly in a refined, harmonious whole. That becomes impossible when we decide we are going to love all Jews and hate all goyim. Of course, we are not speaking of loving   enemies who wish to do us irreparable harm and thus have forfeited the title re’a, fellow. Sadly they exist within the fabric of our own community too. But these apart, if the chesed we have cultivated is genuine it will penetrate beyond the walls of our own kith and kin and our own people but will extend to all worthy of the name humanity.

This is a far cry from the “social justice” of the far left which has not been refined through the crucible of true chesed experienced and bestowed within the bosom of the family unit, extended family and community but is instead a warped product of its own rejectionist philosophy borne of dysfunctionality and maladjustment.

Only he or she who has first become a ‘chasida’, performing acts of kindness among her or his own kind, can hope to outgrow this stage and manifest as kosher in the way the Torah expects – demonstrating a fit and proper chesed beyond the confines of his or her own tribe, integrally and without split personality! And only this will bring true tikun olam!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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