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Rationalist vs. Mystical Approaches to Shiluach HaKein
What’s the most radical practical halachic difference between rationalists and mystics? I think it might be the mitzvah which appears in this week’s Torah reading: shiluach ha-kein - sending away the mother bird before taking her eggs. (Note that there is a popular incorrect vocalization, due to the Torah using the word for nest as a prefix, when it is vocalized differently; while it’s KAN tzippur, it's shiluach haKEIN.)
According to the rationalist Rishonim - which is actually the majority view - shiluach hakein is all about compassion. It is cruel to take both the mother and her young, because that is destroying two generations of life, and taking advantage of the mother bird’s desire to protect her eggs by not flying away. And though one may take just the eggs, one must send away the mother bird first, so that she does not suffer the distress of actually seeing her eggs being taken. The mitzvah demonstrates the Torah’s great sensitivity to animal life and even their emotions.
According to the Zohar, on the other hand, shiluach hakein has nothing to do with compassion to birds. Just the opposite; it’s about cruelty—not for the sake of cruelty, but rather in order to engineer a celestial process. When one sends away the mother bird, the mother bird is chirping in distress. This sets into a motion a metaphysical process in the celestial realm. The angel appointed over the birds becomes distressed in turn, and he goes and complains to God about the bird’s suffering. God responds, Why am I receiving complaints about the pain of birds, and not about the pain of the Jewish People and the Shechinah in exile? As a result, He decides to release an outflow of compassion on the Jewish People.
Needless to say, from the rationalist perspective, the Zohar’s approach is very strange indeed. It stands in sharp opposition to the traditional understanding of how we encourage God to deal compassionately with us—which is that we should act with compassion. The Gemara states that being compassionate upon animals leads to His treating us with compassion, whereas being cruel to animals leads to God dealing harshly with man.
There is also a very striking practical difference between the two approaches. According to the rationalist approach, if one wants to take the eggs, then sending away the mother bird is a compassionate way to do it—but if one does not want the eggs, then clearly the best course of action is to just leave them and not do anything, and to send the mother bird away would be tzaar baalei chaim. But according to the mystical approach, whereby the mitzvah is about causing distress to the bird in order to set a certain metaphysical process into operation, one should send away the mother bird whether one wants the eggs or not.
For most of history, when food in general and eggs in particular were not to easy to acquire, most people would want to take advantage of finding eggs. But nowadays, people are not interested in taking eggs that they find. Yet those who follow the mystical approach want to send mother birds away regardless, in order to engineer the supernatural process caused by the mother bird’s distress. I have heard of institutions that actually transport groups of people on buses to the forests to chase birds, in return for substantial contributions to their causes; one such institution has been renamed Yeshivat Tzaar Baalei Chaim by its various detractors. And a non-Jewish media site reported about how a "Van Keeps Bringing Kids To Beat Mother Goose In Lakewood, Woman Says."
More recently, I was sent this photo of a Do-It-Yourself Shiluach HaKein Complete Kit that you can buy:
As well as a birdhouse to lure unsuspecting birds to their reproductive doom, the package includes an “egg preserving kit.” This enables you to keep the poor bird’s offspring and preserve your memory of how you created a situation for tormenting birds in order to engineer a supernatural process causing Hashem to have compassion upon our nation, which was more effective than actually acting with compassion and praying to Him. Mi k’amcha Yisrael!
What’s next? Overburdening donkeys to give people the mitzvah of relieving their burden? Creating pacts between people to both lose things so that each can fulfill the mitzvah of returning lost objects? Getting divorced in order to have another opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of getting married? Maybe yeshivah students will join the army in the hopes of going to war and finding a yefas to’ar!
Shiluach HaKein is a striking example of a mitzvah that in the days of the Rishonim was generally perceived in a very rationalistic manner, as per the straightforward understanding of the Torah and its mitzvot, which are about improving character and society; and which, over time, became interpreted as the ultimate in anti-rationalist belief. For a detailed discussion of this topic, see the chapter on Shiluach HaKein in my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism, which you can buy on the museum website at this link.
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