Volume 3, Number 177
'There's a Jewish story everywhere'

Sunday-Monday, August 30-31, 2009

When ritual observance leads to unethical behavior

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO—Last year I was asked to comment on the Israeli film My Father, My Lord that was shown during San Diego's Jewish Film Festival. It was a very difficult film to watch. It is about a Chassidic Rebbe's need to serve God overshadowing his obligation to protect his son. This leads to disastrous results.

I found one of the scenes in the movie completely unbelievable. The Rebbe's young son discovers a bird nesting on one of the yeshiva window sills. After it is shown to the Rebbe, he eagerly shoos the mother bird away from her eggs. He does this in fulfillment of the Torah's mitzvah of kan tzipor: "If, along the road, you chance upon a bird's nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life." (Deut. 22:6-7)

I did not believe the scene in the movie because what the Rebbe did was completely contradictory to the Torah's intent. In the mitzvah of kan tzipor the Torah is trying to protect the mother bird. According to our Etz Hayim Torah commentary: "...taking a mother bird with its offspring would mark one as ruthless." In My Father, My Lord shooing away the bird is an act of cruelty and ruthlessness because there is never any intent on eating the eggs and the mother bird may now never return to the disturbed nest.

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I was therefore surprised to learn that the mitzvah of kan tzipor is indeed practiced today by some Orthodox Jews. They believe that fulfilling the mitzvah is a cure for infertility. In A.J. Jacob's book, The Year of Living Biblically, he writes of his mixed feelings after watching the ritual being performed:

"On the subway home, I'm euphoric. I just followed a rule that maybe a few dozen people in America have followed. I'm one of the faithful elite. But that feeling soon fades to worry. If there is a God, did I just please Him? Or did I maybe get Him angry? If His nest egg rule is meant to teach compassion, wouldn't it have been compassionate not to pester the pigeons with a high-wattage flashlight and a crazy dance?" (p. 188)

I am a firm believer in the importance of performing mitzvot, but there is a danger when one performs mitzvot as a type of rote Jewish behaviorism. This is especially so when performing a mitzvah perverts its original intent.

The mitzvah of kan tzipor is not a magical rite to insure the birth of babies but an expression of compassion, Shechita (the ritual slaughter of animals for consumption) should lead us to be sensitive and respectful when taking of life, even for food, and this sensitivity should lead us to respect and deal ethically with those who labor to produce that food. (For information about the Conservative Movement's Hekhsher Tzedek program click here:

There is a danger of perverting Judaism when the minutiae of religious observance are performed as ends in themselves and not for a higher purpose. We should not perform mitzvot because we think doing so will help us rack up points on a heavenly scoreboard, but because doing so leads us to living holy, Godly, and compassionate lives.

Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue (Conservative) in San Diego. His email:

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