In defense of unkosher animal toys

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California–The other day, I came across an interesting story, worthy of a Sherlock Holmes tale.

Some time ago in 2011, Lubavitcher women sponsored a special collection for Shaarei Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem.

Deena Yellin writes, “The herd of brightly-colored stuffed animals filled our front porch with all the panache of an overblown Muppets production. They arrived by the dozens in gargantuan bags and boxes – Elmo, Kermit, Big Bird, Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, and enough Beanie Babies to strike envy in collectors everywhere. The cuddly creatures soon covered so much of our home that the cleaning lady surmised we were opening a toy store. In fact, we planned to give them out for free.”[1]

There is more to this story than what meets the eye. Acts of kindness are always appreciated, whether altruistically motivated or not. In this case, the collection conceals an attitude that is not apparent to a bystander reading this story. The real reason the ladies made this collection has more to do with a taboo regarding the depiction of unclean animals.

Now you will hear the rest of the story . . .

Mickey Mouse has been a friend of children for many generations. However, for the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his Hasidim, Mickey and Minnie are persona non grata.

Mickey is not alone; Goofy, Porky Pig, Roadrunner, Winnie the Pooh, Tweedy Bird, Kermit the Frog, Big Bird, are also forbidden to enter your typical Lubavitcher home. In fact, the Rebbe encouraged his followers to use only kosher animals in all their educational materials and play-toys.

At first blush, most of us reading this are probably wondering: What’s the matter with Mickey? Why did the Rebbe come out against many of the Disney characters? At first I thought it might be due to the fact that some people claim Walt Disney was an anti-Semitic. The evidence is inconclusive. For the record, Walt Disney received the B’nai Brith Award in 1955.

Admittedly, Disney sometimes got carried away with some of his caricatures. In his original version of “The Three Little Pigs,” the Big Bad Wolf comes to the door dressed as a stereotypical Jewish peddler. Disney changed the scene after Jewish groups expressed their criticism. In his short 1929 film, “The Opry House,” Disney portrays Mickey Mouse dressed and dancing as a Hasidic Jew.

Portraying Mickey as a Hasid probably irked Rabbi Schnersohn. The Rebbe cites “Halachic” reasons for ruling that Mickey is unkosher for young children. The Rebbe felt that cartoons about impure animals had a spiritually damaging affect upon a young child’s psyche. If you ask most Lubavitchers Hasidim, you will find that most of them feel uneasy about this ruling. Unfortunately, none of the blogs I have read on this topic seems to deal with the wider ecological implications of the Rebbe’s messianic vision of a world without impurity. This is also one of the reasons why Lubavitchers do not have dogs or cats in their homes either. Impure animals “spiritually” harm the child.[2]

In one passage, the Rebbe introduces his rationale:

“Concerning the Days of Moshiach it is written, ‘I shall remove the spirit of impurity from the earth.’ As the footsteps of Moshiach approach ever closer, we should now enjoy a foretaste of the revelations which will be ours in future time, just as concerning Shabbat it is written, ‘Those who savor it shall merit eternal life,’ a phrase which inspired the Friday afternoon custom of tasting the delicacies prepared for Shabbat. Accordingly, it would be advisable to use illustrations only of pure subjects. When choosing toys for infants, buy only representations of kosher animals. Children illustrations and booklets must have only kosher animals, and so on.”[3]

The Rebbe’s exposition raises an important question: Did the Rebbe seriously envision a time when all unclean animals will cease to exist on the planet? Does this mean we have to say farewell to Flipper and Lassie too? Are they also doomed to extinction once the Messiah arrives? What about all the countless insects that are ritually unclean, not to mention the unclean fish? This is a bizarre scenario, one that is alarming for most people concerned with the preservation of endangered species.

There is some evidence the Rebbe subscribed to such an idea, “Why is the pig called ‘chazir’? For in the end-times, the swine shall return to a pure state (le’ha’chazir‘) to us.” Rabbi Schnersohn writes, “In the Messianic Era, when the true Divine nature of every creature will be openly revealed, the pig will be vindicated as a kosher animal.”[4] Possible antecedents for this idea derive from a variety of Midrashic texts. There is a famous verse from the Psalms (146:7) “The Lord sets the prisoners free (matir assurim).” With the help of a pun, God will permit dietary prohibitions (matir issurim). One Midrashic text even notes that the pig will someday become kosher.[4]

Based on this reading, the good news is Porky Pig will someday become kosher. But what about Mickey and Minnie Mouse? What about the Lion King? Biblical and rabbinical literature suggests otherwise.

More seriously, will all animals undergo a physical rebirth to become kosher for the Messianic era? Hardy. No matter how one looks at the Rebbe’s idiosyncratic theology, all of us who love our dogs, cats, hamsters, birds, and fish—may have a serious problem living in a Messianic world without such delightful creatures—all because they are “impure.”

The Rebbe neglects to explain that the terms “pure,” or “impure” are not necessarily a moral indictment on the animal. These terms are only relevant in terms of what is ceremonially permitted as a sacrifice, or for human consumption. Where would we be without bees playing an important role in our planet’s ecology, besides making just honey? In addition, the corpse of an animal only defiles for one day, whereas the corpse of a human being lasts seven days (Mishnah Kelim 1:1). The Mishnah’s logic is compelling. Human beings defile nature more than animals, and this is obvious to anyone who is familiar with the ecological problems of our time.

One of the most beautiful ancient works is the Perek Shira—“The Chapter of Song,” which celebrates the song of Creation, where every creature—clean and unclean—join in melodic harmony. There is a lovely story about how an unclean frog once taught King David a lesson in humility:

He exclaimed to God, “Master of the universe, is there any other creature in Your world that utters more songs and paeans of praise than I? In that instant a frog appears and meets him. A frog then says to David, “Don’t act so boastfully. I utter more songs and paeans of praise than you.”[5]

Even if one subscribes to such a peculiar view, where in rabbinical tradition does it state that all animals, including Mickey Mouse’s relatives will become kosher?

Toward the end of Genesis, in Jacob’s blessings, the aged patriarch compares four of his sons to unclean beasts, e.g., “Judah is a lion’s whelp . . .” (Gen. 49:9); “Issachar is a strong donkey, lying down between the sheepfolds” (Gen 49:14); “Dan shall be a snake by the roadside, a viper along the path that bites the horse’s heels so that its rider falls backward” (Gen. 49:17); “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf, in the morning devouring the prey, and at evening dividing the spoil” (Gen. 49:27). Of all the sons,  Naphtali is compared to a doe, which is a clean animal, “let loose that bears lovely fawns” (Gen. 49:21).

In light of Rebbe’s disdain for unkosher animals, it would seem his legions of followers ought to ask themselves why the Torah has no problem using unclean animals to represent the tribes. Why doesn’t Jacob use only kosher animals instead? Ironically, the Messiah himself is destined to ride a donkey, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zec. 9:9). Of course there is the famous passage from Isaiah 11:6-8, which foresees a peaceful arrangement for all of God’s creatures–pure and impure alike!

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp . . .

Lastly, with respect to pets, animals provide us with many wonderful things, e.g., companionship, love, devotion, happiness, laughter. Most importantly, they teach us how to care for living beings. One must feel great sorrow for generations of Lubavitcher children who have never experienced a loving response from a beloved pet. Children–whether Jewish or otherwise–can learn many wonderful social skills from having “unkosher” pets; animals greatly contribute toward the development of  compassion and respect toward all of God’s creatures.[6]

 animals greatly contribute toward the development of compassion and respect toward all of God’s creatures.[6]

**

Notes:

[1] Deena Yellin, “Stuffed with Love.” http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1070062/jewish/Stuffed-with-Love.htm

[2] When a woman arises out of a mikveh, she must avoid seeing an impure animal.” Exposing the child or an unborn child to a sacred image can have a positive effect upon the child’s soul. Antecedents of this custom may be traced to the Talmud itself, “R. Johanan was accustomed to go and sit at the gates of the bathing place. He said, ‘When the daughters of Israel come up from bathing they look at me and they have children as handsome as I am’” (BT Berachoth 20a). Besides being very handsome, Rabbi Johanan was also very modest! For a Halachic digest on this subject, see Yoreh Deah 178:48 (Rema’s Gloss) Shach #61, which specifies if a woman sees a dog, donkey, ignoramus, or idolater, pig, horse, or a leper—if she is God-fearing, she must re-immerse herself in the water. For additional sources, cf. Sha’arei Orah, Hilchot Niddah, ch. 26; Rokeiach and Kol Bo, Hilchot Niddah, passim.

[3]  Likkutei Sichot Vol. 25,  p. 311.

[4]Several medieval Midrashic works comment on a controversial “The Lord sets the prisoners free (matir assurim),” Psalms (Psa. 146:7). These texts imply that in the Messianic era, God will permit prohibitions (matir issurim). Another Midrashic text notes that the pig will someday become kosher. Cf. Yalkut Shimoni 247:888; Midrash Tehillim 146:5 (Buber ed.).

[5] Introduction to Perek Shirah.

[6]  Incidentally, Lubavitcher Hasidim are not the only ones concerned with the unclean status of Mickey Mouse, evidently the Palestinians of Gaza are also bothered by Mickey’s impurity. According to Palestinian TV,  Mickey Mouse converted to Islam and took on the name, “Mohammed Mouse.” Somehow, I cannot imagine Porky Pig or Lassie becoming Muslim in the near future.

*
Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom in Chula Vista. He may be contacte at [email protected]

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