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Terumah, Dolphins and the Super Bowl

In preparing the tabernacle the Israelites slaughtered many animals, among them dolphins. These were the requirements detailed in this week’s portion.

“And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece…. Exactly as I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings—so shall you make it.” (Exodus 25)

Dolphin skins?, one might ask. Yes, even dolphins.

This past week we read about Japan’s slaughter of dolphins. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy has brought this practice to light when she tweeted, “Deeply concerned by inhumaneness of drive hunt dolphin killing. USG opposes drive hunt fisheries.” (The notion that virtues and morals can be reduced to 140 characters would be the subject of another post.) The Japanese have argued that the practice is deeply rooted in tradition saying, “Dolphin fishing is a form of traditional fishing in our country.”

What is it about this practice that strikes Western societies as cruel and inhumane? Is it that dolphins hold some special place in our hearts? Is it the gruesome images of the slaughter of hundreds of dolphins in a tranquil cove? Why is this practice more abhorrent than the (unseen) overfishing of the world’s oceans? Is this as the Japanese wish to frame the question a clash of civilizations, of Eastern mores offending Western values or is it instead as the United States argues the protection of what should be a universal ethic?

And I wonder what would happen if I were required to construct a tabernacle according to my tradition’s dictates? Would this portable sanctuary look as the Torah describes; would it be adorned with lapis lazuli and acacia wood, tanned ram skins and dolphin skins? Would I be required to herd the dolphins slaughtered by the crashing of the waves of the Sea of Reeds, as the rabbis suggest? To what ends would I travel in order to give my tradition life?

Would I say yes to the tradition or no to the slaughter of dolphins? Although I would of course never go to such lengths, I am left with the larger question: what happens when tradition conflicts with contemporary mores? How do we decide? When do we lean into the tradition? When do we side with contemporary society?

The early Reform rabbis argued in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform: “We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.” In essence they taught that when it comes to a tallis and kippah, permitted and prohibited foods, sacrifices and priestly adornments we side with contemporary society. We side with the tradition only when it agrees with universal ethical dictates.

I continue to wonder.

Come Sunday most, if not all, Americans will gather around their televisions to watch the Super Bowl. Most as well have come to recognize the terrible costs this game has upon players’ bodies, most especially because of concussions. No matter how many rules and precautions the NFL develops, players will continue to suffer harm, during their years of playing and for many, throughout their lives. There is little doubt that at some point in Sunday’s game a player will lie injured on the field with doctors and trainers kneeling around him. The announcers will offer platitudes about the NFL’s new protocols and hopes that the player’s injury does not end his career. The TV will cut to a commercial. We will take the opportunity to replenish our food or drinks. The game will soon continue. The tradition of Sunday football moves on.

And I will continue to watch. I love the game. I even love the commercials. I love the spectacle and tradition of Super Bowl Sunday.

And I continue to wonder. Who am I to criticize the inhumaneness of the killing of dolphins?

We choose tradition more often than we think.