Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Kapporos protests: What works and what doesn't

I have given considerable thought in the past few days about what works and what doesn't in the anti-kapporos protests.   As someone who is both a Hasidic Jew and an opponent of using chickens for kapporos, I'd like to offer some thoughts to fellow activists on how to be more effective in the future.

Hasidim viewing the anti-kapporos truck in Brooklyn, September 2013
(Photo copyright by Linda Obuchoska, used with permission.)

To being with, we need to remember that even among "the Orthodox," only a small minority do this ceremony with chickens.  There are over a million Jews in New York City, and, according to recent polls, 40% of them identify as Hasidic or Orthodox.  So even if 20,000 chickens were sacrificed, that is only 5% of the Orthodox community.  It is important to keep this statistic in mind, and not paint all religious Jews with the same angry brush.

In the same vein, not all of these guys are rabbis, either, even if they do have beards and dress in black.  This is standard dress for all Hasidic males, even total ignoramuses. Wearing the clothes is no guarantee of sainthood!  So please, unless you actually know that a particular person really is a rabbi, don't refer to him as such in your articles and blogs.  In many cases, the smart-alecks mouthing off across the barricades may be no more than teenagers acting out -- and every community has those!  (In some news photos they don't even have beards yet, proof positive that they are still youngsters.)  Not that I approve of profanity or sexist remarks, but it is usually not "the rabbis" making them.  And the guy slaughtering the chickens is probably not a rabbi, either -- just a butcher trained in kosher slaughtering.

So please, see the people as individuals, not a bunch of negative stereotypes, even if they do all look alike to you.   (If you saw me walking down the street and did not know I'm a vegetarian activist, what would you assume?)

Now on to the actual protests.  The video sound truck and matching posters used by the group in New York was a great idea -- very eye-catching  and educational, raising questions without insulting the Jewish community.   Putting up posters is a very common way to make statements in the Orthodox Jewish world -- in Jerusalem, the walls are covered with them.   In this video on YouTube and the photos on this page, you can see Hasidim stopping to look and read the posters as they scrolled by on the sides and back of the truck (Unfortunately, the sound in the video is not so good, so  I recommend viewing it in mute.)

Anti-kapporos truck in Brooklyn, September 2013
(Photo copyright by Linda Obuchoska, used with permission.)
On the other hand, out in Los Angeles there were signs calling it "murder," and comparing it with the Holocaust that I (and other Jews) found offensive.   Nor were the Jews at the kapporos centers completely innocent  of bad behavior either -- there were reports of Hasidic men making sexist remarks to women protesters and accusations of antisemitism on both sides.  (Read this post by a LA protester.)  All of which goes to show that shouting insults across the barricades is not a very effective way to change anybody's mind.

So let's take a look at what works and what does not, to improve effectiveness for next year.

If we look at the statements of rabbis who have said to use money instead of chickens, not one of them has called it "murder" or compared it with the Holocaust.   

In Jewish law, the word "murder" applies only to humans.  That may be specie-ist in your eyes, but it is the cultural reality.  If you call it "murder" this is heard as equating the life of a person to that of a chicken in a derogatory way.  Ditto for calling it a "holocaust" or a "genocide."  Judaism has laws against animal cruelty, but "murder" is not one of them.  Using that term only creates hostility to our message.

Not one of the anti-kapporos rabbis has said it is morally wrong to kill a chicken, either.  In fact, not all of them are even  vegetarians -- as for example, the CEO of the Orthodox Union, which certifies kosher meats, but who nevertheless said his org does not endorse kapporos with chickens.   So most of these rabbis probably eat meat, yet many have recently issued statements urging people to use money instead of chickens -- indicating that one does not have to be vegan to oppose this particular ceremony.

Here are some recent examples of statements by major rabbis:

The renowned Haredi kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Kadouri (died in 2006) writes that one should abstain from using chickens for kapparot due to “the cruelty to animals, which is prohibited by the Torah, and kashrut problems.”

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910-1995), a leading authority on Jewish law and head of the Kol Torah yeshiva in Jerusalem, also stopped using animals for kapparot, giving charity instead.

In 2010, Rabbi Steven Weil, CEO of the Orthodox Union of Rabbis in New York City, told the Alliance that the OU opposes using chickens as Kapporos due to the ritual’s “insensitivity” to the birds and the lack of historical foundation.

This poster of me and my rooster, Big Bird,
was featured on the truck and carried
at the protest in New York
 Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Head of Jerusalem’s Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim, stated on video in 2010 that due to the animal cruelty, “It is recommended that one should conduct the atonement ceremony with money.”

Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Congress and Former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, wrote: “Those who wish to fulfill this custom can do so fully by using money.”

Rabbi Shlomo Segal, Rabbi of Beth Shalom of Kings Bay in Brooklyn, states: “The pain caused to the chickens in the process of performing Kapparot is absolutely unnecessary.  Giving money is a more humane method."

In September 2013, the newly-elected Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, David Lau, warned kapparot organizers that the failure to treat animals decently is a violation of religious law.

All of these rabbinic authorities have cited the cruelty and suffering of the birds under modern conditions as a violation of tsaar baalei chayim (the prohibition against cruelty to animals).  That is the most acceptable argument among Orthodox Jews according to Jewish law.  

We should take a cue from that and discourage people from using the words "murder" and "holocaust," and focus instead on the issue of cruelty in the ceremony as it is being practiced today.  (I do not mind the word "torture," though -- I use it myself.)  Remember:  the goal is to stop the use of chickens, so whatever argument works best is what we should use.

I know that vegans and other animal rights activists believe that slaughter of any kind has always been cruel, and they may be right.  But if protesters take this "all or nothing" approach, they get into the very sticky issue of whether the Torah itself is cruel because it allows meat-eating.  And if you say that, then Orthodox Jews will shut down and the dialogue is ended.  People will say things like, "Moses ate meat -- do you think you are better than Moses?  Do you think you are better than the Lubavitcher Rebbe,"  etc.  (I've actually had this argument used on me regarding vegetarianism.)

No rabbi is going to outrightly forbid slaughter or meat-eating, because the Torah permits it, and it is axiomatic that you cannot "forbid the permitted."  However, every person is free to choose for him or herself whether or not to eat meat or, in this case, use chickens in the ceremony.

So everyone in the "End Chickens as Kapporos" movement needs to stop and ask themselves:  Which is more important, to be politically correct in the vegan world, or to be effective in the Hasidic world where the ceremony is being practiced?

This why I have taken the approach of saying that the suffering of kapporos chickens under modern conditions cancels out any good the ceremony might have had in past centuries.    I often tell the story from the classic text, Shicvchei Ha-Ari, about how the great 16th-century kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, told a student that he had lost his place in the World to Come (Jewish equivalent of going to hell) for failing to feed and water his chickens properly.  The cries of those suffering chickens were canceling out all the prayers and Torah learning of that student.  I then point out that I believe the same thing is happening today with kapporos chickens, that the suffering cancels out the prayers.

This way, I do not condemn people's ancestors for having done it with chickens in the past.   I do not condemn Moses for eating meat or the Hasidic Rebbes (who are much more than a rabbi -- a Rebbe is regarded as a saint, somewhat like a guru) for having done it with chickens.  And I NEVER talk about how "customs can be changed" -- that is a secular approach that will be rejected as assimilationist heresy.  Assimilating into the secular world is seen as the greatest threat to modern Jewish survival.  Nor do I use satire with rubber chickens and such, because this is interpreted as antisemites ridiculing the Jews.

Instead, I focus on how you cannot commit a sin in order to do a mitzvah.  (And yes, they do regard this as a mitzvah.  In the Jewish world, a custom (minhag) often takes on the authority of law within specific communities.)  I also focus on the idea of voluntarily choosing not to use a chicken -- even though it is permitted by Jewish law -- as a personal khumra, an extra strictness that one voluntarily takes upon oneself.   Within the Hasidic world, taking on extra khumras as a personal discipline is acceptable -- even admirable! -- behavior that allows a person to make a humane choice without demanding that we "forbid the permitted."

Of course, these arguments take a lot more inter-cultural education and understanding than simply shouting "meat is murder."   It means being able to step into the other culture and respectfully dialogue from within its own worldview, even if you do not agree with it.  It means treating the "other side" with respect, even if you yourself are being reviled by them -- and perhaps remembering the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:  "Make me an instrument of Your peace: Where there is hatred, let me sow love."  A stance that Gandhi would also agree with.  Nonviolence is not only physical, it is verbal as well.

So once again, we need to ask ourselves:  What works and what doesn't?

To learn how you can be effective in this campaign, get my new book, just out on June 4:  Kapporos Then and Now: Toward a More Compassionate Tradition available on Lulu.com.  Neither a vegetarian manifesto nor a "Torah-True" religious tract, I approach the issue as a combination of theologian, cultural anthropologist, and participatory journalist, offering numerous reasons why using money is a better option today -- but also critiquing both sides for both their strong and weak points.  WARNING:  Whether you are for or against using chickens as Kapporos, this book requires an open mind to read. 

See also "Kapporos Chickens Don't Sing!" -- another article by me, explaining some of the kabbalistic and cultural contexts of Hasidic beliefs that you need to understand in order to be more effective in your dialogues with Orthodox Jews.  One of the basic premises of any campaign is to know your target audience.  So please, take the time to educate yourself.

UPDATE 2014:  I have written a one-page handout directed at Hasidim on the issue of not using chicken for kapporos.  No, it is not vegan or even vegetarian , but it is not directed at vegetarians, it is intended for Hasidim and argues from within the context of Hasidic thought.  Download the PDF here.   Feel free to print and hand it out, adding your own local contact info at the bottom.

See also:  The Baal Shem Tov did it with a chicken, so why are you telling me not to? -- my answer to that question (which I frequently get from my fellow Hasidim).


Richard Schwartz said...

Excellent, very thoughtful analysis.

Kol hakavod Reb Yonassan.

I hope your great advice will be heeded.

chickenadvocate said...

Thank you Rabbi Gershom for your invaluable information, observations, and recommendations about our campaign to end chickens as kaporos. Everything is helpful and deeply appreciated.

Karen Davis, United Poultry Concerns & the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos.


Anonymous said...

Well crafted analysis.


Yonassan Gershom said...

CLARIFICATION regarding my use of the word "torture." Yes, I do consider it torture for a bird to be dangled by the wings and/or cramped into a tiny cage without food or water. HOWEVER, I did not mean to imply that Hasidim were purposely inflicting pain in order to make the birds suffer. Some people -- notably activist Karen Davis -- have run with that idea of torture and made some very inaccurate statements. See my 2014 post Karen Davis, anti-kapporos actvist, misses the mark on Jewish theology. Davis, who is neither Jewish nor a theologian, had become convinced (wrongly) that the Jews want the birds to suffer in agony in order to take on their sins. The article I linked here into more detail about why that is not what Hasidim are doing or what they believe.

Much of the cruelty we see nowadays comes from the meat industry, not Judaism per se. The cages used at kapporos centers are the same cages used to ship chickens every day in the poultry industry, so ANY chicken meat you buy in the store was trucked exactly the same way.

In addition,most Hasidim today are urban and do not have much, if any, contact with chickens or animals in general, so they are ignorant of how to handle the birds properly. They are not PURPOSELY cruel, they are ignorantly cruel.