Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is coming soon, and with it comes the annual culture war over a ceremony called kapparot, in which a chicken is slaughtered just before the holy day. The PETA and animal rights people will be shouting "Meat is murder" while the Hasidic Jews who practice this ceremony will shout about antisemitism and accuse the activists of trying to shut down the whole kosher meat industry. And nobody will really be listening to each other. As a Hasidic Jew who is also a vegetarian, I understand both sides of the issue, and would like to share some suggestions for better communication. (For basic background information on the history and meaning of the ceremony itself, see The Custom of Kapparot in the Jewish Tradition , by Dr. Richard Schwartz, Ph.D, and me.)
Respect, not insults, please
First of all, animal rights people, for outsiders to call any traditional culture "barbaric" or "medieval" or "primitive" or whatever never really works. It only causes the traditionalists to circle the wagons. And it goes without saying that sending nasty, obscene, anti-Jewish and/or personally insulting messages to various rabbis is not going to win any converts to your cause. Would you stand outside a Native American (Indian) ceremony and shout about "primitive barbarism" because they wear feathers and furs? Of course not, that would be "politically incorrect" now, wouldn't it? So what makes you think it is any better to do it to the Jews?
If you yourself are Jewish but not Hasidic, please try to keep negative stereotypes out of the dialogue. Even I, who am both a vegetarian and an opponent of using live chickens for kapparot, will get turned off if you start shouting anti-Orthodox epithets at me. Stick to the specific issue at hand and don't go dragging in feminism, gay marriage, dress codes, Israeli politics, "who is a Jew" or references to the movie Yentl. In other words, don't use the opportunity to dump on me everything you always wanted to yell at an Orthodox Jew. I care about the welfare of chickens the same as you do -- even if I do dress funny in your eyes. (In fact, all the pix in this article are of my own birds on my vegetarian, no-kill farm.)
Both sides would do well to visit the site of the Alliance to End Chickens As Kapporos, an org that has both Jews and Gentiles participating. However, please be aware that the Alliance is sponsored by United Poultry Concerns, a radical vegan org run by Karen Davis, who tends to mix in that agenda with the anti-kapporos campaign, to the point of not using any materials (including links to this article) that are not 100% vegan in approach. In spite of this rather narrow dogmatic viewpoint, the org is doing some good work, and has an excellent set of reference links on their page. Just remember: You do NOT have to become a vegan in order to stop using chickens for kapporos!
Ridicule does not work
|A mixed flock of chickens
Cruelty to animals is forbidden by Judaism
In Shivchei Ha-Ari, there is a story about Isaac Luria, the 16th-century Jewish mystic, telling a student that he had lost his place in the World to Come 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. This is based on the general principle that one cannot commit a sin -- in this case, cruelty to animals -- in order to do a mitzvah (religious commandment, in this case, studying Torah.) While Luria did approve of kapparot in his day, I find myself wondering if he would still give his approval under modern conditions. I suspect not. Trucking in factory farm chickens and mistreating them along the way nullifies any spiritual value in kapparot, and turns tradition into a travesty.
|Humanely holding a chicken
The birds may also suffer while they are being handled for sale or during the ceremony, because many urban Jews are unfamiliar with the proper, humane way to hold a chicken while waiting in line. Which should be by holding the bird upright, holding the feet to prevent kicking, and supporting the weight of the body -- as I am demonstrating in the photo here. A chicken should not be held with the wings painfully pinned back, as is done at Rabbi Shea Hecht’s New York Chabad kapparot centers.
I suspect that Hecht's method has more to do with not getting one's clothes dirty than with the comfort of the chicken. Imagine somebody holding your arms behind your back and then suspending you by the elbows to get an idea what Hecht's method would feel like. The feet of a chicken are made to support its weight; the wings are not. The proper way to hold a chicken is to have the bird upright, holding the feet and tucking the body under the arm to control the wings if flapping is a problem.
It's waving, not "swinging" a chicken
|This old engraving from the Middle Ages
clearly shows the chickens being held upright by the feet,
not dangled by their wings as some people do today.
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.
|A free-range rooster named Star takes
a walk on my Minnesota hobby farm.