Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Kapparot ritual -- how tradition has become a travesty

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

In a recent dialogue with an animal rights activist, he told me the best way to handle this would be to use rubber chickens to make fun of the ceremony ala Mark Twain, so that it would be rendered ridiculous through satire.  But that is exactly the WRONG way to go about it.  Most Hasidic Jews have probably never read Mark Twain (if they even know who he is) and won't see this as satire, they will see it as "a bunch of ignorant goyim ridiculing the Jews again."  If you really want to change minds and hearts, then you need to educate yourself first.  Learn how to respectfully dialogue from within the context of the culture and maybe, just maybe, they might listen to you.  Keep in mind that for the people practicing kapparot, it is a serious religious ceremony, even if you do not understand it.

Neither does playing the "antisemitism card"

On the other hand, my Hasidic brethren, it is unfair to judge the whole animal rights movement by a few nuts who send nasty messages to your email box.  PETA is not trying to shut down the entire kosher meat industry.  In fact, PETA has affirmed that kosher slaughtering, when done properly, is humane.  Animal scientist Temple Grandin, who has worked with PETA as a consultant on slaughterhouse issues, also affirms this.  The key words are "done properly."  Animal rights activists (including me) see this as referring not only to the moment of slaughter, but also to how the animals are treated before slaughter.  And we should also point out that it is not only secular activists who have concerns about using chickens in modern kapparot ceremonies.  Numerous Orthodox rabbis have also condemned it for various reasons of Jewish law.  (For a partial list of articles, see Orthodox Rabbis rethink chicken kapparot)

 From rural villages to urban communities

In order to have respectful dialogue, both sides need a bit of history first.  In the days when Jews lived in small towns (stetls), the kapparot chicken was a locally-raised bird slaughtered and eaten for the pre-Yom Kippur meal, same as any other chicken dinner.  (Chicken, at that time, was a luxury saved for special occasions like the Sabbath and festivals.)  A person would simply choose a bird from their own flock, or buy it from a neighbor, then walk across the village square, have it slaughtered, and take it home to be cleaned, plucked, and prepared for dinner.   In fact, the Shulchan Arukh (16th-century Code of Jewish law) says not to specifically seek out a white chicken (in reference to Isaiah 1:18, where "though your sins be scarlet,  they shall be white as snow") or pay more for it than usual, because this resembles the superstitions of the pagans (darchei ha-Emori).  Instead, people should use whatever chickens they already have on hand, the same as for any other meal.   This clearly indicates that raising and slaughtering chickens was an ordinary part of everyday life.

A mixed flock of chickens
The problem today is that most Hasidim are living in urban areas where live chickens are a rare sight, period.  The majority of urban Jews (even non-Hasidim) probably never see a live chicken except for this ceremony once a year.  These birds come,  not from local free-run flocks as in the old days, but from commercial factory farms located many miles away.  Nowadays the poor chickens are crammed into tiny cages so tightly they can hardly move, then piled onto open trucks, and driven to town, sometimes for days without any food or water.  In some cases, shopkeepers selling these chickens have left them out in the sun and rain for many days, again without food or water. 

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

On the other hand, I must point out to the animal rights people that the chicken is not "swung"or "slugged" over the head (as is often mistranslated on the Internet lately), giving the wrong impression that it is whirled around like a pitcher winding up for a fastball.  Not so.  The chicken is gently waved in a small circle over the head, in imitation of a "wave offering" as was done over the altar in biblical times.  Older pictures and paintings of this ceremony, show the bird being held properly and waved in this way.  Continuing to call it "chicken swinging" for sensationalist purposes only makes you look ignorant and foolish to the people who actually practice this ceremony.  Plus, it might even mislead some Jews to think they are supposed to swing the chicken, which would be doing it wrong.  Again, if you want to change something, get your facts straight first!  (This article continues below the picture.)
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.

Using money instead of chickens

 Using money for the ceremony instead of a live chicken has long been an acceptable substitute, and this is what I do.   So do many other Orthodox Jews.  An amount of money equal to (or better than) the value of the chicken is waved over the head and then donated to charity. 

However, Rabbi Shea Hecht, who is a major promoter of kapparot in the New York City area, doesn't feel he gets enough emotional kick out of using money.   "The main part of the service," he said in a 2009 MPR interview, "is handing the chicken to the slaughterer and watching the chicken being slaughtered.  Because that is where you have an emotional moment, where you say, 'Oops, you know what? That could have been me.' "

Frankly, this statement disturbs me deeply, for the following reason:  What kind of message are we sending to our children about Judaism?  And yes, there are children present at kapparot ceremonies.  Are we telling them, "If you don't behave, you could end up dead like that chicken"?  Are we telling them that Judaism is a religion of fear, that they should live in terror of God slaughtering them like a helpless bird if they step out of line?   Do we want them to harden their hearts against the suffering of animals?  I seem to recall a child abuse case several years ago where a daycare facility made kids watch a rabbit be killed.  How is this any different? 

It is well known than abuse of animals leads to abuse of people.  This was probably not the case with kapparot when raising animals for food was a part of village life, and seeing a chicken slaughtered was nothing out of the ordinary.  But nowadays, it is being done completely out of context, as a strange, scary, bloody ceremony meant to frighten us into obedience.   The majority of modern Hasidim not only do not raise chickens, they rarely keep pets or have any personal contact with animals at all.   Witnessing the slaughter of a kapparot chicken may well be the only contact with animals that these children have all year.  And they are not healthy, happy, beautiful birds like the ones in the pix on this blog.  Very often, they are sickly, scraggly birds with ragged broken feathers, half-starved  from being kept in "battery hen" cages. 

What kind of message does that send to our children?    Certainly it does not teach them that chickens are sentient, feeling beings with a social structure in their flocks, over 40 different calls, and the ability to pass learned behavior down to the next generation of chicks.  Nor does it teach them about the love a mother hen has for her chicks -- an image we sometimes use of God, who shelters us like a mother bird. 

The true means of repentance
The heart of kapparot for me is not slaughtering a bird for the shock value, but in repenting of my sins.  The Yom Kippur liturgy says that "repentance, prayer and charity averts the evil decree," So giving charity can nullify any bad karma coming to me from my wrong deeds.  Not only does killing a chicken not atone for my sins, it would seem that the cruelty involved in this ceremony nowadays compounds the sins I might already have, heaven forbid.

Some Jewish leaders have also felt that people would misunderstand the significance of the ritual. The belief that the ceremony of kapparot can transfer a person's sins to a bird, and that his or her sins would then be completely eradicated, is contrary to Jewish teachings.  For, if the ritual could remove a person's sins, what would be the need for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement?  What would be the need for soul-searching and repentance?  Repentance does not come from abusing and killing a bird, but from a true change of heart. 

This is why, if you still use chickens for this ceremony, I ask you to have a change of heart this year, too.  Use money instead, and don't lose your place in the World to Come because of cruelty to animals.   Show mercy to God's creatures, as God shows mercy to you.  Treat the chickens kindly, and let them live.

See also my one-minute 2013 video, "Kapporos: A Heartfelt Plea For Mercy", produced by the Alliance to End Chickens as Kapporos.

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. 

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.


Jeff Eyges said...

With your permission, Rabbi, I'm posting this to my Facebook page.

I've also sent a link to my Lubavitcher nephew, but I don't hold out much hope. I think I had him very close last year to considering the alternative, but you know - peer pressure.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Yes, of course you have my permission to link it to Facebook or wherever else you or anyone else wants -- the more exposure the better, that's why I wrote it. So everybody feel free to pass it around.

RE: Peer pressure, that is very difficult to overcome, but not impossible. Maybe after reading this, he will see things differently - but even if he does not right away, remember that sometimes educational seeds take a long tome to sprout, but the effort is never wasted. The important thing is to keep teaching.

Jeff Eyges said...

Well, you know how it is with them (especially the BT's like my nephew) - if it ain't from the Rebbe, it ain't Yiddishkeit.

I downloaded your "49 Gates of Light" from Lulu the other day, btw. I just began with it.

Jeff Eyges said...

Oh, and wishing you and your family a Shana Tova.

Yonassan Gershom said...

BTs do sometimes mellow out after a while, when the newness wears off. Chabad is not all bad, they do some very good outreach work, but my biggest argument with them is that they do not read or encorage study of the opinions of rabbis in other groups, not even other Hasidic groups (I am Breslov, BTW -- which has an approach very different from Chabad. Among other things, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov encouraged his Hasidim to spend an hour a day alone in the woods or a field to pray in God's creation. Something my Chabad friends do not understand the need for.)

I am pretty sure that the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, would be horrified at the way chickens are treated today. He was not a vegetarian -- he was, in fact, a shochet at one point in his life -- but also had a sensitivity to living things. But undortuately, that sensitivity has been urbanized away.

You might find it useful to go to whostolemyreligon.com and download a free PDF of the book of the same title by Dr. Richard Schwartz, Ph.D (which I helped write) -- the first part of the book is political but there are also chapters on vegetarianism,animal rights, etc. And there are some appendices by-lined by me and Schwartz where we dialogue on Hasidic doctrines such as "raising holy sparks," kapporot, "nature deficit disorder" in the Jewish community, etc.

I must log off now, to get ready for Rosh Hashanah. Shanah Tovah!

Yonassan Gershom said...

ER, typo alert: the link to the bok download should be:

whostolemyreligion.com -- that should work. I can spell, I can even do HTML -- I just can't type LOL!

Jeff Eyges said...

I am Breslov, BTW

I know; I'm familiar with your background. I read your books on reincarnation years ago, and we talked bit on Facebook several months ago: http://tinyurl.com/8sjlepz. I told you I think it's too late to save Orthodoxy from the extremists, and you gave me the slogan from Galaxy Quest: "Never give up; never surrender!"

I have Schwartz's book as well; I started it, but I need to go back and finish it.

Yonassan Gershom said...

OK, I remember you now. Sometimes it's hard to keep track of all the people who read my stuff.

RE: Schwartz's book, it is pretty heavy on statistics and such, not something to read in one sitting, although you can skip around, the chapters are pretty self-contained. My role in it was to improve readability by adding stories, contemporary anecdotes and analogies, etc. as well as encouraging Schwartz to include some personal material. My reasoning was that if we were going to do a memoir-type book about how the Orthodoxy of today is not what we knew in former decades, the people would want to know who we are personally. Hence the bio chapters in the back as well as personal reactions to various material in the body of the book.

As a retired math prof, Schwartz is very good at logic, statistics, etc. but not so good with storytelling or down-to-earth examples. So, for example, I did the rather long footnotes to the kapporot chapter, giving practical examples regarding chickens (which i have personally raised and still have). Ditto for a lot of other more popular-type material.

Together, I think we achieved a pretty good balance, although the book is still heavy on statisitcs. But since it was basically his book, he took the lead on what was included.