Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Kapporot: Use money, let the chickens live!

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is coming soon, and with it comes a ceremony called kapparot or kapporos, in which a chicken is sometimes slaughtered just before the holy day.  Although traditionally the chicken was then given to a poor family as charity, nowadays this is not necessarily what happens to it.  According to this September 3, 2013 article in the Jewish Journal, today's kapparot chickens are often thrown in the garbage after the ceremony.  This, to me, is a complete waste of both animal life and potential food, which violates the principle of bahl tashchit -- "You shall not destroy."  People are being told that their kapparot chicken is going to charity when, in fact, it often ends up in the city dump.

This is one reason why I advocate giving money to charity instead of slaughtering a chicken.  Giving money is a time-honored custom and a perfectly acceptable substitute.  Plus you know it is really going to do some good for someone.

This year, in connection with the Alliance to End Chickens as Kapporos, I appear on this poster with my pet rooster, Big Bird.  (Apologies to Sesame Street, but he is big and he is yellow, so it was inevitable my grandson would call him that!)

This same photo also appears in a short one-minute slide show that I narrated, Kapporos: A Heartfelt Plea for Mercy.  (Follow the link to view on YouTube.)  Plus, the same narration was used on a video sound truck displaying the images (as well as others) during demonstrations in New York.  You can see the truck on YouTube, but the sound track is bad -- recommend viewing on mute.)

For taking this stance, I have been called a "self-hating Jew" (and worse) by  cyber-hecklers -- a ridiculous accusation, given my lifelong devotion to Judaism.  Lately it seems that anytime a Jew stands up and voices legitimate criticism of anything Jewish, he or she is labeled "self hating," whatever that is supposed to mean.   I hate neither myself nor my Jewish identity, but I do hate mindless stupidity.   God does not intend for us to blindly follow the crowd like a bunch of lemmings.  There is a long history of debate about kapparot within the Jewish tradition, and I see nothing wrong with continuing that dialogue today.

Scholars and sages much greater than little ol' insignificant me have condemned the use of chickens for kapparot.   Even in the Middle Ages, there were rabbis who condemned it as a pagan superstition.  (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.)

More recently, numerous Orthodox rabbis have opposed it, including:

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 Kaporos due to the ritual’s “insensitivity” to the birds and the lack of historical foundation.

 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.

I hardly think those rabbis are all "self-hating Jews."  so please, dear reader:  Sp please, dear reader, heed the message and don't shoot the messenger!

As I wrote in a previous article on this blog, the kapparot chicken used to be taken from a local flock and was used for the meal before Yom Kippur, or for breaking the fast afterward.  In this way, one could argue that the soul of the chicken was sanctified by participating in the feast and, in kabbalistic parlance, the "holy sparks were raised."  But how can this still be true if the dead chicken is simply thrown into a plastic bag and hauled away to the dump by the sanitation department -- as has been documented in the Jewish Journal article I cited above.

In addition, people are now cruelly holding the birds by their wings, in a way that was not done in the past and which causes much suffering to the bird.  I might add that the Nazis tortured people in a similar way, by pulling their arms back and suspending them by the elbows.  This torture was called Eine Stunde Baum ("an hour of tree") and it dislocated the shoulders as well ripping the muscles and causing excruciating pain.  I have been told about this torture by Holocaust survivors.  So I ask you:  If such treatment is so painful to a person, then how can you not understand that it is also torture to do this to a live bird?

Let me end with an excerpt from the slide show I helped the Alliance produce:

“Fellow Hasidim... You have been told that holding a chicken by its wings that way will make the bird calm and relaxed. This is not true! The bird is terrified, it is playing dead, the way it does if it is grabbed by a dog or a wolf. It is hoping you will let go so it can escape. Imagine somebody pulling your arms back, then hanging you up by the elbows. You would stop struggling, but you would NOT be calm or relaxed! You would be in terrible fear and pain, the same as these poor chickens are now. Please do not torture a bird this way – this is not a mitzvah, our Torah does not require this, it will not cancel your sins. I beg you, please give money, instead of hurting one of God’s living creatures.”

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Updates:  On Wednesday, September 11, 2013, the weather in New York City hit the high 90s, and was hot enough for thousands of kapporos chickens to die while still stacked in crates.  Clearly these birds are NOT being properly cared for by the people who sell them (at $8.50 per bird or more, BTW.)  Read the new report on this.

You can also hear an interview with Dr. Richard Schwartz, author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, discussing reasons not to use chickens for kapporos on The Tamar Yonah Show -- (Click here.) There's a bunch of announcements and news items first, but hang in there, you'll get to it.  Or just scroll ahead on the status bar.

Chickens as Kapporos --  a video documenting how kapporos chickens  werebeing dumped in the trash on President Street at Kingston Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NY on September 12 and 13, 2013.  WARNING:  this is very graphic stuff -- watch at your own risk!   However, it is valuable in that it not only shows the callous way the chickens are being treated, it also documents that they are terrified --that incessant cheeping you hear in the background is the very distinctive call of a frightened chick -- these birds are in no way "relaxed" as some promoters claim.   Read my later article, Kapporos chickens don't sing!

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.

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  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. 

Se also:  The Baal Shem Tov did it with a chicken, so why do you tell me not to? -- my answer to this Frequently Asked Question from fellow Hasidim.