Singling Out Jewish Kaporos For Criticism

Posted in: Other Commentary

This Friday night marks the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and arguably the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar. During the day before the fast, some observant Jews perform a ritual as part of their atonement for transgressions committed in the past year. With varying spellings, the ritual is called “Kaporos.”

Kaporos literally means “atonement” and involves the penitent’s taking an object and symbolically transferring her sins onto that object. Some observant Jews use a bag of coins as the object and then, after the ritual transfer, donate the money to charity. But in one form of the tradition that has become controversial in recent years, the “object” onto which the atoning person transfers her sins is not a thing at all but a live chicken.

When a person uses a chicken for the kaporos ritual, she swings a live hen (or a rooster, if the penitent is male) around her head three times, reciting the traditional words, “This is my substitute, this is my exchange, this is my atonement. This fowl will go to death, and I will enter upon a good and long life.” After this process, the bird is slaughtered.

Animal protection groups—including Jewish groups—have circulated petitions and have otherwise protested against this practice. In one example of such a protest, Hasidic Rabbi Yonassan Gershon says to fellow Jews, “I beg you, please give money, instead of hurting one of God’s living creatures.” These protests have given rise to their own critiques, including some accusations of anti-semitism. In this column, I will consider why an animal rights advocate might choose to protest the Kaporos ritual, and I will explain my thinking on such advocacy.

Why Oppose Kaporos?

Many of the people who have vocally opposed the practice of Kaporos are themselves Jewish. This fact does not, of course, insulate people from charges of bias. One can be a member of a minority group and simultaneously engage in activities that reflect, manifest, or feed prejudice against one’s own group. The large presence of Jewish people within a particular protest movement does, however, provide some prima facie evidence that the movement is motivated by something other than group-based animus.

So what motivates the protest here, and why would Jews participate? One answer is that anyone who finds animal cruelty disturbing could be motivated to protest a ritual that plainly involves cruelty. A chicken is an innocent sentient being, a bird who has done nothing to deserve to be sacrificed to atone for human sins. To mix metaphors a bit, a chicken used in a Kaporos ritual is a paradigmatic scape goat. The treatment of the bird prior to slaughter, the handling of the terrified bird, and the slaughter itself all constitute violence against a vulnerable creature.

For Jewish people in particular, moreover, this ritual can be a source of personal shame and anger. When I was growing up, my mother—who was a Holocaust survivor—was constantly on the lookout for high-profile embarrassing behavior by Jewish people. There is a Yiddish expression for such behavior—a “shanda fur di goyim”—that loosely translates into a scandal for the nations (i.e., for people who are not Jewish). This is a version of “airing our dirty laundry” in public, and it reflects an intense fear that the public will come to judge all Jews for what some embarrassing individuals among our numbers do, that a few bad apples will incite anti-Jewish hatred and possibly violence. Being a self-identified Jewish person who opposes animal cruelty could therefore give rise both to outrage and simultaneously to anxiety about the impact of reprehensible behavior that one has observed among one’s fellow Jews.

Readers could characterize such a reaction as no less prejudiced than that of an anti-semitic person who targets Jewish misbehavior out of an animus against Jews. In either case, the critic is aiming her critical eye at conduct at least in part because the conduct is that of Jewish people. And because people engaged in the ritual of Kaporos are often not only Jewish but ultra-Orthodox, the worry that “we” will be judged by “their” actions has at least some elements of singling out the outsider for moral condemnation.

I would nonetheless distinguish in-group discipline from outside-bullying in at least one respect. Part of what drives the former, but not the latter, is a sense of community or oneness among the in-group members. I might not want other Jewish people to engage in animal cruelty, because I regard animal cruelty as profoundly immoral, and the first people whose immorality I feel entitled to confront may be those within my community. Along similar lines, I am more outraged by misconduct when a member of my own family has perpetrated the misconduct than when a complete stranger has. In this sense, it is partly love rather than hate that might drive the criticism.

A Problem With Singling Out Kaporos

Despite this distinction, between in-group policing and out-group targeting, there is reason to worry about the impact of a campaign that singles out Kaporos for criticism. The reason is that perhaps what makes the Kaporos ritual objectionable to some people who learn of the campaign against it may have as much to do with its apparent primitiveness as it does with the fact that it hurts animals. Stated differently, the Kaporos ceremony, for many, will look different from other instances of animal cruelty because it is “weird,” because it is seemingly pointless and irrational, and because it involves people who may be wearing unusual, Hasidic garb. Protests that highlight Kaporos, even when initiated in good faith, can easily attract people whose opposition to the practice is frankly rooted in prejudice rather than in concern for animals.

One might react by saying “so what?” After all, if we are saving animals’ lives, what difference does it make whether we (or our followers) are doing so for good reasons or for bad reasons? I would suggest that reasons matter a great deal and that our choice to focus on one evil rather than on another can ultimately affect the future direction of our efforts to combat animal cruelty.

To be more concrete, let me say that the Kaporos ceremony is utterly reprehensible but that it is also indistinguishable along any relevant dimension from the behavior of between 97 and 99 percent of the American population. That is, almost all Americans (undoubtedly including some number of the people currently protesting the Kaporos ritual) consume animal products, including the flesh and secretions (eggs) of hens and roosters no different from the victims of the Kaporos ritual.

To bring chicken flesh to the tables of those who consume these products, people have to slaughter animals, and the slaughter is no more humane and no less terrible for these birds than it is for the birds who die after being used in Kaporos. The same is true for the production of chickens’ eggs, in which the newly hatched baby roosters—all useless to the egg industry—are immediately ground up alive, gassed to death, or suffocated inside a plastic bag. The laying hens themselves are slaughtered or thrown out alive as garbage when their “useful life” (approximately two years, during which they each produce about 500 eggs) is over.

This violence against birds is so common among us as to be almost invisible as animal cruelty. Many people who eat chickens and eggs will claim that they “love animals” and thus overlook the lacuna between their words or feelings and their actions. When people who participate in such animal cruelty turn around and publicly point fingers at the ultra-Orthodox Jews who participate in the Kaporos ritual, they reveal themselves to be hypocrites. And vegans who participate in such campaigns, though not themselves acting hypocritically, run the danger of encouraging hypocrisy in others who are not vegan. These others may be people who contribute to the cruelty and slaughter visited on more than nine billion chickens a year in the United States alone but who allow themselves to “take a stand” against a practice that seems “weird” to them but which is materially equivalent to what they do to animals several times every day.

Food Versus Animal Sacrifice

One response that readers might have to what I have said is that there is an important difference between eating the flesh and ova of chickens, on the one hand, and using chickens as a receptacle for one’s bad deeds, on the other. Animal sacrifice is not “necessary” to human existence, whereas eating is necessary and thus perhaps provides a justification or mitigation for the violence entailed in killing “food” chickens. Indeed, even under Jewish tradition, one can perform “Kaporos” with money instead of a chicken, so the cruelty of Kaporos with chickens is gratuitous, even taken on its own terms.

This argument sounds far better than it is. It sounds good because it describes the activities at issue at different levels of generality, well-suited to dismissing the utility of one activity while elevating that of the other.

Begin with Kaporos. If we ask whether the specific ritual in question is “necessary” to human survival and existence, the answer is certainly no. A person can survive quite well without ever performing the ritual of Kaporos with a chicken. In fact, one can live well, even as a traditional and observant Jew, without doing so, because using money is a perfectly acceptable alternative. But if we were to describe what is happening at a higher level of generality, we would perhaps say that Kaporos is part of religious and spiritual expression, both of which—if not exactly “necessary” in the way that water or food is necessary—are nonetheless extremely important and may be essential to the survival of a group.

I am not at all, by the way, suggesting that people ought to be able to use chickens for Kaporos. I am simply re-characterizing the ritual to match up better with how people typically describe their ingestion of chicken corpses and secretions as food. A perfectly appropriate response by the opponent of Kaporos now would be to say that one can have a full religious and spiritual existence and ensure group survival without utilizing chickens in Kaporos ceremonies. Respect for the general need for spirituality does not have to translate into respect for the particular, violent ritual under consideration.

Note, however, that this response is no less compelling in the context of animal consumption. Yes, one needs to eat in order to survive, and eating chickens’ flesh and ova qualifies (for most people) as “eating.” But, as with Kaporos, one can fulfill one’s needs—here, to eat well and potentially much more healthfully—without consuming the dead bodies or ovulatory (or lacteal) secretions of any living being. The existence of ethical vegans—people like myself and more than 40 vegan friends I can list just off the top of my head—demonstrates this truth.

The fact that humans must eat to survive does not provide a moral foundation for consuming the products of animal suffering and exploitation any more than this fact would provide a moral foundation for cannibalism. And no one, after all, would argue that serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s actions were morally superior to those of serial killer Ted Bundy in virtue of the former’s having eaten the flesh of his victims. Yet Dahmer, too, had to eat something.

I see similar arbitrariness in laws prohibiting Kosher (but not other) slaughter. In Denmark, for example, Agriculture and Food Minister Dan Jørgensen defended a law prohibiting Kosher slaughter by announcing that “animal rights come before religion.” I have a difficult time understanding how anyone could claim with a straight face that a commitment to stunning and then cutting animals’ throats to create food that we do not need could be plausibly characterized as keeping faith with any coherent notion of animal “rights” (even putting aside the fact that slaughter line speeds ensure that huge numbers of non-Kosher animals are also fully conscious when slaughtered). If not motivated by anti-semitism, then those who would prohibit Kosher slaughter while permitting billions of animals to continue to be slaughtered gratuitously for non-Jewish consumption certainly create the appearance (and the effect) of irrationally targeting Jews.

Let me be clear here in saying that I do not regard the people who protest Kaporos ceremonies as anti-semitic or even as necessarily comparable to those who campaign to prohibit Kosher slaughter (while leaving in place all of the grotesque cruelty of farming animals for non-Kosher products). What I am saying is that when we single out a minority practice that is admittedly evil but the evil of which is morally indistinguishable from that in which the vast majority of critics themselves engage, it is difficult to provide a meaningful account of the protest that does not at least invite and enable anti-minority prejudice.

Two Potential Saving Graces

Though I am extremely uncomfortable with the anti-Kaporos campaigns, for the reasons I have elaborated, I would be remiss if I did not mention some potential saving graces of such campaigns. To the extent that those involved in the protest are primarily members of the Jewish community (which they may be, though I do not know), a protest against this practice might—with proper encouragement—inspire participants to question and ultimately reject the exploitation of chickens (and of other animals) more generally, precisely because Kaporos is morally indistinguishable from other exploitation. As well, the campaign might lead those who were going to kill the particular chickens prepared for Kaporos to reconsider and spare those animals. For those two reasons, I cannot unequivocally reject the campaign against Kaporos. But because these saving graces are themselves highly uncertain, and because I worry greatly about the symbolic impact of such a campaign, I cannot energetically support the campaign either, despite my own moral revulsion at Kaporos and at all animal slaughter and consumption.