The Price of Atonement
An angelic four year old looks up nervously: suspended above his head is a screeching, writhing rooster. The child recoils as the bird claws the air inches from his forehead, but his father holds him down and croons: “Let the man bless you, so the bird will carry your sins, and you’ll be written in the book of life.”
The man holds the fowl by its wings and winks mischievously.
“It won’t poop on me?” the boy whispers, eying the blood- and feces-spattered plumage.
The man laughs: “It only poops on bad boys. Are you a bad boy?”
The child stands still as the bird is swung round and round over his head.
“This is my exchange. This is my substitute. This is my atonement: this bird shall die, and I will enter a long, blessed and peaceful life,” the man recites in Hebrew. The child’s eyes are fixed on the man’s face. His solemn expression, the incomprehensible chant, and the bird’s piteous cries imbue the moment with a sense of primal, ancient magic, imprinting a lasting memory.
This religious rite is held on a busy public intersection in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Among throngs of bird-handling practitioners, a small group of animal rights activists chants: “Use money, not chickens!” and “Cruelty to animals is forbidden by the Torah!”
The celebrants of the bird-swinging ceremony had tolerated demonstrations throughout the week, but now that the High Holy Day of Yom Kippur, the sacred Day of Atonement, is mere hours away, the protesters’ presence in their midst is becoming increasingly offensive.
As night falls, the crowd’s mood darkens. “You don’t belong here. Leave us alone!” someone finally bursts out. “Our rabbis and God will determine our customs – not you. Go home, PETA!” another cry follows. Since the animal abuse investigation that led to the closing of the large AgriProcessors kosher slaughterhouse in 2004, and the consequent arrest of the prominent Rabbi Sholom Rubashkin, a deep enmity exists between PETA – the activist organization of People for The Ethical Treatment of Animals – and the Jewish Orthodoxy. With the mention of their name the situation escalates.
“Man-Haters! Anti-Semites!” shouts rise.
“You care about animals more than you do about people!”
A few agitated members of the crowd advance – one adolescent draws alarmingly near to the demonstrators, swinging the shrieking bird as if it were a sling. A woman standing in the front of the group gasps and throws her hands up with alarm as the birds’ talons whirr by her eyes. The policeman monitoring the ceremony rushes forward just as the youngster’s friend pulls him back: “They’re just a bunch of hippies! Ignore them.”
Kapparot – or “compensation,” in Hebrew. Swung by its wings over a person’s head and then slaughtered, the fowl substitutes for the worshiper in bearing God’s judgment. This bizarre, ancient and controversial custom is mentioned nowhere in biblical sources.
Some Jewish scholars dismiss it as a pagan rite, erroneously adopted by the Israelites during their exile in Babylon, a custom that should be abolished. Others speculate that it originated with the ceremonial “scapegoat” used in the high temple, and following the temple’s destruction in 970 BC and the decentralization of Judaism, transformed into a personal ritual in which the goat was replaced by a chicken, a more common and affordable household animal. The custom was passed through the generations, taking root particularly with the persecuted Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, where preserving tradition was akin to survival.
Having survived the centuries, Kapparot are widely accepted today, though the interpretation of the rite has changed: Chabad members clarify that the ceremony is not meant to literally transfer guilt to the fowl, but rather to instill awe. Rabbi Shea Hecht, head of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education and a central organizer of Kapparot in Brooklyn, New York, explains that it’s the slaughter which delivers the actual spiritual impact: at the sight of the blood rushing from the bird’s gashed neck, the spectator instinctively acknowledges that he, too, is mere flesh and blood, as vulnerable and as helpless at the mercy of God.
According to The Code of the Ritual on the Chabad website, when using a fowl for Kapparot, it should be healthy and whole. It must be treated humanely, as to not inflict unnecessary suffering upon the animal, which is prohibited by the Torah. After the kosher slaughter – a swift and painless procedure – the meat is traditionally donated to charity, in accordance with Judaism’s condemnation of unnecessary killing or wastefulness. These noble codes were easily adhered to in 19th century Europe, where each village used its own few homegrown chickens. But with the growth of the centralized religious neighborhoods in New York, this last decade marked the transformation of an innocent practice into a lucrative operation of industrial proportions.
October 16, 2005: a passerby came across dozens of crates, partially hidden by a plastic cover, in an empty lot on Coney Island Avenue, containing hundreds of chickens abandoned without food, water, or proper shelter, dozens of which had drowned in the rain.
September 2006: 750 parched chickens were found in tightly-packed crates, slowly dying in the heat of an empty garage. All over Brooklyn similar cases of neglect and abuse were reported during the last five years: Who by fire, who by water, who in the sunshine, who by night time. The recurring instances of leftover chickens, abandoned after services of Yom Kippur were completed, drew PETA’s attention. In July 2007, a month before the Jewish High Holidays, PETA investigator Philip Schein sent a formal complaint to the Commissioner of New York’s City Department of Health, Thomas R. Frieden, addressed also to Rabbi Weiss, Head of Brooklyn’s Kosher Law enforcement division, reporting numerous health violations and animal abuse cases during, as well as after, the Kapparot rituals of 2005-2006. Footage from a hidden camera was attached.
“Thousands of chickens are poorly kept and roughly handled in the ceremony, then sacrificed in a makeshift slaughter area on a central public street… these massive slaughters have been taking place without any regulation or enforcement,” the document opens. The footage reveals a grim sight: the chicken crates are stacked high one on top each other, and the tightly-packed birds, some already dead and decomposing, are soaked with excrement from the crates above. The untrained staff and volunteers handling the birds, as well as the practitioners holding them, are not wearing gloves. The video shows enormous volumes and a frantic pace of slaughter, due to which birds whose throats were only partially slit are hastily stuffed into garbage bags to suffocate along with the dead. The knee-high piles of carcasses were periodically stuffed into garbage bags, and only after hours in the sun were loaded onto the van which hauled them to a processing factory upstate.
“The projected lapse of time between slaughter and processing, in which the meat went unrefrigerated,” the document remarks, “is alarming.”
Rotting carcasses, swarming with flies, littered the street for days after the event.
Problems surrounding the modernized rite of Kapparot have been pointed out from within the religious community for years. KIS –the Kashrus Information Service – has repeatedly issued public warnings of health, kashrus and moral violations regarding certain Kapparot sites since 2004, caused by the lack of any formal supervision. KIS strongly suggested that like any other Jewish food establishment, the slaughter should be overseen by a “Mashgiach,” a kosher supervisor. But Kapparot are a traditional rite, not a food establishment per se. The event’s organizers have no formal responsibility over the quality of the meat they donate: the responsibility lies solely upon the establishment that serves it. For this reason, many charities – such as Tomchai Shabbos of Borough Park, an institution which regularly distributes food to the needy – flatly refuse meat from Kapparot.
“The mass-production nature of the modern-day Kapparot may explain the laxity regarding animal abuse and wastefulness, but it does not justify it… This could lead, god forbid, to a desecration of the name of God,” the religious newspaper Hamodia printed in 2007, in response to PETA’s report.
Following the religious elite’s wave of outrage, an emergency committee of leading rabbis, headed by Rabbi Weiss, Head of Brooklyn’s Kosher Law enforcement division, convened to discuss the issue. They concluded the problem was generated by renegade Kapparot operators, who answered to no one. They then proceeded to draw general health and animal care guidelines to improve the situation.
2008, however, was much of the same. The largest Kapparot event that year, involving approximately 30,000 chickens, was the one held by Rabbi Shea Hecht of the NCFJE (the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education), on the busy intersection of Kensington Street and Ocean Parkway: hardly a renegade. In 2008’s complaint, calling for a consumer fraud investigation, PETA’s footage once again portrayed the crates crammed with chickens, after days without proper food, water or shelter – many of the birds were already dead. PETA mentioned that based on Rabbi Hecht’s own assessment, two-thirds of the chickens died before they could be swung or slaughtered. New birds were secretly purchased, slaughtered and donated in their stead.
Over the last five years, a total of roughly $1.5 million was spent on abusing hundreds of thousands of chickens for obscure religious reasons. Most of these birds die from neglect before filling their simple sacramental purpose; those who do survive are slaughtered in horrifically unhygienic conditions, only to be regretfully declined by those who truly need the food.
Thursday, September 9, 2010: Though many animal abuse issues still stand, most Kapparot locations have improved their standards of sanitation, generally bringing the ceremony within city health standards. Following growing accusations of religious targeting, PETA was forced to withdraw. Despite common misconception, the 2010 demonstrations have nothing to do with PETA. The protests were orchestrated by a new group, comprised largely of Jews, many of them Orthodox, whose agenda is clearly stated in their title: “End the Use of Chickens As Kapparot.”
“We are joining the call of dozens of leading rabbis who deplore the cruelty of the ritual and advocate using money instead of live birds for atonement,” states Karen Davis, the CEO of the movement. She mentions Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head rabbi of the of Israeli town of Beit El, who declared that “causing such suffering to God’s creatures is contradictory to the spirit of Judaism, particularly when seeking atonement from the same God.”
Rina Deych, a Jewish nurse and an animal rights activist living in a religious neighborhood of Brooklyn, mentions: “We are often asked: ‘how can you know that the birds suffer?’ For many of the ultra-Orthodox, who largely distance themselves from animals for religious reasons, this is an honest question.”
Rina was the woman standing at the front of the demonstration on Thursday. “The moment that young man swung a bird at me was one of the worst of my life,” she recalls, “not because I feared he would actually strike me, but because It was clear that he was tormenting a living creature – tearing its tendons, splintering its bones – just to tease me.”
Despite the event, Rina believes this attitude doesn’t reflect upon the wider religious community, and that her cause is achievable: “I went from synagogue to synagogue telling rabbis about my grandfather, Joseph Levine, who was one of the first kosher butchers in Borough Park, known for treating both people and stray animals with great care. When I was a child, I asked him: ‘Saba, you love animals. How can you sell their flesh for a living?’ He answered: ‘Animals must die, since people eat meat – but I know at least the kosher slaughter is swift and merciful. They feel nothing.’ Years after he retired he visited an industrialized kosher slaughterhouse: when he came home, he was crying. ‘This is not how it should be,’ was all he said. From that day on he never ate meat again.”
Rina believes that her story had an impact: on her way back home she noticed the crates in the synagogue courtyard were empty. The birds had been transferred to a shaded pen, with food and water, where they could roam freely.
It’s a small victory, but an atonement nonetheless.Printable Version