Defenders Claim Religious Tradition and a Harmless Practice That Donates to Charity
Continuing protests and legal action over ‘Kapporos,’ a holiday ritual involving the use of live chickens in some observant Jewish communities, took place in the courts and on the streets over the last few days.
On Eastern Parkway Wednesday morning, near the heart of the Chabad-Lubavitch community, a group called United Poultry Concerns protested the practice, which involves the raising of live chickens over participants’ heads to atone for their sins, then slaughtering the fowl. The protestors claimed the use of chickens against their will, their denial of food and water and confinement in the extended hours leading up to the ritual, the holding of body parts in a manner that caused the animals pain, and slaughter of poultry in an open-air market was illegal and akin to animal cruelty.
Meanwhile, a day earlier at the Brooklyn Supreme Court, a related group called The Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos filed a request for an Order at the Supreme Court of Kings County to enjoin Brooklyn residents from organizing, conducting or participating in events involving chickens. Though an appearance was held, the Court has not yet indicated how the request was resolved.
In both instances, defenders of the ‘Kapporos’ practice claimed that the protestors and litigants were religiously insensitive and that the tradition was not only harmless, but helped feed the poor, since the slaughtered birds were donated to soup kitchens.
Nonetheless, the practice is not widespread in most Jewish communities and has even divided Orthodox and Hasidic enclaves, where participation is far from unanimous.
“Thank you for coming here and being here for these birds,” Karen Davis, President of United Poultry Concerns, told the crowd on Eastern Parkway as she led the protest. “We are here to draw attention to the fact that chickens are needlessly being subjected to extreme cruelty by ‘Kapporos’ practitioners, all while numerous health laws are being broken.”
Davis said she started receiving complaints in 1994, mostly from the Jewish community, of a practice she had never heard about previously. An investigation revealed chickens being transported by the hundreds of thousands in crates without food, water, or protection from the elements, Davis claimed.
“These chickens come from industrial factory farms, which are cruel in and of themselves. They’re thrown into transport crates, but they’re also denied food or water for about six to nine hours before they’re transported,” Davis said, explaining that this was to prevent urine or fecal matter from excreting from the animals when being used in the ceremony.
Once they arrive, Davis claimed, the birds remain tightly-confined and cannot stand up or spread their wings. Still denied water, some never recover from dehydration. In the ceremony, the birds are often held by their wings, which are extended backward. The holding of the birds in this manner causes extreme pain and possible ligament damage, since these limbs are not meant to be weight-bearing. Finally, the chickens are killed with a blade.
In a packet of information given to reporters, United Poultry Concerns cited numerous health codes, administrative laws, and regulations they claimed were violated by denying food and water to the animals for over twenty-four hours, along with the open-air environment of the ceremony with feces, feathers, fur, and dead animal parts, which the group claimed was essentially an illegal slaughter operation with fetid conditions that risked the spread of germs or disease. Finally, many of the birds never make it to their claimed charitable donations, but are simply tied up in large garbage bags for the sanitation department to take away, the group said.
“You’ve got fraud, you’ve got illegality, you’ve got animal cruelty,” Davis said.
Defenders of the Ritual
Assemblyman Hikind (D-Brooklyn) called the recent attacks on the community’s right to use chickens as kaporos “an attack on the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” which prohibits interfering with the free exercise of religion.
“Using chickens as kaporos is a sacred and ancient tradition that observant Jews have practiced and will continue to practice,” said Assemblyman Hikind.
A solution could be found, Hikind said, in instructing participants in how to hold and treat the chickens humanely, and punishing those who do not.
“If there’s a problem—if the animals are treated cruelly—that’s a violation of our beliefs. And they are certainly of no use if they are starved and die before they can be used and properly schechted [ritually slaughtered], then donated to tzedaka [charity],” Hikind said. “When an unfortunate incident occurs, that is certainly no reason to attack the entire practice.”
Hikind linked the opposition to growing movements in some European countries to ban circumcision and ritual slaughter, which he saw as part of a wider attack on Orthodox Judaism and the freedom of religion.
‘Out of Practice,’ Until Four Decades Ago
The Kapparot ritual had largely fallen out of practice–until an influential Rabbi strived to bring it back.
Rabbi Shea Hecht, chairman of the board of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, along with his family and supporters, are considered the main reason an almost extinct practice was revived about four decades ago.
“If you believe God created this world, you believe he created man as superior to animals,” Rabbi Hecht said in a telephone interview. “We kill animals to eat, we use their skin for household goods, for the clothes we wear, for mezzuzot, to make phylacteries. Why can’t we use it for this sacrifice?”
Rabbi Hecht criticized the protestors as being the ones lacking in humanity.
“You have children partaking in this ceremony, and across the way are these protestors, shouting things at them, using vulgar language,” Hecht said.
Chickens were not “swung” but merely “raised” over one’s head, Hecht said, along with a claim that there was a “way of holding it” that was painless to the animal. Asked whether money or other substitutes could be used instead of live chickens, Rabbi Hecht was dismissive.
“Don’t tell me about my Jewish law,” he said. “They hire some Rabbi who wants to make a name for himself, and they tell us to raise a piece of tofu over our heads.”
Many of the protestors were “not being intellectually honest,” in Hecht’s view, because they were almost all vegans or vegetarians associated with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), but wouldn’t say so outright.
“They should go to the slaughterhouses. They should ban all the other truly inhumane practices out there,” Hecht said.
The protestors admitted that they were almost exclusively vegetarians but “make it clear” to those who work with them.
“We see this as an opportunity to help people understand this particular situation and how it relates to the larger context of animal suffering and animal liberation,” Davis said.
Are the Slaughtered Really Donated to Charity?
Rabbi Hecht claimed that “thousands of birds” ended up being donated to charity as a result of the ritual, but protestors believe most are simply discarded.
“I’ve spoken to practitioners who even so much as admitted that they don’t have the infrastructure to refrigerate the birds after slaughter,” said Davis.
“Plus, a lot of the crates filled with chickens are flung around during the transport,” added Rina Deych, who was also the lead Plaintiff in the lawsuit. “They have jagged edges, causing cuts to the birds by the time the ritual is over.”
Deych claimed the “feces, blood, and puss” that dominate the landscape after the ceremony make the killed birds and surrounding area a “petri dish for infections.”
“Nobody could eat this meat,” Deych said. “It’s not healthy to donate, even if they wanted to.”
Growing Rabbinical Movement Against The Practice
Deych came from a family that includes eighteen generations of Rabbis and meat vendors in Borough Park. Nonetheless, her family does not partake in ‘Kapporos,’ citing the Talmud instruction to feed animals before one’s self, the mandate not to waste, and the concept of Tzaar Baalei Hayim, which advocates the avoidance of animal suffering.
“Kapporos is not required by Jewish law,” Davis said at the protest. “It’s a medieval custom most Jews do not practice, let alone with chickens.”
In increasing numbers, Orthodox Rabbis are also speaking out against using chickens in the ritual.
“Such blatant waste of food while people go hungry is a shanda, a public disgrace that reflects badly on the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Yonassan Gershom.
On his blog, Rabbi Gershom has complied a list of quotes from others who, like himself, condemn the practice.
In 2010, Gershom notes, Rabbi Steven Weil–head of the Orthodox Union (OU) of Rabbis in New York City–advised that the OU opposes using chickens as Kapporos due to the ritual’s “insensitivity” to the birds and the lack of historical foundation.
Spectators Amused, Hostile, or Indifferent
Chasidic residents and visitors were by turns amused, hostile, or indifferent to the protests.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” said “Mendel,” who watched from Eastern Parkway and was “fine with them protesting” but “didn’t really care.”
“I don’t understand!” said “Aaron,” exasperated. “It’s chicken! It’s not painful. Chicken is good for Israel, good for America. This is crazy.”
“You care about chickens, meanwhile there are people who have been killed,” a woman said angrily as she walked by. Presumably, she was referencing a funeral being held down the street.
But Ms. Davis and the others gathered were undeterred by their efforts.
“This rescued chicken, just six weeks old, will soon live in a sanctuary and experience grass, loving human care, and good fortune, unlike the majority of others,” Davis said. “We are working for a day when every chicken will have a life that they deserve.”