Synopsis: NYC Bar Association Law Forum on Kaporos
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion


Rina Deych, Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos
June 2014

[Ed. Note: For Powerpoint and Audio of this event, visit Suffering of Chickens in the Kaporos Ritual: The Facts.]

Liz Stein, Esq., moderator, opened the Forum welcoming everyone and briefly explaining that Kaporos is a ritual practiced by some Orthodox Jews in which thousands of chickens are sacrificed. She stated that, in the interest of presenting both sides of the issue, three rabbis who support the use of chickens in Kaporos were invited to participate in the discussion. Of the three, two declined and one did not respond. She then introduced the first speaker, Lori Barrett, Esq.

Lori Barrett, Esq. began by providing an overview of the ritual of Kaporos using chickens and discussing the various state and local laws being violated by practitioners. She showed horrific photographs and video footage, shot in September of 2013, of chickens being thrown onto a public street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, after having their throats cut. She stated that, though it was hard to hear in the video, someone was taunting the chickens, telling them to “run away,” as they writhed in agony, cried piteously and died a slow tortuous death.

Gary Francione, Esq. was invited to speak about the Constitutional laws relating to animal sacrifice and specifically about how these laws pertain to the Kaporos ritual. He explained that if a law is neutral and applies to everyone impartially (such as all slaughterhouses), then essentially the law does override the rights of a religious group. He mentioned two cases to demonstrate that point. He basically said that there is no difference between the Kaporos rituals and what goes on legally in slaughterhouses every day, and that, at best, chicken Kaporos might only get cleaned up to comply with state and city laws. He also expressed concern that interfering with peoples’ animal abusing rituals demonizes certain groups and promotes prejudice against them. He proceeded to sharply criticize “single issue campaigns,” including our effort to end the use of chickens in Kaporos, and stated that advocating veganism would eliminate this and all other cruel uses of animals.

Dr. Richard Schwartz began by stating that Kaporos using chickens is not consistent with Jewish values. He cited some specific Torah and Talmudic mandates that prescribe compassion for animals and animal protection. The remainder of his discussion focused on the deleterious effects of an animal-based diet and the many benefits (health, environmental, and ethical) of adopting a vegan diet. Dr. Schwartz has written excellent articles on the subject of Kaporos. He has much knowledge of the specific mandates being violated, as well as the names of rabbis around the world who are outspoken in their condemnation of the use of chickens in the Kaporos ritual, information that is readily available on the Alliance web site. He has even written about the irrationality of attempting to rid one of one’s sins through this archaic custom, especially since it is immediately followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is in the Torah and is an entire day designated for introspection and repentance for one’s sins. I wish these points had been brought up in his otherwise compelling discussion.

Rabbi Eliyahu Soiefer spoke next, describing how the ritual is done using chickens. He stated that after the chicken is slaughtered, (s)he is given to “the poor.” However, this is often not the case. In my 20 years of monitoring and protesting Kaporos in my Brooklyn neighborhood, I have, more often than not, seen chickens both dead and dying being thrown into garbage bags or directly into dumpsters. Also not mentioned was the fact that since these chickens are crowded into crates, often stacked up to 10 crates high, without food or water for an entire week while mired in feces, blood and pus, many even dying in their crates before being swung and slaughtered, their flesh could not possibly be considered suitable for human consumption. Additionally, since many of the chickens suffer ripped tendons and broken wings during the ritual, and possible other injuries as well, these birds must be deemed traife (un-kosher).

Rabbi Soiefer proceeded to explain that there are two versions of the description of the ritual in Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law. What both he and Dr. Schwartz omitted from their explanations is that in the original version, Rabbi Josef Karo called the use of chickens in the ritual “a foolish custom.”

I was, however, touched by the wonderful story Rabbi Soiefer told about a rabbi, who instead of using a chicken, kept a notebook filled with all of his perceived sins throughout the year, and waved that over his head, instead of a chicken for the ritual of Kaporos. Rabbi Soiefer said that, after using chickens for Kaporos for decades, during one Kaporos ceremony 5 years ago, while holding a chicken, he felt the chicken’s fear radiating down his arm and throughout his body. This experience caused him to immediately stop using chickens, he said, and to adopt a plant-based diet.

But while Rabbi Soiefer eloquently described his awakening regarding the chickens’ suffering, he was quick to say that he defends the right of people to use chickens. This saddened me greatly because the chickens don’t have a choice. I would have felt differently if he had said “… but I don’t demonize those who use chickens. I try to educate them and plant seeds of compassion in them and hope that they have this awakening, too.” To suggest that one accepts that other people may hurt chickens as they please implies a complacency that reduces the entire ethical issue to a mere matter of personal choice.

What was missing from both Rabbi Soiefer’s and Dr. Schwartz’s presentations was any mention of the fact that the custom of using chickens in Kaporos rituals is not required by the Torah or Talmud. No mention was made of this custom’s suspected origins in Paganism, nor of the specific Torah and Talmudic mandates and imperatives that it actually violates, and the potential damage that using chickens for Kaporos can do to children. The Rabbi said he believes the children enjoy Kaporos as a festive occasion while disagreeing that the atmosphere is “carnivalesque” (which it is).

Do children enjoy chicken Kaporos? That certainly hasn’t been my experience witnessing it for the past 20 years in Brooklyn, and I spoke up at the Forum and said so. Most children who witness Kaporos for the first time appear very distressed. Often they are crying, and their cries mingle with those of the chickens being slaughtered in the open-air tents on the street. Children seem to know instinctively that the birds are suffering. It is only after systematic conditioning, with parents claiming that the birds aren’t crying, but that they are “singing” and “happy to do this for us,” that most children learn to ignore their own instincts and enjoy the situation, similar to the way children in 4-H programs are systematically enculturated to the point where most of them no longer consciously mind the animal cruelty that initially distressed them so deeply.

Dr. Karen Davis put the focus back on the chickens with an impassioned description, including PowerPoint images, of the intense suffering of the birds used for Kaporos. She described the misery the chickens endure being stacked in transport crates without food, water, or protection from the elements. Citing veterinary opinions, she explained how cruel it is for the chickens to be yanked out of the crates by their fragile wings (which were never intended by Nature to support their bodies), sometimes being held for very long periods by their wings while practitioners carry on conversations on the pavement holding the chickens as if they were bags of groceries. She described how the chickens are swung by the practitioners and then handed to a slaughterer who cuts their throats, after which they are pushed, face down, into bleed-out receptacles to thrash and choke in their own blood. After that, many of the birds are thrown dead and alive into plastic garbage bags.

Dr. Davis described and showed a photograph of how birds who aren’t used in the ritual are sometimes simply abandoned by the Kaporos practitioners to die in their crates. She noted that when people express horror over the Kaporos ritual and the suffering endured by the birds, members of the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos quickly point out that the chickens on their plates, if they are still eating chickens, suffered no less. She explained that Alliance members advocate veganism every day but that our vegan advocacy includes advocating for these particular chickens and making them and their suffering visible to public consciousness.

To conclude... I found the Forum on Animal Sacrifice to be deeply moving and informative, only I wish that Dr. Schwartz and Rabbi Soiefer had presented a clearer picture of the history of Kaporos (which appears to date to the middle ages), including the fact that most Jews who participate in the ritual do not use chickens; indeed many are not even aware that chickens are being used. I wish they had discussed the controversy surrounding the use of chickens in Kaporos since the middle ages, and the utter non-necessity of using chickens or any other animals in the ritual which is only a custom anyway, and not a Jewish mandate at all. I wish the audience had been made aware of the growing worldwide trend in which many Orthodox rabbis are speaking out publicly against chicken Kaporos as an inhumane practice inimical to true piety and repentance, and encouraging the use of money instead.

The one very powerful tool that was missing from this Panel discussion was the Alliance’s one-minute micro-documentary/PSA by Hasidic Orthodox Rabbi Yonassan Gershom.

I hope that the Panel discussion will inspire many people to get involved and help us protest the use of chickens in Kaporos on Constitutional, legal, health and, most importantly, ethical grounds. – Rina Deych

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