I wasn’t even sure what I was doing or where I was anymore. The Crown Heights I knew had been transformed into a Hieronymus Bosch painting set in the shtetl. Several batteries of floodlights illuminated the cloudy night sky; and the standard issue New York City sodium-vapor streetlights cast the whole scene with an eerie orange glow. The streets were unusually packed for a Tuesday night at 8 PM. Several of the stores that would normally have been closed for several hours at that point had their doors open. Children and families were every where. And of course, there were chickens. Hundreds and hundreds of chickens.
The stage was set at Crown Heights’ main thoroughfare, the corner of Kingston avenue and Eastern Parkway. The streets were essentially shut down by the throng of pedestrians flitting this way and that. The Southern Mall of Eastern parkway was loaded with strollers, families and the chicken towers. As I made my way east, the clucking cacophony grew and the smell increased. It was an unpleasant mélange of bochur sweat and chicken feces; and the blood. I will never forget the blood.
Residents of Eastern Parkway are well familiar with the annual trucking of the chickens. A flat-bed truck loaded with stacked with male and female poultry rolls down the service road in front of the NCFJE building. A table is set up where the chickens will….well…you know. Kapparos is the controversial new-year tradition involving the slaughter of a chicken ruffles more than a few feathers every year.(hehe) The chicken is purchased, traditionally one for each member of the family. Either a rooster or hen is used, corresponding to the gender of each person. The chicken is then slaughtered by a shochet. The meat is then contributed to the poor and needy. This is the one part that I feel most can get on board with.
The true source of the minhag of Kapparos is difficult to pin down. Some say it can be traced to the azazel, a beis-ha-mikdash-era goat which was cast down a mountain in atonement for the sins of the Jews, but this is not so clear. Like the goat, the chicken symbolically (and this is important) takes on the sins of the supplicant. The symbolic nature of this transfer of transgressions is important, because as the RambaM says, sins can not be transferred. Also, if we could just “de-sin” ourselves birdstyle, there wouldn’t be any need for fasting the next day.
The practice has always been controversial. Rabbi Yosef Caro discouraged it. The RambaN was against it. Not for the reasons we hear about today, but it’s worth noting, because it wasn’t always a minhag of the Jewish people; and it should be noted, that the practice is not universal to all Jews even today.
Every year in between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur the script resets and the controversy over kapporos plays out again. The visiting protesters from PETA, who come to Crown Heights for their annual chicken liberation pilgrimage, are treated as a mild and inconvenient pogrom. Accusations and recriminations fly back and forth and precious little discourse is exchanged. The protestors are accused of anti-semitism and “frum baiting.” PETA’s checkered past is also naturally called into question; partly, their practice of animal euthanasia. You can throw all the shade you want at the gawking, screaming, picketers who line the streets of Crown Heights every year and call them whiny, lefty, anti-semitic, tree-hugging, hippies. But that doesn’t mean that they are wrong. The ad hominem attack only serves to expose a serious weakness in your own position.
While, I myself have many problems with the way that meat is treated in and out of the kosher realm. I wouldn’t join the the ranks of those who picket synagogues and slaughter houses. I find them too aggressive and distasteful, even if they have some solid points. However, I abstain do from the consumption of beef and, for the most part, don’t eat chicken. (I was vegetarian for a long period of time, but I was having trouble with my protein. So, from time to time, I will eat chicken. But i don’t always like it.) There is far too much separation between the slaughter house and the dinner plate for me. The relationship between a man and his living, breathing food should be sacred. I cannot divorce myself from the notion that the food giving me strength was once its own independent being. Furthermore, I would like to know that the food I eat was treated in the most sanctified way possible. I’m often ashamed by the sporadic nature of my vegetarianism, but I still believe in the concepts behind it.
My objection is not in the slaughter of course, but in the treatment, that being the ’T’ in PETA. I believe that shechita ritual animal slaughter is humane. This assessment is also held by renowned animal scientist Temple Grandin. Grandin herself received an award from PETA for being a visionary. Grandin said that she had no problem with animals not being “stunned” before they were killed by traditional Jewish methods. Her objection, was in the animals’ treatment prior to their necks being cut. And herein lies the question at hand. Is there a problem with their treatment? Well…
There is definitely something off-putting about the sight of so many creatures stuffed in to bird cubicles. Barely able to move. Anybody who has ever been on a farm will know that chickens move around. They were given legs for a reason and wings…for…well something. This is a video of one of last year’s daylight chicken sessions. I found it difficult to watch. And I would imagine anybody who is not at least somewhat bothered by the images of the birds flopping helplessly on the ground are neck-deep in cognitive dissonance.
Torah and rabbinic literature is replete with references to animal welfare being an area of concern. These most often culminated in the broad topic of “Tzar balei Chaim” There is some debate over whether this important issue is D’oraisa (from the Torah) or D’Rabbonim (from the Rabbis of the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods). What is clear though, is that it predates the modern practice kapporos. And in my opinion, should override it, but eh whatever. I’m not too attached to my opinions.
Furthermore, the practice has outlived the conditions that may have made it more meaningful. Back in old Russia times, a chicken that you ate was owned by your family. So when you had your chicken killed, it served as an actual sacrifice (not in The Torah sense, that would not be okay without the temple) It meant something. This animal which you raised, you were giving up in atonement of your misdeeds.(also it wasn’t transported across state lines in a chicken stack, but not the point I’m bringing here) Nowadays, there are very few people who keep chickens in Crown Heights.
It’s hard to see that pain and sacrifice on many of the smiling faces who tweet, Instagram and Facebook themselves holding the chicken over their head. For them, touching the bird is an once-a-year novelty.
It should be noted again,that unlike the Azazel, this chicken is not scattered for as carrion. It’s distributed to be eaten by the needy. For this reason, many use money for kapparos as a substitute. The money then would ostensibly be donated to charity. Others use fish.
I don’t want to condemn anybody for how they choose to go about the next few days. G-d knows I have a lot more than some chicken shaped skeletons in my closet. However, we are in the midst of the aseres yomei teshuva (the ten days of repentence). Is now not the appropriate time for reflection and introspection. We still have some time before our sin clocks reset to zero; and I choose to take that time to ask the question. Is this something we should still be doing? If Jews do one thing right, it’s hold steadfast to it’s traditions.
But, there are things we don’t do anymore. We no longer execute transgressors of shabbas. We no longer pass off the childless widow to her husband’s brother. Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this. Not this way.
I don’t know if there is something inherently wrong with transporting living beings in cramped quarters to their imminent deaths, but as a Jew, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Gmar Chasima tova