Culturally Rationalized Forms of Chicken Sacrifice: The Kaporos Ritual & the Chicken Project
By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns
This article appears on Animals 24-7. It was written at the invitation of editor-publisher Merritt Clifton and published on Sept 26th. To read it on Animals 24-7, please click on:
The idea that some groups were put on the earth to suffer and die sacrificially for a superior group or ideal goes far back in time.
This idea is deeply embedded in human cultures, including the culture of the West, which is rooted in ancient Greek and Hebrew modes of thought, and incorporated into Christianity, where these roots combine.
Animal sacrifice thrives in modern forms
Animal sacrifice is not just an anachronism in these "enlightened" times. It thrives in modern forms, for example, in the sacrifice of other animal species for humans in biomedical research, which is even called "sacrifice" in the lexicon of the researchers, and in rituals of animal food consumption that may not appear to be "rituals" until examined more closely, such as slaughtering turkeys at Thanksgiving and encouraging every citizen to partake of the flesh of the officially designated sacrificial bird.
Through the ages, people have sought to rid themselves of their impurities--including sins, vices, diseases, and social dissension--by symbolically transferring their impurities to innocent victims. In Christianity, Jesus is the sacrificial lamb who takes away the sins of the world. The Hasidic custom of Kaporos, a word which means atonement, is an Orthodox Jewish ritual of similar symbolic meaning, practiced before Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.
Kaporos victims end up in the trash
To practice Kaporos, begun in the Middle Ages, adherents swing chickens, held by the legs or by pinning the birds' wings backward, around their heads. While swinging the birds the practitioners of Kaporos chant about transferring their sins and punishment onto the birds. The birds are then slaughtered under tents. The remains are supposed to be given to the poor, as with the remains of animals slaughtered at the Eid, preceding the Feast of Atonement observed by Muslims.
Whatever may be the fate of the animals slaughtered at the Eid, most if not all of the chickens slaughtered for Kaporos in Brooklyn, New York end up in plastic garbage bags and landfills, often being trashed while the birds are still alive, as documented in September 2015 by eyewitness accounts of Kaporos published in The Gothamist on September 23rd. The unholy alliance between Kaporos rabbis and the New York Department of Sanitation is disclosed in sickening images of filth, suffering, and cruelty tantamount to anything that is done to chickens by industrial slaughter plant employees. [Brooklyn Hasidim Say Slaughtered Chickens Are Donated To Charity, New Videos Tell A Different Story 23 September 2015 – Gothamist]
Some 50,000 chickens are sacrificed in Kaporos ceremonies each year in New York City alone. Thousands more are sacrificed in New Jersey, Los Angeles, Jerusalem and other places where Hasidic Orthodox Jewish communities are located.
In Jewish tradition, the period between Rosh Hashanah ("Jewish New Year") and Yom Kippur is a time for Jews to repent for their sins of the previous year through acts of kindness and charity promoted by Jewish teachings. Kaporos is not required by Jewish law. Most Jews who practice the ceremony swing coins which they donate to charity.
The swinging and slaughtering of chickens in Kaporos rituals is opposed not only by more liberal sectors of Judaism, but by many Orthodox Jews, who consider the practice an embarrassing custom inconsistent with the spirit of repentance and atonement of Yom Kippur. In a telephone interview in August 2010, Rabbi Steven Weil, head of the Orthodox Union of Rabbis in New York City, told me that the Orthodox Union opposes using chickens as Kaporos, because of the "insensitivity" of the ritual to the birds, the bad impression it makes on others, and its lack of historical foundation.
Even practitioners concede that the use of chickens is not a substitute for repentance.
Rabbi Shea Hecht
However, practitioners also insist that cutting chickens' throats and watching them die gives them, in the words of Rabbi Shea Hecht in Brooklyn, "a realization that, 'Hey, I have to make changes. I have to improve myself.'"
The Jewish Star on September 15, 2010 reported that the use of chickens as Kaporos in America can largely be traced to Rabbi Hecht's father, who "began trucking chickens" to Crown Heights in Brooklyn in 1974. Rabbi Hecht told NPR that swinging a chicken isn't the point of Kaporos. The main part, he says, "is handing the chicken to the slaughterer and watching the chicken being slaughtered. Because that is where you have an emotional moment, where you say, 'Oops, you know what? That could have been me.'" For him, swinging coins in a handkerchief is a "thin spiritual experience" compared with the "visceral" experience of "holding a live animal in your hands just before it dies for your sins."
Kaporos practitioners claim that they treat the chickens they kill "humanely," despite packing and stacking them in transport crates, where they often endure days without food, water or shelter; despite many photographed and videotaped instances of grabbing chickens from the crates, only to stand around idly chatting while holding the chickens with their wings pulled painfully backward and their legs hanging unsupported from the hip joints; despite often swinging the very same chickens over and over in the days leading up to the slaughter; and despite throwing birds dying of dehydration, injury, and exhaustion into dumpsters in plastic garbage bags.
"Kaporos chickens are supposed to suffer"
Kaporos practitioners also insist the slaughter itself is painless. More consistent with their actual behavior, however, is their view of the birds as receptacles for their sins and punishment. Kaporos chickens are supposed to suffer and be treated harshly: their role is to receive the punishment that God would otherwise mete out to the sinners.
In their role as Kaporos, the chickens are said to be "elevated to a higher purpose," in part by impressing practitioners with the inferiority of animal life and the danger for humans of sinking to an "animal" level.
Photojournalist Carol Guzy in "An ancient tradition draws protests," published in The Washington Post on October 9, 2010, quoted Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson: "We swing the chicken overhead, humbling ourselves and realizing that when we act based on instinct itself, without challenging our instincts based on reason, we are comparable to animals."
Is the idea, then, that swinging a chicken over one's head is a mock ceremonial imitation of the despised "instinctual animal" behavior that Kaporos practitioners are taught to avoid, lest they become "like animals"?
Despite how uncaringly the Kaporos practitioners whom Guzy photographed treated the live chickens they swung, they claimed to be "compassionate people." They are compassionate in other circumstances no doubt, but bearing witness, as I have done for six years on the streets of Brooklyn from 2010 to 2015, watching and hearing how Kaporos practitioners actually talk about the chickens – they are "nothing," – and how callously they treat them – like garbage – I see little or no sign of compassion for the birds in the adult and teenage population. Feelings of empathy and pity for the chickens may exist, but they do not figure as an element of the ceremony.
Kaporos is the focal activity of neighborhood gatherings to which parents bring their children to observe the swinging and slaughtering of the chickens and thus be initiated into this aspect of their culture. As Guzy documented, young children blow kisses to the birds and pat their heads, saying "Bye-bye chicken" before the slaughter. Older children imitate their elders by holding the chickens as if they were worthless and contemptible objects, instead of "sacred" animals.
As with other culturally rooted abusive practices, eliminating the abuse of chickens in Kaporos must be accomplished mostly from within the community whose ritual it is. However, for this to happen, outsiders must express disapproval and help to amplify the voices of Hasidic opponents of chicken-swinging. Moreover, in criticizing the practices of any already insular community with a tradition of uniting to resist attack, it is necessary to avoid allowing the practitioners of the offense to hide behind a cultural defense.
Many respected Orthodox Jewish voices find Kaporos deeply offensive. One who did, and spoke out was Shlomo Goren (1917-1994), who participated in founding the modern nation of Israel and was chief rabbi of Israel from 1973 to 1983.
Such voices, including those within the Hasidic community who question "chicken" Kaporos, or condemn it outright as does Rabbi Yonassan Gershom, must be encouraged, but in 2014, the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos, which I and a group of activists founded in New York City in 2010, decided that legal action was also necessary.
On July 10, 2015, the Alliance along with 20 additional plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit in the New York Supreme Court to issue an injunction against Hasidic rabbis and synagogues in Brooklyn from participating in the Kaporos ritual. The case also named the New York Police Department (NYPD), the NYC Department of Health, and the City of New York for failing to enforce city health laws and animal cruelty laws. On September 14, 2015, Judge Debra James, New York Supreme Court, New York County, ruled that city officials had "discretion" whether to enforce sanitary codes.
Contrary to some media reports that the case was "dismissed," or "court finds animal sacrifice legal," the "actual underlying case," in the words of attorney, Nora Constance Marino, is "alive." Noted Marino in an email exchange with Alliance members on September 19th, published statements to the effect that the case was dismissed "perpetuate a dangerous sentiment that can lead to the public being given a sense of legal security when it comes to animal sacrifice, or other animal abuse. Headlines like these can make people feel like they have been given a green light to engage in this sort of behavior, when in actuality, they have not."
According to Marino, in an email to Alliance members on September 15th, "if anyone wants a decent, short synopsis of the court's decision, please read John Riley's column from Newsday: 'Supreme Court Judge Debra James, dodging the claimed conflict between religious rights and public health, ruled that city officials had discretion to decide whether to enforce sanitary codes, and private parties couldn't sue over an alleged "public nuisance." ' "
While deeply disappointed in the judge's decision to allow laws designed to protect animals and the health and safety of New York residents to be flouted at the discretion of city and state officials catering to a lawbreaking constituency, attorneys for the Alliance are examining the new legal challenges that exist in light of the decision and are considering our next legal move. [State court declines to halt bloody chicken-slaughter ritual by Orthodox Jews 14 September 2015 – Newsday]
Meanwhile in Middle America
Meanwhile, there are similar rituals practiced within mainstream Middle America, albeit rarely recognized as such, which animal advocates of mainstream Middle American background need to address.
Initiating children into the society of their birth, through rituals of animal slaughter, is traditional both in rural communities and in cities where rites from a rural past are retained. Where I grew up, in Altoona, Pennsylvania, schools were closed on the first day of hunting season--still are--so that boys could "go huntin'" with their dads, uncles, and cousins. Boys with empathy for animals were coerced by the men and the atmosphere they generated to overcome any "sissy" emotions they might have about shooting a deer, a pen-raised pheasant, a rabbit, turkey, squirrel, or even a songbird--so long as the killing took place for the most part during regular hunting seasons. Otherwise the entire animal population would be wiped out fast, and with it the pleasing rituals of the "sport," including the sentimental satisfaction hunters like to proclaim about giving the animals a "break."
On the farm, cattle-branding, pig-sticking (slaughter), and 4-H programs have traditionally initiated children into the "realities" of life, and a farm boy or girl must learn the rituals of conduct and speech fitted to these occasions.
In 4-H livestock projects, a child is given a young animal of his or her own to raise. When the animal is grown, the child enters the animal in an agricultural fair to compete for a prize, after which the animal is auctioned and hauled off to slaughter. Competing for a prize and auction money helps to divert the child's emotions from the harm impending to the animal who has been innocently raised. The 4-H experience culminates in sacrificing the animal in a ritual meant to maintain the agricultural way of life. It also involves sacrifice of the child's feelings of tenderness and love for the animal. A 4-H participant goes typically from a condition of happy innocence to grief and tears, leading to final acceptance of the "necessity" of these sacrifices, so that within a few years, the soul of the youngster who wept over his or her first cow, pig, or sheep has effectively been slain, and the young adult may participate in raising animals for slaughter by the hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands.
The Chicken Project
The Chicken Project, also sometimes called the Broiler Project, does not appear to be promoted by any particular organization. As either the Chicken Project or the Broiler Project it begins with a school purchasing 20 or so baby "broiler" chicks from an industrial hatchery for students to raise for six weeks and then kill, under the guidance of their teacher. I haven't heard of any new ones recently, but that may simply mean that they are now conducted with less fanfare, so as to avoid attracting unwanted attention.
Following the slaughter, the remains are consumed at a school banquet. Any raw or residual grief or awful memories the students might have about killing their chickens, watching them suffer and die in buckets of blood, is absorbed into a festival of food and manufactured "pride" that the teacher and school officials tell the students they should feel as a result of having "raised their own food" instead of buying "factory-farmed meat" at the supermarket.
Naomi Goldberg, a teacher at a private school in Sun Valley, Idaho, in November 2009 wrote to me: "I am one of the teachers of the 8th grade class in Idaho who taught the Food Unit and facilitated the Chicken Project. When we created the 'Sustainability and Food Unit,' our intentions were to open our students' eyes to the consequences of their eating habits beyond their own personal health. Through the course of the unit, students saw food-related films (Food, Inc., The True Cost of Food, Super-Size Me), read articles and books by a variety of food experts (Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Mark Bittman, Blake Hurst), and did independent research on student-generated food-related questions. And yes, they raised chickens."
In the course, Goldberg wrote, students "researched factory farms" and learned that "although we were going to be slaughtering our chickens, the chickens' lives were spent in much cleaner, healthier, and happier conditions than they might have experienced had they been raised on a factory farm."
These claims reflect the recent trend known as the "locavore movement." Based on the idea that people should consume only food that is grown or slaughtered locally, to reduce the environmental cost of long-distance food transport, the locavore movement is also about eating "clean," preferably organic, food, as opposed to the "unclean," chemically embalmed garbage of factory farming.
Factory farming is decried, but what has come to define and energize the movement above all is the argument crystallized by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore's Dilemma, that while industrial animal production is nasty and cruel, human beings are designed by "our evolutionary heritage" to eat animals. Slaughtering one's own animals, buying slaughtered meat from local allegedly "sustainable" and "humane" farms is promoted as the most reasonable and ethically sophisticated solution to the problems presented by factory farming. Invocation of "factory farming" as a foil to justify or lessen the fact of animal abuse in other venues such as Kaporos has become a verbal ritual in its own right.
Jay Michaelson, in an editorial published on September 21, 2015 in the Forward, writes, for example, that Kaporos, however cruel, is nothing compared to factory-farm cruelty, while ignoring the fact that the chickens used for Kaporos are actually trucked into the city directly from the factory farms for which they have been specifically bred. Chickens used for Kaporos, Michaelson says, "are routinely swung, thrown, kicked – I'm not saying any of this is justified, but I am saying that whatever suffering a chicken may experience in kaporos is chump change compared to practices that are commonplace everywhere chickens are eaten."
[Why This Hasid Was Right To Flip the Bird to Kapparot Protester.]
Thus, while a high school Chicken Project may include a vegetable garden and related assignments, the course is weighted with the idea that the most important and "realistic" food choices are between factory-farmed meat and "meat" you kill yourself, or as nearly as possible.
Just as Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and other gurus of the locavore movement dismiss a vegetarian/vegan diet and lifestyle as self-righteous, boring and antisocial, so the "chicken project" imparts to students the belief that, in Goldberg's words, a vegetarian diet is "highly unrealistic for us to expect of our students, or our fellow Americans."
The purification ritual inherent in the Chicken Project consists of "empowering" students with the possibility of ridding themselves of filthy factory-farmed meat, in favor of "pure" meat. The students cleanse their minds of what Pollan calls "dreams of innocence" about where food, meaning animal food, comes from, through killing their own chickens, called "processing," followed by a Banquet of the Birds, with perhaps one or two students smiling over their carcasses, knives in hand, in a picture for the local newspaper.
When the time came on October 11, 2010 for students at Concordia High School, in the small agricultural town of Concordia, Kansas, to slaughter their chickens, one student said "No." Whitney Hillman, a 16-year-old junior in Nate Hamilton's Animal Science class, not only refused to slaughter her chicken, Chicklett, but grabbed him out of his cage the day of the killings, tucked him into her purse, and spirited him to safety. Whitney didn't stop there. She wrote an impassioned letter to Hamilton and the high school principal explaining her actions. In her letter she described how the students were told to name their chickens and color them with purple markers for identification, and how resistance to the project grew inside her along with her devotion to Chicklett who, she wrote, "has become a loved one."
Telling the authorities she would "gladly accept any punishment you give me," she continued defiantly, "but I will not apologize for what I have done, I will not regret it, and I would definitely do it again if I had to." In subsequent discussion, Whitney described how reality and rhetoric clashed in Hamilton's classroom. "He kept saying he'd much rather eat one of these chickens than one raised by Tyson," she told the Salina Journal, "but I really didn't see much difference. They were really packed in [their cages], with barely room to move."
"Are pets not loved ones?"
Whitney wrote in her letter to the school, "So yes I have, in fact, become attached to Chicklett, and could not participate in his death. If you cannot understand my perspective, let me put it in perspective for you. If you have a pet at home that you love dearly and someone throws your pet in a cage with three or five others, and says in five weeks you are to cut off the pet's head, pull off the pet's fur, clean out all the guts, bag and freeze the meat, and take it home for your family to enjoy, what would you do? Would you not do everything in your power to keep a loved one safe? Are pets not loved ones?
"So, please do not judge what I did on the grounds of stupidity and bad behavior, but on the grounds of love and empathy for another living being. I have raised my chicken, I will not kill him, but skipping the killing wasn't enough. I had to save him."
Parents supported choice
Whitney Hillman was not a vegetarian prior to the program at Concordia High School, which was one of those that were called a Broiler Project. She no longer eats animals. She once wanted to become a zoologist, but is now considering a career in animal advocacy. Whitney's verbal skills and moral courage would be tremendous assets for animals, and it should be noted that while Whitney was the only student brave enough to defy her teacher's instructions to kill, she spoke for others who sadly petted their chickens goodbye and didn't want to slaughter them, but felt they had no choice. It should also be noted that Whitney is blessed with parents who helped her save Chicklett, and who totally supported her.
The value of such parental support cannot be overestimated. As I have frequently argued, animal advocates must never assume that people "over 25" are unteachable or dispensable in our quest to make compassion for animals an important part of the socialization process. Not only is this assumption wrong, but children who are surrounded by adults who don't support their compassionate feelings for animals suffer in lonely isolation and confusion, and will often turn against themselves, and against animals, violently for having feelings that no one they looked up to when they were small seemed to share or understand. Our best hope for the future isn't children. Our best hope is children supported by adults who have nurtured their own compassion for animals to maturity.
– Karen Davis, United Poultry Concerns