Culturally Rationalized Forms of Chicken Sacrifice: The Kaporos Ritual & the Chicken Project

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2010:

by Karen Davis, Ph.D., president & founder, United Poultry Concerns

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, incorporated into Christianity, where
these roots combine.


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.
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.
On September 26, 2009, National Public
Radio reported that on that particular day a
synagogue in Queens, New York slaughtered 4,000
chickens for Kaporos. 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.
Self-improvement
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.
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 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.”
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 Kaporos, must be
encouraged.

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.
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 ProjectŠWhen 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 healthŠThrough 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.
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.

“Not Chicklett!”

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.”
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
dearlyŠ 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.”
Whitney Hillman was not a vegetarian
prior to the program at Concordia High School,
which was one of those that was 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 support her.

United Poultry Concerns promotes
compassionate and respectful treatment of
domestic fowl. To learn more about UPC, please
visit <www.upc-online.org>.
To learn more about Kaporos and the
campaign to replace chickens with non-animal
symbols of atonement, visit
<www.EndChickensAsKaporos.com>.
To learn more about high school chicken
slaughter projects and the effort to replace them
with humane education, visit
<www.upc-online.org/classroom/>.

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