Religion & Beliefs

May This Chicken Atone For Your Sins

Earlier this month, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews waved live chickens over their heads in a ritual known as kapparot, or "atonements." They chanted solemnly: "This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my expiation. This chicken … Read More

By / October 29, 2008

Earlier this month, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews waved live chickens over their heads in a ritual known as kapparot, or "atonements." They chanted solemnly:

"This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my expiation. This chicken shall go to its death and I shall proceed to a good long life and peace."

As the Orthodox Jews watched, each chicken was ritually slaughtered, then donated to the poor.

Kapparot is of questionable origin. There is no mention of kapparot in the Bible or in post-Biblical Jewish literature until the Middle Ages. And many great Jewish legal scholars, including Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulkhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law), believed it to be of pagan origin and forbid it. According to many rabbinic opinions, kapparot can be done with money. Chickens are not necessary. But kapparot was promoted by the Hasidic movement, which these days is primarily responsible for keeping kapparot, as opposed to kapparot chickens, alive.

If kapparot was done carefully and humanely, the only argument against it would be theological. But often kapparot are neither carefully run nor humane.

Chickens are routinely transported over long distances crammed in small cages. They are not fed or given water. Many chickens die in transport.

But that isn’t all.

Once dumped on the streets of Brooklyn (or Kiryas Joel, or Miami Beach, or Jerusalem), kapparot chickens are often left to wait for another day or two without food or water or even shade. Predictably, more chickens die of heat stroke and dehydration than of ritualistic slaughter.

When the time comes for kapparot to begin, the live birds are pulled from the dead, and the swinging and chanting begins.

Then comes the slaughter. The blood pools on the ground mixed with feces; it covers the clothes and hands of workers. Wash stations and hand sanitizer is rarely provided. Children play next to dead and dying chickens.

After slaughter, the chickens are frequently tossed in heaps on the ground or in large garbage containers. Eventually – often many unrefrigerated hours later – they are collected and sent off for basic processing and, perhaps kashering as well. Then they are supposedly distributed to poor Jews to use for the Sukkot holiday that follows less than a week later.

But that is only in theory. Reality is often very different.

Last year, the animal rights group PETA. caught Chabad’s Brooklyn kapparot operation dumping thousands of correctly slaughtered kosher chickens in the garbage. Even though Crown Heights has more than its share of poor Jews, the National Committee For The Furtherance of Jewish Education threw these chickens away. Why?

The logic works like this. NCFJE charged $13 per bird for kapparot. Even after expenses, the NCFJE comes out way ahead on each chicken – so much so that a kapparot worker told an undercover PETA investigator she should not worry:

"At $13, we have enough money there to purchase another chicken – so another chicken will be purchased also."

In other words, because NCFJE lacked the capacity to process the thousands of chickens slaughtered in Crown Heights, it threw some of them away. But it made enough money off the ritual to be able to purchase a regular slaughterhouse-killed and processed chicken to donate to the poor – and it did so.

NCFJE could have given those unprocessed chickens to a local non-Jewish soup kitchen or community organization. Or, it could have done better planning and processed all the chickens it killed. Instead, it dumped hundreds, perhaps thousands, of kapparot chickens into the garbage.

NCJE Chairman Rabbi Shea Hecht this week denied that chickens were thrown in the garbage. In an emailed statement, PETA’s Philip Schein responded by calling Hecht a liar:

"…On the afternoon of December 31, 2007, in a private face-to-face meeting with PETA, Rabbi Hecht and Rabbi Yosef Moya of the National Committee for Furtherance of Jewish Education (NCFJE) admitted that more than two-thirds of the slaughtered chickens at the NCFJE kapporos were disposed of and not given to tzedakah. NCFJE didn’t have the capacity to process thousands of chickens, and so the volunteers threw the garbage bags containing thousands of the slaughtered chickens into the dumpster….The garbage bags full of the dead, unused chickens are clearly shown in the PETA undercover video."

Apparently to counter PETA’s video evidence from previous years, a Chabad blog posted sanitized pictures of kapparot that do not show the slaughter or the storage of the birds.

Under fire from PETA (and from Jews who are fed up with ultra-Orthodox mistreatment of animals), NCFJE responded by claiming that PETA was out to attack Judaism.

In the same interview with Israel’s right wing settler-controlled news outlet Arutz 7 where Hecht claimed the chickens were not thrown in the garbage, the rabbi claimed PETA was out to attack Judaism. Hecht said, "[A]s a Lubavitcher Chossid, as chairman of the board at NCFJE, I suppose I represent world Jewry to these people. We will not be threatened."

To bolster his claims, Hecht also played the antisemitism/Holocaust card.

PETA launched an email campaign on its website to try to clean up – or stop – kapparot. NCFJE’s email boxes were jammed and its phones rang off the hook. One person claiming to be a PETA supporter mistakenly thought the NCFJE was blocking all emails sent by PETA’s web server. So, according to Arutz 7, he faxed the following letter to NCFJE:

"I guess you are ‘blocking’ all e-mails from PETA. Go ahead and ‘Hide’ like the little ‘[expletive deleted]‘ you are. Go molest your sisters.

LISTEN UP [expletive deleted]. I’M "GERMAN", AND I WOULD LOVE TO EXECUTE EVERY LAST ONE OF YOU… MAYBE WAVE YOU OVER GERMANS’ HEADS IN APPRECIATION OF THE HOLOCAUST. HOW DOES THAT SOUND? STOP DISGRACING THE JEWISH COMMUNITY BY INHUMANE TREATMENT OF CHICKENS. "KOSHER" MEANS "KOSHER"… YOUR PRACTICES ARE A DISGRACE AND I HOPE YOU, RABBI LEVERTOV, RABBI YOSSI BROOK, & LET’S NOT FORGET, RABBI ZALMAN OSDOBA (rabbis in the community -ed.), ALL ROT IN HELL. HAVE A [expletive deleted] LIFE. LET ME KNOW IF YOU WANT ME TO E-MAIL YOU AGAIN, I WOULD LIKE THAT.

 

The cruelty at your kapporos center, year after year, is a disgrace. Please make the compassionate decision to use money instead of live chickens at the NCFJE kapporos."

Only the last paragraph comes from PETA’s form email.

How your run-of-the-mill semi-literate antisemite would know the name of rabbis in the Crown Heights community (Levertov, Brook,Osdoba) not mentioned in PETA’s campaign Hecht does not bother to explain.

That did not stop him from claiming that PETA itself is antisemitic. Hecht contacted the The NYPD Hate Crimes Unit to file a complaint, and then shamelessly alerted the media to let them know what "PETA" had done.

Rabbi Luzer Weiss, director of the New York State Department of Agriculture’s Kosher Law Enforcement division, told Arutz 7 that his department received "no reports" of chicken dumping during last year’s kapparot from special rabbi inspectors he sent to "make the rounds." Of course, those inspectors were sent only after PETA repeatedly filed complaints, and only after those complaints spurred Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox rabbis to act to save kapparot – facts Weiss and Arutz 7 conveniently omit. The rabbis mandated that chickens be fed and watered, not be left out in the sun, and that various health measures be taken. Little if any of those changes are visible on PETA’s video of NCFJE’s Crown Heights kapparot.

In fairness to the NCFJE, some of PETA’s claims of chicken mishandling by kapparot goers (as opposed to kapparot workers) seem wrong. Most of the hasidim in the video look to me to be handling the chickens correctly.

The NCFJE’s Hecht is perhaps most infamous for his claims made early this summer during a period of racial tension in Crown Heights.

Explaining why Lubavitchers refused to tell police the names of the fellow members of their sect who beat a young innocent black man on way home from school, Hecht told the New York Daily News that Lubavitchers couldn’t cooperate with police. Why? Simple. Cooperation, Hecht claimed, is against Jewish law:

"The Hebrew word is mesira, which means basically you are not allowed to be an informant. In essence, I am not allowed to snitch, period."

For seven years, Shea Hecht was a Commissioner of Human Rights for the city of New York

Attorney Michael Lesher says that Hecht, when he served as a member of Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes Jewish advisory council, lobbied Hynes to stop extradition of accused ultra-Orthodox child molester Avrohom Mondrowitz from his hideout in Israel. Presumably Hecht’s reason for trying to block extradition is similar to his reason for not helping police catch the Lubavitch thugs who beat that black man.

In early October, Hecht asserted the Rubashkin family of Chabad hasidim, owners of the notorious meatpacker Agriprocessors, are being treated unfairly. Why?

According to Hecht, the scandals surrounding Agriprocessors are mere "allegations," and those allegations "are imagined and all of them stem either from the antagonistic press, self-hating Jewish animal advocates, overzealous Immigration P.R. news people, and a gaggle of anti-Semitic perennial criticizers."

Hecht is a leader of Crown Height’s Lubavitchers. He is also a radio show host, political activist and sometime humanitarian. Many years ago, he was my first teacher in yeshiva.

In Crown Heights, Hecht’s views are not in the least bit extreme.