Friday, September 17, 2010

Yes, I Did Kaporos This Year






Over the last 30 years, I have almost always done kaporos on live chickens, for myself and for my family the night before Yom Kippur. The central part of the kaporos prayer, which is often done with money is a prayer that reads as follows. (In English translation)

"This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. (This rooster (hen) will go to its death / This money will go to charity), while I will enter and proceed to a good long life and to peace"

The prayer is said while moving the chicken around one's head, and is repeated 3 times. Some people use money instead of a chicken. Even those who use a chicken donate the meat to charity as well as the profits from the sale of the chickens. Additionally, a lot of charity is given at the time of kaporos that is done with chickens.

Because of PETA's objections to the ritual, I thought a lot more about doing kaporos than usual. The appeals to my empathy with fellow living creatures as well as the humaneness of kaporos are something I decided to face head on.

The entire kaporos ritual, including purchasing the live chickens, bringing them to my home, assisting younger family members in holding the chickens and bringing them back to the shochet to be slaughtered usually takes me a good 2 1/2 hours. During this time, I feel the warmth of the chickens, their heartbeat and their emotions. Years ago, when I was nervous about holding a live animal, they sensed my nervousness and responded in kind. Today, as in past years, they almost seemed to fall asleep as I held them. In a sense, I bonded with the chickens, facing the fact that they were living creatures with sparks of life akin to my own.

The idea behind kaporos is that the world is affected by the choices that people make, from the use we make of the environment to what we eat, to how we treat each other. The animals we consume do not mysteriously materialise like morning dew on the shelves of our supermarkets. They are living creatures that forfeit their lives in order to prolong ours. We should reflect on whether our goals and achievements and the way we treat each other is any improvement over the animal kingdom that we press into our service.

The time of kaporos is a time that I face these questions head on. It is a time to ask whether the lives we lead justify our position at the top of the food chain or whether they make a mockery of it.

There is a flip side to the concern we should feel for the animal kingdom. There are people who love their pets and show cruelty to people. The Nazis passed animal cruelty laws that they enforced at the same time that they enforced laws stripping "inferior races" such as Jews, Africans and gypsies of their statutory humanity. There are wealthy Haitians who treat their "restavek" slaves worse than animals even as they pamper their pets. And there were Hindus and Muslims who slaughtered each other during the time of Partition in India in 1947 with less thought than would go into slaughtering a chicken. And the deaths of over 7 million congolese in its wars since it became independent are ignored by the world.

How do we maintain a sense of proportion, of caring properly about the humans in the world as well as the creatures who share the planet with us? PETA has raised legitimate questions, questions that I asked myself as I held the chickens that I later handed over to be slaughtered. But there are questions that PETA does not ask about the welfare of humans, and how one places the rights and needs of all who inhabit planet earth.

If there is one theme that kaporos has underscored for me, it is the increased responsibility that goes with being human. Less sentient creatures, those less able to tame and manipulate the environment are profoundly affected by our choices. We can tower above less intelligent creatures or sink far beneath them. The choice is ours.

I doubt that PETA will be very happy with the choices I have made. But because of the questions they asked, I thought a lot more about kaporos this year. And for that I thank them

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