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In Defense of Kapparot

After years of avoiding the jarring ritual, I’ve realized there’s no substitute to its terrible beauty

Liel Leibovitz
October 10, 2016
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)
An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man swings a chicken over his head during the kaparot ceremony in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, September 20, 2015. Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)
An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man swings a chicken over his head during the kaparot ceremony in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, September 20, 2015. Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Later this evening, as my neighbors settle in for some wine, maybe, and the latest installment of The Voice, I’ll be doing something I haven’t done in a decade, something I’d grown up doing, something I never thought I’d do again. This evening, I’ll be doing kapparot by swinging a live chicken over my head, symbolically transferring all my transgressions to the animal before having it slaughtered and giving its meat to the poor.

As a child, I’d accompany my mother every year to the marketplace in Pardes Katz, a suburb of Ramat Gan, to go see the thickset man who stood there, his white shirt speckled with tiny pinpricks of blood, leaning against dirty green crates stuffed with frantic foul. I hated everything about it. I hated the smell of filth and feathers and the sounds of the poor beasts squawking and jerking in a futile attempt to break free. It was, I thought, a dismal scene, some vestigial and primitive bit of savagery we should shed now that we’ve figured out stuff like circuitry and space travel. I vowed to abandon the custom as soon as I could, replace the chicken with cash, and join the ranks of the enlightened.

For years, I did just that, and even though I was pleased to be relieved of the weight of the birds, I had to admit that dollar bills were not an adequate substitute. Dollar bills neither reeked nor shrieked, but the din and the stench, I slowly came to realize, were precisely the point: kapparot were terrifying by design, a ritual established to force us to come to terms with the choices that, too often, we make without real contemplation, the choices that define our nature, the choices that, if we’re honest about it, so often silently condone the suffering of others. We eat the meat of the slaughtered. We benefit from the labor of those whose backs ache and whose fingers bleed from long hours at assembly lines far away. We march past the unseen battalions of men and women who clean after us in hotels, who ferry away our half-eaten food at restaurants, who hold up an entire universe of mindless comfort on their shoulders like a million unsung Atlases. They suffer, we thrive: it has always been thus.

When we’re young, if we’re attentive, we promise to end this suffering at once. Then we grow up and realize that suffering isn’t an aberration to existence but a part of its fabric, and that attempts to usher in paradise frequently end in nothing but more suffering. This news makes some grow sour with disappointment, and others harden into cynicism or melt into despair. But the most resilient among us vow to remember the suffering and surge on anyway and try to do and be just a little better each day.

Which is precisely what kapparot is about. It’s a reminder of suffering, the suffering we cause, however inadvertently. It’s a demand that we face the consequences of our actions. It’s a promise that we make to be more mindful and work harder to make sure all the sacrifices we’re making aren’t in vain.

True, animals are slaughtered, but animals are slaughtered each day, out of sight, and then delivered to us in cheerful packaging that frees us from thinking about their slaughter. When the slaughterhouse, as the French writer Georges Battaile noted, becomes “cursed and quarantined like a plague-ridden ship,” when it is pushed to the edge of town where we can’t see or smell it, we lose something seminal about the cycle of life. When meat comes wrapped in plastic, death is rendered into something neutral, productive, procedural. We lose the terror and the awe. We lose the humility. We lose the humanity.

All of this, sadly, is lost on the well-intentioned souls who protest each year and demand that kapparot be outlawed. Banning the practice will do nothing to spare the lives of those flocks slaughtered each day to satisfy our cravings, but it will take away one of the only moments in which we’re commanded to step out of our densely mediated lives and just be real.

Tonight, as I swing the chicken over my head, I will likely feel, quite literally, guilty as sin, and I will likely chase away that feeling, that leaded sadness settling in my throat, by observing the suffering I am causing very carefully and promising to keep it in mind next time I order my meal or shop for stuff or make any other decision I would not have normally paused to contemplate. That’s the whole point of kapparot, and that’s why there’s no substitute for the ritual’s terrible beauty.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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