Amongst the harder Jewish traditions to explain to Jews and non-Jews alike is kaparot. This symbolic “atonement” rite, conducted in preparation for Yom Kippur, involves waving a live chicken over one’s head three times while reciting the appropriate text.
The chicken is then slaughtered in accordance with halachic procedure, and its equivalent monetary value is given to the poor — or, as is more popular today, the chicken itself is donated to a charitable cause.
Before I hear cries of “fowl play,” bear in mind that during this ritual, the chicken is treated as humanely as possible. After all, Jewish law forbids causing unnecessary pain to any of God’s creations.
In fact, kosher slaughter, or shechita, is widely considered the most painless method of butchery. The animal’s trachea and esophagus is cut with a sharp, flawless knife, rendering it insensate almost immediately.
Forgoing the chicken (matzo ball soup)?
Please note: I’m not heartless or naive. I won’t try to tell you that the slaughtered animal feels nothing. In fact, since becoming the rabbi of a liberal arts school (New York’s Pratt Institute), I’ve become more sensitive to these issues. I cater to a large number of vegetarian students — literally: when we get together for Shabbat meals, I forgo my beloved chicken matzo ball soup in favor of a mushroom, barley and asparagus medley, out of respect for their preferences.
Because of my students’ concerns, in recent years I’ve paid more attention to the controversies surrounding kaparot. Animal rights groups like PETA say these large annual gatherings leave unsanitary conditions, which is a legitimate cause for concern. Of course, occasions when the chickens are simply thrown away (because the cost of cleaning and processing them for food is considered too high) must be discouraged.
PETA also argues that the underlying message of the ritual could be retained if prayers were simply recited over donated money, rather than a doomed chicken. Indeed, I encourage those uncomfortable with traditional kaparot to explore this reverent alternative.
However, even that variation of kaparot poses a problem. Yes, the money is used to feed the poor over the holidays — but if the meal being paid for turns out to be chicken (and there’s a good chance it is) then, obviously, a chicken will be slaughtered anyway. At the end of the day, has anything been gained by altering a Jewish ritual dating back thousands of years?
Meat is… a dress?
Now, here is a timely (and more lighthearted) question: Which is worse, sacrificing meat for charitable and religious purposes, or wearing it as clothing?
Of course, I’m talking about pop star Lady Gaga’s now infamous “meat dress” (and matching purse, hat and shoes) which she wore to a music industry awards ceremony earlier this month. This ensemble was a follow-up to the meat bikini she wore for the cover of the Japanese edition of Vogue. Naturally, as a rabbi I can’t help but wonder if any of this meat was kosher. The media went wild with questions of its own: Why did she wear a meat dress? And who made it, anyhow? (If you care to know, Lady Gaga said she dressed that way to protest discrimination against gays. And it was designed by Franc Fernandez.) She didn’t exactly reveal herself to be a font of great wisdom, responding to questions with banal, pop spirituality sound bites: “If we don’t stand up for what we believe in and if we don’t fight for our rights,” she explained, “pretty soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our own bones. And I am not a piece of meat.”
Lady Gaga might think she’s making a deep and profound point, but her stunt actually seems pretty shallow. Millions of people go to bed hungry every night, yet food is “sacrificed” to create wearable “art” that will be thrown away in a few hours, all so a performer can briefly capture the spotlight on the red carpet.
I know I’m a rabbi and not an “artist” like Lady Gaga, but none of that sounds very kosher to me.