For those of you not familiar with the tradition of “kapparoth“, it is a ritual where a Jew swings a chicken (or sometimes coins) over his head three times while asking that his sins be transferred to the chicken (or coins). This ritual is done the day before Yom Kippur during the wee hours of the morning. After the chicken is thus utilized, it is ritually slaughtered and given to the poor. This tradition has been the target of criticism both by anti-Semites and animal rights activists. PETA has come out strongly against it, claiming that it is both cruel to the chickens and can lead to health hazards. Thinking back to the one or two times that I participated in the ritual (a very long time ago), both these concerns can be easily addressed – though they are not always addressed. When I handled the chicken, I was careful to avoid causing it any unnecessary suffering; picking up a chicken and swinging it (slowly) over one’s head need not cause it trauma. I spent part of my childhood with chickens so I know that there are definitely ways to pick them up and move them without being cruel about it. Unfortunately, not all observant Jews are sensitive in this way – as the above PETA video clearly shows (I would imagine they edited out the more tame examples).
But I am no fan of kapparoth. Aside from the real danger that the chicken will poop on your head, there are other issues. The first edition of the Code of Jewish Law (1565) had harsh words concerning the ritual of kapparoth, essentially calling it a pagan ritual that had no place in Judaism. Later editions of this codex were censured to simply state that one should not practice it. The author of the Code of Jewish Law, R. Yosef Karo, represented (more or less) the views of the Sephardic community. His codex, while respected in the Ashkenazi world, were only partially accepted as authoritative. Later editions of his work included glosses by the Ashkenazi rabbi Moses Isserles. Isserles disagreed with Karo’s assessment of kapparoth and pointed out that it is common practice among the Ashkenazim. Over time, even the Sephardim came to adopt the custom of kapparoth. In modern times, the only Jewish community that has refrained from practicing it has been the Yemenite community. These days, even many Yemenite Jews practice it.
It has always been my position that there is no inherent value in the ritual of kapparoth. In fact, it is contrary to the true spirit of Judaism – which does not believe that one can rid oneself of one’s sins through hokus-pokus rituals, but rather only through genuine penitence and resolve for the future. Generally speaking, any ritual that must be done three times, or any string of words that must be uttered three times, smacks of kabbalistic voodoo magic. Thus, it is not surprising that some of the greatest supporters of kapparoth were the kabbalists. The kabbalists believe that actions such as kapparoth, or words, can have an impact upon the higher realms of reality (the so-called sephiroth). Thus, by performing this ritual upon a hapless chicken, one is not only (supposedly/hopefully) reminding oneself to do penance, but also fixing things in those other realities. In other words, the ritual can have value in its own right – even if the practitioner takes no moral lesson from it.
The ritual of kapparoth is just one of many dubious practices that turn observant Jews into primitive and superstitious people who follow bizarre rituals they do not understand – because their explanation is “too deep” for a layman to understand. “Too deep to understand” is often a euphemism for “makes no sense at all”.
The teachings of the Kabbalah have been a corrupting force on the Jewish people. The Kabbalah is based on the belief that there are seven realms of reality, ours being the lowest (the realm of “action”). Above them all dwells the “limitless one” (en sof – lit. “no end”). The perversions of the Kabbalah take their toll on both the spiritual plane and the physical one. On the spiritual plane, Kabbalah teaches that God (en sof) is completely detached from our realm of reality. Therefore, our prayers cannot be directly to Him; rather, they must be via the higher realms. This is a form of idolatry. What this means is that our prayers and rituals, instead of being directed toward helping ourselves and our communities, are directed toward effecting change in mysterious, unfathomable realms. If we stop to ponder the ramifications of this primitive way of looking at things, we will understand that it ends up placing a lot of emphasis upon the saying of words (which are supposed to have power in their own right) instead of actual prayer, and the mechanical fulfillment of ritual (while paying attention to countless minutiae) instead of focusing on the worldly benefit that most rituals were intended to fulfill.
Since Mideastern, and Southern European, populations tend to be more prone to superstition and witchcraft than Northern Europeans, the Kabbalah has always been much stronger among Sephardic Jews than among Ashkenazi Jews. The ritual of kapparoth is an exception in that Ashkenazim more readily adopted this mystical/voodoo type ritual than the Sephardim. There can be little doubt that strong beliefs in the supernatural have retarded the advancement of technology in Mediterranean regions. Why go through the trouble of getting to the root of a problem when a magical spell will work just as well? Why take the time and effort in building fire-resistant, or earthquake resistant, structures when a protective charm will serve the same purpose?
Ashkenazim have succeeded in the modern world, and largely shaped the modern world, despite the fact that our culture was crippled with the burden of the Kabbalah. It pains me to see adult Jews waving chickens over their heads while mumbling incantations – looking like primitive witch doctors. It’s an embarrassment.
Sadly, this emphasis on form rather than substance has become commonplace even outside the Jewish world. No generation has possessed as much knowledge as our own – and yet never have so many people embraced ignorance as a way of life. Call me harsh, but when a person chooses to regularly spend hours of his free time watching television rather than seeking meaningful knowledge – this is “embracing ignorance”. To then claim that he has “opinions”, about the self-same things he refuses to learn about, is to enshrine that ignorance.
Where there is ignorance, there is mystery. Where there is mystery, there is ritual. Ritual comes to appease unknown forces. This can be forgiven when there is no means of banishing the darkness – such as with primitive witch doctors. Otherwise it is the crime of willful ignorance.
Those who enforce the cult of racial-egalitarianism and other irrational policies are actually just swinging chickens over their heads.