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Practical Issues > Things to do > Religion and Animals

October, 2005
Reflections on Rosh Hashana
by Rina Deych

My religious beliefs (or lack thereof) have nothing to do with my intense love of my Jewish heritage. My mother, though she was an atheist, had grown up with orthodox parents and had developed a strong spiritual connection with her Jewish roots.

I lived in Israel as a child briefly (from ages 5 to 7 1/2) and Hebrew was my first written language. Throughout the years, we celebrated the Jewish holidays, reciting the blessings and decorating the house (whatever we happened to call home that year, including our tiny converted garage in Tucson, Arizona, where we lived in the late 60's) with ornaments we made by hand for each occasion.

At this time around the Jewish New Year, I suppose I should feel a sense of renewal and joy.

But, living in the ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Boro Park, Brooklyn, I dread it.

This is the time, immediately after New Year's and before Yom Kippur, when crates of live chickens are delivered to store fronts, school yards, synagogues, and parking lots with makeshift tents. A sign saying "Kaporot" adorns the area along with the stench of fear and death. People line up to participate in one of the most barbaric acts I have ever personally witnessed. A live chicken is swung around each person's head 3 times then has it's neck sliced open to bleed to death. This procedure is repeated for each family who pays the fee. The blood, I'm told, represents our sins flowing out so that we may begin the new year with a clean slate. Our sins.

It brings to mind an event I attended in the 80's at the Museum of Natural History. It was a seminar on Santeria (a cult combining Christianity and Yoruba or Voodoo, whose practices include animal sacrifice). The seminar was an entire week long, however I, along with a group of animal activists from Trans Species Unlimited, only attended the evening they were to discuss the subject of animal sacrifice.

We entered the museum and interspersed ourselves with the rest of the audience, the majority of whom were Santerians. A panel of Santerian "scholars" including a psychologist, an anthropologist, a Santero (or Santerian priest), and an author/Santera by the name of Migene Gonzalez-Whippler sat on stage.

There was music playing that was hauntingly hypnotic. I remembered feeling sad that people who created such beautiful music could participate in such a heinous practice as animal torture and sacrifice.

After awhile, the music ceased and Whippler stood at the podium and greeted the crowd of about 500.

As soon as Whippler began her opening speech, several Trans Species members (including Steve Siegel, the President of the organization) jumped up and unrolled huge posters of mutilated animals. As much as I could appreciate the sentiment, it seemed of little use to try to appeal to them on that level since most of the people in the audience were already practitioners of Santeria and it obviously didn't bother them. Whippler became infuriated and ordered the museum guards to immediately remove the protesters. Some in the crowd threatened the activists as they were escorted out of the auditorium.

For those of us who had chosen not to take part in the poster activity, (there were a handful of us left, including Sylvia Sterling from the cable show "Animal Rights Forum" and Bill Strauss, an ASPCA attorney) Whippler set up strict rules.

She angrily declared: "OK, since you people do not know how to behave, you will NOT be allowed to make any comments. I will only accept one question from each of you." We were instructed to line up in two of the isles and wait, in front of a microphone, for Whippler's permission to ask our one question each. People in the crowd were heckling and threatening us.

When it was my turn, I stepped up to the microphone and said "I have a two-part question. The first part is: since religion is such a spiritual thing and we use things symbolically - for example, instead of cutting up a live person, Catholics use the host and the wine to represent the body and blood of Jesus Christ - why can't you cut open a peach, and let the juice that drains out REPRESENT the 'sin-filled' blood? That way you wouldn't have to hurt anything." There was a hush in the audience. No one said a word. I went on: "the second part of my question is: why do you use animals to represent our sins? Animals don't sin. Only people sin." Again, there was silence. I didn't expect an answer. I didn't even expect to change any minds. I just wanted to make people think. To plant some seeds.

The barbaric and archaic ritual of Kaporot is no different from the brutal animal sacrifices of the Santerians.

They are all the same. These people don't "get" it. As Professor Richard Schwartz points out in his piece entitled "The Custom of Kapparot in Jewish Tradition", if transference and subsequent expulsion of sin through the killing of an animal were possible, it would eliminate the need for Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. There is no logical explanation why these practices should continue. But it's not about logic. It's about faith. Blind faith.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once said "Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith. I consider the capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile." I would have to agree.

Shana Tova,

Rina Deych

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