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Why Kapparot Needs To Be Legal, By Someone Who Hates Kapparot

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Every year right before Yom Kippur, various groups of Jews around the world practice a ritual where they swing a chicken around their head and then slaughter it, symbolically eradicating their year’s worth of sins.  This ritual, called kapparot, has become a pretty controversial issue both within Judaism and within the wider public sphere.
 
Now by no means am I a fan of kapparot. For one, it is given absolutely no mention within the Talmud and was actually heavily opposed by many great Rabbis throughout the ages. If this is not enough, the act itself is cruel to the animals, as they are generally kept in small cages and then thrown around during the actual ritual before being killed. Finally, I find the whole theology behind this ritual to be absurd at best. If people truly believe that swinging a chicken around their head can, in any way, make up for their wrongdoings our society will be left with much more problems than a couple of tortured chickens.
 
It is also pretty clear that I am not the only one who feels strongly against kapparot. Every year various activist groups flock to protest the ritual, with a type of energy and anger that only someone advocating on behalf of animals can muster up. These groups will rally, scream, and shame the kapparot practitioners in a generally vain attempt to try and get them to stop. However, in the past couple of years, a new tactic has been tried by these activist groups, namely: trying to make kapparot illegal. 
 
Just last year Chabad was taken to court a few weeks before Yom Kippur by an animal rights group trying to prevent kapparot. Unsurprisingly, this episode attracted a lot of attention in the American Jewish community. Now many people who are against kapparot may be sad to hear that Chabad won the case. After all, if the court deemed kapparot illegal, then the case is closed. Jewish groups would probably start switching to money (an alternative to chickens) or simply pass on the ritual altogether. Nevertheless, if Chabad had lost this court case, it would have been extremely detrimental to our political system as a whole.
 
The intersection between law and religion is tricky. In general, we want our courts/government to allow complete freedom of religion but also create and maintain a society that upholds basic rights and ethics. Sometimes, these two ideas can come into conflict with one another.
To pick an extreme example, we probably would not want to give a religion that still sacrificed infants the ability to do so. However, if that religion had a prayer or scripture that talked about the benefits of sacrificing children, we would not want the government telling them that they cannot read or study it. We could imagine any number of situations in which it is difficult to pinpoint where to draw an exact line.
 
In the kapparot case, the Chabad defense attorneys brought up a Supreme Court case from 1993 known as Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah.  In this case, the Floridean city of Hialeah passed a law which stated that any animal sacrifice done in public or private, for non-consumption purposes, was completely unnecessary and therefore illegal.  This law stymied the worship of the Church of Lukimi Babalu Aye, an Afro-American religion with ritual slaughter at the center of their practice.  The Church felt that they were being unfairly discriminated against, given that other organizations were able to freely kill animals whether it be for food, clothing or research.  Finally, in 1993, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that this law was unconstitutional since it did not allow religious groups the same freedoms as other organizations. The Chabad case had an almost identical verdict.
 
Freedom of religion does not just mean that I can practice Judaism while the guy next to me practices Islam and neither of us can get into trouble for it. Freedom of religion, at its fundamental core, is a society admitting that even if there is one objective truth in the world no one group (and definitely not the government) can claim to know or decide it for everyone. After our society sets up some basic parameters to act as moral underpinnings of our society (a fancy way of saying the Constitution), we are all free to pursue the course that we see most fit to follow.
 
Now you might be sitting here and thinking, “Well, what if I believe that animal’s rights is a universal value that should trump the subjective value of any religious group?” Now this claim may be true, and I may even agree with you, but that is beyond the point. The main issue at stake here is that it is not and should not be the government or court’s decision to make. If you truly believe that kapparot should not be done, go out and protest - or better yet and even more effectively - go and learn the sources and present an argument from Jewish literature and history against this ritual. I promise that I have convinced more people within the Jewish world by quoting Jewish sources and history than I could ever hope to by protesting them.

At the end of the day, if you believe that your ideas are correct then you should also expect them to hold up in the long run, without any external help. This kapparot season I am sure that I will get into debates with people about why it is wrong for many reasons. However, if and when those people decide to practice the ritual, I will be glad that they can do so without legal backlash.
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