Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Magical Healing & a Consumer Society - Part 2

Naturally I am quite aware that some readers will raise the challenge that the previously listed "barbaric customs" are amongst the reasons for the separation between mainstream Judaism and "Practical Kabbalah." That is only true if one turns a blind eye to a somewhat tasteless "magical anomaly" in the very heart of fundamentalist Judaism. I am referring to a sacrificial ritual practice, regarding which a dear friend queried me a while back. He was under the impression that this was "an old Kabbalistic ritual" in which a chicken is slaughtered to "take away the sins" of all present. As it is, the sacrificial ritual in question is not of kabbalistic derivation at all. It is the Kaparot, meaning "expiations" or "atonements," which is a sort of "scapegoat" ceremony in which sins are transferred to a sacrificial victim, and which is mostly performed by the ultra-Orthodox on the day prior to Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). The custom represents the symbolic transference of personal sins onto a chicken which is afterwards slaughtered, and whilst its body is presented to the poor, some have it that the entrails should be given to the wild birds. [Trachtenberg, J.: Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion, Behrman’s Jewish Book House Publishers, New York 1939; Strassfeld, M., Teutsch, B.P., Eisen, A.M.: The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary, Harper & Row, New York 1985.]
The custom is to offer a rooster for a male and a hen for a female. The individuals in question commence the ritual by reciting the Bnei Adam (Children of Man) prayer, while holding the live bird in the hand. Afterwards, while twirling the fowl around the head, several prayers are read which say, in effect: “May this be a substitute for me; if it has been ordained that I die, may this fowl die in my place,” or “Although I have sinned, I’m being given the opportunity to live again.....I must atone for my sins.” The fowl is then placed under the table, and afterwards presented to the Shochet (kosher butcher), and finally given to the poor, or better still eaten by everyone present and its value in money donated to the poor.
Recently there has been quite a rumpus over the practice with Jews and gentiles alike objecting to it as being cruel and barbaric. In fact, it made the front page of the New York Times. [New York Times, 16th September 2002.] Rabbi Avi Shafran, the director of public affairs for Agudat Israel of America, replied to the article calling it “simple ignorance,” and tried to detract from the main argument of the practice being barbaric, by referring to the “adorable little girl in Jerusalem with a squeal-smile on her face as a chicken was being swung around her head,” and saying that the rite has nothing to do with the transference of sin. Tell that to the rest of the populace who believes otherwise, and “wrongly” as far as this Rabbi is concerned! He sharply steers away from the Kaparot ritual onto the need for Teshuvah (repentance), and does concede that the Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative “Code of Jewish Law” disapproves of the Kaparot ritual. [Karo, J. ben E.: Shulchan Aruch: Orach Chayim, Mishkal, Tel Aviv 2009.]
Afterwards he continues by saying that the renowned “Chofetz Chaim,” Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, “explains that when anyone performs the ritual, the individual should consider that what will happen to the bird—its slaughter—would be happening to him or her were strict justice, untempered by God’s mercy, the rule. As a result, the supplicant will come to regret his sins and ‘through his repentance’ cause God ‘to revoke any evil decree from him’.” The good Rabbi means to tell us that we need to sacrifice hens and roosters by swinging them three times (some nine times) around our heads, then killing them, feed them to the poor and throwing their entrails to the birds, purely as a reminder of what the Divine One would do to us should we not toe the line? Does he honestly believe that this act spurs the practitioner on to “meditation on the need for atonement, stir feelings of repentance and recommitment to the performance of good deeds”?
Rabbi Shafran did not clarify the exact meaning of the following words being uttered while swinging the unfortunate fowl around the head: “This is instead of me; this is in my place. Let this chicken die, so that I may go on to have a good, peaceful life”? Its plain meaning reads exactly like those one would use during vicarious sacrifices, i.e. ritual acts of transferring sinfulness to a substitute. It also seems hardly appropriate for the Rabbi to speak of “the deep meanings that lie in the rites and rituals of Jewish religious life,” when fowls are treated in a cruel manner, which actually goes totally against the grain of the traditional Jewish stance of kindness to all God’s creatures.
Throughout the history of this unsavoury practice, participants have claimed that they are following this custom as an honest and heartfelt act of contrition, as they contemplate the perception that, due to their sins, the same lot which is now befalling the chicken might be in store for them, if not for the mercy of the Divine One. At the same time a large number of rabbis, equally as distinguished as the “Chofetz Chaim,” have raised the strongest objections to the ritual of the Kaparot. Amongst these were the great Maimonides, Nachmanides, Solomon ben Adret who deprecated the custom as a heathen practice at variance with Judaism, in which he maintained there is no history of vicarious sacrifices. Rabbi Joseph Karo, the famous 16th century Kabbalist, Halachist and author of the earlier mentioned Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), called it a stupid custom which should be stopped. Others objected to the magical ideas associated with it, e.g. that white fowl are especially efficacious, and so forth. Rabbi Chaim Halevy, late Sefardi Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, in his ruling against the custom, said: “Why should we show unnecessary cruelty to animals specifically on the eve of the holiest day, slaughtering them without mercy, precisely when we stand to plead for long life for ourselves before the Living God?” [Cohen, J.M.: Prayer and Penitence: A Commentary on the High Holy Day Machzor, Jason Aronson Inc., Northvale 1994.]
That sums up my feeling exactly. As far as the Kaparot ritual itself is concerned, I think it is worthwhile understanding how and why it started in the first place. It appears to be a “spill over” as it were, from the animal sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem, despite the fact that it started in Babylonia in the 9th century, many centuries after the destruction of the Temple. Rashi, commenting on the Babylonian Talmud, said that fishes and plants were used at first in the Kaparot rituals, but it also appears that the ram was used as a sacrifice in Babylonia, as a reminder of the ram substituted for Isaac in the well-known biblical saga. Later the rooster became more popular in the Kaparot ritual, and I believe we need to look at this practice from a much wider perspective, i.e. from the angle that this kind of ritual was and still is being practised by many other nations around the world. Thus we can get a much clearer understanding of it. [Bloch, A.P.: The Biblical and Historical Background of Jewish Customs and Ceremonies, Ktav Publishing House, New York 1980.]
(More to follow)

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