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Religious Liberty at Risk: California Judge Bans Jewish Ritual

By  Pardes Seleh

For as long as I can remember, the day before Yom Kippur involved the Jewish practice of Kapparot, a sacrificial form of atoning for one’s sins.

Here’s how Kapparot typically done: you buy a chicken for yourself- male or female depending on your identifiable gender- and the day before Yom Kippur, have it waved over your head three times while ceremoniously announcing that the chicken will die for your sins. Then, you take the chicken to a kosher butcher, who will perform a kosher slaughter of the chicken and you get to choose what you want done next with the dead chicken. Most people donate it to charity. Some cook it and eat it before the Yom Kippur fast.

My parents always took this ritual seriously. It seemed important to them that my siblings and I form a relationship with the chickens who were dying on our behalf. We were always told to look the chicken in the eye and pet its head before it went to the slaughter. Some years, my parents would buy the chickens days in advance and let us play with them in our front yard. And then we’d be eating them hours later.

I’ll admit, the whole thing felt pretty real sometimes. I never enjoyed eating a chicken after having watched it be slaughtered because of my sins. My mother insisted I eat it as part of a proper atonement.

One year, my parents told us we’d be using money instead of chickens, due to intense animal rights protests where most of our communal slaughterings in Los Angeles were taking place. The protesters were urging the city to place a ban on the Jewish ritual and have community leaders use “coins, not hens.” Online petitions asked the city to “ban sacrifices in religious rituals,” and activists posted dramatic online videos of chickens being waved around and slaughtered. PETA complained the chickens were being mutilated and discarded.

Perhaps the most disturbing turn of events was when a federal judge actually banned a Jewish organization, Chabad of Irvine, from engaging in the religious practice this year. The California judge had lifted the ban minutes before Yom Kippur began but it was already too late. As National Review’s Howard Slugh wrote, “the damage had been done and can never be entirely remedied. That a federal judge granted such a ban highlights a disturbing trend currently playing out in America’s public and legal understandings of religious liberty.”

And that is precisely the problem with Southern California’s long, tireless war with Kapparot. As emphasized by Slugh, a constitutional lawyer and religious liberty expert, the ban is simply another example of an attempt to devalue religious liberty as a convenience rather than a basic right.

“In this case the plaintiffs offer particular insight into the minds of some groups that want to narrow religious liberty,” he told me in an email. “Their ultimate goal is to replace private morality and individual conscience with a one-size-fits-all, government-mandated morality. They object to Chabad’s desire to ‘determine for themselves what is . . . moral conduct.’ They argue that only the legislature can determine ‘legal and moral behavior in the State of California.’ The plaintiffs do not want to control only Chabad’s conduct. They want to control its conscience.”

There’s an important point in that statement. The war on the ritual of Kapparot has almost nothing to do with chickens and everything to do with a desire to dismantle the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by any means possible.

First of all, if officials were to ban a ritual for the slaughter of chickens, wouldn’t they start with banning chicken farms in general? After all, the slaughtering performed for Kapparot are no different from the kosher slaughtering done on farms. The only difference is that Kapparot slaughtering are being done in public instead of on a farm. They may be even more humane and kosher than commercial chicken slaughtering in fact, since there are so many witnesses present to ensure the kosher butchers are doing their job properly.

PETA claims the animals are being mutilated and discarded for Kapparot. There are two problems with this claim. First, what difference would discarding the animals make to their well-being? Would the vegan group have been more pleased if the chickens were eaten rather than discarded? And second, mutilated and tortured animals are not kosher. There is no motive for a kosher butcher to torture or mutilate chickens in any way before slaughtering them, which brings to light the irresponsibleness of this sort of claim.

Speaking of motives, PETA is known for specifically attacking groups in accordance with its politically left-leaning mission. The animal rights organization has been quick to demand the liberation of domesticated animals in zoos and museums, but made no peep when Islamic terrorists issued a fatwa against all cats.

A lawyer representing California’s United Poultry Concerns raised another idiotic suspicion this year:

“We believe the rabbis’ true motivation is tremendous profit.”

The lawyer, Bryan Pease, claimed the rabbis were making profit by charging for the chicken slaughtering and then disposing of them. This doesn’t make sense. The common alternative to slaughtering chickens for this ritual is donating money, so the rabbis are making money from Kapparot either way. In fact, they likely make a rather larger profit from monetary donations than from spending all day spilling chicken blood in the sunny SoCal heat. Just saying. The rabbis don’t need chickens for profit.

The war on Kapparot does not represent a hatred of Jews or anything of that sort, in my opinion. The majority of anti-Kapparot protesters I’ve noticed over the years have been Jews themselves. Rather, it represents a war on what’s left of our nation’s religious conscience. And according to experts like Slugh, that is being intentionally done every time federal judges attempt to take over religious cases and determine their morality.

“Whether the chicken people’s explanation of Jewish law is the only valid interpretation of Judaism — it is not — is beyond the point,” he writes. “Even if such a “single correct” form of Judaism existed, American courts would be neither qualified nor constitutionally empowered to settle such doctrinal disputes.”

My parents, like so many others, risked their lives to leave their birth countries and immigrate to the United States for the religious freedoms so iconic to its founding. To people like my parents, not only would the recent California ban seem anti-religious; it seems un-American. I pray such measures never again make it to the legislative level, for my parents’ sakes.

As Ronald Reagan famously quoted, “If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth.”

Follow Pardes Seleh on Twitter.

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