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Meshugas About Chickens

As a society becomes more secular, what happens to religious rituals, customs, and ways of life that cannot be explained or justified in secular terms? When the freedom to engage in such practices is no longer presumed to be a good because of a firm commitment to religion as a social value, little stands in the way of its becoming just one more special interest. Religious freedom is then thrown into the bin of social oddities, to be haggled over and negotiated against whatever other idiosyncratic predilections one happens to find in there..

Witness the case of United Poultry Concerns v. Chabad of Irvine. The plaintiff is a California organization devoted to “promoting the respectful and compassionate treatment of domestic fowl” that leads protests, for example, against the use of eggs in the White House Easter-Egg Roll. Indeed, UPC seems to observe a fairly regular schedule of outrage, no doubt because many holidays, religious and otherwise, tend to involve an adversarial relationship with poultry. (With Thanksgiving on the horizon, the group’s web site is showcasing a book called More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality.)

Over the last two weeks, UPC has been involved in a legal effort to stop a Jewish practice called kaparot that is performed on the day before Yom Kippur. Only a small number of Jews in the United States perform this ceremony, and it involves a trained rabbi swinging a chicken in the air and then slaughtering the animal. (“Kaparot” means atonement.)

The tireless Josh Blackman, who has been involved with the case, has a very complete description of the proceedings. The long and short of it is that a federal District Court judge issued a temporary restraining order against the practice earlier this month, citing a California state animal-cruelty provision, though the judge would have been well advised to consider both the federal Humane Slaughter Act and the Supreme Court’s decision in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah (1993) before acting. The judge ordered pre-trial conferences, briefs, and hearings to be conducted and filed immediately thereafter, right smack dab during the most important week in the Jewish calendar.

Perhaps most telling of all was that the hearing on the temporary restraining order was scheduled for October 13, the day after Yom Kippur, which Professor Blackman amusingly analogizes to scheduling a hearing for December 26 on an order to prohibit a ceremony performed on Christmas day. The judge eventually lifted the order just hours before sundown on October 12, rendering it impossible as a practical matter for the synagogue’s members to perform the ceremony.

Indeed, as Professor Blackman notes, the timing of the legal proceeding was obviously calculated by the plaintiffs to cause as much disruption and distress as it possibly could (the lawsuit could have been filed really at any other time), respectful treatment of chickens being one thing and respectful treatment of religious believers quite another. The judge seems to have been either utterly unaware of these issues or utterly uninterested in them.

As one rabbi put it, “We want to talk about repentance, how we should change our lives, how we should get our act together. Instead, we’re all involved in this meshugas about chickens.”

The meaning that religious rules concerning ritual slaughter (as well as dietary regulations) have for observant Jews (and Muslims) is likely to be lost on an American government and people that are becoming increasingly secular. It would indeed be difficult to explain a practice like kaparot in terms of the secular, civic benefits it produces. The same could be said for Yom Kippur itself, which may help to explain, if not excuse, the court’s ill-usage of the defendants in this case. With few or no familiar analogues in secular culture, religious rituals of this kind are likely to become at best incomprehensible, and at worst a kind of lunacy.

Indeed, the probability that these rules will be perceived as nothing more than a backward vestige of a barbaric and superstitious age increases almost exactly in proportion as the justification for the rules will need to be expressed in secular terms. And as the notion that religious liberty is itself an intrinsic good declines—as it has done and will do in the coming years—so will the view that religious liberty deserves any particular solicitude when it competes against any other given interest—animal, vegetable, or mineral—falling under the government’s gigantic, protective aegis.

Reader Discussion

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on October 19, 2016 at 09:09:33 am

Remember, we are now living in Babylon. Religious people are increasingly seeing themselves thrown to the lions and into the furnace.

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Wayne Abernathy
on October 19, 2016 at 10:43:30 am

So many scholars have written about the power of words to limit thought. I hope words can be examined with appreciation.

"Secular," commonly restricts thought. America's civic contract, the preamble to the constitution for the USA, is often mislabeled "secular." If "secular" means areligious, or without religion, the preamble does not seem to support the secular label: the preamble seems neutral to religion. The preamble would connect people who practice the stated goals and purposes.

"Civic," as used above, refers to people connected because 1) they live during the same time in the same place and 2) are willing to iteratively collaborate for broadly defined public safety and security. A civic people admit that there always seems to exist dissidents to safety and security, and therefore, beyond civic morality, the civic culture provides a system of laws and a monopoly on law-enforcement.

The public consequence is civil morality, wherein, for example, conviction of premeditated murder warrants the death penalty. The murderer rather than the civic culture invites the penalty, and a civic people support the system regardless of personal preference. The person who prefers mercy for the murderer negotiates for modification of the law, but would not impose personal opinion on a jury decision. The practice of separating personal preference from civic trust and commitment we dub "public-integrity." The dash is essential to avoid separation of the singularity of the thought: public-integrity.

Further, we define public-integrity as "private-liberty-with-civic-morality." Thus, a dashed, two-word thought is synonymous with a five-word thought.

"Civic-morality" provides freedom from real harm such that willing persons may practice "private-liberty" respecting, for example, religious preference. Thus, a person's religious morality does not impact his or her civic morality. The requires the mutual appreciation of heartfelt personal concerns: The person who thinks body and mind comprise life is mutually peaceful with the person who thinks soul continues in the afterdeath. Each member of a civic people personally separates private-integrity from public-integrity.

A civic people employ the indisputable facts of reality to reach civic concord. The iterative collaboration respecting the ceremonial slaying of a chicken is conducted by a civic people in public, rather than in courts of law. Chickens are slaughtered by the trillions for food, and humanizing a chicken's objections to slaughter is a matter of opinion. The animal-rights complaint on the part of the chicken is speculation that does not pass muster respecting civic morality. A civic people do not allow the courts to be used to settle matters of religious opinion.

With public-integrity, a civic people do not tolerate the expense of indulgent judges and lawyers, and religious disputes do not rise to civil adjudication. To put it another way, a judge who entertains such a case pays the bill. Social justice yields to civic justice.

I understand examination of words can invoke proposal for radical reform. But reform is way past due, as evidenced by national debt growing past $20 trillion. Civic morality demands focus on safety and security rather than dominant-private- opinion.

I write to learn rather than teach, so I hope for iterative collaboration toward civic morality.

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Phil Beaver
on October 19, 2016 at 11:58:53 am

Indeed, the probability that these rules will be perceived as nothing more than a backward vestige of a barbaric and superstitious age increases almost exactly in proportion as the justification for the rules will need to be expressed in secular terms. And as the notion that religious liberty is itself an intrinsic good declines—as it has done and will do in the coming years—so will the view that religious liberty deserves any particular solicitude when it competes against any other given interest—animal, vegetable, or mineral—falling under the government’s gigantic, protective aegis.

Should we defend the practice of human sacrifice are part of a religious ritual?

Should we defend the rights of nudists to appear in public naked if they claim this is part of their religion?

If not, then it seems to me that we've pretty much always been on this slippery slope. Society has merely changed its views about what kinds of behavior to countenance. Plus sa change and all that.

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nobody.really
on October 19, 2016 at 15:16:37 pm

Careful, now!

"Should we defend the practice of human sacrifice are part of a religious ritual? "

In some sense AND in SOME quarters we do precisely that. consider the current glorification of indigenous peoples AND their religion, often cited as more wholesome, more humane and more *Gaia* centered than Christianity. One often forgets that in Mexico, these humane native peoples slaughtered in excess of 20,000 human beings IN ONE DAY as propitiation to the Gods.

Hey, strangling a chicken is just chicken sh*t in comparison.

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gabe
on October 19, 2016 at 17:28:15 pm

Phil, ole buddy, you ARE on to something here!

"Chickens are slaughtered by the trillions for food, and humanizing a chicken’s objections to slaughter is a matter of [deluded] opinion. The animal-rights complaint on the part of the chicken is [vile, ideologically driven sophomoric] speculation that does not pass muster respecting civic morality." [nor an IQ test].

"With public-integrity, a civic people do not tolerate the expense of indulgent judges and lawyers [*nudged* along by infantile snowflakes posturing as a concerned *civic* minded and more humane segment of an otherwise deplorable culture] and religious disputes do not rise to civil adjudication"

Hope you don;t mind the *un-civic* assistance from the outskirts of Coventry.

Or as I like to say: "let the "collisions" commence in a *civic* fashion.

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gabe
on October 20, 2016 at 12:06:30 pm

Seems like the chickens are coming home to roost....the insatiable maw of secularism, the extremism that nobody wants to talk about.

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Lisette
on October 20, 2016 at 17:45:19 pm

Secularism and religion are not the only options. There's public-integrity as private-liberty-with-civic-morality. (The dashes are used to encourage readers not to separate the words so as to preserve the thought. The two-word phrase and the five-word phrase are synonymous in our context.) With a civic culture, every real-no-harm preferential-association thrives within the privacy of believers and are subsets of a civic culture. "Civic" represents the willing civic connection of people merely because they live during the same years in the same place.

In my wife's brevity, we're talking a common-sense live-and-let-live-culture. The culture still needs the rule of law, because it seems there are always dissidents to civic morality. A civic people supervise governments for the rule of law.

In a civic culture, members willingly collaborate for broadly-defined-civic-safety-and-security, or civic-morality. We think 65% of citizens would like this way of living.

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Phil Beaver
on October 20, 2016 at 18:07:00 pm

Phil:

May I suggest anything by Oakeshott - you will like his writings.

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gabe
on October 20, 2016 at 19:33:34 pm

Nobody:

How about all you great Progressives so interested in liberty try defending Free Speech instead of stifling it - all in the name of protecting the right to choose:

http://spectator.org/california-aborting-free-speech-rights/

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gabe
on October 20, 2016 at 20:17:46 pm

I read about him on Wikipedia. Seems he's a rationalist. I put On Human Conduct, 1991, on my reading list. Thank you, gabe. Also, after my recent essay, "Private liberty," Sir Francis Bacon, a friend of Oakeschott, became my number one next study.

I have already written in this forum that physics does not yield to reason (rational thought): Physics exists and humankind's quest is to discover physics and make best use of it. In this context, physics is energy, mass and space-time from which everything on earth emerges, including fiction, religion, and rational thought. Such thoughts are my focus. I must be humble to thoughts of every friend.

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Phil Beaver
on October 26, 2016 at 12:07:34 pm

learn to pick your fights
Kaporos - waving a chicken around the head on the day before Yom Kippur, is a custom or "rite" which was loudly decried and condemned by the rabbinic authorities as being a Jewish equivalent of voodoo, without any religious significance. It's limited revival in recent years is more of a game show stunt than an expression of faith.

Preventing it because of health, safety, or food security purposes is no more a restriction on religion than putting nets under bridges to prevent mass suicides

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Ch Hoffman

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