Ritual Sacrifice:

“The reduction of living beings to objects upon whom atrocities can be heaped.” –Maxwell Schnurer, “At the Gates of Hell,” Terrorists or Freedom Fighters?

By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

The idea that some groups were put on the earth to suffer and die sacrificially for a superior group goes far back in time. The idea is deeply embedded in human cultures, including the culture of the West, which is rooted in ancient Greek and Hebrew modes of thought, and incorporated in Christianity, where these roots combine.

Animal sacrifice is not just an anachronism in these “enlightened” times. It thrives in modern forms, as, for example, in the sacrifice of other animal species for humans in biomedical research. Inflicting human diseases on animals in search of a cure, however modern this may seem, is essentially a type of primitive purification ritual. Through the ages, people have sought to rid themselves of their impurities (diseases, sins, and vices) by transferring their impurities to innocent victims. Often, these victims are represented as having both human and nonhuman attributes, as the word “scapegoat” implies. In Christianity, Jesus is the sacrificial lamb who bears away the sins of the world. In the Hasidic custom of kapparot (atonement), adherents transfer their sins and punishment symbolically to chickens, their “doubles,” who are then slaughtered in their place by a “merciful” God.

Sacrificial animals are regarded by their sacrificers as worthless except in the realm of instrumentality, where, by contrast, they assume a role of principal importance. Whatever is done to them is said to be justified by the victims themselves, by virtue of who and what they are within the symbolic framework in which they are trapped. Only by being sacrificed to “higher” forms can these “lower and degraded” forms be redeemed from being, as it were, “just animals.” However at variance with appearances, the victims are represented as collaborating, often gratefully, in their own destruction. For example, Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox association, wrote to UPC back in August that the chickens being “swung” and slaughtered in kapparot rituals may be regarded as “gratified by the privilege” of being killed for a “holy purpose.”

A bum conceit, but how much different is it from advertisements claiming that chickens want to be selected as the tastiest sandwich or that pigs are dying to become an Oscar Mayer wiener? Animals who are otherwise maledicted as “dirty” and “stupid” acquire their value in being slaughtered for the “higher” species. They are decontaminated by being cooked and elevated by being absorbed into the body of a human being. Surely they must relish their privilege.

“. . . the gleeful carnage you call Thanksgiving. The ceremony is a sham.”
– Jim Naughton, “The Turkey Ritual: Stuff It!” The Washington Post

The Thanksgiving Turkey is also a form of ritual sacrifice. Not only are turkeys slaughtered by the millions to fulfill their “role” as food for their “superiors”; they are ritually slaughtered for Thanksgiving in the manner of antiquity to unify society. Philosopher Brian Luke explains how by designating a common sacrificial victim, Americans ritually constitute themselves as a nation, a role that is also played by war. We are the sacrificers, turkeys are the ones sacrificed, which is why the government tries hard to insure that every citizen, from the indigent to the institutionalized, gets a bite of turkey over the holiday, and why most Americans can’t accept turkeyless Thanksgivings. “It is the community all partaking in the flesh that unites everyone,” he writes.

Moreover, “In traditional societies, it is always men who cut animals’ throats to ritually sacrifice them. The cutting shows the power that men exercise over domesticated animals and that they may also exercise over human groups that are similarly unable to defend themselves. This veiled threat is reproduced in modern industrialized America through the Thanksgiving tradition of the man of the household carving the turkey.”

Fortunately, traditions can evolve. Substituting new materials for previously used ones to celebrate a tradition is an integral part of tradition. In the religious realm, if we can substitute animal flesh for human flesh, and bread and wine for “all flesh” and the shedding of innocent blood at the altar, and view these changes as advances of civilization and not as inferior substitutes for genuine religious experience, we are ready to go forward in our everyday lives on ground that is already laid. If God can become flesh, then flesh can become fruit.

Technologically, this transformation, this substitution, has already occurred, because people are demanding it, and technology can meet this demand. We can be vegan. If the Peaceable Kingdom is a genuine desire, fake meat is the food to which dead meat aspires, and the vegan food makers are as deserving as anyone is of the Nobel Prize for Peace.

These ideas and more appear in Karen Davis’s books The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale and More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality. Published by Lantern Books, these books can be purchased directly from United Poultry Concerns.