Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, falls in 2009 on September 28 (but begins the previous evening). In English it is known as the Day of Atonement. On this day, many Jews whether religious or secular, will be in the synagogue praying to God to forgive their sins. They will listen to the chanting of the cantor and participate in responsive readings. Many will fast; some will walk to synagogue rather than drive; some will not wear leather shoes. A very few will do something many Jews are unfamiliar with: shlogn kapores.
The Yiddish phrase shlogn kapores translates roughly as, “swinging the atoning sacrifice.” A man takes a rooster, a woman a hen, and during the ceremony, swings the fowl around the head reciting, “This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This rooster (or, hen) will go to its death, while I will enter and proceed to a good long life and to peace.” It is, perhaps, one of the last remaining reminders of the ancient sacrificial system, though no one really knows its origin.
In a recent edition of the Jewish arts magazine Zeek, songwriter Basya Schechter speaks of her upbringing in Boro Park, New York, home to a community of ultra-Orthodox Jews or Haredim.1 She remarks that she lived in two worlds, that of the Haredim and that of the more non-religious/secular. During a period of inner conflict, she mentions writing a song in which “I compared the chicken of shlogn kapores (the ritual of waving a chicken around one’s head on Erev Yom Kippur) to Jesus Christ.” The melody, she tells us, was “in the harmonic minor scale, and sounded very much like the zemiros [Sabbath and holiday songs] I grew up with.”2
A fuller version can be found online. The song lyrics are at once surreal, slightly disturbing, thought-provoking, and dissonance-causing, because they venture into territory normally avoided by the Orthodox. Here are two of the stanzas that make a jarring comparison between the Yom Kippur ceremony and the crucified Jesus:
Chicken chicken on the cross
I have sins if you have sauce
be my gravy, be my wings,
relieve me of my earthly things.
Chicken chicken crucified
Do you have nails banged in your mind,
feel my rhythm sting my brain,
relieve me of my aches and pains.
Schechter is not a believer in Yeshua and to be honest, I am not sure what to make of her poetic comparison. In her Zeek article, she appears to have made peace with her inner conflicts and has embraced a kind of Judaism in which she has the freedom and comfort to create and express herself, and now leads a band called Pharaoh’s Daughter (www.pharaohsdaughter.com). The astute reader might even detect a similarity to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah in the last line quoted (Isaiah 53:4— “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…”) Probably the song was a way of expressing her discordant identity struggle.
And the imagery is discordant. Jews do not often think about Jesus. Christians speak of Jesus as the “Lamb of God” (another sacrificial metaphor), but certainly not as the “chicken of God.” It is highly dissonant to both Jewish and Christian ways of thinking.
But dissonance can be a good thing, if it makes us think in new directions. In fact, the Bible is full of this kind of dissonance. There are stories of God fulfilling his promises through highly failure-prone, sin-laden people (think of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his murder-by-proxy of her husband Uriah—yet elsewhere David is called a “man after God’s own heart”!) There are statements and sayings every bit as jarring to hearers as Schechter’s song: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood,” says Yeshua in John’s Gospel (John 6:54), “has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” The effect is to get us to say: what is really going on here?
Years ago missionary Don Richardson wrote of his time among the Sawi tribe of what at that time was Dutch New Guinea. The Sawis valued treachery above all else. They could not get their minds around the message of Jesus, because to them Judas the betrayer was the hero. Eventually Richardson discovered a tribal ceremony whereby peace could be procured with an enemy by giving over one’s son to that enemy. This was the “peace child” who, as long as he remained alive in the custody of the enemy group, ensured peace between the two. From then on, Richardson was able to convey to the Sawi tribe that Jesus was the peace child sent to make peace between mankind and God. And for the first time, the Sawis understood.
Jesus the Chicken of God might not be an idea expressed in the Bible in those words. But for those performing shlogn kapores, and even for less religious Jews, it may be a dissonance that creates a fresh vantage point as well as a bridge that connects the dots. “This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement.” The chicken? The Messiah? Jesus?