Zombies as an Existential Metaphor

Every year around Halloween time, many Americans watch a variety of monster movies pertaining to creatures who are often “undead.” Let’s be honest, there is nothing appealing about zombies. They lack the sexiness of vampires; they lack the glamor and good manners. At least vampires know how to blend in society.

But the monsters I wish to comment upon are not the vampires or Frankenstein—but the disgusting creatures better known to us as “zombies.” These creatures project an image of ourselves that make us feel uncomfortable—a rotting corpse, reminding us about the power of death. Zombies have no redeeming qualities. Unlike vampires, you cannot have conversation with them at the dinner table.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ZOMBIES

The history of zombies goes back to antiquity.

Archaeologists have unearthed many Greek graves, where skeletons were pinned down by rocks and other heavy debris intended to keep the dead in the grave. And while moderns generally view the idea of zombies with total disbelief, one might wonder what led to people believing in the idea that the dead are really, but mysteriously still “alive”?

Most myths about the human condition have a basis in fact.

When I was a child, I remember watching a film back in 1962 that scarred me like no other film I have ever seen, the film entitled, “The Premature Burial” was based on a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe, published in 1844 in The Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper. Its main character expresses concern about being buried alive. But were people buried alive?

Most certainly.

Physicians for the greater part of history oftentimes could not discern when somebody had actually, “died.” Someone in a deep coma was often believed to be “dead.” Perhaps this experience gave rise to the zombie and vampire movies and literature. Short of waiting for the body to decompose, the medical community had few means of certifying death, and the burgeoning press was quick to sensationalize any hasty pronouncements.

In my old community of Glens Falls, New York, you could see bells attached to graves dating back to the 18th century during the Revolutionary War period.

My interest in zombies has changed considerably over the decades. As a student of anthropology and religion, I wondered: If zombies are a metaphor, what do they represent in the human psyche? In one sense, these beings stand only at the periphery of human consciousness. In some ways, they are akin to people who are sleepwalking through life. The sleepwalker is hardly aware who he is and how s/he fits in the grand picture of life; nor does s/he know what his/her purpose is. Sleepwalkers and zombies merely react to life, instead of creating a life that is driven by purpose, creativity, and curiosity for higher truth and moral fulfillment.

From a Marxist perspective, zombies could be an apt metaphor for those who feel the emptiness of consumerism. Perhaps more than other monster, zombies characterize our most unthinking and relentlessly hungry selves. And the tragedy is no matter how much they consume, their desire for food can never be filled (they sort of remind me of being a hungry teenager).

In the literary mindscape of George Romero’s later film Dawn of the Dead, he purposely set the film in a shopping mall! He depicts his zombies pushing shopping carts around the mall, acting as though they are still alive.  They live for only shopping. Is this not a disturbing image of our dystopian world that portrays modern society as a world that is driven by consumerism? It is astounding how the promises of consumerism even makes use of spiritual themes, such as the Golden Arches of McDonalds, creating an axis-mundi where human beings can enjoy the transcendental bliss of “becoming one” with what they eat.

In Romero’s films, his zombie walkers just want to have fun. And in a society where healthy spiritual values are no longer promoted in our schools and workplaces, we are a witnessing a generation that is spiritually “lost in space”  and the monotony of daily routines has often driven young people to edge of despair and insanity—as we see in the plethora of school-shootings around the nation. For young people whose lives feels constrained by unemployment and debt, or those whose jobs are both unchallenging and routine, the zombie metaphor has genuine power.

George Romero’s later film Dawn of the Dead is set primarily in a shopping mall. Many of the zombies continue to push shopping carts around the mall and act as if they are still alive. Their prime remaining instinct is to shop. Though made in 1978, its vision portrays modern society as a world that is driven by consumerism; and its basic human instinct of “shop till you drop” – even if you’re undead – was prescient, and troublingly accurate about rapacious consumerism.

ZOMBIES AS A SOCIAL METAPHOR

I sense that part of the reason for the current fad for zombie walks, lies in an unconscious recognition of the way in which post-industrial, consumerist culture wishes to reduce us to narrow modes of identity. Yes, Romero’s zombie walkers want to have fun, but they also want to expose the ways in which society damages our sense of self. In an age where many lives, especially those of the young, are constrained by long-term unemployment, and many who have a job find it unchallenging and routine, the zombie metaphor has genuine power.

So, when you see the zombie walking in a shopping-mall near you, ask yourself: Should zombies be considered “persons”? Perhaps more importantly, what is the meaning of personhood in a modern society today? It is a question that pro-lifers have certainly raised with the status of the unborn, and it is a legitimate question considering how technology has revealed personality traits present in the fetus of twins, who carefully can be seen touching each other sensitively in ultra-sound pictures. Can the concept of personhood be applied to our pets too? Perhaps it is the denial of personhood in ourselves and others that the zombie metaphor reveals a phantasm of what it means to be fulfilling and self-actualizing.

ZOMBIES REVEAL OUR EXISTENTIAL FEAR OF DEATH

One could argue that the plethora of zombie depictions developed at a time when young people have witnessed some of the greatest horrors of modern life—such as the attack of 9/11. In addition, the baby-boomer generation is getting (unfortunately) increasingly older. Simply put, we are afraid of dying. Yet the Stoics have long taught us that people who tend to be afraid of dying are almost invariably afraid of authentic living.

To overcome our uneasiness about our mortality, we need to accept the fact that our mortality is a fact that we are already experiencing. In this sense, life is a series of continuous rebirths. The infant and child I once was has died long ago. Yet, each day that passes, I remind myself by saying the Modeh Ani prayer that today I am a new person. When I look at the mirror, I try to remind myself that I am more than just the sum of my physical body-parts. There is a profoundly spiritual dimension that must transcend our need and desire to live for consumerism.

A MAIMONIDEAN APPROACH TO OUR EXISTENTIAL ANSGST

Although Maimonides had no inkling of the idea of zombies, he did manage to develop an alternative approach that we ought to consider in our contemporary era.  The central problem Maimonides grappled with is: How do we tell when we are asleep or if we are awake? Are we condemned to live our lives as if we were asleep?

For him, the best way to awaken us from the absence of purpose and spirituality in our lives is to pay attention to the sound of the shofar—as an instrument of raising consciousness. For him, the shofar works as an alarm. You could say that the sound of the Shofar is like an ancient form of shock therapy. Maimonides points out that the shofar was meant to stir people up from their sleep.

In short, recognizing the reality of our mortality need not paralyze ourselves with a morbid fear of the future. On the contrary, being aware that our time in this world is limited can offer ourselves the opportunity to really make a difference in the world without succumbing to the contemporary dystopian view of man as a mere consumer, or someone whose bio-footprint epitomizes the essence of our earthly journey in this world.

I believe the near-death experience has shown many countless people an alternative view of our ultimate destiny, but that is a topic for a future discussion and article.

Have a Happy Halloween with your children and friends!

The Ethical Problem of the Kapparot Ritual

What is Kapparot?

Yom Kippur has its own unique customs and traditions, and one of the most historically controversial customs involves taking a chicken and swinging it around one’s head. When I was a Hasidic youth, I recall getting up early in the morning before dawn to reenact the tradition better known as “Shlugging Kaparos,” or “Kapparot.”

According to the Artscroll Machzor for Yom Kippur, scriptural verses from   Isaiah 11:9, Psalms 107:10, 14, and 17-21, and Job 33:23-24 are recited. Then a rooster (for a man) or a hen (for a woman) is held above the person’s head and the participant swings the bird  in a circle three times, while the following is spoken: “This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement; this rooster (or hen) shall go to its death, but I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace.” The chicken is then slaughtered and may or may not be given to the poor for food.

If the woman is pregnant, then she takes two hens and a rooster instead (one for her and the other for her unborn child, depending upon the gender—thus equaling three altogether).[1] I always found this aspect of the ritual puzzling, especially since who could be more innocent than a fetus? After all, Jews aren’t supposed to believe in Original Sin! In terms of the color, it became customary to use a white chicken, to recall the verse ‎ אִם־יִהְיוּ חֲטָאֵיכֶם כַּשָּׁנִים כַּשֶּׁלֶג יַלְבִּינוּ אִם־יַאְדִּימוּ כַתּוֹלָע כַּצֶּמֶר יִהְיוּ“Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be red like crimson, they may become white as wool” (Isa. 1:18). Curiously, one should not use a black chicken, as black is the color that represents divine severity and discipline. Nor should one use a blemished chicken.

The Talmud did not mention such a ritual; it was discussed only in the 9th century. One reason why the early sages did not mention it is because the rabbis were very cautious to avoid enacting ritual sacrifices for atonement—especially since the Temple had long been destroyed.

A scriptural allusion to Kapparot derived from the word גֶּבֶר “gever,” which may mean either “man” or “cock,”[2] and the medievalists supposed that a rooster or hen could serve as an instrument of atonement.

History of Kapparot

Ever since biblical times, the Torah used animal sacrifices as a surrogate for the sinful individual wishing to seek atonement.

Most of our readers might be surprised to know that some of the most significant medieval rabbinical scholars regarded the Kapparot as a heathen superstition.[3] Rashbam objected to the ritual in Barcelona, which included killing one chicken for each child in the house and then hanging the chicken heads on the doorpost along with garlic (it keeps away vampires I am told.)

Many years ago, a former witch in my community returned to her Jewish roots and commented how the Kapparot rituals resembled customs practiced by witches. She was correct!  The Santeria, an Afro-American religion of Yoruba origin that developed in Cuba among West African descendants. Often chickens are sacrificed to ward off illnesses believed to be caused by evil spirits, or for divination.[4]

The waving of the chickens in a circle three times also constituted a “magic circle” (a.k.a. a mandala in the Eastern religious traditions) where spiritual forces are evoked to protect a person from evil. This idea is commonplace in almost all religious communities around the world. Spiritual forces can thus be evoked without danger.

Modern Objections to Kapparot

One of my favorite criticisms against Kapparot derives from R. Shlomo Goren, who was arguably one of the greatest Chief Rabbis of Israel in recent memory. Former Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren notes that “Kapparot is not consistent with Jewish teachings and law. Repentance and charity can be better accomplished by using money instead of a slaughtered chicken”

Humanitarian considerations is another important reason to discontinue Kapparot. “Anyone who walks through the markets can see that the manner in which the chickens are held before the Kapparot is insufferable. There is no veterinary supervision and no concern for the feelings of these poor creatures.” -Rabbi Gilad Kariv.[5]

Rabbinical tradition basing itself on the ethos of the Torah stressed we must do everything in our power to prevent tsar’ ba’ale hayyim—cruelty toward animals. Between 2005 and 2006, the SPCA in New York City confiscated hundreds of starving chickens who were abandoned in crates after the ritual was finished; these creatures were crammed in cages while sitting in their own excrement. It is hard to imagine how any pious Jew could act so indifferently toward these forlorn creatures of God.

But in 2006 in Los Angelos, the birds had their vocal cords removed so none of the participants would feel repulsed by their screams of pain.  

Although it is frequently claimed these slaughtered chickens are given to charity, the reality is that there is never refrigeration equipment at a Kapparot event. This meat is probably not edible, or shouldn’t be eaten and would never meet the rigorous requirements of the federal Poultry Products Inspection Acts for human consumption. But this much we know for sure. Helpers for the ritual slaughterers could be seen tossing the birds, covered in blood and often dusted with feces from their time in stacked crates, into trash bags and cans after their throats were slit.

It is important to note that the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Pasadena heard an argument on behalf of United Poultry Concerns in a case against Chabad of Irvine for unfair business practices in charging a fee to illegally kill and dispose of chickens for Kapparot. Unfortunately, “the district court ruled it was not a business practice.  However, the decision is being appealed.  The district court expressed no opinion on the underlying legality/illegality of the manner in which the chickens are killed and disposed.”[6]

The winds of change do occur—howbeit slowly—among the Orthodox.

As R. Shlomo Brody suggested that there is a new sensibility is becoming the new standard for our ethical behavior concerning animals:

  • “On the eve of this holy day,” said the late Rabbi Hayim David HaLevi, “why should we display unnecessary cruelty to these animals and mercilessly kill them before requesting from God mercy upon us?” The mass killing of animals, he added, contradicts a different medieval custom, almost entirely forgotten today, of refraining from all slaughter before the New Year as an act of increased mercy on God’s creatures. In this spirit, and given increased accusations of mishandling of the chickens, prominent figures like Rabbis Shlomo Aviner and David Stav have urged Jews to err on the side of treating animals kindly and use money instead. Traditionalism should, of course, have its place, but on the eve of Yom Kippur, we shouldn’t turn a request for mercy into an act of cruelty.[7]

I will conclude with a brief anecdote from the Hassidic community—an appropriate reference for todays’ Hasidic Jews to remember and ever be mindful of observing.  I came across an article written by a colleague, Rabbi Everett Gendler, who wrote:

  • Rabbi Zusya used to travel around the countryside collecting money to ransom prisoners. One night he came to an inn in which there was a large cage with all kinds of birds in it. Zusya saw that the creatures wanted to fly free through the spaces of the world. He burned with pity for them and said to himself, “Here you are, Zusya, walking your feet off to ransom prisoners, but what greater ransoming of prisoners can there be than to free these birds from their prison?” Then he opened the cage and the birds flew out to freedom.[8]

Although the Chabad website claims the practice of Kapparot also serves a humanitarian purpose, “In fact, the Code of Jewish Law suggests that we take the innards and liver of the Kapparot chickens and place them in an area where birds can feed off them. “It is proper to show mercy to the creatures on this day, so that in Heaven they should have mercy upon us [too].”[9] In actuality, as mentioned earlier, in Brooklyn as well as in Los Angelos, and other places, the slaughtered birds are discarded as garbage. There is nothing even remotely kind about this kind of cynical behavior.[10]

If you’re going to slaughter a chicken, biblical law requires that one at least eat the chicken. To do otherwise is violation of the negative commandment of bal tashchit—do not destroy or waste—has long been considered central to a Jewish environmental ethic (Deut. 20:19–20)

The Chabad movement and other Hasidic communities ought to atone for its callous disregard for these birds.


[1] OH 605:4.

[2] Cf. BT Shabbat 67b. This usage is much rarer and does not occur in Biblical Hebrew.

[3] Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488 – 1575) in his Shulchan Aruch, OH 605:1. Other notable detractors include Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman 1194–1270; Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aderet (Rashba, 1235–1310) in Teshuvot HaRashba 1:395. ). Comp. in OH, Hilkhot Erev Yom Kippur 1.

[4]Lionel and Patricia Fanthorpe, Mysteries and Secrets of Voodoo, Santeria, and Obeah (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2008), p. 203.

[5] Quoted in ynetnews.com 09/28/2006

[6] https://edboks.com/2018/11/kapparot-9th-circuit-argument-tuesday/

[7] https://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/185741/a-brief-history-of-a-fowl-custom

[8] Rabbi Everett Gendler, The Life of His Beast.

[9] Tur Shulchan Aruch & Shulchan Aruch OH Rama 605. Tashbatz. Bayit Chadash. Turei Zahav 104. OH 605:6.

[10] https://gothamist.com/news/are-thousands-of-ritually-slaughtered-chickens-being-turned-into-biodiesel