Korach – The Nature of Nature

My late friend and once-Staten Island Ferry chavrusa Yossie Hutler, zichrono livrachah, once posed an insightful question about parshas Korach.

“[In the] morning,” Moshe tells Korach and his entourage, Hashem will make His will known. And Rashi (Bamidbar, 16:5), quoting the Midrash (Tanchuma 5, Bamidbar Rabbah 18:7), has Moshe telling  those adversaries that “Hashem assigned limits to His world. If you are able to change morning to evening, so would you be able to change this [decree of Aharon and his sons as kohanim].” 

The Midrash strengthens its point by noting that the same root of bdl (“separated”) is used both regarding day and night at creation and regarding the Jewish people and Aharon as the kohein and progenitor of kohanim.

So the point Moshe made was that, just as nature cannot be changed, neither can Hashem’s choice of Aharon as kohein.

But, asked Yossie, isn’t that blatantly discordant with the final judgment of Korach, which was, of all things, a change of nature – the opening of the earth to swallow him and his people?

What occurred is that, as various Jewish thinkers (Rav Dessler prime among them) have explained, there is no such thing as “nature.” All there is is Hashem’s will. His will regarding some things is ongoing; we call the results nature. But, in the end, there is only His will.

In fact, the Midrash’s wording (“Hashem assigned limits…”) is pointed. It’s not that “nature” cannot change. It’s that Hashem’s will cannot be changed by humans. 

And so, the earth’s opening to swallow Korach and company was indeed no less “natural” than the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening. It was simply Hashem’s will. And humans cannot change that will.

Which might be why the Midrash (cited by Rashi, 16:30) notes that the “mouth of the earth” that opened that day was created “during the six days of creation,” along with the rest of all that we like to call “nature.”

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Happy’s Happy, but Not Human

Happy the elephant isn’t a person.

That seeming truism was the official ruling of New York’s highest court last week, necessitated by a suit brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project aimed at freeing the pachyderm from prison – the effective description by the group of the Bronx Zoo.

The 5-2 decision by the state Court of Appeals ruled that “while no one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion,” a writ of habeas corpus, a fundamental Constitutional right protecting against unlawful imprisonment, is intended to protect the liberty of human beings and does not apply to animals.

The two dissenting judges called Happy’s confinement “inherently unjust and inhumane” and “an affront to a civilized society.”

Judaism considers it forbidden to cause animals unnecessary pain, a prohibition called tzaar baalei chaim, “pain of living creatures.” At the same time, though, the Torah explicitly considers animals to be subject to the needs of humans. While it must be accomplished in as painless a way as possible, utilizing animals for work and even killing them for food or leather are fully sanctioned by the Jewish religious tradition.

Whether being confined to a zoo for the edification and admiration of humans constitutes “undue pain” is an open question. But my guess is that, assuming the confined animals are treated well, which generally is the case in modern zoos, there would be no problem in the eyes of Jewish law with keeping Happy in the Bronx. Presumably Happy is happy.

So the New York court, while it has no obligation to mirror Judaism’s take on anything, has essentially adopted the Jewish view of animals.

Reading of the case brought back a memory. Over my many years serving as spokesman for a national Orthodox Jewish group, Agudath Israel of America, I once received a call from the producer of a network television news program. I was naturally honored and straightened my tie before picking up the phone.

Dropping my voice a couple octaves to project the requisite gravitas, I asked how I might be of help. 

I imagined the caller would want the Jewish take on some pressing issue of the day, and was quickly and properly deflated by her question:

“Rabbi, what we’d like to get your take on is the question of whether pets go to heaven.”

“Pardon?” I objected.  She repeated herself, and I responded that I really didn’t think I wanted to participate in the planned program.

She persisted, though, and, eventually, having been given a day to think it over, I consented.  What I came to realize was that if the issue was really, as the producer claimed, so important to so many, there must be some reason.  And then I realized the reason.

Many of the most fundamental philosophical and moral issues of our time – indeed of any time – touch upon the special distinction of humanness.  That is why proponents of abortion on demand, which they choose to call “choice,” choose as well to call an unborn child a “pregnancy,” or, at most, a “fetus.”  Dehumanizing (used here in its most simple sense) a baby makes it easier to advocate for terminating him or her. 

Ethicist Peter Singer has gone a significant step further, making the case for the killing of already-born babies who are severely disabled.  He has written, pointedly, that infants are “neither rational nor self-conscious” and so “the principles that govern the wrongness of killing nonhuman animals… must apply here, too.”  Or, as he more bluntly puts it: “The life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee.”  Professor Singer advocates as well the killing of the severely disabled and unconscious elderly.

In that mindset, I pondered, why not be accepting of intimate relations, beyond owner/pet comradeship? Wouldn’t objections to marital bonds between humans and “other animals” be a form of “speciesism”?

Indeed, years ago, a man testified before a Maine legislative committee that proponents of a ban on animal sexual abuse are “trying to force morality on a minority,” and asked a judge to allow his “significant other” – of the canine persuasion – to sit by his side during a court case.  The petitioner had been told that he needed special permission, he said, because, “my wife is not human.” 

As it happens, Professor Singer is supportive of jettisoning morality here too.  The only conceivable reason for considering human-animal intimate relations to be unworthy of societal sanction, he cogently observes, is the belief that human beings are inherently superior.  That, indeed, is the position of Judaism, and the professor rejects it summarily.  “We are,” he maintains, “animals.”

And so what I came to realize is that much indeed of import to the contemporary world in the end revolves around the difference between animals and humans.  It is a difference that not only keeps pets from meriting heaven, because they lack true free will and the divine mandate to utilize it, but also charges us humans to act as something above our physical, animal selves, including according special respect to other humans, including those who are very new or very old. 

And so, that was the point I tried to make when the producer and her entourage eventually shlepped their camera equipment to my office to film the segment. 

Some of my comments survived the editing process. “Heaven,” I said at one point, “is something one earns, one doesn’t just ‘go to’ it.”

“Animals tend to bond with their caregivers,” I added, “and that’s the way it should be. But that doesn’t erase the distinction between the animal and their caregiver.” And then, tipping my hat about how old I am, I said, “Timmy can go to heaven, but Lassie can’t.”

I hope viewers of the program were spurred to think about the qualitative difference between humans and animals, and the idea that humans can, by their choices, earn eternal reward.  Because it is a fundamental – in fact, the most fundamental – fact of life.

And these days, more trenchant than ever.

(c) 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Shelach – The Importance of Feeling Unthreatened

The idea that the prohibition against lashon hora, “speech of evil,” includes speaking negatively about a thing, not just a person, is surprising.

But the sin of the meraglim, the scouts who were sent by Moshe Rabbeinu to spy out the land of Cna’an, who returned with a demoralizing report, is characterized as precisely that: slander of the Holy Land. The Torah describes the scouts’ sin as spreading dibah (Bamidbar 13:32), which Onkelos renders “shum bish,” or “a bad name.” 

And Rabbi Elazar ben Parta, in the Talmud, uses the scout narrative to emphasize the gravity of lashon hora in its more common usage:

“If one who defames the wood and rocks of Eretz Yisrael received so severe a punishment, then with regard to one who defames another person, all the more so will he be punished severely.” (Arachin, 15a)

Several of the meraglim’s names include words meaning animals. Might something about lashon hora be implied by that?

The most basic instinct of any animal is self-preservation. (Human beings are the only creatures that can choose, and have chosen, to die willingly for a higher cause.)

And the prime engine of self-preservation is fear. Which is what the meraglim felt, and instilled in the people, by describing the inhabitants of the land as, well, fearsome.

Perhaps lashon hora, too, has at its roots a misguided sense of self-preservation. Slandering another is often the result of feeling a threat – if not against one’s life, then in some less violent, more subtle way.

Which raises the possibility that cultivating one’s self-worth – immunizing oneself, so to speak, against feeling intimidated by others or seeing them as competitors – might be a worthy strategy for undermining the human tendency toward negative speech.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Woe Isn’t Us

The reflexive form of the word k’mis’onenim (“The people were mis’onenim [complaining] bitterly before Hashem” – Bamidbar 11:1) indicates that our ancestors were self-focused in their grumbling. They were mourning themselves, sorrowful (as per the Ramban, who cites the phrase ben oni, Beraishis 35:18) over their lot.

Entering the desolateness of the desert, they felt pangs of worry or fear.

But, aside from the construct of the word, there is its prefix, the k’, which indicates “like” or “as.”

Rav Chaim Vital understands that qualifier as conveying the fact that the complaint was not verbalized, but rather (perhaps this, too, indicated by the reflexive) internal, silent.

Another possibility occurs. Namely, that complaining, mourning, feeling sorry for one’s lot, as easy and common as it may be, is in conflict with the essence of a Jew.

Our purpose in life is to serve Hashem, and doing so goes hand in hand with simcha, joy – the opposite of aninus. As in Mizmor LeSoda that we recite daily, we are to “Worship Hashem in happiness; come into His presence with joy.” (Tehillim 100:2)

So to call Jews mis’onenim isn’t an option. If we feel sorry for ourselves and bemoan our lots, it is born of something extraneous to our essence. We can be K’mis’onenim” – like complainers. But the Jew in his essence is a makir tov, a discerner of blessings, an acceptor of his lot with joy, a bearer of a korban Todah.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Armed and Evil

As with most everything these days – from the debate over whether biting or licking an ice cream cone is the proper procedure to the one about whether climate change is a catastrophe or hoax – proponents and opponents of gun control have again assumed their respective distant and diametric positions.

The most recent mass murder tragedy (at least at this writing, on June 1) was the assault on an Uvalde, Texas, elementary school that resulted in the deaths of 19 children and two teachers. It was the latest of some 950 school shootings – you read that right – since the 2012 attack on the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 26 people were shot to death. (With other mass shootings included, the number is some 2500.)

At one extreme, The New Republic’s Walter Shapiro wistfully floated a 28th Amendment to the Constitution reading: “The second article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.” And it’s not only “libs” who feel that way. Conservative columnist Bret Stephens has called the 2nd Amendment “a legal regime that most of the developed world rightly considers nuts.”

On the opposite end of the ideological shooting range was, among many others, former President Donald Trump. In a speech (during which, amusingly, weapons were banned from the room) to a National Rifle Association gathering in “celebration of Second Amendment rights” three days after the Texas massacre, Mr. Trump blamed school shootings on “the existence of evil in our world,” which is no reason “to disarm law-abiding citizens.” On the contrary, he averred, it is “one of the very best reasons to arm law-abiding citizens.”

News flash: One can lick and bite one’s ice cream cone. And climate change can be seen both as a reason to wean ourselves off of oil and not as heralding the imminent end of the world. 

Likewise, some gun control measures can, at least if political donations can be put aside (big “if,” that), make at least some difference.

To be sure, Mr. Trump is right about evil. There are also mental conditions that (unlike the vast majority of such illnesses) can lead to violence. Addressing societal and emotional ills should be part of the effort to curb gun violence. (Arming ostensibly law-abiding citizens, not so much. Imagine an impulsive fellow in a bad mood from an argument with his wife who was eyeing the parking spot you just pulled into.)

Moreover, it’s folly to imagine that stricter gun laws will end gun violence. While Texas’ gun laws are famously lax, New York’s are famously strict, which didn’t prevent the recent shooting up of a Buffalo supermarket, abruptly ending ten lives. 

But, really, are lightweight rifles that can fire off a round every half-second at three times the velocity of a typical handgun with ammunition designed to inflict maximum damage necessary for animal hunting or self defense? Those would be the AR-15-style weapons so popular with mass killers, like the ones used at, among other massacres, Sandy Hook, Buffalo and Uvalde. And which are unbelievably easy to purchase.

And is there something outrageous about federally-mandated universal background checks – even of currently unregulated gun sales between private parties? While the N.R.A. opposes such measures (and even registration of firearms), a 2020 Gallup Poll showed that 96% of Americans favor them. 

Or anything onerous about requiring waiting periods for gun purchases, to prevent impulsive violence? Or about “red flag” laws allowing temporary restriction on gun possession by people whose family members or law officers deem to be a danger to themselves or others?

Or even, dare it to be said, raising the legal age for gun ownership? The peak ages for firearm violence are 18 to 21. Could we splurge and make it, say, 25?

Gun ownership, after all, isn’t an unlimited right. Like driving a car, it is subject to restrictions born of safety concerns.

No one – nor even all – of those things will stop gun violence.

Because, in the end, the adage is true: guns don’t kill; people do.

But they tend to do a good deal of killings with all-too-deadly, all-too-accessible guns.

© 2022 Ami Magazine

My Father’s First Postwar Purchase and Final Request

After disembarking from the SS Ernie Pyle, the transport ship that brought World War II refugees from Europe to the United States in the late 1940s, my father used the $75 dollars provided him by the social service Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to buy a pair of tefillin.

Those are the small black leather boxes containing verses from the Torah that observant Jewish men don on their arms and head daily. The pair he had with him, from his bar mitzvah in the shtetl, had not fared well over the war years.

Simcha Bunim Szafranowicz was in his early 20s when he arrived, and had spent the war years, first, as a young teen, fleeing the Nazis when they invaded his native Poland; and later, after being captured in Russian-controlled territory, banished along with a group of his fellow yeshiva friends and their teacher to a work camp in Siberia.

For many years, he didn’t speak about his wartime experiences to his three children, I being the middle one. When we became adults, we urged him to recount the experiences of his own young adulthood.

Once our father began to share his recollections, they came out in a torrent.

He told us about how, when the Nazis invaded Poland and his entire town fled the approaching troops, he, a 14-year-old, and his fellow shtetl-folk, were captured in a nearby town where they had sought refuge. The group of refugees was crowded and locked in a synagogue. Then, nearby houses were set aflame. The boy, like the others, expected to die there. 

But they were saved, at the last moment, incredibly, by a passing Nazi officer, who berated the soldiers who had acted without orders. My father and the others suspected the officer was Elijah the prophet in disguise. 

Shortly thereafter, he told us, the “stubborn boy,” as our father described his younger self, took leave of his parents – whom he would never see again – to board a train to a city with a yeshiva. He had always wanted to study in one.

But the yeshiva he managed to get to, in Vilna, Lithuania, was overtaken by the Russians, and its Polish students and faculty were given a choice: become Russian citizens or be banished, as foreign nationals, to a work camp in Siberia.

They chose the latter. After a weeks-long, packed cattle-car train journey to the far east of the continent, he and his fellow yeshiva boys and their teacher were put to work chopping down trees in temperatures that reached 40 degrees below zero. Once he became seriously ill there and almost died. 

After the war, he and the others made their way to the Soviet sector of Berlin, from which they were smuggled to the American section — during which dangerous trip my father was shot in the upper arm. He showed us the scar, which we had never noticed before.

The boys and their teacher re-established their yeshiva in an Austrian city called Salzburg, where they prayed and studied until they could find ways to leave the blood-soaked soil of Europe for faraway lands like Palestine or the U.S.

My father managed to contact a distant relative in America, who sponsored his immigration to the country he would come to cherish. He shortened his surname and met our mother, who had arrived from Poland herself but before the war. Their dates in New York consisted of riding the subway together, and his singing Hebrew and Yiddish songs – he had a keen sense of music and a sweet voice – for her. 

The couple moved to Baltimore and my father, with my mother’s tutoring him in English (which he mastered perfectly), eventually became the beloved rabbi of an Orthodox congregation that he ended up serving for more than a half century. To make ends meet, he attended the University of Baltimore and received a degree in accounting, which served him well as he juggled his synagogue duties, his family and his job as an auditor for the city.

There are stories galore I can tell about the impact he made as a rabbi on countless Jewish men and women, boys and girls. Not to mention about the veneration he came to receive from his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — and countless people who just happened to cross paths with him.

He was called to heaven six years ago, when he was 91.  As he breathed his last breaths in my brother’s home, where he had been living for a number of months, he mustered the energy to quietly ask the family members around him for something. It wasn’t clear what.

But my sister-in-law deciphered his request and told my brother, who took my father’s tefillin and placed them lovingly on our father’s arm and head.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Naso – No Small Wonder

A bracha we make several times daily has an etymological connection to the nazir, the laws for whom are included in the parshah. It lies in a word in the second pasuk of that section, the word used, uniquely here, to mean “pronounce” or “articulate.”

When a man or woman shall pronounce (yafli) a special vow of a nazir to separate themselves to Hashem…” (Bamidbar 6:3).

The word is yafli; and the bracha, Asher Yatzar, which is made after the elimination of bodily waste and which ends umafli la’asos, literally, “Who causes wonders to do,” but is usually translated “and acts wondrously” or “performs wonders.” 

The word hafla’ah is hard to crack. While peleh, its root, clearly means “wonder,” in one place (Makos 13b), it is interpreted to mean “flogging.”

The Zohar (3:126a) seems to take it to mean something similar to the word nazir itself – “to separate.” Chizkuni notes that it can mean two seeming opposites: “taking apart” and “building.”

The Gemara (Nazir 34a) quotes Rabi Tarfon as rendering it as “specifying.” 

It isn’t impossible to connect the various meanings with “articulate,” since speaking a sentence means stringing different words (like a series of lashings) together, building a thought (and, with words like “but” or “however,” dismantling the previously expressed thought). “Articulate” itself is from a Latin root meaning “separate.” And speaking, of course, is itself a wonder, exclusive to the human realm. Flogging is a series of individual, distinct strikes.

But what of mafli in Asher Yatzar? 

What occurs is that the wonder of digestion is much more than the simple separation of nutrients from waste. It involves a staggering amount of retrieving myriad substances – elements, minerals, chemicals, vitamins – from what we ingest and specifying them, i.e. directing them to where they are needed for their disparate purposes to benefit our bodies, thereby allowing our lives to proceed. Our food is “taken apart,” that is to say “broken down,” so that each component of our food can be utilized to “build” in its specific realm, to keep us alive.

Wonderful indeed.

© Rabbi Avi Shafran 2022

Racist Antisemites but pro-Israel

The essay below appeared in Haaretz

Haaretz Opinion

Racist Antisemites, but pro-Israel: The Choice Facing U.S. Orthodox Jews at the Polls

Should American Jews who believe sexual identity is not a mere social construct, that marriage is between man and woman, and abortion should not be a mere “choice,” support politicians who inspire racist and antisemitic murderers?

Avi Shafran

Jun. 7, 2022 12:45 PM

The gunman who killed 10 people in a Buffalo, New York, neighborhood supermarket last month clearly targeted Black people. Not only was the market in a Black neighborhood, but the killer is reported to have shared his racist beliefs in a long-winded manifesto seething with hatred of “non-white” people and immigrants who, in his fevered mind, threaten to supplant ”native-born” Americans.

The document deems Black Americans, along with immigrants, as “replacers” – people who “invade our lands, live on our soil, live on government support and attack and replace our people.”

But the 180-page rant didn’t exactly ignore another minority.

“The Jews are the biggest problem the Western world has ever had,” the manifesto reads. “They must be called out and killed, if they are lucky they will be exiled. We can not show any sympathy towards them again.”

As to why he attacked a target in Buffalo and not Brooklyn, he reassured his readers that “the Jews…can be dealt with in time.”

The toxic brew of hatred, fear and unreason about how “real” Americans (or Europeans) are threatened with being overwhelmed by masses of dark invaders, popularly goes by the name “The Great Replacement.”

And other proponents of the ideology have also expressed themselves violently.

In the ADL’s tally, of the 450 murders committed by political extremists over the past decade in the U.S., Islamist extremists were responsible for about 20 percent, and left-wing extremists for 4 percent. Fully 75 percent were perpetrated by right-wing extremists, many of them explicitly tied to white supremacist movements.

Lest we forget, the Pittsburgh killer of 11 people at a Jewish congregation in 2018 blamed Jews as the “hidden hand” behind a plot to dilute the nation’s white Christian identity.

The killer of Black churchgoers in Charleston in 2015 called on whites to fight both Blacks and Jews.

The marchers in Charlottesville at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally (in)famously chanted “Jews will not replace us!”

White supremacists killed more people than any other type of radical last year.

The “Great Replacement” idea has been embraced and promoted by an assortment of political and media figures. While some find it unreasonable to imagine that the white power ideology’s mainstreaming in the (more) genteel public sphere plays any role in the violence committed under its banner, imagining otherwise is willful blindness.

To be sure, the pols and pundits generally focus on illegal immigration, something that every sovereign nation, of course, has a right and responsibility to control.

Here in the U.S., the pushers of “replacement theory” declare that their objection is to undocumented immigrants voting for Democratic candidates.

But non-citizens cannot vote in federal or state elections, or in any but a handful of local ones. And even were amnesty to be offered to many, or even all, undocumented immigrants, their path to citizenship would take some eight years, plenty of time to be courted by the Republican party (which, as it happens, increased its share of Latino voters in the 2020 election).

And so, the illegal immigration issue is a red herring (or, perhaps, a white one).

What’s more, much of the replacement rhetoric devolves from electoral concerns, justified or not, into less rarefied realms. The voices, though, belong to some of America’s most powerful institutions.

Steve King, while he was still serving as a Republican member of Congress for Iowa, tweeted that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” He doubled down with the same vile contention on national TV.

Josh Mandel, when he was standing for election as the GOP candidate for a Senate seat for Ohio, bemoaned how immigration is “changing the face of America, figuratively and literally… our culture… our demographics…” adding “our electorate” only at the end. He endorsed Mike Flynn’s rallying cry that the United States should be “one nation under God and one religion under God.”

And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich declared that leftists were attempting to “drown” out “classic Americans.”

Then there is Tucker Carlson, the Fox News personality who famously said that immigration makes the U.S. “poorer, dirtier and more divided.” He makes sure to verbally renounce political violence, of course, but has long ranted in angry monologues against what he calls the demographic threat posed by immigration. Do his words resonate with people like the Buffalo murderer?

“How, precisely, is diversity our strength?” fumed Mr. Carlson in a much-shared 2018 segment.

“Why is diversity said to be our greatest strength?” wrote the Buffalo shooter.

Many of us American Jews see the anti-Israel screeds of the progressive “Squad” in Congress as incendiary, as encouraging violence against Jews.

We’re not wrong about that. But it’s time we Jews realized, too, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, conservative and liberal alike, that Replacement Theory dressed up as judicious immigration concerns is just as dangerous, and, in light of the ADL stats, arguably more so.

At her first public appearance, at The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the newly minted U.S. Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism, Professor Deborah Lipstadt, decried the canard “that Jews were behind an attempt to destroy white America,” which she said has “been adopted and adapted by racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists in Europe and beyond.”

There was a time – it seems so long ago now – when Jews in the U.S. were largely united in supporting Israel and upholding democratic ideals; and recognized the importance of immigrants, like ourselves, to the American melting pot. And it was pretty clear which candidates deserved our votes.

It was a time when Orthodox Jews in particular, but other Jews as well, spoke in unison about the importance of traditional family values and the role of morality in forging social policy. And knew which candidates could be counted on to responsibly further our goals. It was a time when we felt that America’s fundamental democratic institutions, including the nation’s electoral system, deserved to be respected by all citizens, and that minorities and immigrants deserved protection and respect from both the populace and the electorate.

Today, though, as a celebrated bard has maintained, things have changed. And the changes leave much, if not most, of American Jewry conflicted. Or, at least they should.

Should Israel supporters cast votes for candidates who stand up unapologetically for Israel’s security, even if those aspirants to public office promote delusions like “Replacement Theory”? Should those of us who believe that sexual identity is not a mere social construct, that marriage is the union of a man and woman (defined biologically) and that abortion should not be a mere “choice,” support politicians who feel the same but, wittingly or not, help inspire racist and antisemitic murderers?

It’s a Sophie’s choice, and I don’t profess to know how best to make it.

But it’s a reality that must be faced. And lives – Black, Asian, Hispanic and Jewish alike, are more than theoretically at stake.

Rabbi Avi Shafran writes widely in Jewish and general media. Twitter: @RabbiAviShafran

Patriarchal Patronage

Heard the one about the mysterious $30,000 watch that was digitally removed from a photograph? The one where the photoshopper inadvertently overlooked the timepiece’s reflection on a polished table?

No? Well, please be patient. I’ll get to it.

First, though, some history of Christianity. (Yes, yes,, the watch story is coming.)

In 1054, a complex mix of religious disagreements and political conflicts led to what historians call “The Great Schism,” the splitting of Christendom  into two branches: the Western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox one, the latter centered in Constantinople, today Istanbul. (As the 1953 song has it: “Why did Constantinople get the works? That’s nobody’s business but the Turks’.”)

Subsequently, a number of Eastern Churches established themselves. Among them are the Russian Orthodox church, one of the largest, some 90 million strong; and the Ukrainian one, with around 30 million adherents.

The current leader of the Russian church was born Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev but is called Patriarch Kirill. He is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, sharing with him the vision of a “Russkiy Mir,” or “Russian World,” linking religious unity and territorial expansion; and he has not been shy about celebrating the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Like practically all elite Russian clerics of the post-World War II era, Kirill is believed to have collaborated with the K.G.B., where Mr. Putin worked as a foreign intelligence officer for 16 years.

But Kirill wasn’t always a Putin minion. 

At the end of 2011, he voiced criticism of fraudulent parliamentary elections. (In Russia, widespread election fraud is a reality.) And he said it would be “a very bad sign” if the Kremlin did not pay attention to the electoral mendacity.

Shortly thereafter, though, Russian media began reporting on luxurious apartments owned by Kirill and his family; as well as on rumors of billions of dollars in secret bank accounts, Swiss chalets and yachts.

And then (thanks for your patience) there was the watch, a Breguet Réveil du Tsar model, a rather high-end item.

A news website dug up a photograph from 2009 in which Kirill wore one. His underlings edited it out of the photo but neglected to edit the watch’s reflection on the highly-polished table on which the patriarchal wrist was resting. 

After the ineffectual airbrushing, Kirill denied ever wearing such a watch, but its reflection on the tabletop ended up eliciting an embarrassed apology from the church.

According to a personal assistant to the patriarch, the orchestrated tarnishing of his reputation was interpreted by Kirill as a message from the Kremlin to behave.

And behave he did, ceasing all criticism of the Kremlin and throwing his full religious weight behind its decisions, including the one about conquering Ukraine. He called on the public to support the war so that Russia can “repel its enemies, both external and internal.”

Needless to say, the Ukrainian church has blasted Kirill, as have other Eastern Orthodox churches. And even the current Roman Catholic pope, Francis, who has made great efforts to bridge the gap between the Eastern and Western churches, tried to get Kirill to stand up to Mr. Putin. To no avail. 

The pontiff reportedly told his Eastern colleague, “Brother, we are not clerics of the state,” but Kirill just read him a Russian claim that the invasion was necessary to protect “the Orthodox faithful” in Ukraine who remain loyal to the Russian church.

The pope later effectively warned Kirill, in a statement in the Corriere della Sera newspaper, not to “transform himself into Putin’s altar boy.”

Sergei Chapnin, a senior fellow in Orthodox Christian studies at Fordham University who actually worked with Kirill in the Moscow Patriarchate, compared the situation to the “mafia,” saying that “If you’re in, you’re in. You can’t get out.”

The Mob really is no place for a monsignor.

Kirill once told Russian state television that his grandfather, a churchman like himself, told him to never “be afraid of anything but G-d.”

It’s time for the grandson to include Putin in that “anything.”

Time, indeed. If he needs to, he can check his watch.

© 2022 Ami Magazine