Category Archives: issues of morality or ethics

Human Uniqueness

In the course of a public roundtable discussion about immigration and crime, a few days before Shavuos, President Trump made a comment that provoked some outrage.

“You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are,” he said, about certain illegal immigrants. “These aren’t people, these are animals.”

The president was immediately assailed for what critics assumed was a crass dehumanization of foreigners. Stress on “immediately” and “assumed.”

Because had the critics taken the time to examine Mr. Trump’s comment in its context, they could have based what comments they had on facts, not assumptions.

But, no doubt recollecting some of presidential candidate Trump’s harsher campaign declarations about Mexicans, Muslims and others, some of those who see him as a danger to democracy didn’t look at what he actually said but, rather, chose to suppose.

“We are all G-d’s children,” scolded House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum declared that “Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Pol Pot all called their opponents ‘parasites’ or ‘vermin’ or ‘animals’.  Dehumanization is what you do to unwanted social groups before killing them.”

The Trump-Hitler comparison became a meme of the moment in certain parts of the social media planet.

The president took delight in exposing the overreaction, since his “animals” comment was clearly made with reference to violent criminal elements, some of whom have committed unspeakable acts of murderous, cruel violence. Earlier at the event, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims had referred to the violent criminal gang MS-13. While the gang started in Los Angeles and includes many American citizens, its members are ethnic Central Americans, and the need to prevent suspected members from coming across our border illegally is a no-brainer.

But I still have an objection to the president’s characterization of violent criminals.

It’s unfair to animals.

My family has played host at various times to a goat, an iguana, assorted rodents and a tarantula.  (Witnessing the large spider’s shedding of its skin to emerge with a new, radiant one is an unforgettable experience.) I exult at watching the inhabitants of my aquarium (we recently welcomed new brood of baby guppies and mollies – mazel tov!), and the birds, squirrels and deer that pass our way are always appreciated.

I recently watched a carpenter bee excavate a perfect circle on the underside of the wooden maakeh on our deck, knowing that she will abruptly turn at a right angle to continue her tunnel horizontally, and create a tunneled-out bedroom for her progeny.

The wonders of the world Hashem created are ceaseless, and the amazing behaviors of the countless creatures He placed on earth, if viewed with honest eyes, must astound.

And each of those behaviors is ingrained in the species. To be sure, some are violent; Tennyson’s observation of nature’s being “red in tooth and claw” holds true. But animals who kill do so for food or survival, and act out of instinct, not as a result of choice.

Unlike humans, who can never be deemed innocent of horrific crimes on the claim that they were compelled by their nature. The specialness of the human lies in his ability to resist base inclinations, to use the astonishing gift we have been given: free will.

Calling a human who has made a choice to act cruelly or to wantonly maim or kill others an animal does an immense disservice to the animal kingdom, whose members do what they do because it is their immutable nature. And, worse, it subtly muddles the meaning of the outrage we should feel at human acts of violence or cruelty.

We live in times when some contend that there is no qualitative difference between an animal and a human being, that we are as hard-wired and predictable in our behavior as any lion, tarantula or carpenter bee. The upshot of that view is a world where there is no more meaning to right and wrong than there is to right and left.

That amoral philosophy stands in the starkest contrast to what the Torah teaches us: We are not animals but choosers, owners of our actions.

President Trump was riffing, of course, not philosophizing, at the recent public roundtable. And his point, no matter how one may feel about immigration policy, wasn’t to sow hatred for foreigners, much less to dehumanize any “unwanted social groups before killing them.”

He was just trying to express the depth of his contempt for people who have made the choice to profit from the torture and murder of others. The truest description of such people, though, isn’t “animals” but “choosers of evil,” something more heinous by far.

© 2018 Hamodia

Gentlemen, Sling Your Mud!

Winston Churchill famously cited the sentiment that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Indeed, while majority rule might in fact be the best system, it can’t be denied that democracy, for all the happy results it has delivered, has also birthed some horrific offspring. It was a popular vote in 1932 that made the Nazis the largest party in the German parliament. And lesser evils have been offered up by majorities in many countries since.

And even leaving aside that a body politic can include majorities with malevolent inclinations, the fact that money seems so crucial to political campaigns’ successes – that, in other words, enough partisan, prejudiced advertisements can effect victories – is itself a major chink in democracy’s noble armor. If large numbers of people are susceptible to the sort of inducements that convince people to buy a particular brand of perfume or beer, what does that say about the electorate’s intelligence?

And then there is a particularly disturbing ailment that seems to have broadly infected political advertising, at least in these United States.

I have in front of me, as I write, two pieces of glossy campaign snail mail ahead of the June 26 Congressional primary election, each from a Republican candidate. (I’m a lifelong registered Republican, thus their vying for my vote.) Candidate A cites Candidate B’s conviction a while back for tax and employment-related offenses, and his flyer bears the large legend “THE RISE OF THE CORRUPT CONVICT CONGRESSMAN FROM THE DEPTHS OF THE SWAMP.”

The other flyer, from the fellow referred to in those all-caps, sports its own capitalized declaration, that a vote for his opponent “IS A VOTE AGAINST PRES. TRUMP” – a most awful insult in my Staten Island district. And, amid other opprobrium, that the other guy “CO-SPONSORED 2 LIBERAL AMNESTY BILLS.” For shame.

The latter candidate also elsewhere slurred his opponent with a truly dreadful insult (children, please stop reading here), coyly suggesting that people vote for “[Candidate A] – Democrat for Congress!”

Before Shavuos, in the West Virginia Republican primary, one candidate, though unsuccessful in his bid, issued a campaign spot accusing “Swamp Captain Mitch” – that would be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is married to a Chinese-American woman – of having gotten rich off of his “China family,” and creating millions of jobs for “China people.”

We are greatly relieved that no Jew people were involved.

Negative campaigning, of course, is nothing new. Although candidates didn’t do active campaigning in those days, during the lead-up to the 1800 presidential election, Thomas Jefferson’s camp accused President John Adams of having a “hideous… character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” In return, Adams’ men called Vice President Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward.

But, at least over more recent campaigns, mudslinging has been on the rise. In every presidential election cycle from 2000 to 2012, campaign advertising was for the most part more negative than in the previous one.

As Mitchell Lovett, associate professor of marketing at the University of Rochester once explained, “It stays around because it works.” Were I a tweeter, that observation would merit an all-caps “SAD!”

As anyone involved in marketing or advertising knows, repeated exposure of a message leads people to accept it as fact. Whether or not it happens to be.

Combine that with an actual fact, that most people know very little about politics – only about two thirds of people can name their state’s governor, about half know that there are two U.S. senators from their state, and less than half can name their congressional representative – and it’s not hard to imagine how democracy might yield disaster.

I’m not advocating, any more than Churchill was, some other system of government. But each election year I wonder what would happen if candidates for office were limited in what their campaign literature and ads could say, if the only information permitted was about the merits of the candidate, not the failings of his or her opponent.

Campaign seasons, in that fantasy world, would be more enlightening and less misleading. But they would also be less interesting, or, at least, less entertaining.

Which is why that scenario isn’t likely to ever become reality. The electorate, I suspect, wouldn’t stand for it.

© 2018 Hamodia

Checking Out… and Checking In

Dr. David Goodall is no longer with us.

The 104-year-old scientist travelled to Switzerland from his home in Australia last week, weary of life and in a wheelchair, but not otherwise disabled or seriously ill, and ended his life. Assisted suicide is legal in the Australian state of Victoria, but only, to Dr. Goodall’s vexation, for the “terminally ill.”

In Switzerland, though, anyone of sound mind can opt to dispatch himself, and Dr. Goodall was assisted in his suicide plans by the groups “Lifecircle,” “Eternal Spirit” and “Exit International,” all dedicated to helping people achieve their demises. A representative of the latter group accompanied him on his trip.

Exit International also, it was reported, launched a funding campaign to help upgrade the scientist, presumably at his request, to business class.

That last, seemingly irrelevant, detail got me thinking. A man is done with the world, about to end his life. But he’d like more legroom.

At first thought, hey, why not? But on second one, his preference struck me as oddly relevant to the issue of assisted suicide itself, which has been legalized in several states, and which a bill before the New York State legislature proposes to do in the Empire State.

Needless to say, we must oppose such “progress.” While it is hard to argue against personal autonomy, permitting people to enlist doctors to end their lives opens a Pandora’s box of horribles.

Among them, as my Agudath Israel colleague Rabbi Mordechai Biser recently testified before the New York State Assembly Health Committee, are pressures patients would feel from doctors or family members to choose suicide; the inequalities of health care delivery systems that tend to discriminate against the poor, handicapped and elderly; the psychological vulnerability of the severely ill; and the risk of misdiagnoses.

He also spoke of “the historical disapprobation of suicide… one of the pillars of civilized societies throughout the generations”; and noted that, in many cases, better treatment of pain or depression could dissuade a patient from seeking death.

All true, of course. But I find myself pondering… that business class upgrade. I think it signifies – at least in this case – an attitude about life that is the antithesis of the Jewish one.

I remember once being asked by a reporter about Judaism’s stance on a certain “woman’s right.” I explained that Judaism isn’t about rights, but responsibilities. There could be no more basic a Jewish truism, of course, yet the reporter found it astonishing, admitting that she had “never thought of life that way.”

I tried not to let my own bewilderment at that statement show, but the fact that so fundamental a Jewish concept had been eye-opening to the reporter was, well, eye-opening to me.

It shouldn’t have been. The operative principle of so many people’s lives today is the pursuit of possessions, comforts and, yes, rights. They ask not, to paraphrase JFK’s speechwriter, what they can do with the gift of life, but rather what the gift of life can do for them.

And so a man about to end his life is understandably concerned, even until that end, with extra legroom. Chap arein.

Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l, once recounted the saga of a young Jewish man who, in a swimming accident, became a quadriplegic.

The handicapped man had told Rav Weinberg how the first twenty-odd years of his life had been  spent enjoying athletics, and how his fateful accident had seemed at the time more devastating than death.

Now he was hampered by his condition not only from swimming but from so much as scratching an itch on his own. He could not even, he discovered, kill himself, which he desperately wanted to do. And no one would help him achieve his desire.

Frustrated by his inability to check out, he was forced, so to speak, to check in – inward, to a world of thought and ideas. Pushed from a universe of action, he entered one of mind.

If his life is indeed now worthless, he reflected, then was swimming and scratching literal and figurative itches really all that defined its meaning before?

That question led him to the realization that a meaningful life is independent of a physically active one. And he was led, in time, to his forefathers’ faith. Later, he mused that his paralysis had been a gift; for without it he would have remained a mere swimmer.

Dr. Goodall never realized what the ex-swimmer did about life, and was gratified to be able to spend a few of his final hours in business class.

© 2018 Hamodia

Seeing Through the Eyes of the Other

Indiana Republican Congressman Todd Rokita is calling on the House of Representatives to condemn “Nation of Islam” leader Louis Farrakhan.

Most of us are familiar with the racist demagogue Mr. Farrakhan’s more memorable rantings, like “The white man is a devil by nature”; “Hitler was a very great man”; “We know that Jews are … plotting against us as we speak.” The calypso singer-turned-“reverend” has denied the Holocaust, blamed Jews for the 9/11 attacks, and said that white people “deserve to die.”

And just to make sure no one thinks he may have gone soft (or sane) in his dotage, just last month he railed that “powerful Jews are my enemy… responsible for… filth and degenerate behavior.”

As it happens, a resolution similar to the one Mr. Rokita proposed was passed overwhelmingly back in 1994 by a Democrat-controlled House. What motivated Mr. Rokita now was the fact that several current House Democrats – including Democratic National Committee Deputy Chair Keith Ellison, Danny Davis and Gregory Meeks – attended a dinner where Farrakhan was present or expressed respect in the past for the hatemonger.

Politics, though, is an unpleasant business, and associations of a sort with abhorrent people who have sizable followings is more common than the more innocent among us may realize. A photo of then-Senator Barack Obama posing for a “grip-and-grin” with Farrakhan in 2005 recently came to light. It took a while for presidential candidate Donald Trump to finally disavow the support of David Duke.

What’s more, part of the American black community looks at Farrakhan and sees only a preacher of self-reliance and black pride. The man’s ugly hatred of others is, to them, just static. No, that should not be, but “should not” doesn’t change an “is.” That segment of the populace, moreover, bristles at being chastised for embracing whom they do, even when the embraced is morally decrepit.

As long-time Representative Charlie Rangel, a friend of the Jewish community – he flew to Israel when he was 85 for Shimon Peres’ funeral and headlined a 60th anniversary bash for Israel at Harlem’s Apollo Theater – put it in 1985, Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism is “garbage,” but “there is a lot of concern among a lot of blacks that they don’t want to be told what to do.”

The aforementioned Mr. Obama for years attended the church of a Farrakhan-like character, the infamous preacher Jeremiah Wright. When some of the latter’s more offensive oratory came to light in 2008, the then-presidential candidate disavowed his relationship with the preacher, left the church and called Wright’s comments “ reprehensible,” saying they provided “comfort to those who prey on hate.”

Messrs. Ellison, Davis and Meeks likewise all eventually condemned Farrakhan’s hateful rhetoric.

Mr. Ellison, who defended Farrakhan back in the 1980s and 1990s, has long expressed regret for doing so, calling it, as he titled a 2016 op-ed, “The Mistake in My Past.”

“These men organize,” he wrote of Farrakhan’s group, “by sowing hatred and division, including anti-Semitism…”

“They were and are anti-Semitic,” he once stated, “and I should have come to that conclusion earlier than I did. I regret that I didn’t.”

And Mr. Ellison has in fact enjoyed good relationships with his Jewish constituents and with Jewish members of Congress.

For his part, Mr. Davis said “Let me be clear: I reject, condemn and oppose Minister Farrakhan’s views and remarks regarding the Jewish people and the Jewish religion.”

The touchiness that Mr. Rangel referenced, though, was evident in Mr. Meeks’ comments. While he called Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic messages “upsetting and unacceptable,” he added that he is “still waiting for [right-wing blogs] to condemn [President] Trump’s racist remarks.”

Whatever one may think of the current occupant of the White House or his policies, though, he has never called any faith a “gutter religion,” praised a genocidal mass murderer or referred to any ethnicity as “bloodsuckers.” Mr. Meeks is free to criticize Mr. Trump all he wants. But placing him in the same universe as Farrakhan is madness.

Jewish-black relations have generally improved over the years. And on many domestic issues, the two populations are natural allies. Growing any relationship, though, requires a determined, honest effort to see through the eyes of the other. We Jews need to try better to understand why some in the African-American community could be temporarily oblivious to an ugly radical’s hatreds; and to raise our children to see people, not melanin.

And the black community needs to recognize and openly espouse, as the former president and the current House members have done, the grave injury done – not just to Jews but to humanity – by the presence of demagogues in its midst.

© 2018 Hamodia

Tone-Deaf Jewish Marketing

I began haphazardly collecting the advertisements a number of years ago. The first, which appeared at the end of Tammuz in a Jewish periodical, touted an eatery. It was apparently aimed at carnivores troubled by the restrictions of the imminent Nine Day period of mourning over the Bais Hamikdash’s destruction. Beneath a photo of a full plate of food was the legend: “Siyum Nightly for Meat Lovers!” Really.

More recently, I was struck by a full page come-on just around this time of year featuring a bottle of kosher for Pesach potato-based vodka over the legend: “Finally, shulchan oreich is a pleasure.”

Finally? I dunno. Somehow, my family’s sedarim have been immensely pleasurable, even vodka-free.

Between those offensive bookends I incredulously encountered many other Jewishly tone-deaf ads, in print or pixels. Like one advising how you can “steal the show” with some fancy table adornment or another; another one that proudly announced an all-you-can-eat “Fleishfest!” (though for a worthy cause); yet another letting the reader know that there’s a way to “Experience the real simchas yomtov,” by spending Pesach at a particular hotel. (Who would want a fake simchas Yom Tov, after all?)

And then there was the ad (for another away-from-home holiday locale) assuring us that “The only thing you should have to give up for Pesach is chametz.” Presumably, the message was that one shouldn’t have to spend his hard-earned free time – the holiday, after all, celebrates freedom, no? – cleaning, changing over the house and cooking for Yom Tov.)

And Sukkos really seems to bring out the best (so to speak) in Jewishly clueless marketing.

One late summer ad for a labor-free temporary tabernacle offered to end, once and for all, the dreaded “hassle of sukkah”; another dangled the lure of a getaway to a Florida Keys hotel featuring its own “air conditioned Sukkah!” (Good she’eilah there: If the AC is too strong, is one considered a mitzta’er?) And yet another invited readers to a glatt kosher vacation for the Yom Tov in the Bahamas, assuring them that “Sukkot Never Got This Good.” (After inviting Ushpizin, one supposes, he can, as the ad continued, “swim with dolphins!”)

That particular advertisement went on to modestly self-identify as “the most luxurious and extraordinary resort on Planet Earth.” Remind you of “So that your generations may know that I made the Bnei Yisrael dwell in sukkos when I brought them out of Eretz Mitzrayim” (Vayikra 23:43)? Me neither.

We Jews in America today are beneficiaries of Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s kindness beyond measure. We live in a time and place where we are not persecuted, have freedom to practice our faith and to engage in professions and businesses without hindrance –seldom if ever the case in our previous sojournings in galus.

But with plenty come plenty of challenges. The Shabbos before last we read in shul of the egel hazahav, the Golden Calf. It was said in the yeshiva of Rabi Yanai that Moshe attributed that sin to Hashem’s having bestowed much gold and silver on the people (Berachos 32a). It’s hard to be poor, but wealth carries dangers of its own.

I don’t want, chalilah, to injure any Jew’s livelihood, and have nothing against meat (though the less of it one eats, it’s increasingly clear, the better) or vodka, kosher for Pesach or otherwise; I’ve been known to occasionally splash a bit in my grapefruit juice myself. And there may well be people who, nebbich, need to spend Yomim Tovim in hotels.

But none of us should covet any of those things – or seek to stir covetousness for them in our fellow Jews. And, no less than we care about where our children receive their educational instruction we should care about the “chinuch” they receive from the pages of the periodicals we welcome into our homes. And we shouldn’t be sheepish about letting advertisers know when we feel their blandishments have crossed lines.

Yes, yes, I know that advertising is part and parcel of contemporary business, and what keeps Jewish papers and magazines afloat. But there is a stark, qualitative difference between ads that offer information, opportunities and products, on the one hand, and those, on the other, that shamelessly exaggerate – or, worse, that promote values that are, politely put, less than consonant with Torah-informed values. Or, worse still, that promote violation of one of the Aseres Hadibros’ “Thou shalt not”s (see “steal the show,” above).

There is ample room for creativity – photographic, linguistic, humorous and otherwise– in producing memorable advertisements for most anything. A Jewishly responsible ad doesn’t have to be bland.

But it should be becoming.

© 2018 Hamodia

Habeas Corpus for Horses?

Over the years, thanks to some creative, unusual talmidim I was privileged to teach when I was a mesivta Rebbe, I have had an assortment of pets (the animal sort). Each of several Purims, my shiur would give my wife and me, in addition to mishloach manos, a living gift.

We thereby became the proud caretakers, at various points, of a goat, an iguana and a tarantula. In addition to the tropical fish we’ve always kept, and the occasional hamster or mouse one or another of our children cared for.

I honestly appreciated each of the creatures; they evoked in me amazement over the variety and abilities of Hashem’s creations. Likewise, the birds and squirrels outside our dining room window during breakfast are an endless source of beauty (and, even sweeter, needn’t be fed). My wife is particularly partial to the graceful deer that sometimes venture from nearby woods to visit.

But animals are animals. Not, as some increasingly assert, beings less sentient than us but no less worthy of being treated as human.

The more than two thirds of American households that own pets spend more than $60 billion on their care each year, up sharply in recent years. People give dogs birthday presents and have their portraits taken by professional photographers. According to at least one study, many Americans grow more concerned when they see a dog in pain than when they see an adult human suffering.

That’s bad enough, but the law, too, is being enlisted to obscure the bright line between the animal and the human spheres.

Last year, the Illinois legislature passed a law that would force courts to give “parents” joint custody of pets in divorce cases. “It sort of starts treating your animal more like children,” says an unembarrassed Illinois State Senator Linda Holmes, the bill’s sponsor.

The nonprofit Nonhuman Rights Project promotes the idea that animals should be entitled to the right to not be unlawfully detained without a judge’s order. Habeas corpus for horses.

New York University law professor Richard Epstein sees the implications, and skeptically observes that “We kill millions of animals a day for food. If they have the right to bodily liberty, it’s basically a holocaust.”

Shades of the 2002 book that made precisely that case. It bears a truly obscene title: “Eternal Treblinka.”

And then there is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals founder and president Ingrid Newkirk’s declaration a few years back that “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses,” and her infamous aphorism “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”

We are required by halachah to protect animals from needless harm or unnecessary suffering when they are put to our service or killed for food. But that is a far bark from assigning them “rights.”

We who have been gifted with the Torah, as well as all people who are the product of societies influenced by Torah truths, have no problem distinguishing between animals and human beings.

But some secularists reason that, since animals have mental abilities, if limited ones, they should be treated like human infants.

If such people’s minds are open even a crack, though, they should be able to realize that considering animals qualitatively different from humans isn’t “speciesism” but a truth born of observable facts.

Yes, animals think and communicate. But conceiving or conveying abstract but important concepts like “right” and “wrong” and “responsibility” and “wantonness” – is something quintessentially, and pointedly, human.

Humans, moreover, have what philosophy calls moral agency, the ability to choose to act even against instinct.

And something else.

In a recent conversation with an eldercare professional, I pointed out something she had never considered.

Seen through a secular lens, biological species are “interested” only in preserving their own lives and those of their progeny; their behavior (consciously or not) serves the biological goal of the species’ perseverance. The previous generation has no value; it has served its purpose. Animals care only for their young, not for their parents.

Humans, though, at least in normal circumstances, feel an obligation to care for those to whom they owe their lives.

It will have to be seen whether or not such compelling distinctions will put brakes on the misguided idea of a smooth animal-human continuum. And, if it doesn’t, whether those who see animals as human (and vice versa, the inevitable other side of that counterfeit coin) will be able to enlist lawmakers in their goals.

More than we might imagine will hang on it.

© 2018 Hamodia

The Jewish Connection

The vandalism of a Fort Smith, Arkansas mosque in 2016 by three young local men wouldn’t seem to have any Jewish connection. But it did. Or, better, it turns out that it does.

The vandalism, which consisted of spray-painted swastikas, obscenities and messages like “Go home” and “We don’t want you here” on the mosque’s doors, came after the two men spent most of a night drinking whiskey and, eventually, railing against the Islamic State. While IS is certainly most worthy for even sober citizens’ excoriation, what Craig Wigginton and Abraham Davis, along with another friend, Ezra Pedraza, did next – drive to the Al Salam mosque and deface it – was mindless. And a crime.

Mr. Davis said that, upon awaking the next day, he already regretted what he had done. His regret gnawed at him and then, four months later, the police, having analyzed security camera footage, arrested him.

Mr. Davis’s impoverished family could not make his bail, and so he was sent to jail. There, he expressed his regret by writing a note of apology to the mosque, which he sent to his mother to have delivered.

Mosque officials were surprised to receive the apology but fully accepted it and told the prosecutor they didn’t want to press charges. But it was out of their hands and the young men found themselves before a judge.

Despite the mosque’s best efforts, Mr. Davis ended up with a felony conviction, and with about $3,200 in fines.

He got a job and began making small court-ordered monthly payments. If he stopped them, he could end up in prison for six years. It was a constant fear.

A reporter for The New York Times went to Arkansas to interview the dramatis personae and, although a mosque official at first suspected her of being an F.B.I. agent trying to spy on the mosque, he came to recognize the legitimacy of her professional claim.

When the reporter’s story was published this past summer (remember summer?), modest donations from readers came in, both to the mosque and to the felon, whose family had received an eviction notice. The gifts allowed the Davises to pay the security deposit and first month’s rent on a new place, and get some used furniture and a bed for their 5-year-old. Someone from Texas paid off their electric bill. Mr. Davis was able to buy a bicycle, so he could bike to work.

He continued to make the monthly payments on his fine and then, one day, he was informed that the balance of his fine had been paid. By the mosque’s social director, Hisham Yasin. Mr. Davis was shocked.

“There’s no words,” he told the reporter, covering his face with his hands.

The Jewish connection?

Well, several weeks earlier, Mr. Yasin had called the reporter to say that the mosque had received a generous donation from the Jay Pritzker Foundation. No one at Al Salam had ever heard of it, and, ever suspicious, thought at first that it was a scam and that the “foundation” would ask for its bank account number to engage in identity theft.

A bit of research, though, yielded the fact that the group was legitimate, and that the late Mr. Pritzker, for whom the foundation is named, was a Chicago Jew with roots in a shtetl near Kiev who ended up owning the Hyatt hotel chain. The Pritzker family members are major philanthropists, and the donation the foundation made to the Al Salam mosque is what inspired it to, in turn, perform its own act of kindness to the man who had been part of the swastika-painting episode.

There are, I think, several lessons in this story. First, that kindness can count. There are hateful people, but also simple-minded misguided ones. And they can change.

Second, that, cognizant as we all are of a major strain of Islam that spawns evil people and evil acts, there is only good will to be gained by establishing appropriate bonds of friendship with receptive Muslims. When, last year, tireless Masbia director Sender Rapaport rallied support within the frum community for fearful Muslim neighbors, a donor to the celebrated soup kitchen withdrew his support of it. Reb Sender did something right; the donor, something wrong.

The third lesson is not from the story itself but how it was rendered in the many publications that covered it. Other than The Times, almost none of the other media reporting the mosque’s laudable deed cared to mention the fact that it had been motivated by the act of a Jewish charity.

© 2018 Hamodia

Fake Kashrus

Long before candidate Donald Trump ever uttered the phrase “fake news,” some of us in the Jewish world involved with media were well acquainted with the concept.

From The New York Times’ description at the time of the 1991 Crown Heights riots as “[violence] between blacks and Jews,” when Jews were entirely on the receiving end of the ugliness, to a veteran Jewish reporter’s reporting as fact Orthodox Jewish blackmailers in Brooklyn, when all she had was an anonymous phone caller’s false tip. From a news description of a large, heartfelt Tehillim rally in Manhattan as “40,000 Orthodox Jews vent[ing] anger…” to the identification of a bloodied Jewish boy in Israel as a Palestinian beaten by an Israeli policeman. From the propagation of the myth that an Arab boy victim of Palestinian fire had been killed by Israeli soldiers to ahistorical descriptions of the Makom Hamikdash. An updated list would include much of the reportage on Kosel Maaravi happenings and on heterodox leaders’ claims about American Jewry.

Then there are the more subtle layers of bias. Like the aforementioned Gray Lady’s report on the twelfth Daf Yomi Siyum Hashas in 2012, a most newsworthy event, indeed; the paper chose to focus on the fact that Orthodox women don’t traditionally study Talmud.

And then there are the misquotes and words wrenched out of context. Having served as Agudath Israel of America’s media liaison for more than two decades, I have ample personal experience with that sliminess. Had I a few dollars for each time my words were misrepresented, I could put a decent dent in the tuition crisis.

The first few times I was misquoted or my words mischaracterized, I assumed I hadn’t been sufficiently clear, or that the reporters had made innocent mistakes. Eventually, though, I sobered and realized that some reporters were – sit down, please – not really interested in accuracy or truth. They were seeking, rather, some quote to plug into the article they had already written (in their heads if not their computers), on a quest to get some words from me to “massage” to fit their preconceptions.

A fresh example: Open Orthodox clergyman Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, a poster boy for the movement that ordained him, recently penned a piece for Newsweek.

After lauding himself for creating “the Tav HaYosher ethical seal to attest that kosher restaurants in North America treated their workers to the highest standards of decency and dignity,” he bemoans what he sees as a kosher certification industry “consumed with ritual detail but largely… unconcerned with… worker rights, animal welfare, environmental protection, human health, among many important ethical considerations.” And he recalls participating in a 2008 panel on kashrus at Yeshiva University.

I was on the panel too, and though Dr. Yanklowitz doesn’t identify me by name, I was the “ultra-Orthodox” spokesperson who he claims in his article implied that “people want kosher meat that tastes good and is cheap, but don’t care about the ethical route it took to the plate.”

Wondering what I said? So was I, when I saw the piece. Fortunately, at that panel, I read my speech straight from notes that night, and have the notes.

The social consciousness initiative that Dr. Yanklowitz was defending at the time was something called Hekhsher Tzedek (later renamed Magen Tzedek), a “kashrut seal” indicating that a product was not only kosher but whose production had met various workers’ rights, animal rights and environmental requirements. (Four years later, no product had received the seal, and there is no sign of it on supermarket shelves to this day.)

Since the initiative’s literature stated that the certification was intended to reflect a higher degree of kashrus, I sought to make the point that, while there are certainly valid issues of tzaar ba’alei chaim and dina dimalchusa dina by which observant food processors and producers are bound, such concerns are independent of the halachic definition of “kosher.”

“So,” I explained, “while kosher food producers are required by halachah to act ethically in every way, any lapses on that score have no effect on the kashrus of the food they produce.”

Yes, that’s it. That’s what Dr. Yanklowitz claims was a declaration that “people want kosher meat that tastes good and is cheap, but don’t care about the ethical route it took to the plate.”

And readers of Newsweek are now under the impression that Orthodox Jews are unconcerned with mistreatment of workers, animal cruelty and the environment.

In truth, Dr. Yanklowitz’s misrepresentation shouldn’t surprise me. Misrepresentation, after all – of the Jewish mesorah itself – is the very raison d’être of the movement that produced him.

© 2018 Hamodia