Category Archives: issues of morality or ethics

Sensitivity Gone Wild

Being sensitive is a good thing.  Well, to a point.  When sensitivity goes too far, though, it can enter silly or even slander territory.  Some examples are in my Ami column of last week, which you can read at:

https://www.amimagazine.org/2020/08/26/sensitivity-gone-wild/  

I was the guest on a Tablet Magazine podcast last week, concerning the open letter that I and others issued a few weeks ago about Jews, political rhetoric and partisanship.  You can listen to it at: https://www.tabletmag.com/podcasts/take-one/eruvin-17

And finally, the organization for which I have proudly worked for more than a quarter century, Agudath Israel of America, is currently conducting a fundraising campaign.  I have been amazed at how hard and effectively my Agudah colleagues have worked over the past challenging months — as they have over the years.  

Please consider making a donation toward keeping the Agudah going.  Just click on “donate” at the bottom of the page at the website below. And if you include a short note in the designated “message or dedication” box about how you heard about the campaign, I will be most honored:
https://www.charidy.com/agudahnational  

Thank you and have a wonderful week!

A Note from Agudath Israel’s Executive Vice-President About an Unfortunate Article

August 28, 2020

By: Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel

A number of people have called my attention to an anti-Agudath Israel screed that was recently published as an op-ed column in a Jewish periodical. The article defames Rabbi Moshe Sherer z’l, distorts the words of my colleague Rabbi Avi Shafran, and slanders the Agudah. I feel I must respond.

The article insinuates that the Agudah, going back to 1980 when Rabbi Sherer served as president of the organization and continuing still through today, supports Democrats over Republicans to the detriment of our community’s interests, and does so for financial gain. Thus, writes the author, “the late Rabbi Moshe Sherer of Agudath Israel had promised President Jimmy Carter the Orthodox vote [in the 1980 presidential election]. We can only speculate what he got in return for choosing the spendthrift candidate over the moral candidate.”

To anyone who knew Rabbi Sherer, the notion that this legendary Agudah leader who enjoyed the absolute trust of the greatest Gedolei Yisroel would favor a “spendthrift” political candidate in order to get something “in return,” is beyond preposterous and deeply offensive. What is the author’s source for Rabbi Sherer’s alleged promise to President Carter?

And what is his source for the equally startling assertion that Vice President Walter Mondale called Rabbi Sherer to complain about people wearing Reagan buttons on Ocean Parkway, to which Rabbi Sherer supposedly replied that they were disciples of a “fringe rabbi” who had no real following in the community? Whether any rabbonim encouraged people to wear Reagan buttons I do not know, but it’s a bit hard to believe that Vice President Mondale would place a special call to complain about the buttons of Ocean Parkway. And it’s even harder to believe that Rabbi Sherer would denigrate a choshuve rav in conversations with any other people, let alone the Vice President of the United States.

How does the author know the details of these alleged conversations? Were they disclosed in the public memoirs of President Carter and Vice President Mondale? Have any historians of that era written about these alleged conversations? Did Rabbi Sherer confide in him? Did Rabbi Sherer reveal this information at the Agudah convention? Did it get written up in the Jewish Observer? Are there minutes of these conversations in the Agudath Israel archives?

I would venture to say not. I would venture to say these conversations probably never took place. And yet they are cited in the article as confirmed fact, and for one reason alone: to attack the Agudah.

The author intensifies that attack by pointing to one of Rabbi Avi Shafran’s recent articles in which he opines that most Democrats, including Vice President Biden, are reasonable people and generally supportive of Israel. This opinion, in the author’s eyes, constitutes “criminal naivite and negligence at best, cynical manipulation and distortion at worst.”

Further, it proves that “Rabbi Avi Shafran and Agudath Israel were still engaging in their misguided behavior from 1980.” (Just to make sure his readers understand what’s really on his mind, the author congratulates himself for his temperate language in describing the Agudah’s behavior as simply “misguided”; “the alternative,” he ominously proclaims, “is too awful to contemplate” – thereby inviting his readers to engage in precisely such awful contemplation.)

While it is true that Rabbi Shafran serves as Agudath Israel’s public affairs director, he also frequently speaks in his own voice as well, not as a spokesman for the Agudah but as a private individual. His column about the Democratic Party was an expression of his personal views, and cannot be attributed more generally to the Agudah.

But beyond that, it is dismaying that the anti-Agudah op-ed columnist cites Rabbi Shafran’s article so selectively, treating it as a de facto endorsement of Mr. Biden and the Democratic Party. In fact, Rabbi Shafran took pains to disavow any such endorsement. Here’s what he wrote:

“None of the above is intended as a call to support Mr. Biden. There is ample and understandable enthusiasm in our community for President Trump, who has taken a number of steps to show support for Israel. And there are other issues where our stances resonate with the Republican ones. Personally, I am a registered Republican, and have, over decades, most often voted for Republican candidates.

“I’m suggesting only one thing: that we refrain from demonizing either of our country’s major political parties.”

Finally, a word to the periodical that published this anti-Agudah screed: What conceivable to’eles is there in attacking Rabbi Sherer? What heter is there to publicly denigrate an organization that works tirelessly and effectively under the leadership of gedolei Yisroel to promote the interests of the klal?

The writer’s words, were they true, would be lashon hora of the worst sort. As it is, they are worse, a hotzo’as shem ra, an inexcusable slander.

Blood and Soil

Some recent reading led me to wonder if there might be something about German soil that somehow resonates, in susceptible people, with cruelty and murder? Might the Nazi slogan “Blut und Boden!”—“Blood and Soil!”—hold deeper meaning than mere nationalist dedication to the land?

To read my thoughts on the matter, please visit:
https://www.amimagazine.org/2020/08/12/blood-and-soil/

Open Letter to the Torah Community: Sinai, Not Washington

The unhealthy confusion of Torah values with politics brings disrepute to Torah and harm to Torah Jews.

No party platform can substitute for our mesorah.

As a community, we ought to clearly and proudly stand up for the Torah’s stance on societal issues, embracing a worldview that identifies with no party or political orientation. Our interests may dovetail with a particular party or politician in one or another situation, but our values must remain those of Sinai, not Washington.

Moral degradation infects a broad swath of the American political spectrum. In the camps of both liberals and conservatives, many political players are on a hyper-partisan quest for victory at all costs.

Good character and benevolent governance are devalued, contrition is seen as weakness and humility is confused with humiliation. Many politicians and media figures revel in dividing rather than uniting the citizens of our country. Others legitimize conspiracy theories. None of this is good for America, and certainly not for us Jews.

Shameless dissembling and personal indecency acted out in public before the entire country are, in the end, no less morally corrosive than the embrace of abortion-on-demand or the normalization of same-gender relationships. The integrity and impact of what we convey to our children and students about kedusha, tzni’us, emes, kavod habriyos and middos tovos are rendered hollow when contradicted by our admiration for, or even absence of revulsion at, politicians and media figures whose words and deeds stand opposed to what we Jews are called upon to embrace and exemplify.

These are not new problems. But the challenge seems to grow worse with time. If we don’t stop to seriously consider the negative impact of our community’s unhealthy relationship with the current political style, we risk further erosion of our ability to live lives dedicated to truly Jewish ideals.

We Jews are charged to be an example for all Americans.

Serious moral issues — truth, loyalty, contrition, vengeance, tolerance — are at the heart of much of today’s political discourse. Whether we realize it or not, many of us have come to be guided in such matters, at least in part, by politicians and media figures with whom we share neither values nor worldview.

We are a people charged with modeling and teaching ethical behavior and morality to others. It should be inconceivable for us to be, and be seen as, willing disciples of deeply flawed people who are now the de facto arbiters of what is morally acceptable. We should be ashamed when Torah leaders seem to have been replaced as our ethical guides by people of low character and alien values.

As Orthodox Jews, we live in a benevolent host society to which we have rightly given our loyalty. It is thus important that we not be regarded by the American public as turning a blind eye to the degradation of our moral climate in exchange for political support for parochial interests.

We must not allow ourselves to be co-opted by any party.

There are issues of great importance to us, like education funding, anti-discrimination laws and the affordability and safety of our neighborhoods, and we rightly advocate for our positions.

But we must reject the efforts of those who, for self-serving electoral gain, seek to turn Jews against any party or faction. Our practical focus should be on recruiting allies and building alliances, and we ought to shun partisan posturing that only alienates us from those who govern us.

We must ensure that Israel is not used as a political weapon.

We must oppose efforts to turn support for Israel from a broad consensus into a wedge issue. Although we may rightly be concerned about trends regarding Israel in some corners, indicting an entire party as anti-Israel is not only inaccurate but has the potential of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nor should any party’s strong support for Israel become a justification to blindly support its politicians in every other matter. We should advocate for Israel’s security and other needs without painting ourselves into a partisan corner.

We should vote as Jews, not partisans.

Nothing stated above is intended to address anyone’s voting choices. We write simply to caution against the reflexive identification of Orthodox communal interests with any particular party or political philosophy.

To that end, let us commit to being guided only by Torah perspectives and strive to insulate ourselves, our families, students and congregants from being influenced by the objectionable speech and conduct that have come to infect many parts of the political spectrum.

When we vote, let us do so as Torah Jews, with deliberation and seriousness, not as part of any partisan bandwagon. We are not inherently Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals. We are Jews – in the voting booth no less than in our homes – who are committed, in the end, only to Torah.

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg

Jeff Jacoby

Eytan Kobre

Yosef Rapaport

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Dr. Aviva Weisbord

Should “Black Lives Matter” Matter?

[photo credit: Rathkopf Photography]

If there were a contest for the most tasteless use of a slogan this summer, it would be hard to pick one out of several recent candidates reacting to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s disallowal of  overnight camps in the state this year. 

Two of the slogans are featured on signs being held by chassidic children in a photo that appeared online and in at least one respectable Jewish print publication. One sign reads “Kids’ Live Matter” [sic] and the other, “No camps, no justice.” 

The third was part of a caricature in a Jewish magazine intended for young people.  It portrayed Mr. Cuomo dressed as a police officer with his knee holding down a child wearing a summer camp t-shirt and crying out “I can’t breathe.”

What were the creative minds who thought those lines clever thinking? Did they not realize that equating the cruel snuffing out of lives with depriving children of a summer camp experience is obscene?

Please don’t misunderstand. Overnight camps are a very important part of many Jewish children’s lives and educations.  Such camps provide some 41,000 young Jews with opportunities to grow physically, emotionally and religiously.  Camps are particularly needed this summer, after months of children attending classes remotely and being denied the camaraderie and human interaction so vital for human development.

I fully realize that.  And also that Mr. Cuomo’s edict was woefully wrongheaded. 

He ignored a 17-page safety plan provided to him by a consortium of Orthodox Jewish overnight camps, signed by no less than nine nationally-recognized infectious disease doctors and medical professionals. It explained how precautions could be taken at overnight camps to minimize, if not eliminate, the risk of Covid-19 infections.  The experts contended that children in camp environments would actually be safer in the protective bubble of isolated camps than they will now be if the edict stands.

But the cogent case for overnight camps doesn’t deserve to be sullied by outrageous, offensive comparisons.

Did the sloganeers consider for a moment how a black citizen, anguished by the seemingly endless parade of killings of unarmed black men and women by police, would perceive the “borrowing” of chants used to protest such carnage in the cause of demanding that… summer camps be opened?

Leave aside how a black American would feel.  How should any thoughtful person feel?

And if it’s really necessary to bring the issue closer to home, how would any of us Jews feel if “Never Again!” was co-opted to describe some summer vacation resort’s pledge to not ever repeat the same entertainment experience? No need to even imagine. Just recall the howls of Jewish outrage last summer when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred (not even inaccurately) to detention facilities on the southern border as “concentration camps.”

More disturbing than the tone deafness of the offensive borrowings is the lack of empathy it reveals.

The Torah teaches us to treat our fellow Jews in special ways.  We are family, after all, and family comes first.

But is the concept of tzelem Elokim limited to Jews?  Does the word brios in mechabed es habrios (Avos, 4:1) not, on its face, mean all people?  Did Dovid HaMelech not mean to include all human beings when he sang (Tehillim, 65:3) “You, Who hears prayer, to You all flesh will come”? Were korbanos not accepted from non-Jews in the Beis HaMikdash?

Is “darkei shalom,” for some reason, a lesser halachic ideal than others? Is not the goal of history, as our nevi’im prophesied, to bring all the earth’s inhabitants to recognize Hashem? Do we not then have to be concerned about them?

Back in 1964, Dr. Marvin Schick, a”h, writing in The Jewish Observer, asserted:

“It is our historical and religious heritage that compels us to sympathize with the plight of the Negro. It is unthinkable that a people so oppressed throughout history would not today rally to support the cause of the American Negro, now afflicted by the irrational forces of hatred and bigotry. Anything short of this by American Orthodox Jewry is to reject the principles that we have stood by through the millennia of persecution and to which we must remain equally faithful in a free society.”

Yes, there has been hatred for Jews among some blacks. I can testify to that from personal experience. Many experiences, in fact.

But I have also had enough interactions with black citizens of good will to know that the haters aren’t the norm. And all of us have witnessed more than enough in current events to know that being black in America remains a difficult, even dangerous, thing.

“Black Lives Matter” is a name that has been adopted by scores of organizations, some larger, most smaller. But Black Lives Matter is also an idea — essentially a reiteration of what was once known as the “civil rights movement.”  That movement qua movement, as Dr. Schick wrote more than 50 years ago, is one that should resonate with us.


The concept of darkei shalom, if nothing else, should compel us to show black Americans, and all people, that Jews committed to living Torah-faithful lives are fully committed to the safety and equal treatment by society of all human beings, no matter the color of their skins.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Understanding the Sotah Ritual

The article below is from the website My Jewish Learning, and can be found at: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/understanding-the-sotah-ritual/

BY RABBI AVI SHAFRAN

Each year, the Shabbat after Shavuot leaves some Jews who follow the day’s Torah reading puzzled, upset or embarrassed. A major element of the Torah portion Naso concerns the sotah, or “unfaithful wife,” and it entails something strange, and indeed unparalleled anywhere else in the Torah: an apparent trial by ordeal.

Many ancient cultures — and even less ancient ones, like the 17th-century Puritans who conducted the Salem witch trials — used ostensibly supernatural means to determine the guilt or innocence of someone accused of a crime. The accused was subjected to an unpleasant, or downright torturous, experience. Establishing innocence often meant just surviving the ordeal, but sometimes it meant not surviving it, in which case the verdict brought solace only to the accused’s survivors.

According to the Torah, the sotah law kicks in when a man suspects his wife of being unfaithful and warns her to not seclude herself with a particular other man. If it is established that she ignored the warning, she becomes subject to a ritual that involves her drinking a concoction of water, a bit of dirt from under the Temple’s marble floor, a bitter herb and the rubbed-off dried ink of the text of the Torah’s description of the sotah ritual, including God’s name.

If the woman is guilty, she and the man with whom she sinned will suffer a terrible death. The Talmud says that if the woman has great merit in fostering Torah study, she may not die immediately but only show symptoms at the time of a malady that will eventually take her life. But if she is innocent, she will not only suffer no ill effects, but will be blessed with children if she was childless and with healthy ones if previous ones were sickly.

The sotah drink ingredients are, if unpleasant, entirely innocuous. And so it would take a divine intervention to bring about the described punishment. Pondering those facts well is the beginning of understanding why the ritual exists and why, unlike every other law in the Torah, the sotah faces not a trial but an ordeal.

When a punishable Torah law was intentionally committed in ancient times, if witnesses attested to the violation, a court was empowered to mete out the prescribed punishment. If there were no qualified witnesses, then the crime was ignored by the court. In the Talmud’s words, “God has many messengers.” So if God chose to punish the violator, God could find a way to do so. So why is the sotah subjected to this ritual?

Well, actually, she isn’t subjected. If she chooses to simply dissolve her marriage and forfeit the financial support promised her, the husband is compelled to grant her a divorce and she suffers no other penalty. 

And therein lies the second key to understanding the strange law of sotah. The ritual is not intended to punish the woman if she is guilty. It is to absolve her if she is innocent, and preserve love and trust in her marriage.

The entire point of the sotah ritual, in other words, is to convince a husband who has every reason to be suspicious of his wife’s fidelity, since she secluded herself with another man. God is involved only to convince the husband that his wife is not adulterous. The husband’s jealousy will thus dissolve and allow him and his wife to resume their marriage in trust and love.
 The wife may have still done something wrong, but the husband’s worst suspicions have been divinely exploded.

One can imagine the reconciliation that would certainly follow. That is why the talmudic maxim most associated with the sotah law is, “So great is peace between a man and his wife that the Torah commands that the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He, written in sanctity, should be erased onto the [sotah] water.”

(c) 2020 MyJewishLearning

Adam and the Eco-Fascists

Yes, it would be a great name for a punk rock group. But the Adam in the title refers to the original one, the first man. And the eco-fascists are contemporary environmentalists gone wild.

Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden, famously, “to work it and to guard it” (Beraishis, 2:15). The latter phrase is regularly held aloft by some who are deeply concerned with humanity’s effects on nature. Preserving the state of flora, fauna and the landscape, they say, is nothing less than a Biblical mandate.

The Torah does in fact enjoin us elsewhere to not waste useful things, and that prohibition can certainly be applied to wanton destruction of any sort, including of animals and the environment. And we are charged, too, with preserving our health, so efforts to minimize harmful pollution are proper as well from a Jewish perspective.

But the Jewish religious tradition’s take on the words “to guard it” is radically different from conservationists who seek to draft it to support their cause. According to Midrash Rabbah, the “work it” refers to using six days of the week to earn our livings, and the “guard it” refers to ceasing work on Shabbos. The Zohar sees the “work it” as a charge to heed the Torah’s positive commandments, and the “guard it” as a warning to not violate its prohibitions. No true Jewish source interprets the verse as an ecological mandate.

Again, wantonly destroying nature is against the Torah’s guidance. But using nature, even destroying parts of it, for the benefit of humans is, well, precisely what nature is for. Man is no mere part of nature; he, as the creation with free will, is its lord.

Rejecting that reality underlies the ideology of the eco-fascist movement, which considers the supreme political model to be a world in which an authoritarian government requires individuals to sacrifice their own interests to the higher ideal of nature. Man, according to that conviction, is a mere fragment of nature, not its apogee.

Last week, Earth Day, the annual demonstration of support for environmental protection, was commemorated around the world.

Most who mark that day are simple conservationists, promoters of recycling and advocates for legislation to help ensure clean air and water. Some, though, are eco-fascists.

And this year, they celebrated the coronavirus.

As one particularly popular social media posting put it: “Air pollution is slowing down. Water pollution is clearing up. Natural wildlife is returning home. Coronavirus is Earth’s vaccine. We’re the virus.”

Another giddily gushed: “This isn’t an apocalypse. It’s an awakening.”

Others called attention to the wonderful “unexpected side effects” of the virus, like swans and dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice.

Leaving aside the fact that swans regularly appear in some of Venice’s canals and that an accompanying photo of “Venetian” dolphins was in fact taken at a port in Sardinia, hundreds of miles away, the thought of celebrating a deadly germ is mad. No, actually, it’s evil.

Most people don’t realize it, but contemporary radical environmentalism has its roots in an earlier fascism.

The Third Reich’s “Blood and Soil” propaganda campaign explicitly linked “non-Aryan” people on German soil with degradation of the environment. Hitler and his minister Hermann Göring were avid supporters of animal rights and conservation. Germans who violated Nazi animal welfare laws were sent to concentration camps.

Of late, white supremacists have adopted the Nazi “Blood and Soil” slogan, and it was chanted at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, by torch-carrying racists.

The gunman who murdered 51 people in Christchurch, New Zealand last year disclosed that he was an eco-fascist concerned about the threats of climate change, overpopulation, and immigration. “They are the same issue,” he wrote. “The environment is being destroyed by overpopulation… Kill the invaders, kill the overpopulation and by doing so save the environment.”

The shooter who later killed 23 people in the El Paso massacre was connected to a manifesto that lamented the fact that “The environment is getting worse by the year,” and, addressing the public, continued: “Most of y’all are just too stubborn to change your lifestyle. So the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources.”

Returning to last century’s eco-fascists, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, in his private diaries, described Hitler as someone whose hatred of the Jewish and Christian religions in large part stemmed from the ethical distinction these faiths drew between the value of humans and the value of other animals.

Well, the führer was on to something there. The eco-definition of “to work it and to guard it” stands in stark contrast to the phrases’ true meanings.

Humans are qualitatively different from animals. Imagining otherwise might seem like a harmless conceit. In reality,  it is a very dangerous one.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Two Thoughts About You-Know-What

Surprisingly (he said with sarcasm), I’ve been giving some thought to the current pandemic.

Specifically, to the unprecedented closures of shuls and yeshivos.  In the absence of a prophet, no one can claim to know “why” any challenge or adversity happens. But it is a Jewish mandate to introspect at such times, as per the Talmud’s exhortation about personal adversity (Berachos 5a).

Might there be some grounds for introspection about why the particular challenge we face today has resulted in the first-ever-in-modern-history closing down of Jewish places of worship and study, and the resultant confinement of many to their homes?

What occurs to me are two things, discrete but in no way incongruous.

The first is that we may not have been treating our places of religious gathering, particularly shuls, with the respect and gravity they deserve.  While there are many shuls where services are conducted properly and there is no unnecessary conversing during davening, some shuls, unfortunately, are treated less like mini-Temples and more like men’s clubs, places to gather and schmooze before and after davening rather than holy places for communing with the Divine.  Might our banishment from shul be a reminder to us all of what shul is supposed to be?

My second thought’s focus is not on where we have been exiled from but rather where we have been confined to: our homes.

Rabbi Moshe Sherer, in his book of essays B’shtei Einayim, brings a thought from the Reisher Rov, Rav Aharon Lewin, on the verse that states: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations” (Yeshayahu, 56:7.)  Reading the word “for” as “to,” Rabbi Lewin remarked that a Jewish house, or home, will be seen by others as what they experience only as a house of prayer.  In other words, the ideal Jewish home should be a place permeated with Jewish ideals and practices, a place, no less than shul, of worship.

There may be people who are “shul Yidden” in the sense of never missing a shul service, but whose behavior at home is less exemplary, something that is particularly deleterious to any children living at home.  Such people, if they exist, might rightly reflect on their “home confinement” as a spur to self-improvement. And, of course, all of us do well to contemplate how we might make our homes not just places to, well, go home to, but holy spaces.

May our introspection lead to yeshuas Hashem kiheref ayin, the “salvation of Hashem” coming “in the blink of an eye.’

My Purim’s Highlight

My Purim’s highlight was an interaction I had with two little boys, no older than 8 or 9.  The shul I attend is often visited by a number of “collectors” asking for small donations, usually for the poor or needy institutions. Usually they are adults, with documentation backing the legitimacy of their quest for donations.

Sometimes, children approach people on behalf of their yeshivos or other charitable causes. On Purim, such undersized collectors abound.  I must have been approached by little people 20 or 25 times.  When my stash of dollar bills was down to one, wouldn’t you know, two youngsters approached me at the same time.

I smiled and showed them my last bill, identifying it as such.  One boy, whose hand held more revenue that the other boy’s, unhesitatingly pointed to the other and said “Please give him.”

Which I did.

But the boy who directed me to the other one gave me something priceless, the story I just shared.