An article I wrote for Religion News Service about haredi efforts to aid beleaguered people can be read here.
New York Daily News, Aug. 26, 2021
by: Avi Shafran
A very old, very wry, very pointed Jewish joke:
Goldberg is in the waiting area of a European airport holding the handle of his large suitcase and looking agitated. He approaches one traveler and asks him, “What do you think about Jews?” The fellow smiles benevolently and responds, “They are very fine people.” Goldberg thanks him and moves to another person, asking the same question. The response: “All humans are equal and worthy of respect.” Then to a third traveler; same question, similar answer. Then another, and another. Ditto.
Eventually, though, one of the accosted responds differently: Taking a deep breath and glowering at his questioner, he says, “They’re the scum of the earth, greedy plotters to overtake the world, killers of babies, causers of wars and cheats!”
“Ah!” says Goldberg happily, looking heavenward. “Finally! An honest man!” And then, turning to the spewer of the hate, he asks “Would you mind watching my suitcase while I use the restroom?”
There are indeed regions of the world where the populaces, ignorant and gullible, can be relied upon to swallow and regurgitate the most hateful canards about Jews, and who are all too ready to hate people they’ve never met as a result.
But surely not in the Western world.
A few items from recent days:
August 19. A school, a synagogue and a bus shelter were spray painted with antisemitic messages in Toronto.
August 20. The Los Angeles County District Attorney charged two former Torrance police officers with vandalism for allegedly spray-painting a swastika on the back seat of a car.
August 21. A man punched a 64-year-old Orthodox Jewish man as they passed one another on the street in the heavily-Jewish neighborhood of Stamford Hill. Earlier in the day, the same man punched a Jewish child in the neighborhood. In a separate incident on Aug. 12, a 72-year-old Jewish man was slapped and had his kippah knocked off his head in another suspected hate crime in London.
August 22. Robert Smart, an evangelical Christian who lives in Florida, was outed as a prolific QAnon antisemite. He has more than 300,000 followers on Telegram, where, as “GhostEzra,” he posts Nazi propaganda, Holocaust denial and “a slew of conspiracy theories that often range from obliquely to explicitly antisemitic,” according to Logically, an organization that tracks disinformation online and uncovered his identity.
August 23. An 18-year-old Jewish man wearing a kippah in Cologne, Germany, was beaten by a group of 10 attackers in a public green space and taken to the hospital with a broken nose and cheekbone.
August 23. A man violently slapped a Jewish man in the face, in front of the victim’s wife and five children, at the children’s pool area of an Aventura, Florida hotel’s resort water park. The assaulter’s wife, according to police, called the victim’s wife a “dirty Jew.”
When, as occasionally happens, I meet a fellow Jew who is convinced that if you scratch any non-Jew hard enough, you’ll find an anti-Semite lurking beneath, I vociferously disagree. I’ve experienced (in addition, to be sure, to my share of Jew-hatred, including both verbal and physical assaults) too many acts of non-Jews’ kindnesses, and known too many good people who don’t share my religion or ethnicity.
And so the joke about Goldberg, I know, is an exaggeration. But perusing the news on almost any given day, I know, too, that exaggerations aren’t fabrications. They may overstate a case to make a point. But the point is often, as it is here, an entirely valid one.
Goldberg may be a joke. But antisemitism isn’t.
A piece I wrote for Religion News Service about the Alta Fixsler case can be read here.
An essay on the misrepresentation of the Jewish view of abortion was published by Religion News Service, and can be read here.
Were a donkey to suddenly develop the power of speech and address me, I would, I’m quite sure, be flabbergasted.
Faced with just such an asinine address, though, Bil’am isn’t struck silent and doesn’t collapse in shock. In fact, he seems entirely unfazed, and simply reacts to his donkey’s protest — “What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?” — by responding “Because you mocked me!” (Bamidbar 22:28-29).
What occurs to me as a possible explanation of his nonchalance is that he had become so oblivious to the difference between animals and humans — and indeed related to his beast as a partner in life — that the shock factor simply wasn’t there. True, the donkey had never spoken before, but maybe the animal simply hadn’t had anything to say until then.
The view of man as a mere fur-less ape is evident, too, at the end of the parsha, where the idolatry of Ba’al Pe’or celebrates the base physical functions that humans and lower creatures share in common.
The idea that humans are a mere subset of the animal kingdom has been taken by celebrated “ethicist” Peter Singer to its logical conclusion. Human infants, he has said, are “neither rational nor self-conscious,” and so, “The life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee.”
Equating humans and animals, which is common in our times as well as in ancient ones, isn’t just a means of legitimating debauchery.
It is nothing less, when truly internalized, than a prelude to murder.
© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran
I have defended Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on a number of occasions in several public venues. But I was chagrined by her reaction to the recent Hamas/Israel war, and express why here.
My most recent Ami column can be read here.
Even those of us with limited exposure to farm animals can easily differentiate between a cow and a donkey. Which leads Rashi to explain that when the Torah refers to our need to differentiate between the meat permitted for us Jews to consume and that which is prohibited, it means distinguishing between things like “a trachea [of a permitted animal] that has been cut exactly halfway across [which doesn’t satisfy the requirements of shechita] and one that has been more-than-half cut.”
A rather fine distinction, of course, a matter of a millimeter or less.
Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin, zt”l, sees it as a template for judgments to be made throughout our lives. There is a mere hairsbreadth’s difference between holiness and its opposite, he notes in his sefer LaTorah V’lamoadim. He cites the Talmudic account of Rabi Meir’s recollection of Rabi Yishmael’s words upon hearing that Rabi Meir was a sofer. “My son, be very careful in your work… for if you omit a mere letter or add one [which, in certain cases could radically change the meaning of a word], you could destroy the entire world.”
Similarly, Rav Zevin notes, we are enjoined to see ourselves as if we are half-worthy and half-unworthy; and Rabi Elazar ben Rabi Shimon adds that the world itself can be dependent on its merits outweighing – even by a single mitzvah – its demerits. And so, with each decision we make, we should imagine that only choosing correctly will preserve the world.
Even a mere momentary thought can be that crucial element, he adds, since a marriage effected by a man who betroths a woman “on the condition that I am a completely righteous person,” but whose subsequent actions indicate otherwise, requires a divorce to be dissolved. Because, as the Gemara says, “perhaps he had a thought of repentance” when he betrothed the woman on the condition.
The words of Robert Frost, in his famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” come to mind.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
We often make decisions in our daily lives without considering that our choices could be potentially life-changing, even earth-shattering.” But, in fact, any of them could be.
© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran
Sometimes money amassed through questionable means is donated to good causes like charities or educational institutions. Perhaps the donors’ subconscious, or even conscious, intent is to somehow render their ill-gotten gains “kosher” in some way.
The Zohar informs us of the folly of such thinking.
On Moshe’s exhortation near the beginning of parshas Vayakhel that the people donate materials for the construction of the Mishkan — “Take from yourselves a portion for Hashem…” (Shemos 35:5), the mystical text states:
“From yourselves” — from what is [truly] yours, not from [what you have obtained from] usury and not from [what you have obtained from] theft. Because if it is [obtained through unethical means, the giver] has no merit, but, on the contrary, woe to him, as he has come to recall his sin.”
Not only would the Mishkan’s holiness have been compromised if any of the precious metals or fabrics used for its construction were besmirched by its donor’s bad behavior in obtaining it, but also, any donation of wrongly obtained material would be a reminder of the donor’s sin.
The same point is said to have been made, particularly pointedly and wittily, by the Kotzker Rebbe, on Chazal’s statement that, at Sinai, the people saw with their eyes what normally could only be heard with ears. That way, allegedly said the Kotzker, there would be no way for anyone to hear the lo (“Thou shall not”) in lo signov — “Thou shall not steal” — as being spelled lamed-vav, meaning, “For Him, steal.”
It would seem that the notion of justifying economic crimes with virtuous use of ill-gotten gains is nothing new. It existed in the 19th century — and even in Biblical times.
© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran
Describing our ancestors’ worshipping of the egel hazahav, the golden calf, the Torah relates that “Early next day, the people offered up olos [burnt offerings] and shelamim [peace sacrifices], they sat down to eat and drink, and then arose litzachek [to enjoy themselves]” (Shemos 32:6).
The legendary Novardhoker Maggid, Rav Yaakov Galinsky, zt”l, would comment in the name of an “early master” that the order of the happenings in that pasuk is significant, and has broad historical pertinence.
The egel hazahav, he explained, was the first veering of the Jewish people away from Hashem, the first Jewish pursuit of a foreign-to-Torah ideal, one that bordered on idolatry. But it is an unfortunate prototype for other such ideal-idolatries in subsequent times.
Many a social movement has been birthed or eagerly embraced by Jews. And each began with with a lofty ideal, a figurative olah, a sacrifice entirely consumed on the altar, signifying selfless devotion.
With the passage of time, though, the heady days of every “ism”’s youth give way to a more jaded, or at least “realistic,” approach, signified by shelamim, a sacrifice where the supplicant is able to enjoy some of the meat. The high ideal, of course, is still heralded as paramount, the flag of altruism still flies, but there is an expectation of some “return on the investment” in the cause.
And then come the final stages, when the loftiness of the movement’s revolutionary goal deteriorates into “eating and drinking” — where self-interest and a “what’s in it for me?” mentality reigns — and, ultimately, a litzachek frame of mind, when materialism and lust become the society’s entire foci.
The golden calf was the first worshipped ism, but it was far from the last.
© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran