Category Archives: issues of morality or ethics

Vilification Nation

We shouldn’t aim to emulate the asinine 

Regardless of whether or not all or any of the results of the recent elections pleased you, they revealed a supercharged Orthodox Jewish community in New York. Even if some secular media crazily choose to portray Orthodox participation in the democratic system as somehow nefarious, we Orthodox Jews should be proud of our neighborhoods’ impressive voting record. 

Shortly before election day, someone immersed in studying Torah and earning a living told me that he doesn’t follow political matters and, assuming (rightly or not) that I was better informed about such things, asked me for whom I thought he should vote. My response took him aback. “It makes no difference,” I said. “Just vote.”

That’s because, no matter how we might like to imagine things, no single vote, nor hundred votes, nor thousand votes, usually makes a difference in the outcome of a congressional or gubernatorial election. But what always makes a difference is the post-election map informing elected officials which neighborhoods care enough to turn out en masse. And when it comes to that map, every vote makes a difference.

And that’s what should be foremost in our minds during the months before every election, when campaign engines noisily rev up and ads and endorsements dominate the airwaves, print media, robocalls, pashkevilim and car-mounted loudspeakers.

Because, while there may well be reasons to back this or that candidate, or to support or oppose this or that proposal, there is – or should be – no place in our lives for the political tribal war mentality that has intensified immeasurably in politics over the past seven years.

Demonization of parties and individuals may excite a certain type of citizen (like the kind who enjoys watching boxers open cuts in their opponents’ faces or render them unconscious). But insulting those with whom we may disagree is not something that responsible Jews do.

Campaigns these days resemble ancient Roman gladiatorial contests, where citizens cheer their chosen heroes and signal for hungry lions to deal with those they disfavor. But that’s not what politics should be to a believing Jew. To us, an election is a means of civilly advancing our interests and what we believe is best for the city, state or country in which we live. For those in need of violent release, there’s Canadian hockey.

Getting overheated over politics is incongruous with Torah values, simple menschlichkeit and reason.

While our hishtadlus is necessary, in the end, we must remember that lev melech bi’yad Hashem, “the heart of the king is in Hashem’s hand” (Mishlei 21:1). What is decisive is the Bashefer, not the ballot box, the Creator, not the casting. Our power lies in choosing how to live, not how to vote. 

To be sure, there might theoretically be a candidate for some office who is truly deserving of vilification – say, a Nazi human trafficker with a penchant for cannibalism. But they are, I think, rare.

When it comes, though, to candidates whose positions one simply feels are wrongheaded or detrimental to our community or to society as a whole, expressions of opposition are rightly made with reason and calm, not fire and fury. 

An object lesson, I personally think, lies in the public disparagement some rained down upon Kathy Hochul. 

Whether or not one thinks she was the better candidate, the Governor has shown good will to her Orthodox Jewish constituents – in her budget’s substantial increases in allocations for nonpublic schools, security grants for Jewish institutions and funding for hate crime prevention; and in her veto of a bill that would have allowed the Town of Blooming Grove to effectively discriminate against religious Jews. 

And yet, because she didn’t endorse what we feel she should have with regard to yeshiva education, some went into full-scale attack mode.

Now that Ms. Hochul has been elected governor, how might that harsh and uncalled-for crassness sit with her?

I don’t expect Ms. Hochul, a seasoned politician with a thick skin, to turn on the community because of the thoughtless words of a few. I think she truly respects the Orthodox community. But can we at least recognize that joining the “attack mode” of contemporary American politics can backfire?

And, even more important, that it is wrong? 

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Pinchas – Self Changes Everything

The law of kana’im pog’im bo – “the zealous ones can attack him” – that Pinchas acted upon to dispatch Zimri and Kozbi is a highly unusual, if not singular, one: If one poses it as a halachic query, it is rendered a forbidden act; but if acted upon without consultation, it is meritorious. How can something prohibited be a mitzvah? We find yibum rendering what was an aveira (relations with one’s brother’s wife) a mitzvah, but there the situation has changed, with the death of the brother. Here, the same act under the same circumstances is both wrong and right.

In physics, there is something called the “observer effect,” referring to the fact that the act of measuring something affects what is being measured. For instance, a thermometer placed in a liquid can’t truly measure the liquid’s temperature, since the thermometer’s own temperature changes the liquid’s (and using a thermometer with the same temperature as the liquid would require knowing the liquid’s temperature beforehand).

The observer effect is even more pronounced in quantum physics, where even the most basic act of observation disturbs the state of subatomic particles.

I wonder if something like the “observer effect” may exist in the halacha of kana’im pog’im bo. The act itself, in its essence, is proper; it is the introduction of self that changes the status of the law, rendering the act forbidden. 

If the aspirant to the status of “zealous” has the presence of mind to query whether he should act, the answer is that he should not. Once a he has entered the situation, it changes what was permitted, even meritorious, into something forbidden. With the introduction of self, everything changes.

When an act of kana’us is performed automatically, though, devoid of “self”-consciousness, without consideration of its potential impact on oneself, it is praiseworthy. And Pinchas, who acted out of pure dedication to Hashem, with no concern for self, is rightly praised.

© 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

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

Incident at Frankfurt

Lufthansa, Germany’s largest airline, ended up with sauerkraut on its corporate face recently, after more than 120 visibly Jewish men and women in Frankfurt’s airport on May 4 were banned from boarding their connecting flights. 

Most of the Jewish passengers were heading to Hungary, to visit the burial placeof a revered rabbi, Reb Shayeleh Kerestirer, on the anniversary of his death. They had to scramble to get on flights with other airlines.

In a statement shortly after the incident, the airline claimed that the travelers had been blocked from the flights because, on their earlier flight from New York, they had refused requests to honor the airline’s medical mask requirement. 

Numerous passengers, however, told news outlets that they and the vast majority of Jewish travelers had heeded the mask mandate and had been unfairly grouped together and punished because of a small number of rule-violators.

Holding anyone who happened to look Jewish accountable for the infraction of a few was, obviously, well… Problematik.

Exacerbating things was one of several videos disseminated by Dan’s Deals, an air travel website, that went viral schnell. In it, after an irate passenger heatedly protested the collective punishment, a Lufthansa supervisor blurted out that it had been “Jewish people who were the mess, who made the problems.”

Lufthansa found itself in quite a Kuddlemuddle.

Many were upset by the accounts and videos. Agudath Israel executive vice president Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel wrote a letter to Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr the following Monday asking that he research the “disturbing accounts” about the flight, which indicated that “People were being punished simply because they shared ethnicity and religion with the alleged rule violators.”

The next day, Lufthansa said that it “regrets the circumstances surrounding the decision to exclude the affected passengers from the flight.” “We apologize to all the passengers unable to travel on this flight,” the airline added, “not only for the inconvenience, but also for the offense caused and personal impact.”

“What transpired,” it continued, “is not consistent with Lufthansa’s policies or values. We have zero tolerance for racism, antisemitism and discrimination of any type.

“We will be engaging with the affected passengers to better understand their concerns and openly discuss how we may improve our customer service.”

While an apology was certainly warranted, many were less-than-impressed with this one. Yad Vashem director Dani Dayan, the ADL and the Agudah were among the disappointed.

They, variously, made the points that regretting the “circumstances surrounding the decision” was not the same as regretting the decision; that no reference was made to the remark about how “Jewish people… were the mess”; that passengers’ “concerns” were blatantly obvious, namely, that they were targeted for mistreatment only because they are Jews; and that focus should be trained not on “how [Lufthansa] may improve its customer service” but rather on the egregious nature of what transpired and on steps Lufthansa will take to make sure that such incidents never occur again.

In the wake of those complaints, on the 11th, Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr personally apologized for the incident in a video call to the rabbi of Berlin, Rabbi Yehudah Teichtal.

“Antisemitism has no place in Lufthansa,” Mr. Spohr told the rabbi. “What happened should not have happened. Our company represents a connection between people, cultures, and nations. Openness and tolerance are the cornerstones and there is no room for antisemitism.”

Rabbi Teichtal subsequently told Dan’s Deals that the CEO’s apology sounded genuine and that he was told that the employees involved in the incident have been suspended, pending an investigation.

There is much to unpack from the incident. Firstly, despite the airline workers’ indefensible actions, if in fact there were any passengers who were asked to mask and refused, they were not only wrong but the ultimate cause of what all the other affected passengers had to endure.

Secondly, is angrily badgering a person, like what evoked the “Jewish people who were the mess” comment, the Jewish way to deal with even an unconscionable decision? Would the Chofetz Chaim have indignantly berated an airline employee? Yes, the indignation brought forth an ugly response. But scratch many a person enough (let aside a German) and you’ll strike antisemitic sentiments. But is such scratching a mitzvah? Or proper?

Thirdly, and more happily, I was struck by a snippet of one video taken at the time. It was of a group of heavily-armed German police standing at the ready. From somewhere in the crowd of irate passengers flew a crude accusation: “Nazis!”

The policeman in charge positively simmered and then stepped forward. “Who was it?” he asked. And then, when there was no response, he raised his voice: “WHO WAS IT? WHO SAID THAT?”

No one came forward to claim the slur.

But the officer clearly considered it deeply insulting. 

(c) 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran