Category Archives: News

The Gray Lady Swoons

James Bennet, who served as the editorial page editor of the New York Times for the past five years, was recently walked to the journalistic guillotine by the powers-that-be at that once-venerable institution. His sin? A controversial idea appeared on the paper’s opinion page on his watch.

Mr. Bennet’s figurative head rolled out of the Times’ glass doors onto 8th Avenue because of two sets of riots — those on the streets of many American cities and a more genteel but no less disconcerting one in the paper’s newsroom. 

The latter unrest followed the Times’ publication of the op-ed at issue, by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who made a case for the deployment of military forces and even, if necessary, the invocation of the Insurrection Act, to control attacks on police and looting of businesses that attended some of the recent public protests.

Mr. Cotton was, of course, echoing President Trump in that proposal. In his remarks at the White House before embarking on his trek across the street to pose with a Bible in front of a church, Mr. Trump called the street violence “domestic acts of terror” and pledged that “If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

One can find that threat, for its incendiary nature, entirely objectionable. One can find the very idea of using the military domestically entirely objectionable. One can find even the president himself entirely objectionable.

But no less objectionable should be the barring of a citizen, much less a sitting Senator, from expressing his feelings otherwise. And just as objectionable is wailing a post facto mea culpa for not having prevented the expression of that opinion.

But with a considerable number of the Times’ black staff expressing their feeling that publishing Mr. Cotton’s piece had endangered their lives — who knew that Times employees rampage and loot in their spare time? — and other staffers concurring that the op-ed was an odious and perilous thing, the swooning Gray Lady had to pop a pill, and her gentlemen-in-waiting dutifully beat their breasts in remorse.

Although Mr. Bennet and the paper’s publisher Arthur Sulzberger had initially, and sanely, defended the op-ed’s publication on the grounds that it was the paper’s duty to present views at odds with its own opinions, the swell of anger in the newsroom (and, reportedly, a number of cancelled subscriptions) quickly convinced them that Mr. Cotton’s words constituted a veritable call to fascism. Mr. Bennet admitted, or at least claimed, that he hadn’t read the piece before its publication, which an assistant had green-lighted, and thus he became the plumpest sheep to offer the angry snowflake gods. He quickly offered his resignation.

Leave aside whether the idea of calling on the military to quell domestic crimes is a good one. It is not. And leave aside whether threatening to do so was a good idea. It was not. Focus only on the right of someone to feel otherwise.

It’s always been an essential part of liberal philosophy to allow people to profess, and others to consider, their opinions. To be sure, an op-ed advocating armed insurrection or the shooting of protesters on sight would arguably be worthy of rejection by a responsible medium. A business is entitled to its standards, indeed obligated to have some.

But is the very idea of invoking an established federal law, in this case the Insurrection Act, which dates to 1807 but was amended as recently as 2007, that empowers a president to deploy military and National Guard troops domestically in limited circumstances, so beyond the pale?

Even conceding — though it deserves no concession — that such deployment here to stop violence on the streets would somehow endanger innocents, would an op-ed advocating, say, the deployment of the military in a hostile foreign country to protect Americans — an act that could much more easily result in casualties — be equally unworthy of publication and discussion?

Someone should introduce the Times’ editorial board to the Talmud, where the concept of presenting a misguided view of a law’s implications for a situation is essential to the ferreting out of the true approach. Putting forth something illogical or unreasonable isn’t merely a stylistic diversion, it is a vital part of the process of getting to truth.

And so, the paper could have best served the public by simply soliciting an op-ed countering Mr. Cotton’s point of view. (Hey, I was available.)

The irony here, for those, presumably including members of the Times’ editorial board, who consider the president himself a danger to American society, is that the paper’s action handed Mr. Trump a golden opportunity on a silver platter to reiterate his contempt for the “lamestream” media. Look, he could say (and did), the “fake media” are afraid to countenance any point of view that differs from their own.

And, at least this time, at least one medium could have no reasonable rejoinder.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Criminality in the Streets and in the Cloud

As sad as it is ironic, those who have seized the opportunity during protests over the killing of George Floyd to vandalize police vehicles and attack officers, deface buildings and loot stores are perpetuating racism.

Because, by their actions, they effectively reinforce the prejudices of people who view people of color as unbridled and lawless. Instead of images of black or brown scientists, doctors, lawyers, teachers or social workers, what the face of a nonwhite person conjures in their minds is a threat.

That’s what was perceived by the white woman who was firmly perched at the precipice of the news cycle until the killing of Mr. Floyd pushed her off. A black man who was bird-watching in New York’s Central Park politely asked her to restrain her unleashed dog and she responded by calling police, claiming that an “African-American” was threatening her. His words “Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it” probably wouldn’t have struck her as threatening had the bird watcher been Caucasian.

But he wasn’t and so they did.

And the looters of late have only empowered such prejudice. Of, course, thugs don’t give a first, much less second, thought to the impact of their actions on others. Their only concern is about what good stuff they might grab from violated stores. How unfortunate, though, that the national conversations about racial injustice and police misconduct have again been marred by mindless marauders.

As it happens, it wasn’t only on American streets that roguery reigned. As always these days, when chaos and stupidity blossom, the noxious pollen of Jew-hatred is released across the internet, particularly on social media.

And so it is that we have, on Twitter, a man (whose identifying graphic is a Hebrew declaration of fealty to Christianity) proclaiming that “Jewish whites were the most prolific slave owners in history. They practically created slavery in America,” and concluding that shuls are “free game” for vandalism.

Aside from his hogwash “history,” his conclusion is, to put it delicately, illogical. It takes a twisted mind to invoke something that didn’t happen in order to vilify distant descendants of those who didn’t do it.

There was further lunatic logic, too, from another Twitter twit, who explained that “Jewish Americans hold all the power in the country, thus you cannot be racist or anti-Semitic towards them.”

So, you see, since many Jews have been successful in their professions, in the public sphere and in public service, hatred and harm can be directed against them.

Interestingly, falsehoods propagated by social media became a recent major news item, too, right alongside the killing of George Floyd and its aftermath.

Twitter took the unprecedented step of placing a fact-check notice on a tweet by President Trump in which he asserted that mail-in ballots lead to voter fraud. The notice directed followers of the president’s tweets to a site offering facts showing otherwise.

And then, a day later, the social media company put a warning label on what it regarded as the president’s threat against protestors in Minneapolis, his tweet that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” — a sentence that has been used by racists in the past and that, Twitter said, “violates our policies regarding the glorification of violence [because of the sentence’s]… historical context… its connection to violence, and the risk it could inspire similar actions today.”

In response, Mr. Trump accused Twitter of bias against him, and issued an executive order aimed at removing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a move could change the status of social media giants from “platforms,” which absolves them of responsibility for things posted on them, to the equivalent of newspapers, leaving them open to lawsuits over anyone’s postings.

Although it’s safe to say that it wasn’t Mr. Trump’s intent, removing Section 230 would likely force the social media giants to disallow him to post on them — entailing a loss of eyeballs they will be anguished to suffer — and open the door for decentralized, under-the-radar alternatives to take their place. Some of those alternatives will be more than happy to host the president.

And they will be happy, too, to host people seeking to destabilize society. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Facebook hid a study it undertook that found that its algorithms exacerbate polarization — that 64% of all extremist group ‘joins’ produced by the platform “are due to our recommendation tools.”

And so, if Twitter’s attempts to correct misinformation is effectively undermined, we can expect a slew of new “post what you will” platforms that will become newly popular and eagerly employed by the always-ready-to-pounce anti-Semites on the extremes of the political spectrum.

Such actors will be itching to spread canards about Jews and to encourage violence against them. As itching as amoral rioters are to steal sneakers and luxury goods.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

De-Camping

At this point, no one knows if sleep-away or day camps, including Jewish ones, will be functioning this summer. And, if they will be, whether all children who want to attend them will be able to do so.

There are children, of course, who, because of home circumstances or other reasons, truly need a summer camp option, but here is a secret: Most kids don’t.

My intention is not, chalila, to dissuade any parents from sending their children to camp. Rather, it is to reassure those whose kids may not have camp options this summer that summer school-free weeks aren’t an obstacle but an opportunity.

It’s been a while – a very long one – since I was a child, and the world was very different in the 1960s from what it is today. But I never attended summer camp – by choice. I cherished my freedom and balked at regimentation, even of fun activities.

And yet, despite my spending childhood summers at home, they were wonderful times.

I studied Torah each day, both a little on my own and with an older chavrusa, a young talmid chochom who ended up becoming a stellar mesivta rebbe – a development I like to imagine was born of the considerable resources he was forced to summon to hold my attention.

But each day’s many hours also afforded me an abundance of other activities, unstructured and not always in a group setting, but no less enjoyable for their spontaneity or, at times, solitude.

One summer, on a lark, I taught myself (from a book) how to type, a skill that ended up coming in handy when I became a high school rebbe myself (and even more handy in my writing career). Yes, practice was tedious, but the daily progress was its own reward.

Another summer, I undertook origami, or Japanese paper-folding. Not so handy in the end – I don’t think I’ve ever been asked as an adult to fashion a paper swan or rabbit – but fun all the same. I collected and observed bees, and fired off model rockets I built from balsa-wood kits and painted. I took long bike rides and, in my teens, occasional part-time jobs. I mowed our lawn and hiked local trails. I played ball with other camp-shy or camp-deprived friends, read a lot, and then read some more. Some kids like science; some, history; some fiction. But all kids like something, and there are books on everything.

And unlike in my youth, today there is a wealth of reading material that meets every religious standard.

Did I learn as much Torah as I might have in a camp? Probably not. I didn’t visit any amusement parks or waterworks either, or attend any campfire kumsitzes. But somehow I survived those deprivations and emerged from each summer happy, refreshed, and, I think, grown a little as a person.

Although several of our children attended overnight summer camps one or two years here and there, my wife and I never considered the experience de rigeuer, or even necessarily in our kids’ best interest. That we generally couldn’t afford anything but, at most, neighborhood day camps made it easier to not feel a need to “keep up with the Katzenellenbogens.” We taught our children that expensive things are seldom important ones, and they accepted that truth – baruch Hashem, perpetuating it in their own families.

Not all parents can take the time in the summer to go on day trips with their children. But those who can should not discount how enjoyable and memorable even trips to local parks or scenic view spots can be. Nor do children lack for creative quarries to mine in their own figurative backyards (or literal ones). There are musical instruments to be mastered, artwork to be created, bugs to be unearthed, recipes to be tried (and created), clothing patterns to be cut and sewn, model cars and airplanes kits to be assembled and painted.

The complaint “I have nothing to do!” lovingly ignored, can yield all sorts of creative ideas, inventions mothered by necessity, on the part of the tragically bored. And, of course, chaburos, chavrusos and shiurim can, with a bit of effort, be arranged.

Yes, I know, today’s world is a very different one from the one I inhabited as a boy, even from the one in which our children, now adults with their own families, grew up. Children today confront unprecedented educational expectations, social norms, challenges, and dangers. I understand that the sort of long bike rides I took through unfamiliar neighborhoods in the 1960s would not be recommended for even a suburban ten-year-old today; and that a public library is no longer the generally healthy environment it once seemed to be.

And I know, too, that many ex-campers positively glow when reminiscing about their summer experiences. So the benefits of well-run camps can’t be overstated.

Still and all, and particularly if summer camp, for whatever reason, isn’t a viable option, we do ourselves and our young a favor by recognizing that camps are among the many once-luxuries that have somehow come to be seen as necessities.

For all their benefits, though, they aren’t. Summer, even without the “c” word following it, can be a time of wonder, fun and growth for a child.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Real Story Behind the Vaccine Story

One of the Covid-19 vaccines being studied has yielded encouraging results. That good news should yield us something too: a sense of awe at the accomplishment.

Earlier this week, the biotech company Moderna, which partnered with the National Institutes of Health to develop the vaccine, announced that results of a Phase 1 clinical trial showed that eight study participants developed antibodies for the virus like those who have experienced and survived the disease. And lab experiments with mice showed that the vaccine prevented the virus from infecting cells.

The study hasn’t yet been peer reviewed, and Phase 2 trials, which will involve several hundred subjects, are yet to come. But even the achievement to date is impressive.

If our wonderment, however, is only at the amazing progress toward, hopefully, a successful vaccine, we will have missed the truly awe-inspiring story behind the story.

A vaccine, you likely know, works by stimulating immune cells called lymphocytes to produce antibodies, specialized protein molecules that counter the targeted antigen, or toxic invader, and thus prevent the disease it could cause from taking hold.

Vaccines are made of dead or weakened antigens that can’t cause an infection but nevertheless stimulate the immune system to produce the necessary antibodies. Although with time, the produced antibodies will break down, special “memory cells” remain in the body and, when the antigen is encountered again, even years later, the memory cells can produce new antibodies to fight it.

This happens within our bodies constantly.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a healthy individual can produce millions of antibodies a day, fighting infections so efficiently that people never even know they were exposed to an antigen.

Last year, a team of scientists at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego published results of their antibody research in the respected journal Nature. Based on their findings, they estimated that the human body has the potential to make a quintillion — that’s one million trillion — unique antibodies.

Imagine for a moment if the workings of our immune systems were suddenly made visible to us.

We would be struck dumb.

“If the stars should appear,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, only “one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of G-d which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”

Our immune systems, like the stars, are usually and easily taken for granted; their very ubiquity makes it hard to fully appreciate them. But appreciating them is the privilege, indeed the duty, of every thinking, sensitive person.

Returning to this week’s happy news. Is what really amazes us the technological breakthrough that could lead to an effective vaccine? Or is the true object of our astonishment and wonder the suddenly focused-upon workings of our biological processes?

Once upon a time, after all, heart transplants, too, were flabbergasting. But, at least to thoughtful people, they were never remotely as amazing as hearts.

Back in 1996, a sheep named Dolly was successfully cloned, the first such triumph. I recall the admiration, wonder and dread that the accomplishment evoked around the world.

What exactly had scientists done? They had managed to transfer a cell from the mammary gland of an adult sheep into another sheep’s unfertilized egg cell whose nucleus had been removed; and the egg cell was then stimulated to develop, and eventually implanted in the womb of yet a third sheep, which bore Dolly.

I recall thinking at the time that, impressive as the experiment was, all that had essentially been achieved was the coaxing of already existent genetic material to do precisely what it does, well, all the time. The achievement of producing Dolly bas Dolly was, to be sure, a major one; myriad obstacles had to be overcome, and a single set of chromosomes, rather than the usual pair from two parents, had to be convinced to do the job.

But, still and all, other than the unusual means of bringing it about, what was witnessed was a natural process that takes place millions of times in millions of species each and every day without capturing anyone’s attention. A natural process that was, like all natural processes in the end, a miracle — no less one for its ubiquity.

Likewise, with all due recognition of the great and praiseworthy efforts to create an effective vaccine for Covid-19, may they be successful, what happened this week was, in the end, a cajoling of immune systems to do… what immune systems do billions of times daily.

So our proper appreciation of the scientific knowledge we have today, and our gratitude to the scientists that used that knowledge to advance the drive for an effective vaccine should be joined by — indeed, overwhelmed by — our ultimate awe for the immune systems with which our Creator endowed us.

Whether it’s manipulating the creation of a sheep fetus or of an immune response, the true marvel lies not in the manipulation but in the manipulated, in the myriad miracles Hashem implanted in the world He created.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Why Me? Because Me

Amid the much physical, economic and psychological suffering being borne by so many during the current health crisis, some have, no doubt, thought — perhaps even given voice to — the age-old expression of protest of the cruel hand of fate: “Why me?”

There’s a Jewish answer to that question. It lies, I think, in an incident we encountered in last week’s Torah portion, in the story of the mekallel, the blasphemer.

In that account, a man — who, according to the mesorah, had been born to a Jewish woman and an Egyptian man during the subjugation of our ancestors in Egypt — wanted to join the tribe of his mother’s Jewish husband. Denied membership, he railed against G-d in an appalling way and, eventually, on orders from Above, was executed.

The narrative, though, begins with the words “A man left….”

It is a strange and superfluous phrase, for which the Midrash offers several explanations. The first one cited by Rashi is an enigma: “He left his world.”

What could leaving one’s world possibly mean?

A number of years ago, a young man took counsel of Rav Aharon Feldman, shlit”a, now the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Israel in Baltimore. The seeker explained that, due to what he felt was an unchangeable psychological limitation, he would never be able to marry. But he was fully committed to Judaism, which makes marriage a high priority. What should he do?

Rabbi Feldman told him that if, indeed, he was certain that he was unmarriable, he should stop and recognize the unusual opportunity thereby afforded him. 

As a single man, the rabbi explained, the young man would be able to live in communities where there are Jews but no Jewish educational and other facilities that an observant family would need. Rabbi Feldman recounted the true story of another man in similar circumstances who had inspired the Jews of such a city for more than forty years. 

There are other important roles, Rabbi Feldman continued, for which an unmarried person is particularly well-suited — like fundraising for vital Jewish institutions, which requires much travel.

The young man, Rabbi Feldman explained, should regard the Jewish people qua people as his “wife and children.”

I don’t know what happened to the then-young man, but like to imagine that he became a unique force for good in Klal Yisrael. Whether or not that transpired, though, the advice he was given was gold.

Because each of us has his or her own “world” — a specific role to play in the larger world that includes all other people’s individual worlds. The blasphemer had a truly unique part to play in life — as the sole member of the Jewish people without a tribe. What special opportunity that gave him is unknown. But it surely existed. And, instead of embracing his reality, his world, along with all its inherent challenges but potential, too, he chose to rail against Hashem.

He “left his world” — abandoned his world, the unique world that was his destiny.

I have to wonder about the proximity of the mekallel account and the laws delineated earlier in that same Torah portion, about how cohanim with certain physical blemishes may not serve in the normative cohein role of processing sacrifices on behalf of supplicants. Might the nexus of those pesukim and the story of the mekallel be self-evident?

Whatever the reason for the various disqualifications of cohanim regarding sacrifice-service — and it is certainly nothing obvious — the disqualified cohein might easily be expected to be saddened by, if not curse at, his lot in life.

But his lot it is. “His world,” is simply not the world of Temple service. And if he is wise and embracing of that fact, he will find the special role he, as a cohein unbound from the Temple service, is intended to assume.

As small children, many of us want to be many things at once when we’re grown. But we eventually realize that we can only be either a fireman or a policeman or a ballerina or a scholar or a business tycoon or a writer or a professional baseball or football player – not all of our dreams together. We come to realize, too, that if we, say, lack the requisite physical strength and coordination, baseball and football (and ballerina and fireman) are out, and we must make other choices about what will be “our world.”

We do ourselves the greatest favor by embracing no less willingly — in fact, enthusiastically — the personal world assigned to us by Heaven, no matter how limiting it might seem to us to be. 

One of the most important works in Jewish literature is the Mesillas Yesharim, the most accessible book of the brilliant mystic Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (1707–1746).

He begins that work with the words, “The foundation of piety and the root of perfect service [of G-d] is for a person to clarify and come to realize as truth his obligation in his world.”


Not “in the world.”

“In his world.”

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Best Response to Mayor de Blasio

A minor miracle occurred last week: Officials and pundits from across the political and social spectra came together in a show of unified determination. No, not to encourage social distancing or to discourage early re-opening of businesses. To condemn Bill de Blasio.

That would be New York’s mayor, of course, whose tweet calling out “the Jewish community” for violating social distancing guidelines after the funeral of a Chassidic rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Mertz, the Tola’as Yakov Rebbe, drew a reported 2000-plus onto the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

“My message to the Jewish community,” the mayor wrote, “and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed.”

Those who piled on ranged from conservative thinker John Podhoretz, shock jock Glenn Beck, Donald Trump Jr. and ex-ambassador Nikki Haley to the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, and a number of people associated with the Reform movement. An assortment of New York Assemblymen joined in the tackle.

Some of the critics stood up for the bereaved chassidim who attended the funeral, some decried the insinuation that such crowding was more prevalent in the chassidic community, and some seemed outraged that the acts of some chassidim were being blamed on all Jews, even non-observant ones like themselves.

Grounds for criticism there were. As a statement from Agudath Israel noted, “The Jewish community as a whole, and the Orthodox Jewish community in particular, are heeding social distancing rules, including at funerals.” And the funeral had been coordinated with the New York Police Department. Apparently, the crowd turned out to be larger than expected.

But while the mayor’s choice of words was misguided and regrettable, they didn’t, as some rashly claimed, evidence any animus for Jews. Not only has Mr. de Blasio been a stalwart supporter of Israel and condemner of the BDS movement, he has enjoyed a warm relationship with New York’s Orthodox Jewish community.

His ill-considered focus on the “Jewish community” was simply the gut reaction, emotion-driven response to a scene of many hundreds of identifiably Jewish Jews crowded together, in violation of state regulations, at a time when a contagious disease was spreading and killing people.

Yes, other groups were also guilty of not heeding spacing requirements, as some of de Blasio’s critics were quick to point out online, including in their postings photos of well-populated beaches and groups of people watching an air show. But those violators were not members of any specific, identifiable group. How were they to be called out?

“My message to the beach-going community and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed”?

Doesn’t quite work, no?

And there had been other crowded funerals attended by crowds of identifiably Orthodox Jews too, something that no one who saw photos of them, presumably including the mayor, can’t unremember.

The truly justified grievance against the mayor’s tweet is what Agudath Israel’s statement went on to say: “No matter how well-intentioned the Mayor might be, words that could be seized upon by bigots and anti-Semites must be avoided at all costs.”

Mr. de Blasio seems in fact to have recognized that fact, since he eventually apologized for his misbegotten tweeting on a conference call with Orthodox Jewish media outlets.

The apology, though, that I found truly compelling, not only in the fact of its existence but because of its tone and eloquence, was from Jacob Mertz, the secretary of Tola’as Yakov, the congregation whose leader’s funeral had sparked the brouhaha.

“Our Rabbi was revered by thousands as a holy, humble and caring person,” a letter he signed read in part, “and they wanted to participate in the funeral.

“We came up with a plan to have many streets closed, so that people participate and walk the coffin while following the social distancing rules and wearing masks… Unfortunately, this didn’t pan out, and NYPD had to disperse the crowds…

“We understand Mayor Bill de Blasio’s frustration and his speaking out against the gathering. As said, we thought that the procession will be in accordance with the rules, and we apologize that it turned out otherwise. It also hurts that this led to singling out the Jewish community, and for that we apologize to all Jewish people. We know that the mayor’s reaction came from his concern to the health of safety of our community and the entire city, and it wasn’t ill-intentioned. We share that concern. Health and live[s] take precedence to anything else, and we shall all follow those rules.”

In the tumultuous world in which we Americans live today, where invective has largely replaced dialogue and grievances are settled at best with insults and at worst with guns, we sometimes need to remind ourselves that, even in a free country and protected as we are by a Bill of Rights, we are still in galus. It may not look like the galus of ancient Babylonia or Czarist Russia, but it is still galus.

And, while an acknowledgement like Tola’as Yakov’s might strike some, including some Jews, as overly modest and deferential, it was not.

It was the perfectly Jewish response.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

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