Category Archives: News

The church-state divide, never a wall, isn’t about to fall

Religion News Service ran a piece I wrote about the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that a school voucher program in Maine violates the Bill of Rights’ “free exercise” clause because it excludes schools that require religious instruction. It explains that the “high wall” of church-state separation is more akin to a fence. The essay can be read here.

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

Racist Antisemites but pro-Israel

The essay below appeared in Haaretz

Haaretz Opinion

Racist Antisemites, but pro-Israel: The Choice Facing U.S. Orthodox Jews at the Polls

Should American Jews who believe sexual identity is not a mere social construct, that marriage is between man and woman, and abortion should not be a mere “choice,” support politicians who inspire racist and antisemitic murderers?

Avi Shafran

Jun. 7, 2022 12:45 PM

The gunman who killed 10 people in a Buffalo, New York, neighborhood supermarket last month clearly targeted Black people. Not only was the market in a Black neighborhood, but the killer is reported to have shared his racist beliefs in a long-winded manifesto seething with hatred of “non-white” people and immigrants who, in his fevered mind, threaten to supplant ”native-born” Americans.

The document deems Black Americans, along with immigrants, as “replacers” – people who “invade our lands, live on our soil, live on government support and attack and replace our people.”

But the 180-page rant didn’t exactly ignore another minority.

“The Jews are the biggest problem the Western world has ever had,” the manifesto reads. “They must be called out and killed, if they are lucky they will be exiled. We can not show any sympathy towards them again.”

As to why he attacked a target in Buffalo and not Brooklyn, he reassured his readers that “the Jews…can be dealt with in time.”

The toxic brew of hatred, fear and unreason about how “real” Americans (or Europeans) are threatened with being overwhelmed by masses of dark invaders, popularly goes by the name “The Great Replacement.”

And other proponents of the ideology have also expressed themselves violently.

In the ADL’s tally, of the 450 murders committed by political extremists over the past decade in the U.S., Islamist extremists were responsible for about 20 percent, and left-wing extremists for 4 percent. Fully 75 percent were perpetrated by right-wing extremists, many of them explicitly tied to white supremacist movements.

Lest we forget, the Pittsburgh killer of 11 people at a Jewish congregation in 2018 blamed Jews as the “hidden hand” behind a plot to dilute the nation’s white Christian identity.

The killer of Black churchgoers in Charleston in 2015 called on whites to fight both Blacks and Jews.

The marchers in Charlottesville at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally (in)famously chanted “Jews will not replace us!”

White supremacists killed more people than any other type of radical last year.

The “Great Replacement” idea has been embraced and promoted by an assortment of political and media figures. While some find it unreasonable to imagine that the white power ideology’s mainstreaming in the (more) genteel public sphere plays any role in the violence committed under its banner, imagining otherwise is willful blindness.

To be sure, the pols and pundits generally focus on illegal immigration, something that every sovereign nation, of course, has a right and responsibility to control.

Here in the U.S., the pushers of “replacement theory” declare that their objection is to undocumented immigrants voting for Democratic candidates.

But non-citizens cannot vote in federal or state elections, or in any but a handful of local ones. And even were amnesty to be offered to many, or even all, undocumented immigrants, their path to citizenship would take some eight years, plenty of time to be courted by the Republican party (which, as it happens, increased its share of Latino voters in the 2020 election).

And so, the illegal immigration issue is a red herring (or, perhaps, a white one).

What’s more, much of the replacement rhetoric devolves from electoral concerns, justified or not, into less rarefied realms. The voices, though, belong to some of America’s most powerful institutions.

Steve King, while he was still serving as a Republican member of Congress for Iowa, tweeted that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” He doubled down with the same vile contention on national TV.

Josh Mandel, when he was standing for election as the GOP candidate for a Senate seat for Ohio, bemoaned how immigration is “changing the face of America, figuratively and literally… our culture… our demographics…” adding “our electorate” only at the end. He endorsed Mike Flynn’s rallying cry that the United States should be “one nation under God and one religion under God.”

And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich declared that leftists were attempting to “drown” out “classic Americans.”

Then there is Tucker Carlson, the Fox News personality who famously said that immigration makes the U.S. “poorer, dirtier and more divided.” He makes sure to verbally renounce political violence, of course, but has long ranted in angry monologues against what he calls the demographic threat posed by immigration. Do his words resonate with people like the Buffalo murderer?

“How, precisely, is diversity our strength?” fumed Mr. Carlson in a much-shared 2018 segment.

“Why is diversity said to be our greatest strength?” wrote the Buffalo shooter.

Many of us American Jews see the anti-Israel screeds of the progressive “Squad” in Congress as incendiary, as encouraging violence against Jews.

We’re not wrong about that. But it’s time we Jews realized, too, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, conservative and liberal alike, that Replacement Theory dressed up as judicious immigration concerns is just as dangerous, and, in light of the ADL stats, arguably more so.

At her first public appearance, at The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the newly minted U.S. Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism, Professor Deborah Lipstadt, decried the canard “that Jews were behind an attempt to destroy white America,” which she said has “been adopted and adapted by racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists in Europe and beyond.”

There was a time – it seems so long ago now – when Jews in the U.S. were largely united in supporting Israel and upholding democratic ideals; and recognized the importance of immigrants, like ourselves, to the American melting pot. And it was pretty clear which candidates deserved our votes.

It was a time when Orthodox Jews in particular, but other Jews as well, spoke in unison about the importance of traditional family values and the role of morality in forging social policy. And knew which candidates could be counted on to responsibly further our goals. It was a time when we felt that America’s fundamental democratic institutions, including the nation’s electoral system, deserved to be respected by all citizens, and that minorities and immigrants deserved protection and respect from both the populace and the electorate.

Today, though, as a celebrated bard has maintained, things have changed. And the changes leave much, if not most, of American Jewry conflicted. Or, at least they should.

Should Israel supporters cast votes for candidates who stand up unapologetically for Israel’s security, even if those aspirants to public office promote delusions like “Replacement Theory”? Should those of us who believe that sexual identity is not a mere social construct, that marriage is the union of a man and woman (defined biologically) and that abortion should not be a mere “choice,” support politicians who feel the same but, wittingly or not, help inspire racist and antisemitic murderers?

It’s a Sophie’s choice, and I don’t profess to know how best to make it.

But it’s a reality that must be faced. And lives – Black, Asian, Hispanic and Jewish alike, are more than theoretically at stake.

Rabbi Avi Shafran writes widely in Jewish and general media. Twitter: @RabbiAviShafran