Category Archives: News

Letter to the NYT about abortion

To the Editor:

Judaism permits, even requires, abortion in limited cases, and responsible Jews cannot endorse measures that give a fetus the same protections as a born child.

But, with regard to Sarah Seltzer’s rumination on Judaism’s abortion position, there is nothing whatsoever in the Jewish religious tradition that permits abortion as a mere “choice” to be made for personal, economic or social reasons.

Nothing whatsoever.

(Rabbi) Avi Shafran
New York
The writer is director of public affairs at Agudath Israel of America.

A “Certain Sect of People”

People sometimes ask me if writing a letter to the editor of a major newspaper is worth the trouble, considering that having one’s letter chosen for publication is a long shot. I reply that it’s still worthwhile, because the paper knows that, for every letter it gets that takes a particular stand, there are likely hundreds of readers who share the letter-writer’s view but didn’t bother to write.

To compare apples to, well, rotten ones, something similar is true when it comes to antisemitic screeds. Like 45-year-old Nick Colella’s during a Planning Board public hearing in the Rockland County town of Haverstraw, north of Ramapo.

The topic of the hearing was a request for a variance to convert a single-family residence into a shul. The owners want to build an addition and second floor to the home and add 27 off-street parking spaces.

At the podium, Mr. Colella took the opportunity to assert that some of his neighbors don’t put away their garbage cans for days and weeks because they “are too lazy to take it in because their maid didn’t pick it up, right?” Scattered applause ensued.

Then, eliding the fact that most of the neighborhood lacks sidewalks, he complained about a “certain sect of people” who he said “tend to walk in the street, and nobody is wearing any reflective gear.” And then explained, “So if I run one of them over, and of course I’m going back over them again, right?”

Once the video of the repulsive comment circulated, public officials were quick to condemn it. New York Governor Kathy Hochul tweeted: “Antisemitism, like all forms of hate, is horrifying and unacceptable. Everyone has the right to walk down the street without fear. New York, we are better than this.”

Ramapo Town Supervisor Michael Specht and State Sen. James Skoufis denounced the remark. And Rockland County Executive Ed Day, who has himself been accused of unfairly characterizing some of the county’s Orthodox Jewish residents and institutions, called the tirade “beyond disgusting… utterly ignorant and hateful,” condemning it “in no uncertain terms.”

Local authorities are looking into bringing charges against the shameless speaker, and New York Attorney General Letitia James offered her assistance in the matter.

All of which is reassuring and laudable. But what remains, in the end, is the likelihood that for every racist or antisemite sufficiently simpleminded to announce his hatreds publicly, there are likely many more who quietly embrace similar vile sentiments.

As Rabbi Shragi Greenbaum, the Agudah’s Rockland Office director, put it to a reporter: “What remains of concern… is how many Rockland County residents harbor similar feelings to those of the speaker at the planning board but aren’t foolish enough to proclaim them publicly.”

How many congratulatory calls, one wonders, did Mr. Colella get that night? I imagine if you asked him, he’d happily tell you.

There are people in whom antisemitism is ingrained. They are part of society and, like people who don’t shower, they just have to be tolerated (at least to an extent). And then there are non-Jews who sincerely like Jews. But the broadest penumbra of the non-Jewish population has no inherent animus or love for us, but can easily be pulled in either direction.

As Rabbi Greenbaum continued: “It’s important for neighbors — Jewish and non-Jewish — to introduce themselves to one another and to better get to know the needs and sensitivities of those outside their social circles.”

I like to call identifiably Orthodox Jews “walking Jewish billboards.” We project — intentionally or not — the image of Torah fealty to others who may well form their opinion of Jews based on how they perceive us.

And showing others that menschlichkeit is fundamental to Yiddishkeit is not hard. With the growth, baruch Hashem, of our communities and our expansion into new areas, opportunities to make good impressions are ubiquitous.

Things as simple as yielding to others in traffic or holding a door open for the person behind one can make all the difference. So can a simple smile and “good morning.” 

Unfortunately, though, nothing is likely to change the Colellas of the world.

(c) 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Loud Loutishness: Decibels Aren’t Arguments

Anyone with the unfortunate habit of listening to talk shows may have noticed the inverse relationship between loudness and logic.  Or as Leonardo da Vinci is said to have said, “Where there is shouting, there is no true knowledge.”

It’s true in daily life too. Some people seem to imagine that decibels are arguments, that screaming angrily is a good-enough stand-in for persuasion — even for facts.

Last week, across the big pond to the east, the Israeli ambassador to Great Britain, Tzipi Hotovely, after speaking and taking questions at the renowned London School of Economics, was set upon by a screaming crowd of Arab and Muslim students. Egged on by social media to “smash her car window,” members of the mob loudly shouted slogans, curses, “shame on you” and other rational arguments.

Security officers and bodyguards bundled the ambassador into a car while police clashed with the shouting mob. 

(British Home Secretary Priti Patel tweeted that she was “disgusted by the treatment of the Israeli Ambassador.” Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Nadhim Zahawi, Secretary of State for Education, expressed similar reactions.)

The mob’s screaming was a stark contrast to the sort of reasoned give-and-take that had just taken place inside the building. And further evidence of the loudness/logic inverse relationship.

Because the screamers, at least the smarter ones, likely know, deep down, that Israel does not, as they chant, target civilians when responding to Hamas terror attacks or seek to oppress its Arab citizens. So all that’s left to “make their case” is yelling.

But beneath the baseless charges of baby killing and subjugation lies a broader, equally baseless charge made by many anti-Israel “activists” (if slander can be described as activism).

That larger untruth is the very “Palestinian narrative,” the contention that the Jewish return to Eretz Yisrael was a colonial venture, the displacement of a native population by foreign usurpers.

It makes for a great shout, and shouted it is, at rallies and protests around the world, often encapsulated as “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free!” (Translation: “Kill or expel Jews from the land.”)

And shouting is the only way to promote the narrative, the only means of allowing it to obscure the facts of history.

To be sure, Arabs have lived in Eretz Yisrael for centuries, but the land has never been Judenrein. Jews were a presence in the land since Yehoshua’s time, even after the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdash and the expulsion of most of Klal Yisrael from their land. 

And, of course, millions upon millions of Jews have, over the centuries since 70 C.E., prayed thrice daily for divine mercy to allow them to return — return — to their land — their land.

What’s more, the Arab presence in 1948 Palestine was anything but indigenous. Many who call themselves native “Palestinians” are in truth descended from successive waves of people who came to the area from other places. 

Like Egypt, the source of successive waves of immigrants at the end of the 18th century, fleeing famine and government oppression at home.

The 19th century saw Arab immigration to Eretz Yisrael from Algeria and what is now Jordan. Bosnian Muslims, too, came in significant numbers.

Later on, after Jews began returning to the land, opportunities drew even more Arab immigrants. As Britain’s Peel Report noted in 1937, “The Arab population shows a remarkable increase ….. partly due to the import of Jewish capital into Palestine and other factors associated with the growth of the [Jewish] National Home…” 

So, when Israel declared its statehood in 1948, there was a sizable Arab population in Eretz Yisrael. And the desires and aspirations of that population and its descendants in the land should not be ignored. But many, if not most, were not native to the land. And the forebears of Jews, if millennia matter, were.

Arabs residing in the country or the West Bank or Gaza could realize their hopes for better lives, if only they acknowledged those truths. Then, good-faith, civil discussion could ensue.

It is an unlikely development, I admit, but one thing is certain: Shouting is no replacement for talking.

© 2021 Ami Magazine

Tony Baloney

“After prosecution, the chair, the gallows, or lethal injection?” was the question posed on a Facebook page featuring an image of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) director Dr. Anthony (“Tony”) Fauci superimposed over a noose.

It wasn’t the page of some intoxicated pajama-clad couch potato but the official Congressional campaign page of Wyoming State Senator Anthony Bouchard.

Over in Kentucky, General Assembly Representative Regina Huff tweeted a photo of mass murderer cult leader Jim Jones next to one of Dr. Fauci.

The Fauci-as-fiend motif has gained momentum — after more than fifty years of the doctor’s lauded service to every president since Ronald Reagan and his receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush — beginning the moment he first dared, during the early days of the pandemic, to contradict virus-related statements and prognoses made by former president Trump. 

But, of late, the vilification has built to a fevered pitch. 

On social media, the latest big Fauci story was an old one, about how, in the 1980s, he sponsored clinical drug research in which minority children were supposedly targeted for trials, ripped away from their families and in some cases died as a result of the trials.

Days earlier, there was “Beaglegate,” the accusation by an animal rights group that the NIAID funded a project that allowed a lab in Tunisia to “drug beagles and lock their heads in mesh cages filled with hungry sandflies, so that the insects could eat them alive.”

On the Senate floor, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, when not busy delaying a Senate vote on a bill to expedite Iron Dome funding for Israel, has been shouting at Dr. Fauci, calling him a liar (and asking the Justice Department to investigate him) for denying to Congress that the National Institutes of Health funded “gain of function” experiments — research exploring how viruses can become more virulent or lethal — at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.    

These days, there is more interest in fingering foes than in ferreting facts, but, for anyone interested in the latter, here goes.

The 1980s trials involved HIV-infected foster children and sought effective therapies to prevent that virus from resulting in AIDS. A BBC documentary at the time reported accusations made by a fringe figure as fact. The Beeb later apologized for the documentary, admitting that it hadn’t properly investigated the claims referenced above, which a 2009 investigation found were not true.

As to the beagles, the NIH did indeed partially fund research on dogs conducted at the University of Georgia to test the efficacy of a potential vaccine for lymphatic filariasis, a parasitic disease. A university spokesperson indicated that the testing was necessary and that all humane standards set by applicable agencies were adhered to. The dogs were infected with the parasite through injection, not by being exposed to flies — and were certainly not “bitten to death by” them.

The issue of “gain of function” research, though, that has consumed Senator Paul and assorted talk show bloviators is a real one. Credentialed experts are divided over whether the use of the funding at issue in fact meets the definition of that phrase, so the senator and doctor will likely continue to spar over the charge of the latter’s “lie.” 

But, biological semantics aside, the entire “gain of function” issue arose only because of the assertion that the Covid-19 virus was caused by the NIH-funded experiments.

Now, it is entirely plausible that the virus emerged not from Chinese animal markets but from a China-directed lab experiment gone awry (or, horrific to consider, but consider we must) the intentional unleashing of a new virus.

But the naturally occurring coronaviruses that were studied under the NIH grant, analysis of genomic data proves conclusively, “could not possibly have caused the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins. “Any claims to the contrary,” he added, “are demonstrably false.”

As psychologists and life readily affirm, in times of distress, some people  experience an intense urge to find someone to blame and vilify. When that quest yields fabricated accusations, unfair depictions and imputations of malevolence, it might smell familiar to history-conscious Jews. 

So, Dr. Fauci: 1) Thank you for your service, and 2) Welcome to the club.

Critical Race Leery

“Critical Race Theory,” which rests on the assumption that racial bias remains hard-wired in our country’s laws, policies and institutions, is dangerous nonsense. But perfectly legitimate topics for discussion and inclusion in school curricula are things that many mistakenly conflate with CRT. Those two points comprised the topic of my Ami column last week, which is at

Parshas Toldos – Confining Minds

A word often translated as “hunting” is used by the Torah to characterize Esav — “a man who knows hunting” (Beraishis 25:27). Likewise, earlier, to describe Nimrod — “a powerful hunter” (10:9). 

Rashi explains that the word in Esav’s case refers to his ability to mislead his father Yitzchak. Regarding Nimrod, similarly, Rashi comments that he employed language and subterfuge to amass followers.

But the Hebrew word used in both cases, tzayid, doesn’t really mean hunt, but, rather, “trap,” as per the definition of tzad, one of the actions forbidden on Shabbos. And, as per Rashi’s comments, the idea of trapping fits well — colloquially, we might say of a good debater that he “trapped” his opponent. 

Trapping, in hilchos Shabbos, is defined as “confining” an animal — closing the door to a room, for instance, that a deer has entered (Shabbos 106b). 

In its own way, misleading a person does much the same: it confines the victim to a particular mindset, disallowing him to consider other ways of thinking. That is how con men and demagogues operate, by cutting off their casualties’ ability to regard things objectively, leaving them “trapped” in a slyly manufactured perspective.

Much of our world today suffers from being “confined” to particular ways of thinking. Whether it is a mullah convincing followers that Jews are evil or a political leader persuading masses that his enemies are theirs and that he alone can save them, Esavs and Nimrods, unfortunately, still abound, perniciously confining minds.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Letter in the Wall Street Journal

A letter I wrote to the Wall St. Journal was published today, and is here.

It reads as follows:

Mr. Peretz Takes a Swipe at Orthodox Jews
In reviewing a book about the ‘othering’ of Jews, no less.
Oct. 10, 2021 3:04 pm ET

Irony has seldom been more glaring than in Martin Peretz’s claim, in his review of Dara Horn’s “People Love Dead Jews” (Bookshelf, Oct. 5), that “many of the ultraorthodox, the very pious, the canonical don’t think of me and mine as brothers and certainly don’t think of Jewish women like Ms. Horn as sisters.”

How dolefully humorous that my brother, Mr. Peretz, in reviewing a book by my sister, Ms. Horn, about how much of the world treats Jews as “others,” not only misinforms readers but engages in a particularly ugly “othering” of fellow Jews, those of us who hew to our—his, Ms. Horn’s and my—mutual religious heritage.

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Agudath Israel of America
New York