Category Archives: Personalities

A Fish’s Smile

I was accosted recently on the Staten Island Ferry by a large fish.

Well, not exactly. It was actually a large photograph of a fish, on a poster carrying the legend: “I’m ME, not MEAT. See the individual. Go vegan.”

Yes, “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,” or PETA, has taken its efforts to the high seas. And, although some of the other animals featured on similar posters in the “I’m ME” campaign elsewhere are not particularly charming – it’s hard to make a cow or chicken (much less a lobster) look friendly – the fish whose gaze met mine as I took a seat on the boat and looked to my right was decidedly endearing.

Because he (she?) was smiling.

Or appeared to be. That’s because the sea creatures Hashem created include not just astoundingly colorful and morphologically remarkable species but some that have what strike humans as expressive, almost human, faces. Some look angry, others perplexed – others, like the one on the poster, happy, friendly.

None of those faces, though, in fact reflects any of those human traits, any more than a smiley-face sticker means the sticker is happy. We might be able to tell when a dog is pleased, but when we imagine animals expressing truly human emotions, we are unconsciously anthropomorphizing them – attributing quintessentially human traits to creatures lacking them. There are photographs of “smiling” sharks too.

Of course, trying to convince people that, as PETA’s founder and president Ingrid Newkirk once famously put it, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” is the group’s raison d’être.

It even went so far, in 2003, to promote what it called its “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign, comparing the meat processing industry to Churban Europa. The traveling exhibit juxtaposed World War II death camp photographs with scenes in animal slaughter facilities.

Emaciated men were shown next to a gaggle of chickens; pigs behind bars, beside starving children behind barbed wire; mounds of human remains beside mounds of cow carcasses. In one panel, above the legend “Baby Butchers,” mothers and children in striped garb were shown staring through the barbed wire of a concentration camp; alongside them, a similar shot of caged… piglets.

Ms. Newkirk once commented that “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.” Try wrapping a normal brain around that comparison.

A half-hearted “apology” eventually came, but only for the “pain” the exhibit may have caused. Ms. Newkirk expressed her surprise at the negative reaction. She had “truly believed,” she wrote, “that a large segment of the Jewish community would support” the exhibit, and was “bowled over by the negative reception.” Disturbingly, she laid responsibility for the ill-advised campaign on “PETA staff [who] were Jewish.” Ah, the Jews.

A longtime and still employed slogan of the group, in fact, is “Meat is Murder.” But it’s not. Meat is food. At least since the Mabul, the Torah not only permits meat-eating, it encourages it on Shabbos and Yamim Tovim as a means of enjoying and hence showing honor to holy times.

Few if any religious cultures are as concerned with animals as our mesorah. Not only were two of the three Avos, not to mention Moshe Rabbeinu, caring shepherds, but there is a halachic prohibition of tzaar baalei chaim.

And in actual practice, observant Jews are exquisitely sensitive to animal well-being. I recall as a young boy how my father scooped two injured birds from a street and brought them home to care for them. In my own home, even insects are captured and released rather than killed. (I won’t subject readers again to the menagerie of pets – the goat, iguana, tarantula and assortment of rodents – the Shafran family has hosted. Sorry, guess I just did.) I am careful, as per the Talmud’s exhortation regarding animals, to feed my own tropical fish before I sit down myself to dinner.

But the Torah is clear that animals are for human use. We can hold them captive, we can work them and we can eat them. We can, indeed must, when there is a Beis Hamikdash, bring them as korbanos.

The “PETA Principle,” paralleling animals with humans, subtly lies at the root of much that is wrong with our world. But humans alone make moral choices; animals do not. And conflating the two worlds shows disdain for the specialness of the human being.

A rat may be, in a way, a pig, and a pig a dog.

None of them, though, is a boy.

And fishes don’t smile.

© 2018 Hamodia

 

 

Kavanaugh and Religious Freedom

When Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, many immediately predicted the worst. NPR’s Nina Totenberg, channeling R.E.M., proclaimed it “the end of the world as we know it.”

After President Trump nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace Justice Kennedy, Ms. Totenberg admitted that the nominee was “incredibly charming” “enormously skilled” and “decent.”…

The rest of this article, which appears at Forward, can be read here.

Optics and Essence

While Democrats and Republicans were trading verbal punches – and misinformation –about immigrant children last week, an adult immigrant riveted the attention of a crowd, and then the world, as he saved a child’s life.

Mamoudou Gassama, a 22-year-old Malian Muslim who, via Libya, took a perilous boat journey to Italy, and from there traveled to France, had been sleeping on the floor of a migrant residence in Montreuil, outside Paris, sharing a cramped room with six others and unable to work legally.

He has legal immigrant status now, though, and a potential job with the Paris fire department, after he saw a four-year-old boy hanging from an apartment building balcony railing in Paris and, in a feat of bravery, mettle and physical prowess, clambered up four stories, pulling himself from balcony to balcony until he reached the child, grabbed him, and pulled him back to safety.

The incident reminded some of the actions of another Malian Muslim immigrant to France, Lassana Bathily, who hid Jewish customers from an active shooter in a refrigerated room at a kosher grocery store during the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.

The partisan spat on these shores concerned, in part, the separation of illegal immigrant children from their parents.

Some liberal activists tweeted photos of detainees at the U.S.-Mexico border in steel cages, including one of a cage occupied by young boys, and blamed the Trump administration for breaking up immigrant families.

As it turned out, though, the photos were from 2014, when Barack Obama was president.

Among those who gleefully pointed out the error was President Trump. But he erred himself in a subsequent tweet exhorting his followers to “put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there [sic] parents once they cross the Border into the U.S.” 

There is no such law, and the policy of separating children comes, in effect, from current administration policy, which automatically considers all who cross the U.S. border to be violators of criminal law. Under U.S. protocol, if parents are jailed, their children are separated from them. As to the 2014 photos, they were of children who arrived at the border without their parents.

Immigration, particularly for us Jews, is a fraught issue. There is understandable fear of arrivals from majority Muslim countries that espouse rabid anti-Israel and anti-Semitic attitudes. And yet, on the other hand, immigration to the U.S. is overwhelmingly from Mexico, China and India. And most of us American Jews are ourselves descended from relatively recent immigrants. Can we refuse others seeking opportunity, and often refuge, in our country?

Thoughtful Jews, I think, have two issues here to consider: The optics and the essence.

By optics I mean: What do we want recent immigrants and potential immigrants, legal and undocumented, to see? Jewish hands raised in a gesture of “halt!”, or extended in welcome? Yes, there may be incorrigible bad apples among potential immigrants (like there are among citizens). But there are many more wholesome imported fruits, even exemplary people like Messrs. Gassama and Bathily.

Does being a vocal part of the anti-immigration, deport-the-undocumented political camp offer any practical gain, beyond garnering the appreciation of alarmists and xenophobes? And does that gain, such as it is, outweigh the potential achievement of good will from immigrants, current and future?

And by essence I mean whether immigration is itself something positive, and whether undocumented immigrants should be regarded with sympathy or suspicion.

The threat of immigrant terrorists, so often raised in the debate, is largely a dark fantasy. The libertarian Cato Institute informs us that, based on the record, the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by an illegal immigrant is 1 in 10.9 billion per year. Yes, billion. Fears matter, but not as much as facts.

All that said, when it comes to how to regard immigration, reasonable people can disagree.

But all of us might consider the recent words of National Review senior editor Jonah Goldberg, a writer whose conservative credentials are beyond challenge.

“Of course,” he wrote, “there’s a kernel of truth to both sides’ awful shouting points on immigrants, but they crowd out the greater truth: Most immigrants, even those who are in the country illegally, aren’t animalistic members of MS-13… Neither victims nor villains, they are human beings desperate to make the most of the American dream as they see it.”

It’s possible that Mr. Goldberg has gone soft.

But maybe he just doesn’t see traditional conservatism as incompatible with compassion.

It’s not.

 © 2018 Hamodia

Checking Out… and Checking In

Dr. David Goodall is no longer with us.

The 104-year-old scientist travelled to Switzerland from his home in Australia last week, weary of life and in a wheelchair, but not otherwise disabled or seriously ill, and ended his life. Assisted suicide is legal in the Australian state of Victoria, but only, to Dr. Goodall’s vexation, for the “terminally ill.”

In Switzerland, though, anyone of sound mind can opt to dispatch himself, and Dr. Goodall was assisted in his suicide plans by the groups “Lifecircle,” “Eternal Spirit” and “Exit International,” all dedicated to helping people achieve their demises. A representative of the latter group accompanied him on his trip.

Exit International also, it was reported, launched a funding campaign to help upgrade the scientist, presumably at his request, to business class.

That last, seemingly irrelevant, detail got me thinking. A man is done with the world, about to end his life. But he’d like more legroom.

At first thought, hey, why not? But on second one, his preference struck me as oddly relevant to the issue of assisted suicide itself, which has been legalized in several states, and which a bill before the New York State legislature proposes to do in the Empire State.

Needless to say, we must oppose such “progress.” While it is hard to argue against personal autonomy, permitting people to enlist doctors to end their lives opens a Pandora’s box of horribles.

Among them, as my Agudath Israel colleague Rabbi Mordechai Biser recently testified before the New York State Assembly Health Committee, are pressures patients would feel from doctors or family members to choose suicide; the inequalities of health care delivery systems that tend to discriminate against the poor, handicapped and elderly; the psychological vulnerability of the severely ill; and the risk of misdiagnoses.

He also spoke of “the historical disapprobation of suicide… one of the pillars of civilized societies throughout the generations”; and noted that, in many cases, better treatment of pain or depression could dissuade a patient from seeking death.

All true, of course. But I find myself pondering… that business class upgrade. I think it signifies – at least in this case – an attitude about life that is the antithesis of the Jewish one.

I remember once being asked by a reporter about Judaism’s stance on a certain “woman’s right.” I explained that Judaism isn’t about rights, but responsibilities. There could be no more basic a Jewish truism, of course, yet the reporter found it astonishing, admitting that she had “never thought of life that way.”

I tried not to let my own bewilderment at that statement show, but the fact that so fundamental a Jewish concept had been eye-opening to the reporter was, well, eye-opening to me.

It shouldn’t have been. The operative principle of so many people’s lives today is the pursuit of possessions, comforts and, yes, rights. They ask not, to paraphrase JFK’s speechwriter, what they can do with the gift of life, but rather what the gift of life can do for them.

And so a man about to end his life is understandably concerned, even until that end, with extra legroom. Chap arein.

Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l, once recounted the saga of a young Jewish man who, in a swimming accident, became a quadriplegic.

The handicapped man had told Rav Weinberg how the first twenty-odd years of his life had been  spent enjoying athletics, and how his fateful accident had seemed at the time more devastating than death.

Now he was hampered by his condition not only from swimming but from so much as scratching an itch on his own. He could not even, he discovered, kill himself, which he desperately wanted to do. And no one would help him achieve his desire.

Frustrated by his inability to check out, he was forced, so to speak, to check in – inward, to a world of thought and ideas. Pushed from a universe of action, he entered one of mind.

If his life is indeed now worthless, he reflected, then was swimming and scratching literal and figurative itches really all that defined its meaning before?

That question led him to the realization that a meaningful life is independent of a physically active one. And he was led, in time, to his forefathers’ faith. Later, he mused that his paralysis had been a gift; for without it he would have remained a mere swimmer.

Dr. Goodall never realized what the ex-swimmer did about life, and was gratified to be able to spend a few of his final hours in business class.

© 2018 Hamodia

The Lonely Man of Politics

James Comey Jr., the former director of the FBI and author of the new book “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” truly stands out from the crowd.

Not only because the man is 6’ 8”tall. But because he may well be the most reviled person in American politics today.

In our grossly polarized society, most personalities on the political scene, even if only on the sidelines, like Mr. Comey, are embraced by one squad and reviled by the other. Team mentality reigns, and the body politic is reduced to cheering or booing fans. Only face paint is missing.

And so it is something of an anomaly to observe a personality who is booed all around. Mr. Comey has achieved that status.

The Blue Team considers him (not unreasonably) to have played a part, perhaps a decisive one, in the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential elections.

On October 26, 2016, two weeks before the presidential election, then-FBI director Comey learned that his agents had discovered a trove of emails on then-Congressman Anthony Weiner’s computer between the Democratic candidate and Mr. Weiner’s then-wife Huma Abedin (yes, a lot of “then”s here). Mr. Comey felt he had to inform Congress that the investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s use of private e-mail servers when she was Secretary of State was being reopened due to new information. He decided that to not reveal the new information would be misleading of Congress and the public

Mere days before the election, he informed Congress that “Based on our review [of the new material], we have not changed our conclusions that we expressed in July.” That was when he had announced that the agency “did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information” but that “there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”

Speaking last week to comedian/political commentator Stephen Colbert about those actions, Mr. Comey admitted that he knew his decision would deeply upset “at least half of partisans,” but that “it never occurred to me we would [upset] all of them.”

But upset them all he did, and Mrs. Clinton famously went on to lose the election, further incensing her supporters. New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow recently referred to Mr. Comey as having “made reckless and harmful disclosures and proclamations about the Clinton investigation while not whispering a word about the concurrent investigation into the Trump campaign.”

For his part, Mr. Comey feels he had no honorable choice but to do what he felt his position required of him. The Brookings Institution’s Benjamin Wittes characterized Mr. Comey’s quandary: “Charge Hillary Clinton and you will regret it. Don’t charge her and you will regret that too. Explain your reasoning and you will regret it. Don’t explain your reasoning and you will regret it. Inform Congress of your actions immediately before an election, and you will regret that. Don’t inform Congress and you will regret that too… The steps you take to remain apolitical will make you political.”

Team Red, for its part, reviles Mr. Comey for whatever it was that made President Trump fire him last May; and now for his book, which is highly critical of the president.

What prompted the FBI head’s firing is not entirely clear. At first, Mr. Trump said the termination was on the recommendation of United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Later he insisted he had made the decision on his own. The day after the firing, he told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that he had “just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job” and added “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

What is clear, though, is that Mr. Comey is not, to put it mildly, enamored of Mr. Trump, and doesn’t hide his feelings in his recent book. He likens the president to a mob boss, judges him “unethical and untethered to truth” and characterizes his leadership as “transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty.”

No way to win friends in Red America.

Maybe it’s my decades at Agudath Israel, over which time I regularly witnessed (and continue to witness) decisions made on high principle attacked from opposite corners. Maybe advancing age has tempered me, à la a poet’s declaration, “So goodbye cut and dried/Nice to have known you/But something went awry/And I’ve outgrown you.”

But– leaving aside the actual political issues – I can’t help feeling admiration for a player who does what he feels is right even if it means being booed by all the fans.

© Hamodia 2018

Erratum

A reader has informed me that, contrary to what I had written in an earlier posting, NRA chief Wayne LaPierre did indeed mention the names of a number of non-Jews in his speech to CPAC.  He is correct, and I have amended the piece accordingly.  The new version is here.

My apologies to all my readers for my inadvertent error.

Seeing Through the Eyes of the Other

Indiana Republican Congressman Todd Rokita is calling on the House of Representatives to condemn “Nation of Islam” leader Louis Farrakhan.

Most of us are familiar with the racist demagogue Mr. Farrakhan’s more memorable rantings, like “The white man is a devil by nature”; “Hitler was a very great man”; “We know that Jews are … plotting against us as we speak.” The calypso singer-turned-“reverend” has denied the Holocaust, blamed Jews for the 9/11 attacks, and said that white people “deserve to die.”

And just to make sure no one thinks he may have gone soft (or sane) in his dotage, just last month he railed that “powerful Jews are my enemy… responsible for… filth and degenerate behavior.”

As it happens, a resolution similar to the one Mr. Rokita proposed was passed overwhelmingly back in 1994 by a Democrat-controlled House. What motivated Mr. Rokita now was the fact that several current House Democrats – including Democratic National Committee Deputy Chair Keith Ellison, Danny Davis and Gregory Meeks – attended a dinner where Farrakhan was present or expressed respect in the past for the hatemonger.

Politics, though, is an unpleasant business, and associations of a sort with abhorrent people who have sizable followings is more common than the more innocent among us may realize. A photo of then-Senator Barack Obama posing for a “grip-and-grin” with Farrakhan in 2005 recently came to light. It took a while for presidential candidate Donald Trump to finally disavow the support of David Duke.

What’s more, part of the American black community looks at Farrakhan and sees only a preacher of self-reliance and black pride. The man’s ugly hatred of others is, to them, just static. No, that should not be, but “should not” doesn’t change an “is.” That segment of the populace, moreover, bristles at being chastised for embracing whom they do, even when the embraced is morally decrepit.

As long-time Representative Charlie Rangel, a friend of the Jewish community – he flew to Israel when he was 85 for Shimon Peres’ funeral and headlined a 60th anniversary bash for Israel at Harlem’s Apollo Theater – put it in 1985, Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism is “garbage,” but “there is a lot of concern among a lot of blacks that they don’t want to be told what to do.”

The aforementioned Mr. Obama for years attended the church of a Farrakhan-like character, the infamous preacher Jeremiah Wright. When some of the latter’s more offensive oratory came to light in 2008, the then-presidential candidate disavowed his relationship with the preacher, left the church and called Wright’s comments “ reprehensible,” saying they provided “comfort to those who prey on hate.”

Messrs. Ellison, Davis and Meeks likewise all eventually condemned Farrakhan’s hateful rhetoric.

Mr. Ellison, who defended Farrakhan back in the 1980s and 1990s, has long expressed regret for doing so, calling it, as he titled a 2016 op-ed, “The Mistake in My Past.”

“These men organize,” he wrote of Farrakhan’s group, “by sowing hatred and division, including anti-Semitism…”

“They were and are anti-Semitic,” he once stated, “and I should have come to that conclusion earlier than I did. I regret that I didn’t.”

And Mr. Ellison has in fact enjoyed good relationships with his Jewish constituents and with Jewish members of Congress.

For his part, Mr. Davis said “Let me be clear: I reject, condemn and oppose Minister Farrakhan’s views and remarks regarding the Jewish people and the Jewish religion.”

The touchiness that Mr. Rangel referenced, though, was evident in Mr. Meeks’ comments. While he called Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic messages “upsetting and unacceptable,” he added that he is “still waiting for [right-wing blogs] to condemn [President] Trump’s racist remarks.”

Whatever one may think of the current occupant of the White House or his policies, though, he has never called any faith a “gutter religion,” praised a genocidal mass murderer or referred to any ethnicity as “bloodsuckers.” Mr. Meeks is free to criticize Mr. Trump all he wants. But placing him in the same universe as Farrakhan is madness.

Jewish-black relations have generally improved over the years. And on many domestic issues, the two populations are natural allies. Growing any relationship, though, requires a determined, honest effort to see through the eyes of the other. We Jews need to try better to understand why some in the African-American community could be temporarily oblivious to an ugly radical’s hatreds; and to raise our children to see people, not melanin.

And the black community needs to recognize and openly espouse, as the former president and the current House members have done, the grave injury done – not just to Jews but to humanity – by the presence of demagogues in its midst.

© 2018 Hamodia