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Pinchas – Self Changes Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Kristof’s Casuistry

To fine-tune Nicholas Kristof’s imaginary scenario (NYT Opinion, June 3):

Were British Columbia intent on killing Americans and dispossessing our country’s population, and had weapons that could reach Washington and New York, and, after the U.S. prevented war-grade material to reach the province (without impeding humanitarian aid), the Canadian province launched 4000 missiles at Seattle and San Francisco, I think most of us would be in favor of doing anything necessary to degrade its ability to do more of the same.

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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

Minding Our A.Qs and M.Q.s

James D. Watson, the 90-year-old Nobel laureate co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, is recovering from a car accident and, at least in person, currently out of the public eye.

But he is very much in the media eye, due to the recent release of a documentary film about him. The scientist, interviewed last year, before the accident, told the documentarian that he has not renounced his controversial decades-old position that different racial populations possess, on average, different degrees of intelligence.

Dr. Watson has for years been excoriated for that stance, specifically its claim that blacks, on average, are not as intelligent as whites. And as late as last spring, when M.I.T. mathematician and geneticist Eric Lander praised Dr. Watson’s involvement in the early days of the Human Genome Project, the M.I.T. professor was swiftly condemned by a slew of scientists for doing so, and apologized, penitently calling Dr. Watson’s views “despicable.’

As news of the documentary emerged, Nathaniel Comfort, a science historian at Johns Hopkins University, called Dr. Watson “a semi-professional loose cannon.”

David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard University, contends that Dr. Watson’s presumption that intelligence differences might “correspond to longstanding popular stereotypes’’ is “essentially guaranteed to be wrong.”

And Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, laments that “It is disappointing that someone who made such groundbreaking contributions to science is perpetuating such scientifically unsupported and hurtful beliefs.’’

There has always been something indecorous in the harsh reactions to Dr. Watson’s opinion, as so many of the objections seem to be about its simple unacceptability. His conclusion, though, is based on I.Q. – or “Intelligence Quotient” – testings of different populations, and, although some white supremacists have used his words for their own nefarious purposes, there is no evidence that the scientist harbors any animus for any group.

He is entitled to his scientific opinions and shouldn’t be excoriated for their political incorrectness

That said, though, his conclusion about race and intelligence is unwarranted.

Firstly, I.Q. tests measure only a specific type of abstract reasoning ability. And such aptitude is only part of what make up what most of us call intelligence. Creativity and industriousness, moreover, are not reflected at all in I.Q. scores.

And even if we could fine-tune a holistic definition of intelligence, its possible genetic underpinnings would provide only a partial portrait. Among other relevant variables would be things like family and communal environment, nutrition, stress and societal expectations.

And finally, of course – and Dr. Watson has never claimed otherwise – averages are only averages. They predict nothing at all about individuals. And so, a random member of a group scoring marginally lower on a test might easily be more capable – even in what the test measures – than a random person from a higher-scoring population.

Most important of all, though, intelligence, however defined, is not in the end what determines the true value, or true success, of a human being.

Some studies have shown that Eastern European-rooted Jews have higher I.Q.s than any other ethnic group. And we Jews certainly value intelligence. Those of us who remain faithful to the Jewish mesorah are mispallel daily for dei’ah, binah v’haskel, and consider the intellectually demanding study of Torah a high and holy calling. And even Jews who turn to other disciplines, more often than not, seek to exercise their gray matter rather than their biceps.

But neither logical reasoning nor creativity is what ultimately matters from a true Torah perspective.

Whatever our intellectual prowess, our crucial merit lies in our zechus avos, our forebears’ dedication to Hashem. Chazal did not generally stress inherent abilities – mental or otherwise – but rather the choice to utilize whatever abilities we have. Their honorifics customarily ran not to words like “genius” or brilliant” but to ones like tzaddik, chassid and kadosh, “righteous,” “meticulous” and “holy.”

Modern society’s world-view leaves little room for the idea of service to the Creator as the true measure of man. Goods – whether of the materialistic or cerebral sort – are what the larger world chooses to value and celebrate.

Shouldn’t we, though, who know better what life is really about, take pains to avoid, chas v’shalom, inadvertently adopting society’s illusion?

Let us teach our children, whether they are grappling with educational issues, with shidduchim or with children of their own, that it isn’t the natural iluy who is most worthy of praise, but the masmid; not the one who shows the sharpest wit, but the one who shows the greatest concern for others. Let us guide them to not let Intelligence Quotients go to their heads, when A.Q.s and M.Q.s, Avodas Hashem and Menschlichkeit Quotients, are so very much more important.

© 2019 Hamodia

We’re Happy to Disinform You

The weathered ex-soldier’s face on the screen was accompanied by the message: “At least 50,000 homeless veterans are starving, dying in the streets, but liberals want to invite 620,000 refugees and settle them among us.” The numbers were fabrications.

The Facebook page, titled “Being Patriotic,” garnered 6.3 million “likes” from trusting citizens who didn’t bother to research the claim. And who had no idea that the posting was the work of a Russian entity specializing in misleading credulous Americans.

The Russian firm, the “Internet Research Agency,” is owned by businessman Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. Mr. Prigozhin and some his employees were indicted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller last February as part of his investigation of Russian interference in American affairs.

“Being Patriotic”, and other Facebook pages of a similar nature, were cited by one or both of two recent reports about the extent of Russian misuse of the internet to influence Americans’ attitudes. The reports – one from the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University; the other, from New Knowledge, a firm specializing in disinformation protection – were commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee, to which they were delivered last week. They were eye-opening, and deeply disturbing.

Among the examples cited in the reports is an Instagram image that used religious imagery to try to attract Christians. Which it did. Droves of the naïve faithful were easily harvested, and they were eventually guided to associate the object of Christian veneration with then-candidate Donald Trump, and “Satan” with Hillary Clinton. One post, according to the Oxford report, offered a bald falsehood: “HILLARY RECEIVED $20,000 DONATION FROM KKK TOWARDS HER CAMPAIGN.”

Yet another creative ruse, this one aimed at African-Americans, used as a lure authentic video footage of a black man being held down by three white police officers and punched repeatedly in the head. The page, one of 30 aimed at building up large African-American audiences, was titled “Blacktivist.” (On YouTube, the Russians leveraged outrage over police shootings of unarmed black men with channels bearing names like “Don’t Shoot” and “BlackToLive.”)

While “other distinct ethnic and religious groups” were the focus of Facebook pages and Instagram accounts as well, the New Knowledge report notes that “the black community was targeted extensively with dozens.”

Facebook ads targeted users who had shown interest in black history, and after cultivating and gaining the trust of its catch, the Russian-engineered pages eventually “informed” all the visitors who were enticed to visit the page that Mrs. Clinton was hostile to African-American interests, and that blacks would be best off by boycotting the then-upcoming election.

But just as the Russian effort took advantage of the Black Lives Matter movement at the height of its prominence, when a pro-police “Blue Lives Matter” backlash emerged, it, too, became fodder for the agitprop plotters, who then targeted law-and-order proponents.

Then, in an act of cynical, almost comical chutzpah, when it became clear that Russian election interference had in fact taken place on a large scale, Internet Research Agency trolls posing as fed-up Americans characterized the resultant outrage as some “weird conspiracy,” a myth pushed by “liberal crybabies.”

There is no way to either support or refute the notion that the results of the 2016 presidential election would have been different had the Russian firm not misled untold numbers of impressionable Americans. What the reports do clearly confirm, though, is that the Russian campaign aimed not only to manipulate voters but to exacerbate divisions in American society – to plant weeds of discord and antagonism across the fruited plain. And in that, at least judging from the tenor of American political discourse over the past two years, it achieved resounding success.

The key to that success is the fact that disinformation tends to achieve what internet marketers call “virality.” A vulnerable few targets contract an initial “infection” of false notions that then spreads exponentially through the broader population, ultimately jumping even into populations that do not use the internet. Conversations outside the shul or at a kiddush or in the supermarket line, even assertions in some Jewish media, have well evidenced the power and scope of such misinformation “epidemics.”

Susceptibility to being manipulated by disinformation isn’t limited to any particular racial, ethnic or religious group. When it comes to politics and social issues these days, critical thinking and research are indispensable. Without them, even otherwise thoughtful people can become prey for distortions, propaganda and deceptions perpetrated by unscrupulous actors with their own agendas.

Unfastened purses in public places invite pickpockets. Unguarded minds, we need to realize, can be infiltrated too.

© 2018 Hamodia

(in a slightly altered version)

Hatred, Hatred Everywhere

Even before the Pittsburgh Massacre, Damon Joseph, 21, who lives in a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, hoped to go on a “virtual jihad.” The murders of 11 Jews at the end of October in Pennsylvania, however, helped energize him, motivating him to make some real-world, concrete plans.

According to an F.B.I. affidavit, “Joseph stated that it would be ideal to attack two synagogues… and that he wanted to kill a rabbi.”

Joseph solicited a pair of AR-15 rifles, the weapon of choice among American mass murderers, and decided to commit his own slaughters, ideally on a Saturday, “so that more people would be present at the synagogue.” “Go big,” he allegedly wrote to an F.B.I. agent posing as an accomplice, “or go home.”

Although the Pittsburgh shooter attributed his anger to what he considered an overrunning of the U.S. by immigrants, and Mr. Joseph, a convert to Islam, posted photos of himself wearing a ring inscribed with an Islamic State screed in Arabic, the would-be jihadist was inspired to try to kill Jews by the right-wing nativist. Go figure.

In an unrelated but, oddly, also Toledo-centered case, city resident Elizabeth Lecron, 23, hoped to commit “upscale mass murder” at a Toledo bar and to plant bombs on a pipeline and a farm “that raises pigs or cows.”

Unholy Toledo.

Lecron, according to the F.B.I., “bought black powder and hundreds of screws that she expected would be used to make a bomb [and] through her words and actions, she demonstrated that she was committed to seeing death and destruction in order to advance hate.”

The latter would-be mass murderer’s heroes included Columbine School killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, and Charleston, South Carolina church mass murderer Dylann Roof, a white supremacist. She wrote the imprisoned South Carolinian a letter encouraging him to “Stay strong” since “You have a lot of people that care for you beyond those walls.”

The progressive environmentalist/animal rights radical looked up to the neo-Nazi. Go figure some more.

What a strange snapshot of murderous hatred the revelations of the Toledoan terrorists’ plans present: An Islamist inspired by a right-wing bigot, and a leftist radical enamored of neo-Nazis? What gives?

The answer, if you haven’t already guessed, is that evil harbors no static political allegiances. It just festers in underdeveloped or warped minds and gloms onto whatever convenient causes or role models happen to be available. Often there is some consistency to the hater’s convictions. But, as in the cases of the Ohio terrorists (both of whom are under arrest), sometimes there is none at all.

Our community, understandably, was particularly outraged and has been focused on recent attacks on Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, including the beating of a 9-year-old boy.

But much other hatred was unleashed last week across the country too, and not just in Toledo. Pittsburgh officials reported, for instance, that anti-Semitic pamphlets were being spread throughout the city, including in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, the site of the October mass shooting. The next day, as it happened, Nazi-themed posters were placed in various locations around the State University of New York’s Purchase College.

And in Lynnwood, Washington, seven men and one woman beat and stomped on a black man working in a dining establishment for no apparent reason, shouting racial slurs all the while. The assailants also injured an Asian man who came to the victim’s defense.

One of those accused attackers, Travis David Condor, is a former soldier who, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “runs a hate-music record label.” (No, I didn’t know there was such a thing either.)

Condor, it was reported, was photographed at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last year. He was not, apparently, one of the very fine people there.

And speaking of Charlottesville, where “Jews will not replace us” was a chant of choice, last week also saw a jury recommend that James Fields Jr., who was found guilty of first degree murder for driving into a crowd of protesters at the right-wing rally in Virginia and killing a woman, spend the rest of his life in prison. (A second trial on federal hate crime charges could result in the death penalty.

This litany of lowlife activity of late is presented just as a reminder that murderous ill will remains a tragic fact of contemporary life. And that hatred, rat-like, can come crawling out of all sorts of cracks in the edifice of contemporary society. And that, like those creatures, it carries germs.

© 2018 Hamodia