Category Archives: issues of morality or ethics

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Unfair Play

In the current polarized political atmosphere, where “team” mentality – “our guys are great, yours are bums” – seems to be the default state of mind, and where objective, thoughtful fairness is the rarest of birds, it must be particularly hard to be a black conservative Republican.

Like Justice Clarence Thomas, Stanley Crouch and Thomas Sowell before him, Dr. Ben Carson, the once-presidential candidate and now Housing and Urban Development Secretary, was recently reminded of the perils of that identity, when an entirely innocent comment he made was blown out of all proportion by a horde of players from Team Black and Team Democrat.

As he began his first full week leading HUD, which provides housing assistance to low-income people and development block grants to communities, and enforces fair housing, Dr. Carson spoke to a standing-room-only audience of the agency’s employees.

He praised them for their dedication to HUD’s mission of “helping the downtrodden, helping the people in our society to… climb the ladder.” And then he extolled the United States as a land of opportunity, saying: “That’s what America is about. A land of dreams and opportunity. There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they, too, had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.”

The positively lupine reaction to that eloquent paean to America was to pounce on Dr. Carson’s pointedly loose use of the word “immigrant” with reference to African slaves brought to these shores in the 18th and 19th centuries. From the overheated comments that suffused the media, one would have thought that the doctor had extolled slavery rather than the aspirations of slaves, that he had made a direct comparison rather than a clear contrast.

Pundits and academics across the land rent their garments at the desecration, and Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota railed that Dr. Carson had shown a “stunning misunderstanding of history… a very scary thing,” and declared that the doctor’s perspective makes him unqualified to lead HUD.

I don’t know what sort of president Dr. Carson would have made, had he prevailed in the Republican primary. He certainly showed misjudgment by imagining that civility is something appreciated by the American electorate.

But I find it easy to envision that he might be just what an agency like HUD needs: someone who recognizes that, however dismal one’s past was or one’s present is, the healthy attitude is fortitude, seeing opportunity in the future and recognizing the role one can play in his own destiny.

Dr. Carson’s personal story exemplifies that well. A poor student in Detroit with, by his own recounting, an anger management problem, he “ask[ed] G-d to help me find a way to deal with this temper” and studied Mishlei. The passuk, he says, that spoke to him most powerfully was “Tov erech apayim migibor…” – “Better a patient man than a mighty one, [better] a man who controls his temper than one who overtakes a city” (16:32). He set himself to the task of self-improvement and earned a full scholarship to Yale, working summers as, variously, a clerk in a payroll office, a supervisor of a crew picking up trash along the highway and on an assembly line. At Yale, he worked part-time as a campus student police aide.

In 1984, when he was 33, Dr. Carson became the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University, the youngest doctor in America at the time to hold such a position. And he went on to distinguish himself, pioneering groundbreaking surgeries and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S., in 2008.

Interestingly, an American president, during a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives, made a similar point to the one that earned Dr. Carson such opprobrium.

He said that “Life in America was not always easy. It wasn’t always easy for new immigrants. Certainly it wasn’t easy for those of African heritage who had not come here voluntarily, and yet in their own way were immigrants themselves… But… they no doubt found inspiration in all those who had come before them. And they were able to muster faith that, here in America, they might build a better life and give their children something more.”

That was Barack Obama, in 2015.

Dr. Carson, in his speech, pledged to lead the agency with an “emphasis on fairness for everybody… complete fairness for everybody.”

How shameful that fairness seems to utterly elude the “team players.”

© 2017 Hamodia

Deportation Vexation

My wife and I don’t employ an undocumented housekeeper – or a documented one, for that matter. But we recently met someone in the former category. “Leah” greeted my wife and me as we arrived at the home of some friends who had invited us for a Shabbos seudah. Our hosts had not yet returned from the shul where they daven, and so I retired to the living room, and my wife went to the kitchen and spoke a bit with Leah, who had immigrated from south of the border.

It turns out that Leah loves working for our friends, and considers them among the nicest people she’s ever met. We weren’t surprised. We have good taste in friends.

It turns out, too, that she lives in fear of deportation, now that the administration is engaged in a crackdown on “illegal immigrants.” On February 6, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents began carrying out “fugitive enforcement operations.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security, more than 680 people were arrested in five cities that week.

It wouldn’t seem, though, at least at first glance, that Leah really has much to fear. The crackdown is aimed at criminal elements, and she, other than having immigrated unlawfully, is a law-abiding person. In the words of President Trump’s recent tweet, “Gang members, drug dealers & others are being removed!” Not housekeepers. Or gardeners, like the ones the president referred to in 2013 when, according to someone present, he told a group of young people born to undocumented workers: “You know, the truth is I have a lot of illegals working for me in Miami… my golf course is tended by all these Hispanics – if it wasn’t for them my lawn wouldn’t be the lawn it is; it’s the best lawn.”

In fact, going after undocumented criminals was precisely the policy of the previous administration, which deported no less than 409,849 people in 2012. In 2015, The ICE, in “Operation Cross Check,” arrested more than 2,000 undocumented immigrants with criminal records in one week. And even when the Obama administration shifted its enforcement priorities so that the vast majority of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants would not be subject to immediate deportation, it still went after convicted criminals, terrorism threats and recent immigrants with gusto.

So what, if anything, has changed?

Well, the language, for starters. Mr. Trump called the crackdown “a military operation,” though that description was walked back by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who explained that the president had been speaking descriptively, not literally.

But there is, in fact, a larger pool now of potential deportees, more people deemed enforcement “priorities.” An undocumented immigrant needn’t have been convicted of a crime to be deported. He or she can simply be charged with a crime, or deemed to have committed an act that an immigration agent considers, on his own, a deportable offense. What’s more, for the first time, ICE policy now allows the arrest of undocumented immigrants who have only immigration violations on their record, if they happen to be discovered in the course of law enforcement actions.

That, it seems, is what Leah was frightened of. While stories of ICE personnel conducting random “raids” in various public places, and their supposed plans to arrest people on their way to worship have been decisively debunked, she had heard of undocumented people with traffic misdemeanors being arrested.

Leah might take heart in the president’s apparent shift on DACA, former President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows “dreamers,” people who illegally immigrated as children, to remain in the U.S. and work.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump vowed to “immediately terminate” the program. But – deeply angering some of his more anti-immigrant supporters – he has since softened his tone, calling most of the roughly 840,000 immigrants “incredible kids” and the topic of their status “one of the most difficult subjects I have.”

And while he weighs the issue of “dreamers,” and lawmakers of both parties in Congress are trying to devise legislation to carve out a special status for them, the administration is still issuing work permits to undocumented people under the DACA program.

That is an encouraging sign, at least to those of us who feel concern for young people brought over to the U.S. as children, and for all immigrants like Leah, who are only seeking better lives for themselves and their families. We Jews, both inherently and in light of our own recent history, should have a special appreciation of their hopes to one day become full-fledged American citizens.

© 2017 Hamodia

Bursting Our Bubbles

Ever heard of Chartbeat? Assuming you answered no, well, neither had I, at least not until last week, when it was reported that the web analytics company released a new analysis of the reader preferences of 148 news organizations.

The apolitical company tracks what news stories are being read most at any given moment, along with where those readers came from and how long they spent on each story. Because so many news sources use the service, Chartbeat has abundant data that can be usefully crunched.

Which is precisely what two researchers at the firm did, first using readers’ political views to divide media into those tending to have more liberal readers and those with more conservative ones. The New York Times and the Washington Post are examples of the former; the Wall St. Journal and Forbes, of the latter.

The researchers then studied how many articles organizations in both groups published about a given news event, along with the amount of time their readers spent with the stories.

The Chartbeat analysis suggests that stories were generally covered equally by all the news sources, but that readers of particular political bent seemed to avoid certain stories: those challenging their pre-existent positions.

James Shepperd, a University of Florida professor of psychology, has written about that fact. “Generally,” he says, “people prefer information consistent with their beliefs, views and prior behaviors, and avoid information that’s inconsistent” with them.

That’s true not only in politics. One study of Belgian and Dutch soccer fans found that readers were significantly less interested in news about their favorite team after a loss. Losers tend, in the study’s neological nomenclature, to CORF, or “cut off reflected failure,” while winners prefer to BIRG, or “bask in reflected glory.”

That’s unfortunate. We lose out by not exposing ourselves to points of view diametric to those we currently hold. Whether those points of view end up helping us more finely hone our own different ones, or whether they make us reconsider our assumptions, they are exquisitely valuable.

By CORFing and BIRGing, as we are so often inclined to do, we deny ourselves the ability to truly objectively analyze happenings and topics. There are almost always two sides to any story, and an accurate conclusion can really only be reached by weighing them both.

As a certain ex-president said in his farewell address: “We [have increasingly] become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on [all] the evidence that is out there.” Perceptive guy.

There are, of course, certainties in life, convictions we rightly embrace without reservation. A committed Jew affirms that Creation has a purpose, and that the goals of his own life are defined by Hashem’s will as communicated through the Torah and its interpreters. Most people  also consider near-certain the consensuses in specific realms of people presumed wiser in those realms, be they doctors, lawyers or tax advisors.

But to proclaim, without examining all sides of a particular controversial policy, action, official or piece of legislation, that we just know without question that it or he or she is good or bad is, in the end, an exercise in overreaching.

And even when we have made our personal analyses and taken positions and made the cases for our opinions, it is always beneficial to have in the backs of our minds – or perhaps even their fronts – a recognition of the fact that, for all our intelligence and best laid logic, we might still … possibly… be… wrong.

That realization is of more than philosophical import. It has a vital and practical ramification in the realm of human interaction, along the lines of Chazal’s statements (Berachos 58a and Bamidbar Rabbah,  21:2) that just as people’s faces are different from one another, so do they see things differently. A quest for truth requires us to perceive those with different views as, well, people with different views, not as illogical, intractable, irredeemable enemies of all that is good and right.

Newsprint, airwaves and cyberspace are saturated these days with precisely that latter sort of demagoguery; our society suffers from a malnourishment of modesty, not only in the realm of dress and mores, but in attitudes and stances as well. There is so little that any of us can truly know; yet so many are so certain of so much.

Trumpeting opinions that haven’t been honestly subjected to the test of different ones does not promote healthy, productive disagreement and discussion; on the contrary, it suffocates them.

© 2017 Hamodia

What the Doctor Ordered

A Dutch doctor who ordered an elderly dementia patient’s family to restrain her as she was given a lethal injection was recently cleared of wrongdoing by a panel that considered the case.

In 2002, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to decriminalize physician-assisted euthanasia. Since then, thousands of Dutch citizens (more than 5000 in 2015 alone) have been helped by doctors to kill themselves. The law requires that the patient’s suffering be “unbearable and untreatable.” In four years, though, the number of mental health patients killed by euthanasia has quadrupled.

According to a report issued by a Regional Review Committee, the unidentified patient, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease four years ago, wrote a living will saying she wished to die when the “time was right.”

Her condition deteriorated and her aging husband, unable to care for her, had her admitted to a nursing home, where she told staff members that she wished to die, “but not now.” Although some doctors said she was “gloomy” and “hopeless,” one doctor reported her “cheerful and peaceful.”

The home’s senior doctor asserted the time was right because of a deterioration in the woman’s condition, and the woman’s husband concurred, although the report states that the patient had “never verbally requested euthanasia.”

A sleep-inducing drug was placed in her coffee, but the more than 80-year-old woman resisted the injection intended to kill her. The doctor then asked the relatives of the woman to hold her down while she administered the lethal injection.

“I am convinced that the doctor acted in good faith,” said Jacob Kohnstamm, the committee chairman, although he added that “we would like to see more clarity on how such cases are handled in the future.”

Part of the calculus for achieving that clarity, whether made explicit or not, will be economic considerations. A University of Calgary study recently published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal identified “substantial savings” that Canada, whose doctor-assisted euthanasia law closely resembles the Netherlands’, can reap from its annual health budget by killing willing patients rather than caring for them.

End-of-life care can be long and expensive, the report explains, while euthanasia costs just a few dollars per patient.

Here in the U.S., the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that there is no Constitutional right to assisted suicide, but that states have the power to allow or prohibit it. To date, five states have passed laws permitting the practice.

Despite the power of states here,  issues pertinent to physician-assisted suicide laws can still wend their way to the nation’s highest court.

In 2006, for example, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft tried to halt physician-assisted suicide in Oregon by contending that prescriptions written for that purpose did not meet the Controlled Substances Act’s requirement of serving a “legitimate medical purpose.”

The High Court ruled that Mr. Ashcroft could not block the law that way, but in a dissent to that ruling, the late, lamented Justice Antonin Scalia asserted that the legitimacy of physician-assisted suicide “ultimately rests, not on ‘science’ or ‘medicine,’ but on a naked value judgment.”

In a speech two years earlier about a different subject, Justice Scalia raised the specter of assisted suicide one day being embraced by the Court. After decrying the Court’s discovery in the Constitution of “a variety of liberties” that “were so little rooted in the traditions of the American people that they were criminal for 200 years,” Mr. Scalia added that his colleagues might be prepared to discover a Constitutional right to assisted suicide, too.

“We’re not [yet] ready to announce that right,” he said, sarcastically. “Check back with us.”

Justice Scalia’s death last year made that facetious comment less humorous. Thankfully, though, the man designated by President Donald Trump to assume Mr. Scalia’s still-vacant seat, Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, has a clear paper trail on the issue, in the form of his 2006 book “The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia.”

“Human life is fundamentally and inherently valuable,” Mr. Gorsuch wrote, in support of the existing laws in most states barring assisted suicide.

Society’s task, he said, was balancing “the interests of those persons who wish to control the timing of their deaths and those vulnerable individuals whose lives may be taken without their consent due to mistake, abuse or pressure in a regime where assisted suicide is legal.”

In light of cases like the Dutch patient’s, and calculations like those in the University of Calgary study, a perceptive, thoughtful, conscientious mind like Judge Gorsuch’s on the High Court is just what the doctor ordered.

© 2017 Hamodia

Making News, Literally

Even for someone who, in his day job as Agudath Israel of America’s public affairs director, is regularly sent dubious “news” stories from members of the public, a young man’s recent admission that he successfully purveyed total fabrications as facts was startling.

A reporter for the New York Times managed to track down Cameron Harris and convince him to talk about how, during the presidential campaign, when charges of a “rigged” election were made, he decided to make news. Literally.

The 23-year-old created an entity he called “ChristianTimesNewspaper,” and crafted a story for it that he headlined: “BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse.” Even though no such thing had actually occurred.

Mr. Harris then located a photograph to run with the story, of a man standing behind black plastic boxes bearing the label “Ballot Box.” The photo was from a British election and the man was unidentified. But Mr. Harris gave him a name in the caption he produced for the photo: “Mr. Prince, shown here, poses with his find, as election officials investigate.”

The article beneath the headline explained that “the Clinton campaign’s likely goal was to slip the fake ballot boxes in with the real ballot boxes when they went to official election judges on November 8th.”

“This story,” a final note helpfully added, “is still developing, and CTN will bring you more when we have it.”

Electronic news moves fast these days – at the speed of light, actually – and the explosive story, well, exploded. Mr. Harris estimated that he made about $1,000 an hour in web advertising revenue as his “reportage” began to spread.

Not dissimilar was what came to be known as “Pizzagate,” another fictional claim, in this case, that the New York City Police Department had found evidence of the existence of a human trafficking ring linked to members of the Democratic Party.

The owner of one pizza establishment named in the story received hundreds of threatening phone calls as a result, and a gunman, seeking to “investigate” the situation himself, entered the eatery with an assault rifle, and fired the weapon.

Such shenanigans do not cast doubt on the election results. Even though he lost the popular vote by several million, President Trump just as clearly won the electoral vote, the decisive one.  And it’s highly unlikely that fake news played any decisive role in any state. What’s more, there were mischief makers on the other side of the political contest too. Like prankster Marco Chacon, who, seeking to make the more gullible among candidate Trump’s supporters look silly, created what he called “RealTrueNews” which “reported” what Mr. Chacon assumed most people would recognize as over-the-top satire.

He overestimated the reading public, however, and many of the preposterous stories he posted were picked up and reported as fact, even by some reputable news organizations.

Fake news and hoaxes are nothing new. In 1835, a front-page article in the venerated New York Sun claimed that the British astronomer Sir John Herschel had discovered life on the moon. The story caused enormous excitement throughout the country and overseas. And it wasn’t even an election year.

It all brings to mind the words of Thomas Jefferson, who, in 1807, wrote that “the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors.”

The story is told that when someone told the Satmar Rav, zt”l, that the only truthful thing in a newspaper was its date, he responded that even that was an untruth, as the paper was actually printed the day before.

One needn’t take literally the charge that nothing in the media is true, though, to be healthily skeptical of anything one reads or hears. Such skepticism is all the more justified these days when the term “media” includes not only somewhat professional, if biased, reporters and interpreters of news but an army of piratical purveyors of partisanship (take that, Spiro Agnew!).

Some semblance of truth about current events can be reached with effort, by reading opposing editorial stances, doing some research to ferret out facts from falsehoods and then applying critical thinking to the results.

But the sad fact remains that, at least for consumers of mass media, the passage of more than 200 years since Mr. Jefferson made his comment hasn’t greatly changed the accuracy of his calculus.

© 2017 Hamodia

 

Agudath Israel of America Statement on President Trump’s Immigration Executive Order

The immense contributions of immigrants to American life need no elaboration, nor does the importance of immigration to our great nation.  The world refugee crisis, moreover, must compel our deep concern for those fleeing persecution, as did so many of our own forebears.

President Trump’s recent executive order seeks to protect the nation’s citizens from terrorism, an unarguably honorable quest.

The strict vetting process that has long been in place has certainly helped keep terrorists and their recruiters from entering our country.  The executive order is aimed at temporarily strengthening that line of defense.  As such, it is laudable.  But only if its focus is on places, on countries that are hotbeds of violent radicalism, not on religious populations.

And only if tempered by true concern for innocent refugees, who do not deserve to be caught up in nets intended to catch their oppressors.

We urge the administration to continue to evaluate the geopolitical situation and exercise great deliberation as it forges a permanent immigration policy, so that what results will well balance security concerns with human and religious rights.

We, the Jury

It’s probably safe to say that not since the 26 seconds Abraham Zapruder filmed of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in 1963 has a moving image of a killing been viewed more often than that of the April, 2015 fatal encounter, in North Charleston, South Carolina, between police officer Michael Slager and motorist Walter Scott.

The 50-year-old Mr. Scott was pulled over by Mr. Slager for a broken brake light. For reasons unknown, the motorist left his car and fled. The policeman shot and killed him.

The report filed by the officer report stated that he had deployed a Taser against Mr. Scott to stop him from fleeing, that the two men then struggled over the electrical shock device, that Mr. Scott gained control of it and attempted to use it against Mr. Slager, prompting the officer to shoot eight rounds at Mr. Scott, striking him five times.

A passerby caught the event on his mobile phone camera and, after hesitating for fear for his own safety, made the recording public.

The video clip showed Mr. Scott running away, nothing in his hands, and Mr. Slager, at a distance of 15-20 feet, coolly shooting at the back of the fleeing man. The film also seemed to show the officer, after the victim had fallen, retrieving something, possibly a Taser, from his patrol car and placing it next to the dying Mr. Scott.

Last week, a jury in Mr. Slager’s state trial (whose members had the option of finding him guilty of either murder or manslaughter), after 22 hours’ deliberation and repeated viewings of the video, remained deadlocked. Reportedly, 11 of the 12 jurors favored a conviction.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin, 17a) teaches us that when the Sanhedrin judged a capital case, a unanimous verdict would automatically be vacated.  (For the reason, see Rashi and the Maharatz Chayes.) Unanimity, when a life is at stake, is unacceptable.

In American federal felony trials, however, as well as in trials on serious charges in various states, South Carolina among them, a unanimous verdict is required. And so, faced with the deadlock in the Slager case, the presiding judge declared a mistrial, and the lead prosecutor announced her intent to retry the defendant.

Most of us, and rightly, are sympathetic to police officers when they feel compelled to use their weapons. Police live dangerous lives, and many have been murdered in the course of their duties protecting us all. And in many of the cases where white officers like Mr. Slager have been accused of needlessly shooting black suspects like Mr. Scott, we tend to think that things aren’t always – excuse the expression – black and white.

Sometimes, though, they are.

Whether or not, as some have charged, the holdout in the jury box was motivated by racism, the video makes undeniably clear that Mr. Scott was unarmed and fleeing, and that Mr. Slager shot him at a distance, repeatedly, in the back.

Many African-Americans, unfortunately, automatically assume that if a white police officer shoots a black man it must have been because black lives don’t matter to white cops. That assumption is misguided; it ignores the inherent and considerable dangers of police work and the disproportionate representation of black men in criminal activity, resulting in a heightened sense of threat some officers might have when confronting them. (That’s not an excuse, only a reality.)

But disabusing those who jump to such conclusions about police shootings requires diligently investigating each case where a black person is hurt or killed by a police officer, and vigorously prosecuting any officer accused of using force wrongfully. As seems clearly to have happened, lethally, in the Slager case.

North Charleston’s police chief Eddie Driggers understands the importance of that.  After watching the video, he minced no words, saying simply, “I was sickened by what I saw.”

Michael Slager will be retried by the state, and also faces federal charges of violating Mr. Scott’s civil rights and using a weapon during the commission of a crime. Usually, it is unjustified to expect a particular verdict. Usually, the public isn’t privy to what is needed to judge an accused person innocent or guilty. Usually, there is no way for people, even members of a jury who have heard much testimony and weighed much evidence, to know what in fact took place.

This, though, is not a usual case. And its outcome could help reassure American minorities that they are treated the same as everyone else in our country, or help confirm their worst suspicions.

© 2016 Hamodia

A Very Different Future American Jewish Community?

The dovetailing of the incoming American administration’s apparent views on many issues of concern to Orthodox Jews and the remarkable demographic changes taking place on the American Jewish communal scene may herald an American Jewish political and organizational future that will look very different from the current one.

An opinion piece of mine that recently appeared in Haaretz about that, which the paper titled “Like It or Not, the American Jewish Future Is Orthodox, and Deeply Conservative,” can be accessed here.

If it’s not accessible, write me at [email protected] and I’ll send you the text.

An Unfortunately Necessary Letter

I was privileged and humbled to be asked to join a group of rabbis more distinguished than I and spanning the Sephardic, Yeshivish, Hasidic, Kiruv and Centrist Orthodox world to deliver an important message.  The signatories are immediately below; and the letter, below that.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein Editor, Cross Currents

Rabbi Shalom Baum President, Rabbinical Council of America

Rabbi Yosef Benarroch Rosh Midrasha, Midreshet Eshel Mara D’atra, Adas Yeshurun Herzliya Synagogue Winnipeg, Canada

Rabbi Moises Benzaquen Mara D’atra, West Coast Torah Center Rosh Hayeshiva, Harkham Gaon Academy Los Angeles, CA

Rabbi Joseph Dweck Senior Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi Community of the United Kingdom

Rabbi Daniel Feldman Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary

Rabbi Ilan D. Feldman Mara D’asra, Congregation Beth Jacob Atlanta, GA

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg Mara D’asra, Boca Raton Synagogue Boca Raton, FL

Rabbi Micah Greenland International Director, NCSY

HaRav Mayer Alter Horowitz, Bostoner Rebbe of Yerushalayim

Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky Rosh Yeshiva, Darche Noam Jerusalem, Israel

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin Mara D’asra, Congregation Beth Avraham Joseph (BAYT) Toronto, Canada

HaRav Gedalia Dov Schwartz Rosh Beit Din, Beis Din of America and Chicago Rabbinical Council

Rabbi Avi Shafran Media Liaison, Agudath Israel of America

Rabbi Yitzchak Shurin Rosh Midrasha, Midreshet Rachel V’Chaya

HaRav Michel Twerski Mara D’asra, Congregation Beth Jehudah Milwaukee, WI

 

 

The text of the statement:

As rabbonim and mechanchim, we are greatly concerned about the popularity in some circles of a “kiruv” approach that does not bring honor to the Torah ha-Kedoshah but, on the contrary, creates considerable chilul Hashem.

Earlier this year, Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi apologized for one particularly offensive statement he made on several occasions. But he has voiced, both before and since that apology, many things that reduce complex issues to simplistic and misleading sound bites. He has also repeatedly arrogated to “know” why unfortunate things happen to various people and has presented subtle statements of Chazal in superficial and deceptive ways.

That method may entertain and even stimulate some audiences, but it does no justice to the Jewish mesorah. And, especially with the worldwide audience enjoyed by any public speech these days, misleading assertions even when offered with the best of intentions, are particularly objectionable, and even dangerous.

Jewish institutions must be discerning about the credentials and the histories of those to whom they offer the honor of acting as teachers of Torah. We urge all shuls and organizations to act responsibly and take seriously decisions about whom they invite to address their gatherings.

letter

 

Commanded

Just in time for Rosh Hashanah, a number of media, including the Wall St. Journal and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, found a good “Jewish” story in the popularity and abundance of dogs in Tel Aviv.

Talk about pnei hador kipnei hakelev, the prediction in massechta Sotah (49b) that, with the approach of the Geulah, “the face of the generation will be the face of a dog.”

Tel Aviv, it was reported, is home to 413,000 people and 30,000 dogs, and, declaring itself the friendliest city in the world for dogs, it recently hosted a “dog festival” cutely called “Kelaviv.”

Our mesorah is undeniably sensitive to concern for animals.  Not only were Yaakov Avinu and  Moshe Rabbeinu  caring shepherds, but the Torah prohibits causing an animal unnecessary pain.

I recall as a young boy how my father, shlita, scooped a pair of injured birds from a street and brought them home to care for them.  In my own home (which over the years has hosted, among other animals, a goat, an iguana and a tarantula), even insects are captured and released rather than killed.

But like most ideals, concern for animals can be taken too far. The “animal rights” group PETA’s founder once declared that that “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.”  More infamously, she coined the aphorism “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” reflecting a philosophy nothing short of perverse.

Torah-committed Jews – and all thoughtful human beings – maintain a clear and crucial distinction between the animal sphere and the human one.  Animals may be forced to work and may be killed for food.  But humans may not, because we are the pinnacle of creation, and are alone gifted with free will.

In my role as Agudath Israel of America’s media liaison, I regularly receive requests for public comment.  A number of years ago, a call came in from a major media outlet producing a national program.  Flattered, I asked what presumably weighty topic was to be explored.  I was thoroughly deflated to hear the response: “Rabbi, we’d like to get your take on the question of whether pets go to heaven.”

I politely declined the offer to comment but then changed my mind.  What I realized is that many of the most fundamental philosophical and moral issues of our time – indeed of any time – touch upon the special distinction of humanness.  The subject may be the beginning of life or its end; the meaning of family, or of decency.  If humans see themselves as mere mammals, they end up in a very different place than if they see themselves as baalei bechirah, creatures with a mission, and the ability to undertake their individual roles in its attainment.

So, as it happens, the Tel Aviv dog articles are not immaterial to Rosh Hashanah at all.  They can serve to make us think a bit, and remind us of why pets, and all animals, while they may well serve a higher purpose and achieve a tikkun in their service to us baalei bechirah, do not in fact possess the potential, as we do, to “go to heaven.”

The Berditchever conveys a pithy and pertinent thought on the wording of one of the Torah’s prohibitions of idol worship: bowing down before “the sun, moon or other heavenly bodies that I have not commanded” (Devarim 17:3).

We may not genuflect to the sun, but we may do so to a human being.  The navi Ovadiah, for instance, bowed before his master Eliyahu.  Explained the Berditchever: People, by virtue of our being commanded creations, intended to not just exist but to shoulder responsibility, are singular parts of creation.  Our being commanded exalts us, places us on a plane above everything else in the universe.

The sun and the moon – and animals – are not charged, or able, to choose. They are bounded by their natures and their instincts.

Not so, us.

We may, to be sure, lapse into “instinctive” living at times.  But we have the ability to transcend our failures.  And that’s why Rosh Hashanah, when we are judged for our choices, is described both as a Yom Hadin, a Day of Judgment, and as a festive holiday.  Even as we face our failures and stand kivnei maron, “like sheep,” before the Judge of all, we celebrate with our seudos Yom Tov.  Because we are not sheep.  We are commanded beings – a fact that should fill us with both awe and joy.

© 2016 Hamodia