Running, Racism and Resentment


— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

When I recounted seeing a small group of unusually dressed men in shul last Sunday in Staten Island and realizing that they were trying to catch a minyan before participating in the New York Marathon (which begins in that borough), my daughter asked me if any of them had a chance of winning the race.

“Nah,” I said. “It’ll be a Kenyan.” Four of the New York race’s past ten men’s race winners, after all, hailed from that African country. Actually, make that five now. (Congratulations, Geoffery Mutai.) A fellow Kenyan came in second.

My daughter’s face, I thought, evidenced some surprise, as if I had espoused some rank racism. So I explained that Kenyans seem particularly physically endowed for long-distance running. Kenyans, that is, and Ethiopians (another citizenry with disproportionate wins in marathons) who belong to the lithe and limber Kalenjin tribe.

More after the jump.
If believing that different populations have different abilities constitutes racism, I guess I am a racist. But the word’s pejorative meaning is more properly reserved for assigning negative human character traits-like dishonesty, laziness, drunkenness, or untrustworthiness-to particular racial or ethnic groups. People have free will, of course, and every individual should be judged on his own merits.

Recognizing that there are differences in aptitudes among different peoples, however, should be no more objectionable than noting physical differences, like the fact that Hutu tribesmen are stocky and relatively short while their Tutsi neighbors are lanky and taller. Or that one doesn’t come across many Ashkenazi (or for that matter Sephardi) fullbacks.

Even excellence in mental attributes, like the commonly perceived abilities of Asians in mathematics, or of Jews in business or science, should not be seen as insulting others. Even if the perceptions are accurate, they are of limited import.

The Torah refers to the Jewish people as “a wise nation” but that doesn’t mean we’re all intellectually gifted. Even Jews who aren’t the brightest candles in the menorah have a Divine mission on earth no less precious than the Rogachover down the block. And Chazal’s honorifics customarily run not to words like “genius” or “brilliant” but to ones like “righteous” and “G-d-fearing.” That’s what counts.

It’s plausible, of course, that Chinese or Jewish intellectual accomplishments-or Kalenjin dominance of marathon running-are due to something other than genes; cultural and environmental factors certainly play important roles. What’s more, even fact-supported stereotypes are becoming increasingly irrelevant, as gene pools become more jumbled with each generation.  

Still, some population-associated abilities remain, and some people seem to have a hard time with that. They waste precious time feeling bad for themselves and resentful of others, losing sight of a grand life-truth: It doesn’t matter what abilities we possess; what matters is what we do with them.

Similarly, some people of modest means resent the more affluent. They may suspect (as do some affluent people themselves) that prosperity is the result of superior intelligence. (This, despite the ample and readily available evidence to the contrary.) As believing Jews, though, we should know that economic fortunes are determined wholly by Divine will; they ultimately remain beyond logic and inscrutable to us mortals.

Which thought leads, inevitably, to the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Some among the crowds in lower Manhattan and their counterparts in other cities may well have worthy complaints and clear goals. But what one hears most loudly and most commonly (as even a few minutes at Zuccotti Park were more than enough to demonstrate to me) is simple resentment of the fact that wealthy people… are wealthy. Why, many protesters seem to be saying, and angrily, them and not us?

What a sad way to waste life. Instead of identifying one’s own blessings and setting oneself to the task-the privilege-of utilizing them as fully as possible for as long as possible, those demonstrators self-immolate in the heat of their anger over not being someone else.

But they are a good spur for the rest of us to remember that what matters in this world is not what we have, physically or monetarily, but what we choose.

Most of us wouldn’t waste a millisecond envying a Kenyan’s speed or stamina. None of us should waste even half that time resenting what someone else has.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

Send Obama A Message!


— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Obama administration considers Israel a sponsor of terror — at least according to Dick Morris, the disgraced ex-advisor to Bill Clinton, and a host of self-styled “conservative” media. The news was shocking — well, maybe not to the clever folks who knew all along that the president is a secret Muslim, but certainly to the rest of us.

What turned out to be the case is that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency maintains a list of 36 “specially designated countries” whose immigrating citizens get extra scrutiny because their nations “promote, produce or protect terrorist organizations or their members.” Note the word “or.”

“Produce,” in this context, means that terrorists reside in the country. Thus, countries like the Philippines and Morocco, along with Israel, are on the list. Approximately a million and a half Israeli citizens are Arabs-many of whom have ties to Arab residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. So no, with apologies to Mr. Morris et al, the U.S. does not consider Israel a terror sponsor.

What makes some people all too ready to misrepresent such things is that many Americans, especially in the Jewish community, have deep concerns about President Obama’s Middle East policies. My personal view is that these concerns are overblown. While I realize there are other opinions, as far as I can tell Mr. Obama’s positions on building in the settlements and on the terms of Israel-Palestinian negotiations have been American policy since long before his presidency.

Even doubters of Mr. Obama’s good will, though, should recognize the import of the administration’s declared readiness to veto any U.N. Security Council resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood. That stance risks the U.S.’s international political capital and may even, G-d forbid, come to threaten Americans’ safety. Might it speak more loudly about the president than his opposition to new settlements?

Speaking equally loudly is what happened on September 9, when Mr. Obama acted swiftly to warn Egyptian authorities that they had better protect Israeli embassy guards in Cairo besieged by a mob. When Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minster Barak were unable to reach the apparently indisposed Egyptian military leader Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spent hours hounding the Egyptian, finally reaching him at 1 AM to let him know that if anything happened to the Israelis, there would be “very severe consequences.” Egyptian soldiers protected the hostages until an Israeli Air Force plane safely evacuated them.

Mr. Netanyahu later recounted that he had asked for Mr. Obama’s help and that the president had replied that he would do everything he could. “And so he did,” testified the Prime Minister.  

It may not be meaningful for many, but I was struck two days later on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks when the president, betraying his Islamic beliefs (joke!), chose for his reading at the New York ceremony the 46th chapter of Tehillim. The one including the words (in the White House’s translation):

“Though its waters roar and be troubled… there’s a river whose streams shall make glad the City of G-d, the holy place of the Tabernacle of the Most High.”

And:

“The God of Jacob is our refuge.”

Whatever our takes on this or that statement or position, hard facts are not up for debate.

Let’s not forget some such facts:

  • The Obama administration has provided more security assistance to Israel than any American administration;
  • he has repeatedly declared (first in 2009 in Cairo during his speech to the Arab world) that the bond between the U.S. and Israel is “unbreakable”;
  • his Secretary of State lectured Al-Jazeera that “when the Israelis pulled out of Lebanon they got Hezbollah and 40,000 rockets and when they pulled out of Gaza they got Hamas and 20,000 rockets”;
  • his State Department has condemned the Palestinian Authority’s “factually incorrect” denial of the Western Wall’s connection to the Jewish people;
  • and much more.

Last week, in the lead-up to a Congressional election in Brooklyn  in which Jews had ample other reason to vote against the Democratic candidate, some ads presented the contest as an opportunity to “Send Obama a Message”-which some Jews took to mean an angry message about Israel.

Many thoughtful Jews, though, have a different message for Mr. Obama:

"Thank you."

Passports, Provisos and Photo Captions


— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

When you stop to think about it, the fact that so much of the world’s attention-not to mention so much jealousy, anger and irrationality-has for so many years been so keenly focused on so small a piece of real estate as Yerushalayim is astounding.

Actually, in a certain way it’s enthralling too, demonstrating as it so powerfully does how special the geographic epicenter of the Jewish People-the dynamo of holiness that sanctifies the rest of Eretz Yisrael-is, today no less than ever.

Over history, many empires claimed sovereignty over the quintessentially Jewish city, site of the batei mikdash, the central Jewish Holy Temples; and many marauders overran it. Now, to add to all the indignities visited upon the Holy City over the millennia, Jerusalem is being summoned to appear before the United States Supreme Court.

Well, okay, not exactly. What the High Court will be considering is the passport of a Jerusalem-born boy. Menachem Zivotofsky’s parents, American citizens, requested of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv that “Israel” be listed as the country in which their son entered the world. Then-President George W. Bush had mere weeks earlier signed a bill directing the U.S. State Department to do just that upon parents’ request.

More after the jump.
But Mr. Bush made clear at the signing that the law “impermissibly interferes with the president’s constitutional authority to conduct the nation’s foreign affairs.” That proviso, in which Mr. Bush essentially rejected the authority of the law he signed, was reminiscent of the executive orders issued by every sitting president since 1998 that, despite the 1995 “Jerusalem Embassy Act” mandating the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the move would not actually happen. The justification for the orders is the need to “protect the national security interests of the United States.” The guardedness, in other words, is seen as necessary to preserve the government’s claim of objectivity with regard to any future Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

And so the State Department maintains that U.S. passports of individuals born in Jerusalem list only the city’s name, without anything appended.

In 2003, the Zivotofskys sued the State Department on behalf of their son, and that litigation-dismissed, and then resurrected on appeal-is what the Supreme Court will begin to consider next month. An alphabet soup of Jewish groups have jumped into the fray with “friend of the court” briefs, almost all in support of the Zivotovskys. An exception was the American Jewish Committee, whose representative contended that while it does consider “West Jerusalem” to be part of Israel, it believes that “all issues in the Israel-Palestinian conflict have to be settled at the negotiation table.”

In the meantime, the Obama administration came in for some criticism on the issue. The New York Sun’s website reported recently that photographs posted on the White House website that had carried captions referencing “Jerusalem, Israel” had been altered to read simply “Jerusalem.” The changes were presumably an effort to avoid the captions being invoked in the upcoming Supreme Court case-although photo captions obviously have something less than legal import.

In response to an inquiry, a White House official said the “U.S. policy for more than 40 years has been that the status of Jerusalem should be decided in final-status negotiations between the parties. As in prior administrations, the White House photo captions should reflect that policy.”

Indeed, the White House site’s captions during the Bush years also omitted “Israel” in at least some Jerusalem-datelined photos. Former Bush administration official Elliot Abrams told the Washington Post that the White House during those years “did not have a hard-and-fast rule” for statements and press releases about identifying Jerusalem as being in Israel.

In the end, the Supreme Court will decide what it will. And Israel will negotiate what it will. And believing Jews everywhere will continue to know what we have always known: That, whatever any court or any country might contend, Yerushalayim, the city Jews have faced in prayer thrice daily for thousands of years, is the heart and home of Klal Yisrael.

In fact, maybe that phrase is what passports should put after Jerusalem’s name.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine.

Cartoon reprinted courtesy of Yaakov Dry Bones Kirschen www.DryBonesBlog.blogspot.com.

The Silicon Emperor’s New Soul

— Rabbi Avi Shafran

“A donkey loaded up with books.”  That’s the term the Chovos Halevovos (Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pekudah) uses to describe a scholar who has memorized much information but lacks the judgment, character and/or human insight to transform what he carries into wisdom.

Donkeys bray and smell bad.  Computers whir (at least if they have fans or rotating hard drives) and are odorless (though some keyboards are redolent of coffee).  But donkeys and computers share two things in common: Each can hold much, and neither approaches being human.

More after the jump.
The media minions were gushing of late over the performance of an IBM computer that bested a pair of bright and well-versed human beings in a game show competition that tested knowledge in a broad array of areas.  Christened “Watson,” the computer brought to the podium a 15-terabyte data bank of facts.  And it answered questions (or, better, supplied questions to proffered answers or hints, the conceit of the game show, Jeopardy!) with aplomb.  
Just as it was programmed (by humans, of course) to do, “Watson” zeroed in on key words in the clue, combed its mega-memory for associations and, if its program rated the result sufficiently likely to be correct, sounded the game buzzer in a tiny fraction of a second.  The flesh and blood contestants didn’t really stand a chance.

Hosannas sounded from all directions.  The accomplishment was hailed as a quantum leap toward Artificial Intelligence, the holy grail of some scientists who believe that a machine can be constructed that is indistinguishable in its cognitive abilities from a human being.

What Watson made me think of, oddly, was PETA, “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.”  

The silicon scholar and the extreme animal rights group might not seem to have anything to do with each other.  But both foster the same disturbing and deeply wrong notion: that human beings are not an utterly unique part of creation.

PETA morally equates animals with humans.  Its “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign compared the killing of chickens and cows to the murder of men, women and children. Its president memorably lamented that “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.”

Watson’s inventors and promoters exhibit no such mental aberration.  For all I know, they may well enjoy a good steak.  But all the same, a subtle offense lies in the Artificial Intelligence crowd’s notion that a sufficiently advanced computer could achieve consciousness, sentience, self-awareness.

Because it, too, presupposes that humans are not qualitatively special beings, that, in our essences, we ourselves are just fantastically well-engineered pieces of software.

But we’re not.  We may share our basic biologies with the animal world; and elements of our information-processing abilities may be mimicked (even bested) by machines.  But we are neither wallabies nor Watsons.  We don’t just feel; we emote.  We don’t just compute; we conceive.  We don’t just act; we choose.  Our reflections in a mirror mimic us too.  But they’re not us.

There’s a Purim thought here.

Because Amalek stands for meaninglessness.  From an Amalekian point of view, the world is, as they say, what it is; nothing more.  It offers no reason to imagine that we are something beyond animals who speak and wear clothes (and so what?) and analyze things (though not even as well as computers).  No reason to consider that there is good and bad, right and wrong, or some plan for history.

Klal Yisrael stands for the very opposite, the conviction that human beings are the pinnacle of creation, that they can consider and communicate not just wants, like animals, but ideas, concepts, truths.  And that a nation was chosen to be an example to the world of a human being’s highest aspiration, holiness.

And so let’s be wary of Watson, or at least of Watsonism.  And, amid all the cheering of the silicon emperor, let’s declare unabashedly that he has no soul.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

Messages in the Mayhem

Rabbi Avi Shafran

You’ll log many a mile to find someone more disapproving than I am of the anger and vilification that characterize so much of American political discourse.  But to lay the tragic January 8 shooting rampage in Tucson on the doorstep of politicians or pundits is silly, and no less incendiary itself than any firearms metaphor.  To be sure, political opponents should not be compared to Nazis or have crosshairs superimposed on their faces.  But because such things are ugly and sophomoric, not because they induce violence.  

More after the jump.
Yes, there have certainly been politically and ideologically motivated murders, but much mayhem has also been visited on public servants by actors impelled not by creed but craziness.  

And delusions were clearly the demons prodding Jared Lee Loughner.  Teachers and fellow students of the alleged Tucson killer at the community college he briefly attended were sufficiently concerned by his odd behavior, inexplicable bursts of laughter, non sequiturs and bizarre tirades to have raised alarms with the administration, which asked him to leave the school.  His philosophy professor said that Loughner’s “brains were scrambled” and that he had never once brought up politics in class.  The shrine discovered in Loughner’s backyard, complete with skull and candles, rounded out the picture of a deeply disturbed person, not some earnest observer of current events pushed over the edge by political ads.

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t societal soul-searching to be done.  There was a time, after all, when the disgruntled, disenfranchised and demented chose to express themselves by standing on soapboxes and ranting.  Guns, knives and explosives were no less available to them than they were to the angry workers, teenage school-shooters and wild-eyed conspiracy theorists who have spilled so much innocent blood at workplaces, campuses and shopping centers in more recent years.  Why have so many citizens, whatever their emotional state, turned these days to murder to make a point?  More important: What does the turning say to America?

Any Jew who received a proper Torah education has internalized the subtle but sage concept that, although we are not prophets, we do well to seek in tragic events some message about how we might improve our behavior.

No, it isn’t, as some simpletons assume, precise cause and effect that we seek, but some message, some pointing to where we might stand to improve.  Our country would benefit these days from a similar searching of the national soul.

Even if the Tucson shooter is a nutcase, in other words, his horrible act can and should serve as an impetus for politicos, pundits and all Americans to more carefully consider our patterns of speech (and “our,” dear Democrats and Republicans alike, means “our,” not “their”).  Political epithets may not yield violence, but incivility still coarsens society.

There may, though, be another introspection-ripe place pointed to by the disregard for human life that has woven its way into American society.  

Because a subtle waning of respect for life, particularly at its beginning and end, has been evident in our society over recent years.

Well over one million abortions, for instance, take place each year nationwide.  It was recently reported that fully 41% of all pregnancies in New York City this year were “terminated.”  

American ethicists have made pronouncements about what constitutes “quality of life,” advising medical personnel when further care of patients is “futile.”  “Brain stem death,” where activity in higher parts of a brain might still be present, has become an enthusiastically embraced criterion for the removal of vital organs.  

Princeton Bioethics Professor Peter Singer considers “the life of a newborn” to be “of less value than the life of a pig” and advocates for the euthanasia of severely disabled infants.

Asked by The New York Times in 2005 what value he thinks may disappear in the next 35 years, he responded: “the traditional view of the sanctity of human life.”

People like Jared Lee Loughner may already be ahead of that treacherous curve.

And America needs to begin blocking the road.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

Jewish Traits Gone Bad

Rabbi Avi Shafran

I have long suspected that the Jewish stereotypes invoked by comedians, impolite pundits, and anti-Semites contain some grain of truth.  After all, even a powerfully positive middah, or personal trait, can, if mangled or misapplied, devolve into a parody of its essence.  And when that happens, a negative stereotype results.

More after the jump.
Take, for instance, the obsession with money and possessions about which Jews are regularly impugned or mocked.  (Some may recall-it was before my time-the Jewish radio jokester Jack Benny who, accosted in a skit by a mugger demanding “Your money or your life!” pauses a few seconds and then, when the stick-up man repeats his warning, responds: “I’m thinking!  I’m thinking!”)

But concern with currency is only mockery-worthy when it has degenerated into stinginess (as in the case of the fictional muggee) or thievery.  In its pure form, it is called frugality, and is lauded by the Torah.  

“The possessions of the righteous,” the Talmud teaches, “are as dear to them as their bodies.”

That comment is not meant to counsel miserliness; it conveys a deep and quintessentially Jewish thought: Every honestly earned penny has true worth, for it can be turned into something meaningful.  We might think of someone who, say, rinses out and re-uses a Styrofoam cup as some sort of miser; and maybe he is.  But he might also be a truly righteous man, appreciative of, and reluctant to waste, something still usable.  If he’s generous to the needy, we know which one he is.

And so while stinginess may be ugly, frugality is not; indeed, it is a Jewish trait, and should be proudly embraced as one.

Similarly, the stereotype of Jews as cliquish is rooted in our very real and proper sense of peoplehood.  When, however, we unwittingly give the impression that we look down upon others similarly created in the image of G-d, we offer mockers (and haters) ammunition.  It is important to not let our special bond with the “family” that is Klal Yisrael, the Jewish People, send a negative message to others.  But internalizing that special bond, in the end, is essential to being a Jew.

Of late, I’ve been thinking about another Jewish stereotype: the worrier.  The fellow who frets about whether he turned the oven off or locked the door before he left home, about what might happen if he boards that plane, or what that stomach pain might mean.  Of course, all sorts of people worry about small or far-fetched things.  But there does seem to be a particular stereotype of Jewish overanxiousness.  What middah might it, in a twisted way, reflect?

What occurs is that worrying about unlikely things that might go wrong might be the flipside to something very Jewish indeed: Appreciating the myriad things that regularly go right.

We say “Modeh Ani” (the daily acknowledgement of gratitude to G-d each morning) to acknowledge the all-too-easily-ignored miracle of our waking up.  We say “Asher Yatzar” (the blessing recited after using the bathroom) to remind ourselves not to take the functions of our bodies for granted.  We say “Modim” (“We acknowledge,” one of the silent prayer’s blessings) during each of our prayer services to thank G-d for His continuous gift of our lives and sustenance.

That all reflects a fundamental Jewish middah, “hakarat hatov”-in the phrase’s most literal, most fundamental, sense: the “recognition of the good” that G-d bestows on us daily, indeed every hour, every minute, every second.

To be exquisitely sensitive to all the blessings from which we constantly benefit requires us, on some level, to realize all that could go wrong.  There are people, after all, who don’t wake up from their night’s sleep; whose bodies do not function normally, whose lives or livelihoods are imperiled.  Only a keen recognition of such possibilities can lead us to fully appreciate what so many people mindlessly take for granted.

Could that quintessential Jewish characteristic be what sometime decays into “Jewish worry”?  Might anxiety be a warped expression of what, ideally, should be a feeling of joyful gratitude to the Creator for (in Modim’s words)  “nisecha sheb’chol yom imonu”-the “miracles that are with us each and every day”?

Perhaps, in other words, the Jewish worrywart, by obsessing over the myriad things that can go wrong, is mangling the Jewish trait of gratitude to the Creator for when things go right.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami.

Missing The Good Old Days?

— Rabbi Avi Shafran

Do you miss the good old days when we had a President who refused to allow the US to participate in the UN’s Durban Review Conference because he believed Israel would be unfairly criticized.

A President who rejected the Goldstone report, and refused to participate in joint military exercises with Turkey when Ankara insisted Israel be excluded.

A President who asked Congress to approve a $205 million package to help Israel build a new anti-missile defense system.

A President who spoke up on Israel’s behalf to help it gain acceptance into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

A President who didn’t shy from authorizing the killing of an American-born radical Muslim cleric hiding in Yemen.

A President who, in a speech delivered in the heart of the Arab world, told his listeners that they need to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state.

A President who, addressing the UN General Assembly, stated clearly and unequivocally that “Israel is a sovereign state and the historic homeland of the Jewish people” and went on to say that “It should be clear to all that efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy will only be met by the unshakeable opposition of the US.”

A President who, on the domestic front, signed an executive order that preserved the faith-based social service funding initiative and pointedly did not forbid participating religious groups from discriminating in hiring in order to be faithful to their religious beliefs.

Well, take heart.  The good old days are more recent than you think.  You have that President.  His name is Barack Obama.

No, I didn’t vote for him in 2008.  I’m a lifelong Republican, an alumnus, in fact, of Young Americans for Freedom. (I was once young.)  

But it bothers me that Mr. Obama is negatively viewed by so many Orthodox Jews, ostensibly because he treats Israel badly and is hostile to religion.

I have no statistics, only anecdotal evidence and journalistic gleanings, for my feeling that he is so viewed by many intelligent and otherwise well-informed frum folks.  But if I’m right and he is, one has to wonder why.

Maybe it’s his fiscal strategy.  Economics is an esoteric, inscrutable science to me, something on the order of particle physics.  And so it may well be that the President deserves opprobrium by the heapful for his fiscal policies.  But those policies are not the major part of the criticism one hears about Mr. Obama “in the mikvah,” so to speak.  There he is indicted on charges of insensitivity (or worse) toward Israel or religious Jews.

Surely our community is not so uninformed as to consider Mr. Obama’s middle name, given him at birth, an indictment of his character; or so credulous as to doubt his citizenship; or so crass – one hopes – as to distrust him for a surplus of melanin.

There may well be reasons to feel negatively toward the current Administration (certainly many people, and they are hardly limited to our community, do).  History will have its say in time.  But if any readers were surprised a few paragraphs above to discover that the “good old days” of American support for Israel and concern for religious rights are the here-and-now, they must admit that they were not as well-informed about our President as they thought.

The real problem here, though, isn’t Mr. Obama or our feelings about him.  It’s something deeper.  

One of the most basic Torah imperatives is modesty.  Not only in dress and in speech but in attitude – in recognizing that there are things we don’t know, in some cases can’t know.

And yet so often we seem to feel a need to embrace absolute, take-no-prisoners political opinions; to reject any possibility of ambivalence, much less any admission of ignorance.

Certitude is proper, even vital, in some areas of life.  But in the realm of politics it can be, in fact usually is, an expression of overconfidence or worse.

Part of wisdom is knowing what one doesn’t know.  And part of modesty is acting accordingly.

© 2010 AMI MAGAZINE