The Shooting of Harambe and Us
Every so often an event relatively trivial in and of itself proves important as a marker of the state of our culture. The slaying of Harambe, a 17-year-old silverback gorilla, by officials at the Cincinnati Zoo, after a 4-year-old boy accidentally fell into his enclosure, is one such event.
The zoo simply had no choice if it wished to protect the boy from serious harm or death. Harambe was holding him by the ankle. Though he had shown no hostility, the phenomenally strong, 400-pound gorilla could easily have killed the boy with no malicious intent. Shooting Harambe with a tranquilizer gun would only have enraged him before putting him to sleep, and thus further endangered the boy.
So the grim choice facing the zoo was between saving the boy and killing the gorilla, on the one hand, and sparing the gorilla and the quite possible death of the boy, on the other. There were no happy ending scenarios.
To Mishpacha readers, no doubt, the choice is obvious. But it was less so to many others. Within a short period of Harambe's death, a website "Justice for Harambe" had gathered 300,000 signatures protesting the zoo's actions. And the mother of the boy, from whom he had wandered away in a short span of time, was subjected to threats and numerous statements that she should have been shot instead.
FANATIC ZEAL ON BEHALF OF ANIMALS and a disdain for humans have long gone together. The British Catholic writer C.K. Chesterton observed, "Wherever there is Animal Worship there is Human Sacrifice. That is both symbolically and literally, a real truth of historical experience."
The linkage, however, goes back a lot further than Chesterton, all the way back to the prophet Hosea: "Those who slaughter men will kiss their calves" (Hosea 13:2). On a visit to inter-war Berlin, Rav Yerucham Levovitz of Mirrer witnessed household pets dressed in pants and sweaters. He commented: "Where they treat animals as humans, in that place they will slaughter humans as animals," quoting the verse from Hosea.
And he was too soon proven right. The Nazis evacuated the famed Lipizzaner stallions from Vienna to safety, even as they were carrying out the industrial slaughter of millions of human beings.
The disdain for human beings in comparison to animals begins with a denial of any distinction between the two. Once that denial was chiefly found in the bastions of higher learning. Princeton University "ethicist" Peter Singer, for instance, has long proclaimed the far greater value of the life of a chimpanzee than a human infant. And his refusal to distinguish between animals and humans has led him to support inter-species marriage, though he has not quite worked out the "I do" part on behalf of the non-human partner.
But as the culture more and more celebrates the animalistic, instinctual side of human beings, and acts accordingly, such academic delicacies have filtered down into the general consciousness. We are fast approaching the state of the generation of the Flood, ki hishchit kol basar es darko al ha'aretz – for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth, as described by Chazal.
The breakdown of morality in that generation derived precisely from the denial of a distinction between human beings and animals. That is why after the Flood, man was for the first time permitted to eat animal flesh. That permission, explains the Ramban, was given precisely to emphasize the difference between man and all other animals, and thereby cure the fallacy that had led to the corruption of the generation of the Flood.
What emerges is that the breakdown of all traditional morality in our time and the growing inability to recognize the greater value of a human life compared to that of an animal are not two separate disturbing phenomena, but two sides of the same coin.
ANOTHER aspect of contemporary thought not only places man on an equal plane with the animals, but devalues human beings vis-à-vis all other aspects of the created world. I refer to the worship of Nature of the modern environmental movement. According to that creed, Man is an interloper into Nature, the one creature that does not belong, or at least only has a right to exist insofar as he does not disturb the pristine state of nature in any way. Limiting human population growth is near the top of every environmental group's priorities.
By virtue of a system of vast system of dams and pumping stations built in the 1960s, the western side of California's Central Valley became the world's most productive agricultural land. Over the last decade, however, much of that impressive water delivery system has been shut down by a lawsuit to protect the Delta smelt, a three-inch long, short-lived fish. Two hundred thousand acres of prime farmland have been idled, with farmers bankrupted and farm workers left unemployed. And one could multiply such examples of the human consequences being made subservient to obscure species whose disappearance would be little noted.
Thus the environmental movement stands in direct opposition to the Torah view. Hashem's intention, as expressed to Adam and Chava in Gan Eden, is that the entirety of Creation is given to Man to subdue and rule over – not in order to wantonly destroy, but in order to serve Man's purposes.
THE CONTRETEMPS over Harambe's sad death leaves a Torah Jew with mixed emotions. If the current American election campaigns or the latest campus follies were not enough to convince us of the descent into madness of a society unmoored from all Torah values, the reaction to the shooting of Harambe provides more evidence.
But whatever solace comes from recognizing that Torah is a sanctuary from a culture gone mad must be tempered and even overwhelmed by what the outrage directed at the Cincinnati Zoo and the little boy's mother tells us about the culture in which we live and the moral pollution that threatens us all.
All Minorities are not the Same
I once heard Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb describe being accosted in the Boston train station on a Motzaei Shabbos while still attired in full chassidic regalia by a fellow member of the tribe. "You are an embarrassment to the Jewish people," the man informed him.
Rabbi Gottlieb replied that the man must be confused. "I'm not Jewish, I'm Amish." At which point his assailant apologized profusely, and assured Rabbi Gottlieb how much he admired his stubborn adherence to tradition.
Besides capturing the notorious discomfort of some secular Jews with the presence of identifiably Orthodox Jews, the story brings out another point as well: the extent to which our current identity politics and runaway political correctness place the emphasis not on what is done but by whom.
Neutral principles by which to judge behavior are far less important than whether the actor in question is the member of a favored victim group. And, by the way, Jews, and especially Orthodox Jews, may be a small minority, but they are not a favored one. Just in case you were wondering.
The recent effort by the New York City Human Rights Commission to prevent a public pool in Williamsburg from creating approximately eight hours a week of separate swimming for women is a case in point. (The decision was subsequently reversed after the intervention of state assemblyman Dov Hilkind.)
This was the second time in recent years when the municipal human rights commission came down on Williamsburg's large chassidic population. In 2014, it objected to store owners posting dress codes for those entering. As Mark Hemingway noted in the Weekly Standard, an elegant restaurant like the Four Seasons could require a coat and tie, but a chassidic proprietor in Williamsburg could not impose a dress code, according to the Commission. Religious scruples were not entitled to more deference but less.
That earlier decree was also reversed, after it turned out that the chief complainant was a radical, anti-Israel activist, which caused embarrassment to the de Blasio administration.
The New York Times supported the NYC Human Rights Commission, chiming in that the separate swimming hours in Williamsburg emitted a "strong odor of religious intrusion into a secular space." The fact that a very high percentage, likely a majority, of Williamsburg taxpayers living near the Bedford Avenue facility can only use the pool if there are separate swimming hours and the limited number of such hours did not cut it for the Times.
But apparently, not all religions give off the same foul scent to the Times' sensitive nose. As Hemingway points out, in February the Times published an article extolling a Canadian community for creating separate swimming hours primarily for the local Muslim population.
In 2008, Harvard announced separate women's gym and pool hours at the request of female Muslim students. Admittedly Harvard is a private institution, but none of the Harvard alumna or alumni at the Times were particularly offended.
I'm not sure whether Harvard would have been so forthcoming had the request come from Orthodox Jewish students, who are almost certainly more numerous at Harvard than Muslim ones. Recall how Yale University turned the then recent innovation of coed freshmen dorms into an integral part of Yale's educational mission in response to the request of five Orthodox students to be exempted from living in the dorms.
In any event, the Orthodox Harvard students, unlike their Muslim counterparts, knew better than to ask, and thereby call attention to their Orthodoxy. (The chassidim of Williamsburg are less socialized into Ivy League norms, and sought to use public facilities paid for with their taxpayer dollars.)
The Times opposition to separate hours for Jews but not for Muslims is typical of how much left-wing thinking is dominated by where the parties rank on the victimology hierarchy, with Muslims at the top.
But it should be added that the attack on separate swimming hours is not just an attack on religious values. It is part on an ongoing cultural denigration of modesty in any form. There are plenty of women (and men for that matter) who prefer to swim without every contour of their bodies being on display to members of the opposite sex.
The opposition to separate swimming hours is of a piece with the Obama administration's efforts to turn every public restroom and high school locker room in America unisex.