Ask the Rabbi, Part 11

For over a year, I have participated in an “Ask the Rabbi” panel responding to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. here is the latest installment. This column, including the responses of my colleagues, can be read at

Should a Jew avoid living in Germany?  What about doing business there?

There was a period of time right after the Holocaust when there was discussion of imposing a cherem on Germany similar to the one placed on Spain after the Expulsion. It never came to fruition, which is not to say that it would have heeded in any event. And all Jews should live in Israel.

Nonetheless, singling out Germany because of the Holocaust tends to overlook the horrors perpetrated throughout Europe in recent and medieval times. There is hardly a country on that continent that didn’t persecute, torment and expel Jews. German Jew hatred was unique in the magnitude of their evil deeds but it was the culmination and apogee of European Jew hatred of more than a millennium.

Germany today is not the Germany of the Holocaust era. Ironically, there are few places in the world in which the Holocaust is as tangibly felt as it is in Germany. I have visited several times and was overwhelmed by the public manifestation of Holocaust history in, for example, Berlin, which has numerous photographs and exhibitions on its streets. A picture and caption reminds everyone that, here, on this street on this date, this number of Jews were deported to their deaths. This is in addition to the ubiquitous Stolpersteine, brass plates embedded in sidewalks containing the names and dates of deportation of German Jews who lived in the adjacent apartment. I saw these in Berlin and Cologne. Once you grasp what they are, you cannot ignore them. They are eerie reminders of the lives that were brutally ended.

Many young German citizens with whom I’ve spoken feel no guilt over the Holocaust (they didn’t perpetrate it) but they do feel shame that their country should have committed such a horrendous evil. It is not a reason to live there or do business there, but as for the latter, I like reminding people that Am Yisrael Chai. With G-d’s help, our nation survives and thrives.

Is it important to keep kids (who are old enough to come to shul) at their seats for Kerias HaTorah (as opposed to letting them play outside)?

Yes, assuming the premise of the question that the children are old enough to come to shul. Realistically, that age should not be younger than seven or eight years old, and asking a child younger than that to come and sit quietly places him in an awkward position. He is not a mini-adult, and the shul experience for him will be at best boring and at worst will subject him to incessant shushes from the adults in the vicinity. Neither is fair to the child.

Nor is it wise to bring a young child to shul and have him or her play outside. The child might have fun, but shul will always be deemed as the place to go to meet friends and have fun. What is lost is the sense of mora, reverence for the shul as a place of tefilah. Once lost (or worse, never inculcated in the first place), that child becomes an adult who also goes to shul to meet friends, have fun, and throw in a kiddush with liquor and delicacies.

A child who is old enough to feel awe for a shul should come, daven as appropriate, but certainly hear the Torah reading. He will develop a love for it. The parent can prepare questions on the sedra before and have the child find the answers during the Kriah.

Moreover, it is advisable for children from age nine or ten to listen to the Rav’s drasha as well. They will learn about Torah, the world, priorities in Jewish life, and develop a warm bond with their rabbi. Many times young adults have told me that they remembered something I said when they were younger than their teen years that mattered in their lives. Banishing children to groups for the duration of their youth is inadvisable. They will gain enormously from sitting next to their parents and growing spiritually from the shul experience.

Is there anything wrong with taking an animal from the wild and confining it to restricted living quarters?  In other words, are zoos “kosher”?

We should not romanticize life in the wild, which, for animals, is often nasty, brutish and short, to borrow from Thomas Hobbes.  It is true that animals are brought to zoos against their will and do not receive a salary for their efforts. But it is also true that zoos try to replicate the animals’ natural habitat (if only to keep them alive and well) and so they gain a measure of protection they otherwise would not necessarily have.

Additionally, we should not identify with animals, and ask “how would we feel if we were cooped up”? Animals are not “almost humans.” As long as they are treated well, then zoos do not present a moral problem. We maintain that animals were created to serve mankind; they are not our equals in the hierarchy of creation. Zoos bring joy to young and old.

Zoos are not only kosher, but as Chacham Ovadia Yosef pointed out (Yechaveh Daat 3:66), they enable us to marvel at G-d’s creations and sing His praises. It is recorded that the Terumat Hadeshen (in the 1400’s) walked some distance one Shabbat to see two lions that had been brought for display in his city in Austria. He had never seen lions before. Similarly, Chid”a traveled through much of the world and would visit zoos in every city that had one, both to satisfy his innate curiosity and revel in the greatness of G-d’s handiwork.

There are extensive discussions in the poskim as to the appropriate bracha that is recited upon seeing an unusual species or an exceptionally beautiful animal or bird (Meshaneh Habriyot, Shekacha lo b’olamo). The discussions alone underscore the permissibility and usefulness of zoos as well as the importance of visiting them, so that we may sense “How great are Your works, Hashem!” (Tehillim 92:6)

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, NJ and the Israel Representative for the Coalition for Jewish Values.

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