Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Ryan Henning, an elephant handler, trainer and Deputy Animal Supervisor for Ringling Bros. with the elephants as they performed their last show at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The elephant show had it's last show this day and the animals were trucked to Florida as they were retired. -- We followed the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus as they discontinue the elephant act as part of their shows. The Elephants will live in retirement in Florida. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The closing of the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus came as a shock to those of us who grew up with fond memories of this slice of Americana. The trapeze artists, tightrope walkers, unicyclists and yes, even the clowns, all occupy a special place in the hearts of generations of young children, many who entertained thoughts at one time or another, of running away to join them.
But above all else, there were the elephants. When the circus came to town, kids poured into the streets to see the parade, featuring these enormous, mysterious, brilliant, and astonishingly submissive mammals, whose sad eyes betrayed a history of abuse that few of us took the time to imagine.
Circus spokespeople have stated that the elimination of elephants, which was announced a year ago in response to growing animal rights protests, led directly to Ringling’s demise. Bolstering that point, when the elephant phase-out was announced, Donald Trump tweeted in disapproval that he would “never go again.” Predictably, the closure was greeted by some pundits as an unfortunate triumph for Political Correctness.
But Ringling Bros.’ fate was sealed not by the removal of their pachyderms this past year, but by their horrific mistreatment for decades. It was similar to how Sea World saw its attendance decline following protests from animal rights groups. The theme park has since undergone a massive rebranding as “Shamu’s Happy Harbor,” in an attempt to convince the world that orcas are lining up to exchange their precious freedom for a chance to be ogled by masses of young tourists and eat unlimited amounts of herring.
Mainstream Jewish advocacy groups have generally stayed out of the animal rights fray, which is to be expected. They having enough trouble keeping up with human events these days, and besides, the owners of Ringling Brothers are Jewish. Best to stay away from this one.
Or is it? Feeling the pain of animals is a prime Jewish value, most notably (and somewhat ironically) expressed in the laws of kashrut. Cruelty to animals is strictly forbidden in Jewish law, in part because feeling their pain (in Hebrew “tza’ar ba’alay chaim”) trains us to treat people with similar reverence. After all, Moses, David and other great leaders gained their leadership bonafides as caring shepherds.
Here’s a tweet, penned by journalist Walter Shapiro, which caught my eye shortly after the circus closing was announced:
“They came for the elephants, but I wasn’t an elephant so I said nothing.” How I feel about the end of Ringling Brothers Circus.
On the surface, this is an amusing adaptation of the famous writing of Holocaust era theologian Martin Niemöller, one that has found new popularity in the Age of Trump. Here’s a snippet:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist….Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
I heard an interesting take on this at a recent conference bringing together Jews and Muslims. In his introductory remarks, Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the sponsoring Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, said that Niemoller’s sentiment was admirable but insufficient, because the sympathy one feels for targeted groups should not be motivated simply by self-preservation. The Torah states dozens of times that we should empathize with the stranger because we too were victims of callous discrimination, not because our apathy might otherwise cause us to become victims again. We should care about socialists and trade unionists – and Muslims, immigrants, people with disabilities, Mexicans and LGBT – because it’s the right thing to do.
That’s also why it is Jewishly correct to be politically correct. Not only that, but political correctness has turned out to be really good business. Even as the White House is now inhabited by the most unabashedly politically incorrect president in history, a P.C. landslide is sweeping the country.
Just a day after the Ringling Bros. revelation, the animal-reliant Big Apple Circus announced that it would be selling off its assets in a bankruptcy auction.
Ringling Bros.’ fate was sealed not by the removal of their pachyderms this past year, but by their horrific mistreatment for decades.
Wal-Mart sells lots of books with titles like “The Tyranny of the Politically Correct,” but in 2015 their CEO, Doug McMillon, voiced opposition to “religious freedom” bills discriminating against LGBT. We saw similar reactions to such bills in Indiana, North Carolina and elsewhere. Even China responded to international protests over rampant elephant poaching in recently shutting down the world’s largest ivory market.
Sure, political correctness can be taken too far sometimes. Back in the early ’90s, a newspaper programmed its computer to be so P.C. that when an article spoke about the Massachusetts budget crisis, it was automatically edited to say that the state had put itself back in the “African American,” rather than “the black.” Political correctness has been seen as a tool of condescension, often used to shame social conservatives into using more sensitive language. And to label progressives as P.C. has also been a tool of humiliation and disdain.
Last year Brown University officially renamed Columbus Day as “Indigenous People’s Day.” I’m no fan of Columbus’ cruel treatment of indigenous peoples, but I think it’s unproductive to summarily jettison a celebration that has become synonymous with ethnic pride for many of Italian and Spanish descent. There are more effective – and less condescending – ways to teach us to love one another.
P.C. should not be a banner used to bludgeon the opposition. For me it stands for “Perfectly Civilized.” And increasingly, the American marketplace is agreeing.
Ringling Bros.’ demise is further proof that the power of the purse can prove decisive in asserting values of mutual respect, a reverence for innocence and an unconditional love for the most vulnerable among us. Even for the elephant in the room.