W hen we last mentioned Steven Wise here, the attorney and founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project was arguing at a 2016 Fordham Law School forum that “based on principles of equality,” chimpanzees are “entitled to the right to bodily liberty and, therefore, release from the laboratory” in which they’re being “imprisoned” for research purposes. Indeed, in the summer of 2016, a New York State judge agreed with him, and authorized a writ of habeas corpus, which is used to challenge unlawful detention by the government, on behalf of two chimpanzees at a Stony Brook University laboratory. The ruling was later reversed on appeal (and no, it was not a banana peel).

Now, Wise — whose life is dedicated to the “struggle to achieve fundamental legal rights for nonhuman animals” — is on to his next really big challenge: His latest clients are three elephants belonging to a family-owned traveling zoo in Connecticut. Wise stresses that this is not an animal welfare case and he doesn’t claim the Commerford Zoo is violating any animal welfare statutes. It is, instead, about preventing “an inherently cruel violation of their most fundamental right as elephants. If Connecticut common law courts truly value autonomy, as previous rulings suggest they do, they too will see their situation in this light and order the elephants’ release from captivity. ”

He has petitioned a court there for a writ of habeas corpulent, er, corpus, hoping to secure their release to a natural habitat sanctuary, where, he says, “their right to bodily liberty will be respected.” Once they’re free to leave the Commerford Zoo, where they’ve lived for over 30 years, the three elephants, Minnie, Beulah, and Karen, would presumably decide among themselves on their lifestyle options and what they’d like to do with the rest of their lives.

But here’s the problem with writing a column about a fellow like Wise: After writing the last sentence in the previous paragraph, I realized that my best efforts at sarcasm will fail, since Mr. Wise actually agrees with me. He bases his argument for granting elephants legal personhood, after all, on the notion that elephants “engage not only in innovative problem-solving, but they engage in cooperative problem-solving. They know their past, they know they’re in the present, and they can plan a future.” He speaks passionately of the “abundant, robust scientific evidence of elephants’ autonomy, i.e. their ability to choose how to live their emotionally, socially, and cognitively complex lives.”

I admit defeat. I can try all I want to be a wise guy, but this Wise guy will best me every time with his passion and earnestness.

A Washington Post story quotes Richard L. Cupp, a Pepperdine law school professor and critic of Wise who says that extending “legal personhood to animals might end up loosening the definition…. If, for example, people decided it was occasionally necessary to approve invasive experiments on animals despite their legal personhood, then the same might theoretically be asked about experiments on humans…. Associating intelligence with personhood would also ‘not necessarily be good for the most vulnerable human persons.’”

Professor Cupp is correct that there is a danger to humanity in making a certain level of intelligence or capacity for emotion, or even self-awareness, the criteria for bestowal of rights. Given that Mr. Wise’s loony crusade has a potentially dangerous subtext, it’s also filling a very important, sorely lacking function for contemporary society, by hopefully making people think about the single most important question there is: What, precisely, does it mean to be human? Once it isn’t smarts or long-term memory or empathy or ability to plan one’s future that earn one the highest level of societal rights and protection — since, per Wise, elephants possess all of those in some measure and many humans, sadly, do not — what is the crucial criterion for personhood?

It is the soul. It is that G-d created man in His image in order to send him down to This World on a mission that only humans can fulfill and for which they will earn eternal reward in the Next World. That definition of human personhood brings with it the broadest possible implications for how we ought to be living our lives, and if just one person is awakened by this lawsuit to think about what life is truly all about, he will have the earnestly nutty Mr. Wise to thank.

Mr. Wise himself expressed it best, albeit unintentionally, when he explained why he thought elephants might stand a better chance in court than chimps, speculating that it’s because “apes are so close to us that it makes some people uncomfortable.” And, indeed, perhaps this lawsuit may spur some to wonder uncomfortably: If all I do in my life is tend to my every bodily need while neglecting my soul entirely, am I, in fact, uniquely human, or am just aping an ape?


The relationship of the frum community to the world around it is, as we know, sometimes marked by tension and conflict. Within the last couple weeks, however, there have been positive developments in two inter-communal flashpoints, which can hopefully serve as models for cooperation and compromise in other contexts, too.

On Election Day in New York, voters in both the upstate Satmar village of Kiryas Joel (KJ) and the nearby town of Monroe overwhelmingly supported KJ’s secession from Monroe and its incorporation as an independent town, New York’s first new town in 35 years and America’s first-ever all-Orthodox one. The new Town of Palm Tree — the English translation of Teitelbaum, Rav Yoel of Satmar’s surname — is slated to come into existence in 2020. 87% of KJ voters approved the move as did 79% of residents of Monroe outside KJ.

The separation of KJ from Monroe will make the various conflicts between Monroe and KJ, often prompted by KJ’s rapid growth, a thing of the past. Passage of this referendum also means approval of a compromise worked out between the two communities regarding the size of KJ. In 2015, KJ annexed 164 acres of Monroe land with approval of the Monroe Town Board but was now seeking over 500 more acres. Instead, KJ will now get 56 additional acres and drop its request for more.

It is the desire for conflict resolution and compromise that led KJ’s village administrator to refer to the vote as “a historic day” on which voters “chose a better path forward, one of diplomacy and compromise instead of angry rhetoric and litigation.”

Meanwhile, in New Jersey’s Bergen County, the state attorney general’s office filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit last month against the town of Mahwah over its attempt to obstruct the creation of an eruv. Now, the head of northern New Jersey’s Jewish Federation, the head of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, and the head of the local association of heterodox clergy have put their religious orientations aside and co-authored a Statement of Principles regarding the controversy that stands up for what is right — but with a sense of balance and a tone of civility.

It really hits all the right notes, as this excerpt shows:

In an attempt to promote solidarity among the Jewish community and civil discourse amongst all residents, we have established the following set of principles:

• The establishment of an Eruv is legally permitted. We encourage the promoters of the Eruv to follow all the due administrative processes needed.

• An Eruv is a benefit to Jewish communities and is unobtrusive to local communities.

• Opposition to an Eruv is protected by the free speech amendment. However, opponents of the Eruv must have the moral imperative to conduct their speech free of hatred and bias. Any anti-Semitic elements must be condemned.

• The opposition to members of a particular group with a different culture moving into a community and changing its character is xenophobia, plain and simple, and runs counter to the sense of diversity that strengthens our country.

• The aforementioned notwithstanding, we urge our brothers and sisters from the Jewish community who may have interest in moving into Mahwah and the surrounding area to be acutely sensitive to the values of their future neighbors. Being good citizens and neighbors sanctifies G-d’s name in this world.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 686. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com