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AMID THE QUIET, TIME TO SPEAK
Washington is a quiet place these days. I am not referring to "political" Washington, of course. Congress and the various federal agencies are abuzz with all sorts of activity. I am talking about the people. The streets seem emptier, the lunchtime chatter hushed, the atmosphere subdued and cautious. It is somber.
When terrorism struck, it hit this city hard. The loss of life - on the plane and at the Pentagon - was shattering. As Americans, we grieve with our fellow citizens over the deaths of all the victims.
But, even at the Pentagon, the tragedy hit closer to home. Rabbi Menachem Youlus, a chaplain who participated in the recovery, estimates that as many as 20 victims, out of an approximately 190 (11%), were Jewish. Two, in fact, were customers of his local Jewish bookstore. It was chilling to hear that one of the Jewish dead was identified by the mogen dovid discovered around his neck.
But what stunned Washington went beyond the loss of life. To successfully crash a jet in the heart of our national capital - at the Pentagon, no less - jarred Washington's collective psyche. And one could only shudder at what additional havoc would have been wrought had the fourth plane found its intended target.
It is not that Washingtonians have never considered the possibility. Indeed, we have always known that something catastrophic could - and someday probably would - happen in this city. In some ways, it is a mindset unique to the people that live and work here. The nation's capital is always a primary target.
Growing up in Washington during the Cold War years, my earliest memories include the omnipresent "fallout shelter" signs and the evacuation drills to get to those shelters. Over the years, as the threat turned from war to terrorism, there have been numerous scares. Jews got a special taste of the terrorist menace in the 1977 when Hanafi Muslims took over the B'nai B'rith building and held hostages for several days. There was always the fear, but we put it aside - we had to - and lived our lives.
It is now back - that sense of vulnerability - and it is magnified a hundred-fold when we consider the threat. The "new" terrorism, as has been so often repeated lately, lurks in the shadows. Its weapons and methods of attack are not conventional, and when evil has no bounds security is illusory. This is a city that was designed by L'Enfant to withstand the cavalry attacks of the 19th century, not the suicide bombings, hijackings or biochemical warfare of the year 2001.
But, despite this cloud of vulnerability, Washington is at work. Both the White House and Congress are trying to fight back with a double-edged sword - fighting terrorism abroad while enhancing security at home.
Some have suggested that the Jewish community mute its response to developments related to the ongoing war against terror. A backlash is feared. But the Jewish community has an important role to play on both of these fronts, and it should do so without hesitation.
Jews - in Israel and around the world - have been targets of terror for decades. We have followed it, studied it and painfully felt its evil. We have long understood its insidious designs and have seen through its political camouflage. We have, to be sure, long suffered the international community's naiveté, hypocrisy, ignorance, apathy, and worse, in battling this scourge.
Surely, there are sensitivities involved here of the utmost importance. The United States has undertaken an unprecedented step in meaningfully combating terrorism, and its coalitional efforts - by all accounts, a key element of the strategy -- should not be jeopardized or undermined.
But Jews are not disinterested parties. We have a life and death stake in the conduct and outcome of this battle. Osama bin Laden wasted no time in proclaiming that Jews, wherever they may be found, will suffer the consequences of his hysterical hatred. We cannot sit by idly. We must find our voice.
We must reject the canard that somehow Israel is to blame for hatred and terrorism directed against the U.S. We must make clear that American pressure to force talks or to accept the reality of a Palestinian state will prove counterproductive and represents a capitulation to terrorists.
We must express our outrage at the notion that violence against Israel and Jews is something separate and distinct from terrorism against "innocents." We must make sure that Palestinian terrorist groups - and the fronts that support them - will be included among the targets of the war on terrorism.
We must express our concern about including state supporters of terrorism in the coalition and pushing the effort to make Syria a member of the U.N. Security Council.
We must say all this, not because it simply serves our parochial interests. We should say it because it is integral to the fight against terrorism and to the United States' stated objectives in this campaign.
The American Jewish community cannot remain silent. We must speak to the President and our political leaders clearly and unequivocally, firmly and in candor. Carefully, too. Quietly, if possible. With discretion and prudence. But we cannot afford to remain silent at this critical juncture in our people's history.
If we do, the price may be very high, G-d forbid.
[Abba Cohen is Agudath Israel of America's Washington Office director and counsel. This essay appeared in Coalition]]
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A LONG, STRANGE TRIP INDEED
The Basque have a custom of leaving a gift in someone's home when they have noticed a sign of personal growth. In that culture, "You haven't changed a bit," is the antithesis of a compliment.
From that perspective, Rabbi Avraham Novick and his wife Sarah, Chassidim living in Israel, have earned a plethora of presents. Looking at them, no one would ever imagine by that their spiritual odyssey began in the sweat lodges of the American Indians and that they once signed love letters to each other as "Dancing Coyote" and "Raven."
Avraham, then Steven, pursued his spiritual source in nature while Sarah, then Allison, pined for the mystical spirituality her Chassidic brother held out to her in Jerusalem.
The two of them were on their way to Peru when destiny interceded through a severe allergic reaction to the pre-trip vaccinations and a malfunctioning computer at the travel agent - elements, the Novicks now feel, of a Divine plan. They decided that they'd eschew South America and discover if the Promised Land held out any promise for them.
They came to Israel. Avraham slept in the crevices of the Sinai desert's mountains and danced with the Chassidim in Tzefat. Sarah heard the call of God in a rainstorm and both left the drug induced highs of their previous lives, and came to pledge their allegiance to something called Torah.
By contrast to their spiritual evolution, their commitment to each other, years earlier, was almost immediate. They ended up being married four times, once during a Grateful Dead concert and finally by an Orthodox rabbi in Monsey, New York. Together now almost twenty years, nothing obvious remains of their previous incarnations. They dress in the traditional garb of Chassidim and their home reflects the values they live by and their positions as leaders of the Biala Chassidic community in Beit Shemesh.
Their odyssey is recorded in a book by Rabbi Novick, "One Love United" (firstname.lastname@example.org). Dedicated to his wife and helpmate, it records their process of transformation from young, idealistic hippies in search of truth, to a Chassidic family that embraces it.
Like their Biblical namesakes, Avraham and Sarah have drawn others closer to Judaism, helping them find their own spiritual places in the world.
"A person always has to focus on finding truth, to make it his or her ultimate goal.," says Rabbi Novick . "I'm still on the journey myself, there 's always more to grow. In Jewish tradition, man is called a 'mehalech' - 'a mover'."
And how does Rabbi Novick know he's finally found the ultimate truth?
"In all the other paths I explored," he explains, "I always found aspects that were appealing and others that were questionable or contradictory. And each of them led me to a point of self-satisfaction and completion - and boredom.
"Today, though, in the world of Judaism, while I have realized more potential than I believed myself capable of, I don't feel that I've begun to tap into my potential of self growth; I don't feel that I've even begun to drink from the fountain of what the Torah has to offer me."
Rabbi Novick once ran the Jewish student information Center of Tel-Aviv University. Today he runs Yeshivat Emes Veemunah in Beit Shemesh. Reflecting on his previous sojourn with the American Indians he comments, " Nature is a wonderful place to spend with God but nature is the interface between spirituality and physicality. Though it's a high level of physicality, it's a low level of spirituality. When a person is in a place where he doesn't see God, he can sometimes end up going deeper."
"God is everywhere and our role is to reveal him everywhere." Says Rabbi Novick. "It's easier to see Hashem in a tree than in a brick building just as it's easier to elevate the sparks of energy of a carrot than of red meat." "I don't think the journey ever ends," adds Sarah. "Until we reach the gates of Heaven, we have all the chances in the world to work on ourselves until we not only heal ourselves but also the world that we live in."
She maintains that one needn't turn one's back on one's past.
"I think it's ever evolving. As I live the life of Sarah, I realize I still have the essence of Raven within me and I manifest that through dance, music, and art through Torah in the work I do with different groups like Holocaust survivors. I hear songs of the Biala Chassidim and I'm sure I was singing those songs within Indian circles 20 years ago. It's not so difficult for me to mesh the two worlds. I know we have to make a separation because we're the chosen people but I can't deny that the paths that I've taken or that were given to me have very much to do with where I am now."
Does she have any regrets?
"We're supposed to have regrets for elements of our past and there are things I have come to regret. On the other hand when I met people like the Indian elder who led me to a sweat lodge and told me that he feels his people are part of the lost tribes then I can't deny the existence of God wherever I was."
Rabbi Novick encourages others to 'Pursue truth truthfully'. "Being honest with oneself is the hardest thing in the world. Always keep searching for truth."
[Rosally Saltsman is a freelance writer living in Israel. Her book "Finding the Right Words" has just been published by Targum Press.]
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Rabbi Avi Shafran and David Zwiebel
An insightful observer once noted that issuing a "clarification" usually means one's original words were understood just a little bit too well. The thought came to mind reading a recent opinion piece in The New York Jewish Week by the Religion Action Center of Reform Judaism's director Rabbi David Saperstein about what has come to be known as the "Rabbi Regev controversy."
To recap, for those who may not have been following this latest episode of unseemly Orthodox-bashing:
On October 12, the Cleveland Jewish News reported on an "impassioned" High Holy Days sermon delivered by Rabbi Uri Regev of the Israel Religious Action Center whose message, according to the report, was that the events of September 11 should serve as "a wake-up call about religious zealotry" in Judaism no less than in Islam. "Left unchecked," the Cleveland Jewish News article reported the Reform leader saying, "the same kind of intolerance which drove Islamic terrorists to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon threatens to tear the state of Israel apart." And, in drawing what the article characterized as "a chilling parallel between Islamic and Israeli religious extremists" - being "the Haredi, fervently religious Orthodox Jews who comprise about 6% of the Israeli population" - Rabbi Regev was quoted as saying that "They have distorted Torah (teachings) and interpreted them as giving license to get rid of infidels."
Widespread protest, predictably, ensued in the Orthodox community; opinion pieces were written taking Rabbi Regev to task, and an advertisement doing the same appeared in two Jewish weeklies.
Several weeks later, the Cleveland reporter issued a clarification, admitting to having taken a number of journalistic liberties, from omitting ellipses to combining quotes from different occasions to neglecting to note that some of her material had come from interviews with Rabbi Regev and statements he had made in informal gatherings rather than from his sermon. She also explained that Rabbi Regev had not been referring to "all" Haredim but only one of "four groups within the Haredim"; and that his "getting rid of infidels" comment had been made in the context of "acts of hate such as graffiti sprayed on non-Orthodox institutions in Israel" rather than as a description of the mindset of Haredim generally. At the same time, she asserted, Rabbi Regev "did not clarify that the individuals he considered most difficult represented only a small number of Haredim."
The reporter's clarification thus secured, Rabbi Saperstein sprung to his colleague's defense. While acknowledging that Rabbi Regev had used the events of September 11 to "cast a harsh spotlight on the potential effects of unchecked fundamentalism mutating malignantly in the minds of a few," Rabbi Saperstein insisted that his colleague's remarks could in no way be seen as equating Haredim with Islamic terrorists, and he called on critics to apologize for "tarnishing Rabbi Regev's reputation."
But, with all due respect, the tarnish was and remains entirely self-inflicted. We don't know the precise words Rabbi Regev used during his sermon; our request for a tape of the sermon has been rebuffed. But what is quite clear, even after all the "clarification," is that mere days after September 11 and explicitly invoking the Islamic terrorist attacks on America, Rabbi Regev warned his listeners (either during his sermon or at other times in the presence of a reporter) that Israel's Haredi "religious extremists" are, like Islamic fundamentalists, a dire threat to the lives of others.
Reality Check: Graffiti is not akin to murdering innocent men, women and children. Isolated incidents of vandalism have been unconditionally condemned by Haredi leaders and are entirely foreign to the overwhelming majority of Haredi Jews - as are the violent acts of Boruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir (cited by Rabbi Saperstein as examples of Jewish "fundamentalists"), neither of whom, in any event, was or is Haredi. There are no military training camps operated by Yated Ne'eman's editorial board, no suicide bombing manuals published by Shas and no anthrax mailing operations in Me'ah She'arim. To mention Haredim in the same sermon as the broad terror network against whom civilized society is at war is an obscenity.
And if Rabbi Regev failed to make clear in his public comments that "only a small number of Haredim" fit the odious profile he described, as the Cleveland Jewish News now tells us, then we would respectfully suggest that Rabbi Saperstein's call for an apology would best be redirected toward his own colleague.
There is a broader problem here, though, than one rabbi's sermon. An assortment of pundits have, since September 11, put forth the notion that civilization's enemies are "fundamentalists" of all faiths, including Jews who live by the laws that have defined Judaism for millennia. Such nonsense needs to be countered, not encouraged, by all Jews of good will.
Mere weeks ago, the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, in a principled and commendable act, joined a brief in favor of proponents of a contested eruv in Tenafly, NJ. The brief notes the highly charged atmosphere at public hearings concerning the eruv. Some local Jewish residents revealed some rather ugly attitudes toward Orthodox Jews, with one council member invoking the specter of stone-throwing Haredi zealots invading the neighborhood upon construction of the eruv. The brief argues that Tenafly's refusal to allow an eruv violates the rights of Orthodox Jews.
Jews of all stripes should recognize, as the Commission on Social Action did in the Tenafly brief, that ugly stereotyping of Orthodox Jews is totally unacceptable. Implying that Haredim are violent fundamentalists of a kind with the September 11 terrorists feeds those very stereotypes. Rabbi Regev, and Rabbi Saperstein, should know better.
All Jewish leaders must take pains not to ever, even subtly, misportray their fellow Jews. And that goes as well - no, especially - for Reform leaders, even as they seek to import their vision of Jewish life to Israel and discover the determination of Jews, who, on principle, oppose their efforts.
[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America; David Zwiebel is the organization's executive vice president for government and public affairs]
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ORTHODOX GET AN EARFUL AT NATIONAL CONVENTION
Rabbi Avi Shafran
The thousands of Orthodox Jews who attended part or all of Agudath Israel of America's recent 79th National Convention in Somerset, New Jersey heard addresses from a number of illustrious rabbinic figures. But one short speech that particularly riveted listeners was delivered by a young lawyer from Texas who took his listeners firmly to task.
Kenneth Broodo of Dallas is an observant Jew today, though he wasn't a mere few years ago. He was addressing a convention symposium on "Creating Torah Communities Across the USA," and related how he had come to reconnect to his Jewish heritage. It was largely the story of a "community kollel" - a group of Orthodox families who have moved from one or another of our country's larger Jewish communities to a city where traditional Jewish observance is not widespread, where they open a study-hall, offer adult education classes and spend their days learning and teaching Torah. There is a large handful of such "kollelim" across the country. Mr. Broodo stumbled across the one in Dallas.
With an endearing lilt of a Texas accent, Mr. Broodo related how one of the kollel's rabbis invited him to ask any questions he might have. They included big ones like how God could allow the Holocaust to happen and smaller ones like what in the world had possessed the kollel members to uproot themselves and their families from their insular and nurturing communities in Brooklyn or Lakewood, NJ and move to Texas.
"He told me," Mr. Broodo said, "that no questions were foolish questions." And so the lawyer continued to ask, sitting at the rabbi's dining room table week after week for three years.
When Mr. Broodo decided to undertake some Jewish observance, his rabbinical guide suggested Shabbat, telling him at first just "to make kiddush before going to the movies on Friday night, and havdalah when I got home on Saturday night."
Along with a group of other Dallas Jews and accompanied by one of the kollel 's rabbis, he took a trip to visit the New York Orthodox community. He wanted, he told his listeners, "to visit the planet these rabbis had come from." He met several respected rabbis and was deeply impressed with the Jewish life he saw flourishing there.
During the trip, he related, he was a guest at an Orthodox businessman's home for Shabbat, and had an embarrassing experience. Sitting at the Sabbath table with his host family and other guests, he asked his friend a question and only then realized that he had inadvertently interrupted his host's blessing on the challah. After the bread was cut and distributed, Mr. Broodo stood up, went over to his host and apologized for interrupting his bracha.
"He grabbed my hands," Mr. Broodo recalled before the large crowd, his voice betraying deep emotion, "looked me in the eye and said, 'Now you listen to me. You're the bracha'."
He also recalled the lesson he learned from a prominent Brooklyn yeshiva dean to whom he had been introduced. The Rosh Yeshiva told his visitor that "Torah is the soul of the Jewish people. It's not a step in itself but rather the source of all the steps we take as Jews."
"When we returned to Dallas," Mr. Broodo recalled, "there was one more Sabbath-observant Jew in Texas."
There was much more he related. How his local community subsequently started a shul in his living room. How the shul has since grown from 20 families to 125. How he had only recently celebrated his first "siyum" - or completion of the study of a tractate of the Talmud.
That, though, was when he got tough. Citing statistics about intermarriage in the American Jewish community, and apologizing in advance for his "chutzpah," he asked his listeners if, as they await the Messiah's arrival and their own return to Eretz Yisrael, whether they are "planning on taking the rest of us [American Jews]" along. And then he reminded the crowd about the apathy that tragically characterized so much of the Jewish community during the Holocaust.
Referring to the continued drifting away from Judaism of the vast majority of American Jews, he asked "What will history say about us?"
And then getting more personal still, he then issued his listeners a direct challenge: "When your children are given an opportunity to join a community kollel in Topeka, Kansas, what will you tell them?"
"Most Jews in America are living without Torah," he continued. "What will become of them? You can't expect them to love something that they don't know anything about!"
Mr. Broodo might have wondered whether he had overstepped the bounds of propriety, crossed any lines, by being so direct, so demanding of his audience.
But when he concluded his remarks and the applause exploded like a thunderclap and continued for what seemed like minutes, and the entire crowd rose to its feet in honor of the young Texan lawyer, and when he saw the tears in the eyes of so many, he likely realized that his words had found their mark, and had been absorbed by hundreds of Jewish hearts.
[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]
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A LETTER TO MR. GHASSAN ELASHI
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Dear Mr. Ghassan Elashi,
I can't say I'm sorry that the organization you head, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, is currently "out of business," as you put it to The New York Times. After all, the reason for your change in fortune is that your computers, records and half the $10 million dollars you raised this year have been seized by the United States government after an FBI investigation concluded that The Holy Land Foundation was raising money to support a Middle Eastern terrorist group.
That group, Hamas, seeks to destroy Israel, as you know, and over the past 14 months alone has claimed responsibility for killing more than 100 Israelis. It recently appealed to Arab ministers and diplomats meeting in Qatar to support its continuing suicide attacks against Israelis. I hope you understand that I cannot but be gratified when would-be murderers of my relatives are hampered.
Your own organization, originally known as the "Occupied Land Fund," has long been accused of being a front for Hamas, though in recent years you have carefully avoided terms like "jihad" and "intifada" and stressed humanitarian activities. When the Dallas Morning News published several articles exploring your connections to Hamas, you even sued the paper for defamation.
Now, though, the government has weighed in, with, among other evidence, what it says is a tape of a meeting where you and five Hamas leaders discussed how the Middle East peace process might best be violently subverted. Credit card records, moreover, purportedly show that your group paid for fundraising trips around our country for prominent Hamas activists.
If the accusations turn out to be true, you can assume that I, and most Americans, will find it exceedingly difficult to summon sympathy for you. We don't take well to people whose hands are stained with the blood of innocents, especially these days.
But entirely aside from anything you and your organization may have done, I am personally outraged by something you said, to The Times' reporter.
He had questioned you about comments made by one of the Hamas representatives whose trips you had allegedly bankrolled. In 1994, Sheik Muhammad Siyam told the Muslim Arab Youth Association in Los Angeles that "It's simple. Finish off the Israelis! Kill them all! Exterminate them! No peace ever!"
To your credit, you disowned the particular sentiments expressed. Somewhat less to your credit, you excused yourself as not being responsible for them. And to your shame, you then tried to defend Mr. Siyam by adding, "I thought we had freedom of speech here."
But what was most ugly of all was what you said next.
"But anyway," you went on, "it's the same thing when American Jewish organizations raise money. They always say, we need to get rid of the Arabs, they're roaches, that kind of thing."
Mr. Elashi, I work for a large Jewish organization. As an Orthodox group, it is likely more "hawkish" than some others on issues pertaining to Israel' s security. The sons and daughters and mothers and fathers of many of our members study or live in Israel, and all of our constituents wholeheartedly believe that the Holy Land was entrusted to the Jewish people by God Himself.
And yet, having heard hundreds of speeches and presentations at Agudath Israel meetings, conventions and seminars, I must tell you that I have never heard anything remotely like what you asserted is commonplace in the Jewish community. The Jewish religious tradition teaches that every human being, whatever his or her color, ethnicity or beliefs, is created in the image of God, and I believe that wholeheartedly, as does every Jew I know. I bear no animosity toward any person of good will, whether he is my Christian neighbor in New York or a Moslem Arab who wishes to live in peace on the land I believe is the home of the Jewish people. Yes, I am angry at those who have maimed and killed in the name of Islam or the "Palestinian cause." Yes, I pray daily that those who want to harm me or my fellow Jews will be frustrated in their plans. And yes, because of the heartless and brutal actions of people like those you are accused of abetting, I am finding it increasingly hard to assume good will on the part of some.
But I still try mightily to do so. And I believe not that "we need to get rid of the Arabs" but rather that Arabs and Jews in the Middle East and everywhere else should live in peace with one another.
And know well, Mr. Elashi, that if I ever heard a Jewish speaker say "Finish off the Arabs! Kill them all! Exterminate them!" I would respond with unbridled outrage - not with apologetics or defenses of his right to free speech.
By asserting otherwise, by implying that the murderous hatred of Hamas is but a reflection - God forbid! - of some similar blood-lust on the part of Jews, you have revealed yourself as deluded. And made me all the more grateful that you are out of business.
May the God in Whose image we are all created grant that Hamas - along with all its competitors in Jew-hatred - soon meet with similar fortune.
[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]
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CONFESSIONS OF A JEWISH FUNDAMENTALIST
Rabbi Avi Shafran
With all the understandable concern these days about fundamentalism, the American public might want to better understand one group of religious reactionaries that have long been lurking in our midst: Jewish ones, that is, like me.
"Haredim", as we rigorously observant Orthodox Jews are called, are fundamentalists of the first order. The fundamentals we affirm without compromise are those of the Jewish faith: That there is a God. That He revealed Himself at Sinai. And that an ultimate reward and punishment awaits all human beings - though we tend to dwell more on the particulars of good and bad than those of Heaven and Hell.
· Funny Clothes
Like all fundamentalists, we Haredim dress strange: our men and boys wear hats or yarmulkes (turbans are rare); our married women keep their hair covered, though we're not into veils. Our clothing is modest in a way that tends to stand out, especially on summer days. And, like many chic dressers, many of our men favor black.
· Strange Doings
From the moment we wake up until we go to bed, our lives are governed by myriad religious rules. We pray three times daily, eat only strictly kosher food (much of it, interestingly, Chinese), meticulously avoid a long list of actions on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, and celebrate Jewish holidays as they have been observed for three thousand years. I could try to explain the citrons, palm fronds and bitter herbs but it would take too long.
· Un-American Activities
What makes us Jewish fundamentalists particularly unusual, and suspicious, is that our goal is neither material success nor world domination but rather the performance of good deeds and the study of Torah - which includes the Jewish Bible, the Talmud, and thousands of later works based on them. While we hardly lack for doctors, lawyers, plumbers, electricians and businesspeople of most every conceivable sort, the study of Torah is considered the most fortunate "profession" in the Haredi world. What's more, Haredi families sacrifice much in the way of financial security for the sake of Torah study and the Jewish education of their sons and daughters. Which, of course, helps explain such subversive tendencies as our enthusiasm for school vouchers.
· Subversive Behavior
Most reactionary of all, we tend to shun television, movies and much of what passes for music and popular culture these days. We even reject the contention that witnessing thousands of murders and immoral acts is a harmless part of coming of age.
And, like all good fundamentalists, we don't just disapprove; we react - by attempting to shelter ourselves and our children as best we can from things like the commercialization of sexuality and the idealization of materialism. We even go so far - hey, fundamentalists aren't passive sorts - as to support legislation that is consonant with our beliefs.
· Holy War!
True to the fundamentalist credo, we Haredim embrace holy war. But while some others see their jihads or crusades as involving violence and the vanquishing of others, our battle is exclusively with what our tradition teaches is the evil that lurks within our hearts. Swords and bombs and germs and such are generally ineffectual in that struggle, and so we opt instead for more useful stratagems like studying ethical works and engaging in deep introspection.
· Spreading the Word
Like other fundamentalists, we Haredim try to spread the faith - but only to other Jews who may lack traditional Jewish educations. We don't evangelize to members of other faiths, nor do we see them as unsaved. Indeed, we consider a Christian or Muslim who observes certain basic moral precepts to fully merit a share in the World-to-Come.
So as a plethora of pundits proclaim that the Western World's battle today is against all religious fundamentalism, the citizenry might do well to reflect on what some of the world's loudest fundamentalists themselves seem to regard as a pernicious threat: their Jewish counterparts.
[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]
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NO SHAME IN ENSURING THE JEWISH FUTURE
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Reform leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie declared at a recent Union of American Hebrew Congregations gathering that he is "embarrassed and ashamed" at the fact that there are Jewish groups among the proponents of school choice.
He declared that educational vouchers would greatly harm the nation's public schools; invoked the First Amendment's mandate to maintain a strict mechitza between church and state; predicted that school choice will not educationally benefit students; and contended that the Talmud itself endorses public education.
What scandalized Rabbi Yoffie, though, was what he characterized as the "naked self-interest dressed up as caring" inherent in the position of Jews who support school choice.
Well, while we are sorry to embarrass the rabbi, those of us in the Jewish community who look forward to the day when all tax-paying parents will be able to choose their children's schools must respectfully differ.
Competition is indeed a threat - to the manufacturers of inferior products. Choices, however, are always a boon to quality, and to the consumer. Should parents one day be provided with true educational options for their children, some public schools may indeed wither away from lack of interest. But education - and students, its consumers - will only benefit. And public schools that do the job they are supposed to do will surely continue to thrive.
The constitutionality of vouchers may make for interesting legal debate, but as long as the issue remains an open one, it ought not be injected into the policy debate. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this spring on an existent voucher program in Cleveland. If it rules against the program on constitutional grounds, Rabbi Yoffie need not fret; no amount of voucher proponents' arguments will be able to change the law. And if the Court rules that the program does not violate the First Amendment, then such programs are, by definition, constitutional, whatever the rabbi may wish.
Whether school choice can be demonstrated to boost student achievement is at present an unresolved question - although there is already some evidence suggesting its positive potential. But increased public support for educational options, in the end, is based less on hopes for intensified achievement than on the straightforward justice inherent in allowing parents to choose how their children are raised.
And that characterization is not an exaggeration. Education is much more than the transfer of information, much more, even, than training minds to think. It is the imparting of attitudes, ideals and values as well, particularly today, when so often both parents (when there even are two) are working (sometimes at multiple jobs), and when children (even when they are at home) are regularly left to their own devices (and those of the virtual child-molesters we call the electronic media). It would be folly to deny that schools mold minds. And only Jewish schools can mold Jewish minds.
Particularly disturbing is Rabbi Yoffie's sinister accusation of voucher proponents' self-interest. The very same charge, however, could be leveled against any labor union promoting laws to protect its workers, any business group supporting legislation benefiting employers - not to mention against Jews who support any of a host of causes, from Israel's security to social security. Members of a group banding together to promote their legitimate collective interests is an essential feature of democracy - and should evoke neither umbrage nor insult.
And in the case of school choice, the benefit to Jews involves nothing less than the American Jewish future.
Both reason and a half-century of experience informs us that the single most vital instruments for instilling Jewish identity, values and ideals in young Jews today are institutions like day schools that determinedly teach the Jewish tradition and impart authentic Jewish ideals.
Many such Jewish schools, though, are direly strapped for cash. Most are un able to spend anywhere near as much on each of their students (according to one expert, often less than half) as their neighboring public schools spend on each of theirs. Vouchers would allow such schools not only to better serve their charges but to attract Jewish parents who would otherwise never consider a Jewish education for their children.
If the next Jewish generation's familiarity with its religious heritage really means anything to us American Jews, if all our hand-wringing over Jewish continuity is anything more than cultural theater, then, with all due respect to Rabbi Yoffie, we must recognize - and without shame - that educational choice may be an important component of ensuring the future of Jewish America.
Some may see the seeds of that future germinating in the embrace of the most restrictive interpretation of the First Amendment; others, in communal embrace of non-Jews married to Jews; others still, in outright proselytization of the unchurched.
But those sensitive to the Jewish historical experience know that where it truly lies is precisely where it has lain for the millennia of our history as a people: in the "public education" cited by Rabbi Yoffie from the Talmud, which refers not to math and science but rather to the transmission of our holy Jewish tradition to our young.
The effort to use every legal means possible to achieve that goal should be a source of not shame but deep Jewish pride.
[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs of Agudath Israel of America]
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WHAT IS A FUNDAMENTALIST?
The New York Times' Thomas Friedman is not one to be abashed by past error. Even as his most recent big idea - globalization leading inexorably to international peace and prosperity - lay under the rubble of the Twin Towers, by September 13 he had dusted off another one: the coming battle is not between the West and Islamism, but between "fundamentalists" of all religions and those whose religious beliefs are "progressive." How politically correct to exempt Islam from any special censure. Unfortunately for Friedman's thesis, he neglected to point to any other religion that has produced thousands of would be suicide bombers or millions more who cheer their actions. Nor has he read the leading modern scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis, on the profound sense of grievance that animates Islamists like Osama bin Laden. Islamist rage is rooted in Islam's specific history: After sweeping out of the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century and conquering vast swaths of the globe over the next thousand years, Islam has been in territorial retreat for 300 years and Islamic societies have everywhere failed to keep pace with their non-Islamic neighbors.
Friedman is on no firmer ground equating all "fundamentalist" religions - a term he does not define. The term "fundamentalism" was initially applied to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy - the belief that the Bible as a literal historical record - of numerous Protestant sects. Jews, even the most traditional, do not read the Bible in the same way as Christian fundamentalists. While every Torah Jew affirms the truth of every word of the Five Books of Moses, that truth is not necessarily the simplest understanding of the words. From an early age, a Jewish child learns to read the Written Torah in terms of multiple layers of meaning. He or she studies each verse in the context of Midrashim that often stray far from the simple meaning of the text and even seem to contradict one another.
Moreover, he or she learns that the meaning of the Written Torah, whether in historical or halachic sections, can only be determined with the aid of the Oral Torah. A few weeks ago, for instance, we read the verse, "Reuven went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine." But the Talmud, whose reading is definitive, interprets the verse to mean that Reuven removed Yaacov's bed from Bilhah's tent. This interference with his father's marital relations by one on Reuven's spiritual level is accounted by the Torah as if he actually slept with Bilhah. Such an interpretation, of course, would be unrecognizable to Christian fundamentalists. Since September 11, the dictionary definition of "fundamentalist" has given way to a newer meaning: one who seeks to destroy anyone who subscribes to another belief system. While Islamists may define the rest of the world as infidels, Jews do not seek to either convert or conquer non-Jews. Judaism has never been a proselytizing religion, and perhaps unique among the major religious faiths, it teaches that the righteous of other nations have a place in the World to Come.
As a minority faith everywhere for 2,000 years, Jews have never sought to prove the superiority of their G-d through territorial conquest or other marks of worldly success. More than two millennia ago, the prophets asked how can we continue to refer to G-d as awesome and powerful when idolaters are celebrating in the ruins of His Temple and enslaving His children. The Men of the Great Assembly answered: His strength refers to His ability to withhold His anger towards evildoers, and His awesomeness to the preservation of one small nation among all the nations of the world.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch points out that Jews have at once been the most persecuted of people and the least vengeful: "They knew that G-d would never forget the blood of innocent men, particularly if it was shed in His service. Our people entrusted to G-d alone the task of avenging the blood of murdered fathers and mothers, wives and children. This promise kept them free of bitter and burning lust for vengeance against their oppressors."
Friedman's uses the repugnance aroused by Islamist fundamentalists (in the second sense) as a club against anyone who does not share his "progressive" religious views. For him, all religions are nothing more than human narratives of different approaches to G-d, and thus no religion has more claim to truth than any other. In his view, "modern" religious ideas and practice, based on evolving standards of morality, are inherently superior to traditional practice and belief.
Like believers of all religions, Torah Jews reject Friedman's moral relativism. For us truth and morality are objective qualities, anchored in the existence of G-d, Who created the world for a specific purpose. The fact that some religions or religious people subscribe to beliefs that are false or morally repugnant does not prove that all religions are false or that all morality is but a human construct. True, the views of both Jews and Christians about the divinity, or lack thereof, of Jesus can neither be reconciled nor both right. Yet that does not mean that both are wrong or that there is no such thing as Truth.
Like other believers, Torah Jews also reject modernity as the measure of all things. We take from the modern world what is consistent with Torah - hundreds of Torah Jews, for instance, worked at the World Trade Center - and reject what is not. The revelation at Sinai remains equally binding for us as a matter of elementary logic. An omniscient and omnipotent Creator knew all the circumstances in which His people would ever find themselves, and was capable of providing them with a guide to life that would serve them in every time and place, without need of repeated updates.
The insistence on Sinai's ongoing voice may not be hip or modern, but it does not turn us into fanatics bent on destroying others who think differently.
[Jonathan Rosenblum is Israeli director of Am Echad and a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and the Baltimore Jewish Times, where the above appeared.]
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A HAND, NOT A HANDOUT
The events of the last year and a half have given new poignancy to the Talmud's contention that the Holy Land is something acquired through hardship. The almost daily terrorist incidents have added an extra edge to the already mind-numbing procedures of navigating governmental bureaucracies and staying afloat during the current economic times. It seems that almost everyone here in Israel needs a helping hand these days.
In the midst of this ongoing turmoil, David Morris is seeking to improve the lives of his fellow Jews with the innovative concept of chesed (kindness) networks. Instead of simply helping people through rough times with handouts, Morris utilizes the talents of a broad cadre of community members to help those in need get back on their feet. The Torah, he notes, considers helping someone become self-sufficient to be the highest form of giving.
"People don't open their fridge one day and discover it empty. Sad situations occur over time and within a context," Morris says. "Providing money for food is only a partial response; we aim to help at as many levels as possible."
Morris has already founded two organizations with his "network" concept. The first, Yad Leyadid ("A Hand For A Friend") began six years ago, in Pisgat Zev, a religious neighborhood in Jerusalem. The second, Lema'an Achai ("For My Brothers' Sake" - email@example.com or 972-2-999-7107), was started when Morris moved to the new religious suburb of Ramat Bet Shemesh two and a half years ago.
Morris, an British immigrant, has a day job, as a marketer of electro-optics; but he moonlights as a chesed powerhouse. Chesed, he says, is the "family business." His mother won an award from Queen Elizabeth for a similar charity organization she began in England's Harrogate community many years ago.
Morris started his first organization after witnessing debt collectors loading his neighbor's belongings onto a truck. He soon realized his neighbor was far from alone; such repossessions are practically mundane occurrences in contemporary Israel. "People literally run out of food here," he explains. "The welfare system only catches the bottom few percent, so many, many others fall through the cracks."
By matching experts who offer their time gratis or at vastly discounted rates with those in need, Lema'an Achai turns conventional charity into what Morris calls "smart" chesed. Rashie Reichert, who volunteers for Lema'an Achai, said that people "look at themselves differently when they're not just opening their wallets, but are utilizing their strengths to help others who can't do these things for themselves."
Morris explains that poverty can often stem from seemingly simple problems with debts or mortgages. When these problems escalate, people need lawyers to help them deal with the sometimes exasperating Israeli system. "In Israel you can get taken to bankruptcy court, and be evicted or arrested for bouncing a small check," Morris says, "There are defenses to help people who deserve mercy."
In other cases, families need therapists to sort out family issues. "If one pillar collapses the whole family can tumble," Morris points out.
Lema'an Achai utilizes the services of more than 100 volunteers who assist the 150 families in need in Ramat Bet Shemesh. It sponsors free dental clinics and a network of doctors and medical professionals who guide the seriously ill through the medical system. The group also offers professional care such as legal and financial consulting, social services, therapy and tutors. They have arranged for grocery stores to provide free food, discounts and deliveries to those living below the poverty line.
Recently the high-tech meltdown has caused even more people to call on the services of Lema'an Achai. Families that once were donors are now among the recipients. A Lema'an Achai social worker recently visited a once comfortable family who finally decided to call after the children squabbled over the last slice of bread in the refrigerator. "Helping people who don't have what to put on their table is becoming a more common problem in Israel," Morris says.
Along with providing a financial safety net for families, the "chesed networks" also help protect children within the social welfare system. One parent in Ramat Bet Shemesh who was provided with lawyers, rabbinic court advisors, social workers, therapists and cash during a difficult period considers Lema'an Achai "part of the family" for having helped salvage it from dissolution.
David Morris says that he has been fortunate through his work in Lema'an Achai to witness several such success stories. "We do our share," he says, "but we also see God's help in a very direct and visible way." Many times, Lema'an Achai has been close to bankruptcy itself when a sudden large contribution is received which tides them over for the next month. Once a Russian immigrant family called in desperate need of a refrigerator; the next phone call was from a family that was moving and who wanted to donate a refrigerator. "We are often reminded," Morris says, "that we are in a holy business here."
[Yehudah Poch is a journalist living in Israel. He also serves as a consultant to various community and nonprofit organizations.]
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LET'S STOP PRETENDING
The jig is up. Rabbi Eric Yoffie has us figured out, and the time has come to `fess up.
Delivering his presidential keynote sermon at the Reform movement's biennial convention earlier this month, Rabbi Yoffie attacked supporters of school vouchers who "claim that their goal is to help the poor and improve public education by creating competition" when their "real aim is to secure funding for their own schools." And, Rabbi Yoffie revealed, it's not only Protestant and Roman Catholic groups whose pro-voucher stance is founded on parochial interests, but also (gasp!) "Jewish organizations that have supported vouchers, or remain silent, hoping to secure funding for yeshivas and Jewish day schools."
Well, all right, we'll admit it (though we've never pretended otherwise): The organization I represent, Agudath Israel of America, supports vouchers primarily because we think they will help Jewish schools and Jewish families. We also think they will help other segments of the American population, especially the inner-city poor who desperately seek but are unable to afford an alternative to the failing public schools to which their children are consigned. But, to be perfectly frank, that consideration is only of secondary significance in our admittedly self-interested calculation.
Indeed, if the factor of self-interest were removed - if all Jewish schools were on firm fiscal footing, if all Jewish parents who would want to enroll their children in Jewish schools could afford to do so - we might well disengage from the entire voucher debate.
But the reality is that many Jewish schools are struggling mightily - sometimes unsuccessfully - to meet skyrocketing budgets. Some of the most outstanding teachers are being driven away because paychecks are skimpy and late. Facilities are often inadequate, basic maintenance and repairs frequently neglected, educational materials in short supply, resource rooms and other special education services few and far between - all for a shortage of funds. Worst of all, despite extremely generous school scholarship policies, all too many children are being turned away because of their parents' inability to pay tuition.
Frankly, if we had our druthers, we would much prefer not having to look to government to help address these problems. Our first choice would be to rely on Jewish communal sources of support for what is, after all, a precious Jewish communal resource. Unfortunately, while Federations across the United States have supported Jewish schools to some extent, the reality remains that the schools continue to be woefully underfunded.
And so self-interest is very much a factor in considering the question of vouchers. If we stand accused of formulating our positions on educational policy with a primary focus on how they might help our choking schools, and how they might impact on parents seeking a Jewish education for their children, we plead guilty.
Rabbi Yoffie is "embarrassed and ashamed when [he] hear[s] such arguments coming from Jews" - because, after all, "the public schools were the ladder that we used to climb from poverty to affluence in American life, and how dare we deny it to others." However, we wear our commitment to Jewish schools as a badge of Jewish pride, not shame. And we question whether public school education is as closely aligned with Jewish interests as Rabbi Yoffie thinks.
It is not difficult to understand why so many of our parents and grandparents embraced the ideal of American public education. They arrived in this country, having escaped persecution, pogroms and even Holocaust, determined to ensure that life in America would be different. Their children, they resolved, would be part of the great American mainstream, fully integrated in American society, shedding once and for all the burden of being outsiders. Their children would attend school with children of other faiths, develop friendships with children of other faiths, and eventually share equally in all the wonderful opportunities America had to offer.
The plan succeeded - but it succeeded too well. Jews in the United States have today become accepted in virtually every nook and cranny of American society. But immersion in the American melting pot, whose fires were stoked at the doors of the public schools, has robbed the large bulk of American Jewry of the religious identity and heritage that is its most precious possession. With intermarriage rates soaring, with so many Jews feeling entirely disconnected from their roots and heritage, Jews in the United States are, G-d forbid, at risk of disappearing.
We stand at a moment in American Jewish history when the crisis in Jewish continuity is broadly acknowledged as the single largest problem facing our community. What should be causing us embarrassment and shame - and, frankly, sleepless nights - is the sorry state of Jewish knowledge and Jewish commitment, and the prospect that our children or grandchildren may grow up without any sense of meaningful Jewish identity.
If public schooling was the antidote to the problems our forebears faced when they arrived in this country, religious schooling is the antidote to the problems we face today. As the Louis Guttman Israel Institute of Applied Social Research concluded in a 1993 study, "Jewish day schools are the best vehicle for implementing Jewish involvement and are the only type of Jewish education that stands against the very rapidly growing rate of intermarriage" in the United States.
To his credit, Rabbi Yoffie does appear to recognize the essential link between Jewish education and Jewish continuity; he used his convention platform to call on his movement to establish new day schools and strengthen after-school "Talmud Torah" programs for public school children, calling religious schools "critical to our future." Yet despite that recognition, he rails against Jewish groups whose position on vouchers is motivated principally by concern for that very Jewish future.
To be sure, Americans of all faiths have a stake in improving education for all children. Reasonable people can differ whether expanding parental choice through vouchers will advance or inhibit that cause. But whatever the outcome of that debate, let's not lose sight of the fact that our most urgent Jewish priority today must be the strengthening of our own educational institutions.
And let's stop pretending that there's anything shameful about Jewish groups formulating public policy positions with a focus on Jewish interests - especially when what's at stake is nothing less than Jewish survival.
[David Zwiebel is Agudath Israel of America's executive vice president for government and public affairs. This article appears in the current (January 4, 2002) issue of the Forward.]
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HIGH TECH HAREDIM
Tzvia Ehrlich-Klein, Jerusalem
"I never worked with anyone before who wore a kapota [the long black coat worn by some very Orthodox, or Haredi, Jews], and I certainly never shared a bag of bisli with anyone like that. Though we live in the same city, we live in two different worlds," says Jeremy G., a long-time employee at a major Jerusalem high tech company, about a co-worker.
"But since Moshe and I started working together on this Internet project, we both discovered that we can like and respect each other without dressing the same way or having the same worldview."
Jerusalem is the center of the world, yet her population comes from the four corners of the earth - a sure recipe for divisiveness and dissention. The pressure cooker of life in the holy city too often builds walls instead of bridges between people. But the workplace is often a happy exception.
"When our third child was born, I decided I didn't want my wife to continue working full-time while I studied in a postgraduate yeshiva," says Jeremy's co-worker, Moshe C., a 26-year-old graduate at Jerusalem's Haredi Center for Technological Studies. "But getting a good-paying job wasn't easy because I lacked a formal degree."
Though highly educated in religious texts and proficient in intellectual excercises, most of Israel's ultra-Orthodox community lacks prerequisites necessary to gain entrance into professional training programs. And few programs exist that meet the unique religious requirements of a strictly traditional lifestyle, like separate men and women's classes and a class schedule that can accommodate family obligations and religious requirements for prayer and study.
Even in economically challenged times, the high tech sector accounts for two-thirds of Israel's industrial output and 80% of industrial exports. The Haredi community is known for its large families, high unemployment rate - and, increasingly, its natural aptitude for working with computers.
Thus the Haredi Center was founded to train and facilitate members of the community's entry into Israel's high tech workforce. Offering courses in computer programming, multi-media, software engineering, architecture and interior design, the Center has become a supplyer of motivated, competent and highly skilled employees.
The Center's Director General, Rabbi Yehezkel Fogel, sees Maimonides' statement that the highest form of charity is helping someone become independent of others as the school's motto.
"Though my years in Yeshiva trained me in analytical thinking," comments Chaim L., a system networking student at the school, "I wasn't accepted into standard degree programs because I lacked the necessary entrance requirements. Without a degree, no menial job I could get would bring in enough money to pay my bills. It was a no-win situation."
"We make it possible for young men and women who could never get a decent paying job to train in an environment compatible with their religious needs, and be able to support their families in a respectable manner," says Rabbi Fogel.
Which is what happened to David L.
"At The Haredi Center," he says, "I utilized my abilities without compromising my religious beliefs. I attended evening classes, studying in Yeshiva during the day. After receiving my degree, I got a good-paying job. In this wide and modern world, it is nice to see that there is room for my religious life-style too."
"The teachers offer the kind of direction and learning I was looking for when I decided to switch careers from an umemployed school teacher to interior designer," said Channie T., another Haredi Center student.. "And I enjoy the mix of post high school girls and grandmothers in the classes."
For Orthodox women working as teachers, secretaries and store clerks, the Haredi Center offers a way to upgrade to better paying jobs by studying in the morning. Their increased salaries, ironically, mean less hours at work and more time for their children.
>From 35 students in 1996, The Haredi Center has expanded to over 1400 students in five branches throughout Israel. Approved by Israel's Ministry of Labor, and affiliated with academic institutions like Bar Ilan University, two-three year courses of study are offered in a variety of fields.
"We bring together all types of people: Chassidim, 'Modern' and Haredi Orthodox, Ashkenazim, Sefardim, everyone," comments Arieh Sharvit, Jerusalem Branch Director. "We make it possible for every interested and capable person to attend. We even designed preparatory classes to give students who have never studied Math, English or Hebrew composition the tools needed for advanced professional studies."
But the Haredi Center doesn't stop there. By keeping abreast of industry's changing needs and maintaining a Job Placement Center, it has helped 80% of its graduates find positions in their careers of choice.
"We've reached the point where major Israeli corporations actually call us to see which students will be graduating," says Academic Affairs Director Michael Winett. "Our students have proven themselves to be well-qualified and reliable employees who, because of their family responsibilities, are also highly motivated."
It seems that the high tech corporations agree. "I'd be happy to employ more Haredi programmers," says David Schindler, Vice President at Jerusalem's MALAM Systems Ltd. "They're older and more mature, and they have a tremendous drive to succeed. [and] they're used to sitting for many hours without taking a break, or getting up to chat and drink coffee. They are very focused."
Sounds like the perfect employee.
[Tzvia Ehrlich-Klein lives in Jerusalem and writes for newspapers in Israel, the USA, and England. Author of "A Children's Treasury of Sephardic Tales", "Happy Hints for a Successful Aliyah ", and "On Bus Drivers, Dreidels and Orange Juice", she has edited several books including "Salt, Pepper and Eternity" and "To Dwell in the Palace" an anthology of life in Israel.]
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Rabbi Avi Shafran
Much puzzlement - and even more merriment - greeted the story, reported by the Associated Press and others, of some observant Jews' reluctance to fly El Al planes from Tel Aviv to New York because their flight path at take off passes directly over a cemetery in the town of Holon.
What engendered the concern of observant cohanim, or descendants of Moses' brother Aaron, about boarding the flights was the halachic stricture forbidding them from certain contact with, including passing above, dead bodies. Such contact, according to Jewish religious law deriving from a number of verses in Leviticus, confers a spiritual contamination of sorts (a respected Reform rabbi and scholar with whom I was friendly, William Braude, once even suggested that the word "contaminate" may itself be sourced in the Hebrew word for that effect, tum'ah). While enclosures of various sorts can "insulate" a cohein from such contamination, whether the alloys that comprise the body of a modern aircraft might do so is a complex halachic issue.
At least one major halachic authority ruled that they cannot, and so some cohanim opted not to fly the airline. Others, much to the amusement of some in the media, requested to be permitted to enclose themselves on the plane in various ways, including, reportedly, in body bags - which, sadly, are well-stocked in Israel these days.
It has been reported that Israeli Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh has made efforts to reroute El Al's planes to accommodate its observant passengers. If that indeed proves to be the case, the problem for observant travelers will have been solved.
The media snickering, though, over the image of rational human beings so concerned with something imperceptible that they would go so far to wrap themselves in insulation made me think about a very similar scene that unfolded recently in a number of venues. There, too, otherwise reasonable men had encased themselves in body bags (they called them "suits") to protec t themselves against an entirely invisible danger, in places like the Hart Senate Office Building and a number of post office facilities in Washington, New York and elsewhere.
Now, needless to say, anthrax germs, while invisible to the human eye, are still physical entities and detectable in other ways. And they are capable of causing very apparent disease and death. Tum'ah, by contrast, is invisible to even the most powerful microscope, and has no evident physical effects. But that does not make it unreal, and therein lies important food for Jewish thought.
The Jewish people might best be described, from a historical perspective, as the vehicle for teaching the world about the invisible. Our ancestors faced a world filled with idols of every substance and worshippers of stars, and forced it to confront a new and outrageous idea: that the true God transcends all His creations and is unseen.
And there were other invisibles that our forbears introduced, too, ideals like justice, education, empathy and peace.
What is more, Judaism, while it lives and breathes in the "real" world of our physical existence, is steeped in the idea that what we think and say and do makes a difference not only in the familiar world but also - and perhaps most of all - in a spiritual realm largely imperceptible to us. When we perform a mitzvah, we affect that spiritual realm, as well as the spiritual within us. We may have done nothing more than heard a shofar's cry on Rosh Hashana or taken an esrog and lulav on Sukkot; nothing more than circumcised a Jewish baby or made a blessing on a food; nothing more than refrained from eating a forbidden food or from speaking ill of others. But we have created a powerful effect, even if it is one not readily noticeable.
There is much else in the rich realm of the invisible, including puzzling things like tum'ah. But Jews sensitive to Jewish tradition do not seek to ridicule or dismiss them, but rather to endeavor, through study of Jewish sources, to better understand them.
Because they realize that, whether in the realm of sickness or of spirit, sometimes what is invisible matters.
[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]
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CHANNELING FOR G-D
Rabbi Avi Shafran
The trial and conviction of Thomas Junta, the Massachusetts father who beat another father to death during a dispute at their sons' practice hockey game should spur some discussion of sports among thoughtful people, including thoughtful Jews.
According to a medical examiner's testimony offered during the trial, Mr. Junta, a 270-pound truck driver, repeatedly punched Michael Costin, a 156-pound carpenter, in the face, rupturing an artery at the base of Mr. Costin's brain and almost severing his head from his neck.
Manslaughter may be a relatively rare outcome of sports-related altercations, but violence itself is another matter. Overseas, soccer matches have often stirred fans to what can only be described as gang warfare, complete with weapons, blood and broken bones. In our own society, bottle, garbage and battery hurling (not to mention insult hurling, violence in its own right) is hardly unheard of, even during games of baseball - one of the contemporary world's more civil sports.
And the more barbaric examples, like the Ur-sport itself, boxing, are openly and unabashedly predicated on brutality and gore. Little wonder some of the "role models" the world of sports has offered in recent years have been poster boys for bad, even murderous, behavior.
Whether sports provide a healthful outlet for "working out" aggression or are themselves merely "violence by other means" can be debated. But, at least from a Jewish perspective, what is certainly interesting is that the idealization of physical competition is utterly absent from Jewish tradition.
There have, to be sure, been Jewish athletes, including professional ones, in modern times. But, over the course of the several millennia prior, sports have traditionally been regarded by Jews as something foreign.
Jews, of course, like all people, are subject to base urges, including competitiveness and aggression. But our religious tradition teaches us that here-and-now urges are to be overcome by force of will when they lead to bad behavior, and that their essences are to be channeled into positive directions. The Talmud has G-d announcing "I have created an evil inclination," and then adding, "I have created the Torah as its sweetener."
The final word in that passage, tavlin, is often mistranslated in this context as "antidote"; but it elsewhere refers to a spice or sweetener that makes food more palatable.
Our religious tradition thus teaches that the inclinations that derive from the animal side of our natures must not be given free rein. But at the same time, it also teaches - and was teaching thousands of years before Freud - that raw human energy can be channeled toward constructive purposes.
Judaism lauds work and looks down on idleness; but it also commands the Sabbath as a day of rest. It insists on sexual restraint; but it also mandates marriage and family life. It frowns upon indulgence but includes festive celebrations. The Torah doesn't deny Jews leisure, pleasure or food; it guides us instead to control our desires, to harness them and express them in clearly prescribed ways, times and places.
A Jew's raw energy, the Torah maintains, is to be channeled into the performance of mitzvot and study of Torah, into acts of kindness and introspection. A moral workout may not tax biceps or quadriceps, but it can be quite exhausting all the same. And healthful, too, in the most meaningful - indeed eternal - sense.
Even as we live and participate in a wider world than our own, we Jews are a people apart. G-d chose us at Sinai and charged us with the holy mission of living special, sublime, lives. In the words of a prayer traditionally recited at the completion of a Talmudic tractate:
"We thank You, our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers, for placing our lot among those who sit in the study hall and. not among those who sit on corners. We arise and they arise. We arise to words of Torah, and they arise to pointless ventures. We labor and they labor. We labor and receive reward, and they labor and do not receive reward."
We channel our energies, in other words, and they channel theirs.
[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]
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