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Archives Of Previous Articles XXVIII

VULNERABLE AND SECURE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Were our eyes permitted to perceive the legions of destructive demons surrounding us, the Talmud divulges (Berachot 6a), we would be unable to handle the sight.

The rabbis were referring to malevolent incorporeal beings, but the same might hold true about flesh-and-blood demons, some of whom occasionally slip into view.

Like Faisal Shahzad, the Connecticut man who tried to detonate a bomb in Times Square in May. Or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the one-time London college student who attempted to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear on a plane to Detroit. Or Colorado resident Najibullah Zazi, who planned to plant incendiary chemicals on New York City subways last year. Or Virginia-born Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan, who opened fire at Fort Hood last November, killing 13 and wounding 30. Or Shirwa Ahmed, the college student from Minneapolis who drove a truck full of explosives into a UN building in Somalia, who was identified through his finger found at the scene. Or the four men accused of plotting to bomb synagogues in the Bronx.

Imagine if we could suddenly see every would-be terrorist, brightly marked somehow as such. The sight would surely chase us off the street, if not out of our minds; the memory would keep us up at night.

And then, of course, there are the big demons, the mullahcracy in Iran or the dementocracy of North Korea, and entities like Hamas and Hezbollah and Al Qaeda.

The readily visible demonisphere, especially for Jews, is frightening enough. The thought of an invisible world of would-be destroyers skulking around to our rights and our lefts might well drive us mad. Yet it would be naïve to imagine any dearth of demons these days.

Which is why there is Sukkot.

If they haven't appeared already, impermanent structures of varied materials, shapes and sizes will soon enough be sprouting like post-rain mushrooms across Israel and throughout Jewish neighborhoods in cities around the world.

The holiday of Sukkot takes its name from those structures, which Jews are enjoined by the Torah to inhabit for a week each year. The walls of sukkot can be made of any material. But, in fulfillment of Jewish tradition's insistence that the dwellings be "temporary" in nature, their roofs must consist of pieces of unprocessed wood or vegetation, and the material may not be fastened in place.

At first glance, living in sukkot - by definition vulnerable to wind, rain and pests - would seem only to compound any innate Jewish proclivity to worry; the delicate dwellings might well only intensify Jewish anxiety. And yet, at least for Jews who appreciate the holiday's import, just the opposite is true.

For Jewish tradition considers the sukkah symbolic of the divine "clouds of glory" that protected the ancestors of today's Jews as they wandered in the desert after leaving Egypt. The miraculous clouds destroyed whatever obstacles or noxious creatures stood in the people's path.

Thus, the sukkah represents a deep Jewish truth: Security is not a function of fortresses; it is a gift granted, ultimately, from above.

The Yiddish poem by Avraham Reisen (1876-1953) sung in countless sukkot well captures the idea. It paints the picture of a Jewish father sitting in his sukkah, as a storm rages. His anguished daughter tries to convince him that the sukkah is about to fall. He responds (rendered from the Yiddish):

Dear daughter, don't fret;
It hasn't fallen yet.
The sukkah's fine; banish your fright.
There have been many such fears,
For nigh two thousand years;
Yet the little sukkah still stands upright.

Sukkot, of course, have in fact succumbed to storms. Jews, too, have fallen at the hands of ancient and modern murderers alike. But, as Reisen's metaphor so poignantly reminds us, there is timeless meaning in the fact that the Jewish people has survived.

And the meaning lies in what the sukkah's fragility implies - that true security, in the end, comes from only one place.

So all the world's craziness and evil, all the unreason and hatred and plotting and violence and demons, cannot shake the serenity of the sukkah. We have, if only we merit it, an impenetrable shelter.

Beginning a month before Rosh Hashana, Psalm 27 is added to Jewish prayer services; it is recited twice a day, until the very end of the holiday when Jews live in sukkot. A verse in the Psalm, as it happens, even refers to one:

"For He will hide me in His sukkah," King David sings of the Creator, "on the day of evil."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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SOLO WRESTLING

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It has become common in some corners to speak of "wrestling with G-d," a phrase intended to evoke Jacob's violent encounter with an angel, after which G-d told him: "You have struggled with elohim and man and overcome" (Genesis, 32:30). The Hebrew word for "struggle" forms the root of the new name given Jacob at that moment - Yisrael, the name that will collectively characterize his descendants, "Israel", or the Jewish People.

The word "elohim" literally means "forces" and, in most contexts, refers to the One from Whom all forces emanate. The proponents of the "G-d-wrestling" notion seem to interpret the word that way here too, pronouncing the Jewish mission inherent in our collective name to be the challenging of G-d's commandments when they discomfit us.

That approach, though, is diametric to the true Jewish mandate, which, our tradition teaches, is to heed G-d even when we don't understand His will, to embrace even as we endeavor to understand. What Jacob struggled with, moreover, the Talmud tells us, was a spiritual manifestation of his twin brother Esau, who represents the physicality in man that seeks to overcome his spiritual side. Jacob, in other words, was wrestling with something very close to himself. In a way, with part of himself.

Among the collected letters of the late Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, the famed dean of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn from 1940 through the 1960s, is one that was written to a student whose own, earlier letter to Rabbi Hutner had apparently evidenced the student's despondence over his personal spiritual failures. The yeshiva dean's response provides timely and nourishing food for thought.

Citing - in English, although the rest of the letter is in Hebrew - the maxim that one can "lose battles but win wars," Rabbi Hutner explains that what makes life meaningful is not beatific basking in the exclusive company of one's "good inclination" but rather the dynamic struggle of one's battle with the inclination to sin.

King Solomon's dictum that "Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up" (Proverbs, 24:16), continues Rabbi Hutner, does not mean what most people assume, that "even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to get up again." What it really means, he explains, is that it is only and precisely through repeated falls that a person truly achieves righteousness. The struggles - even the failures - are inherent elements of what, with determination and perseverance, can become an ultimate victory.

Rabbi Hutner's words are particularly critical at this Jewish season, as thoughtful Jews everywhere recall and confront their own personal failures. For facing our mistakes squarely and feeling the regret that is the bedrock of repentance carry a risk: the despondence born of battles lost. But allowing failures to breed hopelessness, says Rabbi Hutner, is both self-defeating and wrong. A battle waged, even if lost, can be an integral step toward an ultimate victory to come. No matter how many battles there may have been, if we are alive, the war is not over. We must pick ourselves up. Again. And, if need be, again.

And so, wrestling does indeed define a Jew. Wrestling, not with G-d but with ourselves.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Thoughts of consequence can sometimes arise from the most mundane experiences, even a headache.

Opening the medicine cabinet one day, I was struck by a sticker on a prescription container.

"Not for use by pregnant women," it read.

"And why not?" part of my aching head wondered.

Because, another part answered, a fetus is so much more sensitive to the effects of chemicals than a more developed person. Partly, of course, because of its very tininess, but more importantly because it is an explosively developing thing. While a single cell is growing to a many-billions-of-unbelievably-variegated-cells organism in a matter of mere months it is easily and greatly affected by even subtle stimuli.

Which thought led, slowly but inexorably, to others, about the creation of the world - the subject, soon, of the weekly Torah portion - and about the beginning of a new Jewish year.

"The Butterfly Effect" is the whimsical name science writers give to the concept of "sensitive dependence on initial conditions" - the idea that beginnings are unusually important. A diversion of a single degree of arc where the arrow leaves the bow - or an error of a single digit at the beginning of a long calculation - can yield a difference of miles, or millions, in the end. For all we know, the flapping of a butterfly's wings halfway around the world yesterday might have set into motion a hurricane in the Atlantic today.

The most striking butterfly effects take place during formative stages, when much is transpiring with particular rapidity. Thus, the label on the medication; the gestation of a fetus, that single cell's incredible journey toward personhood, is strikingly responsive to so much of what its mother does, eats and drinks. The developing child is exquisitely sensitive to even the most otherwise innocent chemicals because beginnings are formative, hence crucial, times.

Leaving the realm of the microcosm, our world itself also had a gestation period, six days' worth. Interestingly, just as the initial developmental stage of a child takes place beyond our observation, so did that of the world itself. The event and processes of those days are entirely hidden from us, the Torah supplying only the most inscrutable generalities about what actually took place then. Thus, the Talmudic rabbis applied the verse "the honor of G-d is the concealment of the thing" (Proverbs, 25:2) to the days of creation. Honest scientists admit the same. E.A. Milne, a celebrated British astronomer, wrote "In the divine act of creation, G-d is unobserved and unwitnessed."

Despite our inability, however, to truly know anything about the happenings of the creation week, to think of those days as a gestational time is enlightening. It may even help explain the apparent discrepancy between what we know from the Torah is the true age of the earth and what the geological and paleontological evidence seem to say.

Consider: What would happen if the age of an adult human since his conception were being inferred by a scientist from Alpha Centauri, using only knowledge he has of the human's present rate of growth and development? In other words, if our alien professor knew only that the individual standing before it developed from a single cell, and saw only the relatively plodding rate of growth currently evident in his subject, he would have no choice but to conclude that the 30-year-old human was, in truth, fantastically old. What the Alpha Centurion is missing, of course, is an awareness of the specialized nature of the gestational stage of life, the powerful, pregnant period before birth, with its rapid, astounding and unparalleled rate of development.

If we recognize that a similar gestational stage existed for the universe as a whole at its creation - and the Torah tells us to do precisely that - then it is only reasonable to expect that formative stage to evidence a similarly accelerated rate of development, with the results on the first Sabbath seeming in every detectable way to reflect millions of years of development, eons that occurred entirely within the six days of the world's explosive, embryonic growth.

Rosh Hashana is called "the birthday of the world." But the Hebrew word there translated as "birth" - haras - really means the process of conception/gestation. And so, annually, at the start of the Jewish year, it seems in some way we relive the gestational days of creation. But more: those days are formative ones, the development period for the year that is to follow. Beginning with the "conception-day" of Rosh Hashana itself, and continuing to Yom Kippur, the period of the early new Jewish year is to each year what the creation-week was to the world of our experience: a formative stage.

All of which may well lend some insight into a puzzling Jewish religious law.

We are instructed by halacha to conduct ourselves in a particularly exemplary manner at the start of a new Jewish year. We are cautioned to avoid anger on Rosh Hashana itself. And for each year's first ten days, we are encouraged to avoid eating even technically kosher foods that present other, less serious, problems (like kosher bread baked by a non-Jewish manufacturer), and to generally conduct ourselves, especially interpersonally, in a more careful manner than during the rest of the year.

It is a strange law. What is the point of pretending to a higher level of observance or refinement of personality when one may have no intention at all of maintaining those things beyond the week?

Might it be, though, that things not greatly significant under normal circumstances suddenly take on pointed importance during the year's first week, because those days have their analogue in the concept of gestation?

Might those days, in other words, be particularly sensitive to minor influences because they are the days from which the coming year will develop?

Observance and good conduct are always in season, but our tradition teaches us that they have particular power during Rosh Hashana and the "Ten Days of Repentance" - that we should regard these days with the very same vigilance and care an expectant mother has for the rapidly developing, exquisitely sensitive being within her.

Let us seize the days and cherish them; they are conceptual butterfly-wings, the first unfoldings of a new Jewish year.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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A VIEW FROM AFAR

Rabbi Avi Shafran

To name the Muslim country where she lives would compromise her security; the authorities there do not look favorably on citizens who communicate with Jews. Her husband is a Hindu and she, although born a Christian, long ago abandoned her family's religion and pledged herself to the Torah.

"Tehilla," however, as I'll call her, has not converted, and has no plans to convert. She and her two adult sons are "Noahides" - non-Jews who have come to the conclusion that the Jewish religious tradition is true and who have undertaken observance of the "seven laws of the children of Noah" - the basic moral precepts that Judaism prescribes for all of humanity: the prohibitions against idolatry, profaning G-d's name, murder, sexual immorality, stealing and eating a limb cut from a live animal, as well as the commandment to establish courts of law.

There are Noahides in Australia, Asia, Europe and here in the United States (a good number of them, for some reason, in Tennessee, Georgia and Texas). Many face formidable societal obstacles, though Tehilla, considering where she lives, likely faces more than most.

"Tehilla," which means "praise" in Hebrew, is an appropriate alias for someone so filled with admiration for the Jewish people. Her studies of Judaism over years, by internet and e-mail, and her interaction with various rabbis around the world, have endeared the Jewish people and the Jewish religion to her - and endeared her to her mentors. Jews, to be sure, are enjoined from proselytizing to non-Jews, but Tehilla is self-motivated (an understatement); those, like me, who correspond with her are simply answering her queries - and being inspired by her observations, rendered in fluent English.

Her empathy for Jews, especially in Israel, is deep. And it is accompanied by a clarity of vision that eludes so many, and so much of the media. "With all the sufferings [the world has] inflicted on you all," she writes, "I still cannot fathom how magnanimous you all are in being a light to all nations."

"After meeting your people [by e-mail]," she once wrote, "I cannot understand how such a warm, compassionate and humane people can be so persecuted and so misunderstood."

And, from other e-mails:

"One thing the mighty nations are not absorbing is history. Even if they don't believe the Scriptures per se, history itself is proof enough that your nation's survival is the living and continuous miracle personally brought about by G-d."

"G-d will never allow you to fall, in the merit of your patriarchs and prophets… soon G-d is going to say 'enough' to your tears…"

"All I can pray is when Hashem decides it's time for all your sufferings to be over, He will show us Gentiles the compassion we failed to show you all."

Tehilla is not only an observer of history and the world around her but an example of commitment to self-betterment on a personal level. She keeps a picture of the Chofetz Chaim, the saintly scholar who died shortly before the Holocaust and who wrote definitive works on the laws of proper speech. She has studied his works because, as she once explained, "…when I am angry I speak without thinking. The Chofetz Chaim has really changed my life and I am really trying to live up to his guidance."

She is a charitable woman as well, and personally cared for a dying relative by marriage who had for years ridiculed her for her choices.

"My sons and I are… trying our best to do our part for the needy," she once explained.

And she looks forward to the Messiah's arrival with eagerness: "The greatest blessing for believing Gentiles like us is to be able to live where we can study … without fear, and acknowledge Hashem as the supreme G-d and you all as His chosen."

In fact, Tehilla's dedication to our people and our faith can sometimes sting, forcing her readers to recognize their own imperfect appreciation of their wonderful lot in life as Jews.

"It's sad," she once wrote, "that some of your people do not seem to understand or realize the special and holy heritage given to them for eternity, not something they can disown…"

Tehilla worries about her adult sons finding proper wives - who will share her and her sons' outlook on life. She has also suffered a number of serious medical crises. Even her reaction to that challenge, though, stands as a valuable and true lesson.

"You see, rabbi," she recently wrote, "I know G-d is so kind and I am making atonement for my sins… sickness takes away a lot of sins…"

That idea may make some of us squirm. But the fact that adversity and pain can be atonements is a quintessentially Jewish concept, readily gleaned from the Talmud and, in these waning weeks before the Days of Judgment - when examining one's spiritual state can yield deep discomfort of its own - a timely one.

May Tehilla's lessons, and her example, be a merit for her good health - and for seeing her sons find their life-partners soon.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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ABUSE OF POWER

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Jewish world reportedly has six months before the Rotem Bill (or some facsimile thereof) returns to the Knesset for further consideration. That should allow us all to more leisurely - and hopefully more reasonably - not only assess the bill's strengths and weaknesses but ponder a troubling issue peripheral to the legislation, but which was engendered by it.

The bill's essential aim is to allow non-Jewish Israelis a greater choice of religious courts than presently. The bill, further, formalized the decades-old religious status quo placement of conversion in Israel under the auspices of the country's official Chief Rabbinate.

On cue, the Jewish Federations of America, local Jewish Federations, Reform and Conservative leaders and an assortment of pundits all, as they say, went ballistic at the notion that halacha, or Jewish religious law, would determine conversion standards in Israel. That, despite the fact that the Rabbinate has overseen conversion in Israel since the country's founding.

The combusting protesters fantasized that the bill would prevent converts to the Reform or Conservative movements from immigrating to Israel under the Law of Return, that it would have some unidentified but grave impact on American non-Orthodox Jews, and that (here, more a threat than a fantasy) it would alienate such Jews from the Jewish State. They raised the specter of Jews being pulled off the streets in Israel to have their Jewishness revoked, and offered incendiary imagery (like a cartoon showing a shiny water cooler in Israel labeled "Orthodox-Certified Jews" beside an old-fashioned water fountain for "Reform, Conservative and Secular Jews only").

Seldom if ever has so much misinformation and ill will been sown by people ostensibly concerned with truth and Jewish unity.

A sensible if lonely voice in the wilderness was that of Reform Rabbi Mark Golub, the president of Shalom TV, who decried the Reform and Conservative movement for "overstat[ing] the threat the bill posed," and "unnecessarily anger[ing] large numbers of uninformed Jews over a bill which does not actually address them at all." He also took the Anglo-Jewish media to task for "failing to separate fact from hysteria."

Rabbi Golub noted further what he considers "the most disturbing aspect of the campaign" in America against the Rotem bill: "the subtle suggestion that the bill would jeopardize the bond between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel and would therefore threaten the security and future of the Jewish State."

It was indeed dismaying to read comments like that of the executive vice president of the Conservative movement's rabbinic group, who contended that the bill's effect on Israel's relationship with Jews in America would be "damaging to Israel's security" - a none-too-veiled "prediction" that if Israel didn't toe the non-Orthodox line (ill-informed though it might be), American Jews might no longer see Israel as worthy of their support.

More dismaying still was the intervention of Jewish members of the United States Senate. It was widely reported in mid-July that a letter about the Rotem bill had been drafted by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and circulated among other Jewish members of Congress' upper house for signature. The missive, presumably intended for Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, reportedly expressed the concern of its signatories concerning the Israeli bill.

A spokesman for one signatory to the letter (the text of which has not been made public), Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, referred to his boss' judgment that the Israeli bill is "divisive" and to his hope that "the Knesset does not pass" it. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan was quoted as saying he was "troubled by a proposal which I believe would make it more difficult for many people who want to convert to do so."

It is not unheard of for members of Congress to express their feelings about human rights or other fundamental issues to representatives of other countries. But if ever there has been a case of American legislators seeking to influence another government's consideration of an entirely domestic concern - here, conversions performed in the State of Israel - much less one addressing a religious issue, it has remained well hidden (and for good reason).

Ratcheting up the reason for dismay considerably is the unspoken but hardly untelegraphed implication of the Senators' letter: that they themselves, as legislators who vote on matters pertinent to Israel's security, are troubled by the Rotem bill. It would not be unreasonable for Israel to interpret such a message as a warning, one particularly ill conceived, let alone ill timed.

Perhaps at the very top of the "disturbing" column, though, is the question of what brought about the Senatorial stab at an Israeli internal affair in the first place. It is certainly possible that Senator Wyden, despite his full plate of domestic concerns and legislative proposals, somehow just caught wind of the Rotem bill on his own and felt compelled to try to do something about it.

But it is known that representatives of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, representatives of the Union for Reform Judaism and officials of the Jewish Federations of North American were making the rounds on Capitol Hill several days before the first reports of the letter appeared.

If it turns out that American Jewish communal leaders took upon themselves to pressure American elected officials to meddle in the domestic affairs of another country, particularly in a matter of no concern to the vast majority of those officials' constituents (and in fact contrary to the concerns of a good portion of their Jewish ones), would that constitute a responsible wielding of communal clout, or an egregious, unprecedented abuse of the same?

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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AN ORPHAN IN SHUL

Rabbi Avi Shafran

There's an orphan in shul.

Everybody knows him, or thinks they do. And yet very few people pay him much heed.

He has quite a family history, too, descended as he is from illustrious personages. A compelling personal story too.

His name is Aleinu.

Yes, that Aleinu, the paragraphs recited at the end of each set of prayers Jews pray. Jewish tradition has the first paragraph written by Joshua and the second composed as a song of repentance by Achan, the man who misappropriated valuables from the spoils of the conquered city of Jericho during the conquest of the Land of Israel in Joshua's time.

Aleinu's words were the last ones of countless Jews throughout history, the words with which they defiantly refused to succumb to the demands and tortures of those bent on uprooting devotion to G-d and His Torah. It not only ends every prayer service but is part of the Amidah, the silent prayer, itself on Rosh Hashana. And yet, all too often, it is treated not only as an after-prayer but as an afterthought.

Until one of my daughters shared her own personal experience and exasperation over the fact, I had thought that I was perhaps the only person who found it impossible to complete Aleinu in the time allotted in many different synagogues I have attended over the years in many different places. Yes, there are certainly shuls where it is recited well and properly. And yes, one can always just complete it oneself after the Kaddish that generally follows it. But what most often happens instead is that, at least for most people, Aleinu is mercilessly garbled, "edited" for time or simply, unceremoniously truncated.

Unlike some experiments, you can try this one at home - in fact, I urge you to: Get a watch or clock with a second hand, open a prayer-book and, looking inside, read all the words of Aleinu as quickly as you possibly can but saying every word. Can you do it in less than 45 seconds? I doubt it. Then, the next time you're in shul, glance at your watch and see how long it takes the assembled to say Aleinu.

See how long it takes you.

I rest my case.

Well over a year ago, hundreds of thousands of Jews glanced up at the sun and recited a blessing to commemorate "Kiddush Hachama," something done only once every twenty-eight years. The blessing was pronounced with that thought in mind, and with the deep concentration it inspired. Yet the blessing was the very same one many Jews make many times a year, when we see lightning during a rainstorm.

And what more sincerely fervent words are ever heard than "Hashem hu ho'Elokim!" - "The L-rd is G-d!" - repeated seven times at the very conclusion of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. They are the words cried out by the Jewish People at Mount Carmel in the days of Elijah (Kings I 18, 39). Yet when that very phrase is said nightly in the paragraphs after the Shma in the Maariv service, they are usually mumbled (if that).

It's human nature. We become unmindful of things to which we are accustomed. Even important things.

Aleinu is one of them, and it's one worth refocusing on, especially in our day, when evil salivates at the thought of what it would like to do to the Jewish People, when new incarnations of old monsters have risen, it seems, from the ground. Ours are times when it is, or should be, more clear than ever that the conventional roads to hope - diplomatic, military, political - are all dead ends, times for realizing, in the Talmud's words, that "there is no one on whom to rely other than our Father in Heaven."

Times for declaring, minds fully engaged with lips, that

"…we put our hope in You, G-d, that we may soon see Your mighty splendor, to remove detestable idolatry from the earth, and false gods will be utterly cut off, to perfect the universe through the Almighty's sovereignty.

"Then all humanity will call upon Your Name, to turn all the earth's wicked toward You. All the world's inhabitants will recognize and know that to You every knee should bend… and to the glory of Your Name they will render homage, and they will all accept upon themselves the yoke of Your kingship… on that day G-d will be One and His name will be One."

The words, of course, of the orphan in shul.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE REAL ROAD TO JEWISH UNITY

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The proposed Israeli conversion-reform legislation known as the Rotem Bill - now on hold for several months - became a sort of Rorschach test for many Jews' fears.

The bill was introduced by Yisrael Beiteinu, a nationalistic and not infrequently anti-religious political party representing a largely secular immigrant constituency. The legislation's essential aim is to ease the conversion process for non-Jewish Israelis - like thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union - allowing them greater choice of religious courts than they currently have.

To advance the bill, Yisrael Beiteinu garnered the support of Israel's haredi, or so-called "Ultra-Orthodox," parties. What allowed the religious parties to back the conversion reforms was the bill's formalization of part of the decades-old religious status quo, placing conversion in Israel under the auspices of the country's official Chief Rabbinate. That, the religious parties reasoned, would ensure that the bill's reforms would not result in a conversion free-for-all.

When the bill it passed its first procedural hurdle, a hue and cry rose up from Reform and Conservative leaders in America, who contended that it could potentially lead to a change in the definition of "Jewish" regarding qualification for automatic citizenship under the Law of Return. (Currently, any convert to any Jewish religious movement is registered as Jewish for civil purposes.) The bill's sponsors vehemently deny that any such change could be effected by the legislation.

The lion's share of fear-mongering, as usual, has the haredim themselves as the bogeymen. Rabbi David Stav, the head of a liberal Orthodox group in Israel, strongly supports the bill, and warns that non-Orthodox opposition to it, in the words of the Jerusalem Post, "plays directly into the hands of the haredi political leadership." Even as he touts the legislation, he sees a haredi plot: The dastardly haredim crafted parts of the bill "as a means to incite the anger of the Reform and Conservative communities." Once again, it seems, the haredim are the Jews' Jews. At least he doesn't accuse us of poisoning the Knesset water supply.

And on July 16, the New York Times featured an op-ed that began with the baseless image of a "small group of ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, rabbis" deciding that "almost no one" is Jewish; smeared haredi religious authorities by associating them with a disgraced rabbi; called unnamed haredi rabbis "demonstrably corrupt"; and fantasized how, should the Rotem bill become law, a Jewish Israeli walking down the street could be suddenly summoned to a court and have his Jewishness revoked.

Vying a few days later for the Best Insult Award was a respected Jewish columnist for the Forward, who characterized Israeli religious courts as a "rabble of rabbis… a counterfeit product, pretenders to a piety they daily demean." And that's before he even got to the "arrogant hypocrisy" part.

Both writers are personal friends of mine (something I know will be true even beyond this writing). But their harsh words made my recent Tisha B'Av - when Jews mourn the toll taken by intra-Jewish ill will - particularly, painfully poignant.

My friends, of course, would defend their hysterics by claiming that the heat emanates from a deep desire for Jewish unity, a concept they seem to understand as requiring the Orthodox to sit back and watch quietly as the Jewish People becomes a gaggle of "Jewish Peoples." They fail to perceive Jewish unity's real mandate here.

What most violates the ultimate oneness of the Jewish People are multiple definitions of the word "Jew" - what results from a smorgasbord of conversion standards.

When the heterodox Jewish movements first appeared on the scene, Jews who remained stubbornly faithful to the entirety of the Jewish religious heritage decried the abandonment of the Jewish mission and warned of the dreadful toll that would result from "conversions" lacking halachic validity. The decrying was roundly condemned as impolite (or worse) and the warning dismissed as the death rattle of an expiring obsoleteness.

But commitment to Jewish religious law hasn't gone away, and it won't ever. What is more, in Israel, polls have shown that the majority of G-d-believing Jews in Israel - haredi, Modern Orthodox and merely "traditional" alike - consider halacha to be the arbiter of Jewish personal status issues like conversion. That is why, for all their prodigious efforts and funding, the heterodox movements have not really taken hold in the Holy Land.

Which fact fuels the frustration and even anger in parts of the non-Orthodox world. So apoplectic are some at the prospect of halacha continuing to govern conversion in Israel, they have apparently taken the disturbing step of asking members of Congress to interfere in another sovereign state's internal consideration of a piece of legislation.

Thought Experiment: Imagine Israel embracing a multiplicity of standards regarding conversion. In a generation or two, the Jewishness of every convert and convert's child in the country would be suspect to all halacha-respecting Jews. What is more, and more tragic, descendants of non-halachically converted women in Israel who became observant (it has happened, you know) would painfully come to discover that they are suddenly not Jewish by the measure of their own beliefs. They (and, if they are themselves women, any children they may have had in the interim) would have to undergo a halachically valid conversion. Worse still, women among them engaged to cohanim would discover that they cannot halachically marry their fiancés. Even greater soul-wrenching challenges would result from multiple standards in other Jewish personal status issues.

All of that, sadly, is already happening here in the United States and elsewhere. Orthodox Jews can no longer assume the halachic Jewishness of those presenting themselves as non-Orthodox Jews. And newly Orthodox young people have discovered that their parents' or grandparents' choices have inadvertently left them in terrible straits.

Whatever one thinks of the Rotem Bill, it raises an important, if uncomfortable, question: Is exporting American Jewish chaos to Israel really a road to Jewish unity?

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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COERCION IN THE NAME OF LIBERTY

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In an essay for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Reform Rabbi David Ellenson issued a challenge to the Orthodox Union's Nathan Diament, who, in an earlier such essay of his own, criticized a Jewish philanthropist's call for all Jewish organizations to adopt policies eschewing discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Mr. Diament made the straightforward point that asking Orthodox groups to take a position contradictory to the Torah's teachings and codified halacha - and implying, as the philanthropist did, that their refusal to do so renders them unworthy of Jewish communal funds - encroaches on Orthodox Jews' religious liberty.

Rabbi Ellenson doubts Mr. Diament's sincerity in invoking that principle and challenges him to prove his commitment to religious liberty by supporting legislation that would permit those "whose religious beliefs mandate us to perform same-sex religious weddings sanctioned by the government… to exercise our own religious conscience."

The challenge is eloquent and passionate. Unfortunately, though, it is based on an erroneous notion of religious liberty.

A Reform or Conservative rabbi can opt to convert a non-Jew in a non-halachic manner, or to join in matrimony two men or two women, without fear of interference from Orthodox Jews or others. Orthodox Jews have their own religious right, of course, to consider a conversion invalid or a couple unmarried (and to freely say so), but no one interferes with the choices of the other. That is religious liberty.

Rabbi Ellenson, however, takes things a good deal farther, asserting that the religious rights of non-Orthodox Jewish clergy are violated because they are "proscribed from performing [same-sex] religious unions with state sanction."

Note well those last three words; they broadcast his error. The right to practice one's religion is one thing; insisting that the government sanction one's particular religious beliefs, quite another. No one is suggesting interference with any American clergyperson's religious endorsement of whatever unions he or she sees fit to consecrate - two men, a threesome or whatever else may lie down society's "progressive" road. If such become newly discovered religious mandates - as performing same-sex marriages has apparently become for Rabbi Ellenson - well, as they say, it's a free country.

Americans' definition of marriage for secular legal purposes, however, is expressed through the body politic's collective will. The resultant definition may seem constraining or disconcerting to some, and, for their own religious purposes, they are welcome to a more expansive take. But marriage in the eyes of secular law - constitutionally removed from the dictates of any individual faith - need not honor any religious group's particular choice of definition.

Take an example far removed from marriage: A religious Hindu who venerates cows has every right to protect the animals in his possession from all harm. But he cannot compel the government to include bovine-slaughter in the definition of murder. And were he to suggest that a fellow citizen's commitment to religious freedom requires him to support a Redefinition of Murder Act, most of us (even most Reform rabbis, I suspect) would politely disagree.

Which is precisely what Orthodox groups like Agudath Israel and the Orthodox Union do with regard to contemporary efforts to redefine marriage. Orthodox opposition to changing the legal meaning of matrimony in order to suit the Zeitgeist is not intended to, and does not, limit anyone's religious rights. It is, moreover, a principled and deeply Jewish stance, based firmly on Judaism's teachings since Sinai. And so, asking an Orthodox Jew to join an effort to redefine marriage in a way that offends his beliefs, and that places the state's imprimatur on whatever union a nontraditional clergyman may decide his religious beliefs mandate, is unfair.

Seeking, similarly, to compel Jews who cherish Jewish teachings to do things like hire teachers - role models no less than information-imparters - who openly flout the Jewish religious tradition is, simply put, an attempt at religious coercion. And that is so whether the attempt takes the form of threatening to withhold funds from Orthodox institutions, or the guise of an erroneous conception of "religious liberty."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


CONCENTRIC CIRCLES

Rabbi Avi Shafran

I used to pass the fellow each morning as I walked up Broadway in lower Manhattan on my way to work. He would stand at the same spot and hold aloft, for the benefit of all passers-by, one of several poster-board-and-marker signs he had made. One read "I love you!" Another: "You are wonderful!" The words of the others escape me, but the sentiments were similar.

He was well-groomed and decently dressed, and he smiled broadly as he displayed his expressions of ardor to all of us rushing to our offices. I never knew what had inspired his mission, but something inchoate about it bothered me.

Then one day I put my finger on it: It is ridiculously easy to profess true love for all the world, but such love is not possible. Gushing good will at everyone is offering it to no one at all.

By definition, love exists within boundaries; our empathy for those closest to us is of a different nature than our concern for others with whom we don't share our personal lives.

Each of us lives, one might say, at the center of a series of concentric circles, the closest one encompassing our immediate family members. The next circle out might include friends and neighbors; the one beyond that, co-religionists or fellow citizens of one's country. At a distance removed even from that is a larger circle of human beings with similar values to ours. And further out still, the circle containing the rest of humanity.

It is perfectly proper - in fact, necessary - that we all feel, and demonstrate, our deepest love for the circle closest to us. And greater love and concern for the next circle out than for those beyond it.

Which is why ethnic or religious groups naturally show special concern for other members of their own groups; no one is - or, at least, should be - scandalized to see Catholics or Muslims or Hispanics or Native Americans establish charities aimed at helping only their fellows or show particular concern for them.

Yet some Jews seem embarrassed at the idea of Jews acting with special alacrity on behalf of fellow Jews.

They forget how love works, not to mention that Judaism expressly mandates that the bond between Jews be closer than the connection between neighbors or people of the same ethnicity - that the circle of fellow Jews be but a hairsbreadth or two distant from the one holding our parents, children and siblings.

Particularly intriguing, and to some people counterintuitive, is that precisely the intense empathy we feel and express for our "inner circles" enables us to feel genuine concern for those in more distant ones. People who focus their deepest love on their immediate families and friends are those most likely to truly care about their neighbors, their fellow citizens or wider circles still. Exercising the "empathy muscle," we might hypothesize, provides the ability to feel - less intensely, to be sure, but more genuinely - concern for people who do not share our own national, ethnic or religious identity.

There were grumblings about how some Jews reacted to the government's treatment of Sholom Rubashkin, the one-time CEO of the country's largest kosher meat producer, how they noted the unfair treatment he endured, and how they sought to help him defend himself against the onslaught of legal charges that the state of Iowa and federal authorities leveled against him. And it bothers the grumblers that many of us found the 27-year sentence a federal court in Iowa dumped on him to be beyond all reason and sanity for a first-time white-collar violator of banking laws.

Would we, they ask, publicly protest if a Lutheran or Methodist or Muslim were one day to receive a similarly egregious verdict for similar crimes?

Likely not, it is true. But many of us, I think, would feel a pang of empathy and outrage where we may not have felt one before.

And it will be because of the emotions we felt, and feel, about the unwarranted ordeal of a fellow Jew, a relative of ours. Of all Jews.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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IT'S ALL IN THE ANGLE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The most mundane things can sometimes prove unexpectedly educational.

Not long ago I was in a kosher eatery waiting for a take-out order to be filled. Hanging from the ceiling was a not-so-kosher appliance, its screen displaying a World Cup game. I have never been a fan of organized sports (even real, American, football) but the action did draw me in, especially since what was taking place was the American team scoring a decisive goal against Algeria. (Have never had deep feelings for Algeria either.)

Something about the broadcast fascinated me, although it is probably wholly unremarkable to sports aficionados. After the ball sailed past the goalie and hit the net, and fans with faces painted red, white and blue erupted in a frenzy, the screen quickly showed the goal-scoring again, this time not from above the action but from a camera that had filmed the very same moments from right behind the goal. And then a third time from yet another camera at an entirely different vantage point. What struck me was how different the same event looked when viewed from different places. Although I had watched the same happening three times, it felt as if I had seen three different episodes.

The thought returned to me the following Sabbath, when the weekly portion of Balak was read in the synagogue. The sorcerer-prophet Bil'am, hired by King Balak to pronounce a curse on the Jewish people, was denied that opportunity by G-d. When he breaks the news to his sponsor, Balak responds: "Come with me to another place from where you will see them; however, you will see only a part of them, not all of them and curse them for me from there" (Numbers 23:13).

It had long puzzled me why the king imagined that having Bil'am look at the Jews from a different place might facilitate a successful curse. This year, though, the FIFA instant replay-from-multiple-angles provided me an understanding.

Things can look very different from different vantage points. Not only soccer players but communities. Watching the goalie from near his own point of view, it was clearly quite impossible for him to block the ball. Seeing the scene from above and afar, though, he seemed almost negligent in not deflecting the missile. Perceiving the Jewish people from a different place, Balak may have hoped, would provide a different perspective, perhaps revealing or seeming to reveal something negative, some vulnerability into which a curse might successfully settle.

Not long ago, at the request of a broad array of Jewish religious leaders, as many as 100,000 Orthodox Jews in Israel marched with a group of parents to the jail where the latter had been sent by Israel's Supreme Court for their refusal to heed the court and send their children to a particular school. There were, it was accurately reported, no disturbances or incidents of violence among the huge crowd.

That wasn't surprising to any of us who recognize that when maverick "activists" in some Orthodox circles engage in stone-throwing or garbage burning, they are acting against the wishes of the community's recognized leaders and in the service only of the violent tendencies some young men in all communities seem unwilling or unable or to control.

Yet the lack of any violence, especially considering the size of the crowd and the strong feelings that had motivated the crowd's members to gather, was remarkable to some - particularly consumers of contemporary mass media, which tend to portray isolated acts of uncouthness as normative in Orthodox circles. In any event, the calm at the march was duly noted.

One commentator, though, chose to see it as reflecting negatively on the community. The lack of anything untoward at the massive demonstration, he asserted, shows that when the Orthodox leadership wants a gathering to be peaceful it will be. And, hence, when some hoodlums engage in behavior unbefitting a Jew, it must be that those leaders condone the same.

A different perspective, to be sure. And clearly, one born of seeing things from a camera aimed oddly.

We Jews have now entered a period of the Jewish year, the three weeks between the fast days of 17 Tamuz and Tisha B'Av, when we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temples, the second of which, the Talmud teaches, fell only seemingly to Roman attack but, in reality, to baseless ill will among Jews.

If ill will can be baseless, one might well ask, where might it originate?

One possibility, I think, may be our camera angle, our way of looking at one another. Perspective, in the end, is everything, and a skewed one can be a dangerous thing. When we see something objectionable in another, we do well to, so to speak, push pause - and go right to instant replay, from a different angle.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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A VISIT, A MEMORY AND A WISH

Rabbi Avi Shafran

My wife, daughter and I recently spent a Sabbath on the sprawling campus of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, near Baltimore. The Ner Israel yeshiva might better be described as a town, comprised as it is of scores of faculty and graduate student families living in on-campus apartments and townhouses, and hundreds of students residing in on-campus dormitories.

(Full disclosure: My wife and I have three sons studying at Ner Israel, and my brother teaches Talmud and Holocaust studies in the yeshiva's high school division. I spent formative years studying at Ner Israel; the literal meaning of alma mater - "nurturing mother" - for the yeshiva's relationship to me is apt.)

Located in a rural area of Maryland, amid rolling hills and verdant fields, Ner Israel is a rare, perhaps unique, place, an oasis of both natural and Jewish beauty. As we took a stroll late Friday night, the dulcet sounds of harmonizing voices floated on the air. The singing emanated from homes of the teacher-rabbis, who are traditionally visited on Sabbath evenings by their students for sharing Torah thoughts, discussions and song.

The next day, after services and the Sabbath meal, the parking lots - where, of course, not a car moved - were quickly filled with children at play, the music of their laughter and chatter accompanied by the percussion of small feet running and skipping rope. A small playground hosted younger children and their mothers. Some parents sat on the balconies of their homes, watching the kids at play, studying Torah or just relaxing. The traditional Sabbath greeting in a yeshiva like Ner Israel is "Good Shabbos," but there are few places on earth where the phrase "Shabbat Shalom" - "Sabbath of Peace," introduced by the Safed kabbalists in the 15th century and used as a greeting by many Jews today - would fit so well.

Life on "Yeshiva Lane" - the campus address - revolves around the two large study halls, or botei medrash, one used by the nearly 250 high school boys, the other by the more than 600 young men in the postgraduate and Kollel (married student) divisions. Aside from the apartments and townhouses, the campus includes an administration building, dining hall, basketball court and, of course, classroom buildings. But the botei medrash (singular: beit medrash) are the twin hearts that pump the lifeblood of Torah study throughout the campus. On the Sabbath as during the week, each of the large halls is filled with students poring over the holy texts of Judaism, reading, arguing, understanding - and adding links in the Jewish Torah-chain stretching back millennia.

Studying with one of my sons that Sabbath in the high school beit medrash, I was reminded of a day trip I made to Ner Israel a number of years ago with the religion editor of the New York Times at the time, Gustav Niebuhr. He had never seen a yeshiva before.

One of the yeshiva's administrators gave us a short tour of the campus and then took us to the main beit medrash. When a door to the cavernous but crowded room was opened, my guest surveyed the scene -several hundred young men (mostly in pairs, as yeshiva study is traditionally done) surrounded by piles of books, loudly and animatedly arguing. He was visibly intrigued. Actually, taken aback might be a better description. It was probably quite different from what the phrase "study-hall" likely recalled to the Oxford alumnus from his university days.

The administrator invited the reporter to walk through the beit medrash and interview students at his whim. He seemed hesitant to take up the offer, reluctant to take the young men from their studies, but the administrator's encouragement and the reporter's own natural curiosity won out in the end.

I watched as he gingerly entered the room - bare-headed, looking far from Jewish (which he isn't) and armed with only a pen and a pad - and went from one pair of students to another. At each stop, the students stood up to welcome the visitor, pulled up a chair and invited him to sit down. Several such conversations later, the reporter returned, his pad filled with notes, and his eyes, it seemed, with wonder.

He remarked to us how deeply impressed he had been "with the sincerity and idealism" of the students he had met. Some of the young men with whom he had spoken had been raised in Orthodox families; the fathers of many had studied at Ner Israel decades earlier (the yeshiva was founded in 1933). Others had come to Orthodoxy along with their families, or on their own. One student who particularly impressed him had been a Hollywood writer before becoming observant and enrolling in the yeshiva. The article the reporter later wrote for his newspaper about Ner Israel (which can be easily found using the search engine on the New York Times' website) well evidences the positive impact the yeshiva and its students had on him.

I have been an assiduous monitor of the media, especially the Jewish, for nearly two decades. And it pains me when media tend to focus on aberrations within the haredi community - real, magnified or fictitious. That focus often yields a negative image and, when it does, gravely misleads.

At those times, I find myself wishing that every Jew could spend a Shabbat, or even just a few hours, at a place like Ner Israel.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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RIGHT OF RETURN

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It's always edifying when bigots who have managed to elude full exposure for years suddenly slip and appear in full ingloriousness.

Helen Thomas didn't even need the alcohol that loosened Mel Gibson's tongue and bared his sorry soul a few years back.

All it took for her was an unguarded moment and an enterprising blogger.

But little doubt was left about her own soul's state by her sneering suggestion that Jews in Israel go "home" to Poland and Germany.

Presumably realizing just how honest she had inadvertently allowed herself to be, she decided to add "and America, and everywhere else," but what seemed to please her was clearly the prospect of Jews returning to places associated with their attempted genocide.

But the idea that Jews are somehow newcomers to the Middle East, that the shtetl, not the Judean desert (despite its name), is our natural habitat, is perniciously widespread even among some politicians and pundits who defend Israel uncompromisingly.

While those who harbor a bit of Helenism (a new noun, inspired by Ms. Thomas) cast Jews in Jerusalem as criminal interlopers, there are also many untouched by the virus of Jew-resentment who tend to view the Jewish presence in the Holy Land as a new development. They regard it as a sort of consolation prize for having endured the Holocaust.

Mere days before Ms. Thomas' self-revelation was publicly revealed, a similar sentiment to hers was captured on camera on the West Coast. Among the many mass protests against Israel for having dared, in the recent flotilla incident, to actually enforce its embargo of a bad neighbor (which phrase presumably includes one who wishes to drive you into the sea) and against Israeli soldiers who had the chutzpah to shoot at people who were trying to kill them was a demonstration that took place on Memorial Day near the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles. A mob chanted angry, menacing slogans in the cause of peace.

A widely viewed newscast video of the demonstration made the rounds in subsequent days. It focused largely on a Jewish teenager who intrepidly walked alongside the unholy warriors, holding aloft an Israeli flag and calmly, eloquently and pointedly answering questions from a reportorial voice off-camera.

Whether one thinks the one-boy flag battalion foolhardy or fantastic probably depends on whether one is or isn't his parent. But it was hard not to smile at the finger the teen metaphorically poked in the collective eye of the nearby mob.

What I found most telling about the clip, though, were its final seconds, when two decidedly un-angelic Angelenos, part of the anti-Israel protest, appeared on camera to answer questions.

First came a young woman, hatred pouring from her eyes like oil from an out of control gusher. Asked if she supported a "Palestinian state alongside Israel," she rebukes the questioner angrily, wagging her finger and contorting her face into a mask of anger. "No! No! No!" she protests furiously. "The Jews" - speaking the word like it is a disfiguring disease - "can live in a Palestinian state!" she exclaims. "There should not be an Israeli state." Then, imagining her perfect world, she declares emphatically: "An Israeli state does not even exist!"

Although she isn't quite done, the camera pans to her companion, a young man with a vacant expression and a baseball cap on sideways, who offers the interviewer his own sage assessment.

"The only reason Israel is doing this," he explains, though it's not clear if he is referring to the Gaza blockade or to existing - "is because they got kicked out from, uh, the German… uh, whatever happened to them. So they're trying to take out their anger to someone else."

"What about the Bible?" asks the interviewer.

"The Bible?" the young man repeats, uncomprehending.

"You know," explains the interviewer. "Solomon? Uh, the Jewish presence in Israel in Biblical days?"

The response: "I don't know about that."

I'm sure he doesn't. And, unfortunately, it would seem that he's hardly alone. World leaders and editorialists who speak and write as if the Jewish presence in the Holy Land is some modern development, that the justification for Jews to live in Jerusalem emerged ex nihilo from European crematoria, are, if better-intentioned, equally uninformed. And the information they are missing is truly central to the Israel-Palestinian conflict - and should be central to any discussion of the same. What they don't realize, or choose to gloss over, is that "Israel," in the phrase "Land of Israel," refers not to a modern-day country but to an ancient people.

That Jews over the past century haven't come to the Holy Land.

They have come back to it.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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HATE CRIME

Rabbi Avi Shafran

At a bus stop the other day a woman wearing a large button proclaiming "A Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs Tefillin" looked me over and asked me if I thought women can be Orthodox rabbis. When I politely answered no, she proceeded to stomp on my toes with her heavy boots and then tried to asphyxiate me with her purse-strap.

Just kidding. Never happened. I've been on the receiving end of some sneers here and there but the attack described above didn't take place.

What would have happened, though, had I taken my "account" to the media?

Surely I would have likely been asked if I could produce any witnesses to the alleged assault, any record of medical treatment for my injuries and trauma, any corroboration at all for my claim. And if I couldn't, the press, understandably, would have wished me a good day and moved on.

Consider, then, what in fact transpired a few weeks ago when an Israeli woman, Noa Raz, claimed that she had been viciously attacked on a weekday morning in a public place, Beersheba's Central Bus Station, by an Orthodox man who asked her if the marks on her arm were from leather straps of tefillin, the ritual item traditionally donned by observant Jewish men each morning. When she responded in the affirmative, she told police when she decided to file a report the next day, the man screamed "women are an abomination" and "began to kick and strangle" her.

Ms. Raz, a social activist who is a director of a group called Israel Gay Youth and a member of the feminist group Women of the Wall, may have been telling the truth. There are certainly crazies in Israel, as elsewhere, and violent acts have been perpetrated on both sides of the haredi/feminist divide.

Still, considering the dearth of any corroboration, one might be forgiven for wondering if Ms. Raz's account is entirely factual or perhaps exaggerated, maybe even fabricated.

Not that it makes any real difference. What is outrageous here is the reportage. No responsible journalist outside the Arab world and North Korea would ever dare report an unsupported allegation as fact. Yet the Jewish Telegraphic Agency's headline read "Woman attacked for tefillin imprint." And although a careful reading of the report eventually yielded the fact that the sole source of the story was Ms. Raz herself, not only did the headline omit that fact but the story itself opened with the words: "A Jewish woman was attacked in Beersheba…" Eventually (almost three weeks later), the news service corrected the headline and first sentence on its website, but of course by then the original version had long been published far and wide.

Over at the Forward's website, a blog called "The Sisterhood" continues to report the allegation as fact, and includes the alleged victim's urging of Jews to "keep supporting… the Conservative movement and the Reform movement, all the hard work we do to try to create a better society [in Israel]."

Whether that hard work includes making less than truthful claims is nothing anyone but Ms. Raz can really know. But, again, the veracity of the story, while an intriguing question, is not the main one. That would be the Jewish media's attitude toward haredim.

The JTA story in its original form and Reform movement press releases reporting Ms. Raz's claim as fact were reproduced as news stories in scores of Jewish newspapers and on countless websites and blogs, with predictable results. One social activist's unsupported claim, in other words, was nonchalantly presented as truth to countless readers, fanning the flames of hatred for haredim far and wide.

Leave aside that the claimant has a record of pre-existing animus for Orthodox Jews and in her account referred to her alleged attacker as a "black" - a pejorative for haredim. Leave aside her assertion that as he moved in close she could "smell him." Note only the aroma of the reportage itself. Were a Journalism 101 student to present a less than disinterested individual's claim as fact, a failing grade would quickly follow. Precisely the grade deserved by many Jewish media here.

Their greatest sin, though, is not abject journalism; it's assuming the worst about other Jews and fomenting hatred for them. "The disrespect shown by the haredim to women… is intolerable," pronounced an ARZA press release, reproduced in temple newsletters nationwide. "We must… insist that the Government of Israel not be held hostage by those who claim to be the only 'legitimate Jews'..."

And a Conservative rabbi, Gerald Skolnik, writing in the New York Jewish Week about how Ms. Raz "was physically assaulted" ("This really happened" he sagely adds), characterizes haredim as "feeling that violence against Jews who are different from them is… warranted." The spiritual leader goes on to juxtapose a comment allegedly made by an unnamed haredi Jew to words of Adolf Hitler.

Recent days have shown us how malignant the world media can be when their biases show. But our own Jewish media, too, harbor ugly prejudices of their own.

Whether or not some unbalanced haredi in Beersheba is guilty of a hate crime remains an open question. But that the crime of spreading hatred was recently committed in the Jewish world seems painfully clear.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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DIRT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

With all the hyped-up headlines, the old joke practically insisted on being dusted off.

The one about the group of scientists who inform G-d that His services are no longer needed, that their knowledge of the universe now allows them to run it just fine themselves, thank You.

"Can you create life like I did?" asks the Creator.

"No problem," they reply as they confidently gather some dirt and fiddle with the settings on their shiny biologocyclotron.

"Excuse Me," interrupts the heavenly voice. "Get your own dirt."

The breathless reports about J. Craig Venter's modestly named J. Craig Venter Institute's recent biochemical feat weren't just tabloid titillation either. The respectable Christian Science Monitor heralded the "creation" of the "first synthetic life form." The venerated journal Science referred to the crafting of a "synthetic cell." At least Scientific American remained sufficiently sober to add a question mark after the phrase "Life From Scratch."

To be sure, the technological feat was impressive, even astounding. Scientists at the Institute constructed an entire genome (the chromosomes that code for the inheritable traits of an organism) of one bacterium from commercially manufactured units of DNA and transplanted it into a cell of a different bacterium that had been emptied of its own genetic material. And the Frankengerm began to function as if it were a full-fledged member of the first microbe's family.

Some, including some who invoked religion, have objected to such biological tinkering. Whether there is any authentically Jewish objection to genetic transfer research, or if Jewish law prohibits Jews from engaging in it, are questions for halachic experts, not me. But, as Biotechnology and Bioengineering Professor Martin Fussenegger of Switzerland notes, "chimeric organisms have long been created through breeding and, more recently, through the transfer of native genomes into denucleated target cells." In other words, mules and tangelos and genetically modified foods are nothing terribly new.

The scale of the recent laboratory success, to be sure, was impressive. An entire genome took up residence and functioned in a host cell. But the host, all said and done (and hyped), was an already-living cell, denuded though it was of its genetic material, not a plastic bag. So, despite all the headline-hooplah, life was not engendered; it was manipulated.

Or in the words of Caltech geneticist David Baltimore: "[Venter] has not created life, only mimicked it."

There is a miracle here but, to put it starkly, it is being misidentified. The marvel isn't the scientists' feat - which, Professor Fussenegger notes further, represents "a technical advance, not a conceptual one" - but rather life itself, the wonder of a living cell.

The celebrated Jewish thinker Rabbi E. E. Dessler (1892-1953) wrote that there really is no inherent difference between nature and what we call the miraculous. We simply use the word "nature" for the miracles to which we are accustomed, and "miracles" for those we haven't previously experienced. All there is, in the end, is G-d's will.

When a sheep was first successfully cloned 14 years ago, we were all rightly amazed too. But the more perceptive among us realized that the source of the amazement was the coaxing of genetic material to do precisely what it does all the time "naturally": code for traits, replicate and direct protein synthesis. Dolly's production, to be sure, was a major accomplishment; myriad obstacles had to be overcome, and a single set of chromosomes, rather than the usual pair from two parents, had to be convinced to do the job. But it was still, in the end, essentially a miracle that takes place millions of times in hundreds of thousands of species each and every day without capturing most people's attention.

And forty-odd years ago, heart transplants, too, were flabbergasting. But, at least to thoughtful men and women, they were never remotely as amazing as hearts.

So we cheat ourselves if we let the media focus our attention on what humans have accomplished here, impressive though it is. The miracle is Divine, even if its ubiquity usually keeps it under our radars.

Well, actually, there is something wondrous about what the scientists did here too. Because what might be the greatest miracle of Creation is that, above and beyond all other life on earth, we humans have been granted the astonishing ability to think and discover, to analyze and creatively utilize the rest of nature. What a wondrous gift.

Like the dirt.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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RAPPER'S SABBATH

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Despite having eclectic tastes in many things, I have no appreciation of urban music. And so I had never heard of Q-Tip (the person, that is; the object is familiar to me). He is apparently a rapper, presumably with clean ears.

I was introduced to Mr. Tip's existence by a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report about his embrace of the Jewish Sabbath, a concept he apparently encountered while playing a role, as a drug dealer, in a film about some Chassidic boys who were lured into smuggling illicit substances.

The motion picture was "inspired" - the producer's word, although it sits somewhat uncomfortably here - by the case of some young American Chassidim who were in fact recruited in the 1990s to carry illegal drugs overseas.

The ideals and commitments of most Orthodox Jews make them unlikely committers of crimes like drug running. But, sadly, illegalities of many types, including that one, do exist in the Orthodox world. Not every Jew in the Orthodox community lives an Orthodox life.

So it was probably inevitable that some enterprising screenwriter would come across the reports about Chassidim tragically drawn into the easy money of drug smuggling and recognize an entertainment potential. What a winning crazy-mix of imageries: the peaceful, devout world of Chassidim, and the violent, amoral one of organized crime. Payos and payoffs, one might say. Amazing it took so long for someone to come up with the idea.

Whether the resultant film is a work of art or an act of Jewploitation I leave to film critics. But, reportedly, it portrays the Chassidic world in a generally positive, accurate light. The protagonist, who is at first tricked into boarding planes with "medicine" for "rich people" and eventually gets sucked into the abyss of the drug trade, brings great pain to his family, which is in turn portrayed sympathetically.

Similarly portrayed, it is reported, are the beauty and wonder of a Jewish Sabbath, when observant Jews turn off the world and spend a full night and day in relaxation, prayer and study, floating on a tranquil cloud of time with family and friends. That is apparently what enchanted Q-Tip. And others, too; the idea of a day without meetings, media or mobile devices has attracted fans far and wide. A national effort to promote the Sabbath has been promoted of late, and a recent book intended for a general readership is dedicated to singing the Sabbath's praises. Maybe Q-Tip even read it.

To be sure, there is much to be said for being disconnected and focused inward for a day each week. (Although Judaism considers the Sabbath, alone among the Torah's laws, to be a special "sign" between G-d and, exclusively, the descendants of Jacob and those who join them by religious conversion).

But the Jewish Sabbath is more than a "day off." It is intended to be a sort of spiritual recharging for Jews, an infusion of holiness into the six days that follow.

Which is not exactly how Q-Tip understands things.

"I'm going to enjoy Sabbath on Saturday…" he is reported to have declared. "And then when the sun sets on Saturday night, I'm going to raise the roof!" Well, actually, he didn't say "the roof," but you get the idea.

It is easy, of course, to be amused by a misunderstanding of the Jewish Sabbath as mere "downtime" in preparation for a hearty party. But those of us who observe the Sabbath might still learn something from the rapper's words. We could stand to think a little about whether we haven't been swabbed with a bit of Q-Tip ourselves.

When the Sabbath ebbs away - especially during the long days of summer - are we saddened a bit by the imminent loss of its holiness, pained at least a little to emerge from our day-long cocoon of connection with the Divine? Or are we itching, well, if not to raise the roof (or whatever), to barge as quickly as possible back into the "real" world, to listen to the news, check our e-mail, get in our cars - surrender without a fight to the mundane?

If so, perhaps we shouldn't smile so condescendingly at Q-Tip and his Saturday night plans, but rather recognize a bit of him in the mirror. And resolve to not only enjoy the Sabbath but to absorb it, and to take some of its holiness along with us into the week.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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CELEBRATING SUBMISSION

Rabbi Avi Shafran

All Biblical Jewish holidays but one are distinguished by specific mitzvot, or commandments, that attend their celebration: Rosh Hashana's shofar, Yom Kippur's fasting, Sukkot's booths and "four species," Passover's seder and matzah. The one conspicuous exception is Shavuot, which falls this year on May 19 and 20. Although the standard prohibitions of labor that apply to the other holidays apply no less to Shavuot, and while special sacrifices were brought in Temple times on every Jewish holiday, there is no specific ritual or "objet d'mitzvah" associated with Shavuot.

There are, of course, foods traditionally eaten on the day - specifically dairy delectables like blintzes and cheesecake. And there is a widely-observed custom of spending the entire first night of Shavuot immersed in Torah readings and study. But still, there is no Shavuot equivalent to the shofar or the etrog or the seder.

The early 19th century Chassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev suggested that perhaps the mitzvahlessness of Shavuot is the reason it is referred to throughout the Talmud as "Atzeret" - which means "holding back" and refers to the prohibition of labor. The fact that Shavuot is essentially characterized by "not doing" rather than by some particular mitzvah-act, though, may say something deeper. Shavuot, although characterized by the Torah only as an agricultural celebration, is identified by the Jewish religious tradition with the day on which the Torah was given to our ancestors at Mount Sinai.

That experience involved no particular action; it was, in a sense, the very essence of passivity, the acceptance of G-d's Torah and His will. That revelation was initiated by G-d; all that our ancestors had to do - though it was a monumental choice indeed - was to receive, to submit to the Creator and embrace what He was bestowing on them.

Indeed, the Midrash compares the revelation at Sinai to a wedding, with G-d the groom and His people the bride. (Many Jewish wedding customs even have their source in that metaphor: the canopy, according to sources, recalls the tradition that has the mountain held over the Jews' heads; the candles, the lightning; the breaking of the glass, the breaking of the tablets of the Law.) And just as a marriage is legally effected in the Jewish tradition by the bride's simple choice to accept the wedding ring or other gift the groom offers, so did the Jewish people at Mount Sinai create its eternal bond with the Creator by accepting His gift of gifts to them. That acceptance may well be Shavuot's essential aspect. A positive, active mitzvah for the day - an action or observance - would by definition be in dissonance with the day's central theme of receptivity.

And so the order of the day is to reenact our ancestors' acceptance of the Torah - pointedly not through any specific ritual but rather by re-receiving and absorbing it. Which is precisely what we do on Shavuot: open ourselves to the laws, lore and concepts of G-d's Torah, our Torah - and accept them anew, throughout the night, even as our bodies demand that we stop and sleep.

The association of Shavuot with our collective identity as a symbolic bride accepting a divine "marriage gift," moreover, may well have something to do with the fact that the holiday's hero is… a heroine: Ruth (whose book is read in the synagogue on Shavuot); and with the fact that her story not only concerns her own wholehearted acceptance of the Torah but culminates in her own marriage.

It is unfashionable these days - indeed it violates the prevailing conception of cultural correctness - to celebrate passivity or submission, even in those words' most basic and positive senses. But it might well be precisely what we Jews are doing on Shavuot.

Happy, and meaningful, anniversary.

Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

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THE MIKE'S ALWAYS ON

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The British election campaign just ended would seem an unlikely source for a Torah teaching moment, but there it was.

One of the blows the Labour Party absorbed in the days preceding the election was precipitated by Prime Minister Gordon Brown's mistaken assumption on April 28 that the microphone he was wearing during a campaign stop was turned off.

The device had just finished recording an encounter Mr. Brown had with a mildly disgruntled voter, on the issue of immigration. After the polite interaction, Mr. Brown returned to his campaign car, forgetful of the fact that the microphone was still faithfully doing its job, and groused to staff members about the "bigoted woman" with whom he had just been forced to speak.

With the speed of electromagnetic waves, of course, the comment became part of news reports worldwide.

It was only days earlier that Jews accustomed to studying a chapter of "Pirkei Avot", or the tractate "Fathers", each spring and summer Sabbath, pondered the words of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi (2:1): "An eye sees and an ear hears, and all of your actions are in the record written."

The sage (known, too, as "Rebbe") wasn't referring to the media, of course, which does in fact sometimes capture (but sometimes misses and sometimes gets wrong) at least some of what at least famous people do or say. The "eye" and "ear" in Rebbe's teaching are metaphorical, Divine ones; the record, filed in a realm far removed from the earthly. And the subjects of the surveillance and reports are each of us.

But Mr. Brown's experience was nonetheless a reminder of that deeper truth, and of the fact that it is easy to become oblivious to the fact that everything we say and do is of concern to G-d - or, put otherwise, has meaning.

It's not that we harbor some inner atheist. It's just that there is a yawning gap between recognizing something intellectually and completely internalizing it as a compelling truth. In the prayer Aleinu, which ends every Jewish prayer service, we quote from Deuteronomy (4:39): "And you shall know today and restore to your heart that Hashem is G-d, in the heavens above and on the earth below…"

The "knowing today," commentators note, is apparently insufficient. Our belief in G-d's omnipotence and omniscience has to be "restored" to our hearts - internalized constantly - to truly affect our actions and our essences.

That was the message inherent in the strange blessing the tannaic sage Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai offered his students as he lay dying. The Talmud (Brachot 28b) recounts that he wished them that "the fear of Heaven be to you like the fear of flesh and blood." "That's all?" they exclaimed, incredulous at their teacher's apparent confusion of priorities. The sage's response: "If only!" "Think." he continued. "When a person commits a sin in private, he says 'May no person see me!' And yet, of course, he is seen all the same.

It has often occurred to me that scientific and technological advances can often serve not only practical purposes but spiritual ones. They can provide us important life-messages as we need them.

When a basic understanding of our solar system lulled humanity into feeling it had mentally mastered the sky, powerful telescopes were invented that revealed new and mysterious realms of an incomprehensibly large and expanding universe, and that keep us aware of how little of what's out there we really understand. When the basic structure of the atom was fathomed, particle detectors came along and uncovered a bizarre zoo of inanimate beasties that make a mockery of our commonsense notions. So quasars and quarks keep us humble before the grandeur of Creation.

And then there are other, more mundane but increasingly utilized technologies, like the ubiquitous cameras on city streets or peering at us from our computer monitors, our GPSs, our E-ZPasses or our cellphones, that render us visible and audible where once we may have felt entirely alone. For all their downsides, they, too, are a healthy reminder. They remind us, as did Rebbe, that even outside the turmoil of a national election, even when we're not on the street or in a car or sitting at a computer, even if we're not famous or of interest to mortal authorities, we are heard and we are seen, and our every action is duly recorded.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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A RAY OF LIGHT IN A LION'S DEN

Rabbi Avi Shafran

"Boy, you're brave," said the first fellow to approach me at the table after the symposium.

The panel discussion, on Sunday, April 25, was the second time in as many months that I had made a presentation on the topic of Jewish religious pluralism in Israel. Back in March, it was a University of Maryland conference on "Israel as a Jewish State." Sunday's symposium, sponsored by the Institute for Living Judaism and Hadassah's Brooklyn branch, was entitled "The State of the Jews in the Jewish State: Religious Pluralism in Israel."

In both cases, I was invited to present a point of view rarely heard in such symposia, and, by defending Israel's "religious status quo," I was in fact a conspicuous minority of one on each panel. Most of my fellow panelists were not shy about attacking the Israeli rabbinate and religious parties, Orthodox Jews (especially haredi ones) and halacha itself.

Thus the man's comment. He saw me as having entered a lion's den of sorts. But it was not bravery that motivated me to accept the invitation, nor foolhardiness. I knew I would hear a litany of Orthodox evildoing, imagined or real, from other panelists; my presence wouldn't change any stump speeches. But the opportunity to place some facts and a different perspective before a group of people who might not otherwise ever encounter them was too important to squander.

The crowd on Sunday was larger than I had imagined it would be; close to 200 people paid an admission fee - modest, compared to more conventional boxing matches - to listen to us panelists. I was the first presenter.

Admitting at the start that tension is created by throwing the monkey wrench of religion into the machinery of a liberal democracy, I noted that, all the same, for Israel to meaningfully aspire to be a Jewish state, there was no way to avoid establishing standards for things Jewish, including marriage, divorce, and conversion.

I recounted the history of the "religious status quo," David Ben-Gurion's agreement with the Agudath Israel World Organization in 1947, pledging with regard to "personal status" issues that "everything possible will be done [to] avoid, Heaven forbid, the splitting of the House of Israel into two."

Whatever the yardstick, I argued, if "Jewish State" is to be more than a slogan, and all Jews in Israel are to be encompassed by one Judaism, something must do the measuring for all. And I made the case for halacha as the most compelling choice.

Reasonable people can choose to differ on that, I noted, but asserted that "it must indeed be reason, and not disparagement or distortion, that imbues the discussion.

"Characterizing a time-honored and deeply Jewish standard as something malevolent is regrettable. Overheated and incendiary language about 'human rights' and a 'marriage monopoly' only serves to stoke ill will and is grossly misleading."

Inter alia, I explained that the women detained not long ago at the Kotel plaza were purposely flouting a court ruling that their feminist services be held at a nearby Kotel site; and that the separate-seating buses on some Israeli routes had originally been a private haredi enterprise but were co-opted by the state's bus service. I emphasized that the seating arrangement was voluntary, and that anyone preventing a woman from sitting where she wants on those buses is subject to prosecution.

And I ended by asserting that one can choose to differ with Israel's Orthodox without vilifying them or their beliefs.

"One can advocate for change of Israel's marriage laws," I pleaded, "without characterizing the current ones - those of Jewish society from time immemorial - as violating 'human rights.' One can argue against separate-seating buses without invoking Rosa Parks and implying that haredim hate women. One can lobby for different systems of communal standards without holding up young hooligans as representative of the haredi community, or implying that the 'ultra- Orthodox' - a pejorative if ever there was one - are 'taking over'."

And then I sat back to listen to, well, just about all of precisely what I had said we could do without. (No one, thankfully, conjured Rosa Parks.)

Still, I was comforted by Mr. "Boy, you're brave." Not for that comment, but because he went on to say that he had been struck by the contrast between the heat generated by the others and the light he felt my words had cast. And those who followed him in line (and others still, who accosted my wife and me as we made our getaway) were equally kind and appreciative.

Oddly, though, those encouraging words weren't the high point of the afternoon for me. That would be something that took place during my presentation: I suddenly lost my voice in mid-sentence. Or better, a sound reminiscent of Donald Duck emerged from my mouth.

Which caused the moderator, a kind and considerate man, to rush over with a cup of water.

I was in fact a little thirsty and so, before drinking, pronounced the traditional blessing: "Blessed are You, Hashem… through Whose word everything came to be."

Then came the truly memorable moment of the afternoon, a ray of light in its own right: Loudly and in unison, the entire crowd pronounced an unabashed, enthusiastic "Amein."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE ELEPHANT AND THE JEWISH COMMUNITY

Rabbi Avi Shafran

A recent intriguing article about Roman Vishniac got me thinking well beyond him.

Vishniac, of course, was the famed photo-chronicler of pre-war Jewish Eastern Europe, whose 1983 collection "A Vanished World" is celebrated for its evocative portrayal of shtetl life, Jewish destitution, and religious Jews at home, work and study.

The article, by veteran journalist Alana Newhouse in The New York Times Magazine, focuses on the work of an assiduous researcher, Maya Benton, who has uncovered evidence that some of the narratives accompanying Vishniac's photographs are unreliable; that what seem candid shots were likely posed; and that, as per the photographer's assignment in the employ of the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish world he captured on film was a constricted one - a mere piece of a universe considerably larger, more diverse, more complex.

There were, after all, not only frightened, disheveled and poor children in pre-war Poland but happy, well-adjusted and well-off ones; not only cheder boys but progeny of parents whose ideals were more cosmopolitan than religious; not only study halls but cabarets; not only babushkas and housewives but debutantes and artists.

Whether Vishniac's ignoring of parts of the Jewish world he roamed in the 1930s makes him some sort of artistic mugger is an open question; all artists, in the end, choose their foci. But it's hard to argue with Ms. Newhouse's contention that the photographer's constrained spotlight on Eastern European Jewry's religious and impoverished elements (largely the same) presents a less than complete picture.

It is a real one, to be sure. But communities, in the end, are like elephants, their observers the proverbial blind men, one touching an ear and concluding that the beast is floppy and thin, the other feeling a leg and imagining the subject tree-like, a third encountering its trunk and pronouncing the pachyderm a python.

American Jewry is a good example. The air of one part of that population is permeated by academic achievement, economic success and social concerns. It constitutes a parallel universe, though, to that of the Orthodox community, which extols Torah study and observance, and breathes an atmosphere of religious tradition.

In fact, and sadly, the two worlds barely acknowledge one another. Many Jews who define themselves as non-Orthodox or unaffiliated tend to view those who consider their Jewishness paramount as relics, either amusing or threatening, depending on the day and circumstance.

And all too many Orthodox Jews, especially those of us in the more insular haredi world, can be oblivious to the large mass of our distant relatives beyond the physical and conceptual ghettos we inhabit. And when we do think of them, we often see them essentially as objects of "outreach." A laudable goal, to be sure, born of the desire to share something precious, but qualitatively removed from the deeper recognition that they are worthy of our concern and love as fellow Jews even if they never choose to live like us.

Back, though, to the elephant. A photographer could easily produce a volume portraying one American Jewish world or the other. Only a book, however, that portrays both (and likely several others in-between) could rightfully lay claim to the ambitious title "The American Jewish Community."

Even within each part of the American Jewish scene, a constricted focus can be misleading. Some non-Orthodox Jews profess atheism or agnosticism; but others ponder G-d and their purposes on earth more than do some Orthodox-by-rote. And so it would be a disservice to truth to present either sub-group as emblematic of the non-Orthodox whole.

As it would to imagine, inspired by some popular media, that the Orthodox world is rife with white-collar criminals and slumlords, or harbors a disproportionate number of child abusers. We Orthodox surely have our share of scoundrels, knaves and hypocrites. But examining the dirt under the elephant's toenails conveys nothing at all of the animal's majesty. As a whole, measured by the vast majority of its members, the Orthodox community is precisely what unprejudiced observers come to see: a world of broad and deep religious dedication, charity and kindness.

Assuming that a group stereotype is a group description is the essence of prejudice. As the Vishniac article reminds us, even the most compelling snapshots can mislead. Ears and trunk and feet are not, in the end, the elephant.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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A PLACE OUTSIDE ORTHODOXY

Rabbi Avi Shafran

As a Jewish teenager, I absorbed a vital truth - arguably the essence of Orthodoxy: The community's learned elders are the wisest arbiters of what is and is not Jewishly proper.

Over the many years since, I have come to see that truth vindicated time and again. Had I not perceived it in my youth, I sometimes reflect, I might have become enamored of the Conservative movement, which declared fealty to halacha while expressing sensitivity to American realities. I could have chosen to see it as the most promising standard-bearer for Jewish observance in America. And I would have been devastated to see its claim to halachic integrity crash and burn. But I trusted the elders. And, it turned out, they saw more than I did, and predicted precisely what came to be.

What bring the thought to mind are reactions to a recent pronouncement of our contemporary elders. When a congregational rabbi tried to create a new institution in Orthodoxy - women serving as rabbis - the Council of Torah Sages felt compelled to declare that any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical role "cannot be considered Orthodox."

There followed an outpouring of umbrage in some circles, some of it blithely dismissive of the respected rabbis' words (the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, or JOFA, rejected the rabbinic statement as a "political move"), some of it purporting to take scholarly issue with the sages' judgment and halachic reasoning.

Halachic decision-making, though, isn't a do-it-yourself project. What might seem to someone of limited experience or insight to be entirely in accordance with the prescribed roles of Jewish men and of women or the laws of modesty, might be judged otherwise by someone with a deeper and broader view. And those to whom we are to look for judgment in religious matters are the recognized religious leaders of each generation, whom the Torah itself, in Deuteronomy 17, 9-11 directs us to heed.

A woman serving as a rabbi in the Reform or Conservative Jewish spheres, of course, is wholly unremarkable. In the Orthodox world, though, gender roles are more fixed; that is what JOFA and some of its supporters would like to change, and for which they claim ample halachic justification. There was, though, ample halachic justification too, at least in some eyes, for innovations put forth by the Conservative movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Mixed-sex seating in synagogues and driving to synagogue on the Sabbath were deemed permissible then - and all the requisite "halachic" citations and responsa were duly proffered. To many, it all seemed reasonable and proper. The elders of the Orthodox Jewish community, though, saw it differently, and they were right.

Proponents of woman rabbis in Orthodox congregations may be sincerely convinced of the propriety of their approach. But opposing the considered consensus of the community's recognized Torah leaders is the antithesis of fealty to halacha, and, simply put, takes one to a place outside Orthodoxy.

A session at JOFA's recent conference was portentous. Entitled "A Rabbi by Any Other name…," it aimed to explore whether or not "the glass ceiling [has] truly been shattered" and "what… the future hold[s] for women in Orthodox communal leadership positions."

One of the featured presenters at that session was the female spiritual leader of a Manhattan congregation called Kehillat Orach Eliezer ("KOE"). Her participation naturally led participants and observers to assume that the congregation is Orthodox. And, in fact, in 2002, the New York Jewish Week identified it explicitly as such. That same paper's report on the recent conference implied the same, beginning with her name and quoting her about how "the Orthodox community needs men and women" in positions of leadership.

Oddly, though, the word Orthodox does not appear on KOE's website; nor does the congregation belong to any Orthodox umbrella congregational body - neither Agudath Israel, nor the National Council of Young Israel, nor the Orthodox Union. It has no ties to any major or minor Chassidic group. It claims to be "halachic" but so, of course, did (and, somehow, still does) the Conservative movement.

The Jewish Week claims that its "first loyalty is to the truth"; and JOFA puts its O before its F. Why then are they presenting an apparently nondenominational congregation as Orthodox?

Might it be because they want to make it seem as if women rabbis are already accepted in Orthodox synagogues? If so, they are wrong.

Intriguing - and telling - is the identity of the Eliezer in whose honor Kehillat Orach Eliezer is named. That would be Dr. Louis (Eliezer) Finkelstein. Yes, that Dr. Louis Finkelstein, the late Conservative movement leader.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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HONORIFICS AND HONOR

Rabbi Avi Shafran

This year, the yahrtzeit of Rebbetzin Zahava Braunstein, the 25th day of Adar, fell out in the thick of the recent brouhaha over an Orthodox rabbi's conferring of a rabbinical title on a woman.

For anyone who knew Rebbetzin Braunstein, or even of her, the coincidence carries a lesson.

Mrs. Braunstein was a "rebbetzin" because she married a respected rabbi. Had she been married to a layman, though, and known simply as a "Mrs.", she would have been no less a gift to the Jewish people, no less influential, no less a Jewish educator, no less a Jewish leader. It was not her title that garnered her the reverence of thousands of women of all ages around the world. It was, rather, her words, her care, her deeds, her teaching, her guidance - and her example.

She left the world in only her sixty-first year but she touched more lives, taught more Torah, inspired more people than most people granted decades more of life. She served as principal of a Sefardic girls high school in Brooklyn - her reputation spanned many boundaries - lectured extensively to varied groups of girls and women on theological, practical and halachic issues; and counseled and inspired countless others. And when she was taken, some of the most respected rabbinical personages in New York eulogized her.

I only met her twice, both times when she brought groups of students to Agudath Israel's offices to hear a presentation. I knew at the time that she was the sister of my dear friend and colleague Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, today Agudath Israel's executive vice president. But had I known just who she herself was I'm not sure I would have felt comfortable speaking in the presence of someone so accomplished.

Rebbetzin Braunstein's achievements were not the product of some struggle to be perceived as a Jewish leader, or of a struggle to be perceived at all. She was a noble Jewish woman who understood well what the Jewish ideal of modesty entailed, not just in dress and conduct but in life. She simply learned at a young age that she had talents that could be turned to good, to spread Jewish values and Jewish knowledge; and so she felt the obligation to use them. But she didn't revel in the renown or the respect she earned. In fact, she preferred the title "Mrs." to "Rebbetzin." She would sometimes say that if everyone in the next world was given an hour to return to this one, some would surely use the hour to study Torah or perform a particular mitzvah or recite Psalms. She, though? She would head straight for the kitchen to make a hearty soup for her children and grandchildren.

Not an image that would sit well, I imagine, with those who aspire to titles like "Maharat" or "Rabba", the natty neologisms being chanted these days by some. The contrast between those chanters' ideals and Rebbetzin Braunstein's example is stark.

At a recent conference of a group called the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, the woman on whom a rabbinic title was conferred spoke of the "fight to confirm women as spiritual leaders"; called women Orthodox clergy a "dream" to be "vocalized"; insisted that Jewish institutions "must train women" for the role; and implied that Orthodox women currently lack "a voice in shaping and contributing to our community as spiritual leaders."

Tell that to the thousands who were ably taught and guided by Zahava Braunstein. Or the many thousands more who have received, and continue to receive, no less instruction and guidance from hundreds of other Orthodox women teachers, Rebbetzins and Mrs.'s across the country and around the world.

There are many reasons why every recognized decisor of Jewish law across the Orthodox spectrum has rejected the concept of a woman rabbi. Among the reasons are objections based on particular technical requirements of a rabbinic role; others are based on those decisors' judgment of what is sociologically proper in Judaism - a judgment of no less halachic import to a truly observant Jew. But what became apparent to me, listening to the presentation and reading reports of the JOFA conference, is that, beyond all those valid concerns, the entire enterprise is misguided in its essence.

Because the motivation of those brandishing the cause of women rabbis - notwithstanding all the high-sounding rhetoric about filling a need and benefiting the community- seems clearly to be the shattering of a perceived "glass ceiling," an "advancement" of "women's rights," an end to "discrimination."

The rabbah-rousers do apparently seek to serve - but their master seems to be feminism, not Judaism.

The Talmud (Ketuvot 67b) tells of a great scholar, Mar Ukva, who discovered to his dismay that, in the pursuit of a charitable enterprise, his wife had merited a miracle that had not been granted him.

The wise woman explained to her rabbi husband: "I'm in the house so much more than you, so I have many more opportunities than you to be charitable toward the poor who come to our doorstep. And the food and drink I give them can be enjoyed immediately, unlike the money you give [to the poor collecting alms]. And so, with regard to charity, my merit is greater than yours."

Mrs. Ukva understood something most of us - men and women alike - don't always sufficiently appreciate, that what counts over our years on this earth is not the prominence we acquire but the merit we achieve; not our particular roles but what we do with them.

That what matters in the end are not the honorifics we sport but the honor we earn.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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WHAT'S WITH THE FOURS?

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Despite the late hour and exhaustion (not to mention wine), many a Jewish mind has wondered long and hard during a Passover Seder about all the Haggadah's "fours." Four questions, four sons, four expressions of redemption, four cups. There's clearly a numerical theme here.

While some may superficially dismiss the Haggadah as a mere collection of random verses and songs, it is in truth a subtle and wondrous educational tool, with profound Jewish ideas layered through its seemingly simple text. The rabbis who formulated its core, already extant in pre-Talmudic times, wanted it to serve to plant important concepts in the hearts and minds of its readers - especially its younger ones, toward whom the Seder, our tradition teaches, is aimed. And so the author of the Haggadah employed an array of pedagogical methods, including songs, riddles and puzzles, as means of conveying deeper understandings. And he left us some clues, too.

When it comes to the ubiquitous "fours," we might begin by considering the essential fact that Passover is when the Jewish people's identity is solemnly perpetuated; the Seder, the ritual instrument through which each Jewish generation inculcates our collective history and essence to the next. Which is likely a large part of the reason so many Jewish parents who are alienated from virtually every other Jewish observance still feel compelled to have at least some sort of Seder, to read a Haggadah, or even - if they have strayed too far from their heritage to comfortably confront the original - to compose their own. (I once joked before an audience that a "Vegetarian Haggadah" would likely appear any year now, and someone in attendance later showed me precisely such a book - though it lacked the "Paschal Turnip" I had imagined.)

And so the role we adults play on Pesach night, vis a vis the younger Jews with whom we share the experience, is a very specific one. We are teachers, to be sure, but it is not information that we are communicating; it is identity.

At the Seder, in other words, we seek to instill in our children the realization that they are not mere individuals but rather parts of a people, members of a nation unconstrained by geographical boundaries but linked by history and destiny. We impress them with the fact that they are links in a shimmering, ethereal chain stretching back to birth of the Jewish nation, to when our people was divinely redeemed from mundane slavery in Egypt and entered a sublime servitude of a very different sort - to God - at Sinai.

So, on Passover, as we celebrate the birth of the Jewish nation and plant the seed of Jewish identity in the minds of smaller Jews, we are giving life - giving birth, one might say - to the Jewish future. And, while it may be the father who traditionally leads the Seder, he is acting not as teacher but rather in something more akin to a maternal role, as a spiritual nurturer of the children present.

In Jewish religious law, Jewish identity is in fact dependent on mothers. According to halacha, or Jewish religious tradition, while a Jew's tribal genealogy follows the paternal line, whether a child is a member of the Jewish people or not depends entirely on the status of his or her mother.

It's only speculation, but the recurrent numerical theme in our exquisite Haggadah, employed each year to instill Jewish identity might be reminding us of that. After all, the book has its own number-decoder built right in, toward its end, where most good books' keys and indexes are found. We're a little hazy once it's reached, after four cups of wine, but it's unmistakably there: "Echad Mi Yodea" or "Who Knows One?" - the song that provides Jewish associations with numbers.

"Who knows four?"

If you don't, you can look it up.

Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above essay was distributed in 2003]

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NOT FEAR BUT FEALTY

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel

An editorialist in the Jerusalem Post was greatly exercised by the fact that Orthodox rabbinic leaders, including most notably Agudath Israel of America's Council of Torah Sages (Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah), have gone on record stating what is and is not acceptable for Orthodox congregations ("Women's rabbinical rights", 1/03/10).

So exercised, in fact, that the editorialist saw fit to distort the words of the rabbinic sages in an effort to score debating points.

The distortion begins with the editorial's very first word: "'Assertive' Orthodox women are making some men very nervous." The placement of quotation marks around the word "assertive" is designed to imply that the pejorative is taken from the mouths (or pens) of the "nervous" rabbis themselves - when in fact it is the invention of the editorialist.

In the scientific world, one invention often leads to another. So too, apparently, in the editorial world. The second sentence of the editorial informs readers that the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah "has excommunicated the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale…for recognizing Sara Hurwitz…as a rabbi." In fact, the rabbinic sages excommunicated no one and no thing. Stories of excommunication may make for interesting reading, but at least in this case it is absolute fiction.

What the Council of Torah Sages did say is that placing a woman in a rabbinic position is outside the bounds of Jewish Orthodoxy. The Council's members, deeply respected senior rabbis and heads of American yeshivot, felt it important to make clear that Rabbi Avi Weiss' conferral of rabbinical status on a woman, and her assumption of certain traditional rabbinic functions at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, represent a "radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition," and that "any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox." A strong position, to be sure - as befitting the gravity of the issue - but a far cry from excommunication.

The editorial then proceeds from distortion to armchair analysis with its assertion that fear of "challenge to their hegemony" motivated the rabbinic sages.

"The male-dominated rabbinic establishment seems to have a visceral (Freudian?) fear," the editorial explains, "that female clergy will outperform them on the pulpit." The rabbis' rejection of the ordaining of women is further motivated, says the editorial, by their chauvinistic conviction that women should be relegated to their traditional roles of "cooking, cleaning and rearing children." One can only marvel at the editorialist's psychoanalytic prowess.

It is worth recalling, though, that the Torah itself establishes Judaism as a deeply role-based faith. There is a role for a Cohein, a role for a Levi, roles for men and roles for women. Contemporary feminism insists that women fill every conceivable role traditionally filled by men. And many are the Jews who have stumbled over one another in a rush to jump on that bandwagon. But from an Orthodox perspective, the Torah's truths, including the role-assignments so deeply embedded in our tradition, transcend contemporary notions, today as in the past.

That Jews faithful to their religious tradition reserve the role of rabbi for men is no insult to women. What truly insult women are insinuations, like the editorialist's, that the traditional roles of wives and mothers - including "raising children" - are somehow demeaning.

Anyone interested not in reacting to the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah's statement from a preconceived stance but in actually understanding it would do well to focus on what it said. To wit: that creating a rabbinic role for women is a radical departure from the Jewish mesorah, or religious tradition.

Now, to be sure, many in our anchorless world would react with a shrug and a "so what?". But a refusal to jettison any part of the Jewish religious tradition is precisely what defines Orthodoxy. Yes, changes can occur, and have occurred, in normative Orthodox practice. But such changes are rare, and they are instituted only after the deepest deliberations of the greatest Torah leaders of a generation, not as fiats motivated by the Zeitgeist.

And so there should be nothing shocking about recognized rabbinic leaders rejecting a proposed radical change in Jewish tradition. The rejection is born not of fear but of fealty - to the tradition that is the heritage of all Jews.

The above essay was published in the Jerusalem Post, which has kindly offered permission for its republication with the appropriate credit.

[Rabbi Zwiebel is executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America.]

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A HOLOCAUST STORY OF A DIFFERENT SORT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It wasn't the most exciting or terrifying tale of the war years I had ever heard, or the saddest or the most shocking. But somehow it was the most moving one.

The man who recounted it had spent the war years, his teenage years, in the chilling vastness of the Siberian taiga. He and his Polish yeshiva colleagues were guests of the Soviet authorities for their reluctance to assume Russian citizenship after they fled their country at the start of the Nazi onslaught.

He had already spoken of unimaginable, surreal episodes, fleeing his Polish shtetl with the German advance in 1939, of watching as his uncle was caught trying to escape a roundup of Jews and shot on the spot, of being packed with his Jewish townsfolk into a shul which was then set afire, of their miraculous deliverance, of the long treks, of the wandering refugees' dedication to the Torah's commandments. And then he told the story.

We were loaded onto rail cattle-wagons, nine of us, taken to Novosibirsk, and from there transported by barge to Parabek, where we were assigned to a kolchoz, or collective farm.

I remember that our first winter was our hardest, as we did not have the proper clothing for the severe climate.

Most of us had to fell trees in the forest. I was the youngest and was assigned to a farm a few miles from our kolchoz. The nights were terribly cold, the temperature often dropping to forty degrees below zero, through I had a small stove by which I kept a little warm. The chief of the kolchoz would make surprise checks on me to see if I had fallen asleep, and I would recite Psalms to stay awake.

One night I couldn't shake the chills and I realized that I had a high fever. I managed to hitch my horse and sled together and set off for the kolchoz. Not far from the farm, though, I fell from the sled into the deep snow and the horse continued on without me. I tried to shout to the animal to stop, to no avail. I remember crying and saying Psalms for I knew that remaining where I was, or trying to walk to the kolchoz, would mean certain death from exposure. I forced myself to get up and, with what little strength I had left, began running after the horse and sled.

Suddenly, the horse halted. I ran even faster, reached the sled and collapsed on it.

Looking up at the starry sky, I prayed with all my diminishing might to G-d to enable me to reach the relative safety of the kolchoz. He answered me and I reached my Siberian home, though I was shaking uncontrollably from my fever; no number of blankets could warm me. The next day, in a daze, I was transported to Parabek, where there was a hospital.

My first two days in the hospital are a blur, but on the third my fever broke and I started to feel a little better. Then suddenly, as I lay in my bed, I saw a fellow yeshiva boy from the kolchoz, Herschel Tishivitzer, before me, half frozen and staring, incredulous, at me. His feet were wrapped in layers and layers of rags - the best one could manage to try to cope with the Arctic cold, without proper boots. I couldn't believe my eyes - Herschel had actually walked the frigid miles from the kolchoz!

"Herschel," I cried, "what are you doing here?"

I'll never forget his answer.

"Yesterday," he said, "someone came from Parabek, and told us 'Simcha umar,' that Simcha had died. And so I volunteered to bury you."

The narrator paused to collect himself, and the reflected on his memory:

The dedication to another Jew, the dedication… Had the rumor been true there was no way he could have helped me. He had immediately made the perilous journey - just to see to my funeral! The dedication to another Jew …such an example!…

As a shiver subsided and the story sank in, I wondered: Would I have even considered such a journey, felt such a responsibility to a fellow Jew? In such a place, at such a time? Or would I have justified inaction with the ample justification available? Would I have been able to maintain even my humanity in the face of so doubtful a future, not to mention my faith in G-d, my very Jewishness…?

A wholly unremarkable story in a way, I realize. None of the violence, the tragedy, the horrors, the evil of so many tales of the war years. Just a short conversation, really. Yet I found so valuable a lesson in the story of Herschel Tishivitzer's selflesness, unhesitating concern for little Simcha Ruzhaner, as the narrator had been called in those days: what it means to be part of a holy people.

The narrator concluded his story, describing how Hershel Tishivitzer, thank G-d, had eventually made his way to America and settled in New York under his family name, Nudel. And how he, the narrator himself, had ended up in Baltimore, where he married the virtuous daughter of a respected Jewish scholar, Rabbi Noach Kahn. And how he himself had became a rabbi (changing many lives for the better, I know, though he didn't say so) and how he and his rebbetzin had raised their children in their Jewish religious heritage, children who were continuing to frustrate the enemies of the Jewish people by raising strong Jewish families of their own.

And I wondered - actually, I still do - if the slice of Simcha Ruzhaner's life had so affected me only because of its radiant, blindingly beautiful message - or if perhaps some part was played by the fact that he too, had taken on a shortened form of his family name, Shafranowitz, and had named his second child Avrohom Yitzchok, although everyone just calls me Avi.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

This essay was distributed in 2006.

Rabbi Simcha Shafran's memoir "Fire, Ice, Air" has just been published by Hashgacha Press - hashgachapress@gmail.com]

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SOMEONE'S THERE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The rubble doesn't stir; things are very quiet. But a faint tapping emerges from somewhere below. You shout "Can you hear me?" and more tapping ensues.

You have an idea. "If you can understand me," you yell, "tap once." A single tap. "If you're injured," you then say, "tap twice." Two taps. There's someone there.

The scene conjures the aftermath of a natural disaster like January's earthquake in Haiti. But it could also stand as a compelling metaphor for the discovery of a human being struggling to be heard though the rubble of a body that is just too hard to move.

A group of European scientists has employed a high-tech means of, in effect, hearing the tapping of a mind trapped in an unresponsive body. Four patients diagnosed as vegetative and assumed to be unconscious were demonstrated to in fact be aware, despite their inability to move or signal their awareness by moving in any way, even just blinking.

The discovery was the result of the creative use of something called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which shows cellular activity across brain regions. What it demonstrated was that the patients were hearing and thinking. And that they could communicate.

The researchers' discovery utilized the fact that when a person is thinking about active movement, cells in one area of the brain become active; when he visualizes navigating a familiar area, a different area shows cellular activity. The researchers asked the physically unresponsive patients first to imagine swinging a tennis racket and then to imagine moving through the rooms of their houses. The fMRI scan showed activity in the respective, separate areas of the brain with each thought.

That was impressive in its own right. But then the researchers posed a series of factual yes-or-no questions to each patient, like whether he had a parent or sibling with a certain name, and instructed the patient to respond "yes" by imagining playing tennis and "no" by imagining walking through his home. Each patient was instructed to concentrate on the "yes" or "no" thought-activities for a full 30 seconds, well beyond the range of any random brain activity artifact, and they were able to respond accurately.

The results were striking. The answers provided by the four patients, who were part of a tested group of 54, were all correct, demonstrating that consciousness can reside in a body seemingly severed from the world. Before fMRI, such an assertion could have been no more than a statement of faith. Now it is fact. Left for us to speculate is whether some even more sensitive future technology might one day reveal consciousness even in patients whose brains cannot generate signals detectable by current methods.

No one knows what degree of consciousness persists in a body unable to move. But now we know that some degree can persist in some such bodies, belonging to people many would previously have thought of as something less than people.

Some still aren't convinced they are, in fact, still people. In an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Allan H. Ropper, a neurologist, warned against, in the New York Times' words, "equating neural activity [like that seen in the brain scans of the four patients] with [human] identity." He asserted that "Physicians and society are not ready for 'I have brain activation, therefore I am.' That would seriously put Descartes before the horse." Quite the punster, that Dr. Ropper; but the issue is most serious.

Writing in Great Britain's The Guardian, University of Glasgow Professor of Law and Ethics Sheila McLean doesn't treat "brain activation" as casually as Dr. Ropper. On the contrary, she assumes that patients like those who communicated their answers to the European scientists are in fact thinking. Nonetheless, she asks whether "if recovery truly is impossible, is it compassionate to keep people alive in this condition?"

"Frankly," she asserts, "the only thing worse than being in a vegetative state must be being in one, but being aware."

Perhaps. But then again, perhaps not. Professor McLean is too quick to discount the value of even such a physically imprisoned life. Is only our movement meaningful?

Men and women in extremis often find themselves facing the question of life's meaning. Not all of us at the end of our life-journeys will experience epiphanies, but all of us have the potential to be so blessed. And many of us, even if immobile, physically unresponsive and without reasonable hope of recovery, might still engage most important matters - things like forgiveness, repentance, acceptance, commitment, love, G-d - perhaps the most momentous matters we will ever have considered over the course of our lives. Are such vital encounters worth less than running and jumping? Is ending a life of pure contemplation less objectionable that ending one that includes physical activity?

And, as Professor McLean notes, "the consequence of a diagnosis of permanent vegetative state is that it can be lawful to withdraw assisted nutrition and hydration" - resulting, of course, in the patient's death.

Back to the aftermath of the natural disaster. What would we think of someone who looks down at the immobile rubble, hears some faint tapping… and just walks away?

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


LAST WORDS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The mood was somber in the downtown Manhattan offices of Agudath Israel of America, where I work, as 6:00 PM loomed large this past Tuesday, February 16. That was the time designated for Martin Grossman's execution.

Mr. Grossman, a 45-year-old Jewish man, had been convicted of killing Margaret Park, a Florida Wildlife Officer, in 1984, when he was 19 years old, and was sentenced to death. Agudath Israel and other organizations representing the full spectrum of American Orthodox Jewry - as well as many other groups - appealed to Florida Governor Charlie Crist to spare Grossman's life and allow him to serve a life sentence instead.

While acknowledging the horror of Grossman's crime and expressing their deepest sympathy for the family of his victim, the advocates stressed that the murder had been an act of panic, not planning; that Grossman's low IQ and impaired mental state were not given proper recognition in his death sentence; and that Grossman had not only conducted himself as a model prisoner since his incarceration some 25 years ago but showed profound remorse and regret for his actions.

As the appointed hour grew closer, some Agudath Israel staff members quietly recited Psalms. Others just waited, hopefully, for news that the execution had been cancelled or postponed. Agudath Israel's executive vice-president, Rabbi David Zwiebel, was on the phone with the Rosh Agudath Israel, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, who had called to offer his encouragement and appreciation for all that Agudath Israel had done to try to prevent the execution.

Indeed, in the week or two prior to the execution, much energy was invested in the campaign to spare Martin Grossman's life. Constituents were mobilized to telephone, fax and e-mail Florida Governor Crist to ask him to commute Grossman's sentence to life in prison. Religious leaders, government officials and prominent businessmen from outside the Jewish community were enlisted in the effort as well.

Unfortunately, to no avail. Mr. Grossman was executed as scheduled.

Governor Crist said that his office had received nearly 50,000 e-mails, phone calls and letters urging him to commute the death sentence. But, he said, he had "reached the conclusion that justice must be done."

Some people, even within the Jewish, even the Orthodox, community, are upset that Agudath Israel and others had made efforts to save Mr. Grossman's life. Some of the objectors simply feel that someone who killed another person, no matter the circumstances, should himself be killed. Others worry about how it would look to the larger world that Orthodox Jews were "defending" a death-row inmate.

In a Gannett newspaper in Florida, the Ft. Myers News-Press, columnist Paul Fleming indeed waxed cynical about the Orthodox groups' efforts. "These folks," he wrote, "are welcome to fight against Grossman's execution for whatever reasons they choose."

"However," he continued, "when the next death warrant is signed and the next of Florida's 394 death-row inmates is scheduled for execution, I expect… those who oppose Grossman's sentence to once again… ask the governor for a stay. We'll see."

New York Jewish Week columnist Adam Dickter blogged: "It didn't much matter to Peggy Park that she was killed by someone who had a bar mitzvah. Why does it matter to Agudah?"

What Mr. Fleming and Mr. Dickter don't fully appreciate, though, is that there is nothing for a Jew to be ashamed of in seeking to aid another Jew (bar-mitzvahed or not). To a believing Jew, every other Jew, no matter how ignorant or personally unobservant, is a relative - a member of Klal Yisrael, the Jewish Family. And when a family member is in danger, even the critics surely realize, one goes to special lengths.

Ahavas Yisrael, the love each member of the Jewish people is to have for all other Jews, is not only a halachic mandate, it is a tangible reality among observant Jews. Among the tragedies inherent in the relinquishing of the Jewish religious tradition within so much of the Jewish community is the decay of the very concept of Jewish Peoplehood. Lip service is readily paid to the phrase. But for any Jew whose heart is imbued with what it means, there can be only one reaction to the impending death of a fellow Jew: anguish. And a determination to attempt, no matter how futile it might seem, to stave it off. If love isn't compelling in such circumstances, it has little hope to be manifest in daily life.

After the Jewish groups issued their call to try to save Mr. Grossman's life, messages from caring individuals streamed into our offices. Jews from across the community were asking for contact information for the Florida governor and wanted to know what else they could possibly do to help save Mr. Grossman. They knew nothing about him beyond the fact that he had committed a terrible crime and was facing execution. And that he was Jewish, a brother.

News reports described Mr. Grossman's last moments and words. "I would like to extend my heartfelt remorse to the family of Peggy Park," he said. "I fully regret everything that happened that night… whether I remember everything or not. I accept responsibility."

And then he recited the first verse of the Shma: "Hear, O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is one."

A witness to the execution reported further that Mr. Grossman added two words before the lethal injection was administered.

I shuddered when I read them: "Ahavas Yisrael."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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CALEB'S GIFT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

When I was a teenager, a long, long time ago, I felt self-conscious about praying in public places like airports. On at least one occasion I entered a phone booth (remember those?) while awaiting a flight, closed the door (yes, they had doors) and spoke to the Creator of the universe through the telephone mouthpiece. (In its own strange way, it enhanced the experience.)

But it didn't take long for me to realize that praying was nothing of which to be ashamed. And in subsequent years, when there was no other option, I performed my share of religious devotions, even with tallit and tefillin, in an assortment of public places. When on a plane, though - and this has been my practice since well before 2001 - I engage my seatmate in some conversation first, to try to establish my normalcy credentials, and then explain what I am about to do.

Caleb Leibowitz, the young man whose tefillin-donning inadvertently caused the diversion of a flight from New York to Louisville, Kentucky a few weeks ago, acted in a similar responsible way. Seated nearby was his sister; presumably she knew what he was doing. And, according to the boy's father, quoted in the January 25 daily Hamodia, when a flight attendant inquired about the leather straps and the small boxes on the boy's arm and head, he politely explained to her that it was a religious ritual.

Some have sought to blame the attendant for then reporting the still-suspicious-to-her goings-on to the captain. But while most experienced attendants have probably seen tefillin, there are surely neophytes who haven't, and she may well have been one of them. (Agudath Israel of America has tried to sensitize the Transportation Security Administration to the religious practices of Orthodox Jews, and has reached out to airlines as well, offering a brochure explaining Orthodox laws and customs.)

In any event, security protocol apparently required the pilot to land the plane at the next available airport, in this case, Philadelphia, and the rest was history - or, at least, a few days of grist for news organizations, which posted the story of the suspect tefillin before the plane had even landed.

(There was considerable amusement value in some news reports too. A Philadelphia law enforcement official soberly informed television viewers how the "devices" worn by Mr. Leibowitz were called "olfactories.")

Although the halachic parameters of what constitutes Kiddush Hashem, or "sanctification of G-d's name," are complex, the term is colloquially used to mean a Jew's act that impresses others and generates positive feelings. That is not to say, though, that any act resulting in such feelings is a Kiddush Hashem - or, conversely, that an act resulting in negative feelings in others cannot be proper, and even a Kiddush Hashem.

For an example of the latter, we need look no further than a few weeks hence, when the Book of Esther will be publicly read on Purim. It describes how Mordechai refused to bow to Haman. The Midrash explains that the Purim villain wore an idol around his neck, the reason for Mordechai's refusal. Many Jews at the time were disapproving of Mordechai's decision - after all, they argued, it will only stoke Haman's hatred and render all Jews even more vulnerable! Nevertheless, it was the right decision, whether or not it was a popular one. Haman's hatred was indeed stoked, but in the end it led to his downfall.

Caleb Leibowitz did something right, too, on the plane that morning. He donned tefillin with pride and explained politely what he was doing. And most people recognized that Mr. Leibowitz was a shining example of an observant Jew, an example only reiterated when law enforcement personnel described him as "completely cooperative" throughout. And if his tefillin-donning frightened a flight attendant or bothered others, or if the image of a young Jewish man kneeling on a tarmac in handcuffs brought anyone to think of Mr. Leibowitz as some wrongdoer, that's unfortunate. But no amount of misguided disapproval can change the fact that G-d's name was sanctified by his performance of a mitzvah.

It was a Kiddush Hashem with ramifications, too, a gift that kept on giving. As the New York Jewish Week reported recently, an annual program among the Conservative movement's Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs that encouraged members to don tefillin experienced a huge surge of interest in the wake of the phylactery fiasco. A movement spokesperson noted that the international "World Wide Wrap" event "had 5000 participants the first years and the number has been consistent ever since."

This year, though, he added, nearly 9000 men had pledged their participation.

May Caleb's gift continue to give.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE MYTH OF MUNDANITY

Rabbi Avi Shafran

An abrupt shift takes place in synagogues around this time of year in synagogues all over the world.

Over the previous 17 weeks, since the public reading of the Torah was begun anew after the holiday of Sukkot, the readings were narrative in nature, beginning with the worlds creation, continuing with elements of the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, then the account of Josephs life, the sojourn in Egypt, the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai.

Beginning with the portion called Mishpatim, though, the Torahs focus is largely on technicalities of civil and ritual laws. Then, in subsequent weeks, laws pertaining to the minutiae of the Tabernacles construction, its many vessels and the special garments worn by Cohanim during sacrificial services will be read. The sudden transition from miraculous to mundane is striking.

Every word of the Torah, though, is as important as every other; a missing letter, whether in the account of the revelation at Sinai or in the rules governing property damage, renders a Torah scroll invalid.

Likewise, every seemingly pedestrian law or occurrence in the Torah is ultimately as imbued with holiness as the most astounding miracle recounted. The dimensions of the Tabernacles outer perimeter and the description of the manna that fell from heaven are, in the end, of equal import.

A similar false dichotomy inhabits our individual lives. We tend to readily perceive the divine in certain places, circumstances and events in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, after an escape from danger, at the birth of a child. The challenge lies in recognizing that every place in which we find ourselves is special; every situation we face, divinely ordained; every moment, in its own way, a miracle.

I'm no fan of the contemporary wonder-stories so many find inspiring. Even the modern-day miracle-accounts that don't turn out to have been embellished (or fabricated entirely) leave me unmoved. In fact my favorite story, told to me by one of my daughters (who heard it from a friend) concerns a woman who had to catch a plane to make it to an interview for a job in another city. She left plenty of time to get to the airport and had her boarding pass, but found herself stuck in traffic as the departure time approached. Arriving in barely enough time to park her car, she ran to the terminal, found the gate and then watched in dismay as the plane pushed away from its dock just as she arrived.

After discovering that there were no other flights that would get her to her interview on time, she headed home. Several hours later, the plane on which she was to have flown began its descent to its destination, the woman's reserved seat empty.

The plane touched down, safely and on time. The passengers disembarked.

End of story.

Moral: The woman never came to know why she lost her chance at the job. Nobody did. But, all the same, there was a reason.

The Torahs segue from miraculous narratives to quotidian concerns takes public place during the weeks leading to the holiday of Purim. The Talmud says that the Jew's acceptance and embrace of the Torah at Sinai included an element of coercion and thus lacked something that was only supplied centuries later, at the time of the events recounted in the Book of Esther. The coercion may well include the overwhelming nature of the encounter itself. How could anyone present at Sinai possibly have resisted accepting the Torah? G-d revealed Himself then like at no other time in history. In the time of Esther, by contrast, there was no overt manifestation at all of divine intervention (nor is there any mention of G-d in the Book of Esther).

To see G-d where He is most patently evident is one thing. To discern His presence in what seems mundane is entirely another. And the latter, more meaningful, perception is what the Jews managed to attain in the time of Esther. They turned in supplication to Him in their time of crisis and, after their salvation, they recognized that the turn of events, so easily dismissible as mere chance, had been divinely guided throughout. And they established the holiday of Purim to eternalize that recognition.

Purim the word, of course, means lots, referring to the agents of chance Haman employed to choose a date for the destruction of the Jewish community. Purim the holiday celebrates the fact that chance, as it is usually understood, is in fact an illusion, that what seems to be randomness is but a subtle manifestation of divine purpose that everything in our history and in our lives is, in the end, guided by an unseen but all-encompassing hand.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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TAKE TWO!

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It was hardly the first or only time, but one night not long ago I learned something important from my wife.

We were driving home from a wedding in another city, both of us sneezing and coughing from the bad cold we shared. As I drove, she checked for messages on her phone, which had been turned off during the wedding. One message was from one our married daughters, who lives with her husband and family in a different part of the country. Could she call back, I heard our daughter ask, when she had a chance?

Well, the chance was right there; and so my wife returned the call, on speaker phone so I could participate. She reached our daughter's voicemail (of course) and left a message. I expected to hear the phone snap shut then but instead heard the Ms. Monotone phone-voice offer options, one of which was "to review your message, press…" My wife did. More options, one of which was to delete and re-record her message. She chose that too.

Her new message to our daughter consisted of precisely the same words as her previous one, but it was entirely different. The first one, understandably, carried with it all the misery of a bad cold - my wife sounded exhausted, and sniffles and an occasional cough accompanied her words. When she recorded her second take, though, she somehow managed to muster the energy to sound healthy, even cheery. I admit taking my eyes off the road for a second to make sure the same person was still sitting to my right.

My first thought, after marveling at the feat of great acting I had witnessed (who knew?), was to lament how few are the opportunities for second takes in daily life. The words that leave our mouths aren't subject to editing, and so much that is unfortunate results from our neglecting to do mental edits before we set our tongues and lips to moving.

The second thing that came to mind was a snippet of a Mishneh in Avot (1:15), a statement by the Tannaic sage Shammai: "Receive every person with a smiling face."

People think of gifts mostly as physical things. But the Talmudic tractate Avot D'Rabi Natan (end of chapter 13) characterizes a beaming face as the equivalent of all the most wonderful gifts in the world.

Over the telephone, of course, a smile can't be seen; but it can be heard. It's hard, if possible at all, to sound happy without bringing one's facial muscles into the configuration we call a smile. Forlorn as my wife felt in the car that night, she somehow managed it.

I didn't know it at the time, but I later discovered that a Chassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchok of Vorke, commented on the Mishneh's phrase for a smiling face, which technically, if strangely, translates as "a thinking, nice face." "Thinking?"

Said Rabbi Yitzchok: Even if you aren't able to feel happy, what is important is that you make the person you are greeting think that you are. Our smiles, in other words, are not for us but for others.

My wife had apparently intuited that, and took advantage of the rare gem of a second take.

But what she also taught me with her choice that night was a new facet of the phrase "every person" in Shammai's dictum. Its simplest meaning, of course, is that we are to show good cheer not only to respected or accomplished people but also (perhaps especially) to average folk. What my wife's act inspired me to consider with her "take two" was that the phrase might also mean to warn us away from thinking that our smiles aren't equally vital to those closest to us.

It's not an obvious thought. We feel comfortable with our siblings, our spouses, our children, our parents; and we know we can be more natural with them. That can sometimes mean showing something less than a shining countenance. "Every person," though, says Shammai, deserves to be "received with a smiling face."

Even a daughter, even at a distance of hundreds of miles, and even if the smile is holding back a sneeze.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE PROBLEM

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The lives of dedicated Israel-bashers, especially those who hate the Jewish State because it's no longer acceptable to just hate Jews, can't be easy. The glaring contrasts between Israeli and Palestinian behavior have to make it hard to keep up the "Israel is the problem" chant, in the hope the weed-words find places to grow.

Recent events are illustrative. When a mosque in a West Bank village was torched at the end of the year, allegedly at the hand of an Israeli settler angered by his government's construction freeze, a delegation of Israelis from West Bank settlements brought copies of the Koran to residents of the village and expressed sorrow over the crime. Shortly thereafter, Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Rabbi Yona Metzger visited the village to express his "revulsion at this wretched act of burning a place holy to the Muslim people" and compared the arson to "how the Holocaust began."

Then, ten days later, a 45-year-old Israeli father of seven, Rabbi Meir Chai, was shot without provocation as he drove his vehicle on a public road. Although the group taking "credit" for the murder claimed affiliation with the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, a group connected to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party, the Palestinian leader did not extend condolences to the murdered man's family. He didn't care, for that matter, to disassociate Fatah from the murder.

What he did do, however, was immediately speak up when the Shin Bet, Israel's highly regarded security agency, identified Rabbi Chai's killers and killed three of them - one because intelligence information indicated he was armed, the other two because they refused to surrender. (A fourth suspect was taken into custody.) Mr. Abbas declared the three deceased militants "shahids," or holy martyrs, and sent Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to pay condolence visits to their families.

As my respected collegue Agudath Israel executive vice president Rabbi David Zwiebel recently wrote to Secretary of State Clinton, "There is something deeply wrong here."

Rabbi Zwiebel went on to point out that United States aid to the Palestinians is conditioned on, among other things, the Palestinian government's renouncing violence.

Prime Minister Abbas' silence at the murder of Rabbi Chai by a group claiming affiliation with the military arm of Fatah - not to mention his reaction to the killing of three of Rabbi Chai's murderers - would seem, Rabbi Zwiebel asserted, grounds for the United States to reconsider whether the Palestinian government satisfies this criterion.

Fatah funding aside, though, the stark contrast between Israelis' reaction to the burning of a mosque by a rogue vandal and the reaction of their adversaries - the "moderates," no less, among them - to a cold-blooded murder and to the deaths of the murderers should give pause to the "Israel is the problem" crowd.

It won't, though. Their mantra is fueled by blind hatred; it is impervious to all evidence and reason.

Objective observers of the Middle East, though, should think long and hard about what happened in the wake of the mosque burning, and in the wake of Rabbi Chai's murder.

And they might further take note of what the murdered rabbi's sixteen-year-old son Eliyahu had to say at his father's funeral. "Dad wanted to learn Torah and pray," he said through tears, "and if we want to perpetuate his memory, we need to do these things, not take revenge."

"Continue Abba's path," he cried out, "Abba wanted faith! Abba wanted Torah study! Abba wanted prayers!… If we want to immortalize Abba, then we have to do things like that - not external things. Not to look for revenge, not to beat up Arabs."

A few days later, the funeral for the rabbi's alleged murderers took place, attended by an assortment of Palestinian Authority officials. Speaker after speaker called for retaliation and promised to avenge the terrorists' deaths.

A statement from Aksa Martyrs Brigades promised the same. "The enemy," it read in part, "won't see anything from us besides the language of blood and fire."

Not all criticism of Israel, of course, is necessarily misguided, and not every decision made by her leaders is necessarily wise.

But, real or imagined errors of judgment notwithstanding, no, Israel is not the problem.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE WALL IS WAILING

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Neither facts nor logic have impeded champions of Nofrat Frenkel, the woman briefly detained by police at Jerusalem's Western Wall, or Kotel Ma'aravi, on November 18.

Needless to say, Ms. Frenkel's charge that she was unnecessarily manhandled by police should be responsibly investigated. Even a violator of the law has the right to be detained in a nonviolent manner. But that Ms. Frenkel violated the law, as per the Israeli Supreme Court's decision in 2003 to apportion a special area, at Robinson's Arch, for women to chant at feminist religious services, is not at issue.

Ms. Frenkel's detention was not spurred, as her champions (media and pundits dutifully trotting behind in step) have repeatedly proclaimed, by her having dared to wear a tallit, or Jewish prayer garment, at the site.

Indeed, by Ms. Frenkel's own account (Forward, November 24), she and 40-odd other "Women of the Wall" prayed as a group that morning in the main Kotel area wearing tallitot, without incident.

But the tallit-garbed women did not stop there. They sang the Psalms that comprise the song of praise Hallel "in full voice," as per the testimony of Ms. Frenkel's fellow activist Anat Hoffman (quoted on the Forward's "Sisterhood Blog" in a November 18 posting). Even then, though, recalls Ms. Hoffman, "there was no complaint whatsoever from anyone." (It is odd - well, not really - that the lack of any reaction by others even at that point went unnoted in the paper's news coverage, or that of other mainstream Jewish media.)

It was only what then transpired that motivated the police to accost the group. Ms. Frenkel had brought a Torah scroll hidden in a duffel bag to the site and removed it, according to her own account above, to publicly "read from the Torah opposite the stones of the Kotel." That brought others at the site to object ("We told them to butt out," recalls Ms. Hoffman), and the police to intervene.

Those who are unhappy with the Israeli Supreme Court's 2003 decision have the right to their unhappiness, and even to seek to have the court revisit the issue. But if they choose instead to intentionally flout the law, they should honestly acknowledge that they are courting prosecution through civil disobedience - not seek to portray themselves as innocent victims wondering what they might possibly have done wrong.

Facts notwithstanding, one of Ms. Frenkel's advocates, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., complained to Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren that "If a Jew had been arrested for wearing a prayer shawl in any other country… there would be outrage," and characterized the enforcement of the law at the Kotel as "religious persecution."

Turning the tallit into a red herring (David Copperfield, watch out!), the rabbi went on to lecture the Ambassador, quoting Maimonides about the permissibility of tallit-wearing by women (but somehow overlooking the sage's prohibition against women reading publicly from the Torah - Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefilla, 12:17), and charging that Ms. Frenkel "had been den[ied] the right to expressly follow the teachings of the Torah."

Not only are facts flexible in the religious progressives' circle; logic is uninvited. Do the Freedom Chanters really want to open the Kotel plaza to all religious expressions?

Would the Frenkel forces be pleased with Buddhist intonations and incense-burning at the Kotel? Catholic hymns and processions? Taoist drumbeating ceremonies? Surely the activists don't mean to limit their liberalmindedness to services conducted by Jews alone.

People of all faiths, after all, are welcome at the Kotel - as they should be. Out of respect, though, for the Jewish historical and spiritual connection to the place, public services there should respect a single standard of decorum. And that standard should be, as it has been, millennia-old Jewish religious tradition.

The Kotel is a holy place, and should not be made a battlefield by advocates for social or religious change. Men and women, whatever their backgrounds or beliefs, are welcome and unbothered by the traditionally religious Jews who most often frequent the site, seeking only to pray there as Jews always have prayed.

Ms. Frenkel and her friends are clearly committed to a cause. But promoting their particular view of feminism should not compel them to act in ways that they know will offend others, to seek to turn a holy place into a political arena.

Such "activism," unfortunately, actively hinders the coming of the Messiah, and the rebuilding of the Jewish people's true National Synagogue, the one that once stood just beyond the Western Wall.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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DEFINING DEATH DOWN

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Ironically, or maybe not, as one scientific establishment raises alarms about what it perceives to be dire threats to the planet, another is posing demonstrable threats to individual human lives.

The trove of e-mails written by climate scientists at East Anglia University in England that was made public last month seems to implicate some of those professionals as having sought to alter data and suppress evidence about global warming. The e-mails certainly show that scientists can be as spiteful, conniving and deceptive as anyone else. Global warming skeptics have seized upon the e-mails' revelations to promote their skepticism; whether it is warranted or not remains an open question.

But another idea, this one promoted by much of the medical establishment, presents a clear and present danger.

"Decisions are made every day in this country to withdraw and remove people from life support," says a doctor quoted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta in his book "Cheating Death," "without really giving them a chance." And, as was recently reported in the New York Times, "terminal sedation" - administering drugs to alleviate pain but thereby hastening death - has been embraced by many medical professionals. Life, quite literally, isn't what it used to be.

Then there are the patients who are in what is called a "vegetative state" - showing no responses to stimuli beyond muscle reflexes. In several highly publicized cases, some have awoken, even after many years, from their seeming obliviousness. Most, though, do not; and many are removed from life support and deprived of water and nutrition. But calculating percentages begs the larger question - whether such people are, whatever their physical limitations, in their "vegetative" states, in fact alive.

"Many doctors harbor a therapeutic nihilism about such patients," writes Dr. Ford Vox, a resident physician at Washington University in St. Louis, in the Washington Post, "but this research should give us good reason to keep our minds open."

The research to which he refers includes that of neuroscientist Dr. Adrian Owen of Cambridge, who analyzed the real-time brain activity of a young woman in a vegetative state five months after a car accident. Utilizing digital processing of EEG readings that reveal unique, reproducible signals, he reported in 2006 in Science that the patient, whose only visible response to the external world was occasionally fixating on an object, was able to follow complex commands with her mind, imagining playing tennis and walking through the rooms of her home. Owen found similarly remarkable results in at least three other patients.

There is, moreover, also a "minimally conscious state" (MCS), estimated to be ten times as prevalent as the more recognized vegetative one. And, Dr. Vox maintains, "about one-third of the time, 'vegetative' patients are minimally conscious or even better."

In November, 2008, using EEG readings, Dr. Steven Laureys, a neurologist at the University of Liege in Belgium demonstrated that some low-level MCS patients were able to follow basic instructions - counting familiar and unfamiliar names played randomly into headphones.

And, at the Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute, Dr. John Whyte is studying the seemingly paradoxical fact that the sedative Ambien apparently causes some vegetative patients to perk up to MCS or higher states.

All that should be sufficient to give pause to would-be plug-pullers. But a variety of factors - most notably, perhaps, the shortage of organs for transplantation - is pushing some physicians to call a life a life, even if it hasn't yet been fully lived.

Writing recently in the New York Times Magazine, Dr. Darshak Sanghavi, chief of pediatric cardiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, asserts that medical professionals "have handled [the] paradoxical situation" that an organ donor must be dead but the needed organ alive "by fashioning a category of people with beating hearts" to be regarded "as if they had rigor mortis."

Such "dead" people with pulses - sometimes brain-damaged but not necessarily meeting the criteria of "brain death" - who are assisted in their breathing by a machine are candidates for "donation after cardiac death" (DCD). Where that procedure is chosen, the patient's breathing tube is removed in an operating room. If breathing ceases naturally and the heart stops within an hour, five minutes are counted off. The interval is not based on any research; it was the best-guess decision of a panel of experts in 1997. If the heart does not resume beating by the five-minute buzzer, the patient is declared legally dead and his organs harvested - despite demonstrable brain activity.

Dr. Sanghavi reports further that, in 2004, Dr. Mark Boucek, a pediatric cardiologist at Denver Children's Hospital, decided to write a "far more aggressive DCD protocol," revising the five-minute rule down to three minutes. Then, when that didn't yield the desired results, he re- revised it to just over a minute.

"Doctors have created a new class of potential organ donors who are not dead but dying," writes Dr. Sanghavi. "By arbitrarily drawing a line between death and life - five minutes after the heart stops - they [doctors] have raised difficult ethical questions. Are they merely acknowledging death or hastening it in their zeal to save others' lives?" He leaves the question hanging in the air.

In the eyes of Judaism, every moment of human life, even compromised human life, is beyond value, and Jewish law forbids hastening a person's death to any degree. There is some controversy about whether halacha, or Jewish religious law, considers brain death to constitute death. But no halachic authority permits the withdrawal of life support from a patient whose brain is merely damaged.

The world's human population is indeed at a turning point. Because whether or not carbon emission-born catastrophe in fact looms, modern medicine's defining of death downward is clearly upon us.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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STAIRWAY TO PEOPLEHOOD

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Torah-portions publicly read in synagogues around the world over recent weeks have presented the life-narrative of the Jewish forefather Jacob (and that of his son Joseph, subsumed within it). Soon the portion will recount Jacob's death. Or his something.

For the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan (Tractate Ta'anit, 5b) asserted that Jacob never really died, an assertion that moved others present to call attention to the Torah's words and ask "Was it then for naught that the eulogizers eulogized him, the embalmers embalmed him and the gravediggers buried him?"

Seemingly unperturbed, Rabbi Yochanan responded by invoking a verse in Jeremiah, 30: "And you, fear not, my servant Jacob, says G-d, and tremble not, Israel. For behold I am your savior from afar and [that of] your descendants from their land of captivity." The verse, explained Rabbi Yochanan, juxtaposes Jacob with his descendants. And so, the sage concluded, "just as those descendants are alive, so, too, must he be."

Rabbi Yochanan's proof seems as unconvincing as his contention is bewildering. And yet, there are in fact a number of indications in Jewish tradition that Jacob's death was not his demise, his embalming and burial notwithstanding. For one thing, the Torah does not actually say that Jacob died, at least not with the usual word for death (vayamat), but rather uses an unusual and somewhat vague one instead (vayig'va).

What is more, the concept that Jewish tradition associates with the third of the forefathers (Abraham is associated with chessed, or kindness; and Isaac with din, or justice) is emet, or "truth". Maimonides, albeit in a different context (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 1:3-4), explains emet as meaning, in essence, "permanence". One might even, perhaps, perceive the idea in the very word itself, as a contraction of ei (in Aramaic, "not") and the word meit, or "dead". Thus again, Jacob seems associated with transcending death.

The most obvious approach to Jacob's "deathlessness" may well be the most meaningful.

Whereas Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rivka, bore children who proved unworthy of being parts of the Jewish people, only Jacob (with the matriarchs Rachel, Leah, Bilha and Zilpah) merited seeing all of his offspring become the progenitors of the nation.

Which fact is reflected in the new name given Jacob -Israel - the name of the Jewish nation qua nation.

Thus, in a very real way, Jacob never really died; he metamorphosed, rather, into Israel, into the Jewish people. Jacob the individual may have passed on, and was duly eulogized and buried. But the new identity he assumed before his death - his transmutation into Israel - lives on in his descendants.

The approach is well borne out by Rabbi Yochanan's exegesis. For the proof that Jacob remains alive lies in an implied comparison between the man and his progeny. It is thus much more than a comparison; it is an identification. Jacob is the Jewish people; and that is why he is deathless.

That Jacob would sire the first entirely Jewish family was heralded in his famous dream. There too, as in Jeremiah, Jacob is juxtaposed with his descendants. "To you shall I give [the Holy Land], and to your children." And: "All the families of the earth will be blessed through you, and through your children."

And then there is the stone on which he rested his head that night, and that he made a monument to the revelation he received. According to the Midrash, it had originally been many stones, which fused into one, a likely metaphor for the unity of family he would achieve, which had eluded the earlier Jewish forefathers. Rashi even comments elsewhere (Genesis, 49:24) that the Hebrew word for "stone" (even) itself is a contraction of the words for "father" (av) and "son" (ben).

Beginning with Jacob, simply being born into the Jewish people assures Jewish status. Sincere converts, of course, can always join the Jewish people, but from Jacob's time on, Jewishness is bestowed by genealogy (and at least once the Torah is given, matrilineally).

Which might make our forefather's dream-imagery particularly poignant, providing a tantalizing hint to Jacob's specialness as the father of exclusively "Israel" progeny. For he dreamed of a connection between heaven and earth - in the form of a sulam, or "ladder".

"Sulam" occurs only this once in the Torah, and its etymology is unclear. But an Arabic cognate of the word, according to linguists, refers to steps ascending a mountain. The easiest way to ascend a mountain is a spiral path. That fact, and the possibly related Aramaic word "mesalsel" - to twist into curls - might lead one to imagine Jacob's ladder as something akin to a spiral staircase.

It might be overreaching to even think the thought, but it's intriguing: Would not such a structure - a double helix - in Jacob's dream be fitting?

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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SELECTIVE HISTORY

Rabbi Avi Shafran

One hardly expects the British Broadcasting Corporation to present an objective or comprehensive picture when it addresses the Middle East. But a recent BBC radio documentary may set some sort of record for myopia.

The second installment of a series entitled "The Crescent and the Cross" aiming to examine "turning points in the relationship between Christianity and Islam" focuses on the Third Crusade.

Not long after the death of Islam's founder, in the early 7th century, Muslims captured parts of the holy land, including Jerusalem. But Jerusalem, the documentary text explains, "had great religious significance not only for Muslims but for Christians too." And thus were born the marches of death and destruction known as the Crusades. In 1099, Christian soldiers took the city.

At the end of the 12th century, after nearly a century of Christian rule, Jerusalem was re-conquered by Saladin, Sultan of Egypt. Pope Gregory VIII called for a Crusade - the third - to retake the city, and Richard I of England ("the Lionheart") captured much of the Holy Land but stopped short of asserting Christian rule over Jerusalem, negotiating a treaty with Saladin that allowed Christian pilgrims to enter the city. All of this is dutifully reviewed by the program.

The Crusades, of course, had great impact on Jewish communities as well. Thousands of Jews in communities along the Rhine and the Danube were massacred by participants in the first Crusade; and Jews fought and fell alongside Muslim defenders of Jerusalem when the Christians invaded. Unknown numbers of Jews were slaughtered in subsequent Crusades as well. But the documentary's concern, as per its title, is the Christian/Muslim nexus. Jewish victims of the era's wars, no matter their numbers or the hatred directed toward them, are regarded by the program as peripheral casualties.

What is remarkable, though, is that while the documentary amply describes the conflicting claims of Muslims and Christians to Jerusalem it somehow neglects to note that the original revered edifice that stood in Jerusalem - what initiated its veneration as a holy city - was the Jewish Temple. The BBC treats the Temple's site as if it came into being ex nihilo in the Byzantine Period.

The myopia morphs into truly monumental chutzpah with the documentary's droll observation that today "the Crusades are seen by many Muslims as evidence of unceasing Western aggression against their faith," and that since "it is the Jews who control most of Jerusalem… many Muslims see that as a continuation of the crusaderism."

The microphone is then offered to Dr. Mohsen Youssef of Birzeit University, who endorses that view and adds a prediction: "It took the Muslims 200 years to get rid of the crusaders; many Muslim people believe that they will defeat Israel in much less time than 200 years."

And so, an ignorant but attentive student of the BBC will conclude from the network's history lesson that Jerusalem is sacred to Christians and Muslims, and that adherents of the two faiths have fought over it for centuries. He will further be given to understand that the city has been usurped in our own day by Jewish newcomers who, understandably, are regarded by the Muslims who held it before 1967 as new crusaders.

What our novice historian won't have been taught is that the Jewish people, too, have an ancient connection to the Holy Land and the Holy City - in fact, an older and stronger one than anyone. Neither Christianity nor Islam, after all, even existed when the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem functioned for centuries as the focal point of the Jewish people. And over the centuries since, no Christian or Muslim ever prayed even once, much less thrice daily, that G-d "gather us to our land" and "return in mercy to Jerusalem Your city," or that "our eyes see Your return to Zion." No, only Jews have ever done that; only Jews, in fact, have been doing that without interruption for thousands of years.

The ugly icing on the rancid cake whipped up by the BBC consists of the sentiment conveyed by the sole Jewish speaker featured in the installment, a professor at Hebrew University.

Asked about the fact that Arabs identify contemporary Jews with the crusaders of the Middle Ages, his response provides the installment's final comment. "It is nonsense," he responds. "What is the relevance of what happened 800 years ago to the present?"

The professor thus dismisses history as bearing no pertinence to the present. He is, of course, astoundingly wrong, and is given the last word by the documentary not to promote his point of view but rather to expose his utter cluelessness. The BBC knows well that the import of the past on the present is both real and critical.

What it somehow misses, or chooses to ignore, is that history extends farther back than 800 years.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE SOUND OF SILENCE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

A number of Jews, including Orthodox Jews, have been implicated in financial crimes over recent months.

Some of the scandals have proven somewhat less scandalous than when they first appeared on front pages and were seared into readers' minds.

Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, for instance, currently stands convicted of misleading a bank to secure a loan. Although that conviction, amazingly, could result in an effective life sentence, charges that Mr. Rubashkin knowingly hired illegal aliens were dropped; and more lurid accusations - that he mistreated employees, abused animals and ran a methamphetamine factory - are no longer heard.

In some other cases, accusations have been made but evidence has not yet been heard; and both Judaism and American law insist on a presumption of innocence.

But there have certainly been cases in the Jewish community where guilt has been well established. Bernie Madoff may never have been Jewishly observant, but the Orthodox community has certainly had its share of fraud convictions, if on smaller scales, as well.

Jewish crimes, imagined, alleged or proven, have been prominently featured in the media. But they were prominent too at Agudath Israel of America's recent 87th national convention. The opening plenary session, on November 26, was dedicated to the Jewish mandate of honesty in business and personal dealings. Two of the Orthodox world's most respected rabbinic figures - Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe and Agudath Israel's rabbinic head; and Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, the dean of students, or Mashgiach, of the famed Lakewood yeshiva - addressed the many hundreds who packed the large hall of the East Brunswick Hilton (with thousands more listening to a live broadcast of the proceedings or, later, on tapes and cd's). The speeches were pointed, pained and powerful, and their message came through clearly: Honesty is no less a Jewish imperative than any. In fact, in many ways it is a greater one.

There were, as it happened, two other speakers that evening, although they were not there, unfortunately, in person: Rabbi Shimon Schwab and Rabbi Avrohom Pam, may their memories be a blessing.

Video excerpts of addresses presented by those two revered figures years ago on the subject of business ethics were projected onto large screens before the crowd. As the men on the screen spoke there was utter silence.

Rabbi Schwab, who served as the spiritual leader of the Khal Adath Jeshurun Orthodox Jewish community in Washington Heights for nearly four decades, had addressed an Agudath Israel "Halacha Conference for Accountants" on January 24, 1989. In the excerpts of that speech broadcast at the recent convention, he minced no words about the wrongness of "cutting corners" when it came to honesty in business.

"Those who resort to… dishonesty," he said, "while they may have the outward appearance of G-d-fearing Jews, deep down they are irreligious" - and he loudly emphasized the "ir" of "irreligious." G-d provides us what He knows we need, Rabbi Schwab explained. To steal is to deny that fact, and any gains thereby ill-gotten are an inheritance bequeathed by evil.

He noted, further, that the dictionary has an entry for the word "Jew" as a verb, as in "to Jew" someone, i.e. to cheat him. How terrible a desecration of G-d's name, Rabbi Schwab bemoaned, that His people are viewed as defrauders. Even if the definition carries the smell of anti-Semitism, he explained, it is a desecration of G-d's name all the same.

"I live for the day," he mused, with a pining, sad smile, "when there will be a new definition for 'to Jew': to be a stickler for honesty… "

Rabbi Pam served as the dean of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath (where he taught for more than 60 years) and was a member of the Council of Torah Sages. His excerpted speech was recorded on November 22, 2000 and screened the next day at that year's Agudath Israel convention. He was seriously ailing and it may have been the last public address of his life. The anguish in the rabbi's face and words, though, were clearly the product not of illness but of the pain he felt at having to even address the issue.

Speaking in Yiddish, he characterized a good Jew as someone who is "ehrlich" - honest and trustworthy - "in his profession, in business, with one's workers, with one's partners…" and, like Rabbi Schwab, he stated clearly that the same honesty with which a Jew must interact with another Jew must characterize a Jew's dealings with non-Jews.

When one arrives in the next world, Rabbi Pam reminded his listeners, quoting the Talmud, "the very first question he is asked is 'Did you conduct your business in [good] faith?'"

The word used there, he noted, quite literally means "faith," because - here he echoed Rabbi Schwab - acting dishonestly in order to "supplement" our income denies G-d's ability to provide us our sustenance.

When the screens went black, before applause ensued, the silence persisted for what seemed, at least to one person in the audience, a very long time.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE ROARS OF CROWDS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

I've never experienced a pogrom or been pursued by an angry mob, thank G-d. And yet my genes seem to hold some residue - bequeathed in some Lamarckian way by less fortunate forebears - that discomforts me when a large crowd of people loudly expresses itself.

Like the one outside our offices on a recent Friday. Agudath Israel's national headquarters are located on lower Broadway in Manhattan, on the "Canyon of Heroes" where the adulated New York Yankees are paraded when they win a World Series. Personally, I reserve the word "hero" for people in other pursuits than professional sports; but the estimated two million New Yorkers who turned out for the recent parade in the Yankees' honor clearly disagree.

It was the powerful, swelling din of their joy when the floats drove slowly by, 13 floors below, that sent a shiver of nervousness, not excitement, down my spine. I was well aware that the clamor was celebratory, not predatory; but I couldn't help but imagine what it must be like to see such a mob waving not flags and signs but clubs and knives.

I'm not afraid of heights or claustrophobic. I appreciate a good roller coaster and am not squeamish (I helped my wife deliver one of our children at home). It's out of character, this wariness of crowds. Maybe it's a vicarious memory of sorts. In his soon to be published memoirs, my dear father, may he be well, recalls his childhood in a small Polish town.

"When Passover approached," he writes, "my parents would tell us children to stay indoors. Sermons in the churches that time of year spurred our Gentile neighbors to try to kill Jews. The churchgoers would parade around wearing big black hats, holding flags with religious symbols and figures painted on them. We used to peek through the window to take in the sight. But we never ventured out of doors when the townsfolk were marching."

Now I know full well that Yankee fans are not Cossacks - or even Polish peasants. But the large, emotive mass still spooked me. And that was even before my experience later that day, on my way home, of being evacuated along with hundreds of other commuters and celebrants from the Staten Island Ferry terminal, to allow about 20 police in full riot gear to storm a ferry on which some mayhem had occurred. I saw a young man being arrested and handcuffed, an unconscious woman carried out on a stretcher and then a fistfight break out mere feet from me in the crowd.

My vicarious memory doesn't make me fear sports fans, even fanatical, overtired and intoxicated ones. It reminds me, though, that there are still mobs elsewhere with things other than baseball on their minds, large evil organisms comprised of many tiny evil pieces, held together by hatred - for the West, for Israel, for Jews.

A Midrashic concept has it that evil and holiness tend to counterbalance one another in this world, and that powers possessed by one have their counterparts in the other. And, in fact, I do have another memory, this one personal, of a huge, holy crowd that raised its own overwhelming sound - and it filled me not with dread but with joy.

It was nearly four years ago, on March 1, 2005, at Madison Square Garden (it and the Continental Airlines Arena were packed with 50,000 people - joined by thousands more at other sites across the country and around the world). The occasion was the 11th completion of the 7 ½-year "Daf Yomi" Talmud-study program. The huge crowd had gathered to celebrate the accomplishment, to thank G-d for allowing them to reach the day and to listen to rabbinic leaders and speakers exhort them to continue on the path of Torah life and study.

When the mass of people at "the Garden" that day recited the evening service, the sound of the first verse of Shma - the Jewish credo declaring G-d's relationship to the Jewish people and proclaiming His unity - was recited by all present in unison. The sound of tens of thousands of people proclaiming those truths with all of their hearts and souls seemed to shake time and space themselves. But it didn't spook me. It carried me high on its swell.

So I suppose I don't really fear crowds or their roars. Or, at least, it depends on the crowd and the roar. As it happens, like all Jews who pray daily, I even express a deep hope for an unprecedented crowd and its roar.

In the Aleinu paragraphs that end each service we refer to the time when G-d will reveal Himself and "all false gods will be utterly cut off" and "all earth's wicked" will be turned toward Him. When "All humanity will call out in Your name."

What a sound that will make, may it come quickly, in our days.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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WHO IS A BRITON?

Rabbi Avi Shafran

To the delight of Jew-haters everywhere, a British Court has in effect deemed Judaism a racist religion. As a result, the blogosphere swarmed with invective about how the Jews had been exposed as imposing, in the words of one jolly blogger, an "ethnic purity test."

What happened is that the parents of a boy whose father is Jewish but whose mother underwent a non-halachic conversion brought a lawsuit against a North London Jewish school for not accepting the child as a student. Britain subsidizes religious schools and allows those with more applicants than seats to give preference to children within the schools' respective faiths. The school at issue, the Jews' Free School, or JFS, considers Jewish religious law to be the determinant of that status. The parents' suit was denied by a lower court but that ruling was subsequently overturned by the British Court of Appeal.

The justices on that latter court concluded that basing school admissions on whether a student's mother is Jewish is "unlawful," as it constitutes a "test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act." Or, as another blogger chose to put it, the child is "damaged goods" in Jewish eyes, "far to[o] 'Un-Chosen' to attend school with all the other little 'Pure' Jewish Kids."

How the ladies and gentlemen of the Court of Appeal square their judgment of Jewish law as racially discriminatory with the fact that the very same law grants full Jewish status to anyone who accepts Jewish observance and undergoes conversion - regardless of color, national origin or ethnicity - is not known. In fact, it's not hard to imagine an amusing Monty Python sketch built around that glaring inconsistency.

But even more disturbing than the Court of Appeal's lack of lucidity is its disapproval of the right of a religion to define itself. To be sure, many religions consider anyone who chooses to self-identify as part of the faith to be members of their religious community. But Judaism is - and has always been - different. A child born to a Jewish mother who does not affirm Judaism is still a Jew in the eyes of Jewish religious law.

Not, though, one born to a non-Jewish mother, unless she had previously converted according to the standards of Jewish law.

The case, which the media has cast as Britain's "Who is a Jew?" controversy, is now before the British Supreme Court, where the Court of Appeal decision was brought by the school.

To be sure, whatever Britain's highest court may decide, no secular tribunal can attenuate believing Jews' embrace of the heritage for which their ancestors lived, and for the preservation of which many of them died. The question, though, remains: Will the British Supreme Court recognize Judaism's uniqueness - and the right of Jews and Jewish institutions to embrace it without censure?

And will people like the parents of the boy at issue come to understand that what they are taking as personal insult is simply fealty to Jewish law?

"How dare they [school officials] question our beliefs and our Jewishness?" fulminated David Lightman, a widely quoted father of a non-halachically Jewish child (not the boy at issue). "I find it offensive and very upsetting."

No doubt he does, and that is unfortunate. But the school's policy is not intended to hurt him or his child. It is simply a declaration of respect for Judaism's millennia-old religious tradition.

There are, as it happens, many "Progressive" Jewish schools in England. Parents whose children are viewed as Jewish by non-Orthodox Jewish clergy but not by halacha can avail themselves of those institutions. But the Mr. Lightmans of the Isles seem intent on demanding that their fellow Jews who consider halacha sacrosanct abandon their principles.

Back to the high justices, though. As they consider the case before them, part of what they might mull is the fact that in Britain, as in most countries, there are two paths to citizenship. According to the British Home Office, a foreign national can be naturalized by undergoing a prescribed process and ceremony; and citizenship is automatically granted to anyone "born in the United Kingdom on or after 1 January 1983 if at the time of your birth one of your parents was: a British citizen; or legally settled in the United Kingdom"

One is a citizen, then, it seems, by simple virtue of having been born to a Briton.

Might that seem, in some eyes, a tad racist?

Call it the "Who is a Briton?" question.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE ATHEISTS' UNINTENDED GIFT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The tone of the recent spate of books by proponents of Atheism (capitalized, correctly, like any faith) says much. The writers don't suffice with presenting their cases; they insist on berating all who dare disagree, belittling religious believers as intellectual defectives. Their confident public personae notwithstanding, the New Atheists' cynicism and name-calling telegraph insecurity. They seem to realize, at least subconsciously, that the very same universe that inspires them to worship chance and venerate "nature's laws" moves others to recognize a Creator.

The Disbelievers may have come to realize the unintended psychological message sent by all their sound and fury. Or maybe they are just spent from all their howling. Whichever, they - or at least some of them - have morphed their evangelical zeal into a kinder, gentler effort to reach the believing public.

A coalition of Atheist organizations has placed advertisements in Manhattan subway stations asserting that "a million New Yorkers are good without G-d" (the respectful hyphen, of course, is this dissident New Yorker's emendation), and then posing the question "Are you?"

Those of us who would respond in the negative, who affirm both the existence and exaltedness of a Supreme Being, might be expected to bristle at the ad campaign. But there is something heartening in the thought that average people rushing to and from jobs and errands might have their thoughts about bosses and holiday sales interrupted by some mention of the Creator - that the input of iPods and television reruns playing in heads might be forced to yield, even momentarily, to consideration of whether or not life contains a greater purpose than just living.

Because most people, even those who readily profess belief in G-d if asked, don't often dwell on that belief's implications. It sits in their heads, a checked-off box filed away for posterity.

And yet, belief in G-d is not like sports or politics. It is - or should be - the most basic issue any thinking human being seriously engages. When we awaken from childhood and begin to think serious thoughts, when we first confront consciousness and self and others and our place in the universe, what more pressing question could there be than whether we are mere randomly-generated organisms (highly evolved but mere all the same) or subjects of Something larger?

It is told how a doubter once asked to meet with the founder of the Novardhok yeshiva system, Rabbi Yosef Yoizel Horowitz (1849-1919), known as the "Der Alter" - "the Elder" - of Novardhok, and was welcomed into the revered rabbi's home. The two began to discuss the meaning of life and the goals toward which human beings are meant to strive. After some hours of deep discussion, the freethinker politely asked his host's pardon for a moment, turned to his servant and ordered him to prepare his carriage for the journey home. The Alter abruptly ended the conversation.

Puzzled at the sudden interruption of what had seemed to be a productive back-and-forth, the guest asked his host if he had done anything wrong. The Alter calmly explained that, for him, a conversation like the one they had been having was no mere philosophical sparring, not an intellectual exercise and certainly not a social pleasantry. It was a means of ascertaining deep truths, with the determined goal of acting on them. Had the freethinker seen their conversation the same way, said the Alter, he would have been fixed to the spot, anchored by the implications of what they had discussed - and incapable of leaving before reaching all the necessary conclusions and making whatever personal decisions were indicated.

By deciding instead that their "time was up" and it was time to go, said the Alter, his guest had demonstrated that, in his own eyes, the interaction had all been of a theoretical nature, an intellectual discussion, a game. For such things, the rabbi demurred, he simply had no time. There were important things to do.

For too many of us, even many of us who live seemingly religious lives, serious thoughts of G-d and our relationship to Him - if we think them at all - are often overwhelmed by the muddle of daily life. A major function, in fact, of prayer in Judaism is to shake off our tangle of quotidian concerns and focus on the Divine. If we are successful, we take away a keener awareness of our places in the world, and it accompanies us as we wade back into the mundane.

The Atheist ad campaign is far, to be sure, from a prayer. And it might be hard to imagine subway riders spurred by the posters to think thoughts of G-d. But, well, you never know. One of nature's laws, after all, is about unintended consequences.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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A WORTHY THOUGHT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Two South Carolina Republican Party chairmen were roundly denounced recently for invoking "stereotypes about Jews," as the Anti-Defamation League declared, that will "reinforce anti-Semitism."

What Edwin Merwin and James Ulmer did was write an opinion piece in an Orangeburg newspaper, defending a senator under fire for shunning congressional earmarks. Unfortunately for them, they chose to make their case for fiscal responsibility in part by noting that financially successful Jews "got that way not by watching dollars, but instead by taking care of the pennies and the dollars taking care of themselves."

The GOP chairmen could certainly have made their point without mentioning wealthy Jews; any number of pennies-to-riches examples, without reference to ethnicity or religion, would have sufficed. And so, apprised of the insult taken by some, they promptly and "deeply" apologized to "any and all who were offended."

One of the contrite commentators explained that he had been quoting "a statement which I had heard many times in my life, truly in admiration for a method of bettering one's lot in life." And he insisted that, however ill chosen his example, he had "meant nothing derogatory by the reference to a great and honorable people," categorically rejected anti-Semitism and begged "[those offended to] accept my deep felt apology." Good enough for me.

Not, though, for the ADL's Southeast Regional Director, who called the apology a mere "first step" that "doesn't go far enough" - provoking the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto to suggest that "the ADL is doing its part to combat one stereotype: that Jews have a sense of humor." Harping on a hapless comment after a clear apology does seem somewhat puzzling.

More puzzling, however - at least to me - was the umbrage-taking in the first place. Why is imparting fiscal responsibility to successful Jews offensive? It isn't as if the South Carolinians insinuated that such Jews are dishonest or even miserly. They simply attributed to us Hebrews - at least the materially successful among us - a keen awareness of the fact that even a small thing has value. When exactly did frugality became bad?

My guess is that it was around the time the wildly wasteful consumer culture all around us took hold, when people began to make "living in the moment" (or, less charitably put, "ignoring the future") a high ideal. But whatever the origin of its abandonment, the idea that everything has worth is not shameful. In fact, it's thoroughly Jewish. As the Talmud puts it, "Each and every penny contributes to a large sum" (Bava Batra, 9b).

As it happens, the Jewish ideal of valuing even the smallest thing goes beyond the realization that things add up. It is a recognition of the inherent value of every thing.

In mere weeks, Jews in synagogues the world over will read the Torah portion in which our forefather Jacob, after transporting his family and possessions across a river, took pains to cross back over again, endangering himself. The Talmud conveys a tradition that the reason Jacob returned was to retrieve some "small jars."

"From here we see," the Rabbis went on to explain, "that the possessions of the righteous are as dear to them as their bodies."

That comment is not counseling miserliness; Jacob is the forefather emblematic of the ideal of "truth" or honesty. What the Talmud is conveying, rather, is a quintessentially Jewish truth: Material things, no matter how seemingly "worthless," have worth.

So does money. A dollar can buy a drink or almost half a New York subway fare. But it can also buy a thirsty friend a drink, or a get-well card for someone ailing, or almost half the fare for the ride to the hospital to deliver it in person. It can, moreover, be put into the pushkeh - the charity box found in many Jewish homes and every synagogue - or given as a reward to a child who has performed a good deed.

Possessions are tools, in their essence morally neutral; put to a holy purpose, they are sublime. And so, Judaism teaches, valuing a simple, small coin can be a sign not of avarice but of wisdom. And what is more - and even more important - just as small amounts of money can in fact be worth much, so can small acts of goodness.

No simple kindness, no word of encouragement or comfort, no few seconds of patience, is without worth. All, in fact, can be diamonds.

The "taking care of the pennies" contretemps might seem a minor matter. But if it gets people thinking about the significance of small things - be they money or actions - well, it might just turn out to have been something rather worthy itself.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE DAILY JEWS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The other day, shortly after Sukkot, I bought a scarf for my son before he headed back to yeshiva and, as we all are, into winter. The experience, slight as it was, convinced me that a thought bouncing around in my mind for several days prior deserved to be wrapped in some words.

There are drawbacks to working in lower Manhattan, but advantages too. Among the latter is the ability to buy an apple or banana or necktie or watch - or scarf - at a very reasonable price from one of the street vendors that pepper the neighborhood's broad sidewalks.

Some of the merchants are not very helpful, others are "helpful" in an aggressive sort of way. The necktie-scarf-kerchief salesman near our offices was - Goldilocks would have approved - just right. A middle-aged black gentleman, he pointed me to a pile of garments, told me to let him know if I needed any help and left me to inspect his wares.

After I found what I wanted and made my purchase, he thanked me but seemed to want to say something else, so I didn't rush away. Looking me in the eye, he told me that he sometimes plied his trade in another part of Manhattan, where there are many people "like you." I assumed - correctly it turned out - that he meant Orthodox Jewish men with hats and beards.

"Really?" I said tentatively, wondering what was to come.

"Yeah," he continued, with a broad smile, "and I want you to know that they are the nicest people. They always treat me really good."

Relieved, I returned the smile that I only then noticed, told the businessman how happy I was that "my people" were acting as we are supposed to and wished him well.

Heading to the office, my relief embarrassed me. But I understood it.

Because the image of Jews, and identifiably Jewish ones in particular, has been tarnished over recent years. That is partly because of the observant Jewish community's growth - rendering its failures both more numerous and more visible - and partly because of a media ethic that seems to have updated "if it bleeds, it leads" to something like "if it's a scandal, it gets a handle." That's the fourth estate's approach to any group or individual, but the media take particular glee in making sure that a religious person - extra credit if he's a religious Jew - who has done something wrong gets top billing. And then there are the farther reaches of Blogistan, where facts don't even matter, and a toxic mix of venom, imaginativeness and psychopathy serves as the local currency.

The actions of most observant Jews, though - the "daily Jews," who invest their quotidian lives with behavior becoming members of a holy people - reflect Jewish ideals in all they do. That was the scarf man's experience.

And that of the man at the bus stop mere days earlier who asked me how my holidays had been.

I had seen him many times and we would always exchange greetings but had never spoken much. I had pegged him as an Egyptian but he turns out to be from India. I responded "wonderful," the truth, and asked him if he was Jewish. "No," he said, going on to explain how he knew about the holidays, "but I work for a government agency and some of my superiors there are Jewish people."

And then he volunteered - I am not embellishing - that "they are wonderful bosses to have, they really are. I admire them." I realized then why he had always been so friendly to me.

The dovetailing of the two experiences was reassuring. Despite the mistakes, or worse, of some and the accusations leveled against others, there is still a mass of Jews who daily and diligently heed the Talmud's admonition to act in a way that "causes the name of G-d to be loved because of you[r actions]" (Yoma 86a). The countless individuals who make up that population will never appear in the media world. Their due will come in another one.

The effects, however, of the way they live have impact here and now. Despite the misguided actions of some members of the tribe, and the media's enthusiasm in providing them prominence, the "daily Jews" broadcast an accurate message about Jews and Judaism to countless people like the scarf-seller and my bus stop friend - non-Jews and Jews alike.

The mass of "daily Jews" - and, despite the headlines and headhunters, it is a critical mass - may not even realize the effect they have on the image of the Jewish people. But the rest of us should - and we should aspire to make our places among them.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THIRTEEN TIMES TWO EQUALS ONE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Oddly, a Hebrew phrase familiar to the Jewishly-educated is routinely used to refer to two entirely different and seemingly unrelated things.

The phrase is "Yud Gimmel Middot" - literally, "13 Measures" - and one of its usages was prominent over the days from before Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur. In that context, the phrase refers to the verses from Exodus (34:6-7) that begin with G-d's name stated twice (with a pause signaled between them, representing, the Talmud says, one's different relationship to G-d "before he has sinned and after he has sinned and repented") and comprising in all a list of thirteen aspects (or, as commonly rendered, "attributes") of His mercy. The verses form the centerpiece of the Selichot supplications recited throughout the High Holidays season and are prominent in the Yom Kippur services, including its concluding prayer Ne'ila.

According to Jewish tradition, the formula was taught to Moses by G-d Himself after our ancestors' sin of venerating the golden calf. Acceding to Moses' plea that He forgive the people their sin, G-d then tells Moses that, in the Talmud's words, "when trouble comes upon the Jews because of their iniquities, let them stand together before Me and recite" the Attributes of Mercy. (Commentaries stress the need to do more than merely recite the verses, the need to emulate the Divine patience and understanding they embody.)

The "13 Middot" of mercy thus reflect G-d's compassion and love.

The other "13 Middot" refers to a list recited daily before the actual start of the first portion of morning prayers, at the conclusion of what is popularly referred to as the "Karbonot" portion of the traditional liturgy. This list, cited in Rabbi Yishmael's name in the Sifri, a Midrash of halachic material, enumerates the "hermeneutical" rules by which Jewish laws are derived from the Torah's verses. Some of that methodology, more completely known as the "13 Middot Through Which the Torah is Interpreted," is logical, some of it not obviously so; all of it comprises a sacred part of the Oral Law itself.

That both the expressions of G-d's mercy and the hermeneutical principles number thirteen, and that both are described as "middot" is intriguing. And it may be meaningful too.

Everyone who has ever thought of G-d, certainly in the context of Judaism, has probably paused at the fact that, at least from human perspective, the Creator seems to present two different "faces." On the one hand, He is the Merciful, the life-Giver, the Forgiver of sins and Bestower of blessings. And, on the other, He is the Lawgiver, instilling the laws of nature in the universe, and charging humanity with the foundational "Noachide" laws - and the Jews, with the laws of the Torah.

Christianity seized on that seeming dichotomy, choosing to emphasize G-d as Merciful and, to one or another degree, to downgrade G-d as Lawgiver. Circumcision and most other Jewish laws were abandoned by the early Church and, later, Thomas Aquinas expressly judged the Torah's "ceremonial and judicial" laws to be no longer binding.

But even some Jews who would never think to affirm Christian theology have subtly come to effectively accept that bifurcation, laying claim to G-d's love but regarding His law, with all its complexity and detail, as off-putting and passé.

However difficult the idea may be for them to internalize, though, the same G-d is the Source of both love and demand. The opening words of a prayer recited throughout the Days of Repentance say it clearly: G-d is "Avinu Malkeinu" ("Our Father, Our King") - both a merciful Parent and a demanding Sovereign.

Perhaps that is the subtle implication of the strange fact of the two "13 Middot"s - that the Source of mercy and patience is the very same Source of law and obligation. Indeed, that Divine mercy and Divine law are inseparable facets of the same Unity. The demands of Divine law are born of Divine love; they reflect G-d's concern for our own ultimate wellbeing.

It's a thought worth thinking as, after Yom Kippur, we emerge from days of focus on the Divine as forgiving Father immediately and seamlessly into days of preparing for Sukkot, paying heed, as commanded, to the myriad technical and exacting laws of the "four species" and the sukkah - laws based, of course, on the 13 hermeneutical principles of Rabbi Yishmael.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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WHO WE ARE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The famous early 20th century German-born American financier Otto Kahn, it is told, was once walking in New York with his friend, the humorist Marshall P. Wilder. They must have made a strange pair, the poised, dapper Mr. Kahn and the bent-over Mr. Wilder, who suffered from a spinal deformity.

As they passed a synagogue on Fifth Avenue, Kahn, whose ancestry was Jewish but who received no Jewish training from his parents, turned to Wilder and said, "You know, I used to be a Jew."

"Really?" said Wilder. "And I used to be a hunchback."

The story is in my head because Yom Kippur is coming. More specifically, Kol Nidrei.

That prayer's solemnity and power are known well to every Jew who has ever attended the pre-evening service that ushers in the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. It is a cold soul that does not send a shudder to the body it inhabits when Kol Nidrei is intoned in its ancient, eerie melody. And yet the words of the prayer - "declaration" would be more accurate - do not overtly speak to the gravity of the day, the end of the period of repentance and Divine judgment.

They speak instead to the annulment of vows, specifically (according to prevailing Ashkenazi custom) to undermining vows we may inadvertently make in the coming year.

Vows, or verbalized commitments, the Torah teaches, have deep power; they truly bind those who utter them. And so, observant Jews take pains to avoid not only solemn vows but any declarative statements of intent that could be construed as vows. That Yom Kippur would be introduced by a nod to the gravity of vow-making isn't terribly surprising. But the poignant mournfulness of the moment is harder to understand.

It has been speculated that the somber mood of Kol Nidrei may be a legacy of other places and times, in which Jews were coerced by social or economic pressures, or worse, to declare affiliations with other religions. The text, in that theory, took on the cast of an anguished renunciation of any such declarations born of duress.

Most Jews today face no such pressures. To be sure, missionaries of various types seek to exploit the ignorance of some Jews about their religious heritage. But most of us today do not feel any compulsion to shed our Jewish identities to live and work in peace.

Still and all, there are other ways to be unfaithful to one's essence. Coercion comes in many colors.

We are all compelled, or at least strongly influenced, by any of a number of factors extrinsic to who we really are. We make pacts - unspoken, perhaps, but not unimportant - with an assortment of devils: self-centeredness, jealousy, anger, desire, laziness…

Such weaknesses, though, are with us but not of us. The sage Rabbi Alexandri, the Talmud teaches (Berachot, 17a), would recite a short prayer in which, addressing G-d, he said: "Master of the universes, it is revealed and known to You that our will is to do Your will, and what prevents us is the 'leaven in the loaf' [i.e. the inclination to do bad] …" What he was saying is that, stripped of the rust we so easily attract, sanded down to our essences, we want to do and be only good.

Might Kol Nidrei carry that message no less? Could its declared disassociation from vows strike our hearts as a renunciation of the "vows", the unfortunate connections, we too often take upon ourselves? If so, it would be no wonder that the prayer moves us so.

Or that it introduces Yom Kippur.

One of the day's most remarkable elements in ancient times, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, was the ritual of "the two goats." The High Priest would place a lot on the head of each animal; one read "to G-d" and the other "to Azazel" - according to Rashi, the name of a mountain with a steep cliff in a barren desert.

As the Torah prescribes, the first goat was sacrificed to G-d in the Temple; the second was taken through the desert to the cliff and cast off.

The Torah refers to "sins and iniquities" being "put upon the head" of the Azazel goat before its dispatch. The deepest meanings of the ritual, like those of all Jewish rituals in the end, are beyond human ken. But, on a simple level, it might not be wrong to see a symbolism here, a reflection of the fact that our sins are, in the end, foreign to our essences, extrinsic entities, things to be "sent away," banished by our sincere repentance.

In 1934, when Otto Kahn died, Time Magazine reported that the magnate, who had been deeply dismayed at the ascension of Hitler, had, despite his secularist life, declared "I was born a Jew, I am a Jew, and I shall die a Jew."

Considering his upbringing and way of life, it is unlikely that Mr. Kahn ever attended Kol Nidrei services. But perhaps a seed planted by a humorist and nourished with the bitter waters of Nazism helped him connect to something of the prayer's meaning. May we all merit that same connection.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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WINGS AND PRAYERS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

From the flurry of e-mails and calls to Agudath Israel and other Orthodox Jewish organizations, it seems that some advocates for humane treatment of animals have concerns about the pre-Yom Kippur custom of Kapparos.

They are troubled by the fact that many Orthodox Jews - predominantly in the haredi, especially the Hassidic, world - use chickens in the ceremony, during which the bird is lifted and waved around the head of a supplicant. (Many Orthodox Jews use money instead of birds.) The advocates say that chickens are mistreated before and after the ceremony and that the ceremony itself abuses the birds. They are not happy either, with the ultimate fate of the chickens, which are slaughtered and given to the poor.

As it happens, while a chicken is not injured or traumatized by being held and waved, there have indeed been situations where chickens, before or after the Kapparos ceremony, have not been treated with the sensitivity to animals' comfort that halacha mandates. That is inexcusable; and concern that birds used for Kapparos be treated properly was one of the reasons nearly thirty leading haredi rabbinical authorities issued a proclamation two years ago enjoining their followers to patronize only approved vendors of Kapparos.

One of the recurrent themes of the anti-chicken-Kapparos crowd's communications, though, is that the custom itself is "primitive." The activists assume - and it is an assumption mistakenly made by many others (including The New York Times a few years back) - that sins are somehow transferred from the supplicant to the bird.

Ah, were expiation of iniquity only so simple.

Even when actual animal sacrifices were a mainstay of Jewish life, when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the cancellation of sin still required teshuva, repentance. It still does.

There are, unfortunately, no shortcuts when it comes to taking responsibility for our actions. Repentance is the only effective remedy for sin, though it is an amazing one. For it accomplishes much more than a simple apology; it has the power, Jewish sources teach, to actually reach into the past and change the nature of what we may have done. As such, we are taught, teshuva is a "chiddush," a concept that defies simple logic and expectation. And for erasing iniquity, it is indispensable.

So what's with the chickens?

Well, the definitive primary Jewish legal text, the Shulchan Aruch, notes the custom of Kapparos, but disapproves of its practice. The authoritative glosses of the Rabbi Moshe Isserles, though, which present normative Ashkenazic practice, note that the custom has its illustrious defenders, and maintains that where it exists it should be preserved.

The custom's intent and meaning are elucidated in the widely accepted commentary known as the Mishneh Brurah, written by the renowned "Chofetz Chaim," Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan. Citing earlier sources, he explains that when one performs the ritual, he should consider that what will happen to the bird - its slaughter - would be happening to him were strict justice, untempered with G-d's mercy, the rule. As a result, the supplicant will come to regret his sins and "through his repentance" cause G-d "to revoke any evil decree from him."

So it seems that the Kapparos-custom is essentially a spur to meditation on atonement, intended to stir feelings of repentance and recommitment to the performance of good deeds.

Similar to Kapporos is the Rosh Hashana custom of Tashlich, which is likewise commonly misconstrued as a magical "casting away of sins." The practice of visiting a body of water and reciting verses and prayers, however, has no such direct effect. It, like Kapporot, is an opportunity for self-sensitization to our need for repentance. The verse "And cast in the depths of the ocean all of their sins," prominently recited in the prayers for the ritual, is a metaphor for what we can effect with our sincere repentance and determination to be better in the future.

As Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok Sperling writes in his classic work known as the "Ta'amei Haminhagim," or "Explications of Customs," Tashlich reminds us that the day of ultimate reckoning may be upon us far sooner that we imagine, just as fish swimming freely in the water may find themselves captured suddenly in the hungry fishmonger's net - and that we dare not live lives of spiritual leisure on the assumption that there will always be time for repentance when we grow old.

All too often we moderns tend to view ancient Jewish laws, customs and rituals as quaint relics of the distant past evoking, at most, warm and nostalgic feelings of ethnic identity.

But, as a closer look at Kapporos and Tashlich suggest, there is a world of difference between Tevya's celebration of "Tradition!" for tradition's sake and the deep meanings that lie in the rites and rituals of Jewish religious life.

Jewish practice is laden with profound significance that speaks to us plainly and powerfully, if only we choose to listen, to confront our spiritual selves, to do teshuva - with or without the help of chickens or rivers.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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SELICHOS, 1939

Rabbi Avi Shafran

September 1 marked 70 years on the Gregorian calendar since the German invasion of Poland that began the Second World War and the destruction of Eastern European Jewry.

The war's outbreak rudely interrupted the plans of millions, including those of a 14-year-old boy in a Polish shtetl. The boy - my father, may he be well - had been scheduled to travel to Bialystok to attend yeshiva.

He would eventually make it to yeshiva, in Vilna, but not before he, his family and all the townsfolk of Ruzhan would flee their town ahead of the advancing German army. On Friday, September 8, they found themselves in a town called Govrov, just before the Germans arrived there. The following Saturday night was the first night of Selichos - the special pre-Rosh Hashana supplications asking G-d's forgiveness recited late at night or early in the morning before services.

I am preparing to publish my father's memoirs (with G-d's help, this winter) - about his youth and flight from the Nazis, his yeshiva days, his war years' sojourn in Siberia (as a guest of the Soviet Union), and his subsequent emigration to America and service as a congregational rabbi in Baltimore for more than 50 years

When I attend this year's first Selichos services, on September 12 - actually, the 13th, since the special prayers will begin after midnight - my thoughts will be drawn to that first night of Selichos in 1939. I will be standing in a comfortable, beautiful shul in Staten Island. But I will be envisioning a place thousands of miles distant in space and seventy years in time.

I will see a scene in my father's memoirs:

… My family and I were lying on the floor of a local Jew's house when we heard angry banging on the door and the gruff, loud words "Raus Jude! Raus Jude!" - "Jew, out!"

These visitors were not simple German soldiers, but member of the SS, the Schutzstaffel - the Nazi military organization that operated separately from the regular German army. SS members swore allegiance to Hitler, and they hated Jews.

The SS men chased us from the houses, prodding us with bayonets to raise our hands and join the town's other Jews - several hundred people - in the middle of the town's market area. As we walked, hands raised, the Nazis photographed us.

Some of the Germans approached the men among us who had beards and cut them off, either entirely or purposely leaving an odd angle of beard, just to humiliate the victims. One man had a beautiful, long beard. When he saw what the Germans were doing, he took a towel he had with him and tied it around his beard, in the hope that our tormentors might not see so enticing a target. But of course, they went right over to him, removed the towel and shaved off what to him and us was a physical symbol of experience, wisdom and holiness. He wept uncontrollably.

We stood there and the smell of smoke registered in our nostrils, becoming more intense with each minute. It didn't take long to realize that the town's homes had been set aflame. Later we heard that a German soldier had been discovered killed nearby and that the SS men had assumed that the culprits were Jews… We Jews were ordered into the synagogue… It became clear that all of us remaining in the synagogue were being confined there - the doors were locked and SS men stood outside to ensure that no one managed to escape - to be roasted alive… The town had been set afire, and the Nazis clearly intended to let the flames reach the synagogue. Houses nearby were already wildly burning…

The scene was a blizzard of shouting and wailing and, above all, praying. Psalms and lamentations and entreaties blended together, a cacophony of wrenched hearts. Everyone realized what was in store and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that any of us could possibly do.

The smell of smoke grew even stronger as did the cries of the hundreds of Jews packed in the synagogue awaiting a terrible death. And then, a miracle occurred.

How else to explain what happened? Those in the synagogue who were standing near the doorway and windows saw a German motorcycle come to a halt in front of the building. A German officer - apparently of high rank - dismounted from the machine and began to speak with the SS men guarding our intended crematorium. The officer grew agitated and barked orders at the other Nazis. After a few minutes, the doors to the synagogue were suddenly opened and, disbelieving our good fortune, we staggered out…

What made the officer order them to release us we did not know and never will. Some of us suspected he was not a German at all, but Elijah the prophet, who, in Jewish tradition, often appears in disguise.

We were ordered across a nearby brook… and were told to sit on the grass and to go no further. And so there we sat, all through the Sabbath, watching as the synagogue in which we had been imprisoned mere hours earlier was claimed by the flames and, along with all the Torah-scrolls and holy books of both Ruzhan and Govrov, burned to the ground…

That night was the first night of Selichos…

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE MATRIX

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Your child damages a neighbor's property, you are responsible.

But that can mean two distinct things. Either, simply, that as the child's parent you are where the buck stops.

Or it may mean something deeper. If the boy didn't just accidentally hit a ball through the Jones' picture window but rather aimed a rock at it - and had been influenced in his disregard for the property of others by some remarks you made - you are responsible in much more than the buck-stopping sense.

The Jewish concept of "arvut," - the "interdependence" of all Jews - is sometimes understood as akin to the first, simple, sense of responsibility. Jews are to regard other Jews as family, and therefore to feel responsible for one another.

But, the celebrated Jewish thinker Rabbi E.E. Dessler teaches, Jews are responsible for one another in the word's deeper sense too. When a Jew does something good, it reflects the entire Jewish people's goodness. And the converse is no less true. Thus, when Achan, one man, misappropriated spoils after the first battle of Joshua's conquest of Canaan, the siege of Jericho, it is described as the sin of the entire people (Joshua, 7:1). Explains Rabbi Dessler: Had the people as a whole been sufficiently sensitive to the Divine commandment to shun the city's spoils, Achan would never have been able to commit his sin.

The much publicized arrests last month of several Jews, amid a larger group, on a variety of financial charges caused all sensitive Jews acute embarrassment. But the vivid image of Jews - religious ones, no less - being carted off by federal agents needs to do something more than embarrass us. It needs to spur us.

Not because we have any right to assume the worst about the accused; we don't. And if in fact there were violations of the law, we don't know the circumstances, the motivations of the accused or even if they were aware of the pertinent laws (which might not make a difference to a trial judge but should to the rest of us). Trial by Tabloid is not Jewish jurisprudence.

But the images themselves must make us think. In particular about other, confirmed, cases of Jews - including religiously observant ones - who have in fact engaged in "white collar" crime. Not to mention several identifiably Jewish, if not particularly religious, Jews who have even achieved broad notoriety for their societal sins.

And so, the deeper concept of arvut leaves us to ponder the possibility that some less blatant and less outrageous - but still sinful - actions of other Jews, ourselves perhaps included, may have, little by little, provided a matrix on which greater sins subsequently came to grow.

Every child who received a Jewish education knows that even a small coin placed in a pushke, or charity box, is the fulfillment of a mitzvah, the commandment to give charity. It should be equally apparent, especially to all us grown-up children, that the misappropriation of even a similarly small amount of money is a sin.

And so Jews, whoever and wherever they are, who cut corners for financial gain - who underreport their income or avoid taxes illegally or are less than fully honest in their business dealings - contribute thereby to the thievery-matrix. And they bear responsibility, in however small the ways, for larger crimes committed by their fellows.

What is more, even those of us who are innocent of any financial indiscretions might also be unwitting contributors to the critical criminal mass. Because things other than money can also be "stolen."

The Torah speaks, for example, about two forms of oppressive practices (ona'ah): financial (as in overcharging) and personal (as in causing pain to others with words). The Talmud also calls the act of misleading another person "stealing knowledge" (g'neivat da'at); and considers it "robbery" to not return another's greeting. Halachic decisors, moreover, note the forbiddance to "steal sleep" - to wake someone unnecessarily or to keep him up when he wants to retire.

So even those of us whose financial ledgers are in order would do well to introspect. Are we sufficiently careful not to use words in hurtful ways, entirely meticulous in advice we offer, fully responsive to the good will of others, truly cautious about not disturbing their peace? If not, then we are - in a subtle but real way - part of the perp-walk picture ourselves.

The Jewish month of Elul is here. Leading as it does to next month's High Holy Days, it is a time when the Jewishly conscious take spiritual stock of their lives. On Yom Kippur, Jews the world over will repeatedly recite two confessional prayers, "Ashamnu" and "Al Chet Shechatanu." Both, oddly, are in the first person plural. It is a collective "we" who have sinned. As the commentaries explain, that is because, among Jews, even sins of which the individual supplicant may be personally innocent, implicate us all.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR AND THE JEWS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Reports have it that a popular inscription of late on coffee mugs and t-shirts is "wise Latina woman."

The reference, of course, is to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's contention in a 2001 lecture that "a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." The comment was much discussed during the hearings that preceded Justice Sotomayor's confirmation. While purchasers of the shirts and mugs are likely only taking ethnic pride in the Justice, who is of Puerto Rican ancestry, the comment is worth pondering. It may even hold a thought of particular value to Jews.

The idea of a judge's personal experience influencing - enhancing or degrading - his or her judgment is intriguing. To be sure, a victim of a violent crime might not make the best judge in the case of someone accused of the same sort of crime, or an acceptable juror. That is why there are judicial recusals and jury disqualifications.

But the question of whether our general objectivity is necessarily skewed by who we are is less obviously clear. All of us, after all, are different, not only in our experiences and influences but in our essential psychologies. Must we divorce ourselves from all that in order to evaluate anything objectively?

Obviously not. The Torah, and for that matter secular jurisprudence, allows for flesh-and-blood people, with lives and experiences, to be judges. And, for that matter, all of us are required daily to make judgments in our personal lives.

At the same time, though, judges - and all of us - must consciously endeavor to be sensitive to the possibility of bias in any particular case. The illustrious Rabbi Yishmael, a sage of the Tannaic era, had a sharecropper who, as part of his obligation to the landowner-sage, would bring him a basket of fruit from the rabbi's land every Friday. The Talmud (Ketuvot, 105b) recounts how, one week, the worker brought the fruit to him on a Thursday.

When Rabbi Yishmael asked why, the worker explained that he was party to a court case before the rabbi that day and thought that he may as well bring the fruit then too. Rabbi Yishmael immediately recused himself from the sharecropper's case.

Although the account's lesson is about the subtlety with which bribery can operate, personal bias too is a form of bribe. Rabbi E.E. Dessler notes that just as a scientist cannot draw meaningful conclusions from an experiment unless his measuring instruments are true, so are we constrained from making objective judgments when our psychological instruments are off kilter. Such imbalance can take the form of inherent character flaws or prejudice, racial or otherwise. And it, no less than a monetary bribe, "blinds," as the Torah words it, "the eyes of the wise" (Deuteronomy, 16:19).

What Judge Sotomayor seemed to say in 2001 was that her perspective - as a woman, a Hispanic, a "wise" person - makes her a better judge. It, of course, does not. While none of those attributes need undermine objectivity, neither do any of them ensure it.

To her credit, the then-nominee backed away from the implication of her earlier statement, saying that "judges can't rely on what's in their heart. They don't determine the law… The job of a judge is to apply the law… [not to] apply feelings to facts."

Which brings us to the Jews. Or, better, to Judaism.

The Jewish faith is a system of both beliefs and laws, and, like all laws, Judaism's are meant to be applied objectively. To be sure, there are instances where certain empathetic concerns can yield leniencies. In a kashrut case, for example, if hewing to the normative approach in particular situations will result in a great financial loss, it may be proper to adopt a more lenient one. Or, if a married man goes missing and is suspected to have died, certain evidentiary rules are waived for testimony about the man's death, so that his wife may remarry. But those leniencies exist within the law, and when they can be invoked is itself the subject of law and precedent. Where there is no such recourse, empathy is insufficient to supplant the law. We are admonished to "not favor the poor man in his dispute" (Exodus, 23:3). The job of a judge, as Judge Sotomayor rightly concluded, is to apply law, not feelings.

It is common these Jewish days to read of how this or that group or individual is promoting a new, more "sensitive," "contemporary" or "caring" approach to halacha.

And all too many Jews, falling into the conceptual trap from which Judge Sotomayor laudably extricated herself, imagine that empathy and compassion can only enhance the application of a system of law, not erode it.

It's an enticing place to go, sending out a siren-song for the sensitive. But it's sensitivity to truth, in the end, that matters.

That's the case with man-made laws; all the more so, Divine ones.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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HOW TO PROMOTE BASELESS HATRED

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Yes, yes, there is a media double standard when it comes to haredi Jews. That's nothing new.

And so, when thousands of Iranians poured into Tehran's streets in protest of what they saw as a fraudulent presidential election, the press emphasis was not on the protesters who threw rocks, set trash bins aflame and vandalized public property. The focus, rightly, was on the bulk of the crowd, peaceful protesters of what they believed to be a fraudulent election.

When tens of thousands of haredim, though, demonstrated in reaction to a decision by the Jerusalem municipality to open a public parking lot on the Jewish Sabbath, increasing traffic in the heart of the Holy City and disturbing the peacefulness of the day of rest, the main coverage was not of the overwhelming mass of the crowd, peacefully standing up for the sanctity of the Sabbath - but rather of the tiny fraction of the crowd that… threw rocks, set trash bins aflame and vandalized public property.

But that fraction of the crowd cannot be ignored by those of us who cringed at, and remain shamed by, its ugly behavior. The rioters may have been boys, but they were our boys. And if boys of ours can imagine that acts of destruction and hooliganism are somehow the right way to stand up for the Sabbath's honor (leave aside the way to bring non-observant Jews to appreciate the Jewish day of rest), there is much, much work to be done to teach them what Torah is and what it isn't.

And, yes, yes, again, there are unanswered questions about the arrest of a Hasidic mother of a long hospitalized child on suspicion of having starved him. The media, quoting hospital authorities, said that the woman was suffering from a mental illness that compels a person to invent or create symptoms of illness, sometimes in another person, in order to garner medical attention.

The hospital video footage, moreover, that authorities said showed the mother removing the child's feeding tube 20 times has yet, at least at this writing, to be released. And why did the hospital not act after the first tube removal? Or the tenth?

Why, further, if the woman is in fact mentally ill, was a simple restraining order not obtained, barring her from contact with the child? Why did the police choose instead to slap handcuffs on the five-months pregnant woman in public (and in front of a summoned press) and place her in a jail cell (with an accused spouse-killer, an Arab woman, as a cellmate)?

None of us can know with certainty at this point the answers to those questions - or whether the woman at issue is a would-be murderess, a sufferer of mental illness or a caring mother wrongly accused.

What we can know, though, is that the reaction of some members of her community and some other haredim was horrible abuse of its own sort. To review in any detail even a sampling of the repulsive behavior in which some religious Jews engaged would only increase the desecration of G-d's name it embodied. There may well have been grounds for protest - and civil protest is a fundamental right in a democracy - but there were no grounds for violence. None.

That judgment was made unequivocally by, among others, the head of the anti-Zionist Edah Charedis, the renowned halachic authority Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch. "Anyone," he wrote, referring to the riotous behavior, "who commits acts of violence declares that he doesn't belong to our community."

Insulting another is a grave violation of halacha, as is causing him physical harm. Destroying another's property - or communal property or, for that matter, one's own property - is also forbidden by the Torah. No exceptions have ever been made in halachic codes for instances where a government policy or action is not to one's liking. How ironic that the idealization of boorishness and destructiveness - most prominently embraced by the criminal world and Hollywood - should have managed to infiltrate the relatively insular haredi world - a world that clearly stands for diametric ideals.

This time of Jewish year, Judaism-conscious Jews are focused on the destruction of the Holy Temples. The second Temple, whose destruction led to our current exile, was destroyed, the Talmud teaches, "because of baseless hatred."

The recent rioters in Jerusalem may well have believed their hatred to have had ample basis. But, whatever their rationalizations, their actions evoked disgust in Jews the world over, some of whom, tragically, will generalize from the rioters' bad example and bear ill will toward haredim as a group.

And so, even if the violent protesters believe that they are innocent of baseless hatred, they should be made to confront the fact that they are deeply guilty of promoting it.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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HOLOCAUST DENIALS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Never had the appearance of a word on a page so shocked me. It just made no sense. Those English letters, in that order, simply didn't belong there.

It was nearly twenty years ago, in the library of a Jewish day school in Providence where I was teaching at the time. The word was "Holocaust" and it so discombobulated me because the book I had opened had been published in the late 1800s.

Even stranger, it was an English translation (likely the first one) of the Mishna, the backbone of the Talmud.

After a moment's reflection on that fact, I realized I hadn't gone mad. In context, the word was how the translator had rendered the Hebrew word "olah" - a sacrifice in the times of Jerusalem's Holy Temple that, unlike all other offerings, was burnt in its entirety on the altar, without any portion set aside for human consumption. "Holo" in Greek means "entirely"; and "caust" means "burnt."

Indeed, whoever first applied the word to what occurred on the European continent over the years 1939-1945 may well have chosen it because of its Jewish source. After all, the Third Reich aimed to rid the world of Jews, considering them the ultimate, mortal enemy of civilization. And, when all was tragically said and done, Hitler and his helpers in fact succeeded in murdering nearly two out of every three European Jews - if not an olah, staggeringly, devastatingly close.

Others, to be sure, were persecuted and killed by the Nazis too: Romani (Roma and Sinti peoples), political dissidents, criminals of various sorts, physically and mentally disabled people, Jehova's Witnesses, homosexuals, Poles and Slavs.

But the "Endlösung" - the "Final Solution" - was for "der Judenfrage" - "the Jewish Question." There was no "Romani Question" or "Homosexual Question." The Nazis hated many types of people and for a variety of reasons, but they singled out only one group of people for utter destruction. The disabled and homosexuals were persecuted only in the Reich, not in territories the Nazis occupied. The Romani, in the words of historian Alex Grobman, "did not have to be annihilated completely." That was a fate reserved for the Jews alone.

Even in his final moments, Hitler obsessed over the Jews, charging his followers shortly before his suicide to demonstrate "merciless resistance against the universal poisoners of all peoples, international Jewry."

Thus there were no speeches like the Reich Organization Leader's 1939 "The Jews or Us" ("There is no room in the world for the Jews any more. The Jew or us, one of us will have to go") about Poles. No book like 1937's "The Eternal Jew" (which sought to graphically portray Jews as sub-human) about Slavs. No "Mein Kampf" ravings about the "peril" posed by the disabled. And no issues of Der Sturmer on newsstands with the motto "The homosexuals are our misfortune!" on the cover page.

There is a reason, in other words, why the Holocaust is most readily associated with the destruction of European Jewry, why the Berlin Holocaust memorial - the monument that stands in the maw from which the Holocaust emerged - is called Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas - the "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe."

It shows no insensitivity to any of the groups that suffered under the Third Reich to appreciate the straightforward fact that only one was identified as a noxious threat to humanity itself; that only one was targeted for total genocide - both within and without Germany's borders; that none suffered the loss of life that the Third Reich inflicted upon the Jewish people. And yet, maintaining the special linkage of the Holocaust to Jews is becoming politically incorrect. The recent controversy surrounding the Holocaust Memorial Mall in Sheepshead Bay is a case in point. It already bears an inscription recognizing other victims of Nazi persecution, including homosexuals. But an active member of a "gay synagogue" campaigned for a more prominent set of stone markers recognizing Nazi victims others than Jews. When the city acceded, New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind protested what he saw as a subtle devaluing of the special nature of the Jewish people's singular targeting by the Nazis.

Mr. Hikind was subsequently taken to task by, among others, the New York City Council Speaker and the mayor. More recently, two candidates for a City Council seat attacked a third one for the sin of having been endorsed by Mr. Hikind. One of the candidates intoned that he "would never compromise my principles by having an endorsement like that," and labeled "outrageous" the contention that, as he put it, "there are two classes of victims in the Holocaust." A writer in the Jerusalem Post went so far as to compare the assemblyman's stance to Holocaust denial.

No one, though, is denying many groups suffered, and greatly, under the Nazis. But if there is any subtle denial in the air these days, if anything delicately desecrates the history of the Holocaust, it is the reluctance of some to recognize a profound and qualitative difference. The difference between the Nazis' persecution of political enemies and "social misfits" - and the visceral, genocidal loathing they reserved for the Jews.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE NOVARDHOK PARADOX

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Despite the economic downturn, I recently made a financial investment that resulted in a fantastic return. It was a CD.

No, not a bank certificate. A compact disk. It cost me $15 (including postage and handling) and featured Yiddish songs that were sung by the students and faculty of the famed Novardhok Yeshiva in pre-war Eastern Europe.

Founded at the end of the 19th century in what was then the Russian Empire, Novardhok spawned satellite branches in many other cities. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the yeshiva relocated to Poland, although not all the students made it; the Soviets shot or captured and exiled many. At the start of World War II, the yeshiva moved to Vilna and other cities in Lithuania. When the Soviets moved into Lithuania, some students fled, others were killed and a small group of Polish nationals – my dear father, may he be well, among them – were exiled to Siberia.

Some of the songs on the disk were familiar to me from a recording my father made for his children years ago. Others I heard for the first time. I was moved by the music and, especially, the lyrics.

Novardhok had a reputation for a pietistic and morose – to some even morbid – philosophy. It is an ungenerous characterization. The yeshiva was a serious place, to be sure, and its students not only studied Talmud but placed self-criticism and personal improvement prominently on their spiritual agendas. Stories about the lengths to which Novardhok students went to embarrass or discomfort themselves in order to “break the will” and rise above human traits like anger, conceit and indulgence are legend – and many are surely exaggerations.

But while few if any Novardhokers may actually have requested a loaf of bread from a hardware merchant or placed raw peas in their shoes, every Novardhoker spent considerable time daily studying ethical texts, critically analyzing his personal behavior before G-d and man and trying to press his will and actions into line with the highest ideals of Judaism.

Surprisingly, though, what resulted were not broken, depressed, neurotic souls but joyous, determined, soaring ones.

My father, over more than fifty years as a synagogue rabbi, has had a ready smile and a reservoir of encouraging words for all, and continues in semi-retirement to offer the same to the many who value his friendship and counsel.

And I vividly remember Rabbi Yehudah Leib Nekritz, may his memory be a blessing, the religious leader of the Novardhok Siberian exiles, who in the 1950s and 60s would occasionally visit my parents’ home in Baltimore. Even when I was still too little to know much about the man with the black hat, white beard and peaceful smile who was so eagerly welcomed into our house, I was mesmerized by his aura of happiness.

On one of his visits, bashful child that I was, I ran to the far end of the house and hid under a table. From my safe distance, I studied his bright, cheery countenance. To this day, five decades later, I remember suddenly bounding across the house – only a few yards, but many little-boy steps – and hurling myself onto the visitor’s lap. Everyone was surprised– including me. My feet had received orders directly from my heart. Although Rabbi Nekritz had been through much in his life that was not pleasant, he radiated joy, and it was a powerful magnet.

Years later, when I learned about Novardhok and its approach to life, I thought it paradoxical that Novardhok self-criticism and relentless contemplation of life and its limited span could coexist with the smiling eyes and joie de vivre of a Rabbi Nekritz. What I came in time to realize, though, is that it wasn’t a matter of co-existence but of cause and effect.

The songs, too, display the apparent paradox. Their lyrics are about things like readiness to be persecuted for one’s commitment to Torah, the brevity of human existence, the need to seize every day – every moment – we have; yet the melodies as a rule are spirited, lively, filled with trust and hope and joy.

It might be hard to imagine a chorus like “Now [we’re] here; later, there” set to a swing beat. But somehow, strangely, it works.

I think the solution to “How can Novardhok seriousness yield joy?” lies in contemplating a converse-question: How can a society like ours, with all its opportunities for physical pleasure, avenues for escapism and creature comforts, yield the sullenness and depression that is the hallmark of so much of the contemporary world?

What occurs is that embracing distractions to avoid realities – like the fact that even if we are fortunate to become centenarians, our this-world lives are not forever; that we are here for a purpose, one we ignore at our peril; that we have responsibilities and cannot afford to waste time – yields not happiness but the heavy gloom of meaninglessness.

And, turning back to the Novardhokers, facing the realities of human existence – squarely, head-on, with open eyes – infuses people with joy, born of the immense good fortune of having been charged with a divine mission and granted meaningful lives.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE ESSENCE OF GREATNESS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The unaffiliated Jewish woman attended three of the rabbi's lectures in the 1950s, visibly intrigued by the ideas he put forth, about the historicity of the Jewish religious tradition. Then she abruptly stopped coming.

Another woman who had also attended the lecture series tracked her down and asked why she was no longer showing up. The first woman answered straightforwardly: "He was convincing me. If I continue to listen to this man, I will have to change my life."

What a remarkably honest person. (I like to imagine that she came, in time, to pursue what she then fled.)

And what a remarkable man was the rabbi who delivered the lectures. He was Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, whose tenth yahrtzeit, or death-anniversary, will be marked on the fast day of Shiva Asar BiTammuz (July 9). He later became the Rosh Yeshiva, or Dean, of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore. He was my rebbe.

As an 18-year-old studying in the Baltimore yeshiva in 1972, I watched him from afar. His father-in-law, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, of blessed memory, was the Rosh Yeshiva then; Rabbi Weinberg headed the Kollel, or graduate student program, and also delivered general Talmudic lectures. The depth of his knowledge, the power of his critical analyses of both Talmudic and worldly topics, his eloquence and his knowledge of history and the sciences all impressed me deeply.

But what I came to realize was that his brilliance and erudition were mere tools with which he was gifted. His essence was his dedication to truth, to Torah and to his students - indeed, to all Jews - and his humility.

When I think back on the many times I telephoned Rabbi Weinberg from wherever I was living at the time to ask him a question about Jewish law or philosophy, or for his advice, I am struck by something I never gave much thought to at those times: He was always available. And, I have discovered over the years, not only to me. As I came to recognize all the others - among them greatly accomplished Torah scholars, congregational rabbis and community leaders today - who had also enjoyed a student-rebbe relationship with Rabbi Weinberg, I marveled. In my youthful self-centeredness, I had imagined him as my rebbe alone. Who knew?

And his ongoing interactions with his students somehow didn't prevent him from travelling wherever his services were needed. A sought-after speaker and arbitrator for individuals and communities alike, he somehow found time and energy for it all.

More telling, he felt responsible to undertake it all. He (and, may she be well, his wife, Rebbetzin Chana Weinberg) gave so very much to others (as the Rebbetzin continues to do). That, I long ago concluded, is the defining characteristic of true Gedolim, literally "great ones" - the term reserved for the most knowledgeable and pious Torah leaders of each generation: selflessness.

How painfully ironic, I sometimes think, that small, spiteful minds try to portray Gedolim oppositely. Then again, as the weekly Torah-portion of Korach recently read in synagogue reminds us, no less a Godol than Moses - the "most humble of all men" - was also spoken of cynically by some in his day. Plus ça change…

It wasn't just in his public life, in his service to students and communities that Rabbi Weinberg's self-effacement was evident. It was in little things too.

In the early 1980s, he was asked to temporarily take the helm of a small yeshiva in Northern California that had fallen on hard times. Although not a young man, he agreed to leave his home and position in Baltimore and become interim dean.

My wife and I and our three daughters lived in the community; I taught in the yeshiva and served as principal of the local Jewish girls' high school. And so I was fortunate to have ample opportunity to work with Rabbi Weinberg, and to witness much that I will always remember. One small episode, though, remains particularly poignant.

Rabbi Weinberg was housed in a bedroom of a rented house. In the house's other bedroom lived the yeshiva's cooks - a middle-aged couple, recently immigrated from the Soviet Union.

Though Northern California has a wonderful climate, its winters can be a bit chilly, and the house's heating system was not working. The yeshiva administrator made sure that extra blankets were supplied to the house's residents, and an electric heater was procured for Rabbi Weinberg (the cooks, it was figured, had been toughened by a truly cold clime).

After a week or two of cold, rainy weather, it was evident that Rabbi Weinberg had caught a bad cold. Suspecting that perhaps the electric heater was not working, someone went to his room to check it. It wasn't there.

Where it was, it turned out, was in the cooks' room. Confronted with the discovery, Rabbi Weinberg sheepishly admitted to having relocated the heater. "I thought they would be cold," was all he said.

Another heater was bought. And a lesson, once again, learned, about the essence of a Godol.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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HARDENED CRIMINALS AND NEWBORN BABES

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, believed to be responsible for the murders and maiming of untold numbers of innocent African men, women and children, is now Jewish.

Well, at least in his own mind - and according to his wife Victoria, who also told the BBC that her husband still believes in the Christian savior.

Still, Mr. Taylor's claim raises an interesting question, and at least one thoughtful reporter, the Forward's Rebecca Dube, in a recent report, decided to ask it: What if a non-Jew with a criminal record genuinely wanted to become a Jew? Would he properly be considered for conversion? Could it be effected?

The answers - assuming the would-be convert is demonstrably sincere in his desire to join the Jewish people and accept Jewish observance (including renouncing crime) - are yes. By very definition, seeking conversion bespeaks a determination to change radically, and undergoing conversion creates precisely such a change. A convert, in the Talmud's words, is "like a newborn baby," detached from his or her previous existence.

The Talmud in fact recounts how two deeply odious people (one, as it happens, a mass murderer) converted to Judaism. According to the Talmudic account (Gittin, 56a), the Roman emperor Nero, seeing that the destruction of the Second Holy Temple was to come about through him, perceived the Divine hand in history and feared being the instrument of G-d's wrath against His people. So he ran away and joined them.

A similar choice was made by Nevuzaradan, a Roman general who, the Talmud teaches (Gittin 57b), murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews before being struck with deep remorse and converting.

Ms. Dube reports that a Reform rabbi in New York considers a person's sins to be a bar to conversion. There are, he says, "people whose total lack of ethics and morality would dismiss them at the outset." Similarly, a "Modern Orthodox" rabbi in Baltimore is quoted as saying that while "it's true that religion can change people for the better… the Jewish community is not a recovery house."

To be sure, any responsible Jewish court would be right to be wary of a Charles Taylor-type who came knocking at the door. But if the quoted rabbis mean to say that human past performance is an automatic indicator of future returns, they miss the point. Human beings have free will, and a sincere (stress, again, on that word) desire to convert is itself a desire to change.

And so even a criminal, if he demonstrates to a valid Jewish religious court a truthful desire to change his ways and undertake Jewish religious observance, can, by immersing in a mikvah (ritual bath) and, in the case of a man, undergoing circumcision, become a convert.

The converse, though, is equally true: A non-Jew who is unwilling to live a Jewish life, no matter how upstanding a citizen, cannot convert; any conversion ceremony for such a person accomplishes nothing.

That latter truth is a timely one. Some, of late, have suggested that the Israeli rabbinate "convert" hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants, to bolster Jewish numbers and allow those thus "made Jewish" to more easily blend into Jewish society. Leaving aside the wisdom of those goals themselves, such conversions, if unaccompanied by sincere acceptance of Jewish observance, would not be valid.

The bottom line: The relevant question in converting to Judaism is not prior behavior but sincerity of future Jewish purpose.

And Mr. Taylor? Well, he has not been reported to have undergone mikvah-immersion or circumcision, much less to have demonstrated a sincere acceptance of the Torah's laws to the satisfaction of any valid Jewish court. And his retaining of Christian belief would itself be sufficient to undermine his consideration by any such court. So it is a safe bet to say that, whether or not he is a changed man, his claim to Jewishness is spurious. But the report of his assertion is as good a springboard as any for propelling us to remember what conversion to Judaism isn't, and what it is.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.

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DEAF TO PEACE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

My daily commute often puts me in the presence of one or another ear bud-wearing young person whose music device's volume is turned up sufficiently high to be audible (and annoying) to others many feet away. The experience makes me think about the Middle East. No, really.

The tinny noise, surely astoundingly loud to the eardrums mere millimeters away, makes me envision a world twenty years hence in which millions of middle-aged are unable to hear. And unlike the congenitally deaf, the newly hard-of-hearing will find it hard to manage. I wonder about the toll a chronically cranky chunk of the populace might take on society.

And that is what brings me to wonder about a different toll, on Palestinians.

President Obama received much criticism from some Jewish circles for elements of his Cairo speech earlier this month. His every turn of phrase, his juxtaposition of topics, what he said and what he didn't say - all were subjected to great scrutiny, and found wanting by some.

Others noted that, for goodness' sake, he was speaking to an Arab audience, seeking to seize an opportunity to win some trust on America's behalf. If peace between Israel and Palestinian Arabs is possible (a big "if," they concede), it will require a United States President who is seen by most Palestinians as sympathetic to their cause. The President, moreover, was explicit to his Muslim audience about "America's strong bonds with Israel," which he declared "unbreakable."

The issues are well known. What borders should a Palestinian state have? Should it be independent or confederated with an existing Arab country? Should it be armed or demilitarized? Should it be at all?

Should some or all Israeli communities built on land captured in 1967 be dismantled? Limited in growth? Left alone to grow and thrive as part of the Jewish State? Should Hamas and other murderous groups be included in any peace process directly or indirectly or shunned as incorrigible?

Should Arab refugees and their children and grandchildren be permitted to return to lands where they or their forebears once lived? Compensated in some way? Or absorbed by one of the dozen or so Arab countries?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his own recent speech at Bar Ilan University, addressed some of those issues, rejecting limitations on existing communities and accepting in principle the idea of a demilitarized Palestinian state.

What is arguably the most important issue, though, is something else.

It is something President Obama actually broached in his Cairo speech, when he called Holocaust denial "ignorant" and "hateful," and said that "repeating vile stereotypes about Jews" is "deeply wrong."

He was even more explicit in an interview after meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, in which he recounted telling the Arab leader "that it was very important to continue to make progress in reducing the incitement and anti-Israel sentiments that are sometimes expressed in schools and mosques and in the public square," that "all those things are impediments to peace."

The President spoke, as always, diplomatically. "Those things," in fact, are more than impediments; they are nail-packed bombs under the possibility of peace. As long as television programming for Arab children features puppets spewing hatred for Israel and cheerfully committing themselves to jihad; as long as streets in Palestinian-controlled areas are named in honor of vicious murderers of Jews; as long as Palestinian schools teach canards about Israel and use maps of the region that do not indicate the existence of a Jewish State - issues of states and borders and settlements are purely academic. The Talmud teaches (Shabbat 21b) that "the learning of youth" is the most strongly absorbed, remaining indelible into later years.

Decades, even centuries, of hatred do not preclude peace. But neither can peace be built on a foundation of hatred.

Whatever one's views on a "two state solution," on "settlements" or on a "right of return" for Palestinian Arabs and their descendants, it should be clear that the President was on target about the need for Arab incitement to cease. If I had his and Mr. Netanyahu's ears, I would respectfully suggest that they move that issue to the very front and center of the "peace process," where it belongs; that nothing else even be contemplated until it is fully resolved.

Because a loud, lewd and relentless stream of anti-Israel, anti-Jewish noise pumped into impressionable young Arabs' brains today will only render yet another generation of adults down the road stone-deaf to any possibility of peace.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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HEART AND SOUL

Rabbi Avi Shafran

One Sunday more than a decade ago, I lay in a curtained-off cubicle adjacent to a hospital's emergency room, my chest bared and awaiting the sort of wired paddles that make still, supine bodies on medical dramas jump like chopped onions in a hot, oiled frying pan.

The procedure I was about to undergo, though, was relatively routine and quite safe; it had been scheduled weeks earlier in response to my heart's march for several years to the beat of a different drummer. One means of discouraging such nonconformance is to teach the offending muscles a good, swift lesson with a well-placed jolt of electricity. Same principle as a cattle prod.

No private room had been available at the hospital for so minor a chastisement as a cardioversion (or "conversion" in medical parlance; I warned the men of the frocks that they stood little chance of successfully "converting an Orthodox rabbi," but from the rolled eyes I realized I hadn't been the first bearded, beyarmulked patient to make the comment). Thus my decidedly unprivate, if off-the beaten-path, digs.

As I lay there, head propped on a pillow, awaiting the arrival of the anesthesiologist and the executioner, I watched a parade of patients being chaperoned from the emergency room through the hub of activity just beyond the half-parted curtain. A bloodied head here, a broken limb there, a macabre march, the yield of a sleepy city and its mistakes (or worse) on the sober morning after a Saturday night.

And then, in the middle of the procession, I saw her, and the look in her eyes.

A blanket covered all but her hoary head and one skeletal, desperate arm reaching for something that wasn't there. Her eyes, though, deeply sunken in a wizened, trembling face, were an irresistible force; they seized my own eyes and simply would not let go, not for the eternity of that fleeting moment. What I saw in those eyes was unfiltered, raw fear.

Maybe the fact that my heart was about to be stopped by a machine had oversensitized me. But something else weighed on me too, 3000 years of religious tradition.

For Judaism values life to an awesome degree. One moment on this earth is cherished beyond imagining in the Torah's eyes. "Tomorrow," asserts the Talmud - the next world - is for our ultimate reward; only "today," though, "is for doing."

The contemporary world values an assortment of talents and skills but none so intensely as Judaism treasures the ability to confront one's life, to face reality, to wield free will, to choose, resolve, repent. And even immobilized and ailing in a hospital bed, a man or woman can do those most meaningful things a human being can possibly do. A Talmudic teaching has it that some "acquire their portion" in heaven through the efforts of many years, others "in a mere hour."

Even the comatose may well be functioning beyond our assumptions. Electroencephalographs measure electrical activity in the brain but nothing more. Who can possibly know what might be happening in the soul of a living human being?

While my condition was benign and medically treatable, the imminent procedure was disconcerting. A lightning-quick thought of the coming anesthesia and what might follow stabbed at my brain. What if my heart protested the punishment (its owner, after all, tends toward overreaction) and decided to stop beating altogether? What, I wondered, was the hospital's policy about patients who suddenly need the proverbial "heroic measures"? Old or diseased patients, I knew, can have a "DNR" - a "Do Not Resuscitate" - order attached to their charts. They, or their relatives, or a doctor - depending on circumstances - can direct medical personnel to allow a patient in extremis to die, rather than interfere to postpone the final event. (Agudath Israel makes available for the asking "Halachic Living Wills" designed to ensure that health care decisions in the event of incapacity are made according to Jewish religious law.) I was pretty sure that a relatively healthy middle-aged adult like me would be rescued if things went awry.

But should there really be any difference, I mulled there on the gurney, between young and old, sick or healthy, clearly moribund or only subtly so like the rest of us? If a moment of human life is invaluable, is it not so for everyone?

Which thought made the coda to the apparition so striking, fixing it forever in my mind.

For just as the eyes, arm and blanket all disappeared to the left of my line of sight, a nurse's face entered stage right for the briefest of moments. It was a speaking part, but she had only one line.

"That's a DNR," the nurse called out with startling nonchalance. Even before the voltage came, a frisson washed over my bones.

When the electroshock came, it did nothing but burn my chest. My morning in the hospital left my heart unaffected.

Its rhythm, anyway.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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ONE GOOD DEED…

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It looked like a bumblebee but something was odd. It seemed too shiny and too black, too large-limbed and lumbering. Maybe, I thought, it was just an aged member of the species.

I watched as it crawled slowly across a wooden beam that I had mounted last summer above the metal railing of the deck outside our dining room. Since our home's main floor is its second one, there was a halachic need - as per the Biblical law of "ma'akeh," or "roof enclosure" (Deuteronomy 22:8) - to extend the deck's waist-high railing upward. Hence the home-made wooden extension the bee had discovered.

I have always enjoyed the company of bees. As a child I would watch them, capture them, observe their behavior and occasionally endure their stings. Even to this day, in the sukkah, as others recoil at the sight of yellow-jackets, I will happily hold out my hand for the insects to crawl on, and escort them outside. Bumblebees, though, with their amazing flight maneuvers, have always been a personal favorite. And this one was strange.

What he did was even stranger, crawling to the underside of the wood and just parking himself there, upside down. Investigating, I saw that he had found, and apparently found to his liking, a perfectly round hole, about a half-inch in diameter. Compounding the strangeness, I didn't remember ever noticing the hole.

That was on the second day of Shavuot, just as I completed a session of Torah-study. (The deck is my special study-retreat, weather permitting.) Later in the day, I noticed that the bee had tunneled into the hole; puffs of sawdust could be seen emerging from it; eventually all that was visible of the animal was its hindquarters. After the holiday, I did some research and discovered that the bee was a she, and not bumblebee at all, but a carpenter bee.

The female of the species, I learned, prepares a nursery for her offspring by excavating the underside - always the underside - of a piece of wood, creating a near-perfectly round hole and then burrowing an inch or so into it before abruptly turning at a right angle to continue her tunnel horizontally. Eventually the hollowed-out area will be where the bee lays her brood.

She will partition off different areas of the tunnel, providing each "room" with a wad of pollen and nectar, and then lay one egg on it before sealing it off. Each egg will become a larva that will subsist on its personal manna until it develops into a pupa and then, finally, a new bee. The young bees will then break through the partitions and escape into the outside world.

I can't wait.

Maimonides characterizes the "path" to fulfilling the commandment of ahavat Hashem, loving G-d, thus: "When a person ponders [G-d's] great and wondrous acts and creations and perceives in them His limitless wisdom... he loves and praises and extols [G-d] and is filled with a deep and great desire to know [Him]…" (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, 2:2)

The awe-inspiring is all around us, if we care to look and think, and are not fooled into imagining that nature's fantasticalness is a phantasm, the meaningless yield of random meetings of molecules. Watching the carpenter bee was, for me, a new step on the path Maimonides describes.

And it reminded me, too, of a Talmudic aphorism: "The consequence of a mitzvah," or commandment, "is another mitzvah." (Avot, 4:2)

For had it not been for the mitzvah of ma'akeh, which had required me to build a sufficiently high railing for my deck, I would not have been able to study Torah, another mitzvah, of course, on my deck. The ma'akeh had led to Torah-study.

And had I not been studying Torah on my deck, I might never have met the carpenter bee, who I truly feel advanced me on the path leading to a most important mitzvah, ahavat Hashem.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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A MALNOURISHMENT OF MODESTY

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In one of his wonderful collections of essays (The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher), the late physician Lewis Thomas tells of a highly successful doctor (a senior citizen back when Dr. Thomas' father was an intern) in New York's Roosevelt Hospital who was trained before the medical profession understood how disease spreads. The elder doctor was renowned for his remarkable ability to diagnose typhoid fever, a common disease at that time and place. His method was to closely examine the tongues of patients. His ward rounds, the younger Dr. Thomas recounts, "were essentially tongue rounds." Each patient would stick out his tongue for the doctor to palpate. Pondering its texture and irregularities, he would diagnose the disease "in its earliest stages over and over again" and turn out, "a week or so later, to have been right, to everyone's amazement."

The essayist wryly concludes: "He was a more productive carrier, using only his hands, than Typhoid Mary."

I was reminded of the account by another, more recent, example of the Law of Unintended Consequences, a report that New York's elected officials want to revoke the "Rockefeller Laws." Enacted in 1973 as a popular response to the societal plague of narcotics use at the time, those statutes, championed by New York's then-governor Nelson Rockefeller, imposed mandatory prison sentences for drug offenders. Similar laws were soon adopted elsewhere.

Over ensuing decades, though, the laws in other states were revoked, and now New York's governor and legislative leaders have announced their intention to repeal many of the original "Rockefeller Laws," giving judges the authority to send first-time nonviolent offenders for treatment instead of to prison.

What provoked the abandonment of those drug laws was that in the wake of their enactment both New York's prison population and its percentage of incarcerated drug offenders more than tripled. The attendant costs were not only financial but human: minorities and women were disproportionately affected, and recreational drug users who entered the prison system left it as hardened criminals.

It is sobering to consider that our best laid plans, even when born of sincere concern and seeming logic, can turn against us. The sobriety should impart, if nothing else, a modicum of modesty, a reluctance to feel as certain as we so often do that the paths we choose will lead where we want.

There are, of course, certainties in life, deep convictions that we rightly embrace without reservation. Religious Jews, for instance, affirm that Creation has a purpose and that the goals of their own lives are defined by G-d's will as communicated through the Torah. We may also consider close to certain the measured judgments in specific realms of others whom we believe to be wiser than we are, be they doctors, lawyers or religious leaders. But to proclaim our own independent, personal certitude about a political or social position, to assume that any of us can know without question that a particular political philosophy, foreign policy, government official or piece of legislation is good (or bad) is, always, in the end, an exercise in overreaching.

To be sure, we have every right to make our personal analyses and to take positions on such people and things, to advocate what we think is wise and to make the cases for our opinions. But as we do, it is beneficial to have in the backs of our minds - or perhaps their fronts - a recognition of the fact that, for all our brights and best laid logic, we might still … possibly… be… wrong.

And that realization is of more than philosophical import. It has a vital and practical ramification in the realm of human interaction, along the lines of the Talmudic statement that "just as people's faces all differ, so do their minds." For it requires us to perceive those with different views as, well, people with different views, not as illogical, intractable, irredeemable enemies of all that is good and right.

Unfortunately, newsprint, airwaves and cyberspace are saturated with precisely that latter sort of demagoguery. And contrary to the claims of some of its enthusiasts, such "free speech" does not promote healthy, productive disagreement and discussion; it suffocates them.

Contemporary society suffers from a malnourishment of modesty. It is evident not only in the realm of the physical - in contemporary dress and mores - but in attitudes toward issues as well. There is so little that any of us can truly know; yet so certain are so many of so much.

And so, suffused with self-assurance, the cavalier march forward, their points of view extended before them like bayonet tips. Confident of the infallibility of their judgment, the righteousness of their causes and the dire threat posed by others' perspectives, they generously share not only their conclusions but their ill will, every bit as effectively as a doctor at a New York hospital once propagated a different disease.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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HOW I SPENT MY SHAVUOT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Odd as it might seem, the recent report that a library at Yemen Children's Hospital was named after Palestinian suicide bomber Wafa Idris, that terrorist Samir Al-Kuntar spoke at the naming-ceremony and that little girls read poems in honor of the occasion brought back a Shavuot memory.

According to the report, which originated in a Yemeni news service and was translated by MEMRI, the local Province Governor expressed pride "that the Arab nation has stalwart resistance [fighters] like Samir Al-Kuntar." In 1974, Mr. Kuntar murdered an Israeli father in front of his four-year-old daughter and then smashed the little girl's skull against a rock with a rifle butt.

Every Jewish holiday is special in its own way, but Shavuot, which falls on May 29 and 30 this year, is unusual: it has no specific "active" observances, nothing like Passover's seder and matzoh, or Sukkot's booths or "four species," or Rosh Hashana's shofar-blowing.

The 18th century Chassidic master known as Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev perceived something subtle in that fact. Shavuot, he noted, is identified by Jewish tradition as the anniversary of the Jewish people's acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Since the act of accepting is an inherently passive one, he explained, the holiday is pointedly devoid of physically active observances. It is a time of receiving the Torah anew, and most appropriately expressed through Torah-study.

Hence, likely, the ancient Jewish custom to stay awake the entire night of Shavuot immersed in the texts of our tradition.

Every year I experience a personal Shavuot miracle; it is one that I suspect is shared by many others. By the end of our family's festive meal on Shavuot night, the prospect of staying awake an hour, much less six or seven, seems an impossible one. Yet, somehow, entering the study-hall, some holy energy seems to seize me, and, even as my mind and body increasingly rebel against the deprivation of slumber, my soul jumps for joy.

Seven years ago, my nearly12-year-old son Dovie - today a strapping 19-year-old studying in yeshiva in Israel - insisted on joining me in study in the large main sanctuary of a local synagogue, which was crowded with scores of Jewish men and boys doing the same.

The two of us, salt-and-pepper-bearded, could-stand-to-lose-a-few-pounds father and reddish-haired, dimpled and determined son, spent most of the night engrossed in Talmud. We began with a page of the tractate he was studying in school - a long passage dealing with the imperative of alleviating an animal's pain - and then turned to several pages of another tractate he and I regularly learn together - which concerned the status of land ownership in Jerusalem.

Dovie seemed entirely awake throughout it all, and asked the perceptive questions I had come to expect from him. We paused over the course of the night only for him to participate in classes for boys his age in an adjoining room, taught by an older yeshiva boy.

The experience was enthralling, as it always is, and while it was a challenge to concentrate (and at times even to keep my eyes from closing) during the prayer service that followed at 5:00 AM, Dovie and I both "made it" and then, hand in hand, walked home, where we promptly crashed. But before my head touched my pillow (a millisecond or two before I entered REM sleep), I summoned the energy to thank G-d for sharing His Torah with us.

That silent prayer came back to me like a thunderclap a few days later, when I caught up on some reading I had missed (though only in the word's most simple sense) over the holiday. Apparently, during the precise hours Dovie and I were studying holy texts, the presses at The Washington Times were printing a story datelined Gaza City.

It began with a description of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Abu Ali, being "lovingly dress[ed] by his mother in a costume of a suicide bomber, complete with small kaffiyeh, a belt of electrical tape and fake explosives made of plywood."

"I encourage him, and he should do this," said his mother; and Abu Ali himself apparently agreed. "I hope to be a martyr," he said. "I hope when I get to 14 or 15 to explode myself."

My thoughts flashed back to Shavuot and to my own son, and I thanked G-d again, from the bottom of my heart.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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ELECTION RESULT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Even with the surfeit of silliness passing these days for "Torah commentary"- the manufactured "midrashim," "original interpretations" and Biblical passages turned on their heads - I was flabbergasted to read a homily disparaging the Chafetz Chaim.

The Chafetz Chaim, of course - Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan - was renowned for his saintliness and sagacity, and for his monumental works on Jewish law, including two on the laws against slander. When the Polish sage died, in 1933, The New York Times' obituary noted that he had shut down his store when he realized that its success born of his renown was imperiling other local storekeepers' income.

What exercised the contemporary sermonizer, whose words appeared in an Israel-oriented magazine, was the Chafetz Chaim's comment on an undisputed halachic ruling, that even a sinner, if Jewish, can be counted as part of a prayer-quorum. The Chafetz Chaim had elucidated the reason behind the ruling: "Even though he is a sinning Jew," the great rabbi explained, "his holiness endures."

The magazine-homilist, a Jewish educator, found that statement "not so enlightened," indeed "particularly problematic in an era when racism has fallen out of favor."

Racism? To most of us that word implies mistreating, or at least disliking, someone because of his ethnicity. There are observant Jews who are racist; observance, unfortunately, doesn't preclude any of a number of irrationalities. But affirmation of "Jewish election" - the concept that the Jewish people was chosen by G-d to be a holy nation with a holy mission - has about the same relationship to racism as a sizzling steak has to a slab of cold tofu. (No angry e-mails, please - I like tofu!) For that matter, Jewish chosen-ness is a belief held by many non-Jews as well.

And what sort of "racism" permits its targets to switch races? While Judaism doesn't encourage conversion, anyone not born Jewish but willing to undertake commitment to the faith's laws and undergo the conversion process is fully welcomed into the Jewish people. Does David Duke let Pakistanis join his whites-only club? Would Louis Farrakhan let Mr. Duke become an honorary black?

The bottom line: Jewish chosen-ness, from the Jewish perspective, entails no disparagement of others. It is not a license but a responsibility, to live by the laws of the Torah and to set a holy example for others - to shine forth in belief and behavior as the prophet Isaiah's "light unto the nations" (42:6).

But, yes, even one who has failed to shoulder that responsibility doesn't thereby lose that responsibility, or his status as part of his people. The relative who let you down, even terribly, remains your relative.

The derivation itself of the concept of a prayer-quorum implies as much. The Talmud divines the requirement of ten men for a public declaration of G-d's holiness (like, for example, the recitation of the Kaddish) from the use of the same Hebrew word, b'toch - "among" - in both the verse "And I will be [declared] holy among the Jewish people" and the verse "Separate yourselves from among the congregation," the latter concerning the followers of Korach, who rebelled against Moses and Aaron. Since the word "congregation" - "edah" - in that latter verse is in turn used in yet a third one, "How much longer, this evil congregation?" (referring to the ten Jewish men who scouted the Holy Land and delivered a misleadingly discouraging report), the Talmud concludes that a "holiness" prayer-quorum requires ten Jewish men (Berachot, 21b).

And so the very source of the quorum is rooted in references to sinners. That speaks loudly about the Jewish faith's demarcation of Jews as special, sinners and all.

Maybe the contemporary educator is not aware that the concept of Jewish election itself dates somewhat farther back than the Chafetz Chaim, to the Torah itself. Or maybe he is, but rejects the idea nonetheless, choosing to see it as "racism."

I suspect he doesn't really deny what is, in the end, a basic Jewish conviction; he's just uncomfortable in our universalist times with the notion that the Jewish faith sets Jews apart (the essential meaning of the Hebrew word for holy, "kadosh") . But I think that he knows it does and, deep down, accepts the fact. That alone could explain why, as the biographical note at the end of his essay states, come fall the writer will be joining the faculty at a Jewish day school in California.

Not a Catholic, Muslim or Hindu school. A Jewish one.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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WHENCE YOU CAME

Rabbi Avi Shafran

At some point, a tiny human embryo, properly cared for, becomes a baby.

Taken apart, however, an embryo can provide embryonic stem cells that can be coaxed to grow into practically any tissue of the body, offering the hope that experimenting with them could yield treatments for a host of diseases.

Some equate such experimentation on embryos with murder; others dismiss out of hand any concern for what is done to what is, at the time, an undifferentiated biological mass. Those are the positions on the extremes of the embryonic stem cell research spectrum.

From the perspective of Jewish religious law, things are not as simple as either polar position. A host of fine-point factors imbue the calculus, which is why Agudath Israel, on the advice of the rabbinical leaders at its helm, has not taken a public stance on the issue. But an issue it is. And President Obama, it seems, recognizes that fact.

Back in March, the President issued an Executive Order lifting Bush Administration limits on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, enthusing proponents of such science.

"We're thrilled," said a spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine at the time, "that the president is going to lift the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research." In the Jewish world, Reform Rabbi David Saperstein, director of his movement's Religious Action Center, wrote how "refreshing" he found it to have an administration "committed to rooting its science policy in fact, no matter its ideology, rather than rooting its science policy in ideology, no matter the facts."

But the "ideology" in this context would be better described as an ethical concern. Communism and fascism are ideologies; respect for human life, whether at its end or its beginning, is a matter of morality. As Slate columnist William Saletan has written, to dismiss opposition to embryonic research as "ideology" is to "forget the moral problem." Some proponents of embryo research, he observes, regard "the war on disease… like the war on terror. Either you're with science or you're against it."

Not so, thankfully, Mr. Obama. Last month, under his direction, the National Institutes of Health revealed details of the change in policy. Whereas the Bush administration had approved 21 already established stem cell lines for federally funded research, now stem cells from embryos slated for destruction - largely those left over from fertility treatments, with donors' written consent - will be available to researchers for experimentation funded by federal tax dollars.

Mr. Obama, however, did not voice support for using federal funds to create embryos for research purposes. While privately funded researchers have never been barred from creating and destroying embryos, since 1996 a federal law known as the Dickey-Wicker amendment has disallowed federal funds to be used for such purposes. Noting that "Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research," the President opted not to enter the Dickey-Wicker sticky wicket.

The New York Times editorial page was not amused, calling the President's stance "the easy political path." The Religious Action Center was, uncharacteristically, silent. Researchers voiced vexation. Dr. Irving Weissman, director of a stem cell research facility at Stanford University, asserted that the NIH's guidelines put an "ideological barrier in the way" of treating disease. The "I" word again.

Thankfully, the entire issue of whether it is ethical to create potential humans in order to dismember them for scientific purposes - or, at least, to federally fund the enterprise - may be in the process of becoming moot. Two years ago, Japanese biologist Shinya Yamanaka found that adult skin cells - millions of which each of us can spare without much trouble - can be induced to revert to an embryonic stage. Such technology, says Dr. Arnold Kriegstein, a stem cell researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, "may eventually eclipse the embryonic stem cell lines for therapeutic as well as diagnostics applications." In fact, there are clear advantages, particularly in potential therapeutic use, for treating patients with cells that originated in their own bodies.

Should Dr. Yamanaka's finding open up a new and ethically untroubling universe of cells for research, the day may be coming when no one will have any reason or wish to destroy embryos. And certainly not to grow them into fetuses in order to harvest their organs - the next-step idea broached several months ago at a scientific symposium in England.

In the meantime, we Americans can be comforted by the knowledge that our President seems to recognize the gravity of the fact that human embryos can grow into people as real as the readers of these lines.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE ART OF GROWTH

Rabbi Avi Shafran

I don't often ride the New York subways, but not long ago I found myself leaving a train deep beneath Brooklyn, at the borough's cavernous Atlantic Street station. And I was surprised to be greeted, amid all the usual squalor and bustle, by a large and exquisite reproduction of "The Starry Night," Vincent Van Gogh's eerie painting. I'm no art aficionado but the famous rendering of a haloed moon and stars in a swirling blue firmament has always moved me. What in the world - or underworld - though, was a copy of the painting doing on a subway station wall?

Then, turning to find the track I needed, I found myself face to face with an unmistakable Monet pond-scene. Nearby, I noticed with increasing amusement, were cubist visions by Picasso, Warholian soup cans and various other copies of paintings, drawings and photographs whose originals hang in museums.

Or, as I discovered, a museum - New York's Museum of Modern Art. The posters were part of an advertising campaign to lure subway riders to visit the originals.

Clever, I thought, and a nice touch for a famously unrefined environment. Then my thoughts drifted.

The reproductions before me were, at least to untrained eyes like mine, virtually indistinguishable from the originals. I'm sure the textures of the brushstrokes are evident in the actual paintings; and they alone, after all, were produced by the artists' hands. But great pains had been taken to present subway patrons with top-notch copies of the MOMA possessions; and the results, had they been hanging on a museum wall, could probably have fooled most people.

Yet the originals are, well, authentic, and priceless; and the copies mere copies, worth only their printing costs (and copyright fees).

People, too, I ruminated, can be real or ersatz. Some are just what they seem. Others, though, are, in effect, cheap copies, pretending to be what they project but lacking authenticity of character, the brushstrokes of the soul.

There are, for instance, genuine leaders dedicated to advancing the interests of those they lead, and shameful imitations, demagogues donning mantles of power for their own personal gain. There are true scientists, open to wonder and dedicated to discerning natural truths; and there are counterfeit ones, duly credentialed but without the sense of objectivity that underlies the genuine pursuit of truth. There are deeply religious people, who understand that there is a greater Power than any temporal one, Whose will human beings must strive to discern and follow. And there are charlatans, pretenders to spirituality, sometimes obvious, other times not. It is no different in the observant Jewish community, where there are sincere men and women pledged to the laws and ideals of the Jewish religious tradition, but also people who dress the part but whose clothes are just costumes.

But those are the extremes; human nature isn't a dichotomy. There are also leaders who want to do what is right but succumb at times to doing what's best for themselves; scientists who are basically objective but occasionally allow their biases reign; religious people whose deepest desire is to serve G-d but who are vulnerable to laziness, jealousy and anger.

That describes many of us, I think. But we aren't fakers for the fact. There is a great difference between pathology and imperfection, between being hypocritical and being human.

The Talmud relates how, for a period of time, under the leadership of the illustrious sage Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh, the study hall was open exclusively to students whose "insides were like their outsides" - who were precisely what they purported to be, righteous scholars.

Rabban Gamliel's successor, however, loosened the requirement - for the better, the Talmud implies.

So it would seem that even those of us who are less than perfectly coherent need not despair. My revered mentor, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, noted that the Talmud's wording is instructive. We are not exhorted to bring our "outsides" into line with our "insides" - to achieve spiritual purity and then adopt its signifiers - but rather the other way around. We are permitted, even required, to outwardly emulate those more spiritually accomplished than we, to embrace acts of observance and goodness, even if our souls are not yet as pure as our clothing. "A person is acted upon," in the Sefer Hachinuch's words, "by his actions."

And yet, the "insides like outsides" ideal clearly remains the ultimate goal, not only for scholars but for us all. We may not yet have achieved - and, as the imperfect creatures we are, may never achieve - full coherence, but we must strive for it all the same. The only excuse for not being there is that we're trying to get there. And as long as we are honestly working toward our goal, our efforts bring us closer.

How fortunate are we humans. A copy of a Van Gogh cannot ever, no matter how hard it tries, grow into the real deal.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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FREE SPIRIT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The sight was not only amusing, it was timely. Leaving my house for the synagogue early the third morning of Passover, a Sabbath this year, I wished my next-door neighbor a good morning. A muscular man, he was sitting in his doorway in his pajamas, curled up against the mist and chill, smoking a cigarette.

His wife (or maybe his landlord) doesn’t allow him to smoke in the house. And so he can often be found outside feeding his habit. This particular day, though, his just-woke-up-and-needed-one-so-bad look took on a larger import. It was a poignant reminder of what Jews were celebrating that week: release from slavery.

I imagined my neighbor regarding his perch as an escape from the oppression of the smoke-intolerant house. The reality, of course, is quite the opposite: his enslaver is his addiction.

The freedom for which Jews recently spent a week thanking their Liberator is also often misunderstood. Yes, the Jewish exodus from Egypt freed our ancestors from physical enslavement, but it was much more than a liberation movement, a shaking off of shackles and assertion of independence. The deepest enslavement the Jews suffered in Egypt, authentic Jewish sources explain, was spiritual in nature. The people had sunk to a deep level of defilement, having assimilated their masters’ unholy practices. And G-d’s intercession before the people could sink even any deeper into the moral morass – another moment in Egypt, the rabbis of the Midrash teach, would have rendered them beyond redemption – is the deepest reason for our Passover rejoicing.

Which made a statement issued by the advocacy arm of the Reform movement on the eve of the holiday so tragically ironic. It came in the wake of the Vermont legislature’s vote to legalize same-sex marriage in that state, and expressed how, “as we prepare for the Passover holiday,” the movement was “cheered by the sweetness of [the] victory for marriage equity…”

To some of us, the Vermont vote, like an Iowa court ruling shortly before it that yielded a similar outcome in that state, would have been more appropriately associated with the Seder plate’s bitter herbs. For the headlong societal rush to exalt behavior the Torah forbids not only to Jews but to all of humanity evidences a deep and dangerous misunderstanding. It confuses libertinism with liberty, free-for-all with freedom.

For true freedom entails responsibility; it is the freedom not of the body but of the soul. When G-d ordered Pharaoh “Let My people go!” He continued: “… so that they may serve Me.”

The Jewish concept of freedom does not entail being unfettered, but rather bound to what is meaningful; it does not mean independence but subservience – not to the mundane but to the Divine.

Which is why Passover, in a sense, doesn’t entirely end after its seven (or, outside of the Holy Land, eight) days. On the second day of the holiday, following the Biblical command, observant Jews begin counting, marking each of the following forty-nine days by pronouncing a blessing and assigning the day a number. The fiftieth day, the day after the counting is completed, is the holiday of Shavuot (“Weeks”); it is in a very real sense the culmination of Passover.

For according to Jewish tradition, Shavuot is the anniversary of what the exodus from Egypt was for: the revelation at Sinai, when the Torah was given to the Jewish people. And therein lies the ultimate meaning of Jewish freedom: emergence from our enslavement to lower urges, to substances, possessions, the dictates of society. Freedom of the spirit.

And so we count the days – quite literally – from the holiday of freedom to the holiday of Torah, expressing (and, hopefully, impressing on ourselves) just how inextricably the theme of Passover is linked to that of Shavuot, how the ultimate expression of true freedom is having the courage and mettle to throw off the yoke of temporal masters and commit ourselves to what is meaningful in an ultimate sense: the will and law of G-d.

The rabbis of the Talmud put it pithily, noting how similar the Hebrew word for “etched,” “charut” – used about the commandments carved on the Tablets of the Law – is to the Hebrew word for freedom, cherut.

“The only free person,” they explain, “is the one immersed in Torah.”

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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BERNIE, SULLY AND ME

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Something tells me I won't make any new friends (and might even lose some old ones) if I confess to harboring some admiration for Bernard Madoff.

And to make things worse, I can't muster much for Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed a full commercial airliner in the Hudson River back in January.

Let me try to explain. Please.

Mr. Madoff committed a serious economic crime on an unprecedented scale for such wrongdoing, and in the process ruined the financial futures of numerous people and institutions, including charitable ones, worldwide. There can be no denying that.

Yet I can't quite bring myself to join the large, loud chorus of those who have condemned him to - to take Ralph Blumenthal's judgment in The New York Times Magazine - the Pit, the deepest circle of Dante's Inferno. Others have devised and publicly proclaimed creative and exquisite tortures of their own for the disgraced businessman - Woody Allen fantasized Madoff being attacked by clients reincarnated as lobsters, and Elie Wiesel wished the investor confined to a solitary cell and forced to watch his victims on a screen bewail their changed fortunes. The fury of the bilked has yielded opprobrium and loathing that isn't visited on mass murderers.

I think the revulsion may say more about the revolted - and our money-obsessed and vengeance-obsessed society - than it does about Madoff. His crime, after all, was really remarkable only for its longevity and its scope. Judaism teaches that stealing is a sin, but it doesn't differentiate between misappropriating a million dollars and pilfering a dime. And as to the sheer number of people defrauded by the thief of the moment, well, anyone who cheats on his federal income tax is defrauding 300 million of his fellow citizens. Few though, in such cases, invoke Dante.

What is more, Madoff likely began his crime spree in the hope of rewarding, not swindling, investors, and by the time it became clear he wouldn't be able to do that, he was already deeply entangled - and daily becoming more entangled - in the web he wove.

None of that, though, is to belittle the great pain Mr. Madoff caused, and is certainly no cause for affording the iniquitous investment broker respect. No, what I admire about him has to do with his owning up to his crime.

Think about it. The man knew for years that his scheme would eventually come apart and that prosecution loomed, yet he took no steps to flee, huge bribe in hand, to some country lacking extradition treaties. Idi Amin, we might recall, died of old age in luxury. Madoff's millions, moreover, could have easily bought him a new face and identity papers; he could spent his senior years tanned and well-fed among the sunbirds of Miami Beach.

Instead, though, he chose to essentially turn himself in and admit guilt. He apologized to his victims, acknowledging that he had "deeply hurt many, many people," and adding, "I cannot adequately express how sorry I am for what I have done."

No one can know if those words reflect the feelings in his heart, but I don't claim any right to doubt that they do. And facing one's sins and regretting them is the essence of the Jewish concept of teshuvah, repentance - something we are all enjoined to do for our personal transgressions, however small or large.

No such sublimity of spirit, though, was in evidence in any of the public acts or words of Mr. Sullenberger. He saved 155 lives, no doubt about it, and is certainly owed the gratitude of those he saved, and of their families and friends. And he executed tremendous skill.

But no moral choice was involved in his act. He was on the plane too, after all; his own life depended on undertaking his feat no less than the lives of others. He did what anyone in terrible circumstances would do: try to stay alive. He was fortunate (as were his passengers) that he possessed the talents requisite to the task, but that's a tribute to his training, and to the One Who instilled such astounding abilities in His creations (and Whose help the captain was not quoted as acknowledging). Basketball players are highly skilled, too - and heroes, in fact, to some. But I have never managed to understand that latter fact.

Sully has reportedly inked a $3 million book deal with HarperCollins, and is also planning a second book of inspirational poems; Bernie, likely for the rest of his life, will languish in jail.

That may make societal sense, but personally, I'm still unmoved by the pilot, and, at least somewhat, inspired by the penitent.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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OUR OWN PRIVATE PASSOVER

Rabbi Avi Shafran

One day during my teenage years I began to think about what my father, may he be well, had been doing at my age. The thought occurred too late for me to compare his and his family's flight by foot from the Nazis in Poland at the outbreak of World War II to my own 14th year of life - when my most daunting challenge had been, the year before, chanting my bar-mitzvah portion.

But I was still young enough to place the image of his subsequent years in Siberia - as a guest of the Soviet Union, which deported him and others from his yeshiva in Vilna - alongside my high school trials for comparison. At the age when I was avoiding study, he was avoiding being made to work on the Sabbath; when my religious dedication consisted of getting out of bed early in the morning to attend services, his entailed finding opportunities to study Torah while working in the frozen taiga; where I struggled to survive the emotional strains of adolescence, he was struggling, well, to survive. As years progressed, I continued to ponder our respective age-tagged challenges. Doing so has lent me some perspective.

As has thinking about my father's first Passover in Siberia, while I busy myself helping (a little) my wife shop for holiday needs and prepare the house for its annual leaven-less week.

In my father's memoirs, which I have been privileged to help him record and which, G-d willing, we hope will be published later this year, there is a description of how Passover was on the minds of the young men and their teacher, exiled with them, as soon as they arrived in Siberia in the summer of 1941. Over the months that followed, while laboring in the fields, they pocketed a few wheat kernels here and there, later placing them in a special bag, which they carefully hid. This was, of course, against the rules and dangerous. But the Communist credo, after all, was "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" and so they were really only being good Marxists. They had spiritual needs, including kosher-for-Passover matzoh.

Toward the end of the punishing winter, they retrieved their stash and, using a small hand coffee grinder, ground the wheat into coarse, dark flour.

They then dismantled a clock and fitted its gears to a whittled piece of wood, fashioning an approximation of the cleated rolling pin traditionally used to perforate matzohs to ensure their quick and thorough baking. In the middle of the night the exiles came together in a hut with an oven, which, as the outpost's other residents slept, they fired up for two hours to make it kosher for Passover before baking their matzohs.

On Passover night they fulfilled the Torah's commandment to eat unleavened bread "guarded" from exposure to water until before baking.

Perspective is provided me too by the wartime Passover experience of my wife's father, I.I. Cohen, may he be well. In his own memoir, "Destined to Survive" (ArtScroll/Mesorah, 2001), he describes how, in the Dachau satellite camp where he was interned, there was no way to procure matzoh. All the same, he was determined to have the Passover he could. In the dark of the barracks on Passover night, he turned to his friend and suggested they recite parts of the Haggadah they knew by heart.

As they quietly chanted the Four Questions other inmates protested. "What are you crazy Chassidim doing saying the Haggadah?" they asked. "Do you have matzohs, do you have wine and all the necessary food to make a seder? Sheer stupidity!"

My father-in-law responded that he and his friend were fulfilling a Torah commandment - and no one could know if their "seder" is less meritorious in the eyes of Heaven than those of Jews in places of freedom and plenty.

Those of us indeed in such places can glean much from the Passovers of those two members - and so many other men and women - of the Jewish "greatest generation."

A Chassidic master offers a novel commentary on a verse cited in the Haggadah. The Torah commands Jews to eat matzoh on Passover, "so that you remember the day of your leaving Egypt all the days of your life."

Rabbi Avrohom, the first Rebbe of Slonim, commented: "When recounting the Exodus, one should remember, too, 'all the days' of his life - the miracles and wonders that G-d performed for him throughout…"

I suspect that my father and father-in-law, both of whom, thank G-d, emerged from their captivities and have merited to see children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, naturally do that. But all of us, no matter our problems, have experienced countless "miracles and wonders." We may not recognize all of the Divine guidance and benevolence with which we were blessed - or even the wonder of every beat of our hearts and breath we take. But that reflects only our obliviousness. At the seder, when we recount G-d's kindnesses to our ancestors, it is a time, too, to look back at our own personal histories and appreciate the gifts we've been given.

Should that prove hard, we might begin by reflecting on what some Jews a bit older than we had to endure not so very long ago.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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PIECE PLAN

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The title of Reform Rabbi David Forman's column in the Jerusalem Post was certainly intriguing. "Let's Declare Ourselves a Separate Religion," it read.

Israel, of course, grants a large measure of independence to a variety of religious groups represented among its citizenry. Eastern Orthodox Christian religious leaders are empowered to oversee religious rites and determine personal status issues in their community and they receive funds from the government; the same privileges are afforded the Roman Catholic community, the Muslim, the Bahai and others. Rabbi Forman seemed to be dangling a novel way for non-Orthodox Jewish groups to qualify for their own rights and benefits, to claim their own, so to speak, piece of the action.

Most of the article was a venting of Reform and Conservative ire over the fact that traditional Jewish religious law, or halacha, applied through the auspices of official Israeli rabbinate, governs Jewish status issues like conversion and marriage in the Jewish State. That policy, which has been in place since Israel's birth more than sixty years ago, the writer contended, constitutes a "thrust[ing of] religious medievalism down the throats of a secular citizenry." And as a result, he charged, Israel "is slipping into a theocracy."

The columnist went on to claim that the "Orthodox establishment" is "undermining the cause of peace" - presumably for taking groups like Hamas at their words - and represents "the cohabitation of a chauvinistic theology with a religious ego." The Orthodox, moreover, he wrote, are ensuring "that Israel fits neatly into the Middle East panoply of extremist states."

Then there was more, later in the piece, about the "profane ruminations" and "blasphemous perorations" of some Orthodox rabbis. But you get the idea.

The article, however, contained less heated, more sensible words too. Following the fulminations, the writer offered his honest admission that "the Reform and Conservative movements" are in fact "a separate religion." And so, he continued, the most honest and straightforward way for those movements to attain clerical privileges of their own is for them to admit as much - to declare themselves, as per the piece's title, "a separate religion from Orthodoxy."

A subtle dissembling, though, hides in that last word. For "Orthodoxy" is simply the name that the Reform and Conservative movements gave to what "Judaism" meant for millennia prior - to what those movements sought to supplant when they birthed themselves.

Over scores of generations until relatively recently, the Jewish religion was synonymous with the belief that the Torah - whose Written and Oral components are reflected and amplified in the corpus of halacha - is divinely decreed, unchangeable and incumbent on all Jews. Movements that chose to put aside that belief, in whole or in part (as by considering contemporary mores to trump the Torah's), separated themselves not from some mere "branch" of Judaism. They severed themselves conclusively from the trunk of the tree; they departed from what constituted the Jewish faith since Sinai. To be sure, their Jewish-born followers remain Jews in every way; a Jew is a Jew, whatever his or her congregational affiliation. But the belief systems that those movements - qua movements - embrace are at irreconcilable odds with the Judaism of the ages - which is based on affirmation of the Torah's timelessness and halacha's sacrosanctity.

So when Rabbi Forman, after offering his admirable admission, goes on to imagine that a Reform and Conservative self-declaration as a new religion will reduce Orthodoxy to "merely one of three branches of Judaism," he is attempting to have his new faith and delete it too. If he wishes the "non-Orthodoxies" to be considered a different religion, the theological justification is manifestly there; but let the move be honest, clear and decisive.

If it will be, then the new religion will have legitimate claim to the very same rights, privileges and determinations as are enjoyed by other independent and discrete faiths in Israel today.

Rabbi Forman is confident that, in the wake of the announcement of a new religion for Jews, "Reform and Conservative conversion classes would soar," the halacha-respecting rabbinate's "religious and social influence" would wane, "Orthodoxy's stranglehold on the political system" would be "mercifully loosened" and "vibrancy, inclusiveness and progressiveness" would result.

Perhaps; and maybe birds will sing, too, and peace reign throughout the land. But Israeli polls have shown that, despite determined efforts by the non-Orthodox movements over decades to promote themselves, a clear majority of Israelis - even if they are not personally halacha-observant - still consider traditional Jewish beliefs and law to define Judaism. It is hard to imagine that declaring non-Orthodox movements a new religion will create a flood of applicants clamoring to join.

But whether it will or it won't - or, for that matter, whether or not Rabbi Forman's suggestion is taken up in earnest - by acknowledging the essential disparity between the Judaism of time immemorial and contemporary divergences from it, the rabbi has performed a Jewish public service.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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A THOUGHT ABOUT THINKING

Rabbi Avi Shafran

For decades the IBM slogan seemed to be everywhere. THINK, it read, simply and starkly. It is apparently long phased out, but the advice remains as good as ever.

I was reminded of that on a recent trip to another city, where I witnessed an interaction between two young men, one about four and a half years old, the other a year younger. They might be related to me, or they might not. I'm not saying.

The older boy was playing in the bathtub; his mother had left him for a moment and I, sitting within feet of the bathroom, could hear him talking to his bath toys. Suddenly, his younger brother appeared. With a quick look around to make sure his mother wasn't watching (I didn't count, apparently), he darted to the bathroom light switch, flicked it off and swiftly slammed the door shut.

The older boy, suddenly plunged into darkness, howled in terror, which brought his mother in an instant. She opened the door, turned the light back on, comforted the victim and apprehended the culprit, who was unceremoniously sent to his room.

It was then the perp's turn to howl. No! Not his room! Anything but that! Like Cain's, his punishment was too much to bear.

But off he went as ordered, whimpering all the way.

"I guess he didn't see that coming," I remarked to the mother with a laugh.

"He sure should have." she responded. "He's done it before, and always gets sent to his room."

I guess he could have used a flashing "THINK" sign at the crucial moment. But it's only at a certain point of development that thinking - at least about consequences - really kicks in, that the relentless logic of "if… then" becomes clear.

Last month, the Jewish world lost a human treasure. Rabbi Noach Weinberg, of blessed memory, worked tirelessly to bring Jews closer to their spiritual heritage, and the fruits of his labors - his countless students - continue to invigorate the Jewish people, through their own lives and, for many of them, by carrying on their rebbe's outreach mission, connecting Jews with Jewish verities.

I met Rabbi Weinberg briefly only two or three times but once was I privileged to hear him speak. It was a memorable experience. In the course of his edifying talk, he recounted a personal story that still remains with me. In 1939, when he was eight years old, his class had decided that on a certain day they would all skip yeshiva and go to the World's Fair in Queens. Everyone had to bring a dollar, though, and, well, he didn't have one.

Walking dejectedly to school, Rabbi Weinberg recounted, it occurred to him that he might find a dollar on the pavement. So he prayed for that to happen. But as he continued on his way, no dollars appeared. He prayed again, promising G-d to do all manner of good deeds, but still no response. Finally, he implored the Creator "Master of the universe, please give me one dollar, and I'll never, ever do anything wrong again for the rest of my life!"

Then, turning to us, his audience, Rabbi Weinberg - his lantern of a smile lighting up his face -said: "Now who was I kidding? I wanted the dollar so I could play hooky from yeshiva!"

Rabbi Weinberg's subject that night, if I remember accurately, was prayer; he intended the story to illustrate the need for honesty when speaking to G-d. But it serves no less to illustrate the importance of… thinking.

And, if we're truthful, of course, stopping to think isn't something that only children overlook. Many of us long-time ex-children haven't exactly internalized the lesson either.

If we had, we would never say anything that we regretted a second later having said. We would never get angry when the reason for the anger, as we soon enough realize, was really no reason at all. We would never become jealous, knowing how blessed we are (different though our blessings might be from others'). And we would never do anything for which we, soon enough and rightly, feel guilty for having done.

It's worth a moment's pondering: We humans differ from other living things largely because of the quality of our ability to think.

And yet, how often we simply don't.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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PURIM PRESENT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

On the first day of the Jewish month Adar, the Talmud enjoins us to "increase happiness." It is, after all, the month that holds Purim, when we express our gratitude to G-d for delivering the Jews in ancient Persia from their enemies, and when we give alms to the poor and gifts of food to one another.

In 2003, the first day of Adar brought us an early Purim present. It wasn't food, but rather food for thought.

The previous day had been the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Iosef Vissarionovich Dzugashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin. A new book on the Soviet dictator and mass murderer, "Stalin's Last Crime," was about to be published, and The New York Times ran a lengthy article that day about the book, including its suggestion that Stalin may have been poisoned. The Soviet leader had collapsed after an all-night dinner with four members of his Politburo at Blizhnaya, a north Moscow dacha, and he languished for several days before dying. If indeed he was done in, as the book's authors suspect, the likely culprit, they say, was Lavrenti P. Beria, the chief of the Soviet secret police.

The book also recounts the story of the infamous "Doctors' Plot," a fabricated collusion by Kremlin doctors to kill top Communist leaders.

"By the time Stalin disclosed the plot to a stunned Soviet populace in January 1953," the article noted, "he had spun it into a vast conspiracy, led by Jews under the United States' secret direction, to kill him and destroy the Soviet Union itself."

The article went on to relate something less widely known. "That February," it states, "the Kremlin ordered the construction of four giant prison camps in Kazakhstan, Siberia and the Arctic north, apparently in preparation for a second great terror - this time directed at the millions of Soviet citizens of Jewish descent."

That terror, however, thankfully never unfolded. Two weeks after the camps were ordered built, Stalin attended the Blizhnaya dinner and, four days later, was dead at the age of 73.

The gift that Adar in 2003 brought was the knowledge of that theretofore unrecognized salvation, of what the killer of millions of his countrymen had apparently planned for the Jews under his control but which never came to pass. That Stalin met his fate (however that may have happened) just as he was poised to launch a post-Holocaust holocaust of his own, is something we might well add to our thoughts of gratitude at our own Purim celebrations today, more than a half century later.

And we might note something else as well, especially during this season of meaningful ironies, when G-d's hand is evident "between the lines" of history to all who are sufficiently sensitive to see it.

During the feast at which Stalin collapsed, according to his successor Nikita Khrushchev, who was present, the dictator had become thoroughly drunk. And the party, he testified, ended in the early hours of March 1.

Which, in 1953, corresponded to the 14th day of Adar, otherwise known as Purim.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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HERETICS AND HUMILITY

Rabbi Avi Shafran

A bicentennial as jubilant as this year's hasn't been seen since the commemoration in 1976 of our nation's birth. The current year-long birthday party being celebrated in essays, articles and symposia honors Charles Darwin. Abraham Lincoln was also born in 1809, but the lion's share of lionizing has been of the man whose theory about the origin of species has become the touchstone of contemporary biology.

Part of evolution's upshot, of course, is that living things forever remain mere works in progress, which lends the hoopla over Darwin a tasty irony, since precisely the same is true about science. Even as seemingly perfect a system as Newtonian mechanics was subsumed, subtly but conclusively, by Einstein. Yet those who elevate Darwin's theory to an article of faith seem unwilling to even consider that the current understanding of how species came about might one day be explained by a different and grander, if currently unimagined, conclusion than the one reached by the famed biologist. The idea that earth's astounding array of life may owe itself to something other than the random mutation of species into others - a metamorphosis never reproduced in any laboratory - is a forbidden thought. Imagining "a biological Einstein," to borrow Verlyn Klinkenborg's phrase, has become heresy.

Thus, efforts to permit open discussion of Darwinism are derided as a "war on science." And a leading scientific group is boycotting Louisiana because a law there permits teachers to use supplemental texts to "help students critique and review scientific theories." And the Texas Board of Education is being petitioned to amend the state curriculum so that students are no longer encouraged to explore "the strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories - words, the petitioners say, that dangerously suggest that Darwinism could be wrong.

But there are indeed weaknesses in the theory of macro-evolution, noted by scores of intrepid biologists, mathematicians, chemists and geneticists. It is telling how those heretics are treated by the evolution-evangelicals. Celebrated Darwinist Richard Dawkins, for instance, pronounces that anyone who does not believe in evolution is perforce "ignorant, stupid, or insane."

If American public schools aim to foster critical thinking, it is hard to imagine how ridiculing, much less banning, different points of view serves that goal. The heretic-hunters would do well to consult Darwin himself. "A fair result," he wrote, "can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of a question."

What makes so many so certain that the current scientific orthodoxy is the final word? The answer is hubris, the monkey wrench in many a human machine. The merest modicum of modesty would compel the scientifically sure to recall that their counterparts in centuries past were no less confident in their own times' scientific certainties. And to consider how, centuries hence, people will likely look with pity on the limited understanding of 21st century science.

It took only decades, not centuries, to supplant the "explains-it-all" billiard ball model of protons, neutrons and electrons - presented to us children in the early 1960s as the ultimate understanding of matter's fundamental nature - with the bizarre particle-zoo that is contemporary quantum physics. The "primordial soup" of the Miller-Urey experiment that our teachers assured us would yield complex components of life within months has still not done so. Astrophysics theories have come and gone like footwear fashions.

A little humility would help us recognize that, no matter our scientific progress, we humans resemble nothing so much as the proverbial blind men first contemplating an elephant, each touching a different part of the pachyderm and concluding that the beast is shaped, variously, like a tree, or a snake, or a sail or a wall. No, not an elephant; we are blind men confronting a rainbow.

Which brings us to a third famous man born in 1809: Louis Braille, who developed the system of raised marks that enables the blind to read. While he opened a world of literature and written communication to the unsighted, he could not help them visualize color or contrast or beauty. There are limitations to our sense of touch.

As there are to all our senses. They are imperfect tools, even in tandem with our intellects, for truly understanding reality, and for conclusively reconstructing the past. Does science have any idea why the universe appeared, or life, or consciousness?

We certainly can, and should, strive to understand what we are able to fathom with the gifts we have been granted. Engaging in scientific inquiry is a noble pursuit and can provide a healthy sense of wonder at the world.

But when conclusions are confidently proclaimed that collide with what we inherently know to be true - like the fact that human consciousness is qualitatively different from that of animals, or that we have free will, or that "right" and "wrong" have essential meanings - we have to stop and ponder our inherent limitations. Stop and realize that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophies.

That, as Charles Darwin wrote, in 1872: "[I]t is always advisable to perceive clearly our ignorance."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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BLOWING THE NEW KASHRUT'S COVER

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Anyone who raised an eyebrow at charges that the "Hekhsher Tzedek" kosher-certification initiative recasts the very concept of kashrut might want to aim an eye at the February 6 Wall Street Journal.

At a column, that is, entitled "A Quarrel Over What Is Kosher,' by the Forward's Nathaniel Popper - the reporter who, in 2006, first shone a harsh light on the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse. His reportage of alleged abuse of workers there was followed, in 2008, by a federal raid on the plant, the deportation of hundreds of illegal alien workers and the filing of criminal charges against its owners and others.

In his "Houses of Worship" guest column, Mr. Popper reveals some personal cards, of the sort usually held behind the fictional screen of journalist objectivity. Like his comparison of "bearded Orthodox rabbis" who "buzzed around the Agriprocessors plant" making sure kashrut laws, but not ethical norms, were being observed with the "progressive, socially engaged and mostly clean-shaven rabbis" who rode in, so to speak, on white horses to rescue Agriprocessors from itself.

Popper also characterizes efforts to persuade a judge to grant bail to a Rubashkin official - imprisoned before his trial for months despite offering to surrender his passport, wear an electronic bracelet to track his movements and post an exorbitant bond - as a campaign "to spring Mr. Rubashkin from jail" because of "an ancient Jewish religious obligation to free Jews from gentile captivity." No mention of the fact that Sholom Rubashkin's Jewishness (as it made him eligible for automatic citizenship in Israel) was among the factors cited in denying him bail. (The bail denial was in fact reversed by another judge - although Mr. Popper might consider the ruling tainted, based as it was partly on the testimony of bearded rabbis.)

Mr. Popper's personal perspective is further on display when he extols "a more explicitly universal vision of mankind, in which a Guatemalan Catholic has the same weight as a Brooklyn Jew" - as if a spiritual bond to a religious community somehow implies criminal unconcern for others.

The essential point of Popper's piece, though, is both true and important. He characterizes the respective positions of the Hekhsher Tzedek's proponents and opponents as a dispute over "the proper way to interpret religious law and values." Should we, he asks, "read our ancient texts literally or adapt them to a changing world?"

Popper doesn't mean "literally" literally, of course; presumably he realizes that the Torah's laws are determined not by literal readings but by the intricate teachings of the Oral Tradition. He is accurate, though, to ascribe to the non-Orthodox rabbinates a willingness to jettison elements of Jewish religious law that discomfit them.

By contrast, Orthodox rabbis are, he writes (with, one suspects, less than reverence), the "Antonin Scalias of the Jewish world." One such rabbi even told him (you might want to sit down here) that he keeps kosher not out of social consciousness but "because G-d said so."

When, in the fall, Agudath Israel of America characterized Hekhsher Tzedek as an attempt to redefine kashrut, that judgment was pooh-poohed by some. It is, though, precisely the Popperian paradigm.

And its trumpeting in the venerable Wall Street Journal will likely deeply disturb the main proponents of the Hekhsher Tzedek, who have in recent weeks sought to unbake the cake and recast their initiative as not really a "hekhsher" (i.e. kashrut certification) at all but rather a non-kashrut-related endorsement (oddly, though, only for food), renaming it "Magen Tzedek." "Oy," some progressively clean-shaven clergymen are probably thinking, "Popper's blown our cover."

Indeed he has, and with admirable honesty about both his own bias-baggage and the Whatever Tzedek. He doesn't bother to disguise his feelings for Jews who believe that the Torah is G-d's will and that its laws, whether fathomable or not, are sacrosanct; and he exposes the now-it's-a-hekhsher-now-it's-not initiative as an attempt to "evolve" kashrut into a plank of the social liberal platform.

What Mr. Popper seems to not fully appreciate, though, is the trenchant fact that the very same set of Divine laws that Orthodox Jews believe mandate kashrut and other ritual requirements and prohibitions mandate no less interpersonal ethics (including proper treatment of workers) and respect for the laws of the land.

Whether any particular Orthodox Jew honors or fails to honor those mandates is beside the point (although the Torah's ethical system does forbid reaching negative judgments about accused people before a trial). But Orthodox Judaism is entirely as strict about the Torah's ethics as about its rituals. So the issue is not "adapt[ing] Torah to a changing world," but rather applying Torah to that world.

And so Mr. Popper has the dichotomy only half right. Yes, there is a perspective - his own and the non-Orthodox movements' - that regards the Torah's laws as entirely mutable. But the Orthodox perspective does not, as he seems to believe, sacrifice ethics to ritual. It, rather, elevates both to the plane of Divine will.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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UNBEARABLE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

A winter flurry of "Dear President Obama" letters - in the forms of op-eds and paid advertisements - have swirled around the public square in the days since the 44th president of the United States was sworn into office.

Some of the open letters have concerned Mr. Obama's economic stimulus plan; others, United States relations with Iran; others still, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether the President pays any attention to the multitudinous missives is anyone's guess. But if I had his ear (or his BlackBerry contact information), I think my own message would consist of a simple video clip.

Broadcast on an Egyptian television channel on January 26, barely a week into Mr. Obama's presidency and on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the clip addresses the destruction of European Jewry during the Second World War - but in a very different way from most Holocaust commemorations.

The video is a sermon offered to the public by an Egyptian Muslim cleric, Amin Al-Ansari; it was translated by the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). The gist of Mr. Al-Ansari's teaching is that the Jews were responsible for the Holocaust, since they had been "killing Germans, kindling civil strife, inciting the people against the rulers and corrupting the peoples."

The cleric offers a similarly creative history of Zionism (turning Theodore Herzl, for instance, a lifelong journalist and writer, into the inventor of a new type of explosive that he offered the British government - evidence of how "annihilation underlies [the Jews'] ideology"); explains how the "rulers of America" themselves hated and feared Jews (impelling them to try to "give [the Jews] a place of their own"); and asserts that the destruction of European Jewry was a just and proper response to the crimes of Jews throughout history.

What is particularly remarkable about the sermon - similar ones, after all, are routinely offered by Islamist clerics - is its employment of Holocaust footage to make its case, so to speak.

"Let's watch what Germany did to Israel - or, rather, to the Jews," the preacher invites viewers - "so we can understand that there is no remedy for these people other than imposing fear and terror on them."

And with that the screen shows archival film footage of horrific concentration camp scenes - no less wrenching for their having been in the public domain for more than a half-century. Piles of skeletal remains are bulldozed like so much refuse, emaciated Jews hobble along before Nazi soldiers, a man is prepared to hang… and more. And as the scenes are displayed, Mr. Al-Ansari's voice begins to show a certain enthusiasm, even excitement. "Watch this," he urges the viewer. "Look… This child awaits his turn. Watch their humiliation. They are corpses, Allah be praised…"

And then, with barely disguised glee, as the viewer is shown an elderly Jewish woman kneeling on the ground, clutching the hand of a German officer, putting it to her face, begging, it would seem, for her life, Mr. Al-Ansari suggests with satisfaction that we "Notice what humiliation, fear and terror have struck her… See how much she is kissing his hand…"

"This is what we hope will happen," the cleric then assures viewers, "but, Allah willing, at the hand of the Muslims."

We live in a complex world, filled with competing interests and "narratives." President Obama was wise to tell his interviewer on Al Arabiya television that "the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world," and no less wise to offer "a hand of friendship" on behalf of America to "the broader Muslim world."

His wisdom showed, too, in his assertion during that same interview that the ideas of radical Islamists "are bankrupt" and that their path leads to "no place except more death and destruction."

And both wisdom and principle were abundantly evident in his straightforward statement to an Arab audience - and, in effect, to the Arab world - that "Israel is a strong ally of the United States… [and] will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount."

There is something more, though, that is vitally important for an American leader to recognize about our world. I suspect that Mr. Obama knows it well, even if he may not choose to articulate it as bluntly as did his predecessor.

That something is the lesson of the clip I would send him: The contemporary world, like the world of yesteryear and before, back to the beginning of human history, harbors not only challenge and opportunity, but evil - unqualified, unbridled and unbearable.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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HYPOCRISIES, IMAGINED AND REAL

Rabbi Avi Shafran

I hope my wife and kids don't find out that I consider it kosher to force 16-year-old girls to work 20 hours a day.

In fact, I was shocked at myself for having said such a thing - or, at least, I would have been had I actually said it.

The source of the disturbing disclosure is a rabbi of a Conservative congregation who writes a column for the New Jersey Jewish Standard. He shared the contention in the course of a column dedicated to the "hypocrisy" he feels American Jews sense in Jewish leaders, "specifically religious" ones - a sense that, the writer contends, holds "much truth."

Some of the columnist's criticism is, in fact, well founded. He is upset, for instance, that Conservative rabbis who "stand shoulder to shoulder" with Reform ones in opposing the single standard of time-honored halacha, or Jewish religious law, regarding conversion in Israel nevertheless won't automatically recognize their Reform colleagues' converts as Jews. There is indeed some, well, inconsistency there.

But some of the other things he sees as causing some Jews to "roll their eyes in disgust" evoke such reaction, if they do, only because of how they are presented by media (including the columnist himself).

Take an issue he cites: the decision by a rabbinic court in Israel that a number of conversions had not met the requirements of halacha. The columnist presents the legal ruling as illegitimate - on the grounds that the members of the rabbinic court (Israel's highest one) are not declared Jewish nationalists but mere authorities on halacha.

Now, if religious judges in Israel are mere state functionaries, then, like apparatchiks in a communist country, they might well be required to pledge fealty to an ideology in order to serve in state positions. But if religious judges are, rather, charged with applying halachic principles to cases before them, it would be unreasonable to expect them to do anything less or anything more than precisely that - and perverse to disqualify them for political reasons. No hypocrisy among the judges there, only integrity.

And what of my reputed endorsement of torturing teenagers?

Some kashrut authorities, the writer goes on, will not grant a kosher certificate to a restaurant or club whose food may be kosher but whose ambiance is religiously objectionable. So far, accurate.

A kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa, the columnist continues, "violated with abandon a variety of civil and criminal laws and halachic requirements." That those accusations have yet to be adjudicated, much less validated, doesn't seem to bother the writer.

What does, though, is that "the same certifiers" who would deny certification to, say a nightclub have dared contend that even if the Iowa slaughterhouse's owners are proven guilty of some charges, the meat the plant has produced remains kosher!

And, worse yet, "Agudath Israel's Rabbi Avi Shafran" concurs, as he "recently told a Yeshiva University-sponsored conference."

So, continues the columnist, what certifiers and Shafran apparently hold is that "music you can dance to does help determine 'the kosher value,' but forcing 16-year-old girls to work 20 hours a day does not."

Disclosure: I did indeed tell a Yeshiva University audience that even an actual, much less alleged, lapse of business ethics has no effect on the kosher status of food produced or served by the violator of the law. Neither, though, does a nonkosher ambiance in an eatery. Such situations are analogous to the fact that a medicine produced by an ethically deficient drug company is no less effective than that produced by an ethically spotless one. The company's ethical responsibilities are, most people readily realize, something apart from its products' efficacy.

The kashrut of an item, however, and certification of its manufacturer or of an establishment serving it are two distinct things. When a kashrut certifier weighs the decision about whether to certify an establishment, it isn't kashrut alone that matters. Both business ethics and non-kashrut-related religious issues are perfectly reasonable concerns for it to take into account. Because certification endorses more than kashrut; it lets consumers know that an establishment is a patronage-worthy one.

What sort of ethical concerns are rightly in the purview of a certifier, though, is another question, and a complex one. Should ingredients originating from a country where child labor is the norm be unacceptable? Should a company that pays its employees only minimum wage be rejected for certification? Must workers be unionized? Receive a certain number of paid vacation days? If so, how many?

I do not claim to know where the lines should be drawn in such things. My point at the symposium, in fact, was that drawing such lines requires wisdom, experience and Torah knowledge. I think it's safe, though, to say that "forcing 16-year-old girls to work 20 hours a day" is well on the wrong side of an important line.

As is pejoratively misleading readers about what someone said. And fostering such misrepresentation in the course of extolling ethical behavior? Well, there's a word for that.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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MESSAGE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

I'll leave the abusive words to your imagination. They were delivered through clenched teeth, the anger seeming to drip from the telephone into a rancid puddle on my desk. The long, acrimonious voicemail message played on and on, laden with insults and threats.

Even more striking than the nasty tone, though, was the subject of the call: a statement issued by the Council of Torah Sages calling for prayers and good deeds on behalf of Jews in danger in Israel. No, the caller was no anti-Semite; he was a self-described "Centrist Orthodox" Jew. But yes, what had so exercised him was a summoning of Jews to pray for fellow Jews. Or, to be more specific, the broad nature of the summons: it had not specified soldiers.

The statement, of course, had made no explicit mention either of the Jewish cites and towns that have come under Arab fire, nor of Jews in countries around the world where they or their institutions have been attacked. There was no doubt in my mind that the distinguished rabbis who issued the call considered Jewish soldiers to be prime among the threatened Jews whose safety they asked Jews to prominently include in their prayers. Had the rabbis overestimated some readers, not realized that some might take the lack of specificity as evidence somehow of a lack of concern?

Perhaps. And if so, perhaps any future such summons - may it never be necessary - will make particular mention of the young men fighting on front lines. Certainly, concern for Israeli troops has been voiced by the head of the Council at large Agudath Israel-sponsored public gatherings.

The caller, though, had assumed that the statement implied an unconcern (or worse) about soldiers. After all, he may have reasoned, Agudath Israel does not fly a Jewish nationalistic flag. It must therefore consider the Jewish State's soldiers to be unworthy. Needless to say, though - or not so needless, apparently - Agudath Israel is deeply invested in the wellbeing of all Jews in the Holy Land - and has special concern for those who, in a war, are most endangered.

But the caller hadn't called to ask if what he saw as an omission had been intentional. He had assumed it so, and only wanted to share his strong feelings about his (mistaken) conclusion.

I had been here before, I reflected sadly,. Over the almost 15 years I have been privileged to serve Agudath Israel, there have been a number of times when I have witnessed the harshest of judgments passed on the movement by people who made ungenerous assumptions. And who considered us derelict, or worse, for not heartily and automatically endorsing whatever petition, rally or political stance they or others had unilaterally decided the times required.

The caller didn't leave a name but he did give his telephone number. I dialed it.

He seemed surprised that I had actually called back, and I took advantage of his initial discombobulation to deliver my little speech about how he had assumed wrongly and how therefore his umbrage was ill-conceived. He wasn't impressed. Finding his voice, he insisted he knew better, that he was absolutely sure the Council of Torah Sages didn't care about Jews in the Israeli army. Then he launched into a somewhat more muted (though not much) litany of complaints against haredim - how dare we not recite a special prayer composed by the Israeli Rabbinate, how come a haredi rabbi he knows showed lack of concern (he claimed) for a woman whose son was an Israeli soldier, why do haredim (ditto) have such contempt for other Jews…

I tried to get a word or two in edgewise but he clearly considered his questions unanswerable. So I waited until he tired himself out.

Then, in the lull, I thanked him for sharing his perspective and asked him to please consider one final thought. He could accept it, I told him, or reject it, as he saw fit; but please, I implored, at least consider it.

Maybe, I suggested, a great merit for the safety of Jewish soldiers - and Jewish civilians and Jews everywhere, exposed as we are to so many who hate us - lies in our judging one another favorably and not harshly, in our good will toward those with whom we may disagree, even strongly, over some things, even important things.

I was taken aback by the silence that followed. I had read my caller wrong: His mind wasn't closed shut. He was actually thinking about what I had said. Suddenly I felt embarrassed and, after a few more seconds of no response, thanked my caller for having cared to leave his message. He thanked me for calling back. I told him not to hesitate to call again. And that was that.

It was only when I had hung up that I realized something, and it dawned with a shiver: The majority of the Israeli army fatalities at that point (may there be no more) were the result of "friendly fire" - accidental shooting by their own comrades.

Painful as it is to ponder, sometimes the gravest harm is what we unwittingly visit on ourselves.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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WEAPONS, AND WEAPONS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

How wonderful - well, how much better, anyway - wars would be if civilians were never casualties. Thus far, though, and lamentably, most wars have taken their toll of injuries and deaths on people who were not carrying arms, even those too young to carry them.

In some cases - like the current war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza - the purposeful placement of combatants and armaments among the civilian population all but assures that there will be civilian casualties. In fact, that is one of Hamas' very motivations for the placement. When one lacks any semblance of moral justification for one's belligerence and lust to murder innocents, there is only benefit in having as many dead civilians as possible of one's own to display in lieu of logic.

Hamas' other reason for making sure its terrorists and rockets are deeply embedded in Gazan residential areas is that it knows something that has somehow managed to elude a multitude of media: Israel does all it reasonably can to avoid harming civilians.

That's not, of course, what the tens of thousands of protesters in places like London, Paris and Sydney shriek, what the headlines blare, or what the talking heads pronounce. But it's there all the same - in the fine print, so to speak. Like the reference, entirely en passant and deep into a 1300-word New York Times article published on the first of the year, to how "hundreds of thousands of Gazans have received warnings in the form of telephone messages or fliers that their buildings are Israeli targets…"

Yes, mind-boggling as it is, the Israel Defense Forces actually telephones houses that it has reason to believe, based on intelligence reports, are harboring terrorists or munitions. It does so to give residents time to leave before the attack.

Haaretz, citing an Israeli Channel 10 report, disclosed another means the Israeli air force uses to avoid civilian casualties, something called "roof knocking." It seems that residents of targeted houses in Gaza have been able to prevent bombings of their buildings by simply climbing up to the roof to show that they have not left, causing IDF commanders to abort the missions. Hamas leaders have in fact actively encouraged Gazans to use the ploy, and, when it was still functioning, Hamas' television station called on children to form such human shields at the homes of several terrorist leaders.

And so, what the Israeli pilots sometimes do, the paper writes, is launch a relatively harmless missile at one corner of the roof to cause the crowd to change its mind and vacate the premises, after which the target is destroyed.

Such Israeli efforts to prevent the spilling of civilian blood present a colossal contrast to Hamas members' unrestrained glee when their missiles hit Israeli homes, supermarkets or hospitals, or when their suicide bombers kill Jewish men, women and children.

A recent Associated Press photograph harbored a striking symbolism. It showed a bombed-out classroom in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, the result of one of thousands of rockets Hamas has lobbed at Jewish communities. A gaping hole in the ceiling lets in the sunlight. And there, clearly legible in chalk on a blackboard, is part of a Talmudic adage: "Who is honorable? One who honors [G-d's] creatures."

Israeli commanders may or may not realize it, but from a truly Jewish perspective, their most potent weapons are not munitions but actions like the warning phone calls and "roof knockings." The Jewish religious tradition teaches that what ultimately win wars and protect against enemies are not bullets and bombs but good deeds and prayer. There are weapons, and there are weapons.

That Jewish conviction lies at the heart of the calls for prayers on behalf of Israel's citizens and soldiers, like the one that was issued by Agudath Israel of America's highest rabbinic body, the Council of Torah Sages. The Council's members wrote, in part: "In light of the current situation…we … strongly emphasize the obligation on us all to awaken ourselves in prayer, to ask for Divine mercy for our dear brethren and to increase our charity and good deeds for the protection of the remnant of the Jewish people from any and all harm." The rabbinic elders went on to reiterate an earlier call to recite chapters 83, 130 and 142 of Psalms each day on behalf of fellow Jews in danger, and "to fervently pour out our hearts" in various regular prayers, including one, in the evening service, in which G-d is beseeched to "spread upon us Your tent of peace."

The prayer concludes: "Blessed are You, the Guardian of His nation Israel forever."

May respect for life, good deeds and prayer protect and prevail.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


PRAY FOR THE GAZAN BOY

Rabbi Avi Shafran

No, I'm neither a prophet nor a covert Israeli operative. Yes, it was only a day after I distributed a column taking the New York Times to task for refusing to call Hamas a terrorist organization that Israel launched its offensive against Hamas in Gaza. But, really, I had no foreknowledge of the fact that Israel's leaders would do anything more in response to the shelling of its towns by Hamas and its friends than offer the sort of statements that have been issued for years after such terrorist onslaughts.

But they did do more, in the hope - may we merit its fulfillment - of crippling the infrastructure of the murderous entity to its south. And, true to form, The Times avoided the "T" word, going only so far as to identify Hamas on first mention as a group "which Israel and the United States brand as a terrorist organization." According to informed sources, Israel and the United States have also branded the sun hot and the Pope Catholic.

Similarly true to form was Hamas itself, whose spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, according to the very aforementioned newspaper, "called for revenge in the form of strikes reaching 'deep into the Zionist entity using all means,' including suicide attacks." Still no you-know-what-word, though.

There was more of interest in the paper's reportage, too. In a dispatch by veteran Times reporters Ethan Bronner and Taghreed El-Khodary that appeared on December 30, the scene at Gaza's Shifa Hospital was vividly brought alive.

"Armed Hamas militants in civilian clothes roamed the halls," they wrote. "Asked their function, they said it was to provide security. But there was internal bloodletting under way."

The report then described how a young woman came to the hospital seeking her wounded husband. She asked a "militant" to help her but was turned away. Fifteen minutes later, however, she saw her spouse being carried out on a stretcher and watched as, lying there helplessly, "he was shot in the left side of the head." The fatal bullet was administered by a terro - a "militant," that is - presumably convinced that the man on the stretcher, who had been incarcerated by Hamas before an Israeli bomb liberated his prison, had collaborated with Israel. So charged Sobhia Jonaa, a lawyer with the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens' Rights.

Perhaps some ray of hope lies in the possibility that the man killed on the stretcher was indeed cooperating with Israel and not just someone from a different clan than his killer. If there are in fact Arabs unlike those whose angry faces adorn the front pages of papers worldwide, who realize that Islamist terror-mongers do not bode well for the Arab umma, that is true reason to celebrate.

As it happens, an undeniably hopeful spark was reported in the very same Times story.

Highlighting the saga of Gaza families lamentably displaced by the bombings, as civilians unfortunately are in even the most justified wars, the reporters interviewed the members of one such family, whose home stands next to a Hamas compound.

After recounting "the utter fear and panic they all felt as the missiles hit," the father of the family's bemoaning of the fact that "we have no shelters in Gaza" and his expression of concern for his elderly, paralyzed mother, one of the reporters had the idea of asking the man's 13-year-old son for his view of the situation.

The boy, taking, as the dispatch put it, "an unusual stand for someone in Gaza," responded: "I blame Hamas. It doesn't want to recognize Israel. If they did so there could be peace. Egypt made a peace treaty with Israel, and nothing is happening to them."

Were only such insight and common sense as contagious in the Palestinian world as hatred and violence have been.

Kudos to The Times for including the quote. But brickbats, too, for taking the astoundingly irresponsible step of actually identifying the quoted boy by name.

Pray for him.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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TERRORIZED TIMES

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In a column published on December 14, Clark Hoyt, The New York Times' current Public Editor, or reader representative, addressed the paper's choice of terminology for people who target civilians with the intent of killing them.

What brought Mr. Hoyt to address the issue was the Times' assiduous avoidance of the word "terrorist" for the perpetrators of what has come to be known as the Mumbai Massacre - the late November Islamist attacks on hotels, a hospital, a railway station, a restaurant and a Jewish center in India's largest city that left 173 dead and more than 300 injured. The attackers were called "militants," "gunmen," "attackers" and "assailants" in the paper of record's reports but never "terrorists." Some readers were offended; thus the public editor's investigation and report.

He explained that "in the newsroom and at overseas bureaus, especially Jerusalem, there has been a lot of soul-searching about the terminology of terrorism." The upshot of the introspection, he continued, "to the dismay of supporters of Israel - and sometimes of the other side, denouncing Israeli military actions" is that "The Times is sparing in its use of 'terrorist' when reporting on that complex struggle." (One wonders if, examples of the military actions denounced by the "other side" include the recent killing of three Palestinians by Israeli forces; the three were planting explosives in northern Gaza along a border fence and, when accosted, threw hand grenades at the Israeli soldiers, who then returned fire - and the three, none too soon, to their Maker.)

Later in his essay, Mr. Hoyt takes up the issue of Hamas, the Sunni group whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel and which has launched scores of suicide attacks against Israeli civilians (targeting, among other things, buses, hotels, supermarkets and restaurants) and has fired hundreds of missiles at Israeli cities and town. The group that exults in the murder and maiming of innocent men, women and children, that trains its young to feel the same way, that denies the Holocaust and expresses confidence that, as one of its leaders put it in a Hamas newspaper, "the Holocaust is still to come upon the Jews." Mr. Hoyt explains that The Times chooses to not label Hamas a terrorist organization "though it sponsors acts of terror against Israel."

The reason? Because it "was elected to govern Gaza" and "provides social services and operates charities, hospitals and clinics." He quotes deputy news editor Phil Corbett, who said, "You get to the question: Somebody works in a Hamas clinic - is that person a terrorist? We don't want to go there." Mr. Hoyt concurs: "I think that is right."

Well, Mr. Corbett and Mr. Hoyt may prefer not to go there, but as journalists they really should realize their responsibility to make the trip. The "there," of course, is a different, and straightforward question: Does all an organization that routinely attacks innocents have to do to achieve respectability is garner the support of a population and open health clinics?

I've always been a foolhardy sort, so let me be the brave soul - there may even be others, if not in The Times' newsroom - who is perfectly willing to go there: The answer is No. A terrorist group is a terrorist group, even if it runs a hospital, wins elections, operates a soup kitchen, recycles its plastics and cares for abandoned kittens.

And all who choose to support such a group or, by working under its auspices, to empower it are members of a terrorist group and, thereby, accessories to terrorism.

What's more, media that are too weak-kneed to call evil what it is are, in their own way, complicit in the same.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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UNWASHED POETS AND KASHRUT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Recently I was privileged to participate in a student-group organized panel presentation at Yeshiva University entitled "The Kosher Quandary: Ethics and Kashrut." The panel included representatives of the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America and a social justice advocacy group, Uri L'tzedek. The panelists were given a list of questions to address in their remarks, and I think, and hope, that it was an educational experience for all who attended.

Since some people seem to have imagined that I said things I didn't, or chose to ignore things I did say, I offer my remarks below, which followed my expression of gratitude to the organizers.

I would like to make clear at the onset that, while I intend to speak clearly and bluntly tonight, nothing I say should be construed as impugning the intentions or good will of anyone. I might feel that certain actions or decisions are misguided, but I mean to judge things, not, G-d forbid, people.

Searching for the right metaphor for the relationship between ethics and kashrut, what I came up with is the relationship between… personal hygiene and poetry. Get it? Well, a great poet might never shower, but that bad habit need not affect the quality of his writing. One might not want to attend the fellow's readings; but the Cantos are the Cantos, Ezra Pound notwithstanding. So while kosher food producers are required by halacha to act ethically in every way, any lapses on that score have no effect on the kashrut of the food they produce.

The same applies to observance, or lack of observance, of the Torah's laws mandating care for animals and proper treatment of workers; and to societal laws like extra-halachic labor or environmental regulations. All of those things may be mandates, either directly from the Torah or by way of dina dimalchusa, but they are independent of kashrut. That is eminently clear from the Talmud and halachic Codes.

And it is part of the objection that some, myself included, have to the proposed Hekhsher Tzedek" that has been endorsed by the non-Orthodox movements: Because it conflates two independent Jewish concepts, and thus it misleads.

That, though, begs the larger and more important issue of whether or not kosher food producers should be held accountable for non-ethical behavior.

Of course they should. Here, too, though, there is a further thought to think: Accountable, yes, but more than merchants of Judaica, booksellers or synagogues, Jewish educational institutions or widget manufacturers? No. And so the fact that what has been proposed has been limited to kosher food producers is baffling - or perhaps telling - and constitutes a second objection to the Hekhsher Tzedek initiative. Jewish ethics is a meta-concept, not limited to kashrut.

Further adding to the objections is the fact that the Hekhsher Tzedek plan was conceived in sin - not a word I use lightly. The sin, that is, of jumping to negative judgments of others.

The impetus of the initiative, by all accounts, was the controversy over a company called Agriprocessors. Let me state right away that I have no connection to the company and wouldn't know a Rubashkin from a Rubik's Cube.

Nor do I have any idea if any of the company's owners are guilty of any or all of the very varied charges that have been leveled against them by private groups, government officials or the media. I don't know if they mistreated animals (as PETA claims), if they ran a methamphetamine lab (as was alleged in a government affidavit), if they harassed employees, knowingly hired underage workers or misrepresented collateral in a loan. I don't know - but neither do you, or anyone else, no matter what they may think.

What I do know - and what all of us should know - is that it is Jewishly wrong to assume guilt on the basis of accusations, no matter how many. In fact it is, bluntly put, unethical. And to create and herald a new effort as a result of mere accusations against people disregards the Torah's laws of hotzoas sheim ra.

Let us pretend, though, that the Hekhsher Tzedek idea had been proposed out of the blue, or as the result of some clear and proven breach of ethics across the board of the kashrut industry. Would that not be sufficient reason to create a mechanism to help ensure that the industry will better hew to their extra-kashrut obligations? Yes it would, and indeed, in Jewish history there are precedents of Gedolei hador, elders of the community, threatening recalcitrant merchants with communal penalties, of their instituting price controls and other such measures.

But the operative principle here, and this is my final and most important point, is that those are not decisions just any of us is qualified to make. If the term Orthodox Judaism has any meaning, it lies in reverence for the past, and for those who lie closer to the past than we. The proper way to explore whether a communal mechanism is warranted and proper to deal with a particular problem - whatever it may be - is to bring it to the attention of the elders of the community.

There are, of course, different sub-communities in the Orthodox world, but each has its elders, its accomplished and experienced talmidei chachomim. Theirs is the address. I don't expect a Conservative rabbi to acknowledge that fact; the non-Orthodox movements are by definition "progressive" - i.e. focused on change and youth, not mesorah and zikna.

But those of us who call ourselves Orthodox have to know on whose shoulders we stand and who the Torah teaches us to consider to be the einei ha'edah, the perceptive and farther-seeing eyes of the community.

Thank you for listening.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE AUDACITY OF HOPELESSNESS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The President-elect once bought a home whose deed prohibited its resale or rental to Jews. He had associations with a number of dubious characters, some of whom did not much care for Hebrews. In fact, he himself seems to have harbored some pretty anti-Jewish sentiment.

No, no, not Senator Obama. That was Richard Nixon, whose delivery of arms to the Jewish State during the Yom Kippur War helped prevent an Arab victory. And who, in the terminal crisis of his presidency, confided in two identifiable Jews - Henry Kissinger and Boruch Korff (known as "Nixon's rabbi").

Then there was President Harry Truman, who wrote that he found "the Jews… very selfish" and expressed anger at the fact that "a thousand Jews [had been brought] to New York on a supposedly temporary basis and they stayed." The same Harry Truman who acted to help Jews in postwar Europe and supported Israel's creation - against his own State Department.

Such examples point to a truth paid lip service but not always internalized: History is determined not by any sovereign's personal biases but by the ultimate Sovereign's insuperable will. As King Solomon wrote (Proverbs 21:1) "Like streams of water is the heart of a king in the hand of Hashem."

Which idea should inform all our political thoughts. What matters most is never a particular candidate but G-d's plan - and our merits.

I don't think I'm the only Jewish observer who found (and find) certain expressions of anti-Obama sentiment in parts of the Orthodox community less than reality-based. Many of us may have supported Senator McCain for a number of valid reasons - his experience, his willingness to reach across the partisan aisle, his maverick-ness, or simply because they disagreed with Senator Obama's positions - but anyone who voted Republican because of the Democrat's ostensible animus for Jews or Israel was not terribly different from commentators who portrayed Mr. Obama as a Zionist dupe. Osama bin Laden's top deputy described the President-elect as a "house Negro" who has chosen to "pray the prayer of the Jews."

Yes, Mr. Obama associated with a nutty, rabble-rousing pastor. But when the clergyman's looniness was exposed, the Senator denounced both it and him, in no uncertain terms. Political expediency? Perhaps. But perhaps personal conviction. It is unbecoming and unwise to deny the President-elect the courtesy of taking him at his word.

That his path crossed with that of an aging 60s-era radical was unremarkable; seeing it as evidence of some secret anti-American conspiracy was scraping the bottom of an empty barrel. I would certainly never want to be judged by some people I've had occasional professional dealings with.

In four years, we will be able to look back and assess the Obama administration (or its first term) - and be either harsh or hailing. Now, though, none of us can claim prophecy. What we can know is that the next President of the United States is long on record as supportive of Israel, enjoyed broad Jewish support (and knows it) and has no record whatsoever of having expressed any ill will toward Jews. And that he is smart and savvy, and surrounds himself with similarly smart advisors (among them, as it happens, a number of Jewish ones).

There may be valid concerns about how the Obama presidency will turn out; I don't mean to dismiss them. But the degree of fretting among some members of the tribe strikes me as unwarranted, even audacious.

I'm as paranoid as the next religious Jew. I don't doubt for a moment that the wonderful haven that is the United States cannot be taken for granted. But neither do I doubt for a moment that it is a wonderful haven - and that no reasonable case can be made that President-elect Obama's mantra of "change" includes any alteration of that happy historical reality.

Yes, efforts must be made with the exit of an Administration that many of us regard as singularly praiseworthy on many counts; and the arrival of new boys on the beltway whose wisdom and judgment have yet to be tested.

Political activism is certainly called for, and there was much discussion at Agudath Israel of America's recent convention, as I am sure there was at the Orthodox Union's, about strengthening existing ties with the President-elect and his Administration, and creating new ones. Both organizations' full-time Washington offices are already in anticipatory high gear.

And above and beyond that, prayers are surely indicated - but with (excuse the word) hope and trust in G-d, not paranoia and fear.

And with awareness of the words of a recent Council of Torah Sages statement:

"It is incumbent upon all Jews… to show President-elect Obama the proper dignity and honor due to the leader of our country…, with whom we look forward to a warm and productive relationship. May Hashem, in Whose hand the hearts of all earthly leaders reside, guide America's new president to succeed in carrying out his awesome responsibilities in a manner that will bring great blessing to the Jewish people, to America, and to all of humankind."

And let us all say, Amein.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

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THE ART OF MENSCHLICHKEIT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

A New York tabloid recently mocked the Bush White House. No news there; 'tis the season, so to speak. The fodder for this ridicule, though, wasn't political. It consisted, rather, of the artwork on the Bushes' invitations to this year's White House Chanukah party. A beautiful snowy White House scene dominates the card; all the way off to the side, a horse is drawing a wagon bearing a holiday tree.

As in the past, some Agudath Israel representatives, myself included, received invitations to the Chanukah event. I smiled at the card when it arrived, but didn't find it offensive in any way. According to the New York Post, though, someone - although unwilling to share his or her name - did.

If we needed more evidence, beyond the countless blogs out there, that some people have all too much time on their hands and all too little sense in their heads, it's here.

Those who received the invitations are presumably Jewish. Does the person who thought it clever to call a reporter realize how remarkable it is that there even is a Chanukah party hosted by the President and First Lady of the United States of America? Is he aware of the fact that, in 1943, 400 rabbis marched to the White House to implore President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to allow more European Jewish refugees from the Holocaust to immigrate to our shores - and that Mr. Roosevelt left the building through a back door to avoid having to meet them? (No Chanukah party that year, or for several decades thereafter, until Mr. Bush took office.)

Has the insulted invitee forgotten how President Bush, in an act of principle, ended our country's participation in the 2001 Durban "Racism" conference, when it degraded into an anti-Israel and anti-Semitic saturnalia.

Does he not recall the President's 2002 Rose Garden address, in which Mr. Bush boldly stated what his predecessors had always declined to say - that Yasser Arafat, despite his claims, never renounced terror? Or how, last year, the President challenged Palestinians to "match their words denouncing terror with action to combat terror," that "nothing less is acceptable"?

Despite all that, the anonymous Post informant chose to take offense at an innocuous illustration on an invitation from the Bushes. To visit the White House. In honor of Chanukah. It defies all understanding.

And then, as if to widen further the gulf between the good will of the Bushes and the grumbling of the boor, yesterday I received a second hand-addressed White House invitation. This one's cover art was a silhouette of a menorah against a blue background; and enclosed was a note reading: "Please accept our apologies, as the invitation you previously received had the incorrect cover artwork."

There is much about what Yiddish-speaking Jews call "menschlichkeit" (literally, "acting like a human being"; the word conveys graciousness and good manners) that the Post's informant could learn from the Bushes.

Back when I received the first invitation, I asked Agudath Israel's executive vice president for government and public affairs Rabbi David Zwiebel if he thought it was important for me to attend the Chanukah party. I had mixed feelings.

I have no personal desire to make the trip. Having attended other such gatherings, whatever thrill might once have lain in milling about in a large crowd or shaking the President's hand no longer persists. And as for organizational concerns, well, the Bush White House's days are numbered - and the number is a small one.

On the other hand, though, some shapeless feeling was pushing me to want to make the schlep.

Rabbi Zwiebel thought a moment and said, "I think you should go." Then, after I asked "Why?" he verbalized in four simple words what had still been congealing in my own mind.

"To say 'thank you'."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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'MARRIED' AND THE MOB

Rabbi Avi Shafran

From the agitation and anger of the crowds, the din of the car horns and the shouts of "Civil rights now!" and "Bigots!" one would have been forgiven for thinking that the protesters were denouncing some horrific assault on human freedom.

But no, the demonstrations - and church vandalisms and business boycotts - were in protest of California voters' passage of the November ballot measure known as Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Any two Californians can, as before, register as "domestic partners" and have the very same rights and responsibilities as married couples under state law. All Proposition 8 sought to do was preserve in law what the word "marriage" has meant for millennia.

Those, though, who were unhappy with the electorate's decision wasted no time in taking to the streets of dozens of American cities and towns to rail against the audacity - the bigotry, as they proclaimed it - of considering gender germane to marriage.

In some cities, tens of thousands turned out for raucous rallies; in many instances, epithets were hurled at counterdemonstrators and even uninvolved bystanders. Although protesters claimed the mantle of the American civil rights movement, several black observers of the Los Angeles demonstration had what has been called the "N-bomb" dropped on them by infuriated demonstrators - a presumed tribute to the fact that blacks voted 2-1 in favor of the proposition. A San Diego family with a "Yes on 8" sign on their front lawn had their car's tires slashed. A San Francisco area group launched a campaign to revoke the tax-exempt status of the Mormon Church because of its support of the marriage initiative. Graffiti was spray-painted on a Mormon church near Sacramento. A group of about 30 activists from a group called "Bash Back!" stormed into a Lansing, Michigan church, unfurled a rainbow flag at the pulpit and proceeded to disrupt services by banging on cans and shouting.

Some, even among those who assign meaning to traditional morality, are not greatly bothered by the push to expand the meaning of marriage. They are content to let people call things whatever they want, and regard the societal push to revamp social mores as benign. The vehemence, violence and general obnoxiousness that characterized some of the protests, though, should give them pause.

As should Scott Eckern's forced resignation.

Mr. Eckern was the artistic director of the California Musical Theater. He no longer holds that position because anti-Proposition 8 activists uncovered and publicized the fact that he had made a contribution to the other side's campaign. Mr. Eckern explained that his donation stemmed from his religious beliefs as a Mormon and expressed sadness that his "personal beliefs and convictions have offended others" and caused "hurt feelings."

But neither his words nor resignation were enough to mollify the mob. An award-winning composer called Mr. Eckern to tell him that he would not allow his work to be performed in the theater with which the ex-director had been associated; and an actress called for a boycott of the institution.

It seems clearer than ever that gay activists are not, as was once thought, interested only on being left alone, or, as was later thought, on being granted the same privileges as others. They are fixated, in fact, on creating a society where traditional religious perspectives on homosexuality and marriage are regarded, in law and in social dialogue, as the equivalent of racial or ethnic bias.

The scenario of religious people - and institutions like churches, synagogues and mosques - being branded as bigoted simply for affirming deeply-held religious convictions is around the corner. And eventual prosecution of the same for voicing those convictions is only another corner or two away.

What began as a plea for "rights" is rapidly, and noisily, morphing into an assault on freedom of speech and conscience.

Jews who take their religious tradition seriously will not allow the shifting sands of societal mores to obscure the fact that the Torah forbids homosexual acts, and sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony. They know, further, that the Talmud and Midrash teach that a saving grace of human society throughout the ages has been its refusal to formalize unions between males. Which made a scene at one of the recent protests particularly poignant. Rebecca Kaplan, a newly elected Oakland, California city council member, told those gathered outside City Hall how upset she was with the passage of Proposition 8. According to a news report, she "roused the crowd by blowing a shofar, a ram's horn blown as a wind instrument in Biblical times. She said it represented a call for solidarity." Only it doesn't. It represents a call for teshuva, the Hebrew word for repentance, literally "return" - to the teachings of the Jewish religious tradition.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


MAKING THE CUT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It was the very beginning of 1942 and the group of ten young men and their yeshiva dean, exiles in frigid Siberia, couldn't believe their eyes. Betzalel Orlanski had somehow gained release from the Siberian labor-camp where he had been sent, somehow found out where they - and his wife - were located, somehow secured a sled and driver, and somehow crossed the large frozen lake - the only way to reach Nizhna Machavaya, the exiles' home, in the winter.

The exiles - my dear father among them - had been part of the Novardhok Yeshiva in Vilna, Lithuania. When the Soviets occupied the country, they offered the yeshiva boys and faculty - most of whom were Polish nationals who had fled to Lithuania - a stark choice: accept Soviet citizenship (and be conscripted into the Red army) or be banished to the wasteland of Siberia as foreign nationals deemed a threat to the Soviet Union. They opted for Siberia, a choice that would test them sorely but likely saved their lives.

When the cattle cars had been loaded with their human cargo in Lithuania for the long trip east, sent along with the Novardhok group were several families, and Betzalel Orlanski's wife - but not her husband; he was sent to a different destination, far from where his wife and "the Novardhokers" were taken.

The Orlanskis had been married for about a decade, but were childless. Mrs. Orlanski, however, confided to the others a recent discovery: she was expecting.

It was about seven months later that her husband unexpectedly alked off the frozen lake at Nizhneh Machavaya. Shortly after his arrival, amid a joy that can only be imagined, their son was born.

The story was recounted recently by my father, at the festive meal celebrating the circumcision of his newest great grandchild. Betzalel Orlanski, he continued, had been so overwhelmed with happiness at the arrival of his firstborn that he announced his intention to circumcise his son himself eight days later, the preferred time according to Jewish law. The problem was that neither he nor any of those present at Nizhneh had any experience or qualifications for performing the surgery. Convincing him to postpone the circumcision hadn't been easy, my father recalled, but the yeshiva boys and their dean prevailed on the new father to wait for a more propitious time and skilled hand. When that time finally came, after war's end, the boy was almost four. A precocious child, he asked to undergo the procedure, wanting to enter the Abrahamic covenant and become a completed member of the Jewish people.

My father told the story to demonstrate the innate Jewish desire to enter Abraham's covenant of circumcision, or brit mila, a most fundamental Jewish obligation. He speculated that, no doubt, an 8-day-old Jewish infant, in some inchoate way, likely also senses the depth of the commandment's import, and that his soul, pure and new, pines to undergo the procedure. And so, my father suggested, perhaps that idea informs the blessing traditionally called out by those present at a circumcision ceremony - "Just as he has entered the covenant, so may he enter Torah, marriage and good deeds." The blessing may bespeak a hope that the same deep and pure desire to be holy that inheres in a new soul should later motivate him, when grown, to study Torah, become a husband and perform righteous acts.

That circumcision remains practiced among Jews who have allowed other Jewish observances to lapse - or who have outright jettisoned them - has always been remarkable. If any commandment could be expected to be shunned by Jews who view the Torah as mere "inspired" words of mortals and not as G-d's sacred commandments, one would imagine that cutting the body of a baby would be it.

And yet that is not the case. Reform Magazine recently (Fall, 2008) published an article "Why Reform Never Abandoned Circumcision," whose author, Reform Rabbi Mark Washofsky, makes his movement's case for brit mila. While the article's title was somewhat inaccurate - circumcision was indeed rejected by Reform leaders in the early 1800's - it is certainly true that the contemporary Reform movement encourages brit mila. The article tries to express why, even though Reform "has done away with a number of ritual observances that conflict with our contemporary cultural and aesthetic sensibilities… this practice remains."

Rabbi Washofsky's explanation is that… it is "a tribal rite" and that "that's why we do it..." Which rather begs the question, of course. But if it satisfies his intellect, who am I to quibble?

What occurs to me, though, is that the resolve of Jews otherwise disconnected from Jewish beliefs and practices to circumcise their newborn boys transcends intellectualization. Those Jews' determination, I think, emanates not from the intellect at all but from a place far, far more deep.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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MAIMONIDES' MICROSCOPE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In its purest form, the human spirit of inquiry is a holy thing. According to the renowned 12th century Jewish thinker Maimonides, nothing less than the Biblical commandment to love G-d is fulfilled when a person investigates nature and, struck by its intricacy and beauty, is filled with awe and gratitude to the Divine.

And so it is exciting to ponder the new aspects of physical reality that might be revealed by the Large Hadron Collider - the 17-mile-circumference particle accelerator that, over 15 years and at a cost of some $8 billion, was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) underneath the French-Swiss border.

Subatomic physics is already a wonderland of strange beauty (not to be confused with "strange" and "beauty" - fanciful names physicists have, at one time or another, given to types of quarks), having revealed that the seemingly mechanistic, clockwork universe we experience in daily life hides astonishing oddities, uncertainties and incomprehensibilities.

Those microcosmic bafflements complement the more readily accessible wonder of the world we experience when we simply look up at the stars, or down into the grass, or at a sunrise, or a newborn baby. The Standard Model - the current theory of how subatomic particles interact - reminds us that not only do the "heavens relate the glory of G-d" (Psalms 19:2) but that "to His wisdom there can be no comprehension" (Isaiah, 40:28).

An ultimate understanding of the universe will likely always evade the mortal mind. But new revelations the LHC might yield - when its gargantuan magnets accelerate streams of particles in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light so that they collide and release their until now unexamined innards - make the mammoth machine a most promising engine of scientific advancement.

Some cheerers-on of that advancement, however, are not exactly motivated by the Maimonidean quest to gain inspiration through a new glimpse of G-d's subtle wisdom. To the contrary, they look to whatever new knowledge the LHC may grant as just further justification for denying the Divine, forklifts with which to pull themselves up onto the pedestal of omniscience. They hope that the LHC will confirm the existence of particles predicted by the latest theories - one such beastie, the Higgs boson, has even been labeled by some the "G-d Particle," for its potential to lead to a grand unified theory of the universe - and thus show that the human mind can fully grasp the totality of creation, and is thus its intellectual master.

And so, while there are many scientists (like astrophysicists Fred Hoyle, Paul Davies and Arno Penzias, to name a few of the most famous) who maintain their human sense of wonder at the world and see purpose in nature, others, like physicist Steven Weinberg, choose to see the cosmos as fascinating but ultimately meaningless. Commenting on the LHC's expected informational yield, he opined that "as science explains more and more, there is less and less need for religious explanations."

Such conceit recalls another technological project, one whose promoters' focus was on the macrocosmic. The builders of the Tower of Babel, the Torah tells us, sought to erect a structure whose top would pierce the heavens, the better to assert their independence from the Divine and "make for ourselves a name." Their plans, of course, were dashed; their arrogance did them in.

The LHC was supposed to have already yielded its harvest of new particles by now. On September 10, proton beams were successfully circulated in the main ring of the structure. Nine days later, though, operations were halted, as an electrical fault caused liquid helium to leak into the tunnel, damaging dozens of the LHC's superconducting magnets and contaminating the "collider's ring. Physicists say it will take until next summer to make the necessary repairs.

"Man contemplates, G-d laughs" goes the Yiddish expression (and in that language it nicely rhymes). I don't know if G-d laughed as the glitch rained on the LHC parade. I certainly didn't; I was deeply disappointed. My thoughts, thought, did go back to the builders of Babel, and to how, in monumental projects, success or failure may ultimately hang on intentions.

Will the LHC in fact come to function as planned, and allow us to see deeper into nature? It might just depend on why we're looking in the first place.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE MISSING INTERVIEWS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

One of the perks (such as it is) of working for a Jewish organization is receiving unsolicited books and manuscripts in the mail. Most - like "new age" Jewish ritual guides, Middle-East manifestoes and novels channeling their authors' neuroses through Biblical narratives - don't interest me. Occasionally, though, a freebie escapes the circular file. Like the copy (there were actually two, a few weeks apart, one hardcover, the other soft) I received of "Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance" by Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff.

Mr. Bronfman is the former CEO of the Seagram Company, past president of the World Jewish Congress and a major contributor to Jewish causes.

His book, the accompanying folder contents informed me, is "a passionate plea to the Jewish community, urging members to celebrate the joy in their culture and religion… [and] to recognize their responsibility to help heal a broken world."

Mr. Bronfman proposes that young Jews be brought to "meaningfully encounter Judaism: its texts, traditions and community"; that they be brought "into conversation with the faith's traditions and with each other"; and that Jewish institutions find ways to reach out to Jewish youth. Sounded promising.

But the book's vision of Judaism, it quickly became apparent, is decidedly libertarian, its understanding of "the faith's traditions" essentially Reconstructionist. The phrases "culture" and "heal a broken world" should have tipped me off. Mr. Bronfman's Jewish theology is entirely personal - in fact, personalize-able: "I don't believe in the G-d of the Old Testament," he recently told a New York Times Magazine interviewer, "but I am happy with my Judaism, without that."

What particularly struck me, though, about Mr. Bronfman's book was the list of people he interviewed in its preparation. Or, more precisely, what was missing from it: the words of a single haredi Jew.

There are all sorts of people on the list, including a number of rabbis - even an occasional religiously liberal Orthodox one. But one would have expected that the goal of finding ways of engaging young Jews would have led Mr. Bronfman to wonder about how the less "progressive" part of the Orthodox world seems to have successfully imparted its Jewish dedication to its young.

To portray even a slice of the remarkable empowerment of traditional Jewish belief and practice over the past half century is to court being tarred "triumphalist." But taking objective stock of the phenomenal growth of traditional Judaism in our day is not triumphalism but triumph - the prevailing of the Jewish religious heritage at the root of all Jews' pasts.

To be sure, the growth of the traditionally observant Jewish community has not rendered it immune to social problems that permeate contemporary society. Nor are high ideals, alas, always matched by high behavior. But, all the same, there can be no doubting the successes.

Not long ago, it was the Jewish fast day of Tzom Gedaliah. Down the hall from my office at Agudath Israel of America's Lower Manhattan headquarters is our "in house" synagogue, adjacent to a large board room. The collapsible wall between the rooms was folded away to allow well over 100 Jewish men working in the Wall Street area to participate in special fast-day Mincha services, when the Torah is read.

The first service, that is. Two more followed over the course of the afternoon, to accommodate similar numbers who came to pray. And I know of at several other Orthodox organizations or synagogues in the area where the special services were held as well.

If one were seeking means of empowering Jewish life, connections and learning among young Jews, why in the world would one ignore the buzzing dynamo of Jewish thought and life that is the traditional Orthodox world?

Yet Mr. Bronfman didn't see fit to interview any of the many rabbis in that world whose lectures regularly draw hundreds of Jews; or any of the popular Orthodox thinkers and speakers whose talks and recordings reach tens of thousands; nor the editors of the ArtScroll publication house, which has revolutionized Jewish learning over the past quarter century; or the publishers of any of the haredi papers, like the weekly Yated Ne'eman or the daily (yes, daily - the only Jewish one in the country) Hamodia; or any of the heads of American yeshivot and seminaries in which thousands of young Jews are immersed in Jewish texts and traditions.

Mr. Bronfman didn't likely lack for toys as a child, but, tragically, he was sorely deprived of examples that might have led him to understand how Judaism is transmitted. By his own account in the New York Times Magazine, his father told him to attend synagogue on Sabbath morning, while he went to his office. "What made him think I was going to go to the synagogue if he went to the office?" Mr. Bronfman reminisced. "The hell with that."

But over the many years since then, as astute an individual as Mr. Bronfman should have noticed where young Jews have come to "meaningfully encounter Judaism: its texts, traditions and community."

If he didn't, that's unfortunate. If he did, but decided all the same to dismiss authentic Jewish belief and practice as not germane to inspiring young Jews, well, that's doubly unfortunate.

In either event, Mr. Bronfman may think he has made a major contribution to Jewish life with his book. But wittingly or not, he shortchanged his readers.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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MARRIAGE MATTERS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Along with the new Jewish year we welcomed a new cycle of Torah-readings. For Californians, the first post-Sukkot Sabbath reading was particularly timely, coming as it did a mere ten days before the 2008 elections. It should have given pause to Jewish opponents of Proposition 8, the measure aimed at amending California's constitution to enshrine the traditional definition of marriage in state law.

An assortment of arguments can be made in support of Proposition 8 - from the deep and abiding connection of marriage with procreation, to the healthful effects for children of having both a mother and a father, to the endangerment of religious freedom lurking in societal sanction of same-sex unions (which will all too easily be used to tar conscientious objectors as unlawful discriminators).

Such arguments aside, though, Jews with respect for their religious tradition will perceive in the first chapters of Genesis the clear template for marriage: the first man and the first woman. As the text declares: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and cling to his wife [literally 'his woman'] …" (Genesis 2:24).

And, in fact, the Torah, both in its written dimension (what we call the Jewish Bible) and its oral one (the "rabbinic" material that determines Jewish law), goes on to forbid the sexual union of two men. (The issue of female same-sex unions, while in a different category, is prohibited as well.)

What is more, and here more to the point, societal "officializing" of such unions - i.e. calling them "marriages" - is particularly condemned by unimpeachable and authoritative Jewish sources. They consider a society that "writes marriage documents for men" to be endangering its very existence.

A Jewish case can certainly be made for a libertarian approach to matters of personal behavior, for a "live and let live" attitude that, for all its morally objectionable yield, can help ensure the protection of religious and other fundamental freedoms. In any event, the behavioral issue is legally moot; the highest court in the land has declared unconstitutional laws that criminalize homosexual acts between consenting adults. But Proposition 8 is not about legislating personal behavior - be it same-sex, multi-partner or incestuous, all of which have their proponents. It is, rather, about preventing a twisting of the time-honored and timeless definition of marriage, a definition whose upholding the rabbis of the Talmud considered to be one of humanity's saving graces.

We Jews as a people have a tendency toward "progressive" movements and tend to welcome all societal change as inherently healthy and good. Some such change, of course, is indeed so, and Jews can be rightly proud of having been at the forefront of social causes like racial equality and employees' rights. But headlong rushes to a "more enlightened future" have landed some Jews in some unsavory places, like the forefront of communism in the early decades of the previous century. Or, centuries earlier, among the Hellenists of ancient Greece. Or even earlier, dancing in celebration of a golden calf.

Our pining for progress comes from a holy place, the deep and inherent Jewish desire for a perfected world. But the secret and essence of Judaism is its conviction that we are not the judges of good and bad, but rather look to the Torah for its guidance. "We will do and [then perhaps] hear [i.e. understand]," declared our ancestors when they were given the Torah. Our mission is not to pronounce what we mortals think is good but rather to accept the decisions of the Divine.

Much of the world considers reformulating the meaning of marriage to represent progress. And many Jews, as in past "progressive" movements, are giddily jumping on the burnished bandwagon.

Jews, though, who understand what it means to have been chosen by G-d to stand for holiness - which the Talmud teaches has a primary meaning of "separation from immorality" - know that all that glistens to a liberal eye is not gold, or even good. And those Judaism-aware Jews who live in California will, against the societal tide, vote on November 4 to have their state retain the true meaning of marriage.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


MOMENTOUS MOMENTS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The weeks before a presidential election provide spiritual fodder for the week between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Throughout political campaigns, candidates and their handlers are keenly aware of the great toll a simple gaffe or misjudgment can take. Four years ago, Howard Dean, the then-governor of Vermont (today Democratic National Committee chairman) was a credible candidate for the Democratic nomination for President.

But he crashed and burned, according to many because of what came to be dubbed his "I Have a Scream" speech. After an unexpectedly weak showing in the Iowa caucus, Dr. Dean declared his undeterred determination to forge on, in a rousing address that culminated in a vocalization somewhere between a Zulu war cry and a locomotive horn. That single moment's decision to let loose in that way at that juncture spelled the end of the doctor's road to the highest office in the land.

There have been other such moments for presidential candidates: Edmund Muskie's tears of pain, Gary Hart's infelicitous mugging for his "Monkey Business" snapshot, Michael Dukakis's donning of an ill-fitting combat helmet. Each unguarded moment, deservedly or not, brought a national campaign to a screeching halt.

Every one of us, too, in our personal lives, comes face to face at times with opportunities of our own that, wrongly handled, can lead to places we don't want to go.

And we are vying for something infinitely more important than a mere nomination for President. We're in the running, after all, for the achievement of worth, racing to achieve meaning in our lives.

In the bustle and haste of everyday existence, it is alarmingly easy to forget that decisions we make, sometimes almost unthinkingly, can be crucial; that seemingly insignificant forks in the roads of our lives can lead either to achievement and holiness, or, G-d forbid, to setbacks, even ruin.

Every single decision we make, of course, is important. Each day of our lives presents occasions for choices, chances to seize meaningful things - a mitzvah, a heartfelt prayer, an act of charity - or to forgo them. Every opportunity to be morose or angry is a chance to hurt others, and ourselves - and likewise a chance to do neither, and achieve something priceless.

But there are also particularly momentous opportunities, when we are presented with roads that diverge in entirely different directions. The Talmud teaches that "one can acquire his universe" - the one that counts: the world-to-come - or "destroy" it "in a single moment."

Potentially transformative decisions are more common to our lives than we may realize. When we make a decision about, say, where to live or what synagogue to attend - not to mention more obviously critical decisions like whom to marry or how to raise and educate our children - we are defining our futures, and others'. And it is of great importance that we recognize the import of our decisions, and accord them the gravity they are due.

We can even, through sheer determination, create our own critical moments. Consider the Talmudic case of the "conditional husband."

In Jewish law, a marriage is effected by the proposal of a man to a woman - the declaration of the woman's kiddushin, or "specialness" to her husband, followed by the acceptance by the woman of a coin or item of worth from her suitor. If the declaration is made on the condition that an assertion is true, the marriage is valid only if the assertion indeed is. Thus, if a man betroths a woman on the condition that he owns a car, or still has his own teeth, unless he does, they aren't married.

What if a man offers a woman a coin or item and makes the kiddushin-declaration "on the condition that I am a tzaddik," a "totally righteous person"? The Talmud informs us that even if the man in question has no such flawless reputation the marriage must be assumed to be valid (and only a divorce can dissolve it).

Why? Because, the Talmud explains, the man "may have contemplated repentance" just before his proposal.

That determined choice of a moment, in other words, if sincere, would have transformed the man completely, placed him on an entirely new life-road. The lesson is obvious: Each of us can transform himself or herself - at any point we choose - through sheer, sincere will.

This season of the Jewish year, our tradition teaches, is particularly fertile for making choices, for embarking on new roads. All we need are the sensitivity and wisdom to be open to crucial opportunities, and the determination to craft some of our own - to make choices that will change our lives and futures for the holier.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


NO LAUGHING MATTER

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It's never a good idea to analyze a joke. All the same, I recently found myself deconstructing a stand-up comedian's one-liner quoted in a newspaper article. It may have been because Rosh Hashana was approaching.

"I used to do drugs," the hapless performer had deadpanned. "I still do, but I used to, too."

Why was the line funny? It could be that the comedian had simply found an amusing, absurd way to characterize his long-time substance abuse. But what I think he meant to communicate was something more: that he had once (perhaps more than once) quit his drugs, only to re-embrace them. When he was clean, he "used to do drugs"; now, fallen off the wagon, he does them once again.

And so my thoughts, understandably (no?), went to Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year holiday characterized by the Talmud as an annual day of Divine judgment. Its two days begin the ten-day period in the Jewish calendar - ending with Yom Kippur - that constitute the "Days of Repentance."

No, I don't abuse drugs. I take my daily blood-thinner responsibly, pop an occasional Tylenol and have a glass or two of red wine with Sabbath meals, but that's about it. Nevertheless, I related well to the comedian's self-description. Because I find myself resolving each year to improve in some of the very same ways I had resolved to improve the year before. Indeed, the years - plural - before, in more cases than I care to ponder. I, too, "used to" do things that I currently do too.

Among the collected letters of the late Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, the famed dean of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn from 1940 through the 1960s, is one that was written to a student whose own, earlier, letter to Rabbi Hutner had apparently evidenced the student's despondence over his personal spiritual failures. The yeshiva dean's response provides nourishing food for thought.

Citing the saying that one can "lose battles but win wars," Rabbi Hutner explains that what makes life meaningful is not beatific basking in the exclusive company of one's "good inclination" but rather the dynamic struggle of one's battle with the inclination to sin.

King Solomon's maxim that "Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up" (Proverbs, 24:16), continues Rabbi Hutner, does not mean that "even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to gets up again." What it really means, he explains, is that it is only and precisely through repeated falls that a person truly achieves righteousness. The struggles - even the failures - are inherent elements of what can, with determination and perseverance, become an ultimate victory.

Rabbi Hutner's words are timely indeed at this Jewish season, as thoughtful Jews everywhere recall their own personal failures. For facing our mistakes squarely, and feeling the regret that is the bedrock of repentance, carries a risk: despondence born of battles lost. But allowing failures to breed hopelessness, says Rabbi Hutner, is both self-defeating and wrong. A battle waged, even if lost, can be an integral step toward an ultimate victory to come. No matter how many battles there may have been, the war is not over. We must pick ourselves up. Again. And, if need be, again.

Still, it's a balancing act. The knowledge, after the fact, that falling isn't forever cannot permit us to treat sin lightly. Even while not allowing failures to leave us dejected, we must maintain the determination to be to be better people tomorrow than we are today. If, after raising ourselves from the ground, we don't renew the battle with resolve, if we become complacent about our sins, seeing them not as boons to redoubled effort but as fodder for jokes, we flirt with true failure - the ultimate kind.

The article containing the one-liner, as it happens, was an obituary. The comedian who "used to do drugs" and still did died of an overdose, at 37.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


COMING TO JUDAISM - Part 1 (of 3)

Rabbi Avi Shafran

A long, long time ago, when I was much younger, even more foolish and living in California, I used a motorcycle for personal transportation. I remember once riding my mid-sized Honda, tzitzit-fringes flying behind me, into a cycle shop for a part. As I entered a parking space and cut the engine, I heard a roar from behind and knew, even before it pulled up next to me, that a Harley had arrived. The behemoth's rider, a man much older than I, with flowing white hair and dark sunglasses, clad in jeans and a long sleeved shirt, looked down at me - menacingly, I thought. But what I had tagged a scowl suddenly broadened into a smile, as the biker slapped his right hand onto his left wrist and pulled up his sleeve, revealing the unmistakable evidence of another time and place: a crudely tattooed number. "Another crazy Jew," he said in Yiddish.

Flabbergasted by the unexpected, I squandered the opportunity to bond with another Jew. To this day that lost chance bothers me. I think I shook his hand and probably smiled, but I didn't go the extra mile. Not only didn't I invite him for a Shabbat meal, I didn't even ask him to tell me his name or about himself, nor did I share with him anything about me.

I've become wiser with time and have come not only to reach out to less-than-obviously-Jewish Jews I meet but to cherish the meetings, and the Jews.

Many have actually reached out to me. My beard and kippah or hat tend to indicate I'm not Irish, and so a repair shop, waiting room, supermarket, bus or train will occasionally be the backdrop for a Jewish stranger to smile and pointedly drop a Yiddish or Hebrew word, or otherwise telegraph some Jewish connection. I always see it as a meaningful act, an invitation.

Not and invitation to "make them Orthodox" - although I am very happy when a less-observant Jew becomes more observant. But simply to interact with a fellow Jew, to reestablish a bond forged at Sinai when, the Midrash teaches, the souls of all Jews, present and future, were present and united. If Elijah the prophet appeared and told me that a Jew to whom I was speaking would never undertake any Jewish observance as a result of the conversation, I would continue it no differently than before.

But, needless to say, I want only good for a fellow Jew, and consider the Torah to be the epitome of goodness, something I want to share. And so, when possible, I try to offer Jews I meet entrée into the world of Jewish observance.

And indeed, some Jews connect viscerally to Jewish observance; all it takes is experiencing a traditional Jewish Shabbat or holiday, a circumcision ceremony or wedding. They feel in their souls that they have sampled a deeper reality. Others are similarly affected by meeting a truly righteous Jew, innately sensing his or her sublime nature, and moved thereby to explore what might yield such refinement. And then, of course, there are Jews whose sublimity of soul allows them to realize the power of Torah from… Torah. Its study, that is. Approached properly, it can be transformative.

Many Jews, though, even if they are intrigued by Judaism, will not entertain the possibility of changing their lives without being logically persuaded that there is a Creator and that He indeed gave a people His law. We live in a world that is as psychologically fueled by cynicism as it is physically powered by petroleum (and in the former case the supplies are unlimited), where books peddling atheism are sure-fire best-sellers, and faith in anything but science is portrayed as a sort of feeblemindedness. That an intelligent person who hasn't personally felt the power of Judaism might react with skepticism to the notion that the Jewish faith it is more than a mere cultural construct is understandable,

And yet, the basis of Judaism - that G-d exists and His Torah is true - can in fact, I believe, be demonstrated to a reasonable person. To be sure, once a Jew recognizes the Divine nature of Torah, reason plays an only very limited role in the living of a Jewish life. Doing G-d's will, whether we understand it or not, becomes the operative principle. Still and all, the fundamentals of Judaism are demonstrably reasonable.

And so, in the final two installment of this article, I intend to lay out an approach toward making the case for the truth of the Jewish religious tradition.

The approach will be based on two premises. First, that "proofs" - in the strictest sense of the word - are really only possible in mathematics and formal logic, and so we make the vast majority of our decisions, including many of the most important ones, on something else: reasonability.

And second, that an important principle of reasonability is what has come to be called "Occam's Razor" (after a 14th century English logician), or the "law of parsimony." It asserts that the less complex an explanation for an observation (or set of observations), the more likely it is to be true.

Take, for example, a medical diagnosis. Thus, if a patient presents a number of symptoms, one might choose to view each one individually. The fever could be the result of a bacterial infection, the cough might be an effect of the patient's having unknowingly inhaled some irritant, the muscle aches from a possible mineral deficiency. But as the symptoms taken together are consistent with influenza, it is most reasonable to interpret the symptoms as a set, and to duly diagnose the flu.

Applying the law of parsimony to a set of historical and other observations, I submit, yields a compelling case for the veracity of the Jewish religious tradition. A case, that, with G-d's help, I will begin to lay out next week.


COMING TO JUDAISM - Part 2 (of 3)

Occam's Razor, once again, requires us to explain a fact or set of facts in the least complicated way. The darkening of the sky, for instance, might be a solar eclipse, and the pitter-patter on the roof a family of cats. More likely, though, it's raining.

Let us begin with the fact that nowhere in the annals of religions is there a parallel to Jewish tradition's claim to a mass revelation from G-d. Christianity is mediated by an individual, Paul; Islam, by Mohammed; Mormonism, by Joseph Smith. Moses, by contrast, brought the Jews to Mt. Sinai, but it was the Creator Who directly introduced Himself there to the Jewish people en masse.

That is no minor point. An individual's claim to a personal divine communication is only as strong as his own credibility. The claim of a mass experience, however, cannot be effectively asserted unless it actually happened; if it were a hoax, the perpetrators will be unable to produce the claimed mass. That is why reasonable people don't contest the facts of recorded history.

Despite its supernatural element, the giving of the Torah is no different from - and thus no less reliable than - any other historical tradition; it, too, is based on a mass testimony.

A cynic might suggest that such a claim could have been fabricated after the claimed event, and was somehow propagated without the masses' corroboration. But a single, salient fact remains: Despite the obvious advantages of claiming a mass event-based faith, only one such claim has ever been made over the entire course of human history: the Jewish one. Even our cynic must admit the singular nature of the Jewish revelation claim.

Consider now a separate matter: the self-defeating nature of several of the Torah's laws. One enjoins the Jews in the Holy Land to let all their fields lie fallow every seventh year (and at the end of 49 years, two years in a row), an unarguable recipe for economic disaster. No human lawmaker would be cruel or dim enough to lay down such a law - only a Legislator Who could in fact ensure that the populace will not starve as a result could dare make such a promise.

Or take the three "pilgrimage festivals," when all adult Jewish males were commanded in Temple times to journey to Jerusalem - leaving their homes and the nation's borders open to attack from enemies. The festivals are closely connected to the seasons and phases of the moon, and would thus have become entirely predictable to the Jews' enemies, of which, as always, there were many.

The skeptic might retort that maybe those laws were added to the Torah's text (for reasons unknown) at some later time, and no one noticed the textual tinkering. But he would have no evidence for his speculation. Once again, the most straightforward (if supernatural) explanation points instead to the Divine authorship of the Torah.

Then there are the predictions, like the Torah's foretelling of how the Jewish people will come to sin, be exiled from their land and scattered among the nations. And how Jews will seek to lose their identity but be rebuffed, often violently, by their foreign hosts. And how the scattered Jews will nevertheless persevere as a people (itself an unparalleled occurrence in history), and how the remaining Jews will eventually return to their ancestral land.

The doubter will likely attribute this one, too, to some post-facto text-meddling, or to plain chance. But his patchwork responses are multiplying and fraying. Occam would not be happy.

There are other unrelated hallmarks of the Torah's uniqueness, too. Like the fact that, unlike every other tradition hallowed by a world faith, the Jewish Bible harshly highlights the foibles and sins of its greatest men and women. In the New Testament, the books' hero is without fault; the Koran's protagonist is a perfect prophet - just what one would expect from documents written by men to extol men. The Torah, by stark contrast, publicizes the mistakes of its greatest personages, including Moses and Aaron, evidence that it was created not by hero-promoters but an omniscient Judge. The naysayer may mutter "Not necessarily." But the oddity points, once again, to the Torah's Divine origin.

As does Moses' singular and striking lack of qualification for leadership. He suffers from a speech impediment, lacks the self confidence that is the essence of every great leader, and doesn't even want the job. Has there ever been a successful such leader? Other religion-forming figures possessed the natural ability to convince others of their connection to truth - and used it. Moses had no such ability, yet it was pointedly him through whom the Torah was given. No one could ever attribute the historic success of the Jewish message to the impact of oratory, charisma or self confidence. Only a defective product needs a talented salesman.

Each of the above observations independently points to the truth of the Jewish religious tradition; all of them taken together should be impossible to ignore. Were there as many indications of heart failure in a human being, he'd be rushed to cardiac surgery without delay.

And what is perhaps the most striking anomaly about the Jews and their religion has not even been mentioned yet. With G-d's help, next week.


COMING TO JUDAISM - Part 3 (of 3)

One of the most compelling factors to ponder when considering Jewish religious tradition's veracity is something that makes us uncomfortable - but something we are in a better position today to perceive than anyone at any other time in history: the power and persistence of anti-Semitism.

That the Jewish people have been historically significant is a truism. The nation described by the Torah as chosen to live by G-d's laws not only introduced monotheism and morality to human society but has played a critical role in promoting a multitude of important ideas, from the legislature to textual analysis to educational systems to ethics to democracy itself (the principle by which a Jewish court operates). And, as observers as diverse as Mark Twain and Ann Landers have noted, even from a secular perspective, the influence has been overwhelmingly positive.

Which makes anti-Semitism not only unexpected, but astounding.

What other racial, ethnic, social, or religious group can claim the distinction of having been chosen as the target of one or another form of persecution during practically every period of mankind's progression from ancient times to the present? What other group, removed from its ancestral land and scattered around the globe, can claim to have ever been subsequently singled out for extermination?

The aims of the persecutions have varied. Some of the hatred has been of a racial nature, some of a religious and some even personal. What all the animus has in common, though, is its collective focus on an unthreatening enemy: the Jews (and/or their beliefs). Whether the particular excuse was cultural (ancient Greece), religious (early Christian, or radical Islamist), racial (Nazi Germany), or national (Palestinian radicals), the mark has been the same.

The ancient Greek dedicated himself to knowledge and beauty; he hated the Jew. The Crusader championed the message of the "New Testament" (peace and love of mankind, no less); he hated the Jew. The Nazi strove for genealogical purity; he hated the Jew. The Palestinian opposes what he regards as Zionist imperialism; but in the end it is the Jew he despises.

Things might be more understandable were there in fact some World Council of International Jewry constantly plotting the next stage of the nefarious manipulation of world governments to its own evil advantage.

Or if, as large portions of the non-Jewish world once believed (and parts still do), religious Jews required Christian blood for matzos, an assertion for which countless Jews were tortured and killed.

But we members of the tribe know well that while Jewish organizational meetings can be hellish in their own way, they are rather more mundane than the fabled assembly of the "Elders of Zion" - and that matzo containing blood would never receive rabbinic certification, much less Jewish consumer enthusiasm. Yet the myths persevered for centuries - and, sadly, still do.

As do contemporary equivalents of ancient blood libels, in no less bizarre forms - like some Palestinians' projection of their own murderous designs onto Israeli soldiers seeking only to protect their fellow citizens; or like much of the Arab world's acceptance of the contention that Jews were really behind the terrorist attacks of September 11; or like media equations of accidental civilian deaths from Israeli self-defensive fire with the victims of "gunmen" gleefully seeking to kill and maim as many innocents as possible.

How is it, one can just as easily ask, that Jews are reviled in places like Idaho or Japan, where there aren't even any members of the tribe to speak of?

One can try to address the persistence of Jew-hatred into modern times by invoking "rational" explanations: psychological concepts, social theories or geopolitical realities. But, here too, there is a less complicated, if more disturbing, solution to the riddle.

And it lies, at least for Jews unafraid to face Jewish verities, once again, in the truth of the Torah - here, its prediction about how the Jewish people, in exile, will neglect their spiritual heritage and suffer for the fact.

"And He will scatter you among all the nations… and you will worship other gods… and in those nations you will not rest… you will be fearful night and day (Deuteronomy, 28:64-66)."

And so, we step back to regard the entire canvas: the monumental singularity of the revelation at Sinai; the self-defeating nature of some of the Torah's laws; the uniqueness of the Torah's judgmental descriptions of its "heroes"; Moses' utter lack of qualifications for leadership; the coming to pass of the Torah's predictions; the illogical perseverance of the Jewish people; and, finally, the sheer astonishingness of anti-Semitism's persistence.

Each of those anomalies can be countered with a different "explanation" that avoids the conclusion that the Torah is true. But at some point the thicket of complexity formed by the rationalizations must be contrasted with a simpler, straightforward, Occam's Razor-respecting possibility: that a sort of Unified Jewish Field Theory permeates the unruly mess of oddities. The key to that UJFT is that the Torah has come to us from the Creator.

Rejecting that conclusion requires a considerable dulling of Occam's razor, the invocation of a series of piecemeal mental contortions. One the other hand, embracing it carries life-changing implications, which can be a daunting prospect. No one ever said, though, that coming to Judaism was easy.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


UNTRUTH IN ADVERTISING

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Thanks all the same but no, I'd prefer my next party not be "the talk of the town."

The advertisement promising town-wide tittering over my gala affair was for a Jerusalem hotel, and appeared in a publication catering to an Orthodox Jewish readership. It went on to assure me that the food served at the establishment will hew to the highest standard of kashrut, including strict observance of the laws of the Sabbatical-year.

Fine and good. Wonderful, in fact. But I still really prefer the town not end up talking about my party. Because kashrut isn't the only concern common to observant Jews; so is (or should be) the Jewish ideal of tzeniut - literally, "hiddenness." That concept is perhaps most commonly associated with manner of dress - clothing designed and worn to clothe, not to… well, advertise. But tzeniut means not only to dress modestly but to live modestly. Jews are enjoined by the tzeniut ideal, for instances, to speak softly, to not be boastful, to shun ostentatiousness. And, presumably, to avoid becoming the talk of the town.

Thank G-d, my wife and I have been blessed with occasions to host a few parties, like the weddings of several of our children. Even though financial constraints would have limited our options in any event, we consciously opted for modest affairs, tasteful but not showy. The weddings were every bit as beautiful to the young couples, our family, our friends and us as any more elaborate celebrations could possibly have been. And if any townsfolk talked about our weddings, what was likely recounted was their dignified simplicity.

Much of the business of modern advertising, however, aims precisely to de-dignify simplicity, to try to make people feel they are missing things they are not. And so it's not only tzeniut that takes a hit; so does a fundamental attitude prescribed by the Jewish religious tradition: being "content with one's lot."

There certainly are straightforward and informative ads, offering useful products and services with integrity. Some are even clever, and thus entertaining to boot. But much of the advertising industry today seeks to make its money by preying on human insecurities and pushing the real opiate of the masses: possessions.

That is bad enough in the world at large. Worse still, though, is perusing a Jewish publication filled with articles about Jewish ideas, personalities, history and happenings and turning the page to find an advertisement fostering things antithetical to Judaism - like materialism, one-upmanship or ostentatiousness. It's like a spring day walk in the park suddenly interrupted by a foul odor.

Maybe I'm overly sensitive, allergic to ad copy hyperbole. But another ad I recently saw in yet another otherwise thoroughly Jewish publication made me uncomfortable. It, too, was pushing a hotel, this one as a place to spend the Jewish holidays.

The tagline, upfront and bolded, likely seemed innocent enough to the casual reader. "Enjoy a Memorable Sukkos Holiday!" it suggested. Details of the locale's many amenities, creature comforts and religious needs alike, followed.

Now I have nothing against Jewish families with the means to do so (and who have paid their tuition bills) packing out to a hotel for Sukkot or Passover. I feel bad that they will forfeit the singular experience of a Jewish holiday at home. But I realize that for some very busy people the preparatory work entailed would be overwhelming, and that for others family situations or logistical circumstances make a hotel experience preferable to one at home.

But the ad's tagline struck me as something other than a simple good-hearted wish. Was it subtly implying that Sukkot will be more memorable for being celebrated in a hotel? Or - could it be? - that the holiday will only be memorable if spent there?

If so, Jews who build their own sukkot, cook their own food, turn their homes into spiritual palaces (albeit without room service) would surely take issue with the contention.

I might well be overanalyzing the ad copy. But as someone who was privileged to be a teacher for nearly two decades - and who helped his wife raise a family - I never underestimate the power of even a subliminal, even an unintentional, message.

There are plenty of antithetical-to-Judaism attitudes out there in society, all around. What those of us who cherish Jewish values need to do is to counter them.

And certainly not advertise them.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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TANGLED UP IN JEWS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Anti-Israel diatribes spring from Iran's leaders like fleas from a dog, but a recent Iranian Parliament statement stood apart, containing as it did a remarkable admission.

The statement was in reaction to a comment by Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, the Iranian vice president for tourism, who contended that Iran is "a friend for all people in the world, even Israelis and Americans."

Calling for Mr. Mashai's dismissal because of that "unforgiveable mistake," the parliamentarians went on to declare that "We do not recognize a country called Israel and so we cannot recognize a nation called Israel."

The internal logic of the declaration aside, it would seem to depart from the common trope among "progressives" that Iran's leaders, and others like them, hate only contemporary Zionism, not Jews.

The statement laid bare something more. Not only is a "country called Israel" illegitimate in the signatories' eyes; so is "a nation called Israel." Perhaps that means Israeli citizens - disturbing enough. Or perhaps it means the "Israel" of antiquity, who carry the name that G-d bestowed on their forefather Jacob.

The Agudath Israel movement is not part of either the secular or religious Zionist camps, and indeed was founded in 1912 in large part to distinguish itself from both the part of the Jewish world that saw a Jewish state as a high political ideal and the part that invested the quest for a contemporary Jewish state with spiritual significance. And while Agudath Israel today is deeply committed to Israel's security, and its adherents in Israel fully participate in the country's democratic system, we "Agudists" remain theologically distinct.

Still and all, we recognize that much, if not most, of the negative sentiment aimed at Israel is tightly tangled up with hatred for Jews.

The point was made back in 1975, after the infamous "Zionism is Racism" United Nations resolution. The late and greatly missed Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the then-president of Agudath Israel of America, wrote that "Though the resolution was supposedly aimed only at secular 'Zionism'… the slander is an attack on the entire Jewish people."

Even if the hatred was aimed only at certain Jews, he continued, "we [Agudath Israel adherents] would feel precisely the same responsibility to come to the defense of our brethren. While we may have our own quarrel with secular Zionism, when Jews are libeled, their affiliation does not matter; our love for our brothers and sisters draws us to their side." But what is more, he pointedly stressed, "the U. N. resolution is aimed at all Jews, for it assails the historical Jewish right to Eretz Yisrael. The Torah bestowed that right, and any attack on it is an attack on Judaism and the Jewish people."

One can certainly be critical of Israel and not be an anti-Semite. But equally true is that there is a symbiotic relationship in some circles between criticism of Israel and hatred of Jews. Whether the chicken of anti-Zionism or the egg of anti-Semitism came first is of only academic interest. The final fricassee is animus for both. Which is why visibly Jewish European Jews, loyal citizens of their respective countries, are attacked by Arab hooligans, and Jewish cemeteries vandalized with anti-Israel graffiti.

I had a correspondent (actually, still do, if one considers his forwarding me articles and my consigning them to my trash file to constitute correspondence) who is a professor at the University of Alberta. He first wrote me a year or so ago with a pleasant note about an article I had written about Jewish ethics. When I thanked him, though, he quickly turned the topic to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His take - essentially that whatever Israel does is evil, whatever Palestinians do is noble - was so bizarre that I had to tell him it sounded like the sort of libels against Jews with which history is rife.

He took great umbrage, insisting that his criticism was only of Israel, not Jews. Gently ending our conversation, I responded that I would take him at his word but remained at an utter loss to understand what could possibly lie behind so skewed a perspective as his.

So he put me on his e-mail list for receipt of articles from websites dedicated to applauding premeditated murder and condemning self-defense (at least when the self-defender is Israel). I click the messages away, unopened, to e-mail Hades. A recent one's subject box, though, caught my eye. It read something like "This is kosher?"

The attachment was the first among the scores that had arrived over the year whose subject was not one or another of Israel's "crimes." It was a news report about workers' claims of mistreatment at a kosher meatpacking concern in Iowa. Now what on earth, I thought, does that have to do with Israel?

The answer was "nothing," of course. Like the Iranian parliament, the good professor had simply revealed the broader scope of his ample ill will.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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BLESS US

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Q: What do righteous, learned Torah scholars and newly observant Jews, or baalei teshuva, have in common?

A: The way they recite blessings.

No, it's not funny, nor meant to be. It's simply an easily confirmed observation - and one that holds a thought worth thinking.

A Jew is enjoined by Jewish religious law to pronounce scores of blessings, or brachot, each day, acknowledging the Creator's glory and gifts to His creations. Many of the blessings are part of the prayer service; others are offered throughout the day, like before and after eating - the blessings varying according to the type of food. There are brachot to be made upon seeing lightning and hearing thunder, on a rainbow, before smelling flowers or fragrant spices, after using the bathroom.

But ironically, so many opportunities to express gratitude to G-d make it easy for reverence to devolve into rote. Many of us bracha-making Jews find ourselves pronouncing the nine words meant to thank G-d for the beauty, tastiness and nourishment of an apple, for example, as a string of slurred semi-words, taking perhaps two seconds rather than the five or six needed to actually say all the words clearly and focus on their meaning.

BlessedareyouHashemourG-dkingoftheuniverseWhocreatesthefruitofthetree.

Call it an occupational hazard of religious observance. When something is done regularly and often, it is only natural for the quality of the experience to become degraded with time. But natural needn't, and here doesn't, mean acceptable. And watching a true Torah scholar (who has succeeded in routing rote) or a baal teshuva (who is more attuned to his religious actions than some of us who are more "experienced") say a bracha can help remind us of how things are meant to be - and inspire us to make them right.

A funny-sad story (considerably less humorous in writing than in my father's telling of it at the Sabbath table when I was a child) concerns a Polish Jewish peasant who owes a powerful landowner, or poritz, a good sum of money. Yankel somehow convinces the poritz to forgive the debt if he, the Jew, can teach a bear how to pray.

Faced with the need to produce results, Yankel obtains a cub and hands him a prayer-book with a drop of honey on its cover and on each of the book's pages. The bear wipes up the first drop of honey with its paw and puts it on his tongue. Bright bear that he is, he opens the book and locates and eats the other drops of honey too.

The next day, Yankel gives Boo-Boo the same prayer book, this time with a drop of honey only on every other page. The bear, with a murmur of disappointment at each page bearing only words, still manages to service his sweet tooth from the others. The following day the honey is only on random pages. The bear goes through the book, wiping up what drops of sweetness he finds and licking his paw, murmuring all the rest of the time.

The Jew is now ready. Presenting the cub to the poritz, he declares the animal synagogue-worthy and hands him the here-and-there-honeyed prayer book. The bear opens it, turns a few pages, murmuring all the while, then stops a minute to lick his finger before resuming the page-turning and murmuring. The poritz is not impressed. "That's not praying," he says sternly.

"Come with me," says the Jew, leading the poritz to the local synagogue. Morning services are underway and the Jew opens the door. Lo and behold, the poritz gazes upon an entire congregation of supplicants doing an excellent imitation of the bear. The poritz has no choice but to forgive the debt.

And everyone lived happily ever after. Well, other than those listening to the story, left to wonder whether their own prayers are something more than page-turning and mumbles.

Brachot, like prayers, are essential to Judaism. The very word "Jew" derives from the name "Judah", which the Talmud teaches is rooted in Judah's mother Leah's declaration that she was the beneficiary of "more than my share" of blessing. That refusal to take blessings for granted, that sense of gratitude to God, is what brachot embody.

And they can be accessed by all Jews, whatever their levels of observance, whatever their understanding of Judaism. Saying the required blessings throughout the day is not very difficult, nor does it offend any contemporary sensibilities. And there are many English-language guides to the pertinent laws. The practice of saying brachot may not currently be a common practice in most of the non-Orthodox Jewish world, but what is the future for - for any of us - if not to better the present?

What is more, were brachot more widely embraced among Jews, those of us who have always been saying them and are so "expert" at doing so that we slur our words and forget to think of what we're saying would have more examples from whom to learn and derive inspiration.

What a blessing that would be.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE JEWISH WEEK'S 'HAREDI PROBLEM'

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In a recent column, "Haredim: Underdogs or All-Powerful?", the New York Jewish Week's editor, Gary Rosenblatt, writes of a complaint he received from a reader, Chaim, about the paper's coverage of, and commentary on, the haredi world. Gary, whom I have known for many years and consider a friend, defends his paper and explains how, among other things, the rise of the haredi community's influence in Israel (citing its insistence on high conversion standards and "avoidance of army service"), its rejection of ideological Zionism and its support for the observance of Shmitta are all deserving of criticism.

I cannot speak for Chaim. But I think the real "haredi problem" at the Jewish Week is the dearth of haredi voices in its pages.

Because issues like those Gary raises (like most issues) do have two sides.

A strong case can be made that loosening conversion standards in Israel would have a devastating impact on whether any Israeli convert is regarded as Jewish by a sizable part of the Jewish community. And it is not hard, once the issue is fully explained, to come to realize that most haredim in Israel who choose full-time Torah-study are not trying to "avoid" army service but to serve the Jewish people (and, perforce, the cause of Israel's security) in a spiritual way - the way they sincerely believe counts most. Or to understand how a Jew can disagree with the ideology of Zionism yet be fully committed (more so, perhaps, than some card-carrying Zionists) to the security and growth of the State of Israel. And even Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the guiding light of the non-haredi Israeli Orthodox community, pined for the day when the law of leaving Jewish-owned fields fallow every seventh year might be observed as it was intended.

Yet all too often, only one side of each of those issues, and others, is regularly presented in the pages of some Jewish papers, including the Jewish Week. They tend to report and comment approvingly on any effort aimed at relaxing the Jewish bond to established halacha or to time-honored religious norms and convictions. Those who choose to hew to a more traditional Jewish path are commonly portrayed as obstacles to be overcome; their stances, as things to be "fought" or "undermined," according to those chosen for quotation or offered column space. We haredim are accused of wielding influence beyond our numbers (even of being, as per Gary's title, "All Powerful") and of poisoning the wells of "tolerance." (Sometimes I think the haredim have become the Jews' Jews.)

There are a good number of haredi writers in English these days, each entirely capable of presenting haredi points of view for readers' consideration. But none of them appear as regular columnists in the Jewish Week, and it is a very rare occasion for a haredi Jew's byline to grace any of the paper's op-ed offerings.

A newspaper, to be sure, is entitled to an editorial stance. But a paper aiming to serve the entire Jewish community best fulfils its mission by offering a variety of perspectives. Even the New York Times sees fit to include politically conservative columnists on its op-ed page.

Gary might reply that, well, haredi papers don't exactly include non-haredi, and certainly not non-Orthodox, points of view. That is true. But haredi papers are very open about their mandate, which is entirely limited to providing the haredi community with news it needs and haredi views of current events. They are not, for better or worse, intended as forums for the broader Jewish community, and make no such claim.

I don't think the Jewish Week sees itself in similarly constricted terms, as a paper promoting only the views of one or two parts of the Jewish community. As a Jewish Federation-supported paper, it is expected to cover and present the views of the entire community. And haredim are part of it.

Gary admits that "stereotypes abound" on both sides of the demographic divide in Israel, and he is right. But, in my experience, despite strong haredi feelings about non-traditional theologies and practices, the sort of personal anger and even animosity that is regularly aimed at haredim (and duly reproduced by the Jewish Week and some others) is not commonly expressed by haredim toward other Jews. All it takes is a little websurfing among haredi and other Jewish sites and blogs (especially their "comments" sections) to see that what ill will there is among the various sectors of the Jewish people tends to flow largely in one direction.

Some of that animus, sadly, seems hard-wired into some hearts, a tragedy of our time. But I wonder if some of it might result from the dearth of haredi points of view in important media outlets like the Jewish Week. Gary writes that he hopes to lunch with Chaim at some point, and that he will do his "best to hear him." What he may hear is the pain of a Jew whose community is not only regularly portrayed negatively in some Jewish media but denied an effective opportunity to defend its perspectives. Should that conversation lead to a decision by Jewish Week's editor and board of directors to consider the inclusion of a haredi viewpoint, what a wonderful gift that would be to the Jewish world - all of it.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


GOOD THINGS HAPPEN

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Like so much in our world that seems genuine at first, the photograph that graced the front pages of some of the nation's most respected newspapers earlier this month was in fact a fake.

The digital manipulation of the image, which depicted Iranian missiles being test-fired, is readily apparent in the launch pad cloud of exhaust and the mid-air smoke trails of two of the four missiles depicted. The clouds and trails are, incredibly, identical. Iran's Revolutionary Guard, which released the photograph along with some belligerent rant, was clearly doing some Photoshopping.

The alteration, first pointed out by political blogger Charles Johnson, seemed intended to conceal the fact that one of the missiles, which the Iranians claim could reach Israel, either did not fire or exploded on the ground.

This latest Iranian Photogate scandal (last year the same blogger exposed a similar clumsy attempt at graphics monkey-business by Iran's Fars News Agency) might be regarded as nothing more than an example of sloppy damage-control.

But a deeper thought hovers here.

In our day, open miracles do not occur. According to the Jewish religious tradition, direct Divine intervention to turn what we call nature on its head ended in Biblical times. Still perceptible, though, in even our less holy times are more subtle Heavenly intrusions, twists of "fate" that might wrongly be dismissed as mere coincidence.

When Israel destroyed the assortment of Arab armies arrayed against her in 1967, even hardened military men well aware of their forces' skill spoke of wonders. The rescue at Entebbe in 1976 may have entailed special-forces acumen, but sensitive Jews saw Divine fingerprints on the operation as well. In 1981, when the Iraqi nuclear plant at Osirak was obliterated, they likewise perceived the imprint of not only might but miracle as well.

And then there are the frustrated plots against Jews and the civilized world (the former so often the first target of the latter's enemies), the miracles that consist not of something happening but of something not happening. The celebrated Jewish Sage known as the Vilna Gaon is said to have once been asked about a verse in Psalms that calls on the nations of the world to praise G-d: "What sort of special praise can other nations offer that we Jews cannot?" His response: Only those among the nations who hate us know of the secret plans they crafted to harm us that failed to come to fruition. When the Messiah arrives and those people see the truth of G-d's plan, they will have a singular praise for G-d, alone in their knowledge of how He undermined their evil designs.

When, twice this month, Arabs turned bulldozers upon Jewish residents of Jerusalem, amid the sorrow over the dead and wounded, and the reminder of the evil that exists in some twisted hearts, a realization also merited attention: There are bloodthirsty Jew-haters at the wheels of countless vehicles large and small in Israel every day of every month of every year. And so, each day we are spared tragic news is a miraculous one.

And every time a Palestinian terrorist is intercepted, or has a "work accident" - his explosives detonating in his lap rather than in the Jewish crowd he had targeted - that, too, is a miracle.

As was an episode recounted in a book about Klaus Barbie, the infamous "Butcher of Lyon" (the title in fact of the book, by Brendan Murphy, Empire/Harper & Row, 1983):

In 1943, after more than three years of German control over France, the Great Synagogue of Lyon continued to function. That December 10, a Friday, the Lyon Milice, the Vichy government's shock troops, decided it was time to end the Jewish worship.

The synagogue's rabbi survived the war to tell how a member of the Milice quietly entered the rear of the sanctuary that night during Sabbath services. Armed with three hand grenades, he planned to lob them into the crowd of standing worshippers from behind, and to flee before the explosions. After quietly opening the door, he entered the room unnoticed by anyone but the rabbi, who was standing facing the congregation, and pulled the pins.

What the intruder saw at that moment, though, so shocked him that he froze wide-eyed in his tracks, barely managing to toss the grenades a few feet before fleeing. Several worshippers were injured by shrapnel but none were killed.

What had so flabbergasted the Nazi was the sudden, unexpected sight of his intended victims' faces. The congregation had suddenly, as if on cue, turned around as one to face him.

Because the would-be mass-murderer had entered the shul precisely at "Bo'i b'shalom," the last stanza of the liturgical poem Lecha Dodi, when worshippers traditionally turn toward the door to welcome the Sabbath.

We are certainly enjoined to do what we can, using all means at our disposal, to fight evil. And world leaders are right to consider the full gamut of approaches for dealing with a belligerent and potentially nuclear-armed Iran.

That is all fine, good and necessary. We do well to remember, though, that whatever path may be taken by the world's nations, what ultimately will matter is G-d's assistance.

Missiles can fail. And work accidents can happen.

And, if we are deserving, they will.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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HORRIBLY WRONG

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Sometimes a word or set of words is just so jarring, so inappropriate or so cruel that it causes actual pain. Jewish religious law forbids such language to Jews as ono'at d'varim pain-causing words. Newspapers don't likely consider themselves similarly constricted by Jewish law, and a recent report in The New York Times offered a good example of that fact.

Pain was already well in place this past week, when the terrorist militia known as Hezbollah and reviled by civilized people the world over fulfilled its part of a deal with the Israeli government to return two Israeli soldiers it had held since 2006. Cynically refusing to say whether or not the soldiers were alive, the terrorist group seemed to take a perverse pride in "revealing" with a flourish the coffins containing the bodies of the two young men.

In return for that demonstration of grace, Israel handed over the remains of nearly two hundred Palestinian fighters and five all-too-alive terrorists it had captured. One of them, of course, was Samir Kuntar, who in 1979 landed a rubber dinghy on the seashore of the coastal Israeli town of Nahariya on a mission to kidnap Israelis.

According to eyewitnesses, Mr. Kuntar invaded the apartment of an Israeli family, shot the father, Daniel Haran, in front of his four-year-old daughter Einat and then took the little girl outside where he smashed her skull against a rock with the butt of his rifle. A doctor testified that Mr. Haran's daughter had died from "a blow from a blunt instrument, like a club or rifle butt."

Mr. Kuntar later claimed to have passed out and not seen what had happened to the child, and later still denied killing her. He has never expressed remorse of any sort for killing her father and kidnapping the little girl, which he admits; and certainly not for what the witnesses and medical evidence say he did to her.

And, as we all know and had expected, he received a hero's welcome in Beirut, where Lebanon's President, Prime Minister and Speaker of Parliament all greeted him at the airport. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sent him greetings. For his part, Mr. Kuntar has vowed to continue to fight Israel in any way he can.

(The very day of the "prisoner swap" saw an Agudath Israel of America National Leadership Mission to Washington. The scores of participating delegates interacted with many Senators, Congressmen and Administration officials, several of whom remarked on the sadness born of the day's events. One Administration official, though, took heart at the stark and telling contrast of values between the determination of one side to have fallen soldiers' remains returned to their families and, on the other, the obscene celebration of murderers and murder.)

But the pain of the actual events was intensified, at least for this reader, by the first phrase of the second paragraph of a New York Times story short that day. After referencing Mr. Kuntar and the then-expected and later realized welcome awaiting him in Beirut, the paper of record duly noted that, 29 years earlier, he had floated ashore in Nahariya "to kidnap Israelis." But, the report explained, "That raid went horribly wrong."

The item went on to tell of the witnesses' accounts and medical report, but it never really got around to explaining what it was exactly that went "horribly wrong." Did The Times mean to imply that Mr. Kuntar's intentions were benign? That he somehow accidentally shot a man at point blank and smashed a little girl's head in? That he is, for some unknown reason, a victim himself of some unidentified circumstances?

A campfire that wasn't properly tended and caused a forest fire is something that "went horribly wrong." A car trip that ends in a terrible accident is something that "went horribly wrong." A fireworks display that misfires and hurts bystanders is something that "went horribly wrong."

A vicious, murderous attack on innocents, however, is an example not of something gone horribly wrong but of someone horribly evil. And to portray it as some disembodied event without a conscious cause is to rub salt into the emotional wounds of every human being who may ever have shed a tear over Daniel and Einat Haran's too-short lives and terrible deaths.

If anything went terribly wrong, it was the judgment of some editors in midtown Manhattan.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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A WORLD GOING APE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It's easy to snickeringly dismiss the recent disclosure that the late hotelier Leona Helmsley not only left $12 million to her dog but nearly all of the rest of her estate - an estimated $5-8 billion (yes, billion) - to dogdom. No correlation, after all, has ever been evident between wealth and sanity.

More significant by far was another recent bit of animal news, the Spanish parliament's June 25 vote in support of extending the right to life and freedom to apes.

That would be great apes - orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees. (Pity the poor lesser apes and common monkeys, not to mention all the non-simians, whose rights for now remain unaddressed by Spanish lawmakers.)

The vote was the culmination of a push by an entity called the Great Ape Project, which for years has advocated on behalf of having apes accepted as closer to human than animal. The DNA of apes and humans, the group points out, is very similar. Indeed it is, although there are some 40 million differences among the two species' respective nucleotides. The group further contends that "Human blood and Chimpanzee [sic] blood… can be exchanged through transfusion." Don't try that at home - or anywhere else for that matter; each species' antigens would likely prove fatal to the other.

But leave aside the scientific rationale, real or imagined, for equating Cheeta with Tarzan. That apes resemble humans is self-evident. Just looking at a man and an ape would lead us to expect human and ape DNA to have much more in common that either species' genetic material would with that of a lizard, dog or azalea. My car has much in common with a jet plane, too (a metal body, an assortment of gauges, rubber wheels, an internal combustion engine, seats, fuel…); much as I wish, though, it cannot fly.

And neither can apes. Not literally nor by means of developing machines like those manufactured through the astounding imagination, creativity and intelligence exclusive to the human race. More important still, the human capacity to conceive of abstract concepts like time, space, war, peace, love, hate - for that matter "intelligence" itself - sets us apart qualitatively from the rest of the "animal kingdom" despite the physical similarities we share.

Most important of all, only humans can conceive of right and wrong. Or, to distill those concepts to their essence, of G-d. To be sure, we are not always mindful of our responsibilities as Divine creations. But most of us know, deeply and innately, that those duties exist, and the better among us endeavor to shoulder them.

No so, apes. As University of London Professor of Genetics Steve Jones put it: "Rights and responsibilities go together and I've yet to see a chimp imprisoned for stealing a banana."

More to the point, no one has seen a chimp morally conflicted over the prospect of committing the crime.

There are those, though, who discredit the very idea of any transcendental moral imperative, and who deny that there is any metaphysical Source for the same (or any similar spiritual dimension to human beings). They consider conscience a mere delusionary adaptation bequeathed by random evolution, and reject the idea of any essential difference between humans and animals. People, for example, like Professor Peter Singer, the Princeton University Professor of Bioethics, who has suggested that the life of a healthy pig or dog should command resources before that of a severely disabled human baby, and who has promoted acceptance of cross-species intimate congress. As it happens, Professor Singer is one of the Great Ape Project's founders; he was surely heartened by the Spanish parliament's vote.

That vote has no force of law at present - and, in any event, it has been several centuries since anyone has entertained the notion that as goes Spain, so goes the world. But we would be shortsighted to dismiss the recent development. Because it dovetails diabolically with larger societal changes taking place all around us. Unborn human life is terminated for reasons of convenience, patients in extremis are considered unworthy of care, any and all means of behavior are endorsed as nothing more than "personal lifestyles." We are, the thinking goes, mere physical creatures, not different in any meaningful way from the rest of the animal world.

Which conclusion might well liberate us even further. Why should we consider any insect our inferior, any personal behavior objectionable, any act - even murder - wrong? Without affirmation of the singularity of the human soul, society itself is rendered - in the word's deepest sense - soulless.

Please note well: Jewish religious tradition forbids causing animals unnecessary pain. The first man and woman - indeed all of humanity until Noah - were even forbidden to eat meat. But Adam was nevertheless commanded to "rule over" the animal world and, in postdiluvian times, Judaism expressly permits not only the "enslavement" of animals but even their killing for human consumption.

That commandment and that permission bespeak a clear and timely truth: Humans are qualitatively different from the rest of the biosphere, elevated by their souls and the responsibilities that attend them.

To pretend otherwise is to welcome a world where Leona Helmsley's will is unremarkable and Peter Singer's way upright.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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HOW JEWS SHOULD VOTE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Yes, Varda, there is a Jewish way to vote - or at least a genuine Jewish perspective to bring to political races like the current one for the American presidency.

Some Jews would assert that "voting Jewish" consists only of analyzing the respective candidates' positions or pronouncements on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, or any of a number of domestic social issues, or on Iran, Darfur or the environment.

Such analyses are certainly proper. But there is a larger context in which to place them here, an overarching Jewish principle.

A June 6 New York Sun editorial rejected attempts to link Senator Obama with odious people he has known. The editorialist noted that even American presidents who had espoused repugnant views before their elections, came afterward to act very differently from what their erstwhile views would have led anyone to expect.

Before he ascended to the presidency, for example, Harry Truman expressed deeply negative opinions about blacks, Asians, Italians and Jews; yet, once in office he greatly energized the cause of civil rights and confounded his State and Defense Departments by recognizing Israel within minutes of the Jewish State's declaration of independence. And - like Richard Nixon, another man with seemingly strong personal feelings of ill will toward Jews - he supported Israel with military supplies at a crucial juncture in the Jewish State's history.

Thus, when it comes to world leadership, it seems, it is not unreasonable to expect the unexpected. The Sun editorialized its explanation of the phenomenon: "…once a man accedes to the presidency, reality has a way of asserting itself."

The Jewish take on the unpredictability of world leaders, however, lies less in reality's self-assertion than in the upshot of a verse in Proverbs: "Like streams of water is the heart of a king in the hand of G-d" (21:1).

The traditional understanding of those words is that while all human beings are gifted with free will, there are times when Divine guidance - even Divine coercion - can play a decisive role in the actions of mortals, and in particular those of national leaders.

That is not, of course, necessarily to say that by virtue of their exalted positions such people are mere automatons, or that they are never responsible for choices they make. "Merits are brought through the meritorious," says the Talmud, "and iniquity through the iniquitous."

What it is to say, though, is that some element of Divine intercession can sometimes be at play in a far-reaching royal - or Presidential - decision.

Thus, the Torah tells us, G-d "hardened the heart" of the Egyptian Pharaoh and, centuries later, acted through King Achashverosh to grant Esther's wishes and rescue ancient Persia's Jews from Haman's hand. (The phrase "the king" in the Book of Esther, Jewish sources inform us, on one level actually means "the King," the ultimate One). There are, similarly, many more recent examples as well of national leaders acting in ways that would never have been predictable before their rise to power. It is almost as if someone (or Someone) had reached into the leader's heart and fiddled around with its contents.

When such Heavenly interventions take place, Jewish tradition teaches, they are the fruit of Jewish merits - or, sadly, the lack of the same. What matters in the end is not the leaders' pasts but rather the Jews' presents - the current state of our dedication to G-d and His will.

Which idea, of course, rather radically alters the attitude we should take, if not the calculus we should make, when we weight candidates for high office. It doesn't obviate either the need to assess their characters or positions, or the importance itself of voting - a duty that Jewish religious authorities strongly stress. G-d's intervention in human affairs does not absolve us humans from shouldering our ethical or civil responsibilities.

But from a truly Jewish perspective, the tipping point of how kings and presidents will in the end act regarding issues that matter most is the relationship of the Jewish People to the Creator. Whoever happens to be elected is of considerably less import than the critical factor: our spiritual merits.

So, yes, Varda, while there may not be a clear candidate for the Jewish vote in November, there is a clear perspective for Jewish voters to keep in mind: What matter more than our choices in the voting booth are the ones we make in our homes and our lives.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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ON LOCATION

Rabbi Avi Shafran

I spent most of this past week at the annual conference of the American Jewish Press Association, which convened this year in Washington, D.C.

I always enjoy the yearly gathering of writers and editors for the opportunities they afford me - not only the professional ones but also the personal ones, the chances to meet other Jews, in particular those who are not like me. The opportunity to get to know them and hear about their work, lives and views is, to me, invaluable.

And, as always when I attend AJPA gatherings, I was happy to see my friend Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, a Jewish scholar and the editor of the Intermountain Jewish News, a Denver-area Jewish weekly - one of the few other Orthodox Jews at the conference.

He always asks me to study some Torah with him at some point over the conference, and I am honored and happy to oblige. This year was no exception.

But one particular AJPA-conference study-session we had, back in 2003, will always have a special place in my heart. The gathering that year took place in Los Angeles.

That year was when Rabbi Goldberg told me about a "special project" he was working on: an elucidation of a difficult 18th century commentary (that of the Vilna Gaon) to a complicated Jewish legal text (the Shulchan Aruch on the laws of mikveh), a project he has now completed and is publishing. We spent an hour or so analyzing one of the particular passages on which he was then working.

The next day, all the conference attendees were shuttled to a Universal Studios lot. There we heard a presentation from an official of the Shoah Foundation - which was then temporarily located at the Studios - followed by an interesting panel discussion about teaching the Holocaust in public schools.

We were walking to a dining hall on the premises where the awards dinner would take place and I found myself next to Rabbi Goldberg. Around us were actors' personal trailers (the more successful the actor, we were told, the larger the trailer); on the drive onto the site we had seen elaborate facades of period-piece buildings with nothing behind them, props for movies or television shows.

Rabbi Goldberg was excited, but not by the trailers or props. He had, he said, cracked a textual problem we had encountered the day before in the Vilna Gaon's commentary. I listened as he addressed the passage, and we discussed the resolution. As we spoke about the text, there was no doubt in my mind that its resolution was the high point of my friend's day, and of mine.

An uninitiated eavesdropper, no doubt, would have considered our conversation - about bends in pipes carrying rainwater to a basin for immersion to remove an invisible spiritual contamination - bizarre, to say the least. But to believing Jews, Torah is nothing less than truth, the mind, so to speak, of G-d Himself.

Scientific truths once thought to be the ultimate governors of the physical universe have yielded, with time and mind, to the strangeness of quantum physics. In traditional Jewish belief, the study of our tradition's holy texts affords us a glimpse of an even deeper world, conceptual light-years beyond the mundane.

As Rabbi Goldberg and I spoke, an immense irony materialized in my mind. Here we were, two Jews walking between trailers in a Hollywood studio lot, arguably the epicenter of all that is fake and phony in the world (although Washington's another candidate), a place where deception is the local currency and tinsel the stand-in for precious metals - having a discussion about an aspect of Truth itself.

I wondered if anyone had ever studied Torah in that spot. The idea that perhaps we had been the first filled me with a curious mix of pride and trepidation.

In Chassidic thought, physical things and places can be "elevated" by what is done with, or in, them. When, later that night, a cab spirited me away to the airport for my flight back to New York to be with my family for Shabbat, I smiled and shivered at the thought that my friend and I might have played a small but sublime role in a unique sort of spiritual empowerment.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE MISSING ETHIC

Rabbi Avi Shafran

A reader asks why I haven't seen fit to address ethical concerns raised by news reports about a kosher slaughterhouse/meatpacking concern in Postville, Iowa that was the subject of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid in May, during which hundreds of illegal immigrant workers were arrested.

He is right to chide me, especially since one ethical concern - perhaps the most important one - has been all but ignored by press and pundits.

The company, Agriprocessors, has been in the news before. In 2005, an animal rights group secretly recorded scenes of unusual post-slaughter procedures that appeared inconsistent with animal welfare and asked the local District Attorney to open an investigation. He declined to do so. Nonetheless, Agriprocessors immediately changed its methods. Subsequently, renowned animal expert Dr. Temple Grandin declared her satisfaction with the changes, and the plant received excellent grades in five independent audits.

Then there were other charges over several years by local authorities of violations of environmental and safety laws. Fines were levied and the plant made the necessary changes.

What has seized the public's attention, however, was the recent raid on the facility, said to be the largest such ICE action ever. Some of the illegal immigrants arrested, moreover, subsequently accused their erstwhile employer and supervisors of a host of crimes, including exploitation, abuse and illegal drug production.

Jewish reaction came fast and furious. The Conservative movement urged kosher consumers to consider forgoing meat produced by Agriprocessors; a Reform leader called for investigations of all kosher slaughterhouses; a liberal Orthodox group circulated a boycott petition aimed at the concern; well-known activists like Ruth Messinger, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Avi Weiss signed it; and Jewish newspapers and blogs buzzed with outrage at Agriprocessors and its owners.

The ethical offense I see here is a different one. It violates something not only rooted in Judaism but part and parcel of American jurisprudence and respectable journalism as well. It is called the presumption of innocence.

I don't know if the violations of regulatory laws on Agriprocessors' record are unusual for plants of its type and size. But whether they are or are not, the firm corrected whatever needed correcting.

Which brings us to the recent raid, about which we know three things: 1) Illegal aliens presented forged documents to obtain employment at Agriprocessors, 2) Some of those workers subsequently leveled complaints against the company and 3) The company has stated that it had no reason to doubt the workers' documentation and has vehemently denied all the workers' charges.

Yet, the petition-circulating Orthodox group has judged Agriprocessors guilty of "knowingly exploiting undocumented workers," and deemed the situation a "desecration of G-d's name." A self-described "leading progressive Zionist movement" has called on Jewish organizations to "avoid serving Agriprocessors products at their kosher functions' and expressed shock at how "a company devoted to selling… kosher meat can be so inhumane to the people working for it." A well-read Jewish blog has demanded that the company "make legal all those people whom they've brought in illegally, since they deliberately sought out illegal workers so that they could be treated with less care." A Conservative cantor sermonized about how wrong it would be to "dismiss the events in Postville." A Reform rabbi demanded to know "what it mean[s] to label something as 'fit and proper' that hurts people, exploits people or was produced cruelly."

Neither I nor Agudath Israel of America has any connection to Agriprocessors. And for all we know, it may yet be shown that the firm indeed knowingly hired illegal aliens. Or that it mistreated them, or that it was a front for a drug operation, a neo-Nazi group or a baby-cannibalizing cult. All under the eyes of the federal inspectors present at the plant at all times.

But unless and until some wrongdoing is actually proven, not merely suspected or charged, no human being - certainly no Jew, bound as we are by the Torah's clear admonition in such matters - has any right to assume guilt, much less voice condemnation or seek to levy punishment.

To be sure, a Jewish business operating in bad faith, violating the law of the land or mistreating its employees deserves tochacha, halachically appropriate criticism. Its actions violate the Torah and carry great potential for "chilul Hashem," or desecration of G-d's name. But, as the Rabbinical Council of America rightly noted in a statement about Agriprocessors, "in the absence of hard facts," no one may "rush to premature judgments… or impute guilt…"

It's not at all clear why so many Jewish groups, clergy, papers and pundits are so energetically railing against Agriprocessors in the wake of the recent government raid. The righteous indignation has the smell of adolescent excitement at the discovery of a new "noble" cause. Whatever the motivation, though, until the facts are actually in, the armchair ethicists would do well to give some thought to the Jewish ethic they somehow managed to miss.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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FROM THE MOUTHS OF MINISTERS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

"Tonight I humbly ask forgiveness of the Jewish people for every act of anti-Semitism and the deafening silence of Christianity in your greatest hour of need during the Holocaust."

Those words were spoken before a crowd of several thousand Jews attending an AIPAC Policy Conference in March, 2007. The speaker was Pastor John Hagee, the evangelist who heads the group Christians United for Israel - the very same Pastor Hagee whom Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie now accuses of "insult[ing] the survivors" of the Holocaust.

Rabbi Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, was referring to a speech Pastor Hagee made about a decade ago, about Jeremiah's prophecy that G-d would one day "bring the Jewish people again unto their land that I gave unto their fathers" (16:15). In the next verse G-d proclaims that He will send "many fishers" and then "hunters." The latter word was interpreted by Mr. Hagee as referring to Hitler, leading the pastor to regard the Holocaust as part of a Divine strategy to move Jews to the Holy Land.

One needn't agree with the pastor's take on history; or accept his assumption that simple people can identify events with prophecies; or even consider him to be in command of the facts (in his speech, he has Theodore Herzl, a resolutely secular Jew, invoking Divine command as the reason Jews should move to Palestine). But nothing in fact could be more Jewish than to accept that, no matter how inscrutable, G-d is just; and that as we look into the maw of tragedy we are to look inward as well.

And so, while the Reform rabbi may have seen the Christian minister's words as "an affront" to those who perished in the Holocaust, I saw only an attempt, imperfect but without malice, to discern the fulfillment of a Jewish prophet's words in recent history.

It is possible that Rabbi Yoffie's harsh judgment of Pastor Hagee's sermon reflects a broader disconnect between the two gentlemen. The Reform leader has long disdained the pastor's politics. Hagee, after all, is a social conservative, believes that Iran should be militarily disabled and strongly opposes a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. As such, his position profile is something of a reverse image to that of the Reform movement.

The Jewish clergyman might also have resented the Christian one's reference, earlier this year at a Reform temple in Los Angeles, to the object of Christian veneration as "a Reform rabbi" (intended as a compliment, no doubt).

But one suspects that what most profoundly divide the two clergymen are issues of theology. It is the pastor's belief, but apparently not entirely the rabbi's, that: The Torah is the word of G-d ("Truth is not what you think it is. Truth is what the Torah says it is"); G-d chose and charged the Jewish People with heeding His laws ("[The Jews are] the chosen people, a cherished people… with an eternal covenant that will stand forever"); and the Torah explicitly warns us of the repercussions of forsaking our mission.

That latter thought is in fact recalled at each Jewish festival, when Jews include in their prayers the words "Because of our sins were we exiled from our land…" It is, moreover, the dominant motif of the liturgy of the annual Jewish mourning-day, Tisha B'Av.

As it happened, the very Sabbath following Rabbi Yoffie's rebuke of Pastor Hagee, Jews the world over read one of the two portions of the Torah that relate how the Jewish People's refusal to honor their holy mission will result in the loosening of the reins holding evil at bay. The paragraphs speak of punishments so terrible they are read in an undertone. But they nonetheless must be read, audibly and carefully, because they speak to most important Jewish fundamentals: that the Torah's laws are real, and that it is built into the very fabric of the world that the Jews must heed them. Those who do evil, Pharaoh, Hitler, et al, are fully culpable for their acts - "Merits are brought through the meritorious," says the Talmud, "and iniquity through the iniquitous" - but calamity is not causeless.

It would appear that Rabbi Yoffie does not accept these truths. He believes, as he has written, that Jews "must examine each mitzvah [Torah commandment] and ask the question: 'do I feel commanded in this instance…?'"

Thus, at a recent Reform convention, he could disparage what he called "the Shabbat of eighteenth-century Europe… an endless list of Shabbat prohibitions," and proudly recall how "we fled that kind of Shabbat, and for good reason."

Many of us Orthodox Jews tend to not be comfortable with Christian evangelists. Most, after all, want Jews to accept Christianity, which a Jew is enjoined against doing, even on penalty of death. Although Reverend Hagee has clearly stated that he has no such designs, he nonetheless remains a Christian evangelist. And for Biblical interpretations, we Jews look elsewhere.

At the same time, though, an inescapable irony emerges here:

Interpretations of Biblical prophecies aside, the pastor's approach to Torah (that it is true), Jews (that they are chosen to serve G-d) and history (that it is Divinely guided) is the Jewish one; and the rabbi's, tragically, is not.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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WHAT WOULD HILLEL SAY?

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Once upon a time, Jews who found Judaism cumbersome simply declared the Torah obsolete and went about their lives as they pleased. They weren't inclined to intellectual contortions.

Some "progressive" Jews today, though, choose instead to twist and torture the Jewish canon, in an attempt to force it to "yield" what they wish it actually did. In a way, their reluctance to just jettison the Torah and Talmud is admirable. Other words, though, come to mind for their merciless manipulation of the Jewish religious tradition.

A recent example of such intellectual anarchism is Hillel. The campus organization, that is, not the Talmudic sage who, while he was an exemplar of equanimity and tolerance, had harsh words for Jews who arrogate to "exploit the crown" - i.e. misuse the Torah for personal purposes (Avot, 1:13).

"Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life" maintains a presence at more than 500 campuses throughout the United States and Canada and aims to "inspire every Jewish student to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life."

If that final phrase read "contemporary mores," a recent Hillel publication entitled "LGBTQ Resource Guide" might make sense. It is intended, after all, in its own words, to make "all Jewish students, of all sexual orientations and gender identities" feel comfortable with their choice of lifestyle. But the term "Jewish life" is simply not sufficiently expansive to include behavior that has been unarguably condemned by Jewish sources throughout the ages.

The publication itself is in equal parts self-righteous and silly. Among its offering of "Selected Jewish Texts Useful for Creating Queer Jewish Ritual" are fun-house mirror versions of Biblical laws and narratives, all imaginatively engineered to erase disapproval of certain behaviors and to imply that great Jewish personages lived in, or emerged from, various closets. Wearing its ignorance brightly on its sleeve, the "Resource Guide" risibly mangles its references. It mistransliterates words (like "v'nigeid" for "v'nigein") and invents others from whole cloth ("to'arish"). At one point, it identifies Chira, Judah's father-in-law, as his wife.

The clumsy attempts at Biblical revisionism are bad enough. Even more disturbing is the propagandists' next step: demonizing those who dare to uphold authentically Jewish values.

To that end, they refer to "religious conservatives" - presumably those who take Leviticus 18:22 and centuries of oral Jewish tradition seriously - as "purveyors of hate"; and offer up new liturgy, like a refurbished "Al Hanissim" ("On The Miracles") prayer. The original Al Hanissim is recited on the Jewish holidays of Purim and Chanukah - the latter, as it happens, commemorates the refusal of Jews to capitulate to the mores of the dominant culture. The "LGBTQ Resource Guide" version of the prayer celebrates instead the "dignity and justice" due "lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people." And it goes on to deride those who "hate us in the name of [G-d]" and "rose up to victimize us, pathologize us, brutalize us, and erase us."

The prayer-parody then thanks the Creator for having "fought alongside us, vindicated us," and "[given] us the courage to stand together… the strength… to be who we are and to love whom we love…"

Jews committed to Jewish tradition (the original, not the "new-and-improved" version) do not hate those who violate the Torah out of carnal desire. And they certainly don't "pathologize" or brutalize them. On the contrary, countless men and women challenged by predispositions to behavior condemned by the Torah have approached Orthodox rabbis and been treated with great concern and assisted in facing up to their special challenges. But no, we do not kowtow to the Zeitgeist, nor are we intimidated by its proponents. We do not apologize for our embrace of Judaism's eternal truths.

That a major Jewish organization - one pledged, no less, to "inspire" Jewish students "to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life" - has chosen to vilify us, and to glorify what the Torah considers sinful, should deeply disturb all Jews who care about Judaism - and should make us think.

During the years my family and I were privileged to live in Providence, Rhode Island, I happily gave of my time to the Brown University Hillel. The local Hillel provided services (prayer and otherwise) to a broad variety of Jewish students from Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design.

The classes I was privileged to teach attracted young people from Orthodox and non-Orthodox backgrounds - and interacting with them all was a wonderful experience. The Reform rabbi who served as the Hillel House director was always friendly and grateful for my participation. To the best of my knowledge, he never spoke disparagingly of Orthodoxy. If he considered my belief in the truth of the Torah and the sacrosanctity of its laws to be objectionable, he certainly never voiced his feeling; Hillel, after all, was about providing Jewish students with Jewish resources and Jewish learning.

Today, though, it seems that Hillel has changed. By sponsoring and distributing a document that actively celebrates what the Torah considers iniquitous and that demonizes those who stand up for Jewish truths, it has blatantly betrayed its trust.

All Jews who seek to discern G-d's will from His Torah, not try to impose their own upon it, should let Hillel's leaders know that the organization has gone too far, that it has insulted the memory and the admonition of the Talmudic sage it claims to revere, the great rabbi whose name it claims as its own.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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BABY EINSTEIN

Rabbi Avi Shafran

An amusing pair of letters to the editor appeared in the New York Times Book Review on April 13, responding to a review of a book about the science of human reproduction.

Both letters were withering critiques of the illustration that accompanied the review, a graphic of a large, oddly shaped, complex organic molecule, featuring atoms of various elements and bonds of many sorts. One of the letter-writers, a professor of chemistry, sniffed that the graphic contained a "dozen brazen errors" and deemed it "a lesson in aberration." The second, a graduate student in chemistry, denounced the drawing as "nothing short of atrocious" and upped the error count to more than two dozen.

It must have been difficult for the editors to quash the urge to respond mockingly, but somehow they managed understatement. "Our correspondents' knowledge of chemistry," they wrote, "may have kept them from noticing that the molecular entity [depicted]… spells out a familiar three-letter word."

The letters and response are entertaining evidence for how limited scientists can be in negotiating the world outside their labs. It is a truism brought to mind too by the recent sale at auction of a 1954 letter written by Albert Einstein, in which the brilliant physicist described Judaism as "like all other religions, an incarnation of the most childish superstitions." The letter, which fetched $404,000 from an unidentified buyer, also scoffed at the idea of the Jews as a chosen people.

In a 1950 letter, Einstein called himself a "deeply religious man" - in the sense that his mental exploration of the universe had provided him "a knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate… the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms." Yet, in that same letter he claims to be "agnostic" about - i.e. neither affirming nor denying -the existence of a Supreme Being.

So Einstein, awe-filled as he was by creation, rejected his religious heritage. Or maybe not. In a 1940 paper in Nature, he was not as dismissive as in the later, expensive, letter. In that paper, he admitted that "the doctrine of a personal G-d interfering with natural events could never be refuted… by science, for [it] can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot."

As Oxford professor emeritus of science and religion John Brooke recently noted, "Like many great scientists of the past, [Einstein] is rather quirky about religion, and not always consistent from one period to another."

What is more important, like many great scientists, when he wandered afield - in his case, from physics to metaphysics - he easily got lost.

The celebrated University of London Professor of Psychology H.J. Eysenck put it bluntly. "Scientists," he wrote, "especially when they leave the particular field in which they have specialized, are just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else, and their unusually high intelligence only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous…"

"Pigheaded" doesn't seem like an adjective suited to Einstein, even rambling outside his field of expertise. Wrongheaded, though, might not be terribly off the mark.

Take his political philosophy. The thinker who presented the world with the subtle brilliance of the General and Special Theories of Relativity was a resolute socialist, considering capitalism to be "a source of evil." He lobbied to end American nuclear testing and advocated supplying the United Nations with nuclear weapons. He insisted that a Marxist be appointed the president of a university to which he was to lend his name. (And when his partner in the enterprise objected, Einstein refused to be associated with the school, which became Brandeis University.)

Not that there's anything wrong with Marxism, of course. No, wait! There is! Wasn't that the political system that brought us the Soviet Union and its gulags, East Germany and the Berlin Wall, the curtailment of human rights in the People's Republic of China and the cruel deprivation of the citizenry in North Korea? No, not so smart, that Einstein, at least not regarding politics.

Not regarding G-d and Judaism either. Like his forbear Abraham the Jewish patriarch (as described by Jewish tradition), the professor perceived the impenetrable "profoundest reason and… most radiant beauty" of the physical universe and was filled with wonder. But, unlike Abraham, Einstein did not come to recognize what it all pointed to, and what it required of him.

That latter point is key. Jewish ethical texts explain that only one who has overcome the human desires and imperfections of character with which we are all born can perceive the Divine clearly. The rest of us are hampered by the little voice in the back of our heads - not physically audible but clearly heard - that reminds us how confronting our responsibility to the Creator may seriously interfere with our personal wants. It is telling that many brilliant people - and Einstein is, sadly, no exception here - who were atheist or agnostic were not beacons of morality in their personal lives and relationships.

So it is ironic that Einstein considered religion "childish." What prevented him from not only understanding light but seeing the Light may well have been his own childishness, the self-centeredness that he retained from babyhood.

Abraham transcended himself and so, fathoming nature's sublimity, he perceived Divinity. Sadly, Einstein saw the pattern, the beauty, the subtlety and the power, but, humanly flawed, he missed the big picture.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE EGALITARIANISM HAS LANDED

Rabbi Avi Shafran

My computer cautions me against fooling with certain manufacturer-determined system settings. Doing so, it warns, could create serious problems.

Riskier still is messing around with Judaism's system-settings, determined by the ultimate Manufacturer.

That lesson might be the one being learned the hard way by contemporary Jewish religious movements which, unconstrained by the Jewish religious tradition, chose years ago to remove the slash that Jewish tradition places diagonally through the equal sign flanked by "men" and "women."

Both genders, of course, are equally important to G-d. Women should be paid equal amounts for equal work on a par with men, and they should be respected no less than males. But pretending that men and women are identical and interchangeable in their life-roles - the much-cherished "egalitarian" approach - not only offends Jewish tradition, it may bode demographic disaster.

A soon-to-be-released report entitled "The Growing Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life," by Brandeis University sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman, will present statistical evidence to confirm what has been widely suspected in recent years: males in non-Orthodox communities are opting out of religious activities. Professor Fishman fears that as non-Orthodox Jewish men become increasingly estranged from religious and communal life they are more likely to intermarry and become "ambivalent at best, if not downright hostile to Jewish tradition."

Could the exodus of non-Orthodox men from communal religious participation have some relationship to "progressive" Jewish groups' efforts to erase the idea of gender roles in Judaism?

I don't mean that non-Orthodox men feel insulted, having been displaced by their female counterparts in practices and positions that were once their lot. No, I mean something more subtle: that messing up the system settings, well, messes up the system.

Roles are part and parcel of Judaism. Just as, among Jewish men, Cohanim and Leviim have prescribed roles, so are there roles that are gender-specific. Some Jewish women were led to believe that a title or public "privilege" would somehow ennoble them, that a tallit or kippah would render them more important or worthy. Others, however, more in touch with Torah, regarded the "equality" campaign with curiosity and just resumed the vital business of their Jewish lives.

The Talmud (Ketuvot 67b) tells of a great scholar, Mar Ukva, who, each day after study, would surreptitiously leave some coins near the door of a poor person in his neighborhood. One day, Mar Ukva stayed late in the study hall and his wife came to accompany him home. Together they walked, making Mar Ukva's usual detour to leave the coins in the regular place. As he began to place the coins, the poor man approached the door. The couple, realizing they would be spotted and wanting their charity to be (as is best) anonymous, took flight; the poor man, wanting to identify his benefactors, gave chase.

The couple ducked into an excellent, if unusual hiding place: a large outdoor oven. Unfortunately, it had recently been used and was still hot. Mar Ukva felt his feet begin to burn. His wife, noticing his discomfort, told him "Put your feet on top of mine," which he did. She did not seem to feel the heat. And thus they successfully evaded their pursuer.

After the incident, Mar Ukva was depressed over the fact that he had not merited a miracle as had his wife. She, though, understood. "Don't you see?" she explained. "I'm in the house so much more than you, so I have many more opportunities than you to be charitable toward the poor who come to our doorstep. And the food and drink I give them can be enjoyed immediately, unlike the money you give. And so, with regard to charity, my merit is greater than yours."

Mrs. Ukva thus conveyed a quintessential Jewish attitude: What counts over our years on this earth is not the prominence we acquire but the merit we achieve; not our particular roles, but what we do with them. It was precisely her "limited" role as a Jewish woman - a homemaker and child-rearer - that had allowed Mar Ukva's wife to merit a miracle denied her scholarly husband.

The concept is really not so strange. Is the undercover agent less important than the foot soldier? The bass player than the drummer? The researcher than the surgeon? Whether roles are loud or quiet, prominent or behind-the-scenes, has no bearing at all on their ultimate value.

Jewish women can choose to embrace contemporary society's game-playing in the guise of egalitarianism and squander their specialness. Or they can answer life's "role-call" with a resounding, Abrahamic, "Here I am!"

By portraying Judaism's assignation of special roles for men and for women as offensive, and selling Jewish women the idea that their traditional Jewish roles are raw deals, the non-Orthodox movements skewed Judaism's system-settings. They may even have undermined their own futures. What's certain, though, is that they deprived their followers of a vital Jewish truth.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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JEWISH WEALTHS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Stephen Schwarzman is a very wealthy man. And a very generous one.

The CEO and co-founder of The Blackstone Group, a New York investment bank, recently made the largest unrestricted gift to any New York cultural institution: $100 million, to the New York Public Library.

Mr. Schwarzman may well have made gifts to Jewish causes too. Although his current wife is not Jewish and their marriage ceremony was presided over by both a rabbi and a priest, many intermarried Jews maintain relationships to the larger Jewish community and its institutions. The $100 million, though, is going to the public library.

Untold millions of Jewish philanthropic dollars, sums to spin the head of those of us who think in $20 bill denominations, have similarly been donated to causes that, worthy though they might be, do not address needs exclusive to the Jewish community.

Those needs include the Jewish poor, who not only actually exist but comprise a sizable subset of some communities. In New York, fully 145,000 Jews are classified by the government as poor, and another 375,000 as "near poor." There are considerable numbers of impoverished Jews in other American cities as well, and in Israel and Europe.

Then there are Jewish day schools and yeshivot that subsist on shoestring budgets, forced to pay subsistence salaries - if that - to their teachers and staffs. And, of course, the myriad worthy Jewish nonprofit organizations that oversee social, educational and cultural projects, and rely on the donations of individual Jews to serve the community.

Yet, as in the case of Mr. Schwarzman's recent gift, the vast majority of private Jewish philanthropy benefits secular institutions like libraries, universities and museums.

According to a 2007 paper, "Mega-Gifts in Jewish Philanthropy," written by Gary A. Tobin and Aryeh K. Weinberg and published by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, more than 90% of Jewish individual "mega-gift" dollars over the years 2000-2003 were directed to just such entities. Health and medical causes came next. Jewish causes netted approximately 1%.

The strongly Jewishly-identified part of the Jewish community certainly has its own members of means, and they are generously committed to Jewish causes. But the lion's share of the fruits of American Jews' business and professional success seems to reside in less consciously Jewish coffers.

That led a thoughtful correspondent to point something out to me: While the secularist segment of the Jewish world may boast the most well-heeled philanthropists, the have/have-not equation is turned on its head when wealth is measured not in dollars but in the currency of Jewish knowledge.

In that calculus, it is precisely the fiscally unremarkable part of the Jewish population that holds the surplus, and the financially successful portion that is most impoverished.

Which thought led my correspondent to wonder further if the more Jewishly-knowledgeable world is sufficiently generous with its spiritual wealth.

It is a worthy question. To be sure, there are many impressive ventures aimed at sharing Jewish learning with Jews who might not have had previous opportunities to meet it. Such "outreach" and Torah-study groups take a variety of forms. Some produce written material; others offer classes and operate study-halls; yet others arrange telephone study partnerships or community Shabbat meals.

And then there are the websites, like aish.com, beingjewish.com, innernet.org.il, ohr.edu, simpletoremember.com (full disclosure: that one is the brainchild of my dear son-in-law) and Torah.org - each of them a cornucopia of Torah-knowledge for Jews seeking it.

There is, moreover, the celebrated and successful telephone study-partner "matchmaker" Partners in Torah (partnersintorah.org); and there are the major publishing houses, like ArtScroll, Feldheim and Targum (whose url's are their names followed by ".com"), which offer excellent books in English on practically every Jewish subject under the sun.

Where there is arguably room for greater effort on the part of us observant Jews, though, is on the personal level. Opportunities abound in many of our lives for sharing Jewish knowledge - or, at very least, information about resources like those mentioned above - with Jewish relatives, neighbors and co-workers who may not have had the benefit of a Jewish upbringing.

And there are invitations, too, to be offered - for Shabbat or holiday meals, to attend synagogue services or lectures or Jewish celebrations together. Offering an experience of the vibrancy of contemporary observant Jewish life is the single most generous gift any Jew could possibly give another.

So, whether or not material wealth is flowing from the materially successful secular Jewish sphere to less affluent parts of the Jewish community, there is no reason why spiritual wealth should not flow freely from the latter to the former.

Who knows? my correspondent wonders further. Maybe more determinedly sharing such intangible but meaningful possessions will not only yield personal benefits to the Jewish recipients but constitute a merit for the economic wellbeing of Jewish institutions and charities. Addressing the imbalance in Jewish knowledge, in other words, could be the act of generosity to help trigger a positive change in the focus of philanthropists.

The thought is intriguing but moot. Reaching out to other Jews is the right thing to do.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE WRIGHT STUFF

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Even before Senator Barack Obama unequivocally denounced Reverend Jeremiah Wright as the loon he is, I was willing to take the senator's word for the fact that his erstwhile pastor's rantings about America, the Middle-East, the September 11 attacks, Louis Farrakhan, AIDS and white people do not reflect Mr. Obama's own feelings.

What pained me then, though, and still does, is the tragic subtext of Pastorgate - that the sort of rank idiocy that was spewed from the pulpit at Chicago's Trinity Church may not be unusual in churches that cater to African-Americans. Senator Obama's statement, back when he still sought to preserve some of his pastor's dignity, was telling. "I can no more disown [Wright]," he said, "than I can disown the black community." Did he mean to in some way equate the two?

Well, Wright certainly did. On his talk-show vanity tour, he boasted that "This is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright. It is an attack on the black church." The same sentiment was expressed by Wright's successor at the church, Reverend Otis Moss 3rd, who said: "You cannot caricature Rev. Wright. This is an attack on the collective black church." The first assertion, although in a sense Mr. Moss may not have meant, is undoubtedly true; no caricature could convey Wright's lunacy more vividly than the thing itself. As to the second, we can only hope it is not so.

That the Detroit NAACP - a branch of an organization traditionally empowered by mainstream civil rights advocates, including many religious men and women - saw fit to invite Wright to address its recent forum is not encouraging.

I spent my childhood in a racially mixed neighborhood; one of my best friends was a black boy a bit older than I. Junie and I would wrestle, play ball and ride our bikes on the rocky hills near where we lived in Baltimore. We had "kid to kid" conversations, too. He learned a lot about how religious Jews lived, and I learned things from him too. (Quite the critical thinker, he once knit his brow when we passed a local synagogue advertising the availability of High Holiday seats for purchase, and asked me incredulously, "You gotta PAY to PRAY?" It was a good point.)

Another black presence in my formative years was Lucille, our "cleaning lady." She would come to my parents' modest home once or twice a week and help my mother with ironing and housekeeping. We children, following our parents' example, always treated Lucille with great respect, and, not to be cliché, she really was in many ways part of the family. My mother, may her memory be a blessing, would serve her lunch each day she came. And when Lucille grew older and unable to do any real work, my mother, mindful of our housekeeper's financial neediness, made a point of continuing her "employment," having her come over and wipe off a counter or two, so that she could be given her wages - and lunch, of course - as compensation, not charity.

Then there was Dhanna, the librarian in Providence, where my wife and I raised our children, who was so kind to them during their frequent visits to the public library, always smiling at them, helping them find what they were looking for and proudly placing the artwork they produced for her on her desk for all to see. And Desi, our own young daughters' friend from those years, who became quite conversant with the laws of kashrut and Shabbat.

To be sure, I have had unpleasant encounters with blacks. Like in my youth, when a group of boys who had asked my classmates and me to join our baseball game, once at bat, decided to turn the Louisville Sluggers on us. Or the "Heil Hitler" that one teenager delighted in shouting at my father and me when we walked to the synagogue. Even today, I come across the occasional anti-Semite of color.

But more than the occasional pale-faced one too. There are good and bad people in every population. Mindful of the Talmudic imperative to judge "all men favorably" (Avot, 1:6), I have never measured any human being by any yardstick other than his own words or deeds. And my wife and I always sought - and I think successfully - to instill that attitude in our children.

Mere months ago, I would have imagined that preachers in black churches speak to their flocks about serving G-d and living moral lives, about humility, self-respect and love. And maybe most do. But the current presidential campaign's sideshow of "Wright stuff" has been sadly educational. If even a minority of black church leaders are of the Trinity mold (both the word's senses intended), feeding their congregants the sweet poison of suspicion and hatred, the dream of a truly color-blind society will have been set back a century - even if an African-American is elected to the very highest office in the land.

And, of course, as elsewhere in the world, the general anti-American and anti-white ravings of black religious leaders like Wright and Farrakhan exhibit an undercurrent of anti-Israel sentiment - today's "respectable" proxy for anti-Semitism. The latter famously sneered at Israel's "dirty religion" (he meant Zionism, he later clarified helpfully). And the former saw fit to include in a church newsletter an Arab writer's charge that Israel and South Africa "worked on an ethnic bomb that killed Blacks and Arabs."

I can't imagine Junie or Dhanna or Desi tolerating such tripe. What anguishes me is that, for all I know, their children or grandchildren may be.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE FOUR ANSWERS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It is not only the Torah's words that hold multiple layers of meaning. So do those of the Talmudic and Midrashic Sages - even the words of the prayers and rituals they formulated.

Such passages have their p'shat, or straightforward intent. But they also have less obvious layers, like that of remez - or "hinting" - unexpected subtexts that can be revealed by learned, insightful scholars.

One such meaning was mined from the Four Questions that are asked, usually by a child, at the Passover Seder service. The famous questions are actually one, with four examples provided. The overarching query is: Why is this night [of Passover] different from all the other nights [of the year]?

"Night," however, can mean something deeper than the hours of darkness between afternoon and dawn. In Talmudic literature it can be a metaphor for exile, specifically the periods of history when the Jewish People were, at least superficially, estranged from G-d. The sojourn in Egypt is known as the "Egyptian Exile," and the years between the destruction of the First Holy Temple in Jerusalem and its rebuilding is the "Babylonian Exile."

"Why," goes the "'hinting' approach" to the Four Questions, "is this night" - the current Jewish exile - "different" - so much longer - than previous ones? Nearly 2000 years, after all, have passed since the Second Temple's destruction.

In this reading, the four examples of unusual Seder practices take on a new role; they are answers to that question.

"On all other nights," goes the first, "we eat leavened and unleavened bread; but on this night… we eat only unleavened." The Hebrew word for unleavened bread, matza, can also mean "strife." And so, through the remez-lens, we perceive the first reason for the current extended Jewish exile: personal and pointless anger among Jews. The thought should not puzzle. The Second Temple, the Talmud teaches, was destroyed over "causeless hatred." That it has not yet been rebuilt could well reflect an inadequate addressing of its destruction's cause.

The second: "On all other nights we eat all sorts of vegetables; but on this night, bitter ones." In the Talmud, eating vegetation is a sign of simplicity and privation. Amassing money, by contrast, is associated with worries and bitterness. "One who has one hundred silver pieces," the Talmudic rabbis said, "desires two hundred." So the hint in this declaration is that the exile continues in part because of misplaced focus on possessions, which brings only "bitterness" in the end.

"On all other nights," goes the third example, "we need not dip vegetables [in relish or saltwater] even once; this night we do so twice." Dipped vegetables are intended as appetizers - means of stimulating one's appetite to more heartily enjoy the forthcoming meal. In the remez reading here, such "dipping" refers to the contemporary predilection to seek out new pleasures. Hedonism, the very opposite of the Jewish ideal of "his'tapkut," or "sufficing" with less, is thus another element extending our current exile.

And finally, "On all other nights, we sit [at meals] at times upright, at times reclining; this night we all recline." During other exiles, the "hint" approach has it, there were times when Jews felt downtrodden in relation to the surrounding society, and others when they felt exalted, respected, "arrived." In this exile, according to the remez approach, we have become too comfortable, constantly "reclining." We view ourselves at the top of the societal hill, and wax prideful over our achievements and status.

Thus, the Four Questions hint at four contemporary Jewish societal ills that prolong our exile: internal strife, obsession with possessions, hedonism and haughtiness.

However one may view that "hint" approach to the Seder's Four Questions, looking around we certainly see that much of modern Jewish society indeed exhibits such spiritually debilitating symptoms. Arguments, which should be principled, are all too often personal. "Keeping up with the Cohens" has become a way of life for many. Pleasure-seeking is often a consuming passion. And pride is commonly taken in petty, temporal things instead of meaningful ones.

Most remarkable, though, is that the above remez approach to the Four Questions is that of Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, best known for his commentary on the Bible, the Kli Yakar.

He died in 1619. Imagine what he would say today.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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DECONSTRUCTING DAYEINU

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Much of our Seder-night message to our children, mediated by the Haggadah, is forthright and clear. Some of it, though, is subtle and stealthy.

Dayeinu, for example.

On the surface, it is a simple song - a recitation of events of Divine kindness over the course of Jewish history, from the Egyptian exodus until the Jewish arrival in the Holy Land - with the refrain "Dayeinu": "It would have been enough for us." It is a puzzling chorus, and everyone who has ever thought about Dayeinu has asked the obvious question.

Would it really have "been enough for us" had G-d not, say, split the Red Sea, trapping our ancestors between the water and the Egyptian army? Some take the approach that another miracle could have taken place, but that certainly would weaken the import of the refrain. And then there are the other lines: "Had G-d not sustained us in the desert" - enough for us? "Had He not given us the Torah." Enough? What are we saying?

Contending that we don't really mean "Dayeinu" when we say it, that we only intend to declare how undeserving of all G-d's kindnesses we are, is the sort of answer children view with immediate suspicion, and make faces at.

One path toward understanding Dayeinu, though, might lie in remembering that a proven method of engaging the attention of a child - or even an ex-child - is to hide one's message, leaving hints for its discovery. Could Dayeinu be hiding something significant in plain sight?

Think of those images of objects or words that the mind needs time to comprehend, simply because the gestalt is not immediately absorbed; one aspect alone is perceived at first, although another element may be the key to the image's meaning.

Dayeinu may be precisely such a puzzle. And its solution might lie in the realization that one of the song's lines is in fact not followed by the refrain at all. Few people can immediately locate it, but one of the events listed is pointedly not followed by the word "dayeinu."

Can you find it? Or have the years of singing Dayeinu after a cup of wine obscured the obvious? You might want to ask a child, more able for the lack of experience. I'll wait…

…Welcome back. You found it, of course: the very first phrase in the poem. Dayeinu begins: "Had He taken us out of Egypt…" That phrase - and it alone - is never qualified with a "dayeinu." For only it refers, so to speak, to a "non-negotiable." The exodus from Egypt was the singular, crucial, transformative point in Jewish history, when we Jews became a people, with all the special interrelationship that peoplehood brings. Had Jewish history ended with starvation in the desert, or even at battle at an unrippled Red Sea, it would have been, without doubt, a terrible tragedy, the cutting down of a people just born - but still, the cutting down of a people. The Jewish nation, the very purpose of creation ("For the sake of Israel," as the Midrash comments on the first word of the Torah, G-d created the universe), would still have existed, albeit briefly.

And our nationhood, after all, is precisely what we celebrate on Passover. When the Torah recounts the wicked son's question (Exodus,12:26) it records that the Jews responded by bowing down in thanksgiving. What were they thankful for? The Hassidic sage Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein (1856-1926) explains that the very fact that the Torah considers the wicked son to be part of the Jewish People, someone who needs and merits a response, was the reason for the Jews' happiness. When we were just a family of individuals, each member stood or fell on his own merits. Ishmael was Abraham's son, and Esau was Isaac's. But neither they nor their descendents merited to become parts of the Jewish People.

That now, after the exodus, even a "wicked son" would be considered a full member of the Jewish People indicated to our ancestors that something had radically changed since pre-Egyptian days. The people had become a nation.

And so the subtle message of Dayeinu may be just that, the sheer indispensability of the Exodus - its contrast with the rest of Jewish history, its importance beyond even the magnitude of all the miracles that came to follow.

If so, then for thousands of years, that sublime thought might have subtly accompanied the strains of spirited "Da-Da-yeinu's," ever so delicately yet ever so ably suffusing Jewish minds and hearts, without their owners necessarily even realizing it.

In any event, it's an idea worth pondering.

For now, dayeinu.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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JEWISH MULTIPLE PERSONALITY DISORDER

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The media's fascination with Orthodox Jews seems to only intensify with time. Some of us Orthodox may be discomfited by reports that television and motion pictures have come to increasingly offer up observant Jewish characters and observances; but one supposes that is simply the price of our community's growth in numbers and visibility. Feature stories, at least those that don't treat the Orthodox as some sort of freak-show exhibit, are generally unobjectionable. Legitimate news reports, of course, are fine.

One might question, though, whether some news stories are truly newsworthy, especially when they give vent to sentiments that regard Orthodox Jews as sinister or threatening.

A March 9 article in the business section of The New York Times may or may not have been journalistically justified. It was, though, thought-provoking.

The piece described how some residents of the Long Island community of Great Neck have come to feel oppressed by a growing Orthodox Jewish population in the village. The problem? Several stores have been closing on the Jewish Sabbath.

One woman lamented how, wanting to buy a box of nails one Saturday, she found the local hardware store dark. Another had a similarly disconcerting experience with a liquor store. The horror.

And so, the whispers (and comments spoken aloud to reporters) these days include phrases like "pressure from the religious community," and sentiments like the fear that the neighborhood is "going Orthodox" and being "targeted" by observant Jews.

One patron told The Times, "Everyone is entitled to practice their religion as they choose, but please don't push it on me."

"Pressured?" "Targeted"? "Push it on me"? Observant Jews who purchased homes in a suburban community are an invading force? A merchant who decides to close his business on the Jewish Sabbath is pushy? What year is this again?

Something beyond mere inconvenience, one suspects, is at work here, some resentment with roots deeper than the need to drive a few more blocks one day a week to buy some nails. The "don't push it on me" patron may have revealed a gnarled limb with another comment she made, simple and straightforward: "It annoys me no end that stores are closed on Saturdays."

Her annoyance seems visceral, its source the Sabbath itself. Or, perhaps more accurately, the fact that there are Jews who insist, even in this day and age, on its observance.

The annoyed may include non-Jews, but Great Neck has a substantial Jewish population, and it has often been the case that Jews are at the forefront of objections to the appearance of Orthodox fellow-Jews in a community. But why would any Jews feel discomfited by other Jews' honoring the Sabbath? Would they be piqued if they lived in a devoutly Christian community where merchants chose not to do business on Sundays?

What it brings to mind is the story of the Jewish fellow who found himself seated on a plane next to a bearded man wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a long black coat. Unable to control himself, the clean-shaven gentleman gives the other one a disapproving look and a long lecture about how Jews today need not look or act like their great-grandparents, how Judaism has evolved, how we Jews should be Americans first, Jews mainly in our hearts, and so on.

With a bewildered look, the bearded passenger quietly responds: "I'm Amish."

The lecturer turns crimson and apologizes profusely. "I want you to know," he stammers, "that I so respect your determination to live by the ideals of your faith and your community's traditions. It is inspiring to know that there are people who put eternal truths before society's whims and fashions…"

"Just joking," the beard interrupts, with a mischievous smile. "You were right the first time."

Such Jewish multi-personality disorder deeply disturbs some Orthodox Jews, and understandably. Why indeed should a Jewish person fully accept a non-Jew's choice to honor his faith and tradition yet resent a fellow Jew's choice to honor his own?

Maybe it's my naturally optimistic bent, but what occurs to me is that, on the contrary, something positive lies in Jewish discomfort over Jewish observance. If there are indeed Jews in the Great Neck posse, the fact that they would never even feel, much less express, chagrin over Amish folks' or Catholics' or Muslims' observance of their faiths yet are "annoyed" by Jews observing theirs can only mean one thing: they truly care about Judaism. Enough to be bothered when reminders of how Jews were meant to live intrude on the complacent comfort of their lives and puncture their consciences.

Their aggravation, in other words, is just fallout from the self-assertion of their Jewish souls.

If only they would decide to think instead of fume. Then their pain could be turned to great gain.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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GOVERNING OURSELVES

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The "steamroller," we all know, was steamrolled. Although those whom Eliot Spitzer focused on flattening were New York State wrongdoers, he ended up being mangled by misdeeds of his own. And thereby became an object of derision and ridicule - the single greatest generator of schadenfreude since the Wicked Witch's demise evoked the Munchkins' delight.

From a Jewish perspective, should we be jumping on the badmouth bandwagon?

One rabbi I know feels we should. Speaking publicly, he called the former governor an "evil man," noting the irony of how his fall from a high peak of honor and power to ignominy came about through activity of a sort he had himself prosecuted others for doing, and stopping just short (I think) of equating him with the Purim villain Haman.

Succumbing to desires can indeed yield evil things. However, as Bruriah, the renowned wife of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Meir, taught us, it is important sometimes to distinguish between sinner and sin (Tractate Brachos, 10a). Most of us succumb, at least on occasion, to illicit personal desires - if only the desire to gossip, to react with anger, to waste time. As I told my wife and some family members, if I weren't such a "baal taava" - a hedonist - I would be a good 20 pounds lighter.

My wife (whose cooking and baking are part of the problem) responded that, well, there are succumbed-to desires and there are succumbed-to desires; they are not all the same. And, of course, she is right (as usual). And moral violations, in particular, do indeed entail evil.

But there is some relativity here, as there is in all crimes of passion. Who can really know just what it must be like to be a well-heeled, famous, ambitious man in a position of power, trotting the globe (or at least the coast) collecting kudos - enriched with currency but bereft of Jewish religious values like the ideal the rabbis of the Talmud call "the fear of sin"?

Those same rabbis, interestingly, in Tractate Berachos, 32a, use the parable of a man who pampered his son, "hung a coin purse on his neck, and stationed him at the entrance of a brothel."

"What," they asked, "can the son do so as not to sin?" Or, as we might put it: "Well, what exactly do you expect?"

To be sure, Mr. Spitzer is no boy; he is a grown man and was a public official. Much more was rightfully expected of him. After all, we must all learn to control, not be controlled by, our desires - to, so to speak, govern ourselves.

Still and all, though, the Talmud elsewhere exhorts us not "to judge another until one has stood in his place." And so, if there is any lesson to be mined from the tawdry tale of Mr. Spitzer's fall from grace, I think it may lie less in his sin than in the reaction to it. "In the downfall of your enemy," King Solomon admonishes, "do not rejoice" (Proverbs, 24:17). Even someone who has earned one's enmity does not deserve to be gloated over when he has fallen. A recognition of the irony of the former governor's political demise is certainly proper. And feelings of disappointment, even of disgust, are not out of place. But the derisive glee that arose and crashed like a tidal wave, is not so very far from a sin itself.

I find the act of a second rabbi I know to be more in line with the Jewish religious tradition. This rabbi took the time to pen Mr. Spitzer a short personal note. It conveyed the sentiment that great people, even Biblical figures, had sinned, some even in ways that, at least in some way, were a failure of moral fortitude. Those people, the writer added, were in no way barred from repentance, and the greatest among them indeed came, as a result of their falls, to change their lives for the better.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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ACCIDENTS DON'T HAPPEN

Rabbi Avi Shafran

With time, those with open eyes come to recognize that life is peppered with strange, small ironies - "coincidences" that others don't even notice, or unthinkingly dismiss.

The famous psychiatrist Carl Jung puzzled over such happenings, which he felt were evidence of some "acausal connecting principle" in the world. In a famous essay, he named the phenomenon "synchronicity."

To those of us who believe in a Higher Power, synchronistic events, no matter how trivial they may seem, are subtle reminders that there is pattern in the universe, evidence of an ultimate plan.

My family has come to notice what appears to us to be an increase of such quirky happenings in our lives during the month (or, as this year, months) of Adar.

That would make sense, of course, since Adar is the month of Purim, the Jewish holiday that is saturated with seemingly insignificant "twists of fate" that turn out to be fateful indeed. From King Achashverosh's execution of his queen to suit his advisor and later execution of his advisor to suit his new queen; to Mordechai's happenstance overhearing and exposure of a plot that comes to play a pivotal role in his people's salvation; to Haman's visiting the king at the very moment when the monarch's insomnia has him wondering how to honor Mordechai; to the gallows' employment to hang its builder… The list of drolly fortuitous happenings goes on, and its upshot is what might be called The Purim Principle: Nothing is an Accident.

The holiday's very name is taken from an act of chance - "purim" are the lots cast by Haman, who thinks he is accessing randomness but is in fact casting his own downfall. He rejoices at his lottery's yield of the month during which he will have the Jews destroyed: the month of Moses' death. He does not realize that it was the month, too, of his birth.

The contemporary Adar coincidences I've come to expect are often about trivial things, but they still fill me with joy, as little cosmic "jokes" that remind me of the Eternal. One recent evening, for example, I remarked to my wife and daughter how annoying musical ringtones in public places are, especially when the cellphones are programmed, as they usually are, to assault innocent bystanders with jungle beats and rude shouting. "Why can't they use the Moonlight Sonata?" I quipped.

The very next day at afternoon services, someone's cellphone went off during the silent prayer. Usually my concentration is disturbed by such things but this time the synchronicity of the sound only made me more aware of the Divine. Never before had I heard a phone play the Moonlight Sonata.

Only days later, my daughter saw a license plate that intrigued her. It read: "Psalm 128." What a strange legend for a car, she thought. That very night she accompanied her mother and me to a wedding. Under the chuppah, unexpectedly, a group of young men sang a lovely rendition of… yes, you guessed it.

Other times, the Adar coincidences are more obviously meaningful, clearly linked to Purim. A few Adars ago, a striking irony emerged from a new book about Joseph Stalin. It related something previously unknown: that after the infamous 1953 "Doctors Plot," a fabricated collusion of doctors and Jews to kill top Communist leaders, the Soviet dictator had ordered the construction of four giant prison camps in Siberia, "apparently," as a New York Times article about the book put it, "in preparation for a second great terror - this time directed at the millions of Soviet citizens of Jewish descent."

Two weeks later, though, Stalin took suddenly ill at a dinner party and, four days later, it was announced that he had died. His successor Nikita Khrushchev recounted how the dictator had gotten thoroughly drunk at the dinner party, which ended in the early hours of March 1. Which, that year, fell on the 14th of Adar, Purim.

This year, too, I was synchronicity-struck by an unexpected piece of Adar information. It materialized as I did research for a speech I was to give about the destruction of a small Lithuanian town's Jewish community during the Holocaust.

The most famous extant document about Nazi actions in Lithuania is what has come to be known as the Jager Report, after SS-Standartenfuehrer Karl Jager (whose surname, incidentally, means "hunter" in German; "as his name so was he": he hunted Jews). Filed on December 1, 1941, and labeled "Secret Reich Business," the report meticulously details a "complete list of executions carried out in the EK [Einsatzkommando] 3 area" that year.

It records the number of men, women and children murdered in each of dozens of towns and ends with the grand total of the operation's victims - 137,346 - and the words: "Today I can confirm that our objective, to solve the Jewish problem for Lithuania, has been achieved by EK3…"

Standartenfuehrer Jager, however, only oversaw the operation; he didn't get his hands dirty with the actual work of shooting Jews. That he left to a "raiding squad" of "8-10 reliable men from the Einsatzkommando," led by a young Oberstumfuherer called Hamman. Joachim Hamman.

May his name, and that of his ancient namesake, be blotted out, and our days be transformed, in the Book of Esther's words, "from sorrow to gladness and from mourning to festivity."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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WHAT COUNTS (AND DOESN'T) IN A CANDIDATE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Barack Obama is black. Hillary Clinton is a woman. John McCain has hair and is clean shaven. So who's a balding, bearded Jew like me supposed to support?

If the question strikes you as silly, or worse, you haven't been paying attention to the media and pollsters. They inform us, and with ample evidence to support the claim, that large numbers of black Americans support Mr. Obama simply because of his color; many women, Mrs. Clinton because of her gender; and many Caucasians Mr. McCain, because of his - well, both.

A recent CNN headline was typical. "Gender or Race," it reads, "Black women voters face tough choices..." One of the "story highlights" of the featured article amplified: "Women are torn between voting their race or voting their gender."

Now, it's certainly understandable that blacks - and, for that matter, we persons of pallor - take pride in the fact that someone of African ancestry is a viable candidate for the highest office in the land; or that women - and men - feel similarly impressed by the fact that a female is the other candidate for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Many Jews, of course, felt no differently about a Jewish candidate - an observant one, no less - when he was a vice presidential candidate in 2004.

Such pride, though, is properly felt not over the candidates themselves but rather over our country and its citizens - for the distance traveled since the days of segregation, disenfranchisement and religious quotas. Maybe there were Jews who voted for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman in 2004 simply because of the latter's ethnicity. If so, though, they weren't exactly examples of legendary Jewish intelligence. I actually know more than a few members of the tribe who, embracing the time-honored and never unjustified Jewish trait of nervousness, pointedly voted Republican that year, out of concern that a Jew in high office would become a magnet for Jew-hatred. Most Jews, I hope, simply voted for the candidates they felt were best suited to lead the country - or, at least, the ticket they thought would best address the issues important to them. Needless to say, that is how it should be.

When it comes to charitable giving, of course, it is perfectly proper to favor causes or institutions that benefit one's family, race, gender or religious compatriots. Even supporting a candidate for office at least partly because one feels that his or her election will benefit one's particular community is fine. But voting on the exclusive basis of a candidate's skin color or gender? We have words for that: racism and sexism.

Among the Jewish religious tradition's sources for priorities in selecting public servants are the guidelines provided by the Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative Code of Jewish Law, for choosing the person to lead the prayer service on special occasions.

Jewish religious law assigns specific gender roles, and, while there have been women prophetesses and judges, women do not traditionally lead Orthodox prayer services. Among men, though, who do, the first and foremost qualification is familiarity with the service and with Scripture. Then come some interesting secondary preferences: someone who has young children at home; and someone living in poverty. The children engender a sense of personal responsibility; the impoverishment helps ensure that the candidate's prayers will be heartfelt. Then, as the list continues, we find personal piety, a good reputation among peers, modesty; and a pleasant personality. Finally, at the very end of the list, pointedly, comes "a pleasant voice."

Clearly, what counts most in a prayer leader is the knowledge and ability to do the job professionally. Then come experiences that mold sensitivity and character. It might be a leap to parallel Jewish tradition's take on prayer leaders with political candidates. But perhaps there is nevertheless some worth in the comparison.

What it would lead us voters to do would be, first and foremost, to consider the candidates' knowledge and aptitudes. Then, we would be guided to focus on "second tier" concerns. In the current campaign season, that might mean looking at Mr. Obama's background as a child of mixed race whose parents divorced, who was raised for a while by grandparents and then by a single parent; Mrs. Clinton's weathering of the brutal world of politics and a challenging marriage; and Mr. McCain's experience of imprisonment and torture in North Vietnam.

Then there would be the equivalent of a prayer leader's "pleasant voice." I'd suggest that it might translate into something similar in a candidate: eloquence in oratory. Nice, but not the most important thing.

But, just like shoe size and eye color aren't on the list of qualifications for a prayer leader, no one's list of presidential qualifications should include factors - much less as decisive ones - like race or gender.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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BRAZEN NEW WORLD

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Asked by The New York Times in 2005 what today-taken-for-granted idea or value he thinks may disappear in the next 35 years, Professor Peter Singer, the Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University's Center for Human Values, responded: "the traditional view of the sanctity of human life." It will, he explained, "collapse under pressure from scientific, technological and demographic developments."

This past January 30, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba, Canada issued a policy statement that may come to permit the professor to add "prophet" to his curriculum vitae.

In that document, the governing body of the Canadian province's medical profession directs that doctors have the final say with regard to ending life-sustaining treatment of patients - regardless of the wishes or religious beliefs of the patients or their families. It also establishes a baseline for justifying life-sustaining treatment - including a patient's ability to "experience his/her own existence" - below which a doctor is directed to end life-sustaining treatment, regardless of the wishes of the patient's family. The new policy paper has garnered much attention, and may well have ramifications throughout Canada and, conceivably, elsewhere.

Underlying the document - saturating it, actually - is the premise that ending a human life is a medical decision, not a moral one. Or, alternately, that medical training somehow confers the ultimate moral authority to pass judgments on the worthiness of human lives.

Either contention is offensive. A foundation of what has come to be called civilization is that people are not mere things or even animals, that human life has a special, sacred, nature. Historically, the right to take steps to end a life has been regarded first and foremost as an ethical issue, not a medical one. And doctors, for all their training, are no more inherently qualified to address ethical issues than CEOs or plumbers.

As it happens, the Manitoba policy goes beyond the ethical dumbing down of life and death decision-making. It actually betrays a preference for ending patients' lives. For while it gives physicians the final say (even against the family's wishes) for terminating life support, it puts the final decision (literally) in the family's hand when the family feels the patient should die and it is the doctor who feels otherwise. In Manitoba medicine, it seems, death is the desideratum.

That contention is further evident in the Manitoba policy statement's self-awareness baseline, which exemplifies the pitfalls of what might be called iatro-arrogance - or, put more prosaically, medical chutzpah.

Last year, the prestigious journal Science published a report on a young woman who was declared vegetative. For five months, she showed no signs of awareness whatsoever. Scientists, though, decided to put her in a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner, a machine that tracks blood flow to different parts of the brain and that was only developed a few years ago. When they asked her to imagine things like playing tennis and walking through her home, the scan lit up with telltale patterns of language, movement and navigation indistinguishable from those produced by the brains of healthy, conscious people. The report's authors, while stressing that the patient may still be classified as "unconscious," conclude nonetheless that she has a "rich mental life."

That young woman seemed entirely unaware of her environment. Only the development of a new diagnostic technology revealed active brain function. Is it unreasonable to wonder what future technologies might yet be developed that will detect other layers of human consciousness? Or what layers might forever elude scientific instrumentation?

And then there is the misguided assumption of medical infallibility. In Calgary last year, doctors were ready to pull the plug on Zongwu Jin, who had suffered a brain injury. After his family obtained a court order to maintain life support, Mr. Jin's condition improved markedly and he is now doing exercises aimed at helping him walk again.

More recently, doctors at Manitoba's own Grace Memorial Hospital sought to disconnect Samuel Golubchuk from the ventilator that was helping him breathe, claiming that he was unconscious and unresponsive - presumably never to recover. Mr. Golubchuk's children, Orthodox Jews whose religious convictions opposed terminating their father's life, promptly sought and obtained a court injunction. The judge in that case recently announced that there were sufficient grounds to doubt the hospital's analysis of the patient's condition, and Mr. Golubchuk's children report that he is now alert and making purposeful movements.

Neither those cases, nor scores of similar ones, seem to have given the Manitoba College of Physicians pause before arrogating to doctors the final say in matters of life and death. One thing is certain: In the wake of Manitoba medicine's new rules, physicians in that province will in the future be spared such embarrassing outcomes. Dead patients tell no tales.

Elephants sometimes do, though, albeit silently. Like the imposing one that lurked in the room where the Manitoba medical group crafted their new policy statement. It was the pachyderm that answers to the name of Professor Singer's polite phrase: "demographic developments."

We live in times when the elderly and diseased are rapidly increasing in number, and where the medical profession has made great strides, increasing longevity and providing cures for many once-fatal illnesses. Add skyrocketing insurance costs and the resultant fiscal crisis in health care, and life runs the risk of becoming less a holy, invaluable divine gift than... a commodity.

And every businessman knows how important it is to efficiently turn over one's stock, clearing out the old to make way for the new. Apparently, doctors can learn that lesson too.

Making things worse still is the great and increasing demand for transplantable organs. A doctor in California currently stands charged with injecting an incapacitated patient with inappropriate medications in order to harvest his organs more quickly. No one knows how often similar things happen - or will happen if society becomes accustomed to allowing doctors to decide when a life is no longer worth living.

What does Judaism have to say about all this? Far more than can be summarized in a paragraph or two, to be sure, but certain guiding principles can be briefly stated: Jewish religious law, or halacha, does not always insist that life be maintained; in some cases of seriously ill patients, Judaism forbids intercessions that will prolong suffering. But the active removal of connected life-support systems or withholding of nourishment are another matter entirely. Halacha requires that death be clearly established, and does not permit any action that might hasten the demise of a person in extremis.

Put succinctly: Judaism considers life precious, indeed holy, even when its "quality" is severely diminished.

Quite a different approach from that of the Manitoba College of Physicians and Surgeons. Or from Professor Singer, who has supported the termination of what he calls "miserable beings" - people whose lives he deems devoid of pleasure.

And even as grise an eminence as The New York Times has euphemistically advocated "more humane policies for easing the last days of the terminally ill" - leaving the rubbery phrases "humane policies," "last days" and even "terminally ill" for future clarification.

That may well be, as Professor Singer suggests, the wave of the future. But Judaism was born out of resistance against wrong. Abraham's rejection of paganism was what merited his becoming the forefather of the Jewish people; he was willing, in the words of the Midrash, "to be on one side of the river, while the rest of the world was on the other."

And so, Judaism today finds itself similarly standing opposite a world going mad. Amid the shouts of "Progress!", "Science!" and "Fiscal Responsibility!", Jews who care about their religious tradition must quietly, resolutely, stand the Jewish ground, and say: "No. Even a moment of human life is invaluable."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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WHAT REMAINS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vindication is nice, but there's sometimes bitter mixed in with the sweet.

Back in October of last year, a headline in the New York Jewish Week read: "No Religious Haven From Abuse." The subheader amplified: "New study finds Orthodox women are sexually victimized as much as other American women." As I wrote shortly thereafter, first in a letter to the Jewish Week and then in a longer essay, the study found nothing of the sort.

Because of the sample it recruited, the study, in the American Journal of Psychiatry, could not and did not make any claim at all about the relative prevalence of abuse in the Orthodox and general American communities.

The study's authors themselves in fact stated as much, noting that "those who chose to participate may not be representative of the [Orthodox] population," and that the unfeasibility of obtaining a representative sample constituted a "major limitation of this study." What is more, over half the women comprising the recruited study sample were receiving mental health treatment at the time. Victims of abuse, needless to say, are more likely than others to seek counseling, and so the sample would be expected to yield a larger number of victims than one representative of the larger Orthodox community.

And so, by comparing the 25%-27% figure for American women claiming (in randomized surveys) to have suffered abuse at some point in their lives with the 26% figure yielded by the recent (self-selected and non-representative) study of Orthodox women, and concluding that "Orthodox Jewish women suffer as much [abuse] as other American women," the Jewish Week writer revealed only her own innumeracy. If anything, the similar percentages between an Orthodox group disproportionately likely to have suffered abuse and a non-Jewish random sample arguably indicate a lower rate of abuse in the former.

After daring to call attention to all that, I was roundly and strongly censured. One subsequent writer to the Jewish Week, utterly uncomprehending of the point about the number of study subjects receiving mental health treatment, claimed it indicated the precise opposite of what it did, and accused me of denying that abuse exists in the Orthodox community, although I explicitly noted in both my letter and essay that abuse exists in every community, including the Orthodox.

Another letter-writer, this one a Long Island psychologist, condescendingly sniffed that without "a knowledge of… non-parametric statistics" I simply was not qualified to address the study's findings. He too, incredibly, managed to misconstrue the entire point about the sample's disproportionate share of mental health patients. Then blogs, of course, weighed in, demonstrating with their rantings just how widespread is the misconstrual of the word "critical" in the phrase "critical thinking" as "negative" rather than "analytical."

Finally, though, several weeks later, some sanity came to reign. In a long and comprehensive article, the Director of Psychotherapy Training in the Psychiatry Residency Training Program at the University of Cincinnati, Dr. Nachum Klafter, asked by a blog to evaluate the study and the Jewish Week article, presented his conclusion that I had "correctly read the AJP paper" and that the Jewish Week writer had clearly misreported its findings.

That was followed by a joint monograph by a Professor of Psychology, a Professor of Education and Philosophy, a doctoral student in Clinical Psychology and a well-known and regarded author of essays and books on cultural issues. It stated that "to attempt to generalize from [the study highlighted in the Jewish Week article] to the Orthodox mainstream - or to draw grand comparisons between subgroups within this skewed sample - seems to be a gross misrepresentation of the data obtained."

Both of the recent papers, moreover, noted that the study's data in fact yields the remarkable (yet somehow unremarked upon by the Jewish Week) fact that the survey respondents who were raised Orthodox were 50% less likely to have experienced sexual abuse than those from non-Orthodox homes. Considering that the survey asked if abuse occurred at any point in respondents' lives, it is plausible if not likely that much of the abuse reported among those raised non-Orthodox occurred before they joined observant communities.

None of which, of course, is to deny either that abuse exists in the Orthodox community (as it does in all communities) or that all communities, including the Orthodox, have a responsibility to put effective measures into place to prevent it. But the fact of its existence in the Orthodox world is no justification for drawing unwarranted conclusions about its extent there.

I am gratified, of course, that the record regarding the study and article has been corrected. But something still grates, and, I think, for good reason.

Because all that many, if not most, of the Jewish Week's readers will likely ever remember about the entire business will be a mendacious headline. Despite all the setting straight of facts, what will remain in minds - not to mention in the eternal echo-chamber of cyberspace - will be only those deceptive, in fact slanderous, words.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE THIRD WAY

Rabbi Avi Shafran

There are three distinct ways to look at school vouchers.

One is to regard them as a bogeyman threatening to destroy the American public educational system and undermine the sublime values that system instills in its students. Call that the "teachers unions" approach.

The second is to regard them as a lifeline for poor parents, a means of allowing those without means to provide their children a chance to escape failing public schools.

That was President Bush's approach in his final State of the Union address, wherein he lauded the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program Congress approved at the beginning of 2004. That enactment permitted more than 2600 of the poorest children in Washington, previously enrolled in the District's poorly performing public schools, to transfer to nonpublic schools, including religious ones, of their parents' choice. The President went on to propose a "Pell Grants for Kids" initiative, intended to help children "trapped in failing public schools" attend private and religious schools, presumably along the lines of the D.C. program.

But the reference to Pell Grants - which provide need-based grants to low-income students for postsecondary education - was somewhat puzzling. Because the Pell Grant model applied to younger students would be a reflection of the third way of approaching school vouchers.

That would be to regard them as something more than a "next stop" after a child has been sentenced to wasted years - or worse - in a failing school. To regard them, instead, as the empowerment of a fundamental parental right: the right to educate one's children as one wishes them to be educated.

Pell Grants are not just for students in failing public colleges, but for all students whose families could not otherwise afford to continue their educations. The theory is straightforward: Wealthy students have access to quality higher education, poorer ones do not. Let government do what it can to level the playing field, allowing more young people who otherwise would end up in menial jobs (or worse) become accountants, scientists, doctors, lawyers or teachers themselves - and taxpayers.

The logic of allowing for more educational choice is even more compelling when it comes to the early years of educational careers, when children's minds and morals are molded by their school experiences. Even a plan like the D.C. initiative can only be accessed by parents after their child has languished in a failing school. And when that child has been released from his or her internment, perhaps even scarred by the experience, any siblings will have to do their own time before they, too, can qualify for a better educational environment.

And is there any reason why parents - all parents - should not have the final say in where their children are educated? We readily recognize that parents in a pluralistic society like ours have a right to raise their children as they see fit, within the bounds of law, instilling in them the values they hold dear. In Judaism - and surely other belief systems and philosophies - that is not only a right but a deep responsibility. Choosing the right school for a child should be seen as an essential expression of that right and responsibility.

Education, after all, 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-molester we call television). It would be folly to deny that schools help shape a child's development. Should parents not have the final say about which ones nurture their young?

Public school advocates - including those who enjoy the option of being able to afford private schools for their own children even while opposing governmental policies that would extend that option to those less financially fortunate - say no. But they are responding from fear. Unfounded fear, to boot. The public school system qua system will only benefit from true school choice. Were all American parents able to send their children to the schools of their choice, some individual public schools might indeed wither away from lack of interest. But that's just the fate of any inferior product in the face of competition. Choices, though, are always a boon to quality, and to the consumer. Public schools that do the job they are supposed to do will surely continue to thrive.

The constitutionality of vouchers once made for interesting legal debate, but the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that the concept of providing parents educational vouchers with which to guide their children's education does not violate the Constitution. So school choice is both logical and legal.

And compelling. There is straightforward justice in empowering parents to choose how their children are educated, to exercise what is perhaps, the most important civil right of all.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above essay appeared, with a different title, on February 4, 2008 in The New York Sun.]

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ODDS AND ENDS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Alighting from the Staten Island ferry at Manhattan's southern tip on my way to work February 5, I was greeted by a phalanx of stern-looking police, padded with Kevlar and armed with assault rifles. Then, suddenly, from behind me, came a loud, hoarse shout, echoed by the roar of hundreds of voices. Before me, a small army fell into formation, front guard carrying large flags, troops marching dutifully behind, determinedly heading north on Broadway. It was post-Super Bowl Tuesday, and Agudath Israel's national offices lie a few minutes' walk up the celebrated boulevard, along the parade route they call the Canyon of Heroes.

After making my way through the gathering crowd (the parade's start was still two hours away) and the peddlers of timely trinkets, past the rows of police scooters and motorcycles, the early inebriated and the cordons meant to keep celebrants from celebrated, I arrived at our offices. The front entrance to the building was blocked; I entered though the back, on another street.

After attending a long staff meeting, having just settled in at my desk, I was startled by a swell of loud, raucous cheering from the street. Thirteen stories below. Through closed windows and across a good-sized reception area. Here be heros.

A bit later in the day, after the confetti had settled, blanketing the ground, and the thousands of revelers had gone their ways, I heard a different sound in our offices. It came from the large room that serves as our synagogue for weekday afternoon services.

The previous Thursday, Orthodox rabbinic leaders in Israel and the United States had called on their followers to recite Psalms and, where possible, convene the special prayer service recited on Yom Kippur Koton, or "minor Yom Kippur," as the day before a new Jewish month begins is called. For the month of Adar I this year, that day fell out on February 5th. The rabbis' request for special prayers came from what they perceive to be a confluence of crises in the Holy Land - dangers to Jews "from both within and without." The danger without is self-evident: the mounting threats to Israel emanating from Iran and the vipers' nest of Palestinian terror groups, along with a larger world (and a world body) largely indifferent to it all.

The danger within was an attempt to tamper with the Israeli haredi community's educational system, and political deliberations "that could place entire populations of Jews into grave danger, G-d forbid - including those in the Holy City of Jerusalem."

While the Yom Kippur Koton service in our office synagogue lacked the decibels of the earlier, larger gathering along Broadway, it had its own power, born of Jews' heartfelt pleas with their Creator to forgive their sins and protect His people from harm.

Even for a connoisseur of contrasts like me, Tuesday's provided a notable one.

In this corner, so to speak, were a teeming mass of wildly jubilant human beings, enraptured by how some young men managed to run and throw and catch an oddly-shaped ball somewhat better than another group. In the other were a few dozen (joined, to be sure, by many thousands around the world) humbly asking for G-d's mercy.

Something more, though, than the differential struck me. I couldn't help but wonder if something synchronistic, maybe even meaningful, lay in the fact that the day designated by the rabbis to pray for the welfare of Israel's Jews turned out to be the one on which New Yorkers celebrated the Giants' win - in the fact that what was Yom Kippur Koton for some happened to become a joyous celebration-day for others.

Maybe I was being overly imaginative, but what occurred was that the celebration on Broadway was really, at its core, over how a situation that seemed all but lost - with an adversary seen as unbeatable and the longest of odds being placed on triumph - was turned on its head at the last minute.

As it happens, that's quite an Adar thought. The joy that the Talmud says is appropriate for the just arrived Jewish month derives from the subtle miracle of the Purim story, where all seemed increasingly hopeless yet, after Jews' prayer and repentance, turned out just fine. The odds were long ones, but they didn't end up reflecting the ends.

For believing Jews, the ends of history are clear, as improbable as they might at times seem. So perhaps it's not too fanciful to hope that Tuesday's confluence of parade and prayer proves to be a good sign - for a positive response to the latter.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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TACKLING THE ELEPHANT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Mere days before I was privileged to participate in a Washington, D.C. symposium on religious freedom in Israel, the Malaysian government threatened to withhold a Catholic newspaper's publishing permit, to punish it for having dared to use the Muslim appellation for the Creator in its Malay-language pages.

A week later, an Afghan judge sentenced a journalism student in that country to death for distributing an article critical of Islam's founder.

All in all, making the case for Israel's respect for religious rights isn't really much of a challenge.

An impressive number of students and interested others braved snowy weather to attend the January 17 event, sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University. Of the three presenters, I was last and, since the others - Knesset member Rabbi Michael Melchior and author Dr. David Elcott - did admirable jobs of covering much that lay in my prepared remarks, when my turn came I truncated my speech and focused on the increasingly restless elephant in the room.

Well covered before I spoke were the facts that Israel is both a democracy and a state with a special relationship to a religion (like many around the globe); that it is pledged, through its Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, to protect the religious rights of its citizens; and that it generally in fact does so in an exemplary manner.

There have been occasional allegations of inequities in funding for upkeep of Muslim holy places and of disproportionate appropriation of Muslim-owned land. Such issues must be addressed, of course, and have been, in Israeli courts.

To that I added that complaints by some Israeli and West Bank Muslims that the Israeli security barrier does not allow them to worship in the mosque of their first choice cannot be reasonably construed as akin to a gratuitous denial of religious rights. Such inconveniences are, while regrettable, unintentional results of legitimate security concerns.

Then I turned to the elephant - "Jewish Religious Pluralism." Leaders of heterodox Jewish movements regularly rail about the lack of official recognition of their movement's ceremonies in Israel, portraying it as a curtailment of religious rights.

In addressing the pluralism pachyderm, my "Exhibit A" was the Jewish State's other foundational document. Less than a year before Israel declared its existence, on June 19, 1947, what came to be known as the "Status Quo Agreement" was signed by the future first Prime Minister of the state, David Ben-Gurion, and other officials of the Jewish Agency, the state's precursor. In the words of Professor Harry Reicher, University of Pennsylvania Adjunct Professor of International Law: "For significant elements of the religious population… the Status Quo Agreement was the inducement to their participation in that creation [of Israel], and… it was quite fundamental to the character with which the State was stamped at its birth."

Addressed to the Agudath Israel World Organization, that document too, like the state's Declaration that would follow, pledged the state-to-be to guaranteeing religious freedom for all its inhabitants. But it went on to promise state observance of the Jewish Sabbath as the official day of rest, provision of only kosher food in government kitchens and a system of traditional Jewish religious education. And, finally, it assured that "everything possible will be done [to] avoid, Heaven forfend, the splitting of the House of Israel into two" - that would result from multiple standards regarding Jewish "personal status" issues like marriage, divorce and conversion.

Those elements were the nascent state's founders' concessions to the word "Jewish" in the phrase "Jewish State." For that phrase to have meaning, the signatories realized, credible definitions of words like "Jew" and "Judaism" were essential. From a haredi Jew's perspective, the only such workable definitions are those based on the "highest common denominator" of halacha, or Jewish religious law. A Reform Jew would presumably offer different definitions. But whatever the yardstick, if "Jewish State" is to be more than a hollow slogan, something must do the measuring,

And, as a result of the Status Quo Agreement, something - in fact halacha - indeed did do the measuring, and has been doing so for the past 60 years (not to mention the several millennia prior). That historical standard for establishing who a Jew is, and what a conversion, Jewish marriage and Jewish divorce are, has preserved a single Jewish people in the Jewish state.

Those who demand multiple standards on the grounds of religious freedom misstate the case. What they are advocating is not freedom of religion - which is alive and well in Israel - but rather a redefinition of Judaism, and the radical amendment of one of Israel's foundational charters that would result, as Ben Gurion foresaw, in the "splitting of the House of Israel into two" (or three, or four…).

Thus far, due to both the historical and legal importance of the Status Quo Agreement and the traditional bent of a large majority of Israelis, Israel's single-standard approach to Jewish religious matters (what the media, with characteristic "objectivity," prefer to call the "Orthodox monopoly") remains in place.

There are, though, threats to the delicate balance between religious freedom and Israel's core Jewish identity, in particular the State's highest court, which, under its former Chief Justice Aharon Barak, proclaimed a goal of promoting what it deems to be the "fundamental values of democracy" and has shown itself ready to, in effect, legislate by fiat (prompting influential American judge Richard Posner to call Mr. Barak an "enlightened despot").

What the Israeli Supreme Court may in future years choose to deem "enlightened" is anyone's guess. But an educated one should worry Jews - of whatever affiliation - who consider Israel's Jewish character essential to its identity, unity and future.

The havoc that can be wrought by unbridled elephants is legend.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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DEAR SEAN

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Seven years ago, I shared the Jewish father's letter below with a number of Jewish media. In light of the increasing urgency of its subject, I offer it here again, in a slightly edited form.

Dear Sean,

I know this might sound strange coming from a father who's far from a religious Jew, but now that you're dating, there's something I need you to understand.

The single most important decision you'll ever make in life will not be about your education or career but about whom you'll marry.

Because who your wife is will determine, more than anything else in your adult life, the person you become, the family you'll raise, what you'll leave on earth when it will be time to go. I know the end of life isn't something you probably give much thought to. Not many of us do, at least not until we became sick or old enough to see it hovering on the horizon. But a final day does arrive, sooner or later, for each of us. And when it comes, very few of the things we thought made such a big difference will seem to matter at all anymore. And other things we never gave much thought to will suddenly be very important. We'll want to look back at our lives and feel that, in those areas, we pretty much did the right thing.

Sean, the right thing for a Jewish person is to marry another Jew.

Not only because our religion requires it. But because when Jews "marry out," they disrespect who they are, they are disloyal to the Jewish past and they chip away at the Jewish future.

Whether or not our family kept strictly kosher or celebrated the Sabbath or attended services often enough is all one thing. But the thought of bringing about the end of a proud Jewish line stretching back in time for centuries is something else. It's more than some religious transgression.

You never asked to be a Jew, I know. You were born one. But being Jewish isn't a burden. It's a gift. It means you are part of something bigger, much bigger, than yourself.

Each of us Jews represents the hopes of so many Jewish ancestors. Don't forget, you're not just Sean, you're Shmuel too. And even if you only used your Jewish name when you made the blessings over the Torah at your bar-mitzvah, it is still who you really are, an inheritance from your grandfather. And it was the same thing to him from an ancestor of his. You can't just ignore the meaning of something like that. It's a responsibility. All of my ancestors and your mother's, all those Jews who came before us, lived, and sometimes died to keep their Jewish identity and heritage going.

I know that love is a powerful emotion. That's exactly why I'm writing this as you begin to date. The young women you become close to will form the pool where you'll find the person you want to spend your life with. Don't give yourself the opportunity to fall in love with someone you cannot, as a Jew in good conscience, marry. And never forget that what the world calls "love" isn't all there is to a successful and happy life. Every marriage that ended in divorce or worse, after all, started in a rush of love. For a marriage to really work, there has to be not only attraction and care but shared ideals and goals. And part of a Jewish man or woman's goals has to be to take their Jewish identity seriously, and to instill it into their children.

I don't care whether the girl you marry is white, black or yellow. I don't care if she speaks English, Hebrew, Yiddish or Swahili. I don't care if she was born a Jew or became one, legally, properly, and sincerely. But if she isn't Jewish, I know there will be tears, in your mother's eyes and mine - and also in heaven.

They say these days that most Jewish parents in America don't care if their children marry other Jews or not. I hope it's not true, but even if it is, we do. Remember what I've told you many times: Being a Jew means being ready to buck the tide, to say no to others - even a lot of others - when something important's at stake. Sean, you're the future of our family. I hope you'll have the courage and the strength to do the right thing.

Love,

Dad

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


TALK TO THE SNAKES

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In a 1938 essay, Mohandas ("Mahatma") Gandhi, the spiritual and political leader of the Indian independence movement, counseled Jews in Nazi Germany to neither flee nor resist but rather offer themselves up to be killed by their enemies, since their "suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy."

When all hope is lost, a Jew about to be killed "al Kiddush Hashem" - as a Jewish martyr - is indeed to reach for serenity, even happiness, at the opportunity to give up his life because of who he is. When Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, the great Lithuanian Jewish religious leader and scholar, was murdered by Hitler's henchmen in 1941, he reportedly told the students about to be killed with him that "In Heaven it appears that they deem us to be righteous because our bodies have been chosen to atone for the Jewish people… In this way we will save the lives of our brethren overseas… We are now fulfilling the greatest commandment… The very fire that consumes our bodies will one day rebuild the Jewish people."

But Jewish martyrdom is not something to be courted. And so Mr. Gandhi's advice for Jews during the Holocaust was, even if consonant with his personal beliefs, from Judaism's point of view profoundly wrong.

And Gandhi's advice was even more disturbing in light of his admission, in that same essay, that the "cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me." Jews, he said, should "make… their home where they are born." It is, moreover, he went on, "inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs."

Apples, they say, don't fall far from trees. A rotten one fell with a loud splat recently over at The Washington Post. On a weblog - "On Faith" - sponsored by that paper in conjunction with Newsweek Magazine, Arun Gandhi, a grandson of Mohandas and co-founder of the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence at the University of Rochester, opined that "the Jews today" are intent on making Germans feel guilty for the Holocaust (which he chose to spell with a lower-case "h") and that they insist that "the whole world must regret what happened to the Jews."

"The world did feel sorry," he reminded his readers, "for the episode." But "when an individual or a nation refuses to forgive and move on, the regret turns into anger."

Ah, yes, that unpleasant "episode," more than 60 years ago. And those Jews still can't bring themselves to forgive the Nazis.

Like his grandfather was, Mr. Gandhi petit-fils is also concerned with Israel. Addressing those who defend the Jewish State's security barrier and use of weapons to fight terrorism, he challenged: "[Y]ou believe that you can create a snake pit - with many deadly snakes in it - and expect to live in the pit secure and alive?"

And so the man of peace, grandson of the same, reached the conclusion that actions like Israel's "created a culture of violence, and that Culture of Violence is eventually going to destroy humanity."

Interesting. Although his own concern about Jews was not exactly their militarism, Mr. Hitler similarly saw them as jeopardizing humanity's survival. Well, whatever.

Grandson Gandhi subsequently apologized for his "poorly worded post." In the course of his apology he even took care to capitalize "Holocaust." But his apology itself, unfortunately, consisted solely of his regret at having implied that "the policies of the Israeli government are reflective of the views of all Jewish people." Many Jews, he explained, "are as concerned as I am by the use of violence for state purposes…"

Well, thank you, Mr. Gandhi. But no thanks. I cannot speak for all of the Jewish people, of course, but for my part I must decline your apology. Not because I bear you any grudge or ill will and certainly not because I am hard-hearted. I don't think I have ever rejected an apology in my life, until now.

It's not because I am blinded by some ethnic rage over the unpleasantness of that World War II episode. And not because I am a knee-jerk defender of Israel in whatever her leaders decide to do; I am not.

No, I reject your apology simply because you seem to have missed the entire point of why your original post was so offensive - frankly, revolting. It is astounding that you still don't seem to realize your insult and error.

They lie in where you directed your words. You are welcome to criticize Israeli decisions, even the wisdom of Israel's establishment itself, if you agree with your grandfather's views. But if your ultimate concerns are in fact peace and humanity's survival, then in a world where Jews are regularly attacked simply for being Jews and Israelis simply for being Israelis, where Jewish tombstones are defaced and broken, where Arab countries will not permit Israelis to enter their borders and Arab textbooks teach children to hate Jews as a matter of religious and cultural obligation, where a United Nations routinely ignores murder, mayhem and unspeakable cruelty in scores of countries but just as routinely condemns Israel for defending herself, the primary focus of your ire should have been not those living in the snake pit, but rather the snakes themselves.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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LIONS IN WINTER

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Winter might conjure pleasant memories of playing in the snow, but it is hardly a season most of us would consider symbolic of childhood. We more naturally associate the "winter of life" with a time when it is only our hair, if we even have any, that is snowy.

Yet, the earliest stage of life is precisely what winter represents, according to the Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Yehudah Betzalel Loewe, 1525-1609) in his supercommentary to Rashi's on the Torah (Genesis 26:21).

There the celebrated Jewish mystic and philosopher assigns a stage of human life to each of the year's seasons. A Western mind might associate nature's annual coming-to-life in spring with childhood, the warmth of summer with youth, autumn with pensive middle age and cold, slow moving winter with life's later years - think "Old Man Winter." The Maharal, though, described things differently. He regards autumn, when leaves are shed and nature seems to slow down, as corresponding to older age; summer's warmth and comfort to represent our middle-years; spring to reflect the vibrancy and energy of youth. And winter to evoke childhood.

Winter? Childhood?

On the surface, to eyes unaided by deeper recognition, it might indeed seem strange; winter, after all, is a stark time, a season barren of activity and growth.

But the superficial image betrays the reality. When spring finally arrives each year, after all, the new leaves haven't appeared ex nihilo. The buds from which they emerge have been developing for months, the sap in the seemingly dormant trees was rising even as the thermometer's mercury was falling. The evidence of life that at last presents itself with the approach of Passover has been actively preparing its case since Chanukah. See for yourself. Go outside and inspect the leafless trees' branches. The buds may be biding their time, but they are clearly there, ready to explode with green when commanded.

Winter, in other words, evokes life's potential. And so, what better metaphor could there be for childhood, when the elements that will emerge one day as an adult are roiling inside a miniature prototype, when chaos may seem to be operative but when potential is at its most powerful? The Child, after all, as Wordsworth put it, is indeed "father of the Man."

In fact, we humans are actually compared to trees, in Deuteronomy (20:19). Even though the verse's context (the forbiddance to gratuitously fell trees during war), at least according to Rashi, implies a quizzical question mark at its end ("Is a man a tree of the field?"), other commentaries, like the Ibn Ezra, read the verse as making a straight comparison. And the mystical Jewish sources similarly see significance in the plain meaning of the words.

And so the approaching winter holiday of Tu B'Shvat (this year on January 22), the day the Talmud calls the "Rosh Hashana for trees," should make us think about the potential that can lie in apparent chaos.

It's a timely thought for other reasons too.

A month after Tu B'Shvat (two months, in a Jewish leap year like the current one) comes Purim, when we celebrate the turning of a seemingly hopeless and tragic situation into a joyous one. Esther was the bud, and when the right time came, she blossomed.

And this time of Jewish year is when the weekly Torah reading concerns the Exodus, how, in the oppressive prison that was ancient Egypt, a redeemer came of age and, at the command of G-d, brought a people to bloom.

So a conspiracy of factors pushes us to ponder the power of potential - in Jewish history (Esther and the Exodus); in the seasons of the year (those winter buds and sap); and in life (all the illustrious people who were once childish ones).

The thought might reassure and animate us, even those of us of hoary head. For what emerges from the Maharal and Jewish history and the seasons is the lesson that what matters more than how many years may have managed to get behind us is the potential we still carry within us.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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TOO MUCH INFORMATION

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Winter, when my commute home from Manhattan on the Staten Island ferry is shrouded in darkness, provides me a singular opportunity.

That's because the thousands of other commuters sailing along with me are more subdued than at other times of year. There is, of course, artificial lighting on the ferry, but the darkness outside seems to quell conversations somewhat; the boat is noticeably more subdued than when the sun sets later. And where the electric lights are most dim, in a certain part of the vessel unknown to many passengers, is where you will find me.

I use my commute to study Talmud and catch up on reading. In the winter, the study is particularly sweet in that poorly lighted, somewhat remote area, where the only other passengers are interested exclusively in napping or listening, eyes closed, to their iPods. A small, battery-operated booklight clipped to the cover of the tractate I study casts soft light onto the page, and, unless one of my neighbors is intent on annoying the rest of us by turning up the volume on his "personal" audiodevice so it sounds like an angry bee (and no doubt permanently damages his eardrums), all is quiet and dark, with the Hebrew words before my eyes drawing me in. I wouldn't come home any other way.

At an Agudath Israel national convention several years ago, Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, the Mashgiach, or dean of students, of the famed Lakewood Yeshiva (Beth Medrash Govoha), delivered an address that I often recall as I settle into my ferry-seat. His topic had been the centrality of introspection and focused study to the essence of true Jewish life, dedication to the Divine. And then he bemoaned how chronically unconcentrated we all are these days.

When incandescent lighting was first commercialized in the 1920s, Rabbi Salomon recounted, committed Jews - like the rest of the world - were enthralled with the possibilities presented by the new technology. They saw wondrous potential in not having to rely on the dim, flickering light of wax candles or oil lamps to illuminate the sacred books whose study they so cherished.

But the revered Torah personage Rabbi Elya Lopian (1872-1970), a giant of the Mussar movement that stressed striving for personal ethical perfection, was less sanguine. He told his students that the more primitive lighting to which they were accustomed, for all its drawbacks, facilitated concentration and focus. The new technology, he feared, for all of its advantages, would undermine those things.

We don't generally think of our well-lighted spaces as impairing concentration, but the logic is unquestionably there. The more informational input to the senses, the less mental focus. That is, after all, the point behind darkened arenas and spotlights. Our brains are wonderfully able to filter out much that might distract us from tasks at hand, but the extraneous information is still there even if we don't consciously notice it, background static to our contemplations. Every time I turn on my little light on my winter commute home, I appreciate Rabbi Lopian's prescience anew.

Rabbi Salomon went on to add the telephone to the list of erosions to deep thought. How often are not only our dinners but our reflections rudely interrupted by ringing or warbling, or trilling? And the more mobile the technology, he noted further, the more opportunities for our concentration to be broken. Anyone who has silently cursed his cellphone knows just what the rabbi meant.

"Something that looks like a blessing," he recapped, "can be, in fact, a disaster." The glut of available information came to mind, and the dubious marvel of multitasking. Then, moving on to the options for travel in modern times, he mused sadly, "Today we are expected to be everywhere."

How sadly true. In pre-automobile times, people were rarely if ever expected to travel beyond the confines of their immediate towns or neighborhoods. With options so limited (and towns so small), there was more time to stay put, sit still, stay focused. Many of the things that pull us, unresisting, into our cars and onto our highways, around the corner and around the world, may be worthy ones, but that cannot change the fact that they take us away - from our homes, from our families, and from study and introspection, the pillars of Jewish existence.

Rabbi Salomon was not asking his listeners to return to horses and buggies or oil lamps. He is no Luddite and has no disdain for technology. No, he is simply an exquisitely sensitive observer, someone who sees a broader picture than most of us do. He challenges us to open our eyes to what we have lost even as we have gained. The losses are tragic, even if so subtle that most of us don't even realize what we are missing.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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BLOGISTAN

Rabbi Avi Shafran

There was a time, not terribly long ago, when disturbed individuals bent on broadcasting angry fantasies had only soapboxes in public parks from which to rant. And respectable people knew, if only from the ranters' appearance, to keep well out of spittle's range.

Today, though, the very means of mass communication that enables so much worthy information to reach such large numbers of people at the speed of light - the Internet - has also been harnessed to spread madness, hatred, lies and (not a word to be used lightly but here entirely appropriate) evil. And so, close on the heels of the swindlers and pornographers who have colonized so much of cyberspace, have come the gaggle of electronic soapboxes known as weblogs, or blogs.

The writer of a recent article in the Agudath Israel monthly The Jewish Observer expressed chagrin at discovering the nature of many Jewish blogs. Often anonymous as well as obnoxious, some of those personal opinion-diaries, he found, display utter disregard for essential Jewish ideals like the requirement to shun lashon hora or forbidden negative speech, and hotzo'at shem ra, or slander; to show honor for Torah and respect for Torah scholars. I would have added basic fairness to the list. And truth.

There are, of course, responsible bloggers, in the Jewish realm as in others, writers who seek to share community news or ideas and observations with readers, and to post readers' comments. Some explore concepts in Jewish thought and law, others focus on Jewish history and society.

But just as an unfiltered e-mail account quickly reveals that the bulk of electronic communications are from people we would really not wish to ever meet in person, so are responsible blogs, in the Jewish realm as in the general, decidedly in the minority. And even many responsible blogs allow postings of comments from people with very different value systems. As one poster on a Jewish blog, "Joe," noted: "The whole reason people gravitate to blogs with active comment sections is because of the gosip [sic] and back and forth jabs and insults… If thats [sic] not your thing, fine, but anyone who reads or posts on a blog cant [sic] seriously claim that lashon hara bothers them."

No one knows exactly why the Internet appears to bring out the worst in people, but there is little doubt that it often does. And the cloak of anonymity seems to unleash truly dark, ugly alter egos. As a popular Jewish blog's founder told the Forward in June, "There's a lot of testosterone on the Internet, a lot of swagger… anything can happen."

Like maliciousness and mayhem. Recently, for example, a 13-year-old Missouri girl who was targeted on a non-Jewish social-networking site for verbal abuse by classmates became so distraught that she hanged herself in her bedroom with a belt.

Another recent e-outrage, although with a happier ending, was perpetrated by a Milwaukee teacher who presented himself anonymously on a blog as a critic of the local teachers union. In an attempt to garner sympathy for union members, he wrote that the two youths who killed 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999 "knew how to deal with the overpaid teacher union thugs: One shot at a time." Only because of the implicit threat of violence, and the resultant involvement of law enforcement, was the teacher's ruse uncovered. Less prosecutable offenses, although malevolent, misleading and violative of the laws of civil discourse, are, needless to say, of no interest to the police.

And so, many blogs have become showcases for carefully concocted stews of truth and falsehood well stirred and generously seasoned with gall and spleen. The Jewish sites among them like to malign guilty and innocent people alike - extra points for Orthodox Jews and triple-score for rabbis.

On some sites, targets' guilt is established purely by rumor, innuendo, anonymous accusations and alleged association with accused or confirmed wrongdoers. Innocent until proven guilty? Not in the blogosphere.

Indeed, if a Jewish blog were fully reflective of Jewish values, even those who are actually guilty would not be subject to "open season" maligning. Truth may be "an absolute defense" in American libel law, but not in Jewish law; true statements are precisely the focus of the prohibition of lashon hora. It might strike some as strange, but the Torah teaches us that the evil of such speech is inherent, not a function of falsehood.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the apparent gullibility of so many visitors to those blogs, who, from their own postings, seem ready to swallow any accusation or character assassination, as long as the charges are sufficiently salacious or forcefully asserted. Some of the many adulatory comments posted on offensive blogs may have been planted by the blogerrai-meisters themselves, but many certainly seem to be from other citizens anxious to join in the fun.

Responsible bloggers don't deserve to be lumped together with the louts and understandably chafe at having their entire enterprise tarred with the sins of individuals. Unfortunately, though, those individuals and their sins comprise the bulk of the blogosphere. Those who counsel avoidance of blogs are no different from those who advise against frequenting dark, crime-ridden neighborhoods. There may be bargains to be had in such locales, maybe even a good library or pizzeria. But they are scuzzy places to spend time in.

The Internet in general is, pace the popular arbiters of societal propriety, not a healthy place to hang out in. That is why many Orthodox Jewish religious leaders have frowned upon its use altogether for recreational purposes. They feel that the windows it opens to every corner of the wider world allow in not only some sunlight but much pollution of the most pernicious sort.

But even if business or other life exigencies require individuals to utilize the Internet, there are dark corners of the Web that are filled with venomous spiders, that pose extraordinary risks and should be avoided at practically all costs. The blogosphere is a particular infested corner.

All Jews should be concerned with basic Jewish values like shunning forbidden speech, refusing to judge others, showing honor for Torah and Torah-scholars. And if we are, we are rightly warned against patronizing the untamed areas of Blogistan. Because, while larger society may hallow the idea of free speech, Judaism considers words to carry immense responsibility. Used properly, they can teach, inspire and elevate. But used wrongly, or recklessly, they can be virtual weapons of mass destruction.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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MODERN MARRIAGE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Ever since the Sabbath after Sukkot, when the communal synagogue reading of the Torah began anew, I haven't been able to attend a Jewish wedding without thinking about the Netziv's unsettling, if simple, observation.

The Netziv - an acronym meaning "pillar" by which Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1817-1893), the famed dean of the Volozhin Yeshiva, is known - noted that the first marriage in history differed in a most essential way from all the matrimonial unions that would come to follow. Because, according to a widely cited Jewish tradition, Adam and Eve were created a single entity, a man-woman coupled back to back, with the "forming" of woman described by the Torah more accurately envisioned as a separation. The word often translated "rib" is in fact used elsewhere in the Torah to mean "side," and so would be understood in the light of that tradition as referring to the woman-side who was part of Adam-Eve before Divine surgery provided her independent personhood.

So, says the Netziv, Adam's subsequent union with his wife was in fact a "re-union" - of two entities that had originally been one. That idea, says Rabbi Berlin, lies in Adam's declaration when Eve is presented to him: "This time it is a bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh" [Genesis 2:23]. Comments Rabbi Berlin: "Only 'this time' is it so, since she is a 'bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh'; [here, Adam's love for Eve] is like a person who loves his own hand."

Not so, though, every marriage to follow, where the two people creating a relationship will have been conceived, born and raised as independent individuals before becoming a marital unit.

What is troubling is that, following the Talmud's direction, among the blessings recited at a Jewish marriage ceremony and at the festive "Sheva Brachot" [Seven Blessings"] meals attended by the bride and groom for the week thereafter, are several references to the First Couple (Eden's, not Washington's). Not only is the creation of Adam and Eve explicitly invoked, but the bride and groom are reminded of how "your Creator made you joyous in the Garden of Eden." How, though, can the comparison be made? The essence of post-Edenic marriages, their emotional and spiritual components, would seem to be of a qualitatively different nature from that of the original one. As per the Netziv's observation, they are mergers, not homecomings.

Or, to carry the Netziv's own simile a bit further, they are not like reattaching a severed limb but like transplanting a newly donated one.

Interestingly, the medical metaphor itself may hold the answer to why we hold up the example of Adam and Eve to those marrying. Maybe it is not a comparison that is intended but a spur to thought - the thought that a successful marriage entails striving for a relationship like that of Adam and Eve, who began their lives as a single being.

Consider why transplantation is no simple matter: It commonly entails a risk of rejection.

The natural reaction of a normal body to the introduction of an "other" with its own distinct genetic identity is to seek to show it the door, so to speak. There is good reason for that immune response, of course; it helps protect against the introduction of elements that could be harmful.

Likewise, the natural response of a normal human psyche to the intimate introduction of an "other," with its own discrete emotional and spiritual identity, is to similarly seek to protect the threatened self.

Doctors help ensure successful transplants by administering immunosuppressant drugs, chemicals that prevent rejection. They operate by lowering the threshold of the immune system's integrity. Or, put another way, they weaken the host body's sense of self.

Could it be that we focus a modern bride and groom on the first ones in order to teach them that the spiritual-emotional transplant that is a true marriage needs its own form of "immunosuppressant" to succeed - that, in other words, no less than in an organ transplant, marriage requires a weakening of self?

Here, of course, no drug will do; what alone can work is a conscious, determined reorientation of attitude, force of will born of love. In the Netziv's words about post-Edenic brides and grooms, only "deep connection ["d'veika'] will bring them together, to become one."

Like everything truly important, of course, that is more easily said than done. But knowing one's objective is the first step of any journey.

And the second, here, is acting - whether or not one's actions reflect purity of intent - as if it is not one's self that is calling the shots. Jewish tradition stresses that simple deeds can beget essential changes. As a Jewish aphorism sourced in the 13th century work Sefer HaChinuch puts it: "A person is acted upon by his actions." What we do, with the hope and intention of becoming someone who naturally does what we are doing, brings us closer to becoming that person.

And so newlyweds do well to disagree over whether the window should be open or closed. But the chilled spouse should be the one insisting that it remain open, for the comfort of the overheated one; and the latter should be running to shut it, to keep the other warm. Even if the result is a compromise, like leaving the window open a crack, the acts of selflessness themselves are priceless. And they are not limited to windows.

I mused aloud about all that at a Sheva Brachot meal for my own daughter and her new husband several weeks ago. Later, though, something else struck me: The marriage-message borne by the Netziv's observation is not only for newlyweds.

Transplant recipients, after all, generally need to take their medication for life.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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HOLY PLACES, HOLY LIVES

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Two recent letters to the New York Jewish Week criticized opposition by Orthodox groups in America to the possible partitioning of Jerusalem. One called the Orthodox Union's stance on the issue "a cynical effort to score public relations points" and questioned the "morality" of American groups challenging the policies of an Israeli government; the other sarcastically characterized Agudath Israel as having "become great nationalists" because of its recent resolution on Jerusalem.

The writers' umbrage appears to have obscured three germane facts:

1) Eretz Yisrael is the land not of any particular temporal government but of the Jewish People. That is not only a metaphysical fact but an entirely tangible one, especially in the Orthodox community. Whether or not we live in Israel, we visit there whenever we can, and inject millions of dollars into the Israel economy through charity, tourism and investment. Many of our children and grandchildren spend a year or several studying there. Some of them, along with many other of our relatives and friends, choose to live there. What is more, many of us hold tight to dreams of one day living there ourselves. The security of Israel's cities, and the accessibility and protection of the Holy Land's holy places, directly affect our lives.

2) Jews who are fortunate to live on the Jewish Land's holy soil are the brothers and sisters of Jews everywhere else. To suggest that any Jew or Jewish group does not have a right - or anything less than a responsibility - to speak up when an Israeli government seems poised to do something objectionable or dangerous is to deny the bond of Jews to both their ancestral homeland and to other Jews.

3) As American citizens, we have every right and reason - and in certain respects we are uniquely situated - to advocate to our own government regarding issues important to us, even when those issues involve other countries. That is especially so in the specific context of a "peace process" in which the American government is playing a prominent (if not pre-eminent) role.

And so if an Israeli Prime Minister or Knesset considers it acceptable to provide not just the rights of residency and citizenship already provided Jerusalem's Arab population but to offer an untrustworthy enemy national sovereignty over parts of the city holiest to Judaism - and, effectively, a military foothold for murderous elements in that heavily Jewish-populated center - yes, each of us anywhere can, and must, speak up, to our governments and to our fellow Jews.

As to Agudath Israel's sudden seeming "nationalism," the movement remains true to the ideals it has always championed. Unlike those who, whether on religious or nationalistic grounds, reject the very idea of territorial compromise, the concept of land for peace - at least when there is a trustworthy peace-partner - remains one that most of our leaders accept in principle. None of us haredi Jews deny, G-d forbid, the holiness of any part of the Jewish Land. But we know that the true, complete (territorially as well as spiritually) "Jewish State" will arrive only when the Messiah does, and that the Third Holy Temple will be built by the hand of not man but G-d. Thus, the passive form in our prayer: "May it be Your will that the Temple be [re]built."

Theoretically - and here Agudath Israel may part company with some other Orthodox groups - we could even countenance a non-Jewish flag flying over the city's walls, if it meant true safety, security and freedom of worship for the Holy Land's Jewish residents. Needless to say, though, such a scenario is nowhere in sight.

And that is why, at our recent 85th national convention, Agudath Israel passed a resolution that the organization, "under the direction of its rabbinic leadership, should communicate to appropriate government officials the organization's strong belief that … Israel should not relinquish parts of Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty, and the American government should not pressure the Israeli government into doing so."

Recognizing the special relationship of Jerusalem to the Jewish people, and being deeply concerned with the obvious danger to our Jewish brethren posed by a highly unstable sovereign Arab entity literally "across the street," hardly constitute any new philosophy. What they reflect are things Agudath Israel has always held sacrosanct: the protection of holy Jewish places, and of holy Jewish lives.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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SEETHING AND THINKING

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Old Gray Lady isn't cute when she's angry. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The New York Times editorial page's longstanding antagonism to the Bush Administration is well documented. Still, the only dignified editorial response to last month's news that two independent teams of scientists had reported having turned human skin cells into the equivalent of embryonic stem cells was "Hallelujah" - or, for the staidly secular Times, some less parochial but equally enthusiastic expression of joy.

After all, if the reported results are duplicated by other labs and various technical obstacles overcome, there will now be an inexhaustible supply of human stem cells available for research - and the controversy over the destruction of embryos to procure stem cells for research will have been effectively rendered moot.

Instead of rejoicing, though, The Times just seethed. On December 3, an editorial in the paper petulantly conceded that the new discovery "could help free scientists from shackles that have long hobbled their efforts." But, it hastened to add, "any claim that Mr. Bush's moral stance drove scientists to this discovery must be greeted with particular skepticism." The editorial ended with the hope that "the next president will quickly jettison all restrictions on stem cell research."

The moral stance referenced is, of course, the President's long and unwavering insistence that federal funds for stem cell research be limited to projects using non-embryonic stem cells or certain already-produced lines of embryonic cells.

The Times' skepticism notwithstanding, it is at least arguable that the White House's refusal to fund embryonic stem-cell research and its encouragement of alternate approaches to procuring stem cells may in fact have contributed to the happy turn of events. After all, if Mr. Bush's steadfastness constituted "shackles" that "hobbled" efforts to consider embryos an unobjectionable source of stem cells, then it is certainly reasonable to imagine that his resolve may have played a role in the development of alternative sources for the cells.

Whatever role the President may or may not have played, however, what cannot be denied is that, in light of the recent breakthrough, the idea of destroying nascent life for scientific research is now more easily seen for what it is, namely, the destroying of nascent life for scientific research.

To be sure, the potential of such research was always clear. If stem cells can be induced to develop into pancreatic cells, they will hold the promise of curing diabetes; if they can be convinced to turn into dopamine-secreting brain cells, they may be able to reverse Parkinson's disease; if into muscle, heart, liver or blood cells, they will figure prominently in treatments for muscular dystrophy, cardiac disease, liver failure and leukemia. And the list is potentially much longer.

But in the headlong rush to gain access to the potential benefits of stem cell research, some were, one might say, blinded by science.

From a Jewish perspective, the issue of utilizing fertilized embryos for research is complex. While some Orthodox Jewish rabbis and organizations concluded that Judaism would encourage embryonic stem cell research under certain conditions, others had deep reservations.

Now, thankfully, it seems that resort to destroying embryos may no longer be necessary for stem cell research to take place. And so, instead of taking umbrage, bashing Bush and hoping for the destruction of future embryos, The Times' editorialists might better have reflected a moment or two on a quote featured in a November 22 story on their paper's own front page.

Dr. James A. Thomson's laboratory at the University of Wisconsin was one of two that in 1998 first successfully removed stem cells from embryos. His laboratory was one of the two that have now reported the new way of turning ordinary human skin cells into very similar, if not identical, stem cells.

Reflecting on those developments, Dr. Thomson, the pioneer of procuring stem cells from embryos destroyed in the process, told The Times' science writer Gina Kolata that "If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE NATURE OF NATURE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It is a strange and disorienting panorama that Rabbi E. E. Dessler, the celebrated Jewish thinker (1892-1953) asks us to ponder: a world where the dead routinely rise from their graves but no grain or vegetation has ever grown.

The thought experiment continues with the sudden appearance of a man who procures a seed, something never seen before in this bizarre universe, and plants it in the ground. The inhabitants regard the act as no different from burying a stone, and are flabbergasted when, several days later, a sprout pierces the soil where the seed had been consigned, and eventually develops into a full-fledged plant, bearing - most astonishing of all - seeds of its own!

Notes Rabbi Dessler, there is no inherent difference between nature and what we call the miraculous. We simply use the former word "nature" for the miracles to which we are accustomed, and the latter one for those we have not before experienced. All there is, in the end, is G-d's will.

It is a thought poetically rendered by Emerson, who wrote: "If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore…"

A thought, in fact, that subtly informed famed physicist Paul Davies' recent op-ed in The New York Times, where he wrote that "the very notion of physical law is a theological one."

And it is a thought, too, that, according to Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, the revered Rosh Yeshiva, or dean, of Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem on Manhattan's Lower East Side, has pertinence to Chanukah.

The supernatural nature of nature lies at the heart of the answer he suggests for one of the most famous questions in the canon of Jewish religious law, posed in the 1500s by the author of the authoritative Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yosef Karo: Why, if oil sufficient for one day was discovered in Jerusalem's Holy Temple when the Macabees reclaimed it from Seleucid control, is Chanuka eight days long? True, that is how long the candles burned, allowing the priests to prepare new, uncontaminated oil. But was not one of those eight days simply the day for which the found oil sufficed, and thus not itself a miracle-day worthy of commemoration?

Suggests Rabbi Feinstein: Seven of Chanukah's days commemorate the miracle that, in the time of the Maccabees, the candelabrum's flames burned without oil. The eighth commemorates the miracle of the fact that oil burns at all.

The suggestion pithily echoes an account in the Talmud (Ta'anit, 25a), in which the daughter of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa realized shortly before the Sabbath that she had accidentally poured vinegar instead of oil into the Sabbath lamps, and began to panic. Rabbi Chanina, a man who vividly perceived G-d's hand in all and thus particularly merited what most people would call miracles, reassured her. "The One Who commanded oil to burn," he said, "can command vinegar [as well] to burn."

There is, in fact, one day of Chanukah's eight that is set apart from the others, designated with a special appellation. The final day of the holiday - this year beginning with the candle-lighting on the night of Tuesday, December 11 and continuing through the next day - is known as "Zos Chanukah," after the Torah passage beginning "Zos chanukas hamizbe'ach" ("This is the dedication of the altar") read in the synagogue that day.

The Jewish mystical sources consider that day to be the final reverberation of the Days of Awe marked many weeks earlier. Although Rosh Hashana was the year's day of judgment and Yom Kippur was the culmination of the days of repentance, later "time-stones" of the period of G-d's judgment of our actions are cited as well. One is Hoshana Rabba, the last day of Sukkot. And the final one, according to the sources, is "Zos Chanukah."

It would indeed seem to be a fitting day for thinking hard about the "supernature" in nature, the miraculous in the seemingly mundane. For what is what we call a miracle if not a more-clear-than-usual manifestation of G-d? And what are the Days of Awe if not a time when He is "close" to us, when G-d-consciousness is at front and center?

And so, perhaps the final day of Chanukah presents us with a singular opportunity to ponder how, just as the ubiquity and predictability of nature can mislead us, allowing us to forget that all is, in truth, G-d's will, so too can the weeks elapsed since the late summer Days of Awe lull us into a state of unmindfulness regarding the import of our actions.

If so, the final night of Chanukah might be a particularly apt time to gaze at the eight flames leaking enlightenment into the world and, as we prepare to head into the dismal darkness of what some might consider a "G-d-forsaken winter," know that, still and all, as always, "His glory fills the universe."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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SIN AND SUBTEXT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

"New study finds Orthodox women are sexually victimized as much as other American women" read the subheader of a New York Jewish Week article on October 26. The study found nothing of the sort.

Based on a self-selected sample - women who chose to fill out a survey offered on Jewish websites and in newspaper advertisements, synagogue bulletins, doctors' offices and through other means - the study, in the American Journal of Psychiatry, could not and did not make any claim about the relative prevalence of abuse in the Orthodox and general American communities. Randomized studies, like those that have focused on abuse in the general American population, yield reasonable estimations of the behaviors of their foci. Self-selected surveys of the same populations, however, can easily yield data that diverge substantially from the reality in those groups.

Thus, the study's authors themselves responsibly cautioned that "those who chose to participate may not be representative of the [Orthodox] population," and noted that the unfeasibility of obtaining a representative sample constituted a "major limitation of this study." The study also notes that "there was a high proportion of subjects [51% -- AS] receiving mental health treatment in this group [the sample recruited for the study]," further suggesting that the respondents were not representative of the larger Orthodox population (victims of abuse are, of course, more likely than others to seek counseling).

And so, by comparing the 25%-27% figure for American women claiming (in randomized surveys) to have suffered abuse at some point in their lives with the 26% figure yielded by the recent (self-selected) study of Orthodox women, and concluding that "Orthodox Jewish women suffer as much [abuse] as other American women," the Jewish Week writer was comparing apples and tractors. If anything, the similar percentages arguably indicate a lower rate of abuse in the Orthodox community. After all, if 26% of a group likely to contain a disproportionate number of abuse victims report they were abused, one would expect a much lower percentage of a randomly selected group from the same population.

Abuse, of course, is a serious sin and a serious problem and, tragically, it exists in every community, including the Orthodox. That is bad enough. What is also lamentable, though, is that its existence - to whatever extent - in the Orthodox world provides fodder for those who are always at the ready to pounce on the flimsiest of anecdotal evidence to "expose" what they believe are the moral shortcomings of Orthodox life.

Last year, an article appeared in New York magazine that told the tawdry tale of an alleged serial Orthodox child abuser.

The New York writer did more than salaciously detail an alleged victim's accusations. He went on to share with readers his own consideration of the prospect that such ugly behavior is "more common in the Orthodox Jewish community than it is elsewhere."

"There are no reliable statistics," he admitted, "… but there's reason to believe the answer to that question might be yes."

The "reason to believe" turned out to be the report of another writer who had explored the world of once-Chassidic people who turned their backs on their communities and found it "shocking" to hear how "so many boys [emphasis hers] have had this experience [of abuse]."

Now, abuse, tragically, may well have been a factor in the trajectory of those disheartened Jews' lives. And if it was, our hearts must ache with the anguish of the victims. But to consider their agonizing experience as somehow emblematic of Chassidic life, much less broader Orthodox life, is like deciding there must be a national epidemic of broken bones after visiting a hospital and seeing "so many" patients in casts.

Employing the trusty journalistic tool of ascribing unfounded speculations to anonymous sources, the New York writer went on to reveal that "There are some who believe" that "the repression in the ultra-Orthodox community can foster abuse." By "the repression," he helpfully explained, he meant things like the strict forbiddance of sexual relations before marriage and the Jewish family purity laws that regulate when married couples may and may not engage in intimacy. The "few outlets for an Orthodox man with compulsions," those unnamed "some" believe, create "a fertile environment for deviance."

Those comments go to the crux of the matter of why Orthodox Jews should care about any of this. After all, why not just ignore it all? Just as unfounded negative assumptions about Jews in general are popular in much of the non-Jewish world, so are Orthodox Jews unfairly maligned in the larger Jewish one. Do we really have to make a fuss?

Well, I believe we do. Because there is a subtext here. The maligning is not of Orthodox Jews alone; it is a maligning of mitzvot, of modesty, of Torah. It is a claim, in effect, that dedication to Torah doesn't help prevent sin, that it even leads to it.

I believe - and it is Judaism's belief - that Torah is transformative, that human inclinations are harnessed and controlled by Torah-life and Torah-study. To be sure, there are Jews who lead publicly observant lives yet who are not truly committed to Torah, who have not internalized "fear of Heaven." And so, there will always be anecdotal evidence of Orthodox wrongdoings of many sorts, with perpetrators identifiable, and duly identified, as Orthodox.

But the vast majority of observant Jews take Torah seriously. And it does elevate them, and empowers them to live exemplary lives. That is part of why the Torah-observant population is greatly underrepresented in the realms of societal ills like rape, AIDS, prostitution and marital infidelity that affect their less "repressed" neighbors. Although it is certainly possible that rates of child or spouse abuse in the Orthodox world are equal to those of general American society, I would expect a similar underrepresentation in those realms as well.

I cannot know that my expectation reflects reality; there are no meaningful statistical data to mine at present. But neither are there any to support the assumptions and speculations of writers like those cited above.

One thing I do know, though, is that my expectation is based on the quintessential Jewish idea that the study and practice of Torah create more refined human beings. And the others' assumption is based on their conviction - fueled, perhaps, by wishful thinking - that it does not.

The writers are entitled to their cynicism. But all Jews who respect Torah are entitled - I believe obligated - to expose it, along with offerings of unfounded, bias-born speculations as facts.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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NO. WE'RE SORRY. NOT JERUSALEM.

Rabbi Avi Shafran

This morning I counted. There were at least ten times the Hebrew name of Jerusalem, or its synonym Zion, passed my lips. Before breakfast.

There was "Jerusalem, praise G-d," "May You shine a new light on Zion," "the Builder of Jerusalem," and many more throughout the Jewish morning prayer service.

And then there were the other references to Jerusalem but without her name, like "May it be Your will… that the Holy Temple be rebuilt, speedily in our days" and "the city called by Your name."

After a bowl of cereal, the blessing "Al Hamichya" would mention Jerusalem two more times. And for any meals including bread that might have followed, one of the main blessings that comprise the grace after meals would have the Holy City as its subject as well, beginning with a reference to "Jerusalem Your city" and ending "Who in His mercy builds Jerusalem."

And, then, in each of the day's two remaining prayer services, as in the morning one, the silent "Amidah" prayer includes a similar blessing.

It is hard to believe that any people, entity or government could arrogate to claim a closer connection than the Jewish one to the city nestled in the Judean hills, the city toward which praying Jews for millennia have faced thrice daily, and face to this day.

And it is even harder to believe that a government of a self-described Jewish State would even consider, much less announce, its contemplation of placing Jerusalem on the cutting block of negotiations with an enemy.

Yet that is what is happening before our incredulous eyes.

There are Jews who, whether on religious or nationalistic grounds, reject without qualification the very idea of territorial compromise. Many of the religious leaders of the haredi world, however, have clearly stated that political sovereignty over land does not trump the attainment of peace and security. None of us haredi Jews deny, G-d forbid, the holiness of any part of the Jewish Land. But we know that the true, complete (territorially as well as spiritually) "Jewish State" will arrive only when the Messiah does, and that the Third Holy Temple will be built by the hand of not man but G-d. Thus, the reflexive form in our prayer: "May it be Your will that the Temple be [re]built."

That said, though, "territorial compromise" with an adversary that includes duplicitous, hate-filled elements - elements that celebrate violence and make no secret of their goal of destroying Israel, elements that have time and again asserted themselves at will, brushing away the ostensibly more moderate among them like so much lint - is, to put it mildly, foolhardy. And the Israeli leadership's apparent readiness to treat even Jerusalem, the very wellspring of the Holy Land's holiness, like a salami to be shared merits an adjective considerably less mild.

Mere days before this writing, we were reminded of what lies on the "other side." A Fatah rally in Gaza was attacked by Hamas forces who killed six and injured dozens. The PLO's chief negotiator publicly rejected the notion that the Palestinians would ever recognize Israel as a Jewish State. Israeli leaders would have to be seriously deluded to imagine that offering such people a part of Jerusalem will result in anything like a secure city.

One can only add to our prayers the hope that those political leaders somehow experience some flash of recognition of what they are contemplating. That they blink a few times, shake their heads and remember just what Jerusalem means to the Jewish People. That they come to open a Jewish prayer book and not only read the words but pay attention to them; and say the grace after meals, doing the same.

And that they then turn to their adversaries and say, without rancor but with full determination: "No. We're sorry. Not Jerusalem."

To be sure, from a haredi perspective, it doesn't make any inherent difference what temporal flag flies above the hewn stones of Jerusalem's walls. The city's holiness is neither heralded nor preserved by such banners. But it is a fallacy of the most dangerous sort to imagine that the cause of peace could possibly be advanced by surrendering the heart of the Jewish People.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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A LESSON FROM SMOKEY

Rabbi Avi Shafran

On their surface, the e-mails had nothing to do with the uncontrolled wildfires then devastating southern California. Yet the confluence of the messages and the maelstrom held a truth worth contemplating.

The topic of the e-mails is of no matter. The writers were urging Agudath Israel of America to take a certain stance on a political issue. It was their tone that stood out. The correspondents had taken for granted that their own judgment on the matter was right, and were writing to insist that the organization come on board, or "get with it," as one put it. Or as another wrote: "Your Moetzet Gedolei HaTorah [Council of Torah Sages - Agudath Israel's highest rabbinical body] needs to take a strong stand here…"

Agudath Israel is unique among Jewish groups. Its administration does not set policy; that role resides among the venerable rabbinic elders at our helm. The organization's officers and executive staff are sometimes asked to provide the Council members with information, even to lay out various approaches to an issue. But we do not tell our religious leaders what we think they should think. One might say that we report, they decide.

It is an approach that rankles some, especially those who might not appreciate the humor in a sign I have that reads: "People who think they know everything are particularly aggravating to those of us who do."

But the fact remains: Judaism teaches humility, and special respect for the judgment of those most experienced and knowledgeable. The letters of the Hebrew word for "elderly" - zaken - are parsed by the Talmud to yield the phrase "this one has acquired wisdom."

And so, particularly in matters of Jewish communal welfare, we believe that Jews are exhorted to heed the direction provided by the community's most Torah-learned elders, those who have internalized a large degree of the perfection of values and refinement of character that the Torah idealizes. Even when those elders' judgment differs from our own. Actually, especially then.

Commenting on the decision made by the Judean King Rechavam (King Solomon's son) to shun the advice of the elders of his father's court and heed instead the advice of younger advisors (Kings I:12), the Talmud remarks: "[What might seem] constructive on the part of the young [can in fact be] destructive; and [what might seem] destructive on the part of elders [can in fact be] constructive" (Nedarim, 40a). Rechavam's wrong choice brought schism to the Jewish kingdom, fanning the flames of rebellion.

Which brings us back to more recent flames, those of the unprecedented California fires - which fire-management experts have dubbed "mega-fires," since they are ten times larger and more intense than wildfires of a mere decade or two ago. More than eight million acres of American forest have burned this year already.

The reasons suggested for the unprecedented infernos include, of course, the "usual suspect" for all natural disasters these days, global warming. But the fact that Baja Mexico has evidenced only smaller fires than adjacent San Diego County suggests strongly that something else is at work. That something, experts say, is a decades-old misguided conservation policy in the United States. Put simply, the longtime American approach to fire suppression - extinguishing small fires as soon as they appear, rather than allowing them to run their natural courses and create undergrowth-free zones - has created huge swaths of unburned brush that, when fire does break out, serve as rich and abundant fuel for infernos of exceptional scope and intensity. "When," asked University of California professor of earth sciences and fire-management expert Richard A. Minnich, quoted in The New York Times, "do we declare the policy a failure?"

So the culprit, so to speak, is Smokey the Bear. He seemed like a fine enough, if furry, fellow all those years, delivering his ursine, eminently common-sense message that putting out small fires was the obvious way to prevent larger ones. But he was wrong. precisely wrong,entirely wrong. Nothing personal (or specie-ist), but, in the end, only smarts can prevent mega- fires.

Now, with hindsight, we are wiser. Imagine, though, how the suggestion that forest fires be permitted to burn uncontrolled, would have been received had it been offered fifty years ago. It is not hard to imagine the e-mails (well, telegrams) chiding forest rangers to tell the Forest Service policymakers to "get with it" and "take a strong stand" against the obvious illogic of - goodness! - letting fires just burn!

It's not only the so-called "Law of Unintended Consequences" that can figure into weighty decisions. A host of factors can make the right decision seem the wrong one, puzzling observers, even outraging them. To be sure, we all have a right to our opinion, and much can be gained by sharing our perspectives with others.

But two vital commodities in all-too-short supply these days are humility and respect for elders. We do well to consider that our confidence - "evidence" and all - that we know what is best no more qualifies us to make the right decision than putting a ranger's hat on a bear's head and a shovel in his hand makes him an expert on forest conservation.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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RESURRECTION

Rabbi Avi Shafran

That the unveiling of a new Reform prayer book didn't elicit applause from the Orthodox world was hardly surprising. Despite media hailings of the movement's new liturgical offering as a turn toward Jewish tradition, the new prayer book, "Mishkan T'filah," still pointedly omits vital elements of traditional Jewish prayer (indeed of the Torah) that its editors found discomfiting.

The essence of the Jewish religious heritage does not change; the very premise of Reform theology (and, as has become increasingly evident, Conservative theology no less) is that Judaism can be redefined according to the wishes of contemporary Jews. As a Reform leader once candidly explained, he examines each mitzvah and asks himself, "Do I feel commanded [to heed it]?"

Still and all, some encouragement may lie in the fact that a movement rejective of Judaism's heart has even subtly and tepidly reclaimed an element of the Judaism of the ages. The Kotzker Rebbe, it is told, once asked: Who is more worthy, someone on the 49th level of spiritual accomplishment or on the 1st? His answer: "It depends on the direction in which each is heading."

And for all the new Reform prayer book's profound faults - and those of the theology that produced it - it seems to signal a change in direction.

Take the book's very formatting. If Marshall McLuhan was right that there is message in the medium, Mishkan T'filah immediately telegraphs its distinction from earlier Reform prayer books. Unlike its predecessors, it includes the word "siddur" on its cover. It not only includes a Hebrew text but opens and reads from right to left. (The left side of each open pair of pages offers modernistic comments on the Hebrew to the right, recalling - to me, at least - King Solomon's words: "The heart of the wise one is to his right" [Ecclesiastes, 10:2].)

But even those inclined to dismiss such changes as mere window dressing might note the amendments made - after years of sometimes contentious disagreement among the prayer book's editors - to the actual Reform liturgy itself.

For instance, in utter affront to the Reform movement's longstanding rejection of the concept of techiyat hameitim, or "resurrection of the dead," Mishkan T'filah offers the option of reciting the blessing acknowledging that essential Jewish belief.

In a nod to (forgive the pun) die-hard Reform "traditionalists" (a word rather turned on its head in this context), Mishkan T'filah still suggests that the phrase "He Who gives life to the dead" be understood as "a powerful metaphor." But - and, again, small changes can hold larger significance - the editors' note adds that the resurrection of the dead "may be taken literally" as well.

It is easy to glibly dismiss that concession. With sociologists predicting that American Jews least connected to Jewish belief and observance (a group that includes the majority of the million-plus who identify as Reform Jews) are headed for Jewish extinction, it would seem Panglossian to see an editorial change in a prayer book as a harbinger of hope.

But I can't help but imagine an astute Reform worshipper motivated to indeed ponder the kind of techiyat hameitim we witness daily, like decaying organic matter fertilizing the soil, spurring dormant seeds to unfold into plants and trees. And then being stirred further to consider the relationship between such everyday "quickening of the dead" and the ultimate one that the Torah teaches lies, for those who merit it, at the end of history.

As the deep Jewish scholar and thinker Rabbi E.E. Dessler wrote, the only reason we consider the germination of a seed to be natural and resurrection of the dead miraculous is because we are accustomed to the former but not the latter. What we choose to call the "laws of nature," he explains, are not inherently "sensible"; they simply are what they are: G-d's will.

We can describe how a plant grows, how its genes code for the stages of that process, even the workings of the atomic structure underlying its DNA. But why any of that should work the way it does is ultimately answerable only with: "Because, well, that's just the way it is." Or, from Judaism's perspective: because G-d has so willed it. And, notes Rabbi Dessler, He can no less easily will things that strike us as incredible.

The editors of the new Reform prayer book may insist that its users needn't subscribe to the Jewish belief that the righteous will one day rise from their graves. But their inclusion of the blessing of resurrection, however they may have sought to soften it, reflects unquestionably the deep stirrings of Jews alienated from our eternal beliefs groping uneasily toward their acceptance.

It may be naive to imagine that changes in the Reform prayer book hold out hope that Reform-affiliated Jews might yet come to consider returning to the fullness of the Jewish religious tradition.

But I'm not willing to consider a million-plus fellow Jews as nothing more than a desiccated limb of the Jewish people, hopelessly destined to wither and fall away.

Not only because there are encouragingly many once-distant-from-Judaism Jews living fully Torah-observant lives today.

But because I believe in techiyat hameitim.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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MUCH ADO ABOUT SHMITTAH

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Those "Ultra-Orthodox" in Israel are at it again, inventing new stringencies, coercing other Jews, trying to make a dishonest buck and generally making life unlivable for everybody else.

At least that is what seems to emerge from recent reportage about the "Agricultural Sabbatical Year," or Shmittah, ushered in on Rosh Hashana.

The New York Times contended that an Israeli Chief Rabbi, because he respected a revered elder rabbinical leader's judgment, is "considered" - by whom was not clarified - "a puppet" of the senior rabbi.

A New York Sun columnist insinuated that a religious legal decision was born of a desire to make money on the backs of the poor. "There are, after all, no farmers in the ultra-Orthodox community," wrote Hillel Halkin, wrongly, "and plenty of rabbis and kashrut supervisors who will find jobs making sure that Jewish-grown fruits and vegetables are not, G-d forbid, being smuggled into the diet of unsuspecting Israelis."

And a New York Jewish Week editorial both got its facts wrong (contending that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, by setting a kashrut certification standard, had "disallowed" food of lower standards) and saw fit to invoke an unsubstantiated accusation of moral turpitude against one rabbi and the arrest of another's family member as indictments of the rabbis' religious legal opinions.

Some Israeli publications were shriller still. The Jerusalem Report characterized the granting of permission to local rabbis to set their communities' kashrut standards thus: "Confrontation looms as the increasingly powerful ultra-Orthodox camp flexes its muscles and attempts to impose strict observance of the Shmittah commandment on all Israelis."

Irresponsible media coverage of haredim is nothing new. But were such misinformation and provocation used against Jews rather than against some Jews, it would be roundly condemned as something worse than journalism-as-usual.

The facts:

The Torah enjoins Jews privileged to live in the Holy Land to not till or plant in Jewish-owned soil during each seventh year, known as Shmittah. What grows of its own is to be treated as ownerless and may not be sold. Shmittah-observance bespeaks our recognition that the land is the L-rd's, and its merit allows Jews to, in the words of Leviticus [25:19], "abide in the land, in safety." For Jews who believe that Israel perseveres only through miracles, Shmittah is no minor mitzvah.

When substantial numbers of Jews began to return to the Holy Land in the 19th century, some farmers among them endeavored to observe Shmittah; most, though, living in deep poverty, did not. As a result, in 1896, religious leaders, including haredi rabbis, approved a fall-back plan whereby land owned by Jews was technically transferred to the possession of an Arab for the duration of the Shmittah year. That way, Jewish farmers would be acting as sharecroppers rather than as tillers of their own Shmittah-qualifying soil.

During subsequent Shmittah years, many farmers continued to rely on that "sale loophole" or "heter mechira." And when the state of Israel was created, the official state Rabbinate endorsed it as well.

A few farmers, though, opted to observe Shmittah in its original way, allowing their fields to lie fallow and relying on other income or charity (ultimately, on G-d), to make it through the months when they could not farm and sell produce. As a result, in the 1950s and 1960s, about 250 acres of land "rested" as per the Biblical injunction.

Later Shmittah years saw increasing number of farmers follow suit. Seven years ago, the number of acres left untilled had risen more than 200-fold from the 60s, to 55,000. This year, 3000-3500 farmers will be observing Shmittah, and 100,000 acres are expected to be left fallow in accordance with the Torah's direction. Every major Orthodox kashrut-certification agency in North America approves only Israeli produce hewing to the highest Shmittah standard.

The reasons for the growth of Shmittah-observance are several, among them a general trend toward greater observance, recognition of the ad-hoc nature of the heter mechira, and the experience of farmers who not only did not suffer for their Shmittah observance but experienced unusual blessings.

So what's with all the negative press? Good question.

This year, Israel's Chief Rabbinate declared that while it still did not oppose reliance on the heter mechira, it was, for the first time, permitting municipal rabbis in Israel's towns and cities, when issuing kashrut certifications, to decide for their localities whether to rely on that fall-back standard or opt for the original one.

From the reaction, one might think that the Chief Rabbis had declared an extra year of Shmitta rather than simply taken a pluralistic stance on religious standards. Israel's agriculture minister, Shalom Simhon, thundered a threat to forbid imports from Arab-owned land (which meet the higher Shmittah standard). Media like the Jewish Week misleadingly described the new policy as some sort of prohibition. Even in cities where the municipal rabbi has not granted kosher certification for heter mechira produce, nothing prevents a vendor from selling such produce (sans a Rabbinate kashrut-sticker) - which will surely be less expensive than the rabbinically-sanctioned fruits and vegetables.

But, as the New York Times article admitted, about Jerusalem haredim: "The community is already among the poorest in Jerusalem, but the rulings of their rabbis matter far more to them than money."

And speaking of money, Jews outside Israel are putting theirs where their beliefs are.

A 35-year-old organization, Keren Hashvi'is, raises millions of dollars each Shmittah year to help support Shmittah-observant farmers. Most donations are relatively small, from people of limited means - testifying to the broad and deep connection tens of thousands of Jews worldwide feel to their Israeli brethren farming holy soil. (In the United States, Keren Hashvi'is operates from Agudath Israel of America's Manhattan offices.)

But jaundiced eyes see only haredi Jews poisoning Jewish wells. It is a truly strange panorama: Observers usually enamored of ecological and liberal ideals have somehow been transformed into fierce opponents of leaving nature alone, of providing Arabs with extra income and of permitting individual rabbis to rule in accordance with their consciences.

And in the background, religiously dedicated farmers are doing what they believe will merit security and peace for the Holy Land, with help from Jews across Israel and around the world.

Keren Hashvi'is, which accepts donations by credit card, can be reached at 1-888-9-SHMITTAH.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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STAR POWER

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The symbol commonly known as the Magen David ("Shield of David") or more colloquially as the "Jewish Star," is the subject of an unusual responsum written by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in 1968 (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 3, 15).

The familiar six-pointed polygon yielded by two superimposed triangles adorns countless synagogue ark-curtains and Torah-covers, containers for religious items and pieces of jewelry.

And, of course, the Israeli flag, set between two broad stripes meant to evoke a talit, or Jewish prayer-shawl. It was, in fact, that appropriation of the Jewish star symbol which formed the basis of the question posed to the famed decisor of Jewish law: Since the State of Israel is the fruition of an essentially secular, political dream - Herzl's Judenstaadt - is the Magen David symbol appropriate as an adornment for religious items?

Rabbi Feinstein replied that regardless of what service the symbol may have been pressed into, it remains an ancient Jewish emblem, and is therefore entirely properly displayed in synagogues and on religious objects.

What the Magen David signifies, however, the revered rabbi continued, is not entirely clear. Despite the hexagram's antiquity, there seems to be no authoritative Jewish source that addresses its significance.

All the same, Rabbi Feinstein suggests that the six-pointed form symbolizes G-d's dominion over all of space ("above and below and in all four directions").

We experience our universe in three spatial dimensions. To pinpoint the location of an object, in other words, one must identify its latitude, longitude and altitude with respect to some other fixed point. Things can be moved in two directions along each of those three axes, and so a six-pointed figure symbolizes all of space - and, in the case of the Magen David, reminds us how the universe is transcended by the Divine.

As to the Jewish Star's connection to King David, writes Rabbi Feinstein, "perhaps it signifies that David, during the wars he fought, relied on G-d, Who rules over [all of the universe], and thus, as the Torah commanded, never feared mortal kings and their armies."

G-d's hand, so apparent to King David, was evident as well to many Jews - even of secular bent - in 1948, when Jews living in the Jewish ancestral land repelled the attack of the Egyptian, Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese armies set on obliterating the nascent Jewish State and its inhabitants.

Similarly, in 1967, Israel's routing of the armies and air forces of its belligerent neighbors Egypt, Syria and Jordan (assisted by Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Algeria) - what came to be known as the Six-Day War - was widely regarded as miraculous. The religious Jewish identities of untold numbers of Israeli and American Jews were forged by that summer's events.

Others, though, less willing to concede supernatural impact on earthly matters, chose to write off Israel's dazzling victories as the predictable yield of superior military intelligence and fighting forces. That attitude became increasingly common, particularly in the boasts of Israeli leaders.

In 1973, however, amid vocal Israeli confidence in early warning systems and air superiority, came the Yom Kippur War, exposing the limitations of such achievements. Israel - although she thankfully managed to prevail in the end - was not able to forestall - or even foresee - an attack launched against her by Egypt and Syria (again aided by other Arab states). The bubble of Israeli military invincibility was burst.

Two inconclusive wars in Lebanon later, the sobering only continues. Israel, despite its vaunted military might, has become politically precarious. Of late, calls for her destruction - from within, through an unfettered "right of return" for descendents of once-resident Arabs; and from without, in the form of blatant threats from points east - have alarmingly increased, both in frequency and intensity.

Still and all, miracles - of a sort easily overlooked by all but sensitive eyes - abound. Terrorist intentions are foiled, explosives detonate in the hands of their crafters and rockets fall harmlessly in fields. Improbable missions like the recent bombardment of a mysterious, but no doubt worthy, target in Syria succeed. Such small salvations elicit deep gratitude to G-d from religious Jews. And the usual expressions of hubris from others, including all too many Israeli leaders, who rarely speak of - and seem oblivious to - the Divine.

To those, though, who include in their daily prayers a plea for the safety and security of our fellow Jews in the Holy Land, who daily recite specially designated Psalms in their merit, the future of the Jewish presence in the Jewish land - the future of all Jews everywhere - remains not in our hands but in G-d's.

And, in the light of Rabbi Feinstein's nearly four-decade-old words, we perceive a subtle but striking irony: The true key to Israel's security, as unrecognized as it may be to some, has been hiding in plain sight since the Jewish State's founding, fluttering in the wind above every Israeli government building and military outpost.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE SUKKAH STILL STANDS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

There is simply no describing the plaintive, moving melody to which Yiddish writer Avraham Reisen's poem was set. As a song, it is familiar to many of us who were introduced to it by immigrant parents or grandparents. And, remarkably, the strains of "A Sukkeleh," no matter how often we may have heard them, still tend to choke us up.

Based on Reisen's "In Sukkeh," the song, whose popular title means "A Little Sukkah," really concerns two sukkot, one literal, the other metaphorical, and the poem, though it was written at the beginning of the last century, remains tender, profound and timely.

Several years ago, thinking about the song, as so many invariably do every year this season, it occurred to me to try to render it into English for readers unfamiliar with either the song or the language in which it was written. I'm not a professional translator, and my rendering, below, is not perfectly literal. But it's close, and is faithful to the rhyme scheme and meter of the original.

Here goes:

A sukkaleh, quite small,
Wooden planks for each wall;
Lovingly I stood them upright.
I laid thatch as a ceiling
And now, filled with deep feeling,
I sit in my sukkaleh at night.

A chill wind attacks,
Blowing through the cracks;
The candles, they flicker and yearn.
It's so strange a thing
That as the Kiddush I sing,
The flames, calmed, now quietly burn.

In comes my daughter,
Bearing hot food and water;
Worry on her face like a pall.
She just stands there shaking
And, her voice nearly breaking,
Says "Tattenyu, the sukkah's going to fall!"

Dear daughter, don't fret;
It hasn't fallen yet.
The sukkah's fine; banish your fright.
There have been many such fears,
For nigh two thousand years;
Yet the sukkeleh's still standing upright.

As we approach the holiday of Sukkot and celebrate the divine protection our ancestors were afforded during their forty years' wandering in the Sinai desert, we are supposed - indeed, commanded - to be happy. We refer to Sukkot, in our Amidah prayer, as "the time of our joy."

And yet, at least seen superficially, Jewish joy seems misplaced and elusive these days. Jews are brazenly and cruelly murdered in our ancestral homeland, hated and attacked on the streets of not only European cities but places like Canada and Australia as well - and here in the United States, our numbers are falling to the internal adversaries of intermarriage and assimilation.

The poet, however, well captured a transcendent Sukkot-truth. With temperatures dropping and winter's gloom not a great distance away, our sukkah-dwelling is indeed a quiet but powerful statement: We are secure, ultimately protected as a people, if not necessarily as individuals.

And the Jewish people's security is sourced in nothing so flimsy as a fortified edifice; it is protection provided us by G-d Himself, in the merit of our forefathers, and of our own emulation of their dedication to the Divine.

So, no matter how loudly the winds and the tyrants may howl, no matter how vulnerable our physical fortresses may be, we give harbor to neither despair nor insecurity. No, instead we redouble our recognition that, in the end, G-d is in charge, that all is in His hands.

And that, as it has for millennia, the sukkah continues to stand.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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MONEY MATTERS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

As I waited for a bus the other day, a car stopped in front of me at a traffic light. The teen-age boys inside stared at me and smiled - in a peculiar way that I, an identifiably Orthodox Jew, have come to recognize as something other than friendly. As the light changed, the boy riding shotgun flipped a coin at my feet as the car's occupants whooped with glee.

Ah, America. In the old country (my parents', that is; I was born and bred here), Jews had to endure things rather worse than being mocked as money-hungry. My father, may he be well, remembers being confined to his house in a Polish town during certain Christian holidays, when the locals, whipped into a frenzy by their spiritual guides, would devoutly attack any Jews they happened upon after church services. He remembers Siberia too, where Soviet authorities hosted him in a labor camp; and, of course, his parents and seven siblings, all but two of whom were murdered by the Nazis and their eager Polish allies.

Me, the American, I get quarters thrown at me. Persecution, at least in these blessed United States, isn't what it used to be - thank G-d.

I didn't pick up the coin, of course, as the teens had surely hoped I would. The others at the bus stop similarly ignored the offering, out of (I think) embarrassment over the boys' attempt at insult.

And yet the quarter, lying there idle, bothered me; I had to consciously resist retrieving it. No, not because I'm money-grubbing. But, yes, because I'm Jewish. Judaism teaches me that everything - even a coin - matters.

The kids' insinuation that Jews are slaves to lucre was hilariously ironic. If any life is lived in obsession over possessions and the means of acquiring them, it's that of the typical American youth. The car's occupants likely spend half of each day lusting after cars, music, jewelry, stylish clothing and high-tech toys - and the other half grabbing as much of it as they possibly can.

And if anyone is blessedly spared the torments of what passes in some parts these days for neediness, it is the typical observant Jew. I don't feel in the least deprived for wearing simple clothes, taking public transportation (why I was at a bus stop in the first place) or using a phone that doesn't take pictures, access the internet and poach eggs. My wife and I are happy to be able to pay our bills (particularly our tuition bills, the largest item in our budget). And our most valued possessions are things Amazon.com doesn't even carry.

The reason I wanted to pick up the quarter I'd been given was the example of the Jewish forefather Jacob.

The Torah recounts how Jacob, about to meet his estranged brother and would-be murderer Esau, after transporting his family and possessions across a river, took pains to cross back over again. The Talmud conveys a tradition that the reason Jacob returned (and came thereby to be injured in a struggle with Esau's spiritual manifestation), was to retrieve some "small jars."

"From here we see," the Rabbis went on to explain, "that the possessions of the righteous are as dear to them as their bodies."

That comment does not mean to counsel miserliness; Jacob is described as meticulously honest, a "simple man, a dweller in the tents [of Torah-study]"; he is the forefather emblematic of the ideal of "truth" or honesty. What the Talmud is conveying is a deep and quintessentially Jewish recognition: Physical currency has real worth, because it can be exchanged for truly meaningful things.

A dollar, for most people, is a dollar. It can buy a drink or a trinket or half a New York subway fare. But a dollar can also buy a thirsty friend a drink, or a get-well card for someone ailing, or half the fare for the ride to the hospital to deliver it in person. It can be put into the pushkeh - the charity box found in many Jewish homes and every synagogue - or given as a reward to a child who has performed a good deed.

Possessions are but tools, in their essence morally neutral; put to a holy purpose, sublime. And so, Judaism teaches, valuing a coin can be a sign not of avarice but of wisdom.

It's unfortunate - no, tragic - that some of us may have remembered the importance of valuing money but forgotten the reason for its value. And certainly, to acquire assets through less than honest methods is the very antithesis of the example set by the Jewish forefather associated with "truth." The righteous, continues the Talmudic comment cited above, "do not extend their hands toward theft." Truly Judaism-minded Jews, those aware of Jewish ideals and their implications, see money not as an end justified by dubious means but as a means toward a holy end.

I like to imagine that some truly needy person eventually picked up my quarter and used it to buy a fruit.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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FOOD FOR ROSH HASHANA THOUGHT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

An odd Rosh Hashana custom, duly recorded in the Talmud and halachic codes, is the lavishing of puns on holiday foods.

Most Jews know that on the first night of the new Jewish year, it is customary to eat a piece of apple dipped in honey, to symbolize our hope for a sweet year. Less known is the Rosh Hashana night custom of eating foods whose names augur well for the future. Though the Talmud's examples are, of course, in Hebrew or Aramaic, at least one halachic commentary directs us to find pun-foods in whatever language we may speak.

"Help us pare away our sins" before consuming a pear might thus be an appropriate example. Or an entreaty that G-d be our advocate, before eating a piece of avocado. "Lettuce have a wonderful year" might be pushing it a bit, but maybe not. One respected rabbi once smilingly suggested partaking of a raisin and stalk of celery after expressing the hope for a "raise in salary."

Such exercises might seem a bit out of place on the Jewish holy "day of judgment." But that is only because we regard the custom simplistically, as some quaint superstition. In truth, though, it is precisely Rosh Hashana's austere gravity that lies at the custom's source.

There are other telling Jewish customs regarding Rosh Hashana, like the recommendation that the Jewish new year be carefully utilized to the fullest for prayer, Torah-study and good deeds, that not a moment of its time be squandered. Mitzvot and good conduct, of course, are always "in season," but they seem to have particular power on Rosh Hashana. Similarly, Jewish sources caution against expressing anger on Rosh Hashana. The Jewish new year days are to reflect only the highest Jewish ideals.

The 16th century Jewish luminary Rabbi Yehudah Loewy, known as the Maharal, stresses the crucial nature of beginnings. He explains that the trajectory of a projectile - or, we might similarly note, the outcome of a mathematical computation - can be affected to an often astounding degree by a very small change at the start of the process. A diversion of a single degree of arc where the arrow leaves the bow - or an error of a single digit at the first step of a long calculation - can yield a surprisingly large difference in the end. Modern scientific terminology has given the concept both the unwieldy name "sensitive dependence on initial conditions" and the playful one "the butterfly effect," an allusion to the influence the flapping of a butterfly's wings halfway around the world could presumably have on next week's local weather.

Rosh Hashana is thus much more than the start of the Jewish year. It is the day from which the balance of the year unfolds, a time of "initial conditions" exquisitely sensitive to our actions.

Perhaps the Rosh Hashana puns, too, reflect that sensitivity. After all, word-play is not suggested for any other day of the year.

Maybe by imbuing even things as seemingly inconsequential as our choice of foods with meaning on Rosh Hashana, we symbolically affirm the idea that beginnings have unusual potential. That there are times when the import of each of our actions is magnified. By seizing even the most wispy opportunities to try to bestow blessing on the Jewish new year aborning, we declare our determination to start the year as right as we possibly can.

While we are not explicitly informed by the Talmud about whether the puns actually have any direct effect on our year, they unarguably impress upon us the extraordinary degree to which our actions at the start of a Jewish year affect how we will live its balance.

And that is an invaluable lesson, one that should lead us to begin the new Jewish year working to make ourselves better Jews in our relations both to one another and to our Creator.

May all we Jews merit a Rosh Hashana with only sweetness and joy, devoid of sadness and anger. And may we seize every chance to make the start of 5768 as perfect as we can - ushering in a year in which the Jewish People's collective life and all of our individual lives take a distinct and substantial turnip for the better.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


THE JOY OF ACCOUNTABILITY

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In mid-August, after complaints from local residents, a priest in Tilberg, the Netherlands, was fined several thousand dollars for ringing his church bells just after 7:00 in the morning.

Likewise in mid-August, synagogues around the world - many of them at just about that same time of morning - were sounding an alarm of their own. No complaints were reported about the shofar, or ram's horn, blasts sounded at the end of morning services. The shofar-soundings began on the first day of the Jewish month of Elul and are continuing every morning until the day before Rosh Hashana.

Maimonides famously described the blowing of the shofar on that holiday as a wake-up call - bearing the unspoken but urgent message "Awaken, sleepers, from your slumber." The slumber, he went on to explain, is our floundering in the "meaningless distractions of the temporal world" we occupy. The shofar throughout Elul calls on us to refocus on what alone is real in life: serving our Creator. And should we choose to hit the spiritual snooze-button, the alarm is sounded the next day, and the one after that.

It is so much easier to sleep, of course, through the alarm clock, both the literal one in the morning and the figurative one that rudely echoes in our hearts as we busy ourselves with the "important" diversions that so often fill our days.

What is more, just as, lost in our morning muddle, we may wish ill on our alarm clocks, we tend at times to resent our life-responsibilities.

How differently we would feel if only we realized the import of obligation - how accountability actually holds the seeds of joy.

The weekly Torah portion usually read near the start of Elul has G-d describing idolatry, the most severe of sins, as bowing down before "the sun, moon or other heavenly bodies that I have not commanded" [Deuteronomy 17:3].

That last phrase was clarified by the Jewish translators of the Torah into Greek, as "that I have not commanded you to serve" - removing any ambiguity from the text; the standard Torah commentary Rashi follows suit.

The Hassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, however, revealed another layer of the phrase's meaning.

He noted that there is an exception to the prohibition of genuflecting before something physical: bowing down to a human being. We find, for instance, that the prophet Obadiah bowed before his master Elijah, who, while human, nevertheless embodied a degree of G-dliness. Explained Rabbi Levi Yitzchak: A human being, by virtue of his having chosen and forged a path of holiness in life, is worthy of veneration of a sort that is forbidden to show to any other creation.

What allows human beings to attain so lofty a status, "The Berditchiver" continues, is that we are commanded - creatures intended not just to exist, but to shoulder responsibility. That allows us to become partners in a way with the Divine. And so it is precisely our obligations that exalt us, that place us on a plane above everything else in the universe.

That thought, explained the Hassidic master, lies beneath the surface of the verse cited above. We are forbidden to bow to the sun and moon because "I have not commanded" them - because they are not themselves commanded. They are not charged to choose, instructed in any way to act against their natures.

We humans, however, with our many duties that may cause us to chafe or grumble, are elevated beings, infused with holiness. And our responsibilities are what make our lives potential wells of holiness, what make our existences deeply meaningful.

That idea might grant us some understanding of an oddity: Rosh Hashana is described both as a Day of Judgment and as a joyous holiday. Even as we tremble as we stand "like sheep" before the Judge of all, we are enjoined to partake in festive holiday meals and, as on other festivals, to derive happiness from them.

Perhaps the seeming paradox is solved by the recognition that the reason we can, indeed must, be judged derives directly from our accountability. Even - perhaps especially - when the alarm clock interrupts our reveries, our responsibilities should fill us with the deepest gratitude and joy.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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LOST IN SPACE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Like most religions, Scientism has its articles of faith.

Science, the study of nature, has a premise - the scientific method - but no required beliefs about the unseen.

Scientism, by contrast - the conviction that there is and can be nothing beyond the reach of our physical senses and instruments - possesses a dogma as sacrosanct as any religion's.

Among its unchallengeable doctrines is an abiding faith in the absence of a Creator, in the all-pervading rule of chance in the universe. Unfolding from that axiom is the conviction that life materialized naturally from inanimate matter; and that the diversity of life on earth emerged from the trinity of a common single-celled ancestor, random mutation and natural selection.

Which leads in turn to another of Scientism's creeds: that life must exist beyond our planet.

For if chance is the loom on which the universe's fabric lies stretched, there is no reason that only a single, unremarkable planet in a single, unremarkable solar system in a single, unremarkable galaxy - a solitary orb in a universe of billions of stars and their satellites - would alone have spawned life and, eventually, intelligent life.

During the same eons that allowed natural processes on Earth to progress from inert elements to iPods and their owners, countless other worlds should have done no worse. Indeed, should have done considerably better.

And yet, like the elusive laboratory experiment actually demonstrating the evolution of one species into another, the search for intelligent life beyond our planet has, thus far, come up empty.

Not, though, for lack of trying.

Back in 1960, the first SETI, or "Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence," effort was made, utilizing a radio telescope to examine star systems. In the 1970s and 1980s other SETI efforts were launched; among them, the "Megachannel Extra-Terrestrial Assay" (META) and META II, which searched the southern sky.

Plaques depicting the location of Earth in the galaxy and solar system and what humans look like were launched aboard the Pioneer probes in 1972 and 1973; and the Voyager probes in 1977 provided similar information on two golden records, which also included recordings of pictures and sounds of Earth. In 1974, the Arecibo message, which included simply coded information about chemistry and terrestrial life, was beamed into space.

In the 1990s, the "Billion-channel ExtraTerrestrial Assay" (BETA) was created, as well as a project sponsored by The Planetary Society that harnesses the computing power of five million volunteers' computers to crunch numbers that might reveal patterns indicative of intelligent life beyond our planet. Over 19 billion hours of processing time have so far been consumed by the project.

So far, though, nothing. Nary a peep nor a pattern.

The dearth of any sign of intelligent life beyond our own planet doesn't prove anything, of course. It's a big universe.

But from the Jewish perspective, the absence of any reply to our shout-outs isn't surprising. The Torah refers to many peoples but all are presumably earthly. Man, in Judaism's view, was created by G-d here on earth. No mention is made, at least in exoteric texts, of any parallel production.

Not that there is anything in the Torah to conclusively preclude the existence of life on other worlds. Rudimentary life, after all, exists in earthly places unmentioned in the Torah - from undersea volcanic vents to Amazonian jungle canopies. The discovery of life on other worlds would be an unexpected development but hardly cause any believing Jew a crisis of conscience.

Even intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos, while it would be more surprising still, would no more challenge a Torah-centered worldview than the discovery of some previously unknown aboriginal population in an unexplored corner of earth. G-d created much that was discovered by man only with time.

For those, however, who desperately want to believe in humanity's mediocrity, the apparent biological silence of the universe should be troubling.

Perhaps, they explain reassuringly, life's development is contingent on a very specific chemical matrix. But that, of course, just begs the question, returning us to the uniqueness of earth, and of man.

Confessors of the creed of Scientism are anxiously awaiting the conclusion of a recent $420 million space mission. On August 4, the Phoenix Mars Lander lifted off from Cape Canaveral to search, when it lands ten months hence, for evidence of life on the Red Planet. Although two rovers have been sending data from Mars for years, the Phoenix Lander is to drill in the Martian equivalent of Earth's arctic, believed to be a relatively bio-friendly environment, and will chemically analyze its soil and ice, in the hope of finding signs of life, past or present.

Should the tests in fact yield evidence of even the most rudimentary life, it will help keep hope alive in the hearts of Scientism's high priests that other advanced civilizations might yet one day announce themselves. If, however, Phoenix comes up empty in its biology-quest, it will serve to further furrow the brows of those true believers. Or it should.

Either way, believers in a Creator will be untroubled. Whether there is biological life, simple or advanced, out there may be unknown to us. What we do know, though, is that we're not alone.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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RABBI FEINSTEIN SPEAKS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

A recent attack on Israel's Chief Rabbinate invoked the late and revered American Orthodox decisor of Jewish law, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.

The attacker was Professor Benjamin Ish-Shalom, the director of Israel's Institute for Jewish Studies, an agency charged with offering a course of Jewish study to non-Jewish immigrants interested in conversion. What provoked him was the set of standards employed by the Rabbinate for conversions.

In a flattering Jerusalem Post interview - the reporter took pains not only to cite the professor's scholarship, soft-spoken nature and religious piety but to describe for readers the "centuries-old Talmuds and well-worn works on Jewish philosophy and history" that line his office - Professor Ish-Shalom blasted what he calls the "humiliating" conversion process in Israel, dismissed religious court judges as insufficiently humble and declared that the Rabbinate is rendering Jewish religious law "irrelevant to the modern Jewish people and to the modern state of Israel."

Professor Ish-Shalom further described a judge who invalidated a years-old conversion as embodying (in the Post's paraphrase) "blindness and even halachic ignorance"; accused Israel's religious court judges of fostering desecration of G-d's name; and dismissed Israel's Chief Rabbis of just being "loyal to their haredi masters."

The purportedly soft-spoken professor's harsh words emerged from his concern over the estimated 300,000 non-Jews who arrived in Israel during the 1990s amid the massive immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union.

Professor Ish-Shalom considers it imperative to convince as many of those non-Jews as possible to undergo a conversion process. He hopes to attract 100,000 of the younger immigrants.

The trenchant question, of course, is whether persuading non-Jews who have no intention of becoming Jewishly observant - like many, if not most, of those targeted by the professor's conversion plan - to undergo a conversion process in fact results in new Jews. Conversion, after all, is no simple matter of self-identification but a distinct religio-legal process; it is governed, no less than any area of religious law, by requirements, some of them essential and incontrovertible.

One is "kabbalat hamitzvot," or "acceptance of the commandments," the central element in a Jewish conversion. To the question of whether a seeming lack of such commandment-acceptance might render a conversion void, Professor Ish-Shalom responds by citing Rabbi Feinstein.

In a responsum, the venerated decisor deals with the case of a woman who converted through an Orthodox court but then married a non-observant Jew and fell into non-observance. Asked if the woman's conversion should be considered invalid, Rabbi Feinstein responded no.

The point of Rabbi Feinstein's reasoning upon which Professor Ish-Shalom seizes is that a convert need not know all that is entailed in accepting the mitzvot; he or she need only accept the Torah's commandments in a general sense. So even if the woman in question had not realized precisely what Jewish observance entails, her undefined acceptance sufficed to render her, at least post facto, a Jew.

What the professor chooses to not dwell upon, however, is the clear implication that where in fact there was no genuine kabbalat hamitzvot (and that would include the rejection, at the time of conversion, of any individual mitzvah) there is no conversion, even post facto. Thus, were a non-Jew to be convinced to undergo a conversion ceremony but is fully aware (as are most people living in Israel) that driving on Shabbat or eating shellfish is forbidden by Jewish religious law and has no intention of observing those strictures, his or her mouthing of a mitigated "kabbalat hamitzvot" does not result in a conversion.

Were such "conversions" to be performed en masse, it would result in a large group of people who might be considered Jewish by Professor Ish-Shalom, his interviewer and others, but who would be regarded as non-Jews by most other observant Jews. What is more (and perhaps worse), suspicion would be cast on the Jewishness of all converts in Israel.

As it happens, there is indeed a responsum of Rabbi Feinstein's that speaks directly to the professor's plans. It is in the first section of his collected responsa, Igrot Moshe. In number 157 he writes: "… it is obvious and clear that [a non-Jew who did not accept the mitzvot] is not a convert at all, even after the fact [of his conversion ceremony]… because kabbalat hamitzvot for a convert is essential ["me'akev"]. And even if he pronounces that he is accepting the mitzvot, if it is clear to us ["anan sa'hadi"] that he is not in truth accepting them, it is nothing."

And Rabbi Feinstein, poignantly, concludes:

"I altogether do not understand the reasoning of rabbis who err in this. Even according to [their mistaken notion], what gain are they bringing to the Jewish People by accepting such 'converts'? It is certainly not pleasing to G-d or to the Jewish people that such 'converts' should become mixed into [the Congregation of] Israel. As to the halacha, it is clear that they are not converts at all."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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INVITATION TO INTERMARRIAGE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

One can't help but feel sad for Noah Feldman. In spite of his considerable professional accomplishments - a law professorship at Harvard, three books, a slew of well-received essays and a fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations, to name a few - the young Jew is clearly stewing. A bubble of his own imagining has burst in his face.

What he imagined was that, in its embrace of both Judaism and elements of contemporary culture, the "Modern Orthodoxy" of his youth granted Jews license to abandon as much of Jewish religious observance as they deem appropriate. Expressing his anger - coolly, to be sure, but the hurt seeps thickly through the poised prose - in a recent New York Times Magazine piece, "Orthodox Paradox," Professor Feldman describes how the Boston Jewish school he attended as a child and teenager went so far as to crop a class reunion photograph to omit him and his non-Jewish Korean-American fiancée , whom he later married.

But the Photo-Shopped portrait is only the professor's anecdotal hook. What he really resents is that his erstwhile school, along with some of his mentors and friends, spurn him for his decision to marry outside his faith.

No one, he admits, is rude to him. None of his former teachers or friends, he writes, would refuse to shake his hand. But he knows that they deride him for the life-path he has chosen. And that offends and perplexes him.

Does not "Modern Orthodoxy," after all, embrace the "reconcil[iation of] Jewish faith with scholarship and engagement in the public sphere"? Should it not, therefore, regard his intermarriage as an expression, if somewhat extreme, of his effort at such reconciliation? Were he and his classmates not taught to see themselves as "reasonable, modern people, not fanatics or cult members"?

Leaving aside whether un-"Modern" Orthodox Jews are in fact disengaged from the public sphere (a visit to any of a number of financial firms, law offices and hi-tech retail businesses in New York or other places with large "ultra-Orthodox" populations might yield evidence to the contrary), much less whether they are fanatical or cultist, Professor Feldman's umbrage is misplaced. There is a reason why, to Orthodox Jews (and many non-Orthodox no less), no matter how embracing they may be of the larger world, intermarriage represents a deep betrayal. It is more than a violation of Jewish religious law. It is an abandonment of the Jewish past and an undermining of the Jewish future.

Because marriage, arguably the most important choice in a Jewish life, is not a partnership but rather a fusing - "and they shall be as one flesh," in Genesis' words. Since a spouse is part of oneself, the personal consequences of intermarriage are profound. As, in Professor Feldman's case, are the communal ones; his children are not Jewish.

Judaism views the Jewish People as a special and hallowed entity. Members of the nation are to care for all - "we are to support the poor of the nations along with the Jewish poor," as the Talmud directs. And the righteous among the other nations, the Talmud goes on to teach, will receive their eternal reward. But the Jewish faith is clear about the ultimate redemption of the world: It is dependent on the Jewish People's remaining a nation apart in fundamental ways. One way is in our basic beliefs - for instance, that G-d gave our ancestors His law, and never subsequently changed it. Another is in our commitment to the integrity of the Jewish people qua people. Our commitment, in other words, to marry other Jews.

A celebrated Orthodox television personality and pundit reacted to Professor Feldman's article in a Jerusalem Post opinion piece with words of welcome. While he considers intermarriage "a direct threat to the very continuity of the Jewish people," he nevertheless considers Professor Feldman "a prince of the Jewish nation"; and suggests that intermarrieds be treated no differently from the in-married, that they be offered our "love and respect."

His suggestion stems from his Jewish heart but his Jewish head should have been more carefully consulted.

Yes, there is ample reason to feel sympathy for Jews who intermarry. Transgressions performed from desire, Jewish tradition teaches, do not reach the level of those intended to be transgressive. And on a personal level, there are reasons to not cut off connections to intermarried friends or relatives. (It is not unheard of for non-Jews married to Jews to actually guide their spouses back to Judaism and to themselves convert; precisely such a couple is the subject of "Migrant Soul," a biography I was privileged to write.)

At the same time, though, there is simply no way - not in the real world - to warmly welcome intermarrieds without welcoming intermarriage. No way to make Professor Feldmans feel accepted for who they are without making potential Professor Feldmans view intermarriage as innocuous. No way to "devalue" the gravity of intermarriage without dulling the truth that every Jew is an invaluable link in the Jewish chain of generations.

If one begins with the premise that intermarriage is dangerous to the Jewish people and the Jewish mission, the intermarried cannot enjoy our acceptance. There may be quibbles about the means by which we express our rejection of their choice. But the absence of any communal expression of reproach is nothing less than an invitation to intermarriage.

To my lights, it doesn't seem extreme in the least for a Jewish school to make clear to an intermarried alumnus that, despite his secular accomplishments, it feels no pride in him for his choice to intermarry. I wouldn't expect an American Cancer Society gathering to smile politely at a chain smoking attendee either.

It is painful, no doubt, to be spurned by one's community. It is painful, too, for a community to feel compelled to express its censure. Sometimes, though, in personal and communal life no less than in weightlifting, only pain can offer - in the larger, longer picture - hope of gain.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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RETURNS WELCOME

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Married mere days, David found himself seated at the head of a table with his new wife, in-laws and a host of strangers, including some rabbis with long beards.

He wasn't nervous around rabbis; his personal journey from California teen-age martial-arts aficionado to 20-something Orthodox yeshiva student had been fueled by things he had learned over the years from just such rabbis, and by the inspiration he gleaned from the lives he saw them living.

But this Sheva Brachot - the term for the festive meals traditionally served during the week after a Jewish marriage - was different from the ones that had preceded or would follow it. He was in a city he had never visited before, his parents weren't able to be present and the only people he knew at the table were his new wife and in-laws.

The bride, seated to his right, had been looking for a young man with just David's combination of brights, calm, sincerity and religious commitment. Although Chana came from an observant Orthodox family and knew that it was not common for someone with her background to marry someone who had not grown up observant, she knew when she first met David that she had (if David agreed) found her husband. She in fact saw much of the sincerity and commitment that had so impressed her as directly related to the fact that David had had to make choices in his life that she had been spared.

She knew, too, that her parents - somewhat atypically for their circle - would not hesitate to consider an otherwise qualified "baal teshuva" - or "returnee" to Jewish tradition - as a potential marriage-partner for one of their children. David's dedication, reputation and character were what had mattered. To be sure, research into his Jewish genealogy, as in any such proposed match, would have to be done. Sadly, the proliferation of intermarriage and substandard conversions over recent decades have served to call into question the Jewish status of non-Orthodox families, at least from the perspective of halacha, or Jewish religious law. Once upon a time, observant Jews could take for granted that a family, by simple virtue of its affiliation with a Jewish congregation, was halachically Jewish. But those days, tragically, are gone.

David's ancestry, thankfully, was ascertained to contain no mixed marriages or conversions. His European forebears had in fact been religious Jews; and his parents, although they were not raised Orthodox, had grown deeply proud of David's and his siblings' adoption of Jewish observance.

David's new in-laws were enamored of both him and his parents, and overjoyed at their daughter's marriage. They hoped, moreover, that their example might perhaps, in a small way, inspire other traditional Orthodox Jews to entertain the possibility of such matches from outside their own community.

The importance of "family" - i.e. the "pedigree" of a current and well-established Orthodox background - is an understandable concern for many, to be sure; and there are other halacha-related issues that also come into play in such cases. To some, such concerns may even be paramount, and that stance is their prerogative.

At the same time, though, it cannot be denied that there is something real and valuable that is gained, too, when an observant Orthodox Jew from an Orthodox family marries an equally observant Orthodox Jew from a different background - gained by the latter, by the former and by the Jewish people as a whole.

David's father-in-law was thinking precisely those thoughts at the Sheva Brachot, as a rabbi sitting to his left, one of the respected heads of the local post-graduate yeshiva, turned to the newlywed and asked him about his Jewish educational background. David responded with the name of a well-known Jerusalem yeshiva that caters to the newly observant.

The rabbi's eyes lit up and he smiled. "I studied there, too!"

It took a minute for the response to register. "You?" David asked.

The rabbi happily confirmed the fact and related what a wonderful teacher he had been privileged to have there decades earlier. Wide-eyed, David replied that he had been taught by the same rabbi. And so the conversation continued.

Overhearing it all, David's father-in-law felt a deep sense of gratitude to Heaven for the unplanned encounter. That an alumnus of the very yeshiva David had attended had become a Torah-scholar to whom scores of students looked up and learned Torah from was a poignant thing for the young man to see.

And then David's father-in-law's smile broadened, as he remembered that the rabbi speaking with David was married to the daughter of a major American yeshiva dean. Chana's parents could take pride in that illustrious precedent. They had hardly been the first "ultra-Orthodox" Jews to welcome a baal teshuva and his family into their own.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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KIBBUTZ CONVERSATION

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Tisha B'Av - which falls this year on July 24 - always brings back the personal memory of a conversation between two teen-aged cousins more than thirty years ago. It took place on the outskirts of a non-religious kibbutz in the Galilee, on a hill overlooking a lush valley.

The two boys, one born and bred on the kibbutz, the other an American newcomer to the Holy Land visiting before the start of his Jerusalem yeshiva's academic term, had first met only days earlier.

They had been speaking about family, personal experiences, and sundry things their very different lives nevertheless had in common. And then, the observant boy mentioned, entirely in passing, the imminence of the Jewish fast day.

"We don't observe Tisha B'Av on the kibbutz," his cousin interjected. "The Temple's destruction isn't really relevant to our lives here."

The American boy hesitated a long moment before asking, "Do you observe any Jewish day of mourning?"

"Yes," came the reply. "Yom HaShoah."

Another pause, this one even longer. The yeshiva student knew that Tisha B'Av is the national day of Jewish mourning - that it encompasses many a tragedy - in a sense, every tragedy - in Jewish history. Not only was the first Jewish Holy Temple destroyed on that day (2429 years ago), and the second one, (1939 years ago), on the very same day, but the rebel Jewish forces at Betar were annihilated by the Romans, several decades later, on Tisha B'Av as well.

He knew, too, that the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 C.E., and from France in 1306 C.E. and from Spain in 1492 C.E. all took place on Tisha B'Av as well. He also knew that on Tisha B'Av 1914 Germany declared war on Russia, turning a regional European conflict into what came to be known as World War I, arguably the genesis of what would culminate, two and a half decades later, in Germany's "Final Solution." But somehow it didn't seem the right time for history lessons.

So, instead, he asked his cousin, "Is your commemoration of the Holocaust important to you?"

"Absolutely," came the reply. "The Holocaust underlies our very identity as Israelis and as Jews."

The American weighed the wisdom of saying what he wanted to, and then decided the blood-bond was strong enough to handle it.

"Will you expect your children to pay its memory the same respect that you do?"

"Of course."

"To feel the same sorrow, to have the same determination to remember that you feel?"

"Of course," the Israeli replied. "My generation will see to it that our children recognize the importance of the Holocaust, how it defines their identity, how important it must continue to be to all Jews."

"And will you expect them, in turn, to transmit the same conviction to their own children - and theirs to theirs?"

"Absolutely. Forever. It is that important."

The American swallowed hard, then spoke.

"Just like the earlier attempts to destroy our people and its faith were to our own ancestors - those we commemorate and mourn on Tisha B'Av."

Nothing else was said for the moment. The two young men walked back to the kibbutz in silence.

It could well be argued that a large part of what characterizes Jewish "Orthodoxy" is a heightened sense of history. Not only of its vicissitudes and tragedies for our people, but, most importantly, of the seminal Jewish moment, the singular event that bequeathed us our mandate to cherish, study and observe the Torah - the revelation of G-d to His people at Sinai.

That mass-experienced and painstakingly transmitted event, the meeting of G-d and man in the Sinai desert, lies at the very foundation of the Jewish people and the Jewish faith. It is the ultimate Jewish historical memory.

All Jews who aspire to the appellation "observant" are, in essence, the keepers of Jewish history, recent and ancient, and are entrusted with the mission of sharing the memory of the Jewish past - both its nadirs and its apogee - with all their fellow Jews.

Should the Messiah continue to tarry, G-d forbid, a day may well come when all testimony of the events of the 1930s and early 1940s will be indirect, arriving only through books and films, or third-hand accounts.

The facts, though, of what happened during those years, the horrible details of Jewish Europe's destruction, will endure, because there will always be Jews determined to hold fast to our history - its entirety. Jews determined to maintain the memory of what happened sixty-odd years ago.

And 1939 years ago.

And 2429 years ago.

And 3319 years ago, in the Sinai desert.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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CONVERSION CONFUSION

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Israel's Orthodox Rabbinate has been under siege of late, over the issue - once again - of conversion. And once again as well, the media abound with misinformation. This time, though, some of it is being supplied by Orthodox rabbis.

Writing in the Jerusalem Post, the retiring rabbi of an historic New York Orthodox synagogue assailed Israel's Rabbinate for "raising obstacles to prevent non-Jews from entering the Jewish fold." He accuses the religious authorities of having "adopted a haredi position that conversion is available only to those agreeing to observe Torah and mitzvot in full," asserting that the Talmud, Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch (the authoritative codification of halacha, or Jewish religious law) say otherwise.

In the same periodical, a second Orthodox rabbinic commentator, the director of an educational institute in Israel, vented similar displeasure with Israel's Rabbinate. The fact that Israel has become home to hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Russian immigrants, he argues, "demands that the Rabbinate reach out to them in order to facilitate their beginning the process of conversion." That such has not happened, the rabbi went on, is proof that the Jewish State's rabbinic authorities "are more concerned with safeguarding halakhic authority than with welcoming Jews to embark on a spiritual process."

Or perhaps more concerned with halachic integrity than with pleasing a populace.

The image of masses of sincere neophytes yearning to join the Jewish people but being rebuffed by small-minded religious functionaries plays well in the press. As does the notion that commitment to Jewish religious observance is not a requirement for conversion. Both, though, are at odds with reality.

There are certainly non-Jews in Israel who sincerely wish to convert to Judaism, not merely to cement their status as citizens of Israel but to wholeheartedly join the Jewish People and its mission.

But there are many more non-Jews in Israel, among them many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who may wish to be considered Jews but who have no interest in undertaking Jewish observance.

And sincere acceptance of the responsibility to strive to observe all of the Torah's laws - or "kabbalat hamitzvot" - is the very sine qua non of Jewish conversion. A convert need not be conversant with all of the laws but must nevertheless embrace them in principle, as the Jewish People did at Sinai before receiving the Torah.

When a non-Jew seeks to convert solely for the purpose of marrying a Jew, pleasing a spouse or just feeling more Israeli, Jewish law is clear that the request should not be entertained. If a legitimate Jewish court is convinced that the non-Jewish partner in an intermarriage is in fact willing to shoulder kabbalat hamitzvot, respected Orthodox authorities have not considered the marriage factor to be a bar to conversion.

But should a non-Jew without any such willingness somehow manage to be accepted by a rabbinical court and go through the motions of conversion - a formal declaration of kabbalat hamitzvot, immersion in a mikva (ritual pool) and, in the case of a male, actual or symbolic circumcision - halacha is equally clear: the conversion is entirely invalid.

One of the rabbis quoted above has tried to insinuate otherwise, citing codified halachic sources to the effect that once a conversion is performed, no amount of backsliding can change the convert's status as a Jew.

That is indeed true. But only, the sources are clear, when the conversion was valid in the first place - i.e. there was an acceptance at the time, sincere and unmitigated, of the Torah's commandments. Should it become clear - and certainly in a case where it was always clear - that the professed embrace of the Torah's commandments was a sham, so was the conversion. The "convert" never was one.

Proponents of the "relaxation" of conversion standards in Israel often cite poignant, agonizing cases of non-Jews who were not accepted for conversion or whose conversions were not recognized by rabbinical authorities. There can be no denying that human pain can result from the application of Jewish law, no less than it can from the laws of physics, or from life itself.

But ignoring Jewish law is not an Orthodox option. And doing so can take its own human toll. Were Israel to "relax" its conversion standards, children of the beneficiaries of that change who might one day become observant would discover that they need to convert to be Jewish by the yardstick of their own beliefs. Young women engaged to cohanim would discover that they, as converts, cannot halachically marry their fiancés. What is more, the Jewishness of every convert and convert's child would become questionable to all halacha-respecting Jews. Only a universally accepted halachic standard can ensure that observant Jews embrace converts as we should, and prevent the Jewish People from becoming, G-d forbid, a multitude of "Jewish peoples."

One of the rabbis mentioned above chided Israel's Rabbinate by reminding it that human beings are not "chess pieces." He is right. What is more, the Jewish People is not a club, and halacha is not a game.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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PRIDE AND PUISSANCE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In the end, despite pleas to spare Judaism's holiest city the shame of a spectacle celebrating the rejection of Judaism's moral code, the "Gay Pride" parade took place as planned in Jerusalem.

Had hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Jews from Jerusalem and across the country flowed into the Holy City's streets, the event - which drew a mere 2000 participants - would have been quickly overwhelmed. The 7000 policemen assigned to keep order would not have had an easy time.

The Orthodox numbers, readiness and sense of outrage were certainly there. Tel Aviv has regularly played sponsor to such spectacles mocking the Torah, but Jerusalem is the focal point of Jewish prayers, and its population is heavily Orthodox to boot. Indeed, the Holy City was purposefully targeted by the parade organizers in order to assert their belief that no place on earth should be free from the promotion of licentiousness. (Well, almost no place; last year, one of the event's organizers was asked by a reporter why the parade would not enter Christian or Muslim areas of the city and explained "We don't want to offend them.")

So, in the face of such an unmistakable provocation, all it would have taken to summon a massive Orthodox protest would have been a mere call from a handful of Orthodox religious leaders.

But the call never came. On the contrary, the leading rabbinic figures in Israel asked their followers to ignore the parade. An announcement on the front page of the haredi daily providing the views of the non-Hassidic "Lithuanian" haredi rabbinic leadership, instructed that yeshiva students not take to the streets but should rather demonstrate in private, through prayer; it instructed every yeshiva dean, too, to ensure that his students did not protest publicly.

The head of the largest Hassidic group in Israel, the Gerer Rebbe, also made his will known, that the parade should be ignored by his followers. The implicit message from the religious leadership was that, as King Solomon famously taught, there is a time for everything; and their judgment was that the current time was one for profound sadness and prayer, not public confrontation.

A relative handful of individuals did try to disrupt the parade. But the vast majority of Jerusalem's haredim, although deeply anguished by what they considered a brazen invasion of immorality-pushers, heeded the calls to turn inward rather than out.

And so, in the end, the paraders - although fewer than the 10,000 that organizers expected - marched down a central Jerusalem street, heralding their message that "anything goes" in the realm of intimate human relations, celebrating the "diversity" of behaviors that Judaism condemns in no uncertain terms. The message was one of "freedom" - license to act without moral compunction.

Each Sabbath between Passover and Rosh Hashana, it is customary for Jews to study a chapter of the "Ethics of the Fathers" - a tractate of the Mishneh known as Avot. On the Sabbath preceding the march in Jerusalem, the week's chapter included the aphorism: "Who is a strong person [Hebrew: gibbor]? One who conquers his inclination."

It is an idea as simple as it is profound. While much of the world may measure strength and courage (both concepts inhere in the word gibbor) in the currency of musculature or risk-taking, the Jewish definition goes far deeper. The truly strong, truly courageous individual is the one able to face his or her desires and, in the interest of a higher purpose, deny them.

The dichotomy of the two definitions of strength was almost perfectly evident mere days later. Two groups showed their true colors, one by embracing and flaunting almost every imaginable "inclination," the other by squelching their own inclinations, in the service of a higher imperative.

It was a contrast nicely captured by an Israel Broadcasting Authority television news broadcast. For several minutes, a split screen on Channel One presented two images. One showed an exhibitionistic rejection of inhibitions; the other, a tearful prayer gathering held in another part of Jerusalem, where 3000 religious Jews recited Psalms and special prayers in the hope that G-d might spare His city further debasement.

And so, in the end, there was "pride" and there were prayers.

And there was frailty (in the guise of "freedom") and there was strength.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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NAME ABUSE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Much in our world desecrates the name of G-d - in Hebrew, that is called "chilul Hashem." Whether murder and mayhem in the name of religion or misbehavior on the part of religious individuals, actions that push holiness away from a world that so direly needs it are considered by Judaism to constitute a singular sin.

Recently, though, a quite literal desecration of G-d's name unexpectedly came to my attention. A cataloger at a law school library, Mrs. Elisheva Schwartz, called with a disturbing discovery. She had come across an online vendor seeking to make a few dollars off the marketing of clothing and kitsch bearing the holiest Hebrew name of G-d.

The Tetragrammaton, to use its Greek appellation, is a four-character word (tetra means four; grammat, letter) that Judaism considers so holy it is forbidden today to pronounce or ever to treat in anything but a deeply honorable manner. According to Jewish law, a piece of parchment, paper, cloth or pottery bearing the Name must be carefully preserved or solemnly buried. Religious Jews refer to the word simply as "the specified Name" and when it occurs in the Torah reading or prayer service, it is not read as written; a less holy Hebrew word meaning simply "my Lord" is substituted instead.

The vendor in question, for reasons unknown, had decided to print the holy Hebrew letters on an assortment of tee shirts, mugs, buttons and other articles, including underwear and dog sweaters.

We live in a free society, of course, and nothing prevents anyone from exercising his or her right to personal expression, even if it may be offensive to others. But nothing prevents anyone, either, from voicing pain born of such offense. And so I contacted Café Press - a sort of online flea-market that the vendor was using to sell his or her wares - to register Agudath Israel's chagrin at the commercialization and degradation of G-d's name. Please consider making a decision, I wrote, that is "respectful of Jews and Judaism."

Within hours, what seemed a stock reply arrived. Café Press, it informed, provides its services to "a rich and vibrant community of individuals across the globe who differ in their views about what is considered offensive."

Well, I'm sure it does and they do. All the same, though, I'm also pretty sure that the site isn't being used to peddle dog sweaters bearing, say, the Arabic word for Allah.

So I inquired about whether Café Press had any code of standards regarding offensiveness. Again, a reply arrived quickly, directing me to where I could find the company's standards. To its credit, the code is a responsible and comprehensive document. And one category of prohibited content was: "Material that is generally offensive or in bad taste, as determined by CafePress.com."

And so I wrote again, reiterating that "from the perspective of all religious (and many less-than-religious) Jews, the placement of G-d's holy Hebrew name on a piece of apparel, not to mention apparel like underwear or pet sweaters, is profoundly offensive."

"Which leaves us," I concluded, "with the 'as determined by CafePress.com' clause.

"And so I ask: What is your determination?"

That was many days and two more inquiries ago. Thus far, no reply. Perhaps the administrators of the site are in the process of informing the vendor that his or her merchandise doesn't meet their company's standards. Or perhaps they are not.

Either way, though, should any readers of these words happen to share Mrs. Schwartz's and my feeling of offense at the commercial debasing of something deeply holy to Judaism, please consider making an e-mail inquiry of your own to Café Press. The address for such communications is cup@cafepress.com . Needless to say, inquiries should be polite and reasoned. And if - as I hope - the company's response is that the merchandise at issue has been removed from the site, then a sincere expression of gratitude to the company is in order.

In that case, not only Café Press' decision but our expressions of thanks will constitute a kiddush Hashem, a "sanctification of G-d's name."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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DEAR GRADUATES

Rabbi Avi Shafran

[I was recently privileged to address the commencement ceremony of Bais Yaakov of Baltimore, an Orthodox girls school founded in 1942. Below is an edited version of my remarks to the more than 100 high school graduates, their families and friends.]

Back in the day - the day when I was in grade school, that is - we were taught the "3 R's" - Reading, Writing and 'Rithmetic (that's math to you, and yes, we didn't spell so good back then). Of course, you've all learned those things and more. And as students of a school like Bais Yaakov, you have also learned the really important things for meaningful life.

Among them, I think, are another "3 R's." At this special moment in your lives, please permit me to briefly review them.

The first one is Recognizing - specifically, recognizing the good, the precise translation of the Hebrew phrase hakarat hatov. Its simple sense - gratitude - is something you graduates surely feel this evening - toward your parents, your teachers and your classmates, for all that they have given you. But the term's deeper meaning is to recognize - with a capital "R" - the good that is always present in our lives, all the things with which we are constantly blessed. Because everything we have is a Divine gift. We're called Jews after Judah - so named by our foremother Leah because of her gratitude - hoda'ah - that G-d had given her "more than her share" of sons. We Jews are always to see what we have - whatever it may be - as "more than our share."

The larger world has a rather different ethic. An advertisement recently asked me "Don't you deserve a new Lexus?" Well, no, I don't particularly. I'm not at all sure I even deserve my used Saturn with the manual roll-up windows either. In fact, every morning when I open its door, I thank G-d for granting it to me. There is a contemporary social disease one might call eskumptmir-itis - from the Yiddish phrase "It's coming to me." We have to try mightily not to contract it.

As it happens, there is a vaccine for the disease of entitlement: the blessings we say throughout every day. Each is an expression of hakarat hatov, a recognition of a gift, and of its Source. We do well to say them carefully, and think of what we are saying.

The second "R" is Relating - trying to feel what others are feeling, empathizing. Here, too, a very different atmosphere envelops the world around us. Maybe it's different in Baltimore, but in New York the roads teach much about empathy - about how things are when there isn't any. Obviously each of us cares most about himself - that's why "Love your neighbor like yourself" takes "yourself" as the given - but the law of the jungle is not our law. We are charged to try to see the world through the eyes of the other.

You've heard, no doubt, about the new father-to-be who paced the waiting room for hours while his wife was in labor, about how the process went very slowly and he became more and more agitated, until, an eternity later, the nurse finally came in to tell him his wife had delivered a little girl.

"Thank heaven!" he burst out. "A girl! She'll never have to go through what I just did!"

You will meet people like that, I assure you - although, with G-d's help, not your future husbands - and they exemplify the self-centeredness we have to strive mightily to shun.

The third "R" is perhaps the most important, since it touches on a Torah commandment and concept of singular status: Kiddush Hashem, or "Sanctifying G-d's Name." That imperative, of course, requires a Jew to die rather than commit certain sins, or any sin in certain circumstances. But we're charged not only with dying, if necessary, in sanctification of G-d's name but also with living in a state of such sanctification. This "R" is thus "Reflecting" - for, as observant Jews, our actions reflect not only on ourselves, our parents and teachers and schools, but on our Torah - in fact, on our Creator.

Today, perhaps, more than ever. Waiting at a bus stop once, I was approached by a young mother whose little boy was cowering behind her. She approached me and asked politely if I might assure the child that I was not Osama bin Laden. Turban, black hat, whatever, we do both have beards. I managed to convince the young man who I wasn't, but was struck by the realization that Mr. Bin Laden not only has the blood of countless innocents on his soul but the sin of desecrating G-d's name. We must counter with the opposite.

What an incredible obligation - and what an incredible opportunity.

Maimonides, in his laws about sanctification of G-d's name, adds that great Torah-scholars have a particular mandate to act in an exemplary way - for they are perceived as the most powerful reflections of the Torah. I don't think it's a stretch to understand those words to apply today to all who are perceived to be reflections of Torah. In a world like ours, all identifiably Jewish Jews are "great Torah scholars" regarding this law - and we must all endeavor to act the part.

The opportunities are ubiquitous. Receiving change from a cashier, a smile - not to mention a "thank you" - leaves an impression. On the road, where politeness is at a premium, driving politely leaves an impression. The way we speak, the way we interact with others, all leave an impression. We must leave the right one.

So, dear graduates, remember always, above all else, just who you are: reflections of G-d on earth.

Reflect well.

And may your reflections be clear and brilliant, and help merit a fourth "R" - the ultimate Redemption.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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AMERICAN IDOLS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

I already have a title: "Ferry Tales." Now all I need is the time to write the book in my head about the interesting things I've witnessed over the years on my daily commute aboard the Staten Island Ferry.

Not long ago on the boat, for instance, I was trying to concentrate on a page of Talmud. The din of nearby conversations doesn't disturb me; the voices commingle and provide a sort of white noise actually conducive to withdrawing into a difficult text. But when someone enamored of the right to free speech and animated by a cause undertakes to pace the aisles and loudly share his convictions, well, it's a little harder to focus.

Usually he is of a religious bent, orating about heaven and elsewhere. (One memorable fellow brandishing a New Testament was fond of referring to one of the ferry's termini as "Satan Island"). Not, though, this guy.

"The war in Iraq is about OIL!" he announced. Over and over. Louder and louder.

"Get our troops out NOW!" and "Bush is EVIL" came the next refrains, similarly repeated and amplified.

Of late, I realized, fewer of the maritime evangelists had been thumping bibles, and more of them proclaiming political and environmental beliefs, like opposition to the war, the President or Global Warming.

What struck me, though, was the similarity in tone of voice and body language. Whether the prophet was speaking in the name of the Lord or of George Soros, only the words were different. The eyes, the gait, the tone of voice, the air of certitude, were all indistinguishable.

Which observation led me to wonder if perhaps social or political causes have come, for some, to replace religion. Or, to muse further: Have they become religions themselves?

I was apparently not the first to think the thought. MIT Meteorology Professor Richard Lindzen has labeled environmentalism a religion (not intending a compliment), as its devotees are convinced "that they are in possession of a higher truth" and are intolerant of "heretics, or 'climate change deniers,' to use green parlance." Author Michael Crichton has asserted much the same, even paralleling environmentalist credos with Biblical accounts of the Garden of Eden, the fall of man and an eventual Day of Judgment. "Environmentalism," he told the Commonwealth Club in 2003, "seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists."

I don't know if anyone has made the case for a religion-parallel among those passionately opposed to the war in Iraq or those who label President Bush the scourge of humanity. But the fervor of some of the sentiment out there - like that of the politics-preacher on the ferry - would seem to lend the contention support.

None of which, of course, is in any way to implicate reasonable environmental concerns or political positions. By political "faiths" I mean the all-consuming elevation of a concern or position to the status of Ultimate Truth. It's the difference between enjoying an occasional glass of wine and alcoholism.

The morphing of social or political beliefs into quasi-religions was noted in the mid-1930s by a renowned, sainted Orthodox Jewish scholar (who, although he was in America shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, refused to abandon his students and returned to his yeshiva in Poland, where he and they perished at Nazi hands). Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman warned that "isms" - he mentioned, among others, socialism, communism and various forms of nationalism - are modern-day "idolatries." Although the primal urge to pay homage to wood and stone no longer exists in our world, a residue of idol-worship persists - in the form of such "isms." Were he alive today, Rabbi Wasserman might well add "liberalism," "conservatism," "feminism," "environmentalism" or "pacifism" to the roster.

Some say that contemporary "isms," unlike earlier ones, are innocuous. But one is given pause by things like a paper recently published by a British environmental group, Optimum Population Trust, which promotes the prevention of babies, positing that "the most effective personal climate-change strategy is limiting the number of children one has." Or by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which claims to have sunk ten whaling ships and whose leader has called human beings the "AIDS of the Earth." He explained further that "curing a body of cancer requires radical and invasive therapy, and, therefore, curing the biosphere of the human virus will also require a radical and invasive approach." One can't help but wonder just what he has in mind.

The 18th century Jewish scholar and mystic Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato famously explained that human beings seek pleasure, even beyond our biological needs, because we are created for pleasure - not the ephemeral and elusive sort so many mistakenly pursue, but the ultimate, eternal one attainable only through closeness to the Divine.

Perhaps, similarly, what impels people to embrace idolatry, whether of the ancient sort or the modern, is the recognition, deep in their souls, that there is in fact something worthy of devotion.

What is ironic is that, in the eyes of Judaism, the first step out of any environmental or geopolitical morass is recognizing just what that Something really is.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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OF SLOPES AND HOPES

Rabbi Avi Shafran

"Oh, come on!" the e-mail read, "What's a few dead children on the altar of my liberal slippery-slope paranoia?"

Gruesome as the imagery was, I had to smile. The message was intended as a humorous "touché!" from an academic who had originally contacted me in anger. He was not only honest enough to concede his error but perceptive enough to identify its origin.

What had motivated him to write in the first place was a letter published in The New York Times in which, on behalf of Agudath Israel of America, I welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court's upholding of the federal "partial-birth abortion ban" law.

"How in the world could you write such a letter…?" the professor fumed. "You know perfectly well that the so-called 'partial-birth abortions' are almost always only performed when there is a serious, potentially mortal danger to the birth-mother, and that Jewish law is clear and unambiguous in such cases: the life of the mother takes precedence over that of an unborn child…"

The professor is correct about Jewish religious law's placement of the life of a Jewish mother before that of her unborn child. The Jewish legal metaphor for the fetus is a "rodef," or "pursuer" - someone in the act of threatening a life, thereby forfeiting all rights to legal protection. But the professor, like many others who reacted with outrage to the High Court's ruling, had several facts about the particular case in question very wrong.

If a mother's health is endangered during labor, even a late-term fetus can be legally dispatched in utero; it need never be partially extracted alive and then killed. What is more, the partial-birth abortion law contains an explicit exception in a case (if any in fact exists) where a physician feels it necessary to kill a partially emerged baby to save its mother's life.

But beyond all that, my correspondent had simply not comprehended the most salient aspect of the procedure at issue: the baby has been born.

At least that is how Jewish religious law - which was what the professor invoked - views a baby whose "entire… head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother," in the federal law's words.

That being the case, the law, at least from a Jewish perspective, does not address abortion at all. It addresses homicide. Case closed.

Which fact yielded the professor's admirable, if crudely expressed, admission of error, and his further admission of its roots.

He had taken his cues, he realized, from a gaggle of groups, including several with "Jewish" in their names but judiciaries on their minds. Their members' nightmares are dominated by the frightening possibility that our nation might one day reconsider its current blanket enshrinement of a "right" to abort. They insist on viewing the world through a tunnel called "Roe," and are not beyond misrepresenting Judaism in the service of their myopia.

Hadassah Magazine, for one example, in its Summer 2003 issue, quotes unnamed "authorities" to maintain that Jewish law "implicitly assumes that a woman has the right to make her own reproductive choices." The supplement's "Jewish Law" section goes on to claim that "restricting access to reproductive services… undermines basic tenets of Judaism." None of which is true.

To be sure, as my correspondent noted, a right to abortion in certain cases is sacrosanct to observant Jews. Talmudic sources are clear that the life of a pregnancy-endangered Jewish mother takes precedence over that of her unborn child. But that is so only when there is no way to preserve both lives. Although the matter is hardly free of controversy, there are some respected rabbinic opinions that also permit abortion when a pregnancy seriously jeopardizes the mother's health. But those narrow exceptions in no way translate into some unlimited mother's "right" to make whatever "choice" she may see fit about the life of the child she carries.

Put simply: The abortion issue is not only about rights but about right - as in "right and wrong." While Judaism has little to say about rights - it speaks rather about duties and obligations - it has much to say about rightness. And preventing potential life from developing when there is no truly compelling reason to do so, according to the Torah, is wrong.

The laws of civilized societies reflect and shape those societies' values. And the devaluing of potential human life wrought by Roe has helped devalue all human life in America for over three decades. No, a straight line cannot be drawn between Columbine or Virginia Tech and the ready availability of abortion in the United States. But a society that shows respect for life at its earliest stages cannot but empower respect for life at every stage. The possibility that individual states might one day be permitted to place some limits on the current "no fault" abortion law of the land is not a threat; for some of us it represents a hope, the possible beginning of a more strongly life-affirming era in our land. An era in which we are all a little less concerned with slippery slopes, and a little more about ennobling ideals.

"Choice" is the motto of those who want the fates of fetuses consigned to the decisions of their mothers. Moving from the book of social liberalism to the book of Deuteronomy, though, we find the Torah's take on choice somewhat different.

"I have placed before you," the Creator informs us through Moses, "life and death, the blessing and the curse."

"Choose life," the verse continues, "so that you and your seed will live."

< P align="center">[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. This essay appeared in The Forward and is republished with its permission]

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RECLAIMING ALEINU

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Whether to precarious geopolitical situations or challenges posed by personal adversity, the authentic Jewish response is to seek spiritual merits.

Such virtues might come in the form of more heartfelt prayers, more determined Torah-study, more frequent acts of kindness, greater empathy for one another. Or in the form of smaller, more specific, undertakings, like special care in the performance of particular mitzvot.

Because Jewish tradition teaches that the path to a goal entails utilizing all available means, the seemingly less significant no less than the more obvious.

In that spirit, I would like to offer a small idea for Jews seeking a spiritual merit: reclaiming "Aleinu."

Until one of my daughters shared her personal exasperation over the fact, I had thought that I was perhaps the only person who had found it nearly impossible to complete the "Aleinu" ("It is incumbent…") prayer in shul in the time allotted. Granted, one can always complete Aleinu after the Kaddish that generally follows it, but what most often happens instead is that, at least for most people, the prayer is mercilessly mangled or truncated.

Aleinu is no minor prayer. It was composed, according to early sources, by Joshua; its opening sentences, moreover, were the death-declaration of countless Jews throughout history, the words with which they defiantly refused to succumb to the tortures and threats of those bent on uprooting devotion to our ancestral faith. It is part of our Amidah for Mussaf on Rosh Hashana.

And the appended "Al Kein" ("Therefore…") paragraph is, according to our tradition, the expression of repentance composed by Achan (the first letter of each of its first three words spell his name), in the wake of his sin of misappropriating valuables from the spoils of the conquered city of Jericho, for which he expressed sincere regret.

Might it not be part of a truly Jewish response to adversity for us to better connect to such words?

And the words themselves are so powerfully pertinent to our times, when many feel "the footsteps of the Messiah" can be heard in the distance.

Once again, and perhaps more than ever, the small fraction of one percent of the world's population known as the Jewish People is, astoundingly, the focus of myriad forces of unbridled evil.

No Jew with any sense of history could possibly ignore the confluence of contemporary world events: The venomous hatred fueling Islamist movements, the acts of anti-Semitism that poke through the loam of humanity around the globe like toxic mushrooms, the decrepitude masquerading as the Palestinian Authority's "unity government," the smiling little would-be mass murderer in Iran. The footsteps grow louder. Is it not a time for Jewish merits, large and small?

The haters like to say that there is a Jewish Plot. They are essentially right. But it's more of a plan than a plot, since there's only one - or, better, One - Planner. And His plan is unfolding before our eyes.

We Jews have a role here: to be better Jews in every way we can, and to realize that, in the end, there is, as the Talmud tells us, "no one on whom to rely other than our Father in Heaven."

And when we do our part, our tradition teaches, we will merit the ultimate redemption, the era of global recognition of G-d and His truth that our Prophets have foretold. It is, at it happens, described in the words of "Al Kein":

"And therefore we put our hope in You, G-d, that we may soon see Your mighty splendor…to perfect the universe through the Almighty's sovereignty.

"Then all humanity will call upon Your Name, to turn all the earth's wicked toward You. All the world's inhabitants will recognize and know that to You every knee should bend… and to the glory of Your Name they will render homage, and they will all accept upon themselves the yoke of Your kingship… on that day G-d will be One and His name will be One."

< P align="center">[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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CHOSEN

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In the April issue of Commentary, a scholar dared to raise one of the few remaining issues still considered impolite these days for public discussion: Jewish intelligence.

In an essay entitled “Jewish Genius,” political scientist and writer Charles Murray – who is not Jewish – outlines the historical and statistical data suggesting Jewish intellectual acumen and accomplishment, as well as a variety of theories seeking to explain them.

While most of us Jews will readily admit that we personally know many members of the tribe who are not very smart at all, Dr. Murray insists that “the average Jew is at the 75th percentile” of the IQ scale and that “the proportion of Jews with IQs of 140 or higher is somewhere around six times the proportion of everyone else.” Some, moreover, have noticed that a number of world-changing ideas, both religious ones like monotheism and scientific ones like relativity, have their roots in a certain ethnicity.

After exploring a number of theories addressing the anomaly, Dr. Murray is less than satisfied. Recent historical circumstances might have genetically favored Jews of higher intellect, he allows; but he suspects that Jewish intellectual ability is ancient, that the Jews may “have had some degree of unusual verbal skills going back to the time of Moses.” And so, he writes, he remains “naked before the evolutionary psychologists’ ultimate challenge: Why should one particular tribe at the time of Moses, living in the same environment as other nomadic and agricultural peoples of the Middle East, have already evolved elevated intelligence when the others did not?”

Then, tongue – at least partially – in cheek, he concludes:

“At this point, I take sanctuary in my remaining hypothesis, uniquely parsimonious and happily irrefutable. The Jews are G-d’s [hypen mine – AS] chosen people.”

Well, the thought is certainly timely. We will soon be celebrating Shavuot, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the cementing of the Jewish people’s chosen status: the covenant forged at Sinai.

I don’t know, or much care, whether or not intelligence plays any role in the Jewish election. But if it does, it is peripheral to the essence of our chosenness.

Because what Jews are chosen for is to serve the Creator – with our intellects, yes, but also with our hearts and with our bodies.

To be sure, the Torah itself refers to the Jewish people as “a wise nation” – but also as a stubborn one, and sometimes even worse. The bottom line: It’s not our Intelligence Quotients that count but our Righteousness Quotients. What counts is the service, not the smarts. The Sages of the Talmud did not generally stress inherent abilities – mental or otherwise – but rather focused on how we utilize whatever blessings we have. Their greatest honorifics customarily ran not to words like “genius” or brilliant” but to ones like “righteous” and “G-d fearing.”

Even though the Jews’ election was merited through the dedication of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and through another choice – that of their descendants, at Sinai, to accept the laws and teachings of the Torah; and even though the exclusive Jewish club is open to any sincere convert willing to undertake to observe the Torah, the idea of Jewish chosenness has perturbed some non-Jews since, well, since Sinai.

Of late, though, anti-Semites tend to feed at other troughs of hate-fodder, like Israel’s existence (and its imagined evildoing). These days, ironically, the idea of the Jewish people as divinely chosen is more likely to disturb… Jews.

That is because the truism that every human being has limitless value and potential has morphed into the notion that all people are interchangeable, if not identical. To suggest that different individuals or groups may have different functions or responsibilities has become uncouth, if not sexist or racist. Judaism, however, unapologetically assigns roles – to men and to women; to scholars and to laypeople; to descendants of the Biblical Aaron and to the rest of the Jewish people. And to the Jewish people qua people, too.

There’s no escaping it. A blessing all Jews are enjoined to pronounce each morning states the fact clearly: “Blessed are You… Who chose us from among all the nations and gave us His Torah…”

I sometimes wonder if part of the reason Shavuot isn’t as widely celebrated by contemporary Jews as Sukkot or Passover might be the squirming induced in some Jewish circles by the idea of Jewish specialness. If so, I’d respectfully suggest that the squirmers just get over it already.

After all, there are many ethnicities and religions that lay claim to specialness – from the Japanese to the Mormons to the Black Muslims. And while history is littered with the deaths and destruction sown by self-proclaimed Ubermenschen, Jewish specialness is not a license but a gift; and its sole import is a responsibility to live lives of holiness and thereby inspire others – to be the proverbial light unto the nations.

This year Shavuot falls on May 23 and 24. While some have the custom to spend the entire first night of the holiday (and others, both nights) studying Torah, there is no Shavuot cognate-commandment to Passover’s seder or Sukkot’s huts. Shavuot is a time, it would seem, for turning inward and focusing on the giving of the Torah and how it defines who we are as Jews. A time to realize that our essence lies not in our talents and not in our intelligence, but in our mission.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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'LET MY SCIENTISTS GO!'

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Back on April 13, in the spirit, perhaps, of the Passover then just past, The New York Times editorialized about the need to "free" something from the "chains imposed" upon it. The sentence's subject was "American science" and the Pharaoh-figure, President Bush.

"One man," huffed the Old Gray Lady, "and a minority of his party, the religious and social conservatives, are once again trying to impose their moral code on the rest of the nation and stand in the way of scientific progress."

The editorial umbrage was the product of Mr. Bush's declared intention to veto a bill currently wending its way through Congress that would ease restrictions on providing federal funds for embryonic stem cell research.

Stem cells, of course, are biological entities with the remarkable ability to develop into many different types of specialized cells. They can theoretically divide and redivide without limit, and thus offer the hope that they might be harnessed to replenish damaged or diseased organs, tissues or blood.

Some stem cells can be harvested from umbilical cords, bone marrow and even from adult human tissue; but many medical researchers feel that stem cells taken from embryos present the greatest opportunities for potential therapy.

President Bush's view is that, regardless, embryos containing all the ingredients for growing into babies are deserving of protection. Or, at least, that the United States government should not fund experimentation that will destroy such entities.

One bioethics analyst, Carrie Gordon Earl, asserts that the inevitable result of the enactment of legislation like that currently being mulled by Congress will be to reduce funding available for non-embryonic, or "adult," stem cell research - research that, at present, is far more advanced than that being done on embryonic cells.

As it happens, just two days before The Times' demand that Mr. Bush "Let My scientists go," researchers announced a striking and promising stem cell therapy that might allow Type-1 diabetics to live healthy lives without taking insulin. Oddly, though, the announcement did not seem to generate any of the expansive celebration one might expect at news of a possible cure for a disease affecting millions of people and presenting tens of thousands of new cases each year.

Why the lack of hoopla? Maybe it was due to the fact that the therapy that had shown such promise involved not embryonic stem cells, but rather adult cells harvested from the patients themselves and then re-introduced into their bodies.

The Times of London' news story on the announcement disclosed that fact only in its sixteenth paragraph - well after informing readers that embryonic stem cell research "is currently opposed by powerful critics, including President Bush."

Reasonable people can certainly disagree about the propriety of destroying embryos for potentially life-saving medical research, and likewise about whether federal funds should be used for the same. Indeed, while the issue is complex and still under review in respected rabbinic circles, some Jewish scholars and groups, even within the Orthodox community, have concluded that Judaism - which assigns value to potential life and, despite some Jewish groups' claims otherwise, does not consider abortion a "woman's right" - would nonetheless encourage embryonic stem cell research under certain conditions, and have expressed support for federal funding for such research.

One doesn't have to agree, though, with the President's position on embryonic stem cell research to appreciate his caution in the brave new bioethics-world.

The mark of true human civilization is the very concern for the "moral code" that The Times finds so quaint. And history teaches us how humankind has in fact taken gargantuan steps backward from the adjective "civilized" when it has not allowed moral concerns to "stand in the way," as The Times puts it, "of scientific progress."

At a time when cloning, the creation of hybrid-species-cells and the manipulation of genes have leapt from the realm of science fiction into that of emerging technologies, Mr. Bush's insistence on giving moral considerations a seat at the scientific public policy table is not only defensible, it is admirable. The President's position on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research may not endear him to millions of citizens who, for better or worse, have absorbed the mainstream media's messages on the issue. Yet he stands firm and refuses to jump onto the embryo-experimentation bandwagon, because of his conviction that terminating life, even its potential - even under the banner of scientific progress - is something that must be approached with great deliberation.

That may make Mr. Bush into Pharaoh in the eyes of some, but the identification is as ironic as it is unfair.

For Pharaoh and his sorcerers - the scientists of his day, one might say - were profoundly unconcerned with either the value of human life or moral imperatives.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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AMEN TO AHAVAT YISRAEL

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In a Jerusalem Post opinion piece, Dr. Jonathan Schorsch calls me a "clever fellow" whose "handwringing" over the hatred I've encountered aimed at Orthodox Jews is "somewhat posed, if not disingenuous."

Dr. Schorsch can be easily disabused of his first assertion by perusing my high school scholastic records, or by consulting my wife and children, who can regale him of all manner of dumb things I've said and done (but who love me, I hope, all the same).

As to the second charge, I assure him that I am sincerely pained by my observations.

Dr. Schorsch quickly moves to his real point, the contention that Orthodox Jews are themselves the cause of the hatred aimed at them, because they lack sufficient ahavat Yisrael, or love for fellow Jews. He cites personal experiences of Orthodox Jews insulting him and the Orthodox refusal to accept the Jewish legitimacy of non-Orthodox theologies.

The latter has nothing to do with ahavat Yisrael. Loving other Jews doesn't mean embracing everything they may embrace. The very essence of Orthodox conviction is the rejection of changes to the Jewish religious mandate, like those changes embraced, to one or another degree, by non-Orthodox movements. So there is no crime in, and hence no apology for, Orthodox belief. That, though, should not (and in the vast majority of Orthodox Jews does not) in any way affect how we Orthodox view non-Orthodox Jews. My love for an uncle who was a socialist was in no way compromised by my rejection of his world-view.

Dr. Schorsch, as a committed non-Orthodox Jew, does not likely consider the unabashedly atheistic "Humanistic Judaism" philosophy as a legitimate form of Judaism. And if not, it must trouble him that rabbis of that movement seek to redefine Judaism in atheistic terms. Does he, though, hate Jews who, out of unfamiliarity with the Jewish heritage, pay dues to that group? I would certainly hope not.

How, Dr. Schorsch asks, can anyone possibly not take it personally when his or her theological beliefs are rejected? Simple. All that is needed is good will, and respect for the deep-seated convictions of others.

But some of what Dr. Schorsch recounts is deeply disturbing. If, indeed, Orthodox Jews seized on the fact that his father is a chancellor emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary to berate Dr. Schorsch, that was uncouth, indeed downright rude. And if, indeed, one of his woman friends was assaulted by haredim for carrying a sefer Torah, all I can say is that haredi leaders have explicitly condemned and forbidden any such reactions to even intentionally provocative public displays of that sort.

Ahavat Yisrael, though, is very much an Orthodox ideal. It is a mandate my wife and I have instilled (thank G-d, successfully, I think) in our children, and one that I stressed, over nearly two decades in Jewish education, to the hundreds of students I was so fortunate to teach (and learn from).

Dr. Schorsch may think it lacking from the larger Orthodox world, but he is wrong.

For example, take Chai Lifeline, which cares for young Jewish cancer patients and their families, regardless of what prefix the beneficiaries may place before "Jew" in their self-description. Or the famed "Satmar Ladies," who minister to the needs of all Jewish patients in New York area hospitals. And those are but two of the better known of many such chesed organizations under Orthodox auspices.

Then there is the world of Jewish outreach. The very existence of dozens of groups helping Jews interact with their religious heritage should say it all. The concern of the "givers" in these programs transcends any and all denominational lines. A participant who remains a staunch member of a Reform or Conservative congregation is studied with, invited and cared about as much as any belonging to an Orthodox shul or to none at all. It would be exceedingly odd for Jews to be so determined to share what they treasure with other Jews they don't care for.

And then there are the many "community kollelim" that exist to engage in Torah study not only in the traditional kollel mode of internal study partnerships but which pointedly set aside considerable time for members and their wives to interact and study with men and women from the larger local community - again, without regard to denominational affiliations.

Then there are things like the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, which has brought unprecedented focus to the importance of "between Jew and Jew" ideals, and the remarkable "Inspired" films, whose entire existence is born of a desire to encourage Orthodox Jews to care about their non-Orthodox brothers and sisters. That the films have drawn large Orthodox audiences in many cities clearly indicates a concern in the Orthodox community for Jews who are not part of it. As do the themes of ahavat Yisrael that are mainstays of lectures by popular Orthodox speakers like Rabbi Paysach Krohn and Rabbi Yissocher Frand, whose audiences sometimes number in the thousands.

Nor should anyone forget Partners in Torah, the celebrated project of Torah Umesorah that matches up Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish men and women to study Torah by phone. My wife's partner in Torah lives in Arizona, is intermarried and belongs to a Conservative temple. My Chassidic colleague's lives in Poughkeepsie and is of a similar background. At my daughter's recent wedding, her new mother-in-law, who is from Los Angeles and not Orthodox, got to see her own Partner in Torah, from Lakewood, New Jersey, a young woman who made a long trip just to be at the wedding and dance with the Jewish woman she has been studying with for years. It was a festive sight to behold. Scores of Orthodox Jews are studying with equal numbers of non-Orthodox Jews through this wonderful project.

Orthodox organizations, both in America and Israel, offer Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews alike the benefits of an array of projects, services and educational opportunities. On the local level, practically every Jewish community has an Orthodox chesed group, whose goal it is to assist Jews in need - any Jews in need; likewise a chevra kadisha, or burial society, which prepares the Jewish deceased - regardless of his or her affiliation during life - for Jewish burial.

Even a quick look at any of countless articles in the Orthodox media calling on readers to reach out to and care about all their fellow Jews - or a quick listen to Orthodox-produced audiotapes and CDs for children - readily evidences the prominence given to the promotion of good will toward fellow Jews.

So to Dr. Schorsch I say: I hope you will come to realize how embarrassed and pained most Orthodox Jews are by reports like yours of alleged boorish behavior by some Orthodox Jews. And that you will realize that ahavat Yisrael is in fact a deep conviction in the larger Orthodox world.

I hope, too, that you will consider an open invitation to, at your convenience, grace my family's Sabbath table with the presence of you and yours. I assure you that the experience will be filled only with smiles (and wholly sincere ones), song, friendly conversation, words of Torah and ahavat Yisrael.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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WHEN 'ABORTION' ISN'T

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The U.S. Supreme Court's upholding of the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act has elicited the usual cries of protest from abortion rights advocates and, also as usual, they include an assortment of Jewish groups and The New York Times.

That latter institution characterized the term "partial-birth abortion" itself as a "provocative label" for the presumably more descriptive "intact dilation and extraction." As it happens, The Times (and the other advocates) are correct about the inaccuracy of the term "partial birth abortion," but not because it exaggerates the repugnance of the procedure in question.

Despite concerted efforts by some to misrepresent the law, its language is stark and clear. It prohibits any overt act, like the puncturing of the brain, "that the person knows will kill" a fetus whose "entire… head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother."

Thus, it is not abortion at all that the law at issue addresses, but rather the killing of a baby whose head or most of whose body has emerged into the world. Readers of The Times' editorial page, and much of the "mainstream" media, might be forgiven for not realizing what the procedure actually entails.

Nor have the media done a very good job explaining what exemptions the law does or does not contain. Since it does not contain an exemption for the mother's "health," there is wide assumption (at least from the evidence of calls and e-mails I have received) that even if the mother's life were somehow threatened by allowing the partially emerged infant to fully emerge, the federal prohibition would stand. In fact, though, the law contains an explicit exception for cases where the procedure is deemed necessary to preserve the mother's life. As to a "health" exemption, the Supreme Court's majority found, among other things, that if there is any threat to maternal health (a possibility about which no medical consensus exists), "safe alternatives to the prohibited procedure… are available."

Even more troubling to me, as a Jew, than the misunderstandings of the facts is that a number of rabbis and Jewish organizational spokespeople have asserted that Jewish religious tradition is somehow offended by the recently upheld law. The president of Hadassah, to take one example, has baldly stated that the law "undermines Jewish values."

She and others who have made similar claims are misinformed, and in turn misinform.

To be sure, the Talmudic sources are clear that the life of a Jewish woman whose pregnancy endangers her takes precedence over that of her unborn when there is no way to preserve both lives. (That is why Agudath Israel, while we oppose Roe v. Wade's effective "abortion on demand," has not and would never favor a wholesale ban on abortion.) And, while the matter is not free from controversy, there are rabbinic opinions that allow abortion when the pregnancy seriously jeopardizes the mother's health. But those narrow exceptions do not translate into some unlimited "mother's right" to "make her own reproductive choices" - the position Hadassah enthusiastically trumpets.

Moreover, in the specific context of "intact dilation and extraction" - to use The Times' preferred nomenclature - Jewish law certainly confers no right to kill a live baby whose head, or most of whose body, has already emerged. Indeed, once birth has already occurred, Jewish law makes clear, the newborn child has no less right to live than does the mother. Stated simply, what the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act prohibits is, in the eyes of Jewish law, little if anything short of murder.

Nothing, of course, prevents a Jew, or Jewish organization or rabbi, from ignoring the teachings of the Jewish religious tradition.

But intellectual integrity, if nothing else, should prevent anyone from misrepresenting the content of a law, or what Jewish tradition has to say about killing an unborn child, or a born one.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The article above was written for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency]

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JEWISH INFLUENCE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It isn't likely that very many people exhaled at long last with relief at the news that three entertainment industry executives had compiled their pet list of "America's 50 most influential rabbis." But there was still something worthwhile, if not terribly comforting, to learn from the venture.

It was, to be sure, an odd bird, rendered stranger still by its prominent reportage in Newsweek magazine, a periodical that once actually reflected its name. The roster, in any event, became fodder for much mirth-making - jubilant press releases from groups boasting connections to one of the Fab 50, and snickers from more disinterested corners.

There were even some knitted eyebrows, since lists of "influential" Jews more commonly reside in the darker recesses of the blogosphere, where they are usually festooned with swastikas, SS bolts and the like.

And there was some puzzlement too. Why, even if for some reason one wished to identify paradigms of Jewish influence, would one limit the focus to clergypeople? What of Jewish teachers, activists, writers?

What I found thought-provoking, though, was what the trendy troika's choices say to us about the contemporary concept of influence.

To be sure, included on the list are some noteworthy people, including the one at its top, Rabbi Marvin Hier. But, at least to my lights, any lasting influence he will have derives from the educational impact on society of the Simon Wiesenthal Center he heads. The list-compilers, however, gave him their first-place nod because of … his association with "almost every world leader, journalist or Hollywood studio head." How silly of me.

Even closer to truly enduring influence are the accomplishments of another name on the roster, that of Rabbi Nosson Scherman (although, at #45, he was listed well after a "Kabbala" snake oil salesman and a radical political guru famous for cloaking extreme left-wing stances in Jewish garb). By conceiving and building the Jewish publishing and translating powerhouse called ArtScroll/Mesorah, Rabbi Scherman has helped render accessible to more Jews than ever before a wealth of Jewish textual sources - including the entire Babylonian Talmud.

But those men and a few others on the list - like Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald of the National Jewish Outreach Program - are the exceptions. The bulk of the coronated received their crowns because of their connections to the rich and famous, or for their promotion of "progressive" positions at irreconcilable odds with Judaism. The point system the Hollywooders employed, moreover, gave particular weight to criteria like "Are the rabbis known nationally/internationally?" And: "Do they have a media presence?"

Well, being famous or photogenic must certainly be nice. But, as any of a large number of contemporary celebrities readily evidence, such attributes are superficial and fleeting - to put it mildly.

Surely the compilers of the list, with their credentials in the entertainment industry, must realize that. And yet still they seem to conflate influence with celebrity.

Judaism's understanding, I submit, is very different.

Influence in the Jewish view, particularly when rabbis are being considered, is measured in the energizing of authentic Jewish learning and ideals. Put simply, the coin of the Jewish realm is not trendiness but Torah. And what it purchases is not Jewish clout but the Jewish future.

Measured by that standard, to those sufficiently foresighted to separate the effective from the ephemeral, the 50 most influential rabbis are likely unknown to most American Jews. And, in fact, they would be scandalized to find their names on any "most" list. They are modest Jews who shun the limelight and whose momentous influence lies in their effect on their students, congregants and followers - to whom they impart timeless and authentic Jewish wisdom. Wisdom that is not just pondered but lived, determinedly and proudly, and passed on to future generations.

Some of those truly influential rabbis head yeshivot or seminaries, of which there are dozens in the United States - many of them having educated and inspired thousands of students. Others are Chassidic rebbes; others, respected congregational leaders. And others still are teachers or lecturers, some of them presenting Torah classes that draw large and enthusiastic crowds. One offering, in Brooklyn, attracts well over a thousand attendees each week - and is broadcast to other locales where at least as many Jewish men and women gather to participate at a distance.

Although the title "rabbi" in the Orthodox world is not used for women, thousands of students mourned like daughters of the deceased when an Orthodox woman teacher, lecturer and life guide passed on two years ago; she was eulogized at her funeral by Orthodox rabbis of remarkable stature. And, through personal memories of her wisdom and advice as well as tapes of her lectures, she continues to teach countless Jewish girls and women today - and surely will for many years to come.

Such, dear reader, is true Jewish influence.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE 'B' WORD

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Over the course of his distinguished military career, it is unlikely that General Peter Pace ever encountered a barrage as unrelenting as the one lately lobbed by the media and punditsphere after he expressed his personal feelings about the practice of homosexuality. The offensive (in both the word's senses) weapons aimed at him were only words, but they were duly destructive all the same.

What General Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dared to voice was his conviction that homosexual acts - not inclination, not orientation - are immoral. Needless to say, anyone can choose to disagree; the general was opining, not seeking to impose his views on others. But some who disagree with him seem to feel that his point of view simply has no place in civilized discourse. That should trouble us all.

The volleys lobbed at General Pace included widespread characterizations of his remarks as evidence of odious prejudice. The New York Times called the general's beliefs "bigoted" and averred that he was "wrong in every way, and out of step." The New York Daily News headline about the matter read, simply: "General Bigot".

Similarly, several years ago, The American Civil Liberties Union ran an advertisement comparing people who object to homosexual practices on moral grounds as akin to vicious racists of yesteryear. Those espousing a traditional view of acceptable sexual behavior, the ACLU asserted, seek "to hide behind morality." But, the ad continues, "we all know a bigot when we see one."

One of the few categories of humankind universally and rightly reviled is the club of bigots - those who judge others negatively solely because of their ethnicity, color or faith. That the word is being expanded these days to encompass those who disapprove of certain activities is a development both dismaying and dangerous.

As a third Gotham daily, the independent-minded New York Sun, editorialized: "If everyone who holds that homosexual acts are immoral were a bigot, it would mean that most adherents of traditional religions… would be bigots."

A 2001 study indeed showed that a majority of Americans hold that "homosexual behavior is morally wrong" - precisely what General Pace said. If the general is "out of step," as The New York Times contends, the paper is picking its marchers.

Some might imagine that contorting the meaning of the word "bigotry" is innocuous. But a more realistic take is that it is a first step toward restricting free speech - indeed, toward stifling free thought.

We have already witnessed the treatment, in 2002, of a British Columbia public school teacher who was suspended for a month without pay and received a demerit on his professional record for writing letters to a local newspaper that were critical of the practice of homosexuality.

The Canadian Charter of Rights protects citizens' freedom of expression and religion. But that was apparently no bar, in the eyes of the British Columbia Supreme Court, which ruled on the matter last year, to punishing the teacher for his views. We Americans may not take our constitutional cues from our colder-air neighbor to the north, but we do well to remember what a celebrated bard once noted about weathermen and knowing which way the wind is blowin'.

If fact, the chill has already arrived. Even here in the United States, the Boy Scouts, for its barring of avowed homosexuals as leaders, has lost funding from dozens of United Ways and municipal government sources; and the group's policy has been publicly condemned by, among others, the American Federation of Teachers, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and the Reform movement's Joint Commission on Social Action.

The issue is not benign and the game is zero-sum. Either the choice of a particular conduct is like being black, or there is a difference between who people are and what they do. To the degree that the first approach is advanced, proponents of the second one will be vilified, demonized and even penalized.

And if disapproving of homosexual behavior is bigotry, then not only religious folk but nonbelievers, too, who nevertheless accept the validity of the traditional moral code are, ipso facto, villains. And why should the label be any less apt for those who disapprove of other affronts to the traditional moral ideal - like multi-partner or incestuous relationships? Either morality has meaning and trumps what some people wish to do, or it does not.

We Americans cherish our constitutional right to live our lives freely, in accordance with our consciences and beliefs. What we need to stop and ponder is that sometimes erosions of that right can tiptoe in, whistling innocently, dressed in the shiny robes of progress.

Should the word "bigotry" be successfully devolved to include deeply-rooted, time-honored and sincere religious beliefs, it might not be long before morality becomes the conviction that dares not speak its name.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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WHEN LIES LURK IN LESSONS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

A major American publisher of educational texts recently showed impressive responsibility and resolve by pledging to destroy its inventory of a book because of its false characterization of Orthodox Jews' beliefs.

The problematic passage - in a volume of Scholastic Library's "Enchantment of the World" (second series, published under Scholastic's "Children's Press" imprint) - asserts that, in Israel, "some ultra-Orthodox Jews want to limit the definition of who actually qualifies [for automatic citizenship as a Jew, under the country's Law of Return]. They believe that Reform and Conservative Jews are not really Jews at all because they are not strict in their observance of all the religious laws."

When the passage was called to the attention of Agudath Israel of America by a school librarian in Brooklyn, we immediately contacted Scholastic to point out the falsity of the contention that Orthodox Jews reject any Jew's Jewishness because of a less strict level, or even complete lack, of observance.

Books like "Enchantment of the World," we noted, are intended as reference material for grade school libraries. They help mold young minds. And so, false and prejudicial assertions, unacceptable anywhere, are particularly objectionable in such works.

To its credit, Scholastic agreed. After researching the issue and recognizing that the controversy in Israel relates exclusively to conversions that do not satisfy traditional Jewish law, or halacha - not the Jewishness of any born or halachically converted Jew - the publisher rewrote the paragraph and pledged not only to rid itself of its current inventory of the books but to reprint a corrected volume in April and replace customer copies.

Where did the defamatory error originate? According to a Scholastic official, the publisher had relied on "a high-ranking member of American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprises" for the original formulation. AICE is, in its own words, "a leading content provider for students and organizations interested in Jewish history, culture and politics."

AICE probably does much good work and likely provides a good deal of accurate information. But that only makes the issue all the more troubling. How could a "high-ranking member" of the group have been so clueless (or, worse, malicious) as to have provided so egregious a misrepresentation of Orthodox Jews?

Equally troubling is the fact that, entirely under-the-radar, many Jews are being taught other fiendish fables about Orthodox Jews.

A number of such reports have come to my attention, but I recall one with a particular wince. It was several years ago, when a letter to the editor appeared in the magazine Reform Judaism. The letter had been written by a Jewish teen-ager in response to an article in an earlier issue of the periodical contending that Orthodox Jews have contempt for Jews who are not like themselves.

"Why," wrote the earnest young woman, "when there is so much anti-Semitism in the world, must fellow Jews hate us as well?"

I was greatly agitated by the letter and simply couldn't concentrate, so I picked up the phone and dialed information for the teen's New Jersey town, which had been identified beneath her name. There would probably be many listings for her surname, I told myself, too many to sift through.

There was only one; I wrote it down.

Taking a deep breath, I dialed the number and asked for Michelle (as I'll call her). She came to the phone and, after identifying myself and apologizing profusely for calling her out of the blue, I spoke my piece:

"G-d forbid! Orthodox Jews don't hate you! Our argument is with 'Reform Judaism', not Reform Jews. We have serious disagreements with the philosophy of the movement with which your family is affiliated. As you get older and learn more, you can evaluate those concerns for yourself. But you and your family are our precious Jewish brothers and sisters!"

A pause, and then she responded.

"You sound like a nice person," she said, "but I can't accept what you're saying."

I was stunned. "Why not?"

"Because I've been taught otherwise, for years."

"But it isn't true!"

"Maybe," responded Michelle, "but we've spent many classes in my Temple school discussing Orthodox attitudes and I can't just suddenly take your word against all that I've been taught."

Dumbfounded and deeply hurt, I realized that there was nothing to gain by pestering the clearly sincere but resolute young woman. I begged her to take down my number in case she ever wanted to talk further. She hasn't called yet.

Compelling a major publishing concern to correct a public mistake is relatively easy. How, though, to counter falsehoods quietly conveyed in classrooms?

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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BLOOD OF LIFE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

That a recent book's reported claim of Jewish ritual murder in the Middle Ages stirred considerably more commotion in the Jewish media than in the Muslim world may be a hopeful sign. Or it might just testify to the depth and breadth of the longstanding belief in Arab and Asian countries that, why, yes, of course Jews murder non-Jews to use their blood in Passover matzos and wine (although the extension of that belief to Purim's hamantaschen is of more recent vintage).

The Western media's unanimous condemnation and ridicule of the blood libel assertion in the Italian book "Bloody Passover" is certainly heartening. As many reports noted, the book's author, Professor Ariel Toaff, based his speculation on confessions extracted from victims of torture. Surely, many whose bodies were pierced, stretched or torn by the horrific devices employed by European authorities in the 1400s - or who were even merely confronted with the prospect of such technology - would have just as readily admitted to being demons or Martians too.

There is, of course, no basis of any sort to the contention that the Jewish faith includes, or ever included, the consumption, on Passover or anytime, of human or animal blood. Consuming either is in fact forbidden by Jewish religious law.

The concept of blood, though, is indeed central to Passover, which begins this year with the first Seder on the night of April 2.

The blood is that of the Paschal, or Pesach, sacrifice, which in the times of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was slaughtered on the afternoon before the onset of the holiday. The meat of the lamb or goat comprised the final course of the Seder (the original "afikoman"), and some of its blood was placed on the Temple altar.

We don't have a clear comprehension of the Jewish laws of animal sacrifices; somehow, the ritual results in our own greater closeness to G-d ("korban," the Hebrew word for sacrifice, means "that which makes close"). But the spiritual mechanics, as is the case with so many of the Torah's commandments, are ultimately beyond mortal minds.

The Pesach sacrifice, though, seems to hearken back to the first Pesach, when the blood of the sheep or goat our ancestors were commanded to slaughter in Egypt, in preparation for their exodus from that land, was placed on "the doorposts and lintel" of each Jewish home.

In rabbinic literature, houses are symbols of the feminine, and so the blood on the doors of the Jewish homes in ancient Egypt might perhaps represent the blood of birth. From those homes in ancient Egypt, in other words, a new collective entity came forth into the world. A Jewish nation was born.

As the Shem MiShmuel, a classic Chassidic text, explains, before the exodus the Jews were all related to one another (as descendants of Jacob) but they were not a people. Any individual was still able to reject his or her connection to the others and the rejection had an effect. Indeed, our tradition teaches that many in fact did not merit to leave Egypt at all, dying instead during the plague of darkness. Their behavior precluded them from being part of the new, holiness-charged nation.

Once the nation-entity was forged, though, on our ancestors' very last night in Egypt, things changed radically. With blood on their doorways and satchels filled with (blood-free) matzoh, they readily followed Moses into the frightening desert on G-d's orders, knowing not what awaited them. As the prophet Jeremiah described it, in G-d's words: "I remember for you the kindness of your youth… your following Me in the desert, a land where nothing is planted." And thus the Jews began the process of becoming a living nation, an entity whose members, and descendants throughout history, are part of an organic whole, no matter what any of them may choose to do.

As the Talmud put it: "A Jew who sins is still a Jew," in every way. There is no longer any option of "opting out."

And so, blood in Judaism is a symbol not of suffering, not of torture, not even of death, but rather of: birth, life, meaning.

Which is likely why the prophet Ezekiel - in words the Seder-text presents as a reference to the Pesach sacrifice - has G-d telling His people that on "the day you were born… I passed by you wallowing in your blood, and I said to you, 'in your blood, live.' And I said to you, 'in your blood, live'."

How ironic that blood came to be the subject of the wild, hate-filled fantasies of our enemies. To the point, even, where halachic sources suggest using white, not red, wine for the Seder in places where there is fear of blood libels.

Anti-Semites, unfortunately, don't lack for fantasies. Whether it is casting American Jews as warmongers or Israel as a fascist state - even those who know that blood isn't an ingredient in the Jewish diet are adept at adopting new delusions.

For our part, we Jews do well to stay focused on the Pesach-blood, the symbol of our birth as a people. And from there, to turn our sights to discerning and embracing the mandate of our peoplehood, the Torah - the ultimate reason for our "blood of life."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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THE MAN ON THE BIMA

Rabbi Avi Shafran

He ascended the steps to the bimah, the platform where the Torah is read, with the strangely hurried movements of someone who would rather be traveling the other way.

This middle-aged fellow, apparently something of a stranger to a shul, had just been "called up" from his seat in the back of the small shul to make the blessing on the Torah.

They get so nervous, I thought to my cynical, teen-age self that day several decades ago; they should really come more than just a few times a year, if only to get the feel of things. The blessings, after all, are not very long, the Hebrew not particularly tongue-twisting.

"Asher Bochar Banu Mikol Ho'amim (who has chosen us from among all nations)" - I prompted him in my mind - "V'nosan lonu es Toraso (and has given us His Torah)."

C'mon, man, you can do it.

His life was passing before his very eyes; you could tell. The occasion, for the man on the bima, was both momentous and terrifying.

Then he did something totally unexpected, something that made me smirk at first, but then made me think, - and made me realize something profound about our precious people.

He made a mistake.

Not entirely unexpected. Many a shul-goer, especially the occasional one, leaves out words here and there, reverses the order, or draws a traumatic blank when faced with sudden holiness of the Torah. That would have been unremarkable. But this congregant was different.

His mistake was fascinating. "Asher bochar bonu" he intoned, a bit unsure of himself, "mikol," slight hesitation, "…haleylos shebechol haleylos anu ochlim."

The poor fellow had jumped the track of the Torah blessing and was barreling along with the Four Questions a Jewish child asks at the Passover seder! "Who has chosen us from…all other nights, for on all other nights we eat…"!!

For the first second or two it was humorous. But then it struck me.

The hastily corrected and embarrassed man had just laid bare the scope of his Jewishness. He had revealed all the associations Judaism still held for him - all that was left of a long, illustrious rabbinic line, for all I knew.

My first thoughts were sad… I imagined a shtetl in Eastern Europe, an old observant Jew living in physical poverty but spiritual wealth. I saw him studying through the night, working all day to support his wife and children, one of whom later managed to survive Hitler's Final Solution to make it to America and gratefully sire a single heir, the man on the bimah.

We have so much to set right, I mused, so many souls to reach, just to get to where we were a mere 70 years ago.

But then it dawned on me. Here stood a man sadly inexperienced in things Jewish, virtually oblivious to rich experiences of his ancestral faith.

And yet, he knows the Four Questions.

By heart.

When he tries to recite the blessing over the Torah, the distance between him and his heritage cannot keep those Four Questions from tiptoeing in, unsummoned but determined. The seder is a part of his essence.

I recall a conversation I once had with a secular Jewish gentleman married to a non-Jewish woman and not affiliated with any Jewish institution. His en passant mention of Passover prompted me to ask him if he had any plans for the holiday.

He looked at me as if I were mad.

"Why, we're we planning an elaborate seder, as always."

Astonished at the sudden revelation of a vestige of religious custom in his life, I told him as much. He replied, matter of factly, he would never think of abolishing his Passover seder. I didn't challenge him.

When living in Northern California, I became acquainted with other Jewish families seemingly devoid of religious practice. I always made a point of asking whether a seder of any sort was celebrated on Passover. Almost invariably, the answer was... yes, of course.

It is striking. There are more types of haggadahs than other volume in the immense literary repertoire of the Jewish people. The Sixties saw a "civil-rights haggadah" and a "Soviet Jewry haggadah." Nuclear disarmament, vegetarian and feminist versions followed. At the core of each was the age-old recounting of the ancient story of the Jews leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah. It is as if Jews, wherever the circumstances may leave them, feel a strange compulsion to preserve the Passover seder and its lessons whatever the costs, and whatever the form most palatable to their momentary persuasions.

Events that took place millennia ago - pivotal events in the history of the Jewish nation - are regularly and openly commemorated by millions of Jews the world over, many of whom do so out of an inner motivation they themselves cannot explain.

They may not even realize what they are saying when they read their haggadahs, beyond the simplest of its ideas: a Force saved their forefathers from terrible enemies and entered into a covenant with them and their descendants.

But that is apparently enough.

A spiritual need that spawns an almost hypnotic observance of the seder by Jews the world over is satisfied. And even if, after the seder, mothers and fathers go back to decidedly less than Jewishly observant lives, their daughters and sons have received the message.

As did their parents when they were young, and their parents before them.

The seed is planted.

The seder is indisputably child-oriented. Recitations that can only be described as children's songs are part of the haggadah's text, and various doings at the seder are explained by the Talmud as intended for the sole purpose of stimulating the curiosity of the young ones.

For the children are the next generation of the Jewish nation; and the seder is the crucial act of entrusting the most important part of their history to them, for re-entrustment to their own young in due time.

And so, in the spring of each year, like the birds compelled to begin their own season of rebirth with song, Jews feel the urge to sing as well. They sing to their young ones, as their ancestors did on the banks of the Red Sea, and the song is a story. It tells of their people and how the Creator of all adopted them. And if, far along the line, a few - even many - of us fall from the nest, all is not lost. For we remember the song.

Just like the man on the bimah.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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A CALL TO ARMS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The thesis that is the Jewish Nation has an antithesis: Amalek. And just as the Jewish People is defined by its Torah, so is its polar opposite associated with a particular system of thought and attitude.

Amalek the nation is unknown to us today; the Biblical command to destroy it to avert the mortal threat it poses to all that is good and holy is thus moot.

Amalek the notion, though, is very much present - in the broader world, the Jewish one and perhaps, to a degree, within each of us as well. And its undermining remains an obligation both urgent and clear.

A hint to the attitude defining Amalek lies in the Torah's words immediately preceding that nation's first appearance. In Exodus (17:7), just before the words "And Amalek came," the Jews wonder "Is G-d in our midst or not?" The Hebrew word for "not" - "ayin" - literally means "nothing." That Amalek's attack comes on the heels of that word is fitting, because Amalekism stands for precisely that: nothing. Or, better: Nothing - the conviction that all, in the end, is without meaning or consequence.

In Hebrew, letters have numerical values. The number-value of the word "Amalek," Jewish sources note, equals that of "safek," or "doubt." Not "doubt" in the word's simplest sense, implying some lack of evidence, but rather doubt as a belief: the philosophical shunning of the very idea of surety - the embrace of cynicism, the championing of meaninglessness.

For there are two diametric ways to approach life, history and the universe. One approach perceives direction and purpose; the other regards all as the products of randomness - cold, indifferent chaos.

The latter approach is the essence of Amalekism. It is a worship of chance, reflected in things like the Purim story's Amalekite villain Haman's choice to cast lots - putting his trust in chance - in choosing a date to annihilate the Persian Kingdom's Jews.

The religion that is Amalekism is often regarded as a harmless agnosticism. But it is hardly benign. Because if nature is but a series of dice-rollings, its pinnacle, the human being, is just another pointless payoff. Man's actions do not make - indeed, cannot make - any difference at all. Yes, he may benefit or harm his fellows or his world, but so what? There is no ultimate import to either accomplishment.

In fact, asserts the chance-worshipper, he is no different from the animals whom he considers, through the lottery of natural selection, his ancestors. He may be more evolved, but in the end is no less an expression than they of purely random events.

Amalek's credo is proudly and publicly proclaimed today. From "People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals" (PETA), which contends that "meat is murder"; to Princeton University's Professor Peter Singer, who asserts that "the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee"; to books like "Eternal Treblinka," which makes the loathsome comparison of animals slaughtered for food with (one winces to even repeat it) the victims of the Nazis.

And it lurks, more subtly but no less surely, in the contemporary insistence that chance-based evolutionary theory is the only explanation for the diversity of species.

One who sees only random forces as the engine of that diversity may be able to offer an explanation of the human belief in right and wrong - claiming, for instance, that such belief evolved through "natural selection" to confer some biological advantage to humans. But he cannot justify the belief itself as having any more import than any other utilitarian evolutionary adaptation.

And so, faced with the Jewish conviction that ultimate meaning exists, and that the human being is the pinnacle not of blind evolution but of purposeful Creation, Amalek mocks. Men, he sneers, are no different than the monkeys they so closely resemble, and the actions of both of no ultimate import.

Interestingly, our resemblance to apes may figure in the pivotal account of Amalek's attack on the Jews after the exodus from Egypt. When Moses lifted his hands, the Torah recounts, the tide of the fight turned in favor of the Jewish People; when he lowered them, the opposite occurred.

"And do the [lifted] arms of Moses wage war?" asks the Talmud. "Rather," it explains, "when the Jews lifted their eyes heavenward, they were victorious…" And so the lifting of Moses' hands signifies the Jews' beseeching G-d.

The etymology of the word Amalek is unclear. But one might consider it a contraction of the Hebrew word "amal" - "labor" - and the letter with a "k" sound: "kuf," whose letters spell the Hebrew word that means, of all things, "monkey."

It is intriguing and perhaps significant that among all the earth's creatures, only humans and primates can lift their arms above their heads. And little short of astounding that precisely that movement figures so pivotally in the context of a battle between the nation proclaiming that human life has no special meaning - that men are but smooth-skinned apes - and the nation that proclaims human life has unique meaning.

Because, while primates can also lift their arms, the gesture is an empty one; when humans do the same thing, it can be the most potent expression of relating to the Divine.

When Moses lifts his arms, indicating the Jews' turning to G-d, it can be seen as a declaration that our "amal," our labor, is not the action of a monkey but the meaningful expression of human beings.

"And his hands were belief" - says the verse there, strangely. Or not so strangely. Moses' hands declared belief in humanity's unique relationship to G-d.

The Jews thus prevailed in the battle by negating Amalekism - by demonstrating their conviction that G-d exists and that we are beholden to Him.

On Purim, Jews the world over commemorate the crucial, if not final, victory over Amalek that took place in Persia in the time of Mordechai and Esther, by publicly reading the Book of Esther. As has often been remarked, it is a unique scroll in the Jewish canon, the only one that makes no overt reference to G-d. Instead, it forces us to seek Him in the account's "chance" happenings, to perceive Him in seemingly "random" events.

By doing precisely that, our ancestors merited G-d's protection and emerged victorious. May our own rejection of the Amalek-idea in our time merit us the same.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above essay appears in a longer form in the current edition of The Jewish Observer and is offered with its permission.]

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THE KING AND I

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Anyone who frequents the streets of lower Manhattan has seen him. He's not the sort of fellow who easily escapes eyes.

Like many who spend their days wandering big-city downtowns, he seems to carry all his possessions in the upright shopping cart he pushes along. It is a colorful and eclectic collection. Peeking out from within the wire grid are assorted pieces of clothing, cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, empty cans, newspapers, the flag of some unknown country, and other assorted detritus of a life lived on the street.

Unlike many other unemployed homeless, though, he never panhandles or even seeks eye-contact with passers-by. He just pushes along proudly, a look of satisfaction on his face - and a large, green, foam-rubber Statue of Liberty crown atop his head.

It's the crown that really makes him stand out, and which, along with his piled-high pushcart and resolute gait, makes the security dogs at the Staten Island Ferry terminal go berserk with barking at the sight of him. To be sure, one sees the occasional tourist with a similar headdress; the hats are popular souvenirs from nearby Liberty Island. But tourists wear them as kitsch, for photographs; to King Liberty, as I call the proud cart-pusher of Wall Street, it is clearly a diadem, a mark of royalty.

It is easy to dismiss the king as someone suffering from a mental illness, although "suffering" may be too strong a word, considering how content he seems. But what occurred to me when I recently saw him is that he is, at least from what one can know from observing him, not all that different from the rest of us, only perhaps a bit more transparent. After all, he's busy collecting stuff and exulting in the status he imagines can be gleaned from flimsy things.

Our own stuff might seem more practical than King Liberty's, but that's just a function of our personal perspectives. His possessions are every bit as valued by their owner as ours are by us. And our own crowns - be they fancy watches, designer clothes, BMWs, the latest model cell-phone, or corner offices with nice views - are really no more meaningful in the end than gaudy foam-rubber garlands.

And the rest of us collect our stuff and our status, just as King Liberty does his, in an effort to achieve respect, mistaking the counterfeit for the real thing.

But it's not. True honor comes from accomplishment, not acquisitions. It's not what we have or wear or drive that counts, but what we are.

And the rabbis of the Mishneh point to a particular aspect of life that is a key to respect. "Who is honored?" they ask in Avot, 4:1, "He who honors [G-d's] creatures."

At first glance, one might interpret that statement as a simple good strategy: honor others and they will return the favor. But that's hardly always true, and it is particularly untrue in our crass times, when cynicism and insults, aimed even at people who deserve the respect they themselves show others, are the coins of all too many realms.

The Hebrew words for "Who is honored?", however, might better be rendered "Who is honorable?" - who, in other words, is inherently, meaningfully worthy of honor, honored, if not by his fellows, by his Creator.

And more food for thought lies in the Mishneh's answer, "He who honors [G-d's] creatures." A proof-verse is offered, and it is laden with meaning: "As the verse says, 'For those who honor Me I will honor…'" [Samuel I 2:30].

On a simple level, the verse is invoked to show that since G-d Himself honors those who honor Him, surely we mortals should act similarly. But something else clearly lies in the verse's words - namely, that honoring others is itself an honoring of G-d. For man, after all, is created in the Divine image, and every human being - the word "creatures" is used pointedly - carries a spark of holiness within. Thus the famed Talmudic leader Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, we are taught, would swiftly greet every person he met each day "even a Gentile on the street."

And so, the next time I spy King Liberty, who got me thinking about things in the first place, I will try to focus less on his hat than on what lies below it, and remember that he, no less than any of us, is worthy of honor. Because, royalty or not, he is the handiwork of the King of kings.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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BURNING ISSUE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

A crematorium recently opened for business in Israel, for the use of citizens who want their remains reduced to ashes.

A decade ago, just over 20% of Americans who died were cremated. In 2005, the rate had risen to 32%. The Cremation Association of North America confidently forecasts that by 2025 more than half of Americans will choose to have their remains burned rather than interred. While no one knows what percentage of American cremation-choosers are Jewish, there is little doubt that, at least among Jews with limited or no Jewish education, or who became estranged from Jewish observance, cremation has become acceptable, if not a vogue. And now, the Jewish State has it own facility for burning human bodies.

Yet the fact that the establishment is the first of its kind in Israel does bespeak an essential Jewish attitude toward the services it provides.

Some Jews recoil from the idea of cremation because the Third Reich incinerated so many of its Jewish victims.

Others, and many non-Jews, disdain the burning of human remains because of infamous cases where crematory owners, after accepting families' payments, presented them with urns of animal ashes, turning a further profit from the sale of the bodies entrusted them to brokers who then conducted brisk businesses of their own selling body parts.

Judaism's inherent abhorrence for cremation, however, predates and supersedes both Nazi evils and ghoulish crimes. The roots of the Torah's insistence on burial of human remains lie elsewhere.

Judaism's opposition to cremation is sourced, at least in part, in a fundamental Jewish belief: that there will come a time when the dead will live again. Although the idea of the resurrection of the righteous may be surprising to some, it is one of Judaism's most important teachings. And even though it is not explicitly expressed in the Written Torah, it is prominent in the Torah's other half, the Oral Tradition. The Mishna, the Oral Tradition's central text, confers such weightiness to the conviction that it places deniers of the eventual resurrection of the dead first among those who "forfeit their share in the world to come" (Sanhedrin, Chapter 11, Mishna 1). As the Talmud comments thereon: "He denied the resurrection of the dead, so will he be denied a portion in the resurrection of the dead."

That our bodies are invested with such importance should not be startling. Not only our souls but our physical selves, too, possess inherent holiness. Our bodies, after all, are the indispensable means of performing G-d's will. It is through employing them to do good deeds and denying their gravitations to sin that we achieve our purposes in this world.

And so, Jewish tradition teaches, even though we are to consign our bodies to the earth after death, there is a small "bone" (Hebrew: "etzem") that is not destroyed when a body decays and from which the entire person, if he or she so merits, will be rejuvenated at some point in the future.

The idea that a person might be recreated from something tiny - something, even, that can survive for millennia - should not shock anyone remotely familiar with contemporary science. Each of our cells contains a large and complex molecule, DNA, that is essentially a blueprint of our bodies; theoretically, one of those molecules from even our long-buried remains could be coaxed to reproduce each of our physical selves. (Intriguingly, the Hebrew word "etzem" can mean not only "bone" but also "essence" and "self.")

Burning, in Judaism, is a declaration of utter abandon and nullification. Jews burn leaven and bread before Passover, when the Torah insists no vestige of such material may be in their possession. The proper means of disposing of an idol is to pulverize or burn it.

Needless to say, G-d is capable of bringing even ashes to life again (as the ashes of the Nazis' crematoria victims will surely demonstrate one day, may it come soon). But actually choosing to have one's body incinerated is an act that, so intended or not, expresses denial of the fact that the body is still valuable, that it retains worth, indeed potential life.

The new Israeli crematorium's owner, in fact, describes himself as an atheist, as do most if not all of his customers. One, a teacher in Jerusalem, gave eloquent expression to her reasons for choosing cremation, telling The Jerusalem Post: "I was not sanctified in my lifetime so my grave won't be sanctified either… I believe that there is nothing after death…"

That is the philosophy underlying the choice of cremation.

It is the antithesis of the belief-system called Judaism.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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HEROIC MEASURES

Rabbi Avi Shafran

A recent report from Jenin got me thinking.

Residents of the West Bank city have hung a large picture of Saddam Hussein in the refugee-quarter's central square. A local commander of the Fatah-aligned Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades explained that the display was intended to show Palestinian appreciation of the late and (at least in the civilized world) unlamented Iraqi dictator. He pledged that Palestinians "will continue to honor his memory as a symbol of resistance until the American and Israeli occupation is driven out."

Much is revealed about a person by whom he considers worthy of honor. And much is similarly revealed about a people or a society. One's heroes reflect one's aspirations. And so the Jenin example, intended to draw eyes and hearts toward a depiction of someone for whom words like "ruthless," "cruel" and "murderous" fall pitifully short of the mark, is both telling and depressing, not to mention something vital for would-be international peacemakers to ponder.

It is also, though, nutritious food for broader thought. Who, we might well consider, are our own heroes? To whose examples do we aspire? While no sane and civilized person would ever respond with the names of bloodthirsty tyrants, more than a few of us might still come up with those of writers, entertainers, sports figures or other public personalities, people whose accomplishments, while noteworthy and in some cases perhaps even noble, reflect our limited horizons of hope for ourselves.

What is more, in their private lives, all too many of the figures idolized in contemporary society reveal character flaws that are more than minor. The clay often extends far north of their feet.

In much of the Orthodox Jewish world, those whose examples are aspired to are great rabbinic figures. Their portraits often grace the walls of our homes. And while the men depicted (there are also venerated women, of course, but in their modesty they would consider their visages' display to be unseemly) are renowned scholars, what makes them our heroes is their personal saintliness.

A good example is the Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan), the famed Polish Jewish sage who died at the age of 105 in 1933, and whose image can be found in countless observant Jewish homes (particularly near telephones). Rabbi Kagan wrote seminal books on the prohibition of slanderous and otherwise improper speech and was an unquestionable exemplar of righteousness himself. The day after his passing, The New York Times noted how the venerated sage had "lived in poverty all his life." The long obituary also pointed out that "Despite his fame as 'the uncrowned spiritual king of Israel,' the Chofetz Chaim was a modest and humble man. His career as a merchant was of short duration. Because of his popularity, all the Jews of the town flocked to his store. The Chofetz Chaim thereupon closed the store on the ground he was depriving other Jewish merchants of a living."

The Orthodox community is hardly without its failures. Even some Jews who are punctiliously observant of the Torah's mandate in most areas of life have at times shown themselves not beyond violating their responsibilities in others - sometimes in quite serious ways. The Chofetz Chaim would not be proud.

And yet the thought remains, and remains significant: While greed and other evil inclinations may find marks even within what should be a rarified community, something more trenchant is said by that community's aspirations, no matter how elusive - by, in other words, who its heroes are.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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YES, BUBBA, IT'S A JEWISH PLOT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In an unintentionally amusing video being e-mailed around, a large-boned, jowly man with a droopy mustache and hair parted down the middle sits at a desk and reveals a secret scam that Jews have been levying on unsuspecting Gentiles for years. Behind him hang an American flag and a banner featuring a large swastika.

The short "program" is billed as "White Nationalist News" and our trusty correspondent is identified as "Mich Bubba." Heavy metal guitar introduces and ends the spot; the refrain of the tune (so to speak) is "Tricky, Tricky Yid".

The conspiracy Mr. Bubba proudly exposes is the "Jewish tax" that hides in plain sight from unsuspecting non-Jews in secret code on food packaging. Long familiar to Hebrews of traditional bent, the various kosher symbols (the popular "u" inscribed in an "o" that is a trademark of the Orthodox Union - which Bubba calls the "United Rabbinical Council" - as well as myriad graphic riffs on the letter "k") are indications that the product so marked was produced under the supervision of a rabbi expert in the intricacies of both kosher law and food science. Bubba hews to the belief that such foods are simply "blessed by a rabbi" and identifies one product as carrying a second sinister rabbinical group's certification - "parve" - which he pronounces "parVEY" (French rabbis, probably).

In his essential point, of course, Bubba's right. Companies do indeed pay for kosher certification.

As they also do, of course, for the right to display, say, the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval (for which manufacturers must purchase advertisement space in Good Housekeeping magazine). Or as they indirectly do through increased manufacturing costs for the right to call their products "organic" or "natural." To Bubba, however, the Jewish arrangement is singularly unkosher; it smacks, to his fuzzy lights, of a Jewish "shakedown." If companies pay for a rabbi's service, he unreasons, the cost must surely be passed on… secretly, of course… to "Gentile" consumers.

The risible accusation is nothing new; it resurfaces almost every time logic-challenged anti-Semites manage to catch their breath between rants on the Middle-East and "Jewish control of the media." As to inconvenient facts, The New York Times reported in 1975 that the cost to General Foods for rabbinical supervision of its "Bird's Eye" products worked out to .0000065 of a cent per item. A Heinz Company representative maintained that its own kosher labeling actually decreases the cost of items, by increasing the market for them - the only rational reason, of course, a company would choose to pay for such a service in the first place.

Nor is Bubba compelled to buy one brand of corndogs or beer over another. If the kosher item in fact proves more expensive, he can simply opt for one that hasn't been supervised by a rabbi (which, he makes quite clear, he prefers in any event).

If there is anything Jew-haters don't like, though (besides Jews), it is having to deal with pesky facts. There are more important things to do, like sowing hatred and suspicion.

Most folks even loosely connected to reality know that there are no Elders of Zion (at least none who aspire to world control), and no Jews who murder Christians to mix their blood into matzohs, that such things are (forgive me) Bubba-meisehs. And yet, millions keep even those myths alive (not to mention create new ones, like Jewish recruitment of Arab innocents to fly planes into buildings). So it should hardly be surprising that there are people accusing us Jews of less obvious, more insidious crimes… like kosher certification.

The persistence, ubiquity and sheer creativity of anti-Semitism rightfully concern us. But there is also something curiously invigorating about it all.

Because it points to what underlies Jew-hatred: the suspicion that the Jewish people are special.

However odd it might seem of G-d, He did indeed choose the Jews. In other words, yes, Bubba, there is a plot (though not exactly a conspiracy; there's only one Plotter).

But Bubba needn't panic. What anti-Semites like him don't realize is that the Jewish mission isn't to subjugate but to educate. Keep it under your hat, Bubba, but what we Jews are charged with is living lives of holiness and service to G-d and man.

That includes prayer, charity and acts of kindness, study of holy texts and meticulous honesty in all our dealings - as well as a multitude of ritual matters, including eating kosher food. But no, Bubba, undermining society and levying hidden taxes aren't on the list.

One day, G-d willing - likely when we Jews shoulder our mission with more passion and determination - those who labor so hard to hate us will suddenly be stopped cold in their tracks and made to meet a reality they never considered: that Jewish specialness was never a threat to them at all, but a gift.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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SHABBAT CHAUFFEURS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The setting sun doesn't panic most people. Most people, though, aren't Orthodox Jews stuck in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike an hour before the onset of Shabbat, when Jewish religious law forbids driving a car.

I generally stay off highways - and try mightily to avoid cars altogether - several hours before sundown of a Shabbat or Jewish holiday. But this past October 6 was an exception. My 16-year-old son was stranded.

Dovie had accepted a ride that morning from Baltimore, where he attends yeshiva, and was to be dropped off at our home in Staten Island. But a later start than planned and unforeseen traffic (a turnpike oxymoron) forced the family bringing him (Orthodox Jews like us) to instead proceed directly to their own destination in New Jersey. They called me several hours before sunset to ask if I could meet them on the turnpike to pick my son up.

I readily, if nervously, agreed, and set out. The traffic was as formidable southward as it was headed north. But my paternal instinct propelled me on. Then my son's drivers called again. They had had to leave Dovie at a motel off the highway in order to reach their own destination before the Sabbath. My paternal instinct - and my car - went into overdrive.

Judaism is a religion of laws, and for those of us who consider those laws sacrosanct, a situation like the one I faced is harrowing. If the sun set before I reached my son, I would have to pull the car over and leave it wherever it was. It would likely get towed and I would likely be picked up by the police. If I reached my son before sunset but without enough time to get home, we would both be stranded, though thankfully together. As I watched the sun dropping closer to the horizon, I drove as… uh, efficiently as I could, knowing I was in trouble.

To make a long and sweaty palms, parched mouth and high blood pressure story blessedly short, I reached Dovie about a half-hour before sunset. I barely stopped the car, he threw his bags in the back, jumped inside and off we sped.

More traffic. The sun sinking fast. Finally, looming before us, the bridge to Staten Island. We made it across just as the sun began to set. We veered onto a residential street, ditched our possessions in the car (the Shabbat laws prohibit carrying anything in a public area) and got out.

We were ten miles from home, but elated. We had made it onto the island before the Sabbath began. I'm not in great physical shape but, thank G-d, can probably handle a few hours' walk.

After holding our private Mincha service (ideally recited before sunset), we crossed to the median of the highway and marched northward.

After about 45 minutes' walk - punctuated by the honks of drivers either amused or perturbed by the sight of a bearded man and a teenage boy walking where no one usually does - a car stopped on the median grass about 200 feet in front of us. A man emerged and began walking toward us.

He was a neatly-dressed and pleasant-looking young man, and asked if we needed help.

I explained our predicament and thanked him for his concern.

"Can I drive you home?" he asked.

I replied that on the Sabbath I couldn't as much as open the door of his car.

"If I open it for you, can you be driven?"

"Are you Jewish?" I asked. It would be wrong for me to even cause another Jew to violate the Jewish Sabbath.

"No," he said with a smile. "I'm a born-again Christian."

His offer couldn't be blithely refused. While Sabbath law didn't permit me to explicitly ask someone not bound by it to do something for me that I couldn't do for myself, I hadn't asked; he had offered. I tried to analyze other pertinent factors, including the slim but clear element of danger of walking on a dark highway. As the three of us walked together, I responded, "That is very kind of you. Where are you headed?"

At that point we had reached the man's car; a young woman whom he introduced as his fiancée sat in the front passenger seat. If she had any concern about picking up two strangers, she certainly didn't show it.

"To the Staten Island Mall," he replied, as he opened the door for us. That would shave half our walk off, I thought, and my son and I got in the car. Anthony, as our benefactor identified himself, was all too happy to help. "But please," I said, "just to the mall."

Anthony and his future wife - their wedding was to take place in a few weeks, if I recall correctly - couldn't have been nicer. Part of me wondered if this Christian couple might see my son and me as marks to whom to preach religion, but our conversation was only about their upcoming marriage and world affairs, and they both made my son and me feel as if we were doing them a favor by allowing them to be our chauffeurs.

In any event, when we reached the mall, Anthony asked us where we lived. I told him and he insisted on taking us home. (Later I discovered that halacha might have required me to not allow him to go out of his way for me.) When we reached our driveway, Anthony opened the door for us again, and we thanked him from the bottom of our hearts. When my wife and family - who had last heard from me when I was on the turnpike and didn't know where Dovie and I would be spending Shabbat (and the next day, the second day of Sukkot) - saw us walk in the front door, they were shocked but overjoyed.

The gratitude we felt toward our benefactors was, and is, not only for their having cared about my son and me but also for demonstrating, in a world of so much evil unleashed in the name of religion, good will toward two strangers of another faith.

In the Jewish religious tradition, though, there is something that goes beyond simple gratitude; it is called hakarat hatov - literally: "recognition of the good." Gratitude is recognition of another person's choice, but hakarat hatov is something one must feel even toward an inanimate, unchoosing, object. "Into a well from which you drank," admonishes the Talmud, "do not throw a stone." Moses, similarly, was not permitted to strike the Nile or the earth for the Egyptian plagues that emerged from them; as a baby, he had been hidden from his would-be Egyptian murderers in the Nile, and as an adult had buried in the earth the Egyptian taskmaster he had killed.

Hakorat hatov, I think, can best be understood as something meant to benefit not the recipient but the giver. It is intended to make us - the "recognizers" - more sensitive, more aware of the ultimate Source of all goodness. Whether through the agency of a well, a river, the earth or the fortuitous arrival of someone able and ready to help us, our ultimate feelings of joy and appreciation are for the One who has provided.

Sukkot is called z'man simchateinu, "the time of our happiness." This past Sukkot in my home, the phrase resonated with particular power.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above is an edited version of an article that appeared in the Staten Island Advance, and is published with that paper's permission.]

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MORE THAN FEAR ITSELF

Rabbi Avi Shafran

You suddenly begin noticing signs bearing Arabic script in buses. What do you do?

Well, what bus riders in Richmond, Virginia did was call the local Transit Authority to find out what it might know about the signs, which had been turning up on buses and the walls of local universities.

The Associated Press and other media outlets subtly scoffed at the concerned citizens, explaining that the Arabic phrases were in fact innocuous - translating as things like "paper or plastic?" or "paper, scissors, rock" or "I'm a little teapot." Those translations in fact appeared at the bottom of the signs, along with admonishments like "Misunderstanding can make anything scary" or "What did you think it said?"

The provocative ads were the work of the Virginia Interfaith Center, which placed them in public venues as part of an effort to change the fact that, as the center's executive director put it, "as soon as people see Arabic, they immediately make an association with terrorism."

Orthodox Jews like me have considerable experience with bias, and sympathy for good-willed, law abiding Muslims who are victims of religious prejudice. We know well what it is like to be targeted by bigots for harsh stares, ugly comments and worse. I always carry the realization that some subset of society will, when seeing my beard and headgear, associate me with Shakespeare's Shylock, Dickens' Fagin, the fictional poisoners of wells or the fantasized Elders of Zion.

And those are all, in the end, imagined characters. In this age of all-too-real and widespread Islamist terrorism - where the Muslim faith is regularly invoked by people around the world as directing murder and mayhem - innocent Muslims surely feel even more marginalized as a result of the hasty generalizations people tend to make, and bear the bitter fruit of the suspicions and fears born of their coreligionists' all-too-real words and actions.

But there are times, still, when suspicion and fears cannot be dismissed as the products of bias, and can even rightfully lead to the curtailment, at least temporarily, of the freedoms we Americans enjoy as our birthright.

Like the recent case of a group of imams who were removed from a flight about to leave Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for Phoenix.

That the Muslim religious leaders had reportedly prayed loudly in the airport before the flight was certainly no reason to consider anything amiss. But when passengers and flight attendants told law-enforcement officials that the imams had switched from their assigned seats - to a pattern associated with the September 11 terrorist passengers: two in the front row first-class seats, two in the middle of the plane in aisle seats and two in the rear of the cabin - security officials' concern was not outlandish, as later was charged by a number of American Muslim groups.

And when three of the men then asked for seat-belt extenders, despite being of average build, and proceeded to place them, unused, on the floor before them, it was hardly religious bias - or, in the words of Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee (D., Texas), "racial profiling, harassment and discrimination" - that motivated police to detain the group for questioning.

No weapons in the end were found among the imams, but that happy fact does not mitigate the less-happy one that the authorities' actions were more than justified.

As a visibly Jewish man, whenever I am on a plane or train, I always consciously try to alleviate any discomfort others might have with my own appearance or actions. Even well before September, 2001 - even before a young lady at a bus stop asked me to please tell her cowering 5-year-old that, despite my in-need-of-a-trim beard, I wasn't Osama bin Ladin - I would always make sure to apprise seatmates, with a friendly smile and a pleasant demeanor, of the fact that I was about to say my prayers, and that my whispering was only part of the ritual. And Orthodox Jews, to the best of my knowledge, haven't ever hijacked airplanes.

It is unfortunate, but Muslims who disavow the hatred and violence preached by some of their coreligionists have to accept, with sadness but pragmatism, the burden of society's suspicion-by-association. It's a regrettable reality that actions they take in all innocence might be misconstrued at times as sinister - or that Arabic script suddenly appearing in public places might cause some alarm. But our world is, as they say, what it is.

Yes, sometimes things that seem frightening in fact turn out to be harmless. But fright can also save lives and limbs. "Fear itself," unfortunately, is no longer the only thing we have to fear.

The Virginia Interfaith Center would probably consider me in need of re-education. But, with all due respect to the group and its well-meaning efforts, for my part, I still think that when I see something, I'll say something.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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MY WHITE HOUSE CHANUKAH

Rabbi Avi Shafran

If you should ever happen to find yourself in an ornate, high-ceilinged room and a military-uniformed classical string ensemble is segueing from a flawless rendition of a Bach Concerto to an equally impressive (if considerably less inspiring) version of "I Have a Little Dreidel," you can only be one place: the White House Chanukah Party.

The annual event hosted by President and Mrs. Bush for a few score representatives of the American Jewish community is a tangible expression of the good will the First Couple have demonstrated to a multitude of the nation's religious groups, Jews among them. Whether one considers President Bush II's domestic or foreign policies principled (as I, for the most part, do) or preposterous, the President must be given high points for his reaching out to Americans of faith.

Among the Jewish groups to whom the White House extended invitations to this year's Chanukah celebration, which took place on December 18, the third day of the holiday, was Agudath Israel of America, and I was honored to attend as one of its representatives. It was a pleasure to meet and mingle with Jews from other parts of the American Jewish community, an opportunity that doesn't present itself as often as I'd like. And it was a privilege to meet, if briefly, President and Mrs. Bush. I chose to use my moment in their company to offer them my sincere and solemn blessings, thereby disappointing my 13-year-old son, who had wanted me to request a Presidential decree that the school week be reduced to three days.

The event, true to its Jewish nature, was awash in food, all of it under strict Orthodox supervision, produced in a White House kitchen fully "koshered" for the event. As another observant participant observed to me when I greeted him, "This is an amazing symbol of the malchus shel chesed [government of kindness] that is this great country." It was indeed hard to not be impressed.

But the high point of my White House visit was neither the Presidential receiving line nor the array of kosher victuals (not realizing that the catering would be adhering to the strictest standards, I had earlier in the day had the regrettable foresight to stop in a local kosher eatery, and was hardly hungry).

Nor was the best part of the event seeing a dear friend from my yeshiva days for the first time in three decades. Now an anesthesiologist in the Midwest, he explained that he had received his invitation to the White House gathering as the result of his wife's "open house" policy for students at a university near their home. A frequent Shabbat guest of theirs several years ago had eventually gone on to become a White House liaison to the Jewish community, and wanted to show his erstwhile Shabbat hosts that he hadn't forgotten them. My friend himself, he reminded me, had spent more than one Shabbat in my own parents' similarly open home thirty years earlier.

No, the highlight of my trip to Washington took place before I even entered the White House. I was sitting on a bench outside the East Entrance, enjoying the unseasonably warm December day, watching the line of invitees form, as they waited for the security personnel to open the gates and begin the process of examining identifications and scanning bags.

Sitting there in the descending darkness, I felt a twinge of melancholy at being away from home for even that one night of Chanukah. I had made the necessary arrangements from the perspective of Jewish religious law; the menorah in my home would be lit by my wife or one of my children on my behalf. But still I was troubled by being so far from them.

I have always been struck by the inescapable contrast between, on the one hand, the public, potent pageantry and glitter with which the surrounding culture celebrates its winter holiday and the quiet, home-bound nature of Chanukah, with tiny flames its truest symbol. And here I was, about to join in a boisterous, bustling celebration - albeit of Chanukah - while the small if potent points of fire created on my behalf were flickering 300 miles away, invisible to me.

It was then that my cellphone clamored for attention. Aroused from my gloomy reverie, I offered it my ear.

It was my wife. She and our children were about to light the menorah and thought I might want to be included, if at a distance. A more accurate thought could not have been had.

And so unfolded the truly transcendent moment of my White House Chanukah, on a park bench outside the grand Presidential residence. To anyone passing by, it would have looked like nothing more than a balding fellow with a graying beard and a broad smile, animatedly singing into a phone.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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FAMILY AFFAIR

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The speaker was a bit reluctant, unaccustomed to standing before an audience. Yet there she stood in Los Angeles, her hometown, at a dinner hosted by a Southern California Jewish campus outreach organization, the Jewish Awareness Movement. She was addressing supporters of the group and parents, like herself and her husband, whose children, as a result of JAM and their consciences, had come to Jewish religious observance.

Marsha Greenberg recounted how her grandparents had come to American shores from Romania, met in Chicago and sired nine children, the oldest of which was the speaker's mother. And she told of her own childhood, how her father had died when she was only four and how, ten years later, her older brother and only sibling perished in a freak, fierce blizzard while on a Boy Scout trip in the San Bernardino Mountains.

"My mom never recovered from the loss," she told the crowd. "I grew up overnight."

When she was sixteen, she went on, she met a "nice Jewish boy" two years her senior, "from a good home." They married and eventually had three children.

When their oldest, their daughter Shari, turned sixteen herself, "she had had enough of temple." She and her siblings had attended Sunday school and she had been "bat-mitzvahed." But she hadn't been inspired to continue her Jewish education, and her parents didn't pressure her.

Their second child, David, though, happened upon JAM, participating in some events, Shabbat dinners and eventually even a trip to New York. He became intrigued by Jewish thought, texts and traditions, and his enthusiasm proved contagious, spreading in time to his older sister.

"What was happening to my family?" the speaker confided she had wondered at the time.

Shari embarked on a three-week trip to Israel, and then called to ask if she could stay a little longer. Her parents said okay. A few weeks later they received another call from Shari, asking if she could stay for a few months more. Again she received an okay. Eight months later, Shari returned home, according to her mom, "a different person, more mature and focused."

"She brought Shabbat into our home… In her own way, she set an example for David and Michael," her youngest sibling.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Greenberg continued, "David was doing a lot of learning on his own. Having his older sister home, watching her in action, living what she had learned, made an impression. Now David wanted to go to a yeshiva!"

Both Shari and David left home - she for Israel, he for New York - on the very same day, an understandably emotional one for the Greenbergs. Soon enough, Shari called to say she was dating a yeshiva student. Not much later, the Greenbergs and their sons found themselves in Jerusalem at Shari's wedding, which "made quite an impression of all of us, especially… Michael. Now he had a sister, brother and brother-in-law all frum [traditionally observant]!"

David returned to Israel to attend a yeshiva there, and Michael soon followed.

"There are very few mothers in Los Angeles," Mrs. Greenberg told the rapt audience, "who can say that they have three children learning Torah in Israel. I take great pride in being one of those mothers."

The speaker concluded by warmly thanking Rabbi Moshe and Bracha Zaret, the directors of JAM, and by imagining her mother, father and brother watching out for her family. "I know my children are going to live beautiful lives," she said. "They are going to raise magnificent, intellectual, sensitive, thoughtful families. I could not be happier. This journey is only the beginning, and every step counts."

My wife and I have gotten to know Mrs. Greenberg and her equally endearing husband quite well. We have met their children, who insist that their journeys to Jewish observance were directly due to their upbringing; their parents, they explain, always advised and encouraged them to think for themselves, to be idealists and do what they felt was right. And that is what they did.

All of the Greenbergs were at our daughter's wedding mere weeks ago, dancing as happily and as filled with as much joy as were we. Which is entirely understandable, considering that David, we are happy and proud to say, is our newest son-in-law.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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EMBRACING DISCRIMINATION

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In the early 90s, when I served as a teacher and principal of the boys' division of a yeshiva high school in Providence, Rhode Island, I once called the local school board to arrange a board-sponsored driver's education class for a group of male students, and one for a group of students in our young women' division.

The official with whom I spoke was aghast. "A separate class for girls!" she exclaimed. "That's blatant discrimination, and against the law."

I tried to explain that my request no more discriminated against the girls than it did the boys, that the separation of the genders was part of our school's policy for religious reasons, and that religious freedom was also a concern of the law (not to mention a touchstone of Rhode Island's history). But the official was unyielding, and the classes never came to be.

I couldn't help but wonder how she might have reacted to the Bush administration's recent announcement of new rules allowing school districts to create single-gender classes, and even entire single-gender schools. And to the fact that the move was backed not only by political conservatives but by urban educators and legislators on both sides of the political aisle as well. To be sure, the usual amalgamation of civil rights and women's groups (and Senator Ted Kennedy) dutifully condemned the administration's decision and threatened to challenge the decision in the courts, but Education Department officials expressed confidence that the new rules will pass legal muster.

The impetus for the reassessment of what constitutes illegal discrimination under Title IX, a 1972 federal law, was research suggesting that at least some children learn better in single-gender environments.

However future studies may pan out, though, it is encouraging to see consideration at the highest levels of government of the possibility that boys and girls may be different in the ways they learn, and that the case for same-gender education cannot be waved away with unthinking accusations of immoral discrimination. It would be encouraging, too, to see some Jewish schools until now pledged to "co-education" give some further thought to the matter as well.

The administration's rationale for separate-gender public education may be pedagogical, while our own is essentially religious. But there is more than minor overlap between the two, born of the realities of human psychology. And, whatever the reasoning, that the issue is being addressed honestly and objectively is healthy and heartening.

It holds out the hope, moreover, that charges of discrimination in other areas might also be considered not through the muddled lens of the word's contemporary pejorative meaning but in its original, benign sense - as per the American Heritage Dictionary's first entry: "able to recognize or draw fine distinctions."

Some such distinctions, of course, inform observant Jewish life, and occasionally come into conflict with contemporary society's notions of "equality." We certainly do not - or at least should not -discriminate on the basis of race, national origin or disability, but we are most unabashedly discriminating about a number of other things.

Like, to take one example, the definition of marriage, an institution under relentless attack these days. A number of countries have radically redefined the term, one state in our own republic has already followed suit, and several others - most recently New Jersey, through a ruling by its highest court - seem headed in a similar direction. At issue is whether marriage defined as it has been since postdiluvian times is, in the eyes of state constitutions, inherently "discriminatory."

Well, yes, it is. It discriminates among a variety of arrangements, some of which violate one of the universal Noahide Commandments (not to mention the Torah's laws for the Jewish People) and the deep sensibilities of countless civilized (and even some less-than-fully-civilized) people around the world.

But it does not discriminate, in the word's negative connotation, against anyone - any more than defining apples as fruit somehow wrongs tractors.

Because words have meanings, and "marriage" is a word. And discriminating souls care about protecting it.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above essay appears in the current issue of The Jewish Observer and is offered with its permission.]

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WINTER HARVEST

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In a forthcoming book, "Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality," Dr. Pauline W. Chen writes about the many operations she performed on brain-dead patients for the purpose of procuring, or "harvesting," their organs for transplantation. "They all," she writes, "seemed remarkably alive."

This past fall, the prestigious journal Science published a report on a young woman who, after a devastating car accident, was declared vegetative. For five months, she showed no signs of awareness whatsoever. Scientists, though, decided to put her in a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner, a machine that tracks blood flow to different parts of the brain and that was only developed a few years ago. When they asked her to imagine things like playing tennis and walking through her home, the scan lit up with telltale patterns of language, movement and navigation indistinguishable from those produced by the brains of healthy, conscious people. The report's authors, while stressing that the patient may still be classified as "unconscious," conclude nonetheless that she has a "rich mental life."

Ten years earlier, a patient like the young woman would have been assumed, for all practical intents, to be - effectively, if perhaps not legally - lifeless. Only the development of a new diagnostic technology has now rendered her more obviously alive. It's hard not to wonder what technologies might one day yet be developed - or what aspects of consciousness might forever elude scientific instrumentation.

The acronym DCD might be mistaken for some new medium of music reproduction but in fact refers to "donation after cardiac death" - the procurement of organs from people whose hearts have stopped, even if their brains may still be functioning. Such procedures have taken place in many countries, despite the fact that the cessation of heartbeat is not necessarily irreversible. Even some patients whose hearts did not respond to cardiac resuscitation, it is well documented, have "come back to life" - in one case after the lapse of a full seven minutes, certainly sufficient time for harvesting a vital organ or two.

The driving force behind the scramble to define death "to the instant" is clearly the worldwide shortage of organs for transplant. This past summer, doctors at the World Transplant Congress in Boston were told how the pool of available organs in the United States could increase by up to 20% if DCD were adopted more widely.

What does Judaism have to say about all this? Saving a life is a most weighty imperative, to be sure, but Jewish religious law, or halacha, does not permit one life to be taken to save the life of another - no matter how diminished the "quality" of the life of the former, no matter how great the potential of the life of the latter.

Halacha requires that death be clearly established, and does not permit any action that might hasten the death of a person in extremis. Harvesting organs after any cessation of heart function that might not be permanent would be forbidden.

Unrelated to DCD is "brain death" - a diagnosis of irreversible cessation of all brain function, which modern medicine and secular law consider sufficient to permit the "harvesting" of organs before removal of life-support. What does Jewish law have to say about "brain death"? Can a patient with no discernable brain activity but whose heart continues to beat be considered a corpse?

Some rabbis vote yea on that question. And a recent New York Times article about a conference organized by the "Halachic Organ Donor Society," an organization advocating increased organ donation from halacha-observant Jews, referred to "near unanimity among rabbis on the criteria for organ donation" - presumably referring to the next paragraph's citation of the chief Sephardic rabbi of the Israeli city of Tzfat, whose criterion is brain death.

But many, and considerably more prominent in the world of halachic discourse, are the rabbinical authorities who do not agree. They include the late Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who was renowned as one of our generation's most authoritative halachic decisors, as well as Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, considered by many Jews to be the most authoritative authority of Jewish law today. Some leading scholars at Yeshiva University too, like Rabbi Herschel Schachter and Rabbi J. David Bleich, concur with those decisors.

In her book, Dr. Chen writes about her "83rd procurement" when the brain-dead body she sliced open for its organs was that of a young Asian-American woman like herself, who reminded her vividly, so to speak, of herself. She found herself hesitating during the procedure, but managed to complete it, although as she cut the vena cava and watched the patient's blood drain into canisters, she felt "as if my own life force were draining away."

Dr. Chen may intend her account to be simply what the title of her book promises, a reflection on mortality. But perhaps another thought for consideration lay there on the operating table, the idea that despite the inevitability of its end, life is holy - and we do well to tread carefully and slowly before considering it gone.

That might explain the feeling she writes she had at the end of that 83rd procurement, an exhaustion born not only of "sleep deprivation [and] overwork" but of "an unbearable grief."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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RECIDIVIST PARENTS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

A number of well-known international groups are very unhappy with my wife and me.

We are, you see, "multi-children" parents, violators of both the law of averages and the sensibilities of folks like those at Zero Population Growth and other such organizations. Yes, my wife and I helped contribute, even more than most American parents, to the world population's recent passing of the six billion mark.

Many of our friends, for the most part Orthodox Jews like us, have similarly chosen to raise large families, sometimes with six, seven, even ten or more children. To others, we must seem at best unbalanced, at worst irresponsible, for our choices - choices we regarded, and still regard, as entirely wise and proper.

The disapprovers are entitled to their opinion, of course. But it can become irksome when strangers, confronted with the sight of my beloved family, offer unsolicited judgments.

The smiles and even the pointing fingers don't bother me; I try to follow the Talmud's dictum to judge others favorably, to assume the best: here, that the smilers and pointers are happy for us. But commentators like the fellow in the airport who snidely query-editorialized, "Catholic or careless?" leave very little room for good will. ("Jewish and caring," I responded; it was all I could summon at the moment.)

And then there was what was probably my personal nadir of incivility, years ago in a California supermarket, when a severe-looking lady with an unmistakably Teutonic accent scolded a much younger and brasher me - wheeling a daughter-filled double stroller - with a humorless comment, something like, "Well YOU certainly don't believe in population control!"

On that occasion, I must admit, I was inexcusably rude. My Polish-born father and father-in-law each had siblings who never managed to make it out of young adulthood, thanks to some folks' efficient determination to starve, shoot, gas or burn them. Several of my children carry the names of those unmet great-aunts and great-uncles.

Maybe it was the matron's accent that sent me, relatively speaking, over the edge. "When I reach six million," I heard myself intone through clenched teeth, "I'll consider stopping."

Though I think that, over the years, I have become more understanding of others' dismay at large families, I haven't quite managed to bring myself to regret that particular retort, graceless though it was.

As it happens, though, the Fraulein was quite right. My wife and I are unrepentant infidels when it comes to the ZPG movement. The "expert" predictions in the 1960s about a world swarming with wall-to-wall humanity within a decade or two have proven silly. And although new claims have emerged about a future "population crisis", they, like their predecessors, are impelled more by ideology than by empirical evidence. One need do no more than take a drive across the vast empty spaces even within our own relatively crowded country to realize how lightly populated the planet really is.

And, if that doesn't do the trick, return across Canada.

A subsequent stroll, moreover, down any Manhattan, Chicago or Los Angeles restaurant-row, taking note of the prodigious amounts of food daily discarded in modern cities, would be an equally eye-opening experience. Human malnutrition, informed folk know, is the result not of new babies but of old problems. Humans still starve, tragically, at the turn of the millennium not because there is too little food but because of poor management, inefficient distribution and - perhaps primarily - because of the unconcern (or worse) of other humans.

In any event, much more than disbelief in doomsday scenarios or determination to re-establish truncated genealogies figures in my wife's and my choice of a large family. We would have endeavored no less even if Canada resembled Calcutta, even if the Holocaust had been only a bad horror film instead of history, even if we had needed to pull names for our children from the void.

For our faith-system, that of all Jews' ancestors over millennia, views procreation in and of itself as the holiest of endeavors, and children as the greatest of blessings. And when it comes to blessings, as most folk seem to naturally (though less aptly, to my lights) understand with regard to the monetary sort - the more, the merrier. How ironic, I often reflect: Were children shares of blue-chip stocks, my wife and I would be regarded with neither disapproval nor curiosity but envy.

Which is not to say that having children is, in the end, a self-serving vocation. It is true that life offers no joy remotely approaching the resplendent sight, at the end of a long, hard day, of a joyous, squeaking two-year-old face one has loved since its appearance on earth bobbing above a pair of little arms opened wide. But the challenges of raising children, especially several times the average number of children per family, are considerable. Barring a lottery-win, my family won't ever retain a housekeeper or own a boat - or, for that matter, a road vehicle that someone else hasn't driven for 50,000 or 60,000 miles first. And any disposable income we manage to amass is quickly absorbed by one or another worthy but costly educational institution.

At the same time, though, and above all else, we believe with our hearts and souls that our children are gifts beyond all earthly value. And my wife and I are doing all in our power to help ensure that our progeny will use their precious lives for the good of their fellow Jews and of humanity.

So if you should find yourself at a playground or highway rest stop and spy a group of Jewish kids of various ages who seem to resemble one another, please don't think their parents irresponsible. Try to remember that a profound commitment and deep love likely lie behind the striking sight.

And if it should happen to be any of my children or grandchildren, we'll all do our part, and try to interpret any smiles we elicit as expressions of delight.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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PARTIAL-BIRTH DISTORTION

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Listening to critics of the Partial-Birth Abortion Act of 2003, one might conclude that the law, which was ruled unconstitutional by several courts whose rulings are now under appeal before the United States Supreme Court, 1) is erroneously named, 2) lacks an exception to protect the life of the mother and 3) is based on false assertions.

And listening to some Jewish groups, one might conclude as well that the law 4) is at acute odds with Jewish values.

One would be wrong on all four counts.

Despite concerted efforts by some to misrepresent the law, its language is stark and clear. It prohibits any overt act, like the puncturing of the brain, "that the person knows will kill" a fetus whose "entire… head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother."

Thus, the removal of a fetus that has died or been killed inside its mother is clearly not prohibited by the embattled law. The procedure outlawed is the killing of a baby partially outside its mother's body. One is hard pressed to imagine a more accurate name for the law than the one it colloquially carries. Indeed, some prefer the starker term "infanticide."

Not, though, New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse. She rejects one brief's description of the procedure as "killing a child in the birth process," contending that every stage of gestation is perforce a part of the birth process. But Ms. Greenhouse, a truly gifted explicator of legal complexities, surely knows that the very point of laws is to draw lines, and that, to deal rationally with abortion, a line must be drawn between the concepts "unborn" and "born." It is not unreasonable to imagine that line lying in the vicinity of what is described in the law's language quoted above.

As to exceptions to the law's prohibition, contrary to wide public perception, the law contains an explicit exception for cases where the procedure is deemed necessary to preserve the mother's life. Whether the law needs a further exception for when a mother's "health" is at stake - the law's drafters found that there is no such situation - is one of the issues the Supreme Court will be weighing.

A piece of erroneous information was indeed found by critics in the law's preamble: the assertion that "no medical schools" teach the procedure being prohibited. In fact, several do. The error, however, hardly affects the logic of the law.

Most troubling from my vantage point, though, is the assertion that the Jewish religious tradition is somehow offended by the prohibition, an assertion that has been made by a number of rabbis and Jewish organizational spokespeople. The president of Hadassah, to take one example, who baldly stated that the law "undermines Jewish values."

She and others who have made similar claims are misinformed, and in turn misinform.

To be sure, the Talmudic sources are clear that the life of a Jewish woman whose pregnancy endangers her takes precedence over that of her unborn child when there is no way to preserve both lives. And, while the matter is not free from controversy, there are rabbinic opinions that allow abortion when the pregnancy seriously jeopardizes the mother's health. But those narrow exceptions do not translate into some unlimited mother's right to "make her own reproductive choices" - the position Hadassah enthusiastically trumpets - and most certainly not to any right to kill a live baby whose head, or most of whose body, has already emerged. What the Partial-Birth Abortion Act prohibits is, in the eyes of Jewish law, little if anything short of murder.

Nothing, of course, prevents a Jew, or Jewish organization or rabbi from ignoring the teachings of the Jewish religious tradition.

But intellectual integrity, if nothing else, should prevent anyone from misrepresenting what Jewish tradition has to say about killing a child who has effectively emerged into our world.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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PARADES AND PRINCIPLES

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In the end, it wasn't threatened violence from any haredi hotheads that did in the planned "gay pride" parade scheduled for the streets of Jerusalem, but an IDF strike in Gaza that brought about the deaths of 20 Palestinians and subsequent threats of retaliatory terror attacks against Israelis and Americans.

Fear of violence, though - of any sort - should not have been the impetus for the parade's cancellation. What should have made such an event unthinkable in the first place, and should do so in the future, is something stark and simple: respect - for Jerusalem, for her residents and, ultimately, for Judaism.

The word "parade" conjures images of music and festivity, gaudily bedecked marchers and perhaps an elephant or tiger or two. And indeed, in venues like San Francisco, "gay pride" parades have been exhibitions of exhibitionists, processions that featured, if not actual animals, people clearly in touch with their inner beasts.

But organizers of the ill-fated Jerusalem parade - originally part of "Jerusalem WorldPride 2006," an international call to homosexuals to descend upon the holy city "in a massive demonstration of LGBT dignity, pride and boundary-crossing celebration" -insisted that their event would be no such spectacle of bad taste. It would be, rather, a civil and principled attempt to advance the legitimacy of a homosexual lifestyle through changes to the traditional conception of the family.

To some of us, including a majority of Jerusalem's residents, that "principled" social agenda is considerably more objectionable than any bacchanalian display. Crassness and craziness, after all, are laughed (or gasped) at and soon forgotten. Social revolution, though, by its very definition, aims to effect societal change.

There are societies, of course, for better or worse, that welcome such change, and there are Israelis with similar feelings as well. But Israel also has many citizens, particularly in Jerusalem, who consider the radical redefinition of moral behavior and the concept of family to be a deliberate affront to their deepest convictions.

Israel has hardly adopted the Torah's laws as her own, as is readily evident from a visit to any of a number of neighborhoods or night spots in Tel Aviv (or even, sadly, in Jerusalem). Nor is there any religious effort afoot to pry into fellow citizens' private lives. But the Torah is very clear about what sort of personal intimate relationships are proper and what sorts are not. And all but a small proportion of the Israeli citizenship endorse the idea that the Jewish state owes a certain respect to the Jewish religious heritage.

Yes, in a free society, any group can promote any cause, no matter how ill-conceived or offensive it may be to others. But bounds, including limits to free speech and demonstration, exist even in the freest of societies. Is it really an unthinkable curb on legitimate self-expression for the authorities and judiciary of a self-described Jewish state to prevent an intentional affront to dedicated and faithful Jews - not to mention to the Jewish religious tradition?

The threats of violence against the would-be marchers that reportedly appeared in anonymous pamphlets and posters in Jerusalem are indefensible. But such ugliness - whatever its source might in fact have been - should not obscure the actual issue: Are the Jewish religion and the sensibilities of tens of thousands of Jerusalem's residents deserving of respect? Or is all that trumped, even in the Holy Land's Holiest City, by the social agenda of radical activists?

Over the course of history, Jews lived their lives - and all too often died their deaths - in dedication to the Jewish faith. Does that faith not deserve, at very least, the respect of the Jewish State?

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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CLASSIFIED INFORMATION

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Part of my job as Agudath Israel of America's media liaison is to help ensure that traditional Orthodox Jewish beliefs and life are accurately represented in the press, and that the larger Jewish and non-Jewish worlds are informed about important happenings in the Orthodox community.

There are ample opportunities for both. Misconceptions about Orthodox Jews, especially haredim, are commonplace, not only in the general press but even in the Jewish. And there is no dearth of newsworthy occurrences in the haredi world. Orthodox educational institutions, moreover, do an impressive job of ensuring Jewish commitment and continuity; and the community yields singular events - like the "Siyum HaShas" Talmud-completion gathering last celebrated in 2005, which brought together more that 100,000 celebrants in major convention centers across the continent and around the world.

And yet I think that what are most revealing about Orthodox life are little things.

A revered yeshiva dean was once asked by the parents of a marriage-eligible young woman about the personal qualities of a young man studying at the institution. The rabbi's response was that the fellow struck him as a paragon of good traits. "But if you want to find out what he is really like," he added, "you'll have to ask the cook."

What he intended to convey was that while our public personae and actions may mean much, whatever meaning they hold pales beside the evidence to be culled from the mundane activities of our daily lives, from the testimony of our husbands, wives, children, friends - or, if we live in a dormitory, the cook.

The haredi world doesn't have a cook (well, actually, it has a good many excellent ones, but you get the point). What it has, though, are newspapers.

There are several, most notably Yated Neeman and Hamodia - the latter not only publishes, like the former, a large, multi-sectioned weekend paper but a smaller daily edition as well. The news coverage itself says much about the community. Since mimicking the larger world's media would violate a number of Jewish religious ideals, one won't find any reference at all in the haredi press to the celebrity obsessions that grace even the front pages of the general press, or any parallel to the sort of sleazy crime coverage favored by tabloids, or even any of the standard-issue scandal-mongering that saturates so much of the media. Basic international, national and local news are reported straightforwardly, with the intention of providing important or practical information.

But to me, the most intriguing - and telling - window onto the Orthodox world provided by its newspapers lies in the small print of its classified ads.

Those in a randomly selected edition of Hamodia include the expected job offerings, services and properties for sale or rent, of course. But then there is, in addition to a "lost" column, a sizable one labeled "found."

Therein, one ad-placer seeks the owner of a gold bracelet; another, the person who had lost a digital camera; yet another, the feet missing a pair of children's sneakers; another still, the holder of the partner of a single leather glove. Another bracelet and a blanket are offered by yet other ads, both found "a few years ago."

And then there are the "gemachs," more than five full-page columns of them. "Gemach" is the transliteration of a Hebrew acronym for the phrase "bestowal of kindness," and the word refers to a charitable effort that grants or lends goods, or provides services, to anyone in need of them, free of charge.

Many gemachs - understandably, considering the Orthodox commitment to large families - revolve around the needs of new parents. There are gemachs offering "multiples" baby equipment for new mothers of twins or triplets, others that prepare free meals for new mothers, yet others providing women to spend nights at new parents' homes, to help care for the young siblings of newborns. There are also offers of catering services for new parents celebrating their son's bris, portable playpens, and infant car seats.

And then, among the dozens of other gemachs listed are some offering professional makeup-application (for weddings and such), others still lending hospital gowns that provide more coverage than the standard fare, audiotapes of lectures on an assortment of topics, checklists for planning a wedding, custom hair pieces for men and children with chemotherapy hair-loss (most of Hamodia's women readers own wigs), rides to the park or the shore for Alzheimers sufferers, air-beds for sudden influx of overnight visitors, "shtick" - costumes, novelties and the like - to enliven weddings. There is even a gemach offering listings of gemachs.

This, from a community that, with the constant and formidable responsibilities of observant life, has precious little free time. But what time and effort it has, it seems, a good deal of it is channeled toward helping others.

That subtle message residing in newspapers like Yated and Hamodia rarely appears in the general or other Jewish media. There the spotlight is most commonly focused on the Orthodox community for one or another of its unusual religious or cultural practices, or when one of its members does something wrong. But Orthodox peculiarities or wrongdoers, though they certainly exist as they do in every society, do not reflect the essence of their community.

The classifieds do.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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ANGER OF THE ATHEISTS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Responses to an essay say much to a writer. Sometimes they reveal flaws in the essayist's assumptions or reasoning, provide a different perspective or are otherwise enlightening. Other times they reveal something more about the responders.

Back in May, I wrote an article about atheism. It was inspired by an earlier op-ed by philosopher Slavoj Zizek in The New York Times, extolling "the dignity of atheism." I titled my own essay "The Indignity of Atheism" and made one simple and obvious point: One who sees only random forces behind why we humans find ourselves here can have no reason to believe in objective categories of good and evil.

I took pains to stress that I was not contending that atheists are bad people, and certainly not that religious people are necessarily good. I was not judging anyone, rather stating a self-evident philosophical truism: If our perception that some deeds are good and others are not is but a quirk of natural selection, none of us need feel any commitment to morality or ethics.

The piece appeared in The Providence Journal and a number of Jewish weeklies. Soon enough, it was posted on a multitude of atheist weblogs, along with rebuttals - or screeds presented as such.

I had always imagined atheists as a misguided but relatively civil and intelligent bunch. But much of the reaction on the blogs was simple umbrage heavily laced with anger and even threats, born of my contention that atheists are bad people - although I had written no such thing, and indeed had clearly stated otherwise.

Perhaps the writers misinterpreted my invocation of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot as examples of non-religious sorts who were responsible for countless deaths of innocents. But that was only to counter Mr. Zizek's contention that the world's evils derive overwhelmingly from religion. (A few of the umbrage-takers insisted that Hitler was a religious Roman Catholic; I'm skeptical, but, just to keep the complainers on-topic, they can replace him with Caligula, Mao, Saddam Hussein, or Kim Jung Il.)

Other reactions (from the more careful readers, no doubt) consisted entirely of adolescent snideness over the idea of G-d, and harsh invective toward me, much of it of a strikingly personal nature and in language more suited to a locker room than an intellectual salon. Revealing, indeed.

As to the essence of my argument, though, there was no credible counter-argument whatsoever, no claim that right and wrong can somehow have inherent meaning without recourse to Something Higher than ourselves. That, too, was telling - of the truth that atheism, in the end, cannot assign any more meaning to right and wrong than to right and left.

What brings the edifying experience to mind is the pair of current best-sellers attempting to make the case for atheism. In one of them, Darwinist devotee Richard Dawkins declares that to be an atheist is a "brave and splendid" thing, and that to believe that there is Something to Whom we owe obeisance is a "pernicious" thought. Writer Sam Harris, meanwhile, in his own book, characterizes religion as "obscene" and "utterly repellent."

The two authors avoid the sailor-language favored by the bloggers and their blogophants, and they make a valiant effort to present what they claim is the case for atheism, but in their instances, too, more illuminating than their arguments is their anger.

Sure, it is easy to deny G-d. We can't see Him and can (at least some of us, with prodigious effort and illimitable imagination) imagine life evolving entirely on its own, and yes, there is evil in the world that seems to go unpunished. But belief in G-d has always gone hand in hand with belief in both His hiddenness, and his inscrutability. The "arguments" from invisibility, evolution and the existence of evil are, in the end, convincing only to those already convinced.

More informative is the atheists' anger. I think it derives from the realization of where their declared convictions perforce must lead. That would be - as per my original essay - a place where the very concepts of morality and ethics are rendered meaningless, a worldview in which a thieving, philandering, serial murdering cannibal is no less commendable a member of the species than a selfless, hard-working philanthropist. (In fact, from an evolutionist perspective, the former is probably better positioned to impart advantages to the gene pool.)

It is a thought so discomfiting to an honest atheist that all it can yield him is fury.

Some atheists, no doubt, are not infuriated at all by the implications of their denial of a human calling higher than nature. They revel in the knowledge that whatever they wish to do is fine, as long as they manage not to run afoul of the man-made (and themselves inherently meaningless) laws of society. If skillful enough, they can carefully lift items from the local store, surreptitiously violate others' rights or privacy, and covertly bring harm to those they dislike or who stand in the way of their wants.

Most atheists, though - and they, I contend, are the angry ones - would never dream of doing such things. Because they know that there is right and there is wrong.

Wrong?

Is it "wrong" when a dog steals a bone from his fellow canine, or when a mantis eats her mate? Of course not. But when a human being steals or hurts or kills another, it's qualitatively different. Deep down we know we are answerable to Something beyond our own natures.

That knowledge gives thoughtful atheists hives. Which is why, hopelessly conflicted by the irreconcilability of their unspeakable realization and their trumpeted posture, they can only fume.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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JIMINY CRICKET AND THE JEWS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Anyone familiar with contemporary talk-radio knows that the word "liberal" has become for some a slur, implying that holders of ideals like tolerance for other cultures or concern for the poor and disadvantaged are somehow inherently polluted by nonchalance toward national security, too little concern about crime and too much about the rights of terrorists.

But another word, "fundamentalist," has likewise been made into an insult of its own, something recently noted by David Klinghoffer, the erstwhile literary editor of National Review and current senior fellow at a public policy think-tank, the Discovery Institute. (Full disclosure: Mr. Klinghoffer was a Sabbath guest at the Shafran home several times seven or eight years ago, and I consider him a friend.)

Writing in the national Jewish weekly Forward, Klinghoffer points out that the "fundamentalist" label is regularly used to cast people who hew to foundational religious beliefs as "stupid," "obnoxious" or "backward."

Klinghoffer's context is the assertion by former New Republic editor and current Time Magazine blogger Andrew Sullivan that "fundamentalists" - i.e. people with deep religious beliefs - are inherently arrogant, because they believe they know what is right and what is wrong, and apply their convictions to political and social issues. Instead, Sullivan advocates "spiritual humility and sincere religious doubt" and champions "a faith that… picks and chooses between doctrines under the guidance of individual conscience."

Klinghoffer makes the obvious point: If one's conscience is one's only guide, then he is "his own ultimate authority," hardly a reflection of humility.

"That isn't to say," he hastens to add, "that the truth [for a religious person] is easily accessible." An Orthodox Jew for 15 years,. Klinghoffer openly and honestly admits that there is much he doesn't understand, and that certainty about applying Jewish wisdom to contemporary questions is not always available. It is, he explains, "in contemplating… complexities that Jews find a road to inspiration."

But in the end, as Klinghoffer has articulated in his writings over the years, we Jews "believe our religion is true, all of it." There are indeed Jewish verities, verities that speak loudly and clearly to Jews and to all humankind, verities that have implications for contemporary social issues, verities that Jews who claim to care about Judaism should not shy away from embracing, whether or not those verities comfortably coalesce with those Jews' own personal feelings. The bending of our imperfect human notions to the will of an omniscient G-d is, in the end - as both Abraham on Mount Moriah and his descendants at Mount Sinai came to know - the essence of the Jewish faith.

Abraham, as it happens, is David Klinghoffer's father, at least in a spiritual sense. The Biblical patriarch is considered the parent of all converts to Judaism. Klinghoffer lyrically and poignantly recounted his personal journey to the Jewish people and Jewish observance in his 1999 book "The Lord Will Gather Me In." His defense of the conviction that questions of right and wrong are not ultimately answered by our own subjective feelings - reminds me that he wasn't born into the Jewish people but rather chose to join it.

Because, although Jewish history is replete with illustrious men and women - from the Biblical Ruth to the Talmudic giants Shmaya and Avtalyon - who came to the Jewish people from other nations, there is a curious statement in the Talmud (Niddah, 13b) in which Rabbi Chalbo compares converts to "a sore."

One approach to that pronouncement is that it refers to converts who have not adequately prepared for Jewish life and who, after joining the Jewish people, come to violate religious strictures out of inexperience. Another approach, diametric to the first, is that converts, having freely and determinedly chosen their Jewishness, tend to be so meticulous in their adherence to Jewish law that their example reflects poorly on many born Jews' levels of observance.

A tangent to that latter approach occurs. The word for "sore" that Rabbi Chalbo uses actually refers to a sort of skin discoloration (often mistakenly identified as leprosy) spoken of at length in the Torah. Such sores, the rabbis of the Talmud taught, were divine signs - during periods of history when Jews' closeness to G-d merited them such signs - of any of an assortment of personal lapses.

Might some converts, too, in a way, be disturbing but luminous signs for the rest of us Jews? Might the clarity and honesty of people like Klinghoffer, who have come to Judaism entirely on their own through force of observation and reason, without the peer pressures and support systems that nurture born Jews from their childhoods, be reminders to the rest of us of things we might have somehow forgotten, or never confronted?

The "sores" suffered by Jews in Biblical times entailed an element of embarrassment, to be sure. In the end, though, they were a gift, a heavenly sign of guidance. Jews who might naturally assume, like Mr. Sullivan (and Jiminy Cricket before him), that our own consciences are our best guides would do well to listen closely to people like David Klinghoffer, and come to recognize that being a Jewish "fundamentalist" is no badge of shame but a deep and abiding privilege.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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IS G-D WITH US?

Rabbi Avi Shafran

At the recent large rally near the United Nations, it was encouraging to see the breadth of support for Israel and outrage at Iran's current leadership. Not only were Jews of very different stripes present - from the bare-headed to the black-hatted - but there was quite a representation of non-Jews as well, white and black, American, European and even Middle-Eastern.

The event's organizers deserve credit for all the work they put into it, and the vast majority of the tens of thousands of Jews who participated surely left with only good feelings. And yet, something - or, perhaps better said, Something - was missing: a clear expression of the Jewish people's faith in the Almighty.

The void was most starkly evident during the speech of famed lawyer and author Alan Dershowitz. After reading a lengthy indictment of the Iranian president and his policies, Mr. Dershowitz invoked a verse from the book of Isaiah that speaks of the ultimate futility of the plottings of the Jewish people's enemies.

"Utzu eitzah v'tufar; dabru davar v'lo yakum," the former yeshiva bochur eloquently intoned. "Plan a conspiracy, and it will be foiled; speak your piece and it will not stand."

Very inspiring, except that Mr. Dershowitz left out the final words of the verse, "ki imanu [K]el" - "for G-d is with us."

Whether he did so intentionally or not, the truncation seemed to symbolize an attitude that is sadly prevalent today.

The prophet Isaiah was not the only one whose words were edited. When a Jewish band called "Blue Fringe" struck up the Shlomo Carlebach classic "Am Yisrael Chai" - "The Nation of Israel Lives" - it used the title words for both parts of the song. In the Carlebach rendition, though, which became one of the signature songs of the Russian refuseniks during the dark years of Soviet Jewry's anguish, the words to the second part are "Od Avinu Chai" - "Our Father Still Lives." No room for Father, apparently, on the Fringe.

The Torah predicts how, amid affluence and security, it may happen that "your heart will become haughty and you will forget Hashem your G-d… and you will say 'my strength and the power of my hand has amassed for me this success'." (Deuteronomy, 8:14-17)

To be sure, the Jewish people will persevere and, at history's end, emerge triumphant. But Jews' trust must not be placed in military prowess, even that of a Jewish State. "Israel," we do well to remember, refers in the Torah not to a country but to a people.

And even our people, we know all too well, is not immune to the hatred and bloodlust of the rest of the world, at least not until the Messiah arrives.

No, not might, but right is the source of our protection. The only thing that can offer security to the Jewish nation - in our ancestral land or anywhere else - is the blessing of He Who chose us from among the nations.

And so when Jews gather together because of threats against their brothers and sisters, nothing belongs in the hearts of the gathered more than G-d. And nothing more than Him belongs on the lips of those standing before the microphones.

At the recent rally, shofars were blown. Against the disturbing background of the "my strength and the power of my hands" speeches at the rally, the sound seemed a call to arms - even, it seemed, to trust in arms. But the shofar on Rosh Hashana, of course, is a call to repentance, to thoughts of G-d.

Having passed the Days of Judgment, we Jews now approach the holiday of Sukkot, when we sit in supremely vulnerable structures, "temporary dwellings" that by definition are exposed to the elements.

Even had the Talmud not informed us that our sukkot are to remind us of the seemingly insubstantial "clouds of glory" with which G-d protected our ancestors from all harm and attack, could we have had any doubt that our fragile holiday abodes hold the message that our true protection comes not from things physical - or political, or military?

It is a fundamental Jewish message, and an eternal one. But it holds particular resonance, I think, for our own unfocused Jewish times.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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A 'PROPHECY' SADLY FULFILLED

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Mindful of the Talmudic teaching that after the destruction of the First Holy Temple the only semblance of prophecy resides in children and fools, and well aware of my age, I should hesitate before claiming the mantle of a seer. But a prediction I made in an article for Moment Magazine more than five years ago - and for which, at the time, I was roundly pilloried - has been confirmed by recent events.

I entitled the piece "Time to Come Home," and it was addressed to Jews who belonged to Conservative movement congregations. That movement's claim of fealty to Jewish religious law, or halacha, I contended, is dishonest. Through citations of fact and the words of Conservative leaders, the essay demonstrated how the process of determining Conservative "halacha" differed qualitatively and radically from the halachic process of the millennia. Halacha, I wrote, has always been decided (as it still is by Orthodoxy) through the objective examination of verses, mediated through the Talmud, with determination only to discern the Torah's intention. By contrast, the Conservative process has often involved first deciding a desired result, and then manipulating the sources to yield that outcome.

That might not disturb some Conservative Jews, to be sure, but they likely belong in the Reform movement, which allows halacha a "vote but not a veto." Those Conservative Jews, however, who truly respect the concept of halacha and had always accepted as fact that their movement was committed to the traditional halachic process, the article contended, needed to realize that such was not the case, and that their true home (hence the title) was in the Orthodox community.

Whether because of that thesis itself or Moment's renaming of the piece (against my wishes) as "The Conservative Lie," the article met with loud and angry protest. There was much positive response, too, mostly from erstwhile Conservative Jews who had left the movement for Orthodoxy and from members of Conservative synagogues who had already come to suspect that things were as I had described them. But a small army of Conservative leaders angrily blasted what one called my "nasty diatribe" and accused me of hating Conservative Jews - even though my article had dealt with a theological process, not people, and was expressly aimed at engaging other Jews' minds.

In any event, time has a way of putting things into perspective. In my Moment piece, I identified the issue of same-sex relationships as a particularly telling topic, since the larger societal milieu had essentially embraced such relationships as morally acceptable and yet thousands of years of halachic literature (not to mention explicit verses in the Torah itself, in the case of males) declares them sinful. Hence my "prophecy": The Conservative movement would come in time to "halachically" sanction what the Torah forbids in no uncertain terms. My prediction, of course, required no supernatural powers, only the natural one of observation.

Fast-forward to September, 2006, when the media are reporting that Conservative leaders are proudly poised to effectively sanction unions that, by any objective measure, are halachically indefensible. A fig leaf of sorts is being planned, in the form of a contradictory "second opinion" that Conservative congregations (or, presumably, individuals) can choose to accept instead. But the abandonment of an uncontested Jewish moral verity - even as one of two or more "alternatives" - speaks piercingly for itself.

Conservative Rabbi David Lincoln, the spiritual leader of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, put it well: "Jewish law is flexible in many instances, but there are certain things that are very straightforward, like this."

Truth be told, Rabbi Lincoln's lament, like my prediction, has long been clear to others, even within the Conservative world. At the 1980 convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, influential Conservative rabbi Harold Kushner asked his audience "Is the Conservative movement halachic?" and then answered, honestly: "It obviously is not."

And so, what remains, still, is the thought with which I ended my Moment article.

The courage to recognize misjudgments is a laudable and inherently Jewish trait, one the Talmud sees in the very root of the name Judah (derived from the Hebrew "li'hodot," to admit), from which the word "Jew" derives. Such self-examination is what all Jews are to engage in at this time of year. And it is, moreover, why there are so many once-Conservative Jews who have already blazed a trail of return to a halachic lifestyle. In the wake of the upcoming Conservative decision, others, I hope, will come to follow.

And what I hope no less fervently is that that my own world, the Orthodox, will demonstrate its own self-improvement and commitment - to other Jews, welcoming them warmly into our shuls and into our lives. Here, too, there is a well-blazed trail-and much cause for optimism.

Because Ahavat Yisrael, love for fellow Jews, is not only a sublime concept and an underpinning of the Jewish people, it is as compelling and immutable as any halachah.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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MEDIA MANIPULATION FAR AND NEAR

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Much furor accompanied the exposing of a Reuters photographer's creative Photoshopping of images from the recent Israeli invasion of Lebanon - and rightly so. A short film report on the deception, by turns amusing and infuriating, can be viewed at www.aish.com/movies/PhotoFraud.asp . Among other examples of the journalistic deceit it documents is a gentleman posing first as a rescuer and then as a corpse. And the apparent placement, for maximum emotional impact, of a pristine wedding dress and an assortment of equally dust-free stuffed animals into the midst of Beirut bombing rubble.

Media manipulate, though, in myriad ways. Sometimes even with good, if misguided, intentions, sometimes even unintentionally, and sometimes even in our own backyard.

Take a recent front-page story in the New York Jewish Week. The article heralded what it claimed may be the "charting [of] new territory in the terrain of religious practice" in the Jewish world. The Sabbath's move to Tuesday? The introduction of a new holiday? A set of laws governing e-mail? A time limit for sermons? No, no, something more radical: a woman was appointed to lead a congregation.

Now there have been women rabbis in the Reform and Conservative movements for decades. Although their salaries inexplicably lag behind those of their male counterparts, Conservative and Reform female rabbis have become commonplace over the years. So why the Jewish Week's breathlessness over "a decision that could be seen as fracturing the stained-glass ceiling" of a synagogue?

That's easy, says the paper. Because the congregation is Orthodox.

Only it isn't. Back in 2002, the same paper identified the same Manhattan congregation, Kehilat Orach Eliezer (KOE), as an "Orthodox Shul" on a similar front page story (one might be forgiven for wondering if there are any other congregations in New York). The recent story more modestly bills KOE as "largely Orthodox in practice." The synagogue, however, is pointedly - and significantly - unaffiliated.

KOE does not belong to any Orthodox umbrella congregational body - not Agudath Israel, not the National Council of Young Israel, not the Orthodox Union. It has no ties to any established Chassidic group. The strongest hint of its theological identity, in fact, lies in its name, which honors a late leader of the Conservative movement, Dr. Louis (Eliezer) Finkelstein. Indeed, KOE's leader until recently was Rabbi David Weiss-Halivni, a well-known scholar who was associated with the Jewish Theological Seminary before becoming one of the founders and leaders of the Union for Traditional Judaism, a movement that broke away from the Conservative but opted to reject Orthodoxy.

To be sure, KOE claims to be a "halachic" congregation. So, though, does the Conservative movement itself. And "largely Orthodox"? Now there's an interesting formulation. Can something be "largely kosher"? "Largely legal?"

Whether Conservative, "halachic" or "post-denominational" (we Orthodox, one imagines, must be "pre-denominational"), KOE's practices, halachically defensible or not, are of negligible concern to either the haredi or centrist segments of the Orthodox world - which comprise the vast majority of Orthodox Jews. Why, then, would the Jewish Week - or The New York Times, which followed with its own story touting the "milestone for advocates of an expanded role for women in Orthodox Judaism" - deem newsworthy the appointment of a woman as a "community head" of a congregation that is Orthodox neither in name nor practice?

The answer lies in the fact of journalism's dirty little secret: Those who manufacture the product have personal opinions and hopes that they are not always able to prevent from informing their reportage. That is manifestly true in the larger journalistic world and, it has become amply clear by now, in the Jewish one no less.

A reporter might be refined, sensitive and talented but if he or she has personal leanings toward, say, the place where the Conservative movement and "post-denominational" entities like KOE reside, or a particular affinity for "gender issues," he or she is simply not the right candidate to write objectively about such entities or issues. The risk is simply too great that the result will be not a story reported but a story created. No, photographs won't likely be doctored, but facts might well be bent subtly out of shape. As they were, once again, here.

Unfortunately, there is a pattern of precisely such carelessness in certain ostensibly neutral Anglo-Jewish publications (which, in turn provide fodder for far more widely read media like The New York Times). And it is both journalistically and Jewishly treif. There should be no room for agenda-driven "news" in either a profession that extols accuracy or an ethical system that hallows truth.

There is certainly no dearth of Orthodox women role-models who shoulder important responsibilities in bona fide Orthodox communities. They fill the fundamental, vital positions of homemakers (in the word's most literal and sublime sense), wives and mothers - and in the roles, too, of spiritual guides and lecturers (within the bounds of traditional halachic norms). Such women, to be sure, do not seek to be featured in the press - as King Solomon wrote, "the honor of the princess" is expressed "inward," not in public prominence. But those women, in fact, are the true crafters of the Jewish future. And the images of their accomplishments don't need airbrushing to be impressive.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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NEVER ABANDONED

Rabbi Avi Shafran

If the world seemed to dim somewhat last week, it was likely because a remarkable woman was called to her Maker, leaving her husband of 67 years, their sons, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and countless others like my wife and me fortunate enough to have known her, to carry on in what light was left.

For the past several years, Mrs. Ethel Leifer, peace upon her, faithfully attended a women's Torah class I hold in my home over the course of several summer Sabbaths. She was the senior member of the group but as attentive as any attendee a half-century or more younger. She would often nod her head in concurrence with something said, and I would wonder if perhaps she was just being polite. Then, though, she would offer a comment, and it would become entirely clear that she not only had entirely understood the point but had something worthy to add. Other times, she would look skeptical, and voice a worthy question. And always, agreeing or challenging, with a smile.

Her constant smile was the tip of a happiness iceberg, a mammoth mountain of gratitude to G-d for His blessings, prime among them her husband, may he be well and take solace in his wonderful family. Whenever she would be asked how long she and her husband had been married, she would respond "blessedly long but not long enough." It is a wrenching thought that those of us in their Orthodox neighborhood in Staten Island will no longer be blessed with the sight of the two of them walking to synagogue holding hands, looking like nothing so much as newlyweds.

At Mrs. Leifer's funeral, I remembered - as I often have of late - some words she uttered when I saw her alive for the last time, words that are worthy for all times but perhaps particularly timely for us all today. She had fallen ill and was in constant and excruciating pain. My wife and I asked if she was up to taking visitors and, assured that she was, went to see her. Mr. Leifer, a refined and gracious gentleman, greeted us at the door, and took us to where his wife sat, smiling as usual, full of love and appreciation, for her partner in life and for life itself.

We asked about her health and she responded that she was managing with the help of her mate, adding, as all who knew her know she regularly did in many contexts, that "G-d does not abandon us." She and her husband explained the various doctors' theories about the source of her pain, about this biological malfunction and that. At one point, I remarked - thinking back now, perhaps without sufficient forethought - about how when any of the myriad processes that keep us healthy go awry we come to realize how miraculous it truly is when they work as they should. "We so need to perceive the divine blessing," I said, "when things go right."

Our hostess then looked at me and, smiling but pointedly, responded: "No, not only then. When they go wrong too."

I was struck with her retention of wisdom despite her pain. She was reminding me of something the rabbis of the Talmud had said: "All that the Merciful One does, He does for good."

In other words, all of us who believe there is a G-d in heaven must appreciate the value to us of all that He does, whether His actions are confluent with our wishes or not. That idea is what lies behind the astounding Jewish law that "just as we pronounce a blessing on the good, so are we to pronounce a blessing on the 'bad'." That latter blessing, recited on the death of a close relative, is "Blessed are You… the true Judge" and the Talmud implies that it is ideally to be recited as an expression of the same love we naturally feel when acknowledging an obviously blessed occasion.

We may not understand why things we feel are bad happen, and there is, to be sure, as King Solomon wrote, "a time for mourning." But somewhere in our minds must lie the conviction that G-d knows best, and that His concern is, in the end, for our ultimate good

It is a thought to think in these perplexing, vexing Jewish times, when - once again - innocent Jewish lives are targeted (cease-fire "time out" or not) by murderous foes seemingly devoid of any sense of fairness - or human attributes like empathy and compassion. Times when much of the world seems bizarrely unable, or unwilling, to recognize the mortal threats facing it - and deaf to the distressing condition of the Jewish canary in the coal mine.

Understanding world events is a possibility in distant hindsight but seldom an option in the midst of a maelstrom. Life is full of mysteries and enigmas; and history - in particular, Jewish history - has no dearth of puzzling twists and turns.

And so, trying to make sense out of our world today is futile. What we can do, though, and must, from Judaism's perspective, is redouble our determination to serve our Father in heaven, and intensify our prayers for His deliverance.

And, finally, realize the truth of Mrs. Leifer's mantra, that no matter what may happen, He does not abandon us.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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ABOUT THEM 'O'S

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In 1970, a high school senior in Baltimore wrote a letter to an Agudath Israel of America publication, taking umbrage at the periodical's reference to the scope of the American Jewish experience "from Borough Park to Baltimore."

Tongue resolutely in cheek, the writer addressed the suggestion that the two places somehow represented diametric poles of the Orthodox world by expressing the "profound shock" he and his friends in Baltimore yeshivot had felt at the suggestion.

"When," the letter concluded, "did Borough Park go bad?"

A certain irony lies in the fact that now, more than 35 years later, the erstwhile teenage cynic works for Agudath Israel, indeed sits in my seat. But the more trenchant transition, I think, has been my home town Baltimore's.

The Orthodox Jewish community in that city was established through the efforts of a small number of exceptionally dedicated individuals in the years before, during and after World War II, heroes to whom Baltimore's Jews today are indebted. In fact, all Jews should be; Baltimore has proven a virtual Jewish nuclear energy plant, empowering communities across the country and around the world with yeshiva and kollel deans, Jewish educators at all levels, Torah scholars and supporters of Jewish education, not to mention good, simple, honest Jews.

Baltimore's formative years benefited from the presence of Torah giants like the founding dean of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman and the illustrious Rabbi Shimon Schwab; and of an assortment of groundbreaking educators and communal activists. But critical elements no less in Baltimore's development as a thriving Orthodox community were a cadre of Jewishly devoted laymen and laywomen who laid the fortifications that empowered Jewish observance in an "out of town" (read: not New York) community.

And their collective legacy is Baltimore's growing, vibrant and inspiring community of Orthodox Jews. To me, the city's true treasure isn't its baseball team, but that community, Baltimore's real 'O's.

I am both proud and humbled by my own Baltimore roots. My maternal grandparents and my beloved mother, may their memories be a blessing, were among the early members of the traditionally observant Baltimore community. And my dear, esteemed father, may he be well, has served for more than a half-century as a rabbi in Baltimore (and in recent years, as the secretary of the respected local Jewish religious court), and continues, with the help of my dear stepmother, to teach Torah, do acts of kindness and bring Jews closer to their heritage.

The seeds they and others planted have since grown into towering trees. The city's Orthodox community still amazes those of us who grew up there in the 50s and 60s but then left for other places. Whether measured in boys' or girls' yeshivot, in communal endeavors, in families or even in eateries, the contemporary Orthodox community in Baltimore is a resplendent large-screen version of its former self. To be sure, every community has its share of problems. As our Sages teach, possessions bring worries; accomplishments, too, bring challenges. But problems of growth are but the accoutrements of blessings. And Orthodox Jewish Baltimore today is a powerful blessing.

My family and I don't live in Borough Park, or even in Brooklyn, but we're not too far from those larger, older Jewish communities that were bustling while the seeds of today's Jewish Baltimore were still being nurtured.

And so we have become fairly familiar with the New York borough that hosts more observant Jews than anywhere else in the hemisphere. And in many ways, we're fond of it. Although the population density presents some challenges (I've been known to grumble about "Borough Double-Park" at particular traffic moments), and although some of the less salubrious effects of the surrounding urban metropolis can take a toll, Jewish Brooklyn is an impressive place. That is evident not only in the borough's preponderance of synagogues, yeshivot and educational opportunities - and not only in its unparalleled shopping and culinary opportunities - but in things like the ethereal peace that descends on the streets like a holy cloud every Shabbat, obliterating the bustle and noise of the days in between.

Baltimore, though, has attained its own undeniable Jewish presence. Its own cars may still cruise Park Heights Avenue on Shabbat, but the sidewalks are filled with observant Jews on the way to or from synagogue or a class, or just taking a walk. And while there may not be a kosher restaurant and modest-clothing shop on every block, there is no lack of pizza or snoods in town.

What is more, even from my (hopefully) more mature perspective these days, I think Baltimore offers something more than a "big city" Jewish community. Maybe it's the fact that it lies below the Mason-Dixon Line. Maybe it's the suburban layout of so many of the Jewish neighborhoods (not to mention the relatively affordable housing!). Or maybe it's the merit of those who pioneered the community. Whatever it is, though, Baltimore has a special grace, a charm, what in Hebrew is called "chein."

It shows in the fact that Baltimore Jews of different stripes and affiliations and levels of observance (or lack of observance) see their commonality before their differences; in how smiles there seem to come naturally; in how Shabbat greetings are extended to strangers and friends alike; in community-wide projects like the annual "Completion of the Torah."

That is why I consider it a privilege that I was raised in "Balmer," as the natives say it. And why my wife and I take great pleasure in knowing that one of our married daughters and her husband and their children live there, and that two of our sons are studying in Ner Israel today.

And so, when locals here in the "big city" ask where I'm from, although I have no idea what the reply "Baltimore" elicits in their minds, I say the word loudly and clearly, letting the sound of my voice convey my pride.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above essay appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times and is reprinted with permission.]

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SOBERING UP A DRUNKEN WORLD

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It is easy and tempting to wax cynical about Mel Gibson, the once-famously outraged-for-being-called-an-anti-Semite Hollywood powerhouse who recently, under the revealing effects of alcohol, proved his erstwhile accusers to have if anything underestimated the depth of his animus for Jews. And, indeed, cynics abound.

I am not among them. Not that I am beyond cynicism, unfortunately. But Mr. Gibson's apology, in which he disowned his drunken diatribe and asked the Jewish community to help him in "the process of understanding where those vicious words came from," cannot be blithely ignored.

I am given to understand that the successful actor/director/producer is not a man in financial need. Even if he never works in Hollywood again, he won't be homeless. So it would be ungenerous if not unfair to assume his words less than heartfelt. If Mr. Gibson is honestly grappling with the infection in his soul, he deserves not only sympathy but credit. It is infinitely healthier to know there is a prejudice lurking in one's heart than to be oblivious to it.

Which brings us to another performer, this one on the international stage.

Unsurprisingly, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan wasted no time, after word came in that Israeli forces had shelled a UN post in Lebanon, casting the Jewish State as a dastardly villain. Before any facts beyond the shelling itself came in, he publicly proclaimed Israel guilty of "apparent deliberate targeting" of the post.

Soon enough, it emerged that the shelling was a tragic mistake, and that one of the UN observers killed in the attack had e-mailed his former commander in the Canadian army to say that Hezbollah had positioned themselves in close proximity to the UN post - that, in the commander's words, they were "all over his position." The UN observer had gone on to write the commander that Israel's bombardments of the area had "not been deliberate targeting, but rather due to tactical necessity."

Even though if Mr. Annan had not known of that e-mail (or had entertained the obvious thought of removing the UN troops from harm's way), he might have waited until the facts were in. What impelled him to make so irresponsible, so… deliberate - to borrow a word - an accusation? Perhaps veritas is evident not only in vino but in venality.

Like soft drinks and poison, anti-Semitism comes in various flavors and strengths. There is religiously-based hatred for Jews - expressed by espousers of many faiths - and secularist animus for Jews (or things associated with Jews). There is nationalistic Jew-hatred and there are political varieties.

There is, moreover, subtle loathing of the sort that largely lies fallow, expressing itself, if ever, in tirades like the one some Malibu policemen recently witnessed - or in artistic or scholarly expression.

And then there is the more operational variety, like the recent rampage by an Arab-American at Seattle's Jewish federation building, which left one woman dead and five people wounded.

Ironically, though, while anti-Semitic rants and violence understandably capture the most attention, "anti-Semitism lite" of the sort routinely seen at the UN and even in its secretariat, should concern us no less. Not only is the subtle sometimes dangerous itself, but it is mother's milk for the more blatant kind.

And so, if we Hebrews might be so bold as to hope, our hope might be for the day when those whose Jew-hatred is unrecognized might come to recognize what their hearts harbor, and perhaps follow Mr. Gibson's admirable example.

Imagine Mr. Annan apologizing for his one-sidedness when it comes to Israel. Or words of contrition from the representatives of the various General Assembly blocs who routinely offer condemnation for Israeli defensive actions while maintaining stony silence on offensive acts against Jews.

Imagine the European Union - or even just France - asking for help in dealing with its own deep-seated irritation with Jews.

Or the Lebanese government admitting that its own neglect, or even accommodation, of Hezbollah terrorists lies at the root of the upheaval and destruction that has been visited on its land and citizens.

Or some of those citizens themselves owning up to permitting Jew-haters to use their homes, schools and hospitals to hide missiles and other implements of death. Or the man who, over many hours, posed for an assortment of media, holding the same dead Lebanese child as if he had just discovered the body, coming clean about his propagandistic exploitation of a tragedy and desecration of the dead. And those media themselves, for their complicity in the outrage (and more, like playing down the evidence that Hezbollah itself may have been behind the collapse of the building in which the child and others died) .

Or, for that matter, some folks at The New York Times, for, when it comes to the Middle East, editorially confusing evenhandedness with the equating of evil and good.

We wouldn't be wise to hold our collective breath. But history has in fact known some remarkable realizations, even in the realm of anti-Semitism, both regular and lite. So we can certainly hope.

Tisha B'Av has passed again. The day of Jewish mourning over our people's exile from its land nearly 2000 years ago gave way, six days later, to the festive day of Tu B'Av, a day associated by the Talmud with reconciliation, both among Jews and between Jews and G-d. The Talmud also teaches that it was Jews' "hatred for no reason" of other Jews that caused the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

How fitting that part of our lot in our exile - which continues today despite the existence of a Jewish state - should be the collective Jewish suffering of baseless hatred from so much of the world.

We now head toward the Jewish month of Elul, a word that can be read as an acronym for the phrase "I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me," from the Song of Songs. How timely to consider that only Jews' appreciation of one another and of the Torah that was and remains our ultimate unifier can ever lead a drunken world to grapple with where all its vicious words, and actions, come from.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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'THERE IS HOPE FOR YOUR FUTURE'

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Many wrenching images have arrived from the Middle East of late: dead and mourning Jews, dead and mourning Lebanese, the taunting "talking turban" of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah - the ultimate cause, with his followers, of all the death and destruction.

Civilized people the world over take heart in Israel's military expertise and determination, but there are, of course, no guarantees in geopolitics. Advanced weaponry can wreak advanced destruction; yet large and well-armed forces have not infrequently yielded to smaller ones less endowed. Military actions, moreover, are no more immune than any actions to the nettlesome law of unintended consequences. And when the enemy wears no uniform, is impervious to reason and has no regard for innocent lives - of either their targets or the civilians among whom they themselves hide - soldiers and ordnance are far from decisive.

Even the Jewish State's unspoken "trump card" - its unacknowledged but common-knowledge nuclear capability - may soon, G-d forbid, be equaled by an "Islamic bomb." And while one might imagine that the Cold War concept of "Mutually Assured Destruction" will dissuade Islamists (not a bet I'd make), can anyone truly be certain that Hezbollah does not have, as it claims, conventional missiles that can reach Tel Aviv or Jerusalem? Or that it cannot obtain them from their generous patrons to the east?

Confidence tastes good, but realism is healthier. We do well to remember that here are a billion Muslims, and millions of others, who would be happy - some of them wildly so - to live in a world without a Jewish State.

To be sure, military wisdom and experience, superior weaponry and strategic planning are all necessary and proper in the natural scheme of engaging an enemy. But Judaism requires Jews to recognize something more: that, as King Solomon wrote, the race is not necessarily "to the swift, nor the battle to the strong." Our ultimate prevailing derives from our having earned it with our spiritual commitment. It is that realization itself, in fact, that allows the military efforts to succeed.

Which brings us to the welcome fact that, along with the harrowing images of a nation at war, there were heartening images as well. Like the photographs of Israeli tank crews solemnly reciting the "Prayer for the Road" before embarking on their mission into crazed Hezbollah hornets' nests; of soldiers stealing time as the sun rises to don tefillin and say the morning prayers; of Jewish eyes in helmeted heads turned upward toward heaven. Indications, all, that there are Jews on Israel's dangerous borders who remember who they are.

Similarly encouraging was the speech Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert delivered to the Knesset on July 17, shortly after Israel began its attacks on the terrorist army that, unprovoked, had killed seven Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others. His explanation of why he had ordered the attack and his outlining of the military campaign's goals were expected. What was remarkable, however, was his quoting from an Israeli rabbinate prayer beseeching G-d to "cause the enemies who rise up against us to be struck down" and to "preserve and rescue our fighters" and "grant them salvation and crown them with victory."

The unfortunate norm among all too many Israeli leaders (Menachem Begin was a laudable exception) has been to play up the El Macho and play down the Almighty. Even today, many of us wince when we hear Israeli politicians or military men strut and boast of how superior weaponry or military skills will see them through. It is therefore encouraging to see the "Jewish" in the "Jewish State" no longer quite so missing in action.

Mr. Olmert not only offered a public prayer for Israel's soldiers, but concluded his address with the poignant but ultimately hopeful words of the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice is heard on high, wailing, bitter weeping, Rachel weeps for her children; she refuses to be consoled for her children, for they are gone."

"Thus says G-d: Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; for there is reward for your accomplishment… and they will return from the enemy's land. There is hope for your future… and your children will return to their land."

The future toward which the prophet directs our hearts is the messianic era, when, Jewish tradition has it, all the world's peoples will have come to recognize G-d, and the Jewish nation will live in peace and security in its ancestral land.

And the key to that future is the Jewish people's collective recognition that, in the end, Jews' true protection, in Israel and anywhere, is not of our making. It is, rather, of our Maker.

The soldiers must fight and the leaders must lead. But what will ensure their success is something more sublime. May Prime Minister Olmert's speech prove but the beginning of a new, truly Jewish attitude, in Israel and throughout the world.

A smile from heaven may have arrived in the form of an ancient manuscript of Psalms discovered in an Irish bog mere days after Mr. Olmert's speech. The survival and legibility of the book, which was dated as over 1000 years old, shocked archaeologists. What brightened countless religious Jews, though, was the chapter that it was reported to have been open to: Psalm 83. That would be the first of three Psalms that, at the behest of the Council of Torah Sages, have been recited by Jews worldwide over recent years as a prayer for the Jews in Israel. It speaks of how a conglomerate of nations aims to destroy the Jewish people and take over their land, and implores G-d to vanquish them, and bring them to "seek Your name."

In the merit of our knowing Who protects us, may the day arrive soon.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE MOST POTENT WEAPON

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Intended so or not, Israel's actions of late have echoed the biblical Jacob's. As noted by the commentary Rashi, quoting the Midrash, when the progenitor of the Jewish people prepared to meet his estranged brother Esav for the first time since receiving (to Esav's outrage) their father's blessing, he approached his murder-minded twin with three distinct strategies: a gift, prayer and war.

Employing the first two, Jacob averted the worst-case scenario, the need for the third. Modern-day Israel has been less fortunate; unlike Esav, the enemy it faces has shown no readiness for even a temporary peace.

Echoing the Jewish forefather's example, the Jewish State began with gifts, most recently last summer's evacuation of Jews from Gaza. Neither it, though, nor the withdrawal of Israeli military presence from southern Lebanon five years earlier, placated the global Islamist jihadis, whose respective representatives continued to kill and maim Israelis on both fronts. And so, the third strategy, war - intended to physically prevent the enemy from expressing its bloodlust in deed - has been the whirlwind reaped.

From a truly Jewish perspective, however, the most vital strategy is the second, and it has been employed with determination over the years by countless Jews who trust in G-d, and in their power, by force of heart, to merit His protection.

And so, over recent years in particular, Jews the world over have gathered on many occasions to pray for the safety and welfare of their brothers and sisters in Israel. Many, heeding the suggestion of the Council of Torah Sages, have adopted the practice of reciting particular chapters of Psalms on behalf of endangered Jews overseas each morning after daily prayers.

Not that we have ignored the importance of activism. Only last week, Agudath Israel of America convened the most recent of its missions to Washington, at which members of the organization from across the country traveled to the nation's capital to engage lawmakers and Administration officials. Israel's security, as always, was a prominent topic of interaction.

Prayer, though, is paramount. Mere days later, on the evening of July 19, a remarkable gathering took place in Brooklyn, New York. A major New York Jewish institution, Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, opened its impressive edifice to an Agudath Israel -sponsored special prayer gathering on behalf of Israeli Jews.

It was no pep rally. The thousand or so Jewish men who crammed the yeshiva's cavernous study hall and flowed out into the large lobby and the street beyond, along with the hundreds of women who gathered in the spacious balcony surrounding and overlooking the hall, had not come to celebrate military actions, or to applaud the routing of terrorists. Those present saw beyond the immediate activity in Lebanon and Gaza; they were all too conscious of farther-reaching things.

Like the import of Hezbollah-supporting Iranian "Supreme Leader" Ayatollah Khamenei's recent description of the Jewish State as a "cancerous tumor," and that country's president's threat to unleash an Islamic "explosion" to "burn all those who created [Israel] over the past 60 years." They were aware, too, of the jungle that calls itself the United Nations, and of the putrid gutter known as the "Arab street." They had gathered in the Brooklyn yeshiva not to cheer or to protest or to make declarations, but rather to hear what they needed to do to merit God's protection of His children, and to pray.

Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe and rabbinic head of Agudath Israel, spoke briefly and emotionally.

His voice laden with pain, Rabbi Perlow emphasized the importance of "public prayer" at a "time of travail," and the importance of each Jew's taking account of his or her personal life - "in matters between man and G-d, and in matters between man and man." Especially, he stressed, the latter. And he extolled, above all, the power of Torah-study.

After reminding his listeners that "We in other lands can truly contribute to the safety of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel," he read the names of the Israeli soldiers being held by terrorist kidnappers. More than an hour of Psalms and supplications, led by respected rabbis, followed, cried out in unison by the swelling crowd.

Many hundreds more participated at a distance in the assembly by conference call, and the Orthodox Union held similar gatherings across the country that same evening. Thousands upon thousands of Jews were thus united in heart and hope.

And so we remain.

The children of Jacob, using his most potent weapon.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE CONVERSION VACCINE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

This July, like so many before it, New York City's oppressive summer weather is being accompanied by another perennially irritating mass of hot air. "Jews for Jesus" - this year along with "The Chosen People Ministries" and the "Christian Jew Foundation Ministries" - are out in force, trying to convince Jews that relinquishing their faith in favor of a contrary belief system (one, even, in whose name untold numbers of Jews over the centuries were made to suffer and die) is somehow not an abandonment of Judaism but its "fulfillment."

Boosted by a budget of millions, Jews for Jesus alone has mailed material to 400,000 Jewish homes in the area, and Yiddish DVDs to 80,000 Orthodox ones. It is also running radio spots (complete with a klezmer "Hava Nagila" in the background) and placing ads in subways and newspapers.

Although in the past the missionary organization focused on Manhattan, this year it is aiming at all five New York City boroughs and surrounding counties, with special campaigns aimed at Russian-speaking Jews and Israeli expatriates.

Many Orthodox recipients of the Yiddish DVDs, seeing their title and packaging, assumed that they contained inspirational Jewish material. When they popped the discs into their computers, though, their anticipation turned to disgust as they realized the deception (call it Ruse for Jesus). After filing the unwelcome gift in appropriate receptacles, many then telephoned Jewish organizations like Agudath Israel of America, and Jewish newspapers, to warn others about the high-tech wolf in sheep's clothing.

Even the group's name misleads. There must surely be some Jews within its ranks, but interviewing a random sampling of its clean-cut, fixed-smile minions quickly reveals that the organization is composed less of Jews who have embraced the Christian savior than of born and bred evangelical Christians trying to foist their faith on Jews.

For the most part, it is Christians whom they attract, too. As a recent New York Times article noted, most of those "who pray with Jews for Jesus missionaries… are, in fact, non-Jews, according to the organization's statistics." Still and all, for those of us Jews who consider every Jewish soul infinitely precious, the missionaries' pushy pushing of their "good news" among our brethren is bad news enough.

It is, of course, an exceedingly rare product of a traditional Jewish education who might fall prey to Christian proselytizing. Familiarity with Judaism's beliefs and Jewish history is a most effective inoculation against conversion-itis. Unfortunately, though, there is no lack of Jews with sorely limited knowledge of their own faith. To the missionaries, they are their keys to heaven; to us Jews, they are our brothers and sisters, whose own road to heaven lies in a connection to their people and their ancestral faith.

And so the current missionary onslaught should serve as yet another timely and trenchant reminder that we Jews, all of us, need to do more to empower Jewish education - and the Jewisher the better.

In the wake of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey's alarming statistics, there followed an increased awareness within the larger Jewish community of the importance, and dire underfunding, of Jewish day schools, high schools and yeshivos. In more recent years, though, according to Dr. Marvin Schick, who is intimately familiar with the landscape of American Jewish education, things have changed, and not for the better.

Indeed, while there have been laudable private initiatives and some communal restructuring of priorities, few if any Jewish federations place support of day schools high on their list of concerns. An informal survey of Jewish federations in several large American cities yields average allocations of 2% to 7% of federation funds for such schools, with most contributions, including in New York, well toward the lower end.

Is it unreasonable to expect more from our Jewish philanthropic structures?

True enough, most Jewish schools are Orthodox, and most contributors to Jewish federations are not. But is that reason to turn a blind eye - or, at best, a severely myopic one - to the need for, and needs of, schools that happily accept, nurture and educate all local Jewish children, regardless of their families' level of observance?

Particularly important (and particularly needy) are Jewish "immigrant schools," those that provide for the education of children from families who have come to our shores from former Soviet Union lands and elsewhere. Such families are considered high priority by missionaries. Should they not be of equally high priority to Jewish charitable institutions?

If the broader Jewish community truly wants to fight the missionary scourge, it needs to ponder hard the fact that, in the realm of spiritual health no less than physical, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound - here, a ton - of cure.

As no less an authority than televangelist preacher John Hagee recently said (Jewish Telegraphic Agency, July 7): "If rabbis would put more emphasis on putting Jewish kids into Jewish schools, young Jews would never want to become Christians."

From the mouths of missionaries.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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FROM THE MOUTHS OF MOTHERS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Anyone in the habit of reading letters to the editor in The New York Times or any of a number of periodicals is exposed to diametric perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He reads equally spirited defenses of both Israeli and Palestinian stances and actions: of the rationale for targeted killings, and of their outrageousness; of the reduction of terrorist attacks effected by Israel's security fence, and of the dire difficulties "the wall" poses for Arab farmers; of the wickedness of suicide bombers, and of the terrible frustration that leads to such desperate acts.

Simple minds (and some harboring darker things than simpleness) can all too easily come to conclude that the two sides to the conflict are moral equivalents. After all, Palestinians want land, and so do Israelis. Israelis say they want peace, and so do Palestinians. Palestinians kill, and ditto for Israel.

There are times, though, when plain people's plain words speak more eloquently than any letter writer's or spokesperson's, revealing more profound cultural truths than anything to be found in the massive morass of political punditry.

Like the words of an Israeli mother of 18-year-old yeshiva student Eliyahu Asheri, who was abducted and murdered by Palestinian "militants" at the end of June. After he was kidnapped, his abductors announced that unless their demands for an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza were met their captive would be "butchered in front of TV cameras" - even though they had already killed the boy shortly after seizing him.

Hearing that her son had been killed, Mrs. Asheri, a woman with unmistakably Jewish sensibilities, had the following to say:

"At this time… the pain is so unbearable; I can barely find a way to hold it. But one thing I can say is that many times in the past years, because of the many disagreements between brothers we have in this country, many times I asked Hashem [G-d] to give me, first of all, love in my heart for everyone…

"What strengthens you is, first of all, knowing that to die al kiddush Hashem [in sanctification of G-d's name], as he did - that Hashem chose him… this is the thing that comforts us."

Just about the time Eliyahu Asheri was abducted, a funeral was taking place in Gaza for three Palestinian children unintentionally killed in an Israeli strike on a car carrying three terrorists. Hundreds of mourners angrily clamored for revenge, and Falestin al-Sharif, the mother of one of the children, had words of her own.

"If I get my hands on an explosive belt," she said, according to USA Today, "I would go and explode myself inside Israel to tear their hearts out for their children, like they did to me."

No mother's words cried out in grief over the loss of a child should be held against her. But they can nevertheless be telling.

Two mothers. Two griefs. Two reactions. Two cultures.

Two sides, too. Superficially similar. But, in truth, deeply different.

One final quote, this from a little Arab girl called Ruqaya. She called in to an Egyptian television program on which a Muslim cleric, one Sheikh Muhamad Sharaf Al-Din, told a story from Islamic tradition.

"Ruqaya, what did you learn from today's show?" he asked his little caller, according to a translation provided, along with video of the program, by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).

"I learned that the Jews are the people of treachery and betrayal…"

Sheikh Al-Din then interrupted to praise Allah and to repeat the girl's words. "May Allah bless you, Ruqaya," he said. "That is the most beautiful thing I have heard - that the Jews are the people of treachery, betrayal and vileness."

At the beginning of July, according to Palestinian Media Watch, Palestinian television, after a three year hiatus, began to rebroadcast a film clip featuring a child actor playing Mohammed al-Dura, the boy who was claimed to have been killed by Israeli guns during a firefight at the start of the 2000 intifada but, as it turned out, was almost certainly killed by Palestinian bullets. He is portrayed as playing happily in heaven, calling to the children viewers to "follow me." A singer croons a song describing how the earth longs for the deaths of children, how its "thirst is quenched by blood pouring out of young bodies."

One needn't be a knee-jerk defender of every Israeli policy - I certainly am not - to recognize the essential quandary of a country facing an enemy sworn to its destruction, a country that is regularly subjected to terrorist and missile attacks and whose enemy inculcates its young with burning hatred of the other.

Any truly objective and informed observer should readily perceive how distinct are the two cultures in the Middle East today. Their respective ideals, aspirations and hopes are - despite the letters sections - not similar at all.

And pretending they are will only perpetuate the conflict, and help ensure that more innocent blood, G-d forbid, will be shed.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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CALL ME RABBI

Rabbi Avi Shafran

For a Jewish media constantly scouting for scandals, it was the perfect pluralistic storm. Israeli President Moshe Katsav declined to call Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie "Rav," and the latter, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, took umbrage.

The Forward editorialized its ire, bemoaning Mr. Katsav's reluctance to summon "some measure of common courtesy." The New York Jewish Week weighed in with its own judgment of the perceived slight: a "profoundly disturbing" show of "derisive contempt" for "the largest religious body in American Jewry." Ha'aretz called on all American Jewish leaders to refuse to visit the Israeli president, a suggestion Rabbi Yoffie endorsed.

A posse of pundits pitched in too. The head of the Anti-Defamation League decried Mr. Katsav's policy; the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union called on him to change it; a past president of the Presidents' Conference called Mr. Katsav's position "a slander against all American Jewry." Several dozen Reform and Meretz-affiliated secularists held a protest outside the Israeli president's home.

The kerfuffle's roots lead back to shortly before Rosh Hashana, when an Israeli radio reporter prodded the Israeli president about Jewish religious pluralism and Mr. Katsav explained that his observant background predisposed him to consider only someone who represents the Jewish religious tradition of the ages to be a "Rav."

Word eventually got back to Rabbi Yoffie. Although the Reform leader admits that the Israeli president has always been "very gracious" and "very forthcoming" to him, he insisted that Mr. Katsav address him with the Hebrew honorific. Mr. Katsav explained that he would be willing to refer to the Reform rabbi as "Reform Rabbi Yoffie" or even with the English word "Rabbi," but politely declined to grant him the title "Rav," which, in Israel, is used exclusively to refer to an authority of traditional Jewish belief and practice. On a recent trip to Israel, Rabbi Yoffie chose to break with his personal tradition and not request a meeting with the Israeli president. And the rest was, well, if not history, at least media heaven.

In truth, even the English word "rabbi" presents a challenge to those of us who believe in the divine nature and immutability of the Torah's laws. Should the word be used to refer to clergy of Jewish movements espousing very different beliefs? And so we weigh the facts:

  1. For 3000 years until fairly recently, a rabbi was someone who affirmed traditional Jewish theology and both practiced and was a scholar of Jewish religious law, or halacha.
  2. Today there are institutions that award rabbinical degrees to men and women who do not fit that time-honored definition.
  3. Recipients of such degrees consider it personally insulting if their labors are not recognized by the public's use of the title "Rabbi" for them.

Some contend that Fact #1 should trump all else. No one, they say, should have the right to redefine a word at will. How, after all, would vegans like it if a food company decided to label its smoked meats "vegetarian"? Would environmentalists countenance, say, a strip mining venture's claim to be a "green" company?

Even titles duly conferred by recognized institutions can be employed misleadingly. A Ph.D. in finance is rightly addressed as "doctor" but most of us would consider it presumptuous for him to hang out a shingle offering surgical services. And that's not even getting into witch doctors.

Yet, Facts #2 and #3 persist. I might not feel that a particular university's standards are sufficient to render meaningful the degrees it awards. But is it proper or polite to refuse to recognize the undeniable fact that the degree was awarded? Would a traditional orthopedist be correct to refuse to refer to a duly credentialed chiropractor - whose discipline of treatment he may feel is quackery - as a doctor?

What some Orthodox writers - myself included - choose to do is identify non-Orthodox clergy clearly (e.g. "Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie") on first reference, and then yield to the unqualified word "rabbi" in subsequent references. That allows us to be true to our consciences - by making clear at the onset that the subject is something other than what Orthodox Jews consider a religious authority - while not waving a red flag in front of those who might choose to interpret our faithfulness to our beliefs as a personal slur.

And President Katsav offered no less. But Rabbi Yoffie insisted on being called "Rav." "The essential fact that we are rabbis along with all other rabbis in Israel," the Reform leader announced, "is a principle [Mr. Katsav] is still not prepared to accept."

Sometimes words have discrete, and even disparate, meanings. A rose, to be sure, is a rose. But a rabbi is not necessarily a rabbi, and surely not necessarily a Rav. Whatever one chooses to call them, teachers of the Torah's divinity and halacha's unchanging nature are in a different theological universe from those who teach rejection of those ideas.

At the end of the day, though, less important than the stance of a president of Israel is the underlying truth that has been brought to the fore here.

Rabbi Yoffie's umbrage captivated the press and public; conflict sells. But it also did something constructive, by bringing focus to that truth, to the essential and crucial theological gulf between the Jewish religious tradition and contemporary Jewish theologies that compromise it. It is a gulf exceedingly wide and immeasurably deep. When that fact is fully appreciated by all Jews, we will be on our way back to what unified us at Sinai.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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CHOOSING TO BE CHOSEN

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Their usual haunt is Times Square but this time the threatening threesome had set up shop - a makeshift stage and an impressive speaker system - near the Staten Island Ferry terminal in Manhattan, where I embark on my commute home each day. I was surprised to see that my old acquaintances hadn't changed at all since the last time I had come across them a few years ago in midtown.

The master of ceremonies, as then, was loudly inveighing against people of non-color. He was flanked by his two assistants dressed like he was, in colorful caps and robes adorned with Jewish symbols. Together, they angrily denounced Caucasians - with particular malice for "so-called Jews." Occasionally, the lead man would nudge one of his helpers who had missed a cue to read from the bible he held in his hand. The addled assistant, once (or several times) so reminded, would then find the place in his own book and, pointing with his finger, read a pre-designated verse, stiltedly but with enthusiasm.

Next to the stage was a large display board, inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. Opposite each was a novel identification: one of twelve African or Caribbean nationalities. Their citizens, the MC announced loudly, were the "real Jews."

When I first saw the performance a few years ago, my immediate reaction was amusement. But then I experienced something like pity for the triumphalist trio and their fans. How tragic, I thought, that beings created in the image of G-d, capable of truly meaningful accomplishments, can imagine themselves worthy of dignity only by belittling others, even stooping to adopt an identity not their own.

There would be no point, I realized, in engaging the pitiable prophets in conversation. Their beliefs were fueled by fantasy, not fact, impervious to reason. But I indulged all the same in a little fantasizing myself, imagining what I would tell them if only I might find some crack in the wall of their whimsy.

The revelation would no doubt disappoint them, but I would share with them a secret: Jewish chosenness isn't a trophy, a bed of laurels on which to proudly rest. It doesn't mean having made it - or, for that matter, having anything at all.

In the Jewish view of things, being chosen is less a badge than a charge. Yes, religious Jews do indeed consider our forefathers' and foremothers' merit as extending throughout the generations to encompass their descendants. But the bottom line of being chosen is that it is not a reward for any achievement - certainly not any of our own - but an obligation to achieve.

In fact, I would tell them, if they were still listening, that the special status we Jews possess - unlike the supremacy preached by racists of whatever hue - is in fact available to anyone who both recognizes what "chosen" truly means and is sincerely and utterly willing to join the Jewish people and its mission. Many are the biological ethnicities represented in the Jewish people - today as throughout the millennia. One can indeed choose to be chosen.

But the tickets of admission to the Jewish People are sincerity and commitment, not placards and loudspeakers. It's easy to strut about and shout, to brandish skullcaps and Stars of David. Undertaking the endeavor of Judaism - humbly assuming the yoke of the Torah's commandments and Jewish observance - is in a different realm entirely.

Then, though, something else dawned. The rabbis of the Talmud exhort us to "learn from every man." Might there be something to be learned from the fearsome threesome? Of course there is. For they are remarkable, if unintentional, testimony to how coveted the name "Jew" is, even at a time (have there been others?) when the real "real Jews" are hated by so many. The Times Square trio may have no clue about what being a Jew really means, but their desire to assume the mantle is still striking and worth pondering.

What it should teach us born or properly converted Jews is just how special we in fact are, how desired is our very identity. And what it should inspire us to do is more seriously set ourselves to the holy mission of being what Jews are meant to be.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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AS A JEW

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Among those opposing the - shelved for now but sure to return - constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman is an interfaith umbrella organization.

"Clergy for Fairness" includes an assortment of groups, some affiliated with various Christian denominations, others with the Sikh religion and others still with the Jewish world's Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanistic movements. It asserts that the proposed "Marriage Protection Amendment" would "infringe on religious liberty."

Unexplained is how religious liberty managed to persevere for the first 230 years of the Republic, or, for that matter, how people thought themselves free since the dawn of creation, when the right to same-sex marriage went unrecognized, indeed unimagined.

More mystifying still, though, were the words of one member of the group, Reform Rabbi Craig Axler. He told The New York Times that, with the proposed amendment in the sphere of public discussion, "to remain silent as a Jew is unconscionable."

Indeed it is. Although not the way he imagines.

Which is probably that Jews, as a people perennially persecuted, should empathize with others who are marginalized, even marginally, by society. But, whether or not such empathy is appropriate, the inability to claim marital status for a relationship that has been rejected by civilized cultures throughout history, is hardly akin to being confined to a ghetto or condemned to a concentration camp. And, in any event and more to the point, the defining aspect of the Jew is not victimhood, but Judaism.

Thus, what the rabbi should instead find unconscionable "as a Jew" is misrepresentation of the Jewish religious tradition. What should impel him to break his silence are Jewish truths.

He might start with the book of Leviticus, where sexual relations between men is referred to as "to'eiva", not inaccurately translated as "an abomination."

The Jewish Oral Tradition is replete with similar sentiment. Homosexual acts are associated by the Midrash with the Canaanite peoples whose behavior defiled the Holy Land; and the rabbis of the Talmudic era taught that the formal sanctioning of homosexual unions was one of the causes of the biblical Flood. Trenchantly, a statement in the Talmud asserts that one of human society's redeeming qualities has been its refusal to "write marriage documents for males" - its maintenance, in other words, of marriage's definition as the union of a man and a woman.

The Torah does not command hatred of homosexuals. It does not label people who engage in homosexual activity, and certainly not those with homosexual tendencies, as inherently evil. Such people do not forfeit either their humanity or, if Jewish, their membership in the Jewish people; nor are they unworthy of others' care and compassion.

But Judaism, in no uncertain terms, forbids homosexual acts; and, in equally certain terms, sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony. Anyone seeking to address the issue "as a Jew" should be proclaiming those facts, not fudging them.

Rabbi Axler, as it happens, was taking his cue from his movement. The president of the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi David Ellenson, contended in The New York Jewish Week that not only does homosexual activity not violate the letter and spirit of the Torah, but embracing its propriety is a Jewish religious imperative.

"A tradition that demands 'You shall do that which is upright and good'," he explained, "can surely be construed in such a way that the ethos of Jewish tradition can be said to trump a single statement in Leviticus…"

But - as a Jew - Rabbi Ellenson needs to face the fact that the Torah indeed contains both verses, and should realize that the latter contradicts the former no more than does any of the Torah's laws that prohibit certain other sexual relationships. The definition of "upright and good" is not whatever a particular society or era embraces but rather, and precisely, to heed what God commands us to do, and to not do. That, in fact, is the very essence of the Jewish faith: to follow the divine, not our own lights.

When contemporary Jewish movements define Judaism down for their followers, that is objectionable enough. But when they seek to swathe political correctness in Jewish garb, it does violence to the integrity of all Jews' religious heritage. Whether the issue is "reproductive freedom" or assisted suicide or the redefinition of marriage, responding "as a Jew" must mean something more than just responding.

Abraham, Jewish tradition explains, was called the "Ivri" - the "other sider" - because "the entire world was on one side" of a conceptual river, and he "on the other." Nothing is more fundamentally Jewish than to willfully stand apart from an unbridled world and affirm timeless truths.

That is what one does, as a Jew.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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Dip Tinking about H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N/P>

Rabbi Avi Shafran

My 13-year-old son Menachem is my valued chavruta, or study-partner; he has a keen and creative mind and I hope he will one day become a true talmid chochom, or religious scholar. We study Talmud together every evening and Sabbath; Menachem's mornings at yeshiva are also filled with the study of religious texts.

But he knows how to recreate too. Our family chooses not to own the ubiquitous appliance that a renowned if blunt-speaking rabbi once likened to having an open and flowing sewer pipe in one's living room.

And so Menachem reads.

Most of the standard fare of contemporary "teen lit" is as unwelcome in our home as are televisions. Many books, though, nonfiction and novels alike, have emerged from Orthodox publishing houses in recent years; the boy reads his share of those. With his well-developed sense of humor (and special appreciation of the imaginative and absurd), he has also consumed his share of Rowling and Handler (a.k.a. Snicket).

Not long ago, though, I found him engrossed in an old book that had somehow survived many years and several interstate moves intact. Four decades earlier, it had made me laugh out loud and, amazingly, it was having precisely the same effect on my son. More amazing still, the book was already decades old when I had read it as a boy.

The tome was "The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N," penned in the 1930s by Leo Rosten (under the nom de plume Leonard Q. Ross) for The New Yorker and then published as a book (followed by a sequel, "The Return of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N").

For the unfortunate uninitiated, the Kaplan books are wonderfully droll accounts of the experiences of what we would today call an "English as a Second Language" instructor, as he strives to introduce new immigrants - Kaplan hails from Kiev - to the vagaries of American speech, grammar and idioms. The humor derives largely from the garbled yield of Mr. Kaplan's accent and his, shall we say, "alternative logic." He is a student who proudly announces the principal parts of "to die" as "die, dead, funeral" and who, after submitting the word "door" as an example of a noun and asked to provide another example, responds "another door." He bemoans his wife's "high blood pleasure" and, in a business letter, pens the memorable sentence "If your eye falls on a bargain please pick it up." Not much in the way of plot, but the dialogue is priceless.

It's always heartening for parents, especially those of middle-age (or, as some of their children undoubtedly think, of the Middle Ages) to witness their young relating to ideas, books or activities they themselves enjoyed when in their own formative years. But, for goodness' sake, "The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N" was written in 1937 and a youngster is audibly chuckling over it close to a decade into the Common Era's second millennium? What gives?

Sure, Rosten is funny, but so are Mark Twain and P.G. Wodehouse (himself, incidentally, a fan of the Hyman Kaplan books); you don't see many kids cracking up over them these days. And sure, anyone who appreciates the intriguing elements of language (as a toddler, on hearing a new word, Menachem would repeat it softly to himself several times, rolling it around on his tongue like a piece of candy) is easily captivated by the sort of things that ensue when Mr. Kaplan and his classmates engage in mouth-to-ear combat with that strangeness called English.

But I think there may be another, more subtle reason both my son and I connected so well with the books. It has to do with Kaplan himself.

For all his comical blunders and swollen self-regard (the asterisks - actually, green stars - are part of his flamboyant signature for a reason), Mr. Kaplan is endearing - and for a very Jewish reason: He is preternaturally determined, and undeterred by even his most spectacular failures.

He's in the class, in other words, to learn, and learn he will, come hell or high vowels. He is committed to using his mind - to what he calls "dip tinking." Although the Hyman Kaplan books are almost devoid of religious references, their protagonist hews unmistakably to a principle stated by the Rabbis of the Mishna (Avot, 2:6): "The bashful person cannot learn."

Of course, the rabbis were referring not to study of the sort that goes on at the "American Night Preparatory School for Adults." They were talking about the quintessential Jewish study, that of Torah. But Kaplan's enthusiasm and devotion are familiar to anyone who has ever entered a yeshiva classroom or study-hall. That the Talmud compares Torah to bread and water is not insignificant. The study of Jewish law and lore is meant to be the staple of the Jewish life of the mind.

Single-minded focus on the pedagogic goal, no matter what obstacles or failures may interject themselves, is arguably the essence of Jewish learning - and teaching. The Talmud speaks of the great merit of one Rabbi Preida whose pupil could not understand a lesson unless it was repeated 400 times. Both teacher and student had every reason to become frustrated, indeed to abandon the task. But neither did; the goal was too important. And they were in it together.

Mr. Kaplan's instructor, Mr. Parkhill (or "Pockheel," as Kaplan calls him), while regularly at wits' end over his student's pronouncements and advocacies, also shows great patience, even signs of appreciation. After the rest of the class excitedly attacks a condemned building of words and illogic erected by their tenacious classmate, and Parkhill joins in with a withering demolition of the Kaplanesque structure, something surprising happens:

"Even as he chastised his most intractable pupil, Mr. Parkhill felt nourishing juices course through his veins. For the priceless spark of life, the very heart of learning, had been revived in what, but half an hour ago, had been a dull and listless congregation."

Hyman Kaplan's creator was not a notably religious man, but Kaplan the character and his goal-focused monomania readily evidence Rosten's recognition - perhaps instilled by his parents, and certainly present in his genes - of a truly Jewish ideal: Learning matters, above all.

The story is told of two Jews in the 1930s discussing the renowned Lithuanian Talmudic genius Rabbi Yoseif Rosen, popularly known as "the Rogatchover."

"Why," mused the first fellow, "if only he had studied physics, he could have been an Einstein!"

"You've got it wrong," says the other. "If only Einstein had studied Talmud, he could have been a Rogatchover!"

And so what occurs is that part of what so resonated in me and my son about Leo Rosten's memorable creation - aside from the laughter and amusement he brought us - may have been our realization, conscious or not, that, if only Hyman Kaplan had studied Torah, he could have been a talmid chochom.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above article appeared in The Forward and is reprinted with permission.]

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JEWISH STATE, JEWISH STANDARDS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

As a Jewish state, Israel has always incorporated elements of religious tradition into its workings. Kosher food, for example, is served in the armed forces and at government functions; the national calendar recognizes Jewish holidays. And personal status issues like conversion, marriage and divorce are determined by Jewish law, or halacha, overseen by an official state rabbinate.

That policy, part of the "religious status quo" initiated at Israel's birth, served her well and without protest for more than a half-century. Recent years, though, have seen Israel's conversion and marriage laws assailed by a coalition of largely American advocates - in order to advance the interests of non-Orthodox Jewish religious movements, which currently have only miniscule followings in Israel.

Israel's "personal Jewish status" policy resulted from a carefully considered decision of Israel's early leadership. No less a personage than David Ben Gurion, who would become Israel's first prime minister, wrote that it was the only way to prevent "G-d forbid, the splitting of the Jewish house into two."

A number of arguments have been put forward for jettisoning the longstanding policy, in particular regarding marriage: Some Jewish couples resent having to undergo religious marriage ceremonies and classes. Marriages involving Jews not permitted by Jewish religious law cannot be effected in Israel. Israelis can and do circumvent the law and marry outside Israel. Persuasion is preferable to coercion.

But Jews - of whatever affiliation - who are truly committed to the wellbeing of the larger Jewish community and not only to the advancement of a particular cause or movement should carefully and objectively examine each of those points.

The religious status quo policy does in fact require engaged Jewish couples to undergo a Jewish ceremony, complete with a rabbi, witnesses and the writing of a traditional marriage document, or ketuba. And couples are indeed asked to attend classes. But, in a state claiming a Jewish identity, do a Jewish ceremony and a cursory apprisal of Jewish law really, as some advocates have repeatedly charged, "deprive citizens of basic human rights"?

As to Israeli law's declining to recognize halachically forbidden marriages, it's a rare country that doesn't place legal limits on marriage. All of the states in our own country prohibit incestuous marriages; 24 forbid cousins to marry; six require blood tests. Those things, too, likely discomfit some individuals, but, significantly, one doesn't see those who are assailing Israel's halacha-based marriage laws campaigning against American consanguinity or health-concern statutes.

It is true that some Israelis circumvent Israel's laws by taking quick trips out of the country to get married. But the idea that laws or standards that can be evaded should be dismantled is not one generally embraced. Many Americans disregard speed limits and underreport their incomes; few suggest that, as a result, highway safety rules or the IRS should be abolished. What is more, the law, heeded or not, is a teacher, informing the public of ideals; there is considerable Jewish value in a Jewish State statutorily enshrining unarguably Jewish expectations.

Something more: It is hardly uncommon for children of non-Orthodox, even staunchly secular, backgrounds to come to adopt halachic observance. Some staunchly secularist Israelis may be miffed by their country's marriage laws, but imagine the pain of a newly observant young woman a generation hence who, because those laws were undermined by American activists, finds herself forbidden by her religious conscience from marrying the man she loves.

Finally, the issue in the end is not about coercion versus persuasion. It is, rather, about whether a Jewish standard belongs in the laws of the Jewish state.

Characterizing a time-honored and deeply Jewish standard as something malevolent is grossly unfair. Overheated and incendiary language about "human rights" and an Orthodox "marriage monopoly" only serves to turn Israeli Jews farther away from whatever connection they may have with their religious heritage and the broader community of Jews. Do we Americans speak of standard-setters like the Food and Drug Administration or the Federal Reserve Board as sinister "monopolies"? Do safety regulations or interest rate adjustments, inconvenient though they may be to some, constitute a curtailment of "human rights"? A Jewish State needs a Jewish standard for marriage and divorce, and halacha - the highest common Jewish denominator - is the logical, not to mention the most Jewishly authentic, choice.

If American proponents of civil marriage in Israel would spend a fraction of the energy and funds they expend deriding our mutual Jewish tradition instead explaining and acclaiming it, fewer Israelis would be alienated from their heritage, Jewish law would be more widely respected and the Jewish people would be headed toward a more unified future.

American Jews can certainly choose to advocate for a separation of religion and state in Israel. And Israel, too, can choose to deconstruct itself as a country that respects the Jewish religious tradition. But - particularly at a time when the Jewish State's existence is under siege by both murderers within and genocidal madmen at a distance (but within range of nuclear weapons) - should such goals really be on any sensitive Jew's agenda?

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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SHAVUOT

Custom-Made for American Jews?

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Shavuot, one of the trio of Jewish "pilgrimage" festivals that also includes Passover and Sukkot, tends to get short shrift from most American Jews. Coming mere weeks after the Passover seders, perhaps the "first-fruits festival" simply finds many folks "holidayed out". Or maybe it's because Shavuot lacks any unusual "mitzvah-food" of its own like matzoh, or ritual practice like building a sukkah. Whatever the reason, though, Judaism's summer-season holiday has come to be neglected by much of the American Jewish community.

And yet, the argument could convincingly be made that no other Jewish festival is more timely or urgent for unity-challenged American Jewry

Because Jewish tradition associates the day of Shavuot (two days, actually, at least for those of us who don't live in Israel) with the Jews' acceptance of the Torah, the seminal event of Jewish peoplehood and unity. Shavuot, the Talmud and Jewish liturgy teach, marks the anniversary of the day our ancestors stood at Mt. Sinai, in the Talmud's poignant words, "like one person, with one heart."

What unified our people at that time, Jewish sources make clear, was our forebears' unanimous stance vis-a-vis the essential Jewish mandate, the laws of the Torah - a stance embodied in their immortal words: "Na'aseh v'nishma", "We will do and we will hear."

That phrase captures the quintessential Jewish credo, the acceptance of G-d's will even amid a lack of "hearing," or understanding. "We will do Your will," they pledged in effect, "even if it is not our will, even if we are able to 'hear' it, even if it discomfits us."

Could anything be more antithetical to the American mindset? More diametric to the "What's in it for me?" mentality that we Americans, including we American Jews, take in with every breath?

Ours, after all, is a comfort-crazed society, fixated on having things, and on having them our way. And not only in the physical trappings of our lives but in our spiritual choices no less. How common it is these days to hear worshippers, Jewish ones as well, explaining their degree of observance, their choice of place of worship, even their religious affiliations, as born of something akin to coziness.

"I embrace this observance because it makes me feel good."

"I so enjoy the services there."

"That liturgy makes me feel involved, important."

"I'm most comfortable (or happy, or content, or fulfilled) as a (fill in the blank) Jew."

But Judaism has never been about comfort, enjoyment or even personal fulfillment (though, to be sure, the latter surely emerges from a G-d-centered life). It has, rather, been about listening to G-d, not only when His commands sit well with us but even - indeed, especially - when they don't. Jews, after all, have died, proudly and painfully, for their faith.

Thus, Shavuot, which this year falls out on June 2 and 3 (its second day coinciding with the Sabbath), really deserves to be a "front and center" holiday for us American Jews. Its central theme speaks to us, loudly, clearly and directly. The Jewish summer-festival reminds us about the engine of true Jewish unity, that it lies in the realization that Judaism is not about what we'd like G-d to do for us, but rather about what we are honored, exalted and sanctified to do for Him.

[Rabbi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE THIRD HEIR

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Quite a stir ensued at a recent American Jewish Committee symposium in Washington when Israeli novelist A.B.Yehoshua called the hosting organization's 100-year record "a great failure" and opined that Jews in the United States cannot live genuinely Jewish lives. Only in Israel, the celebrated writer asserted, can a truly Jewish life be expressed, and only the Jewish state can ensure the survival of the Jewish people.

Reaction was quick and spirited. Many of Yehoshua's American listeners were scandalized - New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier accused him of "insist[ing] on narrowing [Jewish religion, culture and literature] down to Israeliness." And Israeli commentators took Yehoshua to task as well for, what the Jerusalem Post's Uri Dan characterized as, "the stupidity" of the novelist's remarks.

Citing the work of Israel Democracy Institute's Professor Aryeh Carmon, Forward editor J.J. Goldberg perceptively framed the brouhaha as the yield of a conceptual divide. With the destruction of Jewish Eastern Europe during the Holocaust, asserts Carmon, Israeli Jews "inherited" the Jewish identity expressed through daily life in an identifiably Jewish environment; and American Jews, the experience of Jewishness as a "way of looking at things."

Writes Goldberg: "It ought to be obvious… that Israelis are not wrong in their way of being Jewish, any more than Americans are wrong in their way - joining organizations, attending events, giving to charities and trying to live by what they understand as Jewish values. The two ways are merely different."

Different, to be sure, but "merely" may not do justice to the yawning gulf between the two. More critical, though, the suggestion that either expression of Jewishness has lasting power is highly arguable.

Speaking Hebrew, having a Jewish army and living where the winter holiday is Chanuka and the spring one Passover are fine things, but to imagine they have the power to fuel Jewish continuity is to imagine that a shiny car without a motor can get you across town.

It doesn't take rocket science, only social science, to spy the implications of the large and increasing number of Israelis, mostly young, who have chosen in recent decades to emigrate. (New York and Los Angeles have particularly sizable Israeli expatriate communities, but most large American and European cities have their own healthy shares of once-Israeli residents.) Hebrew and army service are apparently insufficient to keep Israeli Jews in Israel; can they be expected to keep them vibrantly Jewish? And if Hebrew fluency is itself somehow the measure of Jewishness, the definition is as meaningless as it is tautological.

Nor is "American-style" Jewish cultural identity a bridge to our people's future. Not only is Hebrew Greek to most American Jews, but so are the most basic Jewish beliefs and concepts. Asked to name a Jewish tenet, the average American Jew is likely to respond "pluralism" or "repairing the world," even though his understandings of those concepts are bizarre expansions of how they are used in the Talmud. The true fundamentals of Jewish belief are books as closed to Joe Q. Jewish as the Talmud itself. Such obliviousness is hardly the stuff of generational continuity.

But continuity is attainable. The key is to recognize that there is a third heir to the Eastern European Jewish world that perished last century. It is neither Israel nor America, yet it resides, in fact thrives, in both countries - as it does on other continents. It is the world of Jews who live neither Israeliness nor liberal idealism but Judaism - in the word's original sense: Jewish belief and practice as prescribed by the Jewish religious tradition.

Not only is affirming and observing Torah and halacha the most authentic expression of Jewish nationhood, it is the one - and only one - proven to have empowered Jewish continuity in the past. And it is clearly poised to empower it in the future. The recent American Jewish Committee study showing a steep rise in the Orthodox percentage of young American Jews (and predicting a continuation of Orthodox growth) could not have come as a surprise to anyone remotely familiar with the multi-generational vibrancy of Jewish life in the many Orthodox Jewish enclaves across America.

The truism that Judaism underlies the Jews is often greeted with the blithe retort that observance simply "isn't for everyone." The Tel Avivian needs his nightlife, and the New York Jew his cultural relativism. How easily we turn wants into needs. And how easily we dismiss our past and forfeit our future out of fear that our styles may be cramped.

One need only enter almost any Orthodox synagogue to meet Jews from the most unusual backgrounds who, through force of determination and conviction, came to Jewish observance as adults. Every Jew stood at Mt. Sinai, and every Jew today can return to it. And all Jews - in Israel, America, Europe and elsewhere - who do so return, will, along with their children and descendents, become pulsating parts of the Jewish future.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE INDIGNITY OF ATHEISM

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Back on March 12, a paean to "the dignity of atheism" appeared on The New York Times op-ed page. It was penned by celebrated philosopher Slavoj Zizek who, had he consulted the same periodical's obituary page a mere three days earlier, would have come face to image with the late Richard Kuklinski.

Mr. Kuklinski, who was retired from life at the age of 70, claimed, utterly without remorse, to have killed more than 100 people as a Mafia enforcer; his favored methods included ice picks, crossbows, chain saws and a cyanide solution administered with a nasal-spray bottle.

The happy hit man's example might not have given pause to Professor Zizek, the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. But it should have.

Because the notion that there is no higher authority than nature is precisely what enables people like Mr. Kuklinski - and the vast majority of the killers, rapists and thieves who populate the nightly news.

No, no, of course that is not to say that most atheists engage in amoral or unethical behavior. What it is to say, though, is that atheism qua atheism presents no compelling objection to such behavior - nor, for that matter, any convincing defense of the very concepts of ethics and morality themselves.

The reason is not abstruse. One who sees only random forces behind why we humans find ourselves here is ultimately bound only by his wants. With no imperative beyond the biological, a true atheist, pressed hard enough by circumstances toward unethical or immoral behavior, cannot feel compelled to resist. Why should he?

In his view, a purposeless process of evolution has brought us to where we stand, and our feeling that there are good deeds and evil ones is but a utilitarian quirk of natural selection - like our proclivity to eat more than we need when food is available. And so, just as we might choose to forego a second helping of pizza if we harbor an urge to lose weight, so may we choose, for personal gain (of desires, not pounds), to loosen our embrace of a moral, ethical life. Biological advantages, after all, are not moral imperatives.

Atheism, in the end, is a belief system in its own right, one in which there can be no claim that a thieving, philandering, serial murdering cannibal is any less commendable a member of the species than a selfless, hard-working philanthropist. In fact, from an evolutionist perspective, the former may well have the advantage.

To a true atheist, there can be no more ultimate meaning to good and bad actions than to good or bad weather; no more import to right and wrong than to right and left. To be sure, rationales might be conceived for establishing societal norms, but social contracts are practical tools, not moral imperatives; they are, in the end, artificial. Only an acknowledgement of the Creator can impart true meaning to human life, placing it on a plane above that of mosquitoes.

Proponents of atheism bristle when confronted by the implications of their belief, that morality and ethics are mere figments of our evolutionary imagination. But, for all their umbrage, they cannot articulate any way there can really ever be, as one writer has put it, "good without G-d."

The bristlers are not liars, only inconsistent; some well-hidden part of their minds well recognizes that humans have a higher calling than hyenas. But while the cognitive dissonance shifts to overdrive, the stubborn logic remains: The game is zero-sum. Either there is no meaningful mandate for human beings; or there is. And if there is, there must be a Mandator.

What inspired Professor Zizek to celebrate atheism as "perhaps our only chance for peace" in the world was the unarguably dismal example set by some people who are motivated by religion. He is certainly correct that much modern mayhem is deeply rooted in claims of religious rectitude. What he forgets, though, is that the world has also seen unimaginable evil - perhaps its greatest share - from men who professed no belief in divinity at all, whose motivations were entirely secular in nature. Adolph Hitler was no believer in G-d. Nor was Joseph Stalin. Nor Pol Pot. Together, though, the trio was responsible for the murders of tens of millions of human beings. They pursued their dreams as atheists with no less relish than Osama Bin Laden pursues his as an Islamist. Evil is evil, whether expressed through faithlessness or misguided faith. But only a belief in a Higher Being has the potential - realized or not - of reining in the darker elements that haunt human souls.

Some of my best friends - okay, one or two - are atheists. Stranded on a desert island, I would prefer the company of any of them to Osama's.

But if my choice of island partner were between two strangers about whom I know only that one believes there is no higher reason for human life and the other that there is, I know which one I'd choose.

And I think Professor Zizek might make the same choice.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of

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THE PAST IN THE PRESENT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

I made a quick trip the other day to my home town, Baltimore, to crash a party.

It was a celebration hosted by my brother, a rebbe, or "Talmud/ethics/philosophy teacher and counselor" in Ner Israel Rabbinical College's high school division. After many years' effort, he was marking his completion of the study of the entire Babylonian Talmud.

A small group of local relatives and esteemed rabbis were present; my brother (whom I taught everything he knows - about hitting a baseball) had purposefully not informed me of his accomplishment or its celebration; he hadn't wanted me to make the 200-plus-mile trip to join him. But I was tipped off by his wife, who thought, correctly, that I wouldn't have wanted to miss so festive an event in honor of so magnificent an accomplishment.

It was a wonderful experience, not only because I was able to participate in the event itself - the meal served in celebration of a siyum, or "completion ceremony," is considered religiously significant - but because I was able to break bread with my father, stepmother, brother, sons (students in Ner Israel), sister-in-law and her parents and siblings, to whom I feel very close as well.

I found myself thinking about my father's experiences as a youth in Poland at the outbreak of World War II. Although he rarely spoke about that era to his children when we were younger, I was able to learn much from the videotaped interview he granted Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation in 1998. And, at the siyum, between courses and the words of Torah and congratulation that were delivered, I found myself recalling pieces of my father's testimony.

After my brother expounded on the final words of the Talmudic tractate with which he was completing his course of study, I pictured my father as a 14-year-old, when Germany invaded Poland and he and his family, along with the rest of the residents of his shtetl, fled before the advancing Germans.

He experienced some hair-raising moments during that flight, including the murder of his uncle by German soldiers who overcame the refugees, and being packed, along with the rest of the townsfolk, into a synagogue that was then set ablaze. (The people were released at the last moment, through the intercession of a passing German general - who the villagers suspected had been the prophet Elijah in disguise.) Nevertheless, once the refugees reached another town and settled into some abandoned barracks, the boy who was my father made an announcement to his parents.

"I said … that I'm going to yeshiva now… to Bialystok yeshiva. I was supposed to go a month ago… They said… the war is not over, it's not settled…"

The war, in fact, had only begun, and it would come to take the lives of my father's parents and most of his siblings, not to mention countless other relatives. But he couldn't have known that then, and he was determined.

At the siyum, my brother recited the special prayer traditionally offered at such celebrations, putting "the Talmud" where the name of a single tractate would normally go. And I remembered, incongruously, how my father at 14, when he said his final goodbye to his parents, had never before been on a train.

"I [had] promised [myself] that I would go to Bialystok and something was telling me - maybe it was because I was stubborn -- I said I am going to yeshiva and I'm going to go."

Those gathered at the siyum offered my brother their hearty congratulations and broke into song.

"[It was] a promise to myself, a promise to myself… they thought I was so dead-set to go… so they let me go. My mother, peace be on her, brought me a few apples…"

Several rabbis spoke at the siyum, including my father, who expressed his pride in his son's accomplishment.

Sixty-seven years earlier, carrying his apples, his phylacteries and a prayer-book, he boarded a train to Bialystok - only to be told by a passenger that, due to the war, all the yeshivos in that city had relocated to Vilna. When the train arrived in Bialystok the boy asked how to get to Vilna.

"Someone comes over to me and says… there is a train that goes to Vilna. I said I have no ticket. He said don't worry about a ticket - go! People were hanging from the doors… I'm standing there … probably crying… something was telling me 'you must get onto the train.' And all of a sudden I see the train moving… so I grabbed the handle of the steps - people were standing on the steps and I couldn't get on the steps… as the train started to move faster and faster, people pushed themselves in and I got between two cars…"

I, too, am proud of my brother's accomplishment. He and his wife - whose own commitment and assistance made his achievement possible - deserve tremendous credit for the thousands of hours of hard work and sacrifice that underlie it. But at the siyum I couldn't help but think a thought that I know they would agree with, a thought that has occurred to me countless times about my own life.

All of us surely play a major role in whatever we may achieve. But in the end we can never really know just how much our achievements are due to our own will and determination, and how much to the merit of the choices, commitment and determination of those who arrived here before us.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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MIRACLE OF MIRACLES

Rabbi Avi Shafran

This year's Passover celebration was punctuated by the characteristically barbaric Palestinian attack on a Tel Aviv eatery that killed nine and wounded dozens. The bombing hung like a putrid cloud over Jews everywhere. But it was also likely at the fore of the minds of many who listened attentively to the haftarah, or reading from the Prophets, on the festival's final day.

That excerpt, read only in the Diaspora, where an eighth day of Passover is celebrated, is from Isaiah (10:32-12:6) and includes some well known verses from the prophet's vision of the end of history, when the "wolf will lie down with the lamb" and perfect peace will reign among the world's human inhabitants as well.

It was a marvelous but difficult future to imagine in 2006, as it has been throughout most of history. Not only did malevolent murderers strike again against Jewish men, women and children, but spokesmen for Hamas and the Palestinian Interior Ministry proudly embraced the attack as a "legitimate response" to "Israeli aggression" - Israeli attempts, that is, to thwart such attacks. Although the carnage was apparently the work of a rival terrorist group (the field is as crowded as its inhabitants are depraved), hatred of Jews can always be counted on to bring together the strangest of bedfellows.

Nor were Islamic extremists the only ones who treated murdered Jews with contempt. A state-controlled newspaper in Egypt praised the bombing as a heroic "act of sacrifice and martyrdom"; and the South African foreign ministry essentially equated the attack on unarmed civilians with Israeli air strikes against terrorist bases.

For its own ignominious part, The New York Times chided Hamas for its expression of gratification over new pools of Jewish blood, but only for thereby showing itself to be "cynical and dim-witted," leaving the question of the morality of murder oddly unexplored.

And, of course, the president of the new nation-aspirant to nuclear weaponry continued his own diatribes against the Jewish State, and predicted that it was on the verge of "being eliminated."

Back, though, to the final day of Passover's reading. Its backdrop is the massing outside Jerusalem of the Assyrian army, intoxicated with its successful conquest of much of the Holy Land. The prophet foretells how the Jews' enemy will be suddenly and miraculously smitten by G-d, which indeed it was. It is then that Isaiah moves to his vision of a more distant future, when the Messiah will appear, the Jews will be rescued from all who wish them harm and "the land will be filled with knowledge of G-d, like the waters cover the seabed." The nations of the world, the prophet foresees, will celebrate and consult the Messiah, "raising a banner" as they gather to present themselves to the Jewish leader.

Another of the Jewish prophets, Jeremiah, also speaks of that era, giving voice to G-d's promise that that the time will arrive when "No longer will it be said, 'By the living G-d Who brought the Jewish People up from the land of Egypt' but rather 'By the living G-d Who brought the Jewish People up from the land of the north and from all the lands to which He cast them and returned them onto their [own] land'." (16:14).

In other words, despite all the Egyptian exodus's own miracles and wonders, and despite the fact that it will always remain the germinal event in the Jewish people's formation, that redemption will pale beside the one yet to come.

Why, though, should that be? Did not our ancestors' enslavement in Egypt seem a hopeless sentence, and would its persistence not have spelled the very abortion of the Jewish nation? And was our grant of freedom then not accompanied by miracles and wonders, the ones we just recounted on the Seder nights?

Perhaps the reason the exodus will nevertheless take second place to the future ingathering may have something to do with the essential character of the two events' respective miracles. That the Egyptians were visited by plagues and that the sea split for the Jews were surely wondrous things, but those events were but temporary interruptions of the natural course of things. What Isaiah presages, though, is a wrenching, permanent transformation of nature itself.

In our experience, animals are both food and prey; it has always been so. A world where the wolf will lie down with the lamb is a world radically altered in its essence.

As is a world where the Jewish People have been gathered from the corners of the earth back to the place from which they were exiled millennia ago.

And then there is the even greater, almost unimaginable, metamorphosis of nature inherent in a world where, instead of vicious hatred of Jews, there is only humility and reverence for the instrument of G-d who brought them, finally, home.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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WHEN DOCUMENTARIES GO BAD

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The notion that the phrase "documentary film" implies a balanced, or even accurate, production is quickly exploded by reflecting on the fact that the category includes things like "Birth of a Nation" (which extolled the Ku Klux Klan) and "Triumph of the Will" (which paid homage to the Third Reich).

Considering those two famous examples, it is particularly painful to see Jews, of all people, offering mindless praise to a recent Israeli agitprop film vilifying Israel's rabbinical courts and Jewish religious law.

The documentary "Mekudeshet" - which means "betrothed" but whose English title is given as "Sentenced to Marriage" - has been awarded prizes by Israel's filmmaking community and, despite its mediocre artistry and blatant biases, has been hailed by remarkably uncritical critics across the United States where it has been screened.

Produced by Anat Zuria, whose previous work, tellingly, was an indictment of the Jewish "family purity" laws and the mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, Mekudeshet tells the stories of three women in the midst of divorce proceedings - which, in Israel, are presided over by government-sanctioned rabbinical courts.

The women's stories are harrowing; each, by her telling, is the victim of a heartless husband who refuses to acquiesce to the divorce. (According to Jewish religious law, to effect a divorce, both a husband and a wife must agree to go their separate ways; under certain circumstances, a husband can be compelled to divorce his wife.)

Only one husband briefly appears; none of the men's advocates do. Only the women and theirs are prominently featured. Instead, the sounds of ostensible court proceedings are heard while the camera remains in the hallway outside the offices where the sessions are ostensibly being conducted. The film seems to suggest that the choice snippets heard in the closed sessions are genuine and not a creative re-enactment, although the claim is never explicitly made. The audio quality would seem to indicate a sound stage rather than a surreptitious tape recorder; and the judge's sonorous voice and occasionally malevolent tone also adds to the suspicion that the session proceedings, like other staged portions of the film, may have been "enhanced" for artistic - or political - reasons.

Even, though, if every scene - including one subject's calm and endearing refusal to abandon her faith in G-d despite the pain she has suffered; a husband's advocate defending his client's indefensible absence from court; and several bouts of shrill histrionics - is bona fide, the message of the film is a lie.

That is not to say that there may not be cases where individuals (both women and men) are inadvertently ill-treated by the divorce system in Israel - a bureaucracy (and an Israeli one) after all - or even that the three women in the film did not experience what they claim. The lie is the film's accusation that the Israeli rabbinical establishment is corrupt and uncaring about women and that Jewish religious law inherently mistreats them.

Rabbi Yaakov Berman, a resident of Lakewood, New Jersey, is deeply involved in divorce issues around the Jewish world, including cases in Israel. He heads the "Jewish Divorce Center," which facilitates divorce proceedings in failed marriages. He cites a number of false implications fostered by "Mekudeshet" - among them: that either Jewish law or the state of Israel allows a married Jewish man to take up with another woman before the procurement of a valid divorce document; that only a man can impede a divorce process; and that Israeli rabbinical courts are lax regarding husbands' responsibility to provide child support.

More egregious, though, than the slander against Israel's rabbinical courts is Ms. Zuria's indictment of Jewish law itself.

That agenda is transparent from the film's very opening, where the traditional breaking of the glass under the wedding canopy at a joyous celebration is punctuated by the sound of a prison cell door slamming shut; and by the words of a sacred Jewish text that then appear starkly on the screen.

Those words, from the Mishna, state the legal means by which a Jewish marriage can be effected. The translation provided reads: "A woman can be bought in three ways…"

Translations are meant to make a text intelligible, but sometimes they obscure. The misuse of language in the film's rendering of the Mishnaic statement is reminiscent of nothing so much as how some other manipulators of artistic media use words like "murder" to describe the elimination of deadly terrorists, or "occupation" to refer to Jews living in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

The Hebrew word rendered "bought" by "Mekudeshet" can indeed mean that or, better, "acquired." But it need not connote possession in the sense of control, and certainly not in the sense of some right to mistreat (the Talmud exhorts a man to "love his wife like himself, and honor her more than himself" - Yevamot, 62b). Consider that the very same word - in the very same form, gender and syntax - is used by another Mishna (Avot 6:6) to refer to how one "acquires" Torah.

One doesn't control Torah; one seeks a sublime relationship with it. One may not mistreat Torah; one must respect and cherish it. The analogy should be self-evident.

There are people, tragically, who do mistreat their wives (and others, their husbands).

And there are people who abuse Torah, too, who seek, for instance, to portray it as something it is not - like a license to cause harm or pain.

Ms. Zuria's production is ostensibly about the former. What its viewers may not realize, though, is that it is an equally ugly example of the latter.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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SILENCE OF THE DOGS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

A curious Midrash holds an idea worth bringing to the Seder.

"Midrash," although redefined of late by some to mean a fanciful, personal take on a Biblical account, in truth refers to a body of ancient traditions that for generations was transmitted only orally but later put into writing.

One such tradition focuses on the verse recounting how the dogs in Egypt did not utter a sound as they watched the Jewish people leave the land (Exodus, 11:7). The Talmud contends that, in keeping with the concept that "G-d does not withhold reward from any creature," dogs are the animals to whom certain non-kosher meat should be cast. The Midrash, however, notes another, more conceptual "reward" for the canine silence: The dung of dogs will be used to cure animal skins that will become tefillin, mezuzot and Torah scrolls.

It is certainly intriguing that the lowly refuse of a lowly creature - and dogs are viewed by many Middle-Eastern societies as particularly base - should play a part in the preparation of the most sublime and holy of objects. And that, it seems, is what the Midrash wishes us to ponder - along with the puzzling idea that silence is somehow key to that ability to sublimate the earthy and physical into the rarified and hallowed. The particular silence at issue may be canine, but its lesson is for us.

Providing even more support for that thought is a statement in the Mishna (the earliest part of the Talmud). "I have found nothing better for the body," Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel remarks in Pirkei Avot (1:17), "than silence." The phrase "for the body" (which can also be rendered "the physical") seems jarring. Unless it, too, hints at precisely what the Midrash seems to be saying - that in silence, somehow, lies the secret of how the physical can be transformed into the exalted.

But what provides for such transformation would seem to be speech. Judaism teaches that the specialness of the human being - the hope for creating holiness here on earth - lies in our aptitude for language, our ability to clothe subtle and complex ideas in meaningful words. That is why in Genesis, when life is breathed by G-d into the first man, the infusion is, in the words of the Targum Onkelos, a "speaking spirit." The highest expression of human speech, our tradition teaches, lies in our ability to recognize our Creator, and give voice to our gratitude (hakarat hatov). The first vegetation, the Talmud informs us, would not sprout until Adam appeared to "recognize the blessing of the rain." Hakarat hatov is why many Jews punctuate their recounting of happy recollections or tidings with the phrase "baruch Hashem," or "blessed is G-d" - and it is pivotal to elevating the mundane. So it would seem that speech, not silence, is the path to holiness.

Unless, though, silence is the most salient demonstration of the consequence of words.

After all, aren't the things we are careful not to waste the things we value most?. We don't hoard plastic shopping bags or old newspapers; but few - even few billionaires - would ever use a Renoir to wrap fish.

Words - along with our ability to use them meaningfully - are the most valuable things any of us possesses. To be sure, one can (and most of us do) squander them, just as one can employ a Rembrandt as a doormat. But someone who truly recognizes words' worth will use them only sparingly. The adage notwithstanding, talk isn't cheap; it is, quite the contrary, a priceless resource, the means, used properly, of coaxing holiness from the physical world.

And so silence - choosing to not speak when there is nothing worthwhile to say - is perhaps the deepest sign of reverence for the potential holiness that is speech.

Which brings us back to Passover. As noted, the highest expression of human speech is the articulation, like Adam's, of the idea of hakarat hatov - literally, "recognition of the good" - with which we have been blessed. The Kabbalistic texts refer to our ancestors' sojourn in Egypt as "the Speech-Exile," implying that in some sense the enslaved Jews had yet to gain full access to the power that provides human beings the potential of holiness.

With the Exodus, though, that exile ended and, at the far side of the sea that split to allow them but not their pursuers passage, our ancestors responded with an extraordinary vocal expression: the epic poem known in Jewish texts as "The Song" (Exodus, 15:1-18 ). Written in a unique graphic formation in the Torah scroll, it is a paean to G-d for the goodness He bestowed on those who marched out of Egypt - who went from what the Talmudic rabbis characterized as the penultimate level of baseness to, fifty days later, the heights of holiness at Mt. Sinai.

And so it should not be surprising that, whereas Jews are cautioned to use words only with great care and parsimony, on the Seder night we are not only enjoined to speak at length and into the wee hours about the kindness G-d granted our people, but are informed by the rabbis of the Talmud, that "the more one recounts, the more praiseworthy it is."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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KNOWING WHAT WE DON’T

Rabbi Avi Shafran

I’m no great fan of “true stories,” too many of which, disappointingly, aren’t true. But I am deeply partial to good made-up stories, like – a favorite – the one about the shtetl showdown between the Jew and the priest.

As the tale goes, the local governor of a 19th century Polish village is prevailed upon by a learned non-Jewish cleric to humiliate the town’s Jewish populace by issuing it a challenge: “Have your greatest scholar meet me on the bridge over the raging river tomorrow at noon. Each of us will have a heavy weight tied to his foot, and the first one stumped by a question about the Torah, Talmud or commentaries will be cast by the other into the waters.”

The members of the Jewish community, in no position to refuse the ultimatum, anxiously huddle. “Whom can we send?” they ask. “Who can be assured of being able to answer any question the priest may pose?” “Who could possibly stump the non-Jew?” None of those present offers their services.

Until, that is, Shmiel the shneider (tailor) confidently steps forward to volunteer. Known as a decidedly unscholarly fellow, he would not have been anyone’s first, or eighty-first, choice. But he insists he can better the challenger and, well, he’s the only candidate.

And so, at the appointed time, Shmiel and his opponent take their positions on the bridge, ball and chain attached to each man’s foot, a crowd of supporters on each of the river’s banks.

Surveying the tailor, the non-Jew smiles benevolently and offers Shmiel the first shot. The Jew does not hesitate. “What does ‘aini yode’ah’ mean?” he asks loudly.

The cleric, not even pausing to think, shouts out his entirely accurate answer: “I do not know!” The crowd gasps at the response and Shmiel, beaming triumphantly toward the townsfolk, unceremoniously pushes his momentarily confused opponent off the bridge, into the raging waters. The crowds disperse, one jubilant, the other perplexed.

Back at the shtetl town hall, Shmiel is roundly congratulated for his ploy. “How did you come up with so brilliant an idea?” they ask. Radiating modesty, Shmiel responds that it wasn’t hard at all. “I was reading the ‘teitch’ (the popular Yiddish translation of the great scholar Rashi’s commentary on the Torah),” he explains, “and I saw the words ‘aini yode’ah’ in Rashi’s commentary. I didn’t know what the phrase meant, and so I looked at the teitch and saw, in Yiddish, the words ‘I don’t know’.”

“So I figured,” Shmiel said, his face aglow with wisdom, “if the holy ‘teitch’ didn’t know what the words meant, there was no way on earth some priest would!”

The story is good for more than a laugh, though. Because it raises the interesting and significant fact that Rashi – the “father of all commentaries” who wrote perfectly succinct yet brilliant glosses to not only the Five Books of Moses and Prophets and Writings but to the entire Babylonian Talmud – indeed informs the reader in several places that he “doesn’t know” the reason for one or another thing.

“I don’t know” is a phrase as deserved as it is rare these days, when self-assuredness seems all too often to stand in for self-respect, when opinions are routinely proffered as unassailable fact, when people are permitted – even expected – to state without doubt what they cannot possibly know to be true.

Whether in the political, scientific or social realms, opinions regularly take on the aura of convictions. There is, of course, nothing wrong with opinions (for some of us, our stock in trade), but Rashi’s modest example is one we would be wise to more often emulate. As the Talmud puts it: “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know’” (Berachot, 4b).

Some of us “know” that the Iraq war was a mistake. Others, that it was precisely the right decision. Some “know” that species evolved from other species. Others, that they didn’t. Some “know” that educational vouchers will be terrible for public schools. Others, that they would be wonderful. We think a lot of things, but know a good many less.

To be sure, there are verities. That we humans possess a spark of the Divinity that created us, for instance. That we have free will. That life is precious. That our actions have consequences.

For Jews, there are – or should be – other certainties, among them that we have been divinely chosen to set an example for the wider world, that our carefully-preserved history includes at its apogee G-d’s bequeathal of His Torah to us, that our mission and our peoplehood are sacred.

But there are many smaller things, no end of them, that we do not know, at least not with the certainty of those essential convictions. And so, as we consider wars and theories and causes, even if we think we have a pretty good idea of just what’s what, it’s always a good idea to stop and remember what Shmiel thought he knew – and what Rashi knew he didn’t.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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PRIDE AND PRINCIPLE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Reform movement is proudly proclaiming its success in the recent elections for the American slate of the World Zionist Organization's "35th Congress of the Jewish People," having garnered the most delegates (although six fewer than in the previous election, in 2002). Reform Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, contends that the election result "demonstrates that our message… has become the dominant voice of American Zionism."

Well, that depends on how one defines Zionism. Which, in turn, turns on a question that likely puzzled thoughtful observers of the WZO's recent election: Where were American haredim?

Slates of candidates were fielded by a number of Jewish movements and organizations, including the Conservative movement, the Reconstructionist Federation and the Religious Zionist Slate.

But a slate representing the haredi community was nowhere to be found in the election results, and that was no accident. Although haredi events (prayer gatherings and major happenings like the Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas) have drawn tens of thousands of participants, and haredi voting blocs are a treasured prize to politicians in some of the largest Jewish communities in the United States, haredim chose, as always they have, to decline to participate in the WZO elections.

The reason might be hard for some to understand, but it's worth the effort.

In order to vote in the elections, one must affirm a set of ideas known as "The Jerusalem Program." It is the credo of the contemporary Zionist movement, and stresses the "centrality" of the "State of Israel" in "the life of the [Jewish] nation." (Ironically, the very idea of Jews returning to the Jewish ancestral homeland was once vehemently rejected by the Reform movement - and still is by the Reform group known as the American Council for Judaism. Mainstream Reform, however, changed direction in the 1940s.)

There are no greater "zionists" than haredim, who pray daily and fervently for the Jewish return to Zion; who are so disproportionately overrepresented in the rolls of both those who make aliyah and those who visit Israel regularly; and who are so strongly supportive of ensuring Israel's security. Yet, for haredim, Israel the state is one thing; Eretz Yisrael, the holy land promised by G-d to His people, another. And to a haredi, the "centrality" of the Jewish people can be only one thing: our Torah.

To a haredi, the laws and wisdom of the Jewish religious tradition are not only what defined our nation at its inception, and what allowed it (along, in fact, with its yearning for the Jewish ancestral land) to persevere for millennia in exile, but what alone can ensure its future.

Thus, while it might bring economic benefit to the haredi world in Israel and elsewhere were haredim to field and elect candidates for the World Zionist Congress, as a matter of honesty and conscience, haredim cannot in good faith subscribe to the credo on which such participation is contingent, a credo that subtly but objectionably places a country in the place of a divine mandate.

And so when, as a response to the broad pre-election Reform registration campaign, inquiries came in to Agudath Israel from its constituents, each caller was informed of what registering entailed, and advised to forego participation.

There's something worth pondering here. When haredi citizens of Israel exercise their democratic privileges to advocate for their needs, they are all too often portrayed as pursuing lucre even at the expense of principle - even though all they are doing is what every constituency in a democracy does: endeavor to access government assistance to which they have claim.

A truer proof of the principle pudding, though, lies in the WZO elections example. By participating, haredim stood only to gain (and gain they would have; just think of how the votes of the more than 100,000 Jews who participated in the Siyum HaShas - the majority of them haredim - would have changed the election's result). By not participating, not only was potential funding of projects forfeited but control of the World Zionist Congress' American division largely relinquished to a Reform movement openly intent on undermining the influence of halacha in Israel, hardly a comforting thought to Jews who value traditional Jewish standards. Principle, though, is principle.

A timely coincidental contrast to the haredi distancing from the WZO elections was presented by another recent development on the American scene. On the very day the election results were announced, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that universities accepting money from the federal government must, as per a 1994 law, permit military recruiters on campus. Some universities had objected to such presence on principle, since the Pentagon bars open homosexuals from serving in the military.

Perhaps it's too early to judge, but at least at this writing, none of the universities objecting to the presence of military recruiters has taken the step of announcing that it will forego its federal funding in order to maintain its commitment to what the schools have framed as a civil rights issue. Perhaps it's cynical to predict that few, if any, will ever actually do so. But betting men might well lay odds.

Because in most of contemporary life, ideals are often put on splendid but flimsy pedestals. As Groucho Marx famously said "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them - well, I have others."

Well, some don't.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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HAMAN, AHMADINEJAD, AND US

Rabbi Avi Shafran

There's more than passing irony in the fact that the most infamous anti-Semite of antiquity, the hater whose downfall Jews celebrate on Purim, was a prominent official of an empire centered in modern-day Iran.

Like the Persian royal advisor Haman, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reeks with his own considerable animus for Jews, having not only endorsed the destruction of the Jewish State but called into question the murder of six million Jews not 70 years ago. And just as his evil antecedent is today recalled with mockery and laughter, so too is Mr. Ahmadinejad providing future rejoicers rich comedic material - like his recent blaming of the terrorist bombing by Sunni Muslims of a Shiite Muslim shrine on "a group of Zionists" who nevertheless "failed in the face of Islam's logic and justice."

Similarly creative anti-Semitic rants are no farther away than the nearest Arab newspaper.

At the end of January, for instance, the Middle East Media Research Institute informs us, a Syrian government daily suggested that Israel created the avian flu virus in order to damage "genes carried only by Arabs." That the virus first appeared in East Asia was carefully fit into the theory: the germ was planted far from where Arabs live in order to mislead the world about its true origin. Clever, those Jews.

And February saw newspapers in Mogilev, Belarus calling on citizens to boycott a new kosher bakery since, as the city's leading paper put it: "It is a well-known fact that Jewish bread is made kosher by using sacrificial blood."

Haman, more than 2000 years ago, was more subtle, preferring snide insinuations to outlandish conspiracy theories. And he focused on Jewish cohesiveness and dedication to Jewish law.

For instance, says the Talmud, he informed the king of the sinister fact that Jews marry their own. And, having discovered the rabbinical forbiddance of drinking wine that had been touched by a non-Jew (because of the possibility that he may have silently dedicated it to an idol), Haman told the Persian king: "If a fly should fall into their cup, they will discard the insect and drink the wine, but if your majesty should so much as touch the cup, they will cast it to the ground."

Even today, although most contemporary Jew-haters claim to have only respect for Judaism - objecting only to things like Jewish "influence" (read: intelligence) or the Jewish state's "mistreatment of Arabs" (read: acts of self-defense against terrorists) - common motifs in even the current arsenal of Jew-hatred include Jewish religious practices and religious Jews. A glance at the Arab media's cesspool of anti-Semitic (but Mohammed-free!) caricatures suffices to show that it disproportionately inspires images of black-hatted, black-cloaked and bespectacled men carrying oversized volumes of Talmud.

That fact, like the example of Haman, should serve to remind us how ugly is the derision of Jewish practices and ideals. It's something even we Jews may not always sufficiently realize.

Take a recent article in an Israeli newspaper. It reported how a mobile communications company has seen fit to offer a cellphone without Internet access, in order to capture a larger share of the haredi, or "ultra-Orthodox" market (which, out of concern for clear Jewish standards of propriety, prefers its phones to be just phones). The article's tagline reads in part: "Company succumbs to haredi pressure." Pushy, those haredim.

In a similarly ungenerous vein, a "progressive" advocacy organization in Israel not long ago issued a press release describing (with words like "scream," "yell," and "sneer") a scene on an Israeli bus, where a haredi passenger (the subject of the verbs) objects angrily to a woman who dared to sit toward the front of the vehicle. Comparing the scene - which, it turns out, is an entirely imaginary one - to Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s, the release characterizes as "an affront to the basic principles of a democratic society" what in reality is a bus company program providing gender-separated buses in haredi neighborhoods. Many haredi men and women prefer such travel arrangements and, since they had been patronizing private bus companies that provide it, Israel's national bus company decided to compete for the haredi ridership.

At just about the same time, an Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics survey revealed that, among the country's Jewish volunteers, 36% were haredim; 27%, non-haredi religious; 14% traditional; and 13% secular. Nevertheless, Israel's Orthodox are routinely, and almost exclusively, depicted negatively.

Their shunning of much of contemporary society's materialistic desiderata, their dedication to full-time Torah-study (especially as it results in deferments from military service) and their insularity are regularly portrayed as backwardness, ingratitude and arrogance. Yet no one disparages the Dalai Lama for his asceticism; conscientious objectors and some artists also receive draft deferments; and the ubiquity of crudeness in popular culture leaves religious Jews little choice but to remain, to the degree they can, within their more rarified world.

On Purim (this year, March 14), Jews are exhorted to seek to strengthen what binds them. As a demonstration of unity and good will, they traditionally send packages of food items to one another.

Now there's a Jewish tradition it would be hard for anyone (except perhaps Haman) to disparage. And what a powerful opportunity it presents for disowning intra-Jewish negativity.

Those of us who are haredim should consider sending such mishloach manot to Jews who are not; and vice versa.

Not only will that help bring us all closer, it will help us merit that Mr. Ahmadinejad and company more quickly meet the fate of Haman and his.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE MINDLESS MAJORITY

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The parliamentary electoral victory of an unrepentant terrorist movement in the Palestinian Authority has created much chagrin.

The specter of a future Palestinian state's government pledged, as is Hamas, to the murder of Jews and the destruction of the Jewish State is obviously vexing to civilized observers.

But the Palestinian vote scandalized many for another reason, too. It created a crisis of conscience among people who had put their trust in the inherent virtue of democracy. Those trusting souls have now been rudely disabused of the noble but benighted notion that, given the opportunity to express its collective will, groups of human beings can be expected to do so responsibly, and with some semblance of civility.

Alas, that bubble has burst. The secret is out: What a large number of people may want to do needn't equate with what they should want to do. A majority of the murderous will vote for murder. Masses, as the saying goes, can be donkeys.

It is a truism, in fact, whose brutal brunt has been felt by Jews on many occasions in the past, when great masses of populations - whether Christians in the early Middle Ages, or Muslims a bit later, or modern European nations in later centuries still, or Communism until less than two decades ago - decided that members of the universal scapegoat-people deserved to be oppressed or killed. So the grand democratic expression of Palestinian will di