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PRO-CHOICE AND THEN SOME
The opposing sides in the abortion debate each employ slogans designed to win public support for their cause. Reasonable people are, after all, both pro-choice and pro-life, at least in the abstract.
Yet, there is irony in the fact that those favoring broad abortion rights march under the banner of "choice," which is best illustrated, perhaps, by a media campaign now running in New York's subways, courtesy of the "Pro-choice Public Education Project."
One ad in the campaign features a question mark, the upper portion of the symbol consisting of a piece of wire hanger and the lower portion being formed of this line: "When your right to an abortion is taken away, what are you going to do?" The ad ends with a stark ultimatum: "It's pro-choice or no choice."
Speaking for a group whose stated mission, as its name implies, is educating the public about the importance of individual choice, the ad actually seeks to constrict the arena of such choice. Rather than engage the factual and moral aspects of the abortion issue, the ad's Madison Avenue creators have opted to play upon a woman's fears, teaching her to repeat after them: "I have only two choices----it's me or the baby." It is a message guaranteed to strike a deep chord within women who know the desperation of being pregnant, helpless and alone.
What the ad conceals, however, is that a woman most often has more than just the two choices it implies. Before pregnancy, of course, there is the option to be abstinent or at least circumspect; post facto, there is the possibility of carrying to term and either choosing to raise the child or finding it a home with one of the many couples pining to adopt.
Without a doubt, these latter alternatives entail a vastly greater amount of time, effort, expense and postponement of gratification than a two-hour outpatient procedure. But a mature individual recognizes that this is true of any of life's truly worthwhile endeavors. Pursuit of lasting value and adherence to principle invariably require a significant investment of self. How, then, can those who hallow freedom of choice justifiably read some of women's real alternatives out of existence?
Another, even more disturbing, ad in the same campaign features a photograph of a group of stern-faced, business-suited men, surely evoking in many a mind the image of a disapproving, distant father. The caption below reads: "77% of anti-abortion leaders are men. 100% of them will never be pregnant." What rankles so about this line is not the blithe dismissal of the large number of anti-abortion activists who apparently have no problem reconciling their womanhood with their opposition to abortion. It is, rather, the barely concealed attempt to inject a blurring element of emotion into a debate that should be framed solely by moral principle.
Only a radical nihilist (or, perhaps, a certain ethics professor at Princeton) would assert that a woman's comfort or autonomy can be a valid basis for terminating a clearly viable, albeit fragile, human life. Thus, the abortion issue essentially turns on whether, or to what extent, the fetus in utero is indeed a human life. This being so, does the gender of 77%, or even 100%, of those opposing abortion have any bearing at all on this crucial moral dilemma?
What the ad's sponsors know well, though, is that a debate based on fact and ethical principle is one they are not likely to win, given the inherent moral uncertainties and delicacy of the subject matter. And so, images of male authority figures are trotted out as a means of pushing female buttons labeled "male domination", "sexual repression" and "victimization", stirring raw emotion to foreclose debate.
In the Jewish world-view, it is the ability to make moral choices that defines the very essence of the human being, so much so that the Hebrew word nefesh means both "soul" and "will". Judaism firmly rejects all attempts at the diminution or denial of human free will, whether couched in terms of scientific determinism or "The devil made me do it", as assaults on human dignity itself.
And it is precisely because free moral choice is both so central and so fragile that it must be insulated from manipulation.
"Behold, I place before you today life and goodness, death and evil" says the Torah. We are to clearly know the alternatives, and then, as the Torah implores us, we must allow our heads to guide our hearts and "choose life."
[Eytan Kobre is a lawyer residing in Queens and part of Am Echad's pool of writers]
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WHAT IS HATEFUL TO YOU
Rabbi Avi Shafran
For better or worse (to most of us Jews, clearly for worse) the prospect of bringing a Jew to renounce what 2000 years of history has called Judaism gladdens the hearts of some, including the president of the Southern Baptist denomination.
Rev. Paige Patterson, among many others, enthusiastically supports "messianic" Jewish groups, which are dedicated to telling Jews that Christian beliefs are really Jewish ones.
Truth be told, we Judaism-minded Jews wish all evangelists would simply leave Jews alone. But we recognize that the freedoms we cherish in this wonderful country allow them to pursue their goals, just as they allow us Jews to pursue our own -- which happen not to include proselytization of others.
Even a free society, however - in fact, especially a free society - must endeavor to curb misrepresentation. And employing time-honored Jewish religious traditions and symbols - from Passover to prayer shawls, and most everything in between - to lure unwary Jews to Christianity, as "messianics" routinely do, is tantamount to falsely claiming medical credentials in order to hawk a "miracle cure".
Rev. Patterson counters by insinuating that disapproving Jews are simply afraid of the power of the "messianics'" message. "The only people who have to fear a free marketplace of ideas," he recently told The New York Times' Gustav Niebuhr, "are people who are afraid their idea may not have enough currency."
He is partially correct. We are indeed afraid of him and his allies. Not, though, because of their message, which is easily enough countered (and which countless Jews over history willingly went to torture and death rather than accept). What we fear is something much more prosaic: the sheer power of numbers that thousands upon thousands of zealous evangelicals - Southern Baptists, "messianics" and others - can bring to assailing innocent but Jewishly ignorant Jews who have never received the basic Jewish education that would insulate them from missionaries' overtures. There are, unfortunately, many such Jews today; they include many thousands of immigrants from the lands of the former Soviet Union, who are all too vulnerable to the "messianics"' self-misrepresentation. Few knowledgeable, observant Jews without emotional problems have ever been persuaded to join such groups.
Rev. Patterson and other like-minded Christians would benefit from a bit of imaginary role reversal. They might picture an overwhelmingly Jewish or Hindu (or atheist, for that matter) society with a stubborn minority of Southern Baptists and "messianics", many of them unschooled in the tenets of their religion. Then they might imagine the dominant faith (or faithlessness) declaring a goal of blanketing its beliefs over the minority. The object of Christianity's veneration is assailed as a fraud; "reason" is employed to debunk Christianity's most cherished and fundamental beliefs. And Christian objects and symbols are used to lure Christians away from their ancestral faith. Would Rev. Patterson defend that "free marketplace of ideas"?
What is sometimes called the Golden Rule was long ago incorporated into the New Testament. The more modest -some would say more realistic - Jewish version, attributed to the great sage Hillel, goes: "What is hateful to you, do not to others."
It is an aphorism that all Christians of true good will would do well to ponder.
[Rabbi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, and as American director of Am Echad.]
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LOVE SWEETER THAN WINE
Imagine someone observing a house in which all the blinds were drawn. Any conclusions concerning what is taking place inside the house, based solely on the comings and goings of the inhabitants, are sure to be wide of the mark. Yet most Jews today are consigned to precisely such outsider status with respect to traditional Torah Judaism.
Those who attempt to communicate an understanding of traditional Judaism to fellow Jews find themselves confronted from the outset by a lack of shared experience and common spiritual vocabulary.
In no area is that absence more keenly felt than when one attempts to provide some taste of the richness of Jewish thought to those who have little previous exposure to it and who lack the linguistic skills to study original texts. Talk about the depth of Torah thought, and the response is likely to be ``Deep? You mean like the Grateful Dead?''
Over the last decade, however, there has developed a body of Torah works that are both thoroughly grounded in the greatest modern Jewish thinkers - e.g., Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the Maharal of Prague, and the Vilna Gaon - and written in a modern idiom. Not since the days of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in 19th Century Germany, has the general Jewish public had access to so many works in the vernacular that are both faithful to Torah tradition and startlingly original in exposition and style.
Many, though by no means all, of those works have been produced by ba'alei teshuva ("returnees" to Jewish tradition), who combine secular academic backgrounds with a decade or more of in-depth Torah study. (The creation of this literature is but one example of the profound impact of ba'alei teshuva on the Torah world over the last quarter of a century.)
Ba'alei teshuva have proven uniquely qualified to spread Torah in our time. Their own religious faith was of necessity achieved only after profound intellectual struggle, for they have grown to maturity in a world whose underlying assumptions are profoundly hostile to religious faith and practice. They have had to confront all the big questions and challenges themselves, and have thus proven uniquely suited to guiding others. (The former chairman of the philosophy department at one of America's most prominent universities once told me that he is almost never asked a question about Torah with which he did not previously grapple himself.)
Akiva Tatz's Worldmask and Jeremy Kagan's The Jewish Self are two outstanding examples of this body of literature. Rabbi Tatz was a top South African medical student of his day; Rabbi Kagan, a Yale-trained philosopher. They both deal, in very different ways, with the issue of faith in a world in which G-d's presence is hidden. To help others gain access to that faith, Rabbi Kagan embarks on nothing less than a history of self-awareness. In his account, all societies, until roughly the time of Alexander the Great, were worshipping societies, in which men experienced their existence as an expression of G-d's will, and located the root of their being in the realm of Spirit. Modern man, by contrast, denies reality to all that is not subject to sensory observation, leading to a constricted sense of both the external world and self.
That transformation in the nature of self-awareness, Kagan argues, reflects a change in our objective historical situation and the way G-d manifests Himself in the world. We no longer live in a world of prophecy and open miracles, in which worship is experienced as a natural act. By demonstrating that modern man's lack of faith is "a necessary consequence of our historical placement and cultural experience,'' Rabbi Kagan seeks to again open modern man to the possibility of faith.
One of his signal achievements is to show the role of G-d's hiddenness in the Divine plan. Just as the mother must, to some extent, sever the bond of intimacy with her infant if he is to mature, so too G-d with us. Before we can truly enter a relationship with G-d, we must first become independent individuals capable of freely choosing that relationship. Too overwhelming an awareness of His Presence nullifies our independence.
The end of prophecy and open miracles, then, allows the attainment of true selfhood, and the development of that selfhood permits a transition from self-effacing Fear of G-d to self-creating Love of G-d. Our ancestors in the Desert experienced faith; for us, it is the result of a positive act on our part. Our diminished sense of G-d's presence in the external world forces us to discover Him through the echo, or image, of Him within ourselves.
We are in the same position as our forefather Avraham, whom our Sages tell us, saw a world of death and decline -- ``a burning castle.'' But when he looked within himself, he found something meaningful and infinite. He ``learned Torah from himself,'' in the words of the Sages. At that moment, he discovered both his true self and G-d. Torah is the conduit through which we form our deepest relationship with G-d. And as the nature of that relationship changed, so too the nature of Torah.
From the period of the Written Torah, which is prophetic and comes from a source outside ourselves, we have moved into a period in which the Oral Torah dominates. The latter depends on the nature of the recipient and his own active participation. Oral Torah demands of us the discovery of self. It is available only to one who "kills" himself in its pursuit. "Killing" oneself involves not the end of individuality, but its discovery - through the destruction of all external drives foreign to one's elemental self. In the process, one's essential unity, derived from the unity of the Creator Himself, is laid bare.
The Oral Torah is even dearer to G-d than the Written Torah, for it is dependent on the our active participation. In the words of Song of Songs, "Your love [the words of the Sages] is dearer than wine [the Written Torah]." The latter is a stimulant to Love; the former, Love itself.
[Jonathan Rosenblum, a Jerusalem-based writer and Jerusalem Post columnist, serves as Am Echad's Israeli director]
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OF LIBELS AND LABELS
Jewish history is replete with episodes in which enemies of the Jews circulated, and often acted upon, canards fabricated from whole cloth against the Jews in their midst.
Those who follow current Jewish events have just witnessed the latest appearance of a pernicious, contemporary libel, in, of all places, federal district court in Brooklyn.
The World Union for Progressive Judaism, the international body of the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, like many other organizations, has put forth a claim for a share of restitution monies soon to be paid by a consortium of Swiss banks.
In its official submission to the special master in the case, however, the World Union rests its claim, in part, on the fact that those Holocaust victims who were Liberal Jews "would certainly have been appalled to see funds deriving from their losses given to institutions who question their Jewishness or that of their descendants ..." [emphasis mine]. The unambiguous import of that statement is that Orthodox Jews and Judaism write Reform and Reconstructionist Jews out of the Jewish people.
Leaders of the liberal movements have had great success with this accusation in recent years, with hardly a month going by without a letter-writer or columnist in one or another Jewish newspaper inveighing against the Orthodox for delegitimizing some, or all, other Jews. And so, these leaders have decided to employ this falsehood to support their claim to part of the Holocaust restitution pie, roiling the until-now admirably civil tone of the restitution negotiations.
To understand why it is not hyperbole to characterize this claim about the Orthodox view as a true libel in its historical sense, one need only consider the three elements of classical anti-Jewish libels.
First, such canards were utterly, demonstrably, false. It is nonsense, for example, to assert that Jews would ever use human blood, or any blood, as an ingredient in their matzot. And it's no less farcical to suggest that Orthodox Jews, from the most "modern" to the most haredi, regard their fellow Jews, those either born to a Jewish mother or converted halachically, as anything other than fully Jewish.
Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, head of the grassroots haredi organization Agudath Israel, pleaded with the press at the group's annual convention to "please print that the following words were heard at the convention of Agudath Israel: It is an absolute falsehood that Orthodox Judaism and its standardbearers seek to delegitimize other Jews. Every Jew, whatever his or her persuasion, deserves the love, the respect and the concern he or she is entitled to as a human being and as a member of our holy people. No Jew is a second-class Jew, in Israel or anywhere." Unfortunately, his words were largely ignored.
Beyond the stated positions of Orthodox leaders, can there be a more eloquent testimonial to how the Orthodox view their Jewish brethren than the millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours that Orthodox groups and individuals spend each year to better the physical and spiritual wellbeing of Jews of every conceivable stripe around the globe?
A second feature of the historical libel is that its propagators, ironically, were often themselves guilty of the very crime of which they accused the Jews.
In the contemporary context too, this aspect is glaring. Non-Orthodox Jewish leaders have impugned the very Jewishness of the Orthodox - while no Orthodox leader has or ever would do the converse regarding non-Orthodox Jews. There was no uproar, for instance, when in 1996, Simeon Maslin, then president of Reform's Central Conference of American Rabbis, said the following at the annual meeting of America's Reform rabbis: "Let me make it clear that when I say we, as 'we are the authentic Jews', I refer to the two great non-Orthodox synagogue movements of America, Reform and Conservative. My we . . . does not include those who act and think today as the Sadducees acted and thought 20 centuries ago."
And the Reform movement has not limited its delegitimization of other Jews to mere verbiage; since 1983, it has denied the Jewish status of any Jew born of a Jewish mother who did not receive a Jewish upbringing.
The final component of the age-old libel is that it was designed to capitalize on deep-seated emotions; in the past, the fear and loathing that a thousand years of anti-Jewish teachings had planted in the hearts of Europe's Christians.
There is a good deal of Jewish self-doubt among the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist laities, born of rising assimilation and dwindling levels of religious observance in those communities. As a result, though Orthodox Jews do not equate minimal or even total non-observance with forfeiture of Jewish status, some non-Orthodox Jews may be all too willing to believe this to be the Orthodox position.
And so, some members of the heterodox leaderships portray the Orthodox as self-consumed, hateful caricatures who actually say about Reform and Conservative Jews the things the latter fear most to hear. This enables these leaders to energize an otherwise disinterested laity into supporting their own anti-Orthodox agenda.
Despite all the similarities between the more recent lies and the calumnies of yesteryear, however, there is one important difference, and it is a tragic one: whereas the libels of yore were the work of visceral enemies of the Jewish people, the contemporary slander is being perpetrated, sadly, by fellow Jews.
And that is something that should sadden us all.
[Eytan Kobre is a lawyer residing in Queens and part of Am Echad's pool of writers]
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THE JEWS' JEWS
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Shabbat at the Western Wall, people standing in prayer. A paraplegic sits in a motorized wheelchair. A group of Hassidic men approaches...
"...like a big-league pitcher [one Hasid] cocked his arm and flung the rock at the man in the wheelchair. The rock hit him in the middle of his forehead, his neck reeled back and blood oozed down this face... Then the adorable little children... turned into savages and started picking up rocks and hurling them at the man. Two of them grabbed the brightly colored prayer shawl from around the man's neck and cracked it like a whip in his face.
"Nearby guards stood by, apparently assuming that the man was getting just punishment for his crime: using electricity on the Sabbath."
The above report, which appeared in the November 15, 1994 issue of the Arizona State University daily paper, was recommended for publication by the director of the school's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. It was, after all, a compelling account.
Only one problem: it never happened.
Two weeks later, after being read by thousands, the story was retracted. The aspiring 24-year-old senior journalism major who had penned the piece admitted that the entire account had been the product of her own fertile imagination.
It was a gross, but far from singular, example of the "anything goes" attitude often adopted for Orthodox Jews by the media. In fact, in terms of the injury done to the Orthodox community and to intra-Jewish relations - not to mention to truth - it pales beside some of the more subtle, hence more believable, misreportage of recent years.
Like, for instance, other news reports about actual confrontations at the Western Wall, when groups of American non-Orthodox Jews and clergy held mixed-sex services there. The services, which often feature women cantors, are regarded by the Orthodox Jews who can be found at the Kotel any time of day or night as an assault on traditional Jewish modesty. Some of the Kotel "regulars" react with pain; others, unfortunately, with expressions of anger, prominently featured by a press invariably notified of the likely photo-op beforehand by the non-Orthodox groups' organizers.
Seldom reported though is the fact that Jews of all stripes have always been welcome at the Wall, which, at least in the absence of provocative acts, has been a place of profound peace and prayer since its capture in 1967. Or the fact that, despite their protestations to the contrary, the untraditionalists mean to rankle, as is evident in their own comments, at least when they're off guard.
"I have no problem," confessed a Conservative educator and organizer of one such "egalitarian minyan" at the Kotel, "acknowledging our rally - I mean our prayer service - was political and provocative." (The New York Jewish Week, August 15, 1997).
Also unreported in most media reports of Kotel-confrontations has been the trenchant but boring fact that only a miniscule percentage of the Orthodox Jews gathered at the site have reacted at all to the untraditional groups; the overwhelming majority simply ignore the visitors' presence. Or the fact that "Ultra Orthodox" religious authorities have regularly and unequivocally forbidden any venting of anger against the groups. Or the fact that Orthodox folk have admonished those who reacted angrily, and have come to the assistance of their non-Orthodox fellow Jews (reported, to its singular credit, by the Jerusalem Post, June 21, 1997)
One particularly outrageous report has become deeply cherished legend in some circles. At one Kotel-confrontation, it was alleged, Orthodox youths hurled feces at the non-traditional worshippers.
To this day, the image continues to be invoked by reporters and rabbis alike, despite the fact that the New York Jewish Week sought but could not find any of the alleged despicable deed's victims.
Indeed, subsequent reportage has all but ascertained that l'affair feces - in the words of Lisa Hostein, editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, speaking at last year's American Jewish Press Association annual conference - "probably didn't happen." It might seem a minor quibble; a tossed banana peel or stone, after all, is sufficiently objectionable. But the ugly canard presented a particularly incendiary image and, thundered from the pulpit and repeatedly referenced in the press, has generated immense ill will toward Orthodox Jews, despite its apparent lack of moorings in reality.
And, sadly, it is far from the only example of a fabrication that, propelled by anti-Orthodox animus, came to take on a colorful life of its own.
In the spring of 1997, for instance, while observant Jews were joyfully occupied with the celebration of Purim, The Los Angeles Times was carelessly creating a Jewish communal crisis that would result in an unprecedented outpouring of hatred against Orthodox Jews. An Orthodox rabbinical group was reported to have declared that the "Non-Orthodox" are "Not Jews," in the words of the headline over that respected paper's front-page story that March 22.
The group, of course, had proclaimed no such thing. While it is axiomatic that Orthodoxy rejects non-Orthodox philosophies - the gist of the group's statement - Orthodox Jews consider any born Jew or anyone halachically converted to be every bit as much a part of the Jewish people as the most observant rabbi. But the headline-writer's carelessness was nonetheless reproduced nationwide - with predictable results.
The pain and anger that followed in the wake of the misreportage are keenly felt even today -- and the distortion the headline trumpeted continues to be perpetuated by certain Jewish organizations (notably the New Israel Fund), some Jewish religious leaders and the press.
But it is the Kotel, the remaining physical piece of the courtyard of the Holy Temple whose rebuilding Orthodox Jews have prayed for over millennia, that seems to be ground zero for those very Jews' vilification.
Indeed, it was a New York Times article about a Kotel confrontation that helped me better understand the roots of the problem.
"Jeered by strictly Orthodox Jews who called them 'Hamas', 'terrorists' and 'Christians'," the piece began, "about 15 Conservative and Reform Jewish men and women were shoved away from the Western Wall by the police..."
The rest of the article featured a number of statements from members of the Reform and Conservative activist groups, but none at all from any Orthodox spokesperson. When I asked the article's author why not, he responded that "there was no need to interview the strictly Orthodox people at the scene because they were making their views amply and loudly know. I reported their remarks extensively." His reference, I confirmed with a careful re-reading of the article, was to the rude jeers.
It was then that I had my revelation. The Times' man on the scene had not bothered to follow journalistic norms (or the rules of fair play) and quote a responsible Orthodox spokesperson (or any of the many civil Orthodox Jews on the scene), or note any of the well-publicized warnings against violence issued by respected haredi leaders for one reason: He didn't want to.
The contemporary anti-Orthodox animus should sound sadly familiar. It echoes something all too well known to students of Jewish history. The way Orthodox Jews are being portrayed today is painfully reminiscent of the way all Jews have been portrayed by their enemies. The Orthodox, tragically, have become the Jews' own Jews.
[Rabbi Shafran serves as American director of Am Echad; a longer version of this article appears in the current issue of Moment Magazine]
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GRANDPA'S LITTLE GIRL
Judy R. Gruen
We sat in the hard plastic chairs by his hospital bed, smiling weakly as we awaited confirmation of what we dreaded learning -- that Dad had cancer. Mom and I sat quietly most of the time, hoping our presence would comfort him. Then, Dad spoke.
"You know, Judy," he began, "I was thinking how nice it would be if you had a little girl."
I was stunned. I had given birth to three boys in the past four years. My unbridled fertility had frequently been a source of worried glances and a rolling of the eyes among my parents and in-laws.
"And here are the names I like best," Dad continued, deepening my amazement.
"Shoshana. . ." Mom and I looked at each other, uplifted by the sudden conversational focus on life. We told Dad that we both felt Shoshana was a beautiful name.
"Naomi. . ." he continued, and again we nodded our approval.
"And here's my favorite," Dad said, smiling longingly, "Muriel!"
"Muriel!" Mom and I laughed together. After announcing two lovely biblical names that I could easily consider naming a daughter, his favorite was a name that to me (and even Mom) was amusingly dated.
It was such a funny moment at such a poignant time, but I took Dad's unprecedented discussion of a hoped-for granddaughter seriously. Was it possible, I wondered, that God was somehow compensating for Dad's weakening physical condition by providing him spiritual insights into my future?
Over the next eight months, my father slowly lost his battle with cancer. He displayed remarkable courage, equanimity and a strength I had not seen before; my respect for him only grew. During the course of his illness, I made myself think of at least one thing to feel grateful for each day. Most days, I felt grateful that he had no physical pain. Other days, I felt grateful for all the years (though not enough) that he had been blessed with, and for all the love he had lavished on his family and friends.
Although he no longer spoke as he did that day about my having another baby, I kept his words close to my heart, and I thought about them often.
Several weeks before Dad passed away, I had a discussion with a rabbi's wife about the Jewish custom of immersing in the mikvah, or ritual bath.
According to Jewish law, husbands and wives refrain from all physical intimacy from the beginning of the woman's menstrual period until she immerses in the mikvah seven days after it ends. The law, a major foundation of traditional Jewish married life, ideally enhances both the physical and spiritual aspects of a marriage.
Although I had used the mikvah regularly since my husband and I had married six years earlier, I had never made the extra effort to walk to the mikvah on the infrequent occasions that my immersion night fell on a Sabbath or holiday. We had reasoned that, for safety and distance issues, we would defer to the next night when I could conveniently drive. Yet that practice began to bother us more as time went on, which led to my broaching the subject with the rabbi's wife.
"It's very, very important not to delay going to the mikvah," she said. "And if a child is conceived after going to the mikvah on the Sabbath, that's considered to be especially meritorious."
Her words made a strong impression on me. And so, when it appeared that my next true mikvah night would indeed fall on a Friday night, my husband and I made arrangements for a babysitter. Donning comfortable tennis shoes for the long walk, we set out together to the ritual bath.
My father's words took on an aura of prophecy when, a few weeks later, I discovered that I had conceived after that visit to the mikvah. I immediately wondered if this was the little girl my father had spoken of. Exactly 48 hours after I learned that I was pregnant, my father passed away in his sleep.
Powerful emotions swept over me: grief, loss and the surreal feeling that always accompanies the death of a close loved one. At the same time, I sensed the promise of new life within me, a harmony linking life and death. I became more and more convinced that my father somehow had known that a daughter lay in store for me.
The comfort I felt carrying this child gave me the strength to speak at my father's funeral, and although the pregnancy was physically exhausting, it was spiritually restorative.
On February 16, 1994, Dad's wishes came true. Our fourth child, and first daughter, was born. We named her Yael, taking the Hebrew letter "yud" from my father's Hebrew name, Yaakov. And Yael, in addition to being a biblical heroine, also means "will ascend."
Her grandfather had ascended to the next world, and we pray that she will ascend in this life to the highest levels of personal achievement. Her middle name, Bracha, was chosen simply because that's what she is and will always be to us: a blessing.
[Judy R. Gruen is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.]
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DEAR MR. HOLDEN
Mr. Stephen Holden
The New York Times
229 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036
Dear Mr. Holden,
As the public affairs director of a national Orthodox Jewish organization, I was deluged Wednesday with a steady stream of phone calls, faxes and e-mail messages from constituents expressing outrage and utter disbelief over the film "Kadosh", which you reviewed for The New York Times that morning. Their feelings, like my own, were that the film is a crazy-quilt of utter fabrications, maliciously designed to create ill will toward practicing Orthodox Jews.
What also emerged from the calls, though, and I must admit from my own mind as well, was the observation that not only did you not challenge the filmmaker's blatant and demonstrable misrepresentations but gave them clear credence ("The sort of oppression endured by the women… is not limited to ultra-Orthodox Jews…").
While an art critic's first focus, of course, must be on the artistic merits of his subject, the veracity of a film's content is hardly beyond his purview. Responsible reviews of "JFK" or, more recently, "The Hurricane", for just two examples, have taken due note of the distinction between artistic portrayal and factual truth.
For the record - and these are not contentions but verifiable facts:
- Orthodox rabbis, in even the most fervent communities, rarely if ever advise men to divorce or separate from their wives even when they cannot bear children. Jewish religious law, while considering it incumbent on a man to leave progeny, gives wide berth to childless couples who wish to remain married to each other.
- Orthodoxy considers wife-beating to be a grave sin (and, indeed, requires men to honor their wives "more than themselves").
- No Orthodox rabbi regards women as "baby-making machines" or servants or means toward taking over the Israeli government. Children are regarded as blessings in the Orthodox community, and their creation, care, nurturing and education are the privilege of both their fathers and their mothers.
- The act of sex is regarded by Jewish religious law as a holy pleasure that a man is obligated to provide his wife regularly and lovingly, whether the act can yield a pregnancy or not.
- The vast majority of those - both men and women - who observe the Jewish religious laws that govern marital relations regard them as intensely enhancing love and strengthening marriages.
There are other errors of fact in both "Kadosh" and your review, but the bottom line is that the "shocking misogyny" portrayed in the film is simply not moored in reality. Jewish religious law does assign clear gender roles, but it does not tolerate, much less promote, the abuse - in any way - of women. Had you asked any of the tens of thousands of happily married Orthodox women about their lives, you would never have been able to write your review without seriously questioning the film's premises.
Unfortunately, Orthodox Jews have been targeted by some for vilification in recent years. And misleading characterizations, even outright fabrications, about the Orthodox have found their was as well into the media. (You may be interested in the enclosed article I recently wrote for Moment Magazine, a widely respected non-denominational Jewish periodical.)
Your review of "Kadosh" added considerable fuel to that ugly fire, and in a periodical that is read by millions and internationally renowned for responsible reportage and commentary.
For your further interest and edification, I enclose here as well two of many letters-to-the-editor of The Times that were provided us by constituents, as well as a letter of my own to The Times; to the best of my knowledge, no letters on the topic have been published to date.
Also enclosed is a copy of an article about "Kadosh" challenging its portrayal of Orthodox life. It includes the fact that Mr. Gitai apparently has his own agenda, largely political. He is quoted as saying of his work: "It's my way of voting against the religious right. There has been a veritable coup d'etat by the religious community. It is up to us to decide what kind of country we will have [in Israel]."
It is distressing that he seems to have managed to enlist you in his cause, and that you have (perhaps unwittingly but no less destructively) helped spread his ire against religious Jews to millions of readers - readers whose future assumptions about Orthodox Jews will now be informed by Mr. Gitai's fantasies and your apparent endorsement of them.
I would greatly appreciate your response to the above. If you acknowledge the validity of my point - that you inadvertently promoted Mr. Gitai's deep and unsupported prejudice - I would be particularly interested in your thoughts about what might be done to set the public record straight.
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Director of Public Affairs
Agudath Israel of America
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AN INFORMED REFORM JEW'S LAMENT
In what may be one of the world's best-kept Jewish secrets, the Reform movement, of which I am a part, continues to abrogate a most fundamental principle of Jewish tradition.
Reform rabbis and lay leaders have deliberately nurtured the myth that our Orthodox brethren do not recognize us - or Conservative Jews for that matter - as Jewish. In truth, though, it is my own Reform movement that does not recognize some of us as Jews - even those born of Jewish mothers - as outlined in the definition that has guided Jewish life for at least 2,000 years.
The report of the Committee on Patrilineal Descent on the Status of Children of Mixed Marriages, adopted by the CCAR on March 15, 1983, states: "it can no longer be assumed a priori, therefore, that the child of a Jewish mother will be any more Jewish than the child of a non-Jewish mother will not be. This leads us to the conclusion that the same requirements must be applied to establish the status of a child of a mixed marriage, regardless of whether the mother or father is Jewish."
The report goes on to say, "Therefore: The Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performances of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parent and child, to Jewish life..."
In an exchange of correspondence, my rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Marblehead, Mass., where I have been affiliated for almost 40 years, confirms that a child born of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, who would be deemed Jewish by Orthodox and Conservative authorities, would not be deemed Jewish by the Reform movement if there were no public affirmation of Jewishness, such as baby naming or circumcision ceremony, consecration or bar or bat mitzvah and unless the child were raised exclusively as a Jew. Furthermore, if a child born of a Jewish mother were brought up in both religions or neither religion, the child would not be regarded Jewish by the Reform movement. If a male child born of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father were circumcised in a hospital but not ritually, he would not be presumed Jewish by the movement until and unless some later evidence emerged that he was reared as a Jew. A female child would be viewed in the same manner if she did not experience a baby-naming.
But how (and by whom) would it be determined whether a child is being raised exclusively as a Jew? Would the presence of a Christmas tree in his or her home disqualify a child from being considered Jewish? Would occasional attendance at church services with the child's non-Jewish father be determinative? And what of children born of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father but brought up in a purely secular home? Are they to be deemed not Jewish since they fall in the category of "neither"?
How paradoxical that children recognized as Jewish by our Orthodox and Conservative brethren would be viewed as non-Jewish by my Reform movement, the "liberal" branch of Judaism. How ironic that, on the one hand, the reform movement brings legal action against the government of Israel for failure to recognize as Jewish people who are converted in Israel by the Reform movement, while on the other hand, the movement denies Jewish recognition of some people who are born of a Jewish mother.
In practice, it might be the case that problems stemming from this issue do not arise with tremendous frequency. Nonetheless, the rule technically requires children of interfaith marriages, even in cases where the mother is Jewish, to affirm publicly their Jewishness or to go beyond that required of children whose parents are both Jewish, in order to be considered Jewish themselves. That is onerous - and contrary to the spirit of the Reform movement. It is a problem, both as a matter of principle and practice.
It is clear that the wide chasm between the Reform movement, on the one hand, and the Conservative and Orthodox movements, on the other, created by the differing views of who deserves to be recognized as a Jew is far greater than most of realize. If Reform leaders do not take steps to reverse this divisive, radical departure from historic Jewish law and tradition, it will be hard to imagine anything resembling a unified Jewish people in the future.
[Robert Lappin, a businessman and philanthropist, is a past president of the Federation of the North Shore in Massachusetts]
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FROM MT. SINAI TO MA BELL
Judaism is Just a Phone Call Away
Warm, sensitive, intelligent person (Jewish seeking to share long distance telephone calls. Talk about books, and what's important in life. Looking for commitment - at least one hour per week.
A "personals" listing for someone who has a serious problem with face-to-face encounters? An ad for a long-distance telephone company with really good rates?
Actually, it's one of the hottest new ways to study Torah. And even Jews who may have thought they had moved too far away, either physically or emotionally, from things Jewish, have used their telephones to get back in touch.
What's far? If Alaska crossed your mind, consider David Kadosh, who was living in an Eskimo Village when he got the urge to return to his roots. A program called TelePartners put him in touch with two study partners in New York who introduced David to the Talmud, the weekly Torah portion, and Jewish philosophy.
Sponsored by the Orthodox organization Partners in Torah (http://www.jewishworldreview.com/pit/), TelePartners' goal is to bring together Jews from all walks of life, and all levels of learning, and pair them off to study Torah. In communities with a large enough Jewish population, the partners meet in a local Beit Midrash (House of Study). But for those who happen to live in places like Incline Village, Nevada, like Rebecca Hale, the learning is done over the phone.
Rebecca? An Orthodox learning program open to women? Emphatically, yes. It's also open to Reform Jews, Conservative Jews and Jews who aren't any of the above. The only requirement for admission is a desire to learn.
Anyone who has always had a secret urge to find out what this Talmud-business is all about, but finds it hard to imagine he or she could have something in common with someone who belongs to a synagogue or JCC is a lot like Jodi Maltzman, whose reconnection to Judaism began in the plumbing aisle of her local Home Depot.
Maltzman had confided her all-too-common problem to a few non-Jewish friends: she wanted to know more about Judaism but felt too alienated from the local Jewish community to do anything about it. One day, her friends happened to be in Home Depot when they spotted a man with a kippa. They took action and told the man about Jodi. He got in touch with Maltzman and personally took her to a Partners in Torah study center. Thus began over four years of weekly learning sessions where she not only learned about Judaism but came to experience it first-hand by celebrating Jewish holidays with the people she met through the program.
Unlike Jodi Maltzman, though, most people come to the program by picking up the phone and calling Partners in Torah at 1(800) STUDY-4-2. The program coordinators ask questions about personal interests so that each participant is matched up with a compatible partner. Therefore, even though one member of the pair has extensive learning skills while the other is a beginner, the relationship is more about friends studying together than a teacher instructing a student.
Learning pairs determine together what they will study or they can seek advice from the Partners in Torah staff. Some, like David Kadosh and his mentor, delve into Jewish texts. Others may choose to concentrate on discovering what the holidays, Shabbat or prayer are all about. Because the learning is one-on-one, the time can be tailored to the interests of each individual. And the program is absolutely free, even for those learning over the phone, since Partners in Torah picks up the tab for the phone bill.
To help the "chemistry" happen, Partners in Torah selects as mentors only those people who are non-judgmental toward others and positive about their Jewish heritage. Although the Orthodox mentors are no doubt pleased if their learning partners come to express an interest in Jewish observance, both mentors and beginners stress that no pressure is brought to bear on participants.
"A lot of our meetings.were simply used as a chance for me to ask questions, "says Jessica Erlbaum about her year of study with Gina Fishman. "I had many questions and concerns about our religion due to my lack of knowledge and my misperceptions. It was really a year of clarification for me."
All the same, for newcomers to Jewish learning who are studying in a Beit Midrash, it's only natural to receive an invitation from their mentors for a Shabbat or holiday. But even for the phone partners, as the relationship develops there often comes a point when they decide to meet in person.
Thus, when Silicon Valley resident Michael Silver had to travel east on business he accepted an invitation to spend Shabbat with his phone-study partner Asher Israel, who lives in the ultra-religious New York neighborhood Boro Park. Asher recalls that, "Michael was amazed. He walked the streets of Boro Park with his mouth open. He'd never seen so many visibly Jewish Jews before in his life." A highlight of the weekend was a Sunday visit to a tefillin store, where Michael got to see the hand-made process and pick out his own set.
Like Michael, who now puts on tefillin daily, over time many of the participants in the program experience a desire to put their learning into practice. For some this might mean exploring the world of traditional religious observance: keeping kosher or Shabbat, praying daily. For others the journey may lead them to a more intensive study of the Hebrew language or a first-time trip to Israel.
And for the mentors there are also rewards from participating in the program that have come as a pleasant surprise.
Even though Yaakov Grossman from Queens was a teacher of advanced Jewish Studies, when he was matched up with Maine farmer Avraham Perlman he discovered that his "pupil" had a lot to teach him about the laws of Shabbat. As they went through the first 11 of the 49 laws, which just happen to be related to agriculture, Perlman could supply real-life, practical e amples for things that Grossman had only learned about in theory.
With over 550 pairs learning Torah by phone, as well as another 1,200 pairs learning in study houses, Partners in Torah is justifiably proud of the success it has achieved in just a few short years.
But despite an annual $75,000 phone bill (that translates into a true wealth of words of Torah), Partners in Torah's idea of success goes beyond numbers. It's measured most meaningfully in the overwhelmingly positive feedback received from participants, whose responses to the program are as individual as the courses of study.
For some, the experience has been as much about learning to respect differences as learning about texts. Rebecca Wolf comments that, "As a Reform Jew, my partner is becoming more sensitive to me as I am to her. This is our mission; one of interaction and respect for each other."
For others, the satisfaction comes from achieving more basic goals. As Karen Tabloff from West Rogers Park says, "I think people are desperately seeking spirituality. They want to find out about their roots and traditions. For those reasons I started coming to Partners in Torah - to find out what it means to be a Jew."
[Moshe Schapiro, a former Torontonian, currently lives and writes in Jerusalem]
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PURIM IN THE VALLEY OF TEARS
We all sat listlessly on our bunks, waiting impatiently for the high point of our day in Death Camp Number Four of Dachau - the meager bread ration we received. It was my seventh month in a concentration camp.
"Do you know that tomorrow is Purim?" I asked my brothers in suffering, trying to distract them, and myself, from tormented thoughts and painful pangs of hunger.
"How do you know?"
"Who told you?"
"Have you been dreaming?"
"Where did you find a calendar?"
"It's freezing! Purim can't be for another month."
"No, no!" others protested. "Srulik doesn't make mistakes like that! We know him from before the war and assure you he has a good memory."
"Crazy Chassidim!" yet others grumbled. "You have nothing else to worry about besides when Purim falls this year? What's the difference any more between Purim and Pesach, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? Isn't it always the fast day of Tisha B'Av?"
The debate gathered force among the block's "mussulmen" - the eighty living skeletons crammed tightly into a half-buried hut, a virtual wooden tomb overgrown with grass.
It was the hour before nightfall, when we inhabitants of the block, now converted into an infirmary, lay tensely on our "bunks" - wooden boards covered with a thin layer of straw - our eyes riveted to the curtain that separated the block elder's spacious quarters from where we lay.
Suddenly, as if by magic, a silence blanketed the room. The curtain had parted, and the "block elder" stood there with his henchmen, bearing our bread rations; it had been nearly twenty-four hours. Each inmate, upon receiving his ration, measured it wordlessly with his eyes and compared it to his neighbor's portion, each convinced that the other had received more. In an instant, best friends turned into jealous rivals, and any enjoyment of the bread was spoiled. Within minutes, the stingy portions were devoured by the starving, wretched men, and our stomachs felt just as empty as before, the gnawing hunger made all the more intolerable by the realization that we would have to wait a whole day for the next piece of bread.
Having just suffered through a bad bout of typhus and several days of high fever, I fell back on my board, and fast asleep.
When I woke up the next morning, I felt dizzy; my head was like a leaden weight. Unable to think of anything else but eating, I began to calculate how much time remained until noon, when the "hot soup" - a nondescript, lukewarm liquid in which a piece of potato occasionally floated - would appear.
With my head down on the wooden board, near despair, I began to conjure up images from my past, of my life with my parents and my two sisters, Gittel and Mirel... how I used to learn in the study-hall of the Chassidim of Ger. Mostly, I remembered my grandfather, Reb Herschel, who loved me dearly and would take me, his only grandson, along whenever he went to the Gerer Rebbe. I relived the memory of the Chassidic leader's face, his eyes overflowing with wisdom and love, penetrating the very depths of my soul.
Will I ever have the merit, I wondered, to press myself once again into the crowd of Chassidim gathering around the Rebbe, to learn from him how to be a good Chassid and a G-d-fearing person?
"Time to daven, Srulik."
My friend's voice shook me from my reverie. The pleasant memories vanished and once again I found myself back in the pit of hell.
Half-dazed, I picked myself up and said, "Yes, of course. Let's wash our hands and daven."
Then it struck me.
"But it's Purim today!" I exclaimed. "We have to organize a minyan - maybe we'll even remember a few verses of Megillas Esther!"
I suddenly forgot my pain, my suffering, my hunger pangs. Summoning up all my remaining strength, I went to wash my hands and face and then to find some others to complete our minyan. Perhaps, I thought, I might even find someone else who could recall a few more verses from the megillah so that we could fulfill as much as possible of the Jewish obligation handed down from generation to generation.
And then, as if to show that God particularly desires mitzvos Jews perform with true dedication, a small miracle occurred: a copy of the second book of the Bible, with the complete Megillas Esther appended, was discovered by my friend, Itche Perelman, a member of the camp burial squad.
Our elation was immeasurable! Such a find was awesome! It could only be a sign that our prayers had been received in Heaven and the redemption was about to begin. Our excitement grew to a feverish pitch. Who remembered the hunger, the cold, the filth, the degradation? No one gave a thought to the dangers involved in organizing a minyan and reading the Megillah, to the possibility of the Germans or a kapo deciding to drop in on our hut. Even the non-religious ones who only yesterday had scoffed at the "crazy Chassidim" were filled with excitement at this great event.
"Who will read the Megillah?" someone asked.
The lot, so to speak, fell on me, for I had become an adept reader of holy texts over the time I had been locked into the ghetto. Within moments, volunteers managed to locate some clothing for me since, like the other inmates of the infirmary, I had been assigned nothing more than a blanket with which to cover myself. And so, I found myself sitting on the edge of my piece of wooden plank, dressed in a camp uniform, a towel wrapped around my head in place of a yarmulka, reciting with my remaining strength, "and Haman sought to destroy all the Jews."
When I read aloud about Haman's downfall, and that "The Jews had light and happiness, joy and honor", the spark of hope deep inside every Jew's heart ignited into a flaming torch. "Dear Lord of the Universe!" I know each of us was thinking, "make a wondrous miracle for us, too, as you did for our forefathers in those days, and let us too see the end of our enemies!"
When I finished, everyone cheered. For a brief instant, the dreadful reality of the SS death camp had been forgotten, all the hunger and suffering had receded. Having exerted all my remaining energy in my reading of the Megillah, I sat breathless, but with my spirit soaring.
When people's actions are pleasing to God, their enemies are reconciled to them. Even the block elder, who usually strutted in with an arrogant demeanor and scowling face, allowed a smile to play on his lips as he entered that day, and he handed out the soup without shouting or cursing at anyone. And the ever-present jealousy among ourselves seemed to turn into generosity. Instead of complaints that someone else had received more potatoes, I heard things like "Let Srulik get a bigger portion of soup today!"
Instead of dwelling on the past or bemoaning the present, we began to dream about the future, to hope that soon the German demon would inherit his own downfall, and that the end of Jewish suffering would arrive. And like a river overflowing it banks, the festive atmosphere and the vision of redemption burst out of the broken hearts of the camp inmates, and, one mitzvah leading to another, more acts of spiritual heroism followed. Someone decided to forgo a small piece of yesterday's bread he had saved, and offered it to his comrade instead. Another person made a gift of a piece of potato, and these two "portions", which only yesterday could have caused envy and hatred among friends, now became the means by which the inmates could fulfill what was written, "the mitzvah of sending gifts of food, one person to another."
These precious Mishloach Manos were passed around from one to the other, until they finally landed on my lap. Everyone decided that I should be the one to keep them in the end as compensation for reading the megillah.
I thought to myself, "Dear God! Behold your great nation, which in an instant can transform itself from the level of wild animals tearing at one another, to the level of courageous men, faithful Jews..."
And a verse welled up inside me: "Who is like you, Yisrael, a singular nation on Earth?"
With great emotion I turned to all present: "Precious Jews!" I said. "Brothers in suffering! I don't deserve this honor you have given me. Let us all have but one request from our Heavenly Father: Next year in Jerusalem!"
[I.I. Cohen, a Polish-born survivor of three concentration camps, lives in Toronto, where he is writing a book about his wartime experiences, from which the above is excerpted.]
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KADOSH - THE REAL STORY
Though I haven't seen the film "Kadosh", and do not plan to, publicity about the movie has made it clear to me that it contains much misinformation about Jewish women.
I am a Jewish woman, and one who could be called by that favorite ever-so-subtle pejorative used by much of the media - "ultra-Orthodox". I am a wife, too, a mother of children ranging in age at present from twenty to two, and a teacher - of high school chemistry and adult Jewish studies. Mainly, I teach women the laws and philosophy of Jewish marriage. And so the issue of Jewish women is of deep concern to me.
I am not interested in taking any particular reviewer to task for his or her ignorant slurs of a community. Suffice it to say that negative falsehoods of the sort that has appeared in "Kadosh"'s wake would scarcely be tolerated were they directed at most any other ethnic group, and stray far indeed from any model of responsible reporting. Nor do I wish to challenge those responsible for the production of this film. They, like the proverbial light bulb that needs but one psychologist, would have to really want to change; not very likely. These are people with powerful personal agendas, determined to fight what threatens their spiritual complacency.
It is rather sincere, searching Jewish women whom I address. Because it pains me no end to think that someone might actually believe the film's producer's bad dream presented as a portrayal of women and marriage in the "ultra-Orthodox" Jewish world. What movie reviewer Stephen Holden of the New York Times (February 16) characterized as Orthodox "mysogyny" and the Orthodox "fear and loathing of sex that originates largely from a primitive notion of women's bodies as essentially unclean" is ultra-asinine. He, sadly, hasn't a clue about his subject.
Judaism views the physical relationship between husband and wife as an intensely private domain of sanctity. Far from fear and loathing, Judaism strongly encourages intensity of the physical pleasure shared between husband and wife. The subtle concept of ritual purity relates as well to men and has alludes at its root to the difficult state humanity finds itself in, where the second law of thermodynamics reigns; where, unfortunately, we are still all subject to death and decay. It isn't a male/female thing, but a human thing.
The monthly separation and reunion of husband and wife that is necessitated as a result creates an astounding phenomenon. In stark contrast to the reality of life in the secular world, Torah-observant couples enjoy healthy, vigorous and intensely pleasurable relationships for not months or years but decades into a marriage. Highly educated and successful secular women have told me that this was the very driving force that brought them to seek out information on becoming observant, that resulted in their adoption of the committed life of an Orthodox Jew.
The ebb and flow of the physical component of husband-wife relationships is intuitive to many women, and is what lies at the heart of Jewish religious law.
Even at the most simple level, self-respecting women want a relationship in which trust and respect abounds. They want to be adored for their physical selves but above all for their inner selves. They want a mate that only has eyes for his wife and is committed to sharing his life with her. Someone with a deep sense of responsibility to her and to the family they hope to raise together. Where might one find such a thing? On the casting couches of Hollywood (or Tel Aviv)? At Beverly Hills plastic surgeons? On "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?"?
It can be found in the "ultra-Orthodox" community, where men, women and children work together toward a common higher purpose.
For thousands of years, while the rest of the "enlightened" world kept itself busy with unspeakable horrors, the sages of the Torah have been sensitive to and protective of women's concerns and needs. They laid the obligation to provide physical satisfaction at the feet of the husband in the marriage bond. In what other society is that the case?
Why is this so surprising to so many? Because we Orthodox Jews still cling to a concept called modesty. In the age of webcam, we attempt to lead lives inwardly. When you see us from the outside, you see separation between the sexes and restraint in behavior and dress. Nothing, though, more effectively focuses the intensity of human love and passion on its rightful place, the ultimate human relationship which is a marriage.
As a mentor of mine often says, rarely if ever has there been a generation as highly intelligent and highly educated as ours, yet as highly confused. I pray that my fellow Jews, whatever their affiliations or levels of observance, will not be misled by what so much of the media spews out for its own ends. I pray we all have the objectivity and courage to search for the truth.
[Susanne Kest writes from Los Angeles.]
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