Provided by Am Echad Resources:
Information and Opinion from a Traditional Jewish Perspective
Archives Of Previous Articles VI
NO STRIKE AT LANIADO
The 127-day doctors' strike finally came to an end last week. The number of lives lost in the course of the strike is still to be tallied, and the long-term health consequences will never be known.
At Laniado Hospital in Netanya, however, the strike never began. Since its founding by the Klausenberger Rebbe, Rabbi Yekusiel Halberstam, whose sixth yahrtzeit was also marked last week, there has never been a strike by any hospital employee or work stoppage of any kind. Just as soldiers cannot strike in the midst of battle, the Rebbe taught, so too those involved in healing may not strike no matter how legitimate their grievances.
During the Holocaust, the Rebbe traversed every level of Hell - Auschwitz, ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, work camps, and death marches. In the course of that journey, which claimed his wife and their eleven children, he vowed that if he survived he would build a monument to chesed (kindness) that would stand in the starkest possible contrast to the inhumanity of German ``men of culture and science.''
Laniado is that monument. It took the Rebbe fifteen years to raise the money to build the hospital. His mission was to show the world a Jewish approach to healing and that the highest medical standards are fully consistent with the highest halachic standards.
When the Minister of Health scoffed at the Rebbe's dream, and told him that three permits had already been issued for new hospitals in the Netanya area, the Rebbe replied that none of them would be built. (He was right.) To the Minister's offer to let the Rebbe supervise religious affairs at the government hospitals in the region, the Rebbe countered that he would run his hospital and let the Minister affix the mezuzot.
In a speech to the entire staff of the hospital upon its opening, the Rebbe said, "Our Torah is a Torah of lovingkindness. Everyone can understand that a rabbi, and indeed every believing Jew, wishes to establish Torah institutions. Everyone should therefore understand why a rabbi established this hospital, which is, in fact, a magnificent Torah institution."
Building a hospital was another aspect of teaching Torah in the Rebbe's eyes. (He later founded Mifal HaShas, under whose auspicies thousands are tested on between 20 to 70 folios of Talmud every month.)
The Rebbe was careful that nothing should ever detract from his main goal of demonstrating to the world a hospital based on the Torah. When a female employee began distributing in the hospital material on the laws of family purity, the Rebbe stopped her immediately. "They will say I built this hospital to missionize - to have kosher food or to pass out pamphlets," he explained.
The Rebbe succeeded in creating the unique Torah institution he had envisioned. The rabbi of the hospital, Rabbi Chaim Yaakov Schwartz, is involved in every aspect of medical care - not just giving instructions on heating water on Shabbos. He meets frequently with every department head to discuss halachic questions, and is a constant presence on the wards. In the nearly quarter century of Laniado's existence, he has not taken a single day of vacation.
The average hospital Laniado's size has six respirators. Laniado has 25 so that no doctor ever has to set priorities in the allocation of respirators. Once a patient was unconscious and believed brain dead on a respirator for 55 days following a near drowning. Today he is alive and well.
Most important is the attitude to healing with which the Rebbe imbued the staff. In his opening speech he pronounced the most vital quality for the staff as ``a warm Jewish heart. "The protocols of the hospital, drafted by the Rebbe, specify that employees should be "full of love for their fellow Jews and every other human being."
The Rebbe told the staff that their goal must always be "to cure the patient not just cure the disease," and he insisted that concern with their pain was crucial to that task. Asked which of two types of syringe needles the hospital should purchase - one that was slightly less painful or one that was half the price - he immediately ordered the more expensive needles.
Dr. Andre deFreis, the former director-general of Beilenson Hospital, later served at Laniado. He described the difference in Laniado: "Here I feel I'm a healer. There is a feeling of being involved in holy work." He told a medical conference, "At Laniado, I learned that the patient is a person."
A man once came to the Rebbe in America to thank him for saving his life. He had been in critical condition in a hospital for several days, and two young nurses did not leave his side during that entire period. They explained their dedication, `"We are graduates of Laniado nursing school. And we once heard the Rebbe speak on the merit of saving lives. We felt that with constant attention we could save you."
One Rosh Hashana, a woman began to hemmorhage badly during child birth. She needed a massive transfusion of a rare blood type immediately. An order went out that every student in the adjacent yeshiva should immediately rush to the hospital to have their blood type tested. Prayers were stopped in the middle of Mussaf of Rosh Hashannah. The women's sister, herself a nurse, told the staff later, "There is no other hospital where she would still be alive today."
The Rebbe told the nursing school students that if they ever heard of a woman contemplating an abortion, they should tell her that the Rebbe would raise the child as his own. One woman convinced by a nursing school student in this fashion to carry to term a baby she had been told would be deformed delivered a perfectly healthy baby.
The Rebbe once explained why there have never been any demonstrations in Kiryat Sanz. "When you come to a place of darkness, you do not chase out the darkness with a broom. You light a candle."
Few have lit so bright a candle.
[Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and Israeli director of Am Echad.]
Return To Index of Articles
THE PARADOX OF CONTEMPORARY FEMINISM
A deep-seated paradox lurks in modern feminism. In its purest form, the championing of women should open opportunities, provide us with a plethora of choices, and allow us to make our own decisions about our lives.
Unfortunately, though, the reality can yield quite the opposite. A recent incident sadly illustrates the point. In April, a brouhaha broke out in Israel when Justice Minister Yossi Beilin decried the Jewish religious community's preference for large families. Opposing a bill to increase child allowances beginning with a family's fourth child, Beilin noted that the Israeli system "encourages" families to have more and more children at the state's expense, and that they become a "burden to society." Anti-religious Knesset member Tommy Lapid chimed in, expressing doubt that children of large religious families will become useful members of society.
There were insinuations, too, that religious Jews have many children so that they can take advantage of the Jewish State's per-child stipends - something that would probably surprise not only the parents of those families but the hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Jews outside Israel who similarly observe the commandment Pru U'rvu ("be fruitful and multiply") but receive limited if any public assistance.
More insulting still, though, to many Orthodox was Mr. Beilin's statement that large families condemn women to lives of "slavery and servitude." The sentiment was echoed by author Naomi Ragen, who not only claimed that the preference for large families drives religious women to mental illness but also that the women's own testimony to their happiness was simply a parroting of "the party line."
Although I had thought that precious little in the war of invective against religious Jews could surprise me any longer, I was a bit taken aback to realize that I and countless other women like me were being effectively labeled intellectual inferiors.
Ironically, though, I'm just the kind of woman that the secular liberal intelligentsia and feminists generally love: I have a doctorate in political science, and I was educated in the enlightened ivory tower of academe. But they look askance at me, my "sin" (so to speak) being that I subsequently "regressed" by choosing to become a religious Jew. In fact, I actively seek out the company of women raised with few secular academic honors but who are steeped in our heritage, who move between ancient textual sources fluidly and with complete assurance, and whose breadth and depth of knowledge never cease to astound me. They conduct classes - often with multiple children playing around their feet - for other Jewish women. Often they are the breadwinners of their families; in fact, women are at the forefront of the high-tech revolution in Israel's religious community - though that fact somehow does not endear them to their feminist sisters.
Feminism, like the socialism of the Labor Zionists who founded Israel, is premised on the concept - an astoundingly anti-democratic one - that the masses are ignorant of their true condition and need their "consciousness raised" by a vanguard intellectual elite. Though socialism has been largely waylaid in Israel, this condescending ideological remnant has, it seems, devolved into widespread antagonism toward a community that has grown both in numbers and in commitment, far surpassing expectations of its vitality and belying the repeated reports of its impending demise.
That is precisely why religious women - whom our Torah and sages teach have been the salvation of the Jewish people many times over - are under attack. As the carriers and transmitters of the tradition, we are at the heart of the Jewish family and the nurturers of its soul. Without the commitment of Jewish women, the community would languish. Knowing that full well, those opposed to religion feel they must attack our very legitimacy as independent thinkers.
It may be too much to hope for that the "vanguard elite" will heed appeals to abandon attacks on the religious community in favor of reasoned debate. But none of us - religious or not - should hesitate to point out the absurdity and authoritarianism of that self-appointed elite's quest to "free" religious women by casting aspersions on our intelligence and seeking to deprive us of true freedom of choice. Feminism cannot be used to simultaneously empower some women and delegitimize others; if "pro-choicers" are honest, after all, they must defend the choice to have large families and live according to the Torah as well.
Lest Jews in the Diaspora remain complacent, we should not harbor the illusion that the paradox of contemporary feminism is idiosyncratic of Israel. While the degree of resentment for the fervently religious Jewish community may be particular to that country, attacks by the liberal left and the feminist camp on the value of larger families and the religious lifestyle occur in the United States and other western nations as well. It may be axiomatic in some circles that the enlightened intelligentsia know best. But some of us, less trendy perhaps but no less intelligent, think otherwise.
[Nicole Brackman, Ph.D., is a Washington-based political scientist who specializes in Israeli and Middle East politics.]
Return To Index of Articles
Israel may be out of Lebanon, but some Israelis, unfortunately, are not.
On a fateful night in June 1982, a battalion of young Israeli soldiers there suddenly found itself in the middle of a heavily fortified Syrian encampment. Twenty-one Israeli soldiers were killed and three were captured. The captives were paraded through Damascus the next day and have not been seen since.
When other children ask Danny Eisen's 4-year-old daughter what her father does, she says that Daddy is a prisoner of war. Not precisely true. He is often away from home, to be sure, and as a result of war. But what keeps him "captive" is his work on behalf of true captives. When you're a little girl, it's hard to tell the difference. Only when you're older do you consider him a hero.
At 41, Danny Eisen hardly looks the part of an international activist. Slightly built, with a beard, glasses, wavy hair and long sidelocks tucked behind his ears, the Toronto-born Orthodox Jew seems more like a science teacher than the intrepid strategist behind a world-wide, grass-roots coalition whose diplomatic initiatives have affected American foreign policy and placed Israeli hostages on the international agenda. Except for the forceful passion in his voice when he speaks about his cause, one would never guess that he travels around the world to meet with heads of state, intelligence operatives, terrorists and anyone else who might conceivably play some role in locating and bringing home three Israeli soldiers missing now for 18 years.
There isn't a day that goes by that Eisen doesn't think about the missing men; he even dreams about them.
As it happened, the three soldiers captured in Lebanon - Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz - were part of a battalion with a high proportion of Orthodox soldiers. When Eisen recently addressed a delegation of Christian clergy, the listeners sat open-mouthed as they heard how, when it became clear that the battle was hopeless, the soldiers discussed complex halachic questions regarding ethics in battle and captivity, including the Jewish legal position on suicide in the face of torture.
Since the Syrians had broken their codes and were listening in, the men improvised an ad hoc code using an ancient system of Jewish numerology, which the soldiers with yeshiva training deciphered for the others. Yehudah Katz drew on his extensive knowledge of Jewish legal and ethical writings, and addressed his fellow soldiers on the proper ethical and emotional qualities demanded by Jewish law of a Jewish soldier. Witnesses say he
managed to strengthen the resolve and calm the fears of his fellow soldiers, many of whom had never before experienced battle.
Eisen has also taken up the cause of another missing soldier, Ron Arad, who was captured after bailing out of his crippled plane over Southern Lebanon. Over the years there has been a steady flow of information indicating that some of the Israelis are still alive and being held hostage by Syrian and Iranian operatives. Eisen works relentlessly to keep the issue of the soldiers' fates "high profile" in the media and on the agenda of Western governments and Israel. In this way, he has helped ensure that the men are
not forgotten, and that those responsible for their fate are held accountable.
Initially, Eisen, an Orthodox rabbinic scholar, had simply wanted to help the missing Jews, and bring about closure for the families. In the words of the mother of one of the missing men, "Imagine not knowing whether your son is dead or alive. Imagine the fear that you'll eventually find out that he was alive and you hadn't done everything in your power to rescue him."
With time, however, he came to realize that an even larger ideal hovered in the background. Throughout their history, Jews have always held that the value of a life cannot be defined by political considerations. The Talmud places tremendous emphasis on the obligation to redeem captives, and Jews have always gone to extraordinary lengths to do so. Today, says Eisen, with the yawning divisions - religious, political, ideological - in the Jewish people, the sense of responsibility to Jewish captives may be one of the
last fundamental principles capable of uniting all Jews. That has come to the forefront as Jews in Iran stand before a kangaroo court, and, Eisen maintains, it is evident in the broad support he has received from Jews of all stripes in his effort to find and free Israeli captives.
At the onset of the Oslo peace process in 1993, there was increased opportunity for dialogue between Israel and the Arab states, and the imminent return of the missing soldiers seemed a reasonable possibility. To Eisen's dismay, though, the issue of the captured soldiers was never once mentioned publicly by Israeli officials. That fact was the midwife of the International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers, Eisen's organization. He was reluctant to leave his rabbinical studies, but expected the position to be only temporary, just until the plight of the missing soldiers was resolved.
Seven years later, the group's Jerusalem headquarters still has a look of impermanence. There is hardly any furniture, just tables, phones, fax and copy machines, and stacks of papers, files, and promotional material.
Support for the effort comes from across the political and religious spectrums, and from around the world.
"The success of the organization shows that this is still a core value that can speak to people," says Eisen. "We have wealthy donors and people going door to door in Meah Shearim, a neighborhood of mostly poorer, very religious Jews. People give whatever they can."
Despite their broad-based support, most of the money raised is used in the lobbying effort, for travel, telephone and advertising. Consequently, there is only a small, dedicated staff. They include Raye Rakefet, a shy, unpretentious woman who works out of her home in Har Nof, a Jerusalem suburb. Despite her unassuming demeanor, or perhaps because of it, she is a remarkable lobbyist. During an 8-month period last year, Raye placed more than 8,000 phone calls in an effort to overcome opposition and pass an ambitious bill through the US Congress. Simultaneously, Eisen accompanied the elderly Baumels for a twenty-five week effort to drum up support across the United States.
The Congressional bill the group helped promote - "Legislation to Locate and Secure the Release of Zachary Baumel, an American Citizen, and Other Israelis Missing in Action" - links American aid to Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority and other governments in the region to their cooperation in locating and returning the missing men. In August, 1999, it passed unanimously in both houses of Congress and was subsequently signed into law by President Clinton.
Its passage and enactment represented a startling coup by any standard. Foreign policy is not generally codified in legislation, the bill moved with unusual speed and there was significant opposition to overcome. Eisen doesn 't believe in luck, but neither does he believe it was just his group's hard work. Again he stresses the unifying power of the issue.
"These four missing men are a binding force in world Jewry today. There is almost no chasm this issue can't cross. And that's a tremendous source of merit for them."
Eisen is now pushing for similar legislation in Great Britain and other Western countries. Will these legislative initiatives put an end to the hostage taking that has plagued the Middle East over the past two decades? Eisen is skeptical.
"Kidnapping soldiers is now replacing terrorism as a primary strategic tool of the Arab rejectionists. It's better for p.r., and it's cheaper."
Eisen says his wife, Sarah Malka, is his major source of encouragement when the obstacles seem almost too formidable. She acknowledges that his absences are hard on their three children, but believes this is mitigated by the benefits of seeing in their father a model of conviction, someone willing to go to extraordinary lengths to help others in need. She herself was brought up with such a model, and speaks with pride of her great-grandfather, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Birnbaum, whose monumental efforts to preserve both Jewish lives and Jewish values take up several pages in the Encylopedia Judaica.
For his part, Eisen hopes his task will soon be done, and that he will be able to be home more often like other fathers. He looks forward, too, to when he'll have more time to engage his passion for study. His home is lined with hundreds of Jewish texts.
"When I got involved with this, no one imagined that this issue would drag on for so long. I've missed years of Torah study", he says. "Even though I know it was the right thing to do, it has still left a big hole."
"And that is a loss," he adds sadly, "that can never be replaced."
When the captured men are returned home, he says wistfully, his first priorities will be to spend a lot more time with his studies and his family.
THE INTERNATIONAL COALITION FOR MISSING ISRAELI SOLDIERS can be contacted at P.O. Box 32380, Jerusalem 91233 Israel (972-2-623-6083) firstname.lastname@example.org
[Adam Jessel is a research consultant living in Israel.]
Return To Index of Articles
ORWELL AT THE KOTEL
Asher V. Finn
Many American Jews likely applauded the decision by Israel's High Court ordering the government to allow a women's group to hold vocal prayer services at Jerusalem's Western Wall, or Kotel Ma'aravi, as a victory for civil rights. In truth, though, it was something else entirely.
At present, of course, women are entirely welcome at the Kotel, just like men. There is, though, a tradition - at the Wall since its capture by Israel in 1967, and in Judaism since approximately 1000 years before the Common Era - that considers public and vocal women's prayer inappropriate in the presence of men (and mixed men-and-women services altogether improper). That tradition, though it has been rejected by many contemporary Jews, is codified in Jewish religious law. It was born not of any prejudice against women but of a deep concern with modesty, a concept admittedly fallen from grace among many of late.
That very Jewish religious tradition, though, was lived and cherished by all Jews' forebears. Its insistence that women's voices not be raised in song in the presence of men and that women and men are to worship in separate areas may seem quaint to many, but it is part and parcel of Jewish life for hundreds of thousands of Jews in the contemporary world. And it is certainly so for the vast majority of Jews who are the "regulars" for services at the Western Wall.
Indeed, there is a law on the books in Israel barring ceremonies at the Kotel that are "not according to local custom." Israel's highest court did not nullify that law, which was clearly enacted to preserve the status quo regarding services at the holy site, but seems instead to have interpreted it to mean that any practice in which Jews engage can lay claim to the designation "local custom." A tradition of twenty years, in other words, is no less meaningful than one of twenty centuries. George Orwell may have imagined a society where "war is peace" and "hate is love" but even he might have found "new is traditional" something of a stretch.
Nevertheless, proponents of contemporary "new traditions" no doubt rejoice in the court's embrace of their oxymoronic stance. What they might ponder, though, as might joyous ramparts-chargers in other contexts, is just what might lie ahead. Surely, if the Israeli court's decision is not rendered moot by new, clearer, legislation, there will be no grounds for stopping at public "Women of the Wall" services or Reform services or even "Humanistic Judaism" services (that latter group unabashedly touting atheism as a branch of Judaism) at the Kotel. Nothing will prevent a Hebrew Christian group from asserting its own new Jewish "tradition", complete with symbols and chanting, at the Wall that once was a place of deeply Jewish tradition and peace.
Perhaps that image doesn't bother some of us. But there can be no denying that it deeply troubles those who gather at the Kotel regularly, often in the thousands, and deeply saddens all Jews who maintain deep-seated and sincere respect for Jewish tradition - the original one.
And so, if Israel's religious parties, supported by the Jewish State's overwhelmingly tradition-minded if not fully observant populace, manage in the end to preserve the status quo at the Kotel through new legislation, thoughtful Jews, whatever their affiliation or degree of observance, should not be quick to condemn the development as a blow to civil rights. For it will really have been a blow to Newspeak.
[Asher V. Finn is a writer living in Manhattan]
Return To Index of Articles
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Since its liberation from Jordan in 1967, Jerusalem's Kotel Ma'aravi, or "Western Wall", has been a spiritual magnet for Jews of all denominations and beliefs.
While no one monitors what prayer-books visitors use at the site or if head-coverings are worn, the essential layout of the prayer-area there reflects the requirements of halacha, or Jewish religious law, for a synagogue: men on one side of a partition, women on the other; and women do not pray loudly enough for the men to hear them. Public services at the holy site have likewise been conducted in accordance with classical Jewish tradition. It is a historic site - the remnant of the courtyard wall of the Second Holy Temple - and conduct there has accordingly reflected that fact.
Over past years, though, "egalitarian" prayer-gatherings at the Kotel have been organized by non-Orthodox Jewish activists, predictably provoking hurt and anger (even, inexcusably, some violence) among the thousands of traditional Jews present on the occasions. And a group of women - the "Women of the Wall" - filed suit to allow it to conduct its own public prayer session at the Kotel, in pointed contrast to how women have prayed there for thousands of years. Recently, Israel's High Court ruled that the government must accommodate that group.
Critics of the nontraditional prayer groups point out that the vast majority of the Wall's regular visitors are ardently Orthodox Jews. And that whatever one may personally think of mixed-gender services and chanting women, such things offend the Orthodox. Sensitive folk of good will, after all, would never think of entering a mosque with shoes on -- or a closed space with a lit cigarette.
They note, too, that there is no limit to what could legitimately be demanded were Jewish tradition jettisoned as the public norm at the Kotel. Would not "Messianic Jews" assert a right to mount crosses for their services at the Wall? Might not anti-Zionist Jews wish to burn Israeli flags there?
Proponents of the non-traditional groups essentially say "Let a thousand flowers bloom" - the Kotel, they maintain, belongs to all Jews. Some have even proposed assigning separate parts of the Wall to different Jewish groups.
That, at least to this Jew, would be a true Jewish tragedy in the making.
Because for more than three decades, the Kotel has been a place - perhaps the only one in the world - where Jews of all affiliations and persuasions have regularly prayed side by side. That has been possible because of the good will of non-Orthodox Jews - Israelis and Westerners alike - who, though they may opt for very different services in their own homes, synagogues or temples, have accepted the "highest common denominator" of Jewish tradition for the most Jewishly historic spot on earth.
Imagine, though, a "balkanized" Kotel, Orthodox Jews here, Reform there, Conservative in the corner and a special women's group reading the Torah at the far end. A sad real-time symbol of the state of our sad disharmony.
Could any truly caring Jew - of whatever prefix - really want to hammer that horrid, heavy nail into the coffin of Jewish unity?
Return To Index of Articles
PESACH SHENI, 1945
I. I. Cohen
On Wednesday, April 25, 1945, the SS guards in Kaufering's watchtowers suddenly disappeared.
The block supervisors in our camp - a satellite of Dachau - stopped beating and cursing; they knew that the explosives that had grown louder each day signaled the death throes of the Third Reich. Those of us whose legs could still carry them broke into the camp kitchen and hauled away potatoes, flour, cabbage and pieces of bread. A day earlier we would have been shot on sight for lesser sins, but now, several days since we had been given any food, our hunger overpowered our fright. We stuffed both our bellies and our pockets.
Suddenly the silence was broken by the familiar murderous voices of our German captors.
"Everyone in a row! Roll call!" In a flash, the thugs were once again running about with clubs and revolvers in hand, mercilessly chasing and dragging everyone out of the barracks. , Having already experienced several years together in the ghetto, our small group of young Gerer Chasidim from Lodz tried to stick together. We discussed the situation. It was quite clear that the Allied forces were close by. Rumor had it that the SS command had ordered camp commanders to exterminate all inmates, so that no living testimony would be available to the Allied armies. We found it hard to believe in such a diabolical scheme, but six years under Nazi rule had taught us that bleak prophecies had a tendency to materialize.
We debated our alternatives. Should we follow orders and evacuate the camp, or risk trying to stay behind and await the Allies? We decided to stay and, one by one, stole into the dysentery block, where only the hopelessly ill lay. We hoped that the guards would choose not to enter the contaminated area.
But our hopes were dashed soon enough when our block door crashed open and an SS officer, his machine gun crackling, shouted "Everyone out! The camp is to be blown up!" Silence. We didn't stir, the Nazi left and night fell.
Suddenly the air shook with the wailing of sirens. The Allies were bombing the German defenses! We prayed that the thunderous explosions would go on forever, and eventually fell asleep to the beautiful sound of the bombs.
The next morning we awoke to an ominous silence, broken only by the moans of the dying. We arose cautiously and went outside the block. There was desolation everywhere, and a gaping hole in the barbed wire. Had it been torn open by the fleeing Germans? Were we free?
We went to the other barracks, and shared our discover with their frightened inhabitants - mostly "musselmen", or emaciated "skeletons". Soon enough we heard the unmistakable rumble of an approaching convoy. We sat and waited, our fear leavened with excitement.
The fear proved more prescient, and soon enough melted into acute disappointment, when the all too familiar SS uniforms came once again into view. The Nazis had returned, bringing an entire detachment of prisoners from other camps with them to help them finish their work. Amid the fiendish din of screams and obscenities, we hurriedly hid in one of the blocks, covered ourselves with straw and rags and lay still, our hearts pounding with terror. Soon we heard footsteps in the block and I felt a hand on my head. We had been discovered, by non-Jewish inmates of other labor and POW camps.
We pleaded with them to ignore us, and offered them our potatoes but just as the invaders had agreed, an SS officer came stomping in, swinging his club, which he then efficiently and heartlessly used on our heads. A boot on the behind, and we were on our way to the trucks, accompanied by the commandos and the SS.
We were picked up by our arms and legs and thrown onto a wagon piled with barely human-looking bodies; the moaning of the sick was replaced by the silence of the dead. By a stroke of luck, though, while the guards were busy with another wagon, my friend Yossel Carmel and I managed to roll out of the truck and found refuge in a nearby latrine. Though our hearts had long since turned to stone, our stomachs were convulsing.
Eventually the wagons left, and we crept back into the very block we had occupied earlier. I tore down the light hanging from the ceiling, and we posed, not unconvincingly, as corpses. Every so often the door would open, and we would hear a shout of "Everyone out!" but we just lay perfectly still. Darkness fell, motors rumbled, and then there was quiet.
Friday, April 27, 1945, brought a cold morning. White clouds chased each other across the bright blue sky as a frigid wind blew through the barracks, chilling our bones. Periodically, the earth trembled with an explosion; we sat quietly, each engrossed in his own thoughts. Suddenly, we heard motorcycles rumbling and dogs barking. Our hearts fell. Once again, the Germans were back.
We soon heard footsteps in the block, and then a frenzied voice, "Swine! You are waiting for the Americans? Come with me!" There followed a commotion, the sound of running, the shattering of glass, and then, a burst of machine gun fire. I peeked and saw that those who had been hiding near the window had tried to escape. Yossel and I had not been detected but were paralyzed with fright. Footsteps approached and then we heard the rustling of straw. When we felt tapping on the piles in which we were hiding, our terrified souls almost departed us.
We held our breath in fear as the footsteps moved away. Peeking through a hole in the straw that covered me, I felt smoke burning my eyes. Frantically, we ripped off the straw and rags and saw flames all around us. Hand in hand, Yossel and I fumbled toward the door, suffocating from the smoke, our heads spinning. In a moment that seemed an eternity, we found ourselves outside. Just a few yards from us stood the German murderers, fortunately, with their backs to us.
The entire camp was ablaze. We threw ourselves on the first pile of corpses that we saw and lay still; we no doubt resembled our camouflage. Around us we heard heavy footsteps, screams and the moaning of the fatally wounded. And what we saw was blood, fire, and clouds of smoke - hell on earth, complete with demons.
When silence finally fell again, I mumbled to Yossel that we ought to say vidui, the confession of sins a Jew makes periodically but especially when facing death. He chided me to remember what I had told him when we arrived in Auschwitz, our first concentration camp. The Sages of the Talmud, he reminded me, had admonished that "Even if the sword is braced on your neck, never despair of Divine mercy." Yossel recalled, too, the Sages' admonition that in times of danger Jews should renew their commitment to their faith.
We crawled to a nearby pit, shivering with cold. Through my smoke-filled eyes and fear-ridden senses, I thought I saw SS guards everywhere, with weapons poised. Yossel, however, finally managed to convince me that there was no one in sight; for an hour or more we lay in that pit. Every few minutes bombs whistled overhead, followed by fearsome explosions nearby. The earth shook, but each blast pumped new hope into our hearts. Slowly, we crept out of the pit and made our way to the only building still standing - the camp kitchen. There we found a few more frightened souls.
Together we discovered a sack of flour, mixed it with water, started the ovens and baked flat breads. I noted the irony; it was Pesach Sheini - the biblical "Second Passover" a month after the first - and we were baking matzohs.
Suddenly, the door flew open and a Jewish inmate came running in breathlessly, crying out: "Yidden! Fellow Jews! The Americans are here!" We were free!
We wanted to cry, sing, dance, but our petrified hearts would not let us. I wanted to rush outside, but my strength seemed to have left me.
When I finally did manage to move outside, I saw a long convoy of tanks and jeeps roaring through the camp. A handful of American soldiers approached the barracks. One of them, an officer, looked around him, tears streaming down his face. Only then did I fully grasp the extent of the horror around us. The barracks were nearly completely incinerated. In front of each block lay a pile of blackened, smoldering skeletons.
And we, the living, were a group of ghouls, walking corpses. Along with the American soldiers, we wept.
Among the supplies the Americans had brought with them was a bottle of wine. An inmate picked it up and announced: "For years I have not recited the Kiddush. Today, I feel that I must." He then recited the words of the blessing on wine aloud.
And then he recited the "Shehecheyanu", the blessing of gratitude to God for having "kept us alive until this time."
[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.]
Return To Index of Articles
THE MARK OF ZUROFF
Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs, Agudath Israel of America
Many newspaper and magazine readers who rush out to buy Efraim Zuroff's new book about how American Orthodox Jewry responded to the Holocaust will be sorely disappointed. For while the Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office director's book is being heavily promoted as revealing how the American Orthodox community's small-mindedness led to the loss of non-Orthodox Jewish lives, the tome actually does nothing of the sort. Those expecting a shocking exposé will encounter a rather sober, scholarly work, and suspect they are victims of a "bait-and-switch" scheme.
Charged terms should be avoided whenever possible, but the phrase "blood-libel" would not seem an exaggerated description of the campaign to promote Dr. Zuroff's "The Response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States to the Holocaust" (Yeshiva University Press/Ktav, 2000). An Associated Press story about it begins with the following sentence: "During the Holocaust, ultra-Orthodox American rabbis focused on saving several hundred Polish Talmudic scholars, ignoring the suffering of millions of other Jews."
In that very piece, Dr. Zuroff characterizes those rabbis, the leaders of the rightfully revered Vaad ha-Hatzalah, as having suffered from "tunnel vision." The Baltimore Sun story on the book was sub-headlined "Orthodox rabbis' effort to save scholars cost other lives, book says."
No such blatant accusations, however, appear in the book itself. While Zuroff does pose benefit-of-hindsight questions about priorities and "particularism", he nevertheless does a fairly good job of explaining why the Vaad ha-Hatzalah initially concentrated its efforts on rescuing and supporting endangered or refugee Yeshiva heads and their students. Indeed the book clearly recognizes that the Vaad was founded on the principle that the Jewish future is dependent on the preservation of the beliefs, observances and scholarship of the Jewish past. Thus, no apology was - or is - needed for the Vaad's having singled out for special assistance the Torah scholars of Eastern Europe.
Dr. Zuroff, moreover, acknowledges as well that "the leaders of the Vaad … realized that… it was more than likely that the plight of the refugee scholars who were not under Nazi occupation would… be accorded a very low priority in the distribution of relief funds." And, in fact, elsewhere in the book, Zuroff describes how the American Jewish establishment in fact "viewed with alarm the arrival of thousands of Polish rabbis and yeshiva students."
Furthermore, when the systematic murder of Europe's Jews became known it was the Orthodox who made rescue - of any and all Jews - their immediate and top priority, as Dr. David Kranzler, a groundbreaking historian of the Holocaust era and the highly regarded author of nine books on the rescue of European Jews, reminded the world recently in a Jerusalem Post column responding to the Zuroff book.
In stark contrast, the establishment Jewish groups and their leaders, prime among them Stephan S. Wise, counseled patience even in the face of credible reports of atrocities. It took three months for the larger Jewish world to make rescue a priority.
Dr. Kranzler notes too, and Dr. Zuroff acknowledges, that the Orthodox were the pioneers of creative schemes to save lives - from arranging for South American "protective" visas to transferring food and funds directly to refugees (for which action they were initially castigated by mainstream Jewish groups).
And only Orthodox rabbis - 400 of them - participated in a march on Washington two days before Yom Kippur in 1943. Dr. Kranzler describes how President Franklin Roosevelt's Jewish advisors, including Wise, derided the marchers as "not rabbis but residents of old age homes." Roosevelt chose not to make himself available to the Orthodox clergymen.
Zuroff cannot and does not ignore those facts, but has apparently chosen to stress, at least to the press, the special concern that believing Orthodox Jews had for the salvaging of Torah scholars, and to portray that concern as deeply disturbing. But even if he does not personally subscribe to the Vaad's reasoning for its special dedication to the leaders and students of the European yeshivos, Dr. Zuroff must at very least concede that there was no lack of Jewish subgroups - whether Zionists, intellectuals or people with roots in particular European communities - who felt a similar special responsibility to "their own".
Thus, when, in 1940, the Jewish Labor Committee and the American Federation of Labor persuaded President Roosevelt to institute a program of special "emergency visas" beyond the regular immigration quotas, the Vaad, like other groups, made its case for the inclusion of those it felt deserved special consideration; in the Vaad's case, 3000 yeshiva teachers and students. Only the Orthodox, though, seem to be vilified for making their case.
Dr. Kranzler, incidentally, notes that, of the more than 2400 people (including 100 Zionist leaders) saved under that program, a total of 40 were Torah scholars.
As far as the Vaad's attitude toward endangered non-Orthodox Jews is concerned, little needs to be added to a comment of Rav Aharon Kotler. When he was harshly criticized by the Swiss socialist Jewish press for using fascist intermediaries to attempt to rescue a group of Jews that included many who had abandoned Judaism, the Rosh HaYeshiva starkly stated the obvious: "A Jewish life is a Jewish life."
More disturbing still than Dr. Zuroff's harsh criticism of Jews who labored night and day to save and support their brethren are the hints, in the researcher's recent remarks to the press, to a broader animus for Haredi Jews - not only those holy souls who constituted the Vaad ha-Hatzalah but those who are laboring to rebuild Torah and Yiddishkeit today. Pointedly employing the present tense, Dr. Zuroff told a reporter for the Jerusalem Post that the Orthodox "are plagued by this sectarianism and particularism that infects everything they do."
Similarly, in an article in the Jerusalem Report, Dr. Zuroff is quoted as claiming that the inability of the "Torah world" to "explain [its] colossal lack of judgment" is "why the ultra-Orthodox cannot stand for a moment of silence for the six million with the rest of Israelis." And he further contends there that "the ultra-Orthodox cannot face up to the shame, embarrassment and guilt over their utter failure to save their communities."
The first of those sentiments is transparent in its seething anger, not to mention its profound ignorance. But the second one is even more telling, about Dr. Zuroff's twisted attitude toward Haredi Jews. There is, to be sure, still grief and anguish among Orthodox Jews over the destruction of European Jewry, and even the always-proper soul-searching of "could we have done more?" But "shame" would seem a word more befitting Dr. Zuroff himself.
In the end, Dr. Zuroff's promotion of his book fits comfortably into a sad and all-too-familiar pattern. The Orthodox, and Haredim in particular, seem in recent years to have become what might well be called the Jews' own Jews - a community that can be, and regularly is, negatively misrepresented with abandon. We are, it seems, convenient and satisfying marks.
Our attitudes and beliefs are regularly and negatively distorted, and the media revels in treating us unfairly (contrast, for a recent instance, The New York Times' regular and gratuitous references to the Orthodox identities or connections of people accused of crimes with its recent long article about a Reform rabbi accused of murdering his wife, which lacks even a single reference to the fellow's denomination).
Much of the misrepresentation has been catalyzed by, or come directly from, non-Orthodox Jewish religious leaders, frustrated by Orthodoxy's strength, growth and prominence in Israeli politics and religious affairs. Some of it, though, has sadly emerged as well from other points to the left on the Orthodox spectrum. And just as the intensity of animus in personal relationships is often directly proportional to the closeness of the relationship, so has some of the worst opprobrium for Haredim come from Jews who are Orthodox but not Haredi.
Might Dr. Zuroff's book-promotion campaign be an example of such, a crass confluence of bias-venting and bookvending? We must, one supposes, grant the researcher the possibility that he has been misunderstood, and misquoted. And grant him, too, the right to sell his wares as he chooses. But from the reports as they have appeared, it would certainly seem that Dr. Zuroff has found, like so many others these days, a convenient, if unimaginative, mark.
Return To Index of Articles
MIRRORS OF OUR OWN PRECONCEPTIONS
Rabbi Avi Shafran
One wouldn't expect an Orthodox Jew to have had any interest beyond that of most folks in the denouement of the Elian Gonzalez saga, but this one did. It was the photographs.
Whether you were outraged or heartened by the Miami relatives' decisive inaction, or by U.S. Attorney General Reno's decisive action, one thing is likely true: your feelings found powerful expression in one of the pictures released on the day Elian was seized.
It may have been the one showing a terrified child confronted by what must surely have seemed a ferocious masked monster with a huge weapon in hand. Or one of the others, taken several hours later, depicting a motherless little boy beaming in happy security at his father's side.
One of the images was eagerly embraced by a group of people, and one equally eagerly denigrated by each.
For those who saw the Miami relatives as outlaws using a child as a pawn in a political battle, the photo of the frightened boy was dreadfully misleading. Elian was understandably distressed to be abducted by strangers, but it had been the stubborness of his Miami kin that had necessitated the raid; and the photographer had likely been carefully placed to exploit the deceptive moment. And for those who considered Elian's future in Cuba as bleak and thus his return to his father as unconscionable, the happy reunion photos were, at best, posed; at worst, deviously doctored.
Both photographs, though, of course, are likely entirely real. Each captures a poignant moment in a sad saga. And each inflames emotions. Which is why I gazed sadly, knowingly, at the contradictory depictions.
Misleading photographs are part of my life as the public affairs director of a major national Orthodox Jewish organization. Every summer - I hope this one will prove an exception - my community is maligned by widely-publicized photographs no less emotionally wrenching, at least for Jews, than those of Elian. They are taken at Jerusalem's Western Wall, usually at the festival of Shevuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, or on Tisha B'Av, the Jewish day of mourning over the destruction of the Holy Temple (of whose second incarnation's courtyard the Wall is a remnant).
The perennial photographs show Orthodox Jews angrily accosting non-Orthodox American Jews. The accompanying stories explain that the latter were simply and innocently praying according to their custom - men and women together - at the holy site, and that they had, as a result, come under angry attack by local religious zealots.
The photos are captivating, but, like those of Elian, show only one aspect - and, as it happens, a misleading and limited one - of a much larger and more complex issue. They do not, first and foremost, depict the tens of thousands of other Orthodox Jews - the norm at the holy site during those special days - who entirely ignore the untraditional visitors. An image of religious Jews in deep prayer is not as compelling (or likely to win a prize) as one of a band of hotheads showing their teeth.
And what no photograph could likely show, and is usually left unexplained in any accompanying text, is that the Western Wall is a place where all Jews - and non-Jews - are welcomed by the Orthodox Jews who are the holy site's main frequenters, and that the Wall is, at least in the absence of provocative acts, a place of profound peace and prayer. Since its capture in 1967, however, separate areas for men and women's prayer have been designated, out of respect for both the Jewish religious tradition at all Jews's roots, and the overwhelming majority of those Jews who regularly gather there. And no photograph, of course, shows the photographers themselves being alerted by the American visitors to the "photo op" they intend to stage.
No photograph, for that matter, could capture slips of the tongue like that of an organizer of a mixed-gender prayer service at the Wall who, as reported in a major American Jewish weekly, called his gathering a "rally" before catching himself - or a non-Orthodox rabbi's confession to an Israeli journalist that "We can only raise money by bashing the Orthodox."
And no photograph can convey sentiments like that of a respected and decidedly non-Orthodox writer like Hillel Halkin, who asked "Are there no other places to practice Jewish feminism in the world, in Israel or even in Jerusalem that they must do it at the one site where it most infuriates large numbers of other Jews?"
And while one could imagine a photograph of one of the many signs posted by Israeli Orthodox religious authorities unequivocally forbidding untoward behavior toward provocateurs at the Wall, they would have to be translated from Yiddish or Hebrew; in any event, they never appear. The only images American readers and viewers see are those showing Orthodox anger and innocent non-Orthodox victims.
And so for me, the photographs of Elian brought - after a sharp pang of grief for the crying boy and a rush of relief for the happy one - a knowing, painful feeling. I'd been here before, along with countless readers, skimmers and surfers of the media. We'd all been manipulated before by the power of a picture, by mirrors of our own preconceptions.
From The Forward, courtesy of AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as Agudath Israel of America's director of public affairs and as Am Echad's American director]
Return To Index of Articles
What a pity that the word Judaism has not been copyrighted. Had it been, the Reform movement, of which I am a long-time member and supporter, would never have been able to call itself Reform "Judaism".
My movement does not, after all, subscribe to the observance of kashrut; recognizes people as Jewish under a unilateral standard it calls "patrilineal-descent"; does not recognize others born of halachically Jewish mothers as Jewish; it allows its rabbis to officiate at mixed-faith marriages and now at same-sex ceremonies.
Judaism is based on Torah as the revealed word of God; Reform is based on selective and variable excerpts from the Torah and on a number of its own innovations. The fact cannot be avoided or refuted: my Reform movement simply espouses a different religion from that practiced by my Orthodox and Conservative fellow-Jews.
This is hardly a quibble. The implications of the Reform movement's misleading use of the word "Judaism" are enormous, particularly for the State of Israel. It is only because the Reform movement promotes itself as Judaism that it has been able to lay claim, before Israel's highest court to the status of a legitimate religious authority authorized to perform conversions to Judaism, Jewish burials, Jewish marriages and the like.
Should it be successful in that misguided and misleading quest, Israel's Jews will be subject to two separate Jewish religions, and the State itself will be radically transformed, indeed dismembered.
Those of us, regardless of belief or practice, who are halachically Jewish comprise one people, to be sure, but we may espouse what are, in effect, different religions, often with mutually exclusive beliefs and doctrines. Such may be tolerable in the United States (though that too is arguable) but it will surely only create divisive havoc in the Jewish State, where two entirely different visions of Judaism will spell societal destruction.
Can we Reform Jews summon the wisdom and fortitude to admit that our movement simply is not, and should not be called, Judaism? If we can, we may yet be able to arrest the tragic and disunifying drift of the Jewish people from the Jewish religious tradition.
[Robert Lappin, a businessman and philanthropist, is a past president of the Federation of the North Shore in Massachusetts]
Return To Index of Articles
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 60 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.
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 and vegetarian 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 Avi Shafran serves as American director of Am Echad]
Return To Index of Articles
DEFINING MORALITY DOWN
Rabbi Avi Shafran
The Central Conference of American Rabbis' decision last week to support Reform rabbis who choose to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies is causing a good deal of grumbling in some Reform lay circles, as well it should.
For Orthodox Jews, who regard the revelation at Sinai as no less an historical fact than any other mass-witnessed, recorded and entrusted event, the shock of Reform rabbis sanctioning acts the Torah considers deeply sinful was somewhat mitigated. After all, the Reform movement was built on rejection of the Torah's divine origin and the binding nature of its laws. This latest move was but a new manifestation of that old repudiation.
For many other Jews, though, who had never given the historicity of Sinai much thought but had come to feel most comfortable in Reform temples, the recent move has brought about a crisis of conscience. It is widely known that the Reform leadership's cautious endorsement last May of certain traditional Jewish practices was largely laity-fueled. Reform Jews who are not afraid of returning to their Jewish roots are certainly chagrined at the violence their leaders visited last week on a deeply Jewish value. Even, however, for many Reform Jews who may never have been greatly troubled by their movement's jettisoning of the laws of kashrut or the Sabbath, this most recent decision was somehow... different.
They are right. For while all the Torah's laws are binding on all Jews, its directives regarding the deepest and most holy realm of human relationship, the sexual, are in a category of their own. They cannot be labeled rituals, observances or even simple prohibitions; they comprise the essence of a deeply Jewish concept English-speakers call morality - a concept long embraced by much of the non-Jewish world, which, according to Jewish tradition, is likewise charged with its adoption.
To be sure, and contrary to popular assumption, no sexual orientation itself is condemned by the Torah. Axiomatic to Jewish law is that only acts and willful attitudes (like nurturing desires that are wrong) can be prohibited, not initial proclivities. Among the acts, however, that the Torah clearly regards as immoral - regardless of the actors' sexual inclinations or self-definition - is sexual congress between men (and, to a lesser degree, between women).
Human beings are subject to many desires, and they can experience urges for an assortment of Torah-prohibited acts, both common ones like adultery or speaking ill of others and rarer ones like murder or bestiality. The premise of the Torah's moral code is that being a God-fearing person means controlling urges that run contrary to that code. In fact, the Talmud even asserts that people with greater spiritual potential have concomitantly stronger proclivities to sin. By choosing to fight those urges and channel their energies to doing G-d's will, they realize their potential and achieve their divine purpose.
But aren't homosexuals fixed in their orientation, unable to sexually relate to the opposite gender? Interestingly, though much of the modern psychiatric community would answer that question in the affirmative, there is an abundance of sociological and ethnological evidence, both ancient and contemporary, that weighs in with a powerful no. History is replete with accounts of societies, like that of ancient Greece, where men were expected to live as homosexuals for a number of years and then marry and raise families. Or, for an example closer to historical home, take the sixties counter-cultural icon Lou Reed, who lived and openly self-identified for many years as sexually unconventional but who has since settled into a heterosexual life. There may be a predisposition to homosexuality, as there may be to other behaviors deemed immoral by the Torah, but none of them are beyond human control.
Isn't love, though, all that really counts? Most certainly not. Even in the most libertarian contemporary minds, acts of adultery, incest or bestiality are rejected as immoral and unsanctioned, although the case for love might well be made in each of those examples. Many will no doubt bristle at the comparison of those practices to homosexual unions and protest that no one is currently promoting "open", brother-sister or man-pet "marriages". The bristlers, though, might take a moment to consider how the average person - or, for that matter, the average Reform rabbi - a century ago would have reacted to the sanctioning of the sexual union of two men or two women that the Reform movement has now endorsed. The fact is inescapable: Once morality is gravely injured, it bleeds profusely.
And equally inescapable is another fact, an uncomfortable, but trenchant one: The engine that is empowering acceptance of homosexual acts both in larger society as well as, now, among Reform leaders, is nothing other and nothing more than the contemporary credo of self-centeredness, the conviction that (with apologies to Alexander Pope) "whatever one feels like doing is right" - the polar opposite of the very essence of 3000 years of Jewish tradition, of the profound Jewish idea that only what G-d has instructed us to do is right.
It would be tragic enough were any religious group to abandon the very concept of morality. That a Jewish group has now chosen to do so (and amid much hoopla and self-congratulation) should be a source of deep shame to all Jews.
But especially to the many thoughtful Reform laymen and laywomen who hearts are closer to the Torah than those of their religious leaders. May they have the courage of their convictions.
[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as American director of Am Echad]
Return To Index of Articles
POINTER FROM THE POPE
It may seem odd to look to the Pope as a source of illumination on matters
of Jewish belief and practice. But the leader of the world's Catholics proved
to be precisely that, when, on his recent trip to Egypt, he made a visit to
Mount Sinai. His pilgrimage to the site underscored the fact that G-d's revelation
to the Jewish people at Sinai is a basic fact of history for Christians, as
it is for Jews.
To be sure, the millennia-old memory of the encounter at Sinai remains most
vivid for the nation that experienced it. Not only is the Torah's divine origin
a central tenet of Orthodox belief, but, according to a recent survey of Jewish
opinion by the American Jewish Committee, it is affirmed by a clear majority
of all American Jews today, as well as by most Israeli Jews.
While the theories of biblical criticism that arose in the mid-19th century
strove mightily to undermine the historical basis of the Torah, it is today
acknowledged by a great many in academia that the central premises of that effort
have been shown to have been, in the words of the Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen,
"an appalling bungle."
Whatever one makes of the revisions that those critical theories have undergone
in the last 75 years and counting, and they are many, one thing is certain.
As the late Professor Leo Strauss trenchantly observed in his Philosophy and
Law, the savants of the Enlightenment, in their onslaught against religion and
biblical historicity, never truly engaged the entire concept of revelation;
they merely posited its non-existence, elevated that assumption to the status
of fact and proceeded from there. "For that reason", wrote Strauss, "Orthodoxy,
unchanged in its essence, was able to outlast the attack of the Enlightenment
and all later attacks and retreats."
How ironic, then, that the Pope's Sinai visit has drawn the attention of the
world, and, hopefully, the interest of some who would rather not engage what
Sinai stands for.
Interestingly, this was not the only time in recent months that a Catholic
leader has given Jews some Jewish food for thought. Just this past September,
New York's Cardinal O'Connor, in a letter that was read from the pulpit in many
synagogues, spoke of G-d as having "chosen Israel as his particular people that
they may be an example of faithfulness for all the nations of the earth."
This acknowledgement of the Jews' status as G-d's chosen nation, coming from
a prince of the Church, is nothing short of astounding. Although the survey
cited above also registered the conviction of most American Jews that G-d indeed
has a special relationship with our people, it has become fashionable in some
Jewish circles to de-emphasize this most central Jewish concept or reject it
And that's unfortunate.
Admittedly, the idea of chosenness runs counter to the contemporary dogmas
of one-size-fits-all pluralism. But properly understood, based on its sources
in Torah, it is, in fact, a strikingly progressive, even universalistic ideal.
Because far from providing license to denigrate other peoples, our chosen status
has one overarching purpose: to fashion a model community of spiritual living
and moral excellence for all the world to emulate.
More, it is an ideal which, if instilled in our youth, could do much to halt
our community's accelerating slide into the abyss of assimilation. Because when
one's people has a special, exalted mission in history, he or she will very
likely want to live in a way that reflects that mission. And when one is part
of a nation with a heroic past and a glorious destiny, it's only natural to
want to marry a fellow Jew to keep that legacy alive.
It's a strange world, with Catholics providing valuable Jewish lessons to Jews.
But as the Talmud teaches, we are to endeavor to "learn from every man.
[Eytan Kobre is a lawyer residing in Queens and part of Am Echad's
pool of writers]
Return To Index of Articles
GETTING IT - AHUVAH GRAY AND HER G-D BOX
As I follow Ahuvah Gray along the narrow stairway leading to her apartment,
and step up into the little light-filled penthouse that is her home above the
rooftops of Bait V'Gan, what comes to mind is the childhood classic, A Little
Princess, by Frances Hodgens Burnett. In that famous tale, the heroine dwells
cozily in an attic room above the rooftops of London, and looks out from her
oasis upon the world below. Here, through windows on every side, it's the fast-moving
clouds of a rainy winter morning in Jerusalem that adorn the horizon, and the
branches of a Jerusalem pine tree that brush up against the opaquely luminous
rectangle of a skylight.
As a matter of fact, Ahuvah Gray herself - a black American who was once a
Christian minister and is now an Orthodox Jew- does look like some exotic sort
of princess, with her high-cheek-boned delicacy, long hair and regal bearing.
"Just look at this," she exclaims, opening the door to her porch and gesturing
me outside into the damp, brisk air. "Isn't this something?" Far off on the
distant skyline to our right lie the walls of the Old City under the receding
storm, and way over to the east, the dimly visible mountains of Jordan looming
like gray mist over the Dead Sea.
"This view from my balcony always reminds me of sitting on my grandmother's
lap when I was four years old, in Mound Bayou, Mississippi - that's when she
first started teaching us children the psalms of King David. She'd recite Psalm
27:13 -'I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.' Here I am, and I still can't believe my eyes after
all these years - the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, and I
always think, Thank you, grandmother, for such a beautiful gift."
Back inside, serving hot tea, Ahuvah Gray speaks of that woman, the one who
started her on the long journey that has brought her to Israel, the Jewish people
and Judaism. "My grandmother was my role model. All I remember of her was the
chesed, the kindness, she did all day long. She was always cooking food for
sick people and bringing it to them. And my mother, God bless her soul, throughout
my childhood she would bring homeless people to our table. One time there was
this old guy she brought in - our table was hardly ever just us, it was always
poor people sitting down with us - and my sister Nellie made a face from the
smell of that man. My mother told her to never again do or say anything that
could insult one of our guests. Today Nellie - she lives in L.A. - she's been
doing the same thing now for the last 20 years, taking care of the poor and
"I was raised in Chicago but when we were growing up, my parents would take
us every summer to visit Grandmother in Mound Bayou, which was a small all-black
town. Years later, when I worked for Continental Airlines, every summer I'd
make that trip to Mound Bayou the way we always had. One summer morning when
I arrived at her house, the door to her bedroom was open and my grandmother,
who was seventy-eight at the time, was kneeling down by her bed praying fervently
- she always turned up the volume, so to speak. I stood there by the door completely
mesmerized for I don't know how long, and I finally said, 'Grandmother, at your
age are you still kneeling down on your knees to pray?' She looked up and said,
'Dolores, this is the way I've prayed my whole life. It's the only way I know.'
"That was a turning point in my life. I was already a minister then, but that
experience gave me the stamina to commit my life to prayer."
I ask what that means in practical terms.
"It means I committed myself to having a designated time and place for prayer.
The time was five a.m. and the place was under the blankets of my bed. I'd just
pull the blankets up over my head and pray for hours, it was my favorite part
of the day, every day. It still is. It takes me forever to go through the entire
morning service in Hebrew and I love every minute of it." "Under the blankets,
you were in your own little synagogue?"
"Right. In those days, though I didn't know anything about the Jewish way of
davening. But I'd read in the Psalms that King David prayed three times a day
so I decided, if that's how he prayed, I'll pray three times a day, too.
"After my grandmother died a few years later, I started having a difficult
time with Christian dogma. Now, when you're the minister of a Christian congregation,
that's not the sort of thing you go around saying, but I finally had to publicly
declare that I could no longer remain in the ministry. It simply no longer seemed
"At that point, I had no thought whatsoever of becoming a Jew. But I had felt
an affinity for Jewish people starting back when I was in 7th grade and had
my first job working in the dress shop of a family named Greenberg. I continued
working for them until the Chicago riots, when their store was looted and trashed
and they had to give up their business.
"I loved the Greenbergs and they loved me. We were like family. After going
there there for Shabbat, I'd go home and tell my mother all about it - what
they were like, everything they did, how they had this funny looking bread.
The only I didn't tell her was about the wine. She would have plotzed, because
my mother, may she rest in peace, she never had a drink in her life. That was
my introduction to Jewish people, and from that time on, whenever Jewish holidays
came around, I had this desire to be with Jewish people. And whenever I was
in a bookstore, if there was a book in there about Jews or Judaism, it always
caught my eye and I'd buy it.
"Before resigning the ministry, I'd started my own business as a licensed tour
organizer to Israel. It was during those years that I experienced another turning
point. On one particular trip, I had taken a group up north to the ancient city
of Safed, and we were touring the old synagogues when I saw a Jewish siddur.
Now I didn't really know what a Jewish prayer book was but I had always wanted
to see one, so I picked it up and started reading. And it struck me: These are
"What was your reaction upon learning later on that according to Jewish tradition,
the gesture of bowing down is reserved only for the Yom Kippur service?"
"It was very humbling. When I learned how to doven according to Jewish tradition,
what was amazing to me was that although we prostrate ourselves on Yom Kippur
- in order to get closer to G-d, because it's such a powerful thing to do -
other than that, a Jew does not have to place himself in that position."
"You mentioned the Chicago riots," I say to Ahuvah, "and the fact that the
Greenbergs' store was trashed. Whether or not that particular incident had anything
to do with their being Jews, it's common knowledge that ever since the sixties
and early seventies, when so many Jews were involved with the Civil Rights Movement,
there has been a strange hate/love relationship between the two peoples. From
your present standpoint, Ahuvah, what do you think it is, between blacks and
"Well, of course, the first thing is that here you have two peoples who have
been enslaved, and whereas the Jews are separated from that experience by a
few thousand years, for black people it was just a short time ago, historically
speaking. So there's a lot of mutual identification going on, and all kinds
of complicated feelings.
"In my family, I was brought up to believe that no man is better or worse than
another, that every one of us is a child of God. I love the color of my skin.
But I was brought up to believe that I am neither inferior nor superior.
"My grandparents were sharecroppers. My grandmother did not like living on
land that wasn't their own, and to convince my granddaddy to do whatever was
necessary to move, one day she left him and said she wouldn't return until he
bought their own land. It took one week. He left the life of a sharecropper
and bought his own land."
I ask if it hasn't been difficult for her as a black convert in the orthodox
"You're not the first to ask. A few times, people have said to me, 'Oh, it
must be so hard for you in that charedi community, being a black convert. Don't
you encounter a lot of racial prejudice?' And I just have to tell them, 'My
dears, I have never in my life been given as much love.'
"That love from the Orthodox community started right when I decided to convert.
I had just run into a catch-22. In order to convert, it was required that I
study at an Orthodox institution. Yet in order to enter an Orthodox institution
I had to be Jewish! Nonetheless, there was a women's seminary called Nishmat
that accepted me as a student. That place is run by an amazing woman, Rabbanit
Henkin. She had the amazing ability to nurture and mother every girl in that
"After learning a year, the momentous day arrived for my conversion. I decided
that after going to the mikveh, I'd celebrate by treating myself to a nice meal
in a restaurant downtown. However, one of the rebbetzens was emphatic that I
should come back to the seminary afterwards, so after the mikveh, I went back
to the seminary When I entered the beis midrash, the study hall, there was a
huge sign that said, 'Siman tov u'mazel tov.'
"I'll remember that day as long as I live. The American girls and the Israeli
girls were all singing 'Siman tov u'mazel tov,' and their voices, mingled together,
sounded like an opera, or a symphony. They asked me to make a speech and the
only thing I could think to say was 'You have shown me such love, I don't think
I've ever experienced such love before in my life. I think I'm beginning to
understand the love between G-d and the Jewish people.'
"I've met converts from all over the world, and our stories are all the same
although our faces and backgrounds are different. My roommate from Neve Yerushalaiyim
was from Singapore. I've met converts from Germany, and Africa, from the Philippines,
but we all have one heart beat. We couldn't rest until we found our way to Judaism.
You can take a Jewish neshama, soul, and put it into any kli - body. But that
soul will not rest until it finds its way to Yiddishkeit.."
The interview seems to have come to a close. As I'm getting ready to go, I
tell Ahuvah Gray what her apartment reminded me of when I first walked in.
"Oh, this apartment. That's a story. For another time. All I can say is, Hashem
gave me exactly what I needed. He always has and always will."
"How do you account for your emuna, your trust in God?" I ask her.
"You have emuna, too, you know. Sometimes we just don't realize what we have.
I think I witnessed my grandmother's faith throughout my life and it was passed
on. And I've always put things into my God Box.'
"Well, I'll give you an example. One night around five years ago, not long
after I got this apartment, the telephone rang at 4 a.m. Now, when I left America
I left my entire family behind, I haven't seen them for four years now - so
as I reached for the phone I was already dreading whatever I was going to hear.
It was my sister Nellie, sure enough, with bad news. Our beloved brother, Ezra
- a young man, he's my baby brother - had had a massive heart attack.
"When I hung up that phone, I started davening. I davened, and davened, and
kept davening, and crying. I was begging God till the sun came up. 'Please,
Hashem, don't let anything happen to him. Don't let Ezra die.'
"Then all of a sudden, it hit me. I thought to myself, now wait a minute. Who
am I to tell God what to do?'
"So then I prayed, 'Hashem, You formed Ezra in our mother's womb. It's You
Who gave him his soul. You gave him life. If it's time for You to take him back,
I let go. I let go, Hashem.' That's how I put Ezra in my God Box. And then I
added, 'And let Nellie get it.'"
"Let Nellie get it?"
"Right, I said, 'Hashem, let Nellie get it.'"
"Did she get it?"
"She got it."
"Oh, he's fine. Nellie called me after three days to say he was sitting up
in bed cracking jokes. Look, all of this is my way of expressing the concept
of the Yitzhak principle, when Avraham was going to sacrifice his only son.
Our Sages of blessed memory teach us that our forefather Avraham was willing
to go to any length to teach us to do a mitzvah."
"That when I love something very dearly, I'm willing to release it to God."
I get my coat on, Ahuvah calls a taxi , then I follow her back down that stairway
so I can reenter the busy morning. I tell her I'd like to hear more about her
life. "Well, the whole story - there's lots more of it - will be in my book.
It'll be coming out sometime next year, with Hashem's help."
The cold air hits, I climb into the cab, (thinking, "Let me get it, too") and
Ahuvah Gray turns and disappears up the stairs.
[Ahuvah Gray's forthcoming book, My Sister, The Jew, is due
to be published next year by Targum Press. Sarah Shapiro is a writer living
in Jerusalem. Her most recent book is Don't You Know It's a Perfect World?]
Return To Index of Articles