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Rabbi Avi Shafran

In a letter to the Jewish weekly the Forward, a medical doctor from Long Island expressed chagrin over an advertisement that had appeared in an earlier issue of the paper. The ad was sponsored by a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting people suffering from kidney disease, including facilitating kidney transplants, with "special attention given to the Jewish community to address specialized issues and concerns." The letter-writer was "astounded" by the ad. It sought a donor for a "pious Jew" suffering from kidney disease.

To be sure, the doctor took pains to note, "A kidney transplant can miraculously transform a person's life, freeing him from the shackles of the dialysis machine."

But the ad nevertheless outraged him. It is "the height of chutzpah," he explained, to solicit "altruistic donors for an act that is seldom, if ever, reciprocated by the Haredi community."

"The vast majority of Gedolim, decision makers about Jewish law and policy, in the Haredi community," he continued, "have refused to endorse halachic procedures to take organs from either normal living or brain-dead people to heal chronically ill patients."

And so, he contended, "Although altruism, by definition, is an act performed without any reward," the "wider Jewish community" should recognize that "it is unseemly and cynical to recruit potential donors when there is no theoretical potential for paying the good deed forward."

For starters, the doctor is seriously misinformed. Although there are halachic considerations regarding any organ donation, there have in fact been many Orthodox kidney donors, including haredi ones, and all made their decisions with the full blessings of their rabbinic decisors. What presents qualitatively different halachic issues is the bequeathal, for removal after death, of other vital organs, like hearts, lungs and livers.

That is because organs are most successfully transplanted when "harvested" from a still-breathing patient, whose blood is still oxygenated and circulating. Thus, many hospitals routinely take vital organs from people who are what has come to be called "brain dead" - who have received a diagnosis of irreversible cessation of brain-stem function, which modern medicine and secular law consider sufficient to permit the removal of organs even from a patient with a still-beating heart. (Increasingly common, too, in many countries, is "donation after cardiac death" - the procurement of organs from people who are purposely disconnected from the ventilators helping them breathe, causing their hearts to stop. After a short wait, sometimes less than 30 seconds, the organs are taken.)

Merely "brain-dead" human beings, in the judgment of major halachic decisors, are still alive. And so, while saving another's life is a most weighty imperative, Jewish religious law, or halacha, does not permit one life to be taken to save the life of another - no matter how diminished the "quality" of the life of the former, no matter how great the potential of the life of the latter. And halacha forbids any action that might hasten death, including the death of a person in extremis.

The letter-writing doctor presumably does not advocate ending the lives of conscious terminal patients in order to harvest their organs. What rankles him is that halacha, in the opinion of many of its most respected decisors, considers a "brain dead" patient still alive. He is entitled to his personal opinion, of course, but if anything truly qualifies as the height of chutzpah, it would be insisting that halachic decisors hew to ones' own personal point of view.

Perhaps more disturbing still is the doctor's odd ethical calculus, by which only the ability to donate an organ qualifies one to receive one. At first thought, that might seem logical. But that's why we're blessed with the ability to have second thoughts.

There are many reasons one might be unable to donate a vital organ. If a non-terminal patient has only one functioning kidney, for instance, no one would fault him for not offering it to a dialysis patient. If a patient was diagnosed with kidney disease, no one would want him to donate a compromised organ, even post-mortem. Would anyone deny such unable-to-donate patients freely donated organs that they needed? One hopes not.

The letter-writer surely sees religious convictions as a less valid reason for an inability to bequeath vital organs. Is it, though? Is logic behind the doctor's view? Or might it be disdain, for a community of whose beliefs he doesn't approve? Is reason at work here, or a desire to punish people for their beliefs?

If anything is "unseemly and cynical" - the doctor's characterization of the effort to match kidney donors with Jewish patients committed to halacha - it is the attitude that such Jews are, for their deep-seated and sincere beliefs, less worthy of life than others.

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Most people will be forgiven for not imagining that the late Theodore Sorensen, President John F. Kennedy's close confidant and speechwriter, born in Nebraska to a father whose first name was Christian, might be Jewish. But in the eyes of halacha he probably was.

Mr. Sorensen, who died on October 31 at the age of 82, was born to a Russian-Jewish mother, Annis Chaiken, although he was raised as a Unitarian. He was responsible for much of the soaring oratory associated with President Kennedy, who once called the celebrated speechwriter his "intellectual blood bank." Sorensen had an extensive role (some say a full-fledged ghostwriting one) in producing Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Profiles in Courage," and the president included him in important foreign policy discussions, including those revolving around the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, a truly hot point in the Cold War.

Although Sorensen was not a self-promoter, his death brought focus to the considerable role he played in the Kennedy White House and, thus, in American history. And, for those who take pleasure in (or are suspicious about, or just find curious) the influence that Jews - recognizable as such or not - have come to wield on world affairs over the ages, he was but another good example.

As he was an example of the particular prominence of Jews in progressive causes. In his teens, Sorensen registered with the military as a conscientious objector and in his later years he relentlessly championed liberal ideas and ideals, working with Nelson Mandela on voter registration in South Africa and with President Obama's presidential campaign. He served, too, as a board member of the International Center for Transitional Justice, which seeks to pursue accountability for human rights abuses.

Such activities well fit the stereotype of the American liberal Jewish activist, which engenders pride or disdain depending on the observer. What is striking, though, is how noticeable Jews are on the other side of the American political spectrum as well. The Kristols and Podhoretzes, peres et fils, are examples that most readily come to mind. But there are many others. New York Times columnist David Brooks famously observed that for some people, "con" in the word "neocon," is "short for 'conservative,' and neo is short for 'Jewish'."

So how exactly does one make sense of the fact that Jews, presumably channeling some deeply-ingrained ethnic inclination, end up moving and shaking both ends of the political seesaw?

One approach is to simply note that Jews tend to be cerebral (a generalization, to be sure; many of us don't seem to do much thinking at all) and so there will always be a good sized pool of bright and motivated Jews from which influential political players and activists of varied stripes will emerge.

But there is something else at work here, and it has less to do with brainpower than with a sense of Jewish mission, of wanting to better society. To effect, in the phrase fashionable these days in some Jewish circles, "tikkun olam" - the "perfection of the world."

And that drive, holy at its roots if not always in its fruit, has long taken Jews in different, sometimes diametric, directions. Wherever on the political/social spectrum they may end up, though, what drives them there - often without their realization - is sourced in a desire… to serve G-d.

Yes, G-d. The Torah makes clear that the Jew is intended to be an instrument of the Divine, to help bring the rest of the world to recognition of His glory. That is true tikkun olam, as the phrase is used in the Aleinu prayer. Every Jew is hard-wired to want to do the will of the Creator.

The shame lies in the obliviousness of most Jews to how, in fact, they can create a better world. To be sure, Jewish tradition requires empathy and charity; as it does personal responsibility and morality - "liberal" and "conservative" ideals alike. But the Torah's bottom line is that the observance and study of its laws comprise the ultimate path to perfection - our own personal perfection and that of the entire world.

Many Jews would - and do - scoff at that contention. G-d, if they think of Him at all, is there to be beseeched for sustenance, health and success. But making a better world, they insist, requires political or social activism; observing often challenging or arcane laws and studying ancient texts could not possibly lead to world peace, security and human welfare. Of course, the scoffers will happily use their computers without a thought to how this or that click here or there manages to yield this or that effect. But to imagine that the Engineer of the universe may have programmed His creation to respond to Jews' observance of the Torah's laws somehow taxes their imagination.

And yet, the seed of that truth lies waiting somewhere in every Jew's soul. Sought out and nourished, it will grow.

The nourishment might be said to lie in a paraphrase of a thought often associated with Theodore Sorensen (although he insisted the words were those of his boss, the 35th president): "Ask not what your Creator can do for you. Ask what you can do for your Creator."

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

It's not every day that a respected news organization rolls over to show the world its ugly, mottled underbelly. But October 20 brought precisely such a disagreeable sight.

National Public Radio's summary firing of news commentator Juan Williams after he admitted on a television program to feeling nervous when he sees people on a plane in "Muslim garb… identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims" revealed not only the network's astounding intolerance for personal feelings but a disturbingly determined refusal to countenance reality.

It is true, of course, as Mr. Williams' critics have duly and repeatedly noted, that most Muslim terrorists on murder missions are sufficiently sharp to dress in Western-style clothing. And it is also true that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists - a point Mr. Williams himself took pains to make during the very same program.

But it is no less true that the declared motivation of the vast majority of terrorists who have harmed Americans in recent years, and of those who seek to harm more of them, has been an understanding of Islam. One rightly feels sympathy for the many Muslims of good will who are viewed fearfully by others. But only someone drunk on a misguided notion of liberalism could fail to recognize that such nervousness is rooted, for better or worse, in unfortunate actuality.

The day after Mr. Williams' canning, NPR's CEO, Vivian Schiller, told an audience at the Atlanta Press Club that Williams' feelings about Muslims should have remained between him and "his psychiatrist or his publicist." Although she later apologized, her comment brightly reflected a mindset that many would argue is indigenous to NPR, one that, amid much else, considers relating acts of terror to their perpetrators' beliefs to be evidence of a mental disorder.

And yet, the very day Mr. Williams was shown the NPR door, a Wall Street Journal web interview of Ms. Schiller was published in which she responded to the assertion that NPR has a reputation as being very liberal. "No," she averred. "We don't have a particular political persuasion."

If more ludicrous words have been spoken of late, they don't come easily to mind.

One can certainly choose to approve of NPR's take on social, political and international issues. But not even the world's best defense lawyer could make the case that the network doesn't have a take, doesn't see the world through a particular lens. Through that looking glass, people who kill unarmed innocents are not terrorists but "militants"; and their victims (like pregnant Tali Hatuel and her four young daughters, murdered in cold blood in 2004) "provok[ers of] bloodshed." (The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America - CAMERA - has a thick dossier on NPR's point of view regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict.) Politically and socially "progressive" positions are routinely glorified (and their opposites subtly disparaged) on NPR; and the network accords "multiculturalism" something akin to the reverence religious people reserve for the Creator. The Williams debacle was only a particularly clear manifestation of one of the biases that buzz incessantly in the air of NPR's studios.

Part of that bias buzz is evident in the network's treatment of classical Orthodox Judaism. On the religion program NPR distributes, mention of Jewish Orthodoxy is virtually absent. Overwhelmingly, what references to Orthodox Jews have been made on public radio have focused not on the Orthodox community's vibrancy, growth, charity or study-ethic but rather on the fact that Israel's chief rabbinate refuses to recognize heterodox movements, on obstinate Orthodox "settlers" in Israel-occupied territories or on Jewish religious law's delineation of particular roles for women.

In that, as it happens, NPR has considerable company in the Jewish media world, where organs claiming to be comprehensive and objective largely ignore the haredi world or, when they don't, present it in a harsh light or as represented by the misbehaviors of individual Orthodox Jews. "Progressive" societal or religious developments, by contrast, are routinely reported as causes for celebration.

There's nothing inherently wrong, of course, with a medium being parochial or partisan. The Orthodox periodicals that abound are precisely that. But those papers are entirely and responsibly up-front about their classical Judaism-informed perspectives.

What's dangerous is the perception that a slanted medium is in fact bias-free. Short of witnessing a blatantly revealing misstep like NPR's recent one, most consumers of news might not realize that the great bulk of what they consume is anything but objective.

There will be future unguarded media moments from time to time, when the prejudices of "information" purveyors are so flagrantly evident that they can't be finessed. The trick, though - and it's an important one for anyone concerned with truth - is remembering that even when the biases aren't plainly in sight, they're still very much there, busily buzzing away in the background.

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The death this past week of 37 miners in central China - for those who were aware of the disaster - presented a tragic counterpoint to the enthralling rescue of the 33 Chilean miners that took place mere days earlier.

Those events, along with the loss of 29 miners in the collapse of a West Virginia mine in April, and that of nine other American miners in eight accidents since, have served, no doubt, to cause countless people to imagine what it must be like to be confined thousands of feet below the earth's surface, physically separated from loved ones - indeed, from the entire world.

And it was surely a rare individual who, following the recent drama in Chile, didn't picture himself shut into in a tight, dark capsule as it wound its way through the stone and earth separating the mine from civilization. And, then, emerging, finally, wonderfully, into the light and fresh air, into the presence of family and friends; laying eyes again on familiar things, the sun, the sky, the faces (leave aside the book deals). Imagine the immeasurable gratitude that would well up in any human heart at such a moment.

And then consider that each of us undergoes a similar experience each and every day.

We wake up in the morning.

It's not only the fact that in sleep we are unconscious, not in control, or that people can and do die in their sleep; or even that sleep, like death, is insistent, and will only allow itself to be postponed so long. The rabbis of the Talmud said something more; they considered sleep itself to be a virtual microcosm of death - "one sixtieth" of it, in their turn of phrase and thought.

The regularity with which we are granted new life each day dulls us, regrettably, to the indescribable import of the fact. That is only human nature, what Emerson alluded to when he wrote: "If the stars would appear but one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the City of G-d."

But recognized or not, the import is there all the same, and demands every sensitive soul's attention. And that is why, while all too many of us awaken each day with grumbling about the speed with which morning arrived, Jewish tradition mandates that a Jew's first words upon awakening in the morning are to be those of the short "Modeh Ani" prayer of gratitude. It is one of the first things observant Jewish parents teach their young children.

"I gratefully acknowledge You," the prayer goes, "living and eternal King, for having returned my soul to me with compassion. Abundant is Your faithfulness."

Few of us, thankfully, will ever experience anything like what the trapped miners in Chile underwent. But all of us can benefit from thinking about those men, and consciously, pointedly, relating their experience and feelings to what we do in fact undergo each and every day, as we pull ourselves from unconsciousness and dark into awareness and light. Our gratitude should be boundless.

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The timing couldn't have been more uncanny, Or more sad.

It was the week of the Torah portion of Noah when a flood of invective poured forth following a statement by the New Jersey Jewish Standard, a regional newspaper based in Teaneck, that it had erred by including among marriage announcements the intention of two young men to live together as a couple. According to the Medrash, the great flood in Noah's time, which wiped out almost all of humanity, was especially destructive because of antediluvian society's endorsement of "writing marriage contracts for men."

The newspaper's decision "not to run such announcements in the future" came in the wake of quiet protest by some local Orthodox rabbis. The firestorm of anger that later ensued has caused the paper to consider adding a flop to its flip.

Among comments posted online about the paper's decision to discontinue same-sex couple announcements were: "disgusting and abhorrent," "craven and ridiculous," "despicable" and a "shandeh." Several media, including The New York Times and the New York Jewish Week, saw fit in their reports on the brouhaha to remind readers of the suicide of a homosexual college student several days earlier, as if to subtly convey the notion that support for maintaining the traditional meaning of marriage somehow begets such things.

The Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly weighed in with its own creative take on the controversy, couching it as a "free press" issue and the newspaper's decision as "censorship." Leaving aside the assertion of a relationship between the First Amendment and simcha announcements, one finds it hard to imagine the assembled rabbis similarly condemning a Jewish newspaper's policy to, say, not include announcements of Jews for Jesus events. There is a rather large difference, it shouldn't need to be said, between censorship and standards.

In any event, newspapers, particularly nondenominational Jewish ones, are ultimately beholden not to the marketplace of ideas but to the marketplace. The New Jersey Jewish Standard may be an exception, and its decision to cease publication of celebrations of gross violations of the Torah's moral code might in fact have been born of sincere concern for its Orthodox readers' feelings. But it may also have been a cold business decision intended to not jeopardize subscriptions and advertisements from the Orthodox community. If so, well, industry strategies often change with changed circumstances and the uproar at the paper may yet yield a new business plan.

But the real story here isn't about a community organ or the relative clouts of Orthodox and non-Orthodox consumers. It isn't, either, the story of two young men who want to live as a married couple. It is about the immeasurably vast chasm between so large a part of the non-Orthodox Jewish community and its religious heritage.

Few moral precepts are as deeply rooted in the Torah as the one forbidding Jews - and non-Jews as well, since it is part of the Seven Noahide Commandments governing all humankind - from engaging in the behavior that supporters of the young men insist must be celebrated in the pages of an ostensibly Jewish newspaper. The Scriptural sources are well known. The Medrash associates homosexual acts not only with the great flood of Noah's time but with the Canaanite peoples whose behavior defiled the Holy Land and caused their expulsion from it. A statement in the Talmud asserts that one of human society's redeeming qualities has been its refusal to countenance the extension of matrimony to pairs of men.

Judaism's rejection of homosexual activity as something deeply wrong cannot be denied. It is as essential a part of the Jewish faith as the rest of the moral and ethical imperatives in the Torah. That Jews today have been led to feel they can erase it from that canon is not only outrageous but tragic.

"It is sad to think a small group can influence a newspaper like this," said one of the young men whose announcement begat the controversy, adding - in an unfortunate choice of words, considering the week's Torah-reading - "But I've been flooded with support."

He has, indeed. And that's precisely the tragedy.

He and his friend and their supporters are frighteningly removed not only from the Jewish religious heritage's teaching about human relationships but from the lesson of the Torah portion following that of Noah.

In that portion, Lech Lecha, we are introduced to Abraham, the first of the Jewish people's forefathers. He was known as the "Ivri" - the "other sider." Because, Jewish tradition explains, he was not afraid of taking a stand for G-d and truth even when the rest of the world remained on the opposite side of the divide.

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is why there is Sukkot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, from other e-mails:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

There's an orphan in shul.

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

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

His name is Aleinu.

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

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

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

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

See how long it takes you.

I rest my case.

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

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

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

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

Times for declaring, minds fully engaged with lips, that

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The most mundane things can sometimes prove unexpectedly educational.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What about the Bible?" asks the interviewer.

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

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

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

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

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

They have come back to it.

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like the dirt.

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is not exactly how Q-Tip understands things.

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy, and meaningful, anniversary.

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Who knows four?"

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

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


Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'll never forget his answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This essay was distributed in 2006.

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May Caleb's gift continue to give.

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of story.

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or that it introduces Yom Kippur.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

Ah, were expiation of iniquity only so simple.

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

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

So what's with the chickens?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That night was the first night of Selichos…

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That latter truth is a timely one. Some, of late, have suggested that the Israeli rabbinate "convert" hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants, to bolster Jewish numbers and allow those thus "made Jewish" to more easily blend into Jewish society. Leaving aside the wisdom of those goals themselves, such conversions, if unaccompanied by sincere acceptance of Jewish observance, would not be valid.

The bottom line: The relevant question in converting to Judaism is not prior behavior but sincerity of future Jewish purpose.

And Mr. Taylor? Well, he has not been reported to have undergone mikvah-immersion or circumcision, much less to have demonstrated a sincere acceptance of the Torah's laws to the satisfaction of any valid Jewish court. And his retaining of Christian belief would itself be sufficient to undermine his consideration by any such court. So it is a safe bet to say that, whether or not he is a changed man, his claim to Jewishness is spurious. But the report of his assertion is as good a springboard as any for propelling us to remember what conversion to Judaism isn't, and what it is.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.


Rabbi Avi Shafran

My daily commute often puts me in the presence of one or another ear bud-wearing young person whose music device's volume is turned up sufficiently high to be audible (and annoying) to others many feet away. The experience makes me think about the Middle East. No, really.

The tinny noise, surely astoundingly loud to the eardrums mere millimeters away, makes me envision a world twenty years hence in which millions of middle-aged are unable to hear. And unlike the congenitally deaf, the newly hard-of-hearing will find it hard to manage. I wonder about the toll a chronically cranky chunk of the populace might take on society.

And that is what brings me to wonder about a different toll, on Palestinians.

President Obama received much criticism from some Jewish circles for elements of his Cairo speech earlier this month. His every turn of phrase, his juxtaposition of topics, what he said and what he didn't say - all were subjected to great scrutiny, and found wanting by some.

Others noted that, for goodness' sake, he was speaking to an Arab audience, seeking to seize an opportunity to win some trust on America's behalf. If peace between Israel and Palestinian Arabs is possible (a big "if," they concede), it will require a United States President who is seen by most Palestinians as sympathetic to their cause. The President, moreover, was explicit to his Muslim audience about "America's strong bonds with Israel," which he declared "unbreakable."

The issues are well known. What borders should a Palestinian state have? Should it be independent or confederated with an existing Arab country? Should it be armed or demilitarized? Should it be at all?

Should some or all Israeli communities built on land captured in 1967 be dismantled? Limited in growth? Left alone to grow and thrive as part of the Jewish State? Should Hamas and other murderous groups be included in any peace process directly or indirectly or shunned as incorrigible?

Should Arab refugees and their children and grandchildren be permitted to return to lands where they or their forebears once lived? Compensated in some way? Or absorbed by one of the dozen or so Arab countries?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his own recent speech at Bar Ilan University, addressed some of those issues, rejecting limitations on existing communities and accepting in principle the idea of a demilitarized Palestinian state.

What is arguably the most important issue, though, is something else.

It is something President Obama actually broached in his Cairo speech, when he called Holocaust denial "ignorant" and "hateful," and said that "repeating vile stereotypes about Jews" is "deeply wrong."

He was even more explicit in an interview after meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, in which he recounted telling the Arab leader "that it was very important to continue to make progress in reducing the incitement and anti-Israel sentiments that are sometimes expressed in schools and mosques and in the public square," that "all those things are impediments to peace."

The President spoke, as always, diplomatically. "Those things," in fact, are more than impediments; they are nail-packed bombs under the possibility of peace. As long as television programming for Arab children features puppets spewing hatred for Israel and cheerfully committing themselves to jihad; as long as streets in Palestinian-controlled areas are named in honor of vicious murderers of Jews; as long as Palestinian schools teach canards about Israel and use maps of the region that do not indicate the existence of a Jewish State - issues of states and borders and settlements are purely academic. The Talmud teaches (Shabbat 21b) that "the learning of youth" is the most strongly absorbed, remaining indelible into later years.

Decades, even centuries, of hatred do not preclude peace. But neither can peace be built on a foundation of hatred.

Whatever one's views on a "two state solution," on "settlements" or on a "right of return" for Palestinian Arabs and their descendants, it should be clear that the President was on target about the need for Arab incitement to cease. If I had his and Mr. Netanyahu's ears, I would respectfully suggest that they move that issue to the very front and center of the "peace process," where it belongs; that nothing else even be contemplated until it is fully resolved.

Because a loud, lewd and relentless stream of anti-Israel, anti-Jewish noise pumped into impressionable young Arabs' brains today will only render yet another generation of adults down the road stone-deaf to any possibility of peace.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

One Sunday more than a decade ago, I lay in a curtained-off cubicle adjacent to a hospital's emergency room, my chest bared and awaiting the sort of wired paddles that make still, supine bodies on medical dramas jump like chopped onions in a hot, oiled frying pan.

The procedure I was about to undergo, though, was relatively routine and quite safe; it had been scheduled weeks earlier in response to my heart's march for several years to the beat of a different drummer. One means of discouraging such nonconformance is to teach the offending muscles a good, swift lesson with a well-placed jolt of electricity. Same principle as a cattle prod.

No private room had been available at the hospital for so minor a chastisement as a cardioversion (or "conversion" in medical parlance; I warned the men of the frocks that they stood little chance of successfully "converting an Orthodox rabbi," but from the rolled eyes I realized I hadn't been the first bearded, beyarmulked patient to make the comment). Thus my decidedly unprivate, if off-the beaten-path, digs.

As I lay there, head propped on a pillow, awaiting the arrival of the anesthesiologist and the executioner, I watched a parade of patients being chaperoned from the emergency room through the hub of activity just beyond the half-parted curtain. A bloodied head here, a broken limb there, a macabre march, the yield of a sleepy city and its mistakes (or worse) on the sober morning after a Saturday night.

And then, in the middle of the procession, I saw her, and the look in her eyes.

A blanket covered all but her hoary head and one skeletal, desperate arm reaching for something that wasn't there. Her eyes, though, deeply sunken in a wizened, trembling face, were an irresistible force; they seized my own eyes and simply would not let go, not for the eternity of that fleeting moment. What I saw in those eyes was unfiltered, raw fear.

Maybe the fact that my heart was about to be stopped by a machine had oversensitized me. But something else weighed on me too, 3000 years of religious tradition.

For Judaism values life to an awesome degree. One moment on this earth is cherished beyond imagining in the Torah's eyes. "Tomorrow," asserts the Talmud - the next world - is for our ultimate reward; only "today," though, "is for doing."

The contemporary world values an assortment of talents and skills but none so intensely as Judaism treasures the ability to confront one's life, to face reality, to wield free will, to choose, resolve, repent. And even immobilized and ailing in a hospital bed, a man or woman can do those most meaningful things a human being can possibly do. A Talmudic teaching has it that some "acquire their portion" in heaven through the efforts of many years, others "in a mere hour."

Even the comatose may well be functioning beyond our assumptions. Electroencephalographs measure electrical activity in the brain but nothing more. Who can possibly know what might be happening in the soul of a living human being?

While my condition was benign and medically treatable, the imminent procedure was disconcerting. A lightning-quick thought of the coming anesthesia and what might follow stabbed at my brain. What if my heart protested the punishment (its owner, after all, tends toward overreaction) and decided to stop beating altogether? What, I wondered, was the hospital's policy about patients who suddenly need the proverbial "heroic measures"? Old or diseased patients, I knew, can have a "DNR" - a "Do Not Resuscitate" - order attached to their charts. They, or their relatives, or a doctor - depending on circumstances - can direct medical personnel to allow a patient in extremis to die, rather than interfere to postpone the final event. (Agudath Israel makes available for the asking "Halachic Living Wills" designed to ensure that health care decisions in the event of incapacity are made according to Jewish religious law.) I was pretty sure that a relatively healthy middle-aged adult like me would be rescued if things went awry.

But should there really be any difference, I mulled there on the gurney, between young and old, sick or healthy, clearly moribund or only subtly so like the rest of us? If a moment of human life is invaluable, is it not so for everyone?

Which thought made the coda to the apparition so striking, fixing it forever in my mind.

For just as the eyes, arm and blanket all disappeared to the left of my line of sight, a nurse's face entered stage right for the briefest of moments. It was a speaking part, but she had only one line.

"That's a DNR," the nurse called out with startling nonchalance. Even before the voltage came, a frisson washed over my bones.

When the electroshock came, it did nothing but burn my chest. My morning in the hospital left my heart unaffected.

Its rhythm, anyway.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

It looked like a bumblebee but something was odd. It seemed too shiny and too black, too large-limbed and lumbering. Maybe, I thought, it was just an aged member of the species.

I watched as it crawled slowly across a wooden beam that I had mounted last summer above the metal railing of the deck outside our dining room. Since our home's main floor is its second one, there was a halachic need - as per the Biblical law of "ma'akeh," or "roof enclosure" (Deuteronomy 22:8) - to extend the deck's waist-high railing upward. Hence the home-made wooden extension the bee had discovered.

I have always enjoyed the company of bees. As a child I would watch them, capture them, observe their behavior and occasionally endure their stings. Even to this day, in the sukkah, as others recoil at the sight of yellow-jackets, I will happily hold out my hand for the insects to crawl on, and escort them outside. Bumblebees, though, with their amazing flight maneuvers, have always been a personal favorite. And this one was strange.

What he did was even stranger, crawling to the underside of the wood and just parking himself there, upside down. Investigating, I saw that he had found, and apparently found to his liking, a perfectly round hole, about a half-inch in diameter. Compounding the strangeness, I didn't remember ever noticing the hole.

That was on the second day of Shavuot, just as I completed a session of Torah-study. (The deck is my special study-retreat, weather permitting.) Later in the day, I noticed that the bee had tunneled into the hole; puffs of sawdust could be seen emerging from it; eventually all that was visible of the animal was its hindquarters. After the holiday, I did some research and discovered that the bee was a she, and not bumblebee at all, but a carpenter bee.

The female of the species, I learned, prepares a nursery for her offspring by excavating the underside - always the underside - of a piece of wood, creating a near-perfectly round hole and then burrowing an inch or so into it before abruptly turning at a right angle to continue her tunnel horizontally. Eventually the hollowed-out area will be where the bee lays her brood.

She will partition off different areas of the tunnel, providing each "room" with a wad of pollen and nectar, and then lay one egg on it before sealing it off. Each egg will become a larva that will subsist on its personal manna until it develops into a pupa and then, finally, a new bee. The young bees will then break through the partitions and escape into the outside world.

I can't wait.

Maimonides characterizes the "path" to fulfilling the commandment of ahavat Hashem, loving G-d, thus: "When a person ponders [G-d's] great and wondrous acts and creations and perceives in them His limitless wisdom... he loves and praises and extols [G-d] and is filled with a deep and great desire to know [Him]…" (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, 2:2)

The awe-inspiring is all around us, if we care to look and think, and are not fooled into imagining that nature's fantasticalness is a phantasm, the meaningless yield of random meetings of molecules. Watching the carpenter bee was, for me, a new step on the path Maimonides describes.

And it reminded me, too, of a Talmudic aphorism: "The consequence of a mitzvah," or commandment, "is another mitzvah." (Avot, 4:2)

For had it not been for the mitzvah of ma'akeh, which had required me to build a sufficiently high railing for my deck, I would not have been able to study Torah, another mitzvah, of course, on my deck. The ma'akeh had led to Torah-study.

And had I not been studying Torah on my deck, I might never have met the carpenter bee, who I truly feel advanced me on the path leading to a most important mitzvah, ahavat Hashem.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

In one of his wonderful collections of essays (The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher), the late physician Lewis Thomas tells of a highly successful doctor (a senior citizen back when Dr. Thomas' father was an intern) in New York's Roosevelt Hospital who was trained before the medical profession understood how disease spreads. The elder doctor was renowned for his remarkable ability to diagnose typhoid fever, a common disease at that time and place. His method was to closely examine the tongues of patients. His ward rounds, the younger Dr. Thomas recounts, "were essentially tongue rounds." Each patient would stick out his tongue for the doctor to palpate. Pondering its texture and irregularities, he would diagnose the disease "in its earliest stages over and over again" and turn out, "a week or so later, to have been right, to everyone's amazement."

The essayist wryly concludes: "He was a more productive carrier, using only his hands, than Typhoid Mary."

I was reminded of the account by another, more recent, example of the Law of Unintended Consequences, a report that New York's elected officials want to revoke the "Rockefeller Laws." Enacted in 1973 as a popular response to the societal plague of narcotics use at the time, those statutes, championed by New York's then-governor Nelson Rockefeller, imposed mandatory prison sentences for drug offenders. Similar laws were soon adopted elsewhere.

Over ensuing decades, though, the laws in other states were revoked, and now New York's governor and legislative leaders have announced their intention to repeal many of the original "Rockefeller Laws," giving judges the authority to send first-time nonviolent offenders for treatment instead of to prison.

What provoked the abandonment of those drug laws was that in the wake of their enactment both New York's prison population and its percentage of incarcerated drug offenders more than tripled. The attendant costs were not only financial but human: minorities and women were disproportionately affected, and recreational drug users who entered the prison system left it as hardened criminals.

It is sobering to consider that our best laid plans, even when born of sincere concern and seeming logic, can turn against us. The sobriety should impart, if nothing else, a modicum of modesty, a reluctance to feel as certain as we so often do that the paths we choose will lead where we want.

There are, of course, certainties in life, deep convictions that we rightly embrace without reservation. Religious Jews, for instance, affirm that Creation has a purpose and that the goals of their own lives are defined by G-d's will as communicated through the Torah. We may also consider close to certain the measured judgments in specific realms of others whom we believe to be wiser than we are, be they doctors, lawyers or religious leaders. But to proclaim our own independent, personal certitude about a political or social position, to assume that any of us can know without question that a particular political philosophy, foreign policy, government official or piece of legislation is good (or bad) is, always, in the end, an exercise in overreaching.

To be sure, we have every right to make our personal analyses and to take positions on such people and things, to advocate what we think is wise and to make the cases for our opinions. But as we do, it is beneficial to have in the backs of our minds - or perhaps their fronts - a recognition of the fact that, for all our brights and best laid logic, we might still … possibly… be… wrong.

And that realization is of more than philosophical import. It has a vital and practical ramification in the realm of human interaction, along the lines of the Talmudic statement that "just as people's faces all differ, so do their minds." For it requires us to perceive those with different views as, well, people with different views, not as illogical, intractable, irredeemable enemies of all that is good and right.

Unfortunately, newsprint, airwaves and cyberspace are saturated with precisely that latter sort of demagoguery. And contrary to the claims of some of its enthusiasts, such "free speech" does not promote healthy, productive disagreement and discussion; it suffocates them.

Contemporary society suffers from a malnourishment of modesty. It is evident not only in the realm of the physical - in contemporary dress and mores - but in attitudes toward issues as well. There is so little that any of us can truly know; yet so certain are so many of so much.

And so, suffused with self-assurance, the cavalier march forward, their points of view extended before them like bayonet tips. Confident of the infallibility of their judgment, the righteousness of their causes and the dire threat posed by others' perspectives, they generously share not only their conclusions but their ill will, every bit as effectively as a doctor at a New York hospital once propagated a different disease.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Odd as it might seem, the recent report that a library at Yemen Children's Hospital was named after Palestinian suicide bomber Wafa Idris, that terrorist Samir Al-Kuntar spoke at the naming-ceremony and that little girls read poems in honor of the occasion brought back a Shavuot memory.

According to the report, which originated in a Yemeni news service and was translated by MEMRI, the local Province Governor expressed pride "that the Arab nation has stalwart resistance [fighters] like Samir Al-Kuntar." In 1974, Mr. Kuntar murdered an Israeli father in front of his four-year-old daughter and then smashed the little girl's skull against a rock with a rifle butt.

Every Jewish holiday is special in its own way, but Shavuot, which falls on May 29 and 30 this year, is unusual: it has no specific "active" observances, nothing like Passover's seder and matzoh, or Sukkot's booths or "four species," or Rosh Hashana's shofar-blowing.

The 18th century Chassidic master known as Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev perceived something subtle in that fact. Shavuot, he noted, is identified by Jewish tradition as the anniversary of the Jewish people's acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Since the act of accepting is an inherently passive one, he explained, the holiday is pointedly devoid of physically active observances. It is a time of receiving the Torah anew, and most appropriately expressed through Torah-study.

Hence, likely, the ancient Jewish custom to stay awake the entire night of Shavuot immersed in the texts of our tradition.

Every year I experience a personal Shavuot miracle; it is one that I suspect is shared by many others. By the end of our family's festive meal on Shavuot night, the prospect of staying awake an hour, much less six or seven, seems an impossible one. Yet, somehow, entering the study-hall, some holy energy seems to seize me, and, even as my mind and body increasingly rebel against the deprivation of slumber, my soul jumps for joy.

Seven years ago, my nearly12-year-old son Dovie - today a strapping 19-year-old studying in yeshiva in Israel - insisted on joining me in study in the large main sanctuary of a local synagogue, which was crowded with scores of Jewish men and boys doing the same.

The two of us, salt-and-pepper-bearded, could-stand-to-lose-a-few-pounds father and reddish-haired, dimpled and determined son, spent most of the night engrossed in Talmud. We began with a page of the tractate he was studying in school - a long passage dealing with the imperative of alleviating an animal's pain - and then turned to several pages of another tractate he and I regularly learn together - which concerned the status of land ownership in Jerusalem.

Dovie seemed entirely awake throughout it all, and asked the perceptive questions I had come to expect from him. We paused over the course of the night only for him to participate in classes for boys his age in an adjoining room, taught by an older yeshiva boy.

The experience was enthralling, as it always is, and while it was a challenge to concentrate (and at times even to keep my eyes from closing) during the prayer service that followed at 5:00 AM, Dovie and I both "made it" and then, hand in hand, walked home, where we promptly crashed. But before my head touched my pillow (a millisecond or two before I entered REM sleep), I summoned the energy to thank G-d for sharing His Torah with us.

That silent prayer came back to me like a thunderclap a few days later, when I caught up on some reading I had missed (though only in the word's most simple sense) over the holiday. Apparently, during the precise hours Dovie and I were studying holy texts, the presses at The Washington Times were printing a story datelined Gaza City.

It began with a description of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Abu Ali, being "lovingly dress[ed] by his mother in a costume of a suicide bomber, complete with small kaffiyeh, a belt of electrical tape and fake explosives made of plywood."

"I encourage him, and he should do this," said his mother; and Abu Ali himself apparently agreed. "I hope to be a martyr," he said. "I hope when I get to 14 or 15 to explode myself."

My thoughts flashed back to Shavuot and to my own son, and I thanked G-d again, from the bottom of my heart.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Even with the surfeit of silliness passing these days for "Torah commentary"- the manufactured "midrashim," "original interpretations" and Biblical passages turned on their heads - I was flabbergasted to read a homily disparaging the Chafetz Chaim.

The Chafetz Chaim, of course - Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan - was renowned for his saintliness and sagacity, and for his monumental works on Jewish law, including two on the laws against slander. When the Polish sage died, in 1933, The New York Times' obituary noted that he had shut down his store when he realized that its success born of his renown was imperiling other local storekeepers' income.

What exercised the contemporary sermonizer, whose words appeared in an Israel-oriented magazine, was the Chafetz Chaim's comment on an undisputed halachic ruling, that even a sinner, if Jewish, can be counted as part of a prayer-quorum. The Chafetz Chaim had elucidated the reason behind the ruling: "Even though he is a sinning Jew," the great rabbi explained, "his holiness endures."

The magazine-homilist, a Jewish educator, found that statement "not so enlightened," indeed "particularly problematic in an era when racism has fallen out of favor."

Racism? To most of us that word implies mistreating, or at least disliking, someone because of his ethnicity. There are observant Jews who are racist; observance, unfortunately, doesn't preclude any of a number of irrationalities. But affirmation of "Jewish election" - the concept that the Jewish people was chosen by G-d to be a holy nation with a holy mission - has about the same relationship to racism as a sizzling steak has to a slab of cold tofu. (No angry e-mails, please - I like tofu!) For that matter, Jewish chosen-ness is a belief held by many non-Jews as well.

And what sort of "racism" permits its targets to switch races? While Judaism doesn't encourage conversion, anyone not born Jewish but willing to undertake commitment to the faith's laws and undergo the conversion process is fully welcomed into the Jewish people. Does David Duke let Pakistanis join his whites-only club? Would Louis Farrakhan let Mr. Duke become an honorary black?

The bottom line: Jewish chosen-ness, from the Jewish perspective, entails no disparagement of others. It is not a license but a responsibility, to live by the laws of the Torah and to set a holy example for others - to shine forth in belief and behavior as the prophet Isaiah's "light unto the nations" (42:6).

But, yes, even one who has failed to shoulder that responsibility doesn't thereby lose that responsibility, or his status as part of his people. The relative who let you down, even terribly, remains your relative.

The derivation itself of the concept of a prayer-quorum implies as much. The Talmud divines the requirement of ten men for a public declaration of G-d's holiness (like, for example, the recitation of the Kaddish) from the use of the same Hebrew word, b'toch - "among" - in both the verse "And I will be [declared] holy among the Jewish people" and the verse "Separate yourselves from among the congregation," the latter concerning the followers of Korach, who rebelled against Moses and Aaron. Since the word "congregation" - "edah" - in that latter verse is in turn used in yet a third one, "How much longer, this evil congregation?" (referring to the ten Jewish men who scouted the Holy Land and delivered a misleadingly discouraging report), the Talmud concludes that a "holiness" prayer-quorum requires ten Jewish men (Berachot, 21b).

And so the very source of the quorum is rooted in references to sinners. That speaks loudly about the Jewish faith's demarcation of Jews as special, sinners and all.

Maybe the contemporary educator is not aware that the concept of Jewish election itself dates somewhat farther back than the Chafetz Chaim, to the Torah itself. Or maybe he is, but rejects the idea nonetheless, choosing to see it as "racism."

I suspect he doesn't really deny what is, in the end, a basic Jewish conviction; he's just uncomfortable in our universalist times with the notion that the Jewish faith sets Jews apart (the essential meaning of the Hebrew word for holy, "kadosh") . But I think that he knows it does and, deep down, accepts the fact. That alone could explain why, as the biographical note at the end of his essay states, come fall the writer will be joining the faculty at a Jewish day school in California.

Not a Catholic, Muslim or Hindu school. A Jewish one.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

At some point, a tiny human embryo, properly cared for, becomes a baby.

Taken apart, however, an embryo can provide embryonic stem cells that can be coaxed to grow into practically any tissue of the body, offering the hope that experimenting with them could yield treatments for a host of diseases.

Some equate such experimentation on embryos with murder; others dismiss out of hand any concern for what is done to what is, at the time, an undifferentiated biological mass. Those are the positions on the extremes of the embryonic stem cell research spectrum.

From the perspective of Jewish religious law, things are not as simple as either polar position. A host of fine-point factors imbue the calculus, which is why Agudath Israel, on the advice of the rabbinical leaders at its helm, has not taken a public stance on the issue. But an issue it is. And President Obama, it seems, recognizes that fact.

Back in March, the President issued an Executive Order lifting Bush Administration limits on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, enthusing proponents of such science.

"We're thrilled," said a spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine at the time, "that the president is going to lift the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research." In the Jewish world, Reform Rabbi David Saperstein, director of his movement's Religious Action Center, wrote how "refreshing" he found it to have an administration "committed to rooting its science policy in fact, no matter its ideology, rather than rooting its science policy in ideology, no matter the facts."

But the "ideology" in this context would be better described as an ethical concern. Communism and fascism are ideologies; respect for human life, whether at its end or its beginning, is a matter of morality. As Slate columnist William Saletan has written, to dismiss opposition to embryonic research as "ideology" is to "forget the moral problem." Some proponents of embryo research, he observes, regard "the war on disease… like the war on terror. Either you're with science or you're against it."

Not so, thankfully, Mr. Obama. Last month, under his direction, the National Institutes of Health revealed details of the change in policy. Whereas the Bush administration had approved 21 already established stem cell lines for federally funded research, now stem cells from embryos slated for destruction - largely those left over from fertility treatments, with donors' written consent - will be available to researchers for experimentation funded by federal tax dollars.

Mr. Obama, however, did not voice support for using federal funds to create embryos for research purposes. While privately funded researchers have never been barred from creating and destroying embryos, since 1996 a federal law known as the Dickey-Wicker amendment has disallowed federal funds to be used for such purposes. Noting that "Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research," the President opted not to enter the Dickey-Wicker sticky wicket.

The New York Times editorial page was not amused, calling the President's stance "the easy political path." The Religious Action Center was, uncharacteristically, silent. Researchers voiced vexation. Dr. Irving Weissman, director of a stem cell research facility at Stanford University, asserted that the NIH's guidelines put an "ideological barrier in the way" of treating disease. The "I" word again.

Thankfully, the entire issue of whether it is ethical to create potential humans in order to dismember them for scientific purposes - or, at least, to federally fund the enterprise - may be in the process of becoming moot. Two years ago, Japanese biologist Shinya Yamanaka found that adult skin cells - millions of which each of us can spare without much trouble - can be induced to revert to an embryonic stage. Such technology, says Dr. Arnold Kriegstein, a stem cell researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, "may eventually eclipse the embryonic stem cell lines for therapeutic as well as diagnostics applications." In fact, there are clear advantages, particularly in potential therapeutic use, for treating patients with cells that originated in their own bodies.

Should Dr. Yamanaka's finding open up a new and ethically untroubling universe of cells for research, the day may be coming when no one will have any reason or wish to destroy embryos. And certainly not to grow them into fetuses in order to harvest their organs - the next-step idea broached several months ago at a scientific symposium in England.

In the meantime, we Americans can be comforted by the knowledge that our President seems to recognize the gravity of the fact that human embryos can grow into people as real as the readers of these lines.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

I don't often ride the New York subways, but not long ago I found myself leaving a train deep beneath Brooklyn, at the borough's cavernous Atlantic Street station. And I was surprised to be greeted, amid all the usual squalor and bustle, by a large and exquisite reproduction of "The Starry Night," Vincent Van Gogh's eerie painting. I'm no art aficionado but the famous rendering of a haloed moon and stars in a swirling blue firmament has always moved me. What in the world - or underworld - though, was a copy of the painting doing on a subway station wall?

Then, turning to find the track I needed, I found myself face to face with an unmistakable Monet pond-scene. Nearby, I noticed with increasing amusement, were cubist visions by Picasso, Warholian soup cans and various other copies of paintings, drawings and photographs whose originals hang in museums.

Or, as I discovered, a museum - New York's Museum of Modern Art. The posters were part of an advertising campaign to lure subway riders to visit the originals.

Clever, I thought, and a nice touch for a famously unrefined environment. Then my thoughts drifted.

The reproductions before me were, at least to untrained eyes like mine, virtually indistinguishable from the originals. I'm sure the textures of the brushstrokes are evident in the actual paintings; and they alone, after all, were produced by the artists' hands. But great pains had been taken to present subway patrons with top-notch copies of the MOMA possessions; and the results, had they been hanging on a museum wall, could probably have fooled most people.

Yet the originals are, well, authentic, and priceless; and the copies mere copies, worth only their printing costs (and copyright fees).

People, too, I ruminated, can be real or ersatz. Some are just what they seem. Others, though, are, in effect, cheap copies, pretending to be what they project but lacking authenticity of character, the brushstrokes of the soul.

There are, for instance, genuine leaders dedicated to advancing the interests of those they lead, and shameful imitations, demagogues donning mantles of power for their own personal gain. There are true scientists, open to wonder and dedicated to discerning natural truths; and there are counterfeit ones, duly credentialed but without the sense of objectivity that underlies the genuine pursuit of truth. There are deeply religious people, who understand that there is a greater Power than any temporal one, Whose will human beings must strive to discern and follow. And there are charlatans, pretenders to spirituality, sometimes obvious, other times not. It is no different in the observant Jewish community, where there are sincere men and women pledged to the laws and ideals of the Jewish religious tradition, but also people who dress the part but whose clothes are just costumes.

But those are the extremes; human nature isn't a dichotomy. There are also leaders who want to do what is right but succumb at times to doing what's best for themselves; scientists who are basically objective but occasionally allow their biases reign; religious people whose deepest desire is to serve G-d but who are vulnerable to laziness, jealousy and anger.

That describes many of us, I think. But we aren't fakers for the fact. There is a great difference between pathology and imperfection, between being hypocritical and being human.

The Talmud relates how, for a period of time, under the leadership of the illustrious sage Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh, the study hall was open exclusively to students whose "insides were like their outsides" - who were precisely what they purported to be, righteous scholars.

Rabban Gamliel's successor, however, loosened the requirement - for the better, the Talmud implies.

So it would seem that even those of us who are less than perfectly coherent need not despair. My revered mentor, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, noted that the Talmud's wording is instructive. We are not exhorted to bring our "outsides" into line with our "insides" - to achieve spiritual purity and then adopt its signifiers - but rather the other way around. We are permitted, even required, to outwardly emulate those more spiritually accomplished than we, to embrace acts of observance and goodness, even if our souls are not yet as pure as our clothing. "A person is acted upon," in the Sefer Hachinuch's words, "by his actions."

And yet, the "insides like outsides" ideal clearly remains the ultimate goal, not only for scholars but for us all. We may not yet have achieved - and, as the imperfect creatures we are, may never achieve - full coherence, but we must strive for it all the same. The only excuse for not being there is that we're trying to get there. And as long as we are honestly working toward our goal, our efforts bring us closer.

How fortunate are we humans. A copy of a Van Gogh cannot ever, no matter how hard it tries, grow into the real deal.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The sight was not only amusing, it was timely. Leaving my house for the synagogue early the third morning of Passover, a Sabbath this year, I wished my next-door neighbor a good morning. A muscular man, he was sitting in his doorway in his pajamas, curled up against the mist and chill, smoking a cigarette.

His wife (or maybe his landlord) doesn’t allow him to smoke in the house. And so he can often be found outside feeding his habit. This particular day, though, his just-woke-up-and-needed-one-so-bad look took on a larger import. It was a poignant reminder of what Jews were celebrating that week: release from slavery.

I imagined my neighbor regarding his perch as an escape from the oppression of the smoke-intolerant house. The reality, of course, is quite the opposite: his enslaver is his addiction.

The freedom for which Jews recently spent a week thanking their Liberator is also often misunderstood. Yes, the Jewish exodus from Egypt freed our ancestors from physical enslavement, but it was much more than a liberation movement, a shaking off of shackles and assertion of independence. The deepest enslavement the Jews suffered in Egypt, authentic Jewish sources explain, was spiritual in nature. The people had sunk to a deep level of defilement, having assimilated their masters’ unholy practices. And G-d’s intercession before the people could sink even any deeper into the moral morass – another moment in Egypt, the rabbis of the Midrash teach, would have rendered them beyond redemption – is the deepest reason for our Passover rejoicing.

Which made a statement issued by the advocacy arm of the Reform movement on the eve of the holiday so tragically ironic. It came in the wake of the Vermont legislature’s vote to legalize same-sex marriage in that state, and expressed how, “as we prepare for the Passover holiday,” the movement was “cheered by the sweetness of [the] victory for marriage equity…”

To some of us, the Vermont vote, like an Iowa court ruling shortly before it that yielded a similar outcome in that state, would have been more appropriately associated with the Seder plate’s bitter herbs. For the headlong societal rush to exalt behavior the Torah forbids not only to Jews but to all of humanity evidences a deep and dangerous misunderstanding. It confuses libertinism with liberty, free-for-all with freedom.

For true freedom entails responsibility; it is the freedom not of the body but of the soul. When G-d ordered Pharaoh “Let My people go!” He continued: “… so that they may serve Me.”

The Jewish concept of freedom does not entail being unfettered, but rather bound to what is meaningful; it does not mean independence but subservience – not to the mundane but to the Divine.

Which is why Passover, in a sense, doesn’t entirely end after its seven (or, outside of the Holy Land, eight) days. On the second day of the holiday, following the Biblical command, observant Jews begin counting, marking each of the following forty-nine days by pronouncing a blessing and assigning the day a number. The fiftieth day, the day after the counting is completed, is the holiday of Shavuot (“Weeks”); it is in a very real sense the culmination of Passover.

For according to Jewish tradition, Shavuot is the anniversary of what the exodus from Egypt was for: the revelation at Sinai, when the Torah was given to the Jewish people. And therein lies the ultimate meaning of Jewish freedom: emergence from our enslavement to lower urges, to substances, possessions, the dictates of society. Freedom of the spirit.

And so we count the days – quite literally – from the holiday of freedom to the holiday of Torah, expressing (and, hopefully, impressing on ourselves) just how inextricably the theme of Passover is linked to that of Shavuot, how the ultimate expression of true freedom is having the courage and mettle to throw off the yoke of temporal masters and commit ourselves to what is meaningful in an ultimate sense: the will and law of G-d.

The rabbis of the Talmud put it pithily, noting how similar the Hebrew word for “etched,” “charut” – used about the commandments carved on the Tablets of the Law – is to the Hebrew word for freedom, cherut.

“The only free person,” they explain, “is the one immersed in Torah.”

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Something tells me I won't make any new friends (and might even lose some old ones) if I confess to harboring some admiration for Bernard Madoff.

And to make things worse, I can't muster much for Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed a full commercial airliner in the Hudson River back in January.

Let me try to explain. Please.

Mr. Madoff committed a serious economic crime on an unprecedented scale for such wrongdoing, and in the process ruined the financial futures of numerous people and institutions, including charitable ones, worldwide. There can be no denying that.

Yet I can't quite bring myself to join the large, loud chorus of those who have condemned him to - to take Ralph Blumenthal's judgment in The New York Times Magazine - the Pit, the deepest circle of Dante's Inferno. Others have devised and publicly proclaimed creative and exquisite tortures of their own for the disgraced businessman - Woody Allen fantasized Madoff being attacked by clients reincarnated as lobsters, and Elie Wiesel wished the investor confined to a solitary cell and forced to watch his victims on a screen bewail their changed fortunes. The fury of the bilked has yielded opprobrium and loathing that isn't visited on mass murderers.

I think the revulsion may say more about the revolted - and our money-obsessed and vengeance-obsessed society - than it does about Madoff. His crime, after all, was really remarkable only for its longevity and its scope. Judaism teaches that stealing is a sin, but it doesn't differentiate between misappropriating a million dollars and pilfering a dime. And as to the sheer number of people defrauded by the thief of the moment, well, anyone who cheats on his federal income tax is defrauding 300 million of his fellow citizens. Few though, in such cases, invoke Dante.

What is more, Madoff likely began his crime spree in the hope of rewarding, not swindling, investors, and by the time it became clear he wouldn't be able to do that, he was already deeply entangled - and daily becoming more entangled - in the web he wove.

None of that, though, is to belittle the great pain Mr. Madoff caused, and is certainly no cause for affording the iniquitous investment broker respect. No, what I admire about him has to do with his owning up to his crime.

Think about it. The man knew for years that his scheme would eventually come apart and that prosecution loomed, yet he took no steps to flee, huge bribe in hand, to some country lacking extradition treaties. Idi Amin, we might recall, died of old age in luxury. Madoff's millions, moreover, could have easily bought him a new face and identity papers; he could spent his senior years tanned and well-fed among the sunbirds of Miami Beach.

Instead, though, he chose to essentially turn himself in and admit guilt. He apologized to his victims, acknowledging that he had "deeply hurt many, many people," and adding, "I cannot adequately express how sorry I am for what I have done."

No one can know if those words reflect the feelings in his heart, but I don't claim any right to doubt that they do. And facing one's sins and regretting them is the essence of the Jewish concept of teshuvah, repentance - something we are all enjoined to do for our personal transgressions, however small or large.

No such sublimity of spirit, though, was in evidence in any of the public acts or words of Mr. Sullenberger. He saved 155 lives, no doubt about it, and is certainly owed the gratitude of those he saved, and of their families and friends. And he executed tremendous skill.

But no moral choice was involved in his act. He was on the plane too, after all; his own life depended on undertaking his feat no less than the lives of others. He did what anyone in terrible circumstances would do: try to stay alive. He was fortunate (as were his passengers) that he possessed the talents requisite to the task, but that's a tribute to his training, and to the One Who instilled such astounding abilities in His creations (and Whose help the captain was not quoted as acknowledging). Basketball players are highly skilled, too - and heroes, in fact, to some. But I have never managed to understand that latter fact.

Sully has reportedly inked a $3 million book deal with HarperCollins, and is also planning a second book of inspirational poems; Bernie, likely for the rest of his life, will languish in jail.

That may make societal sense, but personally, I'm still unmoved by the pilot, and, at least somewhat, inspired by the penitent.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

One day during my teenage years I began to think about what my father, may he be well, had been doing at my age. The thought occurred too late for me to compare his and his family's flight by foot from the Nazis in Poland at the outbreak of World War II to my own 14th year of life - when my most daunting challenge had been, the year before, chanting my bar-mitzvah portion.

But I was still young enough to place the image of his subsequent years in Siberia - as a guest of the Soviet Union, which deported him and others from his yeshiva in Vilna - alongside my high school trials for comparison. At the age when I was avoiding study, he was avoiding being made to work on the Sabbath; when my religious dedication consisted of getting out of bed early in the morning to attend services, his entailed finding opportunities to study Torah while working in the frozen taiga; where I struggled to survive the emotional strains of adolescence, he was struggling, well, to survive. As years progressed, I continued to ponder our respective age-tagged challenges. Doing so has lent me some perspective.

As has thinking about my father's first Passover in Siberia, while I busy myself helping (a little) my wife shop for holiday needs and prepare the house for its annual leaven-less week.

In my father's memoirs, which I have been privileged to help him record and which, G-d willing, we hope will be published later this year, there is a description of how Passover was on the minds of the young men and their teacher, exiled with them, as soon as they arrived in Siberia in the summer of 1941. Over the months that followed, while laboring in the fields, they pocketed a few wheat kernels here and there, later placing them in a special bag, which they carefully hid. This was, of course, against the rules and dangerous. But the Communist credo, after all, was "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" and so they were really only being good Marxists. They had spiritual needs, including kosher-for-Passover matzoh.

Toward the end of the punishing winter, they retrieved their stash and, using a small hand coffee grinder, ground the wheat into coarse, dark flour.

They then dismantled a clock and fitted its gears to a whittled piece of wood, fashioning an approximation of the cleated rolling pin traditionally used to perforate matzohs to ensure their quick and thorough baking. In the middle of the night the exiles came together in a hut with an oven, which, as the outpost's other residents slept, they fired up for two hours to make it kosher for Passover before baking their matzohs.

On Passover night they fulfilled the Torah's commandment to eat unleavened bread "guarded" from exposure to water until before baking.

Perspective is provided me too by the wartime Passover experience of my wife's father, I.I. Cohen, may he be well. In his own memoir, "Destined to Survive" (ArtScroll/Mesorah, 2001), he describes how, in the Dachau satellite camp where he was interned, there was no way to procure matzoh. All the same, he was determined to have the Passover he could. In the dark of the barracks on Passover night, he turned to his friend and suggested they recite parts of the Haggadah they knew by heart.

As they quietly chanted the Four Questions other inmates protested. "What are you crazy Chassidim doing saying the Haggadah?" they asked. "Do you have matzohs, do you have wine and all the necessary food to make a seder? Sheer stupidity!"

My father-in-law responded that he and his friend were fulfilling a Torah commandment - and no one could know if their "seder" is less meritorious in the eyes of Heaven than those of Jews in places of freedom and plenty.

Those of us indeed in such places can glean much from the Passovers of those two members - and so many other men and women - of the Jewish "greatest generation."

A Chassidic master offers a novel commentary on a verse cited in the Haggadah. The Torah commands Jews to eat matzoh on Passover, "so that you remember the day of your leaving Egypt all the days of your life."

Rabbi Avrohom, the first Rebbe of Slonim, commented: "When recounting the Exodus, one should remember, too, 'all the days' of his life - the miracles and wonders that G-d performed for him throughout…"

I suspect that my father and father-in-law, both of whom, thank G-d, emerged from their captivities and have merited to see children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, naturally do that. But all of us, no matter our problems, have experienced countless "miracles and wonders." We may not recognize all of the Divine guidance and benevolence with which we were blessed - or even the wonder of every beat of our hearts and breath we take. But that reflects only our obliviousness. At the seder, when we recount G-d's kindnesses to our ancestors, it is a time, too, to look back at our own personal histories and appreciate the gifts we've been given.

Should that prove hard, we might begin by reflecting on what some Jews a bit older than we had to endure not so very long ago.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The title of Reform Rabbi David Forman's column in the Jerusalem Post was certainly intriguing. "Let's Declare Ourselves a Separate Religion," it read.

Israel, of course, grants a large measure of independence to a variety of religious groups represented among its citizenry. Eastern Orthodox Christian religious leaders are empowered to oversee religious rites and determine personal status issues in their community and they receive funds from the government; the same privileges are afforded the Roman Catholic community, the Muslim, the Bahai and others. Rabbi Forman seemed to be dangling a novel way for non-Orthodox Jewish groups to qualify for their own rights and benefits, to claim their own, so to speak, piece of the action.

Most of the article was a venting of Reform and Conservative ire over the fact that traditional Jewish religious law, or halacha, applied through the auspices of official Israeli rabbinate, governs Jewish status issues like conversion and marriage in the Jewish State. That policy, which has been in place since Israel's birth more than sixty years ago, the writer contended, constitutes a "thrust[ing of] religious medievalism down the throats of a secular citizenry." And as a result, he charged, Israel "is slipping into a theocracy."

The columnist went on to claim that the "Orthodox establishment" is "undermining the cause of peace" - presumably for taking groups like Hamas at their words - and represents "the cohabitation of a chauvinistic theology with a religious ego." The Orthodox, moreover, he wrote, are ensuring "that Israel fits neatly into the Middle East panoply of extremist states."

Then there was more, later in the piece, about the "profane ruminations" and "blasphemous perorations" of some Orthodox rabbis. But you get the idea.

The article, however, contained less heated, more sensible words too. Following the fulminations, the writer offered his honest admission that "the Reform and Conservative movements" are in fact "a separate religion." And so, he continued, the most honest and straightforward way for those movements to attain clerical privileges of their own is for them to admit as much - to declare themselves, as per the piece's title, "a separate religion from Orthodoxy."

A subtle dissembling, though, hides in that last word. For "Orthodoxy" is simply the name that the Reform and Conservative movements gave to what "Judaism" meant for millennia prior - to what those movements sought to supplant when they birthed themselves.

Over scores of generations until relatively recently, the Jewish religion was synonymous with the belief that the Torah - whose Written and Oral components are reflected and amplified in the corpus of halacha - is divinely decreed, unchangeable and incumbent on all Jews. Movements that chose to put aside that belief, in whole or in part (as by considering contemporary mores to trump the Torah's), separated themselves not from some mere "branch" of Judaism. They severed themselves conclusively from the trunk of the tree; they departed from what constituted the Jewish faith since Sinai. To be sure, their Jewish-born followers remain Jews in every way; a Jew is a Jew, whatever his or her congregational affiliation. But the belief systems that those movements - qua movements - embrace are at irreconcilable odds with the Judaism of the ages - which is based on affirmation of the Torah's timelessness and halacha's sacrosanctity.

So when Rabbi Forman, after offering his admirable admission, goes on to imagine that a Reform and Conservative self-declaration as a new religion will reduce Orthodoxy to "merely one of three branches of Judaism," he is attempting to have his new faith and delete it too. If he wishes the "non-Orthodoxies" to be considered a different religion, the theological justification is manifestly there; but let the move be honest, clear and decisive.

If it will be, then the new religion will have legitimate claim to the very same rights, privileges and determinations as are enjoyed by other independent and discrete faiths in Israel today.

Rabbi Forman is confident that, in the wake of the announcement of a new religion for Jews, "Reform and Conservative conversion classes would soar," the halacha-respecting rabbinate's "religious and social influence" would wane, "Orthodoxy's stranglehold on the political system" would be "mercifully loosened" and "vibrancy, inclusiveness and progressiveness" would result.

Perhaps; and maybe birds will sing, too, and peace reign throughout the land. But Israeli polls have shown that, despite determined efforts by the non-Orthodox movements over decades to promote themselves, a clear majority of Israelis - even if they are not personally halacha-observant - still consider traditional Jewish beliefs and law to define Judaism. It is hard to imagine that declaring non-Orthodox movements a new religion will create a flood of applicants clamoring to join.

But whether it will or it won't - or, for that matter, whether or not Rabbi Forman's suggestion is taken up in earnest - by acknowledging the essential disparity between the Judaism of time immemorial and contemporary divergences from it, the rabbi has performed a Jewish public service.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

For decades the IBM slogan seemed to be everywhere. THINK, it read, simply and starkly. It is apparently long phased out, but the advice remains as good as ever.

I was reminded of that on a recent trip to another city, where I witnessed an interaction between two young men, one about four and a half years old, the other a year younger. They might be related to me, or they might not. I'm not saying.

The older boy was playing in the bathtub; his mother had left him for a moment and I, sitting within feet of the bathroom, could hear him talking to his bath toys. Suddenly, his younger brother appeared. With a quick look around to make sure his mother wasn't watching (I didn't count, apparently), he darted to the bathroom light switch, flicked it off and swiftly slammed the door shut.

The older boy, suddenly plunged into darkness, howled in terror, which brought his mother in an instant. She opened the door, turned the light back on, comforted the victim and apprehended the culprit, who was unceremoniously sent to his room.

It was then the perp's turn to howl. No! Not his room! Anything but that! Like Cain's, his punishment was too much to bear.

But off he went as ordered, whimpering all the way.

"I guess he didn't see that coming," I remarked to the mother with a laugh.

"He sure should have." she responded. "He's done it before, and always gets sent to his room."

I guess he could have used a flashing "THINK" sign at the crucial moment. But it's only at a certain point of development that thinking - at least about consequences - really kicks in, that the relentless logic of "if… then" becomes clear.

Last month, the Jewish world lost a human treasure. Rabbi Noach Weinberg, of blessed memory, worked tirelessly to bring Jews closer to their spiritual heritage, and the fruits of his labors - his countless students - continue to invigorate the Jewish people, through their own lives and, for many of them, by carrying on their rebbe's outreach mission, connecting Jews with Jewish verities.

I met Rabbi Weinberg briefly only two or three times but once was I privileged to hear him speak. It was a memorable experience. In the course of his edifying talk, he recounted a personal story that still remains with me. In 1939, when he was eight years old, his class had decided that on a certain day they would all skip yeshiva and go to the World's Fair in Queens. Everyone had to bring a dollar, though, and, well, he didn't have one.

Walking dejectedly to school, Rabbi Weinberg recounted, it occurred to him that he might find a dollar on the pavement. So he prayed for that to happen. But as he continued on his way, no dollars appeared. He prayed again, promising G-d to do all manner of good deeds, but still no response. Finally, he implored the Creator "Master of the universe, please give me one dollar, and I'll never, ever do anything wrong again for the rest of my life!"

Then, turning to us, his audience, Rabbi Weinberg - his lantern of a smile lighting up his face -said: "Now who was I kidding? I wanted the dollar so I could play hooky from yeshiva!"

Rabbi Weinberg's subject that night, if I remember accurately, was prayer; he intended the story to illustrate the need for honesty when speaking to G-d. But it serves no less to illustrate the importance of… thinking.

And, if we're truthful, of course, stopping to think isn't something that only children overlook. Many of us long-time ex-children haven't exactly internalized the lesson either.

If we had, we would never say anything that we regretted a second later having said. We would never get angry when the reason for the anger, as we soon enough realize, was really no reason at all. We would never become jealous, knowing how blessed we are (different though our blessings might be from others'). And we would never do anything for which we, soon enough and rightly, feel guilty for having done.

It's worth a moment's pondering: We humans differ from other living things largely because of the quality of our ability to think.

And yet, how often we simply don't.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

On the first day of the Jewish month Adar, the Talmud enjoins us to "increase happiness." It is, after all, the month that holds Purim, when we express our gratitude to G-d for delivering the Jews in ancient Persia from their enemies, and when we give alms to the poor and gifts of food to one another.

In 2003, the first day of Adar brought us an early Purim present. It wasn't food, but rather food for thought.

The previous day had been the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Iosef Vissarionovich Dzugashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin. A new book on the Soviet dictator and mass murderer, "Stalin's Last Crime," was about to be published, and The New York Times ran a lengthy article that day about the book, including its suggestion that Stalin may have been poisoned. The Soviet leader had collapsed after an all-night dinner with four members of his Politburo at Blizhnaya, a north Moscow dacha, and he languished for several days before dying. If indeed he was done in, as the book's authors suspect, the likely culprit, they say, was Lavrenti P. Beria, the chief of the Soviet secret police.

The book also recounts the story of the infamous "Doctors' Plot," a fabricated collusion by Kremlin doctors to kill top Communist leaders.

"By the time Stalin disclosed the plot to a stunned Soviet populace in January 1953," the article noted, "he had spun it into a vast conspiracy, led by Jews under the United States' secret direction, to kill him and destroy the Soviet Union itself."

The article went on to relate something less widely known. "That February," it states, "the Kremlin ordered the construction of four giant prison camps in Kazakhstan, Siberia and the Arctic north, apparently in preparation for a second great terror - this time directed at the millions of Soviet citizens of Jewish descent."

That terror, however, thankfully never unfolded. Two weeks after the camps were ordered built, Stalin attended the Blizhnaya dinner and, four days later, was dead at the age of 73.

The gift that Adar in 2003 brought was the knowledge of that theretofore unrecognized salvation, of what the killer of millions of his countrymen had apparently planned for the Jews under his control but which never came to pass. That Stalin met his fate (however that may have happened) just as he was poised to launch a post-Holocaust holocaust of his own, is something we might well add to our thoughts of gratitude at our own Purim celebrations today, more than a half century later.

And we might note something else as well, especially during this season of meaningful ironies, when G-d's hand is evident "between the lines" of history to all who are sufficiently sensitive to see it.

During the feast at which Stalin collapsed, according to his successor Nikita Khrushchev, who was present, the dictator had become thoroughly drunk. And the party, he testified, ended in the early hours of March 1.

Which, in 1953, corresponded to the 14th day of Adar, otherwise known as Purim.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

A bicentennial as jubilant as this year's hasn't been seen since the commemoration in 1976 of our nation's birth. The current year-long birthday party being celebrated in essays, articles and symposia honors Charles Darwin. Abraham Lincoln was also born in 1809, but the lion's share of lionizing has been of the man whose theory about the origin of species has become the touchstone of contemporary biology.

Part of evolution's upshot, of course, is that living things forever remain mere works in progress, which lends the hoopla over Darwin a tasty irony, since precisely the same is true about science. Even as seemingly perfect a system as Newtonian mechanics was subsumed, subtly but conclusively, by Einstein. Yet those who elevate Darwin's theory to an article of faith seem unwilling to even consider that the current understanding of how species came about might one day be explained by a different and grander, if currently unimagined, conclusion than the one reached by the famed biologist. The idea that earth's astounding array of life may owe itself to something other than the random mutation of species into others - a metamorphosis never reproduced in any laboratory - is a forbidden thought. Imagining "a biological Einstein," to borrow Verlyn Klinkenborg's phrase, has become heresy.

Thus, efforts to permit open discussion of Darwinism are derided as a "war on science." And a leading scientific group is boycotting Louisiana because a law there permits teachers to use supplemental texts to "help students critique and review scientific theories." And the Texas Board of Education is being petitioned to amend the state curriculum so that students are no longer encouraged to explore "the strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories - words, the petitioners say, that dangerously suggest that Darwinism could be wrong.

But there are indeed weaknesses in the theory of macro-evolution, noted by scores of intrepid biologists, mathematicians, chemists and geneticists. It is telling how those heretics are treated by the evolution-evangelicals. Celebrated Darwinist Richard Dawkins, for instance, pronounces that anyone who does not believe in evolution is perforce "ignorant, stupid, or insane."

If American public schools aim to foster critical thinking, it is hard to imagine how ridiculing, much less banning, different points of view serves that goal. The heretic-hunters would do well to consult Darwin himself. "A fair result," he wrote, "can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of a question."

What makes so many so certain that the current scientific orthodoxy is the final word? The answer is hubris, the monkey wrench in many a human machine. The merest modicum of modesty would compel the scientifically sure to recall that their counterparts in centuries past were no less confident in their own times' scientific certainties. And to consider how, centuries hence, people will likely look with pity on the limited understanding of 21st century science.

It took only decades, not centuries, to supplant the "explains-it-all" billiard ball model of protons, neutrons and electrons - presented to us children in the early 1960s as the ultimate understanding of matter's fundamental nature - with the bizarre particle-zoo that is contemporary quantum physics. The "primordial soup" of the Miller-Urey experiment that our teachers assured us would yield complex components of life within months has still not done so. Astrophysics theories have come and gone like footwear fashions.

A little humility would help us recognize that, no matter our scientific progress, we humans resemble nothing so much as the proverbial blind men first contemplating an elephant, each touching a different part of the pachyderm and concluding that the beast is shaped, variously, like a tree, or a snake, or a sail or a wall. No, not an elephant; we are blind men confronting a rainbow.

Which brings us to a third famous man born in 1809: Louis Braille, who developed the system of raised marks that enables the blind to read. While he opened a world of literature and written communication to the unsighted, he could not help them visualize color or contrast or beauty. There are limitations to our sense of touch.

As there are to all our senses. They are imperfect tools, even in tandem with our intellects, for truly understanding reality, and for conclusively reconstructing the past. Does science have any idea why the universe appeared, or life, or consciousness?

We certainly can, and should, strive to understand what we are able to fathom with the gifts we have been granted. Engaging in scientific inquiry is a noble pursuit and can provide a healthy sense of wonder at the world.

But when conclusions are confidently proclaimed that collide with what we inherently know to be true - like the fact that human consciousness is qualitatively different from that of animals, or that we have free will, or that "right" and "wrong" have essential meanings - we have to stop and ponder our inherent limitations. Stop and realize that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophies.

That, as Charles Darwin wrote, in 1872: "[I]t is always advisable to perceive clearly our ignorance."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Anyone who raised an eyebrow at charges that the "Hekhsher Tzedek" kosher-certification initiative recasts the very concept of kashrut might want to aim an eye at the February 6 Wall Street Journal.

At a column, that is, entitled "A Quarrel Over What Is Kosher,' by the Forward's Nathaniel Popper - the reporter who, in 2006, first shone a harsh light on the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse. His reportage of alleged abuse of workers there was followed, in 2008, by a federal raid on the plant, the deportation of hundreds of illegal alien workers and the filing of criminal charges against its owners and others.

In his "Houses of Worship" guest column, Mr. Popper reveals some personal cards, of the sort usually held behind the fictional screen of journalist objectivity. Like his comparison of "bearded Orthodox rabbis" who "buzzed around the Agriprocessors plant" making sure kashrut laws, but not ethical norms, were being observed with the "progressive, socially engaged and mostly clean-shaven rabbis" who rode in, so to speak, on white horses to rescue Agriprocessors from itself.

Popper also characterizes efforts to persuade a judge to grant bail to a Rubashkin official - imprisoned before his trial for months despite offering to surrender his passport, wear an electronic bracelet to track his movements and post an exorbitant bond - as a campaign "to spring Mr. Rubashkin from jail" because of "an ancient Jewish religious obligation to free Jews from gentile captivity." No mention of the fact that Sholom Rubashkin's Jewishness (as it made him eligible for automatic citizenship in Israel) was among the factors cited in denying him bail. (The bail denial was in fact reversed by another judge - although Mr. Popper might consider the ruling tainted, based as it was partly on the testimony of bearded rabbis.)

Mr. Popper's personal perspective is further on display when he extols "a more explicitly universal vision of mankind, in which a Guatemalan Catholic has the same weight as a Brooklyn Jew" - as if a spiritual bond to a religious community somehow implies criminal unconcern for others.

The essential point of Popper's piece, though, is both true and important. He characterizes the respective positions of the Hekhsher Tzedek's proponents and opponents as a dispute over "the proper way to interpret religious law and values." Should we, he asks, "read our ancient texts literally or adapt them to a changing world?"

Popper doesn't mean "literally" literally, of course; presumably he realizes that the Torah's laws are determined not by literal readings but by the intricate teachings of the Oral Tradition. He is accurate, though, to ascribe to the non-Orthodox rabbinates a willingness to jettison elements of Jewish religious law that discomfit them.

By contrast, Orthodox rabbis are, he writes (with, one suspects, less than reverence), the "Antonin Scalias of the Jewish world." One such rabbi even told him (you might want to sit down here) that he keeps kosher not out of social consciousness but "because G-d said so."

When, in the fall, Agudath Israel of America characterized Hekhsher Tzedek as an attempt to redefine kashrut, that judgment was pooh-poohed by some. It is, though, precisely the Popperian paradigm.

And its trumpeting in the venerable Wall Street Journal will likely deeply disturb the main proponents of the Hekhsher Tzedek, who have in recent weeks sought to unbake the cake and recast their initiative as not really a "hekhsher" (i.e. kashrut certification) at all but rather a non-kashrut-related endorsement (oddly, though, only for food), renaming it "Magen Tzedek." "Oy," some progressively clean-shaven clergymen are probably thinking, "Popper's blown our cover."

Indeed he has, and with admirable honesty about both his own bias-baggage and the Whatever Tzedek. He doesn't bother to disguise his feelings for Jews who believe that the Torah is G-d's will and that its laws, whether fathomable or not, are sacrosanct; and he exposes the now-it's-a-hekhsher-now-it's-not initiative as an attempt to "evolve" kashrut into a plank of the social liberal platform.

What Mr. Popper seems to not fully appreciate, though, is the trenchant fact that the very same set of Divine laws that Orthodox Jews believe mandate kashrut and other ritual requirements and prohibitions mandate no less interpersonal ethics (including proper treatment of workers) and respect for the laws of the land.

Whether any particular Orthodox Jew honors or fails to honor those mandates is beside the point (although the Torah's ethical system does forbid reaching negative judgments about accused people before a trial). But Orthodox Judaism is entirely as strict about the Torah's ethics as about its rituals. So the issue is not "adapt[ing] Torah to a changing world," but rather applying Torah to that world.

And so Mr. Popper has the dichotomy only half right. Yes, there is a perspective - his own and the non-Orthodox movements' - that regards the Torah's laws as entirely mutable. But the Orthodox perspective does not, as he seems to believe, sacrifice ethics to ritual. It, rather, elevates both to the plane of Divine will.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

A winter flurry of "Dear President Obama" letters - in the forms of op-eds and paid advertisements - have swirled around the public square in the days since the 44th president of the United States was sworn into office.

Some of the open letters have concerned Mr. Obama's economic stimulus plan; others, United States relations with Iran; others still, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether the President pays any attention to the multitudinous missives is anyone's guess. But if I had his ear (or his BlackBerry contact information), I think my own message would consist of a simple video clip.

Broadcast on an Egyptian television channel on January 26, barely a week into Mr. Obama's presidency and on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the clip addresses the destruction of European Jewry during the Second World War - but in a very different way from most Holocaust commemorations.

The video is a sermon offered to the public by an Egyptian Muslim cleric, Amin Al-Ansari; it was translated by the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). The gist of Mr. Al-Ansari's teaching is that the Jews were responsible for the Holocaust, since they had been "killing Germans, kindling civil strife, inciting the people against the rulers and corrupting the peoples."

The cleric offers a similarly creative history of Zionism (turning Theodore Herzl, for instance, a lifelong journalist and writer, into the inventor of a new type of explosive that he offered the British government - evidence of how "annihilation underlies [the Jews'] ideology"); explains how the "rulers of America" themselves hated and feared Jews (impelling them to try to "give [the Jews] a place of their own"); and asserts that the destruction of European Jewry was a just and proper response to the crimes of Jews throughout history.

What is particularly remarkable about the sermon - similar ones, after all, are routinely offered by Islamist clerics - is its employment of Holocaust footage to make its case, so to speak.

"Let's watch what Germany did to Israel - or, rather, to the Jews," the preacher invites viewers - "so we can understand that there is no remedy for these people other than imposing fear and terror on them."

And with that the screen shows archival film footage of horrific concentration camp scenes - no less wrenching for their having been in the public domain for more than a half-century. Piles of skeletal remains are bulldozed like so much refuse, emaciated Jews hobble along before Nazi soldiers, a man is prepared to hang… and more. And as the scenes are displayed, Mr. Al-Ansari's voice begins to show a certain enthusiasm, even excitement. "Watch this," he urges the viewer. "Look… This child awaits his turn. Watch their humiliation. They are corpses, Allah be praised…"

And then, with barely disguised glee, as the viewer is shown an elderly Jewish woman kneeling on the ground, clutching the hand of a German officer, putting it to her face, begging, it would seem, for her life, Mr. Al-Ansari suggests with satisfaction that we "Notice what humiliation, fear and terror have struck her… See how much she is kissing his hand…"

"This is what we hope will happen," the cleric then assures viewers, "but, Allah willing, at the hand of the Muslims."

We live in a complex world, filled with competing interests and "narratives." President Obama was wise to tell his interviewer on Al Arabiya television that "the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world," and no less wise to offer "a hand of friendship" on behalf of America to "the broader Muslim world."

His wisdom showed, too, in his assertion during that same interview that the ideas of radical Islamists "are bankrupt" and that their path leads to "no place except more death and destruction."

And both wisdom and principle were abundantly evident in his straightforward statement to an Arab audience - and, in effect, to the Arab world - that "Israel is a strong ally of the United States… [and] will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount."

There is something more, though, that is vitally important for an American leader to recognize about our world. I suspect that Mr. Obama knows it well, even if he may not choose to articulate it as bluntly as did his predecessor.

That something is the lesson of the clip I would send him: The contemporary world, like the world of yesteryear and before, back to the beginning of human history, harbors not only challenge and opportunity, but evil - unqualified, unbridled and unbearable.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

I hope my wife and kids don't find out that I consider it kosher to force 16-year-old girls to work 20 hours a day.

In fact, I was shocked at myself for having said such a thing - or, at least, I would have been had I actually said it.

The source of the disturbing disclosure is a rabbi of a Conservative congregation who writes a column for the New Jersey Jewish Standard. He shared the contention in the course of a column dedicated to the "hypocrisy" he feels American Jews sense in Jewish leaders, "specifically religious" ones - a sense that, the writer contends, holds "much truth."

Some of the columnist's criticism is, in fact, well founded. He is upset, for instance, that Conservative rabbis who "stand shoulder to shoulder" with Reform ones in opposing the single standard of time-honored halacha, or Jewish religious law, regarding conversion in Israel nevertheless won't automatically recognize their Reform colleagues' converts as Jews. There is indeed some, well, inconsistency there.

But some of the other things he sees as causing some Jews to "roll their eyes in disgust" evoke such reaction, if they do, only because of how they are presented by media (including the columnist himself).

Take an issue he cites: the decision by a rabbinic court in Israel that a number of conversions had not met the requirements of halacha. The columnist presents the legal ruling as illegitimate - on the grounds that the members of the rabbinic court (Israel's highest one) are not declared Jewish nationalists but mere authorities on halacha.

Now, if religious judges in Israel are mere state functionaries, then, like apparatchiks in a communist country, they might well be required to pledge fealty to an ideology in order to serve in state positions. But if religious judges are, rather, charged with applying halachic principles to cases before them, it would be unreasonable to expect them to do anything less or anything more than precisely that - and perverse to disqualify them for political reasons. No hypocrisy among the judges there, only integrity.

And what of my reputed endorsement of torturing teenagers?

Some kashrut authorities, the writer goes on, will not grant a kosher certificate to a restaurant or club whose food may be kosher but whose ambiance is religiously objectionable. So far, accurate.

A kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa, the columnist continues, "violated with abandon a variety of civil and criminal laws and halachic requirements." That those accusations have yet to be adjudicated, much less validated, doesn't seem to bother the writer.

What does, though, is that "the same certifiers" who would deny certification to, say a nightclub have dared contend that even if the Iowa slaughterhouse's owners are proven guilty of some charges, the meat the plant has produced remains kosher!

And, worse yet, "Agudath Israel's Rabbi Avi Shafran" concurs, as he "recently told a Yeshiva University-sponsored conference."

So, continues the columnist, what certifiers and Shafran apparently hold is that "music you can dance to does help determine 'the kosher value,' but forcing 16-year-old girls to work 20 hours a day does not."

Disclosure: I did indeed tell a Yeshiva University audience that even an actual, much less alleged, lapse of business ethics has no effect on the kosher status of food produced or served by the violator of the law. Neither, though, does a nonkosher ambiance in an eatery. Such situations are analogous to the fact that a medicine produced by an ethically deficient drug company is no less effective than that produced by an ethically spotless one. The company's ethical responsibilities are, most people readily realize, something apart from its products' efficacy.

The kashrut of an item, however, and certification of its manufacturer or of an establishment serving it are two distinct things. When a kashrut certifier weighs the decision about whether to certify an establishment, it isn't kashrut alone that matters. Both business ethics and non-kashrut-related religious issues are perfectly reasonable concerns for it to take into account. Because certification endorses more than kashrut; it lets consumers know that an establishment is a patronage-worthy one.

What sort of ethical concerns are rightly in the purview of a certifier, though, is another question, and a complex one. Should ingredients originating from a country where child labor is the norm be unacceptable? Should a company that pays its employees only minimum wage be rejected for certification? Must workers be unionized? Receive a certain number of paid vacation days? If so, how many?

I do not claim to know where the lines should be drawn in such things. My point at the symposium, in fact, was that drawing such lines requires wisdom, experience and Torah knowledge. I think it's safe, though, to say that "forcing 16-year-old girls to work 20 hours a day" is well on the wrong side of an important line.

As is pejoratively misleading readers about what someone said. And fostering such misrepresentation in the course of extolling ethical behavior? Well, there's a word for that.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

I'll leave the abusive words to your imagination. They were delivered through clenched teeth, the anger seeming to drip from the telephone into a rancid puddle on my desk. The long, acrimonious voicemail message played on and on, laden with insults and threats.

Even more striking than the nasty tone, though, was the subject of the call: a statement issued by the Council of Torah Sages calling for prayers and good deeds on behalf of Jews in danger in Israel. No, the caller was no anti-Semite; he was a self-described "Centrist Orthodox" Jew. But yes, what had so exercised him was a summoning of Jews to pray for fellow Jews. Or, to be more specific, the broad nature of the summons: it had not specified soldiers.

The statement, of course, had made no explicit mention either of the Jewish cites and towns that have come under Arab fire, nor of Jews in countries around the world where they or their institutions have been attacked. There was no doubt in my mind that the distinguished rabbis who issued the call considered Jewish soldiers to be prime among the threatened Jews whose safety they asked Jews to prominently include in their prayers. Had the rabbis overestimated some readers, not realized that some might take the lack of specificity as evidence somehow of a lack of concern?

Perhaps. And if so, perhaps any future such summons - may it never be necessary - will make particular mention of the young men fighting on front lines. Certainly, concern for Israeli troops has been voiced by the head of the Council at large Agudath Israel-sponsored public gatherings.

The caller, though, had assumed that the statement implied an unconcern (or worse) about soldiers. After all, he may have reasoned, Agudath Israel does not fly a Jewish nationalistic flag. It must therefore consider the Jewish State's soldiers to be unworthy. Needless to say, though - or not so needless, apparently - Agudath Israel is deeply invested in the wellbeing of all Jews in the Holy Land - and has special concern for those who, in a war, are most endangered.

But the caller hadn't called to ask if what he saw as an omission had been intentional. He had assumed it so, and only wanted to share his strong feelings about his (mistaken) conclusion.

I had been here before, I reflected sadly,. Over the almost 15 years I have been privileged to serve Agudath Israel, there have been a number of times when I have witnessed the harshest of judgments passed on the movement by people who made ungenerous assumptions. And who considered us derelict, or worse, for not heartily and automatically endorsing whatever petition, rally or political stance they or others had unilaterally decided the times required.

The caller didn't leave a name but he did give his telephone number. I dialed it.

He seemed surprised that I had actually called back, and I took advantage of his initial discombobulation to deliver my little speech about how he had assumed wrongly and how therefore his umbrage was ill-conceived. He wasn't impressed. Finding his voice, he insisted he knew better, that he was absolutely sure the Council of Torah Sages didn't care about Jews in the Israeli army. Then he launched into a somewhat more muted (though not much) litany of complaints against haredim - how dare we not recite a special prayer composed by the Israeli Rabbinate, how come a haredi rabbi he knows showed lack of concern (he claimed) for a woman whose son was an Israeli soldier, why do haredim (ditto) have such contempt for other Jews…

I tried to get a word or two in edgewise but he clearly considered his questions unanswerable. So I waited until he tired himself out.

Then, in the lull, I thanked him for sharing his perspective and asked him to please consider one final thought. He could accept it, I told him, or reject it, as he saw fit; but please, I implored, at least consider it.

Maybe, I suggested, a great merit for the safety of Jewish soldiers - and Jewish civilians and Jews everywhere, exposed as we are to so many who hate us - lies in our judging one another favorably and not harshly, in our good will toward those with whom we may disagree, even strongly, over some things, even important things.

I was taken aback by the silence that followed. I had read my caller wrong: His mind wasn't closed shut. He was actually thinking about what I had said. Suddenly I felt embarrassed and, after a few more seconds of no response, thanked my caller for having cared to leave his message. He thanked me for calling back. I told him not to hesitate to call again. And that was that.

It was only when I had hung up that I realized something, and it dawned with a shiver: The majority of the Israeli army fatalities at that point (may there be no more) were the result of "friendly fire" - accidental shooting by their own comrades.

Painful as it is to ponder, sometimes the gravest harm is what we unwittingly visit on ourselves.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

How wonderful - well, how much better, anyway - wars would be if civilians were never casualties. Thus far, though, and lamentably, most wars have taken their toll of injuries and deaths on people who were not carrying arms, even those too young to carry them.

In some cases - like the current war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza - the purposeful placement of combatants and armaments among the civilian population all but assures that there will be civilian casualties. In fact, that is one of Hamas' very motivations for the placement. When one lacks any semblance of moral justification for one's belligerence and lust to murder innocents, there is only benefit in having as many dead civilians as possible of one's own to display in lieu of logic.

Hamas' other reason for making sure its terrorists and rockets are deeply embedded in Gazan residential areas is that it knows something that has somehow managed to elude a multitude of media: Israel does all it reasonably can to avoid harming civilians.

That's not, of course, what the tens of thousands of protesters in places like London, Paris and Sydney shriek, what the headlines blare, or what the talking heads pronounce. But it's there all the same - in the fine print, so to speak. Like the reference, entirely en passant and deep into a 1300-word New York Times article published on the first of the year, to how "hundreds of thousands of Gazans have received warnings in the form of telephone messages or fliers that their buildings are Israeli targets…"

Yes, mind-boggling as it is, the Israel Defense Forces actually telephones houses that it has reason to believe, based on intelligence reports, are harboring terrorists or munitions. It does so to give residents time to leave before the attack.

Haaretz, citing an Israeli Channel 10 report, disclosed another means the Israeli air force uses to avoid civilian casualties, something called "roof knocking." It seems that residents of targeted houses in Gaza have been able to prevent bombings of their buildings by simply climbing up to the roof to show that they have not left, causing IDF commanders to abort the missions. Hamas leaders have in fact actively encouraged Gazans to use the ploy, and, when it was still functioning, Hamas' television station called on children to form such human shields at the homes of several terrorist leaders.

And so, what the Israeli pilots sometimes do, the paper writes, is launch a relatively harmless missile at one corner of the roof to cause the crowd to change its mind and vacate the premises, after which the target is destroyed.

Such Israeli efforts to prevent the spilling of civilian blood present a colossal contrast to Hamas members' unrestrained glee when their missiles hit Israeli homes, supermarkets or hospitals, or when their suicide bombers kill Jewish men, women and children.

A recent Associated Press photograph harbored a striking symbolism. It showed a bombed-out classroom in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, the result of one of thousands of rockets Hamas has lobbed at Jewish communities. A gaping hole in the ceiling lets in the sunlight. And there, clearly legible in chalk on a blackboard, is part of a Talmudic adage: "Who is honorable? One who honors [G-d's] creatures."

Israeli commanders may or may not realize it, but from a truly Jewish perspective, their most potent weapons are not munitions but actions like the warning phone calls and "roof knockings." The Jewish religious tradition teaches that what ultimately win wars and protect against enemies are not bullets and bombs but good deeds and prayer. There are weapons, and there are weapons.

That Jewish conviction lies at the heart of the calls for prayers on behalf of Israel's citizens and soldiers, like the one that was issued by Agudath Israel of America's highest rabbinic body, the Council of Torah Sages. The Council's members wrote, in part: "In light of the current situation…we … strongly emphasize the obligation on us all to awaken ourselves in prayer, to ask for Divine mercy for our dear brethren and to increase our charity and good deeds for the protection of the remnant of the Jewish people from any and all harm." The rabbinic elders went on to reiterate an earlier call to recite chapters 83, 130 and 142 of Psalms each day on behalf of fellow Jews in danger, and "to fervently pour out our hearts" in various regular prayers, including one, in the evening service, in which G-d is beseeched to "spread upon us Your tent of peace."

The prayer concludes: "Blessed are You, the Guardian of His nation Israel forever."

May respect for life, good deeds and prayer protect and prevail.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

No, I'm neither a prophet nor a covert Israeli operative. Yes, it was only a day after I distributed a column taking the New York Times to task for refusing to call Hamas a terrorist organization that Israel launched its offensive against Hamas in Gaza. But, really, I had no foreknowledge of the fact that Israel's leaders would do anything more in response to the shelling of its towns by Hamas and its friends than offer the sort of statements that have been issued for years after such terrorist onslaughts.

But they did do more, in the hope - may we merit its fulfillment - of crippling the infrastructure of the murderous entity to its south. And, true to form, The Times avoided the "T" word, going only so far as to identify Hamas on first mention as a group "which Israel and the United States brand as a terrorist organization." According to informed sources, Israel and the United States have also branded the sun hot and the Pope Catholic.

Similarly true to form was Hamas itself, whose spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, according to the very aforementioned newspaper, "called for revenge in the form of strikes reaching 'deep into the Zionist entity using all means,' including suicide attacks." Still no you-know-what-word, though.

There was more of interest in the paper's reportage, too. In a dispatch by veteran Times reporters Ethan Bronner and Taghreed El-Khodary that appeared on December 30, the scene at Gaza's Shifa Hospital was vividly brought alive.

"Armed Hamas militants in civilian clothes roamed the halls," they wrote. "Asked their function, they said it was to provide security. But there was internal bloodletting under way."

The report then described how a young woman came to the hospital seeking her wounded husband. She asked a "militant" to help her but was turned away. Fifteen minutes later, however, she saw her spouse being carried out on a stretcher and watched as, lying there helplessly, "he was shot in the left side of the head." The fatal bullet was administered by a terro - a "militant," that is - presumably convinced that the man on the stretcher, who had been incarcerated by Hamas before an Israeli bomb liberated his prison, had collaborated with Israel. So charged Sobhia Jonaa, a lawyer with the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens' Rights.

Perhaps some ray of hope lies in the possibility that the man killed on the stretcher was indeed cooperating with Israel and not just someone from a different clan than his killer. If there are in fact Arabs unlike those whose angry faces adorn the front pages of papers worldwide, who realize that Islamist terror-mongers do not bode well for the Arab umma, that is true reason to celebrate.

As it happens, an undeniably hopeful spark was reported in the very same Times story.

Highlighting the saga of Gaza families lamentably displaced by the bombings, as civilians unfortunately are in even the most justified wars, the reporters interviewed the members of one such family, whose home stands next to a Hamas compound.

After recounting "the utter fear and panic they all felt as the missiles hit," the father of the family's bemoaning of the fact that "we have no shelters in Gaza" and his expression of concern for his elderly, paralyzed mother, one of the reporters had the idea of asking the man's 13-year-old son for his view of the situation.

The boy, taking, as the dispatch put it, "an unusual stand for someone in Gaza," responded: "I blame Hamas. It doesn't want to recognize Israel. If they did so there could be peace. Egypt made a peace treaty with Israel, and nothing is happening to them."

Were only such insight and common sense as contagious in the Palestinian world as hatred and violence have been.

Kudos to The Times for including the quote. But brickbats, too, for taking the astoundingly irresponsible step of actually identifying the quoted boy by name.

Pray for him.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

In a column published on December 14, Clark Hoyt, The New York Times' current Public Editor, or reader representative, addressed the paper's choice of terminology for people who target civilians with the intent of killing them.

What brought Mr. Hoyt to address the issue was the Times' assiduous avoidance of the word "terrorist" for the perpetrators of what has come to be known as the Mumbai Massacre - the late November Islamist attacks on hotels, a hospital, a railway station, a restaurant and a Jewish center in India's largest city that left 173 dead and more than 300 injured. The attackers were called "militants," "gunmen," "attackers" and "assailants" in the paper of record's reports but never "terrorists." Some readers were offended; thus the public editor's investigation and report.

He explained that "in the newsroom and at overseas bureaus, especially Jerusalem, there has been a lot of soul-searching about the terminology of terrorism." The upshot of the introspection, he continued, "to the dismay of supporters of Israel - and sometimes of the other side, denouncing Israeli military actions" is that "The Times is sparing in its use of 'terrorist' when reporting on that complex struggle." (One wonders if, examples of the military actions denounced by the "other side" include the recent killing of three Palestinians by Israeli forces; the three were planting explosives in northern Gaza along a border fence and, when accosted, threw hand grenades at the Israeli soldiers, who then returned fire - and the three, none too soon, to their Maker.)

Later in his essay, Mr. Hoyt takes up the issue of Hamas, the Sunni group whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel and which has launched scores of suicide attacks against Israeli civilians (targeting, among other things, buses, hotels, supermarkets and restaurants) and has fired hundreds of missiles at Israeli cities and town. The group that exults in the murder and maiming of innocent men, women and children, that trains its young to feel the same way, that denies the Holocaust and expresses confidence that, as one of its leaders put it in a Hamas newspaper, "the Holocaust is still to come upon the Jews." Mr. Hoyt explains that The Times chooses to not label Hamas a terrorist organization "though it sponsors acts of terror against Israel."

The reason? Because it "was elected to govern Gaza" and "provides social services and operates charities, hospitals and clinics." He quotes deputy news editor Phil Corbett, who said, "You get to the question: Somebody works in a Hamas clinic - is that person a terrorist? We don't want to go there." Mr. Hoyt concurs: "I think that is right."

Well, Mr. Corbett and Mr. Hoyt may prefer not to go there, but as journalists they really should realize their responsibility to make the trip. The "there," of course, is a different, and straightforward question: Does all an organization that routinely attacks innocents have to do to achieve respectability is garner the support of a population and open health clinics?

I've always been a foolhardy sort, so let me be the brave soul - there may even be others, if not in The Times' newsroom - who is perfectly willing to go there: The answer is No. A terrorist group is a terrorist group, even if it runs a hospital, wins elections, operates a soup kitchen, recycles its plastics and cares for abandoned kittens.

And all who choose to support such a group or, by working under its auspices, to empower it are members of a terrorist group and, thereby, accessories to terrorism.

What's more, media that are too weak-kneed to call evil what it is are, in their own way, complicit in the same.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Recently I was privileged to participate in a student-group organized panel presentation at Yeshiva University entitled "The Kosher Quandary: Ethics and Kashrut." The panel included representatives of the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America and a social justice advocacy group, Uri L'tzedek. The panelists were given a list of questions to address in their remarks, and I think, and hope, that it was an educational experience for all who attended.

Since some people seem to have imagined that I said things I didn't, or chose to ignore things I did say, I offer my remarks below, which followed my expression of gratitude to the organizers.

I would like to make clear at the onset that, while I intend to speak clearly and bluntly tonight, nothing I say should be construed as impugning the intentions or good will of anyone. I might feel that certain actions or decisions are misguided, but I mean to judge things, not, G-d forbid, people.

Searching for the right metaphor for the relationship between ethics and kashrut, what I came up with is the relationship between… personal hygiene and poetry. Get it? Well, a great poet might never shower, but that bad habit need not affect the quality of his writing. One might not want to attend the fellow's readings; but the Cantos are the Cantos, Ezra Pound notwithstanding. So while kosher food producers are required by halacha to act ethically in every way, any lapses on that score have no effect on the kashrut of the food they produce.

The same applies to observance, or lack of observance, of the Torah's laws mandating care for animals and proper treatment of workers; and to societal laws like extra-halachic labor or environmental regulations. All of those things may be mandates, either directly from the Torah or by way of dina dimalchusa, but they are independent of kashrut. That is eminently clear from the Talmud and halachic Codes.

And it is part of the objection that some, myself included, have to the proposed Hekhsher Tzedek" that has been endorsed by the non-Orthodox movements: Because it conflates two independent Jewish concepts, and thus it misleads.

That, though, begs the larger and more important issue of whether or not kosher food producers should be held accountable for non-ethical behavior.

Of course they should. Here, too, though, there is a further thought to think: Accountable, yes, but more than merchants of Judaica, booksellers or synagogues, Jewish educational institutions or widget manufacturers? No. And so the fact that what has been proposed has been limited to kosher food producers is baffling - or perhaps telling - and constitutes a second objection to the Hekhsher Tzedek initiative. Jewish ethics is a meta-concept, not limited to kashrut.

Further adding to the objections is the fact that the Hekhsher Tzedek plan was conceived in sin - not a word I use lightly. The sin, that is, of jumping to negative judgments of others.

The impetus of the initiative, by all accounts, was the controversy over a company called Agriprocessors. Let me state right away that I have no connection to the company and wouldn't know a Rubashkin from a Rubik's Cube.

Nor do I have any idea if any of the company's owners are guilty of any or all of the very varied charges that have been leveled against them by private groups, government officials or the media. I don't know if they mistreated animals (as PETA claims), if they ran a methamphetamine lab (as was alleged in a government affidavit), if they harassed employees, knowingly hired underage workers or misrepresented collateral in a loan. I don't know - but neither do you, or anyone else, no matter what they may think.

What I do know - and what all of us should know - is that it is Jewishly wrong to assume guilt on the basis of accusations, no matter how many. In fact it is, bluntly put, unethical. And to create and herald a new effort as a result of mere accusations against people disregards the Torah's laws of hotzoas sheim ra.

Let us pretend, though, that the Hekhsher Tzedek idea had been proposed out of the blue, or as the result of some clear and proven breach of ethics across the board of the kashrut industry. Would that not be sufficient reason to create a mechanism to help ensure that the industry will better hew to their extra-kashrut obligations? Yes it would, and indeed, in Jewish history there are precedents of Gedolei hador, elders of the community, threatening recalcitrant merchants with communal penalties, of their instituting price controls and other such measures.

But the operative principle here, and this is my final and most important point, is that those are not decisions just any of us is qualified to make. If the term Orthodox Judaism has any meaning, it lies in reverence for the past, and for those who lie closer to the past than we. The proper way to explore whether a communal mechanism is warranted and proper to deal with a particular problem - whatever it may be - is to bring it to the attention of the elders of the community.

There are, of course, different sub-communities in the Orthodox world, but each has its elders, its accomplished and experienced talmidei chachomim. Theirs is the address. I don't expect a Conservative rabbi to acknowledge that fact; the non-Orthodox movements are by definition "progressive" - i.e. focused on change and youth, not mesorah and zikna.

But those of us who call ourselves Orthodox have to know on whose shoulders we stand and who the Torah teaches us to consider to be the einei ha'edah, the perceptive and farther-seeing eyes of the community.

Thank you for listening.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The President-elect once bought a home whose deed prohibited its resale or rental to Jews. He had associations with a number of dubious characters, some of whom did not much care for Hebrews. In fact, he himself seems to have harbored some pretty anti-Jewish sentiment.

No, no, not Senator Obama. That was Richard Nixon, whose delivery of arms to the Jewish State during the Yom Kippur War helped prevent an Arab victory. And who, in the terminal crisis of his presidency, confided in two identifiable Jews - Henry Kissinger and Boruch Korff (known as "Nixon's rabbi").

Then there was President Harry Truman, who wrote that he found "the Jews… very selfish" and expressed anger at the fact that "a thousand Jews [had been brought] to New York on a supposedly temporary basis and they stayed." The same Harry Truman who acted to help Jews in postwar Europe and supported Israel's creation - against his own State Department.

Such examples point to a truth paid lip service but not always internalized: History is determined not by any sovereign's personal biases but by the ultimate Sovereign's insuperable will. As King Solomon wrote (Proverbs 21:1) "Like streams of water is the heart of a king in the hand of Hashem."

Which idea should inform all our political thoughts. What matters most is never a particular candidate but G-d's plan - and our merits.

I don't think I'm the only Jewish observer who found (and find) certain expressions of anti-Obama sentiment in parts of the Orthodox community less than reality-based. Many of us may have supported Senator McCain for a number of valid reasons - his experience, his willingness to reach across the partisan aisle, his maverick-ness, or simply because they disagreed with Senator Obama's positions - but anyone who voted Republican because of the Democrat's ostensible animus for Jews or Israel was not terribly different from commentators who portrayed Mr. Obama as a Zionist dupe. Osama bin Laden's top deputy described the President-elect as a "house Negro" who has chosen to "pray the prayer of the Jews."

Yes, Mr. Obama associated with a nutty, rabble-rousing pastor. But when the clergyman's looniness was exposed, the Senator denounced both it and him, in no uncertain terms. Political expediency? Perhaps. But perhaps personal conviction. It is unbecoming and unwise to deny the President-elect the courtesy of taking him at his word.

That his path crossed with that of an aging 60s-era radical was unremarkable; seeing it as evidence of some secret anti-American conspiracy was scraping the bottom of an empty barrel. I would certainly never want to be judged by some people I've had occasional professional dealings with.

In four years, we will be able to look back and assess the Obama administration (or its first term) - and be either harsh or hailing. Now, though, none of us can claim prophecy. What we can know is that the next President of the United States is long on record as supportive of Israel, enjoyed broad Jewish support (and knows it) and has no record whatsoever of having expressed any ill will toward Jews. And that he is smart and savvy, and surrounds himself with similarly smart advisors (among them, as it happens, a number of Jewish ones).

There may be valid concerns about how the Obama presidency will turn out; I don't mean to dismiss them. But the degree of fretting among some members of the tribe strikes me as unwarranted, even audacious.

I'm as paranoid as the next religious Jew. I don't doubt for a moment that the wonderful haven that is the United States cannot be taken for granted. But neither do I doubt for a moment that it is a wonderful haven - and that no reasonable case can be made that President-elect Obama's mantra of "change" includes any alteration of that happy historical reality.

Yes, efforts must be made with the exit of an Administration that many of us regard as singularly praiseworthy on many counts; and the arrival of new boys on the beltway whose wisdom and judgment have yet to be tested.

Political activism is certainly called for, and there was much discussion at Agudath Israel of America's recent convention, as I am sure there was at the Orthodox Union's, about strengthening existing ties with the President-elect and his Administration, and creating new ones. Both organizations' full-time Washington offices are already in anticipatory high gear.

And above and beyond that, prayers are surely indicated - but with (excuse the word) hope and trust in G-d, not paranoia and fear.

And with awareness of the words of a recent Council of Torah Sages statement:

"It is incumbent upon all Jews… to show President-elect Obama the proper dignity and honor due to the leader of our country…, with whom we look forward to a warm and productive relationship. May Hashem, in Whose hand the hearts of all earthly leaders reside, guide America's new president to succeed in carrying out his awesome responsibilities in a manner that will bring great blessing to the Jewish people, to America, and to all of humankind."

And let us all say, Amein.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.


Rabbi Avi Shafran

A New York tabloid recently mocked the Bush White House. No news there; 'tis the season, so to speak. The fodder for this ridicule, though, wasn't political. It consisted, rather, of the artwork on the Bushes' invitations to this year's White House Chanukah party. A beautiful snowy White House scene dominates the card; all the way off to the side, a horse is drawing a wagon bearing a holiday tree.

As in the past, some Agudath Israel representatives, myself included, received invitations to the Chanukah event. I smiled at the card when it arrived, but didn't find it offensive in any way. According to the New York Post, though, someone - although unwilling to share his or her name - did.

If we needed more evidence, beyond the countless blogs out there, that some people have all too much time on their hands and all too little sense in their heads, it's here.

Those who received the invitations are presumably Jewish. Does the person who thought it clever to call a reporter realize how remarkable it is that there even is a Chanukah party hosted by the President and First Lady of the United States of America? Is he aware of the fact that, in 1943, 400 rabbis marched to the White House to implore President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to allow more European Jewish refugees from the Holocaust to immigrate to our shores - and that Mr. Roosevelt left the building through a back door to avoid having to meet them? (No Chanukah party that year, or for several decades thereafter, until Mr. Bush took office.)

Has the insulted invitee forgotten how President Bush, in an act of principle, ended our country's participation in the 2001 Durban "Racism" conference, when it degraded into an anti-Israel and anti-Semitic saturnalia.

Does he not recall the President's 2002 Rose Garden address, in which Mr. Bush boldly stated what his predecessors had always declined to say - that Yasser Arafat, despite his claims, never renounced terror? Or how, last year, the President challenged Palestinians to "match their words denouncing terror with action to combat terror," that "nothing less is acceptable"?

Despite all that, the anonymous Post informant chose to take offense at an innocuous illustration on an invitation from the Bushes. To visit the White House. In honor of Chanukah. It defies all understanding.

And then, as if to widen further the gulf between the good will of the Bushes and the grumbling of the boor, yesterday I received a second hand-addressed White House invitation. This one's cover art was a silhouette of a menorah against a blue background; and enclosed was a note reading: "Please accept our apologies, as the invitation you previously received had the incorrect cover artwork."

There is much about what Yiddish-speaking Jews call "menschlichkeit" (literally, "acting like a human being"; the word conveys graciousness and good manners) that the Post's informant could learn from the Bushes.

Back when I received the first invitation, I asked Agudath Israel's executive vice president for government and public affairs Rabbi David Zwiebel if he thought it was important for me to attend the Chanukah party. I had mixed feelings.

I have no personal desire to make the trip. Having attended other such gatherings, whatever thrill might once have lain in milling about in a large crowd or shaking the President's hand no longer persists. And as for organizational concerns, well, the Bush White House's days are numbered - and the number is a small one.

On the other hand, though, some shapeless feeling was pushing me to want to make the schlep.

Rabbi Zwiebel thought a moment and said, "I think you should go." Then, after I asked "Why?" he verbalized in four simple words what had still been congealing in my own mind.

"To say 'thank you'."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

From the agitation and anger of the crowds, the din of the car horns and the shouts of "Civil rights now!" and "Bigots!" one would have been forgiven for thinking that the protesters were denouncing some horrific assault on human freedom.

But no, the demonstrations - and church vandalisms and business boycotts - were in protest of California voters' passage of the November ballot measure known as Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Any two Californians can, as before, register as "domestic partners" and have the very same rights and responsibilities as married couples under state law. All Proposition 8 sought to do was preserve in law what the word "marriage" has meant for millennia.

Those, though, who were unhappy with the electorate's decision wasted no time in taking to the streets of dozens of American cities and towns to rail against the audacity - the bigotry, as they proclaimed it - of considering gender germane to marriage.

In some cities, tens of thousands turned out for raucous rallies; in many instances, epithets were hurled at counterdemonstrators and even uninvolved bystanders. Although protesters claimed the mantle of the American civil rights movement, several black observers of the Los Angeles demonstration had what has been called the "N-bomb" dropped on them by infuriated demonstrators - a presumed tribute to the fact that blacks voted 2-1 in favor of the proposition. A San Diego family with a "Yes on 8" sign on their front lawn had their car's tires slashed. A San Francisco area group launched a campaign to revoke the tax-exempt status of the Mormon Church because of its support of the marriage initiative. Graffiti was spray-painted on a Mormon church near Sacramento. A group of about 30 activists from a group called "Bash Back!" stormed into a Lansing, Michigan church, unfurled a rainbow flag at the pulpit and proceeded to disrupt services by banging on cans and shouting.

Some, even among those who assign meaning to traditional morality, are not greatly bothered by the push to expand the meaning of marriage. They are content to let people call things whatever they want, and regard the societal push to revamp social mores as benign. The vehemence, violence and general obnoxiousness that characterized some of the protests, though, should give them pause.

As should Scott Eckern's forced resignation.

Mr. Eckern was the artistic director of the California Musical Theater. He no longer holds that position because anti-Proposition 8 activists uncovered and publicized the fact that he had made a contribution to the other side's campaign. Mr. Eckern explained that his donation stemmed from his religious beliefs as a Mormon and expressed sadness that his "personal beliefs and convictions have offended others" and caused "hurt feelings."

But neither his words nor resignation were enough to mollify the mob. An award-winning composer called Mr. Eckern to tell him that he would not allow his work to be performed in the theater with which the ex-director had been associated; and an actress called for a boycott of the institution.

It seems clearer than ever that gay activists are not, as was once thought, interested only on being left alone, or, as was later thought, on being granted the same privileges as others. They are fixated, in fact, on creating a society where traditional religious perspectives on homosexuality and marriage are regarded, in law and in social dialogue, as the equivalent of racial or ethnic bias.

The scenario of religious people - and institutions like churches, synagogues and mosques - being branded as bigoted simply for affirming deeply-held religious convictions is around the corner. And eventual prosecution of the same for voicing those convictions is only another corner or two away.

What began as a plea for "rights" is rapidly, and noisily, morphing into an assault on freedom of speech and conscience.

Jews who take their religious tradition seriously will not allow the shifting sands of societal mores to obscure the fact that the Torah forbids homosexual acts, and sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony. They know, further, that the Talmud and Midrash teach that a saving grace of human society throughout the ages has been its refusal to formalize unions between males. Which made a scene at one of the recent protests particularly poignant. Rebecca Kaplan, a newly elected Oakland, California city council member, told those gathered outside City Hall how upset she was with the passage of Proposition 8. According to a news report, she "roused the crowd by blowing a shofar, a ram's horn blown as a wind instrument in Biblical times. She said it represented a call for solidarity." Only it doesn't. It represents a call for teshuva, the Hebrew word for repentance, literally "return" - to the teachings of the Jewish religious tradition.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

It was the very beginning of 1942 and the group of ten young men and their yeshiva dean, exiles in frigid Siberia, couldn't believe their eyes. Betzalel Orlanski had somehow gained release from the Siberian labor-camp where he had been sent, somehow found out where they - and his wife - were located, somehow secured a sled and driver, and somehow crossed the large frozen lake - the only way to reach Nizhna Machavaya, the exiles' home, in the winter.

The exiles - my dear father among them - had been part of the Novardhok Yeshiva in Vilna, Lithuania. When the Soviets occupied the country, they offered the yeshiva boys and faculty - most of whom were Polish nationals who had fled to Lithuania - a stark choice: accept Soviet citizenship (and be conscripted into the Red army) or be banished to the wasteland of Siberia as foreign nationals deemed a threat to the Soviet Union. They opted for Siberia, a choice that would test them sorely but likely saved their lives.

When the cattle cars had been loaded with their human cargo in Lithuania for the long trip east, sent along with the Novardhok group were several families, and Betzalel Orlanski's wife - but not her husband; he was sent to a different destination, far from where his wife and "the Novardhokers" were taken.

The Orlanskis had been married for about a decade, but were childless. Mrs. Orlanski, however, confided to the others a recent discovery: she was expecting.

It was about seven months later that her husband unexpectedly alked off the frozen lake at Nizhneh Machavaya. Shortly after his arrival, amid a joy that can only be imagined, their son was born.

The story was recounted recently by my father, at the festive meal celebrating the circumcision of his newest great grandchild. Betzalel Orlanski, he continued, had been so overwhelmed with happiness at the arrival of his firstborn that he announced his intention to circumcise his son himself eight days later, the preferred time according to Jewish law. The problem was that neither he nor any of those present at Nizhneh had any experience or qualifications for performing the surgery. Convincing him to postpone the circumcision hadn't been easy, my father recalled, but the yeshiva boys and their dean prevailed on the new father to wait for a more propitious time and skilled hand. When that time finally came, after war's end, the boy was almost four. A precocious child, he asked to undergo the procedure, wanting to enter the Abrahamic covenant and become a completed member of the Jewish people.

My father told the story to demonstrate the innate Jewish desire to enter Abraham's covenant of circumcision, or brit mila, a most fundamental Jewish obligation. He speculated that, no doubt, an 8-day-old Jewish infant, in some inchoate way, likely also senses the depth of the commandment's import, and that his soul, pure and new, pines to undergo the procedure. And so, my father suggested, perhaps that idea informs the blessing traditionally called out by those present at a circumcision ceremony - "Just as he has entered the covenant, so may he enter Torah, marriage and good deeds." The blessing may bespeak a hope that the same deep and pure desire to be holy that inheres in a new soul should later motivate him, when grown, to study Torah, become a husband and perform righteous acts.

That circumcision remains practiced among Jews who have allowed other Jewish observances to lapse - or who have outright jettisoned them - has always been remarkable. If any commandment could be expected to be shunned by Jews who view the Torah as mere "inspired" words of mortals and not as G-d's sacred commandments, one would imagine that cutting the body of a baby would be it.

And yet that is not the case. Reform Magazine recently (Fall, 2008) published an article "Why Reform Never Abandoned Circumcision," whose author, Reform Rabbi Mark Washofsky, makes his movement's case for brit mila. While the article's title was somewhat inaccurate - circumcision was indeed rejected by Reform leaders in the early 1800's - it is certainly true that the contemporary Reform movement encourages brit mila. The article tries to express why, even though Reform "has done away with a number of ritual observances that conflict with our contemporary cultural and aesthetic sensibilities… this practice remains."

Rabbi Washofsky's explanation is that… it is "a tribal rite" and that "that's why we do it..." Which rather begs the question, of course. But if it satisfies his intellect, who am I to quibble?

What occurs to me, though, is that the resolve of Jews otherwise disconnected from Jewish beliefs and practices to circumcise their newborn boys transcends intellectualization. Those Jews' determination, I think, emanates not from the intellect at all but from a place far, far more deep.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

In its purest form, the human spirit of inquiry is a holy thing. According to the renowned 12th century Jewish thinker Maimonides, nothing less than the Biblical commandment to love G-d is fulfilled when a person investigates nature and, struck by its intricacy and beauty, is filled with awe and gratitude to the Divine.

And so it is exciting to ponder the new aspects of physical reality that might be revealed by the Large Hadron Collider - the 17-mile-circumference particle accelerator that, over 15 years and at a cost of some $8 billion, was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) underneath the French-Swiss border.

Subatomic physics is already a wonderland of strange beauty (not to be confused with "strange" and "beauty" - fanciful names physicists have, at one time or another, given to types of quarks), having revealed that the seemingly mechanistic, clockwork universe we experience in daily life hides astonishing oddities, uncertainties and incomprehensibilities.

Those microcosmic bafflements complement the more readily accessible wonder of the world we experience when we simply look up at the stars, or down into the grass, or at a sunrise, or a newborn baby. The Standard Model - the current theory of how subatomic particles interact - reminds us that not only do the "heavens relate the glory of G-d" (Psalms 19:2) but that "to His wisdom there can be no comprehension" (Isaiah, 40:28).

An ultimate understanding of the universe will likely always evade the mortal mind. But new revelations the LHC might yield - when its gargantuan magnets accelerate streams of particles in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light so that they collide and release their until now unexamined innards - make the mammoth machine a most promising engine of scientific advancement.

Some cheerers-on of that advancement, however, are not exactly motivated by the Maimonidean quest to gain inspiration through a new glimpse of G-d's subtle wisdom. To the contrary, they look to whatever new knowledge the LHC may grant as just further justification for denying the Divine, forklifts with which to pull themselves up onto the pedestal of omniscience. They hope that the LHC will confirm the existence of particles predicted by the latest theories - one such beastie, the Higgs boson, has even been labeled by some the "G-d Particle," for its potential to lead to a grand unified theory of the universe - and thus show that the human mind can fully grasp the totality of creation, and is thus its intellectual master.

And so, while there are many scientists (like astrophysicists Fred Hoyle, Paul Davies and Arno Penzias, to name a few of the most famous) who maintain their human sense of wonder at the world and see purpose in nature, others, like physicist Steven Weinberg, choose to see the cosmos as fascinating but ultimately meaningless. Commenting on the LHC's expected informational yield, he opined that "as science explains more and more, there is less and less need for religious explanations."

Such conceit recalls another technological project, one whose promoters' focus was on the macrocosmic. The builders of the Tower of Babel, the Torah tells us, sought to erect a structure whose top would pierce the heavens, the better to assert their independence from the Divine and "make for ourselves a name." Their plans, of course, were dashed; their arrogance did them in.

The LHC was supposed to have already yielded its harvest of new particles by now. On September 10, proton beams were successfully circulated in the main ring of the structure. Nine days later, though, operations were halted, as an electrical fault caused liquid helium to leak into the tunnel, damaging dozens of the LHC's superconducting magnets and contaminating the "collider's ring. Physicists say it will take until next summer to make the necessary repairs.

"Man contemplates, G-d laughs" goes the Yiddish expression (and in that language it nicely rhymes). I don't know if G-d laughed as the glitch rained on the LHC parade. I certainly didn't; I was deeply disappointed. My thoughts, thought, did go back to the builders of Babel, and to how, in monumental projects, success or failure may ultimately hang on intentions.

Will the LHC in fact come to function as planned, and allow us to see deeper into nature? It might just depend on why we're looking in the first place.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

One of the perks (such as it is) of working for a Jewish organization is receiving unsolicited books and manuscripts in the mail. Most - like "new age" Jewish ritual guides, Middle-East manifestoes and novels channeling their authors' neuroses through Biblical narratives - don't interest me. Occasionally, though, a freebie escapes the circular file. Like the copy (there were actually two, a few weeks apart, one hardcover, the other soft) I received of "Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance" by Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff.

Mr. Bronfman is the former CEO of the Seagram Company, past president of the World Jewish Congress and a major contributor to Jewish causes.

His book, the accompanying folder contents informed me, is "a passionate plea to the Jewish community, urging members to celebrate the joy in their culture and religion… [and] to recognize their responsibility to help heal a broken world."

Mr. Bronfman proposes that young Jews be brought to "meaningfully encounter Judaism: its texts, traditions and community"; that they be brought "into conversation with the faith's traditions and with each other"; and that Jewish institutions find ways to reach out to Jewish youth. Sounded promising.

But the book's vision of Judaism, it quickly became apparent, is decidedly libertarian, its understanding of "the faith's traditions" essentially Reconstructionist. The phrases "culture" and "heal a broken world" should have tipped me off. Mr. Bronfman's Jewish theology is entirely personal - in fact, personalize-able: "I don't believe in the G-d of the Old Testament," he recently told a New York Times Magazine interviewer, "but I am happy with my Judaism, without that."

What particularly struck me, though, about Mr. Bronfman's book was the list of people he interviewed in its preparation. Or, more precisely, what was missing from it: the words of a single haredi Jew.

There are all sorts of people on the list, including a number of rabbis - even an occasional religiously liberal Orthodox one. But one would have expected that the goal of finding ways of engaging young Jews would have led Mr. Bronfman to wonder about how the less "progressive" part of the Orthodox world seems to have successfully imparted its Jewish dedication to its young.

To portray even a slice of the remarkable empowerment of traditional Jewish belief and practice over the past half century is to court being tarred "triumphalist." But taking objective stock of the phenomenal growth of traditional Judaism in our day is not triumphalism but triumph - the prevailing of the Jewish religious heritage at the root of all Jews' pasts.

To be sure, the growth of the traditionally observant Jewish community has not rendered it immune to social problems that permeate contemporary society. Nor are high ideals, alas, always matched by high behavior. But, all the same, there can be no doubting the successes.

Not long ago, it was the Jewish fast day of Tzom Gedaliah. Down the hall from my office at Agudath Israel of America's Lower Manhattan headquarters is our "in house" synagogue, adjacent to a large board room. The collapsible wall between the rooms was folded away to allow well over 100 Jewish men working in the Wall Street area to participate in special fast-day Mincha services, when the Torah is read.

The first service, that is. Two more followed over the course of the afternoon, to accommodate similar numbers who came to pray. And I know of at several other Orthodox organizations or synagogues in the area where the special services were held as well.

If one were seeking means of empowering Jewish life, connections and learning among young Jews, why in the world would one ignore the buzzing dynamo of Jewish thought and life that is the traditional Orthodox world?

Yet Mr. Bronfman didn't see fit to interview any of the many rabbis in that world whose lectures regularly draw hundreds of Jews; or any of the popular Orthodox thinkers and speakers whose talks and recordings reach tens of thousands; nor the editors of the ArtScroll publication house, which has revolutionized Jewish learning over the past quarter century; or the publishers of any of the haredi papers, like the weekly Yated Ne'eman or the daily (yes, daily - the only Jewish one in the country) Hamodia; or any of the heads of American yeshivot and seminaries in which thousands of young Jews are immersed in Jewish texts and traditions.

Mr. Bronfman didn't likely lack for toys as a child, but, tragically, he was sorely deprived of examples that might have led him to understand how Judaism is transmitted. By his own account in the New York Times Magazine, his father told him to attend synagogue on Sabbath morning, while he went to his office. "What made him think I was going to go to the synagogue if he went to the office?" Mr. Bronfman reminisced. "The hell with that."

But over the many years since then, as astute an individual as Mr. Bronfman should have noticed where young Jews have come to "meaningfully encounter Judaism: its texts, traditions and community."

If he didn't, that's unfortunate. If he did, but decided all the same to dismiss authentic Jewish belief and practice as not germane to inspiring young Jews, well, that's doubly unfortunate.

In either event, Mr. Bronfman may think he has made a major contribution to Jewish life with his book. But wittingly or not, he shortchanged his readers.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Along with the new Jewish year we welcomed a new cycle of Torah-readings. For Californians, the first post-Sukkot Sabbath reading was particularly timely, coming as it did a mere ten days before the 2008 elections. It should have given pause to Jewish opponents of Proposition 8, the measure aimed at amending California's constitution to enshrine the traditional definition of marriage in state law.

An assortment of arguments can be made in support of Proposition 8 - from the deep and abiding connection of marriage with procreation, to the healthful effects for children of having both a mother and a father, to the endangerment of religious freedom lurking in societal sanction of same-sex unions (which will all too easily be used to tar conscientious objectors as unlawful discriminators).

Such arguments aside, though, Jews with respect for their religious tradition will perceive in the first chapters of Genesis the clear template for marriage: the first man and the first woman. As the text declares: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and cling to his wife [literally 'his woman'] …" (Genesis 2:24).

And, in fact, the Torah, both in its written dimension (what we call the Jewish Bible) and its oral one (the "rabbinic" material that determines Jewish law), goes on to forbid the sexual union of two men. (The issue of female same-sex unions, while in a different category, is prohibited as well.)

What is more, and here more to the point, societal "officializing" of such unions - i.e. calling them "marriages" - is particularly condemned by unimpeachable and authoritative Jewish sources. They consider a society that "writes marriage documents for men" to be endangering its very existence.

A Jewish case can certainly be made for a libertarian approach to matters of personal behavior, for a "live and let live" attitude that, for all its morally objectionable yield, can help ensure the protection of religious and other fundamental freedoms. In any event, the behavioral issue is legally moot; the highest court in the land has declared unconstitutional laws that criminalize homosexual acts between consenting adults. But Proposition 8 is not about legislating personal behavior - be it same-sex, multi-partner or incestuous, all of which have their proponents. It is, rather, about preventing a twisting of the time-honored and timeless definition of marriage, a definition whose upholding the rabbis of the Talmud considered to be one of humanity's saving graces.

We Jews as a people have a tendency toward "progressive" movements and tend to welcome all societal change as inherently healthy and good. Some such change, of course, is indeed so, and Jews can be rightly proud of having been at the forefront of social causes like racial equality and employees' rights. But headlong rushes to a "more enlightened future" have landed some Jews in some unsavory places, like the forefront of communism in the early decades of the previous century. Or, centuries earlier, among the Hellenists of ancient Greece. Or even earlier, dancing in celebration of a golden calf.

Our pining for progress comes from a holy place, the deep and inherent Jewish desire for a perfected world. But the secret and essence of Judaism is its conviction that we are not the judges of good and bad, but rather look to the Torah for its guidance. "We will do and [then perhaps] hear [i.e. understand]," declared our ancestors when they were given the Torah. Our mission is not to pronounce what we mortals think is good but rather to accept the decisions of the Divine.

Much of the world considers reformulating the meaning of marriage to represent progress. And many Jews, as in past "progressive" movements, are giddily jumping on the burnished bandwagon.

Jews, though, who understand what it means to have been chosen by G-d to stand for holiness - which the Talmud teaches has a primary meaning of "separation from immorality" - know that all that glistens to a liberal eye is not gold, or even good. And those Judaism-aware Jews who live in California will, against the societal tide, vote on November 4 to have their state retain the true meaning of marriage.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The weeks before a presidential election provide spiritual fodder for the week between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Throughout political campaigns, candidates and their handlers are keenly aware of the great toll a simple gaffe or misjudgment can take. Four years ago, Howard Dean, the then-governor of Vermont (today Democratic National Committee chairman) was a credible candidate for the Democratic nomination for President.

But he crashed and burned, according to many because of what came to be dubbed his "I Have a Scream" speech. After an unexpectedly weak showing in the Iowa caucus, Dr. Dean declared his undeterred determination to forge on, in a rousing address that culminated in a vocalization somewhere between a Zulu war cry and a locomotive horn. That single moment's decision to let loose in that way at that juncture spelled the end of the doctor's road to the highest office in the land.

There have been other such moments for presidential candidates: Edmund Muskie's tears of pain, Gary Hart's infelicitous mugging for his "Monkey Business" snapshot, Michael Dukakis's donning of an ill-fitting combat helmet. Each unguarded moment, deservedly or not, brought a national campaign to a screeching halt.

Every one of us, too, in our personal lives, comes face to face at times with opportunities of our own that, wrongly handled, can lead to places we don't want to go.

And we are vying for something infinitely more important than a mere nomination for President. We're in the running, after all, for the achievement of worth, racing to achieve meaning in our lives.

In the bustle and haste of everyday existence, it is alarmingly easy to forget that decisions we make, sometimes almost unthinkingly, can be crucial; that seemingly insignificant forks in the roads of our lives can lead either to achievement and holiness, or, G-d forbid, to setbacks, even ruin.

Every single decision we make, of course, is important. Each day of our lives presents occasions for choices, chances to seize meaningful things - a mitzvah, a heartfelt prayer, an act of charity - or to forgo them. Every opportunity to be morose or angry is a chance to hurt others, and ourselves - and likewise a chance to do neither, and achieve something priceless.

But there are also particularly momentous opportunities, when we are presented with roads that diverge in entirely different directions. The Talmud teaches that "one can acquire his universe" - the one that counts: the world-to-come - or "destroy" it "in a single moment."

Potentially transformative decisions are more common to our lives than we may realize. When we make a decision about, say, where to live or what synagogue to attend - not to mention more obviously critical decisions like whom to marry or how to raise and educate our children - we are defining our futures, and others'. And it is of great importance that we recognize the import of our decisions, and accord them the gravity they are due.

We can even, through sheer determination, create our own critical moments. Consider the Talmudic case of the "conditional husband."

In Jewish law, a marriage is effected by the proposal of a man to a woman - the declaration of the woman's kiddushin, or "specialness" to her husband, followed by the acceptance by the woman of a coin or item of worth from her suitor. If the declaration is made on the condition that an assertion is true, the marriage is valid only if the assertion indeed is. Thus, if a man betroths a woman on the condition that he owns a car, or still has his own teeth, unless he does, they aren't married.

What if a man offers a woman a coin or item and makes the kiddushin-declaration "on the condition that I am a tzaddik," a "totally righteous person"? The Talmud informs us that even if the man in question has no such flawless reputation the marriage must be assumed to be valid (and only a divorce can dissolve it).

Why? Because, the Talmud explains, the man "may have contemplated repentance" just before his proposal.

That determined choice of a moment, in other words, if sincere, would have transformed the man completely, placed him on an entirely new life-road. The lesson is obvious: Each of us can transform himself or herself - at any point we choose - through sheer, sincere will.

This season of the Jewish year, our tradition teaches, is particularly fertile for making choices, for embarking on new roads. All we need are the sensitivity and wisdom to be open to crucial opportunities, and the determination to craft some of our own - to make choices that will change our lives and futures for the holier.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

It's never a good idea to analyze a joke. All the same, I recently found myself deconstructing a stand-up comedian's one-liner quoted in a newspaper article. It may have been because Rosh Hashana was approaching.

"I used to do drugs," the hapless performer had deadpanned. "I still do, but I used to, too."

Why was the line funny? It could be that the comedian had simply found an amusing, absurd way to characterize his long-time substance abuse. But what I think he meant to communicate was something more: that he had once (perhaps more than once) quit his drugs, only to re-embrace them. When he was clean, he "used to do drugs"; now, fallen off the wagon, he does them once again.

And so my thoughts, understandably (no?), went to Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year holiday characterized by the Talmud as an annual day of Divine judgment. Its two days begin the ten-day period in the Jewish calendar - ending with Yom Kippur - that constitute the "Days of Repentance."

No, I don't abuse drugs. I take my daily blood-thinner responsibly, pop an occasional Tylenol and have a glass or two of red wine with Sabbath meals, but that's about it. Nevertheless, I related well to the comedian's self-description. Because I find myself resolving each year to improve in some of the very same ways I had resolved to improve the year before. Indeed, the years - plural - before, in more cases than I care to ponder. I, too, "used to" do things that I currently do too.

Among the collected letters of the late Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, the famed dean of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn from 1940 through the 1960s, is one that was written to a student whose own, earlier, letter to Rabbi Hutner had apparently evidenced the student's despondence over his personal spiritual failures. The yeshiva dean's response provides nourishing food for thought.

Citing the saying that one can "lose battles but win wars," Rabbi Hutner explains that what makes life meaningful is not beatific basking in the exclusive company of one's "good inclination" but rather the dynamic struggle of one's battle with the inclination to sin.

King Solomon's maxim that "Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up" (Proverbs, 24:16), continues Rabbi Hutner, does not mean that "even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to gets up again." What it really means, he explains, is that it is only and precisely through repeated falls that a person truly achieves righteousness. The struggles - even the failures - are inherent elements of what can, with determination and perseverance, become an ultimate victory.

Rabbi Hutner's words are timely indeed at this Jewish season, as thoughtful Jews everywhere recall their own personal failures. For facing our mistakes squarely, and feeling the regret that is the bedrock of repentance, carries a risk: despondence born of battles lost. But allowing failures to breed hopelessness, says Rabbi Hutner, is both self-defeating and wrong. A battle waged, even if lost, can be an integral step toward an ultimate victory to come. No matter how many battles there may have been, the war is not over. We must pick ourselves up. Again. And, if need be, again.

Still, it's a balancing act. The knowledge, after the fact, that falling isn't forever cannot permit us to treat sin lightly. Even while not allowing failures to leave us dejected, we must maintain the determination to be to be better people tomorrow than we are today. If, after raising ourselves from the ground, we don't renew the battle with resolve, if we become complacent about our sins, seeing them not as boons to redoubled effort but as fodder for jokes, we flirt with true failure - the ultimate kind.

The article containing the one-liner, as it happens, was an obituary. The comedian who "used to do drugs" and still did died of an overdose, at 37.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

A long, long time ago, when I was much younger, even more foolish and living in California, I used a motorcycle for personal transportation. I remember once riding my mid-sized Honda, tzitzit-fringes flying behind me, into a cycle shop for a part. As I entered a parking space and cut the engine, I heard a roar from behind and knew, even before it pulled up next to me, that a Harley had arrived. The behemoth's rider, a man much older than I, with flowing white hair and dark sunglasses, clad in jeans and a long sleeved shirt, looked down at me - menacingly, I thought. But what I had tagged a scowl suddenly broadened into a smile, as the biker slapped his right hand onto his left wrist and pulled up his sleeve, revealing the unmistakable evidence of another time and place: a crudely tattooed number. "Another crazy Jew," he said in Yiddish.

Flabbergasted by the unexpected, I squandered the opportunity to bond with another Jew. To this day that lost chance bothers me. I think I shook his hand and probably smiled, but I didn't go the extra mile. Not only didn't I invite him for a Shabbat meal, I didn't even ask him to tell me his name or about himself, nor did I share with him anything about me.

I've become wiser with time and have come not only to reach out to less-than-obviously-Jewish Jews I meet but to cherish the meetings, and the Jews.

Many have actually reached out to me. My beard and kippah or hat tend to indicate I'm not Irish, and so a repair shop, waiting room, supermarket, bus or train will occasionally be the backdrop for a Jewish stranger to smile and pointedly drop a Yiddish or Hebrew word, or otherwise telegraph some Jewish connection. I always see it as a meaningful act, an invitation.

Not and invitation to "make them Orthodox" - although I am very happy when a less-observant Jew becomes more observant. But simply to interact with a fellow Jew, to reestablish a bond forged at Sinai when, the Midrash teaches, the souls of all Jews, present and future, were present and united. If Elijah the prophet appeared and told me that a Jew to whom I was speaking would never undertake any Jewish observance as a result of the conversation, I would continue it no differently than before.

But, needless to say, I want only good for a fellow Jew, and consider the Torah to be the epitome of goodness, something I want to share. And so, when possible, I try to offer Jews I meet entrée into the world of Jewish observance.

And indeed, some Jews connect viscerally to Jewish observance; all it takes is experiencing a traditional Jewish Shabbat or holiday, a circumcision ceremony or wedding. They feel in their souls that they have sampled a deeper reality. Others are similarly affected by meeting a truly righteous Jew, innately sensing his or her sublime nature, and moved thereby to explore what might yield such refinement. And then, of course, there are Jews whose sublimity of soul allows them to realize the power of Torah from… Torah. Its study, that is. Approached properly, it can be transformative.

Many Jews, though, even if they are intrigued by Judaism, will not entertain the possibility of changing their lives without being logically persuaded that there is a Creator and that He indeed gave a people His law. We live in a world that is as psychologically fueled by cynicism as it is physically powered by petroleum (and in the former case the supplies are unlimited), where books peddling atheism are sure-fire best-sellers, and faith in anything but science is portrayed as a sort of feeblemindedness. That an intelligent person who hasn't personally felt the power of Judaism might react with skepticism to the notion that the Jewish faith it is more than a mere cultural construct is understandable,

And yet, the basis of Judaism - that G-d exists and His Torah is true - can in fact, I believe, be demonstrated to a reasonable person. To be sure, once a Jew recognizes the Divine nature of Torah, reason plays an only very limited role in the living of a Jewish life. Doing G-d's will, whether we understand it or not, becomes the operative principle. Still and all, the fundamentals of Judaism are demonstrably reasonable.

And so, in the final two installment of this article, I intend to lay out an approach toward making the case for the truth of the Jewish religious tradition.

The approach will be based on two premises. First, that "proofs" - in the strictest sense of the word - are really only possible in mathematics and formal logic, and so we make the vast majority of our decisions, including many of the most important ones, on something else: reasonability.

And second, that an important principle of reasonability is what has come to be called "Occam's Razor" (after a 14th century English logician), or the "law of parsimony." It asserts that the less complex an explanation for an observation (or set of observations), the more likely it is to be true.

Take, for example, a medical diagnosis. Thus, if a patient presents a number of symptoms, one might choose to view each one individually. The fever could be the result of a bacterial infection, the cough might be an effect of the patient's having unknowingly inhaled some irritant, the muscle aches from a possible mineral deficiency. But as the symptoms taken together are consistent with influenza, it is most reasonable to interpret the symptoms as a set, and to duly diagnose the flu.

Applying the law of parsimony to a set of historical and other observations, I submit, yields a compelling case for the veracity of the Jewish religious tradition. A case, that, with G-d's help, I will begin to lay out next week.

COMING TO JUDAISM - Part 2 (of 3)

Occam's Razor, once again, requires us to explain a fact or set of facts in the least complicated way. The darkening of the sky, for instance, might be a solar eclipse, and the pitter-patter on the roof a family of cats. More likely, though, it's raining.

Let us begin with the fact that nowhere in the annals of religions is there a parallel to Jewish tradition's claim to a mass revelation from G-d. Christianity is mediated by an individual, Paul; Islam, by Mohammed; Mormonism, by Joseph Smith. Moses, by contrast, brought the Jews to Mt. Sinai, but it was the Creator Who directly introduced Himself there to the Jewish people en masse.

That is no minor point. An individual's claim to a personal divine communication is only as strong as his own credibility. The claim of a mass experience, however, cannot be effectively asserted unless it actually happened; if it were a hoax, the perpetrators will be unable to produce the claimed mass. That is why reasonable people don't contest the facts of recorded history.

Despite its supernatural element, the giving of the Torah is no different from - and thus no less reliable than - any other historical tradition; it, too, is based on a mass testimony.

A cynic might suggest that such a claim could have been fabricated after the claimed event, and was somehow propagated without the masses' corroboration. But a single, salient fact remains: Despite the obvious advantages of claiming a mass event-based faith, only one such claim has ever been made over the entire course of human history: the Jewish one. Even our cynic must admit the singular nature of the Jewish revelation claim.

Consider now a separate matter: the self-defeating nature of several of the Torah's laws. One enjoins the Jews in the Holy Land to let all their fields lie fallow every seventh year (and at the end of 49 years, two years in a row), an unarguable recipe for economic disaster. No human lawmaker would be cruel or dim enough to lay down such a law - only a Legislator Who could in fact ensure that the populace will not starve as a result could dare make such a promise.

Or take the three "pilgrimage festivals," when all adult Jewish males were commanded in Temple times to journey to Jerusalem - leaving their homes and the nation's borders open to attack from enemies. The festivals are closely connected to the seasons and phases of the moon, and would thus have become entirely predictable to the Jews' enemies, of which, as always, there were many.

The skeptic might retort that maybe those laws were added to the Torah's text (for reasons unknown) at some later time, and no one noticed the textual tinkering. But he would have no evidence for his speculation. Once again, the most straightforward (if supernatural) explanation points instead to the Divine authorship of the Torah.

Then there are the predictions, like the Torah's foretelling of how the Jewish people will come to sin, be exiled from their land and scattered among the nations. And how Jews will seek to lose their identity but be rebuffed, often violently, by their foreign hosts. And how the scattered Jews will nevertheless persevere as a people (itself an unparalleled occurrence in history), and how the remaining Jews will eventually return to their ancestral land.

The doubter will likely attribute this one, too, to some post-facto text-meddling, or to plain chance. But his patchwork responses are multiplying and fraying. Occam would not be happy.

There are other unrelated hallmarks of the Torah's uniqueness, too. Like the fact that, unlike every other tradition hallowed by a world faith, the Jewish Bible harshly highlights the foibles and sins of its greatest men and women. In the New Testament, the books' hero is without fault; the Koran's protagonist is a perfect prophet - just what one would expect from documents written by men to extol men. The Torah, by stark contrast, publicizes the mistakes of its greatest personages, including Moses and Aaron, evidence that it was created not by hero-promoters but an omniscient Judge. The naysayer may mutter "Not necessarily." But the oddity points, once again, to the Torah's Divine origin.

As does Moses' singular and striking lack of qualification for leadership. He suffers from a speech impediment, lacks the self confidence that is the essence of every great leader, and doesn't even want the job. Has there ever been a successful such leader? Other religion-forming figures possessed the natural ability to convince others of their connection to truth - and used it. Moses had no such ability, yet it was pointedly him through whom the Torah was given. No one could ever attribute the historic success of the Jewish message to the impact of oratory, charisma or self confidence. Only a defective product needs a talented salesman.

Each of the above observations independently points to the truth of the Jewish religious tradition; all of them taken together should be impossible to ignore. Were there as many indications of heart failure in a human being, he'd be rushed to cardiac surgery without delay.

And what is perhaps the most striking anomaly about the Jews and their religion has not even been mentioned yet. With G-d's help, next week.

COMING TO JUDAISM - Part 3 (of 3)

One of the most compelling factors to ponder when considering Jewish religious tradition's veracity is something that makes us uncomfortable - but something we are in a better position today to perceive than anyone at any other time in history: the power and persistence of anti-Semitism.

That the Jewish people have been historically significant is a truism. The nation described by the Torah as chosen to live by G-d's laws not only introduced monotheism and morality to human society but has played a critical role in promoting a multitude of important ideas, from the legislature to textual analysis to educational systems to ethics to democracy itself (the principle by which a Jewish court operates). And, as observers as diverse as Mark Twain and Ann Landers have noted, even from a secular perspective, the influence has been overwhelmingly positive.

Which makes anti-Semitism not only unexpected, but astounding.

What other racial, ethnic, social, or religious group can claim the distinction of having been chosen as the target of one or another form of persecution during practically every period of mankind's progression from ancient times to the present? What other group, removed from its ancestral land and scattered around the globe, can claim to have ever been subsequently singled out for extermination?

The aims of the persecutions have varied. Some of the hatred has been of a racial nature, some of a religious and some even personal. What all the animus has in common, though, is its collective focus on an unthreatening enemy: the Jews (and/or their beliefs). Whether the particular excuse was cultural (ancient Greece), religious (early Christian, or radical Islamist), racial (Nazi Germany), or national (Palestinian radicals), the mark has been the same.

The ancient Greek dedicated himself to knowledge and beauty; he hated the Jew. The Crusader championed the message of the "New Testament" (peace and love of mankind, no less); he hated the Jew. The Nazi strove for genealogical purity; he hated the Jew. The Palestinian opposes what he regards as Zionist imperialism; but in the end it is the Jew he despises.

Things might be more understandable were there in fact some World Council of International Jewry constantly plotting the next stage of the nefarious manipulation of world governments to its own evil advantage.

Or if, as large portions of the non-Jewish world once believed (and parts still do), religious Jews required Christian blood for matzos, an assertion for which countless Jews were tortured and killed.

But we members of the tribe know well that while Jewish organizational meetings can be hellish in their own way, they are rather more mundane than the fabled assembly of the "Elders of Zion" - and that matzo containing blood would never receive rabbinic certification, much less Jewish consumer enthusiasm. Yet the myths persevered for centuries - and, sadly, still do.

As do contemporary equivalents of ancient blood libels, in no less bizarre forms - like some Palestinians' projection of their own murderous designs onto Israeli soldiers seeking only to protect their fellow citizens; or like much of the Arab world's acceptance of the contention that Jews were really behind the terrorist attacks of September 11; or like media equations of accidental civilian deaths from Israeli self-defensive fire with the victims of "gunmen" gleefully seeking to kill and maim as many innocents as possible.

How is it, one can just as easily ask, that Jews are reviled in places like Idaho or Japan, where there aren't even any members of the tribe to speak of?

One can try to address the persistence of Jew-hatred into modern times by invoking "rational" explanations: psychological concepts, social theories or geopolitical realities. But, here too, there is a less complicated, if more disturbing, solution to the riddle.

And it lies, at least for Jews unafraid to face Jewish verities, once again, in the truth of the Torah - here, its prediction about how the Jewish people, in exile, will neglect their spiritual heritage and suffer for the fact.

"And He will scatter you among all the nations… and you will worship other gods… and in those nations you will not rest… you will be fearful night and day (Deuteronomy, 28:64-66)."

And so, we step back to regard the entire canvas: the monumental singularity of the revelation at Sinai; the self-defeating nature of some of the Torah's laws; the uniqueness of the Torah's judgmental descriptions of its "heroes"; Moses' utter lack of qualifications for leadership; the coming to pass of the Torah's predictions; the illogical perseverance of the Jewish people; and, finally, the sheer astonishingness of anti-Semitism's persistence.

Each of those anomalies can be countered with a different "explanation" that avoids the conclusion that the Torah is true. But at some point the thicket of complexity formed by the rationalizations must be contrasted with a simpler, straightforward, Occam's Razor-respecting possibility: that a sort of Unified Jewish Field Theory permeates the unruly mess of oddities. The key to that UJFT is that the Torah has come to us from the Creator.

Rejecting that conclusion requires a considerable dulling of Occam's razor, the invocation of a series of piecemeal mental contortions. One the other hand, embracing it carries life-changing implications, which can be a daunting prospect. No one ever said, though, that coming to Judaism was easy.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Thanks all the same but no, I'd prefer my next party not be "the talk of the town."

The advertisement promising town-wide tittering over my gala affair was for a Jerusalem hotel, and appeared in a publication catering to an Orthodox Jewish readership. It went on to assure me that the food served at the establishment will hew to the highest standard of kashrut, including strict observance of the laws of the Sabbatical-year.

Fine and good. Wonderful, in fact. But I still really prefer the town not end up talking about my party. Because kashrut isn't the only concern common to observant Jews; so is (or should be) the Jewish ideal of tzeniut - literally, "hiddenness." That concept is perhaps most commonly associated with manner of dress - clothing designed and worn to clothe, not to… well, advertise. But tzeniut means not only to dress modestly but to live modestly. Jews are enjoined by the tzeniut ideal, for instances, to speak softly, to not be boastful, to shun ostentatiousness. And, presumably, to avoid becoming the talk of the town.

Thank G-d, my wife and I have been blessed with occasions to host a few parties, like the weddings of several of our children. Even though financial constraints would have limited our options in any event, we consciously opted for modest affairs, tasteful but not showy. The weddings were every bit as beautiful to the young couples, our family, our friends and us as any more elaborate celebrations could possibly have been. And if any townsfolk talked about our weddings, what was likely recounted was their dignified simplicity.

Much of the business of modern advertising, however, aims precisely to de-dignify simplicity, to try to make people feel they are missing things they are not. And so it's not only tzeniut that takes a hit; so does a fundamental attitude prescribed by the Jewish religious tradition: being "content with one's lot."

There certainly are straightforward and informative ads, offering useful products and services with integrity. Some are even clever, and thus entertaining to boot. But much of the advertising industry today seeks to make its money by preying on human insecurities and pushing the real opiate of the masses: possessions.

That is bad enough in the world at large. Worse still, though, is perusing a Jewish publication filled with articles about Jewish ideas, personalities, history and happenings and turning the page to find an advertisement fostering things antithetical to Judaism - like materialism, one-upmanship or ostentatiousness. It's like a spring day walk in the park suddenly interrupted by a foul odor.

Maybe I'm overly sensitive, allergic to ad copy hyperbole. But another ad I recently saw in yet another otherwise thoroughly Jewish publication made me uncomfortable. It, too, was pushing a hotel, this one as a place to spend the Jewish holidays.

The tagline, upfront and bolded, likely seemed innocent enough to the casual reader. "Enjoy a Memorable Sukkos Holiday!" it suggested. Details of the locale's many amenities, creature comforts and religious needs alike, followed.

Now I have nothing against Jewish families with the means to do so (and who have paid their tuition bills) packing out to a hotel for Sukkot or Passover. I feel bad that they will forfeit the singular experience of a Jewish holiday at home. But I realize that for some very busy people the preparatory work entailed would be overwhelming, and that for others family situations or logistical circumstances make a hotel experience preferable to one at home.

But the ad's tagline struck me as something other than a simple good-hearted wish. Was it subtly implying that Sukkot will be more memorable for being celebrated in a hotel? Or - could it be? - that the holiday will only be memorable if spent there?

If so, Jews who build their own sukkot, cook their own food, turn their homes into spiritual palaces (albeit without room service) would surely take issue with the contention.

I might well be overanalyzing the ad copy. But as someone who was privileged to be a teacher for nearly two decades - and who helped his wife raise a family - I never underestimate the power of even a subliminal, even an unintentional, message.

There are plenty of antithetical-to-Judaism attitudes out there in society, all around. What those of us who cherish Jewish values need to do is to counter them.

And certainly not advertise them.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Anti-Israel diatribes spring from Iran's leaders like fleas from a dog, but a recent Iranian Parliament statement stood apart, containing as it did a remarkable admission.

The statement was in reaction to a comment by Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, the Iranian vice president for tourism, who contended that Iran is "a friend for all people in the world, even Israelis and Americans."

Calling for Mr. Mashai's dismissal because of that "unforgiveable mistake," the parliamentarians went on to declare that "We do not recognize a country called Israel and so we cannot recognize a nation called Israel."

The internal logic of the declaration aside, it would seem to depart from the common trope among "progressives" that Iran's leaders, and others like them, hate only contemporary Zionism, not Jews.

The statement laid bare something more. Not only is a "country called Israel" illegitimate in the signatories' eyes; so is "a nation called Israel." Perhaps that means Israeli citizens - disturbing enough. Or perhaps it means the "Israel" of antiquity, who carry the name that G-d bestowed on their forefather Jacob.

The Agudath Israel movement is not part of either the secular or religious Zionist camps, and indeed was founded in 1912 in large part to distinguish itself from both the part of the Jewish world that saw a Jewish state as a high political ideal and the part that invested the quest for a contemporary Jewish state with spiritual significance. And while Agudath Israel today is deeply committed to Israel's security, and its adherents in Israel fully participate in the country's democratic system, we "Agudists" remain theologically distinct.

Still and all, we recognize that much, if not most, of the negative sentiment aimed at Israel is tightly tangled up with hatred for Jews.

The point was made back in 1975, after the infamous "Zionism is Racism" United Nations resolution. The late and greatly missed Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the then-president of Agudath Israel of America, wrote that "Though the resolution was supposedly aimed only at secular 'Zionism'… the slander is an attack on the entire Jewish people."

Even if the hatred was aimed only at certain Jews, he continued, "we [Agudath Israel adherents] would feel precisely the same responsibility to come to the defense of our brethren. While we may have our own quarrel with secular Zionism, when Jews are libeled, their affiliation does not matter; our love for our brothers and sisters draws us to their side." But what is more, he pointedly stressed, "the U. N. resolution is aimed at all Jews, for it assails the historical Jewish right to Eretz Yisrael. The Torah bestowed that right, and any attack on it is an attack on Judaism and the Jewish people."

One can certainly be critical of Israel and not be an anti-Semite. But equally true is that there is a symbiotic relationship in some circles between criticism of Israel and hatred of Jews. Whether the chicken of anti-Zionism or the egg of anti-Semitism came first is of only academic interest. The final fricassee is animus for both. Which is why visibly Jewish European Jews, loyal citizens of their respective countries, are attacked by Arab hooligans, and Jewish cemeteries vandalized with anti-Israel graffiti.

I had a correspondent (actually, still do, if one considers his forwarding me articles and my consigning them to my trash file to constitute correspondence) who is a professor at the University of Alberta. He first wrote me a year or so ago with a pleasant note about an article I had written about Jewish ethics. When I thanked him, though, he quickly turned the topic to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His take - essentially that whatever Israel does is evil, whatever Palestinians do is noble - was so bizarre that I had to tell him it sounded like the sort of libels against Jews with which history is rife.

He took great umbrage, insisting that his criticism was only of Israel, not Jews. Gently ending our conversation, I responded that I would take him at his word but remained at an utter loss to understand what could possibly lie behind so skewed a perspective as his.

So he put me on his e-mail list for receipt of articles from websites dedicated to applauding premeditated murder and condemning self-defense (at least when the self-defender is Israel). I click the messages away, unopened, to e-mail Hades. A recent one's subject box, though, caught my eye. It read something like "This is kosher?"

The attachment was the first among the scores that had arrived over the year whose subject was not one or another of Israel's "crimes." It was a news report about workers' claims of mistreatment at a kosher meatpacking concern in Iowa. Now what on earth, I thought, does that have to do with Israel?

The answer was "nothing," of course. Like the Iranian parliament, the good professor had simply revealed the broader scope of his ample ill will.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Q: What do righteous, learned Torah scholars and newly observant Jews, or baalei teshuva, have in common?

A: The way they recite blessings.

No, it's not funny, nor meant to be. It's simply an easily confirmed observation - and one that holds a thought worth thinking.

A Jew is enjoined by Jewish religious law to pronounce scores of blessings, or brachot, each day, acknowledging the Creator's glory and gifts to His creations. Many of the blessings are part of the prayer service; others are offered throughout the day, like before and after eating - the blessings varying according to the type of food. There are brachot to be made upon seeing lightning and hearing thunder, on a rainbow, before smelling flowers or fragrant spices, after using the bathroom.

But ironically, so many opportunities to express gratitude to G-d make it easy for reverence to devolve into rote. Many of us bracha-making Jews find ourselves pronouncing the nine words meant to thank G-d for the beauty, tastiness and nourishment of an apple, for example, as a string of slurred semi-words, taking perhaps two seconds rather than the five or six needed to actually say all the words clearly and focus on their meaning.


Call it an occupational hazard of religious observance. When something is done regularly and often, it is only natural for the quality of the experience to become degraded with time. But natural needn't, and here doesn't, mean acceptable. And watching a true Torah scholar (who has succeeded in routing rote) or a baal teshuva (who is more attuned to his religious actions than some of us who are more "experienced") say a bracha can help remind us of how things are meant to be - and inspire us to make them right.

A funny-sad story (considerably less humorous in writing than in my father's telling of it at the Sabbath table when I was a child) concerns a Polish Jewish peasant who owes a powerful landowner, or poritz, a good sum of money. Yankel somehow convinces the poritz to forgive the debt if he, the Jew, can teach a bear how to pray.

Faced with the need to produce results, Yankel obtains a cub and hands him a prayer-book with a drop of honey on its cover and on each of the book's pages. The bear wipes up the first drop of honey with its paw and puts it on his tongue. Bright bear that he is, he opens the book and locates and eats the other drops of honey too.

The next day, Yankel gives Boo-Boo the same prayer book, this time with a drop of honey only on every other page. The bear, with a murmur of disappointment at each page bearing only words, still manages to service his sweet tooth from the others. The following day the honey is only on random pages. The bear goes through the book, wiping up what drops of sweetness he finds and licking his paw, murmuring all the rest of the time.

The Jew is now ready. Presenting the cub to the poritz, he declares the animal synagogue-worthy and hands him the here-and-there-honeyed prayer book. The bear opens it, turns a few pages, murmuring all the while, then stops a minute to lick his finger before resuming the page-turning and murmuring. The poritz is not impressed. "That's not praying," he says sternly.

"Come with me," says the Jew, leading the poritz to the local synagogue. Morning services are underway and the Jew opens the door. Lo and behold, the poritz gazes upon an entire congregation of supplicants doing an excellent imitation of the bear. The poritz has no choice but to forgive the debt.

And everyone lived happily ever after. Well, other than those listening to the story, left to wonder whether their own prayers are something more than page-turning and mumbles.

Brachot, like prayers, are essential to Judaism. The very word "Jew" derives from the name "Judah", which the Talmud teaches is rooted in Judah's mother Leah's declaration that she was the beneficiary of "more than my share" of blessing. That refusal to take blessings for granted, that sense of gratitude to God, is what brachot embody.

And they can be accessed by all Jews, whatever their levels of observance, whatever their understanding of Judaism. Saying the required blessings throughout the day is not very difficult, nor does it offend any contemporary sensibilities. And there are many English-language guides to the pertinent laws. The practice of saying brachot may not currently be a common practice in most of the non-Orthodox Jewish world, but what is the future for - for any of us - if not to better the present?

What is more, were brachot more widely embraced among Jews, those of us who have always been saying them and are so "expert" at doing so that we slur our words and forget to think of what we're saying would have more examples from whom to learn and derive inspiration.

What a blessing that would be.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

In a recent column, "Haredim: Underdogs or All-Powerful?", the New York Jewish Week's editor, Gary Rosenblatt, writes of a complaint he received from a reader, Chaim, about the paper's coverage of, and commentary on, the haredi world. Gary, whom I have known for many years and consider a friend, defends his paper and explains how, among other things, the rise of the haredi community's influence in Israel (citing its insistence on high conversion standards and "avoidance of army service"), its rejection of ideological Zionism and its support for the observance of Shmitta are all deserving of criticism.

I cannot speak for Chaim. But I think the real "haredi problem" at the Jewish Week is the dearth of haredi voices in its pages.

Because issues like those Gary raises (like most issues) do have two sides.

A strong case can be made that loosening conversion standards in Israel would have a devastating impact on whether any Israeli convert is regarded as Jewish by a sizable part of the Jewish community. And it is not hard, once the issue is fully explained, to come to realize that most haredim in Israel who choose full-time Torah-study are not trying to "avoid" army service but to serve the Jewish people (and, perforce, the cause of Israel's security) in a spiritual way - the way they sincerely believe counts most. Or to understand how a Jew can disagree with the ideology of Zionism yet be fully committed (more so, perhaps, than some card-carrying Zionists) to the security and growth of the State of Israel. And even Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the guiding light of the non-haredi Israeli Orthodox community, pined for the day when the law of leaving Jewish-owned fields fallow every seventh year might be observed as it was intended.

Yet all too often, only one side of each of those issues, and others, is regularly presented in the pages of some Jewish papers, including the Jewish Week. They tend to report and comment approvingly on any effort aimed at relaxing the Jewish bond to established halacha or to time-honored religious norms and convictions. Those who choose to hew to a more traditional Jewish path are commonly portrayed as obstacles to be overcome; their stances, as things to be "fought" or "undermined," according to those chosen for quotation or offered column space. We haredim are accused of wielding influence beyond our numbers (even of being, as per Gary's title, "All Powerful") and of poisoning the wells of "tolerance." (Sometimes I think the haredim have become the Jews' Jews.)

There are a good number of haredi writers in English these days, each entirely capable of presenting haredi points of view for readers' consideration. But none of them appear as regular columnists in the Jewish Week, and it is a very rare occasion for a haredi Jew's byline to grace any of the paper's op-ed offerings.

A newspaper, to be sure, is entitled to an editorial stance. But a paper aiming to serve the entire Jewish community best fulfils its mission by offering a variety of perspectives. Even the New York Times sees fit to include politically conservative columnists on its op-ed page.

Gary might reply that, well, haredi papers don't exactly include non-haredi, and certainly not non-Orthodox, points of view. That is true. But haredi papers are very open about their mandate, which is entirely limited to providing the haredi community with news it needs and haredi views of current events. They are not, for better or worse, intended as forums for the broader Jewish community, and make no such claim.

I don't think the Jewish Week sees itself in similarly constricted terms, as a paper promoting only the views of one or two parts of the Jewish community. As a Jewish Federation-supported paper, it is expected to cover and present the views of the entire community. And haredim are part of it.

Gary admits that "stereotypes abound" on both sides of the demographic divide in Israel, and he is right. But, in my experience, despite strong haredi feelings about non-traditional theologies and practices, the sort of personal anger and even animosity that is regularly aimed at haredim (and duly reproduced by the Jewish Week and some others) is not commonly expressed by haredim toward other Jews. All it takes is a little websurfing among haredi and other Jewish sites and blogs (especially their "comments" sections) to see that what ill will there is among the various sectors of the Jewish people tends to flow largely in one direction.

Some of that animus, sadly, seems hard-wired into some hearts, a tragedy of our time. But I wonder if some of it might result from the dearth of haredi points of view in important media outlets like the Jewish Week. Gary writes that he hopes to lunch with Chaim at some point, and that he will do his "best to hear him." What he may hear is the pain of a Jew whose community is not only regularly portrayed negatively in some Jewish media but denied an effective opportunity to defend its perspectives. Should that conversation lead to a decision by Jewish Week's editor and board of directors to consider the inclusion of a haredi viewpoint, what a wonderful gift that would be to the Jewish world - all of it.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Like so much in our world that seems genuine at first, the photograph that graced the front pages of some of the nation's most respected newspapers earlier this month was in fact a fake.

The digital manipulation of the image, which depicted Iranian missiles being test-fired, is readily apparent in the launch pad cloud of exhaust and the mid-air smoke trails of two of the four missiles depicted. The clouds and trails are, incredibly, identical. Iran's Revolutionary Guard, which released the photograph along with some belligerent rant, was clearly doing some Photoshopping.

The alteration, first pointed out by political blogger Charles Johnson, seemed intended to conceal the fact that one of the missiles, which the Iranians claim could reach Israel, either did not fire or exploded on the ground.

This latest Iranian Photogate scandal (last year the same blogger exposed a similar clumsy attempt at graphics monkey-business by Iran's Fars News Agency) might be regarded as nothing more than an example of sloppy damage-control.

But a deeper thought hovers here.

In our day, open miracles do not occur. According to the Jewish religious tradition, direct Divine intervention to turn what we call nature on its head ended in Biblical times. Still perceptible, though, in even our less holy times are more subtle Heavenly intrusions, twists of "fate" that might wrongly be dismissed as mere coincidence.

When Israel destroyed the assortment of Arab armies arrayed against her in 1967, even hardened military men well aware of their forces' skill spoke of wonders. The rescue at Entebbe in 1976 may have entailed special-forces acumen, but sensitive Jews saw Divine fingerprints on the operation as well. In 1981, when the Iraqi nuclear plant at Osirak was obliterated, they likewise perceived the imprint of not only might but miracle as well.

And then there are the frustrated plots against Jews and the civilized world (the former so often the first target of the latter's enemies), the miracles that consist not of something happening but of something not happening. The celebrated Jewish Sage known as the Vilna Gaon is said to have once been asked about a verse in Psalms that calls on the nations of the world to praise G-d: "What sort of special praise can other nations offer that we Jews cannot?" His response: Only those among the nations who hate us know of the secret plans they crafted to harm us that failed to come to fruition. When the Messiah arrives and those people see the truth of G-d's plan, they will have a singular praise for G-d, alone in their knowledge of how He undermined their evil designs.

When, twice this month, Arabs turned bulldozers upon Jewish residents of Jerusalem, amid the sorrow over the dead and wounded, and the reminder of the evil that exists in some twisted hearts, a realization also merited attention: There are bloodthirsty Jew-haters at the wheels of countless vehicles large and small in Israel every day of every month of every year. And so, each day we are spared tragic news is a miraculous one.

And every time a Palestinian terrorist is intercepted, or has a "work accident" - his explosives detonating in his lap rather than in the Jewish crowd he had targeted - that, too, is a miracle.

As was an episode recounted in a book about Klaus Barbie, the infamous "Butcher of Lyon" (the title in fact of the book, by Brendan Murphy, Empire/Harper & Row, 1983):

In 1943, after more than three years of German control over France, the Great Synagogue of Lyon continued to function. That December 10, a Friday, the Lyon Milice, the Vichy government's shock troops, decided it was time to end the Jewish worship.

The synagogue's rabbi survived the war to tell how a member of the Milice quietly entered the rear of the sanctuary that night during Sabbath services. Armed with three hand grenades, he planned to lob them into the crowd of standing worshippers from behind, and to flee before the explosions. After quietly opening the door, he entered the room unnoticed by anyone but the rabbi, who was standing facing the congregation, and pulled the pins.

What the intruder saw at that moment, though, so shocked him that he froze wide-eyed in his tracks, barely managing to toss the grenades a few feet before fleeing. Several worshippers were injured by shrapnel but none were killed.

What had so flabbergasted the Nazi was the sudden, unexpected sight of his intended victims' faces. The congregation had suddenly, as if on cue, turned around as one to face him.

Because the would-be mass-murderer had entered the shul precisely at "Bo'i b'shalom," the last stanza of the liturgical poem Lecha Dodi, when worshippers traditionally turn toward the door to welcome the Sabbath.

We are certainly enjoined to do what we can, using all means at our disposal, to fight evil. And world leaders are right to consider the full gamut of approaches for dealing with a belligerent and potentially nuclear-armed Iran.

That is all fine, good and necessary. We do well to remember, though, that whatever path may be taken by the world's nations, what ultimately will matter is G-d's assistance.

Missiles can fail. And work accidents can happen.

And, if we are deserving, they will.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Sometimes a word or set of words is just so jarring, so inappropriate or so cruel that it causes actual pain. Jewish religious law forbids such language to Jews as ono'at d'varim pain-causing words. Newspapers don't likely consider themselves similarly constricted by Jewish law, and a recent report in The New York Times offered a good example of that fact.

Pain was already well in place this past week, when the terrorist militia known as Hezbollah and reviled by civilized people the world over fulfilled its part of a deal with the Israeli government to return two Israeli soldiers it had held since 2006. Cynically refusing to say whether or not the soldiers were alive, the terrorist group seemed to take a perverse pride in "revealing" with a flourish the coffins containing the bodies of the two young men.

In return for that demonstration of grace, Israel handed over the remains of nearly two hundred Palestinian fighters and five all-too-alive terrorists it had captured. One of them, of course, was Samir Kuntar, who in 1979 landed a rubber dinghy on the seashore of the coastal Israeli town of Nahariya on a mission to kidnap Israelis.

According to eyewitnesses, Mr. Kuntar invaded the apartment of an Israeli family, shot the father, Daniel Haran, in front of his four-year-old daughter Einat and then took the little girl outside where he smashed her skull against a rock with the butt of his rifle. A doctor testified that Mr. Haran's daughter had died from "a blow from a blunt instrument, like a club or rifle butt."

Mr. Kuntar later claimed to have passed out and not seen what had happened to the child, and later still denied killing her. He has never expressed remorse of any sort for killing her father and kidnapping the little girl, which he admits; and certainly not for what the witnesses and medical evidence say he did to her.

And, as we all know and had expected, he received a hero's welcome in Beirut, where Lebanon's President, Prime Minister and Speaker of Parliament all greeted him at the airport. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sent him greetings. For his part, Mr. Kuntar has vowed to continue to fight Israel in any way he can.

(The very day of the "prisoner swap" saw an Agudath Israel of America National Leadership Mission to Washington. The scores of participating delegates interacted with many Senators, Congressmen and Administration officials, several of whom remarked on the sadness born of the day's events. One Administration official, though, took heart at the stark and telling contrast of values between the determination of one side to have fallen soldiers' remains returned to their families and, on the other, the obscene celebration of murderers and murder.)

But the pain of the actual events was intensified, at least for this reader, by the first phrase of the second paragraph of a New York Times story short that day. After referencing Mr. Kuntar and the then-expected and later realized welcome awaiting him in Beirut, the paper of record duly noted that, 29 years earlier, he had floated ashore in Nahariya "to kidnap Israelis." But, the report explained, "That raid went horribly wrong."

The item went on to tell of the witnesses' accounts and medical report, but it never really got around to explaining what it was exactly that went "horribly wrong." Did The Times mean to imply that Mr. Kuntar's intentions were benign? That he somehow accidentally shot a man at point blank and smashed a little girl's head in? That he is, for some unknown reason, a victim himself of some unidentified circumstances?

A campfire that wasn't properly tended and caused a forest fire is something that "went horribly wrong." A car trip that ends in a terrible accident is something that "went horribly wrong." A fireworks display that misfires and hurts bystanders is something that "went horribly wrong."

A vicious, murderous attack on innocents, however, is an example not of something gone horribly wrong but of someone horribly evil. And to portray it as some disembodied event without a conscious cause is to rub salt into the emotional wounds of every human being who may ever have shed a tear over Daniel and Einat Haran's too-short lives and terrible deaths.

If anything went terribly wrong, it was the judgment of some editors in midtown Manhattan.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

It's easy to snickeringly dismiss the recent disclosure that the late hotelier Leona Helmsley not only left $12 million to her dog but nearly all of the rest of her estate - an estimated $5-8 billion (yes, billion) - to dogdom. No correlation, after all, has ever been evident between wealth and sanity.

More significant by far was another recent bit of animal news, the Spanish parliament's June 25 vote in support of extending the right to life and freedom to apes.

That would be great apes - orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees. (Pity the poor lesser apes and common monkeys, not to mention all the non-simians, whose rights for now remain unaddressed by Spanish lawmakers.)

The vote was the culmination of a push by an entity called the Great Ape Project, which for years has advocated on behalf of having apes accepted as closer to human than animal. The DNA of apes and humans, the group points out, is very similar. Indeed it is, although there are some 40 million differences among the two species' respective nucleotides. The group further contends that "Human blood and Chimpanzee [sic] blood… can be exchanged through transfusion." Don't try that at home - or anywhere else for that matter; each species' antigens would likely prove fatal to the other.

But leave aside the scientific rationale, real or imagined, for equating Cheeta with Tarzan. That apes resemble humans is self-evident. Just looking at a man and an ape would lead us to expect human and ape DNA to have much more in common that either species' genetic material would with that of a lizard, dog or azalea. My car has much in common with a jet plane, too (a metal body, an assortment of gauges, rubber wheels, an internal combustion engine, seats, fuel…); much as I wish, though, it cannot fly.

And neither can apes. Not literally nor by means of developing machines like those manufactured through the astounding imagination, creativity and intelligence exclusive to the human race. More important still, the human capacity to conceive of abstract concepts like time, space, war, peace, love, hate - for that matter "intelligence" itself - sets us apart qualitatively from the rest of the "animal kingdom" despite the physical similarities we share.

Most important of all, only humans can conceive of right and wrong. Or, to distill those concepts to their essence, of G-d. To be sure, we are not always mindful of our responsibilities as Divine creations. But most of us know, deeply and innately, that those duties exist, and the better among us endeavor to shoulder them.

No so, apes. As University of London Professor of Genetics Steve Jones put it: "Rights and responsibilities go together and I've yet to see a chimp imprisoned for stealing a banana."

More to the point, no one has seen a chimp morally conflicted over the prospect of committing the crime.

There are those, though, who discredit the very idea of any transcendental moral imperative, and who deny that there is any metaphysical Source for the same (or any similar spiritual dimension to human beings). They consider conscience a mere delusionary adaptation bequeathed by random evolution, and reject the idea of any essential difference between humans and animals. People, for example, like Professor Peter Singer, the Princeton University Professor of Bioethics, who has suggested that the life of a healthy pig or dog should command resources before that of a severely disabled human baby, and who has promoted acceptance of cross-species intimate congress. As it happens, Professor Singer is one of the Great Ape Project's founders; he was surely heartened by the Spanish parliament's vote.

That vote has no force of law at present - and, in any event, it has been several centuries since anyone has entertained the notion that as goes Spain, so goes the world. But we would be shortsighted to dismiss the recent development. Because it dovetails diabolically with larger societal changes taking place all around us. Unborn human life is terminated for reasons of convenience, patients in extremis are considered unworthy of care, any and all means of behavior are endorsed as nothing more than "personal lifestyles." We are, the thinking goes, mere physical creatures, not different in any meaningful way from the rest of the animal world.

Which conclusion might well liberate us even further. Why should we consider any insect our inferior, any personal behavior objectionable, any act - even murder - wrong? Without affirmation of the singularity of the human soul, society itself is rendered - in the word's deepest sense - soulless.

Please note well: Jewish religious tradition forbids causing animals unnecessary pain. The first man and woman - indeed all of humanity until Noah - were even forbidden to eat meat. But Adam was nevertheless commanded to "rule over" the animal world and, in postdiluvian times, Judaism expressly permits not only the "enslavement" of animals but even their killing for human consumption.

That commandment and that permission bespeak a clear and timely truth: Humans are qualitatively different from the rest of the biosphere, elevated by their souls and the responsibilities that attend them.

To pretend otherwise is to welcome a world where Leona Helmsley's will is unremarkable and Peter Singer's way upright.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Yes, Varda, there is a Jewish way to vote - or at least a genuine Jewish perspective to bring to political races like the current one for the American presidency.

Some Jews would assert that "voting Jewish" consists only of analyzing the respective candidates' positions or pronouncements on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, or any of a number of domestic social issues, or on Iran, Darfur or the environment.

Such analyses are certainly proper. But there is a larger context in which to place them here, an overarching Jewish principle.

A June 6 New York Sun editorial rejected attempts to link Senator Obama with odious people he has known. The editorialist noted that even American presidents who had espoused repugnant views before their elections, came afterward to act very differently from what their erstwhile views would have led anyone to expect.

Before he ascended to the presidency, for example, Harry Truman expressed deeply negative opinions about blacks, Asians, Italians and Jews; yet, once in office he greatly energized the cause of civil rights and confounded his State and Defense Departments by recognizing Israel within minutes of the Jewish State's declaration of independence. And - like Richard Nixon, another man with seemingly strong personal feelings of ill will toward Jews - he supported Israel with military supplies at a crucial juncture in the Jewish State's history.

Thus, when it comes to world leadership, it seems, it is not unreasonable to expect the unexpected. The Sun editorialized its explanation of the phenomenon: "…once a man accedes to the presidency, reality has a way of asserting itself."

The Jewish take on the unpredictability of world leaders, however, lies less in reality's self-assertion than in the upshot of a verse in Proverbs: "Like streams of water is the heart of a king in the hand of G-d" (21:1).

The traditional understanding of those words is that while all human beings are gifted with free will, there are times when Divine guidance - even Divine coercion - can play a decisive role in the actions of mortals, and in particular those of national leaders.

That is not, of course, necessarily to say that by virtue of their exalted positions such people are mere automatons, or that they are never responsible for choices they make. "Merits are brought through the meritorious," says the Talmud, "and iniquity through the iniquitous."

What it is to say, though, is that some element of Divine intercession can sometimes be at play in a far-reaching royal - or Presidential - decision.

Thus, the Torah tells us, G-d "hardened the heart" of the Egyptian Pharaoh and, centuries later, acted through King Achashverosh to grant Esther's wishes and rescue ancient Persia's Jews from Haman's hand. (The phrase "the king" in the Book of Esther, Jewish sources inform us, on one level actually means "the King," the ultimate One). There are, similarly, many more recent examples as well of national leaders acting in ways that would never have been predictable before their rise to power. It is almost as if someone (or Someone) had reached into the leader's heart and fiddled around with its contents.

When such Heavenly interventions take place, Jewish tradition teaches, they are the fruit of Jewish merits - or, sadly, the lack of the same. What matters in the end is not the leaders' pasts but rather the Jews' presents - the current state of our dedication to G-d and His will.

Which idea, of course, rather radically alters the attitude we should take, if not the calculus we should make, when we weight candidates for high office. It doesn't obviate either the need to assess their characters or positions, or the importance itself of voting - a duty that Jewish religious authorities strongly stress. G-d's intervention in human affairs does not absolve us humans from shouldering our ethical or civil responsibilities.

But from a truly Jewish perspective, the tipping point of how kings and presidents will in the end act regarding issues that matter most is the relationship of the Jewish People to the Creator. Whoever happens to be elected is of considerably less import than the critical factor: our spiritual merits.

So, yes, Varda, while there may not be a clear candidate for the Jewish vote in November, there is a clear perspective for Jewish voters to keep in mind: What matter more than our choices in the voting booth are the ones we make in our homes and our lives.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

I spent most of this past week at the annual conference of the American Jewish Press Association, which convened this year in Washington, D.C.

I always enjoy the yearly gathering of writers and editors for the opportunities they afford me - not only the professional ones but also the personal ones, the chances to meet other Jews, in particular those who are not like me. The opportunity to get to know them and hear about their work, lives and views is, to me, invaluable.

And, as always when I attend AJPA gatherings, I was happy to see my friend Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, a Jewish scholar and the editor of the Intermountain Jewish News, a Denver-area Jewish weekly - one of the few other Orthodox Jews at the conference.

He always asks me to study some Torah with him at some point over the conference, and I am honored and happy to oblige. This year was no exception.

But one particular AJPA-conference study-session we had, back in 2003, will always have a special place in my heart. The gathering that year took place in Los Angeles.

That year was when Rabbi Goldberg told me about a "special project" he was working on: an elucidation of a difficult 18th century commentary (that of the Vilna Gaon) to a complicated Jewish legal text (the Shulchan Aruch on the laws of mikveh), a project he has now completed and is publishing. We spent an hour or so analyzing one of the particular passages on which he was then working.

The next day, all the conference attendees were shuttled to a Universal Studios lot. There we heard a presentation from an official of the Shoah Foundation - which was then temporarily located at the Studios - followed by an interesting panel discussion about teaching the Holocaust in public schools.

We were walking to a dining hall on the premises where the awards dinner would take place and I found myself next to Rabbi Goldberg. Around us were actors' personal trailers (the more successful the actor, we were told, the larger the trailer); on the drive onto the site we had seen elaborate facades of period-piece buildings with nothing behind them, props for movies or television shows.

Rabbi Goldberg was excited, but not by the trailers or props. He had, he said, cracked a textual problem we had encountered the day before in the Vilna Gaon's commentary. I listened as he addressed the passage, and we discussed the resolution. As we spoke about the text, there was no doubt in my mind that its resolution was the high point of my friend's day, and of mine.

An uninitiated eavesdropper, no doubt, would have considered our conversation - about bends in pipes carrying rainwater to a basin for immersion to remove an invisible spiritual contamination - bizarre, to say the least. But to believing Jews, Torah is nothing less than truth, the mind, so to speak, of G-d Himself.

Scientific truths once thought to be the ultimate governors of the physical universe have yielded, with time and mind, to the strangeness of quantum physics. In traditional Jewish belief, the study of our tradition's holy texts affords us a glimpse of an even deeper world, conceptual light-years beyond the mundane.

As Rabbi Goldberg and I spoke, an immense irony materialized in my mind. Here we were, two Jews walking between trailers in a Hollywood studio lot, arguably the epicenter of all that is fake and phony in the world (although Washington's another candidate), a place where deception is the local currency and tinsel the stand-in for precious metals - having a discussion about an aspect of Truth itself.

I wondered if anyone had ever studied Torah in that spot. The idea that perhaps we had been the first filled me with a curious mix of pride and trepidation.

In Chassidic thought, physical things and places can be "elevated" by what is done with, or in, them. When, later that night, a cab spirited me away to the airport for my flight back to New York to be with my family for Shabbat, I smiled and shivered at the thought that my friend and I might have played a small but sublime role in a unique sort of spiritual empowerment.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

A reader asks why I haven't seen fit to address ethical concerns raised by news reports about a kosher slaughterhouse/meatpacking concern in Postville, Iowa that was the subject of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid in May, during which hundreds of illegal immigrant workers were arrested.

He is right to chide me, especially since one ethical concern - perhaps the most important one - has been all but ignored by press and pundits.

The company, Agriprocessors, has been in the news before. In 2005, an animal rights group secretly recorded scenes of unusual post-slaughter procedures that appeared inconsistent with animal welfare and asked the local District Attorney to open an investigation. He declined to do so. Nonetheless, Agriprocessors immediately changed its methods. Subsequently, renowned animal expert Dr. Temple Grandin declared her satisfaction with the changes, and the plant received excellent grades in five independent audits.

Then there were other charges over several years by local authorities of violations of environmental and safety laws. Fines were levied and the plant made the necessary changes.

What has seized the public's attention, however, was the recent raid on the facility, said to be the largest such ICE action ever. Some of the illegal immigrants arrested, moreover, subsequently accused their erstwhile employer and supervisors of a host of crimes, including exploitation, abuse and illegal drug production.

Jewish reaction came fast and furious. The Conservative movement urged kosher consumers to consider forgoing meat produced by Agriprocessors; a Reform leader called for investigations of all kosher slaughterhouses; a liberal Orthodox group circulated a boycott petition aimed at the concern; well-known activists like Ruth Messinger, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Avi Weiss signed it; and Jewish newspapers and blogs buzzed with outrage at Agriprocessors and its owners.

The ethical offense I see here is a different one. It violates something not only rooted in Judaism but part and parcel of American jurisprudence and respectable journalism as well. It is called the presumption of innocence.

I don't know if the violations of regulatory laws on Agriprocessors' record are unusual for plants of its type and size. But whether they are or are not, the firm corrected whatever needed correcting.

Which brings us to the recent raid, about which we know three things: 1) Illegal aliens presented forged documents to obtain employment at Agriprocessors, 2) Some of those workers subsequently leveled complaints against the company and 3) The company has stated that it had no reason to doubt the workers' documentation and has vehemently denied all the workers' charges.

Yet, the petition-circulating Orthodox group has judged Agriprocessors guilty of "knowingly exploiting undocumented workers," and deemed the situation a "desecration of G-d's name." A self-described "leading progressive Zionist movement" has called on Jewish organizations to "avoid serving Agriprocessors products at their kosher functions' and expressed shock at how "a company devoted to selling… kosher meat can be so inhumane to the people working for it." A well-read Jewish blog has demanded that the company "make legal all those people whom they've brought in illegally, since they deliberately sought out illegal workers so that they could be treated with less care." A Conservative cantor sermonized about how wrong it would be to "dismiss the events in Postville." A Reform rabbi demanded to know "what it mean[s] to label something as 'fit and proper' that hurts people, exploits people or was produced cruelly."

Neither I nor Agudath Israel of America has any connection to Agriprocessors. And for all we know, it may yet be shown that the firm indeed knowingly hired illegal aliens. Or that it mistreated them, or that it was a front for a drug operation, a neo-Nazi group or a baby-cannibalizing cult. All under the eyes of the federal inspectors present at the plant at all times.

But unless and until some wrongdoing is actually proven, not merely suspected or charged, no human being - certainly no Jew, bound as we are by the Torah's clear admonition in such matters - has any right to assume guilt, much less voice condemnation or seek to levy punishment.

To be sure, a Jewish business operating in bad faith, violating the law of the land or mistreating its employees deserves tochacha, halachically appropriate criticism. Its actions violate the Torah and carry great potential for "chilul Hashem," or desecration of G-d's name. But, as the Rabbinical Council of America rightly noted in a statement about Agriprocessors, "in the absence of hard facts," no one may "rush to premature judgments… or impute guilt…"

It's not at all clear why so many Jewish groups, clergy, papers and pundits are so energetically railing against Agriprocessors in the wake of the recent government raid. The righteous indignation has the smell of adolescent excitement at the discovery of a new "noble" cause. Whatever the motivation, though, until the facts are actually in, the armchair ethicists would do well to give some thought to the Jewish ethic they somehow managed to miss.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

"Tonight I humbly ask forgiveness of the Jewish people for every act of anti-Semitism and the deafening silence of Christianity in your greatest hour of need during the Holocaust."

Those words were spoken before a crowd of several thousand Jews attending an AIPAC Policy Conference in March, 2007. The speaker was Pastor John Hagee, the evangelist who heads the group Christians United for Israel - the very same Pastor Hagee whom Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie now accuses of "insult[ing] the survivors" of the Holocaust.

Rabbi Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, was referring to a speech Pastor Hagee made about a decade ago, about Jeremiah's prophecy that G-d would one day "bring the Jewish people again unto their land that I gave unto their fathers" (16:15). In the next verse G-d proclaims that He will send "many fishers" and then "hunters." The latter word was interpreted by Mr. Hagee as referring to Hitler, leading the pastor to regard the Holocaust as part of a Divine strategy to move Jews to the Holy Land.

One needn't agree with the pastor's take on history; or accept his assumption that simple people can identify events with prophecies; or even consider him to be in command of the facts (in his speech, he has Theodore Herzl, a resolutely secular Jew, invoking Divine command as the reason Jews should move to Palestine). But nothing in fact could be more Jewish than to accept that, no matter how inscrutable, G-d is just; and that as we look into the maw of tragedy we are to look inward as well.

And so, while the Reform rabbi may have seen the Christian minister's words as "an affront" to those who perished in the Holocaust, I saw only an attempt, imperfect but without malice, to discern the fulfillment of a Jewish prophet's words in recent history.

It is possible that Rabbi Yoffie's harsh judgment of Pastor Hagee's sermon reflects a broader disconnect between the two gentlemen. The Reform leader has long disdained the pastor's politics. Hagee, after all, is a social conservative, believes that Iran should be militarily disabled and strongly opposes a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. As such, his position profile is something of a reverse image to that of the Reform movement.

The Jewish clergyman might also have resented the Christian one's reference, earlier this year at a Reform temple in Los Angeles, to the object of Christian veneration as "a Reform rabbi" (intended as a compliment, no doubt).

But one suspects that what most profoundly divide the two clergymen are issues of theology. It is the pastor's belief, but apparently not entirely the rabbi's, that: The Torah is the word of G-d ("Truth is not what you think it is. Truth is what the Torah says it is"); G-d chose and charged the Jewish People with heeding His laws ("[The Jews are] the chosen people, a cherished people… with an eternal covenant that will stand forever"); and the Torah explicitly warns us of the repercussions of forsaking our mission.

That latter thought is in fact recalled at each Jewish festival, when Jews include in their prayers the words "Because of our sins were we exiled from our land…" It is, moreover, the dominant motif of the liturgy of the annual Jewish mourning-day, Tisha B'Av.

As it happened, the very Sabbath following Rabbi Yoffie's rebuke of Pastor Hagee, Jews the world over read one of the two portions of the Torah that relate how the Jewish People's refusal to honor their holy mission will result in the loosening of the reins holding evil at bay. The paragraphs speak of punishments so terrible they are read in an undertone. But they nonetheless must be read, audibly and carefully, because they speak to most important Jewish fundamentals: that the Torah's laws are real, and that it is built into the very fabric of the world that the Jews must heed them. Those who do evil, Pharaoh, Hitler, et al, are fully culpable for their acts - "Merits are brought through the meritorious," says the Talmud, "and iniquity through the iniquitous" - but calamity is not causeless.

It would appear that Rabbi Yoffie does not accept these truths. He believes, as he has written, that Jews "must examine each mitzvah [Torah commandment] and ask the question: 'do I feel commanded in this instance…?'"

Thus, at a recent Reform convention, he could disparage what he called "the Shabbat of eighteenth-century Europe… an endless list of Shabbat prohibitions," and proudly recall how "we fled that kind of Shabbat, and for good reason."

Many of us Orthodox Jews tend to not be comfortable with Christian evangelists. Most, after all, want Jews to accept Christianity, which a Jew is enjoined against doing, even on penalty of death. Although Reverend Hagee has clearly stated that he has no such designs, he nonetheless remains a Christian evangelist. And for Biblical interpretations, we Jews look elsewhere.

At the same time, though, an inescapable irony emerges here:

Interpretations of Biblical prophecies aside, the pastor's approach to Torah (that it is true), Jews (that they are chosen to serve G-d) and history (that it is Divinely guided) is the Jewish one; and the rabbi's, tragically, is not.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Once upon a time, Jews who found Judaism cumbersome simply declared the Torah obsolete and went about their lives as they pleased. They weren't inclined to intellectual contortions.

Some "progressive" Jews today, though, choose instead to twist and torture the Jewish canon, in an attempt to force it to "yield" what they wish it actually did. In a way, their reluctance to just jettison the Torah and Talmud is admirable. Other words, though, come to mind for their merciless manipulation of the Jewish religious tradition.

A recent example of such intellectual anarchism is Hillel. The campus organization, that is, not the Talmudic sage who, while he was an exemplar of equanimity and tolerance, had harsh words for Jews who arrogate to "exploit the crown" - i.e. misuse the Torah for personal purposes (Avot, 1:13).

"Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life" maintains a presence at more than 500 campuses throughout the United States and Canada and aims to "inspire every Jewish student to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life."

If that final phrase read "contemporary mores," a recent Hillel publication entitled "LGBTQ Resource Guide" might make sense. It is intended, after all, in its own words, to make "all Jewish students, of all sexual orientations and gender identities" feel comfortable with their choice of lifestyle. But the term "Jewish life" is simply not sufficiently expansive to include behavior that has been unarguably condemned by Jewish sources throughout the ages.

The publication itself is in equal parts self-righteous and silly. Among its offering of "Selected Jewish Texts Useful for Creating Queer Jewish Ritual" are fun-house mirror versions of Biblical laws and narratives, all imaginatively engineered to erase disapproval of certain behaviors and to imply that great Jewish personages lived in, or emerged from, various closets. Wearing its ignorance brightly on its sleeve, the "Resource Guide" risibly mangles its references. It mistransliterates words (like "v'nigeid" for "v'nigein") and invents others from whole cloth ("to'arish"). At one point, it identifies Chira, Judah's father-in-law, as his wife.

The clumsy attempts at Biblical revisionism are bad enough. Even more disturbing is the propagandists' next step: demonizing those who dare to uphold authentically Jewish values.

To that end, they refer to "religious conservatives" - presumably those who take Leviticus 18:22 and centuries of oral Jewish tradition seriously - as "purveyors of hate"; and offer up new liturgy, like a refurbished "Al Hanissim" ("On The Miracles") prayer. The original Al Hanissim is recited on the Jewish holidays of Purim and Chanukah - the latter, as it happens, commemorates the refusal of Jews to capitulate to the mores of the dominant culture. The "LGBTQ Resource Guide" version of the prayer celebrates instead the "dignity and justice" due "lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people." And it goes on to deride those who "hate us in the name of [G-d]" and "rose up to victimize us, pathologize us, brutalize us, and erase us."

The prayer-parody then thanks the Creator for having "fought alongside us, vindicated us," and "[given] us the courage to stand together… the strength… to be who we are and to love whom we love…"

Jews committed to Jewish tradition (the original, not the "new-and-improved" version) do not hate those who violate the Torah out of carnal desire. And they certainly don't "pathologize" or brutalize them. On the contrary, countless men and women challenged by predispositions to behavior condemned by the Torah have approached Orthodox rabbis and been treated with great concern and assisted in facing up to their special challenges. But no, we do not kowtow to the Zeitgeist, nor are we intimidated by its proponents. We do not apologize for our embrace of Judaism's eternal truths.

That a major Jewish organization - one pledged, no less, to "inspire" Jewish students "to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life" - has chosen to vilify us, and to glorify what the Torah considers sinful, should deeply disturb all Jews who care about Judaism - and should make us think.

During the years my family and I were privileged to live in Providence, Rhode Island, I happily gave of my time to the Brown University Hillel. The local Hillel provided services (prayer and otherwise) to a broad variety of Jewish students from Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design.

The classes I was privileged to teach attracted young people from Orthodox and non-Orthodox backgrounds - and interacting with them all was a wonderful experience. The Reform rabbi who served as the Hillel House director was always friendly and grateful for my participation. To the best of my knowledge, he never spoke disparagingly of Orthodoxy. If he considered my belief in the truth of the Torah and the sacrosanctity of its laws to be objectionable, he certainly never voiced his feeling; Hillel, after all, was about providing Jewish students with Jewish resources and Jewish learning.

Today, though, it seems that Hillel has changed. By sponsoring and distributing a document that actively celebrates what the Torah considers iniquitous and that demonizes those who stand up for Jewish truths, it has blatantly betrayed its trust.

All Jews who seek to discern G-d's will from His Torah, not try to impose their own upon it, should let Hillel's leaders know that the organization has gone too far, that it has insulted the memory and the admonition of the Talmudic sage it claims to revere, the great rabbi whose name it claims as its own.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

An amusing pair of letters to the editor appeared in the New York Times Book Review on April 13, responding to a review of a book about the science of human reproduction.

Both letters were withering critiques of the illustration that accompanied the review, a graphic of a large, oddly shaped, complex organic molecule, featuring atoms of various elements and bonds of many sorts. One of the letter-writers, a professor of chemistry, sniffed that the graphic contained a "dozen brazen errors" and deemed it "a lesson in aberration." The second, a graduate student in chemistry, denounced the drawing as "nothing short of atrocious" and upped the error count to more than two dozen.

It must have been difficult for the editors to quash the urge to respond mockingly, but somehow they managed understatement. "Our correspondents' knowledge of chemistry," they wrote, "may have kept them from noticing that the molecular entity [depicted]… spells out a familiar three-letter word."

The letters and response are entertaining evidence for how limited scientists can be in negotiating the world outside their labs. It is a truism brought to mind too by the recent sale at auction of a 1954 letter written by Albert Einstein, in which the brilliant physicist described Judaism as "like all other religions, an incarnation of the most childish superstitions." The letter, which fetched $404,000 from an unidentified buyer, also scoffed at the idea of the Jews as a chosen people.

In a 1950 letter, Einstein called himself a "deeply religious man" - in the sense that his mental exploration of the universe had provided him "a knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate… the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms." Yet, in that same letter he claims to be "agnostic" about - i.e. neither affirming nor denying -the existence of a Supreme Being.

So Einstein, awe-filled as he was by creation, rejected his religious heritage. Or maybe not. In a 1940 paper in Nature, he was not as dismissive as in the later, expensive, letter. In that paper, he admitted that "the doctrine of a personal G-d interfering with natural events could never be refuted… by science, for [it] can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot."

As Oxford professor emeritus of science and religion John Brooke recently noted, "Like many great scientists of the past, [Einstein] is rather quirky about religion, and not always consistent from one period to another."

What is more important, like many great scientists, when he wandered afield - in his case, from physics to metaphysics - he easily got lost.

The celebrated University of London Professor of Psychology H.J. Eysenck put it bluntly. "Scientists," he wrote, "especially when they leave the particular field in which they have specialized, are just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else, and their unusually high intelligence only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous…"

"Pigheaded" doesn't seem like an adjective suited to Einstein, even rambling outside his field of expertise. Wrongheaded, though, might not be terribly off the mark.

Take his political philosophy. The thinker who presented the world with the subtle brilliance of the General and Special Theories of Relativity was a resolute socialist, considering capitalism to be "a source of evil." He lobbied to end American nuclear testing and advocated supplying the United Nations with nuclear weapons. He insisted that a Marxist be appointed the president of a university to which he was to lend his name. (And when his partner in the enterprise objected, Einstein refused to be associated with the school, which became Brandeis University.)

Not that there's anything wrong with Marxism, of course. No, wait! There is! Wasn't that the political system that brought us the Soviet Union and its gulags, East Germany and the Berlin Wall, the curtailment of human rights in the People's Republic of China and the cruel deprivation of the citizenry in North Korea? No, not so smart, that Einstein, at least not regarding politics.

Not regarding G-d and Judaism either. Like his forbear Abraham the Jewish patriarch (as described by Jewish tradition), the professor perceived the impenetrable "profoundest reason and… most radiant beauty" of the physical universe and was filled with wonder. But, unlike Abraham, Einstein did not come to recognize what it all pointed to, and what it required of him.

That latter point is key. Jewish ethical texts explain that only one who has overcome the human desires and imperfections of character with which we are all born can perceive the Divine clearly. The rest of us are hampered by the little voice in the back of our heads - not physically audible but clearly heard - that reminds us how confronting our responsibility to the Creator may seriously interfere with our personal wants. It is telling that many brilliant people - and Einstein is, sadly, no exception here - who were atheist or agnostic were not beacons of morality in their personal lives and relationships.

So it is ironic that Einstein considered religion "childish." What prevented him from not only understanding light but seeing the Light may well have been his own childishness, the self-centeredness that he retained from babyhood.

Abraham transcended himself and so, fathoming nature's sublimity, he perceived Divinity. Sadly, Einstein saw the pattern, the beauty, the subtlety and the power, but, humanly flawed, he missed the big picture.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

My computer cautions me against fooling with certain manufacturer-determined system settings. Doing so, it warns, could create serious problems.

Riskier still is messing around with Judaism's system-settings, determined by the ultimate Manufacturer.

That lesson might be the one being learned the hard way by contemporary Jewish religious movements which, unconstrained by the Jewish religious tradition, chose years ago to remove the slash that Jewish tradition places diagonally through the equal sign flanked by "men" and "women."

Both genders, of course, are equally important to G-d. Women should be paid equal amounts for equal work on a par with men, and they should be respected no less than males. But pretending that men and women are identical and interchangeable in their life-roles - the much-cherished "egalitarian" approach - not only offends Jewish tradition, it may bode demographic disaster.

A soon-to-be-released report entitled "The Growing Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life," by Brandeis University sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman, will present statistical evidence to confirm what has been widely suspected in recent years: males in non-Orthodox communities are opting out of religious activities. Professor Fishman fears that as non-Orthodox Jewish men become increasingly estranged from religious and communal life they are more likely to intermarry and become "ambivalent at best, if not downright hostile to Jewish tradition."

Could the exodus of non-Orthodox men from communal religious participation have some relationship to "progressive" Jewish groups' efforts to erase the idea of gender roles in Judaism?

I don't mean that non-Orthodox men feel insulted, having been displaced by their female counterparts in practices and positions that were once their lot. No, I mean something more subtle: that messing up the system settings, well, messes up the system.

Roles are part and parcel of Judaism. Just as, among Jewish men, Cohanim and Leviim have prescribed roles, so are there roles that are gender-specific. Some Jewish women were led to believe that a title or public "privilege" would somehow ennoble them, that a tallit or kippah would render them more important or worthy. Others, however, more in touch with Torah, regarded the "equality" campaign with curiosity and just resumed the vital business of their Jewish lives.

The Talmud (Ketuvot 67b) tells of a great scholar, Mar Ukva, who, each day after study, would surreptitiously leave some coins near the door of a poor person in his neighborhood. One day, Mar Ukva stayed late in the study hall and his wife came to accompany him home. Together they walked, making Mar Ukva's usual detour to leave the coins in the regular place. As he began to place the coins, the poor man approached the door. The couple, realizing they would be spotted and wanting their charity to be (as is best) anonymous, took flight; the poor man, wanting to identify his benefactors, gave chase.

The couple ducked into an excellent, if unusual hiding place: a large outdoor oven. Unfortunately, it had recently been used and was still hot. Mar Ukva felt his feet begin to burn. His wife, noticing his discomfort, told him "Put your feet on top of mine," which he did. She did not seem to feel the heat. And thus they successfully evaded their pursuer.

After the incident, Mar Ukva was depressed over the fact that he had not merited a miracle as had his wife. She, though, understood. "Don't you see?" she explained. "I'm in the house so much more than you, so I have many more opportunities than you to be charitable toward the poor who come to our doorstep. And the food and drink I give them can be enjoyed immediately, unlike the money you give. And so, with regard to charity, my merit is greater than yours."

Mrs. Ukva thus conveyed a quintessential Jewish attitude: What counts over our years on this earth is not the prominence we acquire but the merit we achieve; not our particular roles, but what we do with them. It was precisely her "limited" role as a Jewish woman - a homemaker and child-rearer - that had allowed Mar Ukva's wife to merit a miracle denied her scholarly husband.

The concept is really not so strange. Is the undercover agent less important than the foot soldier? The bass player than the drummer? The researcher than the surgeon? Whether roles are loud or quiet, prominent or behind-the-scenes, has no bearing at all on their ultimate value.

Jewish women can choose to embrace contemporary society's game-playing in the guise of egalitarianism and squander their specialness. Or they can answer life's "role-call" with a resounding, Abrahamic, "Here I am!"

By portraying Judaism's assignation of special roles for men and for women as offensive, and selling Jewish women the idea that their traditional Jewish roles are raw deals, the non-Orthodox movements skewed Judaism's system-settings. They may even have undermined their own futures. What's certain, though, is that they deprived their followers of a vital Jewish truth.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Stephen Schwarzman is a very wealthy man. And a very generous one.

The CEO and co-founder of The Blackstone Group, a New York investment bank, recently made the largest unrestricted gift to any New York cultural institution: $100 million, to the New York Public Library.

Mr. Schwarzman may well have made gifts to Jewish causes too. Although his current wife is not Jewish and their marriage ceremony was presided over by both a rabbi and a priest, many intermarried Jews maintain relationships to the larger Jewish community and its institutions. The $100 million, though, is going to the public library.

Untold millions of Jewish philanthropic dollars, sums to spin the head of those of us who think in $20 bill denominations, have similarly been donated to causes that, worthy though they might be, do not address needs exclusive to the Jewish community.

Those needs include the Jewish poor, who not only actually exist but comprise a sizable subset of some communities. In New York, fully 145,000 Jews are classified by the government as poor, and another 375,000 as "near poor." There are considerable numbers of impoverished Jews in other American cities as well, and in Israel and Europe.

Then there are Jewish day schools and yeshivot that subsist on shoestring budgets, forced to pay subsistence salaries - if that - to their teachers and staffs. And, of course, the myriad worthy Jewish nonprofit organizations that oversee social, educational and cultural projects, and rely on the donations of individual Jews to serve the community.

Yet, as in the case of Mr. Schwarzman's recent gift, the vast majority of private Jewish philanthropy benefits secular institutions like libraries, universities and museums.

According to a 2007 paper, "Mega-Gifts in Jewish Philanthropy," written by Gary A. Tobin and Aryeh K. Weinberg and published by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, more than 90% of Jewish individual "mega-gift" dollars over the years 2000-2003 were directed to just such entities. Health and medical causes came next. Jewish causes netted approximately 1%.

The strongly Jewishly-identified part of the Jewish community certainly has its own members of means, and they are generously committed to Jewish causes. But the lion's share of the fruits of American Jews' business and professional success seems to reside in less consciously Jewish coffers.

That led a thoughtful correspondent to point something out to me: While the secularist segment of the Jewish world may boast the most well-heeled philanthropists, the have/have-not equation is turned on its head when wealth is measured not in dollars but in the currency of Jewish knowledge.

In that calculus, it is precisely the fiscally unremarkable part of the Jewish population that holds the surplus, and the financially successful portion that is most impoverished.

Which thought led my correspondent to wonder further if the more Jewishly-knowledgeable world is sufficiently generous with its spiritual wealth.

It is a worthy question. To be sure, there are many impressive ventures aimed at sharing Jewish learning with Jews who might not have had previous opportunities to meet it. Such "outreach" and Torah-study groups take a variety of forms. Some produce written material; others offer classes and operate study-halls; yet others arrange telephone study partnerships or community Shabbat meals.

And then there are the websites, like,,,, (full disclosure: that one is the brainchild of my dear son-in-law) and - each of them a cornucopia of Torah-knowledge for Jews seeking it.

There is, moreover, the celebrated and successful telephone study-partner "matchmaker" Partners in Torah (; and there are the major publishing houses, like ArtScroll, Feldheim and Targum (whose url's are their names followed by ".com"), which offer excellent books in English on practically every Jewish subject under the sun.

Where there is arguably room for greater effort on the part of us observant Jews, though, is on the personal level. Opportunities abound in many of our lives for sharing Jewish knowledge - or, at very least, information about resources like those mentioned above - with Jewish relatives, neighbors and co-workers who may not have had the benefit of a Jewish upbringing.

And there are invitations, too, to be offered - for Shabbat or holiday meals, to attend synagogue services or lectures or Jewish celebrations together. Offering an experience of the vibrancy of contemporary observant Jewish life is the single most generous gift any Jew could possibly give another.

So, whether or not material wealth is flowing from the materially successful secular Jewish sphere to less affluent parts of the Jewish community, there is no reason why spiritual wealth should not flow freely from the latter to the former.

Who knows? my correspondent wonders further. Maybe more determinedly sharing such intangible but meaningful possessions will not only yield personal benefits to the Jewish recipients but constitute a merit for the economic wellbeing of Jewish institutions and charities. Addressing the imbalance in Jewish knowledge, in other words, could be the act of generosity to help trigger a positive change in the focus of philanthropists.

The thought is intriguing but moot. Reaching out to other Jews is the right thing to do.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Even before Senator Barack Obama unequivocally denounced Reverend Jeremiah Wright as the loon he is, I was willing to take the senator's word for the fact that his erstwhile pastor's rantings about America, the Middle-East, the September 11 attacks, Louis Farrakhan, AIDS and white people do not reflect Mr. Obama's own feelings.

What pained me then, though, and still does, is the tragic subtext of Pastorgate - that the sort of rank idiocy that was spewed from the pulpit at Chicago's Trinity Church may not be unusual in churches that cater to African-Americans. Senator Obama's statement, back when he still sought to preserve some of his pastor's dignity, was telling. "I can no more disown [Wright]," he said, "than I can disown the black community." Did he mean to in some way equate the two?

Well, Wright certainly did. On his talk-show vanity tour, he boasted that "This is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright. It is an attack on the black church." The same sentiment was expressed by Wright's successor at the church, Reverend Otis Moss 3rd, who said: "You cannot caricature Rev. Wright. This is an attack on the collective black church." The first assertion, although in a sense Mr. Moss may not have meant, is undoubtedly true; no caricature could convey Wright's lunacy more vividly than the thing itself. As to the second, we can only hope it is not so.

That the Detroit NAACP - a branch of an organization traditionally empowered by mainstream civil rights advocates, including many religious men and women - saw fit to invite Wright to address its recent forum is not encouraging.

I spent my childhood in a racially mixed neighborhood; one of my best friends was a black boy a bit older than I. Junie and I would wrestle, play ball and ride our bikes on the rocky hills near where we lived in Baltimore. We had "kid to kid" conversations, too. He learned a lot about how religious Jews lived, and I learned things from him too. (Quite the critical thinker, he once knit his brow when we passed a local synagogue advertising the availability of High Holiday seats for purchase, and asked me incredulously, "You gotta PAY to PRAY?" It was a good point.)

Another black presence in my formative years was Lucille, our "cleaning lady." She would come to my parents' modest home once or twice a week and help my mother with ironing and housekeeping. We children, following our parents' example, always treated Lucille with great respect, and, not to be cliché, she really was in many ways part of the family. My mother, may her memory be a blessing, would serve her lunch each day she came. And when Lucille grew older and unable to do any real work, my mother, mindful of our housekeeper's financial neediness, made a point of continuing her "employment," having her come over and wipe off a counter or two, so that she could be given her wages - and lunch, of course - as compensation, not charity.

Then there was Dhanna, the librarian in Providence, where my wife and I raised our children, who was so kind to them during their frequent visits to the public library, always smiling at them, helping them find what they were looking for and proudly placing the artwork they produced for her on her desk for all to see. And Desi, our own young daughters' friend from those years, who became quite conversant with the laws of kashrut and Shabbat.

To be sure, I have had unpleasant encounters with blacks. Like in my youth, when a group of boys who had asked my classmates and me to join our baseball game, once at bat, decided to turn the Louisville Sluggers on us. Or the "Heil Hitler" that one teenager delighted in shouting at my father and me when we walked to the synagogue. Even today, I come across the occasional anti-Semite of color.

But more than the occasional pale-faced one too. There are good and bad people in every population. Mindful of the Talmudic imperative to judge "all men favorably" (Avot, 1:6), I have never measured any human being by any yardstick other than his own words or deeds. And my wife and I always sought - and I think successfully - to instill that attitude in our children.

Mere months ago, I would have imagined that preachers in black churches speak to their flocks about serving G-d and living moral lives, about humility, self-respect and love. And maybe most do. But the current presidential campaign's sideshow of "Wright stuff" has been sadly educational. If even a minority of black church leaders are of the Trinity mold (both the word's senses intended), feeding their congregants the sweet poison of suspicion and hatred, the dream of a truly color-blind society will have been set back a century - even if an African-American is elected to the very highest office in the land.

And, of course, as elsewhere in the world, the general anti-American and anti-white ravings of black religious leaders like Wright and Farrakhan exhibit an undercurrent of anti-Israel sentiment - today's "respectable" proxy for anti-Semitism. The latter famously sneered at Israel's "dirty religion" (he meant Zionism, he later clarified helpfully). And the former saw fit to include in a church newsletter an Arab writer's charge that Israel and South Africa "worked on an ethnic bomb that killed Blacks and Arabs."

I can't imagine Junie or Dhanna or Desi tolerating such tripe. What anguishes me is that, for all I know, their children or grandchildren may be.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

It is not only the Torah's words that hold multiple layers of meaning. So do those of the Talmudic and Midrashic Sages - even the words of the prayers and rituals they formulated.

Such passages have their p'shat, or straightforward intent. But they also have less obvious layers, like that of remez - or "hinting" - unexpected subtexts that can be revealed by learned, insightful scholars.

One such meaning was mined from the Four Questions that are asked, usually by a child, at the Passover Seder service. The famous questions are actually one, with four examples provided. The overarching query is: Why is this night [of Passover] different from all the other nights [of the year]?

"Night," however, can mean something deeper than the hours of darkness between afternoon and dawn. In Talmudic literature it can be a metaphor for exile, specifically the periods of history when the Jewish People were, at least superficially, estranged from G-d. The sojourn in Egypt is known as the "Egyptian Exile," and the years between the destruction of the First Holy Temple in Jerusalem and its rebuilding is the "Babylonian Exile."

"Why," goes the "'hinting' approach" to the Four Questions, "is this night" - the current Jewish exile - "different" - so much longer - than previous ones? Nearly 2000 years, after all, have passed since the Second Temple's destruction.

In this reading, the four examples of unusual Seder practices take on a new role; they are answers to that question.

"On all other nights," goes the first, "we eat leavened and unleavened bread; but on this night… we eat only unleavened." The Hebrew word for unleavened bread, matza, can also mean "strife." And so, through the remez-lens, we perceive the first reason for the current extended Jewish exile: personal and pointless anger among Jews. The thought should not puzzle. The Second Temple, the Talmud teaches, was destroyed over "causeless hatred." That it has not yet been rebuilt could well reflect an inadequate addressing of its destruction's cause.

The second: "On all other nights we eat all sorts of vegetables; but on this night, bitter ones." In the Talmud, eating vegetation is a sign of simplicity and privation. Amassing money, by contrast, is associated with worries and bitterness. "One who has one hundred silver pieces," the Talmudic rabbis said, "desires two hundred." So the hint in this declaration is that the exile continues in part because of misplaced focus on possessions, which brings only "bitterness" in the end.

"On all other nights," goes the third example, "we need not dip vegetables [in relish or saltwater] even once; this night we do so twice." Dipped vegetables are intended as appetizers - means of stimulating one's appetite to more heartily enjoy the forthcoming meal. In the remez reading here, such "dipping" refers to the contemporary predilection to seek out new pleasures. Hedonism, the very opposite of the Jewish ideal of "his'tapkut," or "sufficing" with less, is thus another element extending our current exile.

And finally, "On all other nights, we sit [at meals] at times upright, at times reclining; this night we all recline." During other exiles, the "hint" approach has it, there were times when Jews felt downtrodden in relation to the surrounding society, and others when they felt exalted, respected, "arrived." In this exile, according to the remez approach, we have become too comfortable, constantly "reclining." We view ourselves at the top of the societal hill, and wax prideful over our achievements and status.

Thus, the Four Questions hint at four contemporary Jewish societal ills that prolong our exile: internal strife, obsession with possessions, hedonism and haughtiness.

However one may view that "hint" approach to the Seder's Four Questions, looking around we certainly see that much of modern Jewish society indeed exhibits such spiritually debilitating symptoms. Arguments, which should be principled, are all too often personal. "Keeping up with the Cohens" has become a way of life for many. Pleasure-seeking is often a consuming passion. And pride is commonly taken in petty, temporal things instead of meaningful ones.

Most remarkable, though, is that the above remez approach to the Four Questions is that of Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, best known for his commentary on the Bible, the Kli Yakar.

He died in 1619. Imagine what he would say today.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Much of our Seder-night message to our children, mediated by the Haggadah, is forthright and clear. Some of it, though, is subtle and stealthy.

Dayeinu, for example.

On the surface, it is a simple song - a recitation of events of Divine kindness over the course of Jewish history, from the Egyptian exodus until the Jewish arrival in the Holy Land - with the refrain "Dayeinu": "It would have been enough for us." It is a puzzling chorus, and everyone who has ever thought about Dayeinu has asked the obvious question.

Would it really have "been enough for us" had G-d not, say, split the Red Sea, trapping our ancestors between the water and the Egyptian army? Some take the approach that another miracle could have taken place, but that certainly would weaken the import of the refrain. And then there are the other lines: "Had G-d not sustained us in the desert" - enough for us? "Had He not given us the Torah." Enough? What are we saying?

Contending that we don't really mean "Dayeinu" when we say it, that we only intend to declare how undeserving of all G-d's kindnesses we are, is the sort of answer children view with immediate suspicion, and make faces at.

One path toward understanding Dayeinu, though, might lie in remembering that a proven method of engaging the attention of a child - or even an ex-child - is to hide one's message, leaving hints for its discovery. Could Dayeinu be hiding something significant in plain sight?

Think of those images of objects or words that the mind needs time to comprehend, simply because the gestalt is not immediately absorbed; one aspect alone is perceived at first, although another element may be the key to the image's meaning.

Dayeinu may be precisely such a puzzle. And its solution might lie in the realization that one of the song's lines is in fact not followed by the refrain at all. Few people can immediately locate it, but one of the events listed is pointedly not followed by the word "dayeinu."

Can you find it? Or have the years of singing Dayeinu after a cup of wine obscured the obvious? You might want to ask a child, more able for the lack of experience. I'll wait…

…Welcome back. You found it, of course: the very first phrase in the poem. Dayeinu begins: "Had He taken us out of Egypt…" That phrase - and it alone - is never qualified with a "dayeinu." For only it refers, so to speak, to a "non-negotiable." The exodus from Egypt was the singular, crucial, transformative point in Jewish history, when we Jews became a people, with all the special interrelationship that peoplehood brings. Had Jewish history ended with starvation in the desert, or even at battle at an unrippled Red Sea, it would have been, without doubt, a terrible tragedy, the cutting down of a people just born - but still, the cutting down of a people. The Jewish nation, the very purpose of creation ("For the sake of Israel," as the Midrash comments on the first word of the Torah, G-d created the universe), would still have existed, albeit briefly.

And our nationhood, after all, is precisely what we celebrate on Passover. When the Torah recounts the wicked son's question (Exodus,12:26) it records that the Jews responded by bowing down in thanksgiving. What were they thankful for? The Hassidic sage Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein (1856-1926) explains that the very fact that the Torah considers the wicked son to be part of the Jewish People, someone who needs and merits a response, was the reason for the Jews' happiness. When we were just a family of individuals, each member stood or fell on his own merits. Ishmael was Abraham's son, and Esau was Isaac's. But neither they nor their descendents merited to become parts of the Jewish People.

That now, after the exodus, even a "wicked son" would be considered a full member of the Jewish People indicated to our ancestors that something had radically changed since pre-Egyptian days. The people had become a nation.

And so the subtle message of Dayeinu may be just that, the sheer indispensability of the Exodus - its contrast with the rest of Jewish history, its importance beyond even the magnitude of all the miracles that came to follow.

If so, then for thousands of years, that sublime thought might have subtly accompanied the strains of spirited "Da-Da-yeinu's," ever so delicately yet ever so ably suffusing Jewish minds and hearts, without their owners necessarily even realizing it.

In any event, it's an idea worth pondering.

For now, dayeinu.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The media's fascination with Orthodox Jews seems to only intensify with time. Some of us Orthodox may be discomfited by reports that television and motion pictures have come to increasingly offer up observant Jewish characters and observances; but one supposes that is simply the price of our community's growth in numbers and visibility. Feature stories, at least those that don't treat the Orthodox as some sort of freak-show exhibit, are generally unobjectionable. Legitimate news reports, of course, are fine.

One might question, though, whether some news stories are truly newsworthy, especially when they give vent to sentiments that regard Orthodox Jews as sinister or threatening.

A March 9 article in the business section of The New York Times may or may not have been journalistically justified. It was, though, thought-provoking.

The piece described how some residents of the Long Island community of Great Neck have come to feel oppressed by a growing Orthodox Jewish population in the village. The problem? Several stores have been closing on the Jewish Sabbath.

One woman lamented how, wanting to buy a box of nails one Saturday, she found the local hardware store dark. Another had a similarly disconcerting experience with a liquor store. The horror.

And so, the whispers (and comments spoken aloud to reporters) these days include phrases like "pressure from the religious community," and sentiments like the fear that the neighborhood is "going Orthodox" and being "targeted" by observant Jews.

One patron told The Times, "Everyone is entitled to practice their religion as they choose, but please don't push it on me."

"Pressured?" "Targeted"? "Push it on me"? Observant Jews who purchased homes in a suburban community are an invading force? A merchant who decides to close his business on the Jewish Sabbath is pushy? What year is this again?

Something beyond mere inconvenience, one suspects, is at work here, some resentment with roots deeper than the need to drive a few more blocks one day a week to buy some nails. The "don't push it on me" patron may have revealed a gnarled limb with another comment she made, simple and straightforward: "It annoys me no end that stores are closed on Saturdays."

Her annoyance seems visceral, its source the Sabbath itself. Or, perhaps more accurately, the fact that there are Jews who insist, even in this day and age, on its observance.

The annoyed may include non-Jews, but Great Neck has a substantial Jewish population, and it has often been the case that Jews are at the forefront of objections to the appearance of Orthodox fellow-Jews in a community. But why would any Jews feel discomfited by other Jews' honoring the Sabbath? Would they be piqued if they lived in a devoutly Christian community where merchants chose not to do business on Sundays?

What it brings to mind is the story of the Jewish fellow who found himself seated on a plane next to a bearded man wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a long black coat. Unable to control himself, the clean-shaven gentleman gives the other one a disapproving look and a long lecture about how Jews today need not look or act like their great-grandparents, how Judaism has evolved, how we Jews should be Americans first, Jews mainly in our hearts, and so on.

With a bewildered look, the bearded passenger quietly responds: "I'm Amish."

The lecturer turns crimson and apologizes profusely. "I want you to know," he stammers, "that I so respect your determination to live by the ideals of your faith and your community's traditions. It is inspiring to know that there are people who put eternal truths before society's whims and fashions…"

"Just joking," the beard interrupts, with a mischievous smile. "You were right the first time."

Such Jewish multi-personality disorder deeply disturbs some Orthodox Jews, and understandably. Why indeed should a Jewish person fully accept a non-Jew's choice to honor his faith and tradition yet resent a fellow Jew's choice to honor his own?

Maybe it's my naturally optimistic bent, but what occurs to me is that, on the contrary, something positive lies in Jewish discomfort over Jewish observance. If there are indeed Jews in the Great Neck posse, the fact that they would never even feel, much less express, chagrin over Amish folks' or Catholics' or Muslims' observance of their faiths yet are "annoyed" by Jews observing theirs can only mean one thing: they truly care about Judaism. Enough to be bothered when reminders of how Jews were meant to live intrude on the complacent comfort of their lives and puncture their consciences.

Their aggravation, in other words, is just fallout from the self-assertion of their Jewish souls.

If only they would decide to think instead of fume. Then their pain could be turned to great gain.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The "steamroller," we all know, was steamrolled. Although those whom Eliot Spitzer focused on flattening were New York State wrongdoers, he ended up being mangled by misdeeds of his own. And thereby became an object of derision and ridicule - the single greatest generator of schadenfreude since the Wicked Witch's demise evoked the Munchkins' delight.

From a Jewish perspective, should we be jumping on the badmouth bandwagon?

One rabbi I know feels we should. Speaking publicly, he called the former governor an "evil man," noting the irony of how his fall from a high peak of honor and power to ignominy came about through activity of a sort he had himself prosecuted others for doing, and stopping just short (I think) of equating him with the Purim villain Haman.

Succumbing to desires can indeed yield evil things. However, as Bruriah, the renowned wife of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Meir, taught us, it is important sometimes to distinguish between sinner and sin (Tractate Brachos, 10a). Most of us succumb, at least on occasion, to illicit personal desires - if only the desire to gossip, to react with anger, to waste time. As I told my wife and some family members, if I weren't such a "baal taava" - a hedonist - I would be a good 20 pounds lighter.

My wife (whose cooking and baking are part of the problem) responded that, well, there are succumbed-to desires and there are succumbed-to desires; they are not all the same. And, of course, she is right (as usual). And moral violations, in particular, do indeed entail evil.

But there is some relativity here, as there is in all crimes of passion. Who can really know just what it must be like to be a well-heeled, famous, ambitious man in a position of power, trotting the globe (or at least the coast) collecting kudos - enriched with currency but bereft of Jewish religious values like the ideal the rabbis of the Talmud call "the fear of sin"?

Those same rabbis, interestingly, in Tractate Berachos, 32a, use the parable of a man who pampered his son, "hung a coin purse on his neck, and stationed him at the entrance of a brothel."

"What," they asked, "can the son do so as not to sin?" Or, as we might put it: "Well, what exactly do you expect?"

To be sure, Mr. Spitzer is no boy; he is a grown man and was a public official. Much more was rightfully expected of him. After all, we must all learn to control, not be controlled by, our desires - to, so to speak, govern ourselves.

Still and all, though, the Talmud elsewhere exhorts us not "to judge another until one has stood in his place." And so, if there is any lesson to be mined from the tawdry tale of Mr. Spitzer's fall from grace, I think it may lie less in his sin than in the reaction to it. "In the downfall of your enemy," King Solomon admonishes, "do not rejoice" (Proverbs, 24:17). Even someone who has earned one's enmity does not deserve to be gloated over when he has fallen. A recognition of the irony of the former governor's political demise is certainly proper. And feelings of disappointment, even of disgust, are not out of place. But the derisive glee that arose and crashed like a tidal wave, is not so very far from a sin itself.

I find the act of a second rabbi I know to be more in line with the Jewish religious tradition. This rabbi took the time to pen Mr. Spitzer a short personal note. It conveyed the sentiment that great people, even Biblical figures, had sinned, some even in ways that, at least in some way, were a failure of moral fortitude. Those people, the writer added, were in no way barred from repentance, and the greatest among them indeed came, as a result of their falls, to change their lives for the better.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

With time, those with open eyes come to recognize that life is peppered with strange, small ironies - "coincidences" that others don't even notice, or unthinkingly dismiss.

The famous psychiatrist Carl Jung puzzled over such happenings, which he felt were evidence of some "acausal connecting principle" in the world. In a famous essay, he named the phenomenon "synchronicity."

To those of us who believe in a Higher Power, synchronistic events, no matter how trivial they may seem, are subtle reminders that there is pattern in the universe, evidence of an ultimate plan.

My family has come to notice what appears to us to be an increase of such quirky happenings in our lives during the month (or, as this year, months) of Adar.

That would make sense, of course, since Adar is the month of Purim, the Jewish holiday that is saturated with seemingly insignificant "twists of fate" that turn out to be fateful indeed. From King Achashverosh's execution of his queen to suit his advisor and later execution of his advisor to suit his new queen; to Mordechai's happenstance overhearing and exposure of a plot that comes to play a pivotal role in his people's salvation; to Haman's visiting the king at the very moment when the monarch's insomnia has him wondering how to honor Mordechai; to the gallows' employment to hang its builder… The list of drolly fortuitous happenings goes on, and its upshot is what might be called The Purim Principle: Nothing is an Accident.

The holiday's very name is taken from an act of chance - "purim" are the lots cast by Haman, who thinks he is accessing randomness but is in fact casting his own downfall. He rejoices at his lottery's yield of the month during which he will have the Jews destroyed: the month of Moses' death. He does not realize that it was the month, too, of his birth.

The contemporary Adar coincidences I've come to expect are often about trivial things, but they still fill me with joy, as little cosmic "jokes" that remind me of the Eternal. One recent evening, for example, I remarked to my wife and daughter how annoying musical ringtones in public places are, especially when the cellphones are programmed, as they usually are, to assault innocent bystanders with jungle beats and rude shouting. "Why can't they use the Moonlight Sonata?" I quipped.

The very next day at afternoon services, someone's cellphone went off during the silent prayer. Usually my concentration is disturbed by such things but this time the synchronicity of the sound only made me more aware of the Divine. Never before had I heard a phone play the Moonlight Sonata.

Only days later, my daughter saw a license plate that intrigued her. It read: "Psalm 128." What a strange legend for a car, she thought. That very night she accompanied her mother and me to a wedding. Under the chuppah, unexpectedly, a group of young men sang a lovely rendition of… yes, you guessed it.

Other times, the Adar coincidences are more obviously meaningful, clearly linked to Purim. A few Adars ago, a striking irony emerged from a new book about Joseph Stalin. It related something previously unknown: that after the infamous 1953 "Doctors Plot," a fabricated collusion of doctors and Jews to kill top Communist leaders, the Soviet dictator had ordered the construction of four giant prison camps in Siberia, "apparently," as a New York Times article about the book put it, "in preparation for a second great terror - this time directed at the millions of Soviet citizens of Jewish descent."

Two weeks later, though, Stalin took suddenly ill at a dinner party and, four days later, it was announced that he had died. His successor Nikita Khrushchev recounted how the dictator had gotten thoroughly drunk at the dinner party, which ended in the early hours of March 1. Which, that year, fell on the 14th of Adar, Purim.

This year, too, I was synchronicity-struck by an unexpected piece of Adar information. It materialized as I did research for a speech I was to give about the destruction of a small Lithuanian town's Jewish community during the Holocaust.

The most famous extant document about Nazi actions in Lithuania is what has come to be known as the Jager Report, after SS-Standartenfuehrer Karl Jager (whose surname, incidentally, means "hunter" in German; "as his name so was he": he hunted Jews). Filed on December 1, 1941, and labeled "Secret Reich Business," the report meticulously details a "complete list of executions carried out in the EK [Einsatzkommando] 3 area" that year.

It records the number of men, women and children murdered in each of dozens of towns and ends with the grand total of the operation's victims - 137,346 - and the words: "Today I can confirm that our objective, to solve the Jewish problem for Lithuania, has been achieved by EK3…"

Standartenfuehrer Jager, however, only oversaw the operation; he didn't get his hands dirty with the actual work of shooting Jews. That he left to a "raiding squad" of "8-10 reliable men from the Einsatzkommando," led by a young Oberstumfuherer called Hamman. Joachim Hamman.

May his name, and that of his ancient namesake, be blotted out, and our days be transformed, in the Book of Esther's words, "from sorrow to gladness and from mourning to festivity."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Barack Obama is black. Hillary Clinton is a woman. John McCain has hair and is clean shaven. So who's a balding, bearded Jew like me supposed to support?

If the question strikes you as silly, or worse, you haven't been paying attention to the media and pollsters. They inform us, and with ample evidence to support the claim, that large numbers of black Americans support Mr. Obama simply because of his color; many women, Mrs. Clinton because of her gender; and many Caucasians Mr. McCain, because of his - well, both.

A recent CNN headline was typical. "Gender or Race," it reads, "Black women voters face tough choices..." One of the "story highlights" of the featured article amplified: "Women are torn between voting their race or voting their gender."

Now, it's certainly understandable that blacks - and, for that matter, we persons of pallor - take pride in the fact that someone of African ancestry is a viable candidate for the highest office in the land; or that women - and men - feel similarly impressed by the fact that a female is the other candidate for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Many Jews, of course, felt no differently about a Jewish candidate - an observant one, no less - when he was a vice presidential candidate in 2004.

Such pride, though, is properly felt not over the candidates themselves but rather over our country and its citizens - for the distance traveled since the days of segregation, disenfranchisement and religious quotas. Maybe there were Jews who voted for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman in 2004 simply because of the latter's ethnicity. If so, though, they weren't exactly examples of legendary Jewish intelligence. I actually know more than a few members of the tribe who, embracing the time-honored and never unjustified Jewish trait of nervousness, pointedly voted Republican that year, out of concern that a Jew in high office would become a magnet for Jew-hatred. Most Jews, I hope, simply voted for the candidates they felt were best suited to lead the country - or, at least, the ticket they thought would best address the issues important to them. Needless to say, that is how it should be.

When it comes to charitable giving, of course, it is perfectly proper to favor causes or institutions that benefit one's family, race, gender or religious compatriots. Even supporting a candidate for office at least partly because one feels that his or her election will benefit one's particular community is fine. But voting on the exclusive basis of a candidate's skin color or gender? We have words for that: racism and sexism.

Among the Jewish religious tradition's sources for priorities in selecting public servants are the guidelines provided by the Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative Code of Jewish Law, for choosing the person to lead the prayer service on special occasions.

Jewish religious law assigns specific gender roles, and, while there have been women prophetesses and judges, women do not traditionally lead Orthodox prayer services. Among men, though, who do, the first and foremost qualification is familiarity with the service and with Scripture. Then come some interesting secondary preferences: someone who has young children at home; and someone living in poverty. The children engender a sense of personal responsibility; the impoverishment helps ensure that the candidate's prayers will be heartfelt. Then, as the list continues, we find personal piety, a good reputation among peers, modesty; and a pleasant personality. Finally, at the very end of the list, pointedly, comes "a pleasant voice."

Clearly, what counts most in a prayer leader is the knowledge and ability to do the job professionally. Then come experiences that mold sensitivity and character. It might be a leap to parallel Jewish tradition's take on prayer leaders with political candidates. But perhaps there is nevertheless some worth in the comparison.

What it would lead us voters to do would be, first and foremost, to consider the candidates' knowledge and aptitudes. Then, we would be guided to focus on "second tier" concerns. In the current campaign season, that might mean looking at Mr. Obama's background as a child of mixed race whose parents divorced, who was raised for a while by grandparents and then by a single parent; Mrs. Clinton's weathering of the brutal world of politics and a challenging marriage; and Mr. McCain's experience of imprisonment and torture in North Vietnam.

Then there would be the equivalent of a prayer leader's "pleasant voice." I'd suggest that it might translate into something similar in a candidate: eloquence in oratory. Nice, but not the most important thing.

But, just like shoe size and eye color aren't on the list of qualifications for a prayer leader, no one's list of presidential qualifications should include factors - much less as decisive ones - like race or gender.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Asked by The New York Times in 2005 what today-taken-for-granted idea or value he thinks may disappear in the next 35 years, Professor Peter Singer, the Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University's Center for Human Values, responded: "the traditional view of the sanctity of human life." It will, he explained, "collapse under pressure from scientific, technological and demographic developments."

This past January 30, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba, Canada issued a policy statement that may come to permit the professor to add "prophet" to his curriculum vitae.

In that document, the governing body of the Canadian province's medical profession directs that doctors have the final say with regard to ending life-sustaining treatment of patients - regardless of the wishes or religious beliefs of the patients or their families. It also establishes a baseline for justifying life-sustaining treatment - including a patient's ability to "experience his/her own existence" - below which a doctor is directed to end life-sustaining treatment, regardless of the wishes of the patient's family. The new policy paper has garnered much attention, and may well have ramifications throughout Canada and, conceivably, elsewhere.

Underlying the document - saturating it, actually - is the premise that ending a human life is a medical decision, not a moral one. Or, alternately, that medical training somehow confers the ultimate moral authority to pass judgments on the worthiness of human lives.

Either contention is offensive. A foundation of what has come to be called civilization is that people are not mere things or even animals, that human life has a special, sacred, nature. Historically, the right to take steps to end a life has been regarded first and foremost as an ethical issue, not a medical one. And doctors, for all their training, are no more inherently qualified to address ethical issues than CEOs or plumbers.

As it happens, the Manitoba policy goes beyond the ethical dumbing down of life and death decision-making. It actually betrays a preference for ending patients' lives. For while it gives physicians the final say (even against the family's wishes) for terminating life support, it puts the final decision (literally) in the family's hand when the family feels the patient should die and it is the doctor who feels otherwise. In Manitoba medicine, it seems, death is the desideratum.

That contention is further evident in the Manitoba policy statement's self-awareness baseline, which exemplifies the pitfalls of what might be called iatro-arrogance - or, put more prosaically, medical chutzpah.

Last year, the prestigious journal Science published a report on a young woman who was declared vegetative. For five months, she showed no signs of awareness whatsoever. Scientists, though, decided to put her in a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner, a machine that tracks blood flow to different parts of the brain and that was only developed a few years ago. When they asked her to imagine things like playing tennis and walking through her home, the scan lit up with telltale patterns of language, movement and navigation indistinguishable from those produced by the brains of healthy, conscious people. The report's authors, while stressing that the patient may still be classified as "unconscious," conclude nonetheless that she has a "rich mental life."

That young woman seemed entirely unaware of her environment. Only the development of a new diagnostic technology revealed active brain function. Is it unreasonable to wonder what future technologies might yet be developed that will detect other layers of human consciousness? Or what layers might forever elude scientific instrumentation?

And then there is the misguided assumption of medical infallibility. In Calgary last year, doctors were ready to pull the plug on Zongwu Jin, who had suffered a brain injury. After his family obtained a court order to maintain life support, Mr. Jin's condition improved markedly and he is now doing exercises aimed at helping him walk again.

More recently, doctors at Manitoba's own Grace Memorial Hospital sought to disconnect Samuel Golubchuk from the ventilator that was helping him breathe, claiming that he was unconscious and unresponsive - presumably never to recover. Mr. Golubchuk's children, Orthodox Jews whose religious convictions opposed terminating their father's life, promptly sought and obtained a court injunction. The judge in that case recently announced that there were sufficient grounds to doubt the hospital's analysis of the patient's condition, and Mr. Golubchuk's children report that he is now alert and making purposeful movements.

Neither those cases, nor scores of similar ones, seem to have given the Manitoba College of Physicians pause before arrogating to doctors the final say in matters of life and death. One thing is certain: In the wake of Manitoba medicine's new rules, physicians in that province will in the future be spared such embarrassing outcomes. Dead patients tell no tales.

Elephants sometimes do, though, albeit silently. Like the imposing one that lurked in the room where the Manitoba medical group crafted their new policy statement. It was the pachyderm that answers to the name of Professor Singer's polite phrase: "demographic developments."

We live in times when the elderly and diseased are rapidly increasing in number, and where the medical profession has made great strides, increasing longevity and providing cures for many once-fatal illnesses. Add skyrocketing insurance costs and the resultant fiscal crisis in health care, and life runs the risk of becoming less a holy, invaluable divine gift than... a commodity.

And every businessman knows how important it is to efficiently turn over one's stock, clearing out the old to make way for the new. Apparently, doctors can learn that lesson too.

Making things worse still is the great and increasing demand for transplantable organs. A doctor in California currently stands charged with injecting an incapacitated patient with inappropriate medications in order to harvest his organs more quickly. No one knows how often similar things happen - or will happen if society becomes accustomed to allowing doctors to decide when a life is no longer worth living.

What does Judaism have to say about all this? Far more than can be summarized in a paragraph or two, to be sure, but certain guiding principles can be briefly stated: Jewish religious law, or halacha, does not always insist that life be maintained; in some cases of seriously ill patients, Judaism forbids intercessions that will prolong suffering. But the active removal of connected life-support systems or withholding of nourishment are another matter entirely. Halacha requires that death be clearly established, and does not permit any action that might hasten the demise of a person in extremis.

Put succinctly: Judaism considers life precious, indeed holy, even when its "quality" is severely diminished.

Quite a different approach from that of the Manitoba College of Physicians and Surgeons. Or from Professor Singer, who has supported the termination of what he calls "miserable beings" - people whose lives he deems devoid of pleasure.

And even as grise an eminence as The New York Times has euphemistically advocated "more humane policies for easing the last days of the terminally ill" - leaving the rubbery phrases "humane policies," "last days" and even "terminally ill" for future clarification.

That may well be, as Professor Singer suggests, the wave of the future. But Judaism was born out of resistance against wrong. Abraham's rejection of paganism was what merited his becoming the forefather of the Jewish people; he was willing, in the words of the Midrash, "to be on one side of the river, while the rest of the world was on the other."

And so, Judaism today finds itself similarly standing opposite a world going mad. Amid the shouts of "Progress!", "Science!" and "Fiscal Responsibility!", Jews who care about their religious tradition must quietly, resolutely, stand the Jewish ground, and say: "No. Even a moment of human life is invaluable."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vindication is nice, but there's sometimes bitter mixed in with the sweet.

Back in October of last year, a headline in the New York Jewish Week read: "No Religious Haven From Abuse." The subheader amplified: "New study finds Orthodox women are sexually victimized as much as other American women." As I wrote shortly thereafter, first in a letter to the Jewish Week and then in a longer essay, the study found nothing of the sort.

Because of the sample it recruited, the study, in the American Journal of Psychiatry, could not and did not make any claim at all about the relative prevalence of abuse in the Orthodox and general American communities.

The study's authors themselves in fact stated as much, noting that "those who chose to participate may not be representative of the [Orthodox] population," and that the unfeasibility of obtaining a representative sample constituted a "major limitation of this study." What is more, over half the women comprising the recruited study sample were receiving mental health treatment at the time. Victims of abuse, needless to say, are more likely than others to seek counseling, and so the sample would be expected to yield a larger number of victims than one representative of the larger Orthodox community.

And so, by comparing the 25%-27% figure for American women claiming (in randomized surveys) to have suffered abuse at some point in their lives with the 26% figure yielded by the recent (self-selected and non-representative) study of Orthodox women, and concluding that "Orthodox Jewish women suffer as much [abuse] as other American women," the Jewish Week writer revealed only her own innumeracy. If anything, the similar percentages between an Orthodox group disproportionately likely to have suffered abuse and a non-Jewish random sample arguably indicate a lower rate of abuse in the former.

After daring to call attention to all that, I was roundly and strongly censured. One subsequent writer to the Jewish Week, utterly uncomprehending of the point about the number of study subjects receiving mental health treatment, claimed it indicated the precise opposite of what it did, and accused me of denying that abuse exists in the Orthodox community, although I explicitly noted in both my letter and essay that abuse exists in every community, including the Orthodox.

Another letter-writer, this one a Long Island psychologist, condescendingly sniffed that without "a knowledge of… non-parametric statistics" I simply was not qualified to address the study's findings. He too, incredibly, managed to misconstrue the entire point about the sample's disproportionate share of mental health patients. Then blogs, of course, weighed in, demonstrating with their rantings just how widespread is the misconstrual of the word "critical" in the phrase "critical thinking" as "negative" rather than "analytical."

Finally, though, several weeks later, some sanity came to reign. In a long and comprehensive article, the Director of Psychotherapy Training in the Psychiatry Residency Training Program at the University of Cincinnati, Dr. Nachum Klafter, asked by a blog to evaluate the study and the Jewish Week article, presented his conclusion that I had "correctly read the AJP paper" and that the Jewish Week writer had clearly misreported its findings.

That was followed by a joint monograph by a Professor of Psychology, a Professor of Education and Philosophy, a doctoral student in Clinical Psychology and a well-known and regarded author of essays and books on cultural issues. It stated that "to attempt to generalize from [the study highlighted in the Jewish Week article] to the Orthodox mainstream - or to draw grand comparisons between subgroups within this skewed sample - seems to be a gross misrepresentation of the data obtained."

Both of the recent papers, moreover, noted that the study's data in fact yields the remarkable (yet somehow unremarked upon by the Jewish Week) fact that the survey respondents who were raised Orthodox were 50% less likely to have experienced sexual abuse than those from non-Orthodox homes. Considering that the survey asked if abuse occurred at any point in respondents' lives, it is plausible if not likely that much of the abuse reported among those raised non-Orthodox occurred before they joined observant communities.

None of which, of course, is to deny either that abuse exists in the Orthodox community (as it does in all communities) or that all communities, including the Orthodox, have a responsibility to put effective measures into place to prevent it. But the fact of its existence in the Orthodox world is no justification for drawing unwarranted conclusions about its extent there.

I am gratified, of course, that the record regarding the study and article has been corrected. But something still grates, and, I think, for good reason.

Because all that many, if not most, of the Jewish Week's readers will likely ever remember about the entire business will be a mendacious headline. Despite all the setting straight of facts, what will remain in minds - not to mention in the eternal echo-chamber of cyberspace - will be only those deceptive, in fact slanderous, words.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

There are three distinct ways to look at school vouchers.

One is to regard them as a bogeyman threatening to destroy the American public educational system and undermine the sublime values that system instills in its students. Call that the "teachers unions" approach.

The second is to regard them as a lifeline for poor parents, a means of allowing those without means to provide their children a chance to escape failing public schools.

That was President Bush's approach in his final State of the Union address, wherein he lauded the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program Congress approved at the beginning of 2004. That enactment permitted more than 2600 of the poorest children in Washington, previously enrolled in the District's poorly performing public schools, to transfer to nonpublic schools, including religious ones, of their parents' choice. The President went on to propose a "Pell Grants for Kids" initiative, intended to help children "trapped in failing public schools" attend private and religious schools, presumably along the lines of the D.C. program.

But the reference to Pell Grants - which provide need-based grants to low-income students for postsecondary education - was somewhat puzzling. Because the Pell Grant model applied to younger students would be a reflection of the third way of approaching school vouchers.

That would be to regard them as something more than a "next stop" after a child has been sentenced to wasted years - or worse - in a failing school. To regard them, instead, as the empowerment of a fundamental parental right: the right to educate one's children as one wishes them to be educated.

Pell Grants are not just for students in failing public colleges, but for all students whose families could not otherwise afford to continue their educations. The theory is straightforward: Wealthy students have access to quality higher education, poorer ones do not. Let government do what it can to level the playing field, allowing more young people who otherwise would end up in menial jobs (or worse) become accountants, scientists, doctors, lawyers or teachers themselves - and taxpayers.

The logic of allowing for more educational choice is even more compelling when it comes to the early years of educational careers, when children's minds and morals are molded by their school experiences. Even a plan like the D.C. initiative can only be accessed by parents after their child has languished in a failing school. And when that child has been released from his or her internment, perhaps even scarred by the experience, any siblings will have to do their own time before they, too, can qualify for a better educational environment.

And is there any reason why parents - all parents - should not have the final say in where their children are educated? We readily recognize that parents in a pluralistic society like ours have a right to raise their children as they see fit, within the bounds of law, instilling in them the values they hold dear. In Judaism - and surely other belief systems and philosophies - that is not only a right but a deep responsibility. Choosing the right school for a child should be seen as an essential expression of that right and responsibility.

Education, after all, is much more than the transfer of information, much more, even, than training minds to think. It is the imparting of attitudes, ideals and values as well, particularly today, when so often both parents (when there even are two) are working (sometimes at multiple jobs), and when children (even when they are at home) are regularly left to their own devices (and those of the virtual child-molester we call television). It would be folly to deny that schools help shape a child's development. Should parents not have the final say about which ones nurture their young?

Public school advocates - including those who enjoy the option of being able to afford private schools for their own children even while opposing governmental policies that would extend that option to those less financially fortunate - say no. But they are responding from fear. Unfounded fear, to boot. The public school system qua system will only benefit from true school choice. Were all American parents able to send their children to the schools of their choice, some individual public schools might indeed wither away from lack of interest. But that's just the fate of any inferior product in the face of competition. Choices, though, are always a boon to quality, and to the consumer. Public schools that do the job they are supposed to do will surely continue to thrive.

The constitutionality of vouchers once made for interesting legal debate, but the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that the concept of providing parents educational vouchers with which to guide their children's education does not violate the Constitution. So school choice is both logical and legal.

And compelling. There is straightforward justice in empowering parents to choose how their children are educated, to exercise what is perhaps, the most important civil right of all.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above essay appeared, with a different title, on February 4, 2008 in The New York Sun.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Alighting from the Staten Island ferry at Manhattan's southern tip on my way to work February 5, I was greeted by a phalanx of stern-looking police, padded with Kevlar and armed with assault rifles. Then, suddenly, from behind me, came a loud, hoarse shout, echoed by the roar of hundreds of voices. Before me, a small army fell into formation, front guard carrying large flags, troops marching dutifully behind, determinedly heading north on Broadway. It was post-Super Bowl Tuesday, and Agudath Israel's national offices lie a few minutes' walk up the celebrated boulevard, along the parade route they call the Canyon of Heroes.

After making my way through the gathering crowd (the parade's start was still two hours away) and the peddlers of timely trinkets, past the rows of police scooters and motorcycles, the early inebriated and the cordons meant to keep celebrants from celebrated, I arrived at our offices. The front entrance to the building was blocked; I entered though the back, on another street.

After attending a long staff meeting, having just settled in at my desk, I was startled by a swell of loud, raucous cheering from the street. Thirteen stories below. Through closed windows and across a good-sized reception area. Here be heros.

A bit later in the day, after the confetti had settled, blanketing the ground, and the thousands of revelers had gone their ways, I heard a different sound in our offices. It came from the large room that serves as our synagogue for weekday afternoon services.

The previous Thursday, Orthodox rabbinic leaders in Israel and the United States had called on their followers to recite Psalms and, where possible, convene the special prayer service recited on Yom Kippur Koton, or "minor Yom Kippur," as the day before a new Jewish month begins is called. For the month of Adar I this year, that day fell out on February 5th. The rabbis' request for special prayers came from what they perceive to be a confluence of crises in the Holy Land - dangers to Jews "from both within and without." The danger without is self-evident: the mounting threats to Israel emanating from Iran and the vipers' nest of Palestinian terror groups, along with a larger world (and a world body) largely indifferent to it all.

The danger within was an attempt to tamper with the Israeli haredi community's educational system, and political deliberations "that could place entire populations of Jews into grave danger, G-d forbid - including those in the Holy City of Jerusalem."

While the Yom Kippur Koton service in our office synagogue lacked the decibels of the earlier, larger gathering along Broadway, it had its own power, born of Jews' heartfelt pleas with their Creator to forgive their sins and protect His people from harm.

Even for a connoisseur of contrasts like me, Tuesday's provided a notable one.

In this corner, so to speak, were a teeming mass of wildly jubilant human beings, enraptured by how some young men managed to run and throw and catch an oddly-shaped ball somewhat better than another group. In the other were a few dozen (joined, to be sure, by many thousands around the world) humbly asking for G-d's mercy.

Something more, though, than the differential struck me. I couldn't help but wonder if something synchronistic, maybe even meaningful, lay in the fact that the day designated by the rabbis to pray for the welfare of Israel's Jews turned out to be the one on which New Yorkers celebrated the Giants' win - in the fact that what was Yom Kippur Koton for some happened to become a joyous celebration-day for others.

Maybe I was being overly imaginative, but what occurred was that the celebration on Broadway was really, at its core, over how a situation that seemed all but lost - with an adversary seen as unbeatable and the longest of odds being placed on triumph - was turned on its head at the last minute.

As it happens, that's quite an Adar thought. The joy that the Talmud says is appropriate for the just arrived Jewish month derives from the subtle miracle of the Purim story, where all seemed increasingly hopeless yet, after Jews' prayer and repentance, turned out just fine. The odds were long ones, but they didn't end up reflecting the ends.

For believing Jews, the ends of history are clear, as improbable as they might at times seem. So perhaps it's not too fanciful to hope that Tuesday's confluence of parade and prayer proves to be a good sign - for a positive response to the latter.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Mere days before I was privileged to participate in a Washington, D.C. symposium on religious freedom in Israel, the Malaysian government threatened to withhold a Catholic newspaper's publishing permit, to punish it for having dared to use the Muslim appellation for the Creator in its Malay-language pages.

A week later, an Afghan judge sentenced a journalism student in that country to death for distributing an article critical of Islam's founder.

All in all, making the case for Israel's respect for religious rights isn't really much of a challenge.

An impressive number of students and interested others braved snowy weather to attend the January 17 event, sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University. Of the three presenters, I was last and, since the others - Knesset member Rabbi Michael Melchior and author Dr. David Elcott - did admirable jobs of covering much that lay in my prepared remarks, when my turn came I truncated my speech and focused on the increasingly restless elephant in the room.

Well covered before I spoke were the facts that Israel is both a democracy and a state with a special relationship to a religion (like many around the globe); that it is pledged, through its Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, to protect the religious rights of its citizens; and that it generally in fact does so in an exemplary manner.

There have been occasional allegations of inequities in funding for upkeep of Muslim holy places and of disproportionate appropriation of Muslim-owned land. Such issues must be addressed, of course, and have been, in Israeli courts.

To that I added that complaints by some Israeli and West Bank Muslims that the Israeli security barrier does not allow them to worship in the mosque of their first choice cannot be reasonably construed as akin to a gratuitous denial of religious rights. Such inconveniences are, while regrettable, unintentional results of legitimate security concerns.

Then I turned to the elephant - "Jewish Religious Pluralism." Leaders of heterodox Jewish movements regularly rail about the lack of official recognition of their movement's ceremonies in Israel, portraying it as a curtailment of religious rights.

In addressing the pluralism pachyderm, my "Exhibit A" was the Jewish State's other foundational document. Less than a year before Israel declared its existence, on June 19, 1947, what came to be known as the "Status Quo Agreement" was signed by the future first Prime Minister of the state, David Ben-Gurion, and other officials of the Jewish Agency, the state's precursor. In the words of Professor Harry Reicher, University of Pennsylvania Adjunct Professor of International Law: "For significant elements of the religious population… the Status Quo Agreement was the inducement to their participation in that creation [of Israel], and… it was quite fundamental to the character with which the State was stamped at its birth."

Addressed to the Agudath Israel World Organization, that document too, like the state's Declaration that would follow, pledged the state-to-be to guaranteeing religious freedom for all its inhabitants. But it went on to promise state observance of the Jewish Sabbath as the official day of rest, provision of only kosher food in government kitchens and a system of traditional Jewish religious education. And, finally, it assured that "everything possible will be done [to] avoid, Heaven forfend, the splitting of the House of Israel into two" - that would result from multiple standards regarding Jewish "personal status" issues like marriage, divorce and conversion.

Those elements were the nascent state's founders' concessions to the word "Jewish" in the phrase "Jewish State." For that phrase to have meaning, the signatories realized, credible definitions of words like "Jew" and "Judaism" were essential. From a haredi Jew's perspective, the only such workable definitions are those based on the "highest common denominator" of halacha, or Jewish religious law. A Reform Jew would presumably offer different definitions. But whatever the yardstick, if "Jewish State" is to be more than a hollow slogan, something must do the measuring,

And, as a result of the Status Quo Agreement, something - in fact halacha - indeed did do the measuring, and has been doing so for the past 60 years (not to mention the several millennia prior). That historical standard for establishing who a Jew is, and what a conversion, Jewish marriage and Jewish divorce are, has preserved a single Jewish people in the Jewish state.

Those who demand multiple standards on the grounds of religious freedom misstate the case. What they are advocating is not freedom of religion - which is alive and well in Israel - but rather a redefinition of Judaism, and the radical amendment of one of Israel's foundational charters that would result, as Ben Gurion foresaw, in the "splitting of the House of Israel into two" (or three, or four…).

Thus far, due to both the historical and legal importance of the Status Quo Agreement and the traditional bent of a large majority of Israelis, Israel's single-standard approach to Jewish religious matters (what the media, with characteristic "objectivity," prefer to call the "Orthodox monopoly") remains in place.

There are, though, threats to the delicate balance between religious freedom and Israel's core Jewish identity, in particular the State's highest court, which, under its former Chief Justice Aharon Barak, proclaimed a goal of promoting what it deems to be the "fundamental values of democracy" and has shown itself ready to, in effect, legislate by fiat (prompting influential American judge Richard Posner to call Mr. Barak an "enlightened despot").

What the Israeli Supreme Court may in future years choose to deem "enlightened" is anyone's guess. But an educated one should worry Jews - of whatever affiliation - who consider Israel's Jewish character essential to its identity, unity and future.

The havoc that can be wrought by unbridled elephants is legend.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Seven years ago, I shared the Jewish father's letter below with a number of Jewish media. In light of the increasing urgency of its subject, I offer it here again, in a slightly edited form.

Dear Sean,

I know this might sound strange coming from a father who's far from a religious Jew, but now that you're dating, there's something I need you to understand.

The single most important decision you'll ever make in life will not be about your education or career but about whom you'll marry.

Because who your wife is will determine, more than anything else in your adult life, the person you become, the family you'll raise, what you'll leave on earth when it will be time to go. I know the end of life isn't something you probably give much thought to. Not many of us do, at least not until we became sick or old enough to see it hovering on the horizon. But a final day does arrive, sooner or later, for each of us. And when it comes, very few of the things we thought made such a big difference will seem to matter at all anymore. And other things we never gave much thought to will suddenly be very important. We'll want to look back at our lives and feel that, in those areas, we pretty much did the right thing.

Sean, the right thing for a Jewish person is to marry another Jew.

Not only because our religion requires it. But because when Jews "marry out," they disrespect who they are, they are disloyal to the Jewish past and they chip away at the Jewish future.

Whether or not our family kept strictly kosher or celebrated the Sabbath or attended services often enough is all one thing. But the thought of bringing about the end of a proud Jewish line stretching back in time for centuries is something else. It's more than some religious transgression.

You never asked to be a Jew, I know. You were born one. But being Jewish isn't a burden. It's a gift. It means you are part of something bigger, much bigger, than yourself.

Each of us Jews represents the hopes of so many Jewish ancestors. Don't forget, you're not just Sean, you're Shmuel too. And even if you only used your Jewish name when you made the blessings over the Torah at your bar-mitzvah, it is still who you really are, an inheritance from your grandfather. And it was the same thing to him from an ancestor of his. You can't just ignore the meaning of something like that. It's a responsibility. All of my ancestors and your mother's, all those Jews who came before us, lived, and sometimes died to keep their Jewish identity and heritage going.

I know that love is a powerful emotion. That's exactly why I'm writing this as you begin to date. The young women you become close to will form the pool where you'll find the person you want to spend your life with. Don't give yourself the opportunity to fall in love with someone you cannot, as a Jew in good conscience, marry. And never forget that what the world calls "love" isn't all there is to a successful and happy life. Every marriage that ended in divorce or worse, after all, started in a rush of love. For a marriage to really work, there has to be not only attraction and care but shared ideals and goals. And part of a Jewish man or woman's goals has to be to take their Jewish identity seriously, and to instill it into their children.

I don't care whether the girl you marry is white, black or yellow. I don't care if she speaks English, Hebrew, Yiddish or Swahili. I don't care if she was born a Jew or became one, legally, properly, and sincerely. But if she isn't Jewish, I know there will be tears, in your mother's eyes and mine - and also in heaven.

They say these days that most Jewish parents in America don't care if their children marry other Jews or not. I hope it's not true, but even if it is, we do. Remember what I've told you many times: Being a Jew means being ready to buck the tide, to say no to others - even a lot of others - when something important's at stake. Sean, you're the future of our family. I hope you'll have the courage and the strength to do the right thing.



[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

In a 1938 essay, Mohandas ("Mahatma") Gandhi, the spiritual and political leader of the Indian independence movement, counseled Jews in Nazi Germany to neither flee nor resist but rather offer themselves up to be killed by their enemies, since their "suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy."

When all hope is lost, a Jew about to be killed "al Kiddush Hashem" - as a Jewish martyr - is indeed to reach for serenity, even happiness, at the opportunity to give up his life because of who he is. When Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, the great Lithuanian Jewish religious leader and scholar, was murdered by Hitler's henchmen in 1941, he reportedly told the students about to be killed with him that "In Heaven it appears that they deem us to be righteous because our bodies have been chosen to atone for the Jewish people… In this way we will save the lives of our brethren overseas… We are now fulfilling the greatest commandment… The very fire that consumes our bodies will one day rebuild the Jewish people."

But Jewish martyrdom is not something to be courted. And so Mr. Gandhi's advice for Jews during the Holocaust was, even if consonant with his personal beliefs, from Judaism's point of view profoundly wrong.

And Gandhi's advice was even more disturbing in light of his admission, in that same essay, that the "cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me." Jews, he said, should "make… their home where they are born." It is, moreover, he went on, "inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs."

Apples, they say, don't fall far from trees. A rotten one fell with a loud splat recently over at The Washington Post. On a weblog - "On Faith" - sponsored by that paper in conjunction with Newsweek Magazine, Arun Gandhi, a grandson of Mohandas and co-founder of the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence at the University of Rochester, opined that "the Jews today" are intent on making Germans feel guilty for the Holocaust (which he chose to spell with a lower-case "h") and that they insist that "the whole world must regret what happened to the Jews."

"The world did feel sorry," he reminded his readers, "for the episode." But "when an individual or a nation refuses to forgive and move on, the regret turns into anger."

Ah, yes, that unpleasant "episode," more than 60 years ago. And those Jews still can't bring themselves to forgive the Nazis.

Like his grandfather was, Mr. Gandhi petit-fils is also concerned with Israel. Addressing those who defend the Jewish State's security barrier and use of weapons to fight terrorism, he challenged: "[Y]ou believe that you can create a snake pit - with many deadly snakes in it - and expect to live in the pit secure and alive?"

And so the man of peace, grandson of the same, reached the conclusion that actions like Israel's "created a culture of violence, and that Culture of Violence is eventually going to destroy humanity."

Interesting. Although his own concern about Jews was not exactly their militarism, Mr. Hitler similarly saw them as jeopardizing humanity's survival. Well, whatever.

Grandson Gandhi subsequently apologized for his "poorly worded post." In the course of his apology he even took care to capitalize "Holocaust." But his apology itself, unfortunately, consisted solely of his regret at having implied that "the policies of the Israeli government are reflective of the views of all Jewish people." Many Jews, he explained, "are as concerned as I am by the use of violence for state purposes…"

Well, thank you, Mr. Gandhi. But no thanks. I cannot speak for all of the Jewish people, of course, but for my part I must decline your apology. Not because I bear you any grudge or ill will and certainly not because I am hard-hearted. I don't think I have ever rejected an apology in my life, until now.

It's not because I am blinded by some ethnic rage over the unpleasantness of that World War II episode. And not because I am a knee-jerk defender of Israel in whatever her leaders decide to do; I am not.

No, I reject your apology simply because you seem to have missed the entire point of why your original post was so offensive - frankly, revolting. It is astounding that you still don't seem to realize your insult and error.

They lie in where you directed your words. You are welcome to criticize Israeli decisions, even the wisdom of Israel's establishment itself, if you agree with your grandfather's views. But if your ultimate concerns are in fact peace and humanity's survival, then in a world where Jews are regularly attacked simply for being Jews and Israelis simply for being Israelis, where Jewish tombstones are defaced and broken, where Arab countries will not permit Israelis to enter their borders and Arab textbooks teach children to hate Jews as a matter of religious and cultural obligation, where a United Nations routinely ignores murder, mayhem and unspeakable cruelty in scores of countries but just as routinely condemns Israel for defending herself, the primary focus of your ire should have been not those living in the snake pit, but rather the snakes themselves.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Winter might conjure pleasant memories of playing in the snow, but it is hardly a season most of us would consider symbolic of childhood. We more naturally associate the "winter of life" with a time when it is only our hair, if we even have any, that is snowy.

Yet, the earliest stage of life is precisely what winter represents, according to the Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Yehudah Betzalel Loewe, 1525-1609) in his supercommentary to Rashi's on the Torah (Genesis 26:21).

There the celebrated Jewish mystic and philosopher assigns a stage of human life to each of the year's seasons. A Western mind might associate nature's annual coming-to-life in spring with childhood, the warmth of summer with youth, autumn with pensive middle age and cold, slow moving winter with life's later years - think "Old Man Winter." The Maharal, though, described things differently. He regards autumn, when leaves are shed and nature seems to slow down, as corresponding to older age; summer's warmth and comfort to represent our middle-years; spring to reflect the vibrancy and energy of youth. And winter to evoke childhood.

Winter? Childhood?

On the surface, to eyes unaided by deeper recognition, it might indeed seem strange; winter, after all, is a stark time, a season barren of activity and growth.

But the superficial image betrays the reality. When spring finally arrives each year, after all, the new leaves haven't appeared ex nihilo. The buds from which they emerge have been developing for months, the sap in the seemingly dormant trees was rising even as the thermometer's mercury was falling. The evidence of life that at last presents itself with the approach of Passover has been actively preparing its case since Chanukah. See for yourself. Go outside and inspect the leafless trees' branches. The buds may be biding their time, but they are clearly there, ready to explode with green when commanded.

Winter, in other words, evokes life's potential. And so, what better metaphor could there be for childhood, when the elements that will emerge one day as an adult are roiling inside a miniature prototype, when chaos may seem to be operative but when potential is at its most powerful? The Child, after all, as Wordsworth put it, is indeed "father of the Man."

In fact, we humans are actually compared to trees, in Deuteronomy (20:19). Even though the verse's context (the forbiddance to gratuitously fell trees during war), at least according to Rashi, implies a quizzical question mark at its end ("Is a man a tree of the field?"), other commentaries, like the Ibn Ezra, read the verse as making a straight comparison. And the mystical Jewish sources similarly see significance in the plain meaning of the words.

And so the approaching winter holiday of Tu B'Shvat (this year on January 22), the day the Talmud calls the "Rosh Hashana for trees," should make us think about the potential that can lie in apparent chaos.

It's a timely thought for other reasons too.

A month after Tu B'Shvat (two months, in a Jewish leap year like the current one) comes Purim, when we celebrate the turning of a seemingly hopeless and tragic situation into a joyous one. Esther was the bud, and when the right time came, she blossomed.

And this time of Jewish year is when the weekly Torah reading concerns the Exodus, how, in the oppressive prison that was ancient Egypt, a redeemer came of age and, at the command of G-d, brought a people to bloom.

So a conspiracy of factors pushes us to ponder the power of potential - in Jewish history (Esther and the Exodus); in the seasons of the year (those winter buds and sap); and in life (all the illustrious people who were once childish ones).

The thought might reassure and animate us, even those of us of hoary head. For what emerges from the Maharal and Jewish history and the seasons is the lesson that what matters more than how many years may have managed to get behind us is the potential we still carry within us.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Winter, when my commute home from Manhattan on the Staten Island ferry is shrouded in darkness, provides me a singular opportunity.

That's because the thousands of other commuters sailing along with me are more subdued than at other times of year. There is, of course, artificial lighting on the ferry, but the darkness outside seems to quell conversations somewhat; the boat is noticeably more subdued than when the sun sets later. And where the electric lights are most dim, in a certain part of the vessel unknown to many passengers, is where you will find me.

I use my commute to study Talmud and catch up on reading. In the winter, the study is particularly sweet in that poorly lighted, somewhat remote area, where the only other passengers are interested exclusively in napping or listening, eyes closed, to their iPods. A small, battery-operated booklight clipped to the cover of the tractate I study casts soft light onto the page, and, unless one of my neighbors is intent on annoying the rest of us by turning up the volume on his "personal" audiodevice so it sounds like an angry bee (and no doubt permanently damages his eardrums), all is quiet and dark, with the Hebrew words before my eyes drawing me in. I wouldn't come home any other way.

At an Agudath Israel national convention several years ago, Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, the Mashgiach, or dean of students, of the famed Lakewood Yeshiva (Beth Medrash Govoha), delivered an address that I often recall as I settle into my ferry-seat. His topic had been the centrality of introspection and focused study to the essence of true Jewish life, dedication to the Divine. And then he bemoaned how chronically unconcentrated we all are these days.

When incandescent lighting was first commercialized in the 1920s, Rabbi Salomon recounted, committed Jews - like the rest of the world - were enthralled with the possibilities presented by the new technology. They saw wondrous potential in not having to rely on the dim, flickering light of wax candles or oil lamps to illuminate the sacred books whose study they so cherished.

But the revered Torah personage Rabbi Elya Lopian (1872-1970), a giant of the Mussar movement that stressed striving for personal ethical perfection, was less sanguine. He told his students that the more primitive lighting to which they were accustomed, for all its drawbacks, facilitated concentration and focus. The new technology, he feared, for all of its advantages, would undermine those things.

We don't generally think of our well-lighted spaces as impairing concentration, but the logic is unquestionably there. The more informational input to the senses, the less mental focus. That is, after all, the point behind darkened arenas and spotlights. Our brains are wonderfully able to filter out much that might distract us from tasks at hand, but the extraneous information is still there even if we don't consciously notice it, background static to our contemplations. Every time I turn on my little light on my winter commute home, I appreciate Rabbi Lopian's prescience anew.

Rabbi Salomon went on to add the telephone to the list of erosions to deep thought. How often are not only our dinners but our reflections rudely interrupted by ringing or warbling, or trilling? And the more mobile the technology, he noted further, the more opportunities for our concentration to be broken. Anyone who has silently cursed his cellphone knows just what the rabbi meant.

"Something that looks like a blessing," he recapped, "can be, in fact, a disaster." The glut of available information came to mind, and the dubious marvel of multitasking. Then, moving on to the options for travel in modern times, he mused sadly, "Today we are expected to be everywhere."

How sadly true. In pre-automobile times, people were rarely if ever expected to travel beyond the confines of their immediate towns or neighborhoods. With options so limited (and towns so small), there was more time to stay put, sit still, stay focused. Many of the things that pull us, unresisting, into our cars and onto our highways, around the corner and around the world, may be worthy ones, but that cannot change the fact that they take us away - from our homes, from our families, and from study and introspection, the pillars of Jewish existence.

Rabbi Salomon was not asking his listeners to return to horses and buggies or oil lamps. He is no Luddite and has no disdain for technology. No, he is simply an exquisitely sensitive observer, someone who sees a broader picture than most of us do. He challenges us to open our eyes to what we have lost even as we have gained. The losses are tragic, even if so subtle that most of us don't even realize what we are missing.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

There was a time, not terribly long ago, when disturbed individuals bent on broadcasting angry fantasies had only soapboxes in public parks from which to rant. And respectable people knew, if only from the ranters' appearance, to keep well out of spittle's range.

Today, though, the very means of mass communication that enables so much worthy information to reach such large numbers of people at the speed of light - the Internet - has also been harnessed to spread madness, hatred, lies and (not a word to be used lightly but here entirely appropriate) evil. And so, close on the heels of the swindlers and pornographers who have colonized so much of cyberspace, have come the gaggle of electronic soapboxes known as weblogs, or blogs.

The writer of a recent article in the Agudath Israel monthly The Jewish Observer expressed chagrin at discovering the nature of many Jewish blogs. Often anonymous as well as obnoxious, some of those personal opinion-diaries, he found, display utter disregard for essential Jewish ideals like the requirement to shun lashon hora or forbidden negative speech, and hotzo'at shem ra, or slander; to show honor for Torah and respect for Torah scholars. I would have added basic fairness to the list. And truth.

There are, of course, responsible bloggers, in the Jewish realm as in others, writers who seek to share community news or ideas and observations with readers, and to post readers' comments. Some explore concepts in Jewish thought and law, others focus on Jewish history and society.

But just as an unfiltered e-mail account quickly reveals that the bulk of electronic communications are from people we would really not wish to ever meet in person, so are responsible blogs, in the Jewish realm as in the general, decidedly in the minority. And even many responsible blogs allow postings of comments from people with very different value systems. As one poster on a Jewish blog, "Joe," noted: "The whole reason people gravitate to blogs with active comment sections is because of the gosip [sic] and back and forth jabs and insults… If thats [sic] not your thing, fine, but anyone who reads or posts on a blog cant [sic] seriously claim that lashon hara bothers them."

No one knows exactly why the Internet appears to bring out the worst in people, but there is little doubt that it often does. And the cloak of anonymity seems to unleash truly dark, ugly alter egos. As a popular Jewish blog's founder told the Forward in June, "There's a lot of testosterone on the Internet, a lot of swagger… anything can happen."

Like maliciousness and mayhem. Recently, for example, a 13-year-old Missouri girl who was targeted on a non-Jewish social-networking site for verbal abuse by classmates became so distraught that she hanged herself in her bedroom with a belt.

Another recent e-outrage, although with a happier ending, was perpetrated by a Milwaukee teacher who presented himself anonymously on a blog as a critic of the local teachers union. In an attempt to garner sympathy for union members, he wrote that the two youths who killed 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999 "knew how to deal with the overpaid teacher union thugs: One shot at a time." Only because of the implicit threat of violence, and the resultant involvement of law enforcement, was the teacher's ruse uncovered. Less prosecutable offenses, although malevolent, misleading and violative of the laws of civil discourse, are, needless to say, of no interest to the police.

And so, many blogs have become showcases for carefully concocted stews of truth and falsehood well stirred and generously seasoned with gall and spleen. The Jewish sites among them like to malign guilty and innocent people alike - extra points for Orthodox Jews and triple-score for rabbis.

On some sites, targets' guilt is established purely by rumor, innuendo, anonymous accusations and alleged association with accused or confirmed wrongdoers. Innocent until proven guilty? Not in the blogosphere.

Indeed, if a Jewish blog were fully reflective of Jewish values, even those who are actually guilty would not be subject to "open season" maligning. Truth may be "an absolute defense" in American libel law, but not in Jewish law; true statements are precisely the focus of the prohibition of lashon hora. It might strike some as strange, but the Torah teaches us that the evil of such speech is inherent, not a function of falsehood.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the apparent gullibility of so many visitors to those blogs, who, from their own postings, seem ready to swallow any accusation or character assassination, as long as the charges are sufficiently salacious or forcefully asserted. Some of the many adulatory comments posted on offensive blogs may have been planted by the blogerrai-meisters themselves, but many certainly seem to be from other citizens anxious to join in the fun.

Responsible bloggers don't deserve to be lumped together with the louts and understandably chafe at having their entire enterprise tarred with the sins of individuals. Unfortunately, though, those individuals and their sins comprise the bulk of the blogosphere. Those who counsel avoidance of blogs are no different from those who advise against frequenting dark, crime-ridden neighborhoods. There may be bargains to be had in such locales, maybe even a good library or pizzeria. But they are scuzzy places to spend time in.

The Internet in general is, pace the popular arbiters of societal propriety, not a healthy place to hang out in. That is why many Orthodox Jewish religious leaders have frowned upon its use altogether for recreational purposes. They feel that the windows it opens to every corner of the wider world allow in not only some sunlight but much pollution of the most pernicious sort.

But even if business or other life exigencies require individuals to utilize the Internet, there are dark corners of the Web that are filled with venomous spiders, that pose extraordinary risks and should be avoided at practically all costs. The blogosphere is a particular infested corner.

All Jews should be concerned with basic Jewish values like shunning forbidden speech, refusing to judge others, showing honor for Torah and Torah-scholars. And if we are, we are rightly warned against patronizing the untamed areas of Blogistan. Because, while larger society may hallow the idea of free speech, Judaism considers words to carry immense responsibility. Used properly, they can teach, inspire and elevate. But used wrongly, or recklessly, they can be virtual weapons of mass destruction.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Ever since the Sabbath after Sukkot, when the communal synagogue reading of the Torah began anew, I haven't been able to attend a Jewish wedding without thinking about the Netziv's unsettling, if simple, observation.

The Netziv - an acronym meaning "pillar" by which Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1817-1893), the famed dean of the Volozhin Yeshiva, is known - noted that the first marriage in history differed in a most essential way from all the matrimonial unions that would come to follow. Because, according to a widely cited Jewish tradition, Adam and Eve were created a single entity, a man-woman coupled back to back, with the "forming" of woman described by the Torah more accurately envisioned as a separation. The word often translated "rib" is in fact used elsewhere in the Torah to mean "side," and so would be understood in the light of that tradition as referring to the woman-side who was part of Adam-Eve before Divine surgery provided her independent personhood.

So, says the Netziv, Adam's subsequent union with his wife was in fact a "re-union" - of two entities that had originally been one. That idea, says Rabbi Berlin, lies in Adam's declaration when Eve is presented to him: "This time it is a bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh" [Genesis 2:23]. Comments Rabbi Berlin: "Only 'this time' is it so, since she is a 'bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh'; [here, Adam's love for Eve] is like a person who loves his own hand."

Not so, though, every marriage to follow, where the two people creating a relationship will have been conceived, born and raised as independent individuals before becoming a marital unit.

What is troubling is that, following the Talmud's direction, among the blessings recited at a Jewish marriage ceremony and at the festive "Sheva Brachot" [Seven Blessings"] meals attended by the bride and groom for the week thereafter, are several references to the First Couple (Eden's, not Washington's). Not only is the creation of Adam and Eve explicitly invoked, but the bride and groom are reminded of how "your Creator made you joyous in the Garden of Eden." How, though, can the comparison be made? The essence of post-Edenic marriages, their emotional and spiritual components, would seem to be of a qualitatively different nature from that of the original one. As per the Netziv's observation, they are mergers, not homecomings.

Or, to carry the Netziv's own simile a bit further, they are not like reattaching a severed limb but like transplanting a newly donated one.

Interestingly, the medical metaphor itself may hold the answer to why we hold up the example of Adam and Eve to those marrying. Maybe it is not a comparison that is intended but a spur to thought - the thought that a successful marriage entails striving for a relationship like that of Adam and Eve, who began their lives as a single being.

Consider why transplantation is no simple matter: It commonly entails a risk of rejection.

The natural reaction of a normal body to the introduction of an "other" with its own distinct genetic identity is to seek to show it the door, so to speak. There is good reason for that immune response, of course; it helps protect against the introduction of elements that could be harmful.

Likewise, the natural response of a normal human psyche to the intimate introduction of an "other," with its own discrete emotional and spiritual identity, is to similarly seek to protect the threatened self.

Doctors help ensure successful transplants by administering immunosuppressant drugs, chemicals that prevent rejection. They operate by lowering the threshold of the immune system's integrity. Or, put another way, they weaken the host body's sense of self.

Could it be that we focus a modern bride and groom on the first ones in order to teach them that the spiritual-emotional transplant that is a true marriage needs its own form of "immunosuppressant" to succeed - that, in other words, no less than in an organ transplant, marriage requires a weakening of self?

Here, of course, no drug will do; what alone can work is a conscious, determined reorientation of attitude, force of will born of love. In the Netziv's words about post-Edenic brides and grooms, only "deep connection ["d'veika'] will bring them together, to become one."

Like everything truly important, of course, that is more easily said than done. But knowing one's objective is the first step of any journey.

And the second, here, is acting - whether or not one's actions reflect purity of intent - as if it is not one's self that is calling the shots. Jewish tradition stresses that simple deeds can beget essential changes. As a Jewish aphorism sourced in the 13th century work Sefer HaChinuch puts it: "A person is acted upon by his actions." What we do, with the hope and intention of becoming someone who naturally does what we are doing, brings us closer to becoming that person.

And so newlyweds do well to disagree over whether the window should be open or closed. But the chilled spouse should be the one insisting that it remain open, for the comfort of the overheated one; and the latter should be running to shut it, to keep the other warm. Even if the result is a compromise, like leaving the window open a crack, the acts of selflessness themselves are priceless. And they are not limited to windows.

I mused aloud about all that at a Sheva Brachot meal for my own daughter and her new husband several weeks ago. Later, though, something else struck me: The marriage-message borne by the Netziv's observation is not only for newlyweds.

Transplant recipients, after all, generally need to take their medication for life.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Two recent letters to the New York Jewish Week criticized opposition by Orthodox groups in America to the possible partitioning of Jerusalem. One called the Orthodox Union's stance on the issue "a cynical effort to score public relations points" and questioned the "morality" of American groups challenging the policies of an Israeli government; the other sarcastically characterized Agudath Israel as having "become great nationalists" because of its recent resolution on Jerusalem.

The writers' umbrage appears to have obscured three germane facts:

1) Eretz Yisrael is the land not of any particular temporal government but of the Jewish People. That is not only a metaphysical fact but an entirely tangible one, especially in the Orthodox community. Whether or not we live in Israel, we visit there whenever we can, and inject millions of dollars into the Israel economy through charity, tourism and investment. Many of our children and grandchildren spend a year or several studying there. Some of them, along with many other of our relatives and friends, choose to live there. What is more, many of us hold tight to dreams of one day living there ourselves. The security of Israel's cities, and the accessibility and protection of the Holy Land's holy places, directly affect our lives.

2) Jews who are fortunate to live on the Jewish Land's holy soil are the brothers and sisters of Jews everywhere else. To suggest that any Jew or Jewish group does not have a right - or anything less than a responsibility - to speak up when an Israeli government seems poised to do something objectionable or dangerous is to deny the bond of Jews to both their ancestral homeland and to other Jews.

3) As American citizens, we have every right and reason - and in certain respects we are uniquely situated - to advocate to our own government regarding issues important to us, even when those issues involve other countries. That is especially so in the specific context of a "peace process" in which the American government is playing a prominent (if not pre-eminent) role.

And so if an Israeli Prime Minister or Knesset considers it acceptable to provide not just the rights of residency and citizenship already provided Jerusalem's Arab population but to offer an untrustworthy enemy national sovereignty over parts of the city holiest to Judaism - and, effectively, a military foothold for murderous elements in that heavily Jewish-populated center - yes, each of us anywhere can, and must, speak up, to our governments and to our fellow Jews.

As to Agudath Israel's sudden seeming "nationalism," the movement remains true to the ideals it has always championed. Unlike those who, whether on religious or nationalistic grounds, reject the very idea of territorial compromise, the concept of land for peace - at least when there is a trustworthy peace-partner - remains one that most of our leaders accept in principle. None of us haredi Jews deny, G-d forbid, the holiness of any part of the Jewish Land. But we know that the true, complete (territorially as well as spiritually) "Jewish State" will arrive only when the Messiah does, and that the Third Holy Temple will be built by the hand of not man but G-d. Thus, the passive form in our prayer: "May it be Your will that the Temple be [re]built."

Theoretically - and here Agudath Israel may part company with some other Orthodox groups - we could even countenance a non-Jewish flag flying over the city's walls, if it meant true safety, security and freedom of worship for the Holy Land's Jewish residents. Needless to say, though, such a scenario is nowhere in sight.

And that is why, at our recent 85th national convention, Agudath Israel passed a resolution that the organization, "under the direction of its rabbinic leadership, should communicate to appropriate government officials the organization's strong belief that … Israel should not relinquish parts of Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty, and the American government should not pressure the Israeli government into doing so."

Recognizing the special relationship of Jerusalem to the Jewish people, and being deeply concerned with the obvious danger to our Jewish brethren posed by a highly unstable sovereign Arab entity literally "across the street," hardly constitute any new philosophy. What they reflect are things Agudath Israel has always held sacrosanct: the protection of holy Jewish places, and of holy Jewish lives.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Old Gray Lady isn't cute when she's angry. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The New York Times editorial page's longstanding antagonism to the Bush Administration is well documented. Still, the only dignified editorial response to last month's news that two independent teams of scientists had reported having turned human skin cells into the equivalent of embryonic stem cells was "Hallelujah" - or, for the staidly secular Times, some less parochial but equally enthusiastic expression of joy.

After all, if the reported results are duplicated by other labs and various technical obstacles overcome, there will now be an inexhaustible supply of human stem cells available for research - and the controversy over the destruction of embryos to procure stem cells for research will have been effectively rendered moot.

Instead of rejoicing, though, The Times just seethed. On December 3, an editorial in the paper petulantly conceded that the new discovery "could help free scientists from shackles that have long hobbled their efforts." But, it hastened to add, "any claim that Mr. Bush's moral stance drove scientists to this discovery must be greeted with particular skepticism." The editorial ended with the hope that "the next president will quickly jettison all restrictions on stem cell research."

The moral stance referenced is, of course, the President's long and unwavering insistence that federal funds for stem cell research be limited to projects using non-embryonic stem cells or certain already-produced lines of embryonic cells.

The Times' skepticism notwithstanding, it is at least arguable that the White House's refusal to fund embryonic stem-cell research and its encouragement of alternate approaches to procuring stem cells may in fact have contributed to the happy turn of events. After all, if Mr. Bush's steadfastness constituted "shackles" that "hobbled" efforts to consider embryos an unobjectionable source of stem cells, then it is certainly reasonable to imagine that his resolve may have played a role in the development of alternative sources for the cells.

Whatever role the President may or may not have played, however, what cannot be denied is that, in light of the recent breakthrough, the idea of destroying nascent life for scientific research is now more easily seen for what it is, namely, the destroying of nascent life for scientific research.

To be sure, the potential of such research was always clear. If stem cells can be induced to develop into pancreatic cells, they will hold the promise of curing diabetes; if they can be convinced to turn into dopamine-secreting brain cells, they may be able to reverse Parkinson's disease; if into muscle, heart, liver or blood cells, they will figure prominently in treatments for muscular dystrophy, cardiac disease, liver failure and leukemia. And the list is potentially much longer.

But in the headlong rush to gain access to the potential benefits of stem cell research, some were, one might say, blinded by science.

From a Jewish perspective, the issue of utilizing fertilized embryos for research is complex. While some Orthodox Jewish rabbis and organizations concluded that Judaism would encourage embryonic stem cell research under certain conditions, others had deep reservations.

Now, thankfully, it seems that resort to destroying embryos may no longer be necessary for stem cell research to take place. And so, instead of taking umbrage, bashing Bush and hoping for the destruction of future embryos, The Times' editorialists might better have reflected a moment or two on a quote featured in a November 22 story on their paper's own front page.

Dr. James A. Thomson's laboratory at the University of Wisconsin was one of two that in 1998 first successfully removed stem cells from embryos. His laboratory was one of the two that have now reported the new way of turning ordinary human skin cells into very similar, if not identical, stem cells.

Reflecting on those developments, Dr. Thomson, the pioneer of procuring stem cells from embryos destroyed in the process, told The Times' science writer Gina Kolata that "If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

It is a strange and disorienting panorama that Rabbi E. E. Dessler, the celebrated Jewish thinker (1892-1953) asks us to ponder: a world where the dead routinely rise from their graves but no grain or vegetation has ever grown.

The thought experiment continues with the sudden appearance of a man who procures a seed, something never seen before in this bizarre universe, and plants it in the ground. The inhabitants regard the act as no different from burying a stone, and are flabbergasted when, several days later, a sprout pierces the soil where the seed had been consigned, and eventually develops into a full-fledged plant, bearing - most astonishing of all - seeds of its own!

Notes Rabbi Dessler, there is no inherent difference between nature and what we call the miraculous. We simply use the former word "nature" for the miracles to which we are accustomed, and the latter one for those we have not before experienced. All there is, in the end, is G-d's will.

It is a thought poetically rendered by Emerson, who wrote: "If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore…"

A thought, in fact, that subtly informed famed physicist Paul Davies' recent op-ed in The New York Times, where he wrote that "the very notion of physical law is a theological one."

And it is a thought, too, that, according to Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, the revered Rosh Yeshiva, or dean, of Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem on Manhattan's Lower East Side, has pertinence to Chanukah.

The supernatural nature of nature lies at the heart of the answer he suggests for one of the most famous questions in the canon of Jewish religious law, posed in the 1500s by the author of the authoritative Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yosef Karo: Why, if oil sufficient for one day was discovered in Jerusalem's Holy Temple when the Macabees reclaimed it from Seleucid control, is Chanuka eight days long? True, that is how long the candles burned, allowing the priests to prepare new, uncontaminated oil. But was not one of those eight days simply the day for which the found oil sufficed, and thus not itself a miracle-day worthy of commemoration?

Suggests Rabbi Feinstein: Seven of Chanukah's days commemorate the miracle that, in the time of the Maccabees, the candelabrum's flames burned without oil. The eighth commemorates the miracle of the fact that oil burns at all.

The suggestion pithily echoes an account in the Talmud (Ta'anit, 25a), in which the daughter of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa realized shortly before the Sabbath that she had accidentally poured vinegar instead of oil into the Sabbath lamps, and began to panic. Rabbi Chanina, a man who vividly perceived G-d's hand in all and thus particularly merited what most people would call miracles, reassured her. "The One Who commanded oil to burn," he said, "can command vinegar [as well] to burn."

There is, in fact, one day of Chanukah's eight that is set apart from the others, designated with a special appellation. The final day of the holiday - this year beginning with the candle-lighting on the night of Tuesday, December 11 and continuing through the next day - is known as "Zos Chanukah," after the Torah passage beginning "Zos chanukas hamizbe'ach" ("This is the dedication of the altar") read in the synagogue that day.

The Jewish mystical sources consider that day to be the final reverberation of the Days of Awe marked many weeks earlier. Although Rosh Hashana was the year's day of judgment and Yom Kippur was the culmination of the days of repentance, later "time-stones" of the period of G-d's judgment of our actions are cited as well. One is Hoshana Rabba, the last day of Sukkot. And the final one, according to the sources, is "Zos Chanukah."

It would indeed seem to be a fitting day for thinking hard about the "supernature" in nature, the miraculous in the seemingly mundane. For what is what we call a miracle if not a more-clear-than-usual manifestation of G-d? And what are the Days of Awe if not a time when He is "close" to us, when G-d-consciousness is at front and center?

And so, perhaps the final day of Chanukah presents us with a singular opportunity to ponder how, just as the ubiquity and predictability of nature can mislead us, allowing us to forget that all is, in truth, G-d's will, so too can the weeks elapsed since the late summer Days of Awe lull us into a state of unmindfulness regarding the import of our actions.

If so, the final night of Chanukah might be a particularly apt time to gaze at the eight flames leaking enlightenment into the world and, as we prepare to head into the dismal darkness of what some might consider a "G-d-forsaken winter," know that, still and all, as always, "His glory fills the universe."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

"New study finds Orthodox women are sexually victimized as much as other American women" read the subheader of a New York Jewish Week article on October 26. The study found nothing of the sort.

Based on a self-selected sample - women who chose to fill out a survey offered on Jewish websites and in newspaper advertisements, synagogue bulletins, doctors' offices and through other means - the study, in the American Journal of Psychiatry, could not and did not make any claim about the relative prevalence of abuse in the Orthodox and general American communities. Randomized studies, like those that have focused on abuse in the general American population, yield reasonable estimations of the behaviors of their foci. Self-selected surveys of the same populations, however, can easily yield data that diverge substantially from the reality in those groups.

Thus, the study's authors themselves responsibly cautioned that "those who chose to participate may not be representative of the [Orthodox] population," and noted that the unfeasibility of obtaining a representative sample constituted a "major limitation of this study." The study also notes that "there was a high proportion of subjects [51% -- AS] receiving mental health treatment in this group [the sample recruited for the study]," further suggesting that the respondents were not representative of the larger Orthodox population (victims of abuse are, of course, more likely than others to seek counseling).

And so, by comparing the 25%-27% figure for American women claiming (in randomized surveys) to have suffered abuse at some point in their lives with the 26% figure yielded by the recent (self-selected) study of Orthodox women, and concluding that "Orthodox Jewish women suffer as much [abuse] as other American women," the Jewish Week writer was comparing apples and tractors. If anything, the similar percentages arguably indicate a lower rate of abuse in the Orthodox community. After all, if 26% of a group likely to contain a disproportionate number of abuse victims report they were abused, one would expect a much lower percentage of a randomly selected group from the same population.

Abuse, of course, is a serious sin and a serious problem and, tragically, it exists in every community, including the Orthodox. That is bad enough. What is also lamentable, though, is that its existence - to whatever extent - in the Orthodox world provides fodder for those who are always at the ready to pounce on the flimsiest of anecdotal evidence to "expose" what they believe are the moral shortcomings of Orthodox life.

Last year, an article appeared in New York magazine that told the tawdry tale of an alleged serial Orthodox child abuser.

The New York writer did more than salaciously detail an alleged victim's accusations. He went on to share with readers his own consideration of the prospect that such ugly behavior is "more common in the Orthodox Jewish community than it is elsewhere."

"There are no reliable statistics," he admitted, "… but there's reason to believe the answer to that question might be yes."

The "reason to believe" turned out to be the report of another writer who had explored the world of once-Chassidic people who turned their backs on their communities and found it "shocking" to hear how "so many boys [emphasis hers] have had this experience [of abuse]."

Now, abuse, tragically, may well have been a factor in the trajectory of those disheartened Jews' lives. And if it was, our hearts must ache with the anguish of the victims. But to consider their agonizing experience as somehow emblematic of Chassidic life, much less broader Orthodox life, is like deciding there must be a national epidemic of broken bones after visiting a hospital and seeing "so many" patients in casts.

Employing the trusty journalistic tool of ascribing unfounded speculations to anonymous sources, the New York writer went on to reveal that "There are some who believe" that "the repression in the ultra-Orthodox community can foster abuse." By "the repression," he helpfully explained, he meant things like the strict forbiddance of sexual relations before marriage and the Jewish family purity laws that regulate when married couples may and may not engage in intimacy. The "few outlets for an Orthodox man with compulsions," those unnamed "some" believe, create "a fertile environment for deviance."

Those comments go to the crux of the matter of why Orthodox Jews should care about any of this. After all, why not just ignore it all? Just as unfounded negative assumptions about Jews in general are popular in much of the non-Jewish world, so are Orthodox Jews unfairly maligned in the larger Jewish one. Do we really have to make a fuss?

Well, I believe we do. Because there is a subtext here. The maligning is not of Orthodox Jews alone; it is a maligning of mitzvot, of modesty, of Torah. It is a claim, in effect, that dedication to Torah doesn't help prevent sin, that it even leads to it.

I believe - and it is Judaism's belief - that Torah is transformative, that human inclinations are harnessed and controlled by Torah-life and Torah-study. To be sure, there are Jews who lead publicly observant lives yet who are not truly committed to Torah, who have not internalized "fear of Heaven." And so, there will always be anecdotal evidence of Orthodox wrongdoings of many sorts, with perpetrators identifiable, and duly identified, as Orthodox.

But the vast majority of observant Jews take Torah seriously. And it does elevate them, and empowers them to live exemplary lives. That is part of why the Torah-observant population is greatly underrepresented in the realms of societal ills like rape, AIDS, prostitution and marital infidelity that affect their less "repressed" neighbors. Although it is certainly possible that rates of child or spouse abuse in the Orthodox world are equal to those of general American society, I would expect a similar underrepresentation in those realms as well.

I cannot know that my expectation reflects reality; there are no meaningful statistical data to mine at present. But neither are there any to support the assumptions and speculations of writers like those cited above.

One thing I do know, though, is that my expectation is based on the quintessential Jewish idea that the study and practice of Torah create more refined human beings. And the others' assumption is based on their conviction - fueled, perhaps, by wishful thinking - that it does not.

The writers are entitled to their cynicism. But all Jews who respect Torah are entitled - I believe obligated - to expose it, along with offerings of unfounded, bias-born speculations as facts.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

This morning I counted. There were at least ten times the Hebrew name of Jerusalem, or its synonym Zion, passed my lips. Before breakfast.

There was "Jerusalem, praise G-d," "May You shine a new light on Zion," "the Builder of Jerusalem," and many more throughout the Jewish morning prayer service.

And then there were the other references to Jerusalem but without her name, like "May it be Your will… that the Holy Temple be rebuilt, speedily in our days" and "the city called by Your name."

After a bowl of cereal, the blessing "Al Hamichya" would mention Jerusalem two more times. And for any meals including bread that might have followed, one of the main blessings that comprise the grace after meals would have the Holy City as its subject as well, beginning with a reference to "Jerusalem Your city" and ending "Who in His mercy builds Jerusalem."

And, then, in each of the day's two remaining prayer services, as in the morning one, the silent "Amidah" prayer includes a similar blessing.

It is hard to believe that any people, entity or government could arrogate to claim a closer connection than the Jewish one to the city nestled in the Judean hills, the city toward which praying Jews for millennia have faced thrice daily, and face to this day.

And it is even harder to believe that a government of a self-described Jewish State would even consider, much less announce, its contemplation of placing Jerusalem on the cutting block of negotiations with an enemy.

Yet that is what is happening before our incredulous eyes.

There are Jews who, whether on religious or nationalistic grounds, reject without qualification the very idea of territorial compromise. Many of the religious leaders of the haredi world, however, have clearly stated that political sovereignty over land does not trump the attainment of peace and security. None of us haredi Jews deny, G-d forbid, the holiness of any part of the Jewish Land. But we know that the true, complete (territorially as well as spiritually) "Jewish State" will arrive only when the Messiah does, and that the Third Holy Temple will be built by the hand of not man but G-d. Thus, the reflexive form in our prayer: "May it be Your will that the Temple be [re]built."

That said, though, "territorial compromise" with an adversary that includes duplicitous, hate-filled elements - elements that celebrate violence and make no secret of their goal of destroying Israel, elements that have time and again asserted themselves at will, brushing away the ostensibly more moderate among them like so much lint - is, to put it mildly, foolhardy. And the Israeli leadership's apparent readiness to treat even Jerusalem, the very wellspring of the Holy Land's holiness, like a salami to be shared merits an adjective considerably less mild.

Mere days before this writing, we were reminded of what lies on the "other side." A Fatah rally in Gaza was attacked by Hamas forces who killed six and injured dozens. The PLO's chief negotiator publicly rejected the notion that the Palestinians would ever recognize Israel as a Jewish State. Israeli leaders would have to be seriously deluded to imagine that offering such people a part of Jerusalem will result in anything like a secure city.

One can only add to our prayers the hope that those political leaders somehow experience some flash of recognition of what they are contemplating. That they blink a few times, shake their heads and remember just what Jerusalem means to the Jewish People. That they come to open a Jewish prayer book and not only read the words but pay attention to them; and say the grace after meals, doing the same.

And that they then turn to their adversaries and say, without rancor but with full determination: "No. We're sorry. Not Jerusalem."

To be sure, from a haredi perspective, it doesn't make any inherent difference what temporal flag flies above the hewn stones of Jerusalem's walls. The city's holiness is neither heralded nor preserved by such banners. But it is a fallacy of the most dangerous sort to imagine that the cause of peace could possibly be advanced by surrendering the heart of the Jewish People.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

On their surface, the e-mails had nothing to do with the uncontrolled wildfires then devastating southern California. Yet the confluence of the messages and the maelstrom held a truth worth contemplating.

The topic of the e-mails is of no matter. The writers were urging Agudath Israel of America to take a certain stance on a political issue. It was their tone that stood out. The correspondents had taken for granted that their own judgment on the matter was right, and were writing to insist that the organization come on board, or "get with it," as one put it. Or as another wrote: "Your Moetzet Gedolei HaTorah [Council of Torah Sages - Agudath Israel's highest rabbinical body] needs to take a strong stand here…"

Agudath Israel is unique among Jewish groups. Its administration does not set policy; that role resides among the venerable rabbinic elders at our helm. The organization's officers and executive staff are sometimes asked to provide the Council members with information, even to lay out various approaches to an issue. But we do not tell our religious leaders what we think they should think. One might say that we report, they decide.

It is an approach that rankles some, especially those who might not appreciate the humor in a sign I have that reads: "People who think they know everything are particularly aggravating to those of us who do."

But the fact remains: Judaism teaches humility, and special respect for the judgment of those most experienced and knowledgeable. The letters of the Hebrew word for "elderly" - zaken - are parsed by the Talmud to yield the phrase "this one has acquired wisdom."

And so, particularly in matters of Jewish communal welfare, we believe that Jews are exhorted to heed the direction provided by the community's most Torah-learned elders, those who have internalized a large degree of the perfection of values and refinement of character that the Torah idealizes. Even when those elders' judgment differs from our own. Actually, especially then.

Commenting on the decision made by the Judean King Rechavam (King Solomon's son) to shun the advice of the elders of his father's court and heed instead the advice of younger advisors (Kings I:12), the Talmud remarks: "[What might seem] constructive on the part of the young [can in fact be] destructive; and [what might seem] destructive on the part of elders [can in fact be] constructive" (Nedarim, 40a). Rechavam's wrong choice brought schism to the Jewish kingdom, fanning the flames of rebellion.

Which brings us back to more recent flames, those of the unprecedented California fires - which fire-management experts have dubbed "mega-fires," since they are ten times larger and more intense than wildfires of a mere decade or two ago. More than eight million acres of American forest have burned this year already.

The reasons suggested for the unprecedented infernos include, of course, the "usual suspect" for all natural disasters these days, global warming. But the fact that Baja Mexico has evidenced only smaller fires than adjacent San Diego County suggests strongly that something else is at work. That something, experts say, is a decades-old misguided conservation policy in the United States. Put simply, the longtime American approach to fire suppression - extinguishing small fires as soon as they appear, rather than allowing them to run their natural courses and create undergrowth-free zones - has created huge swaths of unburned brush that, when fire does break out, serve as rich and abundant fuel for infernos of exceptional scope and intensity. "When," asked University of California professor of earth sciences and fire-management expert Richard A. Minnich, quoted in The New York Times, "do we declare the policy a failure?"

So the culprit, so to speak, is Smokey the Bear. He seemed like a fine enough, if furry, fellow all those years, delivering his ursine, eminently common-sense message that putting out small fires was the obvious way to prevent larger ones. But he was wrong. precisely wrong,entirely wrong. Nothing personal (or specie-ist), but, in the end, only smarts can prevent mega- fires.

Now, with hindsight, we are wiser. Imagine, though, how the suggestion that forest fires be permitted to burn uncontrolled, would have been received had it been offered fifty years ago. It is not hard to imagine the e-mails (well, telegrams) chiding forest rangers to tell the Forest Service policymakers to "get with it" and "take a strong stand" against the obvious illogic of - goodness! - letting fires just burn!

It's not only the so-called "Law of Unintended Consequences" that can figure into weighty decisions. A host of factors can make the right decision seem the wrong one, puzzling observers, even outraging them. To be sure, we all have a right to our opinion, and much can be gained by sharing our perspectives with others.

But two vital commodities in all-too-short supply these days are humility and respect for elders. We do well to consider that our confidence - "evidence" and all - that we know what is best no more qualifies us to make the right decision than putting a ranger's hat on a bear's head and a shovel in his hand makes him an expert on forest conservation.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


Rabbi Avi Shafran

That the unveiling of a new Reform prayer book didn't elicit applause from the Orthodox world was hardly surprising. Despite media hailings of the movement's new liturgical offering as a turn toward Jewish tradition, the new prayer book, "Mishkan T'filah," still pointedly omits vital elements of traditional Jewish prayer (indeed of the Torah) that its editors found discomfiting.

The essence of the Jewish religious heritage does not change; the very premise of Reform theology (and, as has become increasingly evident, Conservative theology no less) is that Judaism can be redefined according to the wishes of contemporary Jews. As a Reform leader once candidly explained, he examines each mitzvah and asks himself, "Do I feel commanded [to heed it]?"

Still and all, some encouragement may lie in the fact that a movement rejective of Judaism's heart has even subtly and tepidly reclaimed an element of the Judaism of the ages. The Kotzker Rebbe, it is told, once asked: Who is more worthy, someone on the 49th level of spiritual accomplishment or on the 1st? His answer: "It depends on the direction in which each is heading."

And for all the new Reform prayer book's profound faults - and those of the theology that produced it - it seems to signal a change in direction.

Take the book's very formatting. If Marshall McLuhan was right that there is message in the medium, Mishkan T'filah immediately telegraphs its distinction from earlier Reform prayer books. Unlike its predecessors, it includes the word "siddur" on its cover. It not only includes a Hebrew text but opens and reads from right to left. (The left side of each open pair of pages offers modernistic comments on the Hebrew to the right, recalling - to me, at least - King Solomon's words: "The heart of the wise one is to his right" [Ecclesiastes, 10:2].)

But even those inclined to dismiss such changes as mere window dressing might note the amendments made - after years of sometimes contentious disagreement among the prayer book's editors - to the actual Reform liturgy itself.

For instance, in utter affront to the Reform movement's longstanding rejection of the concept of techiyat hameitim, or "resurrection of the dead," Mishkan T'filah offers the option of reciting the blessing acknowledging that essential Jewish belief.

In a nod to (forgive the pun) die-hard Reform "traditionalists" (a word rather turned on its head in this context), Mishkan T'filah still suggests that the phrase "He Who gives life to the dead" be understood as "a powerful metaphor." But - and, again, small changes can hold larger significance - the editors' note adds that the resurrection of the dead "may be taken literally" as well.

It is easy to glibly dismiss that concession. With sociologists predicting that American Jews least connected to Jewish belief and observance (a group that includes the majority of the million-plus who identify as Reform Jews) are headed for Jewish extinction, it would seem Panglossian to see an editorial change in a prayer book as a harbinger of hope.

But I can't help but imagine an astute Reform worshipper motivated to indeed ponder the kind of techiyat hameitim we witness daily, like decaying organic matter fertilizing the soil, spurring dormant seeds to unfold into plants and trees. And then being stirred further to consider the relationship between such everyday "quickening of the dead" and the ultimate one that the Torah teaches lies, for those who merit it, at the end of history.

As the deep Jewish scholar and thinker Rabbi E.E. Dessler wrote, the only reason we consider the germination of a seed to be natural and resurrection of the dead miraculous is because we are accustomed to the former but not the latter. What we choose to call the "laws of nature," he explains, are not inherently "sensible"; they simply are what they are: G-d's will.

We can describe how a plant grows, how its genes code for the stages of that process, even the workings of the atomic structure underlying its DNA. But why any of that should work the way it does is ultimately answerable only with: "Because, well, that's just the way it is." Or, from Judaism's perspective: because G-d has so willed it. And, notes Rabbi Dessler, He can no less easily will things that strike us as incredible.

The editors of the new Reform prayer book may insist that its users needn't subscribe to the Jewish belief that the righteous will one day rise from their graves. But their inclusion of the blessing of resurrection, however they may have sought to soften it, reflects unquestionably the deep stirrings of Jews alienated from our eternal beliefs groping uneasily toward their acceptance.

It may be naive to imagine that changes in the Reform prayer book hold out hope that Reform-affiliated Jews might yet come to consider returning to the fullness of the Jewish religious tradition.

But I'm not willing to consider a million-plus fellow Jews as nothing more than a desiccated limb of the Jewish people, hopelessly destined to wither and fall away.

Not only because there are encouragingly many once-distant-from-Judaism Jews living fully Torah-observant lives today.

But because I believe in techiyat hameitim.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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