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Archives Of Previous Articles XI


Rabbi Avi Shafran

A proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution would define marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and opponents of the proposal are in high gear.

Among them is the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which warned that enactment of the Federal Marriage Amendment "would defile the Constitution, enshrining homophobia and intolerance in a document which protects the rights of all Americans." A press release from the organization quoted a spokesperson as wondering if "America's families and marriages and communities [are] so fragile and shallow that they are threatened by the love between two adults of the same sex."

Then he got Biblical. "We believe as a fundamental tenant [sic] of our faith that all human beings are created in the Divine image, as it says in Genesis 1:27, 'And G-D created humans in G-D's own image, in the image of G-D, G-D created them; male and female G-D created them'."

At issue, though, is not the holiness of humanity but the meaning of morality.

Morality is what alone lies at the root of laws prohibiting things like bigamy, prostitution, incest, child marriage, pornography and public lewdness. It likewise informs the definitions of a number of words essential to the law, including, at least at present, "marriage". The proposed Constitutional amendment seeks to ensure that the word not be redefined.

That quest derives not from anyone feeling "threatened" by love. There are numerous love-based relationships, including incestuous and bestial unions and "open" marriages, that even the Reform movement is presumably unwilling to legitimate at this point. No one is "threatened" by them, but most civilized people consider them wrong. Love, at least to subscribers to the concept of morality, simply doesn't conquer all.

According to Jewish tradition, whether or not contemporary society agrees, among the things love does not trump are homosexual acts, the clear prohibition of which is introduced a bit later on in the Bible than the verse quoted by the Reform movement's press release - in Leviticus to be precise, where sexual relations between men is referred to as "to'eiva", usually translated "an abomination."

The Jewish Oral Tradition is replete with similar sentiment. Homosexual acts are associated by Jewish sources with the Canaanite peoples whose behavior defiled the Holy Land; and the formal sanctioning of homosexual unions, the rabbis of the Talmudic era taught, was one of the causes of the biblical Flood. Trenchantly, a statement in the Talmud asserts that one of larger human society's redeeming qualities has been its refusal to "write marriage documents for males [living together in homosexual relationships]."

Needless to say, all people are, indeed, created in G-D's image. None of Jewish tradition's strong disapproval of homosexual activity means that people with homosexual tendencies are inherently evil or that even avowed homosexuals in any way forfeit their humanity, their Jewishness or their claim to others' care and compassion. And, particularly in these relativistic, nonjudgmental, self-centered days, the Jewish response to those pulled from the Torah's moral moorings by the siren call of the Zeitgeist should be ten measures of concern for every measure of condemnation.

But invoking the Bible in order to oppose the enshrining of marriage in the nation's most fundamental legal document is an exercise in disingenuousness.

There are, to be sure, many today who would redefine morality, or who seek to do away with the idea altogether. They actively and often make their case, in demonstrations, in writings, in the offerings of the entertainment industry.

But anyone purporting to speak in the name of Judaism cannot ignore the Jewish religious tradition, and should be less concerned with what it imagines to defile the Constitution than with what unarguably defiles the Torah.

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

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[A September 14, 1993 op-ed from the Providence Journal-Bulletin, one day after the famous Clinton- Rabin handshake on the White House lawn.]

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Modern Jews are often, and not entirely wrongly, seen as somewhat more, well, sensitive than the general population, at times even bordering on paranoid; there are, unfortunately, considerable historical grounds for Jewish caution.

Paradoxically, though, the modern Jewish mindset is pointedly, eternally hopeful as well. Just as the ancient Jewish prophets introduced the world to the concept of utopia, their descendants in our own time are similarly obsessed with one or another variation of the idea. Even as many of us fear what others might do if we should dare turn our backs, we Jews still somehow trust deeply in the inherent goodness of humanity. In the depths of the Jewish heart, holocausts and hope somehow coexist.

And so, with some of Israel and part of the PLO yesterday signing a peace agreement, Jews in general - and Israeli Jews in particular - are experiencing the strangest of feelings, a joyful giddiness intermingled with dark trepidation. It's pleasurable and discomforting at the same time - the Mother, one might say, of All Ambivalence.

We hope, to be sure, and we desperately want to trust. But we can't help but remember, either.

When I first read of the likelihood of a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, an episode from my youth - objectively insignificant but highly symbolic in a personal sense - returned to haunt me, 2 ½ decades after the event. I attended a private Jewish high school in Baltimore back in those days, and the memory is of a beautiful early spring day when a few classmates and I were playing baseball.

A group of scruffy but smiling strangers about our own age suddenly appeared on the vacant lot that served as our field. They seemed pleasant enough, if different from us in dress and demeanor, and asked to play; we were more than happy to be able to fully stock the outfield and to make new friends in the deal. It was home team against visitors.

After flipping a coin, we went to bat first. I don't remember if there was any score at the bottom of the first, only that the visitors, once in possession of the bats, suddenly lost all interest in the ball. They came straight into the outfield at us, shouting obscenities liberally peppered with the word "Jew," their smiles suddenly turned predatory. That was the first time I ever heard the sickening sound of wood coming down on bone, and I know I'll never forget it.

We all survived the Tuesday Afternoon Massacre, less only a little blood and several bats; our innocence, though, had been dealt a decisive mortal wound. My friends and I had always been taught both to be trustworthy and to trust in others, in the essential holiness of all those created in God's image. Our new experience, though, had taught us a different lesson: There are those who choose, even for no discernible reason, to hate. And a corollary: Haters, all too often, choose Jews.

The Arab world, , to be sure, hasn't always hated Jews. Though Mohammed became upset at the Arabian Jews of his day for not abandoning their faith for his, the Middle Ages saw great cultural, scientific and human cooperation between, for instance, the dominant Muslim society in Spain and its Jewish subjects. However, since the fairly recent assertion of Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish ancestral land (the return to which Jews the world over have prayed for thrice daily for nearly two millennia), Jews - not only Israelis - have been vilified, attacked and slandered by their biblical cousins.

Anti-Semitism, generally unfashionable if not exactly uncommon since Hitler' s day, became the eagerly adopted demon of much of the Arab world. Under the guise of "anti-Zionism," Jews have been portrayed there - and treated - as sub-human and treacherous. What had once been Greek and Roman canards, then Christian and German ones, became the cherished property of a new world of rabid Jew-haters. Innocent lives were blasted to bloody bits and the vilest racism was seared into the impressionable minds of little Arab boys and girls, all in the purported cause of Palestinian nationalism. A cause now reconciled, or about to be reconciled, with the reality of the Jewish State.

The hope: Just as Christian anti-Semitism eventually yielded up its ghost to the righteousness of such men as Pope John XXIII and Lutheran leaders who had the moral vision to disown part of Luther's legacy, so might the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world choose the path of reason, empathy and sincere desire for peace..

The fear: They might not.

Put aside the fact that Yasser Arafat seems to be having great difficulty convincing even the most "moderate" faction of the PLO, Al Fatah, of the wisdom of making peace with Israel. Put aside, as well, the fact that other factions within that erstwhile terrorist organization, such as the Palestine Liberation Front, have made clear their total opposition to any peace plan. Put aside even the critical fact that Arafat's leadership is rejected by what is probably the most determinedly violent player on the scene: the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas.

To feel the fear, a Jew need look no further than the 1964 charter of the PLO itself, the one calling for the destruction of Israel. It has never been abandoned nor modified. On the contrary, Mr. Arafat is still on record defending it, and even as he pushed his peace plan to the world he spoke to his own people about it being the first step on the road toward "our Jerusalem." Jewish ears did not hear those words as very reassuring, not when the prospect of a Palestinian-controlled country in the very heart of Israel was what was being roundly celebrated by all concerned.

Still, though, even we paranoiacs hope. We must, for the sake of justice and peace. But we cannot afford to be naïve. It is wonderful to hear good news, but Jews no longer swallow good news without smelling it carefully first. We've learned the hard way about the dangers of indiscriminately digesting goodwill.

The same year of our half-inning baseball game, I played the part of Monceau, a French actor being held by the Nazis, in Arthur Miller's play Incident at Vichy, our high school performance. The Jewish Frenchman, hearing his fellow detainees repeat rumors of forced Jewish labor and death camps, resists the information, insisting that it is unbelievable nonsense. He smugly tells the others about a relative of his who was sent by the Germans to a camp in Poland.

"I have several letters from him," Monceau informs his listeners, "saying he 's fine."

"They've even taught him bricklaying," the trusting fellow concludes, happy for and proud of his cousin in Auschwitz.

Millions of Monceaus would be much wiser today, had they survived. So while politicians, journalists and commentators across the political spectrum gush at all the pleasant purring emanating from the Mideast, and while many Jews themselves gratefully breathe deep the cool, refreshing winds of change, others among us, while still hopeful as always, cannot help but wonder whether we're just imagining it or if the breeze might just be carrying the faintest echo of wood striking bone, the merest odor of burning flesh.

We pray fervently, hopefully and with all of our hearts that it's only our imagination.

[Rabbi Shafran is currently director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. When the article above was written, he was a religious studies teacher in a Jewish high school in Providence, RI]

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Late the evening of August 16, the Jewish world became immeasurably poorer. Though most Jews may never have heard of Rabbi Avrohom Pam, who returned his soul to his Creator that night, he was beloved and revered for decades throughout the Orthodox community as one of the truly great spiritual leaders of our generation.

The funeral, mere hours after "Rav Pam", as he was known, departed this world, drew thousands to Torah Vodaath, the yeshiva he led for over three decades in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. The building, where his body lay, was packed to overflowing, and the crowd spilled over into the streets below. The powerful attendance - despite the fact that much of Brooklyn's Orthodox community summers in the Catskill Mountains, three to four hours' drive away - reflected the special nature of the man those who had gathered had come to honor.

The funeral was not lengthy; the deceased - not surprisingly to anyone who knew him - had left explicit orders that there be no eulogies. There was recitation of several Psalms, one of Rabbi Pam's sons said a few tearful words and the long funeral procession made its way to a Queens cemetery where the yeshiva dean and member of the Council of Torah Sages was laid to rest.

In times like ours, authority and importance are often measured in newspaper column-inches; success, in stock portfolios; and influence, by the phone numbers in one's electronic organizer. There are parallel universes, however, with very different laws of nature, and the Orthodox world is one.

Rav Pam lived humbly, both in demeanor and in trappings. He was a physically small man who lived in a small house and spoke in a small voice. Yet tens of thousands of Jews considered him a "godol" - literally, "large," a spiritual giant.

They regarded his words as gems to be gathered, even when his message consisted of criticism. For his listeners knew - from his reputation, his demeanor and the unmistakable pain on his face - that Rav Pam's exclusive motivations were fear of God and love for fellow Jews.

Five years ago, before thousands at an Agudath Israel convention, he movingly bemoaned what he perceived to be an erosion of "sholom bayis" - "peace in the home" - among Jewish families. Jewish children can only breathe and thrive, he said quietly, his heart in every word, in "an atmosphere of harmony and sweetness," and spouses must always show the deepest respect for one another.

"Where," he asked his listeners, "is the feeling for the mother of one's own children, for the father of one's own children?"

Honesty and integrity were also recurrent themes of Rav Pam's. Too ill to attend the most recent Agudath Israel national convention this past November, he nevertheless "addressed" the crowd in a pre-recorded video appearance on large screens positioned throughout the huge convention center.

While he cautioned against being judgmental of others and noted the extreme financial pressures that bear so heavily on many Orthodox families and institutions, he decried financial wrongdoings on the part of Orthodox Jews as a "desecration of G-d's name."

It makes no difference, he continued, whether one is acting as an individual or on behalf of an institution, or whether one is dealing with a fellow Jew, a non-Jew or a government. Meticulous honesty, he told the packed but hushed room, is the mandate of every Jew, and must be the hallmark of every one claiming to be observant.

He reminded his listeners that the Talmud teaches that the first question a Jew is asked in the World-to-Come is "Did you conduct your financial dealings with emunah [integrity]?" "Emunah," he went on to explain, also means "faith," alluding to the fact that faith in our Creator as the source of our daily bread is antithetical to acting dishonestly.

Rav Pam's deep concern for proper behavior encompassed the personal realm no less. Once, standing in his yeshiva's hallway, he seemed distraught. When asked what the matter was, he sadly recounted how he had just heard one of the boys say "shut up." And he wouldn't even pronounce the offensive phrase; he spelled it out, in a whisper.

Perhaps above all, he was powerfully dedicated to making authentic Jewish education available to all Jewish children - the "jewels in the crown" of the Almighty, as he once wrote. Thus he worked tirelessly on behalf of Jewish educational causes both in the United States and in Israel, prime among them an organization he personally founded, Shuvu. It provides young immigrants to Israel, largely from the former Soviet Union, with a comprehensive Jewish education in an open and loving environment, helping both the children and their parents reconnect with the Jewish religious heritage.

The guest of honor at Shuvu's 10th anniversary dinner mere months ago, Rav Pam was presented with a scroll that, when it was unfurled, stretched clear across the large banquet hall. It contained a paragraph of heartfelt appreciation for the rabbi - and the signatures of the 10,000 boys and girls enrolled in Shuvu schools in Israel.

A Jewish tradition has it that worthy individuals, even after their deaths, are able to intercede with G-d on behalf of the Jewish people. All Jews, whether they knew of Rav Pam during his life or not, would do well to recognize the profound loss to us all that his death represents. But all of us can take some comfort as well in the fact that he will surely be a meilitz yosher, an interceder of integrity on behalf of his people during these troubled and frightening Jewish times.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Easily lost in the whirlwind of worry, shock and mourning generated by the current onslaught against Jews in Israel is the significant thought that we must feel gratitude as well.

It is admittedly hard to see a bright side, and certainly to find feelings of thankfulness, when vicious attacks against innocent Jewish men, women and children take place daily, and are greeted with glee by communities consumed with hatred.

But other things, too, have been transpiring in the Jewish land - or, perhaps better put, not transpiring. And for those, we must say with heartfelt feeling, "Boruch Hashem!" ("Praised be God!").

Yesterday (as this is being written, on August 29), Israeli police units prevented "a very serious attack" in Beersheba by intercepting three Palestinian residents of Gaza carrying explosives.

Four days earlier, a Palestinian who approached an Israeli army post near the Egyptian border "in a suspicious manner" and was shot was found to be carrying a bomb.

That same day, three Palestinians were found near the village of Kalkilia carrying explosives and weapons.

Two days before that, an IDF force caught three Palestinians in the act of placing a bomb near the community of Shavei Shomron.

A day earlier, a bomb exploded beneath a car parked near Israeli police offices in Jerusalem's "Russian Compound"; no one was hurt.

Two days prior, the Israeli Security Agency arrested two Palestinians on their way to carry out a suicide bombing at a Haifa nightclub.

Also on that very day, a Palestinian and his two children were killed when a bomb he was preparing exploded prematurely.

Three days earlier, two Palestinians were arrested before they were able to plant the large bomb they were carrying in Haifa.

Few if any of those events made the evening news or The New York Times. The stories that lead, of course, are the ones "that bleed," and there have been all too many of those, may God spare His people any more. The stories above, though, Boruch Hashem, lacked the requisite loss of innocent lives (with the tragic exception of the two Palestinian children).

What is worth pondering is that there has been an almost constant stream of non-stories like the sampling above - unsuccessful attempts at terror, prematurely detonated bombs, intercepted terrorists, prevented tragedies. We have mourned the terrible losses of Jewish lives when evil people have managed to bring their evil plans to fruition. Shouldn't we also express deep gratitude to God when He frustrates their intentions?

To be sure, the soldiers or civilians who notice the abandoned package or odd behavior are to be heartily credited for their alacrity. But we know all too tragically well that determined terrorists can fairly easily evade detection. And so when one is caught before he can wreak havoc, the truly Jewish response is to thank not only those who did the actual catching but, above all, the One who allowed them to do so.

In fact, there may be other frustrated plots of which we know nothing. The celebrated Jewish Sage the Vilna Gaon is said to have once been challenged about a verse in Psalms that calls on the nations of the world to praise God. "What sort of special praise can other nations offer than we Jews cannot?" he was asked. His response: Only they know the plans they pursued to harm us that were never exposed and never reached fruition. When the Messiah arrives and the nations realize that we were indeed chosen by God, they will praise Him for having prevented them from executing their designs.

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 humility, that refusal to take blessings for granted, that deep sense of gratitude to God, is central to the Jewish soul. Which is why "Boruch Hashem" is so common a refrain for so many Jews.

Rosh Hashana approaches. It is a time when, our tradition teaches, we "coronate" the King of kings. That encompasses much, to be sure: repentance, prayer and commitment.

But it includes no less what any benevolent king's subjects should constantly feel: deep and abiding gratitude.

We Jews are all praying that there be no need for us to fear or mourn in the future. Perhaps a merit toward the realization of that prayer lies in the gratitude we express for all the kindnesses of which we are beneficiaries - those we read about as well as those we never discover.

We might all consider getting into the habit of saying Boruch Hashem.

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

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(The paragraphs below are excerpted from an essay written by the late Rabbi Moshe Sherer, who served as President of Agudath Israel of America from 1963 until his death in 1998. The essay was written in 1975, shortly after the UN's "Zionism is Racism" declaration, and appears in Hebrew in Rabbi Sherer' s book "B'shtei Einayim." Translation courtesy of Am Echad.)

We Orthodox Jews share the outrage of Jews the world over at the perverse United Nations resolution smearing "Zionism" with the tar of "racism." Agudath Israel has lodged its protest with the United Nations itself and denounced the resolution at its recent meeting as well as in the press. We shall, furthermore, continue to make our anger known and continue to defend the name of Judaism and Jews.

It would be wrong, through, to suffice with statements aimed at the outside world. We must assure that clarity prevails within the Jewish community as well.

Our public denouncement of the United Nations resolution is straightforward and without reservation. Through the resolution was supposedly aimed only at secular "Zionism", a movement with which the traditionally Orthodox world has little connection, we are not fooled; the slander is an attack on the entire Jewish people.

In truth, through, even if the Arab world and its partners were indeed only directing their hatred at certain Jews, we 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.

As it happens, through, 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.

The U.N. has long embodied a particularly wild and blatant manifestation of what the Midrash calls a "law" of nature: "Esau hates Jacob." The world's outlaw-nations are unprepared to grant us any peace, even after they witnessed a third of our people utterly destroyed. Behind the United Nations ' austere façade lies a veritable jungle, crawling with well-dressed, diplomatically correct savages.

In the face of such malevolence, we Jews who remain faithful to all the Torah's laws are one with all our fellow Jews.

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Marc Perelman

BROOKLYN - As lower Manhattan descended into a nightmare of ash and rubble on Tuesday, Brooklyn - the raffish, tumbledown City Across the River - suddenly became a safe haven.

Throngs of Manhattanites, unable to leave by car or subway, crossed the East River bridges on foot, anxious to escape the billowing cloud of smoke emanating from the World Trade Center and the threat of further attacks. Hundreds of them, reaching the bottom of the Williamsburg Bridge and heading southward, found themselves in the uncharted territory of Williamsburg, home of the Satmar chasidim.

Struggling with maps, vainly trying to use their cell phones, nervously scanning the sky every time a plane passed over, New Yorkers from all walks of life turned for guidance to groups of bearded men in black cloaks, women with scarves over their shaved heads pushing baby carriages and earlocked children with yarmulkes.

At the corner of Roebling and Lee streets in the heart of chasidic Williamsburg, a group of men set up an improvised refreshment stand, stocked with drinks and pastries. Among those inviting people to stop and take some refreshment was Abe Cohen, who said he had decided the evening before not to go to his business uptown.

"This is just terrible, we feel so helpless," he said. "All we can do is give people some food and drinks, show them the way. Everybody shows unity in such a situation."

When asked about possible attacks in the neighborhood, he pointed to the hundreds of people walking quietly in the streets. "There is no more fear in this neighborhood than in any other place in America. What should we do, hide? Hopefully, it is over."

One woman, who identified herself only as Mrs. Lieberman, was walking her baby around the neighborhood. She said her other children were in school, and there were no plans to bring them home early. "Everybody is nervous, but the children were already in school when it happened," she said. "And we have to go on."

At the Viener Yeshiva on Bedford Avenue, children were noisily playing in front of the entrance and pointing at the cloud of smoke hovering over lower Manhattan, across the river. Heskel Friedman, a school official, said that many parents had called, but that only "a few" had come to take their children home.

"The school principals in the neighborhood decided not to send the kids home so as not to increase the panic," he said.

In the yeshiva, which hosts some 1,000 children, and in several other schools, there was no visible police security on hand. Many chasidim said that the police personnel normally guarding the area had all been called to Manhattan. Today a stranger could enter the building with a backpack unimpeded. "We don't feel in danger at all," said Mr. Friedman. Most of the men and women along the streets said the same thing.

"Anyway, we know everything is in God's hands, so why worry?" said one young man who declined to give his name.

Chaim Pollack, who works in a neighborhood medical facility, said he was "deeply concerned, like every American is concerned. This is just like a movie. Planes crashing into the Twin Towers!"

Mrs. Lieberman agreed. "I thought America was very protected so I'm very surprised this happened. They'd better get those people who did it."

Although most of the people interviewed said they had never expected such an attack to take place, Simon, a worker for Hatzoloh, the city's Orthodox Jewish volunteer ambulance service, explained that "this was something waiting to happen because of the overly lax attitude of the U.S. authorities."

"Some people took advantage of the good nature of the American people," he added, while monitoring on his walkie-talkie the movements of the ambulances going in and out of Manhattan. "And I am sure that after the emotions come down, people will blame it on the Jews. CNN will do its usual spinning."

A man standing nearby said someone riding a bike had yelled at him that it was "because of you Jews."

Mr. Cohen and others, however, insisted that this was essentially an attack against America and not against Jews.

"This is just a terrible day for America," he concluded, while inviting an African-American with a rasta haircut to stop for a minute and have a drink.

[The above article, which comes courtesy of Am Echad Resources, appeared in the Forward on September 14]

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

It was two days after the cataclysm that was September 11 before my server was up and I was finally able to receive e-mail again. A good number of the more than one hundred messages awaiting me, like so many of the phone calls that had managed to get through in the interim, were expressions of hope that all was okay at Agudath Israel, whose offices are but a few blocks from what was, until that terrible Tuesday, the World Trade Center. Everyone, thank God, was fine, I responded to each. The office had been quickly evacuated; and, as for me, what would have been my usual walk along lower Broadway at just about the moment the catastrophe unfolded was prevented by a fortuitously timed dentist appointment.

But, of course, all was far from fine, not only for us but for all New Yorkers and all Washingtonians - indeed for all Americans everywhere. The personal tragedies had only begun to emerge; there were horribly many horribly lost lives and limbs. There were traumatized survivors, and a traumatized nation.

But while the victim of the tragic assault was our entire country, the 'Jewish angle' certainly isn't hard to discern. The terrible hatred that motivates Islamic extremists, which was not only behind the recent attacks but has caused the civilized world untold tragedy and pain over the years, is most commonly expressed these days as hatred of Israel (read: Jews) and Zionism (ditto). The suicide-celebrating savages may despise Western mores or culture; they may revile democracy or Christianity; they may loathe pluralism or technology. But above all, they hate Jews.

There is concern among some in the American Jewish community that part of America might come to wonder if our nation's special relationship with the Jewish State is really worth the risk. They recall things like the bumper stickers that appeared during the 70s energy crisis reading 'Burn Jews, not oil.' And indeed, just two days after the attacks on New York and Washington, a letter writer to The New York Times delicately suggested that Americans 'begin to reflect' on the hatred that begat the recent carnage, 'where it comes from and how we are implicated in its origins.' There have been reports of Jews becoming the targets of angry catcalls from passing cars in recent days.

Others, like me, are nevertheless optimistic, heartened both by things like the Bush administration's principled statements and actions (like its withdrawal from the Durban hatefest) and by a gut feeling that the American public is overwhelmingly fair-minded and insightful - qualities that tend to result in good will toward Jews and support of Israel's security. Orthodox Jewish rabbinic leaders have often referred to the United States as a 'malchus shel chessed' ' literally, a 'kingdom of kindness' ' a beneficent and principled country. Ours may well be the only nation on earth with a Jewish population that it has never chosen to persecute.

And so, while mindful of Jewish tradition's warning never to place ultimate trust in any human being, some of us American Jews dare to hope that our nation, leaders and populace alike, will continue to show the courage of their convictions. That they will recognize evil for what it is, and seek not to keep it at bay - we have all-too-vividly seen the dangerous futility in that approach - but to obliterate it.

At the same time, though, just as the recent disaster has a Jewish angle, it also has a Jewish response. It most certainly does not lie in targeting innocent Arabs or Muslims for verbal abuse, as some have reportedly done.

Nor does it lie in satisfaction with any military action that may be taken. Though such action is necessary and proper, it will in the end remain an imperfect conclusion. If insufficiently discriminate, it would be wrong. Turning Afghanistan into a lunar landscape might satisfy some, but taking innocent lives in revenge is hardly more moral than doing the same in a terrorist attack.

Targeted killing' of terrorist leaders is certainly a fine option (one that our government may have a newfound appreciation for now) but that approach has its own problems. There are always less prominent haters waiting in the wings, all too ready to take over from their violent teachers. And Islamic terror is a broad and diverse ugliness. Is the civilized world truly willing (or able) to destroy the entire multi-headed monster? Will we have the commitment to go after terrorists wherever they are, in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Libya and Syria too? (Not to mention areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority; now there's a trenchant thought.)

Some military response, to be sure, is certainly called for. But the ultimate Jewish response is not the sword but the book, not the 'hands' of Esau but the 'voice' of Jacob: Our rededication to our religious tradition, our re-embrace of our Torah and our heartfelt prayers to our Creator ' who gave us human beings the free will to choose evil or good, and the power to beseech Him.

We might start with the words of the first of three Psalms that, following the directive of the Council of Torah Sages, countless Jews have been reciting each morning for the past several months. It is Psalm number 83, where King David declares to God: 'Behold, Your enemies are in uproar; those who hate You have raised their heads. Against Your nation they plot deviously and say 'come, let us cut them off from nationhood, so Israel's name will be remembered no more.'

Pursue them with Your tempest and terrify them with Your storm. Fill their faces with shame, so that they will seek Your name, God. Then they will know that You alone are God, the Highest One above all the earth.'

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

None of the peripheral damage wrought by the terrorists who struck at America on September 11 should even be mentioned in the same sentence as the horrific loss of life exacted that day by those evil men. The intentional murder of thousands of men, women and children is what must always remain at the forefront of our consciousness.

The catastrophe, though, had its lesser effects too, among them the shattering of a nation's sense of security, the shocking alteration of its most populous city's skyline, massive layoffs by the airline industry, a general economic upheaval. And, of particular import to Jews, the cancellation of a massive Israel solidarity rally, which had been scheduled for New York on September 23.

The gathering's organizers, the United Jewish Communities, decided that a large and public display of support for Israel would not be an appropriate coda to a national period of tragedy and mourning. No doubt security concerns played a role in the decision as well. While all normative precautions were surely taken, it is unlikely organizers had anti-aircraft batteries in mind. Amazing how our paradigms can so suddenly shift.

The bottom line, though, is that what was conceived as an unprecedented display of Jewish unity was, at least for the foreseeable future, shelved.

As it happened, though, the solidarity the rally was to reflect had been problematic from the get-go. Some liberal Jewish groups, like the Reform movement's congregational body, were concerned that their participation might be construed as support for current Israeli government policies like maintaining settlements or targeting killing of terrorist leaders, which they oppose. Others, like the Zionist Organization of America, were disappointed that the rally's official message did not specifically support the current Israeli government's positions. And so, in an effort to avoid facing unpleasant if important issues, the rally's theme was rendered "Standing together with the people of Israel" - a somewhat parve, if still noble, sentiment.

But the fact that even that common ground will not now be stood upon, at least not literally, might bring us to ponder the deeper meaning of Jewish solidarity. While concern for other Jews is a paramount aspect of Jewishness, is that its limit? And is even that concern most meaningfully expressed by the summoning of a mass of people to a public place?

Jewish truth be told, Jewish solidarity has ancient and yet still vibrantly alive and thriving roots. Our religious tradition refers to our fractious family as having attained the status of "one person with one heart" - at Sinai, when the Torah was given. The implication is unmistakable: what made us one was our common commitment to the Torah.

And equally unmistakable is that implication's implication: what can make us one again is precisely the same. Gathering together not physically but spiritually.

Let us seize on the solidarity gathering that wasn't to build a solidarity gathering that not only can be but that can outshine - in a less public but more real way - any conceivable march or demonstration. Each of us can access our tradition's teachings and directives. We can all pronounce blessings before eating food; avoid slander and other forbidden talk; opt for kosher food; observe the Sabbath and holidays; pray.

There has been an explosion of English-language literature in recent years about Jewish thought, religious laws and customs. ArtScroll/Mesorah publishers has scores of volumes that are both accessible and informative (not to mention its groundbreaking and top-notch Talmud series). Older favorites run the gamut from powerful classics like Hirsch's "Horeb" (translated from the German) to popular works like Donin's "To Be A Jew." Any reputable Jewish bookstore offers a wealth of authentically Jewish literature, food for Jewish thought as well as guides to Jewish life.

If all of us, wherever we are on the spectrum of Jewish identification or observance, will seek to become more knowledgeable and observant than we currently are, we can access a solidarity no rally could ever accomplish.

Our feet might then be in very different places, but our hearts will be one.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

It was too good to last. The post-attack-on-America spirit of unity and good will, the inspiring altruism and powerful heroism, were all real and are still apparent. But we have now, sadly, seen some very different things as well.

The first signs of ugliness were the depressing reports of looting at Ground Zero, implying that, at least for some, greed had trumped grief. Then came an assortment of other opportunists, like lawyers who chased dazed survivors and mourners with visions of lucrative lawsuits dancing in their heads.

In the Jewish world, though, the proverbial cake was handily taken by Rabbi Uri Regev, leader of the Reform movement's Israeli presence, the Israel Religion Action Center. He decided to co-opt the tragedy that was September 11 for use in his ongoing political battle with those who seek to preserve the Jewish religious tradition in the Jewish State.

In a recent Sabbath sermon at a temple in Cleveland, Rabbi Regev drew an astonishing comparison between what a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News characterized as the "intolerance and hatred which drove Islamic terrorists to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon" and, in the rabbi's words, "our own [i.e. Jewish] religious extremists who feel they have the right to rule other people's lives, spreading the venom of religious fundamentalism."

Rabbi Regev went on to quote Muslim religious leaders who demand that Jews "must be butchered and killed," and to insinuate that similar sentiments are a feature of the very Orthodox, or Haredi, Jewish world. Haredim, he declared, feel they have "license to get rid of infidels."

His evidence, according to the report, is apparently Haredi opposition to Israel's endorsement of American-style "Jewish religious pluralism." "Israel," the rabbi asserted, "is the only country in the free world where Jews are denied their religious identity. We need to band together to fight religious zealots..." And then, in case his listeners somehow missed the insinuated imputation of violence, he added "If we don't learn from the September 11 loss of human lives, we haven't learned anything."

Reality Check: Israel's Haredim advance their interests through such mechanisms as making their cases to the public and participating in Israel's democratic system, not by engaging in violence against their opponents. They express their ideals through prayer, Torah-study, observance of mitzvot, religious outreach and acts of kindness toward others. They do not seek world domination and do not engage in terrorism. That such even needs to be said is tragic.

No Jew in Israel, moreover, is prevented in any way from living as a Reform Jew - or as a secular Jew, or as a Zen Buddhist. The Reform and Conservative movements are entirely free to try to attract Israelis to their theologies and practices and have made great efforts to do so.

Rabbi Regev knows all that. What irks him, though, is that when it comes to issues of Jewish personal status - marriage, divorce, conversion - Israel has always recognized a single set of Jewish standards: those of the Jewish religious tradition that lies at the roots of all Jews.

Most of Israel's Orthodox community and a sizable portion of its less religiously observant populace maintain that only a single Jewish standard for such things can ensure future Jewish unity, and that the standard should be the one that has served the Jewish people for several millennia. That, as it happens, is the very purpose of the "religious status quo," Israel's embrace of certain central Jewish values, which has served Israel since the time (and which had the support of) the Jewish State's decidedly non-Orthodox founding father, David Ben-Gurion.

The democratically elected representatives of Israel's religiously traditional citizens sit in the Knesset and, when bills are introduced to alter that "religious status quo," they vote their consciences. But they have never sought, and do not seek, to coerce anyone to accept Jewish observance.

Rabbi Regev is entitled, of course, to oppose the religious status quo in Israel, even to disagree with an important part of Israel's body politic. He also has the right - though it would hardly seem to befit a religious leader - to be incensed at the fact that others might dare to have a different vision from his. But he is not - or should not be - welcome to vilify other Jews with whom he disagrees. By doing so, to the point even of equating them with bloodthirsty terrorists, he places himself beyond the pale.

And all Jews of good will, regardless of their affiliations or levels of Jewish observance, should be deeply saddened at his words and - even more - at the feelings that lie behind them.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Orthodox Jewish homosexuals are the subject of a documentary film that achieved darlinghood at a number of film festivals over the past year and has now been similarly well-received at its New York debut. Many audiences and reviewers have found "Trembling Before G-D"'s portrayal of the anguish faced by Jews who want to remain Orthodox but see themselves as homosexual to be compelling.

And on one level the film might well be regarded as a tribute to the determination of heartfelt Jews who, despite the catastrophic clash of their desires and their faith, nevertheless find themselves simply unable to abandon the latter. The Jewish soul is indeed a hardy, holy thing.

Unfortunately, though, "Trembling" seems to have other intents as well. While it never baldly advocates the case for broader societal acceptance of homosexuality or for the abandonment of elements of the Jewish religious tradition, those causes are subtly evident in the stark, simplistic picture the film presents of sincere, conflicted and victimized men and women confronted by a largely stern and stubborn cadre of rabbis.

That picture is both incomplete and distorted. For starters, the film refuses to even allow for the possibility that men and women with homosexual predilections might - with great effort, to be sure - achieve successful and happy marriages to members of the opposite sex.

Though he interviewed hundreds of subjects for the project, producer Sandi Simcha DuBowski claims to have been unable to find any such people. Therapist Adam Jessel, though, writing in the Jerusalem Post, says there are many, and recounts how he attended a screening of the film with precisely such a person - a man, it turned out, who was actually interviewed by DuBowski but whose experience was not included in the film. Jessel also quotes another man who reported that DuBowski, with whom he spoke by phone, "told me he doesn't believe in change. He didn't seem to be interested in meeting any Jews who were in the process of change either."

Such change is more common that most people realize. An organization - JONAH ( - has been helping Jews, both Orthodox and otherwise, who wish to overcome homosexual orientations, and has met with considerable success. Neither it nor any of its clients are featured or mentioned in "Trembling."

What is more, and even more important, is that while the film thoroughly portrays the challenges faced by its subjects, it simply does not allow Judaism to make its case. Several prominent Orthodox rabbis were interviewed at length by DuBowski, but only short excerpts are included in the film.

One of those rabbis, Rabbi Aharon Feldman, currently the dean of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, says that the film fails to convey the deep compassion with which thoughtful Orthodox Jews regard those who are challenged with a homosexual orientation. The film, he asserts, "makes us appear to be narrow and bigoted" when, in fact, "it is compassion, albeit without condoning" that accurately describes Orthodoxy's attitude toward homosexuality.

That attitude reflects the fact that no sexual orientation itself is condemned by the Torah. Axiomatic to Jewish law is that only acts and willful attitudes (like nurturing desires that are wrong) can be prohibited, not inherent proclivities. Behavior, though, in every area of human life and endeavor, is carefully delineated by Jewish religious law. That is Judaism. And controlling behavior, even - no, especially - when difficult, is precisely what the Torah asks of its adherents.

That's not, however, the film's attitude, which is better summed up by one of its subjects, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, billed as "the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi." Addressing the Torah's strong prohibition of male homosexual acts, he suggests to the camera, without elaboration: "There are other ways of reading the Torah." What Rabbi Greenberg apparently believes is that elements of the Jewish religious tradition are negotiable, that the Torah, like a Hollywood script, can be sent back for a rewrite. That approach can be called many things, but "Orthodox" is not among them.

DuBowski has told the press that his experiences in making his film have made him more religious, that he has experienced Shabbat for the first time and laid tefillin. Such Jewish growth is no small thing, and is a true tribute to the man. May he continue to grow as a Jew, and to learn more about Jewish ideals and observance. And may he also come to understand why his film, whether or not it is a critical success, misleads.

Because "Trembling Before G-d" wrongly answers the most important Jewish question imaginable: Is Judaism is about what we'd like G-D to do to accommodate us, or about what we are honored, exalted and sanctified to do to obey Him?

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

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Sara Bedein

Sunday, October 28 - the 11th of Cheshvan - was the 3554th anniversary of Matriarch Rachel's death.

Rachel, the beloved wife of the Patriarch Jacob died in childbirth. Jacob chose to bury his wife in Bethlehem rather than at the Patriarchs Tomb in Hebron because he foresaw that his descendants would pass this site during their exile into Babylon and that Rachel would pray for their safety and ultimate return.

For millennia, Jews have made pilgrimages to Rachel's Tomb, considered the third holiest shrine in the Land of Israel. The site has absorbed countless tears of barren women beseeching God in the merit of Mother Rachel, who herself had been barren for many years. Jews have poured out their hearts there, praying for everything from world redemption to a suitable marriage-partner.

This year's Yahrtzeit coincided with the Israel Defense Force's entering of Bethlehem in an attempt to wipe out terrorist factions who have been regularly shooting at the surrounding Jewish neighborhoods.

Bullet-proof Egged buses were allocated for hopeful visitors, leaving Jerusalem for Rachel's Tomb on an hourly basis on Saturday night, the eve of the Yahrtzeit, and throughout Sunday. In addition, the Gush Etzion Municipality volunteered its own bullet-proof buses on a half-hour basis. Though government officials were skeptical about whether the buses would be filled thousands of Jews disabused them of their doubts. Saturday night, instead of stopping at midnight as scheduled, the buses continued transporting the steady tide of worshippers back and forth from Rachel's Tomb up until 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning.

In 1995, Bethlehem was handed over to the Palestinian Authority. This resulted in many changes. A fortress was erected around the Tomb to protect Jewish worshippers from Arab snipers. Bullet-proof buses now pull up to the Tomb and discharge their passengers behind a concrete wall closing off the Bethlehem street from the Tomb. For the past seven years, two yeshivot have been established at Rachel's Tomb, ensuring a continuous Jewish presence at this holy site.

When the current Intifada broke out last September, access to Rachel's Tomb was denied. The Barak government seemed willing to relinquish the holy shrine as it had Joseph's Tomb in Nablus, after Palestinians destroyed holy books and turned the Tomb into a mosque. It was indeed a difficult and dangerous site to protect.

What was not taken into account, though, was the strong spirit of the People of Israel, who were simply unwilling to give up the holy place.

A group of Jewish women from Hebron set up a tent at the Gilo-Bethlehem junction, remaining there until the Tomb was reopened. Last year, shortly before Mother Rachel's Yahrtzeit, a group of 20 women from Hebron, including grandmothers and mothers with babies in strollers, stood at the IDF barrier at the entrance to Bethlehem, with the intention of holding prayers there since they had been denied entrance to Rachel's Tomb. The group decided to walk through the IDF guarded barrier and enter Bethlehem by foot and walk to Rachel's Tomb. The guard was taken aback by the determination of these Jewish women.

"It took us a little over ten minutes to walk to Rachel's Tomb", says Shelly Karzan from Hebron. When we arrived there, an Israeli soldier was standing guard. 'Shalom', we said. 'We are here to pray at Rachel's Tomb'. The soldier rubbed his eyes in amazement and assumed that we must have received authorization to have gotten this far. He opened the door and we entered. We were greatly moved at the thought of actually being at the tomb when, for over a month, Jews had been denied entrance. Tearfully we prayed with the utmost devotion, imploring Mother Rachel to once again intercede and make the Land of Israel safe for her children."

This incident, along with pressure from Jews around the world, had their desired effect, and entry to Rachel's Tomb was officially granted. The holy site had been closed for forty one days. In Hebrew letters, the number forty one equals the word "eim," or Mother.

This year, I joined the thousands of Jews who visited Rachel's Tomb on her Yahrtzeit. On the bus was a mixture of men and women in Chassidic garb, North African women wearing colorful headcoverings, and residents from the neighboring settlements who regularly visit Rachel's Tomb to help ensure Jewish presence at the site. After driving through a Bethlehem overrun with tanks and soldiers, we arrived at the Tomb. We quickly got off the bus and were ushered in by the IDF.

The Tomb was packed with people. I entered the women's section of the shrine where Psalms and private prayers were being recited. Some of the women wailed out loud while others silently wept into their prayer books. The men' s section likewise reverberated with sounds of sobbing and prayer. Rachel's resting place seems to evoke heartfelt tears.

" . . . lamentation, bitter weeping; Rachel weeps for her children;"

I left Rachel's Tomb strengthened. The spirit of Am Yisrael is stronger than the harsh world outside the Tomb. Throughout the ages, Jews have come here to pray at the most difficult times. The thousands of Jews who chose to come on October 28 to commemorate Mother Rachel's Yahrtzeit are proof of the continuity and determination of Am Yisrael, and a reaffirmation of our faith in our Jewish heritage.

"Thus says the Lord: Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from tears; your work shall have its reward, says the Lord; they shall return from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, says the Lord; the children shall return to their land." - Jeremiah, chapter 31."

[Sara Bedein is a writer and translator who lives with her husband David and their six children in Efrat, Israel.]

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

In the wee hours of Friday morning, November 2, thousands of Orthodox Jews across the United States gathered around telephone speakers and amplifiers in yeshivot, synagogues and homes to join, in a small way and at a great distance, a funeral taking place thousands of miles away.

In Bnei Brak, a town near Tel Aviv, the funeral itself filled the streets with hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews (few of them true contemporaries of the deceased, who was, according to informed sources, anywhere from 103 to 107 years old) at what is usually the busiest time of the week, mere hours before the onset of the Sabbath.

It is a troubling but poignant commentary on the dissolute state of the contemporary Jewish world that, despite the immense stature of the man who had passed away, evidenced by the prodigious number of mourners, he was virtually unknown to most Jews outside Israel.

Perhaps even more ironic was the fact that Rabbi Elazar Schach has since been characterized by the press as someone who "wielded powerful influence over [Israeli] politics," a "key power broker" with "shrewd political instinct" (The New York Times); "one of the most powerful forces in the evolution of Israeli society" (Jewish Telegraphic Agency); and as a "political kingmaker" (Associated Press).

That Rabbi Schach strongly influenced the course of Israeli politics is undeniable. But that was not why hundreds of thousands joined the funeral procession his funeral - or why his passing is being mourned as well by hundreds of thousands of others. The reason so much of the Orthodox Jewish world was engulfed in grief at the news of his passing was because of Rabbi Schach's powerful appreciation for, and achievements in, another realm entirely, a universe likewise unfamiliar to all too many contemporary Jews: the study and teaching of Torah.

Rabbi Schach was the dean of deans in the world of yeshivot, a man who was greatly instrumental in forging what one leading Israeli sociologist has called "the society of learners." What those "learners" learn, of course, is Torah - the endless sea of Jewish law and lore, the Talmud and Midrash and commentaries and responsa that comprise the corpus of Jewish religious literature.

Few outside the Orthodox community would likely recognize the name of the man who successfully accomplished much the same on these shores: Rabbi Aharon Kotler, who arrived in the United States in 1941 and died in 1962. What resulted from the efforts of men like Rabbi Kotler and Rabbi Schach was nothing less than the post-Holocaust re-empowerment of the Jewish religious tradition.

The two scholars shared a secret knowledge: that the soul of the Jewish people is the study and observance of Torah. And so each set out, without regard for either the cynics or the odds, to create the yeshiva world anew - indeed, to make it even broader and stronger, to make up for lost time and lost souls.

>From the vast and crowded study-halls of Bnai Brak's Ponevezh yeshiva, which Rabbi Schach headed for a half-century, and Lakewood, New Jersey's Beth Medrash Govoha, the seminary Rabbi Kotler founded, have emerged thousands of dedicated and determined students, many of whom went on - and go on, each year - to establish yeshivot of their own, to become expert decisors of Jewish law or to serve the cause of Jewish education in a broad assortment of venues and roles.

About two years ago, I read a New York Times article that made mention of America's "Jewish seminaries"; it went on to list them: Hebrew Union College (Reform), Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative) and Yeshiva University (Orthodox). Since I was friendly with the article's writer, a non-Jewish, top-notch reporter, I called him and said, "With all respect to Yeshiva University, did you know that there are dozens of yeshivot in the American Orthodox world, many of them larger by several times than YU's rabbinic training school?" He hadn't known, he admitted, and I suggested he allow me show him one. He seemed genuinely interested and, a few months later, traveled with me to Baltimore, the home of Ner Israel Rabbinical College, where I was privileged to study for several years in the 1970s.

The Baltimore yeshiva has a high school and post-high school division, as well as a married students program, or kollel. The sprawling, stunningly beautiful suburban campus includes dozens of apartments and townhouses, dormitories, basketball courts and, of course, active, noisy, vibrantly alive study-halls.

We entered the main one and surveyed the scene of several hundred young men surrounded by books, animatedly arguing points or poring over texts; my guest was clearly intrigued. Our host, one of the yeshiva's administrators, invited him to walk through the cavernous if crowded room and engage students in conversation. He seemed hesitant to take up the offer, reluctant to take the students from their studies, but the administrator's encouragement and the reporter's own natural curiosity won out in the end.

I watched as he went from one pair of students (much yeshiva study is done in pairs, or chavrutot) to another; at each, the students stood up to welcome the visitor, invited him to sit down with them and seemed happy to answer his questions. A good while later, he returned, his pad filled with notes, and his eyes with wonder.

He told me how deeply impressed he had been "with the sincerity and idealism" of the students he had met. He had spoken with some from Orthodox families, whose fathers had studied at the same yeshiva decades earlier; he had met others who had come to Orthodoxy on their own. One student who had particularly impressed him had been a screenplay writer in Los Angeles a year or two earlier. The article my reporter-friend went on to write for The Times about the yeshiva amply evidenced the positive impact his conversations had left.

The idealism and determination he had witnessed comprise the engine of the yeshiva world, fueled by men like Rabbi Schach and Rabbi Kotler - and by those who carry on their dream. The study and observance of Torah represent a commitment not only to the Jewish past but to the Jewish present and the Jewish future.

And Torah is not the "Orthodox" heritage, but the heritage of all Jews, whatever we may choose to call ourselves. How wonderful it would be were every Jew who cares about his people and its future to visit a yeshiva - there are many, including seminaries for women and adult-education "community kollels", in cities across the continent. They shy away from self-promotion and are all too easily overlooked. But they are well worth seeking out.

Rabbi Schach was indeed an important and powerful Jewish personality, but not for the reasons the media proclaimed. The enormity of his contribution to our Jewish world is discernable not through the lens of politics, but rather through the unobstructed, bright and clear view provided by truly Jewish eyes.

The loss of Rabbi Schach is immense, but so, happily, is his legacy.

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

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