jewish continuity
jewish heritage
jewish people
jews of america
jewish community
jewish history
jewish culture
judaism kabala
jewish tradition
jewish life
torah parsha
jewish links
jewish interest
jewish humor
jews Israel


Subscribe - FREE!



Sharing and caring
on the Internet

In Recognition Of
Aish Hatorah
- Reconnecting Jews To Their Heritage

Preserving a near-lost legacy and heritage.
Sharing and Caring on behalf of Torah Judaism

Provided by Am Echad Resources:
Information and Opinion from a Traditional Jewish Perspective

Archives Of Previous Articles XIV


Rabbi Avi Shafran

A suggestion I made after the first results of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000 were disclosed brought a response from someone with whom I feel very close despite the considerable distance between many of our views.

Leonard (Leibel) Fein, a celebrated writer and activist with deep feelings for his fellow Jews and an intense commitment to the Jewish ideals of justice and kindness, is discomfited by my proposition that the Jewish past' s definition of Jewishness should be embraced as we head into the future.

That definition - having been born to a Jewish mother or converted according to Jewish religious law - rankles my friend because its first part smacks to him of "racialism" and its second of "belief," which, he asserts, most contemporary Jews lack.

My definition of the Jewish People, however, is simple: we are a family. That is how our tradition characterizes us, and how in fact Jews have regarded themselves since the time of Jacob. Are families not defined, most basically, by blood? While ancestral identity theories may have been used for evil purposes in history, the Jewish clan is charged with being a light, not a blight, unto the nations. We Jews regard our national distinctiveness as a sacred charge to aspire to spiritual achievement, not a means of dominating others.

Mr. Fein is correct that it is not "Jewish genes" in the literal sense of the phrase, that matter - or that they even exist. Judaism's "genetic" component is not based on any chromosomal marker but rather on parentage - which, while biologically determined, is meaningful in a realm far beyond what an electron microscope can reveal.

To be sure, there is another way of joining the Jewish people, analogous to joining a family through marriage: sincere conversion, accompanied by an acceptance of the laws of the Torah -which is what spiritually empowered the Jewish people in the first place, and what underlies its specialness no less today.

But, Mr. Fein objects, many, even most, born Jews lack such a commitment themselves. That is true, tragically, but the calculus is not much different from, say, citizenship; a Chicago-born anarchist is, willy-nilly, a U.S. citizen; yet a Canadian immigrant must undergo a process, which will include a declaration of respect for the law of the land, to become one. Shouldn't there, though, Mr. Fein implores, "be a way to join" the Jewish people "that involves study and commitment" to other Jews but without "belief"? Well, one thing is certain. That way lies a terrible, traumatic family breakdown.

That is true if for no other reason than the Orthodox world's deep-seated and sincere conviction that the only way a non-Jew can become part of the Jewish people is by his or her entering the Jewish covenant, through a conversion in accord with halacha.

What is more, every Jewish movement has its own standards for considering a born non-Jew to have joined our people - and they all differ. A standard Reform conversion is not acceptable to most Conservative rabbis; a humanistic Jewish congregation's acceptance of a congregant as a fellow Jew would not likely be recognized by the Reform movement. The only standard that no Jewish group can conscionably object to is the one that has been used for millennia, that of Jewish tradition.

What is more, there is a fatal flaw in my friend's suggestion, something he in fact acknowledges. Namely, that redefining Jewishness as simple commitment to study and to the welfare of other Jews would render countless Jews "who know little and perhaps care even less" outside the pale. One can 't, after all, have it both ways. If blood - or, better, one's mother's Jewishness - is not a meaningful benchmark, as per the Fein plan, hundreds of thousands of people considered Jews by the Orthodox (and others) will be suddenly considered, at least by the redefiners, Judaei non grati.

No, the Jewish future cannot lie in redefining the word "Jew." It lies, rather, in the recognition that we Jews are all, as it were, joined at the soul. And in understanding what in fact joins us: our Torah, whether we choose to accept it or not. Not our observance of the Torah, but rather its incumbency upon us. Our bond is our mandate.

Which is why our differences of opinion, even our diametric views on some issues, cannot affect our essential Jewish bond. Why, despite our own differences on many, many things, Leonard Fein and I remains brothers, indeed - I hope he'll forgive me - blood brothers.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Dueling demographers have drawn their weapons - conflicting surveys - in the latest round of an ongoing quarrel over the future of American Jewry.

Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, brandished the first batch of recent data several weeks ago, from which he divined that the country's Jewish population has been underestimated for years, that there are fully 6.7 million Jews among the 288 million residents of the United States. Alluding to the rather broad calipers he used to measure Jewishness - he included as Jews not only people with a Jewish father but a non-Jewish mother but anyone who said he or she was culturally Jewish and - Dr. Tobin says that "Jews are not disappearing, they're transforming."

Dr. Tobin's study was based on a survey of 250 households. Following close on its heels came the release of preliminary results of the much-awaited and long-delayed National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), based on several thousand. It presents a different picture, of a substantially smaller American Jewish population - 5.2 million.

Whichever number is closer to the truth, however, the NJPS study revealed something else more important: the core population of American Jews seems to be shrinking - aging and producing fewer children than it needs to replace itself. The NJPS figures indicate a decline of 300,000 Jews since the last major nationwide study a decade ago, and an average birthrate of 1.8 children per couple; 2.1 is considered the minimum "replacement level" average.

Some, including Dr. Tobin, feel that what the Jewish community needs is to redefine itself, to consider broadening the sociological definition of "Jewish" beyond not only those traditionally considered Jewish (by their birth to a Jewish mother or proper conversion), but beyond even the NJPS's already stretched-thin sociological definition.

Concurring with his advice to widen the Jewish tent is Dr. Egon Meyer, the director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the graduate center of the City University of New York. Dr. Meyer also heads the Jewish Outreach Institute, whose motto is "Welcoming Interfaith Families into the Jewish Community."

The premise of such "inclusivists," though, seems to be that the core Jewish community's ultimate goal, in and of itself, should be to achieve larger Jewish numbers.

However, from a traditional Jewish perspective - the perspective that has brought the Jewish people to care, three thousand years after its birth, about its Jewishness - that is precisely wrong. What matters is not our numbers at all but rather our peoplehood.

The "more Jews the merrier" approach essentially regards the Jewish people as an interest group. The "we are a people" approach sees us more like a family, basing itself on an essential and strong genetic component, yet allowing selected others - conditional on their solid and solemn commitment - to join as well.

Ironically, the traditional approach concurs in some ways with the methodology of the "inclusivists." Just as they consider a Jew who has strayed entirely from Judaism to remain a Jew, so do Orthodox Jews consider even the most alienated Jew to be their brother or sister, fully worthy of their assistance, love and outreach. On the other hand, though, there are clear boundaries, those of the Jewish religious tradition, that define membership in Klal Yisrael, the communal Jewish family. Being married to a Jew is not sufficient; nor is being born to a Jewish father; nor is undergoing a course or ceremony that does not satisfy the Torah-sourced and time-honored standards for conversion.

The portion of the NJPS that will address the growth and level of Jewish commitment of specific groups within the Jewish people is not scheduled for release until the end of November. But if it reflects reality, it will likely show that the more traditional Jewish community is waning neither in numbers, birth rate nor commitment to Jewish practice. That fact should reiterate to the larger Jewish community concerned about continuity the importance of Jewish education and religious practice.

But it would be healthy, too, were it to bring us all to more seriously consider the wisdom of the Orthodox approach to understanding Jewish peoplehood: that we are not a interest group but rather a family, that the definition of Klal Yisrael in our past might well be the most meaningful one for gauging our present - and for planning our future.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

With the Biblical Abraham's life about to be collectively recounted in coming weekly Torah readings at synagogues around the world, Avraham Avinu ("our father Abraham," as traditional Jews refer to him) has become the subject of a major newsweekly's cover story and two books.

Time Magazine's spin on the first forefather of the Jewish people, in its September 30 issue, was that he "is beloved by Jews, Christians and Muslims."

"Can this bond," the article's subheader asks, "stop them from hating one another?"

Jews, of course, don't hate either Christians or Muslims (though many of us do have rather understandable antagonism toward murderers and terrorists, whatever their religion). But what Time wishes to raise is the possibility that an investigation of Abraham might illuminate, perhaps even help resolve, the ongoing strife in the Middle East.

In that vein, David Van Biema, the main author of the article, "The Legacy of Abraham," begins on a hopeful note - literally: an Arabic song, heard on a New York cabbie's radio, ostensibly pleading with Israel "We have the same father. Why do you treat us this way?"

Though a much more popular song in Arab lands is "I Hate Israel," and though the treatment of Israelis by some of their Arab neighbors and citizens has been considerably less than familial, any sentiment of brotherly love, however presented, is certainly worth celebrating.

And so Abraham, the writer continues, should by all logic be "an interfaith superstar," a figure whose importance to Judaism, Christianity and Islam might be expected to unite all those who profess those faiths.

Instead, though, as Mr. Van Biema concedes, the reality is that Abraham's name has been invoked primarily to stake and promote particularistic claims - claims to ethnic authenticity, to land, to truth itself.

While Judaism regards Abraham as the ancestor of the Jewish people and the recipient on their behalf of divine deed to the Holy Land, Roman Catholicism includes his name in its Mass, and Islam considers him the first Muslim (who was commanded to sacrifice not Isaac but rather Ishmael, in whom Arabs see their progenitor). An Islamic religious leader is quoted in Time as characterizing Jewish Biblical claims to the Holy Land as "pure lies."

Bruce Feiler, the best-selling author of "Walking the Bible," has weighed in on the topic as well, with "Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths" (David Klinghoffer's "The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism" is due out in several months).

Following Time's politically correct lead, Mr. Feiler equates the claims of various faiths to Abraham, and asserts that each faith "performed reconstructive surgery" on its traditions in order to bolster its particular narrative of the forefather.

Now, we Jews are enjoined by our religious heritage not to missionize, and to avoid disputations with members of other faiths. At the same time, though, it is important that we reiterate elements of our convictions to ourselves.

Like a fact that should be evident to any careful reader of either the Time article or Mr. Feiler's book, but whose import is somehow glossed over by both.

Abraham lived approximately 3800 years ago. In other words, about 1500 years before the advent of Christianity, and more than two thousand before Mohammed was born.

Thus, the Jewish "version" of Abraham - in which he is told by G-d that, through his son Isaac, he would father a people who will be chosen to receive His law and inherit the Holy Land - was the only one existent for many tens of hundreds of years, during which time, it was carefully and lovingly transmitted from Jewish generation to Jewish generation, unchanged and uncontested, before different versions of his life and mission eventually came to be offered by others.

And so, in the midst of all the Abrahamania, we might do well to dwell a bit more than usual on that fact - and on our forefather, by paying particularly close attention to the weekly Torah portions of Lech Lecha, Vayeira and Chayei Sara, which teach us about Avraham Avinu, and by studying traditional Jewish commentaries (like those translated into English and lucidly explicated in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Chumash) on those portions.

We don't know if, when the Christian and Islamic versions of Abraham appeared, our ancestors were flattered or disturbed by the developments. What we do know, though, is that they simply continued, with determination if without fanfare, to entrust their children with the tradition that their own ancestors had received and transmitted, received and transmitted, for thousands of years.

We Jews today should politely acknowledge with a smile all the contemporary discussion of Avraham Avinu, and proudly do precisely the same.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

As errors in The New York Times go, it wasn't the worst we've seen. It evidenced neither a misguided sense of "balance" nor a subtle bias, only simple ignorance.

It appeared on September 16, Yom Kippur, on the paper's front page, in the caption accompanying a photograph of an adorable little girl in Jerusalem with a squeal-smile on her face as a chicken was being swung around her head. The photo, the caption informed us, depicts a pre-Yom Kippur ritual. Indeed it does; it's called Kapparot. But the text went on to explain that "one's sins" are as a result of the ritual "transferred to the hen."

Ah, were expiation of iniquity only so simple.

Needless to say, the Kapporot-ceremony does not transfer sins to the bird (or to the coins that other Kapparot-practitioners use instead). While animal sacrifices were indeed a mainstay of Jewish life when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the cancellation of sin still required teshuva, repentance, then, as it does now.

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, or "Code of Jewish Law," notes the custom of Kapparot, but disapproves of its practice. The authoritative glosses of the Rama (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 by 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 Kapparot-custom is essentially a spur to meditation on the need for atonement, and intended to stir feelings of repentance and recommitment to the performance of good deeds. Indeed, it is customary to provide the slaughtered chicken to a poor person.

Similar to Kapporot is the Rosh Hashana custom of Tashlich, which is likewise commonly misconstrued - even by people who should be better informed about things Jewish than The Times - 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 that evoke, at most, warm and nostalgic feelings of ethnic identity.

But, as a closer look at Kapporot 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 Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

As someone who is so utterly disinterested in organized sports that until recently he would have imagined ESPN to be a verb for engaging in paranormal activity, I have to offer a high-five (do I have that right?) to the sports network for helping spread awareness of the Jewish Sabbath.

Actually, the real credit goes to Micah Golshirazian, a 12-year old Orthodox Jewish boy who plays Little League baseball with the Worcester, Massachusetts "Jesse Burkett All-Stars." Micah's position is shortstop but, as his team's manager Fran Granger said, "he can run like the wind" - and so his important role in the recent Little League World Series was as a pinch-runner.

The Worcester team did quite well in the series, and one important game, which pitted it against a team from Webb City, Missouri, took place on a Saturday night. At 8:00. Almost an hour before the end of Shabbat.

Micah wanted to play, but above all to honor the dictates of his faith, which does not consider sports to be in the spirit (and elements of them, conceivably, within the letter) of the Sabbath laws. His coach, Tom Daley, told a local newspaper that "In the history of our league, kids in Micah's situation were really never considered [for an All-Star team] because they couldn't make the seven-day-a-week commitment. But Micah has meant so much to the entire program, and in many ways he personifies what the Jesse Burkett Little League is all about." Leaving aside ugly rumors about Micah 's flouting of one of the Ten Commandments (something about stealing bases), the boy certainly shone a bright beacon on another: the one about the day of rest.

Another observant Jewish youth somewhat older than Micah who likewise has refused to sacrifice principle to play is Tamir Goodman, a Baltimore basketball wonder who recently signed on as a player with Israel's top team, Maccabi Tel Aviv. Tamir's contract with the team, which plays an 82-game schedule and competes in three different leagues, contains a clause exempting him from having to participate in any team activities that will interfere with his observance of Shabbat or any Jewish holiday.

In contemporary Jewish America, unfortunately, it is all too common for Jews to ignore the Jewish Sabbath altogether, to regard it as a generic day of recreation or to seek to tailor its laws to suit their personal or communal "needs."

But Judaism is not about reformulating the Torah's laws to our own specifications. It is not about - to paraphrase JFK - asking what G-d can do for us but rather what we can do for G-d. Or, to take a more exalted statement of the same idea, it is embodied in what our ancestors at Sinai, according to Jewish tradition, responded when G-d offered them His Torah. "Na'aseh v'nishma", they said. "We will do and we will hear." In other words, we will follow Your law, even if we haven't yet managed to "hear," or understand, it.

And for three thousand years, Shabbat has entailed a clearly delineated, intricate set of dos and don'ts that have not only always been the signature observance of a religious Jew but which remain part and parcel of the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews to this day - including doctors, lawyers, scientists, software designers, vice-presidential candidates - and athletes. They meticulously avoid a host of acts - from carrying items in an unenclosed space to driving cars to turning on lights - and sanctify the day by lighting Sabbath candles well before its onset, making "Kiddush" and eating festive meals that are accompanied by song and words of Torah. They recognize the importance of a weekly day-long reminder that the world has a Creator, and the power of dedicating that day to matters of the spirit.

Micah and Tamir, by their behavior in the public eye, have helped spread the word about Shabbat.

As has, yes, ESPN, which did something truly remarkable. On its broadcast of the Saturday night Little League game, it displayed a clock in the corner of the screen that counted down the minutes until the end of the Sabbath, when the stars (those in the sky, that is) had appeared and Micah, after reciting a declaration of havdalah ("separation" between the Sabbath and the rest of the week) could play ball.

As a result of the network's decision, countless viewers, many Jewish ones surely among them, were reminded (or informed) that there is something called the Jewish Sabbath, and that it is taken very seriously by those who observe it. What a valuable message that was, and is.

And, even more important, what a valuable invitation.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

As Rosh Hashana approached this year, and Jews the world over embraced reconciliation, repentance and prayer, a senior Palestinian official seemed to renounce past sins as well.

Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, the Palestinian Authority interior minister, told an Israeli newspaper that he had called on his fellow Palestinians to "stop the suicide bombings, stop the murders for no reason."

His elaboration on his call, however, raised some troubling questions.

What he had come to regret, Mr. Yehiyeh went on to explain, was that "children were exploited for these attacks when they could have made a much more positive contribution to future Palestinian society."

The Palestinian official, understandably, was bemoaning the tragic loss of young people who were convinced by their elders to become suicide bombers. They had so much more to offer the world than the bloody pieces of what were once their bodies. But does he acknowledge the inherent immorality of their recruitment? Does he condemn the ambushing and killing of Israeli soldiers or civilians, the intentional murder of babies in their mothers' arms? Are even the suicides of his own people's youths in the course of murdering Jews inherently objectionable to him, or only less than fully efficient? Mr. Yihiyeh did not say.

Perhaps he was not asked. But before he can earn a place in Jewish hearts - or at a negotiating table - he would do well to provide answers all the same.

Because Israel cannot afford to forget something desert travelers know well. When they have run out of water and begin to suffer dehydration, they sometimes see lakes and streams where there are none in reality. Thirst-maddened men, it is said, have thrown themselves headfirst with mouths open wide into sand dunes, thinking them fountains. Something similar can happen in conceptual deserts too, in voids bone-dry of humanity and morality. And in such wastelands, to those drunk on anguished hope, bared teeth might sometimes seem like a smile.

The rejection of Mr. Yehiyeh's call by a number of even more radical Palestinian groups will lead some to place the interior minister squarely in the "moderate" camp. And maybe he belongs there. But to earn that epithet, he will have to voice regret not only for willfully wasted Palestinian lives but unwillfully wasted Jewish ones..

For Israel, even as she continues to seek true peace partners, cannot afford to end up with a mouthful of sand.

Like that The New York Times has eagerly managed to swallow.

The day before the paper reported Mr. Yehiyeh's comments, it characterized Palestinian advocate Hanan Ashrawi, as "a leading figure in promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians." This, despite Ms. Ashrawi's comically one-sided anti-Israel propaganda, despite her 1993 vote against removing language about the destruction of Israel from the Palestine National Charter, and despite her stoking of the fires of Israel-hatred (and worse) at last summer's now-infamous Durban Conference.

Sadly, Ms. Ashrawi is, at least at present, well in touch with much of her constituency. Poll after poll reveal large majorities of Palestinians supporting the killing of Israeli civilians, and wishing for not peace with Israel but the end of Israel. Some would like to achieve that goal as abruptly as possible; others, as Mr. Arafat has assured Arab audiences, in stages - beginning with a "peace agreement" modeled on one Mohammed is said to have struck with an enemy tribe whom he went on to attack and destroy.

But there are Palestinians too, no doubt, who recognize the madness that has seized their brethren. If even half of those killed as "collaborators" with Israel were indeed working with Israel to prevent terrorist attacks (and not simply victims of personal or familial grudges), their tragically truncated existences may imply a silent opposition to the "push the Jews into the sea" establishment. And while that opposition may be currently cowed, we can, and must, hope that it asserts itself in days to come.

For no people pines for peace like the Jews. Millennia before the advent of Christianity and Islam, our ancestors introduced "Peace" as a standard greeting, and our prophets envisioned a peaceful world as history's culmination. Our solemn silent prayers, thrice daily, end in a praise of G-d for His blessing of peace.

Very soon, a desert vision of a different sort will be commemorated by Jews the world over, a perception not of falsehood but of an ultimate reality glimpsed by our ancestors thousands of years ago in the Sinai. In remembrance of the formative forty years before the Jewish people first entered the Jewish land, when G-d extended His people divine protection from elements and enemies alike, we will leave our homes to sit in fragile, vulnerable sukkot.

With that observance, we will reaffirm a most basic Jewish truth: that the the Rock of Israel is the ultimate source of our security. It is a truth for all ages, but a particularly timely one today.

And as we usher in the new holiday in this season of celebrations, we will pronounce a blessing we utter with each welcome of a Sabbath or holiday.

"Blessed are You, Hashem," we will say, "Who spreads forth a Sukkah of peace over us and over His entire nation Israel, and over Jerusalem."

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Distance in time, no less than in space, provides perspective. And so the passage of a year since the Islamist terror attacks on our country should spur us to try to mine insights from the disaster. To my mind, two lessons from that bright and sunny turned dark and hellish day stand out. Neither is particularly astonishing or novel, but each is worth a quiet moment of contemplation.

The first is that evil exists.

That's not as self-evident an assertion as it might first seem. All too many people, after all, choose to view words like "right" and "wrong," and certainly "good" and "evil," as possessing no absolute meanings, and see in history only competing desires, not ultimate ideals. In fact, moral relativism, if it even suffered a blow in the attacks, has enjoyed quite a comeback in the months since, in particular with regard to the Middle East - with prattling pundits likening the victims of murderous violence with its perpetrators and offering amoral aphorisms like "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

It is, however, the diametric approach to life and history that we should glean from the wanton destruction of last September 11: That what we humans do makes a difference, that we are here for a higher purpose - not to acquire a bevy of celestial mistresses but rather to live lives of service to others and to our Creator. That our individual lives and history itself are combat zones for battles between good and evil. That the bloodthirsty are the opposite, not the equals, of the reluctant warriors. And that last autumn's attacks revealed an example of the deepest evil of all, the kind that believes itself to be good.

My second suggestion for contemplation is not unrelated to the first, but touches a more sensitive spot.

The Talmud teaches that when one experiences something painful, he should take careful stock of his life and behavior. Adversity, in other words, can be a divine message.

That does not mean one can ever determine with certainty the cause of one's pain. What it means is that each of us has a responsibility to try to understand what may have left him vulnerable. A nation, presumably, must do the same.

In the wake of last year's attacks, a prominent evangelist identified several societal ills he maintained had weakened America's merit for Divine protection. He was roundly excoriated, especially because his suggestions concerned gender issues and the unborn - charged topics that generate more heat than light when broached in the public square. But the concept of seeking areas of moral vulnerability was - and is - not misguided.

Jewish tradition, to be sure, clearly considers homosexual activity (and especially its legitimation) as well as most abortions to be deep moral wrongs.

But I have another suggestion for national introspection. It is more prosaic but more readily evoked by the imagery of September 11. And it is more equitable in its finger-pointing; it indicts us all.

While all the September 11 attacks entailed tragic loss of life, for most people the chief image of the destruction remains the Twin Towers.

Those soaring edifices represented achievement, commerce and material success; they were fitting reflections of the society that bustled below them, awash with the pursuit of worldly possessions.

All people would rather be haves than have-nots, of course; there is nothing wrong with living comfortably. But might we Americans have allowed things to get somewhat out of hand in recent decades? Have we not subtly morphed from haves to must-haves? Into people who judge others by the electronic gadgets they carry, the car they drive, the price of the watch on their wrists?

Some thought it odd or incongruous when several renowned Orthodox rabbis took the initiative last fall to issue guidelines limiting their followers' expenditures for weddings. Though the guidelines were never presented as such, they may well have comprised the most sublime and trenchant response to the September 11 attacks. We readily recognize the need to address air-travel procedures in order to avoid future vulnerability; addressing the societal plague of rampant materialism might, in a deeper sense, be even more vital.

September 11 falls this first year since the attacks smack in the middle of the Ten Days of Repentance, the time of year Jewish tradition considers most fortuitous for making changes for the better in our personal behavior. We would all do well to take the opportunity to remind ourselves that material possessions and success are not inherently meaningful, that only spiritual wealth is true wealth - and that repentance empowers good and undermines evil.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Chemical analysis of human tears seems to bear out something we all innately feel: emotional pain and physical pain occupy different universes. The tears our eyes produce when they are irritated, or when the bodies we carry through life are hurting, have different components from those that trickle down our cheeks when it is our souls that ache.

Only humans produce the latter sort. As King Solomon wrote in Koheles: "The one who increases in knowledge increases in pain."

Only one commandment in the Torah involves crying, though it is not readily recognized as such. For the crying is done by proxy, through the shofar, on Rosh Hashana.

The shofar call is, of course, above all, a call to repentance, a sort of alarm clock of the conscience, as Maimonides describes it. But the rabbis of the Talmud characterized it as a literal cry. While the tekiah-sound is a call to attention, the truah, the central component of the Rosh Hashana shofar-sounds, they said, is either a wailing sound or a series of moans; we incorporate both opinions in our practice today. What, though, is the shofar crying about?

Rosh Hashana, to be sure, is the Day of Judgment, and so we are rightfully uneasy at the implications of that fact. But might there be something deeper to the shofar's wailing and moaning than simple fear? A haunting Talmudic passage may hold a hint.

In the tractate Berachot, we are told of several instances of great scholars who became seriously, painfully ill; one was Rabbi Elazar. Rabbi Yochanan, renowned not only for his scholarship but for his ethereal handsomeness, came to visit and found his ill colleague lying in a dark room. He pulled up his sleeve, the Talmud recounts, and light spilled from his beautiful skin into the room. He saw Rabbi Elazar crying and asked him why.

If it was for the Torah he hadn't been able to study - Rabbi Yochanan reassured the bedridden sage - that is no reason to cry; G-d judges people not by how much they accomplished but rather by whether they made their best effort. And if it was because of the elusiveness of material success, "not every man merits to sit at two tables" - Rabbi Elazar may not have attained wealth in this world but surely had amassed much reward in the World to Come.

And, continued Rabbi Yochanan, if you are crying because of the death of your children, I have suffered more; ten of my own have perished.

Finally, Rabbi Elazar spoke up. "I am crying," he said, indicating Rabbi Yochanan's shining arm, "because this beauty is destined for the dust."

"For that?" responded Rabbi Yochanan. "For that, indeed, it is fitting to cry." And the two scholars cried together.

No one with warm blood running through his veins could read that account without a shudder born of the realization of what brought those sages to weep.

We all try to crowd our lives with enough diversions to minimize opportunities for reflecting on our mortality. But serious people cannot forever avoid the thought, and righteous ones make no effort to do so at all.

The late, revered dean of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, perceived in the act of blowing the shofar a hint to the earliest event commemorated by Rosh Hashana: the creation of man. Shofar-blowing, he observed, involves a force of breath, recalling the animation of Adam - "And He blew into his nostrils the spirit of life, and man became a living soul."

The Jewish mystical tradition describes Adam's physical state before his sin as "shining" with a special splendor - referred to as his "shufra," or beauty.

It is the precise word Rabbi Elazar used to describe Rabbi Yochanan's skin. Could it be the root of the word "shofar"?

Might the shofar, in other words, be crying out its own name, in memory of the perfection with which our ultimate ancestor was created - squandered by sin, destined for death?

"Shufra!" it may be calling from earth to heaven. "Beauty! The beauty that is a human being, that was once the perfect human being! Now subject to decay!"

For such, indeed, it is fitting to cry. And through our shofarot, we cry together.

Our crying, though, is not an expression of hopelessness. On the contrary, the very recognition of what sin has wrought is, according to our tradition, the first step toward regaining it, the first step on the road of repentance. When our regret of our individual loads of sin - as well as humanity's for its collective one - are total and sincere, we are taught, then we will have utilized our pain for ultimate gain. Even death itself, as Isaiah foretold, "will be swallowed forever, and G-d will wipe tears from every face."

And that same prophet describes that day, when death is erased and history ended. "And on that day," he foresees, "there will be sounded a great tekiah shofar-blast."

[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The essay above is adapted from a longer version he wrote for The Jewish Observer in 1989. It is dedicated to the memory of his dear mother, Rebbetzin Pu'ah bat Rav Noach HaCohein, whose incredible righteousness and shufra still shine brightly in the hearts of all who knew her.]

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

When, confronted several years ago with the titles of several new Japanese books about Jewish plots to subjugate mankind, I said okay, so there are Japanese who hate Jews even though they've never met one but I bet there aren't any Mexican anti-Semites, I spoke too soon.

Meet the "Aztlan Communication Network." It is the teratoid brainchild of one Ernesto Cienfuegos, a Mexican-American every bit as fixated upon - and hateful of - Jews as any white supremacist, Islamist or Nazi.

He's every bit as unintentionally funny, too. One conspiracy he prides himself on having fearlessly exposed is the "Jewish tax" that inheres, hidden in plain sight from unsuspecting Gentiles, in secret code on food packaging. Long familiar to Hebrews of traditional bent, the various kosher symbols (the popular "u" inscribed in an "o" that is a trademark of the Orthodox Union, as well as myriad graphic riffs on the letter "k") are indications that the product so marked was produced under the supervision of a rabbi expert in the intricacies of both kosher law and food science.

Companies pay for the service, of course, as they do for the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval (which requires that one advertise in a magazine) or, indirectly (through increased manufacturing costs) for the right to call their products "organic" or "all natural." To Mr. Cienfuegos, however, the arrangement is decidedly unkosher; it smacks, to his fuzzy lights, of a sinister bilking of innocent non-Jews. If companies pay for a rabbi's service, he unreasons, the cost must be passed on. secretly, of course. to consumers.

In 1975, The New York Times reported that the cost to General Foods for rabbinical supervision of its "Bird's Eye" products worked out to .0000065 of a cent per item. A Heinz Company representative maintained that its kosher labeling actually decreases the cost of items by increasing the market for them - the only rational reason a company would choose to pay for such a service.

Nor is Mr. Cienfuegos compelled to buy one brand of gefilte fish over another. If the kosher item proves more expensive, he can simply opt for one that hasn't been supervised by a rabbi (which one imagines he would probably prefer in any event).

Anti-Semites, though, don't like to be confused by facts; they have bigger things to do, like sowing hatred and suspicion. And any energy Mr. Cienfuegos has left after exposing nefarious Jewish conspiracies is put to use pushing the Palestinian cause, largely by presenting graphic accounts and images of Arab injuries and deaths suffered as the result of Israeli military force.

Curiously missing are depictions of the results of Arab violence, nor any consideration of the fact that innocent Arab casualties are unintentional and regretted, the result of a defensive war of survival; and Israeli ones the result of premeditated, cruel and gleeful acts of murder fueled by hatred.

The very hatred, in fact, that animates Mr. Cienfuegos and company.

That's what's so intriguing about Jew-hatred. It's so. adaptable. Much of it, over history, has been of a racial nature; but much of it, too, rooted in religion; some of it has been political; and some, almost personal. The mark, though, has been the same.

Most folks connected even rudimentarily to reality realize that there are no Elders of Zion (at least none who aspire to world control), and no Jews who murder Christians to mix their blood into matzohs. And yet, millions keep even those myths alive (not to mention add new ones, like Jewish recruitment of Arab innocents to fly planes into buildings). And then there are less blatant, perhaps, but more insidious Jewish crimes. like kosher symbols.

While the surprising eruptions of anti-Semitism in unexpected places and the sheer creativity and irrepressibility of Jew-hatred are rightful causes of concern for us Jews, there is also something curiously invigorating about it all.

For it points to what underlies Jew-hatred: the suspicion that the Jewish people are special.

However odd it might seem of God, He did indeed deign to choose the Jews. In other words, yes, Ernesto, there is a plot (though not a conspiracy; there's only one Plotter).

What anti-Semites don't know, though, is that the Jewish mission isn't to subjugate but rather to educate. Keep it under your hat, but Jews are charged with living lives of holiness, of service to God and man.

That includes prayer, charity and acts of kindness, study of holy texts and meticulous honesty in all our dealings - as well as a multitude of ritual matters, like eating kosher food. No, Ernesto, it doesn't include undermining society or the domination of others.

One day, G-d willing - likely when we Jews shoulder our mission with more passion and determination - those who labor so hard to hate us will come to realize that our specialness was never a threat to them at all, but a gift.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The ordeal of the nine coal miners in Pennsylvania who were finally rescued after more than three days in a dark, dank hellhole holds substantial food for thought, perhaps even the seeds of a newfound appreciation of an ancient Jewish custom.

The nine men showed astounding courage in the face of what they had every reason to imagine might be their final days in the world of the living, and their steadfast determination to persevere is undeniably worthy of admiration.

Even more inspiring is the consideration they showed for one another in such dire circumstances, sharing among themselves the sandwich one of them discovered in a lunchbox floating in the cold water that flooded their small space, and helping one another stay warm. "When one would get cold, the other eight would huddle around the person.," recounted a trauma surgeon at a Johnstown hospital where several of the miners were taken, "and when another person got cold, the favor was returned."

The miners' focus on the spiritual was also commendable. "We done a lot of praying," recalled one, Thomas Foy, when asked how the group had spent its time. And their gratitude to those who prayed above ground, and to those who labored so intensely to rescue them, was a manifestation of menschlichkeit [humanity]in a cultural era when all too much is taken for granted by all too many. "I came to thank everybody that was out there and helped us and prayed for us," Mr. Foy said from a wheelchair, "not for no story, no fame, no glory. That's the only reason we're here. We can't thank you enough."

Aside, though, from the shining example of the miners' bravery and sense of appreciation for one another and for others, their ordeal itself is worthy of our contemplation.

Picture yourself hundreds of feet below the earth's surface, surrounded by a sea of water vulnerable to life-threatening hypothermia and the bends, without nourishment, cut off from loved ones - indeed, from the entire world.

And then imagine being rescued from the depths, being hoisted to the surface once again, into the light and the fresh air. Imagine seeing familiar things again, the sun, the sky, the faces of others. Imagine the gratitude that would swell any human heart at such a moment.

And then consider the fact that each of us undergoes a very similar experience every day.

We wake up every morning.

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

The very regularity with which we are granted new life each day dulls us to the import of the fact. That is only human nature, what Emerson immortalized 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 God."

But recognized or not, the import is there all the same, and demands every sensitive soul's attention. Thus, Jewish tradition mandates that a Jew's first words upon awakening in the morning are to be those of the short "Modeh Ani" prayer. It is one of the first things observant Jewish parents teach their children.

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

Few of us, thankfully, will ever experience anything like what the Pennsylvania miners underwent. But all of us can benefit from relating it to what we do indeed undergo each and every day as we pull ourselves from unconsciousness and dark into awareness an light. And our gratitude should be no less powerful, and no less heartfelt.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Surely you heard about the "violence [that] broke out. between an Arab and Israelis. at Los Angeles International Airport" on the Fourth of July.

That was how a July 6 article in the Los Angeles Times referred to the murder of two Jews and the injuring of several others by an Egyptian national who approached LAX's El Al ticketing counter and proceeded to shoot people.

Here we were, silly us, convinced that Mohamed Hadayet, armed with two handguns and a knife, had been exclusively to blame for the carnage. Apparently, though, we somehow overlooked the fact that, in addition to the young woman and the father of five he killed and the several others he wounded, Mr. Hadayet perished as well, felled by a security guard's bullets. "Violence between an Arab and Israelis" - how else would one put it?

Well, to be entirely truthful, I can think of a few ways. "Arab violence against Jews," for one. Or even "Anti-Semitic Arab violence," for another. Or just plain old "Arab Jew-hatred." One doesn't want to quibble, but - with all due respect to the authorities, who weren't immediately able to confirm that Mr. Hadayet, who an Arab former employee claims hated Jews, hated Jews - those are perfectly fine, and considerably more accurate descriptions. And one wonders, further, just what exactly it would it take for the media to call the cold blooded murder of Jews. the cold blooded murder of Jews? Would the victims have to present themselves to be killed? Would they have to smile at the gunman, or take care not to turn away or flee?

Not long ago, The New York Times used a phrase similar to the one employed by the Los Angeles Times, in a different yet not-unrelated context. Referring to the Crown Heights riots of 1991, during which Jewish residents of that Brooklyn neighborhood cowered in fear of rampaging hoodlums (who attacked Jewish residents of the area, and one of whom brutally murdered a young Jewish scholar), the paper of record described the happenings as "violence between blacks and Orthodox Jews."

Would either Times, West coast or East, ever describe a rape as "violence between Mr. Smith and Ms. Jones" or a lynching as "violence between blacks and whites"?

When it comes to Jews, though, being attacked is apparently the effective equivalent of attacking. Stopping bullets with Jewish bodies seems to be regarded as no less violent an act than shooting bullets at them.

We've all seen such absurdity parading as objectivity in reportage from the Middle East, where fairness and accuracy regularly fall prey to a perversely "balanced" portrayal of two morally diametric sides as ethical equals. One population may target innocents and rejoice in every gallon of blood it spills, and the other may be seeking no more that to protect its citizens from that hostility and bloodshed; but no matter. There is no right or wrong, no good or bad, only two parties. And the violence, of course, "between" them.

Now, though, the bizarre mentality of imposing moral parity where there is none is revealed rampant not only in reports from Jerusalem or Ramallah but anywhere Jews are hated or attacked.

Over sixty years ago, in a seminal essay about how only fealty to the Jewish religious tradition can truly protect Jews, the revered sage Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman lamented how so many Jews tended to credulously place their trust in an assortment of doomed "isms." He referred to things like internationalism, humanism, socialism, and secular Zionism.

Were we to update the list, we might consider adding "objective journalism."

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The widely publicized photograph of a Palestinian toddler decked out in a suicide-bomb costume that the Israeli army discovered in a Hebron house may have shocked American sensibilities, but it was no big deal to a Palestinian journalist.

According to Ha'aretz on June 28, she "expressed surprise at the furor it caused," and asserted that "I can find you many, many photos like this."

She could probably find us videotapes, too, of what the Associated Press described on May 14: a Palestinian children's game called "shaheed," or "martyr," in which children take turns playing the corpse in a funeral procession, shouting "with our blood, our souls, we sacrifice you."

The murder-and-death-celebrating children, needless to say, do not play in a vacuum. On June 28, the Ynet news agency quoted Naima al-Abed, the mother of a Hamas terrorist, as proclaiming that she had "imbued my son with a love of jihad and death." She went on to recount how once, when her son had left on a suicide mission but returned later that day, she "started yelling at him. 'Did you change your mind? Did you get scared?'"

When the young man finally did successfully kill himself and three Israeli soldiers, the mother (if so wonderful a word can be so debased), by her own account, "cried out for joy."

Even Palestinian "moderates" (another word with a morphed meaning here) seem to have trouble calling murder wrong. Much ballyhoo accompanied a recent appeal by 55 Palestinian politicians and intellectuals calling for a reassessment of "military operations that target civilians in Israel." But the clear implication is that such "military operations" would be acceptable, even to that rarified group, against the residents of any Jewish city, town or neighborhood lying outside of the tiny strip of land "the moderate 55" might concede to be a legitimate State of Israel.

What is even more telling, though, is that the rationale for the call was that such attacks on civilians were not "producing any results." Not because it is morally wrong, much less evil, to murder men, women, children and babies, but simply because it has not proven productive.

Hanan Ashwari, the ubiquitous Palestinian spokeswoman-turned-PA legislator and one of the 55, shrugged off the implications of the widespread Palestinian death-worship. On July 3, The New York Times reported her claim that "there is a global culture of. how sweet it is to die for your liberty" - though the issue, of course, is not dying but rather slaughtering innocents and reveling in the butchery.

Several months ago, The Times quoted a Palestinian terrorist who derisively observed how much Jews seem to love life. He was right in his observation, if ugly in his derision. The Jewish religious tradition - and hence the Jewish soul - values life dearly. While our tradition is clear that an Afterlife awaits us - though of a decidedly different nature from the one that fires suicide bombers' imaginations - it is equally clear that only in this world can we endeavor to do G-d's will and merit our ultimate reward. And so, to us, life is precious beyond compare, a conviction that has been adopted over the centuries since Sinai by the civilized world.

President Bush's June 24 Rose Garden speech on the Middle East was a clear and powerful statement of principle. He spoke in no uncertain terms about the unacceptability of terrorism, and of how the current Palestinian leadership encourages it. He spoke about the aspirations of Israelis, and of Palestinians, and called on the latter to elect responsible leaders.

But, at least for this listener, the single most powerful words the President uttered came at the very end of his delivery. While he didn't explicitly address the celebration of death and murder that is so disturbingly evident in the Palestinian world, he took pains to reveal his reverence for the tradition that the Jews introduced to humanity, and which so deeply informs the nation whose birthday we just celebrated. The words he chose to close his address were, astoundingly, from the Torah.

"'I have set before you life and death,'" he quoted. "'Therefore, choose life'."

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The conversation - a real one - took place a number of years ago on the outskirts of a non-religious kibbutz in the Galil, on a hill overlooking a lush valley.

The teen-aged cousins, one born and bred on the kibbutz, the other an American newcomer to the Holy Land on a short visit before the start of his yeshiva's academic term, had first met only days earlier.

They had been speaking about family, personal experiences, and sundry things their very different lives nevertheless had in common. And then, the observant boy mentioned, entirely en passant, the imminence of the Jewish fast day known as Tish'a B'Av.

"We don't observe that holiday on the kibbutz," his cousin pointed out. "The Temple's destruction just isn't relevant to our lives here."

The American boy hesitated for a long moment before asking, "Do you observe any Jewish day of mourning?"

"Sure," came the reply. "Yom HaShoah."

Another pause, this one longer. The yeshiva student knew that the national day of Jewish mourning, Tish'a B'Av, on one level encompassed every tragedy in Jewish history, that not only was the first Jewish Holy Temple destroyed on that day 2422 years ago, and the second one, 1932 years ago, on the very same day, but that the rebel Jewish forces at Betar were annihilated by the Romans on it as well. And that the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, and from France in 1306 and from Spain in 1492 all happened on Tish'a B'Av too. He also knew that what was quite

arguably the true genesis of what would culminate in Germany's "Final Solution" - the First World War - began on Tish'a B'Av. But somehow it didn't seem the right time for a history lesson.

So, instead, he asked his cousin, "Is your commemoration of the Holocaust really important to you?"

"Absolutely," came the reply. "The Holocaust underlies our very identity as Israelis and as Jews."

The American weighed the wisdom of actually saying what he wanted so to say. He decided the blood-bond was strong enough to handle it.

"Will you expect your children to pay its memory the same respect that you do?"

"Of course." "To feel the same sorrow, to have the same determination that you do?"

"Of course," the Israeli replied. "My generation will see to it that our children recognize the importance of the Holocaust, how it defines their identity, how important it must continue to be to all Jews."

"And will you expect them, in turn, to transmit the same conviction to their own children - and theirs to theirs?"

"Absolutely. Forever. To us it is that important."

The American swallowed hard, then spoke.

"Like the first attempts to destroy our people and its faith were to our own ancestors."

Nothing else was said for the moment. The two young men walked back to the kibbutz in silence.

It could well be argued that a large part of what characterizes "Orthodox" Jews is a heightened sense of history. Not only of its vicissitudes and tragedies for our people, but, most importantly, of its seminal Jewish moment, the unequalled event that bequeathed us our mandate to cherish, study and observe the Torah - the revelation of G-d to His people.

Whether a Jew, G-d forbid, willfully rejects the divine origin of the Torah or simply lacks the background to have given the issue much thought, what he denies, or is oblivious to, is an historical fact -- the mass-witnessed and painstakingly transmitted event at Sinai that lies at ground-zero of the Jewish people and the Jewish faith.

All who aspire to the appellation "observant" are, in essence, the keepers of Jewish history, recent and ancient, and are entrusted with the mission of sharing the memory of the Jewish past - both its nadirs and its apogee - with all their fellow Jews.

Should the Messiah tarry further, G-d forbid, a day may well come when all testimony of the events

of a half-century ago will be indirect, arriving only through books and films, or third-hand accounts.

The facts, though, of what happened during those years, the horrible details of Jewish Europe's destruction, will endure, because there will always be Jews determined to hold fast to the entirety of our history, to maintain the memory of what happened fifty years ago.

And 1932 years ago, and 2422 years ago.

And 3314 years ago, in the Sinai desert.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Thoughts of mortality were hardly out of place, considering the fact that I was lying 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 television medical dramas jump like chopped onions in a hot, oiled frying pan.

The procedure I was about to undergo several years back, 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 the cattle prod for obstinate livestock or electroshock for wayward brains.

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 I had apparently not been the first bearded, beyarmulked patient to make the comment). Thus my decidedly unprivate, if off-the beaten-path temporary digs.

As I lay there, head propped up on a pillow, awaiting the arrival of the anesthesiologist and the executioner, I was able to watch the parade of patients being chaperoned from the emergency room through the hub of activity just beyond my feet and the half-parted curtain. A bloodied head here, a broken limb there, a macabre march, the yield of a sleepy city and its mistakes 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 and simply would not let go, not for the eternity of that fleeting moment. What I saw in those unforgettable eyes was unfiltered, utter fear.

Maybe the fact that my heart was about to be stopped by a machine had oversensitized me to the sight. But something else was weighing 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, to resolve, to 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, but others in a mere moment.

Even the comatose, for that matter, may well be functioning beyond our assumptions. Electroencephalographs that measure electrical activity in the brain do precisely that and nothing more. Who can possibly know what might be happening in the soul of a living human being?

And so, though my condition itself was benign and treatable with medication, the imminent treatment was somewhat disconcerting. A lightning-quick thought of my imminent anesthesia and what would 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. But I knew that I, a relatively healthy 40-odd year old, would surely be rescued if things went awry.

Should there, though, really be any difference, I mulled, 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 punctuation to the apparition so striking, and fixed it forever in my mind.

For just as the eyes and arm, blanket and 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 only one short line.

"That's a DNR," she called with chilling nonchalance, and even before the voltage, a frisson washed over my bones.

And when the electroshock came, it did nothing but burn my chest; my morning in the hospital left my heart unchanged.

Its rhythm, anyway.

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

Return To Index of Articles

More Am Achad Articles



In Loving Memory Of Our Father, Mr. Joseph Black (Yosef Ben Zelig) O"H
In Loving Memory Of Our Mother, Mrs. Norma Black (Nechama Bas Tzvi Hirsh) O"H


Rabbi General's Warning: Unbridled web surfing is not recommended. Navigate the web with caution. Use the Internet in a way so that it enhances quality of life for yourself as a person, as a family member, and as a member in society. The Internet can enhance the mastery of Torah knowledge and it can also interfere. If you are able to study in a Bet Medrash at this time then you should do so right now.

© 1996- by Harlan Black, JewishAmerica. All rights reserved.