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Archives Of Previous Articles XV


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Have you heard about the ultra-Orthodox Israeli political party that routinely demonizes the secular community for its lack of concern for Jewish religious observance? The one that caricatures nonobservant Jews in ways that evoke the work of Goebbels and Streicher? That refuses to participate in any government that includes non-religious parties, and that wants to eliminate welfare for nonreligious families living below the poverty line? You know, the party that pledges to pass legislation making it difficult for Israelis to live non-observant lives, and that wants non-religious judges to be prohibited from serving on Israeli civil courts?

The reason you haven't is because no such religious party exists. Unfortunately for the Jewish State and its citizens, though, Shinui does. And what that Israeli party's leader Tommy Lapid and his associates vilify is the religious community, for its commitment to Torah study and observance; those they portray as insidious and repulsive enemies of the state are Torah scholars; the Knesset parties they have blacklisted from participation in any government coalition with them are the religious ones; the poor they seek to disenfranchise from social services are the Orthodox poor; the laws they seek to enact are aimed at eradicating Israel's basic respect for the Sabbath, Jewish holidays and marriage laws; and the judges they feel have no right to serve in Israeli courts are observant ones.

And Shinui won a record number of Knesset seats in the elections that have already taken place.

Whatever the degree of Shinui's gain, the party's increased popularity should deeply trouble all Jews who sincerely care about Jewish peoplehood and Israel's Jewish future, regardless of where they happen to stand on any particular issue. For Shinui is the first Israeli party in the Jewish State 's history to base itself on defining a group of fellow Jews as the public enemy.

Some of Shinui's supporters are no doubt of a similar mind to Mr Lapid and company. But others have embraced the firebrand despite things he has said that they would never dream of endorsing, like his 1996 suggestion that Israel carry out revenge car bomb attacks against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank, or his claim that the plight of battered women in Israel has been exaggerated.

Why, then, have those Jews embraced Mr. Lapid? The reasons are manifold but public resentment of military deferments for full-time yeshiva and kollel scholars, a topic Shinui's leaders regularly raise, is certainly among them. As is the displeasure of many Israelis over their country's time-honored respect for halacha in matters like marriage - and the bureaucracies that, for better or worse, have evolved as a result.

Shinui's leaders have well capitalized on those frustrations, indeed furiously stoked them, and regularly revel in portraying religious Jews in the most ugly of lights.

But Shinui may owe its newfound popularity above all to the fact that the times, unfortunately, are good ones for demagogues. The dark blanket of hopelessness that the seemingly endless current Palestinian violence has cast over Israelis - with neither negotiations, concessions, diplomacy nor military might yielding anything but continued, indeed intensified, Arab hatred and terror - has generated a collective exasperation all too easily vented in illogical directions - including toward those who seem to have assumed a role in Israel that Jews as a group have long been forced to play in the larger world.

Never mind that those Jews sincerely believe, as Jews have for millennia, that Torah study is an indispensable factor in the security of the Jewish people; never mind that many Israeli military officials have repeatedly insisted that the army has no need for more soldiers (especially those with special religious needs); never mind that reversing the half-century old "status quo" respect for the Jewish religious tradition that Mr. Lapid dismisses as "voodoo" would imperil Israel's identity as a Jewish State - and, to many, undermine its very raison d'etre; and never mind that the "religious coercion" that Shinui's leaders regularly rail against is, according to Ha'aretz's Yair Sheleg, "nonexistent" (the last "religious law," he notes, was passed in 1993 - and was aimed not at adding any religious restriction but rather at preserving the status quo, in response to a High Court ruling that undermined it).

All that matters to the Tommy-hawks is that a subset of Israel's population presents a convenient target for the public's frustrations, dressing, as they do, differently from secular Israelis and living their lives to a different rhythm. The well-established if unfortunate human tendency to blame "the Other" for one's misfortunes helps render the Israeli public lamentably vulnerable to Shinui's vilification campaign. And Mr. Lapid and company are joy-riding that snarling, snorting horse - milking it all the while for everything it's worth.

How tragic, though, that so many well-meaning but frustrated Jews seem to have opted to join them in the saddle.

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

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By Ruth Broyde-Sharone

"The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." (William Wordsworth)

About three years ago I made an important decision about deepening my commitment to Jewish practice. The result of that decision led me to an important discovery that I have never forgotten.

I had been attending synagogue regularly every Saturday morning for many years, but I had continued working in the afternoons. I justified it because, as an interior designer, I found it difficult to see my clients who had day jobs during the weekdays. Evenings proved equally difficult, especially because that was time I spent with my children. That left only Saturday afternoons and Sundays for scheduling appointments with my working clients.

Slowly, however, in subtle ways I began noticing my discomfort and ambivalence about beginning the Sabbath in prayer and contemplation and then suddenly being in the mode of "getting and spending." My deepening connection to the Sabbath and the special mood I was able to create would dissipate when I became involved in work and material matters. I experienced it as a "disconnect." Finally I decided that I would not accept any more work on the Sabbath.

I felt good about my decision. One morning, however, I received a call from Karen, one of my best clients, with whom I had worked for many years. Karen had recommended me to her friend, Joanna, and she was calling to tell me how perturbed she was when she found out from Joanna that I wouldn't work on Saturdays.

"You always worked on Saturdays for me."

I took a deep breath. "Yes, I know," I acknowledged, "but something has changed in my life. I made a commitment, as part of my spiritual and religious practice, not to work on the Sabbath, and not to do any work which could contribute towards my earning a living."

"Well, I guess you don't care about your livelihood if you made such a decision," Karen said, with an edge to her voice. "After all, we work all week long, and we have such long hours that we can't see you in the evenings, which only leaves Saturday and Sunday."

"I can hear the level of your frustration and consternation in your voice at this new information," I affirmed, "but this is a serious decision which I did not arrive at lightly. And I'm truly sorry for the inconvenience to you and Joanna."

There was a long silence. I waited, expecting and fearing that Karen would announce that our working relationship was terminated.

"Well then," she finally said, "we'll make it on Sunday."

I thanked her and we said goodbye. I hung up the phone, a broad grin spreading across my face. I looked heavenwards and addressed my comments out loud to the Creator: "You were testing me, weren't you . . .to see if my commitment was real, and to see if I could not be swayed from my resolve to make the Sabbath holy?"

I experienced God's smile in return, as a canopy of warmth spread over me.

Since then, I've never reneged on my commitment, even turning down money that I needed. The money I sacrificed would always come back in another form, I soon discovered. But a Sabbath lost is a Sabbath lost forever.

[Ruth Broyde-Sharone is a Los Angeles filmmaker, journalist, and interior designer.]

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Don't Judge Book By Its Cover (From THE NEW YORK JEWISH WEEK)

Yosef Reinman

The media have been busy for months with "One People, Two Worlds," the book I coauthored with Ammiel Hirsch, and the promotional tour from which I withdrew after two appearances in deference to the Council of Torah Sages. Now that the dust has settled somewhat, I would like to add a few remarks and observations of my own.

A few weeks ago, upon his return from his now solo appearances on the tour, Ammi wrote a piece for The New York Jewish Week ("Two Authors, One Book Tour," Jan. 3) in which he lamented the missed opportunity for the Orthodox. He had met "thousands of Jews . precisely the people Rabbi Reinman wanted to reach - mostly non-Orthodox Jews eager to learn more about Torah and the Orthodox world."

It was indeed a missed opportunity. My message resonated well with the people during the first two appearances - in the "State of World Jewry" forum at the 92nd Street Y and at a book fair in Indianapolis - despite my long caftan, beard and peyot. After the presentations, many people approached me with comments, questions and an overwhelming curiosity. We also connected on a personal level, and I loved it and them. By withdrawing from the tour, I had to forego meeting hundreds of people under similar circumstances. A great loss.

So why did I withdraw? And even more important, why was this opportunity for an Orthodox rabbi to meet non-Orthodox people such a rare phenomenon?

Ammi offers the answer. "The Jewish world needs you," he calls out to the Orthodox, "to bring your love of Torah, discipline, commitment, knowledge and passion to the Jewish world ... The enemy is not Reform Judaism. The enemy is apathy, assimilation and ignorance. We should see ourselves as allies in our common struggle to sustain and ensure Jewish continuity."

You see? There are strings attached to these wonderful opportunities. So Reform laypeople want to hear and learn from Orthodox rabbis? Fine, but only if those Orthodox rabbis acknowledge Reform rabbis as allies. It is like a parent using the children as pawns in a marital struggle. If the Orthodox rabbi stands on the stage side by side with a Reform rabbi, then he can speak to the people. Otherwise, no visitation.

But Reform rabbis are not our colleagues in the work of perpetuating Jewish continuity. Reform ideology embraces moral relativism, denies the divine authorship of the Torah, denies the divine covenant, denies the binding nature of halacha and, by doing so, rejects the Judaism of our ancestors. Reform laypeople know this full well, and that is why they are so eager to learn about Orthodoxy, the religion of their ancestors. They don't display the same interest in Conservatism and Reconstructionism, which are just different flavors of the liberal stream.

During these last few months, I have met and heard from numerous non-Orthodox people yearning for a stronger Jewish identity, and I wondered what motivated them to set themselves apart from American society. Then it struck me that the laypeople have never let go of the religion of their ancestors, that the national memory of Sinai is still etched into their chromosomes, that deep down they know the divine covenant between the Creator and His people is real.

Fifty years ago, a group of leading Orthodox sages erected a firewall between the Orthodox rabbinate and the Reform rabbinate, forbidding any official contact whatsoever between the two. The sages felt that sharing common platforms with movements so antithetical to the religion of our ancestors would give them an aura of legitimacy they did not deserve. They placed no restrictions, however, on contact with Reform Jews as individuals.

Since then, Orthodoxy has flourished, but the lines of communication with our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters have been shut down. Their rabbis have told them that the Orthodox hate them and do not consider them authentic Jews - absolute lies - and they have stood guard over the people to make sure that no Orthodox rabbi speaks to them unattended.

So why did I co-write the book when I knew that our revered sages disapproved of sharing platforms with Reform rabbis? Was I breaking away and setting out in a new direction? Heaven forbid.

There is a deep sense of desperation in the Orthodox community at the disintegration of the non-Orthodox world. There is a feeling that time is running out and something must be done. The rabbis who authorized and supported this project decided, based on several fine distinctions, that it was an exception to the rule. To mention just one of these distinctions, since I am an independent scholar and writer rather than a member of the rabbinate, my participation was considered "individual" rather than "official" contact; I mention this distinction in the book several times. We felt we could thus circumvent the rabbinate and speak directly to the people.

We were wrong. The media completely ignored my explicit distinctions and depicted the exchange as a breakthrough, a breach in the Orthodox wall of rejection, which it was never meant to be. Most did not even bother to read the book. They just looked at the cover and, to my horror, painted me as the Rosa Parks of interdenominational dialogue. I have yet to see one serious, in-depth review of the book.

The declaration of the Council of Sages simply reaffirmed what we already knew - that the distinctions had failed to register with all those people eager to portray the book in a light that suited them better. Under these circumstances, the tour would just compound the error.

What could I say? They were right. And so, I withdrew. Unfortunately, the media ridiculed the Council of Sages as beady-eyed ayatollahs issuing fatwas against me and my family and bans of excommunication against anyone who dared pick up the book. This was all nonsense.

The members of the Council are wise, intelligent, highly principled people, most of whom I have known for years. Two of them paid their respects when I was sitting shiva for my father last week. The sages just set policy; they never tell individuals what to do, and they certainly never threatened me in any way whatsoever. Their declaration treated me with kindness and respect, and when I issued my brief statement of acceptance and withdrew from the tour, they were surprised and responded with a nice complimentary statement. I have only good things to say about them.

In retrospect, the premise of the book was a mistake, but what is done is done. The book has taken on a life of its own, and I hope and pray that it does only good and no harm. Ultimately, the book will stand as convincing evidence that Orthodoxy is intellectually sophisticated and compelling, that our rejection of dialogue does not stem from fear and that our expressions of love for all Jews are genuine and sincere.

In the meantime, I urge all my Jewish brothers and sisters not to allow your rabbis to hold you hostage. If they do not allow you to meet Orthodox rabbis, read the books I mention in the Afterword. If you need more guidance, write to me at the e-mail address that appears there.

As Ammi mentioned, when we were at the 92nd Street Y, the moderator asked me, "If someone has a choice between watching 'The Sopranos' and learning Talmud with a Reform rabbi, what would you advise him to do?" Things had been going so well, and now this bomb. I tried to wiggle out, but the moderator pinned me down. What could I do? So I took a deep breath and said, "He should watch 'The Sopranos.' "There was an audible gasp from the audience. I was mortified.

Afterward, Richard Curtis, my wise friend and agent, told me, "Don't worry. People will respect your intellectual honesty. And besides, many people will go home wondering, 'What is so bad about learning Talmud with a Reform rabbi? Why would he say something like that?' "

Why, indeed.

Yosef Reinman is an Orthodox writer, historian and scholar living in Lakewood, N.J. The above essay appeared in the New York Jewish Week

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

When the woman identified herself as the producer of a national network television news program, I naturally sat up and straightened my tie. And she was only on the telephone.

Dropping my voice a couple octaves to project the requisite gravitas, I asked how I might be of help. As spokesman for a major national Jewish organization, Agudath Israel of America, I am regularly called by reporters from Jewish papers, and not infrequently even by various general media. But it is a relatively rare occurrence to hear from a major TV network's news department.

I imagined she sought comment on some pressing Jewish issue of the day, or perhaps that I articulate an Orthodox perspective on some Jewish religious concept. I was quickly and properly deflated by her question:

"Rabbi, what we'd like to get your take on is the question of whether pets go to heaven."

"Pardon?" I objected. She repeated herself, explaining that a survey on a popular religion-oriented website had revealed that the question of eternal reward for the four-legged or finned seemed of major concern to the participants. I responded that I really didn't think I wanted to be part of the particular program in question. I'm ready for my close-up, I told myself, but if my only line is a single word - "no" - the debut will hardly be memorable.

She persisted, though, and, eventually, having been given a day to think it over, I consented. What I came to realize was that if the issue was really so important to so many, there must be some reason. And then I realized the reason.

Many of the most fundamental philosophical and moral issues of our time - indeed of any time - touch upon the special distinction of humanness. That is why proponents of abortion on demand, which they choose to call "choice," choose as well to call an unborn child a "pregnancy," or, at most, a "fetus." Dehumanizing (used here in its most simple sense) a baby makes it easier to advocate for terminating him or her.

Ethicist Peter Singer has gone a significant step further, making the case for the killing of already-born babies who are severely disabled. He has written, pointedly, that infants are "neither rational nor self-conscious" and so "the principles that govern the wrongness of killing nonhuman animals. must apply here, too." Or, as he more bluntly puts it: "The life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee." Professor Singer advocates as well the killing of the severely disabled and unconscious elderly.

In the realm of intimacy, too, the incremental abandonment of morality - of the Torah, that is, and subsequent systems based on its teachings - has led to a similar strange place. If the imperative of a man-woman union is, as sadly is the case, no longer accepted by much of society, why limit ourselves to the human realm altogether? That would constitute "speciesism."

Indeed, one gentleman has already testified before a Maine legislative committee that proponents of a ban on animal sexual abuse are "trying to force morality on a minority"; he has also asked a judge to allow his "significant other" - who is of the canine persuasion - to sit by his side during a court case. The petitioner had been told that he needed special permission, he said, because, "my wife is not human."

Professor Singer is supportive of jettisoning morality here too. The only conceivable reason for considering human-animal intimate relations to be unworthy of societal sanction, he cogently observes, is the belief that human beings are inherently superior. That, indeed, is the position of Judaism, and the professor rejects it summarily. "We are," he maintains, "animals."

All of which unfortunately casts an ominous cloud even on the entirely proper concern that animals not needlessly suffer. When "animal rights" groups advocate for better treatment of cows or chickens being bred for food, they may well simply be seeking to prevent needless pain to non-human creatures - a quest entirely in keeping with the Jewish religious tradition, the source of enlightened society's moral code. But, in our increasingly morality-shunning world, they might also be acting as the subtle advance troops for a determined and concerted effort to muddle the distinction between the animal world and the human. Consider the astoundingly offensive but very telling title of a recent book that focuses on "the exploitation and slaughter of animals" in the contemporary world. "Eternal Treblinka" compares animal farming to Nazi concentration camps, decrying "the hierarchical arrangement of the world into 'higher' and 'lower' beings."

And so what I came to realize is that much indeed of import to the contemporary world in the end revolves around the difference between animals and humans. It is a difference that not only keeps pets from meriting heaven (or, of course, hell), because they lack true free will and the divine mandate to utilize it, but also charges us humans with quintessential human behavior, as delineated by the Torah. Behavior that includes according special respect to human sexuality, and to human life, able-bodied or not.

That was the point I tried to make when the producer and her entourage eventually shlepped their camera equipment to my office to film the segment. I have no idea how many, if any, of my comments made it into the program that was broadcast (I don't own a television), but I hope that what I had come to recognize as a truly important opportunity to raise an important point wasn't squandered, that at least a phrase or two of mine survived the cutting room floor.

And that some viewers may have been spurred to think about the fact that, whatever the case with pets, humans can indeed go to heaven.

But only if they earn the privilege.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Recent weeks have brought media reports that the Conservative movement is facing a new and vocal grassroots and rabbinic opposition to its current policy barring open homosexuals from rabbinic and other leadership positions.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism and a long time proponent of ordaining declared homosexuals, is set to become chairman of the movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in March.  He has hinted, according to the Forward, that "a new teshuvah, or position paper" on the subject might be offered soon thereafter.

To be sure, there are still traditionalists regarding such matters in the movement's leadership.  According to The New York Jewish Week, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, has voiced concern that a change in policy would lead some congregations and rabbis to leave the movement.  In one of his few public remarks on the issue, he told The Washington Post that "there is no doubt that such a step [reversing the current ban] would fracture the movement, and in a very severe way."

Rabbi Joel Roth, considered one of the main interpreters of Conservative Jewish law, concurs, stating that even discussing the issue at present "will be extremely divisive" and "would impel at least several members of the law committee to resign."

Nearly two years ago, Moment Magazine published an article I wrote about the Conservative movement.  It provoked quite a strong reaction from a number of Conservative leaders, partly, no doubt, because of the unnecessarily incendiary title Moment gave it - "The Conservative Lie" - but partly, too, as a result of its main thesis, that the movement's leaders, despite their claim to be dedicated to halacha, all too often manipulate that word to justify their abandonment of whatever elements of Jewish religious law frustrate some of their congregants' wishes or clash with contemporary societal mores.

A major body of evidence presented in that article consisted of statements and actions by respected Conservative rabbis concerning homosexual activity.

The article noted how the dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary's rabbinic school, after a letter he wrote proscribing premarital and homosexual sex drew the wrath of students, clarified that his letter had been "only a personal statement, not a matter of policy."  It recalled, too, that the head of the Rabbinical Assembly had admitted that some Conservative rabbis are already officiating at same-sex ceremonies without any rebuke or action being taken against them.  And that the University of Judaism's rector has openly blessed "gay unions."

Among the mail I received in the aftermath of the article's appearance were several letters from Conservative rabbis claiming that I had misrepresented their movement, that the evidence I had invoked was inconclusive, that there would never come a time when homosexual activity would in any way be "halachically" legitimated by an officially Conservative responsum.

That hasn't happened, yet.  But it seems more and more likely to happen as time goes on.  Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the University of Judaism's rabbinic school says "I don't see the seminary moving on this while [Rabbi Schorsch] is chancellor."  The implication is hardly subtle.

Even here and now, though, leaving aside entirely the words of the increasingly vocal "progressives" in the Conservative camp, sincere Conservative Jews might carefully consider the telling-by-omission comments of their more traditionalist leaders.  For in opposing any change in policy, they express concern for the fallout and invoke the need for rabbinic unity and organizational stability.  But there is nary a word about the essential underlying issue itself.  One searches in vain for any statement citing halachic principle or, for that matter, explicit verses in the Torah that condemn homosexual conduct in no uncertain terms.  What the Torah wants seems almost irrelevant.

Rabbi Schorch reportedly senses that the façade of Conservative fealty to halacha is crumbling. According to The New York Jewish Week, a source close to him says that he fears that a change in the movement's policy would "break down the last wall of being able to say that the Conservative movement operates within a halachic framework."

It should be apparent to honest Conservative Jews who affirm the integrity of the halachic process that Rabbi Schorsch's fear has long since been realized, that the sad Conservative truth is that the movement is but a sluggish version of the openly halacha-rejecting Reform philosophy.

May it become equally apparent to them that what they know to be the lifeblood of the Jewish people lives and thrives in the Orthodox world, and that it is clearly - as my own original title for the Moment article had it - Time to Come Home.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Most Jews - and a good many non-Jews - know that the Ten Commandments were introduced by God to Moses and the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai over three thousand years ago.

The New York Times, however, apparently believes that the Decalogue materialized more recently, presumably at some large interfaith gathering, where "the three great monotheist faiths," according to the paper's introduction to a series of articles, "latched onto" them.

The Times, for its part, decided to do some latching on of its own, employing the venerated laws as journalistic hooks for the personal stories of ten individuals or couples, as a creative way to relate their personal struggles to either "comply" with the Commandments, "reject them" or "simply cope with them."

The series' first offering, which appeared on December 15, was entitled "Unending Journey Through Faith and Heartbreak." It presented the wrenching portrait of a couple who lost their 9-year-old daughter suddenly and are still grieving 26 years later.

The first of the Ten Commandments is actually a statement, in which God sets the foundation for the laws to follow by establishing His relationship to His people as its liberator from servitude in Egypt. Thus, the article surmises, the First Commandment concerns accepting God's will.

That is something the bereaved father and mother have not done. It is telling, and tragic in its own right, that they received encouragement in their dismissal of that Jewish basic from their rabbi.

He told them that the Ten Commandments are essentially ten suggestions, mere human constructs that can be accepted or rejected, that there is no afterlife in which ultimate justice can be realized and that the existence of tragic occurrences beyond our understanding refutes the concept of divine justice

"How can I," the rabbi rhetorically asks, "as a post-Holocaust Jew, accept that suffering of innocents is willed by God?"

The Holocaust, however, was not the first expression of evil, nor was it the last, though its scale may indeed have been unparalleled. What is more, many of the Shoah's survivors emerged with their faith in God unscathed, and came to collectively form the bedrock of what are today thriving religious Jewish communities in the United States and Israel.

Theodicy, or the question of evil in the world - whether evident in the acts of human beings or in natural disasters both communal and personal - is not a new theological concern; it is raised in the Talmud. The theological bottom line is that if one insists on understanding God's ways, then one is insisting in effect on being God's equal. Accepting a God Who is perfect and all-knowing means being unable at times (most times, in fact) to fathom His actions. Which is why the Jewish response to tragedy is a simple and straightforward acknowledgment in the form of a blessing: "Blessed are You. our God. the true Judge."

There is, to be sure, ultimate justice; that, too, is an essential of Jewish belief. But too much is hidden from us for us to understand why things happen as they do. There are factors at work in history and even in our own personal lives to which we are entirely oblivious. Not to mention the other missing piece of the cosmic puzzle: the world-to-come. Unfortunately, the couple's rabbi dissuaded them from that basic Jewish belief as well.

"I almost wished I was Catholic," confessed the bereaved mother, "just for the comfort of believing in an afterlife."

What she should have wished for instead was a rabbi who subscribes to the theology of Judaism.

One cannot know if the suffering mother and father would have found greater comfort in the knowledge that God's actions are inscrutable to us mortals, or in the fact that there is another, very different, world beyond the one we know. I, for one, hope they yet will.

But comforting or not, those concepts are undeniable essentials of the Jewish faith, regardless of what the couple's rabbi, or any rabbi, might say.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

If you are mentally ill, there's a month-long waiting period before your request to be killed will be honored by Dignitas. If you're mentally sound, though, the Swiss organization can arrange for you to be dead within a week.

Switzerland's law permits assisted suicide.

So, for the moment, does Oregon's.

Though the Bush administration is asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to strike down that state's voter-approved Death With Dignity Act, a federal judge in Portland has blocked the government from punishing Oregon doctors for helping patients die.

An American-born man who would have once eagerly taken advantage of a law permitting assisted suicide had one existed many years ago, currently lives in Jerusalem. Today, however, he insists that the most wonderful thing that ever happened to him was the swimming accident that left him a quadriplegic.

His story came to me via a well-known and respected head of a Jerusalem yeshiva. The handicapped man was a personal acquaintance and had told the rabbi how the first twenty-odd years of his life were spent cultivating an athletic physique, honing muscles to perform at their optimum - and how his fateful accident had seemed at the time more devastating than death itself.

A graceful athlete mere moments earlier, he was now unable to move in any useful way, barred by an obstinate spinal cord and an army of oblivious neurons from playing ball or swimming laps, from eating or attending to his bodily needs - even from so much as scratching an itch - on his own.

He could not, he discovered, even kill himself without assistance, which he desperately tried to garner, to no avail.

Frustrated by his inability to, so to speak, check out, he began to turn in - inward, to a world of thought and ideas. Pushed decisively away from a universe of action, he entered one of mind.

If life is indeed now worthless, he wondered with newfound seriousness, then had running and jumping and swimming and scratching literal and figurative itches really been all that defined its meaning before?

That quandary, and pursuant ones, led the wheelchair-bound ponderer to contemplate the very meaning of creation itself and - to make a long and arduous journey of self-discovery seem misleadingly trite - he came to conclude that spirituality is the key to meaningful existence. He was then led to his forefathers' faith, what has come of late to be called Orthodox Judaism, and it is in the multifaceted realm of intense Jewish observance and study that he thrives to this day.

Most remarkable, though, was his auxiliary and inescapable realization - that had he not suffered his paralysis, he would never have thought to consider the things that led him to his new, cherished life..

Whether laws like Oregon's that permit physician-assisted suicide will be able to withstand the federal government's conviction that they are illegal will likely turn on things like judicial understandings of states' rights.

But the more trenchant concept that inheres in any consideration of assisted suicide is "quality of life." Are some lives, the question essentially goes, to be considered less valuable, less meaningful, less purposeful and hence less worthy of society's protection than others?

Legislators and judges facing the issue will contemplate many questions, but none of more enormity than whether American society is ready to define what makes life worth living, and to act on such definition by allowing ill and depressed people to enlist the help of doctors to make corpses of themselves.

Men and women in extremis often find themselves facing the question of life' s meaning. Not all of us at the end of journeys through this mortal coil will experience epiphanies, but we all have the potential to be so blessed. And many of us, even if immobile, in pain and without hope of recovery, might still engage important matters - like forgiveness, repentance, acceptance, commitment, love, G-d - perhaps the most momentous matters we will ever have considered.

And so, as the host of legal and moral issues involved in the issue of assisted suicide are considered in judicial chambers and legislature halls, we would all do well to contemplate, too, the edifying story of a once-promising swimmer living a largely inactive but truly full life in Jerusalem.

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

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Rabbi Shmuel Bloom

Yosef Mendelevich is one of my heroes. The former Jewish refusenik spent 11 years in a Soviet prison as a result of his dream of living in Israel. Despite relentless persecution by his captors, he observed as many Jewish traditions as he could while imprisoned and when he was released and finally arrived in Israel he worked tirelessly to bring Judaism to his Jewish former countrymen - and as many as them as possible to Israel.

He would be the last person one would expect to oppose the Jewish Agency's campaign to foster immigration to Israel from former Soviet lands, and yet that is precisely what he is doing. Why he is doing so should make us all think hard.

Mr. Mendelevich's stance against Jewish Agency efforts in the F.S.U. is a result of the agency's apparent determination to bring as many warm bodies to the Jewish State as possible, to do whatever it can, in his words, "to offset the Arab demographic threat - even at the cost of bringing in non-Jews."

It is indeed uncontested that, in a textbook example of the Law of Unintended Consequences, efforts to foster Jewish immigration have in recent years resulted in a large and unprecedented influx of non-Jews to the Jewish State.

The founders of Israel who created the famous "Law of Return," which gives every Jew - but also every non-Jew who has or had a Jewish grandparent - the automatic right to Israeli citizenship, never imagined that it would be used to entice non-Jews seeking escape from dead-end economies in their native lands to flock to Israel. Nor did they likely ever imagine Jewish Agency ad copy like the following appearing in a Russian newspaper:

"If at least one of your grandparents from your father's or mother's side is registered as Jewish, you have the right to immigrate to Israel."

That definition of "Jewish blood" has an interesting history; it intentionally mirrors Nazi notions. Indeed, it is still sometimes argued that "if someone was Jewish enough for Hitler, he should be Jewish enough for Israel." The argument implies that Hitler, yemach shemo, should be the arbiter of Jewishness for Israel; some of us, at least, are of a contrary view.

The statistics, in any event, are clear, and deeply disturbing. In the first half of 2000, nearly two-thirds of new immigrants from the FSU were not Jewish - using the government's own definitions and statistics. Employing traditional halachic criteria, the percentage would likely be even higher. According to Israel's chief rabbis, fully 70% of new immigrants arriving in Israel these days are non-Jews. Crime and missionary activity, moreover, have grown at an alarming rate among non-Jewish immigrants to Israel.

What is more, while Jewish immigrants tend to be older people, non-Jewish ones are usually of child-bearing age or younger, making the prognosis for Israel's future as a Jewish state even more dire.

This, as the rate of growth of the Jewish population in Israel continues to drop. Last year, it was only 1.4 percent, compared with a still-less-than-stellar 1.8 percent for the late 1990s.

Amid all the violence and turmoil in Israel these past two years, it is little wonder that the slow and subtle, if all too real, threat to the Jewish State's Jewish identity has been largely overlooked. But we ignore its beginnings at the peril of Israel's future, and would do well to consider the possibility that amending the Law of Return may not be as unthinkable as it might at first seem to some.

We are not speaking here of determining who is a Jew. The Israeli rabbinate, not the Law of Return, decides such personal status matters with regard to marriage, divorce and burial, and does so on a case-by-case basis. Nor do we speak of preventing non-Jews from moving to Israel, only about removing a powerful incentive for them to do so.

If the scope of the Law of Return' grant of automatic citizenship were limited to Jews recognized as Jews by all other Jews, and the Jewish Agency were thus prevented from seeking new citizens from non-Jewish populaces, sincerely motivated non-Jews would still be fully able to apply for citizenship following the normative procedure. But an amended Law of Return would help ease the critical societal challenge to Israel's Jewish future.

Proposals for such an amendment, unfortunately, have so far been rejected as politically incorrect. Without a strong endorsement from Jews around the world, they will likely remain on Israel's back burner, at least until non-Jewish immigration reaches true crisis proportions and Israel's Jewish identity begins to fade, G-d forbid, beyond repair.

What should frighten us all is that the day may not be as far off as we think.

[Rabbi Shmuel Bloom is Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America. The article above appeared in The New York Jewish Week, and may be reproduced with attribution.]

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

"Ultras Urged by Rabbis to React to Middle-East Terror" would have been a descriptive, if somewhat irresponsible, headline for the event.

And "Agudath Israel Leader Calls on Thousands to 'Fan Sparks into Flame'" an equally accurate and equally sly subheader for a report about the gathering that attracted more than 2000 traditionally Orthodox Jews to downtown Brooklyn on Thanksgiving evening.

For despite the ongoing slaughter of Jews in Israel and elsewhere - and that very day's murderous attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya and a voting hall in northern Israel - not a word of threat, hatred or revenge was heard at the massive gathering. These were fervently religious men and women, to be sure, but fervently religious Jewish ones.

The substantial hall at the Brooklyn Marriott hotel was packed to capacity, with the overflow crowd in a large lobby area that had been outfitted by Agudath Israel of America, the event's sponsor, with screens on which the proceedings were projected. Many hundreds more participated at a distance, through a broadcast on a Jewish radio station and electronic transmission to fifteen cities across the country.

After reciting Psalms in unison on behalf of the embattled Jewish community in Israel, the gathering settled down for nearly three hours of heartfelt addresses, during which those in attendance sat rapt and attentive.

Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, who is known as the Novominsker Rebbe and serves as Agudath Israel of America's "Rosh" or "Head," went right to the point. "We' re here," he began, "because we are living in a serious situation, unparalleled since the days of the Second World War." What Jews need to do today, he asserted was both to share in the pain of our brothers and sisters in Israel and "to search our own souls about what the situation demands of us."

It was less than a day before the start of Chanukah, and Rabbi Perlow likened the Jewish people to the Holy Temple, and Jews' potential for holiness to "a pure container of oil." We need, he declared, to fan the spark that lies in the heart of every Jew into a bright flame, and to allow it to cast light."

That "inner spark," he noted, can express itself in tears, in setting regular times for Torah study, in improved prayer, in better observance of the Sabbath and other Jewish laws. But it must, he insisted, express itself.

The dean of students of the respected Beth Medrash Govoha yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey, Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, delivered the next address. His focus was firmly on prayer.

All the tragedies and challenges the Jewish community faces, he asserted, our fear of terrorism and war, must lead us in one direction: to connect with the divine.

We don't sufficiently understand, he went on, what prayer really is; we don't fully appreciate its potential to empower our spiritual development, its ability to change us into different people.

And prayer, he reminded his listeners, is not something done only at the set times for synagogue services. Whether faced suddenly with a dire situation in Israel, or a personal challenge in our lives, each of us, he maintained, must stop immediately and pray.

A Chassidic leader, Rabbi Elya Fisher, dean of the Kollel of Ger, was next to address the gathering, and spoke about the merit of maintaining a high state of morality and holiness in an often immoral and unholy world.

There are, Rabbi Fisher explained, not only physical "birth pangs of the Messiah" but spiritual ones as well, challenges every bit as difficult as anyone's to those who must face them.

The final address of the evening was delivered by guest speaker Rabbi Yissocher Frand of the Ner Israel yeshiva in Baltimore, who painted a vivid picture of what it means to live, as all Jews in Israel do, in constant fear of unpredictable, murderous attacks.

Most of us, he noted, are not on the level of being able to achieve the ideal of constantly keeping other Jews' pain in our immediate consciousness. But each of us, he suggested, can adopt a daily pause to imagine how a Jew in Israel must feel going about the mundane, but to him potentially dangerous, things we do each day.

And, he went on, we must change our lives in concrete ways in response to the challenge of the current crisis. Whatever we may choose to do differently, he declared, we must do something. And he challenged his listeners to discuss resolutions with their families.

Those were the calls to arms voiced that evening, calls not to conventional (and surely not "unconventional" - at least in the common usage of the word) arms, but to the deep power that Jewish tradition ascribes to the Jewish people's prayers and deeds.

And as the crowd flowed out of the hotel, it was clear that the evening's words had found their mark. Hundreds of small conversations blended into one another, sending unmistakable notes of appreciation, reflection and resolution, like beautiful music, into the wintry air.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Attempts to present Jewish religious practices as cruel, harmful or downright evil, alas, are nothing new. Jewish ritual slaughter, circumcision and Shabbat have all, at one time or another, been publicly assailed. The opponents are usually non-Jews, sometimes individuals, sometimes governments. And sometimes, sadly, they are Jews.

Such is the unfortunate case with regard to a new Israeli film scheduled to be screened at several Jewish film festivals here in the United States in coming months. The movie, which purports to be a documentary but, from descriptions of its content and interviews with its director, seems more an unabashed hatchet-job on a millennia-old mainstay of Jewish life, is called, with no shortfall of cynicism, "Purity."

Its topic is taharat hamishpacha, or "family purity" - the laws that govern physical relations between Jewish husbands and wives. Ironically, elements of those laws have been embraced in recent years by many women who are otherwise less than fully observant of Jewish religious law, including a number of self-described feminists. They claim that the monthly suspension of physical contact between husbands and wives helps their husbands regard them as partners in more than just a physical sense. What is more, they say, immersion in a mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath - an essential element of taharat hamishpacha - touches something deep in their souls, providing a tangible expression of the renewal they viscerally feel each month. The new film, however, takes a rather more jaundiced perspective.

Anat Zuria, the movie's director, chose three women from over one hundred she interviewed. Though mikvaot are regularly cleaned and disinfected, one of the subjects voices disgust for immersing in a pool "where a million women have been there before you" and contempt for the mikvah attendant whom she chooses to see not as the personal assistant she is but rather as "the gatekeeper of my return to intimacy with my husband." The subject, who also characterizes the consummation of a relationship between a bride and groom who have remained abstinent until their wedding night as being "almost like a rape" and vows not to allow her daughter to suffer that fate, is clearly disturbed by considerably more than taharat hamishpacha.

Ms. Zuria, raised in a secular family but married to an Orthodox man, admits that she herself didn't like the marriage laws from the start. She found the separation period trying (which is understandable; most of life's most valuable things come only with effort), and decided that the laws were but "an ancient myth" that contemporary Jews don't need to be "dragging along" into the present. So much for the objective documentary-maker. She seems to share much with Amos Gitai, another Israeli filmmaker, whose own dark vision of Orthodox Jewish life, "Kadosh," he admitted, was also motivated by impure intentions; it was his way, he said, of "voting against" religious Jews.

To the vast majority of observant Jews, however, the laws of taharat hamishpacha are, if challenging, above all sublime and ennobling; they consider their relationships with their spouses to be stronger, holier and more enriched as a result of their observance.

That is hardly surprising. If sexuality is an essentially animalistic expression, a biological imperative, it is a grievously limited aspect of human existence. If, however, as Judaism teaches, it is something deep and mystical, powerful and perilous but holding immense potential for holiness, it can exalt and empower a marriage. Taharat hamishpacha underlies and sustains that understanding. (Among good sources for beginning to explore the topic is the late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's "Waters of Eden," available at

Efforts like "Purity" - or like "Kahal," a newly vocal and increasingly successful anti-circumcision campaign in Israel - deeply pain observant Jews. It is not that we feel threatened by them; they are vapid and laughable to anyone who understands and lives Jewish tradition. But that does not mean they are not dangerous.

Their danger lies in their potential to encourage Jews who may not yet have experienced the power and beauty of Jewish observance to simply dismiss those precious things out of hand. That would be tragic not only for the Jewish people as a whole but most of all for those Jews themselves, who would thereby be denying themselves the beauty, meaning, spiritual growth - and, yes, purity - that lie within every Jew's reach.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Women chanting the Torah portion during services is all set to be the next big thing in the Orthodox world - at least if a major New York Jewish weekly and the premier Jewish wire service are to be believed.

As it happens, though, the reports are a disturbing example of sloppy Jewish journalism or, perhaps, wishful thinking posing as objective reportage.

"Orthodox Shul May Break Taboo" declared the headline of a front-page article in The New York Jewish Week on November 15. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency's header was "In modern Orthodox circles, idea of female Torah readers spreading." But a careful reading of the articles provided at least a critical reader with ample reason to doubt the claimed affiliation of the main congregation in question, Manhattan's Kehilat Orach Eliezer. And somewhat more savvy readers quickly realized that the story was in fact no story at all.

Because the phrase "Orthodox shul" has to have some objective meaning.

In the case of KOE, as the congregation at issue calls itself, everything points to the fact that it is anything but Orthodox. It is not a member of any official Orthodox umbrella - not Agudath Israel, not the National Council of Young Israel, not the Orthodox Union. It is not affiliated with any established Chassidic group like Ger, Satmar or Lubavitch. It is named in honor of a late leader of the Conservative movement, Dr. Louis (Eliezer) Finkelstein. Its rabbi is Rabbi David Weiss-Halivni, who was associated with the Jewish Theological Seminary before becoming one of the founders of the Union of Traditional Judaism.

Little wonder, therefore, that on its website, KOE, the taboo-breaking hero of the Jewish Week's "Orthodox Shul" headline, the word Orthodox never appears.

To be sure, KOE does claim to be a "halachic" congregation. But that hardly makes it Orthodox; the Conservative movement, too, considers itself halachic.

So, should KOE indeed adopt the mainstream Conservative practice of women reading publicly from the Torah, as have the several other similarly unaffiliated "communities" and "minyans" duly noted in the press reports, its decision will be no more remarkable than a New Age healer opting for meditation and crystals as components of a medical protocol. Hardly a harbinger of revolution at the A.M.A.

The very notion of an Orthodox congregation adopting the practice at issue is bizarre. Orthodoxy recognizes that there are certain issues on which there may be varying halachic viewpoints and practices. But there are other issues on which the rabbinic consensus is so overwhelming, the historical precedent so clear, the recognized practice so widespread, that any opposing viewpoints - in this case, that of a previously unknown rabbi who works as a lawyer in Israel - can only be said to be beyond the Orthodox pale.

Many may wish it were otherwise, and some in the business of Jewish journalism seem to wish to create "facts" - or something, at any rate - "on the ground." But for a reporter, charged with objectively relaying accurate information, to portray congregations as Orthodox in order to promote a political, cultural or religious agenda is the journalistic equivalent of a glazier breaking store windows in the middle of the night.

Several years ago, there was much breathless reportage about two Orthodox congregations that had appointed women as what were first called "interns" and then "religious mentors." That development too was heralded as the first ripple of an anticipated wave of "Orthodox women rabbis" to come. In ensuing months, one of the women left her position and the rabbi who appointed the other took pains to explain that "in the area of ritual, she refrains from performing actions that halacha limits to males." And the tsunami has yet to arrive.

A truly objective observer will consider the claim of a new "trend" of women Torah-chanters in "Orthodox" circles to be equally much ado about very little indeed.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

There's considerable cosmic meaning in Chanukah's tendency to roughly coincide with a major Christian celebration (though this year they are several weeks apart).

For, while Chanukah is often portrayed as a celebration of religious freedom (or even, weirdly, as a salute to religious pluralism), the true meaning of the Festival of Lights is clear from the many classical Jewish sources about the holiday - from the Talmud through the Lurianic mystical works to those of the Chassidic masters. Chanukah is entirely about the struggle to maintain Jewish integrity and observance within a non-Jewish milieu, to resist assimilation into a dominant non-Jewish culture.

The real enemy at the time of the Maccabees was not so much the Seleucid empire as a military power, but rather what Seleucid society represented: a cultural colonialism that sought to erode the beliefs and observances of the Jewish religious tradition, and to replace them with the glorification of the physical and the embrace of much that Judaism considers immoral. The Seleucids sought to acculturate the Jewish people, to force them to adopt a "superior," "sophisticated," secular philosophy. And thus the Jewish victory, when it came, was a triumph not over an army but over assimilation. The Maccabees succeeded in preserving Jewish tradition, and protecting it from dilution.

The overwhelming gloss and glitter of the non-Jewish celebration of the season are thus a fitting contrast to the still, small, defiant lights of the Chanukah menorah.

And in times like our own, when assimilation and intermarriage are rampant, Chanukah should resonate even more meaningfully to us American Jews.

Release of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000's data on Jewish affiliation and intermarriage has been delayed for now, but it is hard to imagine that when it comes it will bring good news. Some try to make lemonade out of the bitter fruit of contemporary Jewish demographics, choosing to celebrate the incorporation of the larger society's perspectives and mores into "new forms of Judaism," and to view intermarriage as a wonderful opportunity for creating converts - or, at least, willing accomplices to the raising of Jewish children. But they are dancing on the deck of a Jewish Titanic.

Lowering the bar for what constitutes Jewish belief and practice does not make stronger Jews, only weaker "Judaism." And intermarriage is a bane, not a boon, to the Jewish future. Even leaving aside its inherent Jewish wrongness, consider what Brandeis University researcher Sylvia Barack Fishman discovered: fully half the intermarried couples raising their children as Jews hold Christmas and Easter celebrations in their homes.

Over so very much of history, our ancestors were threatened with social sanctions and violence by others who wanted them to adopt foreign cultures or beliefs. Today, ironically, what threats and violence and murder couldn' t accomplish - the decimation of Jewish identity - seems to be slowly happening on its own. Crazily, where tyranny failed, freedom is threatening to succeed.

The "miracle of the lights," our tradition teaches, was not an arbitrary sign. Poignant meaning lay in the Temple candelabra's supernatural eight-day burning on a one-day supply of oil. For light, in Jewish tradition, means Torah - the principles, laws and teachings that comprise the Jewish religious heritage.

Even the custom of playing dreidel is a reminder of the secret of Jewish continuity. The Seleucids had forbidden a number of expressions of Jewish devotion, like the practice of circumcision and the Jewish insistence on personal modesty. They also outlawed the study of Torah, which they understood is the engine of Jewish identity and continuity. The spinning toy was a subterfuge adopted by Jews when they were studying Torah; if they sensed enemy inspectors nearby, they would suddenly take out their dreidles and spin them, masking their study session with an innocuous game of chance.

The candles we light each night of Chanukah recalling the Temple menorah miracle reflect a greater miracle still: the survival of the Jewish faith over the past 3000 years. All the alien winds of powerful empires and mighty cultures were unable to extinguish the flames of Jewish commitment. "Chanukah" means "dedication." It is a time for all of us Jews to rededicate ourselves to our heritage.

We have the power to keep ourselves from melting into our surroundings, and to resist the blandishments of those who insist that there is no other way. We know how to put down the dreidels and open the books. We can make serious, deeply Jewish, decisions about our lives.

And with our will, our study and our observance, we can prove worthy descendants of those who came before us, and continue as a people to persevere.

We can all have not only a happy Chanukah, but, more importantly, a meaningful one.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

A Lakewood, New Jersey talmudic scholar's withdrawal from a joint speaking tour with a Reform movement leader has generated disapproval, even indignation, in some circles.

The New York Jewish Week's editor, Gary Rosenblatt, for example, accused Rabbi Yosef Reinman, the Lakewood scholar, who had co-authored a book of religious dialogue with Reform Rabbi Ami Hirsch, of "bending to pressure from the religious right."

Revered senior Orthodox sages had indeed taken issue with the wisdom of the literary venture, "One People, Two Worlds." Rabbi Reinman, openly accepting their criticism, decided not to undertake the promotional tour the book's publisher had planned.

What the elder sages disapproved of was the packaging of the Jewish religious tradition alongside a philosophy that openly rejects that tradition's most basic elements.

In a statement, they asserted that the book leaves the impression "that there is some parity between two legitimate approaches to Judaism, as if to say: 'Here, dear reader, are two ways of seeing the world. Feel free to choose as you wish.'"

The Torah, in other words, does not suggest its laws; it commands them, and with divine authority. To equate its G-d-given system of morality, ethics and ritual law with an diametric approach to life that boils down to "personal autonomy" and the choosing of whatever parts of the Torah one happens to agree with, the elders feel, is wrong and misleading.

Pointedly, though, they went on to explain that they "are not unaware of the benefit, and the need in our time, of clarifying the truth of the Torah to those who have never heard it, nor. of the obligation of feeling brotherhood and love for all Jews, including those who have been brought up with and ensnared by the falsehoods of our time."

"All such Jewish souls," they continued, alluding to concepts found in Jewish tradition, "stood with us at Har Sinai and heard with us as one the never-ending word of Hashem, and in the depths of their beings their souls cry that 'our will is to do Yours.' There is undoubtedly a special duty incumbent on us all to strengthen and support them, and help return them to their spiritual home."

But, they insisted, the Reinman/Hirsch book is not the way to do so. "The Torah must be presented to the masses purely and straightforwardly, as it was presented to our people at Har Sinai, unsullied by decidedly unJewish ideas. We may not treat our perfect Torah on a par with others' casual speculations. Light cannot co-exist with darkness, nor can falsehood be peddled along with truth."

In a world where relativity rules, so unapologetically confident a stance on absolute truth is bound to ruffle feathers. But no one with any familiarity with Jewish history can doubt that the Torah's divine and immutable nature was the sine qua non of the Jewish faith for millennia - as Orthodox Jews believe it remains today.

Rabbi Reinman knows that well, and, by all accounts, did a masterful job of expressing the fact in the book. Yet, his elders felt that the medium itself was a message here, and that the truth of the Jewish tradition - the source of the Jewish people's specialness - can only be presented in an uncompromised setting, not as an item on a menu.

Mr. Rosenblatt, an Orthodox Jew himself, should understand that insistence, and should, moreover, consider the possibility that Rabbi Reinman's acceptance of the elders' judgment was motivated by sincerity, not fear; by deference, not duress.

In the Jewish tradition, accepting direction, especially from those with more wisdom and life experience, is immensely valued, and admitting error more valued still. The direction of elders, and even their rebuke, are seen by truly religious Jews as valuable gifts.

Particularly ironic was Mr. Rosenblatt's questioning, in the wake of the controversy, whether the Orthodox sages "are mindful, or care" about many non-Orthodox Jews' perception that their Orthodox brethren look down on them, or "fear any social contact" with them.

If there is indeed any such perception, it is sadly mistaken. For Orthodox Jews' love for other Jews is not only a natural expression of ethnic solidarity; it is no less than a holy commandment of the Torah. And while we Orthodox reject unequivocally the philosophies underlying the movements with which many of our fellow Jews affiliate, that in no way affects our devotion to them - and certainly bespeaks no condescension or fear.

Quite the contrary, our rejection of those philosophies, including our refusal to provide them platforms or legitimacy, is an expression precisely of our love and concern for other Jews. The very words of the sages who objected to the Reinman/Hirsch project, quoted above, say it all. The reason for their objection to a book that includes a clearly non-Jewish perspective on Torah and life is because of their deep and uncompromising concern for other Jews - and their determination not to mislead them.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

At least Ann Landers admitted when she was wrong.

And while she may have used a pseudonym, Eppie Lederer claimed only to offer one woman's point of view, no more, no less.

Times, alas, have changed, and along with them The New York Times, whose Sunday Magazine's readers are offered the judgments of "The Ethicist." The bearer of that grandiose title also has a name - Randy Cohen - but his designation is clearly meant to imply gravitas.

Mr. Cohen is generally sensible and very often quite funny. Recently, though, he goofed badly. And, what is worse, he seems unwilling to own up to his error, not an encouraging sign for any honorable man, much less still The Ethicist.

The question in question came from a woman who had closed a deal with an Orthodox Jewish real estate agent. She became offended, though, when the otherwise "courteous and competent" man declined to shake her hand, explaining that touching a woman other than his wife violated his religious code of conduct. The offendee wanted to tear up the contract they had signed, and sought the columnist's advice.

"Sexism is sexism," responded Mr. Cohen, "even when motivated by religious convictions." And, invoking Brown v. Board of Education to argue that "separate is by its very nature unequal," he advised his supplicant to rip away.

Had he bothered to inquire, The Ethicist would have discovered that the Jewish religious prohibition at issue in no way "render[s] a class of people untouchable," to use his words; it rather disapproves of a behavior. And it does so in a decidedly egalitarian manner. Both men and women are equally bound by Jewish law to refrain from affectionate physical contact with members of the other gender to whom they are not married. Many Orthodox authorities consider even a handshake to be included in the prohibition.

With that stricture, halacha expresses not sexism but rather respect for both men and women - respect, that is, for the power of sexuality that Judaism reminds us is an integral part of the human condition.

That power, according to Jewish thought, when properly used, is a deeply holy thing. Allowed free reign, though, it is an equally destructive one.

In our sex-saturated - and in fact, as a result, sexist - society, men and women eschewing handshakes to avoid any semblance of misplaced sexuality might seem a bit much to many. But that says something only about our base and cynical times, not about deeper, timeless truths. And a good case could in fact be made that the morally confused times in which we live require us to exercise more caution than ever in the realm of physical contact between the sexes. A cursory familiarity with current events should suffice to reveal how easily "casual" interactions can devolve into less innocent, even abusive, ones.

Mr. Cohen, of course, may not see things that way. But even he, one imagines, would admit that imposing unwanted physical contact is wrong. And so, as one reader of Mr. Cohen's column wryly noted: "'Touch me or you're fired'" would seem "a perfect example of sexual harassment" - hardly ethical by any measure.

While hope springs eternal, The Ethicist, at least so far, refuses to budge. Responding to some who contacted him, he pronounced: "That the origins of [the halachic prohibition] seem benign makes it no less sexist and no less contrary to the values of an egalitarian society." Creating "separate spheres for women and men," he insists, remains "a manifestation of sexism."

Asked if his gender-blindness extended to endorsement of unisex restrooms and dressing rooms, he admitted that "there are a few cases where gender distinctions might be justified."

In other words, according to The Ethicist, it all depends. On what he happens to feel is ethical.

Mr. Cohen makes no claim to speak for Judaism - he was raised Reform but takes a "resolutely secular approach to ethics," as he explained in an interview - and indeed does not. But an ethical ideal to which he clearly subscribes is tolerance. And that should include tolerance of others who choose to subscribe to Torah, not Cohen.

Just imagine The Ethicist's ideal society. Men and women who, out of religious principle, eschew physical contact with members of the opposite sex would effectively be barred from pursuing their livelihoods. But society would be purged of sexism, real or imagined, and all would be well with the world - at least in Mr. Cohen's eyes.

And so we are left with the irony of an intolerant Ethicist. And one, in fact, who embraces decidedly unethical behavior.

For in his quest for some illusory absolute egalitarianism, Mr. Cohen did after all counsel a questioner to tear up a contract she and her business partner had just signed.

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

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