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


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 XVI


Rabbi Avi Shafran

In his dissent to the recent U. S. Supreme Court decision striking down Texas' sodomy law, Justice Antonin Scalia accused the court of having "taken sides in the culture war." Other proponents of traditional mores have voiced similar displeasure.

But it behooves us all to remember just what courts do - interpret and apply secular law - and what they don't: determine morality.

What the High Court decided was that the United States Constitution does not allow for laws that prohibit a particular sort of private behavior. That is no small matter, to be sure, and in fact raises the unsettling prospect of the High Court similarly declaring unconstitutional laws prohibiting things like incest between consenting adults, or polygamous and polyandrous (multi-husband) arrangements, or bestiality (which has its advocates, like Princeton Professor Peter Singer).

But the recent High Court decision, in the end, we must remember, speaks to the Constitution, not the Torah; to the law of mortals, not the Creator; to the police powers fo the state, not the moral power of our faith.

Nor, for that matter, does the ongoing "culture war" to which Justice Scalia made reference have any bearing on ultimate truth - at least not for a people whose peoplehood was forged at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

Society all around us may be moving in a direction where the stigma once attached to homosexual activity may be astonishingly disappearing, but the words of Leviticus remain beyond even Houdini's reach.

So it is particularly distressing that not only have popular culture and jurists given up on traditional morality; so have all too many religious leaders including, most sadly, Jewish ones.

The Reform and Reconstructionist movements have long embraced the ordination of gays and lesbians, and regularly perform commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples.

The Conservative movement is set to take up such issues later this year. And while its rabbinical group's executive vice president, Rabbi Joel Meyers, understatedly admits that "halachically,...homosexuality is not normative," he notes, too, that Conservative "halachic" decisions don't "tak[e] place in vacuums either."

"The [Conservative] rabbinate," he ominously elaborates, " clearly understands where society is, what the pressure points are."

The societal and jurisprudential acceptance of homosexual relationships is troubling enough. But when acts the Torah clearly forbids in the strongest terms are embraced, or even considered for embrace, by Jewish religious leaders who exercise their leadership by consulting "where society is" rather than where it should be, adjectives simply fail.

Jews faithful to the Torah - to the Jewish laws and ideals that have been transmitted carefully and zealously over the ages - would do well these days to remind themselves that, no matter how larger society may evolve or devolve, we are heirs to a timeless religious tradition.

The current American cultural milieu will redefine morality as it sees fit. So, for better or worse, will religious organizations and movements. But Jews, whatever their affiliation or lack of one, or whatever their "pressure point"-sensitive rabbis may tell them, are a people chosen to show the world what it means to bend human wills to that of the Creator of all.

Our father Abraham, Jewish tradition explains, was called the "Ivri" - the "other sider" - because "the entire world was on one side" of a conceptual river, and he "on the other."

Nothing is more fundamentally Jewish than to willfully stand apart from the Zeitgeist and affirm timeless truths in the face of an unbridled society.

All who value the essential societal principles with which Judaism has gifted the world need to recognize that we are faced with the contemporary image of Abraham's footsteps - and that we can walk in them ourselves, if only we don't allow ourselves to become demoralized by a direly demoralized world.

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

Return To Index of Articles

Abortion Distortion

Rabbi Avi Shafran

With President Bush poised to sign legislation passed by Congress banning a particular abortion procedure, some religious groups, including some Jewish ones, are up in arms.

The procedure at issue, commonly called "partial birth abortion," involves moving the fetus from the womb through the birth canal, feet first, and piercing its head and brain before completing the delivery.

Jewish organizations aplenty - Hadassah, the National Council of Jewish Women, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, to name some of the more vocal ones - have publicly condemned the bill, some indicating their intention to mount a constitutional challenge against the legislation.

With the steady drumbeat of Jewish groups' opposition to restrictions on abortion, even "partial birth" abortion, one might well assume that Judaism assigns women the right to choose to terminate pregnancies. Indeed, some of the aforementioned groups make the assumption explicit in their "pro choice" rhetoric.

A special "Roe Reaches 30" supplement to Hadassah Magazine's Summer 2003 issue, for example, quotes unnamed "authorities" to maintain that Jewish law "implicitly assumes that a woman has the right to make her own reproductive choices." Indeed, the supplement's "Jewish Law" section goes on to claim that "restricting access to reproductive services... undermines basic tenets of Judaism."

The truth, however, is precisely the opposite. The assertion that Jewish law allows a woman to terminate a pregnancy at will in no way reflects accepted - or even seriously entertained - rabbinic opinion. And if anything undermines basic tenets of Judaism, it is the notion that the Torah allows unfettered "access to reproductive services" - i.e. Roe v. Wade-style abortion-on-demand.

To be sure, the Talmudic sources are clear that the life of a pregnancy-endangered Jewish mother takes precedence over that of her unborn child when there is no way to preserve both lives. And, while the matter is not free from controversy, there are respected rabbinic opinions that allow abortion when the pregnancy seriously jeopardizes the mother's health. But those narrow exceptions certainly do not translate into some unlimited mother's "right" to make whatever "choice" she may see fit about the child she carries.

And in the case of "partial birth abortion," the procedure approaches - in fact, likely crosses - the border between abortion and infanticide, where Jewish law does not even recognize a "life of the mother" exception.

Whatever Hadassah and its allies might wish were the case, the Torah clearly affords fetal life significant protection. There is absolutely no source in halacha, or Jewish religious law, for the contention that a mother may "choose" to terminate a pregnancy at will.

One might well argue, as some Jewish groups in fact have done, that, notwithstanding Judaism's clear opposition to abortion, society in general, and minority religious communities in particular, are better served by a governmental "hands off" policy regarding abortion.

The movement I represent, Agudath Israel of America, would respectfully disagree with that argument. We believe that by legislating the moral imperative to protect the unborn, society promotes an ethic that affirms the supreme value of life - and, conversely, that legalizing abortion on demand promotes precisely the opposite, a social ethic that devalues life. But we recognize that there may be opinions to the contrary, and that they deserve careful consideration and respect.

What we do not recognize, however, and what deserves no deference whatsoever, is any effort to promote the "pro-choice" perspective through distortion of the Jewish tradition.

Groups like Hadassah are entitled only to their own opinion, not their own facts. What Judaism has to say about abortion is simply not what they claim.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

A phrase on the front page of The New York Times Sunday edition's "Week in Review" section on June 8 rightfully raised some eyebrows and left some mouths agape.

The essay in which it appeared, by John Kifner, began by contrasting a Hamas terrorist with Yigal Amir, the man convicted of assassinating Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995. That, though, wasn't outlandish. While many of us might place political assassinations in a different category from killing random men, women and children, both the Palestinian terrorist and Mr. Amir did in fact embrace violence, and both were wrong to do so.

The essay, though, went on to portray the pair as emblematic of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, as the young men had been "driven not just by nationalism but by religion." The Palestinian, it explains, was a devout Muslim; and Amir, "a Torah scholar."

How offensive.

Yigal Amir, whatever Jewish observance he may or may not have embraced, committed the cardinal sin of murder. Among his motivations may have been some twisted religious zeal (though even that is far from clear; while he invoked G-d and Jewish law during his defense, he also stated bluntly that his motivations were nationalistic, not religious). One thing he most surely was not, however, was a "Torah scholar."

That term implies deep knowledge, good judgment and religious authority, and is rightfully reserved for one who has spent many years honing his character and immersed in the study of the texts and traditions of the Jewish religious heritage.

Amir may have studied for a time in a yeshiva, but by the time he was 25, when he committed the act that earned him infamy, he had most recently completed three years' army service and was enrolled in a (secular) law program at Bar Ilan University. Though he may well have fancied himself a holy warrior, he was in fact a vigilante with neither Torah credentials nor (as became clear during an investigative dragnet aimed at finding rabbis who may have egged him on) rabbinical guidance.

He was, in other words, a college kid caught up in a frenzy of Jewish nationalism.

The essay's larger sin, though, was its implication of the baseless notion that intense dedication to the Jewish faith somehow leads to violence.

The religious-nationalist movement in Israel, including what the media like to call "settlers" (more accurately, residents of areas captured by Israel in the Six Day War) is comprised of Jews committed to the laws of the Torah. But the overwhelmingly majority of those Jews are non-violent. Yigal Amir does not represent them.

And that is an even more understated understatement with regard to Israel's haredim - those whom some of the media subtly slur as the "Ultra-Orthodox." Not only do they eschew violence but most don't even share the basic philosophy of the religious-nationalist camp. While deeply pained at the prospect of relinquishing any of the Land of Israel to non-Jewish control, Israeli haredi leaders have maintained that the first priority in the current conflict must be the protection of life, and most would be willing to accept Israel's territorial compromise if it were to truly help ensure peace.

Unfortunately, that "if," at least at present, is a grossly oversized one. Haredi leaders, like most lucid witnesses of current events, are unconvinced that either Palestinian leaders or their followers really want peace. They consider Yasser Arafat an unreformed murderer and will have to be convinced by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas that he himself is anything else.

There are modest grounds for optimism - Mr. Abbas's public acknowledgment of Jewish suffering, his renouncing of terrorism, and his declared determination to bring radical Palestinian terror groups to do the same (though it would seem a task on the order of convincing a leopard to shed his spots).

But there is also ample reason to be pessimistic - like Palestinian terrorist groups' condemnation of Mr. Abbas' peaceful words and their renewed murderous attacks - not to mention the new Palestinian Prime Minister's appearance at a press conference alongside the convicted killer of 13 Israelis, or the recent Pew Global Attitudes Project poll that found 80% of Palestinians contending that their needs "cannot be taken care of as long as the State of Israel exists."

Those are tragic, depressing realities. But while they may impel the Yigal Amirs of the world to violence, that is not their effect on Torah scholars. The latter, both the Talmud and experience inform us, "increase peace in the world."

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Meet Lorne Hughes, a young non-Jewish gentleman from the Virgin Islands clad in a form-fitting black outfit, who "regularly spends his weekends dancing with 13-year-olds... at bar mitzvahs," according to an article that recently appeared in The New York Times.

The report was ostensibly about Mr. Hughes' "lucrative and competitive" profession - he is a "party motivator." But its detailed descriptions of the devolution of bar/bat mitzvah celebrations in some circles could only have left any reader sensitive to the Jewish religious tradition deeply depressed.

Party "motivators" are paid to attend bar mitzvahs and other events to make sure "that young guests are swept up in dancing and games," according to the report. Mr. Hughes was described as smiling ecstatically at one bar mitzvah "as he danced to Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez songs with middle school students" and with their parents.

"Whether you can have a successful bar mitzvah without at least a handful of motivators," the article asserts, presumably in the name of parents who employ such services, "is debatable."

One female "motivator," at a bar mitzvah, "in a black tank top," was observed at the "children's cocktail hour" enthralling the 13-year-old boys in attendance. "She just talks about, like, sex and girlfriends," explained one of the young men, clearly motivated.

Some of the parents are similarly adolescent. While sometimes, the report notes, "they request that their motivators dress modestly... sometimes they request the opposite."

"Dads especially," often indicate their preference for provocative women "motivators," according to the owner of one entertainment agency. Then he heads, he says, unconsciously alighting on an apt metaphor, "to our stable of people" to find the right one for the job.

Were it all a Purim skit, it would be, if in poor taste, perhaps funny. As reality, though, not even the word "tragic" does it justice.

How horribly far the concept of "bar mitzvah" has drifted from its true meaning in these materialistic, vulgar times.

A mitzvah, of course is a commandment, one with its source in the ultimate Commander. And the "bar" refers not to what a bartender tends but rather to the responsibility of the new Jewish young adult to shoulder the duties and obligations of a Jew - the study and observance of the Torah.

And so, a truly successful bar mitzvah is one where the young person has come to recognize that responsibility. Dancers, decadence and the lowest common denominators of American pop culture are hardly fitting "motivators" for such.

The issue is not denominational. There are excesses to be found in celebrations of Orthodox Jews as there are in those of Jews of other affiliations. While the "motivators" phenomenon might represent a particular nadir of Jewish insensitivity, none of us is immune to the disease of skewed priorities, the confusing of essence with embellishment, the allowing of the true meaning of a life-milestone to become obscured by the trappings of its celebration.

In fact, a group of highly respected rabbis in the American haredi, or traditionally Orthodox, community, have called for their followers to tone down wedding celebrations (where party motivators are unneeded to get people dancing but where excesses of food and trimmings are, unfortunately, not unheard of). And many of us have taken the initiative to do the same with other celebrations as well, including bar mitzvahs.

As it happens, one of my own sons is, at this writing, about to celebrate his. He will read the Torah portion on the Shabbat after he turns 13, but for the Wednesday before, his Jewish birthday, my wife and I are planning a modest meal for relatives and a few friends - and, of course, our son's friends and teachers.

There are only three things on the agenda for the evening. My son will deliver a d'var Torah, a discourse on a Torah topic, and each of his grandfathers will say a few words.

My wife's father will likely, as he always does at family celebrations, thank G-d for allowing him to survive the several concentration camps where he spent the Holocaust years, and where he and his religious comrades risked life and limb to maintain what Jewish observance they could.

And my own father will surely feel and may well express the deep gratitude he feels to the Creator for protecting him, during those same years, in a Siberian Soviet labor camp, where he and his fellow yeshiva students similarly endured terrible hardships to remain observant, believing Jews. Both grandfathers will take pride in how their children's children are continuing the lives and ideals of their parents' parents, and theirs before them.

And I will pray that my son will grow further to recognize the mission and meaning of a truly Jewish life, and follow the example of his grandfathers and grandmothers, parents and siblings, uncles and aunts and cousins, many of whom will be there to celebrate with him.

Neither Mr. Hughes nor his fellow entertainers will be present.

But motivators will be everywhere.


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

Return To Index of Articles

Truth Be Told

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It's been a banner month for falsehood.

First, The New York Times, the "paper of record," was forced to admit that one of its rising stars had been in fact a Roman candle, a serial plagiarist and fabricator of facts.

Then there was the retrial of Lemrick Nelson. In 1992, he was acquitted of charges that he murdered Yankel Rosenbaum during the 1991 Crown Heights riots. The acquittal was apparently based on Mr. Nelson's lawyers' claim that their client had not been the man who, as part of a mob exhorted by shouts of "Kill the Jew!", had repeatedly stabbed the Jewish college student. Mr. Nelson was subsequently tried on federal civil rights charges - for stabbing Mr. Rosenbaum because he was a Jew - and found guilty, but a technical irregularity necessitated a retrial.

This time Mr. Nelson and his lawyers opted to inform the court that yes, their client had indeed been the stabber, but his actions had been fueled not by Jew-hatred but by beer. The claim of his innocence during his earlier murder trial, in other words, had been a lie.

Compounding the duplicity swirling around the case was the jurors' remarkable verdict: Mr. Nelson was indeed guilty of depriving his victim of his civil rights by stabbing him - but not by killing him. Thus, instead of a possible life sentence, the murderer, with credit for time served, may be a free man in a matter of months.

The jury forewoman later explained that she and her fellow jurors had taken into account old news stories that implied negligence on the part of the hospital that treated the dying Mr. Rosenbaum. However, there had been no testimony about the hospital's alleged negligence; the judge had explicitly ruled it was irrelevant, since Mr. Rosenbaum would not have died had he not been stabbed. All the same, the jurors apparently decided to violate their sworn oath to decide the case on the evidence presented.

But another egregious duplicity revealed in recent weeks had to do not with a murdered Jew but a live one.

The current issue of Moment Magazine features an article by author and political commentator John Loftus. Mr. Loftus, who served as a prosecutor for the Justice Department and has held some of the highest security clearances, claims to have gotten to the bottom of why, in 1987, Jonathan Pollard, despite his cooperation with the government and a plea bargain agreement that was expected to lead to a more lenient sentence, was sentenced to life in prison, where he languishes to this day.

It is no secret that the severity of Pollard's sentence was due to a secret memo from then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who stated publicly that Pollard's acts amounted to "treason" and had caused great "harm to national security."

The nature of that alleged harm is what Loftus examines, and his conclusion is a disturbing one.

He rules out the theory that Pollard shared with Israel the identities of American agents in the Soviet Union, information that subsequently fell into the hands of a Soviet mole in Israeli intelligence. Loftus himself accepted that theory at the time of Pollard's sentencing, but now believes it to be untrue.

The American agents were in fact compromised, but the culprits, says Loftus, were neither Pollard nor any mole in Israel but rather Aldrich Ames, who confessed in 1994 to betraying most of the American agents for cash; and Robert Hanssen, the senior FBI official arrested in 2001, who spilled the identities of he others. Pollard, Loftus maintains, didn't even have the security clearance necessary to gain access to the names.

Loftus maintains that what so incensed Weinberger was that Pollard provided the Israelis with an American roster of Saudi and other Arab intelligence agents, some of whom were connected to terrorist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and what we now know as Al Qaeda. Thus, says Loftus, who is currently writing a book on the subject, "Pollard stole the one book... that unquestionably proves that the Americans knew as early as 1984 about the connection between the Saudis and terrorist groups." Weinberger, he further asserts, undermined a number of efforts to expose Saudi connections with terrorist elements.

Recent events, of course, have laid bare for all the world to see the evil inherent in terrorism, and the bitter, bloody upshot of allowing it to fester. And post-9/11 America is officially at war with international terrorism. If Loftus' claims are confirmed, it would be fitting were President Bush, who wisely declared that war, to consider commuting the sentence of the man who has served 18 years in prison for having sought to undermine our mortal enemy back when it was considerably less powerful than it is today.

Truth, says Rabbi Shimeon ben Gamliel in tractate Avot, traditionally studied by many Jews over the spring and summer months, is one of the "pillars on which the world stands."

No wonder our world is so unsteady. Maybe it would help a bit if we recognized the truth about Jonathan Pollard. He violated our nation's law and deserved a punishment, to be sure. But he has been amply punished, and does not deserve to remain where he is.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Israel's High Court has turned down a Jewish feminist group's request for an order allowing its members to hold nontraditional services at the Kotel Ma' aravi, or Western Wall - the remnant of the courtyard wall of the Second Holy Temple. Instead, the court ordered the government to prepare a special site adjacent to the Kotel for such services. The decision was immediately scored by "Women of the Wall" as a blow to its "right" to pray as it sees fit where it sees fit.

Shortly after the decision was handed down, Batya Cohen-Kallus, a WOW member, told Ha'aretz that "we've been treated like second-class citizens who don't deserve the right to pray at the Kotel."

Women, however, have always prayed alongside men at "the Kotel" ever since its liberation from Jordan in 1967. In deference to Jewish religious law's requirement for segregating the sexes at a place of Jewish worship, men and women pray on opposite sides of movable partitions. Women of the Wall has to date not sought to change that accommodation of normative halacha but what it does want is for its members to be able to don at the Kotel tallitot and tefillin, prayer-shawls and phylacteries traditionally worn by men, and to sing aloud and chant from the Torah.

When provocative prayer-gatherings like WOW's or "egalitarian" mixed-gender services at the Kotel have been organized by feminist activists in recent years, what resulted was considerable hurt and anger (and even - inexcusably - some violence, on atypical occasions) among the hundreds of traditional Jews, men and women alike, who were present.

The court, for now, opted not to permit such unnecessary and incendiary disruption of the time-honored and tradition-based manner of prayer in the main Kotel plaza, a place most regularly frequented by Jewish men and women to whom classical tradition is very important.

Those Kotel regulars know, and are gratified by the fact, that the Kotel is a spiritual magnet for Jews of all denominations and beliefs. They do not monitor what prayer-books visitors use at the site or if proper head-coverings are worn. They want only to pray and let pray.

But women's song at the Kotel would not allow the men among them to pray there; they consider hearing a woman's singing to be forbidden to men. They are thus chagrined not only by the attempt to impose an idiosyncratic form of religious worship on a place moored in tradition - but at the prospect of being effectively banished from their place of prayer.

Many Jews who are sympathetic to radical redefinition of traditional norms nevertheless consider the campaign to establish non-traditional prayer services at the Kotel to be misguided. There can be no denying that such services offend those who are present at the Kotel from early morning well into the wee hours of the night. And what sensitive person of good will, whatever his personal practice or belief, would ever think of entering a mosque with shoes on, or to hold an evangelical revival service in St. Patrick's Cathedral?

As (non-Orthodox) writer Hillel Halkin put it: "Are there no other places to practice Jewish feminism in the world, in Israel or even in Jerusalem, that they must do it at the one site where it most infuriates large numbers of other Jews?"

And consider, further, the inevitable next step were Jewish tradition, as WOW would like, put aside as the public norm at the Kotel. Would not "Messianic Jews," for example, assert a right to hold aloft crosses for their services at the Wall? Or political activists of various stripes, to call rallies and demonstrations there? How and where does one draw a logically consistent, legally defensible line?

But in the end, the most compelling reason to keep prayer at the Kotel as it is may have nothing to do with offending others, or with opening a legal Pandora's box. It has to do with something infinitely more important. For more than three decades, the Kotel has been a place - perhaps the only one in the world - where Jews of all affiliations and persuasions have regularly prayed side by side. What has allowed that for that minor miracle has been the maintenance of a standard at the holy site by which all Jews - even those who might choose other standards, or none at all, elsewhere - can abide.

Anyone whose gut reaction to the recent court decision is sympathy for Women of the Wall in its quest for its self-declared "rights" might do well to pause and think, long and hard, about that. The Kotel today is the only place on the planet where all Jews - despite differences in personal practice, politics and outlook - are daily joined together as one by the sheer holiness of a place, where their collective heartfelt prayers all rise up to heaven intermingled - like the "sweet smelling" sacrifices once offered at the Holy Temple that stood mere yards away.

Should any Jew really want to undermine that?

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Facts, in some circles, are remarkably fluid things ­ especially when they concern Jews.

Millions of Arabs and Muslims embrace the "fact" that the September 11 attacks were a Jewish plot. For them, like for the lately-missing (and much missed) Iraqi minister of information, reality yields without a fight to wishful thinking.

Other, older, things about Jews known to some include our poisoning wells and baking blood into matzos (or, as a Arab newspaper creatively contended earlier this year, hamantaschen).

Thankfully, though, more human beings than ever before recognize anti-Semitic canards ­traditional and contemporary ­ for what they are. That is good news for Jews ­ not to mention, truth.

Unfortunately, though, creeping creepily alongside the new awareness has come an abundance of more subtle anti-Jewish slander.

Like the insinuation ­ coming from places as diverse as the minds of Columbia University Professor Edward Said and Pat Buchanan ­ that President Bush has been possessed by another group of Zion's elders, body-snatchers in the guise of "Jewish neoconservatives." How else, they ask, to explain an American president's irrational decision to declare war on a government as benign as Saddam Hussein's?

British Parliamentarian Tam Dalyell recent jumped on the decrepit bandwagon, asserting that Tony Blair has been "unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisers."

And slander more subtle still ­ and thus more insidious ­ lies in the increasingly frequent equating of the attackers of Jews with their victims. An April 10 item in The New York Times, for example, reports on "heightened tensions between Muslims and Jews" in France, as if what has transpired there over recent months has been something on the order of a "West Side Story"-style rumble. One would never guess that there have been scores of unprovoked violent attacks on French synagogues, Jewish-owned businesses and Jewish individuals, that French Muslim demonstrators have called for Jews to be killed, that anti-Semitic graffiti and vandalism have become commonplace in the Republic ­ or that, needless to say, anti-Muslim acts by Jews are nonexistent.

Take, further, the story that appeared in that same paper's pages mere days later, about the retrial of Lemrick Nelson on charges he deprived Jewish scholar Yankel Rosenbaum of his civil rights by stabbing him during the Crown Heights riots of 1991.

That pogrom was referred to by The Times on April 26 as "unrest… that left dead one black child and one Jewish man," oddly omitting that the child was killed in an automobile accident and the Jew ­ Mr. Rosenbaum ­ viciously murdered for being a Jew. Similarly, last year the Times called the 1991 events "violence between blacks and Orthodox Jews" ­ as if marauding gangs of Jews and blacks had spent four days attacking one another. In fact, the besieged Jewish residents of Crown Heights cowered and prayed as the one-sided violence raged.

Or consider last year's reportage of the July 4 attack by an Egyptian on Los Angeles Airport's El Al ticketing counter ­ which the F.B.I. recently decided was an act of terrorism (the suspense was unbearable). The Los Angeles Times called the attack, which took the lives of a young Jewish woman and a Jewish father of five, "violence [that] broke out… between an Arab and Israelis."

Just imagine a major newspaper describing a rape as "violence that occurred between Mr. Smith and Ms. Jones," or a lynching as "heightened tensions that arose between blacks and whites."

So why do people who would never think of accusing Jews of cannibalism or well-poisoning seem to regard us as fair game for such shameless immoral equivalences?

Part of the answer may lie in an historic event many Jews will soon be commemorating: the holiday of Shevuot. Jewish tradition associates Shevuot with the revelation at Sinai. And "Sinai," the rabbis of the Talmud note, is reminiscent of the Hebrew word "sin'ah," ­ or "hatred."

"For it was from Sinai that hatred descended," they observed. One understanding of that statement is that there will always exist resentment on the part of some toward the Jews, simply for their having been chosen by God to receive the Torah.

Jews are enjoined by the Jewish religious tradition to feel undeserving of that honor. We are instructed to regard it as a mandate to live Godly lives and to be a "light unto the nations." And we are taught to recognize the Godliness inherent in all human beings. Still and all, though, the resentment endures.

There was a time, during the early post-Holocaust decades, when many reasonably came to imagine that Jew-resentment had ceased to be inevitable. It should be obvious, though, from evidence both blatant and subtle, that their hope was greatly premature.

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

Return To Index of Articles


David Zwiebel

In early April, more than 700 people attended a dinner in the New York Marriott Marquis sponsored by Hillel, the national Jewish campus organization. They came to pay tribute to Hillel's outgoing president, Richard Joel, who is leaving the organization after more than 14 years at its helm to become the new president of Yeshiva University.

As one might expect at a tribute dinner like this, speaker after speaker told of Mr. Joel's sterling character and exemplary achievements. But one speaker broke the mold. Let's pick up the narrative - or as much of it as I feel comfortable repeating - from the report that appeared in The New York Jewish Week:

"When... mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, a professed and outspoken atheist, took the stage dressed as a Chassidic rebbe, complete with caftan, streimel and payot, the audience roared. There was much laughter when he peppered his remarks with "baruch HaShems' and other Hebrew words. When he went on to praise Joel for leaving 'the world of goyim,' with its [here Mr. Steinhardt is quoted as using unbecoming imagery to describe immoral gatherings and immodest women] - 'and that was just at last weekend's Shabbaton' - many guffawed.

"Steinhardt stayed in character throughout his brief performance, welcoming Joel to 'the world of the tzadiks' and noting 'I used to be a [I delete an epithet here]' but 'I spit on my old self. The days of moshiach must be near.'"

The uncontrollable convulsions that last knee-slapper must have generated are left to the Jewish Week reader's imagination.

Alas, there were some old fuddy-duds in the audience who didn't get the joke. "Attending officials from Yeshiva University seemed embarrassed," wrote the Jewish Week, "at least one Reform rabbi told friends he was offended, and a Hillel official privately bemoaned the fact that the organization's reputation for inclusion, tolerance and respect was misrepresented."

Told the following day that some had failed to appreciate his humor, Mr. Steinhardt seemed surprised. His presentation, he explained to the reporter, was "intended as a little bit of a spoof of the Orthodox, it's true," but he used the caricature of a Chassidic rebbe to "be amusing to just about the full range of Jews."


As one who read the account and was not amused, I wrote Mr. Steinhardt a letter objecting to his tasteless mimicry and mockery, and suggested that an apology was in order. He respectfully declined my suggestion, and offered one of his own in return: "Perhaps instead you might see your way clear to do something to help your fellow Jews, but I suspect that is beyond both your ability and your interest."

Michael Steinhardt is a very wealthy man. He is one of the most prominent Jewish philanthropists in the United States. Much of his philanthropic energy is devoted to causes designed to preserve Jewish identity and promote Jewish continuity, such as Project Birthright, Hillel and the Jewish Life Network - this despite his self-identification as an unabashed atheist.

I leave it to wiser others to ponder the bizarre spectacle of a man deeply committed to combating American Jewish apathy and assimilation while at the same time professing disbelief in Hashem and the Jewish faith. Perhaps they will understand the mindset of a champion of Jewish continuity who sees fit to publicly mock the dress, language, lifestyle and beliefs of a sector of the American Jewish community that has faithfully and successfully transmitted authoritative Jewish identity and pride to future generations. Perhaps they will comprehend the thought process that leads an obviously intelligent man to conclude that one who tills in the fields of Agudath Israel has no interest in helping fellow Jews. These are things beyond my meager comprehension.

The Jewish Week recently carried another story that caught my attention as well. It was about a Shabbaton in Boro Park, sponsored jointly by Agudath Israel and the Association of Jewish Outreach Professionals, at which 150 "newly observant Jews and interested secular Jews... enjoyed home hospitality, visited with prominent rabbis, attended Shabbat services, shopped and toured a matzah factory."

A letter from William Russman and his family, addressed to Agudath Israel, is eloquent testimony to the power and beauty of the Shabbaton:

"We enjoyed every minute of it... we only wish we had more time there! ... It was very worthwhile for our whole family to attend and we have very special impressions and memories to share with our friends here in Chicago. Our Belz family hosts, the Sanders, made us feel very much at home. Thank you again for the opportunity to experience so much Torah & Yiddishkeit in one weekend."

At midnight Friday night, reports the Jewish Week, Suzanne Helfand of Dallas "awoke and looked out her window to see the street filled with chasidim leaving an event at their nearby synagogue. 'I was like, wow where's my camera, but it was Shabbos... But I have a picture in my head of all the different streimels.'"

So do the 700 Hillel dinner guests have a picture in their heads of a shtreimel.

Which shtreimel image, one wonders, will ultimately prevail in the battle for the hearts and minds of our dear Jewish brothers and sisters? That of a wealthy philanthropist for whom the Jewish future will be built by holding up classical Judaism as an object of caricature and scorn? Or that of a young woman for whom a Shabbos in Boro Park is a revelation of faith?

I'll put my money - paltry as it may be next to Michael Steinhardt's - on the latter.

[David Zwiebel is executive vice president for government and public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran There's been considerable buzz of late about what has come to be called "Da' at Torah," the concept of trusting in the judgment of great Torah scholars regarding not only issues of Jewish religious law, or halacha, but issues of a sociological or even political nature no less.

In December, as Yeshiva University sought a new president, its long-time president Rabbi Norman Lamm explained why the opinion of leading talmudic scholars at the seminary was not afforded great weight. "We don't work on the concept of da'as Torah," he said. "[T]here is no principle of infallibility that we accept."

At a recent conference, the "Modern Orthodox" group Edah's director, Rabbi Saul Berman, recounted how encounters with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik had left him with the impression that the elder rabbi made a distinction between religious matters, where "his authority on Halacha was binding," and political or social matters, where they were not. The implicit message, The New York Jewish Week's Debra Nussbaum-Cohen wrote, was that "Modern Orthodox Jews are not bound by Da'at Torah," a belief "prevalent in the haredi world."

A week later, Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt pointed to a public apology that was offered by a respected rabbi for a misjudgment as proof that Da'at Torah is an inherently indefensible belief.

Whether Da'at Torah should be discounted by non-haredi Jews or not (not), and whether a rabbi's admission of having made a mistake undermines the principle (it doesn't), one thing that certainly does not help the cause of objective consideration of the idea is its misrepresentation.

Da'at Torah is not some Jewish equivalent to the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility. Not only can rabbis make mistakes of judgment, there is an entire tractate of the Talmud, Horiut, predicated on the assumption that they can, that even the Sanhedrin is capable of erring, even in halachic matters.

What Da'at Torah means, simply put, is that those most imbued with Torah-knowledge and who have internalized a large degree of the perfection of values and refinement of character that the Torah idealizes are thereby rendered particularly, indeed extraordinarily, qualified to offer an authentic Jewish perspective on matters of import to Jews - just as expert doctors are those most qualified (though still fallible, to be sure) to offer medical advice.

Jewish tradition refers to Torah leaders as the "eyes of the community." That is because they see things more clearly than the rest of us. Not necessarily perfectly. And there are times when G-d purposefully hides things from even His most accomplished disciples. But more clearly all the same.

What compels the concept of Da'at Torah is nothing less than belief in the transcendence of Torah.

In Jewish theology, Torah encompasses every corner of life. It is not limited to matters of Jewish law and practice. It extends to how one is to view happenings and face challenges, in one's community, in one's country, on one's planet.

The phrase Da'at Torah may be a relatively new one, but the insinuation that the concept it reflects is some sort of modern invention by "unmodern" Jews is absurd. "Emunat chachamim," or "trust in the judgment of the Torah-wise," has been part and parcel of Jewish tradition for millennia. The Talmud and Jewish history are replete with examples of how the Jewish community looked to their religious leaders for guidance about social, political and personal decisions - decisions that, as believing Jews, they understood must be based on authentic Torah values.

The phrase "Modern Orthodox" seems to mean several very different things to different groups of Jews. But if the word "Orthodox" is to have any meaning at all, it has to reflect a basic belief in the supremacy and scope of Torah. And an appreciation of the concept of Da'at Torah - understood correctly - directly follows.

In the words of a great leader of Jews: "The very same priest whose mind was suffused with the holiness of the Torah of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer, of Abaye and Rava, of the Rambam and Ravad, of the Beit Yosef and the Rama, could also discern with the holy spirit the solution to all current political questions, to all worldly matters, to all ongoing current demands."

Those words were written in 1940, as part of a eulogy for a great Lithuanian Torah-scholar and leader, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski. Their author was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. This article appeared originally in The New York Jewish Week.]

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Some Jews and Jewish groups invoke Jewish traditional texts to promote any of an assortment of agendas. Some of the causes may be worthy; others are less so; and others still are entirely without merit. Regardless of the cause, though, cavalierly appropriating Jewish tradition in the service of societal or political campaigns - hanging one's already formed opinions on the hook of the holy - is deeply disturbing to those of us who value the Torah as something more than a rhetorical instrument.

To be sure, the Torah speaks to every issue; 'delve into Torah, delve into it again, for all is in it,' our Sages tell us in Pirkei Avot. But applying the Jewish religious tradition's timeless truths to contemporary quandaries is no simple affair. It has traditionally been left to those most immersed in the study and practice of Torah, those who have over the course of years carefully honed their minds and characters through Jewish texts and traditions, to offer an authentically Jewish religious perspective on complex contemporary issues.

When, by contrast, people with limited interest in most of the Torah's laws, and even more limited familiarity with the corpus and concepts of Jewish religious literature, proudly pronounce that their particular point of view on a social or political matter is backed by 3000 years of Judaism, it does no honor to Torah - or to themselves.

Thus, when the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism bases its assertion that homosexual unions should be accepted by society - and even recognized as marriages - on the fact that all human beings are created, as it says in Genesis 'in G-d's own image,' a Torah verse has been hijacked. There's another one in Leviticus, of course, that more directly addresses the issue.

Likewise when the Torah's insistence that a mother's life come before that of her fetus who is endangering it is somehow turned into a 'source' for the concept of unfettered 'reproductive freedom,' a concept in Jewish law is itself aborted.

A recent example of such reducing of Torah to a mere tool for promoting a cause appeared in a full page advertisement in The New York Times on March 21, two days after our country began its campaign to liberate Iraq from its current regime. It carried the bold headline 'WHY JEWS SHOULD OPPOSE WAR ON IRAQ' and went on to declare what it deemed to be 'the Jewish Obligation in This Hour.'

Sponsored by Rabbi Arthur Waskow's 'The Shalom Center' in Philadelphia and accompanied by the names of hundreds of signatories, the ad quoted from the Torah ('Justice, justice shall you pursue') and Psalms ('Seek peace and pursue it'), and declared that, in the name of 'Tikkun Olam' ('repairing the world' or, as the ad puts it, 'healing the planet') American Jews must add their voices to the anti-war movement.

The advertisement left some of us in (forgive me) shock and awe. The image of Jews - less than sixty years after a murderer of millions of their relatives was finally forcibly removed from power - advocating the continued coddling of a contemporary mass-murderous tyrant is a striking one. But historical irony aside, while there may be cogent reasons to be apprehensive about the current conflict, there are equally cogent, and even more compelling reasons to feel that forcing regime change in Iraq at present is necessary, and hence proper.

A basic Jewish law, codified and accepted by all authorities, is that one is justified, indeed commanded, to take pre-emptive measures, even lethal ones if necessary, to protect oneself from an assailant. Does anyone doubt that Saddam Hussein (who even opponents of the war concede is a murderous tyrant), with sufficient weapons of mass destruction, would unleash them on his enemies, like the United States (not to mention Israel, which he has openly threatened)?

Far be it from me, a rabbi but much removed from the level of Torah wisdom necessary to judge issues of war and peace, to arrogate to offer an opinion on the matter of Iraq. But I know enough to recognize that the Shalom Center is interested not in what the Torah says but rather in making it 'say' what the Shalom Center would like it to.

And as offensive as its selective citations inherently are, they are more intensely disagreeable now that war is underway, when American Jews, like all Americans, should be united in our hope for as swift and decisive a victory as can be had. Instead of seeking holy hooks for personal causes, we should be feeling and expressing our gratitude to the brave soldiers who are risking their lives to advance the cause of Iraqi freedom and worldwide security - and praying for their safety and success.

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

Return To Index of Articles


David Klinghoffer

Surfing the Internet recently I came across the website of the Iraqi daily newspaper Babel. Owned by Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday, Babel isn't exactly a hard-hitting news source. Just before the war began, a typical top-story headline read: 'SCOOP: SAUDI ARABIA, EGYPT AND SYRIA CARRY OUT SEVERAL RESIDENTIAL CENTERS IN IRAQ.' What's most intriguing about the paper is its name, helpfully translated as Babylon.

The word 'Babel' is Scriptural Hebrew's rendition of 'Babylon,' the great metropolis where the book of Genesis tells of a building project that went famously awry. The city's ruins lie an hour's drive south of Iraq's modern capital - a geographical proximity we could dismiss as meaningless were it not for the fact that Saddam has insisted that his regime stands in a direct line of succession from Babylon's kings, and were it not also for the fact that the Bible's story of Babel and its Tower casts a hopeful light on current events in that country.

Western journalists who have visited the archaeological remains tell of a monumental-scale portrait of Saddam looming over the site. He is pictured accepting cuneiform tablets from the great king Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 B.C.), with the caption 'From Nebuchadnezzar to Saddam Hussein.' To underline the point, the Iraqi president built a palace for himself on a nearby hill, overlooking Nebuchadnezzar's palace.

In the Bible's brief narrative, 9 verses in all, the Tower of Babel is overturned for some unspecified crime. As Hans Blix might say, the 'smoking gun' is missing. Scripture's cryptic style typically leaves out such key details, which is why Biblical traditions that try to fill in the blanks, found in the richest detail in classical Jewish sources like the Talmud and Midrash, are so interesting. When I was researching my new biography of the Biblical patriarch Abraham, I found that such material has a funny way of hinting at much later events. I wondered if it might do so here as well.

The Bible says the Tower was intended to reach up to the heavens themselves. As the ancient midrashic collection Genesis Rabbah tells the story, the construction was initiated by a predecessor of Nebuchadnezzar, called Nimrod. This was two years after Noah's Flood. But the Talmud suggests that some quality in 'the air [in the vicinity] of the Tower causes forgetfulness.' Nimrod had forgotten the fury of the great floodwaters, thinking he could defy G-D and survive another deluge by building a high tower - much as Saddam seems to have forgotten whatever he learned from the first Gulf War, still thinking he can hold off an attack by a much superior power.

As a revered 19th-century scholar of Biblical tradition explained, when the Bible records that in Babel they 'spoke a single language,' this means that the populace, terrified by their leader, all voiced the same party line. Says Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (1817-1893), the tower was a technology of social control, allowing the regime to spy on its citizens. Modern Iraqis have ample experience of life under such a government. Like Saddam, Nimrod imprisoned dissenters, including Abraham himself who miraculously escaped a sentence of death by fire. So says the Midrash, which indicates that the king wanted to create a new religion around a false G-D - just as many a dictator has established a personality cult around himself.

The world's Superpower, G-D, grew alarmed and initiated an inspection process. As the Bible puts it, He 'descended to look at the city and tower which the sons of man built.' Though the Midrash recounts that Nimrod was given a chance to 'repent,' the tyrant refused.

The Bible then depicts G-D as lamenting that if Babel isn't stopped, 'henceforward nothing that they have a mind to do will be beyond their reach' - precisely the rationale offered by advocates of war on Iraq, who worried about nuclear terror if Saddam wasn't stopped.

So the Tower is destroyed, the 'single language' of its builders scrambled into a 'Babel' of tongues. While this may appear to be a defeat for the people of Babel, what's really being described here, I think, is the birth of democracy. Suddenly a variety of ideas are allowed to compete for the citizens' allegiance, rather than one ideology, one 'language,' being forced upon them from above - a victory indeed.

When the present war is done, will Iraqis enjoy a similar victory? You don't have to be a Bible-believer to hope that Scripture and its traditions prove to be as prescient in the end as they have been up till now.

[David Klinghoffer is the author of The Discovery of G-D: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism, published this month by Doubleday. This article appeared originally on National Review Online.]

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Who knows four?"

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

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Just when it seemed that the denial of morality's essential premise, the uniqueness of humanity, had reached its nadir - with Princeton philosopher Peter Singer's ranking of healthy animals' happiness above the lives of hopelessly ill babies, and his urging that society accept human-animal domestic partnerships - along comes PETA and its new, none too delicately titled national campaign, 'Holocaust on Your Plate.'

Civilized people's wells of indignation are understandably depleted in these amoral times, but we must somehow summon a special sense of outrage for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' new exhibition, which is to be displayed in cities across the United States. It consists of eight 60-square-foot panels depicting photographs of farm and slaughterhouse scenes side-by-side with photographs of Nazi death camp victims. Naked, emaciated men are juxtaposed with a gaggle of chickens; pigs behind bars with starving children behind barbed wire; mounds of human corpses with mounds of cow carcasses. The unspoken but unmistakable message is the group 's long-time slogan 'meat is murder.'

Holocaust survivors, understandably, might be perplexed by PETA's campaign, and perhaps wonder if it is some sort of incredibly tasteless joke, or the work of people who are mentally disturbed. Unfortunately, though, one gets the sense that PETA and its supporters are neither jokesters nor crazy, that the illness from which they suffer is not mental but moral.

And, in their zeal for their cause, they are not beyond misrepresenting Jewish religious figures. Like Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz, an illustrious American Torah scholar and yeshiva dean who died in 1948. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, PETA invoked his memory in support of its position, describing him as 'a vegetarian Torah scholar.'

Rabbi Mendelovitz's example is in fact illustrative, though not in the way PETA imagines. According to both his biographer and his son, Rabbi Mendelovitz indeed stopped eating meat in the late 1930s - but as an act of self-deprivation. When reports of the destruction of European Jewry first reached him, he felt a need to express his anguish, and chose to do so by denying himself the pleasure of meat. Human beings - his fellow Jews - were being slaughtered.

Many weeks ago, well before the brouhaha over PETA's new campaign, I penned a column that focused on the subtle societal dehumanization of men and women in our day, a critique of the unconscious equating of people with animals by contemporary social elements. Some readers asked if I meant to endorse the mistreatment of animals.

The answer, of course, was and is an unqualified no. Two of the three forefathers of the Jewish people were shepherds, and the Torah forbids cruelty to animals or causing them gratuitous harm. But it most clearly sanctions their breeding, reasonable confinement and, at least since the Biblical Flood, slaughter for food. Halacha not only permits meat-eating, it encourages it on the Sabbath and holidays as a means of showing honor to holy times.

Were cruelty to animals PETA's sole concern, Judaism could have no complaint with it. But, as the current campaign graphically shows, the PETA Principle runs dangerously close to - if it doesn't entirely fall into - the Singerian abyss of effectively equating animal and human life.

And so, while the outrageousness of PETA's invocation of the Holocaust creates a fortuitous focus on the organization, the group's more basic, more harrowing conviction is its seeming denial of humanity's uniqueness.

Thus, Roberta Kalechofsky, the founder of Jews for Animal Rights, drifts off-target by suggesting that the reason the 'Holocaust on Your Plate' campaign is wrong is because the Nazis 'didn't just want to extinguish Jewish flesh; they wanted to extinguish Jewish civilization.' Had the Nazis only targeted half the world's Jews for extinction - or, for that matter, random humans - would they not have been evil? More evil, even, than those who kill animals or eat meat?

Mathematician-author-Jewish vegetarian Professor Richard Schwartz follows Ms. Kalechofsky into the intellectual wilderness. Though he retreated from his initial gratification with the PETA campaign - 'I have found,' he said, 'that other approaches do not get people's attention' - his subsequent change of heart was due only to sensing the 'rage' from some Jewish groups, to a realization of the 'deep pain' PETA had caused Holocaust survivors.

That pain is real, and inexcusable, to be sure. But, the Professor notwithstanding, PETA's most elemental sin lies not in its abuse, ugly as it is, of the Holocaust's victims, but rather in its apparent equation of human beings with animals.

According to Jewish religious tradition, there was a time in history when humans were forbidden to eat animals. Until the time of Noah, animals were allowed to be used as beasts of burden but not as food. After the Flood, however, the eating of meat became permissible to mankind. One reason that has been suggested for that change is based on another rabbinic tradition, that the generation of the Flood had lost its essential moral bearings, going so far as to sanction official 'marriage'-unions between men and men, and between humans and animals.

The divine sanction of meat-eating, that approach contends, was thus a means of ensuring that humanity recognize beyond question that human beings are special, possessive of a spark of holiness that does not inhere in animals.

Animals are part of G-d's creation and, as the Psalmist sings, 'His mercy in on all of His creatures.' Our own mercy should be similarly placed. But animals are still not humans.

If we choose to forget that fact, or act to obscure it, we sow the seeds of moral disaster.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

March 5 this year was the first day of the Jewish month Adar (actually the second of two Adars during this Jewish leap year). We are enjoined by the Talmud to 'increase happiness' in Adar, the month of Purim, when we celebrate and express our gratitude to G-d for delivering the Jews in ancient Persia from their enemies.

On Purim, Jews give alms to the poor and gifts of food to one another. This year, March 5 brought us an early Purim present. It wasn't food, but it was definitely food for thought.

The previous day had been the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Iosef Vissarionovich Dzugashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin. A new book on the Soviet dictator and mass murderer, 'Stalin's Last Crime,' is set to be published shortly, and it was on the 5th that The New York Times ran a lengthy article about the book, including its suggestion that Stalin may have been poisoned. The Soviet leader had collapsed after an all-night dinner with four member of his Politburo at Blizhnaya, a north Moscow dacha, and languished for several days before dying. If indeed he was done in, as the book's authors suspect, the likely culprit, they say, was Lavrenti P. Beria, the chief of the Soviet secret police.

The book also recounts the story of the infamous 'Doctors' Plot,' a fabricated collusion by Kremlin doctors to kill top Communist leaders.

'By the time Stalin disclosed the plot to a stunned Soviet populace in January 1953,' the article notes, 'he had spun it into a vast conspiracy, led by Jews under the United States' secret direction, to kill him and destroy the Soviet Union itself.'

The article goes on to relate something less widely known. 'That February,' it states, 'the Kremlin ordered the construction of four giant prison camps in Kazakhstan, Siberia and the Arctic north, apparently in preparation for a second great terror - this time directed at the millions of Soviet citizens of Jewish descent.'

That terror, however, thankfully never unfolded. Two weeks after the camps were ordered built, Stalin attended the Blizhnaya dinner and, four days later, was dead at the age of 73.

The gift we have been given this Adar is the knowledge of what the killer of millions of his countrymen had apparently planned for the Jews under his control. That he met his fate (however that may have happened) poised to launch a post-Holocaust holocaust of his own, is something we might well add to our thoughts of gratitude at our Purim celebrations this year, a half century later.

And we might note something else as well, especially during this season of meaningful ironies, when G-d's hand is evident 'between the lines' of history to all who are sensitive enough to see it.

Stalin, according to his successor Nikita Khrushchev, who was present at the dinner party, had apparently collapsed after the feast, at which, Khrushchev also recounted, the dictator had gotten thoroughly drunk. The feast ended in the early hours of March 1.

Which, in 1953, corresponded to the 14th day of Adar, otherwise known as Purim.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The deepest sort of slander, the rabbis of the Talmud contend, is the type that was employed by Haman, the Purim story's villain. The arch-enemy and would-be destroyer of the Jewish people in ancient Persia used subtle innuendo as he spoke to the king about his Jewish subjects. Instead of openly venting his visceral hatred, he utilized snide insinuations - that the Jews were insular, unloyal, disdainful, dangerous.

Anyone who may have recalled that Talmudic observation over the Purim holiday may well have been struck with its timeliness - or perhaps better, timelessness. Subtle slander of Jews is no farther away than the nearest newspaper.

The fact that some American Jews (though, polls have shown, hardly a disproportionate number in comparison with the general American population) have joined many others in finding solace in the prospect of a world without Saddam Hussein in control of dangerous weapons has been portrayed by some as sinister; American Jews have been accused of pulling a puppet President Bush 's strings. Much of the Arab and European press, predictably, are among the slanderers, as is, equally predictably, Pat 'Amen Corner' Buchanan, who has been railing of late against the 'War Party' of neoconservatives William Bennett, William Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and Richard Perle. Mr. Bennett is the odd man in the conspiracy, a Christian.

Representative Jim Moran seemed of similar mind, reportedly telling a Jewish questioner that 'if it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing it.' After being taken to task for his words, the Virginia democrat said that he regretted 'giving any impression that [Jews] are somehow. behind an impending war.' No doubt the regret is sincere, but he did not address the question of whether he actually believes what he said.

Much of the vilification is aimed, of course, at Israel. Like the words of Amiri Baraka, the former LeRoi Jones, who has been warmly welcomed with standing ovations at college campuses in the wake of the controversy over a poem he wrote. In addition to a scatological insult aimed at Colin Powell, a questioning of Condoleeza Rice's morals and a juvenile pun on Clarence Thomas' name, 'Somebody Blew Up America' includes the immortal lines: 'Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion/And cracking they sides at the notion.' and 'Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed/ Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/ To stay home that day /Why did Sharon stay away?'

Mr. Baraka, who was appointed poet laureate of New Jersey by that state's governor before the official became aware of the poem, was asked to resign. He refused, blaming his persecution on the ADL and on 'paid liars and apologists for ethnic cleansing and white supremacy, bourgeois nationalists' and, in an amusingly ironic addendum, 'the dangerously ignorant.'

There is apparently no legal mechanism in New Jersey for firing an official state poet (or, it seems, for changing the title from poet laureate to village idiot) and so Mr. Baraka remains in his position.

Taking a cue from the headlines these days, Mr. Baraka, in a long, rambling and only occasionally lucid diatribe, denied that his poem is anti-Semitic. He asserts that he was only remarking on what he believes was Israel's foreknowledge of the September 11 attacks (a belief he explains was 'everywhere on the Internet'), and contrasts the 'little Palestinian girl who blows herself up in a Israeli Pizza Parlor' with Israeli jets 'all but destroy[ing] the Palestinian Center of Governance, with its President, Yasser Arafat, inside sitting in the dark.' He is amazed that 'it is the Israelis who are [perceived as] victims and the little Palestinian girl or boy or young man or young woman or even elder, they are the terrorists.'

For his part, Mr. Buchanan, too, goes after Israel, asserting that she, as the 'recipient of $100 billion in U.S. aid, is demanding another $15 billion to hold our coat as we fight her war against Iraq.'

Much of the contemporary Jew-hatred is indeed, in top slander-style, presented as hatred of Israel. But, as Agudath Israel of America's late president Rabbi Moshe Sherer contended almost thirty years ago, it is mere anti-Semitism in costume.

In 1975, after the famous 'Zionism is racism' United Nations resolution, Rabbi Sherer wrote: 'Through the resolution was supposedly aimed only at secular 'Zionism'.the slander is an attack on the entire Jewish people.'

'In truth, through,' he continued, even if hatred was aimed only at certain Jews, 'we [traditionally Orthodox Jews] would feel precisely the same responsibility to come to the defense of our brethren. While we may have our own quarrel with secular Zionism, when Jews are libeled, their affiliation does not matter; our love for our brothers and sisters draws us to their side.' And, what is more, the celebrated Jewish leader observed most pointedly, 'the U.N. resolution is aimed at all Jews, for it assails the historical Jewish right to Eretz Yisrael. The Torah bestowed that right and any attack on it is an attack on Judaism and the Jewish people.'

Behind the United Nations' austere facade, he went on, 'lies a veritable jungle, crawling with well-dressed, diplomatically correct savages.'

The more things change.

In Haman's time, as we just heard at the Megilla reading if we were paying attention, the Jews in Persia were delivered from their enemies through a determined turning to G-d, by fasting, repenting and recommitting to Jewish observance. As we survey our own increasingly bizarre and hateful world, all of us should seriously consider doing no less.

[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.