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Archives Of Previous Articles XVII


SEIZE THE DAYS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

Opening the medicine cabinet one day in search of relief, I was struck by a sticker on a prescription container. I had seen both the container and the sticker countless times, but the full implication of the message on the latter had somehow always escaped me.

"Not for use by pregnant women," the caveat read.

"And why not?" a part of my aching but still functioning head wondered.

Because, another part answered, a fetus is so much more sensitive to the effects of chemicals than a more developed person. Partly, of course, because of its very tiny ness, but more importantly, because it is an explosively, relentlessly developing thing. When organisms undergo a process of development - especially as furious a process as a single cell growing to a many-billions-of-unbelievably-variegated-cells organism in a matter of mere months - they are easily and greatly affected by even the most subtle stimuli.

Which thought led, slowly but inexorably, to others, about the creation of the world - which we will soon be recounting in the weekly Torah portion - and about the beginning of a new Jewish year.

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

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

Leaving the realm of the microcosm, our world itself, too, had a gestation period, six days' worth. Interestingly, just as the initial developmental stage of a child takes place beyond our observation, so did that of the world itself. The event and processes of those days are entirely hidden from us, the Torah supplying only the most inscrutable generalities about actually took place then. Thus, the Talmudic rabbis applied the verse "the honor of G-d is the concealment of the things" (Proverbs, 25:2) to the days of creation. Honest scientists admit the same. E.A. Milne, a celebrated British astronomer, wrote "In the divine act of creation, G-d is unobserved and unwitnessed." The physicist Richard Feynman once remarked about quantum mechanics, the physical system underlying matter, "I think it is safe to say that no one understands [it]."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Observance and good conduct are always in season, but our tradition is teaching us that they have particular power during the "ten days of repentance."

And so we would do well indeed to regard these special days with the very same vigilance and care an expectant mother has for the rapidly developing, exquisitely sensitive being within her. Let us seize the days and use them to the fullest; for they are conceptual butterfly-wings, the first unfoldings of a new Jewish year.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs at Agudath Israel of America. A longer version of this essay appears, under the title "Great Expectations," in the current issue of The Jewish Observer.]

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THE SUKKAH STILL STANDS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

There is simply no describing the plaintive, moving melody to which Yiddish writer Avraham Reisen's poem was set. As a song, it is familiar to many of us who know it thanks to immigrant parents or grandparents. And, remarkably, the strains of "A Sukkeleh," no matter how often we may have heard them, still tend to choke us up.

Based on Reisen's "In Sukkeh," the song, whose popular title means "A Little Sukkah," really concerns two sukkot, one literal, the other metaphorical, and the poem, though it was written at the beginning of the last century, is still tender, profound and timely.

Thinking about the song, as I - and surely others - invariably do every year this season, it occurred to me to try to render it into English for readers unfamiliar with either the song or the language in which it was written. I'm not a professional translator, and my rendering, below, is not perfectly literal. But it's close, and is faithful to the rhyme scheme and meter of the original:

A sukkaleh, quite small,
Wooden planks for each wall;
Lovingly I stood them upright.
I laid thatch as a ceiling
And now, filled with deep feeling,
I sit in my sukkaleh at night.

A chill wind attacks,
Blowing through the cracks;
The candles, they flicker and yearn.
It's so strange a thing
That as the Kiddush I sing,
The flames, calmed, now quietly burn.

In comes my daughter,
Bearing hot food and water;
Worry on her face like a pall.
She just stands there shaking
And, her voice nearly breaking,
Says "Tattenyu, the sukkah's going to fall!"

Dear daughter, don't fret;
It hasn't fallen yet.
The sukkah will be fine, understand.
There have been many such fears,
For nigh two thousand years;
Yet the sukkahleh continues to stand.

As we approach the holiday of Sukkot and celebrate the divine protection our ancestors were afforded during their forty years' wandering in the Sinai desert, we are supposed - indeed, commanded - to be happy. We refer to Sukkot, in our Amidah prayer, as "the time of our joy."

And yet, at least seen superficially, there is little Jewish joy to be had these days. Jews are brazenly and cruelly murdered in our ancestral homeland, hated and attacked on the streets of European cities - and here in the United States, our numbers are falling to the internal adversaries of intermarriage and assimilation.

The poet, however, well captured a Sukkot-truth. With temperatures dropping and winter's gloom not a great distance away, our sukkah-dwelling is indeed a quiet but powerful statement: We are secure because our ultimate protection, as a people if not necessarily as individuals, is assured.

And our security is sourced in nothing so flimsy as a fortified edifice; it is protection provided us by G-d Himself, in the merit of our forefathers, and of our own emulation of their dedication to the divine.

And so, no matter how loudly the winds may howl, no matter how vulnerable our physical fortresses may be, we give harbor to neither despair nor insecurity. Instead, we redouble our recognition that, in the end, G-d is in charge, that all is in His hands.

And that, as it has for millennia, the sukkah continues to stand.

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

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OUR MOST BASIC BIRTHRIGHT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The reporter seemed disappointed.

He had asked me about the recent decision of Birthright Israel's organizers to impose new restrictions on eligibility for the program's free trips for young Jews to Israel.

From now on, it seems, those who are in a "full time, exclusively Jewish studies program" will no longer qualify for the 10-day trips, even if they have never visited Israel before.

Since a considerable number of the newly Birthright-disenfranchised are presumably Orthodox yeshiva and seminary students, my questioner likely figured that an Orthodox organizational representative like me would be indignant, which always plays well in the papers.

But I wasn't. How could I be? Birthright Israel is privately funded, and its funders have the right to spend their money as they see fit. And what is more, it's pretty understandable, in light of Birthright's goal of promoting Jewish identity among young Jews, that it would choose to focus its resources on those less connected to Judaism, those most Jewishly endangered, so to speak.

And so I wished, and wish, Birthright Israel only well. At the same time, though, its leaders and promoters would do well to more deeply ponder the very calculus that motivated their new policy.

Presumably, they surmised that immersion in the texts and traditions of Judaism will pretty much ensure a young person's continued embrace of Jewish identity. And a reasonable assumption it is. Every study of Jewish continuity - including the just-released National Jewish Population Survey 2000 - has identified Jewish education as the most potent predictor of future Jewish identity and Jewish living. And, in the words of the NJPS 2000 executive summary, "the more intensive the Jewish schooling, the lower the rate of intermarriage." Part of the reason for that may have to do with the sort of families that value Jewish education in the first place, but few knowledgeable observers doubt the formidable impact of traditional Jewish education on Jewish identity, observance and marital decisions.

And so the question practically asks itself: Might not the same reckoning that led to Birthright Israel's new eligibility policy point the way to an even more successful Birthright experience?

Why, in other words, limit Birthright to things like "kibbutz trips, archeological trips, hiking treks, ecological journeys and historical trips" - as a New York Times story at Birthright's birth described its offerings? Why not add a truly Jewish educational component to the trips?

Back at Birthright's inception, Michael H. Steinhardt, the successful Wall Street money manager who, along with Seagram Company chairman Charles R. Bronfman, conceived and oversee the program, told The Times that Israel, to him, has "been a substitute for [Jewish] theology."

Leaving aside why anyone would deem the Jewish religious heritage in need of replacement (it's doing quite well, thank you), and with all due esteem for Israel, doesn't Birthright's new eligibility policy inherently evidence a recognition that "Jewish theology" - or, better, Jewish knowledge - is a potent solidifier of Jewish identity? It is, in fact, the most potent one there is.

It would be terribly shortsighted to ignore the lesson of the nearly 2000 years during which visiting or settling in the Land of Israel was not even an option for most Jews. Jewish continuity did not falter over those millennia; it was sustained by the most basic Jewish birthright, by what was and what remains the most effective means of ensuring Jewish identity: Jewish knowledge and Jewish life.

So wouldn't it be a marvelous and gutsy move to amend Birthright's existing program to maximize the Jewish impact of the gift it offers Diaspora Jews? By providing them, say, for two or three of their ten days, with an intensive Jewish learning experience in an Israeli yeshiva or outreach program catering to Jews from overseas?

In fact, thinking in even broader terms, perhaps the wisest investment for philanthropists determined to foster Jewish identity and continuity lies in supporting Jewish schools everywhere, so many of which are suffering economically, and which, despite valiant efforts, remain unaffordable to so many Jewish parents. Were day school scholarships available to all Jewish children whose parents would accept them, the demographic landscape of the Jewish world could be radically altered in the course of a generation.

It's little short of tragic that a Jewish newspaper like The Forward can editorially exult, as it recently did, over the fact that the American Jewish intermarriage rate is a mere 43%, rejoicing in the fact that "most Jews still marry Jews." For those of us, though, who choose not to dance on the deck of the American Jewish Titanic, but rather to ready the rescue boats, the mandate is clear: In every way we can, we need, above all else, to imbue young Jews with the fullness of their spiritual heritage.

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

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Touched By An Angel

Rabbi Yaakov Salomon

I had seen him for years, but basically ignored him. I guess that's what many people do with kids who have Down syndrome. Ignore them. It's "safer" that way. They're so unpredictable.

But this past Rosh Hashanah, all of that changed.

Moshe is almost 17. I'm no expert, but I suppose his retardation is moderate to severe. He's been coming to synagogue since he was 8 or 9. His mother brings him for the last 30-45 minutes of the Shabbos morning service.

Moshe's routine has not changed dramatically in these last 8 years. He ambles in to the Sanctuary on his own and goes directly to his father. Dad greets him with a huge, welcoming smile, displaying no discomfort or embarrassment whatsoever. Sometimes he will sit; other times he stands. More often he paces.

Up the aisle, around the bend -- sometimes stopping to stare at a random congregant for a few seconds -- while other times his trip is the non-stop variety. On some days he visits the cantor at the front lectern or the Rabbi; other times he skips them. No rhyme or reason, no destination. No apparent purpose.

Moshe rarely says anything either. His speech is rather garbled; his vocabulary limited. His favorite word seems to be, "Amen," always recited a second or two after the congregational, "Amen," and always 2 0r 3 decibels louder than ours.

It is curious how little attention he garners. Most of my co-worshippers seem to hardly notice him. No stares, no questions, little, if any, interaction.

And Moshe does not demand our attention. Other than the occasional "in your face," 3 second wordless stare, he just goes about his business. What exactly is that business? I have no idea.

I do wonder, though. In his darkened world of limited intellect, how much does he really comprehend? Does he recognize us from week to week? Does he feel the pain of his limitations? Does it matter if we smile and are friendly to him? Does his soul yearn for more?

Four years ago Moshe celebrated his Bar Mitzvah with a small gathering of family, faculty and schoolmates. Apparently, this event was quite meaningful to him -- the Bar Mitzvah picture album is his constant synagogue companion. In between his wanderings, Moshe will sit quietly and methodically turn the pages of this most treasured tome. Over and over and over again. Flipping, staring, awkwardly adjusting his recently acquired eyeglasses and sometimes slowly running his fingers over the cherished photographs, as if never wanting to leave those joyous memories.

Then came Rosh Hashanah. For the last 22 years, I have had the awesome and humbling privilege of leading the congregational service. I am not a cantor by profession, but my synagogue, like many, prefers to employ regular members like myself to lead the prayers instead of going the professional route. It is a responsibility I take very seriously and an honor I embrace.

This year was no different than most. My preparation, as usual, began many weeks before the Holiday. My family and close friends know all the telltale signs. The most obvious one is hypochondriasis. The mysterious "tickle" in my throat, the Vitamin C and E that I ordinarily scoff at, and the garlic regimen make their annual appearance. My mood becomes a tad edgy and more serious.

Yet there was something a little bit different about this year. The world. The world is different. Al-Qaida, suicide bombings, anthrax, Saddam, a rash of kidnappings, reality TV etc. The list is pretty extensive...depressing...and frightening. And then each one of us has his own personal anguish and tribulations to add to the list. No wonder the pre-Rosh Hashanah preparation period can be quite daunting -- especially this year.

But sometimes a strange phenomenon occurs. The fear, the dread, and the pessimism can be so great and so awful, that instead of propelling us to greater reflection, change and prayer -- the opposite takes place. We become inured...numb....almost indifferent. Thoughts like, "What's the use? Nothing will change," and "What's next?" begin to creep in to our mindset. Despondency rules. The feeling that we are just sitting ducks for the next misfortune or upheaval permeates our psyche. System overload cripples and overrides our inclination for inspiration and hope.

And that's what happened to me. Standing at the cantor's lecturn, on the holiest day of the year, I found myself in this very spiritual funk. The day had arrived. No more time for preparation; no more garlic or introspection -- just me, the prayer book, hundreds of fellow congregants waiting to be led and inspired, and God. But something was wrong. I began the Amidah -- the focal recitation of the day -- and invoked the names of the Patriarchs, but something was missing. Something inside. Something deep. Something very important. System overload had taken my heart away.

"How could this happen?" I frantically wondered. "Where is my compassion...my spirit...my soul? Where are my tears???"

My lips kept moving and the words were still audible, but they were perfunctory, listless, detached, and alone. Never before had I been so keenly aware of my disconnected feelings and my desperate need to remedy my disengagement.

And then, things got worse. Enter Moshe. As if my mind wasn't distracted enough already, I looked up from my prayer book only to find his silent stare just inches from my face. I felt like I had just driven over a six-inch pothole at 60 miles an hour. "Now?" I thought. "My concentration is in deep enough trouble as it is. Can't he just visit the Rabbi for a spell?" I pondered callously.

Uncharacteristically, Moshe seemed to linger at the podium. He just stood there, looking at me. Expressionless. Seemingly, frozen in time and in no rush to continue his conventional stroll.

And then something happened. It's not easy to explain, but I think for the first time, I saw Moshe. His gentility. His innocence. His soft hands and his silent eyes. I sensed Moshe's simplicity and wholesomeness. Here was a soul that was totally without sin, without blemish -- the very definition of purity right in my midst. Staring at me; somehow silently communicating with me. My lips continued to perform, but my mind was now lost in this angelic emblem.

I felt my pulse quicken. Suddenly I was riding the crest of an enormous spiritual wave, powered by the mere presence of a beacon of godliness.

Then without warning or fanfare, Moshe abruptly emerged from his momentary stupor. His eyes broke away from mine and fixed on the far end of the lectern. There, lying quietly and innocently, were a few stray tissues that I had placed as a usual precaution prior to beginning the service.

To my near amazement, I watched as Moshe looked at the tissues, looked back at me, and then carefully lifted one single tissue and tenderly placed it in the palm of my hand. It was the first real contact he had ever made with me. My prayers continued -- they had to -- but my mind was now far, far away. I looked at Moshe and firmly curled my fingers around my newfound gift. It was only a tissue, but at that moment from that person it was a precious symbol of the deepest understanding and care. The tears, only moments ago so distant, were suddenly unleashed.

It was then that I felt Moshe's warm touch as he reached out and began to tenderly stroke my hand. It was warm and comforting. He understood something about me and he wanted to help. One stroke and then a second.

I peered through my newly blurred vision, hoping to catch a glance at the expression of my newfound friend, but he was gone. Having completed his calling, Moshe was already en route to some new unidentified pew. My now rejuvenated prayers, buoyed by the simplest of offerings, resounded with passion and reverence as never before. And for the next two hours, I never released that thin, frail tissue from my grasp.

I made a new friend that day -- a friend who I thought understood so very little about this world. And he reminded me of a wonderful expression I once heard about children like Moshe. Some people come to this world to learn; others come to teach.

(Yaakov Salomon is a psychotherapist in private practice in Brooklyn, New York and an author and editor for the Artscroll Publishing series.)

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AS A FATHER HAS MERCY

Dafna Breines

It was about this time last year that my then-two-and-a-half year old son decided to begin his "terrible twos". At first we hoped that we'd been given a reprieve, but we soon discovered otherwise. He was apparently intent on making up for lost time.

I never knew what he would do next, or what the next casualty might be. If I ever took an afternoon nap, I had to mentally brace myself before re-entering the war zone - I mean living room.

But whatever he did - and he did plenty - he always had the same line when he got caught. It came with big brown eyes opened wide, and the sweetest smile: "I not gonna do it A-N-Y-more."

At first, we actually believed him. But we learned quickly. It became a joke at times, a source of frustration at others. But he continued to say it with the same childish innocence, and we continued to not buy it with the same parental cynicism.

Until our perspective changed.

It was the end of the second day of Rosh Hashanah. My neighbor and I were sitting on a bench, watching our children play as the darkening sky brought the holiday to a close. The kids were playing tag in the street (this is Israel, after all), when we saw a truck coming down the road. The kids dashed for the sidewalk.

Suddenly I realized that Meir wasn't among them.

"Did you see Meir?" I asked my neighbor.

"No."

My heart pounding, I looked around. No Meir.

Calm down, I told myself. Maybe he just went into the house.

My daughter went to check. She came right back out again and reported that the door was locked.

Locked? I hadn't locked the door. How could it be locked?

I looked up at our apartment. To my relief, the gate to the yard was open. I asked one of the boys to climb up and jump the fence while I waited outside the front door. The boy opened it with a big smile and pointed to the kitchen.

I walked in to find Meir seated at the kitchen table, licking a purloined popsicle with sheer delight.

As I stared at him, I knew what was coming. Sure enough, he stopped licking, gave me those eyes and said, "Mommy, I not gonna do it A-N-Y-more."

I was all set to tell him that he had better not say THAT anymore, when suddenly, like that morning's first shofar blasts, it hit me.

I do this all the time.

Especially around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Throughout the year, I make mistakes. I say things I shouldn't. I listen to them, too. I don't pray with proper concentration. I raise my voice. The list is much longer.

But as the High Holidays approach, I wake up and hear the shofar, and I know that I have to clean up my act, fast.

So what do I say to G-d?

I'll tell you what I say.

"Hashem, please forgive me. I'm not gonna do ANY of it A-N-Y-more."

Instead of letting little Meir have it, I let little me have it.

Do I mean what I say? Do I really think that I'm never going to do these things again?

Who am I kidding?

But I'm not kidding, I answered myself. I want to be better. I really do.

And my children? Don't they deserve the same chance that I am oh-so-willing to extend to myself? Might Meir, when he's caught, be just as sincere as I believe myself to be?

I sat down next to him, took his sticky hands in mine, and held him on my lap.

"If we are like children," we say after each set of shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah, "have mercy upon us as a father has on his children."

Our Sages teach us that G-d deals with us as we deal with others. Beseeching Him to have mercy upon us as a father means that we parents have a special opportunity to "tip the scales." If we view our children's behavior as a metaphor for our relationship with our own Father in Heaven, we might not be so quick to pass judgment on them.

After all, if G-d can continue to believe His children's promises of "I'm not gonna do it ANYmore, year after year, shouldn't we be able to do the same?

Of course there are lessons that we must teach our children. But if we deliver those lessons with love and understanding, we may merit the same from Above.

May that merit be ours, now, as the New Year approaches.

[Dafna Breines, an editor and translator, lives with her husband and children in Beitar Eilit, Israel.]

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Wings and Prayers

Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

Ah, were expiation of iniquity only so simple.

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

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

So what's with the chickens?

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

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

So it seems that the Kapparot-custom is essentially a spur to meditation on the need for atonement, and intended to stir feelings of repentance and recommitment to the performance of good deeds. Indeed, it is customary to provide the slaughtered chicken to a poor person.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A TRULY HISTORIC LAWSUIT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The loud chortling sound you may have heard last week was the collective mirth of countless Talmud-conversant Jews as they read about a lawsuit being prepared by a group of Egyptian expatriates in Switzerland.

The news came in the form of an interview, published in the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram Al-Arabi, with Dr. Nabil Hilmi, Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Al-Zaqaziq. The article was translated and made available by the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).

Dr. Hilmi's lawsuit is ostensibly being filed against "all the Jews of the world" for recovery of property allegedly stolen during the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt approximately 3300 years ago.

Citing the Torah, Dr. Hilmi is demanding, presumably on Egypt's behalf, the return of "gold, jewelry, cooking utensils, silver ornaments, clothing and more," not to mention interest thereon, taken by the ancestors of today's Jews "in the middle of the night" - a "clear theft of a host country's resources and treasure, something that fits the morals and character of the Jews."

According to Dr. Hilmi's mathematical computations, which include an annual doubling in value of the material in question, 1,125 trillion tons of gold are owed by the Jews for each of the 300 tons he estimates was taken. And that doesn't include interest, which he claims, without explanation, should be calculated for 5758 years.

The merriment that greeted the report was born of the fact that the Talmud tells of precisely such a claim lodged over 2000 years ago in a world court of sorts presided over by none other than Alexander the Great.

The story is recounted in Sanhedrin 91a, where it is recorded that one Geviha ben Pesisa responded on the Jews' behalf. A paraphrase of the excerpt follows:

"What is your source ?" Geviha asked the Egyptian representatives. "The Torah," they replied.

"Very well," said Geviha, "I too will invoke the Torah, which says that the Jews spent 430 years laboring in Egypt. Please compensate us for 600,000 men's work for that period of time."

The Egyptians, the Talmud continues, then asked Alexander for three days during which to formulate a response. The recess was granted but the representatives, finding no counter-argument, never returned.

One supposes that Dr. Hilmi was unfamiliar with that page of Talmud, and perhaps with the underlying Biblical narrative on which it is based.

His gift to us, though, is more than a good laugh. For by sending us to Sanhedrin 91a, he provides us great consolation and hope in these trying times.

For the very next account on that page concerns yet another historic lawsuit - ancient and yet as timely as tomorrow's headlines.

This suit was filed by "the children of Ishmael and Keturah [Abraham's second wife, identified by the Midrash as Hagar]." Ishmael, of course, is claimed by many Arabs as their ancestor.

The plaintiffs in this suit claimed that Canaan, or the Land of Israel, was really theirs, as the Torah identifies their antecedents, no less than Isaac, to be progeny of Abraham.

Once again, Geviha responded on behalf of the Jews. "Your source?" he asked. "The Torah," they responded. "If so," he continued, "I too will invoke the Torah, which says that Abraham gave 'all that was his to Isaac; and to the children of his concubines [other wives], he gave [only] gifts, and he sent them away from Isaac his son... eastward'" [Genesis, 25:5,6].

Intriguingly, the Talmud mentions no Ishmaelite or Keturite reaction in Alexander's court - not even a request for time to formulate a response. It's almost as if those plaintiffs simply refused to acknowledge the unarguable case that had been presented, as if they were utterly unable to countenance the idea that the Holy Land was in fact bequeathed in its entirety by Abraham to Isaac, who in turn bequeathed it to Jacob; and he, to his children after him, the Jewish people.

According to the Jewish religious tradition, though, the entire world, including Ishmael's descendants, will one day come not only to countenance the idea but to fully embrace it. That day has not yet arrived, to be sure, and it will not be military or political actions in the end that will bring it, but rather our merits as a people.

It will arrive, though. As the prophet Jeremiah tells our Rachel, one of the mothers of the Jewish people: "Restrain your voice from crying and tears from your eyes... for there is hope for you in the end ... the children will return to their borders."

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

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A VIEW FROM AFAR

Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

Her empathy for Jews, especially in Israel, is deep. "I can imagine," she writes, "their anguish every morning when they send their children to school, not knowing what might happen on the way. With all the sufferings we have inflicted on you all, I still cannot fathom how magnanimous you all are in being a light to all nations."

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

And, from other e-mails:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recently, Tehilla has become afflicted with a serious medical condition. Even her reaction to that challenge, though, stands as a valuable and true lesson.

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

That idea may make some of us squirm. But that adversity and pain can be atonements is a quintessentially Jewish concept, readily gleaned from the Talmud and, in these waning weeks before the Days of Judgment, a timely one.

May Tehilla's lessons, and her example, be a merit for her quick recovery.

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

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Religious Pornography

Rabbi Avi Shafran

No, I haven't seen it, but yes, I have the right all the same to comment on Mel Gibson's movie about the execution of Jesus.

Because all I need to know is what people who have seen the film had to say. Those would be members of the audiences before whom Mr. Gibson previewed his work, mostly conservative Christian groups (requests for previews by groups and individuals, including Jewish ones, with concerns about the film have been rebuffed). According to The New York Times, viewers reported that the movie "is brutally graphic, dwelling at length on a scourging scene that renders Jesus a bloody piece of flesh before he is even nailed to the cross."

"Audiences wept" at showings, according to the paper, "and many were awestruck." The president of the National Association of Evangelicals hailed Mr. Gibson as "the Michelangelo of this generation."

Mr. Gibson produced the film as a labor of faith. He is a member and proponent of a "traditionalist" Catholic church, one that rejects, among other things, the reforms of Vatican II, which included a statement absolving contemporary Jews of responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus. (If that absolution sounds rather unremarkable, well it was quite remarkable in 1965.)

It is not clear whether Mr. Gibson considers Jews today to be blameworthy for the crucifixion; he strongly denies that he is in any way anti-Semitic. All the same, though, some of us Jews are, well, somewhat... apprehensive about the effect his film might have. We possess, you see, a sort of exquisitely sensitive historical radar - and its scanning antenna has been lubricated, often and well, with our relatives' blood.

The film cannot help but portray Jews as players in the crucifixion; various gospels do no less. But leaving aside entirely the questionable historicity of those accounts, the graphic imagery that viewers have described can all too easily be imagined as dry kindling for hearts sparking with hatred.

Do we protest too much? Is Mr. Gibson's film any different from motion pictures that present Mafia types as Italians or Holocaust-era villains as Germans?

Perhaps not. But no one seeks to harm or kill Italians or Germans because of what some of their relatives did, yet many, many people the world over since time immemorial have sought (all too often, successfully) to harm and kill Jews for any of a host of entirely imagined crimes. Forgive us our paranoia if we take our history lessons seriously. And many more people, we can sadly assume, are quietly gestating anti-Jewish hatred, waiting only for the right emotional cue to expel their ugly spawn.

So while Mr. Gibson may himself have not a Jew-hating bone in his body, he cannot escape the fact that the imagery he has so vividly and movingly portrayed has over the course of millennia yielded the maiming and murder of countless Jews. His Technicolor resurrection of that imagery will surely bring solace to Jew-haters everywhere - if not things considerably worse.

Jew-hatred seems to morph from time to time. For centuries it was most prominent in Christendom, where Jews were routinely accused of poisoning wells and murdering children for their blood. Today it is most prominent in the Islamic world, a majority of which, it has been reported, believes "the Jews" were behind the September 11 attacks. If it one day swings back to the Christian sphere, religious pornography like Mr. Gibson's new offering will likely have played a role. Blood libels have thrived on even flimsier fodder than movies.

One cannot help but wonder why his faith didn't lead Mr. Gibson to portray instead one or another of the New Testament's stories of kindness or love. And even if he wanted the sort of blood-and-guts violence so popular with audiences these days, he could have recreated other religious events for the camera - entirely historically verifiable ones, like the Crusades. Or the Inquisition. Or he could have presented audiences with a depiction not of Romans and Jews but of Christians in more recent times whose theologies inspired the Polish and Russian pogroms that preceded - and some say helped inspire - the Holocaust.

But he made his choice, and seems determined to proudly offer his film to the public in several months' time. The buzz is already loud. As the marketing director for the production company remarked about the controversy: "You can't buy that kind of publicity."

The problem - though it doesn't seem to greatly concern Mr. Gibson - is who may end up having to pay for it.

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

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A Tale of Two Students

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Meet Tim, a doctoral student in his fourth year of postgraduate research in his field of choice (or better, love): Scottish literature. His parents, who used to chide him about "getting a real job," have reconciled themselves to their son's dedication to his field of academic endeavor, and even speak of him with pride.

Jennifer, Tim's wife, is proud of him, and considers it an honor to help support him and their family. Her job as a medical assistant, along with the small stipend Tim receives from the public university and a modicum of government assistance (in the form of a monthly WIC allowance), allow them to get by. They live modestly but do not mind; they are happy.

Most people, even if Scottish literature is as strange to them as haggis, can respect its study as a distinguished academic endeavor and honor its students as scholars.

And most people, even if they can't imagine themselves living like Jennifer and Tim, can appreciate their dedication and idealism. They certainly wouldn't consider them societal freeloaders or score them for neglecting their family's needs.

But now meet Yossi. The life that he and his wife Elisheva live parallels that of Tim and Jennifer, yet some look down at the choices they have made and consider Yossi a poor excuse for a husband and parent. Because his object of study is not Robert Burns but Torah, and he lives not in New Haven but in Jerusalem. Because, in other words, he is not an all-American collegiate but an Israeli haredi.

A psychoanalyst might relish the prospect of ferreting out the reasons for that attitudinal double standard. But the bottom line is that it is, unarguably, there.

In a recent editorial, The New York Jewish Week chose to "respectfully disagree" with Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, a revered and saintly leader of haredi Orthodox Jewry, who reportedly described austerity as a facilitator of success in Torah-study. "Poverty," the paper dissented, is not "a badge of nobility... in the quest for Torah scholarship."

Pirkei Avot, however, which is traditionally studied during these summer months, has a somewhat different take on the matter: "This is the way of Torah - eat bread with salt, drink water in small measure, sleep on the ground, live a life of deprivation..." And numerous, of course, are the traditional sources that hold the study of Torah, day and night, to be a high Jewish ideal.

To be sure, there are other passages in Jewish sources that extol work (primarily physical labor). But one of the reasons we have religious leaders like Rabbi Steinman is to synthesize seemingly discordant texts, and to guide us regarding their application to our times and world.

What the Israeli sage reportedly did that incurred The Jewish Week's disapproval was display the audacity to reject a large offer of money to create a well-funded and promoted system of haredi employment training centers. As it happens, there are already institutions in Israel where haredi men can and do receive professional training - and Rabbi Steinman has never objected to them, or to any haredi man who chooses to leave the study hall to pursue a profession. Indeed, Torah leaders across the haredi spectrum frequently encourage students and disciples to go out to the work world at the appropriate time.

The prospect of a more ambitious attempt at social engineering of haredi society may have excited The Jewish Week, but it apparently did not have that effect on Rabbi Steinman, who, like all true Jewish leaders, is not one to be dazzled by dangled sums of money. Anyone who has had the great fortune of visiting him in his clean and neat but exceedingly modest, book-lined apartment well understands that his prime dedication is to his Creator, that he lives and breathes Torah.

And as it happens, true appreciation of Torah - or, better, the lack thereof - is likely an important part of the explanation for why so many perceive Yossi so differently from Tim. Academic research, no matter how esoteric, is seen as a respectable end in itself; Torah-study, as something entirely different.

And in fact it is precisely that, though not the way Yossi's detractors think. Torah-study, in the eyes of Judaism, is something conceptual light-years beyond a mere academic discipline; it is the mind of the Divine, and the lifeblood of the Jewish people.

At a time when the vast majority of American Jewry stands poised, as studies tell us, before the demographic abyss, birth rates plummeting and intermarriage rising, appreciation - true appreciation, not de rigueur lip service - of what has inspired and animated the Jewish people over the ages is no mere theoretical concern. It is nothing less than a matter of communal life or death.

Were all American Jews and their institutions to regard the study of Jewish texts and traditions as it has been regarded by Jews for millennia - as the most sublime and meaningful Jewish endeavor imaginable, the sine qua non expression of Jewish identity

and a powerful source of merit to divine protection - we American Jews might be looking at a bright, instead of fading, future.

And Yossi, no doubt, would be an object of our gratitude, not disapproval, regarded as the dedicated, quintessentially Jewish idealist he is.

[An edited version of the essay above appeared in The New York Jewish Week. Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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What the Nazis Knew

Rabbi Avi Shafran

King David's prayer in Psalms, "Make me wiser than my adversaries," can also be read as "From my adversaries, make me wise." Sometimes, in other words, one can learn valuable things from one's worst enemies.

The thought came to mind after reading a detailed memo presented by the Agudath Israel World Organization to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany - more commonly known as the "Claims Conference."

The Conference oversees restitution funds yielded from the sale of recovered but unclaimed East German Jewish property. Recently, it reaffirmed its disbursement formula - 80% of those funds go to institutions and social services helping Holocaust survivors; 20%, for Holocaust-related research, documentation and education.

Agudath Israel World Organization, a 91-year-old international Orthodox Jewish movement, (by whose American affiliate I am employed), suggested that, as they allocate the portion of funds earmarked for research and education, Jewish leaders not forget the European communal and educational institutions that the Nazis and their henchmen destroyed but that have since been rebuilt on new shores.

Kehillos, or distinctive Jewish communities, and yeshivos, or institutions of Jewish learning, are contemporary hallmarks of Jewish religious life that prominently represent the rebirth of pre-Holocaust Jewish Europe; yet they have not benefited to date from any significant restitution-related funding streams.

Such communities and institutions, Agudath Israel maintains, characterized Jewish Europe before the Nazis came to power. Thus, their empowerment will help perpetuate not only the memory of the Jewish world the Nazis destroyed but, in a very real sense, that world itself.

Often forgotten is the historical fact that a substantial portion of those Jews who perished during the Holocaust were Orthodox. Respected Holocaust historian (and former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum) Dr. Michael Berenbaum estimates that between 50%-70% of Jewish victims of the Nazis and their cohorts were traditionally observant Orthodox Jews, having lived their too-short lives in one of several thousand identifiable kehillos. There were, moreover, as many as 800 yeshivos for boys and young men in pre-War Europe, according to a study undertaken by Agudath Israel, and some 250 schools for young women.

Today's Orthodox institutions of education and communal life, the memo maintains, not only are helping ensure the survival and continuity of the very way of life that those victims, had they been given the opportunity, would have sought to perpetuate, but are also among the most needy in contemporary Jewish life.

What was most striking to me, however, was another assertion the memo made: that, in a certain, significant way, kehillos and yeshivos have a unique moral claim to restitution, because "central to the Nazis' aim of destroying the Jewish people was the object of destroying Jewish learning and education."

That might come as a surprise to some. There is a tendency to think of the "Final Solution" as having had only Jews as its target, not Judaism. But the fact of the matter is otherwise. The Nazis may have considered the Jewish people to be a race, but they clearly sought to liquidate not only Jews but their faith as well.

Among the evidence presented is a quotation from Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler's chief ideologue. Writing in 1930, he identified "the honorless character of the Jew" as "embodied in the Talmud and in Shulchan-Aruch" - two pillars of traditional Torah-study.

Perhaps even more telling is a 1940 directive issued by the German Highest Security Office, also quoted in the Agudath Israel memo. It prohibits Jewish emigration from occupied Poland on the ground that an influx of "Rabbiner, Talmud-lehrer" - "rabbis, teachers of Talmud" - and in fact "jeder orthodoxe Ostjude" - "every Eastern European Orthodox Jew" - could foster "geistige Erneuerung" - "spiritual renewal" - among American Jewry.

To a large degree, that fear proved well founded indeed; Orthodox immigrants, although arriving only after war's end, in fact helped rejuvenate Jewish life on these and other shores, rebuilding their communal and educational institutions - like the kehillos and yeshivos whose cause the Agudath Israel memo advocated - and fostering traditional Jewish observance.

How fascinating that the Nazis identified Jewish religious life and Torah-study as the greatest threats to the ultimate success of their genocidal plan. They apparently understood something that all of us contemporary Jews would do well to ponder: our people and our future depend on our fealty to the essence of our past, our religious tradition.

Every Jew today is a potential avenger of the deaths of the Six Million. Our revenge, however, does not take the form of violence. It is a sublime and meaningful revenge, in fact an ultimate triumph over those who hoped to eradicate us. It consists of strengthening our own commitment to the fullness of our religious heritage, of doing precisely what the Nazis were determined to prevent.

It is undeniably important to utilize restitution funds for survivors, for research and for education. And it is important, too, to utilize those funds for kehillos and yeshivos, proven portals to Jewish continuity.

Most important of all, though, is that we realize that there is another level entirely to restitution, a plane beyond what money can accomplish. A way of life is waiting to be restored - and each and every Jew is capable of making good on the historical debt.

That is the valuable lesson we can learn from those who sought to create a world without Jews - or Judaism.

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

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In Defense of Jewish Babies

Rabbi Avi Shafran

One way, it seems, to garner criticism from American Jewish newspapers and religious leaders is to try to assist poor families in Israel - at least if they include the classically Orthodox, or haredim.

The first stage of a host of "family unfriendly" Israeli budget cuts commenced on July 1, with the curtailment of the one-time-per-child grant of 1354 shekels that has long been provided to Israeli parents. The grant, which was cut to 406 shekels for each child after a couple's first, has both served to signal the importance of population growth and provided families with a modest sum to assist them as they care for a newborn.

With the new reduction, not only has the baby-friendly message been mitigated but the severe economic pressures being felt by Israeli families, who are soon to be saddled with severe reductions in their monthly per-child allowances, has been compounded. In an effort to both maintain the vital message and try to make up for the shortfall, Agudath Israel of America recently created a special fund aimed at continuing the "baby bonus" for as many Jewish families as possible.

Agudath Israel also reached out to the United Jewish Communities, the general American Jewish community's major philanthropic arm, suggesting that it might want to help fill the budget cut gap by following suit with a similar fund of its own. While Agudath Israel's constituents are dedicated and generous, their donations to its fund will not likely be able to provide the "baby bonus" to more than a small percentage of Israeli families with newborns.

The reaction, at least in some circles, was harsh - essentially, it seems, because many Israeli babies are born to haredi families. While Agudath Israel wants to see all Jewish parents encouraged to have children and assisted in caring for them (a major reason we asked the UJC consider a fund of its own), the highest birthrate among Israeli Jews is, to be sure, within the haredi community.

Reform and Conservative leaders objected to our outreach to the UJC, on the grounds, in the words of one, that our concern "does not represent the mainstream priorities of American Jewry." He went on to call the fact that so many haredi men are involved in full-time Torah-study "a distortion of Judaism."

Two Jewish newspapers denigrated our effort as well. One, The Forward, averred that it makes no sense for American Jewish communal organizations "to spend [their] limited funds on campaigns to undermine Israeli government policy."

Explaining itself further, the paper noted that "Charedi Jews are expanding exponentially as a share of the Israeli population, thanks to a high birth rate that's practically subsidized by government child allowances." Most of those haredim, it went on to claim, "don't work, don't pay taxes and don't serve in the army."

Those words betray a disturbing bias, and are as misleading as they are irate. Most haredi families, in fact, include an active breadwinner (often the woman of the house, something that should hardly be offensive in our day and age); haredim pay income taxes like anyone else, not to mention the Value Added Tax attached to many major purchases in Israel; and, while there are indeed only limited numbers of haredim in the army, the top brass has repeatedly insisted that it simply would not be able to handle an influx of haredi recruits, considering the special religious needs they would necessarily bring along.

For their part, haredim sincerely believe that Jews' physical security is ultimately dependent on spiritual merit, and thus that their dedication to Torah study and observance is itself a vital factor in the protection of their fellow Jews.

In any event, whether or not Israel's economic decisions are in fact fueled, as The Forward assumes, by an attempt at social engineering, it can be safely assumed that no Israeli haredim will choose to have smaller families because of child-unfriendly cutbacks. And so, the only choice facing the rest of us is simply whether to help them - along with all Israeli families - feed and clothe their children, or not.

There may be a small percentage of draft-dodgers or freeloaders in Israel's haredi world, but they are overwhelmed by the vast majority of Torah-students who, along with their wives and children, live their Jewish idealism to the fullest - and, in the process, enhance the Jewish character of the Jewish state immeasurably. One can agree or disagree with the lifestyle they choose, but certainly their hungry babies have a Jewish moral claim on us all.

At a time when the Jewish world outside of Israel is, by all accounts, shrinking, and Israel is threatened in an overt way by those who would seek to make the Middle East Judenrein, shouldn't all Jews, rather than nurturing their biases, be cherishing Jewish babies, and seeking to help their parents?

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

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