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Archives Of Previous Articles XVIII


Rabbi Avi Shafran

In a letter to the Jewish weekly the Forward, a medical doctor from Long Island expressed chagrin over an advertisement that had appeared in an earlier issue of the paper. The ad was sponsored by a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting people suffering from kidney disease, including facilitating kidney transplants, with "special attention given to the Jewish community to address specialized issues and concerns." The letter-writer was "astounded" by the ad. It sought a donor for a "pious Jew" suffering from kidney disease.

To be sure, the doctor took pains to note, "A kidney transplant can miraculously transform a person's life, freeing him from the shackles of the dialysis machine."

But the ad nevertheless outraged him. It is "the height of chutzpah," he explained, to solicit "altruistic donors for an act that is seldom, if ever, reciprocated by the Haredi community."

"The vast majority of Gedolim, decision makers about Jewish law and policy, in the Haredi community," he continued, "have refused to endorse halachic procedures to take organs from either normal living or brain-dead people to heal chronically ill patients."

And so, he contended, "Although altruism, by definition, is an act performed without any reward," the "wider Jewish community" should recognize that "it is unseemly and cynical to recruit potential donors when there is no theoretical potential for paying the good deed forward."

For starters, the doctor is seriously misinformed. Although there are halachic considerations regarding any organ donation, there have in fact been many Orthodox kidney donors, including haredi ones, and all made their decisions with the full blessings of their rabbinic decisors. What presents qualitatively different halachic issues is the bequeathal, for removal after death, of other vital organs, like hearts, lungs and livers.

That is because organs are most successfully transplanted when "harvested" from a still-breathing patient, whose blood is still oxygenated and circulating. Thus, many hospitals routinely take vital organs from people who are what has come to be called "brain dead" - who have received a diagnosis of irreversible cessation of brain-stem function, which modern medicine and secular law consider sufficient to permit the removal of organs even from a patient with a still-beating heart. (Increasingly common, too, in many countries, is "donation after cardiac death" - the procurement of organs from people who are purposely disconnected from the ventilators helping them breathe, causing their hearts to stop. After a short wait, sometimes less than 30 seconds, the organs are taken.)

Merely "brain-dead" human beings, in the judgment of major halachic decisors, are still alive. And so, while saving another's life is a most weighty imperative, Jewish religious law, or halacha, does not permit one life to be taken to save the life of another - no matter how diminished the "quality" of the life of the former, no matter how great the potential of the life of the latter. And halacha forbids any action that might hasten death, including the death of a person in extremis.

The letter-writing doctor presumably does not advocate ending the lives of conscious terminal patients in order to harvest their organs. What rankles him is that halacha, in the opinion of many of its most respected decisors, considers a "brain dead" patient still alive. He is entitled to his personal opinion, of course, but if anything truly qualifies as the height of chutzpah, it would be insisting that halachic decisors hew to ones' own personal point of view.

Perhaps more disturbing still is the doctor's odd ethical calculus, by which only the ability to donate an organ qualifies one to receive one. At first thought, that might seem logical. But that's why we're blessed with the ability to have second thoughts.

There are many reasons one might be unable to donate a vital organ. If a non-terminal patient has only one functioning kidney, for instance, no one would fault him for not offering it to a dialysis patient. If a patient was diagnosed with kidney disease, no one would want him to donate a compromised organ, even post-mortem. Would anyone deny such unable-to-donate patients freely donated organs that they needed? One hopes not.

The letter-writer surely sees religious convictions as a less valid reason for an inability to bequeath vital organs. Is it, though? Is logic behind the doctor's view? Or might it be disdain, for a community of whose beliefs he doesn't approve? Is reason at work here, or a desire to punish people for their beliefs?

If anything is "unseemly and cynical" - the doctor's characterization of the effort to match kidney donors with Jewish patients committed to halacha - it is the attitude that such Jews are, for their deep-seated and sincere beliefs, less worthy of life than others.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Most people will be forgiven for not imagining that the late Theodore Sorensen, President John F. Kennedy's close confidant and speechwriter, born in Nebraska to a father whose first name was Christian, might be Jewish. But in the eyes of halacha he probably was.

Mr. Sorensen, who died on October 31 at the age of 82, was born to a Russian-Jewish mother, Annis Chaiken, although he was raised as a Unitarian. He was responsible for much of the soaring oratory associated with President Kennedy, who once called the celebrated speechwriter his "intellectual blood bank." Sorensen had an extensive role (some say a full-fledged ghostwriting one) in producing Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Profiles in Courage," and the president included him in important foreign policy discussions, including those revolving around the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, a truly hot point in the Cold War.

Although Sorensen was not a self-promoter, his death brought focus to the considerable role he played in the Kennedy White House and, thus, in American history. And, for those who take pleasure in (or are suspicious about, or just find curious) the influence that Jews - recognizable as such or not - have come to wield on world affairs over the ages, he was but another good example.

As he was an example of the particular prominence of Jews in progressive causes. In his teens, Sorensen registered with the military as a conscientious objector and in his later years he relentlessly championed liberal ideas and ideals, working with Nelson Mandela on voter registration in South Africa and with President Obama's presidential campaign. He served, too, as a board member of the International Center for Transitional Justice, which seeks to pursue accountability for human rights abuses.

Such activities well fit the stereotype of the American liberal Jewish activist, which engenders pride or disdain depending on the observer. What is striking, though, is how noticeable Jews are on the other side of the American political spectrum as well. The Kristols and Podhoretzes, peres et fils, are examples that most readily come to mind. But there are many others. New York Times columnist David Brooks famously observed that for some people, "con" in the word "neocon," is "short for 'conservative,' and neo is short for 'Jewish'."

So how exactly does one make sense of the fact that Jews, presumably channeling some deeply-ingrained ethnic inclination, end up moving and shaking both ends of the political seesaw?

One approach is to simply note that Jews tend to be cerebral (a generalization, to be sure; many of us don't seem to do much thinking at all) and so there will always be a good sized pool of bright and motivated Jews from which influential political players and activists of varied stripes will emerge.

But there is something else at work here, and it has less to do with brainpower than with a sense of Jewish mission, of wanting to better society. To effect, in the phrase fashionable these days in some Jewish circles, "tikkun olam" - the "perfection of the world."

And that drive, holy at its roots if not always in its fruit, has long taken Jews in different, sometimes diametric, directions. Wherever on the political/social spectrum they may end up, though, what drives them there - often without their realization - is sourced in a desire… to serve G-d.

Yes, G-d. The Torah makes clear that the Jew is intended to be an instrument of the Divine, to help bring the rest of the world to recognition of His glory. That is true tikkun olam, as the phrase is used in the Aleinu prayer. Every Jew is hard-wired to want to do the will of the Creator.

The shame lies in the obliviousness of most Jews to how, in fact, they can create a better world. To be sure, Jewish tradition requires empathy and charity; as it does personal responsibility and morality - "liberal" and "conservative" ideals alike. But the Torah's bottom line is that the observance and study of its laws comprise the ultimate path to perfection - our own personal perfection and that of the entire world.

Many Jews would - and do - scoff at that contention. G-d, if they think of Him at all, is there to be beseeched for sustenance, health and success. But making a better world, they insist, requires political or social activism; observing often challenging or arcane laws and studying ancient texts could not possibly lead to world peace, security and human welfare. Of course, the scoffers will happily use their computers without a thought to how this or that click here or there manages to yield this or that effect. But to imagine that the Engineer of the universe may have programmed His creation to respond to Jews' observance of the Torah's laws somehow taxes their imagination.

And yet, the seed of that truth lies waiting somewhere in every Jew's soul. Sought out and nourished, it will grow.

The nourishment might be said to lie in a paraphrase of a thought often associated with Theodore Sorensen (although he insisted the words were those of his boss, the 35th president): "Ask not what your Creator can do for you. Ask what you can do for your Creator."

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

It's not every day that a respected news organization rolls over to show the world its ugly, mottled underbelly. But October 20 brought precisely such a disagreeable sight.

National Public Radio's summary firing of news commentator Juan Williams after he admitted on a television program to feeling nervous when he sees people on a plane in "Muslim garb… identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims" revealed not only the network's astounding intolerance for personal feelings but a disturbingly determined refusal to countenance reality.

It is true, of course, as Mr. Williams' critics have duly and repeatedly noted, that most Muslim terrorists on murder missions are sufficiently sharp to dress in Western-style clothing. And it is also true that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists - a point Mr. Williams himself took pains to make during the very same program.

But it is no less true that the declared motivation of the vast majority of terrorists who have harmed Americans in recent years, and of those who seek to harm more of them, has been an understanding of Islam. One rightly feels sympathy for the many Muslims of good will who are viewed fearfully by others. But only someone drunk on a misguided notion of liberalism could fail to recognize that such nervousness is rooted, for better or worse, in unfortunate actuality.

The day after Mr. Williams' canning, NPR's CEO, Vivian Schiller, told an audience at the Atlanta Press Club that Williams' feelings about Muslims should have remained between him and "his psychiatrist or his publicist." Although she later apologized, her comment brightly reflected a mindset that many would argue is indigenous to NPR, one that, amid much else, considers relating acts of terror to their perpetrators' beliefs to be evidence of a mental disorder.

And yet, the very day Mr. Williams was shown the NPR door, a Wall Street Journal web interview of Ms. Schiller was published in which she responded to the assertion that NPR has a reputation as being very liberal. "No," she averred. "We don't have a particular political persuasion."

If more ludicrous words have been spoken of late, they don't come easily to mind.

One can certainly choose to approve of NPR's take on social, political and international issues. But not even the world's best defense lawyer could make the case that the network doesn't have a take, doesn't see the world through a particular lens. Through that looking glass, people who kill unarmed innocents are not terrorists but "militants"; and their victims (like pregnant Tali Hatuel and her four young daughters, murdered in cold blood in 2004) "provok[ers of] bloodshed." (The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America - CAMERA - has a thick dossier on NPR's point of view regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict.) Politically and socially "progressive" positions are routinely glorified (and their opposites subtly disparaged) on NPR; and the network accords "multiculturalism" something akin to the reverence religious people reserve for the Creator. The Williams debacle was only a particularly clear manifestation of one of the biases that buzz incessantly in the air of NPR's studios.

Part of that bias buzz is evident in the network's treatment of classical Orthodox Judaism. On the religion program NPR distributes, mention of Jewish Orthodoxy is virtually absent. Overwhelmingly, what references to Orthodox Jews have been made on public radio have focused not on the Orthodox community's vibrancy, growth, charity or study-ethic but rather on the fact that Israel's chief rabbinate refuses to recognize heterodox movements, on obstinate Orthodox "settlers" in Israel-occupied territories or on Jewish religious law's delineation of particular roles for women.

In that, as it happens, NPR has considerable company in the Jewish media world, where organs claiming to be comprehensive and objective largely ignore the haredi world or, when they don't, present it in a harsh light or as represented by the misbehaviors of individual Orthodox Jews. "Progressive" societal or religious developments, by contrast, are routinely reported as causes for celebration.

There's nothing inherently wrong, of course, with a medium being parochial or partisan. The Orthodox periodicals that abound are precisely that. But those papers are entirely and responsibly up-front about their classical Judaism-informed perspectives.

What's dangerous is the perception that a slanted medium is in fact bias-free. Short of witnessing a blatantly revealing misstep like NPR's recent one, most consumers of news might not realize that the great bulk of what they consume is anything but objective.

There will be future unguarded media moments from time to time, when the prejudices of "information" purveyors are so flagrantly evident that they can't be finessed. The trick, though - and it's an important one for anyone concerned with truth - is remembering that even when the biases aren't plainly in sight, they're still very much there, busily buzzing away in the background.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The death this past week of 37 miners in central China - for those who were aware of the disaster - presented a tragic counterpoint to the enthralling rescue of the 33 Chilean miners that took place mere days earlier.

Those events, along with the loss of 29 miners in the collapse of a West Virginia mine in April, and that of nine other American miners in eight accidents since, have served, no doubt, to cause countless people to imagine what it must be like to be confined thousands of feet below the earth's surface, physically separated from loved ones - indeed, from the entire world.

And it was surely a rare individual who, following the recent drama in Chile, didn't picture himself shut into in a tight, dark capsule as it wound its way through the stone and earth separating the mine from civilization. And, then, emerging, finally, wonderfully, into the light and fresh air, into the presence of family and friends; laying eyes again on familiar things, the sun, the sky, the faces (leave aside the book deals). Imagine the immeasurable gratitude that would well up in any human heart at such a moment.

And then consider that each of us undergoes a similar experience each and every day.

We wake up in the morning.

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

The regularity with which we are granted new life each day dulls us, regrettably, to the indescribable import of the fact. That is only human nature, what Emerson alluded to when he wrote: "If the stars would appear but one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the City of G-d."

But recognized or not, the import is there all the same, and demands every sensitive soul's attention. And that is why, while all too many of us awaken each day with grumbling about the speed with which morning arrived, Jewish tradition mandates that a Jew's first words upon awakening in the morning are to be those of the short "Modeh Ani" prayer of gratitude. It is one of the first things observant Jewish parents teach their young children.

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

Few of us, thankfully, will ever experience anything like what the trapped miners in Chile underwent. But all of us can benefit from thinking about those men, and consciously, pointedly, relating their experience and feelings to what we do in fact undergo each and every day, as we pull ourselves from unconsciousness and dark into awareness and light. Our gratitude should be boundless.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The timing couldn't have been more uncanny, Or more sad.

It was the week of the Torah portion of Noah when a flood of invective poured forth following a statement by the New Jersey Jewish Standard, a regional newspaper based in Teaneck, that it had erred by including among marriage announcements the intention of two young men to live together as a couple. According to the Medrash, the great flood in Noah's time, which wiped out almost all of humanity, was especially destructive because of antediluvian society's endorsement of "writing marriage contracts for men."

The newspaper's decision "not to run such announcements in the future" came in the wake of quiet protest by some local Orthodox rabbis. The firestorm of anger that later ensued has caused the paper to consider adding a flop to its flip.

Among comments posted online about the paper's decision to discontinue same-sex couple announcements were: "disgusting and abhorrent," "craven and ridiculous," "despicable" and a "shandeh." Several media, including The New York Times and the New York Jewish Week, saw fit in their reports on the brouhaha to remind readers of the suicide of a homosexual college student several days earlier, as if to subtly convey the notion that support for maintaining the traditional meaning of marriage somehow begets such things.

The Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly weighed in with its own creative take on the controversy, couching it as a "free press" issue and the newspaper's decision as "censorship." Leaving aside the assertion of a relationship between the First Amendment and simcha announcements, one finds it hard to imagine the assembled rabbis similarly condemning a Jewish newspaper's policy to, say, not include announcements of Jews for Jesus events. There is a rather large difference, it shouldn't need to be said, between censorship and standards.

In any event, newspapers, particularly nondenominational Jewish ones, are ultimately beholden not to the marketplace of ideas but to the marketplace. The New Jersey Jewish Standard may be an exception, and its decision to cease publication of celebrations of gross violations of the Torah's moral code might in fact have been born of sincere concern for its Orthodox readers' feelings. But it may also have been a cold business decision intended to not jeopardize subscriptions and advertisements from the Orthodox community. If so, well, industry strategies often change with changed circumstances and the uproar at the paper may yet yield a new business plan.

But the real story here isn't about a community organ or the relative clouts of Orthodox and non-Orthodox consumers. It isn't, either, the story of two young men who want to live as a married couple. It is about the immeasurably vast chasm between so large a part of the non-Orthodox Jewish community and its religious heritage.

Few moral precepts are as deeply rooted in the Torah as the one forbidding Jews - and non-Jews as well, since it is part of the Seven Noahide Commandments governing all humankind - from engaging in the behavior that supporters of the young men insist must be celebrated in the pages of an ostensibly Jewish newspaper. The Scriptural sources are well known. The Medrash associates homosexual acts not only with the great flood of Noah's time but with the Canaanite peoples whose behavior defiled the Holy Land and caused their expulsion from it. A statement in the Talmud asserts that one of human society's redeeming qualities has been its refusal to countenance the extension of matrimony to pairs of men.

Judaism's rejection of homosexual activity as something deeply wrong cannot be denied. It is as essential a part of the Jewish faith as the rest of the moral and ethical imperatives in the Torah. That Jews today have been led to feel they can erase it from that canon is not only outrageous but tragic.

"It is sad to think a small group can influence a newspaper like this," said one of the young men whose announcement begat the controversy, adding - in an unfortunate choice of words, considering the week's Torah-reading - "But I've been flooded with support."

He has, indeed. And that's precisely the tragedy.

He and his friend and their supporters are frighteningly removed not only from the Jewish religious heritage's teaching about human relationships but from the lesson of the Torah portion following that of Noah.

In that portion, Lech Lecha, we are introduced to Abraham, the first of the Jewish people's forefathers. He was known as the "Ivri" - the "other sider." Because, Jewish tradition explains, he was not afraid of taking a stand for G-d and truth even when the rest of the world remained on the opposite side of the divide.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Were our eyes permitted to perceive the legions of destructive demons surrounding us, the Talmud divulges (Berachot 6a), we would be unable to handle the sight.

The rabbis were referring to malevolent incorporeal beings, but the same might hold true about flesh-and-blood demons, some of whom occasionally slip into view.

Like Faisal Shahzad, the Connecticut man who tried to detonate a bomb in Times Square in May. Or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the one-time London college student who attempted to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear on a plane to Detroit. Or Colorado resident Najibullah Zazi, who planned to plant incendiary chemicals on New York City subways last year. Or Virginia-born Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan, who opened fire at Fort Hood last November, killing 13 and wounding 30. Or Shirwa Ahmed, the college student from Minneapolis who drove a truck full of explosives into a UN building in Somalia, who was identified through his finger found at the scene. Or the four men accused of plotting to bomb synagogues in the Bronx.

Imagine if we could suddenly see every would-be terrorist, brightly marked somehow as such. The sight would surely chase us off the street, if not out of our minds; the memory would keep us up at night.

And then, of course, there are the big demons, the mullahcracy in Iran or the dementocracy of North Korea, and entities like Hamas and Hezbollah and Al Qaeda.

The readily visible demonisphere, especially for Jews, is frightening enough. The thought of an invisible world of would-be destroyers skulking around to our rights and our lefts might well drive us mad. Yet it would be naïve to imagine any dearth of demons these days.

Which is why there is Sukkot.

If they haven't appeared already, impermanent structures of varied materials, shapes and sizes will soon enough be sprouting like post-rain mushrooms across Israel and throughout Jewish neighborhoods in cities around the world.

The holiday of Sukkot takes its name from those structures, which Jews are enjoined by the Torah to inhabit for a week each year. The walls of sukkot can be made of any material. But, in fulfillment of Jewish tradition's insistence that the dwellings be "temporary" in nature, their roofs must consist of pieces of unprocessed wood or vegetation, and the material may not be fastened in place.

At first glance, living in sukkot - by definition vulnerable to wind, rain and pests - would seem only to compound any innate Jewish proclivity to worry; the delicate dwellings might well only intensify Jewish anxiety. And yet, at least for Jews who appreciate the holiday's import, just the opposite is true.

For Jewish tradition considers the sukkah symbolic of the divine "clouds of glory" that protected the ancestors of today's Jews as they wandered in the desert after leaving Egypt. The miraculous clouds destroyed whatever obstacles or noxious creatures stood in the people's path.

Thus, the sukkah represents a deep Jewish truth: Security is not a function of fortresses; it is a gift granted, ultimately, from above.

The Yiddish poem by Avraham Reisen (1876-1953) sung in countless sukkot well captures the idea. It paints the picture of a Jewish father sitting in his sukkah, as a storm rages. His anguished daughter tries to convince him that the sukkah is about to fall. He responds (rendered from the Yiddish):

Dear daughter, don't fret;
It hasn't fallen yet.
The sukkah's fine; banish your fright.
There have been many such fears,
For nigh two thousand years;
Yet the little sukkah still stands upright.

Sukkot, of course, have in fact succumbed to storms. Jews, too, have fallen at the hands of ancient and modern murderers alike. But, as Reisen's metaphor so poignantly reminds us, there is timeless meaning in the fact that the Jewish people has survived.

And the meaning lies in what the sukkah's fragility implies - that true security, in the end, comes from only one place.

So all the world's craziness and evil, all the unreason and hatred and plotting and violence and demons, cannot shake the serenity of the sukkah. We have, if only we merit it, an impenetrable shelter.

Beginning a month before Rosh Hashana, Psalm 27 is added to Jewish prayer services; it is recited twice a day, until the very end of the holiday when Jews live in sukkot. A verse in the Psalm, as it happens, even refers to one:

"For He will hide me in His sukkah," King David sings of the Creator, "on the day of evil."

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

It has become common in some corners to speak of "wrestling with G-d," a phrase intended to evoke Jacob's violent encounter with an angel, after which G-d told him: "You have struggled with elohim and man and overcome" (Genesis, 32:30). The Hebrew word for "struggle" forms the root of the new name given Jacob at that moment - Yisrael, the name that will collectively characterize his descendants, "Israel", or the Jewish People.

The word "elohim" literally means "forces" and, in most contexts, refers to the One from Whom all forces emanate. The proponents of the "G-d-wrestling" notion seem to interpret the word that way here too, pronouncing the Jewish mission inherent in our collective name to be the challenging of G-d's commandments when they discomfit us.

That approach, though, is diametric to the true Jewish mandate, which, our tradition teaches, is to heed G-d even when we don't understand His will, to embrace even as we endeavor to understand. What Jacob struggled with, moreover, the Talmud tells us, was a spiritual manifestation of his twin brother Esau, who represents the physicality in man that seeks to overcome his spiritual side. Jacob, in other words, was wrestling with something very close to himself. In a way, with part of himself.

Among the collected letters of the late Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, the famed dean of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn from 1940 through the 1960s, is one that was written to a student whose own, earlier letter to Rabbi Hutner had apparently evidenced the student's despondence over his personal spiritual failures. The yeshiva dean's response provides timely and nourishing food for thought.

Citing - in English, although the rest of the letter is in Hebrew - the maxim that one can "lose battles but win wars," Rabbi Hutner explains that what makes life meaningful is not beatific basking in the exclusive company of one's "good inclination" but rather the dynamic struggle of one's battle with the inclination to sin.

King Solomon's dictum that "Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up" (Proverbs, 24:16), continues Rabbi Hutner, does not mean what most people assume, that "even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to get up again." What it really means, he explains, is that it is only and precisely through repeated falls that a person truly achieves righteousness. The struggles - even the failures - are inherent elements of what, with determination and perseverance, can become an ultimate victory.

Rabbi Hutner's words are particularly critical at this Jewish season, as thoughtful Jews everywhere recall and confront their own personal failures. For facing our mistakes squarely and feeling the regret that is the bedrock of repentance carry a risk: the despondence born of battles lost. But allowing failures to breed hopelessness, says Rabbi Hutner, is both self-defeating and wrong. A battle waged, even if lost, can be an integral step toward an ultimate victory to come. No matter how many battles there may have been, if we are alive, the war is not over. We must pick ourselves up. Again. And, if need be, again.

And so, wrestling does indeed define a Jew. Wrestling, not with G-d but with ourselves.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

Opening the medicine cabinet one day, I was struck by a sticker on a prescription container.

"Not for use by pregnant women," it read.

"And why not?" part of my aching 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 tininess, but more importantly because it is an explosively developing thing. While a single cell is growing to a many-billions-of-unbelievably-variegated-cells organism in a matter of mere months it is easily and greatly affected by even subtle stimuli.

Which thought led, slowly but inexorably, to others, about the creation of the world - the subject, soon, of 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. 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 set into motion 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 also 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 what actually took place then. Thus, the Talmudic rabbis applied the verse "the honor of G-d is the concealment of the thing" (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."

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 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, using only knowledge he 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 of growth currently evident in his subject, he 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 powerful, pregnant period before birth, with its rapid, astounding and unparalleled rate of development.

If we recognize that a similar gestational stage existed for the universe 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.

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 in some way 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 to Yom Kippur, 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. We are cautioned to avoid anger on Rosh Hashana itself. And 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 strange law. 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 coming year will develop?

Observance and good conduct are always in season, but our tradition teaches us that they have particular power during Rosh Hashana and the "Ten Days of Repentance" - that we should regard these 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 cherish them; they are conceptual butterfly-wings, the first unfoldings of a new Jewish year.

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

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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. And it is accompanied by a clarity of vision that eludes so many, and so much of the media. "With all the sufferings [the world has] inflicted on you all," she writes, "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…"

Tehilla worries about her adult sons finding proper wives - who will share her and her sons' outlook on life. She has also suffered a number of serious medical crises. 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 the fact 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 - when examining one's spiritual state can yield deep discomfort of its own - a timely one.

May Tehilla's lessons, and her example, be a merit for her good health - and for seeing her sons find their life-partners soon.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Jewish world reportedly has six months before the Rotem Bill (or some facsimile thereof) returns to the Knesset for further consideration. That should allow us all to more leisurely - and hopefully more reasonably - not only assess the bill's strengths and weaknesses but ponder a troubling issue peripheral to the legislation, but which was engendered by it.

The bill's essential aim is to allow non-Jewish Israelis a greater choice of religious courts than presently. The bill, further, formalized the decades-old religious status quo placement of conversion in Israel under the auspices of the country's official Chief Rabbinate.

On cue, the Jewish Federations of America, local Jewish Federations, Reform and Conservative leaders and an assortment of pundits all, as they say, went ballistic at the notion that halacha, or Jewish religious law, would determine conversion standards in Israel. That, despite the fact that the Rabbinate has overseen conversion in Israel since the country's founding.

The combusting protesters fantasized that the bill would prevent converts to the Reform or Conservative movements from immigrating to Israel under the Law of Return, that it would have some unidentified but grave impact on American non-Orthodox Jews, and that (here, more a threat than a fantasy) it would alienate such Jews from the Jewish State. They raised the specter of Jews being pulled off the streets in Israel to have their Jewishness revoked, and offered incendiary imagery (like a cartoon showing a shiny water cooler in Israel labeled "Orthodox-Certified Jews" beside an old-fashioned water fountain for "Reform, Conservative and Secular Jews only").

Seldom if ever has so much misinformation and ill will been sown by people ostensibly concerned with truth and Jewish unity.

A sensible if lonely voice in the wilderness was that of Reform Rabbi Mark Golub, the president of Shalom TV, who decried the Reform and Conservative movement for "overstat[ing] the threat the bill posed," and "unnecessarily anger[ing] large numbers of uninformed Jews over a bill which does not actually address them at all." He also took the Anglo-Jewish media to task for "failing to separate fact from hysteria."

Rabbi Golub noted further what he considers "the most disturbing aspect of the campaign" in America against the Rotem bill: "the subtle suggestion that the bill would jeopardize the bond between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel and would therefore threaten the security and future of the Jewish State."

It was indeed dismaying to read comments like that of the executive vice president of the Conservative movement's rabbinic group, who contended that the bill's effect on Israel's relationship with Jews in America would be "damaging to Israel's security" - a none-too-veiled "prediction" that if Israel didn't toe the non-Orthodox line (ill-informed though it might be), American Jews might no longer see Israel as worthy of their support.

More dismaying still was the intervention of Jewish members of the United States Senate. It was widely reported in mid-July that a letter about the Rotem bill had been drafted by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and circulated among other Jewish members of Congress' upper house for signature. The missive, presumably intended for Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, reportedly expressed the concern of its signatories concerning the Israeli bill.

A spokesman for one signatory to the letter (the text of which has not been made public), Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, referred to his boss' judgment that the Israeli bill is "divisive" and to his hope that "the Knesset does not pass" it. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan was quoted as saying he was "troubled by a proposal which I believe would make it more difficult for many people who want to convert to do so."

It is not unheard of for members of Congress to express their feelings about human rights or other fundamental issues to representatives of other countries. But if ever there has been a case of American legislators seeking to influence another government's consideration of an entirely domestic concern - here, conversions performed in the State of Israel - much less one addressing a religious issue, it has remained well hidden (and for good reason).

Ratcheting up the reason for dismay considerably is the unspoken but hardly untelegraphed implication of the Senators' letter: that they themselves, as legislators who vote on matters pertinent to Israel's security, are troubled by the Rotem bill. It would not be unreasonable for Israel to interpret such a message as a warning, one particularly ill conceived, let alone ill timed.

Perhaps at the very top of the "disturbing" column, though, is the question of what brought about the Senatorial stab at an Israeli internal affair in the first place. It is certainly possible that Senator Wyden, despite his full plate of domestic concerns and legislative proposals, somehow just caught wind of the Rotem bill on his own and felt compelled to try to do something about it.

But it is known that representatives of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, representatives of the Union for Reform Judaism and officials of the Jewish Federations of North American were making the rounds on Capitol Hill several days before the first reports of the letter appeared.

If it turns out that American Jewish communal leaders took upon themselves to pressure American elected officials to meddle in the domestic affairs of another country, particularly in a matter of no concern to the vast majority of those officials' constituents (and in fact contrary to the concerns of a good portion of their Jewish ones), would that constitute a responsible wielding of communal clout, or an egregious, unprecedented abuse of the same?

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

There's an orphan in shul.

Everybody knows him, or thinks they do. And yet very few people pay him much heed.

He has quite a family history, too, descended as he is from illustrious personages. A compelling personal story too.

His name is Aleinu.

Yes, that Aleinu, the paragraphs recited at the end of each set of prayers Jews pray. Jewish tradition has the first paragraph written by Joshua and the second composed as a song of repentance by Achan, the man who misappropriated valuables from the spoils of the conquered city of Jericho during the conquest of the Land of Israel in Joshua's time.

Aleinu's words were the last ones of countless Jews throughout history, the words with which they defiantly refused to succumb to the demands and tortures of those bent on uprooting devotion to G-d and His Torah. It not only ends every prayer service but is part of the Amidah, the silent prayer, itself on Rosh Hashana. And yet, all too often, it is treated not only as an after-prayer but as an afterthought.

Until one of my daughters shared her own personal experience and exasperation over the fact, I had thought that I was perhaps the only person who found it impossible to complete Aleinu in the time allotted in many different synagogues I have attended over the years in many different places. Yes, there are certainly shuls where it is recited well and properly. And yes, one can always just complete it oneself after the Kaddish that generally follows it. But what most often happens instead is that, at least for most people, Aleinu is mercilessly garbled, "edited" for time or simply, unceremoniously truncated.

Unlike some experiments, you can try this one at home - in fact, I urge you to: Get a watch or clock with a second hand, open a prayer-book and, looking inside, read all the words of Aleinu as quickly as you possibly can but saying every word. Can you do it in less than 45 seconds? I doubt it. Then, the next time you're in shul, glance at your watch and see how long it takes the assembled to say Aleinu.

See how long it takes you.

I rest my case.

Well over a year ago, hundreds of thousands of Jews glanced up at the sun and recited a blessing to commemorate "Kiddush Hachama," something done only once every twenty-eight years. The blessing was pronounced with that thought in mind, and with the deep concentration it inspired. Yet the blessing was the very same one many Jews make many times a year, when we see lightning during a rainstorm.

And what more sincerely fervent words are ever heard than "Hashem hu ho'Elokim!" - "The L-rd is G-d!" - repeated seven times at the very conclusion of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. They are the words cried out by the Jewish People at Mount Carmel in the days of Elijah (Kings I 18, 39). Yet when that very phrase is said nightly in the paragraphs after the Shma in the Maariv service, they are usually mumbled (if that).

It's human nature. We become unmindful of things to which we are accustomed. Even important things.

Aleinu is one of them, and it's one worth refocusing on, especially in our day, when evil salivates at the thought of what it would like to do to the Jewish People, when new incarnations of old monsters have risen, it seems, from the ground. Ours are times when it is, or should be, more clear than ever that the conventional roads to hope - diplomatic, military, political - are all dead ends, times for realizing, in the Talmud's words, that "there is no one on whom to rely other than our Father in Heaven."

Times for declaring, minds fully engaged with lips, that

"…we put our hope in You, G-d, that we may soon see Your mighty splendor, to remove detestable idolatry from the earth, and false gods will be utterly cut off, to perfect the universe through the Almighty's sovereignty.

"Then all humanity will call upon Your Name, to turn all the earth's wicked toward You. All the world's inhabitants will recognize and know that to You every knee should bend… and to the glory of Your Name they will render homage, and they will all accept upon themselves the yoke of Your kingship… on that day G-d will be One and His name will be One."

The words, of course, of the orphan in shul.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The proposed Israeli conversion-reform legislation known as the Rotem Bill - now on hold for several months - became a sort of Rorschach test for many Jews' fears.

The bill was introduced by Yisrael Beiteinu, a nationalistic and not infrequently anti-religious political party representing a largely secular immigrant constituency. The legislation's essential aim is to ease the conversion process for non-Jewish Israelis - like thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union - allowing them greater choice of religious courts than they currently have.

To advance the bill, Yisrael Beiteinu garnered the support of Israel's haredi, or so-called "Ultra-Orthodox," parties. What allowed the religious parties to back the conversion reforms was the bill's formalization of part of the decades-old religious status quo, placing conversion in Israel under the auspices of the country's official Chief Rabbinate. That, the religious parties reasoned, would ensure that the bill's reforms would not result in a conversion free-for-all.

When the bill it passed its first procedural hurdle, a hue and cry rose up from Reform and Conservative leaders in America, who contended that it could potentially lead to a change in the definition of "Jewish" regarding qualification for automatic citizenship under the Law of Return. (Currently, any convert to any Jewish religious movement is registered as Jewish for civil purposes.) The bill's sponsors vehemently deny that any such change could be effected by the legislation.

The lion's share of fear-mongering, as usual, has the haredim themselves as the bogeymen. Rabbi David Stav, the head of a liberal Orthodox group in Israel, strongly supports the bill, and warns that non-Orthodox opposition to it, in the words of the Jerusalem Post, "plays directly into the hands of the haredi political leadership." Even as he touts the legislation, he sees a haredi plot: The dastardly haredim crafted parts of the bill "as a means to incite the anger of the Reform and Conservative communities." Once again, it seems, the haredim are the Jews' Jews. At least he doesn't accuse us of poisoning the Knesset water supply.

And on July 16, the New York Times featured an op-ed that began with the baseless image of a "small group of ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, rabbis" deciding that "almost no one" is Jewish; smeared haredi religious authorities by associating them with a disgraced rabbi; called unnamed haredi rabbis "demonstrably corrupt"; and fantasized how, should the Rotem bill become law, a Jewish Israeli walking down the street could be suddenly summoned to a court and have his Jewishness revoked.

Vying a few days later for the Best Insult Award was a respected Jewish columnist for the Forward, who characterized Israeli religious courts as a "rabble of rabbis… a counterfeit product, pretenders to a piety they daily demean." And that's before he even got to the "arrogant hypocrisy" part.

Both writers are personal friends of mine (something I know will be true even beyond this writing). But their harsh words made my recent Tisha B'Av - when Jews mourn the toll taken by intra-Jewish ill will - particularly, painfully poignant.

My friends, of course, would defend their hysterics by claiming that the heat emanates from a deep desire for Jewish unity, a concept they seem to understand as requiring the Orthodox to sit back and watch quietly as the Jewish People becomes a gaggle of "Jewish Peoples." They fail to perceive Jewish unity's real mandate here.

What most violates the ultimate oneness of the Jewish People are multiple definitions of the word "Jew" - what results from a smorgasbord of conversion standards.

When the heterodox Jewish movements first appeared on the scene, Jews who remained stubbornly faithful to the entirety of the Jewish religious heritage decried the abandonment of the Jewish mission and warned of the dreadful toll that would result from "conversions" lacking halachic validity. The decrying was roundly condemned as impolite (or worse) and the warning dismissed as the death rattle of an expiring obsoleteness.

But commitment to Jewish religious law hasn't gone away, and it won't ever. What is more, in Israel, polls have shown that the majority of G-d-believing Jews in Israel - haredi, Modern Orthodox and merely "traditional" alike - consider halacha to be the arbiter of Jewish personal status issues like conversion. That is why, for all their prodigious efforts and funding, the heterodox movements have not really taken hold in the Holy Land.

Which fact fuels the frustration and even anger in parts of the non-Orthodox world. So apoplectic are some at the prospect of halacha continuing to govern conversion in Israel, they have apparently taken the disturbing step of asking members of Congress to interfere in another sovereign state's internal consideration of a piece of legislation.

Thought Experiment: Imagine Israel embracing a multiplicity of standards regarding conversion. In a generation or two, the Jewishness of every convert and convert's child in the country would be suspect to all halacha-respecting Jews. What is more, and more tragic, descendants of non-halachically converted women in Israel who became observant (it has happened, you know) would painfully come to discover that they are suddenly not Jewish by the measure of their own beliefs. They (and, if they are themselves women, any children they may have had in the interim) would have to undergo a halachically valid conversion. Worse still, women among them engaged to cohanim would discover that they cannot halachically marry their fiancés. Even greater soul-wrenching challenges would result from multiple standards in other Jewish personal status issues.

All of that, sadly, is already happening here in the United States and elsewhere. Orthodox Jews can no longer assume the halachic Jewishness of those presenting themselves as non-Orthodox Jews. And newly Orthodox young people have discovered that their parents' or grandparents' choices have inadvertently left them in terrible straits.

Whatever one thinks of the Rotem Bill, it raises an important, if uncomfortable, question: Is exporting American Jewish chaos to Israel really a road to Jewish unity?

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

In an essay for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Reform Rabbi David Ellenson issued a challenge to the Orthodox Union's Nathan Diament, who, in an earlier such essay of his own, criticized a Jewish philanthropist's call for all Jewish organizations to adopt policies eschewing discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Mr. Diament made the straightforward point that asking Orthodox groups to take a position contradictory to the Torah's teachings and codified halacha - and implying, as the philanthropist did, that their refusal to do so renders them unworthy of Jewish communal funds - encroaches on Orthodox Jews' religious liberty.

Rabbi Ellenson doubts Mr. Diament's sincerity in invoking that principle and challenges him to prove his commitment to religious liberty by supporting legislation that would permit those "whose religious beliefs mandate us to perform same-sex religious weddings sanctioned by the government… to exercise our own religious conscience."

The challenge is eloquent and passionate. Unfortunately, though, it is based on an erroneous notion of religious liberty.

A Reform or Conservative rabbi can opt to convert a non-Jew in a non-halachic manner, or to join in matrimony two men or two women, without fear of interference from Orthodox Jews or others. Orthodox Jews have their own religious right, of course, to consider a conversion invalid or a couple unmarried (and to freely say so), but no one interferes with the choices of the other. That is religious liberty.

Rabbi Ellenson, however, takes things a good deal farther, asserting that the religious rights of non-Orthodox Jewish clergy are violated because they are "proscribed from performing [same-sex] religious unions with state sanction."

Note well those last three words; they broadcast his error. The right to practice one's religion is one thing; insisting that the government sanction one's particular religious beliefs, quite another. No one is suggesting interference with any American clergyperson's religious endorsement of whatever unions he or she sees fit to consecrate - two men, a threesome or whatever else may lie down society's "progressive" road. If such become newly discovered religious mandates - as performing same-sex marriages has apparently become for Rabbi Ellenson - well, as they say, it's a free country.

Americans' definition of marriage for secular legal purposes, however, is expressed through the body politic's collective will. The resultant definition may seem constraining or disconcerting to some, and, for their own religious purposes, they are welcome to a more expansive take. But marriage in the eyes of secular law - constitutionally removed from the dictates of any individual faith - need not honor any religious group's particular choice of definition.

Take an example far removed from marriage: A religious Hindu who venerates cows has every right to protect the animals in his possession from all harm. But he cannot compel the government to include bovine-slaughter in the definition of murder. And were he to suggest that a fellow citizen's commitment to religious freedom requires him to support a Redefinition of Murder Act, most of us (even most Reform rabbis, I suspect) would politely disagree.

Which is precisely what Orthodox groups like Agudath Israel and the Orthodox Union do with regard to contemporary efforts to redefine marriage. Orthodox opposition to changing the legal meaning of matrimony in order to suit the Zeitgeist is not intended to, and does not, limit anyone's religious rights. It is, moreover, a principled and deeply Jewish stance, based firmly on Judaism's teachings since Sinai. And so, asking an Orthodox Jew to join an effort to redefine marriage in a way that offends his beliefs, and that places the state's imprimatur on whatever union a nontraditional clergyman may decide his religious beliefs mandate, is unfair.

Seeking, similarly, to compel Jews who cherish Jewish teachings to do things like hire teachers - role models no less than information-imparters - who openly flout the Jewish religious tradition is, simply put, an attempt at religious coercion. And that is so whether the attempt takes the form of threatening to withhold funds from Orthodox institutions, or the guise of an erroneous conception of "religious liberty."

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

I used to pass the fellow each morning as I walked up Broadway in lower Manhattan on my way to work. He would stand at the same spot and hold aloft, for the benefit of all passers-by, one of several poster-board-and-marker signs he had made. One read "I love you!" Another: "You are wonderful!" The words of the others escape me, but the sentiments were similar.

He was well-groomed and decently dressed, and he smiled broadly as he displayed his expressions of ardor to all of us rushing to our offices. I never knew what had inspired his mission, but something inchoate about it bothered me.

Then one day I put my finger on it: It is ridiculously easy to profess true love for all the world, but such love is not possible. Gushing good will at everyone is offering it to no one at all.

By definition, love exists within boundaries; our empathy for those closest to us is of a different nature than our concern for others with whom we don't share our personal lives.

Each of us lives, one might say, at the center of a series of concentric circles, the closest one encompassing our immediate family members. The next circle out might include friends and neighbors; the one beyond that, co-religionists or fellow citizens of one's country. At a distance removed even from that is a larger circle of human beings with similar values to ours. And further out still, the circle containing the rest of humanity.

It is perfectly proper - in fact, necessary - that we all feel, and demonstrate, our deepest love for the circle closest to us. And greater love and concern for the next circle out than for those beyond it.

Which is why ethnic or religious groups naturally show special concern for other members of their own groups; no one is - or, at least, should be - scandalized to see Catholics or Muslims or Hispanics or Native Americans establish charities aimed at helping only their fellows or show particular concern for them.

Yet some Jews seem embarrassed at the idea of Jews acting with special alacrity on behalf of fellow Jews.

They forget how love works, not to mention that Judaism expressly mandates that the bond between Jews be closer than the connection between neighbors or people of the same ethnicity - that the circle of fellow Jews be but a hairsbreadth or two distant from the one holding our parents, children and siblings.

Particularly intriguing, and to some people counterintuitive, is that precisely the intense empathy we feel and express for our "inner circles" enables us to feel genuine concern for those in more distant ones. People who focus their deepest love on their immediate families and friends are those most likely to truly care about their neighbors, their fellow citizens or wider circles still. Exercising the "empathy muscle," we might hypothesize, provides the ability to feel - less intensely, to be sure, but more genuinely - concern for people who do not share our own national, ethnic or religious identity.

There were grumblings about how some Jews reacted to the government's treatment of Sholom Rubashkin, the one-time CEO of the country's largest kosher meat producer, how they noted the unfair treatment he endured, and how they sought to help him defend himself against the onslaught of legal charges that the state of Iowa and federal authorities leveled against him. And it bothers the grumblers that many of us found the 27-year sentence a federal court in Iowa dumped on him to be beyond all reason and sanity for a first-time white-collar violator of banking laws.

Would we, they ask, publicly protest if a Lutheran or Methodist or Muslim were one day to receive a similarly egregious verdict for similar crimes?

Likely not, it is true. But many of us, I think, would feel a pang of empathy and outrage where we may not have felt one before.

And it will be because of the emotions we felt, and feel, about the unwarranted ordeal of a fellow Jew, a relative of ours. Of all Jews.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The most mundane things can sometimes prove unexpectedly educational.

Not long ago I was in a kosher eatery waiting for a take-out order to be filled. Hanging from the ceiling was a not-so-kosher appliance, its screen displaying a World Cup game. I have never been a fan of organized sports (even real, American, football) but the action did draw me in, especially since what was taking place was the American team scoring a decisive goal against Algeria. (Have never had deep feelings for Algeria either.)

Something about the broadcast fascinated me, although it is probably wholly unremarkable to sports aficionados. After the ball sailed past the goalie and hit the net, and fans with faces painted red, white and blue erupted in a frenzy, the screen quickly showed the goal-scoring again, this time not from above the action but from a camera that had filmed the very same moments from right behind the goal. And then a third time from yet another camera at an entirely different vantage point. What struck me was how different the same event looked when viewed from different places. Although I had watched the same happening three times, it felt as if I had seen three different episodes.

The thought returned to me the following Sabbath, when the weekly portion of Balak was read in the synagogue. The sorcerer-prophet Bil'am, hired by King Balak to pronounce a curse on the Jewish people, was denied that opportunity by G-d. When he breaks the news to his sponsor, Balak responds: "Come with me to another place from where you will see them; however, you will see only a part of them, not all of them and curse them for me from there" (Numbers 23:13).

It had long puzzled me why the king imagined that having Bil'am look at the Jews from a different place might facilitate a successful curse. This year, though, the FIFA instant replay-from-multiple-angles provided me an understanding.

Things can look very different from different vantage points. Not only soccer players but communities. Watching the goalie from near his own point of view, it was clearly quite impossible for him to block the ball. Seeing the scene from above and afar, though, he seemed almost negligent in not deflecting the missile. Perceiving the Jewish people from a different place, Balak may have hoped, would provide a different perspective, perhaps revealing or seeming to reveal something negative, some vulnerability into which a curse might successfully settle.

Not long ago, at the request of a broad array of Jewish religious leaders, as many as 100,000 Orthodox Jews in Israel marched with a group of parents to the jail where the latter had been sent by Israel's Supreme Court for their refusal to heed the court and send their children to a particular school. There were, it was accurately reported, no disturbances or incidents of violence among the huge crowd.

That wasn't surprising to any of us who recognize that when maverick "activists" in some Orthodox circles engage in stone-throwing or garbage burning, they are acting against the wishes of the community's recognized leaders and in the service only of the violent tendencies some young men in all communities seem unwilling or unable or to control.

Yet the lack of any violence, especially considering the size of the crowd and the strong feelings that had motivated the crowd's members to gather, was remarkable to some - particularly consumers of contemporary mass media, which tend to portray isolated acts of uncouthness as normative in Orthodox circles. In any event, the calm at the march was duly noted.

One commentator, though, chose to see it as reflecting negatively on the community. The lack of anything untoward at the massive demonstration, he asserted, shows that when the Orthodox leadership wants a gathering to be peaceful it will be. And, hence, when some hoodlums engage in behavior unbefitting a Jew, it must be that those leaders condone the same.

A different perspective, to be sure. And clearly, one born of seeing things from a camera aimed oddly.

We Jews have now entered a period of the Jewish year, the three weeks between the fast days of 17 Tamuz and Tisha B'Av, when we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temples, the second of which, the Talmud teaches, fell only seemingly to Roman attack but, in reality, to baseless ill will among Jews.

If ill will can be baseless, one might well ask, where might it originate?

One possibility, I think, may be our camera angle, our way of looking at one another. Perspective, in the end, is everything, and a skewed one can be a dangerous thing. When we see something objectionable in another, we do well to, so to speak, push pause - and go right to instant replay, from a different angle.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

My wife, daughter and I recently spent a Sabbath on the sprawling campus of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, near Baltimore. The Ner Israel yeshiva might better be described as a town, comprised as it is of scores of faculty and graduate student families living in on-campus apartments and townhouses, and hundreds of students residing in on-campus dormitories.

(Full disclosure: My wife and I have three sons studying at Ner Israel, and my brother teaches Talmud and Holocaust studies in the yeshiva's high school division. I spent formative years studying at Ner Israel; the literal meaning of alma mater - "nurturing mother" - for the yeshiva's relationship to me is apt.)

Located in a rural area of Maryland, amid rolling hills and verdant fields, Ner Israel is a rare, perhaps unique, place, an oasis of both natural and Jewish beauty. As we took a stroll late Friday night, the dulcet sounds of harmonizing voices floated on the air. The singing emanated from homes of the teacher-rabbis, who are traditionally visited on Sabbath evenings by their students for sharing Torah thoughts, discussions and song.

The next day, after services and the Sabbath meal, the parking lots - where, of course, not a car moved - were quickly filled with children at play, the music of their laughter and chatter accompanied by the percussion of small feet running and skipping rope. A small playground hosted younger children and their mothers. Some parents sat on the balconies of their homes, watching the kids at play, studying Torah or just relaxing. The traditional Sabbath greeting in a yeshiva like Ner Israel is "Good Shabbos," but there are few places on earth where the phrase "Shabbat Shalom" - "Sabbath of Peace," introduced by the Safed kabbalists in the 15th century and used as a greeting by many Jews today - would fit so well.

Life on "Yeshiva Lane" - the campus address - revolves around the two large study halls, or botei medrash, one used by the nearly 250 high school boys, the other by the more than 600 young men in the postgraduate and Kollel (married student) divisions. Aside from the apartments and townhouses, the campus includes an administration building, dining hall, basketball court and, of course, classroom buildings. But the botei medrash (singular: beit medrash) are the twin hearts that pump the lifeblood of Torah study throughout the campus. On the Sabbath as during the week, each of the large halls is filled with students poring over the holy texts of Judaism, reading, arguing, understanding - and adding links in the Jewish Torah-chain stretching back millennia.

Studying with one of my sons that Sabbath in the high school beit medrash, I was reminded of a day trip I made to Ner Israel a number of years ago with the religion editor of the New York Times at the time, Gustav Niebuhr. He had never seen a yeshiva before.

One of the yeshiva's administrators gave us a short tour of the campus and then took us to the main beit medrash. When a door to the cavernous but crowded room was opened, my guest surveyed the scene -several hundred young men (mostly in pairs, as yeshiva study is traditionally done) surrounded by piles of books, loudly and animatedly arguing. He was visibly intrigued. Actually, taken aback might be a better description. It was probably quite different from what the phrase "study-hall" likely recalled to the Oxford alumnus from his university days.

The administrator invited the reporter to walk through the beit medrash and interview students at his whim. He seemed hesitant to take up the offer, reluctant to take the young men from their studies, but the administrator's encouragement and the reporter's own natural curiosity won out in the end.

I watched as he gingerly entered the room - bare-headed, looking far from Jewish (which he isn't) and armed with only a pen and a pad - and went from one pair of students to another. At each stop, the students stood up to welcome the visitor, pulled up a chair and invited him to sit down. Several such conversations later, the reporter returned, his pad filled with notes, and his eyes, it seemed, with wonder.

He remarked to us how deeply impressed he had been "with the sincerity and idealism" of the students he had met. Some of the young men with whom he had spoken had been raised in Orthodox families; the fathers of many had studied at Ner Israel decades earlier (the yeshiva was founded in 1933). Others had come to Orthodoxy along with their families, or on their own. One student who particularly impressed him had been a Hollywood writer before becoming observant and enrolling in the yeshiva. The article the reporter later wrote for his newspaper about Ner Israel (which can be easily found using the search engine on the New York Times' website) well evidences the positive impact the yeshiva and its students had on him.

I have been an assiduous monitor of the media, especially the Jewish, for nearly two decades. And it pains me when media tend to focus on aberrations within the haredi community - real, magnified or fictitious. That focus often yields a negative image and, when it does, gravely misleads.

At those times, I find myself wishing that every Jew could spend a Shabbat, or even just a few hours, at a place like Ner Israel.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

It's always edifying when bigots who have managed to elude full exposure for years suddenly slip and appear in full ingloriousness.

Helen Thomas didn't even need the alcohol that loosened Mel Gibson's tongue and bared his sorry soul a few years back.

All it took for her was an unguarded moment and an enterprising blogger.

But little doubt was left about her own soul's state by her sneering suggestion that Jews in Israel go "home" to Poland and Germany.

Presumably realizing just how honest she had inadvertently allowed herself to be, she decided to add "and America, and everywhere else," but what seemed to please her was clearly the prospect of Jews returning to places associated with their attempted genocide.

But the idea that Jews are somehow newcomers to the Middle East, that the shtetl, not the Judean desert (despite its name), is our natural habitat, is perniciously widespread even among some politicians and pundits who defend Israel uncompromisingly.

While those who harbor a bit of Helenism (a new noun, inspired by Ms. Thomas) cast Jews in Jerusalem as criminal interlopers, there are also many untouched by the virus of Jew-resentment who tend to view the Jewish presence in the Holy Land as a new development. They regard it as a sort of consolation prize for having endured the Holocaust.

Mere days before Ms. Thomas' self-revelation was publicly revealed, a similar sentiment to hers was captured on camera on the West Coast. Among the many mass protests against Israel for having dared, in the recent flotilla incident, to actually enforce its embargo of a bad neighbor (which phrase presumably includes one who wishes to drive you into the sea) and against Israeli soldiers who had the chutzpah to shoot at people who were trying to kill them was a demonstration that took place on Memorial Day near the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles. A mob chanted angry, menacing slogans in the cause of peace.

A widely viewed newscast video of the demonstration made the rounds in subsequent days. It focused largely on a Jewish teenager who intrepidly walked alongside the unholy warriors, holding aloft an Israeli flag and calmly, eloquently and pointedly answering questions from a reportorial voice off-camera.

Whether one thinks the one-boy flag battalion foolhardy or fantastic probably depends on whether one is or isn't his parent. But it was hard not to smile at the finger the teen metaphorically poked in the collective eye of the nearby mob.

What I found most telling about the clip, though, were its final seconds, when two decidedly un-angelic Angelenos, part of the anti-Israel protest, appeared on camera to answer questions.

First came a young woman, hatred pouring from her eyes like oil from an out of control gusher. Asked if she supported a "Palestinian state alongside Israel," she rebukes the questioner angrily, wagging her finger and contorting her face into a mask of anger. "No! No! No!" she protests furiously. "The Jews" - speaking the word like it is a disfiguring disease - "can live in a Palestinian state!" she exclaims. "There should not be an Israeli state." Then, imagining her perfect world, she declares emphatically: "An Israeli state does not even exist!"

Although she isn't quite done, the camera pans to her companion, a young man with a vacant expression and a baseball cap on sideways, who offers the interviewer his own sage assessment.

"The only reason Israel is doing this," he explains, though it's not clear if he is referring to the Gaza blockade or to existing - "is because they got kicked out from, uh, the German… uh, whatever happened to them. So they're trying to take out their anger to someone else."

"What about the Bible?" asks the interviewer.

"The Bible?" the young man repeats, uncomprehending.

"You know," explains the interviewer. "Solomon? Uh, the Jewish presence in Israel in Biblical days?"

The response: "I don't know about that."

I'm sure he doesn't. And, unfortunately, it would seem that he's hardly alone. World leaders and editorialists who speak and write as if the Jewish presence in the Holy Land is some modern development, that the justification for Jews to live in Jerusalem emerged ex nihilo from European crematoria, are, if better-intentioned, equally uninformed. And the information they are missing is truly central to the Israel-Palestinian conflict - and should be central to any discussion of the same. What they don't realize, or choose to gloss over, is that "Israel," in the phrase "Land of Israel," refers not to a modern-day country but to an ancient people.

That Jews over the past century haven't come to the Holy Land.

They have come back to it.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

At a bus stop the other day a woman wearing a large button proclaiming "A Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs Tefillin" looked me over and asked me if I thought women can be Orthodox rabbis. When I politely answered no, she proceeded to stomp on my toes with her heavy boots and then tried to asphyxiate me with her purse-strap.

Just kidding. Never happened. I've been on the receiving end of some sneers here and there but the attack described above didn't take place.

What would have happened, though, had I taken my "account" to the media?

Surely I would have likely been asked if I could produce any witnesses to the alleged assault, any record of medical treatment for my injuries and trauma, any corroboration at all for my claim. And if I couldn't, the press, understandably, would have wished me a good day and moved on.

Consider, then, what in fact transpired a few weeks ago when an Israeli woman, Noa Raz, claimed that she had been viciously attacked on a weekday morning in a public place, Beersheba's Central Bus Station, by an Orthodox man who asked her if the marks on her arm were from leather straps of tefillin, the ritual item traditionally donned by observant Jewish men each morning. When she responded in the affirmative, she told police when she decided to file a report the next day, the man screamed "women are an abomination" and "began to kick and strangle" her.

Ms. Raz, a social activist who is a director of a group called Israel Gay Youth and a member of the feminist group Women of the Wall, may have been telling the truth. There are certainly crazies in Israel, as elsewhere, and violent acts have been perpetrated on both sides of the haredi/feminist divide.

Still, considering the dearth of any corroboration, one might be forgiven for wondering if Ms. Raz's account is entirely factual or perhaps exaggerated, maybe even fabricated.

Not that it makes any real difference. What is outrageous here is the reportage. No responsible journalist outside the Arab world and North Korea would ever dare report an unsupported allegation as fact. Yet the Jewish Telegraphic Agency's headline read "Woman attacked for tefillin imprint." And although a careful reading of the report eventually yielded the fact that the sole source of the story was Ms. Raz herself, not only did the headline omit that fact but the story itself opened with the words: "A Jewish woman was attacked in Beersheba…" Eventually (almost three weeks later), the news service corrected the headline and first sentence on its website, but of course by then the original version had long been published far and wide.

Over at the Forward's website, a blog called "The Sisterhood" continues to report the allegation as fact, and includes the alleged victim's urging of Jews to "keep supporting… the Conservative movement and the Reform movement, all the hard work we do to try to create a better society [in Israel]."

Whether that hard work includes making less than truthful claims is nothing anyone but Ms. Raz can really know. But, again, the veracity of the story, while an intriguing question, is not the main one. That would be the Jewish media's attitude toward haredim.

The JTA story in its original form and Reform movement press releases reporting Ms. Raz's claim as fact were reproduced as news stories in scores of Jewish newspapers and on countless websites and blogs, with predictable results. One social activist's unsupported claim, in other words, was nonchalantly presented as truth to countless readers, fanning the flames of hatred for haredim far and wide.

Leave aside that the claimant has a record of pre-existing animus for Orthodox Jews and in her account referred to her alleged attacker as a "black" - a pejorative for haredim. Leave aside her assertion that as he moved in close she could "smell him." Note only the aroma of the reportage itself. Were a Journalism 101 student to present a less than disinterested individual's claim as fact, a failing grade would quickly follow. Precisely the grade deserved by many Jewish media here.

Their greatest sin, though, is not abject journalism; it's assuming the worst about other Jews and fomenting hatred for them. "The disrespect shown by the haredim to women… is intolerable," pronounced an ARZA press release, reproduced in temple newsletters nationwide. "We must… insist that the Government of Israel not be held hostage by those who claim to be the only 'legitimate Jews'..."

And a Conservative rabbi, Gerald Skolnik, writing in the New York Jewish Week about how Ms. Raz "was physically assaulted" ("This really happened" he sagely adds), characterizes haredim as "feeling that violence against Jews who are different from them is… warranted." The spiritual leader goes on to juxtapose a comment allegedly made by an unnamed haredi Jew to words of Adolf Hitler.

Recent days have shown us how malignant the world media can be when their biases show. But our own Jewish media, too, harbor ugly prejudices of their own.

Whether or not some unbalanced haredi in Beersheba is guilty of a hate crime remains an open question. But that the crime of spreading hatred was recently committed in the Jewish world seems painfully clear.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

With all the hyped-up headlines, the old joke practically insisted on being dusted off.

The one about the group of scientists who inform G-d that His services are no longer needed, that their knowledge of the universe now allows them to run it just fine themselves, thank You.

"Can you create life like I did?" asks the Creator.

"No problem," they reply as they confidently gather some dirt and fiddle with the settings on their shiny biologocyclotron.

"Excuse Me," interrupts the heavenly voice. "Get your own dirt."

The breathless reports about J. Craig Venter's modestly named J. Craig Venter Institute's recent biochemical feat weren't just tabloid titillation either. The respectable Christian Science Monitor heralded the "creation" of the "first synthetic life form." The venerated journal Science referred to the crafting of a "synthetic cell." At least Scientific American remained sufficiently sober to add a question mark after the phrase "Life From Scratch."

To be sure, the technological feat was impressive, even astounding. Scientists at the Institute constructed an entire genome (the chromosomes that code for the inheritable traits of an organism) of one bacterium from commercially manufactured units of DNA and transplanted it into a cell of a different bacterium that had been emptied of its own genetic material. And the Frankengerm began to function as if it were a full-fledged member of the first microbe's family.

Some, including some who invoked religion, have objected to such biological tinkering. Whether there is any authentically Jewish objection to genetic transfer research, or if Jewish law prohibits Jews from engaging in it, are questions for halachic experts, not me. But, as Biotechnology and Bioengineering Professor Martin Fussenegger of Switzerland notes, "chimeric organisms have long been created through breeding and, more recently, through the transfer of native genomes into denucleated target cells." In other words, mules and tangelos and genetically modified foods are nothing terribly new.

The scale of the recent laboratory success, to be sure, was impressive. An entire genome took up residence and functioned in a host cell. But the host, all said and done (and hyped), was an already-living cell, denuded though it was of its genetic material, not a plastic bag. So, despite all the headline-hooplah, life was not engendered; it was manipulated.

Or in the words of Caltech geneticist David Baltimore: "[Venter] has not created life, only mimicked it."

There is a miracle here but, to put it starkly, it is being misidentified. The marvel isn't the scientists' feat - which, Professor Fussenegger notes further, represents "a technical advance, not a conceptual one" - but rather life itself, the wonder of a living cell.

The celebrated Jewish thinker Rabbi E. E. Dessler (1892-1953) wrote that there really is no inherent difference between nature and what we call the miraculous. We simply use the word "nature" for the miracles to which we are accustomed, and "miracles" for those we haven't previously experienced. All there is, in the end, is G-d's will.

When a sheep was first successfully cloned 14 years ago, we were all rightly amazed too. But the more perceptive among us realized that the source of the amazement was the coaxing of genetic material to do precisely what it does all the time "naturally": code for traits, replicate and direct protein synthesis. Dolly's production, to be sure, was a major accomplishment; myriad obstacles had to be overcome, and a single set of chromosomes, rather than the usual pair from two parents, had to be convinced to do the job. But it was still, in the end, essentially a miracle that takes place millions of times in hundreds of thousands of species each and every day without capturing most people's attention.

And forty-odd years ago, heart transplants, too, were flabbergasting. But, at least to thoughtful men and women, they were never remotely as amazing as hearts.

So we cheat ourselves if we let the media focus our attention on what humans have accomplished here, impressive though it is. The miracle is Divine, even if its ubiquity usually keeps it under our radars.

Well, actually, there is something wondrous about what the scientists did here too. Because what might be the greatest miracle of Creation is that, above and beyond all other life on earth, we humans have been granted the astonishing ability to think and discover, to analyze and creatively utilize the rest of nature. What a wondrous gift.

Like the dirt.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Despite having eclectic tastes in many things, I have no appreciation of urban music. And so I had never heard of Q-Tip (the person, that is; the object is familiar to me). He is apparently a rapper, presumably with clean ears.

I was introduced to Mr. Tip's existence by a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report about his embrace of the Jewish Sabbath, a concept he apparently encountered while playing a role, as a drug dealer, in a film about some Chassidic boys who were lured into smuggling illicit substances.

The motion picture was "inspired" - the producer's word, although it sits somewhat uncomfortably here - by the case of some young American Chassidim who were in fact recruited in the 1990s to carry illegal drugs overseas.

The ideals and commitments of most Orthodox Jews make them unlikely committers of crimes like drug running. But, sadly, illegalities of many types, including that one, do exist in the Orthodox world. Not every Jew in the Orthodox community lives an Orthodox life.

So it was probably inevitable that some enterprising screenwriter would come across the reports about Chassidim tragically drawn into the easy money of drug smuggling and recognize an entertainment potential. What a winning crazy-mix of imageries: the peaceful, devout world of Chassidim, and the violent, amoral one of organized crime. Payos and payoffs, one might say. Amazing it took so long for someone to come up with the idea.

Whether the resultant film is a work of art or an act of Jewploitation I leave to film critics. But, reportedly, it portrays the Chassidic world in a generally positive, accurate light. The protagonist, who is at first tricked into boarding planes with "medicine" for "rich people" and eventually gets sucked into the abyss of the drug trade, brings great pain to his family, which is in turn portrayed sympathetically.

Similarly portrayed, it is reported, are the beauty and wonder of a Jewish Sabbath, when observant Jews turn off the world and spend a full night and day in relaxation, prayer and study, floating on a tranquil cloud of time with family and friends. That is apparently what enchanted Q-Tip. And others, too; the idea of a day without meetings, media or mobile devices has attracted fans far and wide. A national effort to promote the Sabbath has been promoted of late, and a recent book intended for a general readership is dedicated to singing the Sabbath's praises. Maybe Q-Tip even read it.

To be sure, there is much to be said for being disconnected and focused inward for a day each week. (Although Judaism considers the Sabbath, alone among the Torah's laws, to be a special "sign" between G-d and, exclusively, the descendants of Jacob and those who join them by religious conversion).

But the Jewish Sabbath is more than a "day off." It is intended to be a sort of spiritual recharging for Jews, an infusion of holiness into the six days that follow.

Which is not exactly how Q-Tip understands things.

"I'm going to enjoy Sabbath on Saturday…" he is reported to have declared. "And then when the sun sets on Saturday night, I'm going to raise the roof!" Well, actually, he didn't say "the roof," but you get the idea.

It is easy, of course, to be amused by a misunderstanding of the Jewish Sabbath as mere "downtime" in preparation for a hearty party. But those of us who observe the Sabbath might still learn something from the rapper's words. We could stand to think a little about whether we haven't been swabbed with a bit of Q-Tip ourselves.

When the Sabbath ebbs away - especially during the long days of summer - are we saddened a bit by the imminent loss of its holiness, pained at least a little to emerge from our day-long cocoon of connection with the Divine? Or are we itching, well, if not to raise the roof (or whatever), to barge as quickly as possible back into the "real" world, to listen to the news, check our e-mail, get in our cars - surrender without a fight to the mundane?

If so, perhaps we shouldn't smile so condescendingly at Q-Tip and his Saturday night plans, but rather recognize a bit of him in the mirror. And resolve to not only enjoy the Sabbath but to absorb it, and to take some of its holiness along with us into the week.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

All Biblical Jewish holidays but one are distinguished by specific mitzvot, or commandments, that attend their celebration: Rosh Hashana's shofar, Yom Kippur's fasting, Sukkot's booths and "four species," Passover's seder and matzah. The one conspicuous exception is Shavuot, which falls this year on May 19 and 20. Although the standard prohibitions of labor that apply to the other holidays apply no less to Shavuot, and while special sacrifices were brought in Temple times on every Jewish holiday, there is no specific ritual or "objet d'mitzvah" associated with Shavuot.

There are, of course, foods traditionally eaten on the day - specifically dairy delectables like blintzes and cheesecake. And there is a widely-observed custom of spending the entire first night of Shavuot immersed in Torah readings and study. But still, there is no Shavuot equivalent to the shofar or the etrog or the seder.

The early 19th century Chassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev suggested that perhaps the mitzvahlessness of Shavuot is the reason it is referred to throughout the Talmud as "Atzeret" - which means "holding back" and refers to the prohibition of labor. The fact that Shavuot is essentially characterized by "not doing" rather than by some particular mitzvah-act, though, may say something deeper. Shavuot, although characterized by the Torah only as an agricultural celebration, is identified by the Jewish religious tradition with the day on which the Torah was given to our ancestors at Mount Sinai.

That experience involved no particular action; it was, in a sense, the very essence of passivity, the acceptance of G-d's Torah and His will. That revelation was initiated by G-d; all that our ancestors had to do - though it was a monumental choice indeed - was to receive, to submit to the Creator and embrace what He was bestowing on them.

Indeed, the Midrash compares the revelation at Sinai to a wedding, with G-d the groom and His people the bride. (Many Jewish wedding customs even have their source in that metaphor: the canopy, according to sources, recalls the tradition that has the mountain held over the Jews' heads; the candles, the lightning; the breaking of the glass, the breaking of the tablets of the Law.) And just as a marriage is legally effected in the Jewish tradition by the bride's simple choice to accept the wedding ring or other gift the groom offers, so did the Jewish people at Mount Sinai create its eternal bond with the Creator by accepting His gift of gifts to them. That acceptance may well be Shavuot's essential aspect. A positive, active mitzvah for the day - an action or observance - would by definition be in dissonance with the day's central theme of receptivity.

And so the order of the day is to reenact our ancestors' acceptance of the Torah - pointedly not through any specific ritual but rather by re-receiving and absorbing it. Which is precisely what we do on Shavuot: open ourselves to the laws, lore and concepts of G-d's Torah, our Torah - and accept them anew, throughout the night, even as our bodies demand that we stop and sleep.

The association of Shavuot with our collective identity as a symbolic bride accepting a divine "marriage gift," moreover, may well have something to do with the fact that the holiday's hero is… a heroine: Ruth (whose book is read in the synagogue on Shavuot); and with the fact that her story not only concerns her own wholehearted acceptance of the Torah but culminates in her own marriage.

It is unfashionable these days - indeed it violates the prevailing conception of cultural correctness - to celebrate passivity or submission, even in those words' most basic and positive senses. But it might well be precisely what we Jews are doing on Shavuot.

Happy, and meaningful, anniversary.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The British election campaign just ended would seem an unlikely source for a Torah teaching moment, but there it was.

One of the blows the Labour Party absorbed in the days preceding the election was precipitated by Prime Minister Gordon Brown's mistaken assumption on April 28 that the microphone he was wearing during a campaign stop was turned off.

The device had just finished recording an encounter Mr. Brown had with a mildly disgruntled voter, on the issue of immigration. After the polite interaction, Mr. Brown returned to his campaign car, forgetful of the fact that the microphone was still faithfully doing its job, and groused to staff members about the "bigoted woman" with whom he had just been forced to speak.

With the speed of electromagnetic waves, of course, the comment became part of news reports worldwide.

It was only days earlier that Jews accustomed to studying a chapter of "Pirkei Avot", or the tractate "Fathers", each spring and summer Sabbath, pondered the words of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi (2:1): "An eye sees and an ear hears, and all of your actions are in the record written."

The sage (known, too, as "Rebbe") wasn't referring to the media, of course, which does in fact sometimes capture (but sometimes misses and sometimes gets wrong) at least some of what at least famous people do or say. The "eye" and "ear" in Rebbe's teaching are metaphorical, Divine ones; the record, filed in a realm far removed from the earthly. And the subjects of the surveillance and reports are each of us.

But Mr. Brown's experience was nonetheless a reminder of that deeper truth, and of the fact that it is easy to become oblivious to the fact that everything we say and do is of concern to G-d - or, put otherwise, has meaning.

It's not that we harbor some inner atheist. It's just that there is a yawning gap between recognizing something intellectually and completely internalizing it as a compelling truth. In the prayer Aleinu, which ends every Jewish prayer service, we quote from Deuteronomy (4:39): "And you shall know today and restore to your heart that Hashem is G-d, in the heavens above and on the earth below…"

The "knowing today," commentators note, is apparently insufficient. Our belief in G-d's omnipotence and omniscience has to be "restored" to our hearts - internalized constantly - to truly affect our actions and our essences.

That was the message inherent in the strange blessing the tannaic sage Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai offered his students as he lay dying. The Talmud (Brachot 28b) recounts that he wished them that "the fear of Heaven be to you like the fear of flesh and blood." "That's all?" they exclaimed, incredulous at their teacher's apparent confusion of priorities. The sage's response: "If only!" "Think." he continued. "When a person commits a sin in private, he says 'May no person see me!' And yet, of course, he is seen all the same.

It has often occurred to me that scientific and technological advances can often serve not only practical purposes but spiritual ones. They can provide us important life-messages as we need them.

When a basic understanding of our solar system lulled humanity into feeling it had mentally mastered the sky, powerful telescopes were invented that revealed new and mysterious realms of an incomprehensibly large and expanding universe, and that keep us aware of how little of what's out there we really understand. When the basic structure of the atom was fathomed, particle detectors came along and uncovered a bizarre zoo of inanimate beasties that make a mockery of our commonsense notions. So quasars and quarks keep us humble before the grandeur of Creation.

And then there are other, more mundane but increasingly utilized technologies, like the ubiquitous cameras on city streets or peering at us from our computer monitors, our GPSs, our E-ZPasses or our cellphones, that render us visible and audible where once we may have felt entirely alone. For all their downsides, they, too, are a healthy reminder. They remind us, as did Rebbe, that even outside the turmoil of a national election, even when we're not on the street or in a car or sitting at a computer, even if we're not famous or of interest to mortal authorities, we are heard and we are seen, and our every action is duly recorded.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

"Boy, you're brave," said the first fellow to approach me at the table after the symposium.

The panel discussion, on Sunday, April 25, was the second time in as many months that I had made a presentation on the topic of Jewish religious pluralism in Israel. Back in March, it was a University of Maryland conference on "Israel as a Jewish State." Sunday's symposium, sponsored by the Institute for Living Judaism and Hadassah's Brooklyn branch, was entitled "The State of the Jews in the Jewish State: Religious Pluralism in Israel."

In both cases, I was invited to present a point of view rarely heard in such symposia, and, by defending Israel's "religious status quo," I was in fact a conspicuous minority of one on each panel. Most of my fellow panelists were not shy about attacking the Israeli rabbinate and religious parties, Orthodox Jews (especially haredi ones) and halacha itself.

Thus the man's comment. He saw me as having entered a lion's den of sorts. But it was not bravery that motivated me to accept the invitation, nor foolhardiness. I knew I would hear a litany of Orthodox evildoing, imagined or real, from other panelists; my presence wouldn't change any stump speeches. But the opportunity to place some facts and a different perspective before a group of people who might not otherwise ever encounter them was too important to squander.

The crowd on Sunday was larger than I had imagined it would be; close to 200 people paid an admission fee - modest, compared to more conventional boxing matches - to listen to us panelists. I was the first presenter.

Admitting at the start that tension is created by throwing the monkey wrench of religion into the machinery of a liberal democracy, I noted that, all the same, for Israel to meaningfully aspire to be a Jewish state, there was no way to avoid establishing standards for things Jewish, including marriage, divorce, and conversion.

I recounted the history of the "religious status quo," David Ben-Gurion's agreement with the Agudath Israel World Organization in 1947, pledging with regard to "personal status" issues that "everything possible will be done [to] avoid, Heaven forbid, the splitting of the House of Israel into two."

Whatever the yardstick, I argued, if "Jewish State" is to be more than a slogan, and all Jews in Israel are to be encompassed by one Judaism, something must do the measuring for all. And I made the case for halacha as the most compelling choice.

Reasonable people can choose to differ on that, I noted, but asserted that "it must indeed be reason, and not disparagement or distortion, that imbues the discussion.

"Characterizing a time-honored and deeply Jewish standard as something malevolent is regrettable. Overheated and incendiary language about 'human rights' and a 'marriage monopoly' only serves to stoke ill will and is grossly misleading."

Inter alia, I explained that the women detained not long ago at the Kotel plaza were purposely flouting a court ruling that their feminist services be held at a nearby Kotel site; and that the separate-seating buses on some Israeli routes had originally been a private haredi enterprise but were co-opted by the state's bus service. I emphasized that the seating arrangement was voluntary, and that anyone preventing a woman from sitting where she wants on those buses is subject to prosecution.

And I ended by asserting that one can choose to differ with Israel's Orthodox without vilifying them or their beliefs.

"One can advocate for change of Israel's marriage laws," I pleaded, "without characterizing the current ones - those of Jewish society from time immemorial - as violating 'human rights.' One can argue against separate-seating buses without invoking Rosa Parks and implying that haredim hate women. One can lobby for different systems of communal standards without holding up young hooligans as representative of the haredi community, or implying that the 'ultra- Orthodox' - a pejorative if ever there was one - are 'taking over'."

And then I sat back to listen to, well, just about all of precisely what I had said we could do without. (No one, thankfully, conjured Rosa Parks.)

Still, I was comforted by Mr. "Boy, you're brave." Not for that comment, but because he went on to say that he had been struck by the contrast between the heat generated by the others and the light he felt my words had cast. And those who followed him in line (and others still, who accosted my wife and me as we made our getaway) were equally kind and appreciative.

Oddly, though, those encouraging words weren't the high point of the afternoon for me. That would be something that took place during my presentation: I suddenly lost my voice in mid-sentence. Or better, a sound reminiscent of Donald Duck emerged from my mouth.

Which caused the moderator, a kind and considerate man, to rush over with a cup of water.

I was in fact a little thirsty and so, before drinking, pronounced the traditional blessing: "Blessed are You, Hashem… through Whose word everything came to be."

Then came the truly memorable moment of the afternoon, a ray of light in its own right: Loudly and in unison, the entire crowd pronounced an unabashed, enthusiastic "Amein."

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

A recent intriguing article about Roman Vishniac got me thinking well beyond him.

Vishniac, of course, was the famed photo-chronicler of pre-war Jewish Eastern Europe, whose 1983 collection "A Vanished World" is celebrated for its evocative portrayal of shtetl life, Jewish destitution, and religious Jews at home, work and study.

The article, by veteran journalist Alana Newhouse in The New York Times Magazine, focuses on the work of an assiduous researcher, Maya Benton, who has uncovered evidence that some of the narratives accompanying Vishniac's photographs are unreliable; that what seem candid shots were likely posed; and that, as per the photographer's assignment in the employ of the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish world he captured on film was a constricted one - a mere piece of a universe considerably larger, more diverse, more complex.

There were, after all, not only frightened, disheveled and poor children in pre-war Poland but happy, well-adjusted and well-off ones; not only cheder boys but progeny of parents whose ideals were more cosmopolitan than religious; not only study halls but cabarets; not only babushkas and housewives but debutantes and artists.

Whether Vishniac's ignoring of parts of the Jewish world he roamed in the 1930s makes him some sort of artistic mugger is an open question; all artists, in the end, choose their foci. But it's hard to argue with Ms. Newhouse's contention that the photographer's constrained spotlight on Eastern European Jewry's religious and impoverished elements (largely the same) presents a less than complete picture.

It is a real one, to be sure. But communities, in the end, are like elephants, their observers the proverbial blind men, one touching an ear and concluding that the beast is floppy and thin, the other feeling a leg and imagining the subject tree-like, a third encountering its trunk and pronouncing the pachyderm a python.

American Jewry is a good example. The air of one part of that population is permeated by academic achievement, economic success and social concerns. It constitutes a parallel universe, though, to that of the Orthodox community, which extols Torah study and observance, and breathes an atmosphere of religious tradition.

In fact, and sadly, the two worlds barely acknowledge one another. Many Jews who define themselves as non-Orthodox or unaffiliated tend to view those who consider their Jewishness paramount as relics, either amusing or threatening, depending on the day and circumstance.

And all too many Orthodox Jews, especially those of us in the more insular haredi world, can be oblivious to the large mass of our distant relatives beyond the physical and conceptual ghettos we inhabit. And when we do think of them, we often see them essentially as objects of "outreach." A laudable goal, to be sure, born of the desire to share something precious, but qualitatively removed from the deeper recognition that they are worthy of our concern and love as fellow Jews even if they never choose to live like us.

Back, though, to the elephant. A photographer could easily produce a volume portraying one American Jewish world or the other. Only a book, however, that portrays both (and likely several others in-between) could rightfully lay claim to the ambitious title "The American Jewish Community."

Even within each part of the American Jewish scene, a constricted focus can be misleading. Some non-Orthodox Jews profess atheism or agnosticism; but others ponder G-d and their purposes on earth more than do some Orthodox-by-rote. And so it would be a disservice to truth to present either sub-group as emblematic of the non-Orthodox whole.

As it would to imagine, inspired by some popular media, that the Orthodox world is rife with white-collar criminals and slumlords, or harbors a disproportionate number of child abusers. We Orthodox surely have our share of scoundrels, knaves and hypocrites. But examining the dirt under the elephant's toenails conveys nothing at all of the animal's majesty. As a whole, measured by the vast majority of its members, the Orthodox community is precisely what unprejudiced observers come to see: a world of broad and deep religious dedication, charity and kindness.

Assuming that a group stereotype is a group description is the essence of prejudice. As the Vishniac article reminds us, even the most compelling snapshots can mislead. Ears and trunk and feet are not, in the end, the elephant.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

As a Jewish teenager, I absorbed a vital truth - arguably the essence of Orthodoxy: The community's learned elders are the wisest arbiters of what is and is not Jewishly proper.

Over the many years since, I have come to see that truth vindicated time and again. Had I not perceived it in my youth, I sometimes reflect, I might have become enamored of the Conservative movement, which declared fealty to halacha while expressing sensitivity to American realities. I could have chosen to see it as the most promising standard-bearer for Jewish observance in America. And I would have been devastated to see its claim to halachic integrity crash and burn. But I trusted the elders. And, it turned out, they saw more than I did, and predicted precisely what came to be.

What bring the thought to mind are reactions to a recent pronouncement of our contemporary elders. When a congregational rabbi tried to create a new institution in Orthodoxy - women serving as rabbis - the Council of Torah Sages felt compelled to declare that any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical role "cannot be considered Orthodox."

There followed an outpouring of umbrage in some circles, some of it blithely dismissive of the respected rabbis' words (the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, or JOFA, rejected the rabbinic statement as a "political move"), some of it purporting to take scholarly issue with the sages' judgment and halachic reasoning.

Halachic decision-making, though, isn't a do-it-yourself project. What might seem to someone of limited experience or insight to be entirely in accordance with the prescribed roles of Jewish men and of women or the laws of modesty, might be judged otherwise by someone with a deeper and broader view. And those to whom we are to look for judgment in religious matters are the recognized religious leaders of each generation, whom the Torah itself, in Deuteronomy 17, 9-11 directs us to heed.

A woman serving as a rabbi in the Reform or Conservative Jewish spheres, of course, is wholly unremarkable. In the Orthodox world, though, gender roles are more fixed; that is what JOFA and some of its supporters would like to change, and for which they claim ample halachic justification. There was, though, ample halachic justification too, at least in some eyes, for innovations put forth by the Conservative movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Mixed-sex seating in synagogues and driving to synagogue on the Sabbath were deemed permissible then - and all the requisite "halachic" citations and responsa were duly proffered. To many, it all seemed reasonable and proper. The elders of the Orthodox Jewish community, though, saw it differently, and they were right.

Proponents of woman rabbis in Orthodox congregations may be sincerely convinced of the propriety of their approach. But opposing the considered consensus of the community's recognized Torah leaders is the antithesis of fealty to halacha, and, simply put, takes one to a place outside Orthodoxy.

A session at JOFA's recent conference was portentous. Entitled "A Rabbi by Any Other name…," it aimed to explore whether or not "the glass ceiling [has] truly been shattered" and "what… the future hold[s] for women in Orthodox communal leadership positions."

One of the featured presenters at that session was the female spiritual leader of a Manhattan congregation called Kehillat Orach Eliezer ("KOE"). Her participation naturally led participants and observers to assume that the congregation is Orthodox. And, in fact, in 2002, the New York Jewish Week identified it explicitly as such. That same paper's report on the recent conference implied the same, beginning with her name and quoting her about how "the Orthodox community needs men and women" in positions of leadership.

Oddly, though, the word Orthodox does not appear on KOE's website; nor does the congregation belong to any Orthodox umbrella congregational body - neither Agudath Israel, nor the National Council of Young Israel, nor the Orthodox Union. It has no ties to any major or minor Chassidic group. It claims to be "halachic" but so, of course, did (and, somehow, still does) the Conservative movement.

The Jewish Week claims that its "first loyalty is to the truth"; and JOFA puts its O before its F. Why then are they presenting an apparently nondenominational congregation as Orthodox?

Might it be because they want to make it seem as if women rabbis are already accepted in Orthodox synagogues? If so, they are wrong.

Intriguing - and telling - is the identity of the Eliezer in whose honor Kehillat Orach Eliezer is named. That would be Dr. Louis (Eliezer) Finkelstein. Yes, that Dr. Louis Finkelstein, the late Conservative movement leader.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

This year, the yahrtzeit of Rebbetzin Zahava Braunstein, the 25th day of Adar, fell out in the thick of the recent brouhaha over an Orthodox rabbi's conferring of a rabbinical title on a woman.

For anyone who knew Rebbetzin Braunstein, or even of her, the coincidence carries a lesson.

Mrs. Braunstein was a "rebbetzin" because she married a respected rabbi. Had she been married to a layman, though, and known simply as a "Mrs.", she would have been no less a gift to the Jewish people, no less influential, no less a Jewish educator, no less a Jewish leader. It was not her title that garnered her the reverence of thousands of women of all ages around the world. It was, rather, her words, her care, her deeds, her teaching, her guidance - and her example.

She left the world in only her sixty-first year but she touched more lives, taught more Torah, inspired more people than most people granted decades more of life. She served as principal of a Sefardic girls high school in Brooklyn - her reputation spanned many boundaries - lectured extensively to varied groups of girls and women on theological, practical and halachic issues; and counseled and inspired countless others. And when she was taken, some of the most respected rabbinical personages in New York eulogized her.

I only met her twice, both times when she brought groups of students to Agudath Israel's offices to hear a presentation. I knew at the time that she was the sister of my dear friend and colleague Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, today Agudath Israel's executive vice president. But had I known just who she herself was I'm not sure I would have felt comfortable speaking in the presence of someone so accomplished.

Rebbetzin Braunstein's achievements were not the product of some struggle to be perceived as a Jewish leader, or of a struggle to be perceived at all. She was a noble Jewish woman who understood well what the Jewish ideal of modesty entailed, not just in dress and conduct but in life. She simply learned at a young age that she had talents that could be turned to good, to spread Jewish values and Jewish knowledge; and so she felt the obligation to use them. But she didn't revel in the renown or the respect she earned. In fact, she preferred the title "Mrs." to "Rebbetzin." She would sometimes say that if everyone in the next world was given an hour to return to this one, some would surely use the hour to study Torah or perform a particular mitzvah or recite Psalms. She, though? She would head straight for the kitchen to make a hearty soup for her children and grandchildren.

Not an image that would sit well, I imagine, with those who aspire to titles like "Maharat" or "Rabba", the natty neologisms being chanted these days by some. The contrast between those chanters' ideals and Rebbetzin Braunstein's example is stark.

At a recent conference of a group called the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, the woman on whom a rabbinic title was conferred spoke of the "fight to confirm women as spiritual leaders"; called women Orthodox clergy a "dream" to be "vocalized"; insisted that Jewish institutions "must train women" for the role; and implied that Orthodox women currently lack "a voice in shaping and contributing to our community as spiritual leaders."

Tell that to the thousands who were ably taught and guided by Zahava Braunstein. Or the many thousands more who have received, and continue to receive, no less instruction and guidance from hundreds of other Orthodox women teachers, Rebbetzins and Mrs.'s across the country and around the world.

There are many reasons why every recognized decisor of Jewish law across the Orthodox spectrum has rejected the concept of a woman rabbi. Among the reasons are objections based on particular technical requirements of a rabbinic role; others are based on those decisors' judgment of what is sociologically proper in Judaism - a judgment of no less halachic import to a truly observant Jew. But what became apparent to me, listening to the presentation and reading reports of the JOFA conference, is that, beyond all those valid concerns, the entire enterprise is misguided in its essence.

Because the motivation of those brandishing the cause of women rabbis - notwithstanding all the high-sounding rhetoric about filling a need and benefiting the community- seems clearly to be the shattering of a perceived "glass ceiling," an "advancement" of "women's rights," an end to "discrimination."

The rabbah-rousers do apparently seek to serve - but their master seems to be feminism, not Judaism.

The Talmud (Ketuvot 67b) tells of a great scholar, Mar Ukva, who discovered to his dismay that, in the pursuit of a charitable enterprise, his wife had merited a miracle that had not been granted him.

The wise woman explained to her rabbi husband: "I'm in the house so much more than you, so I have many more opportunities than you to be charitable toward the poor who come to our doorstep. And the food and drink I give them can be enjoyed immediately, unlike the money you give [to the poor collecting alms]. And so, with regard to charity, my merit is greater than yours."

Mrs. Ukva understood something most of us - men and women alike - don't always sufficiently appreciate, that what counts over our years on this earth is not the prominence we acquire but the merit we achieve; not our particular roles but what we do with them.

That what matters in the end are not the honorifics we sport but the honor we earn.

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

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