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Archives Of Previous Articles IXX


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Who knows four?"

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

Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above essay was distributed in 2003]

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Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel

An editorialist in the Jerusalem Post was greatly exercised by the fact that Orthodox rabbinic leaders, including most notably Agudath Israel of America's Council of Torah Sages (Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah), have gone on record stating what is and is not acceptable for Orthodox congregations ("Women's rabbinical rights", 1/03/10).

So exercised, in fact, that the editorialist saw fit to distort the words of the rabbinic sages in an effort to score debating points.

The distortion begins with the editorial's very first word: "'Assertive' Orthodox women are making some men very nervous." The placement of quotation marks around the word "assertive" is designed to imply that the pejorative is taken from the mouths (or pens) of the "nervous" rabbis themselves - when in fact it is the invention of the editorialist.

In the scientific world, one invention often leads to another. So too, apparently, in the editorial world. The second sentence of the editorial informs readers that the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah "has excommunicated the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale…for recognizing Sara Hurwitz…as a rabbi." In fact, the rabbinic sages excommunicated no one and no thing. Stories of excommunication may make for interesting reading, but at least in this case it is absolute fiction.

What the Council of Torah Sages did say is that placing a woman in a rabbinic position is outside the bounds of Jewish Orthodoxy. The Council's members, deeply respected senior rabbis and heads of American yeshivot, felt it important to make clear that Rabbi Avi Weiss' conferral of rabbinical status on a woman, and her assumption of certain traditional rabbinic functions at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, represent a "radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition," and that "any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox." A strong position, to be sure - as befitting the gravity of the issue - but a far cry from excommunication.

The editorial then proceeds from distortion to armchair analysis with its assertion that fear of "challenge to their hegemony" motivated the rabbinic sages.

"The male-dominated rabbinic establishment seems to have a visceral (Freudian?) fear," the editorial explains, "that female clergy will outperform them on the pulpit." The rabbis' rejection of the ordaining of women is further motivated, says the editorial, by their chauvinistic conviction that women should be relegated to their traditional roles of "cooking, cleaning and rearing children." One can only marvel at the editorialist's psychoanalytic prowess.

It is worth recalling, though, that the Torah itself establishes Judaism as a deeply role-based faith. There is a role for a Cohein, a role for a Levi, roles for men and roles for women. Contemporary feminism insists that women fill every conceivable role traditionally filled by men. And many are the Jews who have stumbled over one another in a rush to jump on that bandwagon. But from an Orthodox perspective, the Torah's truths, including the role-assignments so deeply embedded in our tradition, transcend contemporary notions, today as in the past.

That Jews faithful to their religious tradition reserve the role of rabbi for men is no insult to women. What truly insult women are insinuations, like the editorialist's, that the traditional roles of wives and mothers - including "raising children" - are somehow demeaning.

Anyone interested not in reacting to the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah's statement from a preconceived stance but in actually understanding it would do well to focus on what it said. To wit: that creating a rabbinic role for women is a radical departure from the Jewish mesorah, or religious tradition.

Now, to be sure, many in our anchorless world would react with a shrug and a "so what?". But a refusal to jettison any part of the Jewish religious tradition is precisely what defines Orthodoxy. Yes, changes can occur, and have occurred, in normative Orthodox practice. But such changes are rare, and they are instituted only after the deepest deliberations of the greatest Torah leaders of a generation, not as fiats motivated by the Zeitgeist.

And so there should be nothing shocking about recognized rabbinic leaders rejecting a proposed radical change in Jewish tradition. The rejection is born not of fear but of fealty - to the tradition that is the heritage of all Jews.

The above essay was published in the Jerusalem Post, which has kindly offered permission for its republication with the appropriate credit.

[Rabbi Zwiebel is executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America.]

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

It wasn't the most exciting or terrifying tale of the war years I had ever heard, or the saddest or the most shocking. But somehow it was the most moving one.

The man who recounted it had spent the war years, his teenage years, in the chilling vastness of the Siberian taiga. He and his Polish yeshiva colleagues were guests of the Soviet authorities for their reluctance to assume Russian citizenship after they fled their country at the start of the Nazi onslaught.

He had already spoken of unimaginable, surreal episodes, fleeing his Polish shtetl with the German advance in 1939, of watching as his uncle was caught trying to escape a roundup of Jews and shot on the spot, of being packed with his Jewish townsfolk into a shul which was then set afire, of their miraculous deliverance, of the long treks, of the wandering refugees' dedication to the Torah's commandments. And then he told the story.

We were loaded onto rail cattle-wagons, nine of us, taken to Novosibirsk, and from there transported by barge to Parabek, where we were assigned to a kolchoz, or collective farm.

I remember that our first winter was our hardest, as we did not have the proper clothing for the severe climate.

Most of us had to fell trees in the forest. I was the youngest and was assigned to a farm a few miles from our kolchoz. The nights were terribly cold, the temperature often dropping to forty degrees below zero, through I had a small stove by which I kept a little warm. The chief of the kolchoz would make surprise checks on me to see if I had fallen asleep, and I would recite Psalms to stay awake.

One night I couldn't shake the chills and I realized that I had a high fever. I managed to hitch my horse and sled together and set off for the kolchoz. Not far from the farm, though, I fell from the sled into the deep snow and the horse continued on without me. I tried to shout to the animal to stop, to no avail. I remember crying and saying Psalms for I knew that remaining where I was, or trying to walk to the kolchoz, would mean certain death from exposure. I forced myself to get up and, with what little strength I had left, began running after the horse and sled.

Suddenly, the horse halted. I ran even faster, reached the sled and collapsed on it.

Looking up at the starry sky, I prayed with all my diminishing might to G-d to enable me to reach the relative safety of the kolchoz. He answered me and I reached my Siberian home, though I was shaking uncontrollably from my fever; no number of blankets could warm me. The next day, in a daze, I was transported to Parabek, where there was a hospital.

My first two days in the hospital are a blur, but on the third my fever broke and I started to feel a little better. Then suddenly, as I lay in my bed, I saw a fellow yeshiva boy from the kolchoz, Herschel Tishivitzer, before me, half frozen and staring, incredulous, at me. His feet were wrapped in layers and layers of rags - the best one could manage to try to cope with the Arctic cold, without proper boots. I couldn't believe my eyes - Herschel had actually walked the frigid miles from the kolchoz!

"Herschel," I cried, "what are you doing here?"

I'll never forget his answer.

"Yesterday," he said, "someone came from Parabek, and told us 'Simcha umar,' that Simcha had died. And so I volunteered to bury you."

The narrator paused to collect himself, and the reflected on his memory:

The dedication to another Jew, the dedication… Had the rumor been true there was no way he could have helped me. He had immediately made the perilous journey - just to see to my funeral! The dedication to another Jew …such an example!…

As a shiver subsided and the story sank in, I wondered: Would I have even considered such a journey, felt such a responsibility to a fellow Jew? In such a place, at such a time? Or would I have justified inaction with the ample justification available? Would I have been able to maintain even my humanity in the face of so doubtful a future, not to mention my faith in G-d, my very Jewishness…?

A wholly unremarkable story in a way, I realize. None of the violence, the tragedy, the horrors, the evil of so many tales of the war years. Just a short conversation, really. Yet I found so valuable a lesson in the story of Herschel Tishivitzer's selflesness, unhesitating concern for little Simcha Ruzhaner, as the narrator had been called in those days: what it means to be part of a holy people.

The narrator concluded his story, describing how Hershel Tishivitzer, thank G-d, had eventually made his way to America and settled in New York under his family name, Nudel. And how he, the narrator himself, had ended up in Baltimore, where he married the virtuous daughter of a respected Jewish scholar, Rabbi Noach Kahn. And how he himself had became a rabbi (changing many lives for the better, I know, though he didn't say so) and how he and his rebbetzin had raised their children in their Jewish religious heritage, children who were continuing to frustrate the enemies of the Jewish people by raising strong Jewish families of their own.

And I wondered - actually, I still do - if the slice of Simcha Ruzhaner's life had so affected me only because of its radiant, blindingly beautiful message - or if perhaps some part was played by the fact that he too, had taken on a shortened form of his family name, Shafranowitz, and had named his second child Avrohom Yitzchok, although everyone just calls me Avi.

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

This essay was distributed in 2006.

Rabbi Simcha Shafran's memoir "Fire, Ice, Air" has just been published by Hashgacha Press -]

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The rubble doesn't stir; things are very quiet. But a faint tapping emerges from somewhere below. You shout "Can you hear me?" and more tapping ensues.

You have an idea. "If you can understand me," you yell, "tap once." A single tap. "If you're injured," you then say, "tap twice." Two taps. There's someone there.

The scene conjures the aftermath of a natural disaster like January's earthquake in Haiti. But it could also stand as a compelling metaphor for the discovery of a human being struggling to be heard though the rubble of a body that is just too hard to move.

A group of European scientists has employed a high-tech means of, in effect, hearing the tapping of a mind trapped in an unresponsive body. Four patients diagnosed as vegetative and assumed to be unconscious were demonstrated to in fact be aware, despite their inability to move or signal their awareness by moving in any way, even just blinking.

The discovery was the result of the creative use of something called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which shows cellular activity across brain regions. What it demonstrated was that the patients were hearing and thinking. And that they could communicate.

The researchers' discovery utilized the fact that when a person is thinking about active movement, cells in one area of the brain become active; when he visualizes navigating a familiar area, a different area shows cellular activity. The researchers asked the physically unresponsive patients first to imagine swinging a tennis racket and then to imagine moving through the rooms of their houses. The fMRI scan showed activity in the respective, separate areas of the brain with each thought.

That was impressive in its own right. But then the researchers posed a series of factual yes-or-no questions to each patient, like whether he had a parent or sibling with a certain name, and instructed the patient to respond "yes" by imagining playing tennis and "no" by imagining walking through his home. Each patient was instructed to concentrate on the "yes" or "no" thought-activities for a full 30 seconds, well beyond the range of any random brain activity artifact, and they were able to respond accurately.

The results were striking. The answers provided by the four patients, who were part of a tested group of 54, were all correct, demonstrating that consciousness can reside in a body seemingly severed from the world. Before fMRI, such an assertion could have been no more than a statement of faith. Now it is fact. Left for us to speculate is whether some even more sensitive future technology might one day reveal consciousness even in patients whose brains cannot generate signals detectable by current methods.

No one knows what degree of consciousness persists in a body unable to move. But now we know that some degree can persist in some such bodies, belonging to people many would previously have thought of as something less than people.

Some still aren't convinced they are, in fact, still people. In an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Allan H. Ropper, a neurologist, warned against, in the New York Times' words, "equating neural activity [like that seen in the brain scans of the four patients] with [human] identity." He asserted that "Physicians and society are not ready for 'I have brain activation, therefore I am.' That would seriously put Descartes before the horse." Quite the punster, that Dr. Ropper; but the issue is most serious.

Writing in Great Britain's The Guardian, University of Glasgow Professor of Law and Ethics Sheila McLean doesn't treat "brain activation" as casually as Dr. Ropper. On the contrary, she assumes that patients like those who communicated their answers to the European scientists are in fact thinking. Nonetheless, she asks whether "if recovery truly is impossible, is it compassionate to keep people alive in this condition?"

"Frankly," she asserts, "the only thing worse than being in a vegetative state must be being in one, but being aware."

Perhaps. But then again, perhaps not. Professor McLean is too quick to discount the value of even such a physically imprisoned life. Is only our movement meaningful?

Men and women in extremis often find themselves facing the question of life's meaning. Not all of us at the end of our life-journeys will experience epiphanies, but all of us have the potential to be so blessed. And many of us, even if immobile, physically unresponsive and without reasonable hope of recovery, might still engage most important matters - things like forgiveness, repentance, acceptance, commitment, love, G-d - perhaps the most momentous matters we will ever have considered over the course of our lives. Are such vital encounters worth less than running and jumping? Is ending a life of pure contemplation less objectionable that ending one that includes physical activity?

And, as Professor McLean notes, "the consequence of a diagnosis of permanent vegetative state is that it can be lawful to withdraw assisted nutrition and hydration" - resulting, of course, in the patient's death.

Back to the aftermath of the natural disaster. What would we think of someone who looks down at the immobile rubble, hears some faint tapping… and just walks away?

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The mood was somber in the downtown Manhattan offices of Agudath Israel of America, where I work, as 6:00 PM loomed large this past Tuesday, February 16. That was the time designated for Martin Grossman's execution.

Mr. Grossman, a 45-year-old Jewish man, had been convicted of killing Margaret Park, a Florida Wildlife Officer, in 1984, when he was 19 years old, and was sentenced to death. Agudath Israel and other organizations representing the full spectrum of American Orthodox Jewry - as well as many other groups - appealed to Florida Governor Charlie Crist to spare Grossman's life and allow him to serve a life sentence instead.

While acknowledging the horror of Grossman's crime and expressing their deepest sympathy for the family of his victim, the advocates stressed that the murder had been an act of panic, not planning; that Grossman's low IQ and impaired mental state were not given proper recognition in his death sentence; and that Grossman had not only conducted himself as a model prisoner since his incarceration some 25 years ago but showed profound remorse and regret for his actions.

As the appointed hour grew closer, some Agudath Israel staff members quietly recited Psalms. Others just waited, hopefully, for news that the execution had been cancelled or postponed. Agudath Israel's executive vice-president, Rabbi David Zwiebel, was on the phone with the Rosh Agudath Israel, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, who had called to offer his encouragement and appreciation for all that Agudath Israel had done to try to prevent the execution.

Indeed, in the week or two prior to the execution, much energy was invested in the campaign to spare Martin Grossman's life. Constituents were mobilized to telephone, fax and e-mail Florida Governor Crist to ask him to commute Grossman's sentence to life in prison. Religious leaders, government officials and prominent businessmen from outside the Jewish community were enlisted in the effort as well.

Unfortunately, to no avail. Mr. Grossman was executed as scheduled.

Governor Crist said that his office had received nearly 50,000 e-mails, phone calls and letters urging him to commute the death sentence. But, he said, he had "reached the conclusion that justice must be done."

Some people, even within the Jewish, even the Orthodox, community, are upset that Agudath Israel and others had made efforts to save Mr. Grossman's life. Some of the objectors simply feel that someone who killed another person, no matter the circumstances, should himself be killed. Others worry about how it would look to the larger world that Orthodox Jews were "defending" a death-row inmate.

In a Gannett newspaper in Florida, the Ft. Myers News-Press, columnist Paul Fleming indeed waxed cynical about the Orthodox groups' efforts. "These folks," he wrote, "are welcome to fight against Grossman's execution for whatever reasons they choose."

"However," he continued, "when the next death warrant is signed and the next of Florida's 394 death-row inmates is scheduled for execution, I expect… those who oppose Grossman's sentence to once again… ask the governor for a stay. We'll see."

New York Jewish Week columnist Adam Dickter blogged: "It didn't much matter to Peggy Park that she was killed by someone who had a bar mitzvah. Why does it matter to Agudah?"

What Mr. Fleming and Mr. Dickter don't fully appreciate, though, is that there is nothing for a Jew to be ashamed of in seeking to aid another Jew (bar-mitzvahed or not). To a believing Jew, every other Jew, no matter how ignorant or personally unobservant, is a relative - a member of Klal Yisrael, the Jewish Family. And when a family member is in danger, even the critics surely realize, one goes to special lengths.

Ahavas Yisrael, the love each member of the Jewish people is to have for all other Jews, is not only a halachic mandate, it is a tangible reality among observant Jews. Among the tragedies inherent in the relinquishing of the Jewish religious tradition within so much of the Jewish community is the decay of the very concept of Jewish Peoplehood. Lip service is readily paid to the phrase. But for any Jew whose heart is imbued with what it means, there can be only one reaction to the impending death of a fellow Jew: anguish. And a determination to attempt, no matter how futile it might seem, to stave it off. If love isn't compelling in such circumstances, it has little hope to be manifest in daily life.

After the Jewish groups issued their call to try to save Mr. Grossman's life, messages from caring individuals streamed into our offices. Jews from across the community were asking for contact information for the Florida governor and wanted to know what else they could possibly do to help save Mr. Grossman. They knew nothing about him beyond the fact that he had committed a terrible crime and was facing execution. And that he was Jewish, a brother.

News reports described Mr. Grossman's last moments and words. "I would like to extend my heartfelt remorse to the family of Peggy Park," he said. "I fully regret everything that happened that night… whether I remember everything or not. I accept responsibility."

And then he recited the first verse of the Shma: "Hear, O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is one."

A witness to the execution reported further that Mr. Grossman added two words before the lethal injection was administered.

I shuddered when I read them: "Ahavas Yisrael."

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

When I was a teenager, a long, long time ago, I felt self-conscious about praying in public places like airports. On at least one occasion I entered a phone booth (remember those?) while awaiting a flight, closed the door (yes, they had doors) and spoke to the Creator of the universe through the telephone mouthpiece. (In its own strange way, it enhanced the experience.)

But it didn't take long for me to realize that praying was nothing of which to be ashamed. And in subsequent years, when there was no other option, I performed my share of religious devotions, even with tallit and tefillin, in an assortment of public places. When on a plane, though - and this has been my practice since well before 2001 - I engage my seatmate in some conversation first, to try to establish my normalcy credentials, and then explain what I am about to do.

Caleb Leibowitz, the young man whose tefillin-donning inadvertently caused the diversion of a flight from New York to Louisville, Kentucky a few weeks ago, acted in a similar responsible way. Seated nearby was his sister; presumably she knew what he was doing. And, according to the boy's father, quoted in the January 25 daily Hamodia, when a flight attendant inquired about the leather straps and the small boxes on the boy's arm and head, he politely explained to her that it was a religious ritual.

Some have sought to blame the attendant for then reporting the still-suspicious-to-her goings-on to the captain. But while most experienced attendants have probably seen tefillin, there are surely neophytes who haven't, and she may well have been one of them. (Agudath Israel of America has tried to sensitize the Transportation Security Administration to the religious practices of Orthodox Jews, and has reached out to airlines as well, offering a brochure explaining Orthodox laws and customs.)

In any event, security protocol apparently required the pilot to land the plane at the next available airport, in this case, Philadelphia, and the rest was history - or, at least, a few days of grist for news organizations, which posted the story of the suspect tefillin before the plane had even landed.

(There was considerable amusement value in some news reports too. A Philadelphia law enforcement official soberly informed television viewers how the "devices" worn by Mr. Leibowitz were called "olfactories.")

Although the halachic parameters of what constitutes Kiddush Hashem, or "sanctification of G-d's name," are complex, the term is colloquially used to mean a Jew's act that impresses others and generates positive feelings. That is not to say, though, that any act resulting in such feelings is a Kiddush Hashem - or, conversely, that an act resulting in negative feelings in others cannot be proper, and even a Kiddush Hashem.

For an example of the latter, we need look no further than a few weeks hence, when the Book of Esther will be publicly read on Purim. It describes how Mordechai refused to bow to Haman. The Midrash explains that the Purim villain wore an idol around his neck, the reason for Mordechai's refusal. Many Jews at the time were disapproving of Mordechai's decision - after all, they argued, it will only stoke Haman's hatred and render all Jews even more vulnerable! Nevertheless, it was the right decision, whether or not it was a popular one. Haman's hatred was indeed stoked, but in the end it led to his downfall.

Caleb Leibowitz did something right, too, on the plane that morning. He donned tefillin with pride and explained politely what he was doing. And most people recognized that Mr. Leibowitz was a shining example of an observant Jew, an example only reiterated when law enforcement personnel described him as "completely cooperative" throughout. And if his tefillin-donning frightened a flight attendant or bothered others, or if the image of a young Jewish man kneeling on a tarmac in handcuffs brought anyone to think of Mr. Leibowitz as some wrongdoer, that's unfortunate. But no amount of misguided disapproval can change the fact that G-d's name was sanctified by his performance of a mitzvah.

It was a Kiddush Hashem with ramifications, too, a gift that kept on giving. As the New York Jewish Week reported recently, an annual program among the Conservative movement's Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs that encouraged members to don tefillin experienced a huge surge of interest in the wake of the phylactery fiasco. A movement spokesperson noted that the international "World Wide Wrap" event "had 5000 participants the first years and the number has been consistent ever since."

This year, though, he added, nearly 9000 men had pledged their participation.

May Caleb's gift continue to give.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

An abrupt shift takes place in synagogues around this time of year in synagogues all over the world.

Over the previous 17 weeks, since the public reading of the Torah was begun anew after the holiday of Sukkot, the readings were narrative in nature, beginning with the worlds creation, continuing with elements of the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, then the account of Josephs life, the sojourn in Egypt, the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai.

Beginning with the portion called Mishpatim, though, the Torahs focus is largely on technicalities of civil and ritual laws. Then, in subsequent weeks, laws pertaining to the minutiae of the Tabernacles construction, its many vessels and the special garments worn by Cohanim during sacrificial services will be read. The sudden transition from miraculous to mundane is striking.

Every word of the Torah, though, is as important as every other; a missing letter, whether in the account of the revelation at Sinai or in the rules governing property damage, renders a Torah scroll invalid.

Likewise, every seemingly pedestrian law or occurrence in the Torah is ultimately as imbued with holiness as the most astounding miracle recounted. The dimensions of the Tabernacles outer perimeter and the description of the manna that fell from heaven are, in the end, of equal import.

A similar false dichotomy inhabits our individual lives. We tend to readily perceive the divine in certain places, circumstances and events in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, after an escape from danger, at the birth of a child. The challenge lies in recognizing that every place in which we find ourselves is special; every situation we face, divinely ordained; every moment, in its own way, a miracle.

I'm no fan of the contemporary wonder-stories so many find inspiring. Even the modern-day miracle-accounts that don't turn out to have been embellished (or fabricated entirely) leave me unmoved. In fact my favorite story, told to me by one of my daughters (who heard it from a friend) concerns a woman who had to catch a plane to make it to an interview for a job in another city. She left plenty of time to get to the airport and had her boarding pass, but found herself stuck in traffic as the departure time approached. Arriving in barely enough time to park her car, she ran to the terminal, found the gate and then watched in dismay as the plane pushed away from its dock just as she arrived.

After discovering that there were no other flights that would get her to her interview on time, she headed home. Several hours later, the plane on which she was to have flown began its descent to its destination, the woman's reserved seat empty.

The plane touched down, safely and on time. The passengers disembarked.

End of story.

Moral: The woman never came to know why she lost her chance at the job. Nobody did. But, all the same, there was a reason.

The Torahs segue from miraculous narratives to quotidian concerns takes public place during the weeks leading to the holiday of Purim. The Talmud says that the Jew's acceptance and embrace of the Torah at Sinai included an element of coercion and thus lacked something that was only supplied centuries later, at the time of the events recounted in the Book of Esther. The coercion may well include the overwhelming nature of the encounter itself. How could anyone present at Sinai possibly have resisted accepting the Torah? G-d revealed Himself then like at no other time in history. In the time of Esther, by contrast, there was no overt manifestation at all of divine intervention (nor is there any mention of G-d in the Book of Esther).

To see G-d where He is most patently evident is one thing. To discern His presence in what seems mundane is entirely another. And the latter, more meaningful, perception is what the Jews managed to attain in the time of Esther. They turned in supplication to Him in their time of crisis and, after their salvation, they recognized that the turn of events, so easily dismissible as mere chance, had been divinely guided throughout. And they established the holiday of Purim to eternalize that recognition.

Purim the word, of course, means lots, referring to the agents of chance Haman employed to choose a date for the destruction of the Jewish community. Purim the holiday celebrates the fact that chance, as it is usually understood, is in fact an illusion, that what seems to be randomness is but a subtle manifestation of divine purpose that everything in our history and in our lives is, in the end, guided by an unseen but all-encompassing hand.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

It was hardly the first or only time, but one night not long ago I learned something important from my wife.

We were driving home from a wedding in another city, both of us sneezing and coughing from the bad cold we shared. As I drove, she checked for messages on her phone, which had been turned off during the wedding. One message was from one our married daughters, who lives with her husband and family in a different part of the country. Could she call back, I heard our daughter ask, when she had a chance?

Well, the chance was right there; and so my wife returned the call, on speaker phone so I could participate. She reached our daughter's voicemail (of course) and left a message. I expected to hear the phone snap shut then but instead heard the Ms. Monotone phone-voice offer options, one of which was "to review your message, press…" My wife did. More options, one of which was to delete and re-record her message. She chose that too.

Her new message to our daughter consisted of precisely the same words as her previous one, but it was entirely different. The first one, understandably, carried with it all the misery of a bad cold - my wife sounded exhausted, and sniffles and an occasional cough accompanied her words. When she recorded her second take, though, she somehow managed to muster the energy to sound healthy, even cheery. I admit taking my eyes off the road for a second to make sure the same person was still sitting to my right.

My first thought, after marveling at the feat of great acting I had witnessed (who knew?), was to lament how few are the opportunities for second takes in daily life. The words that leave our mouths aren't subject to editing, and so much that is unfortunate results from our neglecting to do mental edits before we set our tongues and lips to moving.

The second thing that came to mind was a snippet of a Mishneh in Avot (1:15), a statement by the Tannaic sage Shammai: "Receive every person with a smiling face."

People think of gifts mostly as physical things. But the Talmudic tractate Avot D'Rabi Natan (end of chapter 13) characterizes a beaming face as the equivalent of all the most wonderful gifts in the world.

Over the telephone, of course, a smile can't be seen; but it can be heard. It's hard, if possible at all, to sound happy without bringing one's facial muscles into the configuration we call a smile. Forlorn as my wife felt in the car that night, she somehow managed it.

I didn't know it at the time, but I later discovered that a Chassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchok of Vorke, commented on the Mishneh's phrase for a smiling face, which technically, if strangely, translates as "a thinking, nice face." "Thinking?"

Said Rabbi Yitzchok: Even if you aren't able to feel happy, what is important is that you make the person you are greeting think that you are. Our smiles, in other words, are not for us but for others.

My wife had apparently intuited that, and took advantage of the rare gem of a second take.

But what she also taught me with her choice that night was a new facet of the phrase "every person" in Shammai's dictum. Its simplest meaning, of course, is that we are to show good cheer not only to respected or accomplished people but also (perhaps especially) to average folk. What my wife's act inspired me to consider with her "take two" was that the phrase might also mean to warn us away from thinking that our smiles aren't equally vital to those closest to us.

It's not an obvious thought. We feel comfortable with our siblings, our spouses, our children, our parents; and we know we can be more natural with them. That can sometimes mean showing something less than a shining countenance. "Every person," though, says Shammai, deserves to be "received with a smiling face."

Even a daughter, even at a distance of hundreds of miles, and even if the smile is holding back a sneeze.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The lives of dedicated Israel-bashers, especially those who hate the Jewish State because it's no longer acceptable to just hate Jews, can't be easy. The glaring contrasts between Israeli and Palestinian behavior have to make it hard to keep up the "Israel is the problem" chant, in the hope the weed-words find places to grow.

Recent events are illustrative. When a mosque in a West Bank village was torched at the end of the year, allegedly at the hand of an Israeli settler angered by his government's construction freeze, a delegation of Israelis from West Bank settlements brought copies of the Koran to residents of the village and expressed sorrow over the crime. Shortly thereafter, Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Rabbi Yona Metzger visited the village to express his "revulsion at this wretched act of burning a place holy to the Muslim people" and compared the arson to "how the Holocaust began."

Then, ten days later, a 45-year-old Israeli father of seven, Rabbi Meir Chai, was shot without provocation as he drove his vehicle on a public road. Although the group taking "credit" for the murder claimed affiliation with the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, a group connected to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party, the Palestinian leader did not extend condolences to the murdered man's family. He didn't care, for that matter, to disassociate Fatah from the murder.

What he did do, however, was immediately speak up when the Shin Bet, Israel's highly regarded security agency, identified Rabbi Chai's killers and killed three of them - one because intelligence information indicated he was armed, the other two because they refused to surrender. (A fourth suspect was taken into custody.) Mr. Abbas declared the three deceased militants "shahids," or holy martyrs, and sent Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to pay condolence visits to their families.

As my respected collegue Agudath Israel executive vice president Rabbi David Zwiebel recently wrote to Secretary of State Clinton, "There is something deeply wrong here."

Rabbi Zwiebel went on to point out that United States aid to the Palestinians is conditioned on, among other things, the Palestinian government's renouncing violence.

Prime Minister Abbas' silence at the murder of Rabbi Chai by a group claiming affiliation with the military arm of Fatah - not to mention his reaction to the killing of three of Rabbi Chai's murderers - would seem, Rabbi Zwiebel asserted, grounds for the United States to reconsider whether the Palestinian government satisfies this criterion.

Fatah funding aside, though, the stark contrast between Israelis' reaction to the burning of a mosque by a rogue vandal and the reaction of their adversaries - the "moderates," no less, among them - to a cold-blooded murder and to the deaths of the murderers should give pause to the "Israel is the problem" crowd.

It won't, though. Their mantra is fueled by blind hatred; it is impervious to all evidence and reason.

Objective observers of the Middle East, though, should think long and hard about what happened in the wake of the mosque burning, and in the wake of Rabbi Chai's murder.

And they might further take note of what the murdered rabbi's sixteen-year-old son Eliyahu had to say at his father's funeral. "Dad wanted to learn Torah and pray," he said through tears, "and if we want to perpetuate his memory, we need to do these things, not take revenge."

"Continue Abba's path," he cried out, "Abba wanted faith! Abba wanted Torah study! Abba wanted prayers!… If we want to immortalize Abba, then we have to do things like that - not external things. Not to look for revenge, not to beat up Arabs."

A few days later, the funeral for the rabbi's alleged murderers took place, attended by an assortment of Palestinian Authority officials. Speaker after speaker called for retaliation and promised to avenge the terrorists' deaths.

A statement from Aksa Martyrs Brigades promised the same. "The enemy," it read in part, "won't see anything from us besides the language of blood and fire."

Not all criticism of Israel, of course, is necessarily misguided, and not every decision made by her leaders is necessarily wise.

But, real or imagined errors of judgment notwithstanding, no, Israel is not the problem.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Neither facts nor logic have impeded champions of Nofrat Frenkel, the woman briefly detained by police at Jerusalem's Western Wall, or Kotel Ma'aravi, on November 18.

Needless to say, Ms. Frenkel's charge that she was unnecessarily manhandled by police should be responsibly investigated. Even a violator of the law has the right to be detained in a nonviolent manner. But that Ms. Frenkel violated the law, as per the Israeli Supreme Court's decision in 2003 to apportion a special area, at Robinson's Arch, for women to chant at feminist religious services, is not at issue.

Ms. Frenkel's detention was not spurred, as her champions (media and pundits dutifully trotting behind in step) have repeatedly proclaimed, by her having dared to wear a tallit, or Jewish prayer garment, at the site.

Indeed, by Ms. Frenkel's own account (Forward, November 24), she and 40-odd other "Women of the Wall" prayed as a group that morning in the main Kotel area wearing tallitot, without incident.

But the tallit-garbed women did not stop there. They sang the Psalms that comprise the song of praise Hallel "in full voice," as per the testimony of Ms. Frenkel's fellow activist Anat Hoffman (quoted on the Forward's "Sisterhood Blog" in a November 18 posting). Even then, though, recalls Ms. Hoffman, "there was no complaint whatsoever from anyone." (It is odd - well, not really - that the lack of any reaction by others even at that point went unnoted in the paper's news coverage, or that of other mainstream Jewish media.)

It was only what then transpired that motivated the police to accost the group. Ms. Frenkel had brought a Torah scroll hidden in a duffel bag to the site and removed it, according to her own account above, to publicly "read from the Torah opposite the stones of the Kotel." That brought others at the site to object ("We told them to butt out," recalls Ms. Hoffman), and the police to intervene.

Those who are unhappy with the Israeli Supreme Court's 2003 decision have the right to their unhappiness, and even to seek to have the court revisit the issue. But if they choose instead to intentionally flout the law, they should honestly acknowledge that they are courting prosecution through civil disobedience - not seek to portray themselves as innocent victims wondering what they might possibly have done wrong.

Facts notwithstanding, one of Ms. Frenkel's advocates, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., complained to Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren that "If a Jew had been arrested for wearing a prayer shawl in any other country… there would be outrage," and characterized the enforcement of the law at the Kotel as "religious persecution."

Turning the tallit into a red herring (David Copperfield, watch out!), the rabbi went on to lecture the Ambassador, quoting Maimonides about the permissibility of tallit-wearing by women (but somehow overlooking the sage's prohibition against women reading publicly from the Torah - Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefilla, 12:17), and charging that Ms. Frenkel "had been den[ied] the right to expressly follow the teachings of the Torah."

Not only are facts flexible in the religious progressives' circle; logic is uninvited. Do the Freedom Chanters really want to open the Kotel plaza to all religious expressions?

Would the Frenkel forces be pleased with Buddhist intonations and incense-burning at the Kotel? Catholic hymns and processions? Taoist drumbeating ceremonies? Surely the activists don't mean to limit their liberalmindedness to services conducted by Jews alone.

People of all faiths, after all, are welcome at the Kotel - as they should be. Out of respect, though, for the Jewish historical and spiritual connection to the place, public services there should respect a single standard of decorum. And that standard should be, as it has been, millennia-old Jewish religious tradition.

The Kotel is a holy place, and should not be made a battlefield by advocates for social or religious change. Men and women, whatever their backgrounds or beliefs, are welcome and unbothered by the traditionally religious Jews who most often frequent the site, seeking only to pray there as Jews always have prayed.

Ms. Frenkel and her friends are clearly committed to a cause. But promoting their particular view of feminism should not compel them to act in ways that they know will offend others, to seek to turn a holy place into a political arena.

Such "activism," unfortunately, actively hinders the coming of the Messiah, and the rebuilding of the Jewish people's true National Synagogue, the one that once stood just beyond the Western Wall.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Ironically, or maybe not, as one scientific establishment raises alarms about what it perceives to be dire threats to the planet, another is posing demonstrable threats to individual human lives.

The trove of e-mails written by climate scientists at East Anglia University in England that was made public last month seems to implicate some of those professionals as having sought to alter data and suppress evidence about global warming. The e-mails certainly show that scientists can be as spiteful, conniving and deceptive as anyone else. Global warming skeptics have seized upon the e-mails' revelations to promote their skepticism; whether it is warranted or not remains an open question.

But another idea, this one promoted by much of the medical establishment, presents a clear and present danger.

"Decisions are made every day in this country to withdraw and remove people from life support," says a doctor quoted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta in his book "Cheating Death," "without really giving them a chance." And, as was recently reported in the New York Times, "terminal sedation" - administering drugs to alleviate pain but thereby hastening death - has been embraced by many medical professionals. Life, quite literally, isn't what it used to be.

Then there are the patients who are in what is called a "vegetative state" - showing no responses to stimuli beyond muscle reflexes. In several highly publicized cases, some have awoken, even after many years, from their seeming obliviousness. Most, though, do not; and many are removed from life support and deprived of water and nutrition. But calculating percentages begs the larger question - whether such people are, whatever their physical limitations, in their "vegetative" states, in fact alive.

"Many doctors harbor a therapeutic nihilism about such patients," writes Dr. Ford Vox, a resident physician at Washington University in St. Louis, in the Washington Post, "but this research should give us good reason to keep our minds open."

The research to which he refers includes that of neuroscientist Dr. Adrian Owen of Cambridge, who analyzed the real-time brain activity of a young woman in a vegetative state five months after a car accident. Utilizing digital processing of EEG readings that reveal unique, reproducible signals, he reported in 2006 in Science that the patient, whose only visible response to the external world was occasionally fixating on an object, was able to follow complex commands with her mind, imagining playing tennis and walking through the rooms of her home. Owen found similarly remarkable results in at least three other patients.

There is, moreover, also a "minimally conscious state" (MCS), estimated to be ten times as prevalent as the more recognized vegetative one. And, Dr. Vox maintains, "about one-third of the time, 'vegetative' patients are minimally conscious or even better."

In November, 2008, using EEG readings, Dr. Steven Laureys, a neurologist at the University of Liege in Belgium demonstrated that some low-level MCS patients were able to follow basic instructions - counting familiar and unfamiliar names played randomly into headphones.

And, at the Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute, Dr. John Whyte is studying the seemingly paradoxical fact that the sedative Ambien apparently causes some vegetative patients to perk up to MCS or higher states.

All that should be sufficient to give pause to would-be plug-pullers. But a variety of factors - most notably, perhaps, the shortage of organs for transplantation - is pushing some physicians to call a life a life, even if it hasn't yet been fully lived.

Writing recently in the New York Times Magazine, Dr. Darshak Sanghavi, chief of pediatric cardiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, asserts that medical professionals "have handled [the] paradoxical situation" that an organ donor must be dead but the needed organ alive "by fashioning a category of people with beating hearts" to be regarded "as if they had rigor mortis."

Such "dead" people with pulses - sometimes brain-damaged but not necessarily meeting the criteria of "brain death" - who are assisted in their breathing by a machine are candidates for "donation after cardiac death" (DCD). Where that procedure is chosen, the patient's breathing tube is removed in an operating room. If breathing ceases naturally and the heart stops within an hour, five minutes are counted off. The interval is not based on any research; it was the best-guess decision of a panel of experts in 1997. If the heart does not resume beating by the five-minute buzzer, the patient is declared legally dead and his organs harvested - despite demonstrable brain activity.

Dr. Sanghavi reports further that, in 2004, Dr. Mark Boucek, a pediatric cardiologist at Denver Children's Hospital, decided to write a "far more aggressive DCD protocol," revising the five-minute rule down to three minutes. Then, when that didn't yield the desired results, he re- revised it to just over a minute.

"Doctors have created a new class of potential organ donors who are not dead but dying," writes Dr. Sanghavi. "By arbitrarily drawing a line between death and life - five minutes after the heart stops - they [doctors] have raised difficult ethical questions. Are they merely acknowledging death or hastening it in their zeal to save others' lives?" He leaves the question hanging in the air.

In the eyes of Judaism, every moment of human life, even compromised human life, is beyond value, and Jewish law forbids hastening a person's death to any degree. There is some controversy about whether halacha, or Jewish religious law, considers brain death to constitute death. But no halachic authority permits the withdrawal of life support from a patient whose brain is merely damaged.

The world's human population is indeed at a turning point. Because whether or not carbon emission-born catastrophe in fact looms, modern medicine's defining of death downward is clearly upon us.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Torah-portions publicly read in synagogues around the world over recent weeks have presented the life-narrative of the Jewish forefather Jacob (and that of his son Joseph, subsumed within it). Soon the portion will recount Jacob's death. Or his something.

For the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan (Tractate Ta'anit, 5b) asserted that Jacob never really died, an assertion that moved others present to call attention to the Torah's words and ask "Was it then for naught that the eulogizers eulogized him, the embalmers embalmed him and the gravediggers buried him?"

Seemingly unperturbed, Rabbi Yochanan responded by invoking a verse in Jeremiah, 30: "And you, fear not, my servant Jacob, says G-d, and tremble not, Israel. For behold I am your savior from afar and [that of] your descendants from their land of captivity." The verse, explained Rabbi Yochanan, juxtaposes Jacob with his descendants. And so, the sage concluded, "just as those descendants are alive, so, too, must he be."

Rabbi Yochanan's proof seems as unconvincing as his contention is bewildering. And yet, there are in fact a number of indications in Jewish tradition that Jacob's death was not his demise, his embalming and burial notwithstanding. For one thing, the Torah does not actually say that Jacob died, at least not with the usual word for death (vayamat), but rather uses an unusual and somewhat vague one instead (vayig'va).

What is more, the concept that Jewish tradition associates with the third of the forefathers (Abraham is associated with chessed, or kindness; and Isaac with din, or justice) is emet, or "truth". Maimonides, albeit in a different context (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 1:3-4), explains emet as meaning, in essence, "permanence". One might even, perhaps, perceive the idea in the very word itself, as a contraction of ei (in Aramaic, "not") and the word meit, or "dead". Thus again, Jacob seems associated with transcending death.

The most obvious approach to Jacob's "deathlessness" may well be the most meaningful.

Whereas Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rivka, bore children who proved unworthy of being parts of the Jewish people, only Jacob (with the matriarchs Rachel, Leah, Bilha and Zilpah) merited seeing all of his offspring become the progenitors of the nation.

Which fact is reflected in the new name given Jacob -Israel - the name of the Jewish nation qua nation.

Thus, in a very real way, Jacob never really died; he metamorphosed, rather, into Israel, into the Jewish people. Jacob the individual may have passed on, and was duly eulogized and buried. But the new identity he assumed before his death - his transmutation into Israel - lives on in his descendants.

The approach is well borne out by Rabbi Yochanan's exegesis. For the proof that Jacob remains alive lies in an implied comparison between the man and his progeny. It is thus much more than a comparison; it is an identification. Jacob is the Jewish people; and that is why he is deathless.

That Jacob would sire the first entirely Jewish family was heralded in his famous dream. There too, as in Jeremiah, Jacob is juxtaposed with his descendants. "To you shall I give [the Holy Land], and to your children." And: "All the families of the earth will be blessed through you, and through your children."

And then there is the stone on which he rested his head that night, and that he made a monument to the revelation he received. According to the Midrash, it had originally been many stones, which fused into one, a likely metaphor for the unity of family he would achieve, which had eluded the earlier Jewish forefathers. Rashi even comments elsewhere (Genesis, 49:24) that the Hebrew word for "stone" (even) itself is a contraction of the words for "father" (av) and "son" (ben).

Beginning with Jacob, simply being born into the Jewish people assures Jewish status. Sincere converts, of course, can always join the Jewish people, but from Jacob's time on, Jewishness is bestowed by genealogy (and at least once the Torah is given, matrilineally).

Which might make our forefather's dream-imagery particularly poignant, providing a tantalizing hint to Jacob's specialness as the father of exclusively "Israel" progeny. For he dreamed of a connection between heaven and earth - in the form of a sulam, or "ladder".

"Sulam" occurs only this once in the Torah, and its etymology is unclear. But an Arabic cognate of the word, according to linguists, refers to steps ascending a mountain. The easiest way to ascend a mountain is a spiral path. That fact, and the possibly related Aramaic word "mesalsel" - to twist into curls - might lead one to imagine Jacob's ladder as something akin to a spiral staircase.

It might be overreaching to even think the thought, but it's intriguing: Would not such a structure - a double helix - in Jacob's dream be fitting?

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

One hardly expects the British Broadcasting Corporation to present an objective or comprehensive picture when it addresses the Middle East. But a recent BBC radio documentary may set some sort of record for myopia.

The second installment of a series entitled "The Crescent and the Cross" aiming to examine "turning points in the relationship between Christianity and Islam" focuses on the Third Crusade.

Not long after the death of Islam's founder, in the early 7th century, Muslims captured parts of the holy land, including Jerusalem. But Jerusalem, the documentary text explains, "had great religious significance not only for Muslims but for Christians too." And thus were born the marches of death and destruction known as the Crusades. In 1099, Christian soldiers took the city.

At the end of the 12th century, after nearly a century of Christian rule, Jerusalem was re-conquered by Saladin, Sultan of Egypt. Pope Gregory VIII called for a Crusade - the third - to retake the city, and Richard I of England ("the Lionheart") captured much of the Holy Land but stopped short of asserting Christian rule over Jerusalem, negotiating a treaty with Saladin that allowed Christian pilgrims to enter the city. All of this is dutifully reviewed by the program.

The Crusades, of course, had great impact on Jewish communities as well. Thousands of Jews in communities along the Rhine and the Danube were massacred by participants in the first Crusade; and Jews fought and fell alongside Muslim defenders of Jerusalem when the Christians invaded. Unknown numbers of Jews were slaughtered in subsequent Crusades as well. But the documentary's concern, as per its title, is the Christian/Muslim nexus. Jewish victims of the era's wars, no matter their numbers or the hatred directed toward them, are regarded by the program as peripheral casualties.

What is remarkable, though, is that while the documentary amply describes the conflicting claims of Muslims and Christians to Jerusalem it somehow neglects to note that the original revered edifice that stood in Jerusalem - what initiated its veneration as a holy city - was the Jewish Temple. The BBC treats the Temple's site as if it came into being ex nihilo in the Byzantine Period.

The myopia morphs into truly monumental chutzpah with the documentary's droll observation that today "the Crusades are seen by many Muslims as evidence of unceasing Western aggression against their faith," and that since "it is the Jews who control most of Jerusalem… many Muslims see that as a continuation of the crusaderism."

The microphone is then offered to Dr. Mohsen Youssef of Birzeit University, who endorses that view and adds a prediction: "It took the Muslims 200 years to get rid of the crusaders; many Muslim people believe that they will defeat Israel in much less time than 200 years."

And so, an ignorant but attentive student of the BBC will conclude from the network's history lesson that Jerusalem is sacred to Christians and Muslims, and that adherents of the two faiths have fought over it for centuries. He will further be given to understand that the city has been usurped in our own day by Jewish newcomers who, understandably, are regarded by the Muslims who held it before 1967 as new crusaders.

What our novice historian won't have been taught is that the Jewish people, too, have an ancient connection to the Holy Land and the Holy City - in fact, an older and stronger one than anyone. Neither Christianity nor Islam, after all, even existed when the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem functioned for centuries as the focal point of the Jewish people. And over the centuries since, no Christian or Muslim ever prayed even once, much less thrice daily, that G-d "gather us to our land" and "return in mercy to Jerusalem Your city," or that "our eyes see Your return to Zion." No, only Jews have ever done that; only Jews, in fact, have been doing that without interruption for thousands of years.

The ugly icing on the rancid cake whipped up by the BBC consists of the sentiment conveyed by the sole Jewish speaker featured in the installment, a professor at Hebrew University.

Asked about the fact that Arabs identify contemporary Jews with the crusaders of the Middle Ages, his response provides the installment's final comment. "It is nonsense," he responds. "What is the relevance of what happened 800 years ago to the present?"

The professor thus dismisses history as bearing no pertinence to the present. He is, of course, astoundingly wrong, and is given the last word by the documentary not to promote his point of view but rather to expose his utter cluelessness. The BBC knows well that the import of the past on the present is both real and critical.

What it somehow misses, or chooses to ignore, is that history extends farther back than 800 years.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

A number of Jews, including Orthodox Jews, have been implicated in financial crimes over recent months.

Some of the scandals have proven somewhat less scandalous than when they first appeared on front pages and were seared into readers' minds.

Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, for instance, currently stands convicted of misleading a bank to secure a loan. Although that conviction, amazingly, could result in an effective life sentence, charges that Mr. Rubashkin knowingly hired illegal aliens were dropped; and more lurid accusations - that he mistreated employees, abused animals and ran a methamphetamine factory - are no longer heard.

In some other cases, accusations have been made but evidence has not yet been heard; and both Judaism and American law insist on a presumption of innocence.

But there have certainly been cases in the Jewish community where guilt has been well established. Bernie Madoff may never have been Jewishly observant, but the Orthodox community has certainly had its share of fraud convictions, if on smaller scales, as well.

Jewish crimes, imagined, alleged or proven, have been prominently featured in the media. But they were prominent too at Agudath Israel of America's recent 87th national convention. The opening plenary session, on November 26, was dedicated to the Jewish mandate of honesty in business and personal dealings. Two of the Orthodox world's most respected rabbinic figures - Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe and Agudath Israel's rabbinic head; and Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, the dean of students, or Mashgiach, of the famed Lakewood yeshiva - addressed the many hundreds who packed the large hall of the East Brunswick Hilton (with thousands more listening to a live broadcast of the proceedings or, later, on tapes and cd's). The speeches were pointed, pained and powerful, and their message came through clearly: Honesty is no less a Jewish imperative than any. In fact, in many ways it is a greater one.

There were, as it happened, two other speakers that evening, although they were not there, unfortunately, in person: Rabbi Shimon Schwab and Rabbi Avrohom Pam, may their memories be a blessing.

Video excerpts of addresses presented by those two revered figures years ago on the subject of business ethics were projected onto large screens before the crowd. As the men on the screen spoke there was utter silence.

Rabbi Schwab, who served as the spiritual leader of the Khal Adath Jeshurun Orthodox Jewish community in Washington Heights for nearly four decades, had addressed an Agudath Israel "Halacha Conference for Accountants" on January 24, 1989. In the excerpts of that speech broadcast at the recent convention, he minced no words about the wrongness of "cutting corners" when it came to honesty in business.

"Those who resort to… dishonesty," he said, "while they may have the outward appearance of G-d-fearing Jews, deep down they are irreligious" - and he loudly emphasized the "ir" of "irreligious." G-d provides us what He knows we need, Rabbi Schwab explained. To steal is to deny that fact, and any gains thereby ill-gotten are an inheritance bequeathed by evil.

He noted, further, that the dictionary has an entry for the word "Jew" as a verb, as in "to Jew" someone, i.e. to cheat him. How terrible a desecration of G-d's name, Rabbi Schwab bemoaned, that His people are viewed as defrauders. Even if the definition carries the smell of anti-Semitism, he explained, it is a desecration of G-d's name all the same.

"I live for the day," he mused, with a pining, sad smile, "when there will be a new definition for 'to Jew': to be a stickler for honesty… "

Rabbi Pam served as the dean of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath (where he taught for more than 60 years) and was a member of the Council of Torah Sages. His excerpted speech was recorded on November 22, 2000 and screened the next day at that year's Agudath Israel convention. He was seriously ailing and it may have been the last public address of his life. The anguish in the rabbi's face and words, though, were clearly the product not of illness but of the pain he felt at having to even address the issue.

Speaking in Yiddish, he characterized a good Jew as someone who is "ehrlich" - honest and trustworthy - "in his profession, in business, with one's workers, with one's partners…" and, like Rabbi Schwab, he stated clearly that the same honesty with which a Jew must interact with another Jew must characterize a Jew's dealings with non-Jews.

When one arrives in the next world, Rabbi Pam reminded his listeners, quoting the Talmud, "the very first question he is asked is 'Did you conduct your business in [good] faith?'"

The word used there, he noted, quite literally means "faith," because - here he echoed Rabbi Schwab - acting dishonestly in order to "supplement" our income denies G-d's ability to provide us our sustenance.

When the screens went black, before applause ensued, the silence persisted for what seemed, at least to one person in the audience, a very long time.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

I've never experienced a pogrom or been pursued by an angry mob, thank G-d. And yet my genes seem to hold some residue - bequeathed in some Lamarckian way by less fortunate forebears - that discomforts me when a large crowd of people loudly expresses itself.

Like the one outside our offices on a recent Friday. Agudath Israel's national headquarters are located on lower Broadway in Manhattan, on the "Canyon of Heroes" where the adulated New York Yankees are paraded when they win a World Series. Personally, I reserve the word "hero" for people in other pursuits than professional sports; but the estimated two million New Yorkers who turned out for the recent parade in the Yankees' honor clearly disagree.

It was the powerful, swelling din of their joy when the floats drove slowly by, 13 floors below, that sent a shiver of nervousness, not excitement, down my spine. I was well aware that the clamor was celebratory, not predatory; but I couldn't help but imagine what it must be like to see such a mob waving not flags and signs but clubs and knives.

I'm not afraid of heights or claustrophobic. I appreciate a good roller coaster and am not squeamish (I helped my wife deliver one of our children at home). It's out of character, this wariness of crowds. Maybe it's a vicarious memory of sorts. In his soon to be published memoirs, my dear father, may he be well, recalls his childhood in a small Polish town.

"When Passover approached," he writes, "my parents would tell us children to stay indoors. Sermons in the churches that time of year spurred our Gentile neighbors to try to kill Jews. The churchgoers would parade around wearing big black hats, holding flags with religious symbols and figures painted on them. We used to peek through the window to take in the sight. But we never ventured out of doors when the townsfolk were marching."

Now I know full well that Yankee fans are not Cossacks - or even Polish peasants. But the large, emotive mass still spooked me. And that was even before my experience later that day, on my way home, of being evacuated along with hundreds of other commuters and celebrants from the Staten Island Ferry terminal, to allow about 20 police in full riot gear to storm a ferry on which some mayhem had occurred. I saw a young man being arrested and handcuffed, an unconscious woman carried out on a stretcher and then a fistfight break out mere feet from me in the crowd.

My vicarious memory doesn't make me fear sports fans, even fanatical, overtired and intoxicated ones. It reminds me, though, that there are still mobs elsewhere with things other than baseball on their minds, large evil organisms comprised of many tiny evil pieces, held together by hatred - for the West, for Israel, for Jews.

A Midrashic concept has it that evil and holiness tend to counterbalance one another in this world, and that powers possessed by one have their counterparts in the other. And, in fact, I do have another memory, this one personal, of a huge, holy crowd that raised its own overwhelming sound - and it filled me not with dread but with joy.

It was nearly four years ago, on March 1, 2005, at Madison Square Garden (it and the Continental Airlines Arena were packed with 50,000 people - joined by thousands more at other sites across the country and around the world). The occasion was the 11th completion of the 7 ½-year "Daf Yomi" Talmud-study program. The huge crowd had gathered to celebrate the accomplishment, to thank G-d for allowing them to reach the day and to listen to rabbinic leaders and speakers exhort them to continue on the path of Torah life and study.

When the mass of people at "the Garden" that day recited the evening service, the sound of the first verse of Shma - the Jewish credo declaring G-d's relationship to the Jewish people and proclaiming His unity - was recited by all present in unison. The sound of tens of thousands of people proclaiming those truths with all of their hearts and souls seemed to shake time and space themselves. But it didn't spook me. It carried me high on its swell.

So I suppose I don't really fear crowds or their roars. Or, at least, it depends on the crowd and the roar. As it happens, like all Jews who pray daily, I even express a deep hope for an unprecedented crowd and its roar.

In the Aleinu paragraphs that end each service we refer to the time when G-d will reveal Himself and "all false gods will be utterly cut off" and "all earth's wicked" will be turned toward Him. When "All humanity will call out in Your name."

What a sound that will make, may it come quickly, in our days.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

To the delight of Jew-haters everywhere, a British Court has in effect deemed Judaism a racist religion. As a result, the blogosphere swarmed with invective about how the Jews had been exposed as imposing, in the words of one jolly blogger, an "ethnic purity test."

What happened is that the parents of a boy whose father is Jewish but whose mother underwent a non-halachic conversion brought a lawsuit against a North London Jewish school for not accepting the child as a student. Britain subsidizes religious schools and allows those with more applicants than seats to give preference to children within the schools' respective faiths. The school at issue, the Jews' Free School, or JFS, considers Jewish religious law to be the determinant of that status. The parents' suit was denied by a lower court but that ruling was subsequently overturned by the British Court of Appeal.

The justices on that latter court concluded that basing school admissions on whether a student's mother is Jewish is "unlawful," as it constitutes a "test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act." Or, as another blogger chose to put it, the child is "damaged goods" in Jewish eyes, "far to[o] 'Un-Chosen' to attend school with all the other little 'Pure' Jewish Kids."

How the ladies and gentlemen of the Court of Appeal square their judgment of Jewish law as racially discriminatory with the fact that the very same law grants full Jewish status to anyone who accepts Jewish observance and undergoes conversion - regardless of color, national origin or ethnicity - is not known. In fact, it's not hard to imagine an amusing Monty Python sketch built around that glaring inconsistency.

But even more disturbing than the Court of Appeal's lack of lucidity is its disapproval of the right of a religion to define itself. To be sure, many religions consider anyone who chooses to self-identify as part of the faith to be members of their religious community. But Judaism is - and has always been - different. A child born to a Jewish mother who does not affirm Judaism is still a Jew in the eyes of Jewish religious law.

Not, though, one born to a non-Jewish mother, unless she had previously converted according to the standards of Jewish law.

The case, which the media has cast as Britain's "Who is a Jew?" controversy, is now before the British Supreme Court, where the Court of Appeal decision was brought by the school.

To be sure, whatever Britain's highest court may decide, no secular tribunal can attenuate believing Jews' embrace of the heritage for which their ancestors lived, and for the preservation of which many of them died. The question, though, remains: Will the British Supreme Court recognize Judaism's uniqueness - and the right of Jews and Jewish institutions to embrace it without censure?

And will people like the parents of the boy at issue come to understand that what they are taking as personal insult is simply fealty to Jewish law?

"How dare they [school officials] question our beliefs and our Jewishness?" fulminated David Lightman, a widely quoted father of a non-halachically Jewish child (not the boy at issue). "I find it offensive and very upsetting."

No doubt he does, and that is unfortunate. But the school's policy is not intended to hurt him or his child. It is simply a declaration of respect for Judaism's millennia-old religious tradition.

There are, as it happens, many "Progressive" Jewish schools in England. Parents whose children are viewed as Jewish by non-Orthodox Jewish clergy but not by halacha can avail themselves of those institutions. But the Mr. Lightmans of the Isles seem intent on demanding that their fellow Jews who consider halacha sacrosanct abandon their principles.

Back to the high justices, though. As they consider the case before them, part of what they might mull is the fact that in Britain, as in most countries, there are two paths to citizenship. According to the British Home Office, a foreign national can be naturalized by undergoing a prescribed process and ceremony; and citizenship is automatically granted to anyone "born in the United Kingdom on or after 1 January 1983 if at the time of your birth one of your parents was: a British citizen; or legally settled in the United Kingdom"

One is a citizen, then, it seems, by simple virtue of having been born to a Briton.

Might that seem, in some eyes, a tad racist?

Call it the "Who is a Briton?" question.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The tone of the recent spate of books by proponents of Atheism (capitalized, correctly, like any faith) says much. The writers don't suffice with presenting their cases; they insist on berating all who dare disagree, belittling religious believers as intellectual defectives. Their confident public personae notwithstanding, the New Atheists' cynicism and name-calling telegraph insecurity. They seem to realize, at least subconsciously, that the very same universe that inspires them to worship chance and venerate "nature's laws" moves others to recognize a Creator.

The Disbelievers may have come to realize the unintended psychological message sent by all their sound and fury. Or maybe they are just spent from all their howling. Whichever, they - or at least some of them - have morphed their evangelical zeal into a kinder, gentler effort to reach the believing public.

A coalition of Atheist organizations has placed advertisements in Manhattan subway stations asserting that "a million New Yorkers are good without G-d" (the respectful hyphen, of course, is this dissident New Yorker's emendation), and then posing the question "Are you?"

Those of us who would respond in the negative, who affirm both the existence and exaltedness of a Supreme Being, might be expected to bristle at the ad campaign. But there is something heartening in the thought that average people rushing to and from jobs and errands might have their thoughts about bosses and holiday sales interrupted by some mention of the Creator - that the input of iPods and television reruns playing in heads might be forced to yield, even momentarily, to consideration of whether or not life contains a greater purpose than just living.

Because most people, even those who readily profess belief in G-d if asked, don't often dwell on that belief's implications. It sits in their heads, a checked-off box filed away for posterity.

And yet, belief in G-d is not like sports or politics. It is - or should be - the most basic issue any thinking human being seriously engages. When we awaken from childhood and begin to think serious thoughts, when we first confront consciousness and self and others and our place in the universe, what more pressing question could there be than whether we are mere randomly-generated organisms (highly evolved but mere all the same) or subjects of Something larger?

It is told how a doubter once asked to meet with the founder of the Novardhok yeshiva system, Rabbi Yosef Yoizel Horowitz (1849-1919), known as the "Der Alter" - "the Elder" - of Novardhok, and was welcomed into the revered rabbi's home. The two began to discuss the meaning of life and the goals toward which human beings are meant to strive. After some hours of deep discussion, the freethinker politely asked his host's pardon for a moment, turned to his servant and ordered him to prepare his carriage for the journey home. The Alter abruptly ended the conversation.

Puzzled at the sudden interruption of what had seemed to be a productive back-and-forth, the guest asked his host if he had done anything wrong. The Alter calmly explained that, for him, a conversation like the one they had been having was no mere philosophical sparring, not an intellectual exercise and certainly not a social pleasantry. It was a means of ascertaining deep truths, with the determined goal of acting on them. Had the freethinker seen their conversation the same way, said the Alter, he would have been fixed to the spot, anchored by the implications of what they had discussed - and incapable of leaving before reaching all the necessary conclusions and making whatever personal decisions were indicated.

By deciding instead that their "time was up" and it was time to go, said the Alter, his guest had demonstrated that, in his own eyes, the interaction had all been of a theoretical nature, an intellectual discussion, a game. For such things, the rabbi demurred, he simply had no time. There were important things to do.

For too many of us, even many of us who live seemingly religious lives, serious thoughts of G-d and our relationship to Him - if we think them at all - are often overwhelmed by the muddle of daily life. A major function, in fact, of prayer in Judaism is to shake off our tangle of quotidian concerns and focus on the Divine. If we are successful, we take away a keener awareness of our places in the world, and it accompanies us as we wade back into the mundane.

The Atheist ad campaign is far, to be sure, from a prayer. And it might be hard to imagine subway riders spurred by the posters to think thoughts of G-d. But, well, you never know. One of nature's laws, after all, is about unintended consequences.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Two South Carolina Republican Party chairmen were roundly denounced recently for invoking "stereotypes about Jews," as the Anti-Defamation League declared, that will "reinforce anti-Semitism."

What Edwin Merwin and James Ulmer did was write an opinion piece in an Orangeburg newspaper, defending a senator under fire for shunning congressional earmarks. Unfortunately for them, they chose to make their case for fiscal responsibility in part by noting that financially successful Jews "got that way not by watching dollars, but instead by taking care of the pennies and the dollars taking care of themselves."

The GOP chairmen could certainly have made their point without mentioning wealthy Jews; any number of pennies-to-riches examples, without reference to ethnicity or religion, would have sufficed. And so, apprised of the insult taken by some, they promptly and "deeply" apologized to "any and all who were offended."

One of the contrite commentators explained that he had been quoting "a statement which I had heard many times in my life, truly in admiration for a method of bettering one's lot in life." And he insisted that, however ill chosen his example, he had "meant nothing derogatory by the reference to a great and honorable people," categorically rejected anti-Semitism and begged "[those offended to] accept my deep felt apology." Good enough for me.

Not, though, for the ADL's Southeast Regional Director, who called the apology a mere "first step" that "doesn't go far enough" - provoking the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto to suggest that "the ADL is doing its part to combat one stereotype: that Jews have a sense of humor." Harping on a hapless comment after a clear apology does seem somewhat puzzling.

More puzzling, however - at least to me - was the umbrage-taking in the first place. Why is imparting fiscal responsibility to successful Jews offensive? It isn't as if the South Carolinians insinuated that such Jews are dishonest or even miserly. They simply attributed to us Hebrews - at least the materially successful among us - a keen awareness of the fact that even a small thing has value. When exactly did frugality became bad?

My guess is that it was around the time the wildly wasteful consumer culture all around us took hold, when people began to make "living in the moment" (or, less charitably put, "ignoring the future") a high ideal. But whatever the origin of its abandonment, the idea that everything has worth is not shameful. In fact, it's thoroughly Jewish. As the Talmud puts it, "Each and every penny contributes to a large sum" (Bava Batra, 9b).

As it happens, the Jewish ideal of valuing even the smallest thing goes beyond the realization that things add up. It is a recognition of the inherent value of every thing.

In mere weeks, Jews in synagogues the world over will read the Torah portion in which our forefather Jacob, after transporting his family and possessions across a river, took pains to cross back over again, endangering himself. The Talmud conveys a tradition that the reason Jacob returned was to retrieve some "small jars."

"From here we see," the Rabbis went on to explain, "that the possessions of the righteous are as dear to them as their bodies."

That comment is not counseling miserliness; Jacob is the forefather emblematic of the ideal of "truth" or honesty. What the Talmud is conveying, rather, is a quintessentially Jewish truth: Material things, no matter how seemingly "worthless," have worth.

So does money. A dollar can buy a drink or almost half a New York subway fare. But it can also buy a thirsty friend a drink, or a get-well card for someone ailing, or almost half the fare for the ride to the hospital to deliver it in person. It can, moreover, be put into the pushkeh - the charity box found in many Jewish homes and every synagogue - or given as a reward to a child who has performed a good deed.

Possessions are tools, in their essence morally neutral; put to a holy purpose, they are sublime. And so, Judaism teaches, valuing a simple, small coin can be a sign not of avarice but of wisdom. And what is more - and even more important - just as small amounts of money can in fact be worth much, so can small acts of goodness.

No simple kindness, no word of encouragement or comfort, no few seconds of patience, is without worth. All, in fact, can be diamonds.

The "taking care of the pennies" contretemps might seem a minor matter. But if it gets people thinking about the significance of small things - be they money or actions - well, it might just turn out to have been something rather worthy itself.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The other day, shortly after Sukkot, I bought a scarf for my son before he headed back to yeshiva and, as we all are, into winter. The experience, slight as it was, convinced me that a thought bouncing around in my mind for several days prior deserved to be wrapped in some words.

There are drawbacks to working in lower Manhattan, but advantages too. Among the latter is the ability to buy an apple or banana or necktie or watch - or scarf - at a very reasonable price from one of the street vendors that pepper the neighborhood's broad sidewalks.

Some of the merchants are not very helpful, others are "helpful" in an aggressive sort of way. The necktie-scarf-kerchief salesman near our offices was - Goldilocks would have approved - just right. A middle-aged black gentleman, he pointed me to a pile of garments, told me to let him know if I needed any help and left me to inspect his wares.

After I found what I wanted and made my purchase, he thanked me but seemed to want to say something else, so I didn't rush away. Looking me in the eye, he told me that he sometimes plied his trade in another part of Manhattan, where there are many people "like you." I assumed - correctly it turned out - that he meant Orthodox Jewish men with hats and beards.

"Really?" I said tentatively, wondering what was to come.

"Yeah," he continued, with a broad smile, "and I want you to know that they are the nicest people. They always treat me really good."

Relieved, I returned the smile that I only then noticed, told the businessman how happy I was that "my people" were acting as we are supposed to and wished him well.

Heading to the office, my relief embarrassed me. But I understood it.

Because the image of Jews, and identifiably Jewish ones in particular, has been tarnished over recent years. That is partly because of the observant Jewish community's growth - rendering its failures both more numerous and more visible - and partly because of a media ethic that seems to have updated "if it bleeds, it leads" to something like "if it's a scandal, it gets a handle." That's the fourth estate's approach to any group or individual, but the media take particular glee in making sure that a religious person - extra credit if he's a religious Jew - who has done something wrong gets top billing. And then there are the farther reaches of Blogistan, where facts don't even matter, and a toxic mix of venom, imaginativeness and psychopathy serves as the local currency.

The actions of most observant Jews, though - the "daily Jews," who invest their quotidian lives with behavior becoming members of a holy people - reflect Jewish ideals in all they do. That was the scarf man's experience.

And that of the man at the bus stop mere days earlier who asked me how my holidays had been.

I had seen him many times and we would always exchange greetings but had never spoken much. I had pegged him as an Egyptian but he turns out to be from India. I responded "wonderful," the truth, and asked him if he was Jewish. "No," he said, going on to explain how he knew about the holidays, "but I work for a government agency and some of my superiors there are Jewish people."

And then he volunteered - I am not embellishing - that "they are wonderful bosses to have, they really are. I admire them." I realized then why he had always been so friendly to me.

The dovetailing of the two experiences was reassuring. Despite the mistakes, or worse, of some and the accusations leveled against others, there is still a mass of Jews who daily and diligently heed the Talmud's admonition to act in a way that "causes the name of G-d to be loved because of you[r actions]" (Yoma 86a). The countless individuals who make up that population will never appear in the media world. Their due will come in another one.

The effects, however, of the way they live have impact here and now. Despite the misguided actions of some members of the tribe, and the media's enthusiasm in providing them prominence, the "daily Jews" broadcast an accurate message about Jews and Judaism to countless people like the scarf-seller and my bus stop friend - non-Jews and Jews alike.

The mass of "daily Jews" - and, despite the headlines and headhunters, it is a critical mass - may not even realize the effect they have on the image of the Jewish people. But the rest of us should - and we should aspire to make our places among them.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Oddly, a Hebrew phrase familiar to the Jewishly-educated is routinely used to refer to two entirely different and seemingly unrelated things.

The phrase is "Yud Gimmel Middot" - literally, "13 Measures" - and one of its usages was prominent over the days from before Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur. In that context, the phrase refers to the verses from Exodus (34:6-7) that begin with G-d's name stated twice (with a pause signaled between them, representing, the Talmud says, one's different relationship to G-d "before he has sinned and after he has sinned and repented") and comprising in all a list of thirteen aspects (or, as commonly rendered, "attributes") of His mercy. The verses form the centerpiece of the Selichot supplications recited throughout the High Holidays season and are prominent in the Yom Kippur services, including its concluding prayer Ne'ila.

According to Jewish tradition, the formula was taught to Moses by G-d Himself after our ancestors' sin of venerating the golden calf. Acceding to Moses' plea that He forgive the people their sin, G-d then tells Moses that, in the Talmud's words, "when trouble comes upon the Jews because of their iniquities, let them stand together before Me and recite" the Attributes of Mercy. (Commentaries stress the need to do more than merely recite the verses, the need to emulate the Divine patience and understanding they embody.)

The "13 Middot" of mercy thus reflect G-d's compassion and love.

The other "13 Middot" refers to a list recited daily before the actual start of the first portion of morning prayers, at the conclusion of what is popularly referred to as the "Karbonot" portion of the traditional liturgy. This list, cited in Rabbi Yishmael's name in the Sifri, a Midrash of halachic material, enumerates the "hermeneutical" rules by which Jewish laws are derived from the Torah's verses. Some of that methodology, more completely known as the "13 Middot Through Which the Torah is Interpreted," is logical, some of it not obviously so; all of it comprises a sacred part of the Oral Law itself.

That both the expressions of G-d's mercy and the hermeneutical principles number thirteen, and that both are described as "middot" is intriguing. And it may be meaningful too.

Everyone who has ever thought of G-d, certainly in the context of Judaism, has probably paused at the fact that, at least from human perspective, the Creator seems to present two different "faces." On the one hand, He is the Merciful, the life-Giver, the Forgiver of sins and Bestower of blessings. And, on the other, He is the Lawgiver, instilling the laws of nature in the universe, and charging humanity with the foundational "Noachide" laws - and the Jews, with the laws of the Torah.

Christianity seized on that seeming dichotomy, choosing to emphasize G-d as Merciful and, to one or another degree, to downgrade G-d as Lawgiver. Circumcision and most other Jewish laws were abandoned by the early Church and, later, Thomas Aquinas expressly judged the Torah's "ceremonial and judicial" laws to be no longer binding.

But even some Jews who would never think to affirm Christian theology have subtly come to effectively accept that bifurcation, laying claim to G-d's love but regarding His law, with all its complexity and detail, as off-putting and passé.

However difficult the idea may be for them to internalize, though, the same G-d is the Source of both love and demand. The opening words of a prayer recited throughout the Days of Repentance say it clearly: G-d is "Avinu Malkeinu" ("Our Father, Our King") - both a merciful Parent and a demanding Sovereign.

Perhaps that is the subtle implication of the strange fact of the two "13 Middot"s - that the Source of mercy and patience is the very same Source of law and obligation. Indeed, that Divine mercy and Divine law are inseparable facets of the same Unity. The demands of Divine law are born of Divine love; they reflect G-d's concern for our own ultimate wellbeing.

It's a thought worth thinking as, after Yom Kippur, we emerge from days of focus on the Divine as forgiving Father immediately and seamlessly into days of preparing for Sukkot, paying heed, as commanded, to the myriad technical and exacting laws of the "four species" and the sukkah - laws based, of course, on the 13 hermeneutical principles of Rabbi Yishmael.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The famous early 20th century German-born American financier Otto Kahn, it is told, was once walking in New York with his friend, the humorist Marshall P. Wilder. They must have made a strange pair, the poised, dapper Mr. Kahn and the bent-over Mr. Wilder, who suffered from a spinal deformity.

As they passed a synagogue on Fifth Avenue, Kahn, whose ancestry was Jewish but who received no Jewish training from his parents, turned to Wilder and said, "You know, I used to be a Jew."

"Really?" said Wilder. "And I used to be a hunchback."

The story is in my head because Yom Kippur is coming. More specifically, Kol Nidrei.

That prayer's solemnity and power are known well to every Jew who has ever attended the pre-evening service that ushers in the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. It is a cold soul that does not send a shudder to the body it inhabits when Kol Nidrei is intoned in its ancient, eerie melody. And yet the words of the prayer - "declaration" would be more accurate - do not overtly speak to the gravity of the day, the end of the period of repentance and Divine judgment.

They speak instead to the annulment of vows, specifically (according to prevailing Ashkenazi custom) to undermining vows we may inadvertently make in the coming year.

Vows, or verbalized commitments, the Torah teaches, have deep power; they truly bind those who utter them. And so, observant Jews take pains to avoid not only solemn vows but any declarative statements of intent that could be construed as vows. That Yom Kippur would be introduced by a nod to the gravity of vow-making isn't terribly surprising. But the poignant mournfulness of the moment is harder to understand.

It has been speculated that the somber mood of Kol Nidrei may be a legacy of other places and times, in which Jews were coerced by social or economic pressures, or worse, to declare affiliations with other religions. The text, in that theory, took on the cast of an anguished renunciation of any such declarations born of duress.

Most Jews today face no such pressures. To be sure, missionaries of various types seek to exploit the ignorance of some Jews about their religious heritage. But most of us today do not feel any compulsion to shed our Jewish identities to live and work in peace.

Still and all, there are other ways to be unfaithful to one's essence. Coercion comes in many colors.

We are all compelled, or at least strongly influenced, by any of a number of factors extrinsic to who we really are. We make pacts - unspoken, perhaps, but not unimportant - with an assortment of devils: self-centeredness, jealousy, anger, desire, laziness…

Such weaknesses, though, are with us but not of us. The sage Rabbi Alexandri, the Talmud teaches (Berachot, 17a), would recite a short prayer in which, addressing G-d, he said: "Master of the universes, it is revealed and known to You that our will is to do Your will, and what prevents us is the 'leaven in the loaf' [i.e. the inclination to do bad] …" What he was saying is that, stripped of the rust we so easily attract, sanded down to our essences, we want to do and be only good.

Might Kol Nidrei carry that message no less? Could its declared disassociation from vows strike our hearts as a renunciation of the "vows", the unfortunate connections, we too often take upon ourselves? If so, it would be no wonder that the prayer moves us so.

Or that it introduces Yom Kippur.

One of the day's most remarkable elements in ancient times, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, was the ritual of "the two goats." The High Priest would place a lot on the head of each animal; one read "to G-d" and the other "to Azazel" - according to Rashi, the name of a mountain with a steep cliff in a barren desert.

As the Torah prescribes, the first goat was sacrificed to G-d in the Temple; the second was taken through the desert to the cliff and cast off.

The Torah refers to "sins and iniquities" being "put upon the head" of the Azazel goat before its dispatch. The deepest meanings of the ritual, like those of all Jewish rituals in the end, are beyond human ken. But, on a simple level, it might not be wrong to see a symbolism here, a reflection of the fact that our sins are, in the end, foreign to our essences, extrinsic entities, things to be "sent away," banished by our sincere repentance.

In 1934, when Otto Kahn died, Time Magazine reported that the magnate, who had been deeply dismayed at the ascension of Hitler, had, despite his secularist life, declared "I was born a Jew, I am a Jew, and I shall die a Jew."

Considering his upbringing and way of life, it is unlikely that Mr. Kahn ever attended Kol Nidrei services. But perhaps a seed planted by a humorist and nourished with the bitter waters of Nazism helped him connect to something of the prayer's meaning. May we all merit that same connection.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

From the flurry of e-mails and calls to Agudath Israel and other Orthodox Jewish organizations, it seems that some advocates for humane treatment of animals have concerns about the pre-Yom Kippur custom of Kapparos.

They are troubled by the fact that many Orthodox Jews - predominantly in the haredi, especially the Hassidic, world - use chickens in the ceremony, during which the bird is lifted and waved around the head of a supplicant. (Many Orthodox Jews use money instead of birds.) The advocates say that chickens are mistreated before and after the ceremony and that the ceremony itself abuses the birds. They are not happy either, with the ultimate fate of the chickens, which are slaughtered and given to the poor.

As it happens, while a chicken is not injured or traumatized by being held and waved, there have indeed been situations where chickens, before or after the Kapparos ceremony, have not been treated with the sensitivity to animals' comfort that halacha mandates. That is inexcusable; and concern that birds used for Kapparos be treated properly was one of the reasons nearly thirty leading haredi rabbinical authorities issued a proclamation two years ago enjoining their followers to patronize only approved vendors of Kapparos.

One of the recurrent themes of the anti-chicken-Kapparos crowd's communications, though, is that the custom itself is "primitive." The activists assume - and it is an assumption mistakenly made by many others (including The New York Times a few years back) - that sins are somehow transferred from the supplicant to the bird.

Ah, were expiation of iniquity only so simple.

Even when actual animal sacrifices were a mainstay of Jewish life, when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the cancellation of sin still required teshuva, repentance. It still does.

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

So what's with the chickens?

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

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

So it seems that the Kapparos-custom is essentially a spur to meditation on atonement, intended to stir feelings of repentance and recommitment to the performance of good deeds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

September 1 marked 70 years on the Gregorian calendar since the German invasion of Poland that began the Second World War and the destruction of Eastern European Jewry.

The war's outbreak rudely interrupted the plans of millions, including those of a 14-year-old boy in a Polish shtetl. The boy - my father, may he be well - had been scheduled to travel to Bialystok to attend yeshiva.

He would eventually make it to yeshiva, in Vilna, but not before he, his family and all the townsfolk of Ruzhan would flee their town ahead of the advancing German army. On Friday, September 8, they found themselves in a town called Govrov, just before the Germans arrived there. The following Saturday night was the first night of Selichos - the special pre-Rosh Hashana supplications asking G-d's forgiveness recited late at night or early in the morning before services.

I am preparing to publish my father's memoirs (with G-d's help, this winter) - about his youth and flight from the Nazis, his yeshiva days, his war years' sojourn in Siberia (as a guest of the Soviet Union), and his subsequent emigration to America and service as a congregational rabbi in Baltimore for more than 50 years

When I attend this year's first Selichos services, on September 12 - actually, the 13th, since the special prayers will begin after midnight - my thoughts will be drawn to that first night of Selichos in 1939. I will be standing in a comfortable, beautiful shul in Staten Island. But I will be envisioning a place thousands of miles distant in space and seventy years in time.

I will see a scene in my father's memoirs:

… My family and I were lying on the floor of a local Jew's house when we heard angry banging on the door and the gruff, loud words "Raus Jude! Raus Jude!" - "Jew, out!"

These visitors were not simple German soldiers, but member of the SS, the Schutzstaffel - the Nazi military organization that operated separately from the regular German army. SS members swore allegiance to Hitler, and they hated Jews.

The SS men chased us from the houses, prodding us with bayonets to raise our hands and join the town's other Jews - several hundred people - in the middle of the town's market area. As we walked, hands raised, the Nazis photographed us.

Some of the Germans approached the men among us who had beards and cut them off, either entirely or purposely leaving an odd angle of beard, just to humiliate the victims. One man had a beautiful, long beard. When he saw what the Germans were doing, he took a towel he had with him and tied it around his beard, in the hope that our tormentors might not see so enticing a target. But of course, they went right over to him, removed the towel and shaved off what to him and us was a physical symbol of experience, wisdom and holiness. He wept uncontrollably.

We stood there and the smell of smoke registered in our nostrils, becoming more intense with each minute. It didn't take long to realize that the town's homes had been set aflame. Later we heard that a German soldier had been discovered killed nearby and that the SS men had assumed that the culprits were Jews… We Jews were ordered into the synagogue… It became clear that all of us remaining in the synagogue were being confined there - the doors were locked and SS men stood outside to ensure that no one managed to escape - to be roasted alive… The town had been set afire, and the Nazis clearly intended to let the flames reach the synagogue. Houses nearby were already wildly burning…

The scene was a blizzard of shouting and wailing and, above all, praying. Psalms and lamentations and entreaties blended together, a cacophony of wrenched hearts. Everyone realized what was in store and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that any of us could possibly do.

The smell of smoke grew even stronger as did the cries of the hundreds of Jews packed in the synagogue awaiting a terrible death. And then, a miracle occurred.

How else to explain what happened? Those in the synagogue who were standing near the doorway and windows saw a German motorcycle come to a halt in front of the building. A German officer - apparently of high rank - dismounted from the machine and began to speak with the SS men guarding our intended crematorium. The officer grew agitated and barked orders at the other Nazis. After a few minutes, the doors to the synagogue were suddenly opened and, disbelieving our good fortune, we staggered out…

What made the officer order them to release us we did not know and never will. Some of us suspected he was not a German at all, but Elijah the prophet, who, in Jewish tradition, often appears in disguise.

We were ordered across a nearby brook… and were told to sit on the grass and to go no further. And so there we sat, all through the Sabbath, watching as the synagogue in which we had been imprisoned mere hours earlier was claimed by the flames and, along with all the Torah-scrolls and holy books of both Ruzhan and Govrov, burned to the ground…

That night was the first night of Selichos…

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Your child damages a neighbor's property, you are responsible.

But that can mean two distinct things. Either, simply, that as the child's parent you are where the buck stops.

Or it may mean something deeper. If the boy didn't just accidentally hit a ball through the Jones' picture window but rather aimed a rock at it - and had been influenced in his disregard for the property of others by some remarks you made - you are responsible in much more than the buck-stopping sense.

The Jewish concept of "arvut," - the "interdependence" of all Jews - is sometimes understood as akin to the first, simple, sense of responsibility. Jews are to regard other Jews as family, and therefore to feel responsible for one another.

But, the celebrated Jewish thinker Rabbi E.E. Dessler teaches, Jews are responsible for one another in the word's deeper sense too. When a Jew does something good, it reflects the entire Jewish people's goodness. And the converse is no less true. Thus, when Achan, one man, misappropriated spoils after the first battle of Joshua's conquest of Canaan, the siege of Jericho, it is described as the sin of the entire people (Joshua, 7:1). Explains Rabbi Dessler: Had the people as a whole been sufficiently sensitive to the Divine commandment to shun the city's spoils, Achan would never have been able to commit his sin.

The much publicized arrests last month of several Jews, amid a larger group, on a variety of financial charges caused all sensitive Jews acute embarrassment. But the vivid image of Jews - religious ones, no less - being carted off by federal agents needs to do something more than embarrass us. It needs to spur us.

Not because we have any right to assume the worst about the accused; we don't. And if in fact there were violations of the law, we don't know the circumstances, the motivations of the accused or even if they were aware of the pertinent laws (which might not make a difference to a trial judge but should to the rest of us). Trial by Tabloid is not Jewish jurisprudence.

But the images themselves must make us think. In particular about other, confirmed, cases of Jews - including religiously observant ones - who have in fact engaged in "white collar" crime. Not to mention several identifiably Jewish, if not particularly religious, Jews who have even achieved broad notoriety for their societal sins.

And so, the deeper concept of arvut leaves us to ponder the possibility that some less blatant and less outrageous - but still sinful - actions of other Jews, ourselves perhaps included, may have, little by little, provided a matrix on which greater sins subsequently came to grow.

Every child who received a Jewish education knows that even a small coin placed in a pushke, or charity box, is the fulfillment of a mitzvah, the commandment to give charity. It should be equally apparent, especially to all us grown-up children, that the misappropriation of even a similarly small amount of money is a sin.

And so Jews, whoever and wherever they are, who cut corners for financial gain - who underreport their income or avoid taxes illegally or are less than fully honest in their business dealings - contribute thereby to the thievery-matrix. And they bear responsibility, in however small the ways, for larger crimes committed by their fellows.

What is more, even those of us who are innocent of any financial indiscretions might also be unwitting contributors to the critical criminal mass. Because things other than money can also be "stolen."

The Torah speaks, for example, about two forms of oppressive practices (ona'ah): financial (as in overcharging) and personal (as in causing pain to others with words). The Talmud also calls the act of misleading another person "stealing knowledge" (g'neivat da'at); and considers it "robbery" to not return another's greeting. Halachic decisors, moreover, note the forbiddance to "steal sleep" - to wake someone unnecessarily or to keep him up when he wants to retire.

So even those of us whose financial ledgers are in order would do well to introspect. Are we sufficiently careful not to use words in hurtful ways, entirely meticulous in advice we offer, fully responsive to the good will of others, truly cautious about not disturbing their peace? If not, then we are - in a subtle but real way - part of the perp-walk picture ourselves.

The Jewish month of Elul is here. Leading as it does to next month's High Holy Days, it is a time when the Jewishly conscious take spiritual stock of their lives. On Yom Kippur, Jews the world over will repeatedly recite two confessional prayers, "Ashamnu" and "Al Chet Shechatanu." Both, oddly, are in the first person plural. It is a collective "we" who have sinned. As the commentaries explain, that is because, among Jews, even sins of which the individual supplicant may be personally innocent, implicate us all.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Reports have it that a popular inscription of late on coffee mugs and t-shirts is "wise Latina woman."

The reference, of course, is to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's contention in a 2001 lecture that "a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." The comment was much discussed during the hearings that preceded Justice Sotomayor's confirmation. While purchasers of the shirts and mugs are likely only taking ethnic pride in the Justice, who is of Puerto Rican ancestry, the comment is worth pondering. It may even hold a thought of particular value to Jews.

The idea of a judge's personal experience influencing - enhancing or degrading - his or her judgment is intriguing. To be sure, a victim of a violent crime might not make the best judge in the case of someone accused of the same sort of crime, or an acceptable juror. That is why there are judicial recusals and jury disqualifications.

But the question of whether our general objectivity is necessarily skewed by who we are is less obviously clear. All of us, after all, are different, not only in our experiences and influences but in our essential psychologies. Must we divorce ourselves from all that in order to evaluate anything objectively?

Obviously not. The Torah, and for that matter secular jurisprudence, allows for flesh-and-blood people, with lives and experiences, to be judges. And, for that matter, all of us are required daily to make judgments in our personal lives.

At the same time, though, judges - and all of us - must consciously endeavor to be sensitive to the possibility of bias in any particular case. The illustrious Rabbi Yishmael, a sage of the Tannaic era, had a sharecropper who, as part of his obligation to the landowner-sage, would bring him a basket of fruit from the rabbi's land every Friday. The Talmud (Ketuvot, 105b) recounts how, one week, the worker brought the fruit to him on a Thursday.

When Rabbi Yishmael asked why, the worker explained that he was party to a court case before the rabbi that day and thought that he may as well bring the fruit then too. Rabbi Yishmael immediately recused himself from the sharecropper's case.

Although the account's lesson is about the subtlety with which bribery can operate, personal bias too is a form of bribe. Rabbi E.E. Dessler notes that just as a scientist cannot draw meaningful conclusions from an experiment unless his measuring instruments are true, so are we constrained from making objective judgments when our psychological instruments are off kilter. Such imbalance can take the form of inherent character flaws or prejudice, racial or otherwise. And it, no less than a monetary bribe, "blinds," as the Torah words it, "the eyes of the wise" (Deuteronomy, 16:19).

What Judge Sotomayor seemed to say in 2001 was that her perspective - as a woman, a Hispanic, a "wise" person - makes her a better judge. It, of course, does not. While none of those attributes need undermine objectivity, neither do any of them ensure it.

To her credit, the then-nominee backed away from the implication of her earlier statement, saying that "judges can't rely on what's in their heart. They don't determine the law… The job of a judge is to apply the law… [not to] apply feelings to facts."

Which brings us to the Jews. Or, better, to Judaism.

The Jewish faith is a system of both beliefs and laws, and, like all laws, Judaism's are meant to be applied objectively. To be sure, there are instances where certain empathetic concerns can yield leniencies. In a kashrut case, for example, if hewing to the normative approach in particular situations will result in a great financial loss, it may be proper to adopt a more lenient one. Or, if a married man goes missing and is suspected to have died, certain evidentiary rules are waived for testimony about the man's death, so that his wife may remarry. But those leniencies exist within the law, and when they can be invoked is itself the subject of law and precedent. Where there is no such recourse, empathy is insufficient to supplant the law. We are admonished to "not favor the poor man in his dispute" (Exodus, 23:3). The job of a judge, as Judge Sotomayor rightly concluded, is to apply law, not feelings.

It is common these Jewish days to read of how this or that group or individual is promoting a new, more "sensitive," "contemporary" or "caring" approach to halacha.

And all too many Jews, falling into the conceptual trap from which Judge Sotomayor laudably extricated herself, imagine that empathy and compassion can only enhance the application of a system of law, not erode it.

It's an enticing place to go, sending out a siren-song for the sensitive. But it's sensitivity to truth, in the end, that matters.

That's the case with man-made laws; all the more so, Divine ones.

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

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