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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Yes, yes, there is a media double standard when it comes to haredi Jews. That's nothing new.

And so, when thousands of Iranians poured into Tehran's streets in protest of what they saw as a fraudulent presidential election, the press emphasis was not on the protesters who threw rocks, set trash bins aflame and vandalized public property. The focus, rightly, was on the bulk of the crowd, peaceful protesters of what they believed to be a fraudulent election.

When tens of thousands of haredim, though, demonstrated in reaction to a decision by the Jerusalem municipality to open a public parking lot on the Jewish Sabbath, increasing traffic in the heart of the Holy City and disturbing the peacefulness of the day of rest, the main coverage was not of the overwhelming mass of the crowd, peacefully standing up for the sanctity of the Sabbath - but rather of the tiny fraction of the crowd that… threw rocks, set trash bins aflame and vandalized public property.

But that fraction of the crowd cannot be ignored by those of us who cringed at, and remain shamed by, its ugly behavior. The rioters may have been boys, but they were our boys. And if boys of ours can imagine that acts of destruction and hooliganism are somehow the right way to stand up for the Sabbath's honor (leave aside the way to bring non-observant Jews to appreciate the Jewish day of rest), there is much, much work to be done to teach them what Torah is and what it isn't.

And, yes, yes, again, there are unanswered questions about the arrest of a Hasidic mother of a long hospitalized child on suspicion of having starved him. The media, quoting hospital authorities, said that the woman was suffering from a mental illness that compels a person to invent or create symptoms of illness, sometimes in another person, in order to garner medical attention.

The hospital video footage, moreover, that authorities said showed the mother removing the child's feeding tube 20 times has yet, at least at this writing, to be released. And why did the hospital not act after the first tube removal? Or the tenth?

Why, further, if the woman is in fact mentally ill, was a simple restraining order not obtained, barring her from contact with the child? Why did the police choose instead to slap handcuffs on the five-months pregnant woman in public (and in front of a summoned press) and place her in a jail cell (with an accused spouse-killer, an Arab woman, as a cellmate)?

None of us can know with certainty at this point the answers to those questions - or whether the woman at issue is a would-be murderess, a sufferer of mental illness or a caring mother wrongly accused.

What we can know, though, is that the reaction of some members of her community and some other haredim was horrible abuse of its own sort. To review in any detail even a sampling of the repulsive behavior in which some religious Jews engaged would only increase the desecration of G-d's name it embodied. There may well have been grounds for protest - and civil protest is a fundamental right in a democracy - but there were no grounds for violence. None.

That judgment was made unequivocally by, among others, the head of the anti-Zionist Edah Charedis, the renowned halachic authority Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch. "Anyone," he wrote, referring to the riotous behavior, "who commits acts of violence declares that he doesn't belong to our community."

Insulting another is a grave violation of halacha, as is causing him physical harm. Destroying another's property - or communal property or, for that matter, one's own property - is also forbidden by the Torah. No exceptions have ever been made in halachic codes for instances where a government policy or action is not to one's liking. How ironic that the idealization of boorishness and destructiveness - most prominently embraced by the criminal world and Hollywood - should have managed to infiltrate the relatively insular haredi world - a world that clearly stands for diametric ideals.

This time of Jewish year, Judaism-conscious Jews are focused on the destruction of the Holy Temples. The second Temple, whose destruction led to our current exile, was destroyed, the Talmud teaches, "because of baseless hatred."

The recent rioters in Jerusalem may well have believed their hatred to have had ample basis. But, whatever their rationalizations, their actions evoked disgust in Jews the world over, some of whom, tragically, will generalize from the rioters' bad example and bear ill will toward haredim as a group.

And so, even if the violent protesters believe that they are innocent of baseless hatred, they should be made to confront the fact that they are deeply guilty of promoting it.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Never had the appearance of a word on a page so shocked me. It just made no sense. Those English letters, in that order, simply didn't belong there.

It was nearly twenty years ago, in the library of a Jewish day school in Providence where I was teaching at the time. The word was "Holocaust" and it so discombobulated me because the book I had opened had been published in the late 1800s.

Even stranger, it was an English translation (likely the first one) of the Mishna, the backbone of the Talmud.

After a moment's reflection on that fact, I realized I hadn't gone mad. In context, the word was how the translator had rendered the Hebrew word "olah" - a sacrifice in the times of Jerusalem's Holy Temple that, unlike all other offerings, was burnt in its entirety on the altar, without any portion set aside for human consumption. "Holo" in Greek means "entirely"; and "caust" means "burnt."

Indeed, whoever first applied the word to what occurred on the European continent over the years 1939-1945 may well have chosen it because of its Jewish source. After all, the Third Reich aimed to rid the world of Jews, considering them the ultimate, mortal enemy of civilization. And, when all was tragically said and done, Hitler and his helpers in fact succeeded in murdering nearly two out of every three European Jews - if not an olah, staggeringly, devastatingly close.

Others, to be sure, were persecuted and killed by the Nazis too: Romani (Roma and Sinti peoples), political dissidents, criminals of various sorts, physically and mentally disabled people, Jehova's Witnesses, homosexuals, Poles and Slavs.

But the "Endlösung" - the "Final Solution" - was for "der Judenfrage" - "the Jewish Question." There was no "Romani Question" or "Homosexual Question." The Nazis hated many types of people and for a variety of reasons, but they singled out only one group of people for utter destruction. The disabled and homosexuals were persecuted only in the Reich, not in territories the Nazis occupied. The Romani, in the words of historian Alex Grobman, "did not have to be annihilated completely." That was a fate reserved for the Jews alone.

Even in his final moments, Hitler obsessed over the Jews, charging his followers shortly before his suicide to demonstrate "merciless resistance against the universal poisoners of all peoples, international Jewry."

Thus there were no speeches like the Reich Organization Leader's 1939 "The Jews or Us" ("There is no room in the world for the Jews any more. The Jew or us, one of us will have to go") about Poles. No book like 1937's "The Eternal Jew" (which sought to graphically portray Jews as sub-human) about Slavs. No "Mein Kampf" ravings about the "peril" posed by the disabled. And no issues of Der Sturmer on newsstands with the motto "The homosexuals are our misfortune!" on the cover page.

There is a reason, in other words, why the Holocaust is most readily associated with the destruction of European Jewry, why the Berlin Holocaust memorial - the monument that stands in the maw from which the Holocaust emerged - is called Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas - the "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe."

It shows no insensitivity to any of the groups that suffered under the Third Reich to appreciate the straightforward fact that only one was identified as a noxious threat to humanity itself; that only one was targeted for total genocide - both within and without Germany's borders; that none suffered the loss of life that the Third Reich inflicted upon the Jewish people. And yet, maintaining the special linkage of the Holocaust to Jews is becoming politically incorrect. The recent controversy surrounding the Holocaust Memorial Mall in Sheepshead Bay is a case in point. It already bears an inscription recognizing other victims of Nazi persecution, including homosexuals. But an active member of a "gay synagogue" campaigned for a more prominent set of stone markers recognizing Nazi victims others than Jews. When the city acceded, New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind protested what he saw as a subtle devaluing of the special nature of the Jewish people's singular targeting by the Nazis.

Mr. Hikind was subsequently taken to task by, among others, the New York City Council Speaker and the mayor. More recently, two candidates for a City Council seat attacked a third one for the sin of having been endorsed by Mr. Hikind. One of the candidates intoned that he "would never compromise my principles by having an endorsement like that," and labeled "outrageous" the contention that, as he put it, "there are two classes of victims in the Holocaust." A writer in the Jerusalem Post went so far as to compare the assemblyman's stance to Holocaust denial.

No one, though, is denying many groups suffered, and greatly, under the Nazis. But if there is any subtle denial in the air these days, if anything delicately desecrates the history of the Holocaust, it is the reluctance of some to recognize a profound and qualitative difference. The difference between the Nazis' persecution of political enemies and "social misfits" - and the visceral, genocidal loathing they reserved for the Jews.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Despite the economic downturn, I recently made a financial investment that resulted in a fantastic return. It was a CD.

No, not a bank certificate. A compact disk. It cost me $15 (including postage and handling) and featured Yiddish songs that were sung by the students and faculty of the famed Novardhok Yeshiva in pre-war Eastern Europe.

Founded at the end of the 19th century in what was then the Russian Empire, Novardhok spawned satellite branches in many other cities. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the yeshiva relocated to Poland, although not all the students made it; the Soviets shot or captured and exiled many. At the start of World War II, the yeshiva moved to Vilna and other cities in Lithuania. When the Soviets moved into Lithuania, some students fled, others were killed and a small group of Polish nationals – my dear father, may he be well, among them – were exiled to Siberia.

Some of the songs on the disk were familiar to me from a recording my father made for his children years ago. Others I heard for the first time. I was moved by the music and, especially, the lyrics.

Novardhok had a reputation for a pietistic and morose – to some even morbid – philosophy. It is an ungenerous characterization. The yeshiva was a serious place, to be sure, and its students not only studied Talmud but placed self-criticism and personal improvement prominently on their spiritual agendas. Stories about the lengths to which Novardhok students went to embarrass or discomfort themselves in order to “break the will” and rise above human traits like anger, conceit and indulgence are legend – and many are surely exaggerations.

But while few if any Novardhokers may actually have requested a loaf of bread from a hardware merchant or placed raw peas in their shoes, every Novardhoker spent considerable time daily studying ethical texts, critically analyzing his personal behavior before G-d and man and trying to press his will and actions into line with the highest ideals of Judaism.

Surprisingly, though, what resulted were not broken, depressed, neurotic souls but joyous, determined, soaring ones.

My father, over more than fifty years as a synagogue rabbi, has had a ready smile and a reservoir of encouraging words for all, and continues in semi-retirement to offer the same to the many who value his friendship and counsel.

And I vividly remember Rabbi Yehudah Leib Nekritz, may his memory be a blessing, the religious leader of the Novardhok Siberian exiles, who in the 1950s and 60s would occasionally visit my parents’ home in Baltimore. Even when I was still too little to know much about the man with the black hat, white beard and peaceful smile who was so eagerly welcomed into our house, I was mesmerized by his aura of happiness.

On one of his visits, bashful child that I was, I ran to the far end of the house and hid under a table. From my safe distance, I studied his bright, cheery countenance. To this day, five decades later, I remember suddenly bounding across the house – only a few yards, but many little-boy steps – and hurling myself onto the visitor’s lap. Everyone was surprised– including me. My feet had received orders directly from my heart. Although Rabbi Nekritz had been through much in his life that was not pleasant, he radiated joy, and it was a powerful magnet.

Years later, when I learned about Novardhok and its approach to life, I thought it paradoxical that Novardhok self-criticism and relentless contemplation of life and its limited span could coexist with the smiling eyes and joie de vivre of a Rabbi Nekritz. What I came in time to realize, though, is that it wasn’t a matter of co-existence but of cause and effect.

The songs, too, display the apparent paradox. Their lyrics are about things like readiness to be persecuted for one’s commitment to Torah, the brevity of human existence, the need to seize every day – every moment – we have; yet the melodies as a rule are spirited, lively, filled with trust and hope and joy.

It might be hard to imagine a chorus like “Now [we’re] here; later, there” set to a swing beat. But somehow, strangely, it works.

I think the solution to “How can Novardhok seriousness yield joy?” lies in contemplating a converse-question: How can a society like ours, with all its opportunities for physical pleasure, avenues for escapism and creature comforts, yield the sullenness and depression that is the hallmark of so much of the contemporary world?

What occurs is that embracing distractions to avoid realities – like the fact that even if we are fortunate to become centenarians, our this-world lives are not forever; that we are here for a purpose, one we ignore at our peril; that we have responsibilities and cannot afford to waste time – yields not happiness but the heavy gloom of meaninglessness.

And, turning back to the Novardhokers, facing the realities of human existence – squarely, head-on, with open eyes – infuses people with joy, born of the immense good fortune of having been charged with a divine mission and granted meaningful lives.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The unaffiliated Jewish woman attended three of the rabbi's lectures in the 1950s, visibly intrigued by the ideas he put forth, about the historicity of the Jewish religious tradition. Then she abruptly stopped coming.

Another woman who had also attended the lecture series tracked her down and asked why she was no longer showing up. The first woman answered straightforwardly: "He was convincing me. If I continue to listen to this man, I will have to change my life."

What a remarkably honest person. (I like to imagine that she came, in time, to pursue what she then fled.)

And what a remarkable man was the rabbi who delivered the lectures. He was Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, whose tenth yahrtzeit, or death-anniversary, will be marked on the fast day of Shiva Asar BiTammuz (July 9). He later became the Rosh Yeshiva, or Dean, of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore. He was my rebbe.

As an 18-year-old studying in the Baltimore yeshiva in 1972, I watched him from afar. His father-in-law, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, of blessed memory, was the Rosh Yeshiva then; Rabbi Weinberg headed the Kollel, or graduate student program, and also delivered general Talmudic lectures. The depth of his knowledge, the power of his critical analyses of both Talmudic and worldly topics, his eloquence and his knowledge of history and the sciences all impressed me deeply.

But what I came to realize was that his brilliance and erudition were mere tools with which he was gifted. His essence was his dedication to truth, to Torah and to his students - indeed, to all Jews - and his humility.

When I think back on the many times I telephoned Rabbi Weinberg from wherever I was living at the time to ask him a question about Jewish law or philosophy, or for his advice, I am struck by something I never gave much thought to at those times: He was always available. And, I have discovered over the years, not only to me. As I came to recognize all the others - among them greatly accomplished Torah scholars, congregational rabbis and community leaders today - who had also enjoyed a student-rebbe relationship with Rabbi Weinberg, I marveled. In my youthful self-centeredness, I had imagined him as my rebbe alone. Who knew?

And his ongoing interactions with his students somehow didn't prevent him from travelling wherever his services were needed. A sought-after speaker and arbitrator for individuals and communities alike, he somehow found time and energy for it all.

More telling, he felt responsible to undertake it all. He (and, may she be well, his wife, Rebbetzin Chana Weinberg) gave so very much to others (as the Rebbetzin continues to do). That, I long ago concluded, is the defining characteristic of true Gedolim, literally "great ones" - the term reserved for the most knowledgeable and pious Torah leaders of each generation: selflessness.

How painfully ironic, I sometimes think, that small, spiteful minds try to portray Gedolim oppositely. Then again, as the weekly Torah-portion of Korach recently read in synagogue reminds us, no less a Godol than Moses - the "most humble of all men" - was also spoken of cynically by some in his day. Plus ça change…

It wasn't just in his public life, in his service to students and communities that Rabbi Weinberg's self-effacement was evident. It was in little things too.

In the early 1980s, he was asked to temporarily take the helm of a small yeshiva in Northern California that had fallen on hard times. Although not a young man, he agreed to leave his home and position in Baltimore and become interim dean.

My wife and I and our three daughters lived in the community; I taught in the yeshiva and served as principal of the local Jewish girls' high school. And so I was fortunate to have ample opportunity to work with Rabbi Weinberg, and to witness much that I will always remember. One small episode, though, remains particularly poignant.

Rabbi Weinberg was housed in a bedroom of a rented house. In the house's other bedroom lived the yeshiva's cooks - a middle-aged couple, recently immigrated from the Soviet Union.

Though Northern California has a wonderful climate, its winters can be a bit chilly, and the house's heating system was not working. The yeshiva administrator made sure that extra blankets were supplied to the house's residents, and an electric heater was procured for Rabbi Weinberg (the cooks, it was figured, had been toughened by a truly cold clime).

After a week or two of cold, rainy weather, it was evident that Rabbi Weinberg had caught a bad cold. Suspecting that perhaps the electric heater was not working, someone went to his room to check it. It wasn't there.

Where it was, it turned out, was in the cooks' room. Confronted with the discovery, Rabbi Weinberg sheepishly admitted to having relocated the heater. "I thought they would be cold," was all he said.

Another heater was bought. And a lesson, once again, learned, about the essence of a Godol.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, believed to be responsible for the murders and maiming of untold numbers of innocent African men, women and children, is now Jewish.

Well, at least in his own mind - and according to his wife Victoria, who also told the BBC that her husband still believes in the Christian savior.

Still, Mr. Taylor's claim raises an interesting question, and at least one thoughtful reporter, the Forward's Rebecca Dube, in a recent report, decided to ask it: What if a non-Jew with a criminal record genuinely wanted to become a Jew? Would he properly be considered for conversion? Could it be effected?

The answers - assuming the would-be convert is demonstrably sincere in his desire to join the Jewish people and accept Jewish observance (including renouncing crime) - are yes. By very definition, seeking conversion bespeaks a determination to change radically, and undergoing conversion creates precisely such a change. A convert, in the Talmud's words, is "like a newborn baby," detached from his or her previous existence.

The Talmud in fact recounts how two deeply odious people (one, as it happens, a mass murderer) converted to Judaism. According to the Talmudic account (Gittin, 56a), the Roman emperor Nero, seeing that the destruction of the Second Holy Temple was to come about through him, perceived the Divine hand in history and feared being the instrument of G-d's wrath against His people. So he ran away and joined them.

A similar choice was made by Nevuzaradan, a Roman general who, the Talmud teaches (Gittin 57b), murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews before being struck with deep remorse and converting.

Ms. Dube reports that a Reform rabbi in New York considers a person's sins to be a bar to conversion. There are, he says, "people whose total lack of ethics and morality would dismiss them at the outset." Similarly, a "Modern Orthodox" rabbi in Baltimore is quoted as saying that while "it's true that religion can change people for the better… the Jewish community is not a recovery house."

To be sure, any responsible Jewish court would be right to be wary of a Charles Taylor-type who came knocking at the door. But if the quoted rabbis mean to say that human past performance is an automatic indicator of future returns, they miss the point. Human beings have free will, and a sincere (stress, again, on that word) desire to convert is itself a desire to change.

And so even a criminal, if he demonstrates to a valid Jewish religious court a truthful desire to change his ways and undertake Jewish religious observance, can, by immersing in a mikvah (ritual bath) and, in the case of a man, undergoing circumcision, become a convert.

The converse, though, is equally true: A non-Jew who is unwilling to live a Jewish life, no matter how upstanding a citizen, cannot convert; any conversion ceremony for such a person accomplishes nothing.

That latter truth is a timely one. Some, of late, have suggested that the Israeli rabbinate "convert" hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants, to bolster Jewish numbers and allow those thus "made Jewish" to more easily blend into Jewish society. Leaving aside the wisdom of those goals themselves, such conversions, if unaccompanied by sincere acceptance of Jewish observance, would not be valid.

The bottom line: The relevant question in converting to Judaism is not prior behavior but sincerity of future Jewish purpose.

And Mr. Taylor? Well, he has not been reported to have undergone mikvah-immersion or circumcision, much less to have demonstrated a sincere acceptance of the Torah's laws to the satisfaction of any valid Jewish court. And his retaining of Christian belief would itself be sufficient to undermine his consideration by any such court. So it is a safe bet to say that, whether or not he is a changed man, his claim to Jewishness is spurious. But the report of his assertion is as good a springboard as any for propelling us to remember what conversion to Judaism isn't, and what it is.

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

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

My daily commute often puts me in the presence of one or another ear bud-wearing young person whose music device's volume is turned up sufficiently high to be audible (and annoying) to others many feet away. The experience makes me think about the Middle East. No, really.

The tinny noise, surely astoundingly loud to the eardrums mere millimeters away, makes me envision a world twenty years hence in which millions of middle-aged are unable to hear. And unlike the congenitally deaf, the newly hard-of-hearing will find it hard to manage. I wonder about the toll a chronically cranky chunk of the populace might take on society.

And that is what brings me to wonder about a different toll, on Palestinians.

President Obama received much criticism from some Jewish circles for elements of his Cairo speech earlier this month. His every turn of phrase, his juxtaposition of topics, what he said and what he didn't say - all were subjected to great scrutiny, and found wanting by some.

Others noted that, for goodness' sake, he was speaking to an Arab audience, seeking to seize an opportunity to win some trust on America's behalf. If peace between Israel and Palestinian Arabs is possible (a big "if," they concede), it will require a United States President who is seen by most Palestinians as sympathetic to their cause. The President, moreover, was explicit to his Muslim audience about "America's strong bonds with Israel," which he declared "unbreakable."

The issues are well known. What borders should a Palestinian state have? Should it be independent or confederated with an existing Arab country? Should it be armed or demilitarized? Should it be at all?

Should some or all Israeli communities built on land captured in 1967 be dismantled? Limited in growth? Left alone to grow and thrive as part of the Jewish State? Should Hamas and other murderous groups be included in any peace process directly or indirectly or shunned as incorrigible?

Should Arab refugees and their children and grandchildren be permitted to return to lands where they or their forebears once lived? Compensated in some way? Or absorbed by one of the dozen or so Arab countries?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his own recent speech at Bar Ilan University, addressed some of those issues, rejecting limitations on existing communities and accepting in principle the idea of a demilitarized Palestinian state.

What is arguably the most important issue, though, is something else.

It is something President Obama actually broached in his Cairo speech, when he called Holocaust denial "ignorant" and "hateful," and said that "repeating vile stereotypes about Jews" is "deeply wrong."

He was even more explicit in an interview after meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, in which he recounted telling the Arab leader "that it was very important to continue to make progress in reducing the incitement and anti-Israel sentiments that are sometimes expressed in schools and mosques and in the public square," that "all those things are impediments to peace."

The President spoke, as always, diplomatically. "Those things," in fact, are more than impediments; they are nail-packed bombs under the possibility of peace. As long as television programming for Arab children features puppets spewing hatred for Israel and cheerfully committing themselves to jihad; as long as streets in Palestinian-controlled areas are named in honor of vicious murderers of Jews; as long as Palestinian schools teach canards about Israel and use maps of the region that do not indicate the existence of a Jewish State - issues of states and borders and settlements are purely academic. The Talmud teaches (Shabbat 21b) that "the learning of youth" is the most strongly absorbed, remaining indelible into later years.

Decades, even centuries, of hatred do not preclude peace. But neither can peace be built on a foundation of hatred.

Whatever one's views on a "two state solution," on "settlements" or on a "right of return" for Palestinian Arabs and their descendants, it should be clear that the President was on target about the need for Arab incitement to cease. If I had his and Mr. Netanyahu's ears, I would respectfully suggest that they move that issue to the very front and center of the "peace process," where it belongs; that nothing else even be contemplated until it is fully resolved.

Because a loud, lewd and relentless stream of anti-Israel, anti-Jewish noise pumped into impressionable young Arabs' brains today will only render yet another generation of adults down the road stone-deaf to any possibility of peace.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

One Sunday more than a decade ago, I lay in a curtained-off cubicle adjacent to a hospital's emergency room, my chest bared and awaiting the sort of wired paddles that make still, supine bodies on medical dramas jump like chopped onions in a hot, oiled frying pan.

The procedure I was about to undergo, though, was relatively routine and quite safe; it had been scheduled weeks earlier in response to my heart's march for several years to the beat of a different drummer. One means of discouraging such nonconformance is to teach the offending muscles a good, swift lesson with a well-placed jolt of electricity. Same principle as a cattle prod.

No private room had been available at the hospital for so minor a chastisement as a cardioversion (or "conversion" in medical parlance; I warned the men of the frocks that they stood little chance of successfully "converting an Orthodox rabbi," but from the rolled eyes I realized I hadn't been the first bearded, beyarmulked patient to make the comment). Thus my decidedly unprivate, if off-the beaten-path, digs.

As I lay there, head propped on a pillow, awaiting the arrival of the anesthesiologist and the executioner, I watched a parade of patients being chaperoned from the emergency room through the hub of activity just beyond the half-parted curtain. A bloodied head here, a broken limb there, a macabre march, the yield of a sleepy city and its mistakes (or worse) on the sober morning after a Saturday night.

And then, in the middle of the procession, I saw her, and the look in her eyes.

A blanket covered all but her hoary head and one skeletal, desperate arm reaching for something that wasn't there. Her eyes, though, deeply sunken in a wizened, trembling face, were an irresistible force; they seized my own eyes and simply would not let go, not for the eternity of that fleeting moment. What I saw in those eyes was unfiltered, raw fear.

Maybe the fact that my heart was about to be stopped by a machine had oversensitized me. But something else weighed on me too, 3000 years of religious tradition.

For Judaism values life to an awesome degree. One moment on this earth is cherished beyond imagining in the Torah's eyes. "Tomorrow," asserts the Talmud - the next world - is for our ultimate reward; only "today," though, "is for doing."

The contemporary world values an assortment of talents and skills but none so intensely as Judaism treasures the ability to confront one's life, to face reality, to wield free will, to choose, resolve, repent. And even immobilized and ailing in a hospital bed, a man or woman can do those most meaningful things a human being can possibly do. A Talmudic teaching has it that some "acquire their portion" in heaven through the efforts of many years, others "in a mere hour."

Even the comatose may well be functioning beyond our assumptions. Electroencephalographs measure electrical activity in the brain but nothing more. Who can possibly know what might be happening in the soul of a living human being?

While my condition was benign and medically treatable, the imminent procedure was disconcerting. A lightning-quick thought of the coming anesthesia and what might follow stabbed at my brain. What if my heart protested the punishment (its owner, after all, tends toward overreaction) and decided to stop beating altogether? What, I wondered, was the hospital's policy about patients who suddenly need the proverbial "heroic measures"? Old or diseased patients, I knew, can have a "DNR" - a "Do Not Resuscitate" - order attached to their charts. They, or their relatives, or a doctor - depending on circumstances - can direct medical personnel to allow a patient in extremis to die, rather than interfere to postpone the final event. (Agudath Israel makes available for the asking "Halachic Living Wills" designed to ensure that health care decisions in the event of incapacity are made according to Jewish religious law.) I was pretty sure that a relatively healthy middle-aged adult like me would be rescued if things went awry.

But should there really be any difference, I mulled there on the gurney, between young and old, sick or healthy, clearly moribund or only subtly so like the rest of us? If a moment of human life is invaluable, is it not so for everyone?

Which thought made the coda to the apparition so striking, fixing it forever in my mind.

For just as the eyes, arm and blanket all disappeared to the left of my line of sight, a nurse's face entered stage right for the briefest of moments. It was a speaking part, but she had only one line.

"That's a DNR," the nurse called out with startling nonchalance. Even before the voltage came, a frisson washed over my bones.

When the electroshock came, it did nothing but burn my chest. My morning in the hospital left my heart unaffected.

Its rhythm, anyway.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

It looked like a bumblebee but something was odd. It seemed too shiny and too black, too large-limbed and lumbering. Maybe, I thought, it was just an aged member of the species.

I watched as it crawled slowly across a wooden beam that I had mounted last summer above the metal railing of the deck outside our dining room. Since our home's main floor is its second one, there was a halachic need - as per the Biblical law of "ma'akeh," or "roof enclosure" (Deuteronomy 22:8) - to extend the deck's waist-high railing upward. Hence the home-made wooden extension the bee had discovered.

I have always enjoyed the company of bees. As a child I would watch them, capture them, observe their behavior and occasionally endure their stings. Even to this day, in the sukkah, as others recoil at the sight of yellow-jackets, I will happily hold out my hand for the insects to crawl on, and escort them outside. Bumblebees, though, with their amazing flight maneuvers, have always been a personal favorite. And this one was strange.

What he did was even stranger, crawling to the underside of the wood and just parking himself there, upside down. Investigating, I saw that he had found, and apparently found to his liking, a perfectly round hole, about a half-inch in diameter. Compounding the strangeness, I didn't remember ever noticing the hole.

That was on the second day of Shavuot, just as I completed a session of Torah-study. (The deck is my special study-retreat, weather permitting.) Later in the day, I noticed that the bee had tunneled into the hole; puffs of sawdust could be seen emerging from it; eventually all that was visible of the animal was its hindquarters. After the holiday, I did some research and discovered that the bee was a she, and not bumblebee at all, but a carpenter bee.

The female of the species, I learned, prepares a nursery for her offspring by excavating the underside - always the underside - of a piece of wood, creating a near-perfectly round hole and then burrowing an inch or so into it before abruptly turning at a right angle to continue her tunnel horizontally. Eventually the hollowed-out area will be where the bee lays her brood.

She will partition off different areas of the tunnel, providing each "room" with a wad of pollen and nectar, and then lay one egg on it before sealing it off. Each egg will become a larva that will subsist on its personal manna until it develops into a pupa and then, finally, a new bee. The young bees will then break through the partitions and escape into the outside world.

I can't wait.

Maimonides characterizes the "path" to fulfilling the commandment of ahavat Hashem, loving G-d, thus: "When a person ponders [G-d's] great and wondrous acts and creations and perceives in them His limitless wisdom... he loves and praises and extols [G-d] and is filled with a deep and great desire to know [Him]…" (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, 2:2)

The awe-inspiring is all around us, if we care to look and think, and are not fooled into imagining that nature's fantasticalness is a phantasm, the meaningless yield of random meetings of molecules. Watching the carpenter bee was, for me, a new step on the path Maimonides describes.

And it reminded me, too, of a Talmudic aphorism: "The consequence of a mitzvah," or commandment, "is another mitzvah." (Avot, 4:2)

For had it not been for the mitzvah of ma'akeh, which had required me to build a sufficiently high railing for my deck, I would not have been able to study Torah, another mitzvah, of course, on my deck. The ma'akeh had led to Torah-study.

And had I not been studying Torah on my deck, I might never have met the carpenter bee, who I truly feel advanced me on the path leading to a most important mitzvah, ahavat Hashem.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

In one of his wonderful collections of essays (The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher), the late physician Lewis Thomas tells of a highly successful doctor (a senior citizen back when Dr. Thomas' father was an intern) in New York's Roosevelt Hospital who was trained before the medical profession understood how disease spreads. The elder doctor was renowned for his remarkable ability to diagnose typhoid fever, a common disease at that time and place. His method was to closely examine the tongues of patients. His ward rounds, the younger Dr. Thomas recounts, "were essentially tongue rounds." Each patient would stick out his tongue for the doctor to palpate. Pondering its texture and irregularities, he would diagnose the disease "in its earliest stages over and over again" and turn out, "a week or so later, to have been right, to everyone's amazement."

The essayist wryly concludes: "He was a more productive carrier, using only his hands, than Typhoid Mary."

I was reminded of the account by another, more recent, example of the Law of Unintended Consequences, a report that New York's elected officials want to revoke the "Rockefeller Laws." Enacted in 1973 as a popular response to the societal plague of narcotics use at the time, those statutes, championed by New York's then-governor Nelson Rockefeller, imposed mandatory prison sentences for drug offenders. Similar laws were soon adopted elsewhere.

Over ensuing decades, though, the laws in other states were revoked, and now New York's governor and legislative leaders have announced their intention to repeal many of the original "Rockefeller Laws," giving judges the authority to send first-time nonviolent offenders for treatment instead of to prison.

What provoked the abandonment of those drug laws was that in the wake of their enactment both New York's prison population and its percentage of incarcerated drug offenders more than tripled. The attendant costs were not only financial but human: minorities and women were disproportionately affected, and recreational drug users who entered the prison system left it as hardened criminals.

It is sobering to consider that our best laid plans, even when born of sincere concern and seeming logic, can turn against us. The sobriety should impart, if nothing else, a modicum of modesty, a reluctance to feel as certain as we so often do that the paths we choose will lead where we want.

There are, of course, certainties in life, deep convictions that we rightly embrace without reservation. Religious Jews, for instance, affirm that Creation has a purpose and that the goals of their own lives are defined by G-d's will as communicated through the Torah. We may also consider close to certain the measured judgments in specific realms of others whom we believe to be wiser than we are, be they doctors, lawyers or religious leaders. But to proclaim our own independent, personal certitude about a political or social position, to assume that any of us can know without question that a particular political philosophy, foreign policy, government official or piece of legislation is good (or bad) is, always, in the end, an exercise in overreaching.

To be sure, we have every right to make our personal analyses and to take positions on such people and things, to advocate what we think is wise and to make the cases for our opinions. But as we do, it is beneficial to have in the backs of our minds - or perhaps their fronts - a recognition of the fact that, for all our brights and best laid logic, we might still … possibly… be… wrong.

And that realization is of more than philosophical import. It has a vital and practical ramification in the realm of human interaction, along the lines of the Talmudic statement that "just as people's faces all differ, so do their minds." For it requires us to perceive those with different views as, well, people with different views, not as illogical, intractable, irredeemable enemies of all that is good and right.

Unfortunately, newsprint, airwaves and cyberspace are saturated with precisely that latter sort of demagoguery. And contrary to the claims of some of its enthusiasts, such "free speech" does not promote healthy, productive disagreement and discussion; it suffocates them.

Contemporary society suffers from a malnourishment of modesty. It is evident not only in the realm of the physical - in contemporary dress and mores - but in attitudes toward issues as well. There is so little that any of us can truly know; yet so certain are so many of so much.

And so, suffused with self-assurance, the cavalier march forward, their points of view extended before them like bayonet tips. Confident of the infallibility of their judgment, the righteousness of their causes and the dire threat posed by others' perspectives, they generously share not only their conclusions but their ill will, every bit as effectively as a doctor at a New York hospital once propagated a different disease.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Odd as it might seem, the recent report that a library at Yemen Children's Hospital was named after Palestinian suicide bomber Wafa Idris, that terrorist Samir Al-Kuntar spoke at the naming-ceremony and that little girls read poems in honor of the occasion brought back a Shavuot memory.

According to the report, which originated in a Yemeni news service and was translated by MEMRI, the local Province Governor expressed pride "that the Arab nation has stalwart resistance [fighters] like Samir Al-Kuntar." In 1974, Mr. Kuntar murdered an Israeli father in front of his four-year-old daughter and then smashed the little girl's skull against a rock with a rifle butt.

Every Jewish holiday is special in its own way, but Shavuot, which falls on May 29 and 30 this year, is unusual: it has no specific "active" observances, nothing like Passover's seder and matzoh, or Sukkot's booths or "four species," or Rosh Hashana's shofar-blowing.

The 18th century Chassidic master known as Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev perceived something subtle in that fact. Shavuot, he noted, is identified by Jewish tradition as the anniversary of the Jewish people's acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Since the act of accepting is an inherently passive one, he explained, the holiday is pointedly devoid of physically active observances. It is a time of receiving the Torah anew, and most appropriately expressed through Torah-study.

Hence, likely, the ancient Jewish custom to stay awake the entire night of Shavuot immersed in the texts of our tradition.

Every year I experience a personal Shavuot miracle; it is one that I suspect is shared by many others. By the end of our family's festive meal on Shavuot night, the prospect of staying awake an hour, much less six or seven, seems an impossible one. Yet, somehow, entering the study-hall, some holy energy seems to seize me, and, even as my mind and body increasingly rebel against the deprivation of slumber, my soul jumps for joy.

Seven years ago, my nearly12-year-old son Dovie - today a strapping 19-year-old studying in yeshiva in Israel - insisted on joining me in study in the large main sanctuary of a local synagogue, which was crowded with scores of Jewish men and boys doing the same.

The two of us, salt-and-pepper-bearded, could-stand-to-lose-a-few-pounds father and reddish-haired, dimpled and determined son, spent most of the night engrossed in Talmud. We began with a page of the tractate he was studying in school - a long passage dealing with the imperative of alleviating an animal's pain - and then turned to several pages of another tractate he and I regularly learn together - which concerned the status of land ownership in Jerusalem.

Dovie seemed entirely awake throughout it all, and asked the perceptive questions I had come to expect from him. We paused over the course of the night only for him to participate in classes for boys his age in an adjoining room, taught by an older yeshiva boy.

The experience was enthralling, as it always is, and while it was a challenge to concentrate (and at times even to keep my eyes from closing) during the prayer service that followed at 5:00 AM, Dovie and I both "made it" and then, hand in hand, walked home, where we promptly crashed. But before my head touched my pillow (a millisecond or two before I entered REM sleep), I summoned the energy to thank G-d for sharing His Torah with us.

That silent prayer came back to me like a thunderclap a few days later, when I caught up on some reading I had missed (though only in the word's most simple sense) over the holiday. Apparently, during the precise hours Dovie and I were studying holy texts, the presses at The Washington Times were printing a story datelined Gaza City.

It began with a description of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Abu Ali, being "lovingly dress[ed] by his mother in a costume of a suicide bomber, complete with small kaffiyeh, a belt of electrical tape and fake explosives made of plywood."

"I encourage him, and he should do this," said his mother; and Abu Ali himself apparently agreed. "I hope to be a martyr," he said. "I hope when I get to 14 or 15 to explode myself."

My thoughts flashed back to Shavuot and to my own son, and I thanked G-d again, from the bottom of my heart.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Even with the surfeit of silliness passing these days for "Torah commentary"- the manufactured "midrashim," "original interpretations" and Biblical passages turned on their heads - I was flabbergasted to read a homily disparaging the Chafetz Chaim.

The Chafetz Chaim, of course - Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan - was renowned for his saintliness and sagacity, and for his monumental works on Jewish law, including two on the laws against slander. When the Polish sage died, in 1933, The New York Times' obituary noted that he had shut down his store when he realized that its success born of his renown was imperiling other local storekeepers' income.

What exercised the contemporary sermonizer, whose words appeared in an Israel-oriented magazine, was the Chafetz Chaim's comment on an undisputed halachic ruling, that even a sinner, if Jewish, can be counted as part of a prayer-quorum. The Chafetz Chaim had elucidated the reason behind the ruling: "Even though he is a sinning Jew," the great rabbi explained, "his holiness endures."

The magazine-homilist, a Jewish educator, found that statement "not so enlightened," indeed "particularly problematic in an era when racism has fallen out of favor."

Racism? To most of us that word implies mistreating, or at least disliking, someone because of his ethnicity. There are observant Jews who are racist; observance, unfortunately, doesn't preclude any of a number of irrationalities. But affirmation of "Jewish election" - the concept that the Jewish people was chosen by G-d to be a holy nation with a holy mission - has about the same relationship to racism as a sizzling steak has to a slab of cold tofu. (No angry e-mails, please - I like tofu!) For that matter, Jewish chosen-ness is a belief held by many non-Jews as well.

And what sort of "racism" permits its targets to switch races? While Judaism doesn't encourage conversion, anyone not born Jewish but willing to undertake commitment to the faith's laws and undergo the conversion process is fully welcomed into the Jewish people. Does David Duke let Pakistanis join his whites-only club? Would Louis Farrakhan let Mr. Duke become an honorary black?

The bottom line: Jewish chosen-ness, from the Jewish perspective, entails no disparagement of others. It is not a license but a responsibility, to live by the laws of the Torah and to set a holy example for others - to shine forth in belief and behavior as the prophet Isaiah's "light unto the nations" (42:6).

But, yes, even one who has failed to shoulder that responsibility doesn't thereby lose that responsibility, or his status as part of his people. The relative who let you down, even terribly, remains your relative.

The derivation itself of the concept of a prayer-quorum implies as much. The Talmud divines the requirement of ten men for a public declaration of G-d's holiness (like, for example, the recitation of the Kaddish) from the use of the same Hebrew word, b'toch - "among" - in both the verse "And I will be [declared] holy among the Jewish people" and the verse "Separate yourselves from among the congregation," the latter concerning the followers of Korach, who rebelled against Moses and Aaron. Since the word "congregation" - "edah" - in that latter verse is in turn used in yet a third one, "How much longer, this evil congregation?" (referring to the ten Jewish men who scouted the Holy Land and delivered a misleadingly discouraging report), the Talmud concludes that a "holiness" prayer-quorum requires ten Jewish men (Berachot, 21b).

And so the very source of the quorum is rooted in references to sinners. That speaks loudly about the Jewish faith's demarcation of Jews as special, sinners and all.

Maybe the contemporary educator is not aware that the concept of Jewish election itself dates somewhat farther back than the Chafetz Chaim, to the Torah itself. Or maybe he is, but rejects the idea nonetheless, choosing to see it as "racism."

I suspect he doesn't really deny what is, in the end, a basic Jewish conviction; he's just uncomfortable in our universalist times with the notion that the Jewish faith sets Jews apart (the essential meaning of the Hebrew word for holy, "kadosh") . But I think that he knows it does and, deep down, accepts the fact. That alone could explain why, as the biographical note at the end of his essay states, come fall the writer will be joining the faculty at a Jewish day school in California.

Not a Catholic, Muslim or Hindu school. A Jewish one.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

At some point, a tiny human embryo, properly cared for, becomes a baby.

Taken apart, however, an embryo can provide embryonic stem cells that can be coaxed to grow into practically any tissue of the body, offering the hope that experimenting with them could yield treatments for a host of diseases.

Some equate such experimentation on embryos with murder; others dismiss out of hand any concern for what is done to what is, at the time, an undifferentiated biological mass. Those are the positions on the extremes of the embryonic stem cell research spectrum.

From the perspective of Jewish religious law, things are not as simple as either polar position. A host of fine-point factors imbue the calculus, which is why Agudath Israel, on the advice of the rabbinical leaders at its helm, has not taken a public stance on the issue. But an issue it is. And President Obama, it seems, recognizes that fact.

Back in March, the President issued an Executive Order lifting Bush Administration limits on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, enthusing proponents of such science.

"We're thrilled," said a spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine at the time, "that the president is going to lift the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research." In the Jewish world, Reform Rabbi David Saperstein, director of his movement's Religious Action Center, wrote how "refreshing" he found it to have an administration "committed to rooting its science policy in fact, no matter its ideology, rather than rooting its science policy in ideology, no matter the facts."

But the "ideology" in this context would be better described as an ethical concern. Communism and fascism are ideologies; respect for human life, whether at its end or its beginning, is a matter of morality. As Slate columnist William Saletan has written, to dismiss opposition to embryonic research as "ideology" is to "forget the moral problem." Some proponents of embryo research, he observes, regard "the war on disease… like the war on terror. Either you're with science or you're against it."

Not so, thankfully, Mr. Obama. Last month, under his direction, the National Institutes of Health revealed details of the change in policy. Whereas the Bush administration had approved 21 already established stem cell lines for federally funded research, now stem cells from embryos slated for destruction - largely those left over from fertility treatments, with donors' written consent - will be available to researchers for experimentation funded by federal tax dollars.

Mr. Obama, however, did not voice support for using federal funds to create embryos for research purposes. While privately funded researchers have never been barred from creating and destroying embryos, since 1996 a federal law known as the Dickey-Wicker amendment has disallowed federal funds to be used for such purposes. Noting that "Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research," the President opted not to enter the Dickey-Wicker sticky wicket.

The New York Times editorial page was not amused, calling the President's stance "the easy political path." The Religious Action Center was, uncharacteristically, silent. Researchers voiced vexation. Dr. Irving Weissman, director of a stem cell research facility at Stanford University, asserted that the NIH's guidelines put an "ideological barrier in the way" of treating disease. The "I" word again.

Thankfully, the entire issue of whether it is ethical to create potential humans in order to dismember them for scientific purposes - or, at least, to federally fund the enterprise - may be in the process of becoming moot. Two years ago, Japanese biologist Shinya Yamanaka found that adult skin cells - millions of which each of us can spare without much trouble - can be induced to revert to an embryonic stage. Such technology, says Dr. Arnold Kriegstein, a stem cell researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, "may eventually eclipse the embryonic stem cell lines for therapeutic as well as diagnostics applications." In fact, there are clear advantages, particularly in potential therapeutic use, for treating patients with cells that originated in their own bodies.

Should Dr. Yamanaka's finding open up a new and ethically untroubling universe of cells for research, the day may be coming when no one will have any reason or wish to destroy embryos. And certainly not to grow them into fetuses in order to harvest their organs - the next-step idea broached several months ago at a scientific symposium in England.

In the meantime, we Americans can be comforted by the knowledge that our President seems to recognize the gravity of the fact that human embryos can grow into people as real as the readers of these lines.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

I don't often ride the New York subways, but not long ago I found myself leaving a train deep beneath Brooklyn, at the borough's cavernous Atlantic Street station. And I was surprised to be greeted, amid all the usual squalor and bustle, by a large and exquisite reproduction of "The Starry Night," Vincent Van Gogh's eerie painting. I'm no art aficionado but the famous rendering of a haloed moon and stars in a swirling blue firmament has always moved me. What in the world - or underworld - though, was a copy of the painting doing on a subway station wall?

Then, turning to find the track I needed, I found myself face to face with an unmistakable Monet pond-scene. Nearby, I noticed with increasing amusement, were cubist visions by Picasso, Warholian soup cans and various other copies of paintings, drawings and photographs whose originals hang in museums.

Or, as I discovered, a museum - New York's Museum of Modern Art. The posters were part of an advertising campaign to lure subway riders to visit the originals.

Clever, I thought, and a nice touch for a famously unrefined environment. Then my thoughts drifted.

The reproductions before me were, at least to untrained eyes like mine, virtually indistinguishable from the originals. I'm sure the textures of the brushstrokes are evident in the actual paintings; and they alone, after all, were produced by the artists' hands. But great pains had been taken to present subway patrons with top-notch copies of the MOMA possessions; and the results, had they been hanging on a museum wall, could probably have fooled most people.

Yet the originals are, well, authentic, and priceless; and the copies mere copies, worth only their printing costs (and copyright fees).

People, too, I ruminated, can be real or ersatz. Some are just what they seem. Others, though, are, in effect, cheap copies, pretending to be what they project but lacking authenticity of character, the brushstrokes of the soul.

There are, for instance, genuine leaders dedicated to advancing the interests of those they lead, and shameful imitations, demagogues donning mantles of power for their own personal gain. There are true scientists, open to wonder and dedicated to discerning natural truths; and there are counterfeit ones, duly credentialed but without the sense of objectivity that underlies the genuine pursuit of truth. There are deeply religious people, who understand that there is a greater Power than any temporal one, Whose will human beings must strive to discern and follow. And there are charlatans, pretenders to spirituality, sometimes obvious, other times not. It is no different in the observant Jewish community, where there are sincere men and women pledged to the laws and ideals of the Jewish religious tradition, but also people who dress the part but whose clothes are just costumes.

But those are the extremes; human nature isn't a dichotomy. There are also leaders who want to do what is right but succumb at times to doing what's best for themselves; scientists who are basically objective but occasionally allow their biases reign; religious people whose deepest desire is to serve G-d but who are vulnerable to laziness, jealousy and anger.

That describes many of us, I think. But we aren't fakers for the fact. There is a great difference between pathology and imperfection, between being hypocritical and being human.

The Talmud relates how, for a period of time, under the leadership of the illustrious sage Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh, the study hall was open exclusively to students whose "insides were like their outsides" - who were precisely what they purported to be, righteous scholars.

Rabban Gamliel's successor, however, loosened the requirement - for the better, the Talmud implies.

So it would seem that even those of us who are less than perfectly coherent need not despair. My revered mentor, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, noted that the Talmud's wording is instructive. We are not exhorted to bring our "outsides" into line with our "insides" - to achieve spiritual purity and then adopt its signifiers - but rather the other way around. We are permitted, even required, to outwardly emulate those more spiritually accomplished than we, to embrace acts of observance and goodness, even if our souls are not yet as pure as our clothing. "A person is acted upon," in the Sefer Hachinuch's words, "by his actions."

And yet, the "insides like outsides" ideal clearly remains the ultimate goal, not only for scholars but for us all. We may not yet have achieved - and, as the imperfect creatures we are, may never achieve - full coherence, but we must strive for it all the same. The only excuse for not being there is that we're trying to get there. And as long as we are honestly working toward our goal, our efforts bring us closer.

How fortunate are we humans. A copy of a Van Gogh cannot ever, no matter how hard it tries, grow into the real deal.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The sight was not only amusing, it was timely. Leaving my house for the synagogue early the third morning of Passover, a Sabbath this year, I wished my next-door neighbor a good morning. A muscular man, he was sitting in his doorway in his pajamas, curled up against the mist and chill, smoking a cigarette.

His wife (or maybe his landlord) doesn’t allow him to smoke in the house. And so he can often be found outside feeding his habit. This particular day, though, his just-woke-up-and-needed-one-so-bad look took on a larger import. It was a poignant reminder of what Jews were celebrating that week: release from slavery.

I imagined my neighbor regarding his perch as an escape from the oppression of the smoke-intolerant house. The reality, of course, is quite the opposite: his enslaver is his addiction.

The freedom for which Jews recently spent a week thanking their Liberator is also often misunderstood. Yes, the Jewish exodus from Egypt freed our ancestors from physical enslavement, but it was much more than a liberation movement, a shaking off of shackles and assertion of independence. The deepest enslavement the Jews suffered in Egypt, authentic Jewish sources explain, was spiritual in nature. The people had sunk to a deep level of defilement, having assimilated their masters’ unholy practices. And G-d’s intercession before the people could sink even any deeper into the moral morass – another moment in Egypt, the rabbis of the Midrash teach, would have rendered them beyond redemption – is the deepest reason for our Passover rejoicing.

Which made a statement issued by the advocacy arm of the Reform movement on the eve of the holiday so tragically ironic. It came in the wake of the Vermont legislature’s vote to legalize same-sex marriage in that state, and expressed how, “as we prepare for the Passover holiday,” the movement was “cheered by the sweetness of [the] victory for marriage equity…”

To some of us, the Vermont vote, like an Iowa court ruling shortly before it that yielded a similar outcome in that state, would have been more appropriately associated with the Seder plate’s bitter herbs. For the headlong societal rush to exalt behavior the Torah forbids not only to Jews but to all of humanity evidences a deep and dangerous misunderstanding. It confuses libertinism with liberty, free-for-all with freedom.

For true freedom entails responsibility; it is the freedom not of the body but of the soul. When G-d ordered Pharaoh “Let My people go!” He continued: “… so that they may serve Me.”

The Jewish concept of freedom does not entail being unfettered, but rather bound to what is meaningful; it does not mean independence but subservience – not to the mundane but to the Divine.

Which is why Passover, in a sense, doesn’t entirely end after its seven (or, outside of the Holy Land, eight) days. On the second day of the holiday, following the Biblical command, observant Jews begin counting, marking each of the following forty-nine days by pronouncing a blessing and assigning the day a number. The fiftieth day, the day after the counting is completed, is the holiday of Shavuot (“Weeks”); it is in a very real sense the culmination of Passover.

For according to Jewish tradition, Shavuot is the anniversary of what the exodus from Egypt was for: the revelation at Sinai, when the Torah was given to the Jewish people. And therein lies the ultimate meaning of Jewish freedom: emergence from our enslavement to lower urges, to substances, possessions, the dictates of society. Freedom of the spirit.

And so we count the days – quite literally – from the holiday of freedom to the holiday of Torah, expressing (and, hopefully, impressing on ourselves) just how inextricably the theme of Passover is linked to that of Shavuot, how the ultimate expression of true freedom is having the courage and mettle to throw off the yoke of temporal masters and commit ourselves to what is meaningful in an ultimate sense: the will and law of G-d.

The rabbis of the Talmud put it pithily, noting how similar the Hebrew word for “etched,” “charut” – used about the commandments carved on the Tablets of the Law – is to the Hebrew word for freedom, cherut.

“The only free person,” they explain, “is the one immersed in Torah.”

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Something tells me I won't make any new friends (and might even lose some old ones) if I confess to harboring some admiration for Bernard Madoff.

And to make things worse, I can't muster much for Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed a full commercial airliner in the Hudson River back in January.

Let me try to explain. Please.

Mr. Madoff committed a serious economic crime on an unprecedented scale for such wrongdoing, and in the process ruined the financial futures of numerous people and institutions, including charitable ones, worldwide. There can be no denying that.

Yet I can't quite bring myself to join the large, loud chorus of those who have condemned him to - to take Ralph Blumenthal's judgment in The New York Times Magazine - the Pit, the deepest circle of Dante's Inferno. Others have devised and publicly proclaimed creative and exquisite tortures of their own for the disgraced businessman - Woody Allen fantasized Madoff being attacked by clients reincarnated as lobsters, and Elie Wiesel wished the investor confined to a solitary cell and forced to watch his victims on a screen bewail their changed fortunes. The fury of the bilked has yielded opprobrium and loathing that isn't visited on mass murderers.

I think the revulsion may say more about the revolted - and our money-obsessed and vengeance-obsessed society - than it does about Madoff. His crime, after all, was really remarkable only for its longevity and its scope. Judaism teaches that stealing is a sin, but it doesn't differentiate between misappropriating a million dollars and pilfering a dime. And as to the sheer number of people defrauded by the thief of the moment, well, anyone who cheats on his federal income tax is defrauding 300 million of his fellow citizens. Few though, in such cases, invoke Dante.

What is more, Madoff likely began his crime spree in the hope of rewarding, not swindling, investors, and by the time it became clear he wouldn't be able to do that, he was already deeply entangled - and daily becoming more entangled - in the web he wove.

None of that, though, is to belittle the great pain Mr. Madoff caused, and is certainly no cause for affording the iniquitous investment broker respect. No, what I admire about him has to do with his owning up to his crime.

Think about it. The man knew for years that his scheme would eventually come apart and that prosecution loomed, yet he took no steps to flee, huge bribe in hand, to some country lacking extradition treaties. Idi Amin, we might recall, died of old age in luxury. Madoff's millions, moreover, could have easily bought him a new face and identity papers; he could spent his senior years tanned and well-fed among the sunbirds of Miami Beach.

Instead, though, he chose to essentially turn himself in and admit guilt. He apologized to his victims, acknowledging that he had "deeply hurt many, many people," and adding, "I cannot adequately express how sorry I am for what I have done."

No one can know if those words reflect the feelings in his heart, but I don't claim any right to doubt that they do. And facing one's sins and regretting them is the essence of the Jewish concept of teshuvah, repentance - something we are all enjoined to do for our personal transgressions, however small or large.

No such sublimity of spirit, though, was in evidence in any of the public acts or words of Mr. Sullenberger. He saved 155 lives, no doubt about it, and is certainly owed the gratitude of those he saved, and of their families and friends. And he executed tremendous skill.

But no moral choice was involved in his act. He was on the plane too, after all; his own life depended on undertaking his feat no less than the lives of others. He did what anyone in terrible circumstances would do: try to stay alive. He was fortunate (as were his passengers) that he possessed the talents requisite to the task, but that's a tribute to his training, and to the One Who instilled such astounding abilities in His creations (and Whose help the captain was not quoted as acknowledging). Basketball players are highly skilled, too - and heroes, in fact, to some. But I have never managed to understand that latter fact.

Sully has reportedly inked a $3 million book deal with HarperCollins, and is also planning a second book of inspirational poems; Bernie, likely for the rest of his life, will languish in jail.

That may make societal sense, but personally, I'm still unmoved by the pilot, and, at least somewhat, inspired by the penitent.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

One day during my teenage years I began to think about what my father, may he be well, had been doing at my age. The thought occurred too late for me to compare his and his family's flight by foot from the Nazis in Poland at the outbreak of World War II to my own 14th year of life - when my most daunting challenge had been, the year before, chanting my bar-mitzvah portion.

But I was still young enough to place the image of his subsequent years in Siberia - as a guest of the Soviet Union, which deported him and others from his yeshiva in Vilna - alongside my high school trials for comparison. At the age when I was avoiding study, he was avoiding being made to work on the Sabbath; when my religious dedication consisted of getting out of bed early in the morning to attend services, his entailed finding opportunities to study Torah while working in the frozen taiga; where I struggled to survive the emotional strains of adolescence, he was struggling, well, to survive. As years progressed, I continued to ponder our respective age-tagged challenges. Doing so has lent me some perspective.

As has thinking about my father's first Passover in Siberia, while I busy myself helping (a little) my wife shop for holiday needs and prepare the house for its annual leaven-less week.

In my father's memoirs, which I have been privileged to help him record and which, G-d willing, we hope will be published later this year, there is a description of how Passover was on the minds of the young men and their teacher, exiled with them, as soon as they arrived in Siberia in the summer of 1941. Over the months that followed, while laboring in the fields, they pocketed a few wheat kernels here and there, later placing them in a special bag, which they carefully hid. This was, of course, against the rules and dangerous. But the Communist credo, after all, was "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" and so they were really only being good Marxists. They had spiritual needs, including kosher-for-Passover matzoh.

Toward the end of the punishing winter, they retrieved their stash and, using a small hand coffee grinder, ground the wheat into coarse, dark flour.

They then dismantled a clock and fitted its gears to a whittled piece of wood, fashioning an approximation of the cleated rolling pin traditionally used to perforate matzohs to ensure their quick and thorough baking. In the middle of the night the exiles came together in a hut with an oven, which, as the outpost's other residents slept, they fired up for two hours to make it kosher for Passover before baking their matzohs.

On Passover night they fulfilled the Torah's commandment to eat unleavened bread "guarded" from exposure to water until before baking.

Perspective is provided me too by the wartime Passover experience of my wife's father, I.I. Cohen, may he be well. In his own memoir, "Destined to Survive" (ArtScroll/Mesorah, 2001), he describes how, in the Dachau satellite camp where he was interned, there was no way to procure matzoh. All the same, he was determined to have the Passover he could. In the dark of the barracks on Passover night, he turned to his friend and suggested they recite parts of the Haggadah they knew by heart.

As they quietly chanted the Four Questions other inmates protested. "What are you crazy Chassidim doing saying the Haggadah?" they asked. "Do you have matzohs, do you have wine and all the necessary food to make a seder? Sheer stupidity!"

My father-in-law responded that he and his friend were fulfilling a Torah commandment - and no one could know if their "seder" is less meritorious in the eyes of Heaven than those of Jews in places of freedom and plenty.

Those of us indeed in such places can glean much from the Passovers of those two members - and so many other men and women - of the Jewish "greatest generation."

A Chassidic master offers a novel commentary on a verse cited in the Haggadah. The Torah commands Jews to eat matzoh on Passover, "so that you remember the day of your leaving Egypt all the days of your life."

Rabbi Avrohom, the first Rebbe of Slonim, commented: "When recounting the Exodus, one should remember, too, 'all the days' of his life - the miracles and wonders that G-d performed for him throughout…"

I suspect that my father and father-in-law, both of whom, thank G-d, emerged from their captivities and have merited to see children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, naturally do that. But all of us, no matter our problems, have experienced countless "miracles and wonders." We may not recognize all of the Divine guidance and benevolence with which we were blessed - or even the wonder of every beat of our hearts and breath we take. But that reflects only our obliviousness. At the seder, when we recount G-d's kindnesses to our ancestors, it is a time, too, to look back at our own personal histories and appreciate the gifts we've been given.

Should that prove hard, we might begin by reflecting on what some Jews a bit older than we had to endure not so very long ago.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The title of Reform Rabbi David Forman's column in the Jerusalem Post was certainly intriguing. "Let's Declare Ourselves a Separate Religion," it read.

Israel, of course, grants a large measure of independence to a variety of religious groups represented among its citizenry. Eastern Orthodox Christian religious leaders are empowered to oversee religious rites and determine personal status issues in their community and they receive funds from the government; the same privileges are afforded the Roman Catholic community, the Muslim, the Bahai and others. Rabbi Forman seemed to be dangling a novel way for non-Orthodox Jewish groups to qualify for their own rights and benefits, to claim their own, so to speak, piece of the action.

Most of the article was a venting of Reform and Conservative ire over the fact that traditional Jewish religious law, or halacha, applied through the auspices of official Israeli rabbinate, governs Jewish status issues like conversion and marriage in the Jewish State. That policy, which has been in place since Israel's birth more than sixty years ago, the writer contended, constitutes a "thrust[ing of] religious medievalism down the throats of a secular citizenry." And as a result, he charged, Israel "is slipping into a theocracy."

The columnist went on to claim that the "Orthodox establishment" is "undermining the cause of peace" - presumably for taking groups like Hamas at their words - and represents "the cohabitation of a chauvinistic theology with a religious ego." The Orthodox, moreover, he wrote, are ensuring "that Israel fits neatly into the Middle East panoply of extremist states."

Then there was more, later in the piece, about the "profane ruminations" and "blasphemous perorations" of some Orthodox rabbis. But you get the idea.

The article, however, contained less heated, more sensible words too. Following the fulminations, the writer offered his honest admission that "the Reform and Conservative movements" are in fact "a separate religion." And so, he continued, the most honest and straightforward way for those movements to attain clerical privileges of their own is for them to admit as much - to declare themselves, as per the piece's title, "a separate religion from Orthodoxy."

A subtle dissembling, though, hides in that last word. For "Orthodoxy" is simply the name that the Reform and Conservative movements gave to what "Judaism" meant for millennia prior - to what those movements sought to supplant when they birthed themselves.

Over scores of generations until relatively recently, the Jewish religion was synonymous with the belief that the Torah - whose Written and Oral components are reflected and amplified in the corpus of halacha - is divinely decreed, unchangeable and incumbent on all Jews. Movements that chose to put aside that belief, in whole or in part (as by considering contemporary mores to trump the Torah's), separated themselves not from some mere "branch" of Judaism. They severed themselves conclusively from the trunk of the tree; they departed from what constituted the Jewish faith since Sinai. To be sure, their Jewish-born followers remain Jews in every way; a Jew is a Jew, whatever his or her congregational affiliation. But the belief systems that those movements - qua movements - embrace are at irreconcilable odds with the Judaism of the ages - which is based on affirmation of the Torah's timelessness and halacha's sacrosanctity.

So when Rabbi Forman, after offering his admirable admission, goes on to imagine that a Reform and Conservative self-declaration as a new religion will reduce Orthodoxy to "merely one of three branches of Judaism," he is attempting to have his new faith and delete it too. If he wishes the "non-Orthodoxies" to be considered a different religion, the theological justification is manifestly there; but let the move be honest, clear and decisive.

If it will be, then the new religion will have legitimate claim to the very same rights, privileges and determinations as are enjoyed by other independent and discrete faiths in Israel today.

Rabbi Forman is confident that, in the wake of the announcement of a new religion for Jews, "Reform and Conservative conversion classes would soar," the halacha-respecting rabbinate's "religious and social influence" would wane, "Orthodoxy's stranglehold on the political system" would be "mercifully loosened" and "vibrancy, inclusiveness and progressiveness" would result.

Perhaps; and maybe birds will sing, too, and peace reign throughout the land. But Israeli polls have shown that, despite determined efforts by the non-Orthodox movements over decades to promote themselves, a clear majority of Israelis - even if they are not personally halacha-observant - still consider traditional Jewish beliefs and law to define Judaism. It is hard to imagine that declaring non-Orthodox movements a new religion will create a flood of applicants clamoring to join.

But whether it will or it won't - or, for that matter, whether or not Rabbi Forman's suggestion is taken up in earnest - by acknowledging the essential disparity between the Judaism of time immemorial and contemporary divergences from it, the rabbi has performed a Jewish public service.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

For decades the IBM slogan seemed to be everywhere. THINK, it read, simply and starkly. It is apparently long phased out, but the advice remains as good as ever.

I was reminded of that on a recent trip to another city, where I witnessed an interaction between two young men, one about four and a half years old, the other a year younger. They might be related to me, or they might not. I'm not saying.

The older boy was playing in the bathtub; his mother had left him for a moment and I, sitting within feet of the bathroom, could hear him talking to his bath toys. Suddenly, his younger brother appeared. With a quick look around to make sure his mother wasn't watching (I didn't count, apparently), he darted to the bathroom light switch, flicked it off and swiftly slammed the door shut.

The older boy, suddenly plunged into darkness, howled in terror, which brought his mother in an instant. She opened the door, turned the light back on, comforted the victim and apprehended the culprit, who was unceremoniously sent to his room.

It was then the perp's turn to howl. No! Not his room! Anything but that! Like Cain's, his punishment was too much to bear.

But off he went as ordered, whimpering all the way.

"I guess he didn't see that coming," I remarked to the mother with a laugh.

"He sure should have." she responded. "He's done it before, and always gets sent to his room."

I guess he could have used a flashing "THINK" sign at the crucial moment. But it's only at a certain point of development that thinking - at least about consequences - really kicks in, that the relentless logic of "if… then" becomes clear.

Last month, the Jewish world lost a human treasure. Rabbi Noach Weinberg, of blessed memory, worked tirelessly to bring Jews closer to their spiritual heritage, and the fruits of his labors - his countless students - continue to invigorate the Jewish people, through their own lives and, for many of them, by carrying on their rebbe's outreach mission, connecting Jews with Jewish verities.

I met Rabbi Weinberg briefly only two or three times but once was I privileged to hear him speak. It was a memorable experience. In the course of his edifying talk, he recounted a personal story that still remains with me. In 1939, when he was eight years old, his class had decided that on a certain day they would all skip yeshiva and go to the World's Fair in Queens. Everyone had to bring a dollar, though, and, well, he didn't have one.

Walking dejectedly to school, Rabbi Weinberg recounted, it occurred to him that he might find a dollar on the pavement. So he prayed for that to happen. But as he continued on his way, no dollars appeared. He prayed again, promising G-d to do all manner of good deeds, but still no response. Finally, he implored the Creator "Master of the universe, please give me one dollar, and I'll never, ever do anything wrong again for the rest of my life!"

Then, turning to us, his audience, Rabbi Weinberg - his lantern of a smile lighting up his face -said: "Now who was I kidding? I wanted the dollar so I could play hooky from yeshiva!"

Rabbi Weinberg's subject that night, if I remember accurately, was prayer; he intended the story to illustrate the need for honesty when speaking to G-d. But it serves no less to illustrate the importance of… thinking.

And, if we're truthful, of course, stopping to think isn't something that only children overlook. Many of us long-time ex-children haven't exactly internalized the lesson either.

If we had, we would never say anything that we regretted a second later having said. We would never get angry when the reason for the anger, as we soon enough realize, was really no reason at all. We would never become jealous, knowing how blessed we are (different though our blessings might be from others'). And we would never do anything for which we, soon enough and rightly, feel guilty for having done.

It's worth a moment's pondering: We humans differ from other living things largely because of the quality of our ability to think.

And yet, how often we simply don't.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

On the first day of the Jewish month Adar, the Talmud enjoins us to "increase happiness." It is, after all, the month that holds Purim, when we express our gratitude to G-d for delivering the Jews in ancient Persia from their enemies, and when we give alms to the poor and gifts of food to one another.

In 2003, the first day of Adar brought us an early Purim present. It wasn't food, but rather food for thought.

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

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

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

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

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

The gift that Adar in 2003 brought was the knowledge of that theretofore unrecognized salvation, of what the killer of millions of his countrymen had apparently planned for the Jews under his control but which never came to pass. That Stalin met his fate (however that may have happened) just as he was poised to launch a post-Holocaust holocaust of his own, is something we might well add to our thoughts of gratitude at our own Purim celebrations today, more than a half century later.

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

During the feast at which Stalin collapsed, according to his successor Nikita Khrushchev, who was present, the dictator had become thoroughly drunk. And the party, he testified, ended in the early hours of March 1.

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

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

A bicentennial as jubilant as this year's hasn't been seen since the commemoration in 1976 of our nation's birth. The current year-long birthday party being celebrated in essays, articles and symposia honors Charles Darwin. Abraham Lincoln was also born in 1809, but the lion's share of lionizing has been of the man whose theory about the origin of species has become the touchstone of contemporary biology.

Part of evolution's upshot, of course, is that living things forever remain mere works in progress, which lends the hoopla over Darwin a tasty irony, since precisely the same is true about science. Even as seemingly perfect a system as Newtonian mechanics was subsumed, subtly but conclusively, by Einstein. Yet those who elevate Darwin's theory to an article of faith seem unwilling to even consider that the current understanding of how species came about might one day be explained by a different and grander, if currently unimagined, conclusion than the one reached by the famed biologist. The idea that earth's astounding array of life may owe itself to something other than the random mutation of species into others - a metamorphosis never reproduced in any laboratory - is a forbidden thought. Imagining "a biological Einstein," to borrow Verlyn Klinkenborg's phrase, has become heresy.

Thus, efforts to permit open discussion of Darwinism are derided as a "war on science." And a leading scientific group is boycotting Louisiana because a law there permits teachers to use supplemental texts to "help students critique and review scientific theories." And the Texas Board of Education is being petitioned to amend the state curriculum so that students are no longer encouraged to explore "the strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories - words, the petitioners say, that dangerously suggest that Darwinism could be wrong.

But there are indeed weaknesses in the theory of macro-evolution, noted by scores of intrepid biologists, mathematicians, chemists and geneticists. It is telling how those heretics are treated by the evolution-evangelicals. Celebrated Darwinist Richard Dawkins, for instance, pronounces that anyone who does not believe in evolution is perforce "ignorant, stupid, or insane."

If American public schools aim to foster critical thinking, it is hard to imagine how ridiculing, much less banning, different points of view serves that goal. The heretic-hunters would do well to consult Darwin himself. "A fair result," he wrote, "can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of a question."

What makes so many so certain that the current scientific orthodoxy is the final word? The answer is hubris, the monkey wrench in many a human machine. The merest modicum of modesty would compel the scientifically sure to recall that their counterparts in centuries past were no less confident in their own times' scientific certainties. And to consider how, centuries hence, people will likely look with pity on the limited understanding of 21st century science.

It took only decades, not centuries, to supplant the "explains-it-all" billiard ball model of protons, neutrons and electrons - presented to us children in the early 1960s as the ultimate understanding of matter's fundamental nature - with the bizarre particle-zoo that is contemporary quantum physics. The "primordial soup" of the Miller-Urey experiment that our teachers assured us would yield complex components of life within months has still not done so. Astrophysics theories have come and gone like footwear fashions.

A little humility would help us recognize that, no matter our scientific progress, we humans resemble nothing so much as the proverbial blind men first contemplating an elephant, each touching a different part of the pachyderm and concluding that the beast is shaped, variously, like a tree, or a snake, or a sail or a wall. No, not an elephant; we are blind men confronting a rainbow.

Which brings us to a third famous man born in 1809: Louis Braille, who developed the system of raised marks that enables the blind to read. While he opened a world of literature and written communication to the unsighted, he could not help them visualize color or contrast or beauty. There are limitations to our sense of touch.

As there are to all our senses. They are imperfect tools, even in tandem with our intellects, for truly understanding reality, and for conclusively reconstructing the past. Does science have any idea why the universe appeared, or life, or consciousness?

We certainly can, and should, strive to understand what we are able to fathom with the gifts we have been granted. Engaging in scientific inquiry is a noble pursuit and can provide a healthy sense of wonder at the world.

But when conclusions are confidently proclaimed that collide with what we inherently know to be true - like the fact that human consciousness is qualitatively different from that of animals, or that we have free will, or that "right" and "wrong" have essential meanings - we have to stop and ponder our inherent limitations. Stop and realize that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophies.

That, as Charles Darwin wrote, in 1872: "[I]t is always advisable to perceive clearly our ignorance."

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Anyone who raised an eyebrow at charges that the "Hekhsher Tzedek" kosher-certification initiative recasts the very concept of kashrut might want to aim an eye at the February 6 Wall Street Journal.

At a column, that is, entitled "A Quarrel Over What Is Kosher,' by the Forward's Nathaniel Popper - the reporter who, in 2006, first shone a harsh light on the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse. His reportage of alleged abuse of workers there was followed, in 2008, by a federal raid on the plant, the deportation of hundreds of illegal alien workers and the filing of criminal charges against its owners and others.

In his "Houses of Worship" guest column, Mr. Popper reveals some personal cards, of the sort usually held behind the fictional screen of journalist objectivity. Like his comparison of "bearded Orthodox rabbis" who "buzzed around the Agriprocessors plant" making sure kashrut laws, but not ethical norms, were being observed with the "progressive, socially engaged and mostly clean-shaven rabbis" who rode in, so to speak, on white horses to rescue Agriprocessors from itself.

Popper also characterizes efforts to persuade a judge to grant bail to a Rubashkin official - imprisoned before his trial for months despite offering to surrender his passport, wear an electronic bracelet to track his movements and post an exorbitant bond - as a campaign "to spring Mr. Rubashkin from jail" because of "an ancient Jewish religious obligation to free Jews from gentile captivity." No mention of the fact that Sholom Rubashkin's Jewishness (as it made him eligible for automatic citizenship in Israel) was among the factors cited in denying him bail. (The bail denial was in fact reversed by another judge - although Mr. Popper might consider the ruling tainted, based as it was partly on the testimony of bearded rabbis.)

Mr. Popper's personal perspective is further on display when he extols "a more explicitly universal vision of mankind, in which a Guatemalan Catholic has the same weight as a Brooklyn Jew" - as if a spiritual bond to a religious community somehow implies criminal unconcern for others.

The essential point of Popper's piece, though, is both true and important. He characterizes the respective positions of the Hekhsher Tzedek's proponents and opponents as a dispute over "the proper way to interpret religious law and values." Should we, he asks, "read our ancient texts literally or adapt them to a changing world?"

Popper doesn't mean "literally" literally, of course; presumably he realizes that the Torah's laws are determined not by literal readings but by the intricate teachings of the Oral Tradition. He is accurate, though, to ascribe to the non-Orthodox rabbinates a willingness to jettison elements of Jewish religious law that discomfit them.

By contrast, Orthodox rabbis are, he writes (with, one suspects, less than reverence), the "Antonin Scalias of the Jewish world." One such rabbi even told him (you might want to sit down here) that he keeps kosher not out of social consciousness but "because G-d said so."

When, in the fall, Agudath Israel of America characterized Hekhsher Tzedek as an attempt to redefine kashrut, that judgment was pooh-poohed by some. It is, though, precisely the Popperian paradigm.

And its trumpeting in the venerable Wall Street Journal will likely deeply disturb the main proponents of the Hekhsher Tzedek, who have in recent weeks sought to unbake the cake and recast their initiative as not really a "hekhsher" (i.e. kashrut certification) at all but rather a non-kashrut-related endorsement (oddly, though, only for food), renaming it "Magen Tzedek." "Oy," some progressively clean-shaven clergymen are probably thinking, "Popper's blown our cover."

Indeed he has, and with admirable honesty about both his own bias-baggage and the Whatever Tzedek. He doesn't bother to disguise his feelings for Jews who believe that the Torah is G-d's will and that its laws, whether fathomable or not, are sacrosanct; and he exposes the now-it's-a-hekhsher-now-it's-not initiative as an attempt to "evolve" kashrut into a plank of the social liberal platform.

What Mr. Popper seems to not fully appreciate, though, is the trenchant fact that the very same set of Divine laws that Orthodox Jews believe mandate kashrut and other ritual requirements and prohibitions mandate no less interpersonal ethics (including proper treatment of workers) and respect for the laws of the land.

Whether any particular Orthodox Jew honors or fails to honor those mandates is beside the point (although the Torah's ethical system does forbid reaching negative judgments about accused people before a trial). But Orthodox Judaism is entirely as strict about the Torah's ethics as about its rituals. So the issue is not "adapt[ing] Torah to a changing world," but rather applying Torah to that world.

And so Mr. Popper has the dichotomy only half right. Yes, there is a perspective - his own and the non-Orthodox movements' - that regards the Torah's laws as entirely mutable. But the Orthodox perspective does not, as he seems to believe, sacrifice ethics to ritual. It, rather, elevates both to the plane of Divine will.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

A winter flurry of "Dear President Obama" letters - in the forms of op-eds and paid advertisements - have swirled around the public square in the days since the 44th president of the United States was sworn into office.

Some of the open letters have concerned Mr. Obama's economic stimulus plan; others, United States relations with Iran; others still, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether the President pays any attention to the multitudinous missives is anyone's guess. But if I had his ear (or his BlackBerry contact information), I think my own message would consist of a simple video clip.

Broadcast on an Egyptian television channel on January 26, barely a week into Mr. Obama's presidency and on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the clip addresses the destruction of European Jewry during the Second World War - but in a very different way from most Holocaust commemorations.

The video is a sermon offered to the public by an Egyptian Muslim cleric, Amin Al-Ansari; it was translated by the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). The gist of Mr. Al-Ansari's teaching is that the Jews were responsible for the Holocaust, since they had been "killing Germans, kindling civil strife, inciting the people against the rulers and corrupting the peoples."

The cleric offers a similarly creative history of Zionism (turning Theodore Herzl, for instance, a lifelong journalist and writer, into the inventor of a new type of explosive that he offered the British government - evidence of how "annihilation underlies [the Jews'] ideology"); explains how the "rulers of America" themselves hated and feared Jews (impelling them to try to "give [the Jews] a place of their own"); and asserts that the destruction of European Jewry was a just and proper response to the crimes of Jews throughout history.

What is particularly remarkable about the sermon - similar ones, after all, are routinely offered by Islamist clerics - is its employment of Holocaust footage to make its case, so to speak.

"Let's watch what Germany did to Israel - or, rather, to the Jews," the preacher invites viewers - "so we can understand that there is no remedy for these people other than imposing fear and terror on them."

And with that the screen shows archival film footage of horrific concentration camp scenes - no less wrenching for their having been in the public domain for more than a half-century. Piles of skeletal remains are bulldozed like so much refuse, emaciated Jews hobble along before Nazi soldiers, a man is prepared to hang… and more. And as the scenes are displayed, Mr. Al-Ansari's voice begins to show a certain enthusiasm, even excitement. "Watch this," he urges the viewer. "Look… This child awaits his turn. Watch their humiliation. They are corpses, Allah be praised…"

And then, with barely disguised glee, as the viewer is shown an elderly Jewish woman kneeling on the ground, clutching the hand of a German officer, putting it to her face, begging, it would seem, for her life, Mr. Al-Ansari suggests with satisfaction that we "Notice what humiliation, fear and terror have struck her… See how much she is kissing his hand…"

"This is what we hope will happen," the cleric then assures viewers, "but, Allah willing, at the hand of the Muslims."

We live in a complex world, filled with competing interests and "narratives." President Obama was wise to tell his interviewer on Al Arabiya television that "the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world," and no less wise to offer "a hand of friendship" on behalf of America to "the broader Muslim world."

His wisdom showed, too, in his assertion during that same interview that the ideas of radical Islamists "are bankrupt" and that their path leads to "no place except more death and destruction."

And both wisdom and principle were abundantly evident in his straightforward statement to an Arab audience - and, in effect, to the Arab world - that "Israel is a strong ally of the United States… [and] will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount."

There is something more, though, that is vitally important for an American leader to recognize about our world. I suspect that Mr. Obama knows it well, even if he may not choose to articulate it as bluntly as did his predecessor.

That something is the lesson of the clip I would send him: The contemporary world, like the world of yesteryear and before, back to the beginning of human history, harbors not only challenge and opportunity, but evil - unqualified, unbridled and unbearable.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

I hope my wife and kids don't find out that I consider it kosher to force 16-year-old girls to work 20 hours a day.

In fact, I was shocked at myself for having said such a thing - or, at least, I would have been had I actually said it.

The source of the disturbing disclosure is a rabbi of a Conservative congregation who writes a column for the New Jersey Jewish Standard. He shared the contention in the course of a column dedicated to the "hypocrisy" he feels American Jews sense in Jewish leaders, "specifically religious" ones - a sense that, the writer contends, holds "much truth."

Some of the columnist's criticism is, in fact, well founded. He is upset, for instance, that Conservative rabbis who "stand shoulder to shoulder" with Reform ones in opposing the single standard of time-honored halacha, or Jewish religious law, regarding conversion in Israel nevertheless won't automatically recognize their Reform colleagues' converts as Jews. There is indeed some, well, inconsistency there.

But some of the other things he sees as causing some Jews to "roll their eyes in disgust" evoke such reaction, if they do, only because of how they are presented by media (including the columnist himself).

Take an issue he cites: the decision by a rabbinic court in Israel that a number of conversions had not met the requirements of halacha. The columnist presents the legal ruling as illegitimate - on the grounds that the members of the rabbinic court (Israel's highest one) are not declared Jewish nationalists but mere authorities on halacha.

Now, if religious judges in Israel are mere state functionaries, then, like apparatchiks in a communist country, they might well be required to pledge fealty to an ideology in order to serve in state positions. But if religious judges are, rather, charged with applying halachic principles to cases before them, it would be unreasonable to expect them to do anything less or anything more than precisely that - and perverse to disqualify them for political reasons. No hypocrisy among the judges there, only integrity.

And what of my reputed endorsement of torturing teenagers?

Some kashrut authorities, the writer goes on, will not grant a kosher certificate to a restaurant or club whose food may be kosher but whose ambiance is religiously objectionable. So far, accurate.

A kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa, the columnist continues, "violated with abandon a variety of civil and criminal laws and halachic requirements." That those accusations have yet to be adjudicated, much less validated, doesn't seem to bother the writer.

What does, though, is that "the same certifiers" who would deny certification to, say a nightclub have dared contend that even if the Iowa slaughterhouse's owners are proven guilty of some charges, the meat the plant has produced remains kosher!

And, worse yet, "Agudath Israel's Rabbi Avi Shafran" concurs, as he "recently told a Yeshiva University-sponsored conference."

So, continues the columnist, what certifiers and Shafran apparently hold is that "music you can dance to does help determine 'the kosher value,' but forcing 16-year-old girls to work 20 hours a day does not."

Disclosure: I did indeed tell a Yeshiva University audience that even an actual, much less alleged, lapse of business ethics has no effect on the kosher status of food produced or served by the violator of the law. Neither, though, does a nonkosher ambiance in an eatery. Such situations are analogous to the fact that a medicine produced by an ethically deficient drug company is no less effective than that produced by an ethically spotless one. The company's ethical responsibilities are, most people readily realize, something apart from its products' efficacy.

The kashrut of an item, however, and certification of its manufacturer or of an establishment serving it are two distinct things. When a kashrut certifier weighs the decision about whether to certify an establishment, it isn't kashrut alone that matters. Both business ethics and non-kashrut-related religious issues are perfectly reasonable concerns for it to take into account. Because certification endorses more than kashrut; it lets consumers know that an establishment is a patronage-worthy one.

What sort of ethical concerns are rightly in the purview of a certifier, though, is another question, and a complex one. Should ingredients originating from a country where child labor is the norm be unacceptable? Should a company that pays its employees only minimum wage be rejected for certification? Must workers be unionized? Receive a certain number of paid vacation days? If so, how many?

I do not claim to know where the lines should be drawn in such things. My point at the symposium, in fact, was that drawing such lines requires wisdom, experience and Torah knowledge. I think it's safe, though, to say that "forcing 16-year-old girls to work 20 hours a day" is well on the wrong side of an important line.

As is pejoratively misleading readers about what someone said. And fostering such misrepresentation in the course of extolling ethical behavior? Well, there's a word for that.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

I'll leave the abusive words to your imagination. They were delivered through clenched teeth, the anger seeming to drip from the telephone into a rancid puddle on my desk. The long, acrimonious voicemail message played on and on, laden with insults and threats.

Even more striking than the nasty tone, though, was the subject of the call: a statement issued by the Council of Torah Sages calling for prayers and good deeds on behalf of Jews in danger in Israel. No, the caller was no anti-Semite; he was a self-described "Centrist Orthodox" Jew. But yes, what had so exercised him was a summoning of Jews to pray for fellow Jews. Or, to be more specific, the broad nature of the summons: it had not specified soldiers.

The statement, of course, had made no explicit mention either of the Jewish cites and towns that have come under Arab fire, nor of Jews in countries around the world where they or their institutions have been attacked. There was no doubt in my mind that the distinguished rabbis who issued the call considered Jewish soldiers to be prime among the threatened Jews whose safety they asked Jews to prominently include in their prayers. Had the rabbis overestimated some readers, not realized that some might take the lack of specificity as evidence somehow of a lack of concern?

Perhaps. And if so, perhaps any future such summons - may it never be necessary - will make particular mention of the young men fighting on front lines. Certainly, concern for Israeli troops has been voiced by the head of the Council at large Agudath Israel-sponsored public gatherings.

The caller, though, had assumed that the statement implied an unconcern (or worse) about soldiers. After all, he may have reasoned, Agudath Israel does not fly a Jewish nationalistic flag. It must therefore consider the Jewish State's soldiers to be unworthy. Needless to say, though - or not so needless, apparently - Agudath Israel is deeply invested in the wellbeing of all Jews in the Holy Land - and has special concern for those who, in a war, are most endangered.

But the caller hadn't called to ask if what he saw as an omission had been intentional. He had assumed it so, and only wanted to share his strong feelings about his (mistaken) conclusion.

I had been here before, I reflected sadly,. Over the almost 15 years I have been privileged to serve Agudath Israel, there have been a number of times when I have witnessed the harshest of judgments passed on the movement by people who made ungenerous assumptions. And who considered us derelict, or worse, for not heartily and automatically endorsing whatever petition, rally or political stance they or others had unilaterally decided the times required.

The caller didn't leave a name but he did give his telephone number. I dialed it.

He seemed surprised that I had actually called back, and I took advantage of his initial discombobulation to deliver my little speech about how he had assumed wrongly and how therefore his umbrage was ill-conceived. He wasn't impressed. Finding his voice, he insisted he knew better, that he was absolutely sure the Council of Torah Sages didn't care about Jews in the Israeli army. Then he launched into a somewhat more muted (though not much) litany of complaints against haredim - how dare we not recite a special prayer composed by the Israeli Rabbinate, how come a haredi rabbi he knows showed lack of concern (he claimed) for a woman whose son was an Israeli soldier, why do haredim (ditto) have such contempt for other Jews…

I tried to get a word or two in edgewise but he clearly considered his questions unanswerable. So I waited until he tired himself out.

Then, in the lull, I thanked him for sharing his perspective and asked him to please consider one final thought. He could accept it, I told him, or reject it, as he saw fit; but please, I implored, at least consider it.

Maybe, I suggested, a great merit for the safety of Jewish soldiers - and Jewish civilians and Jews everywhere, exposed as we are to so many who hate us - lies in our judging one another favorably and not harshly, in our good will toward those with whom we may disagree, even strongly, over some things, even important things.

I was taken aback by the silence that followed. I had read my caller wrong: His mind wasn't closed shut. He was actually thinking about what I had said. Suddenly I felt embarrassed and, after a few more seconds of no response, thanked my caller for having cared to leave his message. He thanked me for calling back. I told him not to hesitate to call again. And that was that.

It was only when I had hung up that I realized something, and it dawned with a shiver: The majority of the Israeli army fatalities at that point (may there be no more) were the result of "friendly fire" - accidental shooting by their own comrades.

Painful as it is to ponder, sometimes the gravest harm is what we unwittingly visit on ourselves.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

How wonderful - well, how much better, anyway - wars would be if civilians were never casualties. Thus far, though, and lamentably, most wars have taken their toll of injuries and deaths on people who were not carrying arms, even those too young to carry them.

In some cases - like the current war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza - the purposeful placement of combatants and armaments among the civilian population all but assures that there will be civilian casualties. In fact, that is one of Hamas' very motivations for the placement. When one lacks any semblance of moral justification for one's belligerence and lust to murder innocents, there is only benefit in having as many dead civilians as possible of one's own to display in lieu of logic.

Hamas' other reason for making sure its terrorists and rockets are deeply embedded in Gazan residential areas is that it knows something that has somehow managed to elude a multitude of media: Israel does all it reasonably can to avoid harming civilians.

That's not, of course, what the tens of thousands of protesters in places like London, Paris and Sydney shriek, what the headlines blare, or what the talking heads pronounce. But it's there all the same - in the fine print, so to speak. Like the reference, entirely en passant and deep into a 1300-word New York Times article published on the first of the year, to how "hundreds of thousands of Gazans have received warnings in the form of telephone messages or fliers that their buildings are Israeli targets…"

Yes, mind-boggling as it is, the Israel Defense Forces actually telephones houses that it has reason to believe, based on intelligence reports, are harboring terrorists or munitions. It does so to give residents time to leave before the attack.

Haaretz, citing an Israeli Channel 10 report, disclosed another means the Israeli air force uses to avoid civilian casualties, something called "roof knocking." It seems that residents of targeted houses in Gaza have been able to prevent bombings of their buildings by simply climbing up to the roof to show that they have not left, causing IDF commanders to abort the missions. Hamas leaders have in fact actively encouraged Gazans to use the ploy, and, when it was still functioning, Hamas' television station called on children to form such human shields at the homes of several terrorist leaders.

And so, what the Israeli pilots sometimes do, the paper writes, is launch a relatively harmless missile at one corner of the roof to cause the crowd to change its mind and vacate the premises, after which the target is destroyed.

Such Israeli efforts to prevent the spilling of civilian blood present a colossal contrast to Hamas members' unrestrained glee when their missiles hit Israeli homes, supermarkets or hospitals, or when their suicide bombers kill Jewish men, women and children.

A recent Associated Press photograph harbored a striking symbolism. It showed a bombed-out classroom in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, the result of one of thousands of rockets Hamas has lobbed at Jewish communities. A gaping hole in the ceiling lets in the sunlight. And there, clearly legible in chalk on a blackboard, is part of a Talmudic adage: "Who is honorable? One who honors [G-d's] creatures."

Israeli commanders may or may not realize it, but from a truly Jewish perspective, their most potent weapons are not munitions but actions like the warning phone calls and "roof knockings." The Jewish religious tradition teaches that what ultimately win wars and protect against enemies are not bullets and bombs but good deeds and prayer. There are weapons, and there are weapons.

That Jewish conviction lies at the heart of the calls for prayers on behalf of Israel's citizens and soldiers, like the one that was issued by Agudath Israel of America's highest rabbinic body, the Council of Torah Sages. The Council's members wrote, in part: "In light of the current situation…we … strongly emphasize the obligation on us all to awaken ourselves in prayer, to ask for Divine mercy for our dear brethren and to increase our charity and good deeds for the protection of the remnant of the Jewish people from any and all harm." The rabbinic elders went on to reiterate an earlier call to recite chapters 83, 130 and 142 of Psalms each day on behalf of fellow Jews in danger, and "to fervently pour out our hearts" in various regular prayers, including one, in the evening service, in which G-d is beseeched to "spread upon us Your tent of peace."

The prayer concludes: "Blessed are You, the Guardian of His nation Israel forever."

May respect for life, good deeds and prayer protect and prevail.

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

No, I'm neither a prophet nor a covert Israeli operative. Yes, it was only a day after I distributed a column taking the New York Times to task for refusing to call Hamas a terrorist organization that Israel launched its offensive against Hamas in Gaza. But, really, I had no foreknowledge of the fact that Israel's leaders would do anything more in response to the shelling of its towns by Hamas and its friends than offer the sort of statements that have been issued for years after such terrorist onslaughts.

But they did do more, in the hope - may we merit its fulfillment - of crippling the infrastructure of the murderous entity to its south. And, true to form, The Times avoided the "T" word, going only so far as to identify Hamas on first mention as a group "which Israel and the United States brand as a terrorist organization." According to informed sources, Israel and the United States have also branded the sun hot and the Pope Catholic.

Similarly true to form was Hamas itself, whose spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, according to the very aforementioned newspaper, "called for revenge in the form of strikes reaching 'deep into the Zionist entity using all means,' including suicide attacks." Still no you-know-what-word, though.

There was more of interest in the paper's reportage, too. In a dispatch by veteran Times reporters Ethan Bronner and Taghreed El-Khodary that appeared on December 30, the scene at Gaza's Shifa Hospital was vividly brought alive.

"Armed Hamas militants in civilian clothes roamed the halls," they wrote. "Asked their function, they said it was to provide security. But there was internal bloodletting under way."

The report then described how a young woman came to the hospital seeking her wounded husband. She asked a "militant" to help her but was turned away. Fifteen minutes later, however, she saw her spouse being carried out on a stretcher and watched as, lying there helplessly, "he was shot in the left side of the head." The fatal bullet was administered by a terro - a "militant," that is - presumably convinced that the man on the stretcher, who had been incarcerated by Hamas before an Israeli bomb liberated his prison, had collaborated with Israel. So charged Sobhia Jonaa, a lawyer with the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens' Rights.

Perhaps some ray of hope lies in the possibility that the man killed on the stretcher was indeed cooperating with Israel and not just someone from a different clan than his killer. If there are in fact Arabs unlike those whose angry faces adorn the front pages of papers worldwide, who realize that Islamist terror-mongers do not bode well for the Arab umma, that is true reason to celebrate.

As it happens, an undeniably hopeful spark was reported in the very same Times story.

Highlighting the saga of Gaza families lamentably displaced by the bombings, as civilians unfortunately are in even the most justified wars, the reporters interviewed the members of one such family, whose home stands next to a Hamas compound.

After recounting "the utter fear and panic they all felt as the missiles hit," the father of the family's bemoaning of the fact that "we have no shelters in Gaza" and his expression of concern for his elderly, paralyzed mother, one of the reporters had the idea of asking the man's 13-year-old son for his view of the situation.

The boy, taking, as the dispatch put it, "an unusual stand for someone in Gaza," responded: "I blame Hamas. It doesn't want to recognize Israel. If they did so there could be peace. Egypt made a peace treaty with Israel, and nothing is happening to them."

Were only such insight and common sense as contagious in the Palestinian world as hatred and violence have been.

Kudos to The Times for including the quote. But brickbats, too, for taking the astoundingly irresponsible step of actually identifying the quoted boy by name.

Pray for him.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

In a column published on December 14, Clark Hoyt, The New York Times' current Public Editor, or reader representative, addressed the paper's choice of terminology for people who target civilians with the intent of killing them.

What brought Mr. Hoyt to address the issue was the Times' assiduous avoidance of the word "terrorist" for the perpetrators of what has come to be known as the Mumbai Massacre - the late November Islamist attacks on hotels, a hospital, a railway station, a restaurant and a Jewish center in India's largest city that left 173 dead and more than 300 injured. The attackers were called "militants," "gunmen," "attackers" and "assailants" in the paper of record's reports but never "terrorists." Some readers were offended; thus the public editor's investigation and report.

He explained that "in the newsroom and at overseas bureaus, especially Jerusalem, there has been a lot of soul-searching about the terminology of terrorism." The upshot of the introspection, he continued, "to the dismay of supporters of Israel - and sometimes of the other side, denouncing Israeli military actions" is that "The Times is sparing in its use of 'terrorist' when reporting on that complex struggle." (One wonders if, examples of the military actions denounced by the "other side" include the recent killing of three Palestinians by Israeli forces; the three were planting explosives in northern Gaza along a border fence and, when accosted, threw hand grenades at the Israeli soldiers, who then returned fire - and the three, none too soon, to their Maker.)

Later in his essay, Mr. Hoyt takes up the issue of Hamas, the Sunni group whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel and which has launched scores of suicide attacks against Israeli civilians (targeting, among other things, buses, hotels, supermarkets and restaurants) and has fired hundreds of missiles at Israeli cities and town. The group that exults in the murder and maiming of innocent men, women and children, that trains its young to feel the same way, that denies the Holocaust and expresses confidence that, as one of its leaders put it in a Hamas newspaper, "the Holocaust is still to come upon the Jews." Mr. Hoyt explains that The Times chooses to not label Hamas a terrorist organization "though it sponsors acts of terror against Israel."

The reason? Because it "was elected to govern Gaza" and "provides social services and operates charities, hospitals and clinics." He quotes deputy news editor Phil Corbett, who said, "You get to the question: Somebody works in a Hamas clinic - is that person a terrorist? We don't want to go there." Mr. Hoyt concurs: "I think that is right."

Well, Mr. Corbett and Mr. Hoyt may prefer not to go there, but as journalists they really should realize their responsibility to make the trip. The "there," of course, is a different, and straightforward question: Does all an organization that routinely attacks innocents have to do to achieve respectability is garner the support of a population and open health clinics?

I've always been a foolhardy sort, so let me be the brave soul - there may even be others, if not in The Times' newsroom - who is perfectly willing to go there: The answer is No. A terrorist group is a terrorist group, even if it runs a hospital, wins elections, operates a soup kitchen, recycles its plastics and cares for abandoned kittens.

And all who choose to support such a group or, by working under its auspices, to empower it are members of a terrorist group and, thereby, accessories to terrorism.

What's more, media that are too weak-kneed to call evil what it is are, in their own way, complicit in the same.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Recently I was privileged to participate in a student-group organized panel presentation at Yeshiva University entitled "The Kosher Quandary: Ethics and Kashrut." The panel included representatives of the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America and a social justice advocacy group, Uri L'tzedek. The panelists were given a list of questions to address in their remarks, and I think, and hope, that it was an educational experience for all who attended.

Since some people seem to have imagined that I said things I didn't, or chose to ignore things I did say, I offer my remarks below, which followed my expression of gratitude to the organizers.

I would like to make clear at the onset that, while I intend to speak clearly and bluntly tonight, nothing I say should be construed as impugning the intentions or good will of anyone. I might feel that certain actions or decisions are misguided, but I mean to judge things, not, G-d forbid, people.

Searching for the right metaphor for the relationship between ethics and kashrut, what I came up with is the relationship between… personal hygiene and poetry. Get it? Well, a great poet might never shower, but that bad habit need not affect the quality of his writing. One might not want to attend the fellow's readings; but the Cantos are the Cantos, Ezra Pound notwithstanding. So while kosher food producers are required by halacha to act ethically in every way, any lapses on that score have no effect on the kashrut of the food they produce.

The same applies to observance, or lack of observance, of the Torah's laws mandating care for animals and proper treatment of workers; and to societal laws like extra-halachic labor or environmental regulations. All of those things may be mandates, either directly from the Torah or by way of dina dimalchusa, but they are independent of kashrut. That is eminently clear from the Talmud and halachic Codes.

And it is part of the objection that some, myself included, have to the proposed Hekhsher Tzedek" that has been endorsed by the non-Orthodox movements: Because it conflates two independent Jewish concepts, and thus it misleads.

That, though, begs the larger and more important issue of whether or not kosher food producers should be held accountable for non-ethical behavior.

Of course they should. Here, too, though, there is a further thought to think: Accountable, yes, but more than merchants of Judaica, booksellers or synagogues, Jewish educational institutions or widget manufacturers? No. And so the fact that what has been proposed has been limited to kosher food producers is baffling - or perhaps telling - and constitutes a second objection to the Hekhsher Tzedek initiative. Jewish ethics is a meta-concept, not limited to kashrut.

Further adding to the objections is the fact that the Hekhsher Tzedek plan was conceived in sin - not a word I use lightly. The sin, that is, of jumping to negative judgments of others.

The impetus of the initiative, by all accounts, was the controversy over a company called Agriprocessors. Let me state right away that I have no connection to the company and wouldn't know a Rubashkin from a Rubik's Cube.

Nor do I have any idea if any of the company's owners are guilty of any or all of the very varied charges that have been leveled against them by private groups, government officials or the media. I don't know if they mistreated animals (as PETA claims), if they ran a methamphetamine lab (as was alleged in a government affidavit), if they harassed employees, knowingly hired underage workers or misrepresented collateral in a loan. I don't know - but neither do you, or anyone else, no matter what they may think.

What I do know - and what all of us should know - is that it is Jewishly wrong to assume guilt on the basis of accusations, no matter how many. In fact it is, bluntly put, unethical. And to create and herald a new effort as a result of mere accusations against people disregards the Torah's laws of hotzoas sheim ra.

Let us pretend, though, that the Hekhsher Tzedek idea had been proposed out of the blue, or as the result of some clear and proven breach of ethics across the board of the kashrut industry. Would that not be sufficient reason to create a mechanism to help ensure that the industry will better hew to their extra-kashrut obligations? Yes it would, and indeed, in Jewish history there are precedents of Gedolei hador, elders of the community, threatening recalcitrant merchants with communal penalties, of their instituting price controls and other such measures.

But the operative principle here, and this is my final and most important point, is that those are not decisions just any of us is qualified to make. If the term Orthodox Judaism has any meaning, it lies in reverence for the past, and for those who lie closer to the past than we. The proper way to explore whether a communal mechanism is warranted and proper to deal with a particular problem - whatever it may be - is to bring it to the attention of the elders of the community.

There are, of course, different sub-communities in the Orthodox world, but each has its elders, its accomplished and experienced talmidei chachomim. Theirs is the address. I don't expect a Conservative rabbi to acknowledge that fact; the non-Orthodox movements are by definition "progressive" - i.e. focused on change and youth, not mesorah and zikna.

But those of us who call ourselves Orthodox have to know on whose shoulders we stand and who the Torah teaches us to consider to be the einei ha'edah, the perceptive and farther-seeing eyes of the community.

Thank you for listening.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The President-elect once bought a home whose deed prohibited its resale or rental to Jews. He had associations with a number of dubious characters, some of whom did not much care for Hebrews. In fact, he himself seems to have harbored some pretty anti-Jewish sentiment.

No, no, not Senator Obama. That was Richard Nixon, whose delivery of arms to the Jewish State during the Yom Kippur War helped prevent an Arab victory. And who, in the terminal crisis of his presidency, confided in two identifiable Jews - Henry Kissinger and Boruch Korff (known as "Nixon's rabbi").

Then there was President Harry Truman, who wrote that he found "the Jews… very selfish" and expressed anger at the fact that "a thousand Jews [had been brought] to New York on a supposedly temporary basis and they stayed." The same Harry Truman who acted to help Jews in postwar Europe and supported Israel's creation - against his own State Department.

Such examples point to a truth paid lip service but not always internalized: History is determined not by any sovereign's personal biases but by the ultimate Sovereign's insuperable will. As King Solomon wrote (Proverbs 21:1) "Like streams of water is the heart of a king in the hand of Hashem."

Which idea should inform all our political thoughts. What matters most is never a particular candidate but G-d's plan - and our merits.

I don't think I'm the only Jewish observer who found (and find) certain expressions of anti-Obama sentiment in parts of the Orthodox community less than reality-based. Many of us may have supported Senator McCain for a number of valid reasons - his experience, his willingness to reach across the partisan aisle, his maverick-ness, or simply because they disagreed with Senator Obama's positions - but anyone who voted Republican because of the Democrat's ostensible animus for Jews or Israel was not terribly different from commentators who portrayed Mr. Obama as a Zionist dupe. Osama bin Laden's top deputy described the President-elect as a "house Negro" who has chosen to "pray the prayer of the Jews."

Yes, Mr. Obama associated with a nutty, rabble-rousing pastor. But when the clergyman's looniness was exposed, the Senator denounced both it and him, in no uncertain terms. Political expediency? Perhaps. But perhaps personal conviction. It is unbecoming and unwise to deny the President-elect the courtesy of taking him at his word.

That his path crossed with that of an aging 60s-era radical was unremarkable; seeing it as evidence of some secret anti-American conspiracy was scraping the bottom of an empty barrel. I would certainly never want to be judged by some people I've had occasional professional dealings with.

In four years, we will be able to look back and assess the Obama administration (or its first term) - and be either harsh or hailing. Now, though, none of us can claim prophecy. What we can know is that the next President of the United States is long on record as supportive of Israel, enjoyed broad Jewish support (and knows it) and has no record whatsoever of having expressed any ill will toward Jews. And that he is smart and savvy, and surrounds himself with similarly smart advisors (among them, as it happens, a number of Jewish ones).

There may be valid concerns about how the Obama presidency will turn out; I don't mean to dismiss them. But the degree of fretting among some members of the tribe strikes me as unwarranted, even audacious.

I'm as paranoid as the next religious Jew. I don't doubt for a moment that the wonderful haven that is the United States cannot be taken for granted. But neither do I doubt for a moment that it is a wonderful haven - and that no reasonable case can be made that President-elect Obama's mantra of "change" includes any alteration of that happy historical reality.

Yes, efforts must be made with the exit of an Administration that many of us regard as singularly praiseworthy on many counts; and the arrival of new boys on the beltway whose wisdom and judgment have yet to be tested.

Political activism is certainly called for, and there was much discussion at Agudath Israel of America's recent convention, as I am sure there was at the Orthodox Union's, about strengthening existing ties with the President-elect and his Administration, and creating new ones. Both organizations' full-time Washington offices are already in anticipatory high gear.

And above and beyond that, prayers are surely indicated - but with (excuse the word) hope and trust in G-d, not paranoia and fear.

And with awareness of the words of a recent Council of Torah Sages statement:

"It is incumbent upon all Jews… to show President-elect Obama the proper dignity and honor due to the leader of our country…, with whom we look forward to a warm and productive relationship. May Hashem, in Whose hand the hearts of all earthly leaders reside, guide America's new president to succeed in carrying out his awesome responsibilities in a manner that will bring great blessing to the Jewish people, to America, and to all of humankind."

And let us all say, Amein.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

A New York tabloid recently mocked the Bush White House. No news there; 'tis the season, so to speak. The fodder for this ridicule, though, wasn't political. It consisted, rather, of the artwork on the Bushes' invitations to this year's White House Chanukah party. A beautiful snowy White House scene dominates the card; all the way off to the side, a horse is drawing a wagon bearing a holiday tree.

As in the past, some Agudath Israel representatives, myself included, received invitations to the Chanukah event. I smiled at the card when it arrived, but didn't find it offensive in any way. According to the New York Post, though, someone - although unwilling to share his or her name - did.

If we needed more evidence, beyond the countless blogs out there, that some people have all too much time on their hands and all too little sense in their heads, it's here.

Those who received the invitations are presumably Jewish. Does the person who thought it clever to call a reporter realize how remarkable it is that there even is a Chanukah party hosted by the President and First Lady of the United States of America? Is he aware of the fact that, in 1943, 400 rabbis marched to the White House to implore President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to allow more European Jewish refugees from the Holocaust to immigrate to our shores - and that Mr. Roosevelt left the building through a back door to avoid having to meet them? (No Chanukah party that year, or for several decades thereafter, until Mr. Bush took office.)

Has the insulted invitee forgotten how President Bush, in an act of principle, ended our country's participation in the 2001 Durban "Racism" conference, when it degraded into an anti-Israel and anti-Semitic saturnalia.

Does he not recall the President's 2002 Rose Garden address, in which Mr. Bush boldly stated what his predecessors had always declined to say - that Yasser Arafat, despite his claims, never renounced terror? Or how, last year, the President challenged Palestinians to "match their words denouncing terror with action to combat terror," that "nothing less is acceptable"?

Despite all that, the anonymous Post informant chose to take offense at an innocuous illustration on an invitation from the Bushes. To visit the White House. In honor of Chanukah. It defies all understanding.

And then, as if to widen further the gulf between the good will of the Bushes and the grumbling of the boor, yesterday I received a second hand-addressed White House invitation. This one's cover art was a silhouette of a menorah against a blue background; and enclosed was a note reading: "Please accept our apologies, as the invitation you previously received had the incorrect cover artwork."

There is much about what Yiddish-speaking Jews call "menschlichkeit" (literally, "acting like a human being"; the word conveys graciousness and good manners) that the Post's informant could learn from the Bushes.

Back when I received the first invitation, I asked Agudath Israel's executive vice president for government and public affairs Rabbi David Zwiebel if he thought it was important for me to attend the Chanukah party. I had mixed feelings.

I have no personal desire to make the trip. Having attended other such gatherings, whatever thrill might once have lain in milling about in a large crowd or shaking the President's hand no longer persists. And as for organizational concerns, well, the Bush White House's days are numbered - and the number is a small one.

On the other hand, though, some shapeless feeling was pushing me to want to make the schlep.

Rabbi Zwiebel thought a moment and said, "I think you should go." Then, after I asked "Why?" he verbalized in four simple words what had still been congealing in my own mind.

"To say 'thank you'."

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

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