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Archives Of Previous Articles XXI


Rabbi Avi Shafran

From the agitation and anger of the crowds, the din of the car horns and the shouts of "Civil rights now!" and "Bigots!" one would have been forgiven for thinking that the protesters were denouncing some horrific assault on human freedom.

But no, the demonstrations - and church vandalisms and business boycotts - were in protest of California voters' passage of the November ballot measure known as Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Any two Californians can, as before, register as "domestic partners" and have the very same rights and responsibilities as married couples under state law. All Proposition 8 sought to do was preserve in law what the word "marriage" has meant for millennia.

Those, though, who were unhappy with the electorate's decision wasted no time in taking to the streets of dozens of American cities and towns to rail against the audacity - the bigotry, as they proclaimed it - of considering gender germane to marriage.

In some cities, tens of thousands turned out for raucous rallies; in many instances, epithets were hurled at counterdemonstrators and even uninvolved bystanders. Although protesters claimed the mantle of the American civil rights movement, several black observers of the Los Angeles demonstration had what has been called the "N-bomb" dropped on them by infuriated demonstrators - a presumed tribute to the fact that blacks voted 2-1 in favor of the proposition. A San Diego family with a "Yes on 8" sign on their front lawn had their car's tires slashed. A San Francisco area group launched a campaign to revoke the tax-exempt status of the Mormon Church because of its support of the marriage initiative. Graffiti was spray-painted on a Mormon church near Sacramento. A group of about 30 activists from a group called "Bash Back!" stormed into a Lansing, Michigan church, unfurled a rainbow flag at the pulpit and proceeded to disrupt services by banging on cans and shouting.

Some, even among those who assign meaning to traditional morality, are not greatly bothered by the push to expand the meaning of marriage. They are content to let people call things whatever they want, and regard the societal push to revamp social mores as benign. The vehemence, violence and general obnoxiousness that characterized some of the protests, though, should give them pause.

As should Scott Eckern's forced resignation.

Mr. Eckern was the artistic director of the California Musical Theater. He no longer holds that position because anti-Proposition 8 activists uncovered and publicized the fact that he had made a contribution to the other side's campaign. Mr. Eckern explained that his donation stemmed from his religious beliefs as a Mormon and expressed sadness that his "personal beliefs and convictions have offended others" and caused "hurt feelings."

But neither his words nor resignation were enough to mollify the mob. An award-winning composer called Mr. Eckern to tell him that he would not allow his work to be performed in the theater with which the ex-director had been associated; and an actress called for a boycott of the institution.

It seems clearer than ever that gay activists are not, as was once thought, interested only on being left alone, or, as was later thought, on being granted the same privileges as others. They are fixated, in fact, on creating a society where traditional religious perspectives on homosexuality and marriage are regarded, in law and in social dialogue, as the equivalent of racial or ethnic bias.

The scenario of religious people - and institutions like churches, synagogues and mosques - being branded as bigoted simply for affirming deeply-held religious convictions is around the corner. And eventual prosecution of the same for voicing those convictions is only another corner or two away.

What began as a plea for "rights" is rapidly, and noisily, morphing into an assault on freedom of speech and conscience.

Jews who take their religious tradition seriously will not allow the shifting sands of societal mores to obscure the fact that the Torah forbids homosexual acts, and sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony. They know, further, that the Talmud and Midrash teach that a saving grace of human society throughout the ages has been its refusal to formalize unions between males. Which made a scene at one of the recent protests particularly poignant. Rebecca Kaplan, a newly elected Oakland, California city council member, told those gathered outside City Hall how upset she was with the passage of Proposition 8. According to a news report, she "roused the crowd by blowing a shofar, a ram's horn blown as a wind instrument in Biblical times. She said it represented a call for solidarity." Only it doesn't. It represents a call for teshuva, the Hebrew word for repentance, literally "return" - to the teachings of the Jewish religious tradition.

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

It was the very beginning of 1942 and the group of ten young men and their yeshiva dean, exiles in frigid Siberia, couldn't believe their eyes. Betzalel Orlanski had somehow gained release from the Siberian labor-camp where he had been sent, somehow found out where they - and his wife - were located, somehow secured a sled and driver, and somehow crossed the large frozen lake - the only way to reach Nizhna Machavaya, the exiles' home, in the winter.

The exiles - my dear father among them - had been part of the Novardhok Yeshiva in Vilna, Lithuania. When the Soviets occupied the country, they offered the yeshiva boys and faculty - most of whom were Polish nationals who had fled to Lithuania - a stark choice: accept Soviet citizenship (and be conscripted into the Red army) or be banished to the wasteland of Siberia as foreign nationals deemed a threat to the Soviet Union. They opted for Siberia, a choice that would test them sorely but likely saved their lives.

When the cattle cars had been loaded with their human cargo in Lithuania for the long trip east, sent along with the Novardhok group were several families, and Betzalel Orlanski's wife - but not her husband; he was sent to a different destination, far from where his wife and "the Novardhokers" were taken.

The Orlanskis had been married for about a decade, but were childless. Mrs. Orlanski, however, confided to the others a recent discovery: she was expecting.

It was about seven months later that her husband unexpectedly alked off the frozen lake at Nizhneh Machavaya. Shortly after his arrival, amid a joy that can only be imagined, their son was born.

The story was recounted recently by my father, at the festive meal celebrating the circumcision of his newest great grandchild. Betzalel Orlanski, he continued, had been so overwhelmed with happiness at the arrival of his firstborn that he announced his intention to circumcise his son himself eight days later, the preferred time according to Jewish law. The problem was that neither he nor any of those present at Nizhneh had any experience or qualifications for performing the surgery. Convincing him to postpone the circumcision hadn't been easy, my father recalled, but the yeshiva boys and their dean prevailed on the new father to wait for a more propitious time and skilled hand. When that time finally came, after war's end, the boy was almost four. A precocious child, he asked to undergo the procedure, wanting to enter the Abrahamic covenant and become a completed member of the Jewish people.

My father told the story to demonstrate the innate Jewish desire to enter Abraham's covenant of circumcision, or brit mila, a most fundamental Jewish obligation. He speculated that, no doubt, an 8-day-old Jewish infant, in some inchoate way, likely also senses the depth of the commandment's import, and that his soul, pure and new, pines to undergo the procedure. And so, my father suggested, perhaps that idea informs the blessing traditionally called out by those present at a circumcision ceremony - "Just as he has entered the covenant, so may he enter Torah, marriage and good deeds." The blessing may bespeak a hope that the same deep and pure desire to be holy that inheres in a new soul should later motivate him, when grown, to study Torah, become a husband and perform righteous acts.

That circumcision remains practiced among Jews who have allowed other Jewish observances to lapse - or who have outright jettisoned them - has always been remarkable. If any commandment could be expected to be shunned by Jews who view the Torah as mere "inspired" words of mortals and not as G-d's sacred commandments, one would imagine that cutting the body of a baby would be it.

And yet that is not the case. Reform Magazine recently (Fall, 2008) published an article "Why Reform Never Abandoned Circumcision," whose author, Reform Rabbi Mark Washofsky, makes his movement's case for brit mila. While the article's title was somewhat inaccurate - circumcision was indeed rejected by Reform leaders in the early 1800's - it is certainly true that the contemporary Reform movement encourages brit mila. The article tries to express why, even though Reform "has done away with a number of ritual observances that conflict with our contemporary cultural and aesthetic sensibilities… this practice remains."

Rabbi Washofsky's explanation is that… it is "a tribal rite" and that "that's why we do it..." Which rather begs the question, of course. But if it satisfies his intellect, who am I to quibble?

What occurs to me, though, is that the resolve of Jews otherwise disconnected from Jewish beliefs and practices to circumcise their newborn boys transcends intellectualization. Those Jews' determination, I think, emanates not from the intellect at all but from a place far, far more deep.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

In its purest form, the human spirit of inquiry is a holy thing. According to the renowned 12th century Jewish thinker Maimonides, nothing less than the Biblical commandment to love G-d is fulfilled when a person investigates nature and, struck by its intricacy and beauty, is filled with awe and gratitude to the Divine.

And so it is exciting to ponder the new aspects of physical reality that might be revealed by the Large Hadron Collider - the 17-mile-circumference particle accelerator that, over 15 years and at a cost of some $8 billion, was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) underneath the French-Swiss border.

Subatomic physics is already a wonderland of strange beauty (not to be confused with "strange" and "beauty" - fanciful names physicists have, at one time or another, given to types of quarks), having revealed that the seemingly mechanistic, clockwork universe we experience in daily life hides astonishing oddities, uncertainties and incomprehensibilities.

Those microcosmic bafflements complement the more readily accessible wonder of the world we experience when we simply look up at the stars, or down into the grass, or at a sunrise, or a newborn baby. The Standard Model - the current theory of how subatomic particles interact - reminds us that not only do the "heavens relate the glory of G-d" (Psalms 19:2) but that "to His wisdom there can be no comprehension" (Isaiah, 40:28).

An ultimate understanding of the universe will likely always evade the mortal mind. But new revelations the LHC might yield - when its gargantuan magnets accelerate streams of particles in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light so that they collide and release their until now unexamined innards - make the mammoth machine a most promising engine of scientific advancement.

Some cheerers-on of that advancement, however, are not exactly motivated by the Maimonidean quest to gain inspiration through a new glimpse of G-d's subtle wisdom. To the contrary, they look to whatever new knowledge the LHC may grant as just further justification for denying the Divine, forklifts with which to pull themselves up onto the pedestal of omniscience. They hope that the LHC will confirm the existence of particles predicted by the latest theories - one such beastie, the Higgs boson, has even been labeled by some the "G-d Particle," for its potential to lead to a grand unified theory of the universe - and thus show that the human mind can fully grasp the totality of creation, and is thus its intellectual master.

And so, while there are many scientists (like astrophysicists Fred Hoyle, Paul Davies and Arno Penzias, to name a few of the most famous) who maintain their human sense of wonder at the world and see purpose in nature, others, like physicist Steven Weinberg, choose to see the cosmos as fascinating but ultimately meaningless. Commenting on the LHC's expected informational yield, he opined that "as science explains more and more, there is less and less need for religious explanations."

Such conceit recalls another technological project, one whose promoters' focus was on the macrocosmic. The builders of the Tower of Babel, the Torah tells us, sought to erect a structure whose top would pierce the heavens, the better to assert their independence from the Divine and "make for ourselves a name." Their plans, of course, were dashed; their arrogance did them in.

The LHC was supposed to have already yielded its harvest of new particles by now. On September 10, proton beams were successfully circulated in the main ring of the structure. Nine days later, though, operations were halted, as an electrical fault caused liquid helium to leak into the tunnel, damaging dozens of the LHC's superconducting magnets and contaminating the "collider's ring. Physicists say it will take until next summer to make the necessary repairs.

"Man contemplates, G-d laughs" goes the Yiddish expression (and in that language it nicely rhymes). I don't know if G-d laughed as the glitch rained on the LHC parade. I certainly didn't; I was deeply disappointed. My thoughts, thought, did go back to the builders of Babel, and to how, in monumental projects, success or failure may ultimately hang on intentions.

Will the LHC in fact come to function as planned, and allow us to see deeper into nature? It might just depend on why we're looking in the first place.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

One of the perks (such as it is) of working for a Jewish organization is receiving unsolicited books and manuscripts in the mail. Most - like "new age" Jewish ritual guides, Middle-East manifestoes and novels channeling their authors' neuroses through Biblical narratives - don't interest me. Occasionally, though, a freebie escapes the circular file. Like the copy (there were actually two, a few weeks apart, one hardcover, the other soft) I received of "Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance" by Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff.

Mr. Bronfman is the former CEO of the Seagram Company, past president of the World Jewish Congress and a major contributor to Jewish causes.

His book, the accompanying folder contents informed me, is "a passionate plea to the Jewish community, urging members to celebrate the joy in their culture and religion… [and] to recognize their responsibility to help heal a broken world."

Mr. Bronfman proposes that young Jews be brought to "meaningfully encounter Judaism: its texts, traditions and community"; that they be brought "into conversation with the faith's traditions and with each other"; and that Jewish institutions find ways to reach out to Jewish youth. Sounded promising.

But the book's vision of Judaism, it quickly became apparent, is decidedly libertarian, its understanding of "the faith's traditions" essentially Reconstructionist. The phrases "culture" and "heal a broken world" should have tipped me off. Mr. Bronfman's Jewish theology is entirely personal - in fact, personalize-able: "I don't believe in the G-d of the Old Testament," he recently told a New York Times Magazine interviewer, "but I am happy with my Judaism, without that."

What particularly struck me, though, about Mr. Bronfman's book was the list of people he interviewed in its preparation. Or, more precisely, what was missing from it: the words of a single haredi Jew.

There are all sorts of people on the list, including a number of rabbis - even an occasional religiously liberal Orthodox one. But one would have expected that the goal of finding ways of engaging young Jews would have led Mr. Bronfman to wonder about how the less "progressive" part of the Orthodox world seems to have successfully imparted its Jewish dedication to its young.

To portray even a slice of the remarkable empowerment of traditional Jewish belief and practice over the past half century is to court being tarred "triumphalist." But taking objective stock of the phenomenal growth of traditional Judaism in our day is not triumphalism but triumph - the prevailing of the Jewish religious heritage at the root of all Jews' pasts.

To be sure, the growth of the traditionally observant Jewish community has not rendered it immune to social problems that permeate contemporary society. Nor are high ideals, alas, always matched by high behavior. But, all the same, there can be no doubting the successes.

Not long ago, it was the Jewish fast day of Tzom Gedaliah. Down the hall from my office at Agudath Israel of America's Lower Manhattan headquarters is our "in house" synagogue, adjacent to a large board room. The collapsible wall between the rooms was folded away to allow well over 100 Jewish men working in the Wall Street area to participate in special fast-day Mincha services, when the Torah is read.

The first service, that is. Two more followed over the course of the afternoon, to accommodate similar numbers who came to pray. And I know of at several other Orthodox organizations or synagogues in the area where the special services were held as well.

If one were seeking means of empowering Jewish life, connections and learning among young Jews, why in the world would one ignore the buzzing dynamo of Jewish thought and life that is the traditional Orthodox world?

Yet Mr. Bronfman didn't see fit to interview any of the many rabbis in that world whose lectures regularly draw hundreds of Jews; or any of the popular Orthodox thinkers and speakers whose talks and recordings reach tens of thousands; nor the editors of the ArtScroll publication house, which has revolutionized Jewish learning over the past quarter century; or the publishers of any of the haredi papers, like the weekly Yated Ne'eman or the daily (yes, daily - the only Jewish one in the country) Hamodia; or any of the heads of American yeshivot and seminaries in which thousands of young Jews are immersed in Jewish texts and traditions.

Mr. Bronfman didn't likely lack for toys as a child, but, tragically, he was sorely deprived of examples that might have led him to understand how Judaism is transmitted. By his own account in the New York Times Magazine, his father told him to attend synagogue on Sabbath morning, while he went to his office. "What made him think I was going to go to the synagogue if he went to the office?" Mr. Bronfman reminisced. "The hell with that."

But over the many years since then, as astute an individual as Mr. Bronfman should have noticed where young Jews have come to "meaningfully encounter Judaism: its texts, traditions and community."

If he didn't, that's unfortunate. If he did, but decided all the same to dismiss authentic Jewish belief and practice as not germane to inspiring young Jews, well, that's doubly unfortunate.

In either event, Mr. Bronfman may think he has made a major contribution to Jewish life with his book. But wittingly or not, he shortchanged his readers.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Along with the new Jewish year we welcomed a new cycle of Torah-readings. For Californians, the first post-Sukkot Sabbath reading was particularly timely, coming as it did a mere ten days before the 2008 elections. It should have given pause to Jewish opponents of Proposition 8, the measure aimed at amending California's constitution to enshrine the traditional definition of marriage in state law.

An assortment of arguments can be made in support of Proposition 8 - from the deep and abiding connection of marriage with procreation, to the healthful effects for children of having both a mother and a father, to the endangerment of religious freedom lurking in societal sanction of same-sex unions (which will all too easily be used to tar conscientious objectors as unlawful discriminators).

Such arguments aside, though, Jews with respect for their religious tradition will perceive in the first chapters of Genesis the clear template for marriage: the first man and the first woman. As the text declares: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and cling to his wife [literally 'his woman'] …" (Genesis 2:24).

And, in fact, the Torah, both in its written dimension (what we call the Jewish Bible) and its oral one (the "rabbinic" material that determines Jewish law), goes on to forbid the sexual union of two men. (The issue of female same-sex unions, while in a different category, is prohibited as well.)

What is more, and here more to the point, societal "officializing" of such unions - i.e. calling them "marriages" - is particularly condemned by unimpeachable and authoritative Jewish sources. They consider a society that "writes marriage documents for men" to be endangering its very existence.

A Jewish case can certainly be made for a libertarian approach to matters of personal behavior, for a "live and let live" attitude that, for all its morally objectionable yield, can help ensure the protection of religious and other fundamental freedoms. In any event, the behavioral issue is legally moot; the highest court in the land has declared unconstitutional laws that criminalize homosexual acts between consenting adults. But Proposition 8 is not about legislating personal behavior - be it same-sex, multi-partner or incestuous, all of which have their proponents. It is, rather, about preventing a twisting of the time-honored and timeless definition of marriage, a definition whose upholding the rabbis of the Talmud considered to be one of humanity's saving graces.

We Jews as a people have a tendency toward "progressive" movements and tend to welcome all societal change as inherently healthy and good. Some such change, of course, is indeed so, and Jews can be rightly proud of having been at the forefront of social causes like racial equality and employees' rights. But headlong rushes to a "more enlightened future" have landed some Jews in some unsavory places, like the forefront of communism in the early decades of the previous century. Or, centuries earlier, among the Hellenists of ancient Greece. Or even earlier, dancing in celebration of a golden calf.

Our pining for progress comes from a holy place, the deep and inherent Jewish desire for a perfected world. But the secret and essence of Judaism is its conviction that we are not the judges of good and bad, but rather look to the Torah for its guidance. "We will do and [then perhaps] hear [i.e. understand]," declared our ancestors when they were given the Torah. Our mission is not to pronounce what we mortals think is good but rather to accept the decisions of the Divine.

Much of the world considers reformulating the meaning of marriage to represent progress. And many Jews, as in past "progressive" movements, are giddily jumping on the burnished bandwagon.

Jews, though, who understand what it means to have been chosen by G-d to stand for holiness - which the Talmud teaches has a primary meaning of "separation from immorality" - know that all that glistens to a liberal eye is not gold, or even good. And those Judaism-aware Jews who live in California will, against the societal tide, vote on November 4 to have their state retain the true meaning of marriage.

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The weeks before a presidential election provide spiritual fodder for the week between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Throughout political campaigns, candidates and their handlers are keenly aware of the great toll a simple gaffe or misjudgment can take. Four years ago, Howard Dean, the then-governor of Vermont (today Democratic National Committee chairman) was a credible candidate for the Democratic nomination for President.

But he crashed and burned, according to many because of what came to be dubbed his "I Have a Scream" speech. After an unexpectedly weak showing in the Iowa caucus, Dr. Dean declared his undeterred determination to forge on, in a rousing address that culminated in a vocalization somewhere between a Zulu war cry and a locomotive horn. That single moment's decision to let loose in that way at that juncture spelled the end of the doctor's road to the highest office in the land.

There have been other such moments for presidential candidates: Edmund Muskie's tears of pain, Gary Hart's infelicitous mugging for his "Monkey Business" snapshot, Michael Dukakis's donning of an ill-fitting combat helmet. Each unguarded moment, deservedly or not, brought a national campaign to a screeching halt.

Every one of us, too, in our personal lives, comes face to face at times with opportunities of our own that, wrongly handled, can lead to places we don't want to go.

And we are vying for something infinitely more important than a mere nomination for President. We're in the running, after all, for the achievement of worth, racing to achieve meaning in our lives.

In the bustle and haste of everyday existence, it is alarmingly easy to forget that decisions we make, sometimes almost unthinkingly, can be crucial; that seemingly insignificant forks in the roads of our lives can lead either to achievement and holiness, or, G-d forbid, to setbacks, even ruin.

Every single decision we make, of course, is important. Each day of our lives presents occasions for choices, chances to seize meaningful things - a mitzvah, a heartfelt prayer, an act of charity - or to forgo them. Every opportunity to be morose or angry is a chance to hurt others, and ourselves - and likewise a chance to do neither, and achieve something priceless.

But there are also particularly momentous opportunities, when we are presented with roads that diverge in entirely different directions. The Talmud teaches that "one can acquire his universe" - the one that counts: the world-to-come - or "destroy" it "in a single moment."

Potentially transformative decisions are more common to our lives than we may realize. When we make a decision about, say, where to live or what synagogue to attend - not to mention more obviously critical decisions like whom to marry or how to raise and educate our children - we are defining our futures, and others'. And it is of great importance that we recognize the import of our decisions, and accord them the gravity they are due.

We can even, through sheer determination, create our own critical moments. Consider the Talmudic case of the "conditional husband."

In Jewish law, a marriage is effected by the proposal of a man to a woman - the declaration of the woman's kiddushin, or "specialness" to her husband, followed by the acceptance by the woman of a coin or item of worth from her suitor. If the declaration is made on the condition that an assertion is true, the marriage is valid only if the assertion indeed is. Thus, if a man betroths a woman on the condition that he owns a car, or still has his own teeth, unless he does, they aren't married.

What if a man offers a woman a coin or item and makes the kiddushin-declaration "on the condition that I am a tzaddik," a "totally righteous person"? The Talmud informs us that even if the man in question has no such flawless reputation the marriage must be assumed to be valid (and only a divorce can dissolve it).

Why? Because, the Talmud explains, the man "may have contemplated repentance" just before his proposal.

That determined choice of a moment, in other words, if sincere, would have transformed the man completely, placed him on an entirely new life-road. The lesson is obvious: Each of us can transform himself or herself - at any point we choose - through sheer, sincere will.

This season of the Jewish year, our tradition teaches, is particularly fertile for making choices, for embarking on new roads. All we need are the sensitivity and wisdom to be open to crucial opportunities, and the determination to craft some of our own - to make choices that will change our lives and futures for the holier.

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

It's never a good idea to analyze a joke. All the same, I recently found myself deconstructing a stand-up comedian's one-liner quoted in a newspaper article. It may have been because Rosh Hashana was approaching.

"I used to do drugs," the hapless performer had deadpanned. "I still do, but I used to, too."

Why was the line funny? It could be that the comedian had simply found an amusing, absurd way to characterize his long-time substance abuse. But what I think he meant to communicate was something more: that he had once (perhaps more than once) quit his drugs, only to re-embrace them. When he was clean, he "used to do drugs"; now, fallen off the wagon, he does them once again.

And so my thoughts, understandably (no?), went to Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year holiday characterized by the Talmud as an annual day of Divine judgment. Its two days begin the ten-day period in the Jewish calendar - ending with Yom Kippur - that constitute the "Days of Repentance."

No, I don't abuse drugs. I take my daily blood-thinner responsibly, pop an occasional Tylenol and have a glass or two of red wine with Sabbath meals, but that's about it. Nevertheless, I related well to the comedian's self-description. Because I find myself resolving each year to improve in some of the very same ways I had resolved to improve the year before. Indeed, the years - plural - before, in more cases than I care to ponder. I, too, "used to" do things that I currently do too.

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

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

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

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

Still, it's a balancing act. The knowledge, after the fact, that falling isn't forever cannot permit us to treat sin lightly. Even while not allowing failures to leave us dejected, we must maintain the determination to be to be better people tomorrow than we are today. If, after raising ourselves from the ground, we don't renew the battle with resolve, if we become complacent about our sins, seeing them not as boons to redoubled effort but as fodder for jokes, we flirt with true failure - the ultimate kind.

The article containing the one-liner, as it happens, was an obituary. The comedian who "used to do drugs" and still did died of an overdose, at 37.

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

COMING TO JUDAISM - Part 1 (of 3)

Rabbi Avi Shafran

A long, long time ago, when I was much younger, even more foolish and living in California, I used a motorcycle for personal transportation. I remember once riding my mid-sized Honda, tzitzit-fringes flying behind me, into a cycle shop for a part. As I entered a parking space and cut the engine, I heard a roar from behind and knew, even before it pulled up next to me, that a Harley had arrived. The behemoth's rider, a man much older than I, with flowing white hair and dark sunglasses, clad in jeans and a long sleeved shirt, looked down at me - menacingly, I thought. But what I had tagged a scowl suddenly broadened into a smile, as the biker slapped his right hand onto his left wrist and pulled up his sleeve, revealing the unmistakable evidence of another time and place: a crudely tattooed number. "Another crazy Jew," he said in Yiddish.

Flabbergasted by the unexpected, I squandered the opportunity to bond with another Jew. To this day that lost chance bothers me. I think I shook his hand and probably smiled, but I didn't go the extra mile. Not only didn't I invite him for a Shabbat meal, I didn't even ask him to tell me his name or about himself, nor did I share with him anything about me.

I've become wiser with time and have come not only to reach out to less-than-obviously-Jewish Jews I meet but to cherish the meetings, and the Jews.

Many have actually reached out to me. My beard and kippah or hat tend to indicate I'm not Irish, and so a repair shop, waiting room, supermarket, bus or train will occasionally be the backdrop for a Jewish stranger to smile and pointedly drop a Yiddish or Hebrew word, or otherwise telegraph some Jewish connection. I always see it as a meaningful act, an invitation.

Not and invitation to "make them Orthodox" - although I am very happy when a less-observant Jew becomes more observant. But simply to interact with a fellow Jew, to reestablish a bond forged at Sinai when, the Midrash teaches, the souls of all Jews, present and future, were present and united. If Elijah the prophet appeared and told me that a Jew to whom I was speaking would never undertake any Jewish observance as a result of the conversation, I would continue it no differently than before.

But, needless to say, I want only good for a fellow Jew, and consider the Torah to be the epitome of goodness, something I want to share. And so, when possible, I try to offer Jews I meet entrée into the world of Jewish observance.

And indeed, some Jews connect viscerally to Jewish observance; all it takes is experiencing a traditional Jewish Shabbat or holiday, a circumcision ceremony or wedding. They feel in their souls that they have sampled a deeper reality. Others are similarly affected by meeting a truly righteous Jew, innately sensing his or her sublime nature, and moved thereby to explore what might yield such refinement. And then, of course, there are Jews whose sublimity of soul allows them to realize the power of Torah from… Torah. Its study, that is. Approached properly, it can be transformative.

Many Jews, though, even if they are intrigued by Judaism, will not entertain the possibility of changing their lives without being logically persuaded that there is a Creator and that He indeed gave a people His law. We live in a world that is as psychologically fueled by cynicism as it is physically powered by petroleum (and in the former case the supplies are unlimited), where books peddling atheism are sure-fire best-sellers, and faith in anything but science is portrayed as a sort of feeblemindedness. That an intelligent person who hasn't personally felt the power of Judaism might react with skepticism to the notion that the Jewish faith it is more than a mere cultural construct is understandable,

And yet, the basis of Judaism - that G-d exists and His Torah is true - can in fact, I believe, be demonstrated to a reasonable person. To be sure, once a Jew recognizes the Divine nature of Torah, reason plays an only very limited role in the living of a Jewish life. Doing G-d's will, whether we understand it or not, becomes the operative principle. Still and all, the fundamentals of Judaism are demonstrably reasonable.

And so, in the final two installment of this article, I intend to lay out an approach toward making the case for the truth of the Jewish religious tradition.

The approach will be based on two premises. First, that "proofs" - in the strictest sense of the word - are really only possible in mathematics and formal logic, and so we make the vast majority of our decisions, including many of the most important ones, on something else: reasonability.

And second, that an important principle of reasonability is what has come to be called "Occam's Razor" (after a 14th century English logician), or the "law of parsimony." It asserts that the less complex an explanation for an observation (or set of observations), the more likely it is to be true.

Take, for example, a medical diagnosis. Thus, if a patient presents a number of symptoms, one might choose to view each one individually. The fever could be the result of a bacterial infection, the cough might be an effect of the patient's having unknowingly inhaled some irritant, the muscle aches from a possible mineral deficiency. But as the symptoms taken together are consistent with influenza, it is most reasonable to interpret the symptoms as a set, and to duly diagnose the flu.

Applying the law of parsimony to a set of historical and other observations, I submit, yields a compelling case for the veracity of the Jewish religious tradition. A case, that, with G-d's help, I will begin to lay out next week.

COMING TO JUDAISM - Part 2 (of 3)

Occam's Razor, once again, requires us to explain a fact or set of facts in the least complicated way. The darkening of the sky, for instance, might be a solar eclipse, and the pitter-patter on the roof a family of cats. More likely, though, it's raining.

Let us begin with the fact that nowhere in the annals of religions is there a parallel to Jewish tradition's claim to a mass revelation from G-d. Christianity is mediated by an individual, Paul; Islam, by Mohammed; Mormonism, by Joseph Smith. Moses, by contrast, brought the Jews to Mt. Sinai, but it was the Creator Who directly introduced Himself there to the Jewish people en masse.

That is no minor point. An individual's claim to a personal divine communication is only as strong as his own credibility. The claim of a mass experience, however, cannot be effectively asserted unless it actually happened; if it were a hoax, the perpetrators will be unable to produce the claimed mass. That is why reasonable people don't contest the facts of recorded history.

Despite its supernatural element, the giving of the Torah is no different from - and thus no less reliable than - any other historical tradition; it, too, is based on a mass testimony.

A cynic might suggest that such a claim could have been fabricated after the claimed event, and was somehow propagated without the masses' corroboration. But a single, salient fact remains: Despite the obvious advantages of claiming a mass event-based faith, only one such claim has ever been made over the entire course of human history: the Jewish one. Even our cynic must admit the singular nature of the Jewish revelation claim.

Consider now a separate matter: the self-defeating nature of several of the Torah's laws. One enjoins the Jews in the Holy Land to let all their fields lie fallow every seventh year (and at the end of 49 years, two years in a row), an unarguable recipe for economic disaster. No human lawmaker would be cruel or dim enough to lay down such a law - only a Legislator Who could in fact ensure that the populace will not starve as a result could dare make such a promise.

Or take the three "pilgrimage festivals," when all adult Jewish males were commanded in Temple times to journey to Jerusalem - leaving their homes and the nation's borders open to attack from enemies. The festivals are closely connected to the seasons and phases of the moon, and would thus have become entirely predictable to the Jews' enemies, of which, as always, there were many.

The skeptic might retort that maybe those laws were added to the Torah's text (for reasons unknown) at some later time, and no one noticed the textual tinkering. But he would have no evidence for his speculation. Once again, the most straightforward (if supernatural) explanation points instead to the Divine authorship of the Torah.

Then there are the predictions, like the Torah's foretelling of how the Jewish people will come to sin, be exiled from their land and scattered among the nations. And how Jews will seek to lose their identity but be rebuffed, often violently, by their foreign hosts. And how the scattered Jews will nevertheless persevere as a people (itself an unparalleled occurrence in history), and how the remaining Jews will eventually return to their ancestral land.

The doubter will likely attribute this one, too, to some post-facto text-meddling, or to plain chance. But his patchwork responses are multiplying and fraying. Occam would not be happy.

There are other unrelated hallmarks of the Torah's uniqueness, too. Like the fact that, unlike every other tradition hallowed by a world faith, the Jewish Bible harshly highlights the foibles and sins of its greatest men and women. In the New Testament, the books' hero is without fault; the Koran's protagonist is a perfect prophet - just what one would expect from documents written by men to extol men. The Torah, by stark contrast, publicizes the mistakes of its greatest personages, including Moses and Aaron, evidence that it was created not by hero-promoters but an omniscient Judge. The naysayer may mutter "Not necessarily." But the oddity points, once again, to the Torah's Divine origin.

As does Moses' singular and striking lack of qualification for leadership. He suffers from a speech impediment, lacks the self confidence that is the essence of every great leader, and doesn't even want the job. Has there ever been a successful such leader? Other religion-forming figures possessed the natural ability to convince others of their connection to truth - and used it. Moses had no such ability, yet it was pointedly him through whom the Torah was given. No one could ever attribute the historic success of the Jewish message to the impact of oratory, charisma or self confidence. Only a defective product needs a talented salesman.

Each of the above observations independently points to the truth of the Jewish religious tradition; all of them taken together should be impossible to ignore. Were there as many indications of heart failure in a human being, he'd be rushed to cardiac surgery without delay.

And what is perhaps the most striking anomaly about the Jews and their religion has not even been mentioned yet. With G-d's help, next week.

COMING TO JUDAISM - Part 3 (of 3)

One of the most compelling factors to ponder when considering Jewish religious tradition's veracity is something that makes us uncomfortable - but something we are in a better position today to perceive than anyone at any other time in history: the power and persistence of anti-Semitism.

That the Jewish people have been historically significant is a truism. The nation described by the Torah as chosen to live by G-d's laws not only introduced monotheism and morality to human society but has played a critical role in promoting a multitude of important ideas, from the legislature to textual analysis to educational systems to ethics to democracy itself (the principle by which a Jewish court operates). And, as observers as diverse as Mark Twain and Ann Landers have noted, even from a secular perspective, the influence has been overwhelmingly positive.

Which makes anti-Semitism not only unexpected, but astounding.

What other racial, ethnic, social, or religious group can claim the distinction of having been chosen as the target of one or another form of persecution during practically every period of mankind's progression from ancient times to the present? What other group, removed from its ancestral land and scattered around the globe, can claim to have ever been subsequently singled out for extermination?

The aims of the persecutions have varied. Some of the hatred has been of a racial nature, some of a religious and some even personal. What all the animus has in common, though, is its collective focus on an unthreatening enemy: the Jews (and/or their beliefs). Whether the particular excuse was cultural (ancient Greece), religious (early Christian, or radical Islamist), racial (Nazi Germany), or national (Palestinian radicals), the mark has been the same.

The ancient Greek dedicated himself to knowledge and beauty; he hated the Jew. The Crusader championed the message of the "New Testament" (peace and love of mankind, no less); he hated the Jew. The Nazi strove for genealogical purity; he hated the Jew. The Palestinian opposes what he regards as Zionist imperialism; but in the end it is the Jew he despises.

Things might be more understandable were there in fact some World Council of International Jewry constantly plotting the next stage of the nefarious manipulation of world governments to its own evil advantage.

Or if, as large portions of the non-Jewish world once believed (and parts still do), religious Jews required Christian blood for matzos, an assertion for which countless Jews were tortured and killed.

But we members of the tribe know well that while Jewish organizational meetings can be hellish in their own way, they are rather more mundane than the fabled assembly of the "Elders of Zion" - and that matzo containing blood would never receive rabbinic certification, much less Jewish consumer enthusiasm. Yet the myths persevered for centuries - and, sadly, still do.

As do contemporary equivalents of ancient blood libels, in no less bizarre forms - like some Palestinians' projection of their own murderous designs onto Israeli soldiers seeking only to protect their fellow citizens; or like much of the Arab world's acceptance of the contention that Jews were really behind the terrorist attacks of September 11; or like media equations of accidental civilian deaths from Israeli self-defensive fire with the victims of "gunmen" gleefully seeking to kill and maim as many innocents as possible.

How is it, one can just as easily ask, that Jews are reviled in places like Idaho or Japan, where there aren't even any members of the tribe to speak of?

One can try to address the persistence of Jew-hatred into modern times by invoking "rational" explanations: psychological concepts, social theories or geopolitical realities. But, here too, there is a less complicated, if more disturbing, solution to the riddle.

And it lies, at least for Jews unafraid to face Jewish verities, once again, in the truth of the Torah - here, its prediction about how the Jewish people, in exile, will neglect their spiritual heritage and suffer for the fact.

"And He will scatter you among all the nations… and you will worship other gods… and in those nations you will not rest… you will be fearful night and day (Deuteronomy, 28:64-66)."

And so, we step back to regard the entire canvas: the monumental singularity of the revelation at Sinai; the self-defeating nature of some of the Torah's laws; the uniqueness of the Torah's judgmental descriptions of its "heroes"; Moses' utter lack of qualifications for leadership; the coming to pass of the Torah's predictions; the illogical perseverance of the Jewish people; and, finally, the sheer astonishingness of anti-Semitism's persistence.

Each of those anomalies can be countered with a different "explanation" that avoids the conclusion that the Torah is true. But at some point the thicket of complexity formed by the rationalizations must be contrasted with a simpler, straightforward, Occam's Razor-respecting possibility: that a sort of Unified Jewish Field Theory permeates the unruly mess of oddities. The key to that UJFT is that the Torah has come to us from the Creator.

Rejecting that conclusion requires a considerable dulling of Occam's razor, the invocation of a series of piecemeal mental contortions. One the other hand, embracing it carries life-changing implications, which can be a daunting prospect. No one ever said, though, that coming to Judaism was easy.

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Thanks all the same but no, I'd prefer my next party not be "the talk of the town."

The advertisement promising town-wide tittering over my gala affair was for a Jerusalem hotel, and appeared in a publication catering to an Orthodox Jewish readership. It went on to assure me that the food served at the establishment will hew to the highest standard of kashrut, including strict observance of the laws of the Sabbatical-year.

Fine and good. Wonderful, in fact. But I still really prefer the town not end up talking about my party. Because kashrut isn't the only concern common to observant Jews; so is (or should be) the Jewish ideal of tzeniut - literally, "hiddenness." That concept is perhaps most commonly associated with manner of dress - clothing designed and worn to clothe, not to… well, advertise. But tzeniut means not only to dress modestly but to live modestly. Jews are enjoined by the tzeniut ideal, for instances, to speak softly, to not be boastful, to shun ostentatiousness. And, presumably, to avoid becoming the talk of the town.

Thank G-d, my wife and I have been blessed with occasions to host a few parties, like the weddings of several of our children. Even though financial constraints would have limited our options in any event, we consciously opted for modest affairs, tasteful but not showy. The weddings were every bit as beautiful to the young couples, our family, our friends and us as any more elaborate celebrations could possibly have been. And if any townsfolk talked about our weddings, what was likely recounted was their dignified simplicity.

Much of the business of modern advertising, however, aims precisely to de-dignify simplicity, to try to make people feel they are missing things they are not. And so it's not only tzeniut that takes a hit; so does a fundamental attitude prescribed by the Jewish religious tradition: being "content with one's lot."

There certainly are straightforward and informative ads, offering useful products and services with integrity. Some are even clever, and thus entertaining to boot. But much of the advertising industry today seeks to make its money by preying on human insecurities and pushing the real opiate of the masses: possessions.

That is bad enough in the world at large. Worse still, though, is perusing a Jewish publication filled with articles about Jewish ideas, personalities, history and happenings and turning the page to find an advertisement fostering things antithetical to Judaism - like materialism, one-upmanship or ostentatiousness. It's like a spring day walk in the park suddenly interrupted by a foul odor.

Maybe I'm overly sensitive, allergic to ad copy hyperbole. But another ad I recently saw in yet another otherwise thoroughly Jewish publication made me uncomfortable. It, too, was pushing a hotel, this one as a place to spend the Jewish holidays.

The tagline, upfront and bolded, likely seemed innocent enough to the casual reader. "Enjoy a Memorable Sukkos Holiday!" it suggested. Details of the locale's many amenities, creature comforts and religious needs alike, followed.

Now I have nothing against Jewish families with the means to do so (and who have paid their tuition bills) packing out to a hotel for Sukkot or Passover. I feel bad that they will forfeit the singular experience of a Jewish holiday at home. But I realize that for some very busy people the preparatory work entailed would be overwhelming, and that for others family situations or logistical circumstances make a hotel experience preferable to one at home.

But the ad's tagline struck me as something other than a simple good-hearted wish. Was it subtly implying that Sukkot will be more memorable for being celebrated in a hotel? Or - could it be? - that the holiday will only be memorable if spent there?

If so, Jews who build their own sukkot, cook their own food, turn their homes into spiritual palaces (albeit without room service) would surely take issue with the contention.

I might well be overanalyzing the ad copy. But as someone who was privileged to be a teacher for nearly two decades - and who helped his wife raise a family - I never underestimate the power of even a subliminal, even an unintentional, message.

There are plenty of antithetical-to-Judaism attitudes out there in society, all around. What those of us who cherish Jewish values need to do is to counter them.

And certainly not advertise them.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Anti-Israel diatribes spring from Iran's leaders like fleas from a dog, but a recent Iranian Parliament statement stood apart, containing as it did a remarkable admission.

The statement was in reaction to a comment by Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, the Iranian vice president for tourism, who contended that Iran is "a friend for all people in the world, even Israelis and Americans."

Calling for Mr. Mashai's dismissal because of that "unforgiveable mistake," the parliamentarians went on to declare that "We do not recognize a country called Israel and so we cannot recognize a nation called Israel."

The internal logic of the declaration aside, it would seem to depart from the common trope among "progressives" that Iran's leaders, and others like them, hate only contemporary Zionism, not Jews.

The statement laid bare something more. Not only is a "country called Israel" illegitimate in the signatories' eyes; so is "a nation called Israel." Perhaps that means Israeli citizens - disturbing enough. Or perhaps it means the "Israel" of antiquity, who carry the name that G-d bestowed on their forefather Jacob.

The Agudath Israel movement is not part of either the secular or religious Zionist camps, and indeed was founded in 1912 in large part to distinguish itself from both the part of the Jewish world that saw a Jewish state as a high political ideal and the part that invested the quest for a contemporary Jewish state with spiritual significance. And while Agudath Israel today is deeply committed to Israel's security, and its adherents in Israel fully participate in the country's democratic system, we "Agudists" remain theologically distinct.

Still and all, we recognize that much, if not most, of the negative sentiment aimed at Israel is tightly tangled up with hatred for Jews.

The point was made back in 1975, after the infamous "Zionism is Racism" United Nations resolution. The late and greatly missed Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the then-president of Agudath Israel of America, wrote that "Though the resolution was supposedly aimed only at secular 'Zionism'… the slander is an attack on the entire Jewish people."

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

One can certainly be critical of Israel and not be an anti-Semite. But equally true is that there is a symbiotic relationship in some circles between criticism of Israel and hatred of Jews. Whether the chicken of anti-Zionism or the egg of anti-Semitism came first is of only academic interest. The final fricassee is animus for both. Which is why visibly Jewish European Jews, loyal citizens of their respective countries, are attacked by Arab hooligans, and Jewish cemeteries vandalized with anti-Israel graffiti.

I had a correspondent (actually, still do, if one considers his forwarding me articles and my consigning them to my trash file to constitute correspondence) who is a professor at the University of Alberta. He first wrote me a year or so ago with a pleasant note about an article I had written about Jewish ethics. When I thanked him, though, he quickly turned the topic to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His take - essentially that whatever Israel does is evil, whatever Palestinians do is noble - was so bizarre that I had to tell him it sounded like the sort of libels against Jews with which history is rife.

He took great umbrage, insisting that his criticism was only of Israel, not Jews. Gently ending our conversation, I responded that I would take him at his word but remained at an utter loss to understand what could possibly lie behind so skewed a perspective as his.

So he put me on his e-mail list for receipt of articles from websites dedicated to applauding premeditated murder and condemning self-defense (at least when the self-defender is Israel). I click the messages away, unopened, to e-mail Hades. A recent one's subject box, though, caught my eye. It read something like "This is kosher?"

The attachment was the first among the scores that had arrived over the year whose subject was not one or another of Israel's "crimes." It was a news report about workers' claims of mistreatment at a kosher meatpacking concern in Iowa. Now what on earth, I thought, does that have to do with Israel?

The answer was "nothing," of course. Like the Iranian parliament, the good professor had simply revealed the broader scope of his ample ill will.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Q: What do righteous, learned Torah scholars and newly observant Jews, or baalei teshuva, have in common?

A: The way they recite blessings.

No, it's not funny, nor meant to be. It's simply an easily confirmed observation - and one that holds a thought worth thinking.

A Jew is enjoined by Jewish religious law to pronounce scores of blessings, or brachot, each day, acknowledging the Creator's glory and gifts to His creations. Many of the blessings are part of the prayer service; others are offered throughout the day, like before and after eating - the blessings varying according to the type of food. There are brachot to be made upon seeing lightning and hearing thunder, on a rainbow, before smelling flowers or fragrant spices, after using the bathroom.

But ironically, so many opportunities to express gratitude to G-d make it easy for reverence to devolve into rote. Many of us bracha-making Jews find ourselves pronouncing the nine words meant to thank G-d for the beauty, tastiness and nourishment of an apple, for example, as a string of slurred semi-words, taking perhaps two seconds rather than the five or six needed to actually say all the words clearly and focus on their meaning.


Call it an occupational hazard of religious observance. When something is done regularly and often, it is only natural for the quality of the experience to become degraded with time. But natural needn't, and here doesn't, mean acceptable. And watching a true Torah scholar (who has succeeded in routing rote) or a baal teshuva (who is more attuned to his religious actions than some of us who are more "experienced") say a bracha can help remind us of how things are meant to be - and inspire us to make them right.

A funny-sad story (considerably less humorous in writing than in my father's telling of it at the Sabbath table when I was a child) concerns a Polish Jewish peasant who owes a powerful landowner, or poritz, a good sum of money. Yankel somehow convinces the poritz to forgive the debt if he, the Jew, can teach a bear how to pray.

Faced with the need to produce results, Yankel obtains a cub and hands him a prayer-book with a drop of honey on its cover and on each of the book's pages. The bear wipes up the first drop of honey with its paw and puts it on his tongue. Bright bear that he is, he opens the book and locates and eats the other drops of honey too.

The next day, Yankel gives Boo-Boo the same prayer book, this time with a drop of honey only on every other page. The bear, with a murmur of disappointment at each page bearing only words, still manages to service his sweet tooth from the others. The following day the honey is only on random pages. The bear goes through the book, wiping up what drops of sweetness he finds and licking his paw, murmuring all the rest of the time.

The Jew is now ready. Presenting the cub to the poritz, he declares the animal synagogue-worthy and hands him the here-and-there-honeyed prayer book. The bear opens it, turns a few pages, murmuring all the while, then stops a minute to lick his finger before resuming the page-turning and murmuring. The poritz is not impressed. "That's not praying," he says sternly.

"Come with me," says the Jew, leading the poritz to the local synagogue. Morning services are underway and the Jew opens the door. Lo and behold, the poritz gazes upon an entire congregation of supplicants doing an excellent imitation of the bear. The poritz has no choice but to forgive the debt.

And everyone lived happily ever after. Well, other than those listening to the story, left to wonder whether their own prayers are something more than page-turning and mumbles.

Brachot, like prayers, are essential to Judaism. The very word "Jew" derives from the name "Judah", which the Talmud teaches is rooted in Judah's mother Leah's declaration that she was the beneficiary of "more than my share" of blessing. That refusal to take blessings for granted, that sense of gratitude to God, is what brachot embody.

And they can be accessed by all Jews, whatever their levels of observance, whatever their understanding of Judaism. Saying the required blessings throughout the day is not very difficult, nor does it offend any contemporary sensibilities. And there are many English-language guides to the pertinent laws. The practice of saying brachot may not currently be a common practice in most of the non-Orthodox Jewish world, but what is the future for - for any of us - if not to better the present?

What is more, were brachot more widely embraced among Jews, those of us who have always been saying them and are so "expert" at doing so that we slur our words and forget to think of what we're saying would have more examples from whom to learn and derive inspiration.

What a blessing that would be.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

In a recent column, "Haredim: Underdogs or All-Powerful?", the New York Jewish Week's editor, Gary Rosenblatt, writes of a complaint he received from a reader, Chaim, about the paper's coverage of, and commentary on, the haredi world. Gary, whom I have known for many years and consider a friend, defends his paper and explains how, among other things, the rise of the haredi community's influence in Israel (citing its insistence on high conversion standards and "avoidance of army service"), its rejection of ideological Zionism and its support for the observance of Shmitta are all deserving of criticism.

I cannot speak for Chaim. But I think the real "haredi problem" at the Jewish Week is the dearth of haredi voices in its pages.

Because issues like those Gary raises (like most issues) do have two sides.

A strong case can be made that loosening conversion standards in Israel would have a devastating impact on whether any Israeli convert is regarded as Jewish by a sizable part of the Jewish community. And it is not hard, once the issue is fully explained, to come to realize that most haredim in Israel who choose full-time Torah-study are not trying to "avoid" army service but to serve the Jewish people (and, perforce, the cause of Israel's security) in a spiritual way - the way they sincerely believe counts most. Or to understand how a Jew can disagree with the ideology of Zionism yet be fully committed (more so, perhaps, than some card-carrying Zionists) to the security and growth of the State of Israel. And even Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the guiding light of the non-haredi Israeli Orthodox community, pined for the day when the law of leaving Jewish-owned fields fallow every seventh year might be observed as it was intended.

Yet all too often, only one side of each of those issues, and others, is regularly presented in the pages of some Jewish papers, including the Jewish Week. They tend to report and comment approvingly on any effort aimed at relaxing the Jewish bond to established halacha or to time-honored religious norms and convictions. Those who choose to hew to a more traditional Jewish path are commonly portrayed as obstacles to be overcome; their stances, as things to be "fought" or "undermined," according to those chosen for quotation or offered column space. We haredim are accused of wielding influence beyond our numbers (even of being, as per Gary's title, "All Powerful") and of poisoning the wells of "tolerance." (Sometimes I think the haredim have become the Jews' Jews.)

There are a good number of haredi writers in English these days, each entirely capable of presenting haredi points of view for readers' consideration. But none of them appear as regular columnists in the Jewish Week, and it is a very rare occasion for a haredi Jew's byline to grace any of the paper's op-ed offerings.

A newspaper, to be sure, is entitled to an editorial stance. But a paper aiming to serve the entire Jewish community best fulfils its mission by offering a variety of perspectives. Even the New York Times sees fit to include politically conservative columnists on its op-ed page.

Gary might reply that, well, haredi papers don't exactly include non-haredi, and certainly not non-Orthodox, points of view. That is true. But haredi papers are very open about their mandate, which is entirely limited to providing the haredi community with news it needs and haredi views of current events. They are not, for better or worse, intended as forums for the broader Jewish community, and make no such claim.

I don't think the Jewish Week sees itself in similarly constricted terms, as a paper promoting only the views of one or two parts of the Jewish community. As a Jewish Federation-supported paper, it is expected to cover and present the views of the entire community. And haredim are part of it.

Gary admits that "stereotypes abound" on both sides of the demographic divide in Israel, and he is right. But, in my experience, despite strong haredi feelings about non-traditional theologies and practices, the sort of personal anger and even animosity that is regularly aimed at haredim (and duly reproduced by the Jewish Week and some others) is not commonly expressed by haredim toward other Jews. All it takes is a little websurfing among haredi and other Jewish sites and blogs (especially their "comments" sections) to see that what ill will there is among the various sectors of the Jewish people tends to flow largely in one direction.

Some of that animus, sadly, seems hard-wired into some hearts, a tragedy of our time. But I wonder if some of it might result from the dearth of haredi points of view in important media outlets like the Jewish Week. Gary writes that he hopes to lunch with Chaim at some point, and that he will do his "best to hear him." What he may hear is the pain of a Jew whose community is not only regularly portrayed negatively in some Jewish media but denied an effective opportunity to defend its perspectives. Should that conversation lead to a decision by Jewish Week's editor and board of directors to consider the inclusion of a haredi viewpoint, what a wonderful gift that would be to the Jewish world - all of it.

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Like so much in our world that seems genuine at first, the photograph that graced the front pages of some of the nation's most respected newspapers earlier this month was in fact a fake.

The digital manipulation of the image, which depicted Iranian missiles being test-fired, is readily apparent in the launch pad cloud of exhaust and the mid-air smoke trails of two of the four missiles depicted. The clouds and trails are, incredibly, identical. Iran's Revolutionary Guard, which released the photograph along with some belligerent rant, was clearly doing some Photoshopping.

The alteration, first pointed out by political blogger Charles Johnson, seemed intended to conceal the fact that one of the missiles, which the Iranians claim could reach Israel, either did not fire or exploded on the ground.

This latest Iranian Photogate scandal (last year the same blogger exposed a similar clumsy attempt at graphics monkey-business by Iran's Fars News Agency) might be regarded as nothing more than an example of sloppy damage-control.

But a deeper thought hovers here.

In our day, open miracles do not occur. According to the Jewish religious tradition, direct Divine intervention to turn what we call nature on its head ended in Biblical times. Still perceptible, though, in even our less holy times are more subtle Heavenly intrusions, twists of "fate" that might wrongly be dismissed as mere coincidence.

When Israel destroyed the assortment of Arab armies arrayed against her in 1967, even hardened military men well aware of their forces' skill spoke of wonders. The rescue at Entebbe in 1976 may have entailed special-forces acumen, but sensitive Jews saw Divine fingerprints on the operation as well. In 1981, when the Iraqi nuclear plant at Osirak was obliterated, they likewise perceived the imprint of not only might but miracle as well.

And then there are the frustrated plots against Jews and the civilized world (the former so often the first target of the latter's enemies), the miracles that consist not of something happening but of something not happening. The celebrated Jewish Sage known as the Vilna Gaon is said to have once been asked about a verse in Psalms that calls on the nations of the world to praise G-d: "What sort of special praise can other nations offer that we Jews cannot?" His response: Only those among the nations who hate us know of the secret plans they crafted to harm us that failed to come to fruition. When the Messiah arrives and those people see the truth of G-d's plan, they will have a singular praise for G-d, alone in their knowledge of how He undermined their evil designs.

When, twice this month, Arabs turned bulldozers upon Jewish residents of Jerusalem, amid the sorrow over the dead and wounded, and the reminder of the evil that exists in some twisted hearts, a realization also merited attention: There are bloodthirsty Jew-haters at the wheels of countless vehicles large and small in Israel every day of every month of every year. And so, each day we are spared tragic news is a miraculous one.

And every time a Palestinian terrorist is intercepted, or has a "work accident" - his explosives detonating in his lap rather than in the Jewish crowd he had targeted - that, too, is a miracle.

As was an episode recounted in a book about Klaus Barbie, the infamous "Butcher of Lyon" (the title in fact of the book, by Brendan Murphy, Empire/Harper & Row, 1983):

In 1943, after more than three years of German control over France, the Great Synagogue of Lyon continued to function. That December 10, a Friday, the Lyon Milice, the Vichy government's shock troops, decided it was time to end the Jewish worship.

The synagogue's rabbi survived the war to tell how a member of the Milice quietly entered the rear of the sanctuary that night during Sabbath services. Armed with three hand grenades, he planned to lob them into the crowd of standing worshippers from behind, and to flee before the explosions. After quietly opening the door, he entered the room unnoticed by anyone but the rabbi, who was standing facing the congregation, and pulled the pins.

What the intruder saw at that moment, though, so shocked him that he froze wide-eyed in his tracks, barely managing to toss the grenades a few feet before fleeing. Several worshippers were injured by shrapnel but none were killed.

What had so flabbergasted the Nazi was the sudden, unexpected sight of his intended victims' faces. The congregation had suddenly, as if on cue, turned around as one to face him.

Because the would-be mass-murderer had entered the shul precisely at "Bo'i b'shalom," the last stanza of the liturgical poem Lecha Dodi, when worshippers traditionally turn toward the door to welcome the Sabbath.

We are certainly enjoined to do what we can, using all means at our disposal, to fight evil. And world leaders are right to consider the full gamut of approaches for dealing with a belligerent and potentially nuclear-armed Iran.

That is all fine, good and necessary. We do well to remember, though, that whatever path may be taken by the world's nations, what ultimately will matter is G-d's assistance.

Missiles can fail. And work accidents can happen.

And, if we are deserving, they will.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Sometimes a word or set of words is just so jarring, so inappropriate or so cruel that it causes actual pain. Jewish religious law forbids such language to Jews as ono'at d'varim pain-causing words. Newspapers don't likely consider themselves similarly constricted by Jewish law, and a recent report in The New York Times offered a good example of that fact.

Pain was already well in place this past week, when the terrorist militia known as Hezbollah and reviled by civilized people the world over fulfilled its part of a deal with the Israeli government to return two Israeli soldiers it had held since 2006. Cynically refusing to say whether or not the soldiers were alive, the terrorist group seemed to take a perverse pride in "revealing" with a flourish the coffins containing the bodies of the two young men.

In return for that demonstration of grace, Israel handed over the remains of nearly two hundred Palestinian fighters and five all-too-alive terrorists it had captured. One of them, of course, was Samir Kuntar, who in 1979 landed a rubber dinghy on the seashore of the coastal Israeli town of Nahariya on a mission to kidnap Israelis.

According to eyewitnesses, Mr. Kuntar invaded the apartment of an Israeli family, shot the father, Daniel Haran, in front of his four-year-old daughter Einat and then took the little girl outside where he smashed her skull against a rock with the butt of his rifle. A doctor testified that Mr. Haran's daughter had died from "a blow from a blunt instrument, like a club or rifle butt."

Mr. Kuntar later claimed to have passed out and not seen what had happened to the child, and later still denied killing her. He has never expressed remorse of any sort for killing her father and kidnapping the little girl, which he admits; and certainly not for what the witnesses and medical evidence say he did to her.

And, as we all know and had expected, he received a hero's welcome in Beirut, where Lebanon's President, Prime Minister and Speaker of Parliament all greeted him at the airport. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sent him greetings. For his part, Mr. Kuntar has vowed to continue to fight Israel in any way he can.

(The very day of the "prisoner swap" saw an Agudath Israel of America National Leadership Mission to Washington. The scores of participating delegates interacted with many Senators, Congressmen and Administration officials, several of whom remarked on the sadness born of the day's events. One Administration official, though, took heart at the stark and telling contrast of values between the determination of one side to have fallen soldiers' remains returned to their families and, on the other, the obscene celebration of murderers and murder.)

But the pain of the actual events was intensified, at least for this reader, by the first phrase of the second paragraph of a New York Times story short that day. After referencing Mr. Kuntar and the then-expected and later realized welcome awaiting him in Beirut, the paper of record duly noted that, 29 years earlier, he had floated ashore in Nahariya "to kidnap Israelis." But, the report explained, "That raid went horribly wrong."

The item went on to tell of the witnesses' accounts and medical report, but it never really got around to explaining what it was exactly that went "horribly wrong." Did The Times mean to imply that Mr. Kuntar's intentions were benign? That he somehow accidentally shot a man at point blank and smashed a little girl's head in? That he is, for some unknown reason, a victim himself of some unidentified circumstances?

A campfire that wasn't properly tended and caused a forest fire is something that "went horribly wrong." A car trip that ends in a terrible accident is something that "went horribly wrong." A fireworks display that misfires and hurts bystanders is something that "went horribly wrong."

A vicious, murderous attack on innocents, however, is an example not of something gone horribly wrong but of someone horribly evil. And to portray it as some disembodied event without a conscious cause is to rub salt into the emotional wounds of every human being who may ever have shed a tear over Daniel and Einat Haran's too-short lives and terrible deaths.

If anything went terribly wrong, it was the judgment of some editors in midtown Manhattan.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

It's easy to snickeringly dismiss the recent disclosure that the late hotelier Leona Helmsley not only left $12 million to her dog but nearly all of the rest of her estate - an estimated $5-8 billion (yes, billion) - to dogdom. No correlation, after all, has ever been evident between wealth and sanity.

More significant by far was another recent bit of animal news, the Spanish parliament's June 25 vote in support of extending the right to life and freedom to apes.

That would be great apes - orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees. (Pity the poor lesser apes and common monkeys, not to mention all the non-simians, whose rights for now remain unaddressed by Spanish lawmakers.)

The vote was the culmination of a push by an entity called the Great Ape Project, which for years has advocated on behalf of having apes accepted as closer to human than animal. The DNA of apes and humans, the group points out, is very similar. Indeed it is, although there are some 40 million differences among the two species' respective nucleotides. The group further contends that "Human blood and Chimpanzee [sic] blood… can be exchanged through transfusion." Don't try that at home - or anywhere else for that matter; each species' antigens would likely prove fatal to the other.

But leave aside the scientific rationale, real or imagined, for equating Cheeta with Tarzan. That apes resemble humans is self-evident. Just looking at a man and an ape would lead us to expect human and ape DNA to have much more in common that either species' genetic material would with that of a lizard, dog or azalea. My car has much in common with a jet plane, too (a metal body, an assortment of gauges, rubber wheels, an internal combustion engine, seats, fuel…); much as I wish, though, it cannot fly.

And neither can apes. Not literally nor by means of developing machines like those manufactured through the astounding imagination, creativity and intelligence exclusive to the human race. More important still, the human capacity to conceive of abstract concepts like time, space, war, peace, love, hate - for that matter "intelligence" itself - sets us apart qualitatively from the rest of the "animal kingdom" despite the physical similarities we share.

Most important of all, only humans can conceive of right and wrong. Or, to distill those concepts to their essence, of G-d. To be sure, we are not always mindful of our responsibilities as Divine creations. But most of us know, deeply and innately, that those duties exist, and the better among us endeavor to shoulder them.

No so, apes. As University of London Professor of Genetics Steve Jones put it: "Rights and responsibilities go together and I've yet to see a chimp imprisoned for stealing a banana."

More to the point, no one has seen a chimp morally conflicted over the prospect of committing the crime.

There are those, though, who discredit the very idea of any transcendental moral imperative, and who deny that there is any metaphysical Source for the same (or any similar spiritual dimension to human beings). They consider conscience a mere delusionary adaptation bequeathed by random evolution, and reject the idea of any essential difference between humans and animals. People, for example, like Professor Peter Singer, the Princeton University Professor of Bioethics, who has suggested that the life of a healthy pig or dog should command resources before that of a severely disabled human baby, and who has promoted acceptance of cross-species intimate congress. As it happens, Professor Singer is one of the Great Ape Project's founders; he was surely heartened by the Spanish parliament's vote.

That vote has no force of law at present - and, in any event, it has been several centuries since anyone has entertained the notion that as goes Spain, so goes the world. But we would be shortsighted to dismiss the recent development. Because it dovetails diabolically with larger societal changes taking place all around us. Unborn human life is terminated for reasons of convenience, patients in extremis are considered unworthy of care, any and all means of behavior are endorsed as nothing more than "personal lifestyles." We are, the thinking goes, mere physical creatures, not different in any meaningful way from the rest of the animal world.

Which conclusion might well liberate us even further. Why should we consider any insect our inferior, any personal behavior objectionable, any act - even murder - wrong? Without affirmation of the singularity of the human soul, society itself is rendered - in the word's deepest sense - soulless.

Please note well: Jewish religious tradition forbids causing animals unnecessary pain. The first man and woman - indeed all of humanity until Noah - were even forbidden to eat meat. But Adam was nevertheless commanded to "rule over" the animal world and, in postdiluvian times, Judaism expressly permits not only the "enslavement" of animals but even their killing for human consumption.

That commandment and that permission bespeak a clear and timely truth: Humans are qualitatively different from the rest of the biosphere, elevated by their souls and the responsibilities that attend them.

To pretend otherwise is to welcome a world where Leona Helmsley's will is unremarkable and Peter Singer's way upright.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Yes, Varda, there is a Jewish way to vote - or at least a genuine Jewish perspective to bring to political races like the current one for the American presidency.

Some Jews would assert that "voting Jewish" consists only of analyzing the respective candidates' positions or pronouncements on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, or any of a number of domestic social issues, or on Iran, Darfur or the environment.

Such analyses are certainly proper. But there is a larger context in which to place them here, an overarching Jewish principle.

A June 6 New York Sun editorial rejected attempts to link Senator Obama with odious people he has known. The editorialist noted that even American presidents who had espoused repugnant views before their elections, came afterward to act very differently from what their erstwhile views would have led anyone to expect.

Before he ascended to the presidency, for example, Harry Truman expressed deeply negative opinions about blacks, Asians, Italians and Jews; yet, once in office he greatly energized the cause of civil rights and confounded his State and Defense Departments by recognizing Israel within minutes of the Jewish State's declaration of independence. And - like Richard Nixon, another man with seemingly strong personal feelings of ill will toward Jews - he supported Israel with military supplies at a crucial juncture in the Jewish State's history.

Thus, when it comes to world leadership, it seems, it is not unreasonable to expect the unexpected. The Sun editorialized its explanation of the phenomenon: "…once a man accedes to the presidency, reality has a way of asserting itself."

The Jewish take on the unpredictability of world leaders, however, lies less in reality's self-assertion than in the upshot of a verse in Proverbs: "Like streams of water is the heart of a king in the hand of G-d" (21:1).

The traditional understanding of those words is that while all human beings are gifted with free will, there are times when Divine guidance - even Divine coercion - can play a decisive role in the actions of mortals, and in particular those of national leaders.

That is not, of course, necessarily to say that by virtue of their exalted positions such people are mere automatons, or that they are never responsible for choices they make. "Merits are brought through the meritorious," says the Talmud, "and iniquity through the iniquitous."

What it is to say, though, is that some element of Divine intercession can sometimes be at play in a far-reaching royal - or Presidential - decision.

Thus, the Torah tells us, G-d "hardened the heart" of the Egyptian Pharaoh and, centuries later, acted through King Achashverosh to grant Esther's wishes and rescue ancient Persia's Jews from Haman's hand. (The phrase "the king" in the Book of Esther, Jewish sources inform us, on one level actually means "the King," the ultimate One). There are, similarly, many more recent examples as well of national leaders acting in ways that would never have been predictable before their rise to power. It is almost as if someone (or Someone) had reached into the leader's heart and fiddled around with its contents.

When such Heavenly interventions take place, Jewish tradition teaches, they are the fruit of Jewish merits - or, sadly, the lack of the same. What matters in the end is not the leaders' pasts but rather the Jews' presents - the current state of our dedication to G-d and His will.

Which idea, of course, rather radically alters the attitude we should take, if not the calculus we should make, when we weight candidates for high office. It doesn't obviate either the need to assess their characters or positions, or the importance itself of voting - a duty that Jewish religious authorities strongly stress. G-d's intervention in human affairs does not absolve us humans from shouldering our ethical or civil responsibilities.

But from a truly Jewish perspective, the tipping point of how kings and presidents will in the end act regarding issues that matter most is the relationship of the Jewish People to the Creator. Whoever happens to be elected is of considerably less import than the critical factor: our spiritual merits.

So, yes, Varda, while there may not be a clear candidate for the Jewish vote in November, there is a clear perspective for Jewish voters to keep in mind: What matter more than our choices in the voting booth are the ones we make in our homes and our lives.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

I spent most of this past week at the annual conference of the American Jewish Press Association, which convened this year in Washington, D.C.

I always enjoy the yearly gathering of writers and editors for the opportunities they afford me - not only the professional ones but also the personal ones, the chances to meet other Jews, in particular those who are not like me. The opportunity to get to know them and hear about their work, lives and views is, to me, invaluable.

And, as always when I attend AJPA gatherings, I was happy to see my friend Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, a Jewish scholar and the editor of the Intermountain Jewish News, a Denver-area Jewish weekly - one of the few other Orthodox Jews at the conference.

He always asks me to study some Torah with him at some point over the conference, and I am honored and happy to oblige. This year was no exception.

But one particular AJPA-conference study-session we had, back in 2003, will always have a special place in my heart. The gathering that year took place in Los Angeles.

That year was when Rabbi Goldberg told me about a "special project" he was working on: an elucidation of a difficult 18th century commentary (that of the Vilna Gaon) to a complicated Jewish legal text (the Shulchan Aruch on the laws of mikveh), a project he has now completed and is publishing. We spent an hour or so analyzing one of the particular passages on which he was then working.

The next day, all the conference attendees were shuttled to a Universal Studios lot. There we heard a presentation from an official of the Shoah Foundation - which was then temporarily located at the Studios - followed by an interesting panel discussion about teaching the Holocaust in public schools.

We were walking to a dining hall on the premises where the awards dinner would take place and I found myself next to Rabbi Goldberg. Around us were actors' personal trailers (the more successful the actor, we were told, the larger the trailer); on the drive onto the site we had seen elaborate facades of period-piece buildings with nothing behind them, props for movies or television shows.

Rabbi Goldberg was excited, but not by the trailers or props. He had, he said, cracked a textual problem we had encountered the day before in the Vilna Gaon's commentary. I listened as he addressed the passage, and we discussed the resolution. As we spoke about the text, there was no doubt in my mind that its resolution was the high point of my friend's day, and of mine.

An uninitiated eavesdropper, no doubt, would have considered our conversation - about bends in pipes carrying rainwater to a basin for immersion to remove an invisible spiritual contamination - bizarre, to say the least. But to believing Jews, Torah is nothing less than truth, the mind, so to speak, of G-d Himself.

Scientific truths once thought to be the ultimate governors of the physical universe have yielded, with time and mind, to the strangeness of quantum physics. In traditional Jewish belief, the study of our tradition's holy texts affords us a glimpse of an even deeper world, conceptual light-years beyond the mundane.

As Rabbi Goldberg and I spoke, an immense irony materialized in my mind. Here we were, two Jews walking between trailers in a Hollywood studio lot, arguably the epicenter of all that is fake and phony in the world (although Washington's another candidate), a place where deception is the local currency and tinsel the stand-in for precious metals - having a discussion about an aspect of Truth itself.

I wondered if anyone had ever studied Torah in that spot. The idea that perhaps we had been the first filled me with a curious mix of pride and trepidation.

In Chassidic thought, physical things and places can be "elevated" by what is done with, or in, them. When, later that night, a cab spirited me away to the airport for my flight back to New York to be with my family for Shabbat, I smiled and shivered at the thought that my friend and I might have played a small but sublime role in a unique sort of spiritual empowerment.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

A reader asks why I haven't seen fit to address ethical concerns raised by news reports about a kosher slaughterhouse/meatpacking concern in Postville, Iowa that was the subject of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid in May, during which hundreds of illegal immigrant workers were arrested.

He is right to chide me, especially since one ethical concern - perhaps the most important one - has been all but ignored by press and pundits.

The company, Agriprocessors, has been in the news before. In 2005, an animal rights group secretly recorded scenes of unusual post-slaughter procedures that appeared inconsistent with animal welfare and asked the local District Attorney to open an investigation. He declined to do so. Nonetheless, Agriprocessors immediately changed its methods. Subsequently, renowned animal expert Dr. Temple Grandin declared her satisfaction with the changes, and the plant received excellent grades in five independent audits.

Then there were other charges over several years by local authorities of violations of environmental and safety laws. Fines were levied and the plant made the necessary changes.

What has seized the public's attention, however, was the recent raid on the facility, said to be the largest such ICE action ever. Some of the illegal immigrants arrested, moreover, subsequently accused their erstwhile employer and supervisors of a host of crimes, including exploitation, abuse and illegal drug production.

Jewish reaction came fast and furious. The Conservative movement urged kosher consumers to consider forgoing meat produced by Agriprocessors; a Reform leader called for investigations of all kosher slaughterhouses; a liberal Orthodox group circulated a boycott petition aimed at the concern; well-known activists like Ruth Messinger, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Avi Weiss signed it; and Jewish newspapers and blogs buzzed with outrage at Agriprocessors and its owners.

The ethical offense I see here is a different one. It violates something not only rooted in Judaism but part and parcel of American jurisprudence and respectable journalism as well. It is called the presumption of innocence.

I don't know if the violations of regulatory laws on Agriprocessors' record are unusual for plants of its type and size. But whether they are or are not, the firm corrected whatever needed correcting.

Which brings us to the recent raid, about which we know three things: 1) Illegal aliens presented forged documents to obtain employment at Agriprocessors, 2) Some of those workers subsequently leveled complaints against the company and 3) The company has stated that it had no reason to doubt the workers' documentation and has vehemently denied all the workers' charges.

Yet, the petition-circulating Orthodox group has judged Agriprocessors guilty of "knowingly exploiting undocumented workers," and deemed the situation a "desecration of G-d's name." A self-described "leading progressive Zionist movement" has called on Jewish organizations to "avoid serving Agriprocessors products at their kosher functions' and expressed shock at how "a company devoted to selling… kosher meat can be so inhumane to the people working for it." A well-read Jewish blog has demanded that the company "make legal all those people whom they've brought in illegally, since they deliberately sought out illegal workers so that they could be treated with less care." A Conservative cantor sermonized about how wrong it would be to "dismiss the events in Postville." A Reform rabbi demanded to know "what it mean[s] to label something as 'fit and proper' that hurts people, exploits people or was produced cruelly."

Neither I nor Agudath Israel of America has any connection to Agriprocessors. And for all we know, it may yet be shown that the firm indeed knowingly hired illegal aliens. Or that it mistreated them, or that it was a front for a drug operation, a neo-Nazi group or a baby-cannibalizing cult. All under the eyes of the federal inspectors present at the plant at all times.

But unless and until some wrongdoing is actually proven, not merely suspected or charged, no human being - certainly no Jew, bound as we are by the Torah's clear admonition in such matters - has any right to assume guilt, much less voice condemnation or seek to levy punishment.

To be sure, a Jewish business operating in bad faith, violating the law of the land or mistreating its employees deserves tochacha, halachically appropriate criticism. Its actions violate the Torah and carry great potential for "chilul Hashem," or desecration of G-d's name. But, as the Rabbinical Council of America rightly noted in a statement about Agriprocessors, "in the absence of hard facts," no one may "rush to premature judgments… or impute guilt…"

It's not at all clear why so many Jewish groups, clergy, papers and pundits are so energetically railing against Agriprocessors in the wake of the recent government raid. The righteous indignation has the smell of adolescent excitement at the discovery of a new "noble" cause. Whatever the motivation, though, until the facts are actually in, the armchair ethicists would do well to give some thought to the Jewish ethic they somehow managed to miss.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

"Tonight I humbly ask forgiveness of the Jewish people for every act of anti-Semitism and the deafening silence of Christianity in your greatest hour of need during the Holocaust."

Those words were spoken before a crowd of several thousand Jews attending an AIPAC Policy Conference in March, 2007. The speaker was Pastor John Hagee, the evangelist who heads the group Christians United for Israel - the very same Pastor Hagee whom Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie now accuses of "insult[ing] the survivors" of the Holocaust.

Rabbi Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, was referring to a speech Pastor Hagee made about a decade ago, about Jeremiah's prophecy that G-d would one day "bring the Jewish people again unto their land that I gave unto their fathers" (16:15). In the next verse G-d proclaims that He will send "many fishers" and then "hunters." The latter word was interpreted by Mr. Hagee as referring to Hitler, leading the pastor to regard the Holocaust as part of a Divine strategy to move Jews to the Holy Land.

One needn't agree with the pastor's take on history; or accept his assumption that simple people can identify events with prophecies; or even consider him to be in command of the facts (in his speech, he has Theodore Herzl, a resolutely secular Jew, invoking Divine command as the reason Jews should move to Palestine). But nothing in fact could be more Jewish than to accept that, no matter how inscrutable, G-d is just; and that as we look into the maw of tragedy we are to look inward as well.

And so, while the Reform rabbi may have seen the Christian minister's words as "an affront" to those who perished in the Holocaust, I saw only an attempt, imperfect but without malice, to discern the fulfillment of a Jewish prophet's words in recent history.

It is possible that Rabbi Yoffie's harsh judgment of Pastor Hagee's sermon reflects a broader disconnect between the two gentlemen. The Reform leader has long disdained the pastor's politics. Hagee, after all, is a social conservative, believes that Iran should be militarily disabled and strongly opposes a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. As such, his position profile is something of a reverse image to that of the Reform movement.

The Jewish clergyman might also have resented the Christian one's reference, earlier this year at a Reform temple in Los Angeles, to the object of Christian veneration as "a Reform rabbi" (intended as a compliment, no doubt).

But one suspects that what most profoundly divide the two clergymen are issues of theology. It is the pastor's belief, but apparently not entirely the rabbi's, that: The Torah is the word of G-d ("Truth is not what you think it is. Truth is what the Torah says it is"); G-d chose and charged the Jewish People with heeding His laws ("[The Jews are] the chosen people, a cherished people… with an eternal covenant that will stand forever"); and the Torah explicitly warns us of the repercussions of forsaking our mission.

That latter thought is in fact recalled at each Jewish festival, when Jews include in their prayers the words "Because of our sins were we exiled from our land…" It is, moreover, the dominant motif of the liturgy of the annual Jewish mourning-day, Tisha B'Av.

As it happened, the very Sabbath following Rabbi Yoffie's rebuke of Pastor Hagee, Jews the world over read one of the two portions of the Torah that relate how the Jewish People's refusal to honor their holy mission will result in the loosening of the reins holding evil at bay. The paragraphs speak of punishments so terrible they are read in an undertone. But they nonetheless must be read, audibly and carefully, because they speak to most important Jewish fundamentals: that the Torah's laws are real, and that it is built into the very fabric of the world that the Jews must heed them. Those who do evil, Pharaoh, Hitler, et al, are fully culpable for their acts - "Merits are brought through the meritorious," says the Talmud, "and iniquity through the iniquitous" - but calamity is not causeless.

It would appear that Rabbi Yoffie does not accept these truths. He believes, as he has written, that Jews "must examine each mitzvah [Torah commandment] and ask the question: 'do I feel commanded in this instance…?'"

Thus, at a recent Reform convention, he could disparage what he called "the Shabbat of eighteenth-century Europe… an endless list of Shabbat prohibitions," and proudly recall how "we fled that kind of Shabbat, and for good reason."

Many of us Orthodox Jews tend to not be comfortable with Christian evangelists. Most, after all, want Jews to accept Christianity, which a Jew is enjoined against doing, even on penalty of death. Although Reverend Hagee has clearly stated that he has no such designs, he nonetheless remains a Christian evangelist. And for Biblical interpretations, we Jews look elsewhere.

At the same time, though, an inescapable irony emerges here:

Interpretations of Biblical prophecies aside, the pastor's approach to Torah (that it is true), Jews (that they are chosen to serve G-d) and history (that it is Divinely guided) is the Jewish one; and the rabbi's, tragically, is not.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Once upon a time, Jews who found Judaism cumbersome simply declared the Torah obsolete and went about their lives as they pleased. They weren't inclined to intellectual contortions.

Some "progressive" Jews today, though, choose instead to twist and torture the Jewish canon, in an attempt to force it to "yield" what they wish it actually did. In a way, their reluctance to just jettison the Torah and Talmud is admirable. Other words, though, come to mind for their merciless manipulation of the Jewish religious tradition.

A recent example of such intellectual anarchism is Hillel. The campus organization, that is, not the Talmudic sage who, while he was an exemplar of equanimity and tolerance, had harsh words for Jews who arrogate to "exploit the crown" - i.e. misuse the Torah for personal purposes (Avot, 1:13).

"Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life" maintains a presence at more than 500 campuses throughout the United States and Canada and aims to "inspire every Jewish student to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life."

If that final phrase read "contemporary mores," a recent Hillel publication entitled "LGBTQ Resource Guide" might make sense. It is intended, after all, in its own words, to make "all Jewish students, of all sexual orientations and gender identities" feel comfortable with their choice of lifestyle. But the term "Jewish life" is simply not sufficiently expansive to include behavior that has been unarguably condemned by Jewish sources throughout the ages.

The publication itself is in equal parts self-righteous and silly. Among its offering of "Selected Jewish Texts Useful for Creating Queer Jewish Ritual" are fun-house mirror versions of Biblical laws and narratives, all imaginatively engineered to erase disapproval of certain behaviors and to imply that great Jewish personages lived in, or emerged from, various closets. Wearing its ignorance brightly on its sleeve, the "Resource Guide" risibly mangles its references. It mistransliterates words (like "v'nigeid" for "v'nigein") and invents others from whole cloth ("to'arish"). At one point, it identifies Chira, Judah's father-in-law, as his wife.

The clumsy attempts at Biblical revisionism are bad enough. Even more disturbing is the propagandists' next step: demonizing those who dare to uphold authentically Jewish values.

To that end, they refer to "religious conservatives" - presumably those who take Leviticus 18:22 and centuries of oral Jewish tradition seriously - as "purveyors of hate"; and offer up new liturgy, like a refurbished "Al Hanissim" ("On The Miracles") prayer. The original Al Hanissim is recited on the Jewish holidays of Purim and Chanukah - the latter, as it happens, commemorates the refusal of Jews to capitulate to the mores of the dominant culture. The "LGBTQ Resource Guide" version of the prayer celebrates instead the "dignity and justice" due "lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people." And it goes on to deride those who "hate us in the name of [G-d]" and "rose up to victimize us, pathologize us, brutalize us, and erase us."

The prayer-parody then thanks the Creator for having "fought alongside us, vindicated us," and "[given] us the courage to stand together… the strength… to be who we are and to love whom we love…"

Jews committed to Jewish tradition (the original, not the "new-and-improved" version) do not hate those who violate the Torah out of carnal desire. And they certainly don't "pathologize" or brutalize them. On the contrary, countless men and women challenged by predispositions to behavior condemned by the Torah have approached Orthodox rabbis and been treated with great concern and assisted in facing up to their special challenges. But no, we do not kowtow to the Zeitgeist, nor are we intimidated by its proponents. We do not apologize for our embrace of Judaism's eternal truths.

That a major Jewish organization - one pledged, no less, to "inspire" Jewish students "to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life" - has chosen to vilify us, and to glorify what the Torah considers sinful, should deeply disturb all Jews who care about Judaism - and should make us think.

During the years my family and I were privileged to live in Providence, Rhode Island, I happily gave of my time to the Brown University Hillel. The local Hillel provided services (prayer and otherwise) to a broad variety of Jewish students from Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design.

The classes I was privileged to teach attracted young people from Orthodox and non-Orthodox backgrounds - and interacting with them all was a wonderful experience. The Reform rabbi who served as the Hillel House director was always friendly and grateful for my participation. To the best of my knowledge, he never spoke disparagingly of Orthodoxy. If he considered my belief in the truth of the Torah and the sacrosanctity of its laws to be objectionable, he certainly never voiced his feeling; Hillel, after all, was about providing Jewish students with Jewish resources and Jewish learning.

Today, though, it seems that Hillel has changed. By sponsoring and distributing a document that actively celebrates what the Torah considers iniquitous and that demonizes those who stand up for Jewish truths, it has blatantly betrayed its trust.

All Jews who seek to discern G-d's will from His Torah, not try to impose their own upon it, should let Hillel's leaders know that the organization has gone too far, that it has insulted the memory and the admonition of the Talmudic sage it claims to revere, the great rabbi whose name it claims as its own.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

An amusing pair of letters to the editor appeared in the New York Times Book Review on April 13, responding to a review of a book about the science of human reproduction.

Both letters were withering critiques of the illustration that accompanied the review, a graphic of a large, oddly shaped, complex organic molecule, featuring atoms of various elements and bonds of many sorts. One of the letter-writers, a professor of chemistry, sniffed that the graphic contained a "dozen brazen errors" and deemed it "a lesson in aberration." The second, a graduate student in chemistry, denounced the drawing as "nothing short of atrocious" and upped the error count to more than two dozen.

It must have been difficult for the editors to quash the urge to respond mockingly, but somehow they managed understatement. "Our correspondents' knowledge of chemistry," they wrote, "may have kept them from noticing that the molecular entity [depicted]… spells out a familiar three-letter word."

The letters and response are entertaining evidence for how limited scientists can be in negotiating the world outside their labs. It is a truism brought to mind too by the recent sale at auction of a 1954 letter written by Albert Einstein, in which the brilliant physicist described Judaism as "like all other religions, an incarnation of the most childish superstitions." The letter, which fetched $404,000 from an unidentified buyer, also scoffed at the idea of the Jews as a chosen people.

In a 1950 letter, Einstein called himself a "deeply religious man" - in the sense that his mental exploration of the universe had provided him "a knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate… the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms." Yet, in that same letter he claims to be "agnostic" about - i.e. neither affirming nor denying -the existence of a Supreme Being.

So Einstein, awe-filled as he was by creation, rejected his religious heritage. Or maybe not. In a 1940 paper in Nature, he was not as dismissive as in the later, expensive, letter. In that paper, he admitted that "the doctrine of a personal G-d interfering with natural events could never be refuted… by science, for [it] can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot."

As Oxford professor emeritus of science and religion John Brooke recently noted, "Like many great scientists of the past, [Einstein] is rather quirky about religion, and not always consistent from one period to another."

What is more important, like many great scientists, when he wandered afield - in his case, from physics to metaphysics - he easily got lost.

The celebrated University of London Professor of Psychology H.J. Eysenck put it bluntly. "Scientists," he wrote, "especially when they leave the particular field in which they have specialized, are just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else, and their unusually high intelligence only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous…"

"Pigheaded" doesn't seem like an adjective suited to Einstein, even rambling outside his field of expertise. Wrongheaded, though, might not be terribly off the mark.

Take his political philosophy. The thinker who presented the world with the subtle brilliance of the General and Special Theories of Relativity was a resolute socialist, considering capitalism to be "a source of evil." He lobbied to end American nuclear testing and advocated supplying the United Nations with nuclear weapons. He insisted that a Marxist be appointed the president of a university to which he was to lend his name. (And when his partner in the enterprise objected, Einstein refused to be associated with the school, which became Brandeis University.)

Not that there's anything wrong with Marxism, of course. No, wait! There is! Wasn't that the political system that brought us the Soviet Union and its gulags, East Germany and the Berlin Wall, the curtailment of human rights in the People's Republic of China and the cruel deprivation of the citizenry in North Korea? No, not so smart, that Einstein, at least not regarding politics.

Not regarding G-d and Judaism either. Like his forbear Abraham the Jewish patriarch (as described by Jewish tradition), the professor perceived the impenetrable "profoundest reason and… most radiant beauty" of the physical universe and was filled with wonder. But, unlike Abraham, Einstein did not come to recognize what it all pointed to, and what it required of him.

That latter point is key. Jewish ethical texts explain that only one who has overcome the human desires and imperfections of character with which we are all born can perceive the Divine clearly. The rest of us are hampered by the little voice in the back of our heads - not physically audible but clearly heard - that reminds us how confronting our responsibility to the Creator may seriously interfere with our personal wants. It is telling that many brilliant people - and Einstein is, sadly, no exception here - who were atheist or agnostic were not beacons of morality in their personal lives and relationships.

So it is ironic that Einstein considered religion "childish." What prevented him from not only understanding light but seeing the Light may well have been his own childishness, the self-centeredness that he retained from babyhood.

Abraham transcended himself and so, fathoming nature's sublimity, he perceived Divinity. Sadly, Einstein saw the pattern, the beauty, the subtlety and the power, but, humanly flawed, he missed the big picture.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

My computer cautions me against fooling with certain manufacturer-determined system settings. Doing so, it warns, could create serious problems.

Riskier still is messing around with Judaism's system-settings, determined by the ultimate Manufacturer.

That lesson might be the one being learned the hard way by contemporary Jewish religious movements which, unconstrained by the Jewish religious tradition, chose years ago to remove the slash that Jewish tradition places diagonally through the equal sign flanked by "men" and "women."

Both genders, of course, are equally important to G-d. Women should be paid equal amounts for equal work on a par with men, and they should be respected no less than males. But pretending that men and women are identical and interchangeable in their life-roles - the much-cherished "egalitarian" approach - not only offends Jewish tradition, it may bode demographic disaster.

A soon-to-be-released report entitled "The Growing Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life," by Brandeis University sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman, will present statistical evidence to confirm what has been widely suspected in recent years: males in non-Orthodox communities are opting out of religious activities. Professor Fishman fears that as non-Orthodox Jewish men become increasingly estranged from religious and communal life they are more likely to intermarry and become "ambivalent at best, if not downright hostile to Jewish tradition."

Could the exodus of non-Orthodox men from communal religious participation have some relationship to "progressive" Jewish groups' efforts to erase the idea of gender roles in Judaism?

I don't mean that non-Orthodox men feel insulted, having been displaced by their female counterparts in practices and positions that were once their lot. No, I mean something more subtle: that messing up the system settings, well, messes up the system.

Roles are part and parcel of Judaism. Just as, among Jewish men, Cohanim and Leviim have prescribed roles, so are there roles that are gender-specific. Some Jewish women were led to believe that a title or public "privilege" would somehow ennoble them, that a tallit or kippah would render them more important or worthy. Others, however, more in touch with Torah, regarded the "equality" campaign with curiosity and just resumed the vital business of their Jewish lives.

The Talmud (Ketuvot 67b) tells of a great scholar, Mar Ukva, who, each day after study, would surreptitiously leave some coins near the door of a poor person in his neighborhood. One day, Mar Ukva stayed late in the study hall and his wife came to accompany him home. Together they walked, making Mar Ukva's usual detour to leave the coins in the regular place. As he began to place the coins, the poor man approached the door. The couple, realizing they would be spotted and wanting their charity to be (as is best) anonymous, took flight; the poor man, wanting to identify his benefactors, gave chase.

The couple ducked into an excellent, if unusual hiding place: a large outdoor oven. Unfortunately, it had recently been used and was still hot. Mar Ukva felt his feet begin to burn. His wife, noticing his discomfort, told him "Put your feet on top of mine," which he did. She did not seem to feel the heat. And thus they successfully evaded their pursuer.

After the incident, Mar Ukva was depressed over the fact that he had not merited a miracle as had his wife. She, though, understood. "Don't you see?" she explained. "I'm in the house so much more than you, so I have many more opportunities than you to be charitable toward the poor who come to our doorstep. And the food and drink I give them can be enjoyed immediately, unlike the money you give. And so, with regard to charity, my merit is greater than yours."

Mrs. Ukva thus conveyed a quintessential Jewish attitude: What counts over our years on this earth is not the prominence we acquire but the merit we achieve; not our particular roles, but what we do with them. It was precisely her "limited" role as a Jewish woman - a homemaker and child-rearer - that had allowed Mar Ukva's wife to merit a miracle denied her scholarly husband.

The concept is really not so strange. Is the undercover agent less important than the foot soldier? The bass player than the drummer? The researcher than the surgeon? Whether roles are loud or quiet, prominent or behind-the-scenes, has no bearing at all on their ultimate value.

Jewish women can choose to embrace contemporary society's game-playing in the guise of egalitarianism and squander their specialness. Or they can answer life's "role-call" with a resounding, Abrahamic, "Here I am!"

By portraying Judaism's assignation of special roles for men and for women as offensive, and selling Jewish women the idea that their traditional Jewish roles are raw deals, the non-Orthodox movements skewed Judaism's system-settings. They may even have undermined their own futures. What's certain, though, is that they deprived their followers of a vital Jewish truth.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Stephen Schwarzman is a very wealthy man. And a very generous one.

The CEO and co-founder of The Blackstone Group, a New York investment bank, recently made the largest unrestricted gift to any New York cultural institution: $100 million, to the New York Public Library.

Mr. Schwarzman may well have made gifts to Jewish causes too. Although his current wife is not Jewish and their marriage ceremony was presided over by both a rabbi and a priest, many intermarried Jews maintain relationships to the larger Jewish community and its institutions. The $100 million, though, is going to the public library.

Untold millions of Jewish philanthropic dollars, sums to spin the head of those of us who think in $20 bill denominations, have similarly been donated to causes that, worthy though they might be, do not address needs exclusive to the Jewish community.

Those needs include the Jewish poor, who not only actually exist but comprise a sizable subset of some communities. In New York, fully 145,000 Jews are classified by the government as poor, and another 375,000 as "near poor." There are considerable numbers of impoverished Jews in other American cities as well, and in Israel and Europe.

Then there are Jewish day schools and yeshivot that subsist on shoestring budgets, forced to pay subsistence salaries - if that - to their teachers and staffs. And, of course, the myriad worthy Jewish nonprofit organizations that oversee social, educational and cultural projects, and rely on the donations of individual Jews to serve the community.

Yet, as in the case of Mr. Schwarzman's recent gift, the vast majority of private Jewish philanthropy benefits secular institutions like libraries, universities and museums.

According to a 2007 paper, "Mega-Gifts in Jewish Philanthropy," written by Gary A. Tobin and Aryeh K. Weinberg and published by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, more than 90% of Jewish individual "mega-gift" dollars over the years 2000-2003 were directed to just such entities. Health and medical causes came next. Jewish causes netted approximately 1%.

The strongly Jewishly-identified part of the Jewish community certainly has its own members of means, and they are generously committed to Jewish causes. But the lion's share of the fruits of American Jews' business and professional success seems to reside in less consciously Jewish coffers.

That led a thoughtful correspondent to point something out to me: While the secularist segment of the Jewish world may boast the most well-heeled philanthropists, the have/have-not equation is turned on its head when wealth is measured not in dollars but in the currency of Jewish knowledge.

In that calculus, it is precisely the fiscally unremarkable part of the Jewish population that holds the surplus, and the financially successful portion that is most impoverished.

Which thought led my correspondent to wonder further if the more Jewishly-knowledgeable world is sufficiently generous with its spiritual wealth.

It is a worthy question. To be sure, there are many impressive ventures aimed at sharing Jewish learning with Jews who might not have had previous opportunities to meet it. Such "outreach" and Torah-study groups take a variety of forms. Some produce written material; others offer classes and operate study-halls; yet others arrange telephone study partnerships or community Shabbat meals.

And then there are the websites, like,,,, (full disclosure: that one is the brainchild of my dear son-in-law) and - each of them a cornucopia of Torah-knowledge for Jews seeking it.

There is, moreover, the celebrated and successful telephone study-partner "matchmaker" Partners in Torah (; and there are the major publishing houses, like ArtScroll, Feldheim and Targum (whose url's are their names followed by ".com"), which offer excellent books in English on practically every Jewish subject under the sun.

Where there is arguably room for greater effort on the part of us observant Jews, though, is on the personal level. Opportunities abound in many of our lives for sharing Jewish knowledge - or, at very least, information about resources like those mentioned above - with Jewish relatives, neighbors and co-workers who may not have had the benefit of a Jewish upbringing.

And there are invitations, too, to be offered - for Shabbat or holiday meals, to attend synagogue services or lectures or Jewish celebrations together. Offering an experience of the vibrancy of contemporary observant Jewish life is the single most generous gift any Jew could possibly give another.

So, whether or not material wealth is flowing from the materially successful secular Jewish sphere to less affluent parts of the Jewish community, there is no reason why spiritual wealth should not flow freely from the latter to the former.

Who knows? my correspondent wonders further. Maybe more determinedly sharing such intangible but meaningful possessions will not only yield personal benefits to the Jewish recipients but constitute a merit for the economic wellbeing of Jewish institutions and charities. Addressing the imbalance in Jewish knowledge, in other words, could be the act of generosity to help trigger a positive change in the focus of philanthropists.

The thought is intriguing but moot. Reaching out to other Jews is the right thing to do.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Even before Senator Barack Obama unequivocally denounced Reverend Jeremiah Wright as the loon he is, I was willing to take the senator's word for the fact that his erstwhile pastor's rantings about America, the Middle-East, the September 11 attacks, Louis Farrakhan, AIDS and white people do not reflect Mr. Obama's own feelings.

What pained me then, though, and still does, is the tragic subtext of Pastorgate - that the sort of rank idiocy that was spewed from the pulpit at Chicago's Trinity Church may not be unusual in churches that cater to African-Americans. Senator Obama's statement, back when he still sought to preserve some of his pastor's dignity, was telling. "I can no more disown [Wright]," he said, "than I can disown the black community." Did he mean to in some way equate the two?

Well, Wright certainly did. On his talk-show vanity tour, he boasted that "This is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright. It is an attack on the black church." The same sentiment was expressed by Wright's successor at the church, Reverend Otis Moss 3rd, who said: "You cannot caricature Rev. Wright. This is an attack on the collective black church." The first assertion, although in a sense Mr. Moss may not have meant, is undoubtedly true; no caricature could convey Wright's lunacy more vividly than the thing itself. As to the second, we can only hope it is not so.

That the Detroit NAACP - a branch of an organization traditionally empowered by mainstream civil rights advocates, including many religious men and women - saw fit to invite Wright to address its recent forum is not encouraging.

I spent my childhood in a racially mixed neighborhood; one of my best friends was a black boy a bit older than I. Junie and I would wrestle, play ball and ride our bikes on the rocky hills near where we lived in Baltimore. We had "kid to kid" conversations, too. He learned a lot about how religious Jews lived, and I learned things from him too. (Quite the critical thinker, he once knit his brow when we passed a local synagogue advertising the availability of High Holiday seats for purchase, and asked me incredulously, "You gotta PAY to PRAY?" It was a good point.)

Another black presence in my formative years was Lucille, our "cleaning lady." She would come to my parents' modest home once or twice a week and help my mother with ironing and housekeeping. We children, following our parents' example, always treated Lucille with great respect, and, not to be cliché, she really was in many ways part of the family. My mother, may her memory be a blessing, would serve her lunch each day she came. And when Lucille grew older and unable to do any real work, my mother, mindful of our housekeeper's financial neediness, made a point of continuing her "employment," having her come over and wipe off a counter or two, so that she could be given her wages - and lunch, of course - as compensation, not charity.

Then there was Dhanna, the librarian in Providence, where my wife and I raised our children, who was so kind to them during their frequent visits to the public library, always smiling at them, helping them find what they were looking for and proudly placing the artwork they produced for her on her desk for all to see. And Desi, our own young daughters' friend from those years, who became quite conversant with the laws of kashrut and Shabbat.

To be sure, I have had unpleasant encounters with blacks. Like in my youth, when a group of boys who had asked my classmates and me to join our baseball game, once at bat, decided to turn the Louisville Sluggers on us. Or the "Heil Hitler" that one teenager delighted in shouting at my father and me when we walked to the synagogue. Even today, I come across the occasional anti-Semite of color.

But more than the occasional pale-faced one too. There are good and bad people in every population. Mindful of the Talmudic imperative to judge "all men favorably" (Avot, 1:6), I have never measured any human being by any yardstick other than his own words or deeds. And my wife and I always sought - and I think successfully - to instill that attitude in our children.

Mere months ago, I would have imagined that preachers in black churches speak to their flocks about serving G-d and living moral lives, about humility, self-respect and love. And maybe most do. But the current presidential campaign's sideshow of "Wright stuff" has been sadly educational. If even a minority of black church leaders are of the Trinity mold (both the word's senses intended), feeding their congregants the sweet poison of suspicion and hatred, the dream of a truly color-blind society will have been set back a century - even if an African-American is elected to the very highest office in the land.

And, of course, as elsewhere in the world, the general anti-American and anti-white ravings of black religious leaders like Wright and Farrakhan exhibit an undercurrent of anti-Israel sentiment - today's "respectable" proxy for anti-Semitism. The latter famously sneered at Israel's "dirty religion" (he meant Zionism, he later clarified helpfully). And the former saw fit to include in a church newsletter an Arab writer's charge that Israel and South Africa "worked on an ethnic bomb that killed Blacks and Arabs."

I can't imagine Junie or Dhanna or Desi tolerating such tripe. What anguishes me is that, for all I know, their children or grandchildren may be.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

It is not only the Torah's words that hold multiple layers of meaning. So do those of the Talmudic and Midrashic Sages - even the words of the prayers and rituals they formulated.

Such passages have their p'shat, or straightforward intent. But they also have less obvious layers, like that of remez - or "hinting" - unexpected subtexts that can be revealed by learned, insightful scholars.

One such meaning was mined from the Four Questions that are asked, usually by a child, at the Passover Seder service. The famous questions are actually one, with four examples provided. The overarching query is: Why is this night [of Passover] different from all the other nights [of the year]?

"Night," however, can mean something deeper than the hours of darkness between afternoon and dawn. In Talmudic literature it can be a metaphor for exile, specifically the periods of history when the Jewish People were, at least superficially, estranged from G-d. The sojourn in Egypt is known as the "Egyptian Exile," and the years between the destruction of the First Holy Temple in Jerusalem and its rebuilding is the "Babylonian Exile."

"Why," goes the "'hinting' approach" to the Four Questions, "is this night" - the current Jewish exile - "different" - so much longer - than previous ones? Nearly 2000 years, after all, have passed since the Second Temple's destruction.

In this reading, the four examples of unusual Seder practices take on a new role; they are answers to that question.

"On all other nights," goes the first, "we eat leavened and unleavened bread; but on this night… we eat only unleavened." The Hebrew word for unleavened bread, matza, can also mean "strife." And so, through the remez-lens, we perceive the first reason for the current extended Jewish exile: personal and pointless anger among Jews. The thought should not puzzle. The Second Temple, the Talmud teaches, was destroyed over "causeless hatred." That it has not yet been rebuilt could well reflect an inadequate addressing of its destruction's cause.

The second: "On all other nights we eat all sorts of vegetables; but on this night, bitter ones." In the Talmud, eating vegetation is a sign of simplicity and privation. Amassing money, by contrast, is associated with worries and bitterness. "One who has one hundred silver pieces," the Talmudic rabbis said, "desires two hundred." So the hint in this declaration is that the exile continues in part because of misplaced focus on possessions, which brings only "bitterness" in the end.

"On all other nights," goes the third example, "we need not dip vegetables [in relish or saltwater] even once; this night we do so twice." Dipped vegetables are intended as appetizers - means of stimulating one's appetite to more heartily enjoy the forthcoming meal. In the remez reading here, such "dipping" refers to the contemporary predilection to seek out new pleasures. Hedonism, the very opposite of the Jewish ideal of "his'tapkut," or "sufficing" with less, is thus another element extending our current exile.

And finally, "On all other nights, we sit [at meals] at times upright, at times reclining; this night we all recline." During other exiles, the "hint" approach has it, there were times when Jews felt downtrodden in relation to the surrounding society, and others when they felt exalted, respected, "arrived." In this exile, according to the remez approach, we have become too comfortable, constantly "reclining." We view ourselves at the top of the societal hill, and wax prideful over our achievements and status.

Thus, the Four Questions hint at four contemporary Jewish societal ills that prolong our exile: internal strife, obsession with possessions, hedonism and haughtiness.

However one may view that "hint" approach to the Seder's Four Questions, looking around we certainly see that much of modern Jewish society indeed exhibits such spiritually debilitating symptoms. Arguments, which should be principled, are all too often personal. "Keeping up with the Cohens" has become a way of life for many. Pleasure-seeking is often a consuming passion. And pride is commonly taken in petty, temporal things instead of meaningful ones.

Most remarkable, though, is that the above remez approach to the Four Questions is that of Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, best known for his commentary on the Bible, the Kli Yakar.

He died in 1619. Imagine what he would say today.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Much of our Seder-night message to our children, mediated by the Haggadah, is forthright and clear. Some of it, though, is subtle and stealthy.

Dayeinu, for example.

On the surface, it is a simple song - a recitation of events of Divine kindness over the course of Jewish history, from the Egyptian exodus until the Jewish arrival in the Holy Land - with the refrain "Dayeinu": "It would have been enough for us." It is a puzzling chorus, and everyone who has ever thought about Dayeinu has asked the obvious question.

Would it really have "been enough for us" had G-d not, say, split the Red Sea, trapping our ancestors between the water and the Egyptian army? Some take the approach that another miracle could have taken place, but that certainly would weaken the import of the refrain. And then there are the other lines: "Had G-d not sustained us in the desert" - enough for us? "Had He not given us the Torah." Enough? What are we saying?

Contending that we don't really mean "Dayeinu" when we say it, that we only intend to declare how undeserving of all G-d's kindnesses we are, is the sort of answer children view with immediate suspicion, and make faces at.

One path toward understanding Dayeinu, though, might lie in remembering that a proven method of engaging the attention of a child - or even an ex-child - is to hide one's message, leaving hints for its discovery. Could Dayeinu be hiding something significant in plain sight?

Think of those images of objects or words that the mind needs time to comprehend, simply because the gestalt is not immediately absorbed; one aspect alone is perceived at first, although another element may be the key to the image's meaning.

Dayeinu may be precisely such a puzzle. And its solution might lie in the realization that one of the song's lines is in fact not followed by the refrain at all. Few people can immediately locate it, but one of the events listed is pointedly not followed by the word "dayeinu."

Can you find it? Or have the years of singing Dayeinu after a cup of wine obscured the obvious? You might want to ask a child, more able for the lack of experience. I'll wait…

…Welcome back. You found it, of course: the very first phrase in the poem. Dayeinu begins: "Had He taken us out of Egypt…" That phrase - and it alone - is never qualified with a "dayeinu." For only it refers, so to speak, to a "non-negotiable." The exodus from Egypt was the singular, crucial, transformative point in Jewish history, when we Jews became a people, with all the special interrelationship that peoplehood brings. Had Jewish history ended with starvation in the desert, or even at battle at an unrippled Red Sea, it would have been, without doubt, a terrible tragedy, the cutting down of a people just born - but still, the cutting down of a people. The Jewish nation, the very purpose of creation ("For the sake of Israel," as the Midrash comments on the first word of the Torah, G-d created the universe), would still have existed, albeit briefly.

And our nationhood, after all, is precisely what we celebrate on Passover. When the Torah recounts the wicked son's question (Exodus,12:26) it records that the Jews responded by bowing down in thanksgiving. What were they thankful for? The Hassidic sage Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein (1856-1926) explains that the very fact that the Torah considers the wicked son to be part of the Jewish People, someone who needs and merits a response, was the reason for the Jews' happiness. When we were just a family of individuals, each member stood or fell on his own merits. Ishmael was Abraham's son, and Esau was Isaac's. But neither they nor their descendents merited to become parts of the Jewish People.

That now, after the exodus, even a "wicked son" would be considered a full member of the Jewish People indicated to our ancestors that something had radically changed since pre-Egyptian days. The people had become a nation.

And so the subtle message of Dayeinu may be just that, the sheer indispensability of the Exodus - its contrast with the rest of Jewish history, its importance beyond even the magnitude of all the miracles that came to follow.

If so, then for thousands of years, that sublime thought might have subtly accompanied the strains of spirited "Da-Da-yeinu's," ever so delicately yet ever so ably suffusing Jewish minds and hearts, without their owners necessarily even realizing it.

In any event, it's an idea worth pondering.

For now, dayeinu.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The media's fascination with Orthodox Jews seems to only intensify with time. Some of us Orthodox may be discomfited by reports that television and motion pictures have come to increasingly offer up observant Jewish characters and observances; but one supposes that is simply the price of our community's growth in numbers and visibility. Feature stories, at least those that don't treat the Orthodox as some sort of freak-show exhibit, are generally unobjectionable. Legitimate news reports, of course, are fine.

One might question, though, whether some news stories are truly newsworthy, especially when they give vent to sentiments that regard Orthodox Jews as sinister or threatening.

A March 9 article in the business section of The New York Times may or may not have been journalistically justified. It was, though, thought-provoking.

The piece described how some residents of the Long Island community of Great Neck have come to feel oppressed by a growing Orthodox Jewish population in the village. The problem? Several stores have been closing on the Jewish Sabbath.

One woman lamented how, wanting to buy a box of nails one Saturday, she found the local hardware store dark. Another had a similarly disconcerting experience with a liquor store. The horror.

And so, the whispers (and comments spoken aloud to reporters) these days include phrases like "pressure from the religious community," and sentiments like the fear that the neighborhood is "going Orthodox" and being "targeted" by observant Jews.

One patron told The Times, "Everyone is entitled to practice their religion as they choose, but please don't push it on me."

"Pressured?" "Targeted"? "Push it on me"? Observant Jews who purchased homes in a suburban community are an invading force? A merchant who decides to close his business on the Jewish Sabbath is pushy? What year is this again?

Something beyond mere inconvenience, one suspects, is at work here, some resentment with roots deeper than the need to drive a few more blocks one day a week to buy some nails. The "don't push it on me" patron may have revealed a gnarled limb with another comment she made, simple and straightforward: "It annoys me no end that stores are closed on Saturdays."

Her annoyance seems visceral, its source the Sabbath itself. Or, perhaps more accurately, the fact that there are Jews who insist, even in this day and age, on its observance.

The annoyed may include non-Jews, but Great Neck has a substantial Jewish population, and it has often been the case that Jews are at the forefront of objections to the appearance of Orthodox fellow-Jews in a community. But why would any Jews feel discomfited by other Jews' honoring the Sabbath? Would they be piqued if they lived in a devoutly Christian community where merchants chose not to do business on Sundays?

What it brings to mind is the story of the Jewish fellow who found himself seated on a plane next to a bearded man wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a long black coat. Unable to control himself, the clean-shaven gentleman gives the other one a disapproving look and a long lecture about how Jews today need not look or act like their great-grandparents, how Judaism has evolved, how we Jews should be Americans first, Jews mainly in our hearts, and so on.

With a bewildered look, the bearded passenger quietly responds: "I'm Amish."

The lecturer turns crimson and apologizes profusely. "I want you to know," he stammers, "that I so respect your determination to live by the ideals of your faith and your community's traditions. It is inspiring to know that there are people who put eternal truths before society's whims and fashions…"

"Just joking," the beard interrupts, with a mischievous smile. "You were right the first time."

Such Jewish multi-personality disorder deeply disturbs some Orthodox Jews, and understandably. Why indeed should a Jewish person fully accept a non-Jew's choice to honor his faith and tradition yet resent a fellow Jew's choice to honor his own?

Maybe it's my naturally optimistic bent, but what occurs to me is that, on the contrary, something positive lies in Jewish discomfort over Jewish observance. If there are indeed Jews in the Great Neck posse, the fact that they would never even feel, much less express, chagrin over Amish folks' or Catholics' or Muslims' observance of their faiths yet are "annoyed" by Jews observing theirs can only mean one thing: they truly care about Judaism. Enough to be bothered when reminders of how Jews were meant to live intrude on the complacent comfort of their lives and puncture their consciences.

Their aggravation, in other words, is just fallout from the self-assertion of their Jewish souls.

If only they would decide to think instead of fume. Then their pain could be turned to great gain.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The "steamroller," we all know, was steamrolled. Although those whom Eliot Spitzer focused on flattening were New York State wrongdoers, he ended up being mangled by misdeeds of his own. And thereby became an object of derision and ridicule - the single greatest generator of schadenfreude since the Wicked Witch's demise evoked the Munchkins' delight.

From a Jewish perspective, should we be jumping on the badmouth bandwagon?

One rabbi I know feels we should. Speaking publicly, he called the former governor an "evil man," noting the irony of how his fall from a high peak of honor and power to ignominy came about through activity of a sort he had himself prosecuted others for doing, and stopping just short (I think) of equating him with the Purim villain Haman.

Succumbing to desires can indeed yield evil things. However, as Bruriah, the renowned wife of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Meir, taught us, it is important sometimes to distinguish between sinner and sin (Tractate Brachos, 10a). Most of us succumb, at least on occasion, to illicit personal desires - if only the desire to gossip, to react with anger, to waste time. As I told my wife and some family members, if I weren't such a "baal taava" - a hedonist - I would be a good 20 pounds lighter.

My wife (whose cooking and baking are part of the problem) responded that, well, there are succumbed-to desires and there are succumbed-to desires; they are not all the same. And, of course, she is right (as usual). And moral violations, in particular, do indeed entail evil.

But there is some relativity here, as there is in all crimes of passion. Who can really know just what it must be like to be a well-heeled, famous, ambitious man in a position of power, trotting the globe (or at least the coast) collecting kudos - enriched with currency but bereft of Jewish religious values like the ideal the rabbis of the Talmud call "the fear of sin"?

Those same rabbis, interestingly, in Tractate Berachos, 32a, use the parable of a man who pampered his son, "hung a coin purse on his neck, and stationed him at the entrance of a brothel."

"What," they asked, "can the son do so as not to sin?" Or, as we might put it: "Well, what exactly do you expect?"

To be sure, Mr. Spitzer is no boy; he is a grown man and was a public official. Much more was rightfully expected of him. After all, we must all learn to control, not be controlled by, our desires - to, so to speak, govern ourselves.

Still and all, though, the Talmud elsewhere exhorts us not "to judge another until one has stood in his place." And so, if there is any lesson to be mined from the tawdry tale of Mr. Spitzer's fall from grace, I think it may lie less in his sin than in the reaction to it. "In the downfall of your enemy," King Solomon admonishes, "do not rejoice" (Proverbs, 24:17). Even someone who has earned one's enmity does not deserve to be gloated over when he has fallen. A recognition of the irony of the former governor's political demise is certainly proper. And feelings of disappointment, even of disgust, are not out of place. But the derisive glee that arose and crashed like a tidal wave, is not so very far from a sin itself.

I find the act of a second rabbi I know to be more in line with the Jewish religious tradition. This rabbi took the time to pen Mr. Spitzer a short personal note. It conveyed the sentiment that great people, even Biblical figures, had sinned, some even in ways that, at least in some way, were a failure of moral fortitude. Those people, the writer added, were in no way barred from repentance, and the greatest among them indeed came, as a result of their falls, to change their lives for the better.

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

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