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Archives Of Previous Articles XXII


Rabbi Avi Shafran

With time, those with open eyes come to recognize that life is peppered with strange, small ironies - "coincidences" that others don't even notice, or unthinkingly dismiss.

The famous psychiatrist Carl Jung puzzled over such happenings, which he felt were evidence of some "acausal connecting principle" in the world. In a famous essay, he named the phenomenon "synchronicity."

To those of us who believe in a Higher Power, synchronistic events, no matter how trivial they may seem, are subtle reminders that there is pattern in the universe, evidence of an ultimate plan.

My family has come to notice what appears to us to be an increase of such quirky happenings in our lives during the month (or, as this year, months) of Adar.

That would make sense, of course, since Adar is the month of Purim, the Jewish holiday that is saturated with seemingly insignificant "twists of fate" that turn out to be fateful indeed. From King Achashverosh's execution of his queen to suit his advisor and later execution of his advisor to suit his new queen; to Mordechai's happenstance overhearing and exposure of a plot that comes to play a pivotal role in his people's salvation; to Haman's visiting the king at the very moment when the monarch's insomnia has him wondering how to honor Mordechai; to the gallows' employment to hang its builder… The list of drolly fortuitous happenings goes on, and its upshot is what might be called The Purim Principle: Nothing is an Accident.

The holiday's very name is taken from an act of chance - "purim" are the lots cast by Haman, who thinks he is accessing randomness but is in fact casting his own downfall. He rejoices at his lottery's yield of the month during which he will have the Jews destroyed: the month of Moses' death. He does not realize that it was the month, too, of his birth.

The contemporary Adar coincidences I've come to expect are often about trivial things, but they still fill me with joy, as little cosmic "jokes" that remind me of the Eternal. One recent evening, for example, I remarked to my wife and daughter how annoying musical ringtones in public places are, especially when the cellphones are programmed, as they usually are, to assault innocent bystanders with jungle beats and rude shouting. "Why can't they use the Moonlight Sonata?" I quipped.

The very next day at afternoon services, someone's cellphone went off during the silent prayer. Usually my concentration is disturbed by such things but this time the synchronicity of the sound only made me more aware of the Divine. Never before had I heard a phone play the Moonlight Sonata.

Only days later, my daughter saw a license plate that intrigued her. It read: "Psalm 128." What a strange legend for a car, she thought. That very night she accompanied her mother and me to a wedding. Under the chuppah, unexpectedly, a group of young men sang a lovely rendition of… yes, you guessed it.

Other times, the Adar coincidences are more obviously meaningful, clearly linked to Purim. A few Adars ago, a striking irony emerged from a new book about Joseph Stalin. It related something previously unknown: that after the infamous 1953 "Doctors Plot," a fabricated collusion of doctors and Jews to kill top Communist leaders, the Soviet dictator had ordered the construction of four giant prison camps in Siberia, "apparently," as a New York Times article about the book put it, "in preparation for a second great terror - this time directed at the millions of Soviet citizens of Jewish descent."

Two weeks later, though, Stalin took suddenly ill at a dinner party and, four days later, it was announced that he had died. His successor Nikita Khrushchev recounted how the dictator had gotten thoroughly drunk at the dinner party, which ended in the early hours of March 1. Which, that year, fell on the 14th of Adar, Purim.

This year, too, I was synchronicity-struck by an unexpected piece of Adar information. It materialized as I did research for a speech I was to give about the destruction of a small Lithuanian town's Jewish community during the Holocaust.

The most famous extant document about Nazi actions in Lithuania is what has come to be known as the Jager Report, after SS-Standartenfuehrer Karl Jager (whose surname, incidentally, means "hunter" in German; "as his name so was he": he hunted Jews). Filed on December 1, 1941, and labeled "Secret Reich Business," the report meticulously details a "complete list of executions carried out in the EK [Einsatzkommando] 3 area" that year.

It records the number of men, women and children murdered in each of dozens of towns and ends with the grand total of the operation's victims - 137,346 - and the words: "Today I can confirm that our objective, to solve the Jewish problem for Lithuania, has been achieved by EK3…"

Standartenfuehrer Jager, however, only oversaw the operation; he didn't get his hands dirty with the actual work of shooting Jews. That he left to a "raiding squad" of "8-10 reliable men from the Einsatzkommando," led by a young Oberstumfuherer called Hamman. Joachim Hamman.

May his name, and that of his ancient namesake, be blotted out, and our days be transformed, in the Book of Esther's words, "from sorrow to gladness and from mourning to festivity."

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Barack Obama is black. Hillary Clinton is a woman. John McCain has hair and is clean shaven. So who's a balding, bearded Jew like me supposed to support?

If the question strikes you as silly, or worse, you haven't been paying attention to the media and pollsters. They inform us, and with ample evidence to support the claim, that large numbers of black Americans support Mr. Obama simply because of his color; many women, Mrs. Clinton because of her gender; and many Caucasians Mr. McCain, because of his - well, both.

A recent CNN headline was typical. "Gender or Race," it reads, "Black women voters face tough choices..." One of the "story highlights" of the featured article amplified: "Women are torn between voting their race or voting their gender."

Now, it's certainly understandable that blacks - and, for that matter, we persons of pallor - take pride in the fact that someone of African ancestry is a viable candidate for the highest office in the land; or that women - and men - feel similarly impressed by the fact that a female is the other candidate for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Many Jews, of course, felt no differently about a Jewish candidate - an observant one, no less - when he was a vice presidential candidate in 2004.

Such pride, though, is properly felt not over the candidates themselves but rather over our country and its citizens - for the distance traveled since the days of segregation, disenfranchisement and religious quotas. Maybe there were Jews who voted for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman in 2004 simply because of the latter's ethnicity. If so, though, they weren't exactly examples of legendary Jewish intelligence. I actually know more than a few members of the tribe who, embracing the time-honored and never unjustified Jewish trait of nervousness, pointedly voted Republican that year, out of concern that a Jew in high office would become a magnet for Jew-hatred. Most Jews, I hope, simply voted for the candidates they felt were best suited to lead the country - or, at least, the ticket they thought would best address the issues important to them. Needless to say, that is how it should be.

When it comes to charitable giving, of course, it is perfectly proper to favor causes or institutions that benefit one's family, race, gender or religious compatriots. Even supporting a candidate for office at least partly because one feels that his or her election will benefit one's particular community is fine. But voting on the exclusive basis of a candidate's skin color or gender? We have words for that: racism and sexism.

Among the Jewish religious tradition's sources for priorities in selecting public servants are the guidelines provided by the Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative Code of Jewish Law, for choosing the person to lead the prayer service on special occasions.

Jewish religious law assigns specific gender roles, and, while there have been women prophetesses and judges, women do not traditionally lead Orthodox prayer services. Among men, though, who do, the first and foremost qualification is familiarity with the service and with Scripture. Then come some interesting secondary preferences: someone who has young children at home; and someone living in poverty. The children engender a sense of personal responsibility; the impoverishment helps ensure that the candidate's prayers will be heartfelt. Then, as the list continues, we find personal piety, a good reputation among peers, modesty; and a pleasant personality. Finally, at the very end of the list, pointedly, comes "a pleasant voice."

Clearly, what counts most in a prayer leader is the knowledge and ability to do the job professionally. Then come experiences that mold sensitivity and character. It might be a leap to parallel Jewish tradition's take on prayer leaders with political candidates. But perhaps there is nevertheless some worth in the comparison.

What it would lead us voters to do would be, first and foremost, to consider the candidates' knowledge and aptitudes. Then, we would be guided to focus on "second tier" concerns. In the current campaign season, that might mean looking at Mr. Obama's background as a child of mixed race whose parents divorced, who was raised for a while by grandparents and then by a single parent; Mrs. Clinton's weathering of the brutal world of politics and a challenging marriage; and Mr. McCain's experience of imprisonment and torture in North Vietnam.

Then there would be the equivalent of a prayer leader's "pleasant voice." I'd suggest that it might translate into something similar in a candidate: eloquence in oratory. Nice, but not the most important thing.

But, just like shoe size and eye color aren't on the list of qualifications for a prayer leader, no one's list of presidential qualifications should include factors - much less as decisive ones - like race or gender.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Asked by The New York Times in 2005 what today-taken-for-granted idea or value he thinks may disappear in the next 35 years, Professor Peter Singer, the Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University's Center for Human Values, responded: "the traditional view of the sanctity of human life." It will, he explained, "collapse under pressure from scientific, technological and demographic developments."

This past January 30, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba, Canada issued a policy statement that may come to permit the professor to add "prophet" to his curriculum vitae.

In that document, the governing body of the Canadian province's medical profession directs that doctors have the final say with regard to ending life-sustaining treatment of patients - regardless of the wishes or religious beliefs of the patients or their families. It also establishes a baseline for justifying life-sustaining treatment - including a patient's ability to "experience his/her own existence" - below which a doctor is directed to end life-sustaining treatment, regardless of the wishes of the patient's family. The new policy paper has garnered much attention, and may well have ramifications throughout Canada and, conceivably, elsewhere.

Underlying the document - saturating it, actually - is the premise that ending a human life is a medical decision, not a moral one. Or, alternately, that medical training somehow confers the ultimate moral authority to pass judgments on the worthiness of human lives.

Either contention is offensive. A foundation of what has come to be called civilization is that people are not mere things or even animals, that human life has a special, sacred, nature. Historically, the right to take steps to end a life has been regarded first and foremost as an ethical issue, not a medical one. And doctors, for all their training, are no more inherently qualified to address ethical issues than CEOs or plumbers.

As it happens, the Manitoba policy goes beyond the ethical dumbing down of life and death decision-making. It actually betrays a preference for ending patients' lives. For while it gives physicians the final say (even against the family's wishes) for terminating life support, it puts the final decision (literally) in the family's hand when the family feels the patient should die and it is the doctor who feels otherwise. In Manitoba medicine, it seems, death is the desideratum.

That contention is further evident in the Manitoba policy statement's self-awareness baseline, which exemplifies the pitfalls of what might be called iatro-arrogance - or, put more prosaically, medical chutzpah.

Last year, the prestigious journal Science published a report on a young woman who was declared vegetative. For five months, she showed no signs of awareness whatsoever. Scientists, though, decided to put her in a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner, a machine that tracks blood flow to different parts of the brain and that was only developed a few years ago. When they asked her to imagine things like playing tennis and walking through her home, the scan lit up with telltale patterns of language, movement and navigation indistinguishable from those produced by the brains of healthy, conscious people. The report's authors, while stressing that the patient may still be classified as "unconscious," conclude nonetheless that she has a "rich mental life."

That young woman seemed entirely unaware of her environment. Only the development of a new diagnostic technology revealed active brain function. Is it unreasonable to wonder what future technologies might yet be developed that will detect other layers of human consciousness? Or what layers might forever elude scientific instrumentation?

And then there is the misguided assumption of medical infallibility. In Calgary last year, doctors were ready to pull the plug on Zongwu Jin, who had suffered a brain injury. After his family obtained a court order to maintain life support, Mr. Jin's condition improved markedly and he is now doing exercises aimed at helping him walk again.

More recently, doctors at Manitoba's own Grace Memorial Hospital sought to disconnect Samuel Golubchuk from the ventilator that was helping him breathe, claiming that he was unconscious and unresponsive - presumably never to recover. Mr. Golubchuk's children, Orthodox Jews whose religious convictions opposed terminating their father's life, promptly sought and obtained a court injunction. The judge in that case recently announced that there were sufficient grounds to doubt the hospital's analysis of the patient's condition, and Mr. Golubchuk's children report that he is now alert and making purposeful movements.

Neither those cases, nor scores of similar ones, seem to have given the Manitoba College of Physicians pause before arrogating to doctors the final say in matters of life and death. One thing is certain: In the wake of Manitoba medicine's new rules, physicians in that province will in the future be spared such embarrassing outcomes. Dead patients tell no tales.

Elephants sometimes do, though, albeit silently. Like the imposing one that lurked in the room where the Manitoba medical group crafted their new policy statement. It was the pachyderm that answers to the name of Professor Singer's polite phrase: "demographic developments."

We live in times when the elderly and diseased are rapidly increasing in number, and where the medical profession has made great strides, increasing longevity and providing cures for many once-fatal illnesses. Add skyrocketing insurance costs and the resultant fiscal crisis in health care, and life runs the risk of becoming less a holy, invaluable divine gift than... a commodity.

And every businessman knows how important it is to efficiently turn over one's stock, clearing out the old to make way for the new. Apparently, doctors can learn that lesson too.

Making things worse still is the great and increasing demand for transplantable organs. A doctor in California currently stands charged with injecting an incapacitated patient with inappropriate medications in order to harvest his organs more quickly. No one knows how often similar things happen - or will happen if society becomes accustomed to allowing doctors to decide when a life is no longer worth living.

What does Judaism have to say about all this? Far more than can be summarized in a paragraph or two, to be sure, but certain guiding principles can be briefly stated: Jewish religious law, or halacha, does not always insist that life be maintained; in some cases of seriously ill patients, Judaism forbids intercessions that will prolong suffering. But the active removal of connected life-support systems or withholding of nourishment are another matter entirely. Halacha requires that death be clearly established, and does not permit any action that might hasten the demise of a person in extremis.

Put succinctly: Judaism considers life precious, indeed holy, even when its "quality" is severely diminished.

Quite a different approach from that of the Manitoba College of Physicians and Surgeons. Or from Professor Singer, who has supported the termination of what he calls "miserable beings" - people whose lives he deems devoid of pleasure.

And even as grise an eminence as The New York Times has euphemistically advocated "more humane policies for easing the last days of the terminally ill" - leaving the rubbery phrases "humane policies," "last days" and even "terminally ill" for future clarification.

That may well be, as Professor Singer suggests, the wave of the future. But Judaism was born out of resistance against wrong. Abraham's rejection of paganism was what merited his becoming the forefather of the Jewish people; he was willing, in the words of the Midrash, "to be on one side of the river, while the rest of the world was on the other."

And so, Judaism today finds itself similarly standing opposite a world going mad. Amid the shouts of "Progress!", "Science!" and "Fiscal Responsibility!", Jews who care about their religious tradition must quietly, resolutely, stand the Jewish ground, and say: "No. Even a moment of human life is invaluable."

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vindication is nice, but there's sometimes bitter mixed in with the sweet.

Back in October of last year, a headline in the New York Jewish Week read: "No Religious Haven From Abuse." The subheader amplified: "New study finds Orthodox women are sexually victimized as much as other American women." As I wrote shortly thereafter, first in a letter to the Jewish Week and then in a longer essay, the study found nothing of the sort.

Because of the sample it recruited, the study, in the American Journal of Psychiatry, could not and did not make any claim at all about the relative prevalence of abuse in the Orthodox and general American communities.

The study's authors themselves in fact stated as much, noting that "those who chose to participate may not be representative of the [Orthodox] population," and that the unfeasibility of obtaining a representative sample constituted a "major limitation of this study." What is more, over half the women comprising the recruited study sample were receiving mental health treatment at the time. Victims of abuse, needless to say, are more likely than others to seek counseling, and so the sample would be expected to yield a larger number of victims than one representative of the larger Orthodox community.

And so, by comparing the 25%-27% figure for American women claiming (in randomized surveys) to have suffered abuse at some point in their lives with the 26% figure yielded by the recent (self-selected and non-representative) study of Orthodox women, and concluding that "Orthodox Jewish women suffer as much [abuse] as other American women," the Jewish Week writer revealed only her own innumeracy. If anything, the similar percentages between an Orthodox group disproportionately likely to have suffered abuse and a non-Jewish random sample arguably indicate a lower rate of abuse in the former.

After daring to call attention to all that, I was roundly and strongly censured. One subsequent writer to the Jewish Week, utterly uncomprehending of the point about the number of study subjects receiving mental health treatment, claimed it indicated the precise opposite of what it did, and accused me of denying that abuse exists in the Orthodox community, although I explicitly noted in both my letter and essay that abuse exists in every community, including the Orthodox.

Another letter-writer, this one a Long Island psychologist, condescendingly sniffed that without "a knowledge of… non-parametric statistics" I simply was not qualified to address the study's findings. He too, incredibly, managed to misconstrue the entire point about the sample's disproportionate share of mental health patients. Then blogs, of course, weighed in, demonstrating with their rantings just how widespread is the misconstrual of the word "critical" in the phrase "critical thinking" as "negative" rather than "analytical."

Finally, though, several weeks later, some sanity came to reign. In a long and comprehensive article, the Director of Psychotherapy Training in the Psychiatry Residency Training Program at the University of Cincinnati, Dr. Nachum Klafter, asked by a blog to evaluate the study and the Jewish Week article, presented his conclusion that I had "correctly read the AJP paper" and that the Jewish Week writer had clearly misreported its findings.

That was followed by a joint monograph by a Professor of Psychology, a Professor of Education and Philosophy, a doctoral student in Clinical Psychology and a well-known and regarded author of essays and books on cultural issues. It stated that "to attempt to generalize from [the study highlighted in the Jewish Week article] to the Orthodox mainstream - or to draw grand comparisons between subgroups within this skewed sample - seems to be a gross misrepresentation of the data obtained."

Both of the recent papers, moreover, noted that the study's data in fact yields the remarkable (yet somehow unremarked upon by the Jewish Week) fact that the survey respondents who were raised Orthodox were 50% less likely to have experienced sexual abuse than those from non-Orthodox homes. Considering that the survey asked if abuse occurred at any point in respondents' lives, it is plausible if not likely that much of the abuse reported among those raised non-Orthodox occurred before they joined observant communities.

None of which, of course, is to deny either that abuse exists in the Orthodox community (as it does in all communities) or that all communities, including the Orthodox, have a responsibility to put effective measures into place to prevent it. But the fact of its existence in the Orthodox world is no justification for drawing unwarranted conclusions about its extent there.

I am gratified, of course, that the record regarding the study and article has been corrected. But something still grates, and, I think, for good reason.

Because all that many, if not most, of the Jewish Week's readers will likely ever remember about the entire business will be a mendacious headline. Despite all the setting straight of facts, what will remain in minds - not to mention in the eternal echo-chamber of cyberspace - will be only those deceptive, in fact slanderous, words.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

There are three distinct ways to look at school vouchers.

One is to regard them as a bogeyman threatening to destroy the American public educational system and undermine the sublime values that system instills in its students. Call that the "teachers unions" approach.

The second is to regard them as a lifeline for poor parents, a means of allowing those without means to provide their children a chance to escape failing public schools.

That was President Bush's approach in his final State of the Union address, wherein he lauded the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program Congress approved at the beginning of 2004. That enactment permitted more than 2600 of the poorest children in Washington, previously enrolled in the District's poorly performing public schools, to transfer to nonpublic schools, including religious ones, of their parents' choice. The President went on to propose a "Pell Grants for Kids" initiative, intended to help children "trapped in failing public schools" attend private and religious schools, presumably along the lines of the D.C. program.

But the reference to Pell Grants - which provide need-based grants to low-income students for postsecondary education - was somewhat puzzling. Because the Pell Grant model applied to younger students would be a reflection of the third way of approaching school vouchers.

That would be to regard them as something more than a "next stop" after a child has been sentenced to wasted years - or worse - in a failing school. To regard them, instead, as the empowerment of a fundamental parental right: the right to educate one's children as one wishes them to be educated.

Pell Grants are not just for students in failing public colleges, but for all students whose families could not otherwise afford to continue their educations. The theory is straightforward: Wealthy students have access to quality higher education, poorer ones do not. Let government do what it can to level the playing field, allowing more young people who otherwise would end up in menial jobs (or worse) become accountants, scientists, doctors, lawyers or teachers themselves - and taxpayers.

The logic of allowing for more educational choice is even more compelling when it comes to the early years of educational careers, when children's minds and morals are molded by their school experiences. Even a plan like the D.C. initiative can only be accessed by parents after their child has languished in a failing school. And when that child has been released from his or her internment, perhaps even scarred by the experience, any siblings will have to do their own time before they, too, can qualify for a better educational environment.

And is there any reason why parents - all parents - should not have the final say in where their children are educated? We readily recognize that parents in a pluralistic society like ours have a right to raise their children as they see fit, within the bounds of law, instilling in them the values they hold dear. In Judaism - and surely other belief systems and philosophies - that is not only a right but a deep responsibility. Choosing the right school for a child should be seen as an essential expression of that right and responsibility.

Education, after all, is much more than the transfer of information, much more, even, than training minds to think. It is the imparting of attitudes, ideals and values as well, particularly today, when so often both parents (when there even are two) are working (sometimes at multiple jobs), and when children (even when they are at home) are regularly left to their own devices (and those of the virtual child-molester we call television). It would be folly to deny that schools help shape a child's development. Should parents not have the final say about which ones nurture their young?

Public school advocates - including those who enjoy the option of being able to afford private schools for their own children even while opposing governmental policies that would extend that option to those less financially fortunate - say no. But they are responding from fear. Unfounded fear, to boot. The public school system qua system will only benefit from true school choice. Were all American parents able to send their children to the schools of their choice, some individual public schools might indeed wither away from lack of interest. But that's just the fate of any inferior product in the face of competition. Choices, though, are always a boon to quality, and to the consumer. Public schools that do the job they are supposed to do will surely continue to thrive.

The constitutionality of vouchers once made for interesting legal debate, but the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that the concept of providing parents educational vouchers with which to guide their children's education does not violate the Constitution. So school choice is both logical and legal.

And compelling. There is straightforward justice in empowering parents to choose how their children are educated, to exercise what is perhaps, the most important civil right of all.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above essay appeared, with a different title, on February 4, 2008 in The New York Sun.]

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Alighting from the Staten Island ferry at Manhattan's southern tip on my way to work February 5, I was greeted by a phalanx of stern-looking police, padded with Kevlar and armed with assault rifles. Then, suddenly, from behind me, came a loud, hoarse shout, echoed by the roar of hundreds of voices. Before me, a small army fell into formation, front guard carrying large flags, troops marching dutifully behind, determinedly heading north on Broadway. It was post-Super Bowl Tuesday, and Agudath Israel's national offices lie a few minutes' walk up the celebrated boulevard, along the parade route they call the Canyon of Heroes.

After making my way through the gathering crowd (the parade's start was still two hours away) and the peddlers of timely trinkets, past the rows of police scooters and motorcycles, the early inebriated and the cordons meant to keep celebrants from celebrated, I arrived at our offices. The front entrance to the building was blocked; I entered though the back, on another street.

After attending a long staff meeting, having just settled in at my desk, I was startled by a swell of loud, raucous cheering from the street. Thirteen stories below. Through closed windows and across a good-sized reception area. Here be heros.

A bit later in the day, after the confetti had settled, blanketing the ground, and the thousands of revelers had gone their ways, I heard a different sound in our offices. It came from the large room that serves as our synagogue for weekday afternoon services.

The previous Thursday, Orthodox rabbinic leaders in Israel and the United States had called on their followers to recite Psalms and, where possible, convene the special prayer service recited on Yom Kippur Koton, or "minor Yom Kippur," as the day before a new Jewish month begins is called. For the month of Adar I this year, that day fell out on February 5th. The rabbis' request for special prayers came from what they perceive to be a confluence of crises in the Holy Land - dangers to Jews "from both within and without." The danger without is self-evident: the mounting threats to Israel emanating from Iran and the vipers' nest of Palestinian terror groups, along with a larger world (and a world body) largely indifferent to it all.

The danger within was an attempt to tamper with the Israeli haredi community's educational system, and political deliberations "that could place entire populations of Jews into grave danger, G-d forbid - including those in the Holy City of Jerusalem."

While the Yom Kippur Koton service in our office synagogue lacked the decibels of the earlier, larger gathering along Broadway, it had its own power, born of Jews' heartfelt pleas with their Creator to forgive their sins and protect His people from harm.

Even for a connoisseur of contrasts like me, Tuesday's provided a notable one.

In this corner, so to speak, were a teeming mass of wildly jubilant human beings, enraptured by how some young men managed to run and throw and catch an oddly-shaped ball somewhat better than another group. In the other were a few dozen (joined, to be sure, by many thousands around the world) humbly asking for G-d's mercy.

Something more, though, than the differential struck me. I couldn't help but wonder if something synchronistic, maybe even meaningful, lay in the fact that the day designated by the rabbis to pray for the welfare of Israel's Jews turned out to be the one on which New Yorkers celebrated the Giants' win - in the fact that what was Yom Kippur Koton for some happened to become a joyous celebration-day for others.

Maybe I was being overly imaginative, but what occurred was that the celebration on Broadway was really, at its core, over how a situation that seemed all but lost - with an adversary seen as unbeatable and the longest of odds being placed on triumph - was turned on its head at the last minute.

As it happens, that's quite an Adar thought. The joy that the Talmud says is appropriate for the just arrived Jewish month derives from the subtle miracle of the Purim story, where all seemed increasingly hopeless yet, after Jews' prayer and repentance, turned out just fine. The odds were long ones, but they didn't end up reflecting the ends.

For believing Jews, the ends of history are clear, as improbable as they might at times seem. So perhaps it's not too fanciful to hope that Tuesday's confluence of parade and prayer proves to be a good sign - for a positive response to the latter.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Mere days before I was privileged to participate in a Washington, D.C. symposium on religious freedom in Israel, the Malaysian government threatened to withhold a Catholic newspaper's publishing permit, to punish it for having dared to use the Muslim appellation for the Creator in its Malay-language pages.

A week later, an Afghan judge sentenced a journalism student in that country to death for distributing an article critical of Islam's founder.

All in all, making the case for Israel's respect for religious rights isn't really much of a challenge.

An impressive number of students and interested others braved snowy weather to attend the January 17 event, sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University. Of the three presenters, I was last and, since the others - Knesset member Rabbi Michael Melchior and author Dr. David Elcott - did admirable jobs of covering much that lay in my prepared remarks, when my turn came I truncated my speech and focused on the increasingly restless elephant in the room.

Well covered before I spoke were the facts that Israel is both a democracy and a state with a special relationship to a religion (like many around the globe); that it is pledged, through its Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, to protect the religious rights of its citizens; and that it generally in fact does so in an exemplary manner.

There have been occasional allegations of inequities in funding for upkeep of Muslim holy places and of disproportionate appropriation of Muslim-owned land. Such issues must be addressed, of course, and have been, in Israeli courts.

To that I added that complaints by some Israeli and West Bank Muslims that the Israeli security barrier does not allow them to worship in the mosque of their first choice cannot be reasonably construed as akin to a gratuitous denial of religious rights. Such inconveniences are, while regrettable, unintentional results of legitimate security concerns.

Then I turned to the elephant - "Jewish Religious Pluralism." Leaders of heterodox Jewish movements regularly rail about the lack of official recognition of their movement's ceremonies in Israel, portraying it as a curtailment of religious rights.

In addressing the pluralism pachyderm, my "Exhibit A" was the Jewish State's other foundational document. Less than a year before Israel declared its existence, on June 19, 1947, what came to be known as the "Status Quo Agreement" was signed by the future first Prime Minister of the state, David Ben-Gurion, and other officials of the Jewish Agency, the state's precursor. In the words of Professor Harry Reicher, University of Pennsylvania Adjunct Professor of International Law: "For significant elements of the religious population… the Status Quo Agreement was the inducement to their participation in that creation [of Israel], and… it was quite fundamental to the character with which the State was stamped at its birth."

Addressed to the Agudath Israel World Organization, that document too, like the state's Declaration that would follow, pledged the state-to-be to guaranteeing religious freedom for all its inhabitants. But it went on to promise state observance of the Jewish Sabbath as the official day of rest, provision of only kosher food in government kitchens and a system of traditional Jewish religious education. And, finally, it assured that "everything possible will be done [to] avoid, Heaven forfend, the splitting of the House of Israel into two" - that would result from multiple standards regarding Jewish "personal status" issues like marriage, divorce and conversion.

Those elements were the nascent state's founders' concessions to the word "Jewish" in the phrase "Jewish State." For that phrase to have meaning, the signatories realized, credible definitions of words like "Jew" and "Judaism" were essential. From a haredi Jew's perspective, the only such workable definitions are those based on the "highest common denominator" of halacha, or Jewish religious law. A Reform Jew would presumably offer different definitions. But whatever the yardstick, if "Jewish State" is to be more than a hollow slogan, something must do the measuring,

And, as a result of the Status Quo Agreement, something - in fact halacha - indeed did do the measuring, and has been doing so for the past 60 years (not to mention the several millennia prior). That historical standard for establishing who a Jew is, and what a conversion, Jewish marriage and Jewish divorce are, has preserved a single Jewish people in the Jewish state.

Those who demand multiple standards on the grounds of religious freedom misstate the case. What they are advocating is not freedom of religion - which is alive and well in Israel - but rather a redefinition of Judaism, and the radical amendment of one of Israel's foundational charters that would result, as Ben Gurion foresaw, in the "splitting of the House of Israel into two" (or three, or four…).

Thus far, due to both the historical and legal importance of the Status Quo Agreement and the traditional bent of a large majority of Israelis, Israel's single-standard approach to Jewish religious matters (what the media, with characteristic "objectivity," prefer to call the "Orthodox monopoly") remains in place.

There are, though, threats to the delicate balance between religious freedom and Israel's core Jewish identity, in particular the State's highest court, which, under its former Chief Justice Aharon Barak, proclaimed a goal of promoting what it deems to be the "fundamental values of democracy" and has shown itself ready to, in effect, legislate by fiat (prompting influential American judge Richard Posner to call Mr. Barak an "enlightened despot").

What the Israeli Supreme Court may in future years choose to deem "enlightened" is anyone's guess. But an educated one should worry Jews - of whatever affiliation - who consider Israel's Jewish character essential to its identity, unity and future.

The havoc that can be wrought by unbridled elephants is legend.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Seven years ago, I shared the Jewish father's letter below with a number of Jewish media. In light of the increasing urgency of its subject, I offer it here again, in a slightly edited form.

Dear Sean,

I know this might sound strange coming from a father who's far from a religious Jew, but now that you're dating, there's something I need you to understand.

The single most important decision you'll ever make in life will not be about your education or career but about whom you'll marry.

Because who your wife is will determine, more than anything else in your adult life, the person you become, the family you'll raise, what you'll leave on earth when it will be time to go. I know the end of life isn't something you probably give much thought to. Not many of us do, at least not until we became sick or old enough to see it hovering on the horizon. But a final day does arrive, sooner or later, for each of us. And when it comes, very few of the things we thought made such a big difference will seem to matter at all anymore. And other things we never gave much thought to will suddenly be very important. We'll want to look back at our lives and feel that, in those areas, we pretty much did the right thing.

Sean, the right thing for a Jewish person is to marry another Jew.

Not only because our religion requires it. But because when Jews "marry out," they disrespect who they are, they are disloyal to the Jewish past and they chip away at the Jewish future.

Whether or not our family kept strictly kosher or celebrated the Sabbath or attended services often enough is all one thing. But the thought of bringing about the end of a proud Jewish line stretching back in time for centuries is something else. It's more than some religious transgression.

You never asked to be a Jew, I know. You were born one. But being Jewish isn't a burden. It's a gift. It means you are part of something bigger, much bigger, than yourself.

Each of us Jews represents the hopes of so many Jewish ancestors. Don't forget, you're not just Sean, you're Shmuel too. And even if you only used your Jewish name when you made the blessings over the Torah at your bar-mitzvah, it is still who you really are, an inheritance from your grandfather. And it was the same thing to him from an ancestor of his. You can't just ignore the meaning of something like that. It's a responsibility. All of my ancestors and your mother's, all those Jews who came before us, lived, and sometimes died to keep their Jewish identity and heritage going.

I know that love is a powerful emotion. That's exactly why I'm writing this as you begin to date. The young women you become close to will form the pool where you'll find the person you want to spend your life with. Don't give yourself the opportunity to fall in love with someone you cannot, as a Jew in good conscience, marry. And never forget that what the world calls "love" isn't all there is to a successful and happy life. Every marriage that ended in divorce or worse, after all, started in a rush of love. For a marriage to really work, there has to be not only attraction and care but shared ideals and goals. And part of a Jewish man or woman's goals has to be to take their Jewish identity seriously, and to instill it into their children.

I don't care whether the girl you marry is white, black or yellow. I don't care if she speaks English, Hebrew, Yiddish or Swahili. I don't care if she was born a Jew or became one, legally, properly, and sincerely. But if she isn't Jewish, I know there will be tears, in your mother's eyes and mine - and also in heaven.

They say these days that most Jewish parents in America don't care if their children marry other Jews or not. I hope it's not true, but even if it is, we do. Remember what I've told you many times: Being a Jew means being ready to buck the tide, to say no to others - even a lot of others - when something important's at stake. Sean, you're the future of our family. I hope you'll have the courage and the strength to do the right thing.



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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

In a 1938 essay, Mohandas ("Mahatma") Gandhi, the spiritual and political leader of the Indian independence movement, counseled Jews in Nazi Germany to neither flee nor resist but rather offer themselves up to be killed by their enemies, since their "suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy."

When all hope is lost, a Jew about to be killed "al Kiddush Hashem" - as a Jewish martyr - is indeed to reach for serenity, even happiness, at the opportunity to give up his life because of who he is. When Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, the great Lithuanian Jewish religious leader and scholar, was murdered by Hitler's henchmen in 1941, he reportedly told the students about to be killed with him that "In Heaven it appears that they deem us to be righteous because our bodies have been chosen to atone for the Jewish people… In this way we will save the lives of our brethren overseas… We are now fulfilling the greatest commandment… The very fire that consumes our bodies will one day rebuild the Jewish people."

But Jewish martyrdom is not something to be courted. And so Mr. Gandhi's advice for Jews during the Holocaust was, even if consonant with his personal beliefs, from Judaism's point of view profoundly wrong.

And Gandhi's advice was even more disturbing in light of his admission, in that same essay, that the "cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me." Jews, he said, should "make… their home where they are born." It is, moreover, he went on, "inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs."

Apples, they say, don't fall far from trees. A rotten one fell with a loud splat recently over at The Washington Post. On a weblog - "On Faith" - sponsored by that paper in conjunction with Newsweek Magazine, Arun Gandhi, a grandson of Mohandas and co-founder of the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence at the University of Rochester, opined that "the Jews today" are intent on making Germans feel guilty for the Holocaust (which he chose to spell with a lower-case "h") and that they insist that "the whole world must regret what happened to the Jews."

"The world did feel sorry," he reminded his readers, "for the episode." But "when an individual or a nation refuses to forgive and move on, the regret turns into anger."

Ah, yes, that unpleasant "episode," more than 60 years ago. And those Jews still can't bring themselves to forgive the Nazis.

Like his grandfather was, Mr. Gandhi petit-fils is also concerned with Israel. Addressing those who defend the Jewish State's security barrier and use of weapons to fight terrorism, he challenged: "[Y]ou believe that you can create a snake pit - with many deadly snakes in it - and expect to live in the pit secure and alive?"

And so the man of peace, grandson of the same, reached the conclusion that actions like Israel's "created a culture of violence, and that Culture of Violence is eventually going to destroy humanity."

Interesting. Although his own concern about Jews was not exactly their militarism, Mr. Hitler similarly saw them as jeopardizing humanity's survival. Well, whatever.

Grandson Gandhi subsequently apologized for his "poorly worded post." In the course of his apology he even took care to capitalize "Holocaust." But his apology itself, unfortunately, consisted solely of his regret at having implied that "the policies of the Israeli government are reflective of the views of all Jewish people." Many Jews, he explained, "are as concerned as I am by the use of violence for state purposes…"

Well, thank you, Mr. Gandhi. But no thanks. I cannot speak for all of the Jewish people, of course, but for my part I must decline your apology. Not because I bear you any grudge or ill will and certainly not because I am hard-hearted. I don't think I have ever rejected an apology in my life, until now.

It's not because I am blinded by some ethnic rage over the unpleasantness of that World War II episode. And not because I am a knee-jerk defender of Israel in whatever her leaders decide to do; I am not.

No, I reject your apology simply because you seem to have missed the entire point of why your original post was so offensive - frankly, revolting. It is astounding that you still don't seem to realize your insult and error.

They lie in where you directed your words. You are welcome to criticize Israeli decisions, even the wisdom of Israel's establishment itself, if you agree with your grandfather's views. But if your ultimate concerns are in fact peace and humanity's survival, then in a world where Jews are regularly attacked simply for being Jews and Israelis simply for being Israelis, where Jewish tombstones are defaced and broken, where Arab countries will not permit Israelis to enter their borders and Arab textbooks teach children to hate Jews as a matter of religious and cultural obligation, where a United Nations routinely ignores murder, mayhem and unspeakable cruelty in scores of countries but just as routinely condemns Israel for defending herself, the primary focus of your ire should have been not those living in the snake pit, but rather the snakes themselves.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Winter might conjure pleasant memories of playing in the snow, but it is hardly a season most of us would consider symbolic of childhood. We more naturally associate the "winter of life" with a time when it is only our hair, if we even have any, that is snowy.

Yet, the earliest stage of life is precisely what winter represents, according to the Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Yehudah Betzalel Loewe, 1525-1609) in his supercommentary to Rashi's on the Torah (Genesis 26:21).

There the celebrated Jewish mystic and philosopher assigns a stage of human life to each of the year's seasons. A Western mind might associate nature's annual coming-to-life in spring with childhood, the warmth of summer with youth, autumn with pensive middle age and cold, slow moving winter with life's later years - think "Old Man Winter." The Maharal, though, described things differently. He regards autumn, when leaves are shed and nature seems to slow down, as corresponding to older age; summer's warmth and comfort to represent our middle-years; spring to reflect the vibrancy and energy of youth. And winter to evoke childhood.

Winter? Childhood?

On the surface, to eyes unaided by deeper recognition, it might indeed seem strange; winter, after all, is a stark time, a season barren of activity and growth.

But the superficial image betrays the reality. When spring finally arrives each year, after all, the new leaves haven't appeared ex nihilo. The buds from which they emerge have been developing for months, the sap in the seemingly dormant trees was rising even as the thermometer's mercury was falling. The evidence of life that at last presents itself with the approach of Passover has been actively preparing its case since Chanukah. See for yourself. Go outside and inspect the leafless trees' branches. The buds may be biding their time, but they are clearly there, ready to explode with green when commanded.

Winter, in other words, evokes life's potential. And so, what better metaphor could there be for childhood, when the elements that will emerge one day as an adult are roiling inside a miniature prototype, when chaos may seem to be operative but when potential is at its most powerful? The Child, after all, as Wordsworth put it, is indeed "father of the Man."

In fact, we humans are actually compared to trees, in Deuteronomy (20:19). Even though the verse's context (the forbiddance to gratuitously fell trees during war), at least according to Rashi, implies a quizzical question mark at its end ("Is a man a tree of the field?"), other commentaries, like the Ibn Ezra, read the verse as making a straight comparison. And the mystical Jewish sources similarly see significance in the plain meaning of the words.

And so the approaching winter holiday of Tu B'Shvat (this year on January 22), the day the Talmud calls the "Rosh Hashana for trees," should make us think about the potential that can lie in apparent chaos.

It's a timely thought for other reasons too.

A month after Tu B'Shvat (two months, in a Jewish leap year like the current one) comes Purim, when we celebrate the turning of a seemingly hopeless and tragic situation into a joyous one. Esther was the bud, and when the right time came, she blossomed.

And this time of Jewish year is when the weekly Torah reading concerns the Exodus, how, in the oppressive prison that was ancient Egypt, a redeemer came of age and, at the command of G-d, brought a people to bloom.

So a conspiracy of factors pushes us to ponder the power of potential - in Jewish history (Esther and the Exodus); in the seasons of the year (those winter buds and sap); and in life (all the illustrious people who were once childish ones).

The thought might reassure and animate us, even those of us of hoary head. For what emerges from the Maharal and Jewish history and the seasons is the lesson that what matters more than how many years may have managed to get behind us is the potential we still carry within us.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Winter, when my commute home from Manhattan on the Staten Island ferry is shrouded in darkness, provides me a singular opportunity.

That's because the thousands of other commuters sailing along with me are more subdued than at other times of year. There is, of course, artificial lighting on the ferry, but the darkness outside seems to quell conversations somewhat; the boat is noticeably more subdued than when the sun sets later. And where the electric lights are most dim, in a certain part of the vessel unknown to many passengers, is where you will find me.

I use my commute to study Talmud and catch up on reading. In the winter, the study is particularly sweet in that poorly lighted, somewhat remote area, where the only other passengers are interested exclusively in napping or listening, eyes closed, to their iPods. A small, battery-operated booklight clipped to the cover of the tractate I study casts soft light onto the page, and, unless one of my neighbors is intent on annoying the rest of us by turning up the volume on his "personal" audiodevice so it sounds like an angry bee (and no doubt permanently damages his eardrums), all is quiet and dark, with the Hebrew words before my eyes drawing me in. I wouldn't come home any other way.

At an Agudath Israel national convention several years ago, Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, the Mashgiach, or dean of students, of the famed Lakewood Yeshiva (Beth Medrash Govoha), delivered an address that I often recall as I settle into my ferry-seat. His topic had been the centrality of introspection and focused study to the essence of true Jewish life, dedication to the Divine. And then he bemoaned how chronically unconcentrated we all are these days.

When incandescent lighting was first commercialized in the 1920s, Rabbi Salomon recounted, committed Jews - like the rest of the world - were enthralled with the possibilities presented by the new technology. They saw wondrous potential in not having to rely on the dim, flickering light of wax candles or oil lamps to illuminate the sacred books whose study they so cherished.

But the revered Torah personage Rabbi Elya Lopian (1872-1970), a giant of the Mussar movement that stressed striving for personal ethical perfection, was less sanguine. He told his students that the more primitive lighting to which they were accustomed, for all its drawbacks, facilitated concentration and focus. The new technology, he feared, for all of its advantages, would undermine those things.

We don't generally think of our well-lighted spaces as impairing concentration, but the logic is unquestionably there. The more informational input to the senses, the less mental focus. That is, after all, the point behind darkened arenas and spotlights. Our brains are wonderfully able to filter out much that might distract us from tasks at hand, but the extraneous information is still there even if we don't consciously notice it, background static to our contemplations. Every time I turn on my little light on my winter commute home, I appreciate Rabbi Lopian's prescience anew.

Rabbi Salomon went on to add the telephone to the list of erosions to deep thought. How often are not only our dinners but our reflections rudely interrupted by ringing or warbling, or trilling? And the more mobile the technology, he noted further, the more opportunities for our concentration to be broken. Anyone who has silently cursed his cellphone knows just what the rabbi meant.

"Something that looks like a blessing," he recapped, "can be, in fact, a disaster." The glut of available information came to mind, and the dubious marvel of multitasking. Then, moving on to the options for travel in modern times, he mused sadly, "Today we are expected to be everywhere."

How sadly true. In pre-automobile times, people were rarely if ever expected to travel beyond the confines of their immediate towns or neighborhoods. With options so limited (and towns so small), there was more time to stay put, sit still, stay focused. Many of the things that pull us, unresisting, into our cars and onto our highways, around the corner and around the world, may be worthy ones, but that cannot change the fact that they take us away - from our homes, from our families, and from study and introspection, the pillars of Jewish existence.

Rabbi Salomon was not asking his listeners to return to horses and buggies or oil lamps. He is no Luddite and has no disdain for technology. No, he is simply an exquisitely sensitive observer, someone who sees a broader picture than most of us do. He challenges us to open our eyes to what we have lost even as we have gained. The losses are tragic, even if so subtle that most of us don't even realize what we are missing.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

There was a time, not terribly long ago, when disturbed individuals bent on broadcasting angry fantasies had only soapboxes in public parks from which to rant. And respectable people knew, if only from the ranters' appearance, to keep well out of spittle's range.

Today, though, the very means of mass communication that enables so much worthy information to reach such large numbers of people at the speed of light - the Internet - has also been harnessed to spread madness, hatred, lies and (not a word to be used lightly but here entirely appropriate) evil. And so, close on the heels of the swindlers and pornographers who have colonized so much of cyberspace, have come the gaggle of electronic soapboxes known as weblogs, or blogs.

The writer of a recent article in the Agudath Israel monthly The Jewish Observer expressed chagrin at discovering the nature of many Jewish blogs. Often anonymous as well as obnoxious, some of those personal opinion-diaries, he found, display utter disregard for essential Jewish ideals like the requirement to shun lashon hora or forbidden negative speech, and hotzo'at shem ra, or slander; to show honor for Torah and respect for Torah scholars. I would have added basic fairness to the list. And truth.

There are, of course, responsible bloggers, in the Jewish realm as in others, writers who seek to share community news or ideas and observations with readers, and to post readers' comments. Some explore concepts in Jewish thought and law, others focus on Jewish history and society.

But just as an unfiltered e-mail account quickly reveals that the bulk of electronic communications are from people we would really not wish to ever meet in person, so are responsible blogs, in the Jewish realm as in the general, decidedly in the minority. And even many responsible blogs allow postings of comments from people with very different value systems. As one poster on a Jewish blog, "Joe," noted: "The whole reason people gravitate to blogs with active comment sections is because of the gosip [sic] and back and forth jabs and insults… If thats [sic] not your thing, fine, but anyone who reads or posts on a blog cant [sic] seriously claim that lashon hara bothers them."

No one knows exactly why the Internet appears to bring out the worst in people, but there is little doubt that it often does. And the cloak of anonymity seems to unleash truly dark, ugly alter egos. As a popular Jewish blog's founder told the Forward in June, "There's a lot of testosterone on the Internet, a lot of swagger… anything can happen."

Like maliciousness and mayhem. Recently, for example, a 13-year-old Missouri girl who was targeted on a non-Jewish social-networking site for verbal abuse by classmates became so distraught that she hanged herself in her bedroom with a belt.

Another recent e-outrage, although with a happier ending, was perpetrated by a Milwaukee teacher who presented himself anonymously on a blog as a critic of the local teachers union. In an attempt to garner sympathy for union members, he wrote that the two youths who killed 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999 "knew how to deal with the overpaid teacher union thugs: One shot at a time." Only because of the implicit threat of violence, and the resultant involvement of law enforcement, was the teacher's ruse uncovered. Less prosecutable offenses, although malevolent, misleading and violative of the laws of civil discourse, are, needless to say, of no interest to the police.

And so, many blogs have become showcases for carefully concocted stews of truth and falsehood well stirred and generously seasoned with gall and spleen. The Jewish sites among them like to malign guilty and innocent people alike - extra points for Orthodox Jews and triple-score for rabbis.

On some sites, targets' guilt is established purely by rumor, innuendo, anonymous accusations and alleged association with accused or confirmed wrongdoers. Innocent until proven guilty? Not in the blogosphere.

Indeed, if a Jewish blog were fully reflective of Jewish values, even those who are actually guilty would not be subject to "open season" maligning. Truth may be "an absolute defense" in American libel law, but not in Jewish law; true statements are precisely the focus of the prohibition of lashon hora. It might strike some as strange, but the Torah teaches us that the evil of such speech is inherent, not a function of falsehood.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the apparent gullibility of so many visitors to those blogs, who, from their own postings, seem ready to swallow any accusation or character assassination, as long as the charges are sufficiently salacious or forcefully asserted. Some of the many adulatory comments posted on offensive blogs may have been planted by the blogerrai-meisters themselves, but many certainly seem to be from other citizens anxious to join in the fun.

Responsible bloggers don't deserve to be lumped together with the louts and understandably chafe at having their entire enterprise tarred with the sins of individuals. Unfortunately, though, those individuals and their sins comprise the bulk of the blogosphere. Those who counsel avoidance of blogs are no different from those who advise against frequenting dark, crime-ridden neighborhoods. There may be bargains to be had in such locales, maybe even a good library or pizzeria. But they are scuzzy places to spend time in.

The Internet in general is, pace the popular arbiters of societal propriety, not a healthy place to hang out in. That is why many Orthodox Jewish religious leaders have frowned upon its use altogether for recreational purposes. They feel that the windows it opens to every corner of the wider world allow in not only some sunlight but much pollution of the most pernicious sort.

But even if business or other life exigencies require individuals to utilize the Internet, there are dark corners of the Web that are filled with venomous spiders, that pose extraordinary risks and should be avoided at practically all costs. The blogosphere is a particular infested corner.

All Jews should be concerned with basic Jewish values like shunning forbidden speech, refusing to judge others, showing honor for Torah and Torah-scholars. And if we are, we are rightly warned against patronizing the untamed areas of Blogistan. Because, while larger society may hallow the idea of free speech, Judaism considers words to carry immense responsibility. Used properly, they can teach, inspire and elevate. But used wrongly, or recklessly, they can be virtual weapons of mass destruction.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Ever since the Sabbath after Sukkot, when the communal synagogue reading of the Torah began anew, I haven't been able to attend a Jewish wedding without thinking about the Netziv's unsettling, if simple, observation.

The Netziv - an acronym meaning "pillar" by which Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1817-1893), the famed dean of the Volozhin Yeshiva, is known - noted that the first marriage in history differed in a most essential way from all the matrimonial unions that would come to follow. Because, according to a widely cited Jewish tradition, Adam and Eve were created a single entity, a man-woman coupled back to back, with the "forming" of woman described by the Torah more accurately envisioned as a separation. The word often translated "rib" is in fact used elsewhere in the Torah to mean "side," and so would be understood in the light of that tradition as referring to the woman-side who was part of Adam-Eve before Divine surgery provided her independent personhood.

So, says the Netziv, Adam's subsequent union with his wife was in fact a "re-union" - of two entities that had originally been one. That idea, says Rabbi Berlin, lies in Adam's declaration when Eve is presented to him: "This time it is a bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh" [Genesis 2:23]. Comments Rabbi Berlin: "Only 'this time' is it so, since she is a 'bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh'; [here, Adam's love for Eve] is like a person who loves his own hand."

Not so, though, every marriage to follow, where the two people creating a relationship will have been conceived, born and raised as independent individuals before becoming a marital unit.

What is troubling is that, following the Talmud's direction, among the blessings recited at a Jewish marriage ceremony and at the festive "Sheva Brachot" [Seven Blessings"] meals attended by the bride and groom for the week thereafter, are several references to the First Couple (Eden's, not Washington's). Not only is the creation of Adam and Eve explicitly invoked, but the bride and groom are reminded of how "your Creator made you joyous in the Garden of Eden." How, though, can the comparison be made? The essence of post-Edenic marriages, their emotional and spiritual components, would seem to be of a qualitatively different nature from that of the original one. As per the Netziv's observation, they are mergers, not homecomings.

Or, to carry the Netziv's own simile a bit further, they are not like reattaching a severed limb but like transplanting a newly donated one.

Interestingly, the medical metaphor itself may hold the answer to why we hold up the example of Adam and Eve to those marrying. Maybe it is not a comparison that is intended but a spur to thought - the thought that a successful marriage entails striving for a relationship like that of Adam and Eve, who began their lives as a single being.

Consider why transplantation is no simple matter: It commonly entails a risk of rejection.

The natural reaction of a normal body to the introduction of an "other" with its own distinct genetic identity is to seek to show it the door, so to speak. There is good reason for that immune response, of course; it helps protect against the introduction of elements that could be harmful.

Likewise, the natural response of a normal human psyche to the intimate introduction of an "other," with its own discrete emotional and spiritual identity, is to similarly seek to protect the threatened self.

Doctors help ensure successful transplants by administering immunosuppressant drugs, chemicals that prevent rejection. They operate by lowering the threshold of the immune system's integrity. Or, put another way, they weaken the host body's sense of self.

Could it be that we focus a modern bride and groom on the first ones in order to teach them that the spiritual-emotional transplant that is a true marriage needs its own form of "immunosuppressant" to succeed - that, in other words, no less than in an organ transplant, marriage requires a weakening of self?

Here, of course, no drug will do; what alone can work is a conscious, determined reorientation of attitude, force of will born of love. In the Netziv's words about post-Edenic brides and grooms, only "deep connection ["d'veika'] will bring them together, to become one."

Like everything truly important, of course, that is more easily said than done. But knowing one's objective is the first step of any journey.

And the second, here, is acting - whether or not one's actions reflect purity of intent - as if it is not one's self that is calling the shots. Jewish tradition stresses that simple deeds can beget essential changes. As a Jewish aphorism sourced in the 13th century work Sefer HaChinuch puts it: "A person is acted upon by his actions." What we do, with the hope and intention of becoming someone who naturally does what we are doing, brings us closer to becoming that person.

And so newlyweds do well to disagree over whether the window should be open or closed. But the chilled spouse should be the one insisting that it remain open, for the comfort of the overheated one; and the latter should be running to shut it, to keep the other warm. Even if the result is a compromise, like leaving the window open a crack, the acts of selflessness themselves are priceless. And they are not limited to windows.

I mused aloud about all that at a Sheva Brachot meal for my own daughter and her new husband several weeks ago. Later, though, something else struck me: The marriage-message borne by the Netziv's observation is not only for newlyweds.

Transplant recipients, after all, generally need to take their medication for life.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Two recent letters to the New York Jewish Week criticized opposition by Orthodox groups in America to the possible partitioning of Jerusalem. One called the Orthodox Union's stance on the issue "a cynical effort to score public relations points" and questioned the "morality" of American groups challenging the policies of an Israeli government; the other sarcastically characterized Agudath Israel as having "become great nationalists" because of its recent resolution on Jerusalem.

The writers' umbrage appears to have obscured three germane facts:

1) Eretz Yisrael is the land not of any particular temporal government but of the Jewish People. That is not only a metaphysical fact but an entirely tangible one, especially in the Orthodox community. Whether or not we live in Israel, we visit there whenever we can, and inject millions of dollars into the Israel economy through charity, tourism and investment. Many of our children and grandchildren spend a year or several studying there. Some of them, along with many other of our relatives and friends, choose to live there. What is more, many of us hold tight to dreams of one day living there ourselves. The security of Israel's cities, and the accessibility and protection of the Holy Land's holy places, directly affect our lives.

2) Jews who are fortunate to live on the Jewish Land's holy soil are the brothers and sisters of Jews everywhere else. To suggest that any Jew or Jewish group does not have a right - or anything less than a responsibility - to speak up when an Israeli government seems poised to do something objectionable or dangerous is to deny the bond of Jews to both their ancestral homeland and to other Jews.

3) As American citizens, we have every right and reason - and in certain respects we are uniquely situated - to advocate to our own government regarding issues important to us, even when those issues involve other countries. That is especially so in the specific context of a "peace process" in which the American government is playing a prominent (if not pre-eminent) role.

And so if an Israeli Prime Minister or Knesset considers it acceptable to provide not just the rights of residency and citizenship already provided Jerusalem's Arab population but to offer an untrustworthy enemy national sovereignty over parts of the city holiest to Judaism - and, effectively, a military foothold for murderous elements in that heavily Jewish-populated center - yes, each of us anywhere can, and must, speak up, to our governments and to our fellow Jews.

As to Agudath Israel's sudden seeming "nationalism," the movement remains true to the ideals it has always championed. Unlike those who, whether on religious or nationalistic grounds, reject the very idea of territorial compromise, the concept of land for peace - at least when there is a trustworthy peace-partner - remains one that most of our leaders accept in principle. None of us haredi Jews deny, G-d forbid, the holiness of any part of the Jewish Land. But we know that the true, complete (territorially as well as spiritually) "Jewish State" will arrive only when the Messiah does, and that the Third Holy Temple will be built by the hand of not man but G-d. Thus, the passive form in our prayer: "May it be Your will that the Temple be [re]built."

Theoretically - and here Agudath Israel may part company with some other Orthodox groups - we could even countenance a non-Jewish flag flying over the city's walls, if it meant true safety, security and freedom of worship for the Holy Land's Jewish residents. Needless to say, though, such a scenario is nowhere in sight.

And that is why, at our recent 85th national convention, Agudath Israel passed a resolution that the organization, "under the direction of its rabbinic leadership, should communicate to appropriate government officials the organization's strong belief that … Israel should not relinquish parts of Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty, and the American government should not pressure the Israeli government into doing so."

Recognizing the special relationship of Jerusalem to the Jewish people, and being deeply concerned with the obvious danger to our Jewish brethren posed by a highly unstable sovereign Arab entity literally "across the street," hardly constitute any new philosophy. What they reflect are things Agudath Israel has always held sacrosanct: the protection of holy Jewish places, and of holy Jewish lives.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Old Gray Lady isn't cute when she's angry. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The New York Times editorial page's longstanding antagonism to the Bush Administration is well documented. Still, the only dignified editorial response to last month's news that two independent teams of scientists had reported having turned human skin cells into the equivalent of embryonic stem cells was "Hallelujah" - or, for the staidly secular Times, some less parochial but equally enthusiastic expression of joy.

After all, if the reported results are duplicated by other labs and various technical obstacles overcome, there will now be an inexhaustible supply of human stem cells available for research - and the controversy over the destruction of embryos to procure stem cells for research will have been effectively rendered moot.

Instead of rejoicing, though, The Times just seethed. On December 3, an editorial in the paper petulantly conceded that the new discovery "could help free scientists from shackles that have long hobbled their efforts." But, it hastened to add, "any claim that Mr. Bush's moral stance drove scientists to this discovery must be greeted with particular skepticism." The editorial ended with the hope that "the next president will quickly jettison all restrictions on stem cell research."

The moral stance referenced is, of course, the President's long and unwavering insistence that federal funds for stem cell research be limited to projects using non-embryonic stem cells or certain already-produced lines of embryonic cells.

The Times' skepticism notwithstanding, it is at least arguable that the White House's refusal to fund embryonic stem-cell research and its encouragement of alternate approaches to procuring stem cells may in fact have contributed to the happy turn of events. After all, if Mr. Bush's steadfastness constituted "shackles" that "hobbled" efforts to consider embryos an unobjectionable source of stem cells, then it is certainly reasonable to imagine that his resolve may have played a role in the development of alternative sources for the cells.

Whatever role the President may or may not have played, however, what cannot be denied is that, in light of the recent breakthrough, the idea of destroying nascent life for scientific research is now more easily seen for what it is, namely, the destroying of nascent life for scientific research.

To be sure, the potential of such research was always clear. If stem cells can be induced to develop into pancreatic cells, they will hold the promise of curing diabetes; if they can be convinced to turn into dopamine-secreting brain cells, they may be able to reverse Parkinson's disease; if into muscle, heart, liver or blood cells, they will figure prominently in treatments for muscular dystrophy, cardiac disease, liver failure and leukemia. And the list is potentially much longer.

But in the headlong rush to gain access to the potential benefits of stem cell research, some were, one might say, blinded by science.

From a Jewish perspective, the issue of utilizing fertilized embryos for research is complex. While some Orthodox Jewish rabbis and organizations concluded that Judaism would encourage embryonic stem cell research under certain conditions, others had deep reservations.

Now, thankfully, it seems that resort to destroying embryos may no longer be necessary for stem cell research to take place. And so, instead of taking umbrage, bashing Bush and hoping for the destruction of future embryos, The Times' editorialists might better have reflected a moment or two on a quote featured in a November 22 story on their paper's own front page.

Dr. James A. Thomson's laboratory at the University of Wisconsin was one of two that in 1998 first successfully removed stem cells from embryos. His laboratory was one of the two that have now reported the new way of turning ordinary human skin cells into very similar, if not identical, stem cells.

Reflecting on those developments, Dr. Thomson, the pioneer of procuring stem cells from embryos destroyed in the process, told The Times' science writer Gina Kolata that "If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough."

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

It is a strange and disorienting panorama that Rabbi E. E. Dessler, the celebrated Jewish thinker (1892-1953) asks us to ponder: a world where the dead routinely rise from their graves but no grain or vegetation has ever grown.

The thought experiment continues with the sudden appearance of a man who procures a seed, something never seen before in this bizarre universe, and plants it in the ground. The inhabitants regard the act as no different from burying a stone, and are flabbergasted when, several days later, a sprout pierces the soil where the seed had been consigned, and eventually develops into a full-fledged plant, bearing - most astonishing of all - seeds of its own!

Notes Rabbi Dessler, there is no inherent difference between nature and what we call the miraculous. We simply use the former word "nature" for the miracles to which we are accustomed, and the latter one for those we have not before experienced. All there is, in the end, is G-d's will.

It is a thought poetically rendered by Emerson, who wrote: "If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore…"

A thought, in fact, that subtly informed famed physicist Paul Davies' recent op-ed in The New York Times, where he wrote that "the very notion of physical law is a theological one."

And it is a thought, too, that, according to Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, the revered Rosh Yeshiva, or dean, of Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem on Manhattan's Lower East Side, has pertinence to Chanukah.

The supernatural nature of nature lies at the heart of the answer he suggests for one of the most famous questions in the canon of Jewish religious law, posed in the 1500s by the author of the authoritative Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yosef Karo: Why, if oil sufficient for one day was discovered in Jerusalem's Holy Temple when the Macabees reclaimed it from Seleucid control, is Chanuka eight days long? True, that is how long the candles burned, allowing the priests to prepare new, uncontaminated oil. But was not one of those eight days simply the day for which the found oil sufficed, and thus not itself a miracle-day worthy of commemoration?

Suggests Rabbi Feinstein: Seven of Chanukah's days commemorate the miracle that, in the time of the Maccabees, the candelabrum's flames burned without oil. The eighth commemorates the miracle of the fact that oil burns at all.

The suggestion pithily echoes an account in the Talmud (Ta'anit, 25a), in which the daughter of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa realized shortly before the Sabbath that she had accidentally poured vinegar instead of oil into the Sabbath lamps, and began to panic. Rabbi Chanina, a man who vividly perceived G-d's hand in all and thus particularly merited what most people would call miracles, reassured her. "The One Who commanded oil to burn," he said, "can command vinegar [as well] to burn."

There is, in fact, one day of Chanukah's eight that is set apart from the others, designated with a special appellation. The final day of the holiday - this year beginning with the candle-lighting on the night of Tuesday, December 11 and continuing through the next day - is known as "Zos Chanukah," after the Torah passage beginning "Zos chanukas hamizbe'ach" ("This is the dedication of the altar") read in the synagogue that day.

The Jewish mystical sources consider that day to be the final reverberation of the Days of Awe marked many weeks earlier. Although Rosh Hashana was the year's day of judgment and Yom Kippur was the culmination of the days of repentance, later "time-stones" of the period of G-d's judgment of our actions are cited as well. One is Hoshana Rabba, the last day of Sukkot. And the final one, according to the sources, is "Zos Chanukah."

It would indeed seem to be a fitting day for thinking hard about the "supernature" in nature, the miraculous in the seemingly mundane. For what is what we call a miracle if not a more-clear-than-usual manifestation of G-d? And what are the Days of Awe if not a time when He is "close" to us, when G-d-consciousness is at front and center?

And so, perhaps the final day of Chanukah presents us with a singular opportunity to ponder how, just as the ubiquity and predictability of nature can mislead us, allowing us to forget that all is, in truth, G-d's will, so too can the weeks elapsed since the late summer Days of Awe lull us into a state of unmindfulness regarding the import of our actions.

If so, the final night of Chanukah might be a particularly apt time to gaze at the eight flames leaking enlightenment into the world and, as we prepare to head into the dismal darkness of what some might consider a "G-d-forsaken winter," know that, still and all, as always, "His glory fills the universe."

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

"New study finds Orthodox women are sexually victimized as much as other American women" read the subheader of a New York Jewish Week article on October 26. The study found nothing of the sort.

Based on a self-selected sample - women who chose to fill out a survey offered on Jewish websites and in newspaper advertisements, synagogue bulletins, doctors' offices and through other means - the study, in the American Journal of Psychiatry, could not and did not make any claim about the relative prevalence of abuse in the Orthodox and general American communities. Randomized studies, like those that have focused on abuse in the general American population, yield reasonable estimations of the behaviors of their foci. Self-selected surveys of the same populations, however, can easily yield data that diverge substantially from the reality in those groups.

Thus, the study's authors themselves responsibly cautioned that "those who chose to participate may not be representative of the [Orthodox] population," and noted that the unfeasibility of obtaining a representative sample constituted a "major limitation of this study." The study also notes that "there was a high proportion of subjects [51% -- AS] receiving mental health treatment in this group [the sample recruited for the study]," further suggesting that the respondents were not representative of the larger Orthodox population (victims of abuse are, of course, more likely than others to seek counseling).

And so, by comparing the 25%-27% figure for American women claiming (in randomized surveys) to have suffered abuse at some point in their lives with the 26% figure yielded by the recent (self-selected) study of Orthodox women, and concluding that "Orthodox Jewish women suffer as much [abuse] as other American women," the Jewish Week writer was comparing apples and tractors. If anything, the similar percentages arguably indicate a lower rate of abuse in the Orthodox community. After all, if 26% of a group likely to contain a disproportionate number of abuse victims report they were abused, one would expect a much lower percentage of a randomly selected group from the same population.

Abuse, of course, is a serious sin and a serious problem and, tragically, it exists in every community, including the Orthodox. That is bad enough. What is also lamentable, though, is that its existence - to whatever extent - in the Orthodox world provides fodder for those who are always at the ready to pounce on the flimsiest of anecdotal evidence to "expose" what they believe are the moral shortcomings of Orthodox life.

Last year, an article appeared in New York magazine that told the tawdry tale of an alleged serial Orthodox child abuser.

The New York writer did more than salaciously detail an alleged victim's accusations. He went on to share with readers his own consideration of the prospect that such ugly behavior is "more common in the Orthodox Jewish community than it is elsewhere."

"There are no reliable statistics," he admitted, "… but there's reason to believe the answer to that question might be yes."

The "reason to believe" turned out to be the report of another writer who had explored the world of once-Chassidic people who turned their backs on their communities and found it "shocking" to hear how "so many boys [emphasis hers] have had this experience [of abuse]."

Now, abuse, tragically, may well have been a factor in the trajectory of those disheartened Jews' lives. And if it was, our hearts must ache with the anguish of the victims. But to consider their agonizing experience as somehow emblematic of Chassidic life, much less broader Orthodox life, is like deciding there must be a national epidemic of broken bones after visiting a hospital and seeing "so many" patients in casts.

Employing the trusty journalistic tool of ascribing unfounded speculations to anonymous sources, the New York writer went on to reveal that "There are some who believe" that "the repression in the ultra-Orthodox community can foster abuse." By "the repression," he helpfully explained, he meant things like the strict forbiddance of sexual relations before marriage and the Jewish family purity laws that regulate when married couples may and may not engage in intimacy. The "few outlets for an Orthodox man with compulsions," those unnamed "some" believe, create "a fertile environment for deviance."

Those comments go to the crux of the matter of why Orthodox Jews should care about any of this. After all, why not just ignore it all? Just as unfounded negative assumptions about Jews in general are popular in much of the non-Jewish world, so are Orthodox Jews unfairly maligned in the larger Jewish one. Do we really have to make a fuss?

Well, I believe we do. Because there is a subtext here. The maligning is not of Orthodox Jews alone; it is a maligning of mitzvot, of modesty, of Torah. It is a claim, in effect, that dedication to Torah doesn't help prevent sin, that it even leads to it.

I believe - and it is Judaism's belief - that Torah is transformative, that human inclinations are harnessed and controlled by Torah-life and Torah-study. To be sure, there are Jews who lead publicly observant lives yet who are not truly committed to Torah, who have not internalized "fear of Heaven." And so, there will always be anecdotal evidence of Orthodox wrongdoings of many sorts, with perpetrators identifiable, and duly identified, as Orthodox.

But the vast majority of observant Jews take Torah seriously. And it does elevate them, and empowers them to live exemplary lives. That is part of why the Torah-observant population is greatly underrepresented in the realms of societal ills like rape, AIDS, prostitution and marital infidelity that affect their less "repressed" neighbors. Although it is certainly possible that rates of child or spouse abuse in the Orthodox world are equal to those of general American society, I would expect a similar underrepresentation in those realms as well.

I cannot know that my expectation reflects reality; there are no meaningful statistical data to mine at present. But neither are there any to support the assumptions and speculations of writers like those cited above.

One thing I do know, though, is that my expectation is based on the quintessential Jewish idea that the study and practice of Torah create more refined human beings. And the others' assumption is based on their conviction - fueled, perhaps, by wishful thinking - that it does not.

The writers are entitled to their cynicism. But all Jews who respect Torah are entitled - I believe obligated - to expose it, along with offerings of unfounded, bias-born speculations as facts.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

This morning I counted. There were at least ten times the Hebrew name of Jerusalem, or its synonym Zion, passed my lips. Before breakfast.

There was "Jerusalem, praise G-d," "May You shine a new light on Zion," "the Builder of Jerusalem," and many more throughout the Jewish morning prayer service.

And then there were the other references to Jerusalem but without her name, like "May it be Your will… that the Holy Temple be rebuilt, speedily in our days" and "the city called by Your name."

After a bowl of cereal, the blessing "Al Hamichya" would mention Jerusalem two more times. And for any meals including bread that might have followed, one of the main blessings that comprise the grace after meals would have the Holy City as its subject as well, beginning with a reference to "Jerusalem Your city" and ending "Who in His mercy builds Jerusalem."

And, then, in each of the day's two remaining prayer services, as in the morning one, the silent "Amidah" prayer includes a similar blessing.

It is hard to believe that any people, entity or government could arrogate to claim a closer connection than the Jewish one to the city nestled in the Judean hills, the city toward which praying Jews for millennia have faced thrice daily, and face to this day.

And it is even harder to believe that a government of a self-described Jewish State would even consider, much less announce, its contemplation of placing Jerusalem on the cutting block of negotiations with an enemy.

Yet that is what is happening before our incredulous eyes.

There are Jews who, whether on religious or nationalistic grounds, reject without qualification the very idea of territorial compromise. Many of the religious leaders of the haredi world, however, have clearly stated that political sovereignty over land does not trump the attainment of peace and security. None of us haredi Jews deny, G-d forbid, the holiness of any part of the Jewish Land. But we know that the true, complete (territorially as well as spiritually) "Jewish State" will arrive only when the Messiah does, and that the Third Holy Temple will be built by the hand of not man but G-d. Thus, the reflexive form in our prayer: "May it be Your will that the Temple be [re]built."

That said, though, "territorial compromise" with an adversary that includes duplicitous, hate-filled elements - elements that celebrate violence and make no secret of their goal of destroying Israel, elements that have time and again asserted themselves at will, brushing away the ostensibly more moderate among them like so much lint - is, to put it mildly, foolhardy. And the Israeli leadership's apparent readiness to treat even Jerusalem, the very wellspring of the Holy Land's holiness, like a salami to be shared merits an adjective considerably less mild.

Mere days before this writing, we were reminded of what lies on the "other side." A Fatah rally in Gaza was attacked by Hamas forces who killed six and injured dozens. The PLO's chief negotiator publicly rejected the notion that the Palestinians would ever recognize Israel as a Jewish State. Israeli leaders would have to be seriously deluded to imagine that offering such people a part of Jerusalem will result in anything like a secure city.

One can only add to our prayers the hope that those political leaders somehow experience some flash of recognition of what they are contemplating. That they blink a few times, shake their heads and remember just what Jerusalem means to the Jewish People. That they come to open a Jewish prayer book and not only read the words but pay attention to them; and say the grace after meals, doing the same.

And that they then turn to their adversaries and say, without rancor but with full determination: "No. We're sorry. Not Jerusalem."

To be sure, from a haredi perspective, it doesn't make any inherent difference what temporal flag flies above the hewn stones of Jerusalem's walls. The city's holiness is neither heralded nor preserved by such banners. But it is a fallacy of the most dangerous sort to imagine that the cause of peace could possibly be advanced by surrendering the heart of the Jewish People.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

On their surface, the e-mails had nothing to do with the uncontrolled wildfires then devastating southern California. Yet the confluence of the messages and the maelstrom held a truth worth contemplating.

The topic of the e-mails is of no matter. The writers were urging Agudath Israel of America to take a certain stance on a political issue. It was their tone that stood out. The correspondents had taken for granted that their own judgment on the matter was right, and were writing to insist that the organization come on board, or "get with it," as one put it. Or as another wrote: "Your Moetzet Gedolei HaTorah [Council of Torah Sages - Agudath Israel's highest rabbinical body] needs to take a strong stand here…"

Agudath Israel is unique among Jewish groups. Its administration does not set policy; that role resides among the venerable rabbinic elders at our helm. The organization's officers and executive staff are sometimes asked to provide the Council members with information, even to lay out various approaches to an issue. But we do not tell our religious leaders what we think they should think. One might say that we report, they decide.

It is an approach that rankles some, especially those who might not appreciate the humor in a sign I have that reads: "People who think they know everything are particularly aggravating to those of us who do."

But the fact remains: Judaism teaches humility, and special respect for the judgment of those most experienced and knowledgeable. The letters of the Hebrew word for "elderly" - zaken - are parsed by the Talmud to yield the phrase "this one has acquired wisdom."

And so, particularly in matters of Jewish communal welfare, we believe that Jews are exhorted to heed the direction provided by the community's most Torah-learned elders, those who have internalized a large degree of the perfection of values and refinement of character that the Torah idealizes. Even when those elders' judgment differs from our own. Actually, especially then.

Commenting on the decision made by the Judean King Rechavam (King Solomon's son) to shun the advice of the elders of his father's court and heed instead the advice of younger advisors (Kings I:12), the Talmud remarks: "[What might seem] constructive on the part of the young [can in fact be] destructive; and [what might seem] destructive on the part of elders [can in fact be] constructive" (Nedarim, 40a). Rechavam's wrong choice brought schism to the Jewish kingdom, fanning the flames of rebellion.

Which brings us back to more recent flames, those of the unprecedented California fires - which fire-management experts have dubbed "mega-fires," since they are ten times larger and more intense than wildfires of a mere decade or two ago. More than eight million acres of American forest have burned this year already.

The reasons suggested for the unprecedented infernos include, of course, the "usual suspect" for all natural disasters these days, global warming. But the fact that Baja Mexico has evidenced only smaller fires than adjacent San Diego County suggests strongly that something else is at work. That something, experts say, is a decades-old misguided conservation policy in the United States. Put simply, the longtime American approach to fire suppression - extinguishing small fires as soon as they appear, rather than allowing them to run their natural courses and create undergrowth-free zones - has created huge swaths of unburned brush that, when fire does break out, serve as rich and abundant fuel for infernos of exceptional scope and intensity. "When," asked University of California professor of earth sciences and fire-management expert Richard A. Minnich, quoted in The New York Times, "do we declare the policy a failure?"

So the culprit, so to speak, is Smokey the Bear. He seemed like a fine enough, if furry, fellow all those years, delivering his ursine, eminently common-sense message that putting out small fires was the obvious way to prevent larger ones. But he was wrong. precisely wrong,entirely wrong. Nothing personal (or specie-ist), but, in the end, only smarts can prevent mega- fires.

Now, with hindsight, we are wiser. Imagine, though, how the suggestion that forest fires be permitted to burn uncontrolled, would have been received had it been offered fifty years ago. It is not hard to imagine the e-mails (well, telegrams) chiding forest rangers to tell the Forest Service policymakers to "get with it" and "take a strong stand" against the obvious illogic of - goodness! - letting fires just burn!

It's not only the so-called "Law of Unintended Consequences" that can figure into weighty decisions. A host of factors can make the right decision seem the wrong one, puzzling observers, even outraging them. To be sure, we all have a right to our opinion, and much can be gained by sharing our perspectives with others.

But two vital commodities in all-too-short supply these days are humility and respect for elders. We do well to consider that our confidence - "evidence" and all - that we know what is best no more qualifies us to make the right decision than putting a ranger's hat on a bear's head and a shovel in his hand makes him an expert on forest conservation.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

That the unveiling of a new Reform prayer book didn't elicit applause from the Orthodox world was hardly surprising. Despite media hailings of the movement's new liturgical offering as a turn toward Jewish tradition, the new prayer book, "Mishkan T'filah," still pointedly omits vital elements of traditional Jewish prayer (indeed of the Torah) that its editors found discomfiting.

The essence of the Jewish religious heritage does not change; the very premise of Reform theology (and, as has become increasingly evident, Conservative theology no less) is that Judaism can be redefined according to the wishes of contemporary Jews. As a Reform leader once candidly explained, he examines each mitzvah and asks himself, "Do I feel commanded [to heed it]?"

Still and all, some encouragement may lie in the fact that a movement rejective of Judaism's heart has even subtly and tepidly reclaimed an element of the Judaism of the ages. The Kotzker Rebbe, it is told, once asked: Who is more worthy, someone on the 49th level of spiritual accomplishment or on the 1st? His answer: "It depends on the direction in which each is heading."

And for all the new Reform prayer book's profound faults - and those of the theology that produced it - it seems to signal a change in direction.

Take the book's very formatting. If Marshall McLuhan was right that there is message in the medium, Mishkan T'filah immediately telegraphs its distinction from earlier Reform prayer books. Unlike its predecessors, it includes the word "siddur" on its cover. It not only includes a Hebrew text but opens and reads from right to left. (The left side of each open pair of pages offers modernistic comments on the Hebrew to the right, recalling - to me, at least - King Solomon's words: "The heart of the wise one is to his right" [Ecclesiastes, 10:2].)

But even those inclined to dismiss such changes as mere window dressing might note the amendments made - after years of sometimes contentious disagreement among the prayer book's editors - to the actual Reform liturgy itself.

For instance, in utter affront to the Reform movement's longstanding rejection of the concept of techiyat hameitim, or "resurrection of the dead," Mishkan T'filah offers the option of reciting the blessing acknowledging that essential Jewish belief.

In a nod to (forgive the pun) die-hard Reform "traditionalists" (a word rather turned on its head in this context), Mishkan T'filah still suggests that the phrase "He Who gives life to the dead" be understood as "a powerful metaphor." But - and, again, small changes can hold larger significance - the editors' note adds that the resurrection of the dead "may be taken literally" as well.

It is easy to glibly dismiss that concession. With sociologists predicting that American Jews least connected to Jewish belief and observance (a group that includes the majority of the million-plus who identify as Reform Jews) are headed for Jewish extinction, it would seem Panglossian to see an editorial change in a prayer book as a harbinger of hope.

But I can't help but imagine an astute Reform worshipper motivated to indeed ponder the kind of techiyat hameitim we witness daily, like decaying organic matter fertilizing the soil, spurring dormant seeds to unfold into plants and trees. And then being stirred further to consider the relationship between such everyday "quickening of the dead" and the ultimate one that the Torah teaches lies, for those who merit it, at the end of history.

As the deep Jewish scholar and thinker Rabbi E.E. Dessler wrote, the only reason we consider the germination of a seed to be natural and resurrection of the dead miraculous is because we are accustomed to the former but not the latter. What we choose to call the "laws of nature," he explains, are not inherently "sensible"; they simply are what they are: G-d's will.

We can describe how a plant grows, how its genes code for the stages of that process, even the workings of the atomic structure underlying its DNA. But why any of that should work the way it does is ultimately answerable only with: "Because, well, that's just the way it is." Or, from Judaism's perspective: because G-d has so willed it. And, notes Rabbi Dessler, He can no less easily will things that strike us as incredible.

The editors of the new Reform prayer book may insist that its users needn't subscribe to the Jewish belief that the righteous will one day rise from their graves. But their inclusion of the blessing of resurrection, however they may have sought to soften it, reflects unquestionably the deep stirrings of Jews alienated from our eternal beliefs groping uneasily toward their acceptance.

It may be naive to imagine that changes in the Reform prayer book hold out hope that Reform-affiliated Jews might yet come to consider returning to the fullness of the Jewish religious tradition.

But I'm not willing to consider a million-plus fellow Jews as nothing more than a desiccated limb of the Jewish people, hopelessly destined to wither and fall away.

Not only because there are encouragingly many once-distant-from-Judaism Jews living fully Torah-observant lives today.

But because I believe in techiyat hameitim.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Those "Ultra-Orthodox" in Israel are at it again, inventing new stringencies, coercing other Jews, trying to make a dishonest buck and generally making life unlivable for everybody else.

At least that is what seems to emerge from recent reportage about the "Agricultural Sabbatical Year," or Shmittah, ushered in on Rosh Hashana.

The New York Times contended that an Israeli Chief Rabbi, because he respected a revered elder rabbinical leader's judgment, is "considered" - by whom was not clarified - "a puppet" of the senior rabbi.

A New York Sun columnist insinuated that a religious legal decision was born of a desire to make money on the backs of the poor. "There are, after all, no farmers in the ultra-Orthodox community," wrote Hillel Halkin, wrongly, "and plenty of rabbis and kashrut supervisors who will find jobs making sure that Jewish-grown fruits and vegetables are not, G-d forbid, being smuggled into the diet of unsuspecting Israelis."

And a New York Jewish Week editorial both got its facts wrong (contending that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, by setting a kashrut certification standard, had "disallowed" food of lower standards) and saw fit to invoke an unsubstantiated accusation of moral turpitude against one rabbi and the arrest of another's family member as indictments of the rabbis' religious legal opinions.

Some Israeli publications were shriller still. The Jerusalem Report characterized the granting of permission to local rabbis to set their communities' kashrut standards thus: "Confrontation looms as the increasingly powerful ultra-Orthodox camp flexes its muscles and attempts to impose strict observance of the Shmittah commandment on all Israelis."

Irresponsible media coverage of haredim is nothing new. But were such misinformation and provocation used against Jews rather than against some Jews, it would be roundly condemned as something worse than journalism-as-usual.

The facts:

The Torah enjoins Jews privileged to live in the Holy Land to not till or plant in Jewish-owned soil during each seventh year, known as Shmittah. What grows of its own is to be treated as ownerless and may not be sold. Shmittah-observance bespeaks our recognition that the land is the L-rd's, and its merit allows Jews to, in the words of Leviticus [25:19], "abide in the land, in safety." For Jews who believe that Israel perseveres only through miracles, Shmittah is no minor mitzvah.

When substantial numbers of Jews began to return to the Holy Land in the 19th century, some farmers among them endeavored to observe Shmittah; most, though, living in deep poverty, did not. As a result, in 1896, religious leaders, including haredi rabbis, approved a fall-back plan whereby land owned by Jews was technically transferred to the possession of an Arab for the duration of the Shmittah year. That way, Jewish farmers would be acting as sharecroppers rather than as tillers of their own Shmittah-qualifying soil.

During subsequent Shmittah years, many farmers continued to rely on that "sale loophole" or "heter mechira." And when the state of Israel was created, the official state Rabbinate endorsed it as well.

A few farmers, though, opted to observe Shmittah in its original way, allowing their fields to lie fallow and relying on other income or charity (ultimately, on G-d), to make it through the months when they could not farm and sell produce. As a result, in the 1950s and 1960s, about 250 acres of land "rested" as per the Biblical injunction.

Later Shmittah years saw increasing number of farmers follow suit. Seven years ago, the number of acres left untilled had risen more than 200-fold from the 60s, to 55,000. This year, 3000-3500 farmers will be observing Shmittah, and 100,000 acres are expected to be left fallow in accordance with the Torah's direction. Every major Orthodox kashrut-certification agency in North America approves only Israeli produce hewing to the highest Shmittah standard.

The reasons for the growth of Shmittah-observance are several, among them a general trend toward greater observance, recognition of the ad-hoc nature of the heter mechira, and the experience of farmers who not only did not suffer for their Shmittah observance but experienced unusual blessings.

So what's with all the negative press? Good question.

This year, Israel's Chief Rabbinate declared that while it still did not oppose reliance on the heter mechira, it was, for the first time, permitting municipal rabbis in Israel's towns and cities, when issuing kashrut certifications, to decide for their localities whether to rely on that fall-back standard or opt for the original one.

From the reaction, one might think that the Chief Rabbis had declared an extra year of Shmitta rather than simply taken a pluralistic stance on religious standards. Israel's agriculture minister, Shalom Simhon, thundered a threat to forbid imports from Arab-owned land (which meet the higher Shmittah standard). Media like the Jewish Week misleadingly described the new policy as some sort of prohibition. Even in cities where the municipal rabbi has not granted kosher certification for heter mechira produce, nothing prevents a vendor from selling such produce (sans a Rabbinate kashrut-sticker) - which will surely be less expensive than the rabbinically-sanctioned fruits and vegetables.

But, as the New York Times article admitted, about Jerusalem haredim: "The community is already among the poorest in Jerusalem, but the rulings of their rabbis matter far more to them than money."

And speaking of money, Jews outside Israel are putting theirs where their beliefs are.

A 35-year-old organization, Keren Hashvi'is, raises millions of dollars each Shmittah year to help support Shmittah-observant farmers. Most donations are relatively small, from people of limited means - testifying to the broad and deep connection tens of thousands of Jews worldwide feel to their Israeli brethren farming holy soil. (In the United States, Keren Hashvi'is operates from Agudath Israel of America's Manhattan offices.)

But jaundiced eyes see only haredi Jews poisoning Jewish wells. It is a truly strange panorama: Observers usually enamored of ecological and liberal ideals have somehow been transformed into fierce opponents of leaving nature alone, of providing Arabs with extra income and of permitting individual rabbis to rule in accordance with their consciences.

And in the background, religiously dedicated farmers are doing what they believe will merit security and peace for the Holy Land, with help from Jews across Israel and around the world.

Keren Hashvi'is, which accepts donations by credit card, can be reached at 1-888-9-SHMITTAH.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The symbol commonly known as the Magen David ("Shield of David") or more colloquially as the "Jewish Star," is the subject of an unusual responsum written by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in 1968 (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 3, 15).

The familiar six-pointed polygon yielded by two superimposed triangles adorns countless synagogue ark-curtains and Torah-covers, containers for religious items and pieces of jewelry.

And, of course, the Israeli flag, set between two broad stripes meant to evoke a talit, or Jewish prayer-shawl. It was, in fact, that appropriation of the Jewish star symbol which formed the basis of the question posed to the famed decisor of Jewish law: Since the State of Israel is the fruition of an essentially secular, political dream - Herzl's Judenstaadt - is the Magen David symbol appropriate as an adornment for religious items?

Rabbi Feinstein replied that regardless of what service the symbol may have been pressed into, it remains an ancient Jewish emblem, and is therefore entirely properly displayed in synagogues and on religious objects.

What the Magen David signifies, however, the revered rabbi continued, is not entirely clear. Despite the hexagram's antiquity, there seems to be no authoritative Jewish source that addresses its significance.

All the same, Rabbi Feinstein suggests that the six-pointed form symbolizes G-d's dominion over all of space ("above and below and in all four directions").

We experience our universe in three spatial dimensions. To pinpoint the location of an object, in other words, one must identify its latitude, longitude and altitude with respect to some other fixed point. Things can be moved in two directions along each of those three axes, and so a six-pointed figure symbolizes all of space - and, in the case of the Magen David, reminds us how the universe is transcended by the Divine.

As to the Jewish Star's connection to King David, writes Rabbi Feinstein, "perhaps it signifies that David, during the wars he fought, relied on G-d, Who rules over [all of the universe], and thus, as the Torah commanded, never feared mortal kings and their armies."

G-d's hand, so apparent to King David, was evident as well to many Jews - even of secular bent - in 1948, when Jews living in the Jewish ancestral land repelled the attack of the Egyptian, Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese armies set on obliterating the nascent Jewish State and its inhabitants.

Similarly, in 1967, Israel's routing of the armies and air forces of its belligerent neighbors Egypt, Syria and Jordan (assisted by Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Algeria) - what came to be known as the Six-Day War - was widely regarded as miraculous. The religious Jewish identities of untold numbers of Israeli and American Jews were forged by that summer's events.

Others, though, less willing to concede supernatural impact on earthly matters, chose to write off Israel's dazzling victories as the predictable yield of superior military intelligence and fighting forces. That attitude became increasingly common, particularly in the boasts of Israeli leaders.

In 1973, however, amid vocal Israeli confidence in early warning systems and air superiority, came the Yom Kippur War, exposing the limitations of such achievements. Israel - although she thankfully managed to prevail in the end - was not able to forestall - or even foresee - an attack launched against her by Egypt and Syria (again aided by other Arab states). The bubble of Israeli military invincibility was burst.

Two inconclusive wars in Lebanon later, the sobering only continues. Israel, despite its vaunted military might, has become politically precarious. Of late, calls for her destruction - from within, through an unfettered "right of return" for descendents of once-resident Arabs; and from without, in the form of blatant threats from points east - have alarmingly increased, both in frequency and intensity.

Still and all, miracles - of a sort easily overlooked by all but sensitive eyes - abound. Terrorist intentions are foiled, explosives detonate in the hands of their crafters and rockets fall harmlessly in fields. Improbable missions like the recent bombardment of a mysterious, but no doubt worthy, target in Syria succeed. Such small salvations elicit deep gratitude to G-d from religious Jews. And the usual expressions of hubris from others, including all too many Israeli leaders, who rarely speak of - and seem oblivious to - the Divine.

To those, though, who include in their daily prayers a plea for the safety and security of our fellow Jews in the Holy Land, who daily recite specially designated Psalms in their merit, the future of the Jewish presence in the Jewish land - the future of all Jews everywhere - remains not in our hands but in G-d's.

And, in the light of Rabbi Feinstein's nearly four-decade-old words, we perceive a subtle but striking irony: The true key to Israel's security, as unrecognized as it may be to some, has been hiding in plain sight since the Jewish State's founding, fluttering in the wind above every Israeli government building and military outpost.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

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

Here goes:

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

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

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

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

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

And yet, at least seen superficially, Jewish joy seems misplaced and elusive these days. Jews are brazenly and cruelly murdered in our ancestral homeland, hated and attacked on the streets of not only European cities but places like Canada and Australia as well - and here in the United States, our numbers are falling to the internal adversaries of intermarriage and assimilation.

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

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

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

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

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

As I waited for a bus the other day, a car stopped in front of me at a traffic light. The teen-age boys inside stared at me and smiled - in a peculiar way that I, an identifiably Orthodox Jew, have come to recognize as something other than friendly. As the light changed, the boy riding shotgun flipped a coin at my feet as the car's occupants whooped with glee.

Ah, America. In the old country (my parents', that is; I was born and bred here), Jews had to endure things rather worse than being mocked as money-hungry. My father, may he be well, remembers being confined to his house in a Polish town during certain Christian holidays, when the locals, whipped into a frenzy by their spiritual guides, would devoutly attack any Jews they happened upon after church services. He remembers Siberia too, where Soviet authorities hosted him in a labor camp; and, of course, his parents and seven siblings, all but two of whom were murdered by the Nazis and their eager Polish allies.

Me, the American, I get quarters thrown at me. Persecution, at least in these blessed United States, isn't what it used to be - thank G-d.

I didn't pick up the coin, of course, as the teens had surely hoped I would. The others at the bus stop similarly ignored the offering, out of (I think) embarrassment over the boys' attempt at insult.

And yet the quarter, lying there idle, bothered me; I had to consciously resist retrieving it. No, not because I'm money-grubbing. But, yes, because I'm Jewish. Judaism teaches me that everything - even a coin - matters.

The kids' insinuation that Jews are slaves to lucre was hilariously ironic. If any life is lived in obsession over possessions and the means of acquiring them, it's that of the typical American youth. The car's occupants likely spend half of each day lusting after cars, music, jewelry, stylish clothing and high-tech toys - and the other half grabbing as much of it as they possibly can.

And if anyone is blessedly spared the torments of what passes in some parts these days for neediness, it is the typical observant Jew. I don't feel in the least deprived for wearing simple clothes, taking public transportation (why I was at a bus stop in the first place) or using a phone that doesn't take pictures, access the internet and poach eggs. My wife and I are happy to be able to pay our bills (particularly our tuition bills, the largest item in our budget). And our most valued possessions are things doesn't even carry.

The reason I wanted to pick up the quarter I'd been given was the example of the Jewish forefather Jacob.

The Torah recounts how Jacob, about to meet his estranged brother and would-be murderer Esau, after transporting his family and possessions across a river, took pains to cross back over again. The Talmud conveys a tradition that the reason Jacob returned (and came thereby to be injured in a struggle with Esau's spiritual manifestation), was to retrieve some "small jars."

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

That comment does not mean to counsel miserliness; Jacob is described as meticulously honest, a "simple man, a dweller in the tents [of Torah-study]"; he is the forefather emblematic of the ideal of "truth" or honesty. What the Talmud is conveying is a deep and quintessentially Jewish recognition: Physical currency has real worth, because it can be exchanged for truly meaningful things.

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

Possessions are but tools, in their essence morally neutral; put to a holy purpose, sublime. And so, Judaism teaches, valuing a coin can be a sign not of avarice but of wisdom.

It's unfortunate - no, tragic - that some of us may have remembered the importance of valuing money but forgotten the reason for its value. And certainly, to acquire assets through less than honest methods is the very antithesis of the example set by the Jewish forefather associated with "truth." The righteous, continues the Talmudic comment cited above, "do not extend their hands toward theft." Truly Judaism-minded Jews, those aware of Jewish ideals and their implications, see money not as an end justified by dubious means but as a means toward a holy end.

I like to imagine that some truly needy person eventually picked up my quarter and used it to buy a fruit.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

An odd Rosh Hashana custom, duly recorded in the Talmud and halachic codes, is the lavishing of puns on holiday foods.

Most Jews know that on the first night of the new Jewish year, it is customary to eat a piece of apple dipped in honey, to symbolize our hope for a sweet year. Less known is the Rosh Hashana night custom of eating foods whose names augur well for the future. Though the Talmud's examples are, of course, in Hebrew or Aramaic, at least one halachic commentary directs us to find pun-foods in whatever language we may speak.

"Help us pare away our sins" before consuming a pear might thus be an appropriate example. Or an entreaty that G-d be our advocate, before eating a piece of avocado. "Lettuce have a wonderful year" might be pushing it a bit, but maybe not. One respected rabbi once smilingly suggested partaking of a raisin and stalk of celery after expressing the hope for a "raise in salary."

Such exercises might seem a bit out of place on the Jewish holy "day of judgment." But that is only because we regard the custom simplistically, as some quaint superstition. In truth, though, it is precisely Rosh Hashana's austere gravity that lies at the custom's source.

There are other telling Jewish customs regarding Rosh Hashana, like the recommendation that the Jewish new year be carefully utilized to the fullest for prayer, Torah-study and good deeds, that not a moment of its time be squandered. Mitzvot and good conduct, of course, are always "in season," but they seem to have particular power on Rosh Hashana. Similarly, Jewish sources caution against expressing anger on Rosh Hashana. The Jewish new year days are to reflect only the highest Jewish ideals.

The 16th century Jewish luminary Rabbi Yehudah Loewy, known as the Maharal, stresses the crucial nature of beginnings. He explains that the trajectory of a projectile - or, we might similarly note, the outcome of a mathematical computation - can be affected to an often astounding degree by a very small change at the start of the process. A diversion of a single degree of arc where the arrow leaves the bow - or an error of a single digit at the first step of a long calculation - can yield a surprisingly large difference in the end. Modern scientific terminology has given the concept both the unwieldy name "sensitive dependence on initial conditions" and the playful one "the butterfly effect," an allusion to the influence the flapping of a butterfly's wings halfway around the world could presumably have on next week's local weather.

Rosh Hashana is thus much more than the start of the Jewish year. It is the day from which the balance of the year unfolds, a time of "initial conditions" exquisitely sensitive to our actions.

Perhaps the Rosh Hashana puns, too, reflect that sensitivity. After all, word-play is not suggested for any other day of the year.

Maybe by imbuing even things as seemingly inconsequential as our choice of foods with meaning on Rosh Hashana, we symbolically affirm the idea that beginnings have unusual potential. That there are times when the import of each of our actions is magnified. By seizing even the most wispy opportunities to try to bestow blessing on the Jewish new year aborning, we declare our determination to start the year as right as we possibly can.

While we are not explicitly informed by the Talmud about whether the puns actually have any direct effect on our year, they unarguably impress upon us the extraordinary degree to which our actions at the start of a Jewish year affect how we will live its balance.

And that is an invaluable lesson, one that should lead us to begin the new Jewish year working to make ourselves better Jews in our relations both to one another and to our Creator.

May all we Jews merit a Rosh Hashana with only sweetness and joy, devoid of sadness and anger. And may we seize every chance to make the start of 5768 as perfect as we can - ushering in a year in which the Jewish People's collective life and all of our individual lives take a distinct and substantial turnip for the better.

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


Rabbi Avi Shafran

In mid-August, after complaints from local residents, a priest in Tilberg, the Netherlands, was fined several thousand dollars for ringing his church bells just after 7:00 in the morning.

Likewise in mid-August, synagogues around the world - many of them at just about that same time of morning - were sounding an alarm of their own. No complaints were reported about the shofar, or ram's horn, blasts sounded at the end of morning services. The shofar-soundings began on the first day of the Jewish month of Elul and are continuing every morning until the day before Rosh Hashana.

Maimonides famously described the blowing of the shofar on that holiday as a wake-up call - bearing the unspoken but urgent message "Awaken, sleepers, from your slumber." The slumber, he went on to explain, is our floundering in the "meaningless distractions of the temporal world" we occupy. The shofar throughout Elul calls on us to refocus on what alone is real in life: serving our Creator. And should we choose to hit the spiritual snooze-button, the alarm is sounded the next day, and the one after that.

It is so much easier to sleep, of course, through the alarm clock, both the literal one in the morning and the figurative one that rudely echoes in our hearts as we busy ourselves with the "important" diversions that so often fill our days.

What is more, just as, lost in our morning muddle, we may wish ill on our alarm clocks, we tend at times to resent our life-responsibilities.

How differently we would feel if only we realized the import of obligation - how accountability actually holds the seeds of joy.

The weekly Torah portion usually read near the start of Elul has G-d describing idolatry, the most severe of sins, as bowing down before "the sun, moon or other heavenly bodies that I have not commanded" [Deuteronomy 17:3].

That last phrase was clarified by the Jewish translators of the Torah into Greek, as "that I have not commanded you to serve" - removing any ambiguity from the text; the standard Torah commentary Rashi follows suit.

The Hassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, however, revealed another layer of the phrase's meaning.

He noted that there is an exception to the prohibition of genuflecting before something physical: bowing down to a human being. We find, for instance, that the prophet Obadiah bowed before his master Elijah, who, while human, nevertheless embodied a degree of G-dliness. Explained Rabbi Levi Yitzchak: A human being, by virtue of his having chosen and forged a path of holiness in life, is worthy of veneration of a sort that is forbidden to show to any other creation.

What allows human beings to attain so lofty a status, "The Berditchiver" continues, is that we are commanded - creatures intended not just to exist, but to shoulder responsibility. That allows us to become partners in a way with the Divine. And so it is precisely our obligations that exalt us, that place us on a plane above everything else in the universe.

That thought, explained the Hassidic master, lies beneath the surface of the verse cited above. We are forbidden to bow to the sun and moon because "I have not commanded" them - because they are not themselves commanded. They are not charged to choose, instructed in any way to act against their natures.

We humans, however, with our many duties that may cause us to chafe or grumble, are elevated beings, infused with holiness. And our responsibilities are what make our lives potential wells of holiness, what make our existences deeply meaningful.

That idea might grant us some understanding of an oddity: Rosh Hashana is described both as a Day of Judgment and as a joyous holiday. Even as we tremble as we stand "like sheep" before the Judge of all, we are enjoined to partake in festive holiday meals and, as on other festivals, to derive happiness from them.

Perhaps the seeming paradox is solved by the recognition that the reason we can, indeed must, be judged derives directly from our accountability. Even - perhaps especially - when the alarm clock interrupts our reveries, our responsibilities should fill us with the deepest gratitude and joy.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Like most religions, Scientism has its articles of faith.

Science, the study of nature, has a premise - the scientific method - but no required beliefs about the unseen.

Scientism, by contrast - the conviction that there is and can be nothing beyond the reach of our physical senses and instruments - possesses a dogma as sacrosanct as any religion's.

Among its unchallengeable doctrines is an abiding faith in the absence of a Creator, in the all-pervading rule of chance in the universe. Unfolding from that axiom is the conviction that life materialized naturally from inanimate matter; and that the diversity of life on earth emerged from the trinity of a common single-celled ancestor, random mutation and natural selection.

Which leads in turn to another of Scientism's creeds: that life must exist beyond our planet.

For if chance is the loom on which the universe's fabric lies stretched, there is no reason that only a single, unremarkable planet in a single, unremarkable solar system in a single, unremarkable galaxy - a solitary orb in a universe of billions of stars and their satellites - would alone have spawned life and, eventually, intelligent life.

During the same eons that allowed natural processes on Earth to progress from inert elements to iPods and their owners, countless other worlds should have done no worse. Indeed, should have done considerably better.

And yet, like the elusive laboratory experiment actually demonstrating the evolution of one species into another, the search for intelligent life beyond our planet has, thus far, come up empty.

Not, though, for lack of trying.

Back in 1960, the first SETI, or "Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence," effort was made, utilizing a radio telescope to examine star systems. In the 1970s and 1980s other SETI efforts were launched; among them, the "Megachannel Extra-Terrestrial Assay" (META) and META II, which searched the southern sky.

Plaques depicting the location of Earth in the galaxy and solar system and what humans look like were launched aboard the Pioneer probes in 1972 and 1973; and the Voyager probes in 1977 provided similar information on two golden records, which also included recordings of pictures and sounds of Earth. In 1974, the Arecibo message, which included simply coded information about chemistry and terrestrial life, was beamed into space.

In the 1990s, the "Billion-channel ExtraTerrestrial Assay" (BETA) was created, as well as a project sponsored by The Planetary Society that harnesses the computing power of five million volunteers' computers to crunch numbers that might reveal patterns indicative of intelligent life beyond our planet. Over 19 billion hours of processing time have so far been consumed by the project.

So far, though, nothing. Nary a peep nor a pattern.

The dearth of any sign of intelligent life beyond our own planet doesn't prove anything, of course. It's a big universe.

But from the Jewish perspective, the absence of any reply to our shout-outs isn't surprising. The Torah refers to many peoples but all are presumably earthly. Man, in Judaism's view, was created by G-d here on earth. No mention is made, at least in exoteric texts, of any parallel production.

Not that there is anything in the Torah to conclusively preclude the existence of life on other worlds. Rudimentary life, after all, exists in earthly places unmentioned in the Torah - from undersea volcanic vents to Amazonian jungle canopies. The discovery of life on other worlds would be an unexpected development but hardly cause any believing Jew a crisis of conscience.

Even intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos, while it would be more surprising still, would no more challenge a Torah-centered worldview than the discovery of some previously unknown aboriginal population in an unexplored corner of earth. G-d created much that was discovered by man only with time.

For those, however, who desperately want to believe in humanity's mediocrity, the apparent biological silence of the universe should be troubling.

Perhaps, they explain reassuringly, life's development is contingent on a very specific chemical matrix. But that, of course, just begs the question, returning us to the uniqueness of earth, and of man.

Confessors of the creed of Scientism are anxiously awaiting the conclusion of a recent $420 million space mission. On August 4, the Phoenix Mars Lander lifted off from Cape Canaveral to search, when it lands ten months hence, for evidence of life on the Red Planet. Although two rovers have been sending data from Mars for years, the Phoenix Lander is to drill in the Martian equivalent of Earth's arctic, believed to be a relatively bio-friendly environment, and will chemically analyze its soil and ice, in the hope of finding signs of life, past or present.

Should the tests in fact yield evidence of even the most rudimentary life, it will help keep hope alive in the hearts of Scientism's high priests that other advanced civilizations might yet one day announce themselves. If, however, Phoenix comes up empty in its biology-quest, it will serve to further furrow the brows of those true believers. Or it should.

Either way, believers in a Creator will be untroubled. Whether there is biological life, simple or advanced, out there may be unknown to us. What we do know, though, is that we're not alone.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

A recent attack on Israel's Chief Rabbinate invoked the late and revered American Orthodox decisor of Jewish law, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.

The attacker was Professor Benjamin Ish-Shalom, the director of Israel's Institute for Jewish Studies, an agency charged with offering a course of Jewish study to non-Jewish immigrants interested in conversion. What provoked him was the set of standards employed by the Rabbinate for conversions.

In a flattering Jerusalem Post interview - the reporter took pains not only to cite the professor's scholarship, soft-spoken nature and religious piety but to describe for readers the "centuries-old Talmuds and well-worn works on Jewish philosophy and history" that line his office - Professor Ish-Shalom blasted what he calls the "humiliating" conversion process in Israel, dismissed religious court judges as insufficiently humble and declared that the Rabbinate is rendering Jewish religious law "irrelevant to the modern Jewish people and to the modern state of Israel."

Professor Ish-Shalom further described a judge who invalidated a years-old conversion as embodying (in the Post's paraphrase) "blindness and even halachic ignorance"; accused Israel's religious court judges of fostering desecration of G-d's name; and dismissed Israel's Chief Rabbis of just being "loyal to their haredi masters."

The purportedly soft-spoken professor's harsh words emerged from his concern over the estimated 300,000 non-Jews who arrived in Israel during the 1990s amid the massive immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union.

Professor Ish-Shalom considers it imperative to convince as many of those non-Jews as possible to undergo a conversion process. He hopes to attract 100,000 of the younger immigrants.

The trenchant question, of course, is whether persuading non-Jews who have no intention of becoming Jewishly observant - like many, if not most, of those targeted by the professor's conversion plan - to undergo a conversion process in fact results in new Jews. Conversion, after all, is no simple matter of self-identification but a distinct religio-legal process; it is governed, no less than any area of religious law, by requirements, some of them essential and incontrovertible.

One is "kabbalat hamitzvot," or "acceptance of the commandments," the central element in a Jewish conversion. To the question of whether a seeming lack of such commandment-acceptance might render a conversion void, Professor Ish-Shalom responds by citing Rabbi Feinstein.

In a responsum, the venerated decisor deals with the case of a woman who converted through an Orthodox court but then married a non-observant Jew and fell into non-observance. Asked if the woman's conversion should be considered invalid, Rabbi Feinstein responded no.

The point of Rabbi Feinstein's reasoning upon which Professor Ish-Shalom seizes is that a convert need not know all that is entailed in accepting the mitzvot; he or she need only accept the Torah's commandments in a general sense. So even if the woman in question had not realized precisely what Jewish observance entails, her undefined acceptance sufficed to render her, at least post facto, a Jew.

What the professor chooses to not dwell upon, however, is the clear implication that where in fact there was no genuine kabbalat hamitzvot (and that would include the rejection, at the time of conversion, of any individual mitzvah) there is no conversion, even post facto. Thus, were a non-Jew to be convinced to undergo a conversion ceremony but is fully aware (as are most people living in Israel) that driving on Shabbat or eating shellfish is forbidden by Jewish religious law and has no intention of observing those strictures, his or her mouthing of a mitigated "kabbalat hamitzvot" does not result in a conversion.

Were such "conversions" to be performed en masse, it would result in a large group of people who might be considered Jewish by Professor Ish-Shalom, his interviewer and others, but who would be regarded as non-Jews by most other observant Jews. What is more (and perhaps worse), suspicion would be cast on the Jewishness of all converts in Israel.

As it happens, there is indeed a responsum of Rabbi Feinstein's that speaks directly to the professor's plans. It is in the first section of his collected responsa, Igrot Moshe. In number 157 he writes: "… it is obvious and clear that [a non-Jew who did not accept the mitzvot] is not a convert at all, even after the fact [of his conversion ceremony]… because kabbalat hamitzvot for a convert is essential ["me'akev"]. And even if he pronounces that he is accepting the mitzvot, if it is clear to us ["anan sa'hadi"] that he is not in truth accepting them, it is nothing."

And Rabbi Feinstein, poignantly, concludes:

"I altogether do not understand the reasoning of rabbis who err in this. Even according to [their mistaken notion], what gain are they bringing to the Jewish People by accepting such 'converts'? It is certainly not pleasing to G-d or to the Jewish people that such 'converts' should become mixed into [the Congregation of] Israel. As to the halacha, it is clear that they are not converts at all."

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

One can't help but feel sad for Noah Feldman. In spite of his considerable professional accomplishments - a law professorship at Harvard, three books, a slew of well-received essays and a fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations, to name a few - the young Jew is clearly stewing. A bubble of his own imagining has burst in his face.

What he imagined was that, in its embrace of both Judaism and elements of contemporary culture, the "Modern Orthodoxy" of his youth granted Jews license to abandon as much of Jewish religious observance as they deem appropriate. Expressing his anger - coolly, to be sure, but the hurt seeps thickly through the poised prose - in a recent New York Times Magazine piece, "Orthodox Paradox," Professor Feldman describes how the Boston Jewish school he attended as a child and teenager went so far as to crop a class reunion photograph to omit him and his non-Jewish Korean-American fiancée , whom he later married.

But the Photo-Shopped portrait is only the professor's anecdotal hook. What he really resents is that his erstwhile school, along with some of his mentors and friends, spurn him for his decision to marry outside his faith.

No one, he admits, is rude to him. None of his former teachers or friends, he writes, would refuse to shake his hand. But he knows that they deride him for the life-path he has chosen. And that offends and perplexes him.

Does not "Modern Orthodoxy," after all, embrace the "reconcil[iation of] Jewish faith with scholarship and engagement in the public sphere"? Should it not, therefore, regard his intermarriage as an expression, if somewhat extreme, of his effort at such reconciliation? Were he and his classmates not taught to see themselves as "reasonable, modern people, not fanatics or cult members"?

Leaving aside whether un-"Modern" Orthodox Jews are in fact disengaged from the public sphere (a visit to any of a number of financial firms, law offices and hi-tech retail businesses in New York or other places with large "ultra-Orthodox" populations might yield evidence to the contrary), much less whether they are fanatical or cultist, Professor Feldman's umbrage is misplaced. There is a reason why, to Orthodox Jews (and many non-Orthodox no less), no matter how embracing they may be of the larger world, intermarriage represents a deep betrayal. It is more than a violation of Jewish religious law. It is an abandonment of the Jewish past and an undermining of the Jewish future.

Because marriage, arguably the most important choice in a Jewish life, is not a partnership but rather a fusing - "and they shall be as one flesh," in Genesis' words. Since a spouse is part of oneself, the personal consequences of intermarriage are profound. As, in Professor Feldman's case, are the communal ones; his children are not Jewish.

Judaism views the Jewish People as a special and hallowed entity. Members of the nation are to care for all - "we are to support the poor of the nations along with the Jewish poor," as the Talmud directs. And the righteous among the other nations, the Talmud goes on to teach, will receive their eternal reward. But the Jewish faith is clear about the ultimate redemption of the world: It is dependent on the Jewish People's remaining a nation apart in fundamental ways. One way is in our basic beliefs - for instance, that G-d gave our ancestors His law, and never subsequently changed it. Another is in our commitment to the integrity of the Jewish people qua people. Our commitment, in other words, to marry other Jews.

A celebrated Orthodox television personality and pundit reacted to Professor Feldman's article in a Jerusalem Post opinion piece with words of welcome. While he considers intermarriage "a direct threat to the very continuity of the Jewish people," he nevertheless considers Professor Feldman "a prince of the Jewish nation"; and suggests that intermarrieds be treated no differently from the in-married, that they be offered our "love and respect."

His suggestion stems from his Jewish heart but his Jewish head should have been more carefully consulted.

Yes, there is ample reason to feel sympathy for Jews who intermarry. Transgressions performed from desire, Jewish tradition teaches, do not reach the level of those intended to be transgressive. And on a personal level, there are reasons to not cut off connections to intermarried friends or relatives. (It is not unheard of for non-Jews married to Jews to actually guide their spouses back to Judaism and to themselves convert; precisely such a couple is the subject of "Migrant Soul," a biography I was privileged to write.)

At the same time, though, there is simply no way - not in the real world - to warmly welcome intermarrieds without welcoming intermarriage. No way to make Professor Feldmans feel accepted for who they are without making potential Professor Feldmans view intermarriage as innocuous. No way to "devalue" the gravity of intermarriage without dulling the truth that every Jew is an invaluable link in the Jewish chain of generations.

If one begins with the premise that intermarriage is dangerous to the Jewish people and the Jewish mission, the intermarried cannot enjoy our acceptance. There may be quibbles about the means by which we express our rejection of their choice. But the absence of any communal expression of reproach is nothing less than an invitation to intermarriage.

To my lights, it doesn't seem extreme in the least for a Jewish school to make clear to an intermarried alumnus that, despite his secular accomplishments, it feels no pride in him for his choice to intermarry. I wouldn't expect an American Cancer Society gathering to smile politely at a chain smoking attendee either.

It is painful, no doubt, to be spurned by one's community. It is painful, too, for a community to feel compelled to express its censure. Sometimes, though, in personal and communal life no less than in weightlifting, only pain can offer - in the larger, longer picture - hope of gain.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Married mere days, David found himself seated at the head of a table with his new wife, in-laws and a host of strangers, including some rabbis with long beards.

He wasn't nervous around rabbis; his personal journey from California teen-age martial-arts aficionado to 20-something Orthodox yeshiva student had been fueled by things he had learned over the years from just such rabbis, and by the inspiration he gleaned from the lives he saw them living.

But this Sheva Brachot - the term for the festive meals traditionally served during the week after a Jewish marriage - was different from the ones that had preceded or would follow it. He was in a city he had never visited before, his parents weren't able to be present and the only people he knew at the table were his new wife and in-laws.

The bride, seated to his right, had been looking for a young man with just David's combination of brights, calm, sincerity and religious commitment. Although Chana came from an observant Orthodox family and knew that it was not common for someone with her background to marry someone who had not grown up observant, she knew when she first met David that she had (if David agreed) found her husband. She in fact saw much of the sincerity and commitment that had so impressed her as directly related to the fact that David had had to make choices in his life that she had been spared.

She knew, too, that her parents - somewhat atypically for their circle - would not hesitate to consider an otherwise qualified "baal teshuva" - or "returnee" to Jewish tradition - as a potential marriage-partner for one of their children. David's dedication, reputation and character were what had mattered. To be sure, research into his Jewish genealogy, as in any such proposed match, would have to be done. Sadly, the proliferation of intermarriage and substandard conversions over recent decades have served to call into question the Jewish status of non-Orthodox families, at least from the perspective of halacha, or Jewish religious law. Once upon a time, observant Jews could take for granted that a family, by simple virtue of its affiliation with a Jewish congregation, was halachically Jewish. But those days, tragically, are gone.

David's ancestry, thankfully, was ascertained to contain no mixed marriages or conversions. His European forebears had in fact been religious Jews; and his parents, although they were not raised Orthodox, had grown deeply proud of David's and his siblings' adoption of Jewish observance.

David's new in-laws were enamored of both him and his parents, and overjoyed at their daughter's marriage. They hoped, moreover, that their example might perhaps, in a small way, inspire other traditional Orthodox Jews to entertain the possibility of such matches from outside their own community.

The importance of "family" - i.e. the "pedigree" of a current and well-established Orthodox background - is an understandable concern for many, to be sure; and there are other halacha-related issues that also come into play in such cases. To some, such concerns may even be paramount, and that stance is their prerogative.

At the same time, though, it cannot be denied that there is something real and valuable that is gained, too, when an observant Orthodox Jew from an Orthodox family marries an equally observant Orthodox Jew from a different background - gained by the latter, by the former and by the Jewish people as a whole.

David's father-in-law was thinking precisely those thoughts at the Sheva Brachot, as a rabbi sitting to his left, one of the respected heads of the local post-graduate yeshiva, turned to the newlywed and asked him about his Jewish educational background. David responded with the name of a well-known Jerusalem yeshiva that caters to the newly observant.

The rabbi's eyes lit up and he smiled. "I studied there, too!"

It took a minute for the response to register. "You?" David asked.

The rabbi happily confirmed the fact and related what a wonderful teacher he had been privileged to have there decades earlier. Wide-eyed, David replied that he had been taught by the same rabbi. And so the conversation continued.

Overhearing it all, David's father-in-law felt a deep sense of gratitude to Heaven for the unplanned encounter. That an alumnus of the very yeshiva David had attended had become a Torah-scholar to whom scores of students looked up and learned Torah from was a poignant thing for the young man to see.

And then David's father-in-law's smile broadened, as he remembered that the rabbi speaking with David was married to the daughter of a major American yeshiva dean. Chana's parents could take pride in that illustrious precedent. They had hardly been the first "ultra-Orthodox" Jews to welcome a baal teshuva and his family into their own.

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

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