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Archives Of Previous Articles XXIII


KIBBUTZ CONVERSATION

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Tisha B'Av - which falls this year on July 24 - always brings back the personal memory of a conversation between two teen-aged cousins more than thirty years ago. It took place on the outskirts of a non-religious kibbutz in the Galilee, on a hill overlooking a lush valley.

The two boys, one born and bred on the kibbutz, the other an American newcomer to the Holy Land visiting before the start of his Jerusalem yeshiva's academic term, had first met only days earlier.

They had been speaking about family, personal experiences, and sundry things their very different lives nevertheless had in common. And then, the observant boy mentioned, entirely in passing, the imminence of the Jewish fast day.

"We don't observe Tisha B'Av on the kibbutz," his cousin interjected. "The Temple's destruction isn't really relevant to our lives here."

The American boy hesitated a long moment before asking, "Do you observe any Jewish day of mourning?"

"Yes," came the reply. "Yom HaShoah."

Another pause, this one even longer. The yeshiva student knew that Tisha B'Av is the national day of Jewish mourning - that it encompasses many a tragedy - in a sense, every tragedy - in Jewish history. Not only was the first Jewish Holy Temple destroyed on that day (2429 years ago), and the second one, (1939 years ago), on the very same day, but the rebel Jewish forces at Betar were annihilated by the Romans, several decades later, on Tisha B'Av as well.

He knew, too, that the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 C.E., and from France in 1306 C.E. and from Spain in 1492 C.E. all took place on Tisha B'Av as well. He also knew that on Tisha B'Av 1914 Germany declared war on Russia, turning a regional European conflict into what came to be known as World War I, arguably the genesis of what would culminate, two and a half decades later, in Germany's "Final Solution." But somehow it didn't seem the right time for history lessons.

So, instead, he asked his cousin, "Is your commemoration of the Holocaust important to you?"

"Absolutely," came the reply. "The Holocaust underlies our very identity as Israelis and as Jews."

The American weighed the wisdom of saying what he wanted to, and then decided the blood-bond was strong enough to handle it.

"Will you expect your children to pay its memory the same respect that you do?"

"Of course."

"To feel the same sorrow, to have the same determination to remember that you feel?"

"Of course," the Israeli replied. "My generation will see to it that our children recognize the importance of the Holocaust, how it defines their identity, how important it must continue to be to all Jews."

"And will you expect them, in turn, to transmit the same conviction to their own children - and theirs to theirs?"

"Absolutely. Forever. It is that important."

The American swallowed hard, then spoke.

"Just like the earlier attempts to destroy our people and its faith were to our own ancestors - those we commemorate and mourn on Tisha B'Av."

Nothing else was said for the moment. The two young men walked back to the kibbutz in silence.

It could well be argued that a large part of what characterizes Jewish "Orthodoxy" is a heightened sense of history. Not only of its vicissitudes and tragedies for our people, but, most importantly, of the seminal Jewish moment, the singular event that bequeathed us our mandate to cherish, study and observe the Torah - the revelation of G-d to His people at Sinai.

That mass-experienced and painstakingly transmitted event, the meeting of G-d and man in the Sinai desert, lies at the very foundation of the Jewish people and the Jewish faith. It is the ultimate Jewish historical memory.

All Jews who aspire to the appellation "observant" are, in essence, the keepers of Jewish history, recent and ancient, and are entrusted with the mission of sharing the memory of the Jewish past - both its nadirs and its apogee - with all their fellow Jews.

Should the Messiah continue to tarry, G-d forbid, a day may well come when all testimony of the events of the 1930s and early 1940s will be indirect, arriving only through books and films, or third-hand accounts.

The facts, though, of what happened during those years, the horrible details of Jewish Europe's destruction, will endure, because there will always be Jews determined to hold fast to our history - its entirety. Jews determined to maintain the memory of what happened sixty-odd years ago.

And 1939 years ago.

And 2429 years ago.

And 3319 years ago, in the Sinai desert.

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

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CONVERSION CONFUSION

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Israel's Orthodox Rabbinate has been under siege of late, over the issue - once again - of conversion. And once again as well, the media abound with misinformation. This time, though, some of it is being supplied by Orthodox rabbis.

Writing in the Jerusalem Post, the retiring rabbi of an historic New York Orthodox synagogue assailed Israel's Rabbinate for "raising obstacles to prevent non-Jews from entering the Jewish fold." He accuses the religious authorities of having "adopted a haredi position that conversion is available only to those agreeing to observe Torah and mitzvot in full," asserting that the Talmud, Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch (the authoritative codification of halacha, or Jewish religious law) say otherwise.

In the same periodical, a second Orthodox rabbinic commentator, the director of an educational institute in Israel, vented similar displeasure with Israel's Rabbinate. The fact that Israel has become home to hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Russian immigrants, he argues, "demands that the Rabbinate reach out to them in order to facilitate their beginning the process of conversion." That such has not happened, the rabbi went on, is proof that the Jewish State's rabbinic authorities "are more concerned with safeguarding halakhic authority than with welcoming Jews to embark on a spiritual process."

Or perhaps more concerned with halachic integrity than with pleasing a populace.

The image of masses of sincere neophytes yearning to join the Jewish people but being rebuffed by small-minded religious functionaries plays well in the press. As does the notion that commitment to Jewish religious observance is not a requirement for conversion. Both, though, are at odds with reality.

There are certainly non-Jews in Israel who sincerely wish to convert to Judaism, not merely to cement their status as citizens of Israel but to wholeheartedly join the Jewish People and its mission.

But there are many more non-Jews in Israel, among them many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who may wish to be considered Jews but who have no interest in undertaking Jewish observance.

And sincere acceptance of the responsibility to strive to observe all of the Torah's laws - or "kabbalat hamitzvot" - is the very sine qua non of Jewish conversion. A convert need not be conversant with all of the laws but must nevertheless embrace them in principle, as the Jewish People did at Sinai before receiving the Torah.

When a non-Jew seeks to convert solely for the purpose of marrying a Jew, pleasing a spouse or just feeling more Israeli, Jewish law is clear that the request should not be entertained. If a legitimate Jewish court is convinced that the non-Jewish partner in an intermarriage is in fact willing to shoulder kabbalat hamitzvot, respected Orthodox authorities have not considered the marriage factor to be a bar to conversion.

But should a non-Jew without any such willingness somehow manage to be accepted by a rabbinical court and go through the motions of conversion - a formal declaration of kabbalat hamitzvot, immersion in a mikva (ritual pool) and, in the case of a male, actual or symbolic circumcision - halacha is equally clear: the conversion is entirely invalid.

One of the rabbis quoted above has tried to insinuate otherwise, citing codified halachic sources to the effect that once a conversion is performed, no amount of backsliding can change the convert's status as a Jew.

That is indeed true. But only, the sources are clear, when the conversion was valid in the first place - i.e. there was an acceptance at the time, sincere and unmitigated, of the Torah's commandments. Should it become clear - and certainly in a case where it was always clear - that the professed embrace of the Torah's commandments was a sham, so was the conversion. The "convert" never was one.

Proponents of the "relaxation" of conversion standards in Israel often cite poignant, agonizing cases of non-Jews who were not accepted for conversion or whose conversions were not recognized by rabbinical authorities. There can be no denying that human pain can result from the application of Jewish law, no less than it can from the laws of physics, or from life itself.

But ignoring Jewish law is not an Orthodox option. And doing so can take its own human toll. Were Israel to "relax" its conversion standards, children of the beneficiaries of that change who might one day become observant would discover that they need to convert to be Jewish by the yardstick of their own beliefs. Young women engaged to cohanim would discover that they, as converts, cannot halachically marry their fiancés. What is more, the Jewishness of every convert and convert's child would become questionable to all halacha-respecting Jews. Only a universally accepted halachic standard can ensure that observant Jews embrace converts as we should, and prevent the Jewish People from becoming, G-d forbid, a multitude of "Jewish peoples."

One of the rabbis mentioned above chided Israel's Rabbinate by reminding it that human beings are not "chess pieces." He is right. What is more, the Jewish People is not a club, and halacha is not a game.

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

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PRIDE AND PUISSANCE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In the end, despite pleas to spare Judaism's holiest city the shame of a spectacle celebrating the rejection of Judaism's moral code, the "Gay Pride" parade took place as planned in Jerusalem.

Had hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Jews from Jerusalem and across the country flowed into the Holy City's streets, the event - which drew a mere 2000 participants - would have been quickly overwhelmed. The 7000 policemen assigned to keep order would not have had an easy time.

The Orthodox numbers, readiness and sense of outrage were certainly there. Tel Aviv has regularly played sponsor to such spectacles mocking the Torah, but Jerusalem is the focal point of Jewish prayers, and its population is heavily Orthodox to boot. Indeed, the Holy City was purposefully targeted by the parade organizers in order to assert their belief that no place on earth should be free from the promotion of licentiousness. (Well, almost no place; last year, one of the event's organizers was asked by a reporter why the parade would not enter Christian or Muslim areas of the city and explained "We don't want to offend them.")

So, in the face of such an unmistakable provocation, all it would have taken to summon a massive Orthodox protest would have been a mere call from a handful of Orthodox religious leaders.

But the call never came. On the contrary, the leading rabbinic figures in Israel asked their followers to ignore the parade. An announcement on the front page of the haredi daily providing the views of the non-Hassidic "Lithuanian" haredi rabbinic leadership, instructed that yeshiva students not take to the streets but should rather demonstrate in private, through prayer; it instructed every yeshiva dean, too, to ensure that his students did not protest publicly.

The head of the largest Hassidic group in Israel, the Gerer Rebbe, also made his will known, that the parade should be ignored by his followers. The implicit message from the religious leadership was that, as King Solomon famously taught, there is a time for everything; and their judgment was that the current time was one for profound sadness and prayer, not public confrontation.

A relative handful of individuals did try to disrupt the parade. But the vast majority of Jerusalem's haredim, although deeply anguished by what they considered a brazen invasion of immorality-pushers, heeded the calls to turn inward rather than out.

And so, in the end, the paraders - although fewer than the 10,000 that organizers expected - marched down a central Jerusalem street, heralding their message that "anything goes" in the realm of intimate human relations, celebrating the "diversity" of behaviors that Judaism condemns in no uncertain terms. The message was one of "freedom" - license to act without moral compunction.

Each Sabbath between Passover and Rosh Hashana, it is customary for Jews to study a chapter of the "Ethics of the Fathers" - a tractate of the Mishneh known as Avot. On the Sabbath preceding the march in Jerusalem, the week's chapter included the aphorism: "Who is a strong person [Hebrew: gibbor]? One who conquers his inclination."

It is an idea as simple as it is profound. While much of the world may measure strength and courage (both concepts inhere in the word gibbor) in the currency of musculature or risk-taking, the Jewish definition goes far deeper. The truly strong, truly courageous individual is the one able to face his or her desires and, in the interest of a higher purpose, deny them.

The dichotomy of the two definitions of strength was almost perfectly evident mere days later. Two groups showed their true colors, one by embracing and flaunting almost every imaginable "inclination," the other by squelching their own inclinations, in the service of a higher imperative.

It was a contrast nicely captured by an Israel Broadcasting Authority television news broadcast. For several minutes, a split screen on Channel One presented two images. One showed an exhibitionistic rejection of inhibitions; the other, a tearful prayer gathering held in another part of Jerusalem, where 3000 religious Jews recited Psalms and special prayers in the hope that G-d might spare His city further debasement.

And so, in the end, there was "pride" and there were prayers.

And there was frailty (in the guise of "freedom") and there was strength.

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

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NAME ABUSE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Much in our world desecrates the name of G-d - in Hebrew, that is called "chilul Hashem." Whether murder and mayhem in the name of religion or misbehavior on the part of religious individuals, actions that push holiness away from a world that so direly needs it are considered by Judaism to constitute a singular sin.

Recently, though, a quite literal desecration of G-d's name unexpectedly came to my attention. A cataloger at a law school library, Mrs. Elisheva Schwartz, called with a disturbing discovery. She had come across an online vendor seeking to make a few dollars off the marketing of clothing and kitsch bearing the holiest Hebrew name of G-d.

The Tetragrammaton, to use its Greek appellation, is a four-character word (tetra means four; grammat, letter) that Judaism considers so holy it is forbidden today to pronounce or ever to treat in anything but a deeply honorable manner. According to Jewish law, a piece of parchment, paper, cloth or pottery bearing the Name must be carefully preserved or solemnly buried. Religious Jews refer to the word simply as "the specified Name" and when it occurs in the Torah reading or prayer service, it is not read as written; a less holy Hebrew word meaning simply "my Lord" is substituted instead.

The vendor in question, for reasons unknown, had decided to print the holy Hebrew letters on an assortment of tee shirts, mugs, buttons and other articles, including underwear and dog sweaters.

We live in a free society, of course, and nothing prevents anyone from exercising his or her right to personal expression, even if it may be offensive to others. But nothing prevents anyone, either, from voicing pain born of such offense. And so I contacted Café Press - a sort of online flea-market that the vendor was using to sell his or her wares - to register Agudath Israel's chagrin at the commercialization and degradation of G-d's name. Please consider making a decision, I wrote, that is "respectful of Jews and Judaism."

Within hours, what seemed a stock reply arrived. Café Press, it informed, provides its services to "a rich and vibrant community of individuals across the globe who differ in their views about what is considered offensive."

Well, I'm sure it does and they do. All the same, though, I'm also pretty sure that the site isn't being used to peddle dog sweaters bearing, say, the Arabic word for Allah.

So I inquired about whether Café Press had any code of standards regarding offensiveness. Again, a reply arrived quickly, directing me to where I could find the company's standards. To its credit, the code is a responsible and comprehensive document. And one category of prohibited content was: "Material that is generally offensive or in bad taste, as determined by CafePress.com."

And so I wrote again, reiterating that "from the perspective of all religious (and many less-than-religious) Jews, the placement of G-d's holy Hebrew name on a piece of apparel, not to mention apparel like underwear or pet sweaters, is profoundly offensive."

"Which leaves us," I concluded, "with the 'as determined by CafePress.com' clause.

"And so I ask: What is your determination?"

That was many days and two more inquiries ago. Thus far, no reply. Perhaps the administrators of the site are in the process of informing the vendor that his or her merchandise doesn't meet their company's standards. Or perhaps they are not.

Either way, though, should any readers of these words happen to share Mrs. Schwartz's and my feeling of offense at the commercial debasing of something deeply holy to Judaism, please consider making an e-mail inquiry of your own to Café Press. The address for such communications is cup@cafepress.com . Needless to say, inquiries should be polite and reasoned. And if - as I hope - the company's response is that the merchandise at issue has been removed from the site, then a sincere expression of gratitude to the company is in order.

In that case, not only Café Press' decision but our expressions of thanks will constitute a kiddush Hashem, a "sanctification of G-d's name."

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

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DEAR GRADUATES

Rabbi Avi Shafran

[I was recently privileged to address the commencement ceremony of Bais Yaakov of Baltimore, an Orthodox girls school founded in 1942. Below is an edited version of my remarks to the more than 100 high school graduates, their families and friends.]

Back in the day - the day when I was in grade school, that is - we were taught the "3 R's" - Reading, Writing and 'Rithmetic (that's math to you, and yes, we didn't spell so good back then). Of course, you've all learned those things and more. And as students of a school like Bais Yaakov, you have also learned the really important things for meaningful life.

Among them, I think, are another "3 R's." At this special moment in your lives, please permit me to briefly review them.

The first one is Recognizing - specifically, recognizing the good, the precise translation of the Hebrew phrase hakarat hatov. Its simple sense - gratitude - is something you graduates surely feel this evening - toward your parents, your teachers and your classmates, for all that they have given you. But the term's deeper meaning is to recognize - with a capital "R" - the good that is always present in our lives, all the things with which we are constantly blessed. Because everything we have is a Divine gift. We're called Jews after Judah - so named by our foremother Leah because of her gratitude - hoda'ah - that G-d had given her "more than her share" of sons. We Jews are always to see what we have - whatever it may be - as "more than our share."

The larger world has a rather different ethic. An advertisement recently asked me "Don't you deserve a new Lexus?" Well, no, I don't particularly. I'm not at all sure I even deserve my used Saturn with the manual roll-up windows either. In fact, every morning when I open its door, I thank G-d for granting it to me. There is a contemporary social disease one might call eskumptmir-itis - from the Yiddish phrase "It's coming to me." We have to try mightily not to contract it.

As it happens, there is a vaccine for the disease of entitlement: the blessings we say throughout every day. Each is an expression of hakarat hatov, a recognition of a gift, and of its Source. We do well to say them carefully, and think of what we are saying.

The second "R" is Relating - trying to feel what others are feeling, empathizing. Here, too, a very different atmosphere envelops the world around us. Maybe it's different in Baltimore, but in New York the roads teach much about empathy - about how things are when there isn't any. Obviously each of us cares most about himself - that's why "Love your neighbor like yourself" takes "yourself" as the given - but the law of the jungle is not our law. We are charged to try to see the world through the eyes of the other.

You've heard, no doubt, about the new father-to-be who paced the waiting room for hours while his wife was in labor, about how the process went very slowly and he became more and more agitated, until, an eternity later, the nurse finally came in to tell him his wife had delivered a little girl.

"Thank heaven!" he burst out. "A girl! She'll never have to go through what I just did!"

You will meet people like that, I assure you - although, with G-d's help, not your future husbands - and they exemplify the self-centeredness we have to strive mightily to shun.

The third "R" is perhaps the most important, since it touches on a Torah commandment and concept of singular status: Kiddush Hashem, or "Sanctifying G-d's Name." That imperative, of course, requires a Jew to die rather than commit certain sins, or any sin in certain circumstances. But we're charged not only with dying, if necessary, in sanctification of G-d's name but also with living in a state of such sanctification. This "R" is thus "Reflecting" - for, as observant Jews, our actions reflect not only on ourselves, our parents and teachers and schools, but on our Torah - in fact, on our Creator.

Today, perhaps, more than ever. Waiting at a bus stop once, I was approached by a young mother whose little boy was cowering behind her. She approached me and asked politely if I might assure the child that I was not Osama bin Laden. Turban, black hat, whatever, we do both have beards. I managed to convince the young man who I wasn't, but was struck by the realization that Mr. Bin Laden not only has the blood of countless innocents on his soul but the sin of desecrating G-d's name. We must counter with the opposite.

What an incredible obligation - and what an incredible opportunity.

Maimonides, in his laws about sanctification of G-d's name, adds that great Torah-scholars have a particular mandate to act in an exemplary way - for they are perceived as the most powerful reflections of the Torah. I don't think it's a stretch to understand those words to apply today to all who are perceived to be reflections of Torah. In a world like ours, all identifiably Jewish Jews are "great Torah scholars" regarding this law - and we must all endeavor to act the part.

The opportunities are ubiquitous. Receiving change from a cashier, a smile - not to mention a "thank you" - leaves an impression. On the road, where politeness is at a premium, driving politely leaves an impression. The way we speak, the way we interact with others, all leave an impression. We must leave the right one.

So, dear graduates, remember always, above all else, just who you are: reflections of G-d on earth.

Reflect well.

And may your reflections be clear and brilliant, and help merit a fourth "R" - the ultimate Redemption.

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

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AMERICAN IDOLS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

I already have a title: "Ferry Tales." Now all I need is the time to write the book in my head about the interesting things I've witnessed over the years on my daily commute aboard the Staten Island Ferry.

Not long ago on the boat, for instance, I was trying to concentrate on a page of Talmud. The din of nearby conversations doesn't disturb me; the voices commingle and provide a sort of white noise actually conducive to withdrawing into a difficult text. But when someone enamored of the right to free speech and animated by a cause undertakes to pace the aisles and loudly share his convictions, well, it's a little harder to focus.

Usually he is of a religious bent, orating about heaven and elsewhere. (One memorable fellow brandishing a New Testament was fond of referring to one of the ferry's termini as "Satan Island"). Not, though, this guy.

"The war in Iraq is about OIL!" he announced. Over and over. Louder and louder.

"Get our troops out NOW!" and "Bush is EVIL" came the next refrains, similarly repeated and amplified.

Of late, I realized, fewer of the maritime evangelists had been thumping bibles, and more of them proclaiming political and environmental beliefs, like opposition to the war, the President or Global Warming.

What struck me, though, was the similarity in tone of voice and body language. Whether the prophet was speaking in the name of the Lord or of George Soros, only the words were different. The eyes, the gait, the tone of voice, the air of certitude, were all indistinguishable.

Which observation led me to wonder if perhaps social or political causes have come, for some, to replace religion. Or, to muse further: Have they become religions themselves?

I was apparently not the first to think the thought. MIT Meteorology Professor Richard Lindzen has labeled environmentalism a religion (not intending a compliment), as its devotees are convinced "that they are in possession of a higher truth" and are intolerant of "heretics, or 'climate change deniers,' to use green parlance." Author Michael Crichton has asserted much the same, even paralleling environmentalist credos with Biblical accounts of the Garden of Eden, the fall of man and an eventual Day of Judgment. "Environmentalism," he told the Commonwealth Club in 2003, "seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists."

I don't know if anyone has made the case for a religion-parallel among those passionately opposed to the war in Iraq or those who label President Bush the scourge of humanity. But the fervor of some of the sentiment out there - like that of the politics-preacher on the ferry - would seem to lend the contention support.

None of which, of course, is in any way to implicate reasonable environmental concerns or political positions. By political "faiths" I mean the all-consuming elevation of a concern or position to the status of Ultimate Truth. It's the difference between enjoying an occasional glass of wine and alcoholism.

The morphing of social or political beliefs into quasi-religions was noted in the mid-1930s by a renowned, sainted Orthodox Jewish scholar (who, although he was in America shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, refused to abandon his students and returned to his yeshiva in Poland, where he and they perished at Nazi hands). Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman warned that "isms" - he mentioned, among others, socialism, communism and various forms of nationalism - are modern-day "idolatries." Although the primal urge to pay homage to wood and stone no longer exists in our world, a residue of idol-worship persists - in the form of such "isms." Were he alive today, Rabbi Wasserman might well add "liberalism," "conservatism," "feminism," "environmentalism" or "pacifism" to the roster.

Some say that contemporary "isms," unlike earlier ones, are innocuous. But one is given pause by things like a paper recently published by a British environmental group, Optimum Population Trust, which promotes the prevention of babies, positing that "the most effective personal climate-change strategy is limiting the number of children one has." Or by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which claims to have sunk ten whaling ships and whose leader has called human beings the "AIDS of the Earth." He explained further that "curing a body of cancer requires radical and invasive therapy, and, therefore, curing the biosphere of the human virus will also require a radical and invasive approach." One can't help but wonder just what he has in mind.

The 18th century Jewish scholar and mystic Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato famously explained that human beings seek pleasure, even beyond our biological needs, because we are created for pleasure - not the ephemeral and elusive sort so many mistakenly pursue, but the ultimate, eternal one attainable only through closeness to the Divine.

Perhaps, similarly, what impels people to embrace idolatry, whether of the ancient sort or the modern, is the recognition, deep in their souls, that there is in fact something worthy of devotion.

What is ironic is that, in the eyes of Judaism, the first step out of any environmental or geopolitical morass is recognizing just what that Something really is.

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

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OF SLOPES AND HOPES

Rabbi Avi Shafran

"Oh, come on!" the e-mail read, "What's a few dead children on the altar of my liberal slippery-slope paranoia?"

Gruesome as the imagery was, I had to smile. The message was intended as a humorous "touché!" from an academic who had originally contacted me in anger. He was not only honest enough to concede his error but perceptive enough to identify its origin.

What had motivated him to write in the first place was a letter published in The New York Times in which, on behalf of Agudath Israel of America, I welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court's upholding of the federal "partial-birth abortion ban" law.

"How in the world could you write such a letter…?" the professor fumed. "You know perfectly well that the so-called 'partial-birth abortions' are almost always only performed when there is a serious, potentially mortal danger to the birth-mother, and that Jewish law is clear and unambiguous in such cases: the life of the mother takes precedence over that of an unborn child…"

The professor is correct about Jewish religious law's placement of the life of a Jewish mother before that of her unborn child. The Jewish legal metaphor for the fetus is a "rodef," or "pursuer" - someone in the act of threatening a life, thereby forfeiting all rights to legal protection. But the professor, like many others who reacted with outrage to the High Court's ruling, had several facts about the particular case in question very wrong.

If a mother's health is endangered during labor, even a late-term fetus can be legally dispatched in utero; it need never be partially extracted alive and then killed. What is more, the partial-birth abortion law contains an explicit exception in a case (if any in fact exists) where a physician feels it necessary to kill a partially emerged baby to save its mother's life.

But beyond all that, my correspondent had simply not comprehended the most salient aspect of the procedure at issue: the baby has been born.

At least that is how Jewish religious law - which was what the professor invoked - views a baby whose "entire… head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother," in the federal law's words.

That being the case, the law, at least from a Jewish perspective, does not address abortion at all. It addresses homicide. Case closed.

Which fact yielded the professor's admirable, if crudely expressed, admission of error, and his further admission of its roots.

He had taken his cues, he realized, from a gaggle of groups, including several with "Jewish" in their names but judiciaries on their minds. Their members' nightmares are dominated by the frightening possibility that our nation might one day reconsider its current blanket enshrinement of a "right" to abort. They insist on viewing the world through a tunnel called "Roe," and are not beyond misrepresenting Judaism in the service of their myopia.

Hadassah Magazine, for one example, in its Summer 2003 issue, quotes unnamed "authorities" to maintain that Jewish law "implicitly assumes that a woman has the right to make her own reproductive choices." The supplement's "Jewish Law" section goes on to claim that "restricting access to reproductive services… undermines basic tenets of Judaism." None of which is true.

To be sure, as my correspondent noted, a right to abortion in certain cases is sacrosanct to observant Jews. Talmudic sources are clear that the life of a pregnancy-endangered Jewish mother takes precedence over that of her unborn child. But that is so only when there is no way to preserve both lives. Although the matter is hardly free of controversy, there are some respected rabbinic opinions that also permit abortion when a pregnancy seriously jeopardizes the mother's health. But those narrow exceptions in no way translate into some unlimited mother's "right" to make whatever "choice" she may see fit about the life of the child she carries.

Put simply: The abortion issue is not only about rights but about right - as in "right and wrong." While Judaism has little to say about rights - it speaks rather about duties and obligations - it has much to say about rightness. And preventing potential life from developing when there is no truly compelling reason to do so, according to the Torah, is wrong.

The laws of civilized societies reflect and shape those societies' values. And the devaluing of potential human life wrought by Roe has helped devalue all human life in America for over three decades. No, a straight line cannot be drawn between Columbine or Virginia Tech and the ready availability of abortion in the United States. But a society that shows respect for life at its earliest stages cannot but empower respect for life at every stage. The possibility that individual states might one day be permitted to place some limits on the current "no fault" abortion law of the land is not a threat; for some of us it represents a hope, the possible beginning of a more strongly life-affirming era in our land. An era in which we are all a little less concerned with slippery slopes, and a little more about ennobling ideals.

"Choice" is the motto of those who want the fates of fetuses consigned to the decisions of their mothers. Moving from the book of social liberalism to the book of Deuteronomy, though, we find the Torah's take on choice somewhat different.

"I have placed before you," the Creator informs us through Moses, "life and death, the blessing and the curse."

"Choose life," the verse continues, "so that you and your seed will live."

< P align="center">[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. This essay appeared in The Forward and is republished with its permission]

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RECLAIMING ALEINU

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Whether to precarious geopolitical situations or challenges posed by personal adversity, the authentic Jewish response is to seek spiritual merits.

Such virtues might come in the form of more heartfelt prayers, more determined Torah-study, more frequent acts of kindness, greater empathy for one another. Or in the form of smaller, more specific, undertakings, like special care in the performance of particular mitzvot.

Because Jewish tradition teaches that the path to a goal entails utilizing all available means, the seemingly less significant no less than the more obvious.

In that spirit, I would like to offer a small idea for Jews seeking a spiritual merit: reclaiming "Aleinu."

Until one of my daughters shared her personal exasperation over the fact, I had thought that I was perhaps the only person who had found it nearly impossible to complete the "Aleinu" ("It is incumbent…") prayer in shul in the time allotted. Granted, one can always complete Aleinu after the Kaddish that generally follows it, but what most often happens instead is that, at least for most people, the prayer is mercilessly mangled or truncated.

Aleinu is no minor prayer. It was composed, according to early sources, by Joshua; its opening sentences, moreover, were the death-declaration of countless Jews throughout history, the words with which they defiantly refused to succumb to the tortures and threats of those bent on uprooting devotion to our ancestral faith. It is part of our Amidah for Mussaf on Rosh Hashana.

And the appended "Al Kein" ("Therefore…") paragraph is, according to our tradition, the expression of repentance composed by Achan (the first letter of each of its first three words spell his name), in the wake of his sin of misappropriating valuables from the spoils of the conquered city of Jericho, for which he expressed sincere regret.

Might it not be part of a truly Jewish response to adversity for us to better connect to such words?

And the words themselves are so powerfully pertinent to our times, when many feel "the footsteps of the Messiah" can be heard in the distance.

Once again, and perhaps more than ever, the small fraction of one percent of the world's population known as the Jewish People is, astoundingly, the focus of myriad forces of unbridled evil.

No Jew with any sense of history could possibly ignore the confluence of contemporary world events: The venomous hatred fueling Islamist movements, the acts of anti-Semitism that poke through the loam of humanity around the globe like toxic mushrooms, the decrepitude masquerading as the Palestinian Authority's "unity government," the smiling little would-be mass murderer in Iran. The footsteps grow louder. Is it not a time for Jewish merits, large and small?

The haters like to say that there is a Jewish Plot. They are essentially right. But it's more of a plan than a plot, since there's only one - or, better, One - Planner. And His plan is unfolding before our eyes.

We Jews have a role here: to be better Jews in every way we can, and to realize that, in the end, there is, as the Talmud tells us, "no one on whom to rely other than our Father in Heaven."

And when we do our part, our tradition teaches, we will merit the ultimate redemption, the era of global recognition of G-d and His truth that our Prophets have foretold. It is, at it happens, described in the words of "Al Kein":

"And therefore we put our hope in You, G-d, that we may soon see Your mighty splendor…to perfect the universe through the Almighty's sovereignty.

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

< P align="center">[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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CHOSEN

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In the April issue of Commentary, a scholar dared to raise one of the few remaining issues still considered impolite these days for public discussion: Jewish intelligence.

In an essay entitled “Jewish Genius,” political scientist and writer Charles Murray – who is not Jewish – outlines the historical and statistical data suggesting Jewish intellectual acumen and accomplishment, as well as a variety of theories seeking to explain them.

While most of us Jews will readily admit that we personally know many members of the tribe who are not very smart at all, Dr. Murray insists that “the average Jew is at the 75th percentile” of the IQ scale and that “the proportion of Jews with IQs of 140 or higher is somewhere around six times the proportion of everyone else.” Some, moreover, have noticed that a number of world-changing ideas, both religious ones like monotheism and scientific ones like relativity, have their roots in a certain ethnicity.

After exploring a number of theories addressing the anomaly, Dr. Murray is less than satisfied. Recent historical circumstances might have genetically favored Jews of higher intellect, he allows; but he suspects that Jewish intellectual ability is ancient, that the Jews may “have had some degree of unusual verbal skills going back to the time of Moses.” And so, he writes, he remains “naked before the evolutionary psychologists’ ultimate challenge: Why should one particular tribe at the time of Moses, living in the same environment as other nomadic and agricultural peoples of the Middle East, have already evolved elevated intelligence when the others did not?”

Then, tongue – at least partially – in cheek, he concludes:

“At this point, I take sanctuary in my remaining hypothesis, uniquely parsimonious and happily irrefutable. The Jews are G-d’s [hypen mine – AS] chosen people.”

Well, the thought is certainly timely. We will soon be celebrating Shavuot, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the cementing of the Jewish people’s chosen status: the covenant forged at Sinai.

I don’t know, or much care, whether or not intelligence plays any role in the Jewish election. But if it does, it is peripheral to the essence of our chosenness.

Because what Jews are chosen for is to serve the Creator – with our intellects, yes, but also with our hearts and with our bodies.

To be sure, the Torah itself refers to the Jewish people as “a wise nation” – but also as a stubborn one, and sometimes even worse. The bottom line: It’s not our Intelligence Quotients that count but our Righteousness Quotients. What counts is the service, not the smarts. The Sages of the Talmud did not generally stress inherent abilities – mental or otherwise – but rather focused on how we utilize whatever blessings we have. Their greatest honorifics customarily ran not to words like “genius” or brilliant” but to ones like “righteous” and “G-d fearing.”

Even though the Jews’ election was merited through the dedication of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and through another choice – that of their descendants, at Sinai, to accept the laws and teachings of the Torah; and even though the exclusive Jewish club is open to any sincere convert willing to undertake to observe the Torah, the idea of Jewish chosenness has perturbed some non-Jews since, well, since Sinai.

Of late, though, anti-Semites tend to feed at other troughs of hate-fodder, like Israel’s existence (and its imagined evildoing). These days, ironically, the idea of the Jewish people as divinely chosen is more likely to disturb… Jews.

That is because the truism that every human being has limitless value and potential has morphed into the notion that all people are interchangeable, if not identical. To suggest that different individuals or groups may have different functions or responsibilities has become uncouth, if not sexist or racist. Judaism, however, unapologetically assigns roles – to men and to women; to scholars and to laypeople; to descendants of the Biblical Aaron and to the rest of the Jewish people. And to the Jewish people qua people, too.

There’s no escaping it. A blessing all Jews are enjoined to pronounce each morning states the fact clearly: “Blessed are You… Who chose us from among all the nations and gave us His Torah…”

I sometimes wonder if part of the reason Shavuot isn’t as widely celebrated by contemporary Jews as Sukkot or Passover might be the squirming induced in some Jewish circles by the idea of Jewish specialness. If so, I’d respectfully suggest that the squirmers just get over it already.

After all, there are many ethnicities and religions that lay claim to specialness – from the Japanese to the Mormons to the Black Muslims. And while history is littered with the deaths and destruction sown by self-proclaimed Ubermenschen, Jewish specialness is not a license but a gift; and its sole import is a responsibility to live lives of holiness and thereby inspire others – to be the proverbial light unto the nations.

This year Shavuot falls on May 23 and 24. While some have the custom to spend the entire first night of the holiday (and others, both nights) studying Torah, there is no Shavuot cognate-commandment to Passover’s seder or Sukkot’s huts. Shavuot is a time, it would seem, for turning inward and focusing on the giving of the Torah and how it defines who we are as Jews. A time to realize that our essence lies not in our talents and not in our intelligence, but in our mission.

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

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'LET MY SCIENTISTS GO!'

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Back on April 13, in the spirit, perhaps, of the Passover then just past, The New York Times editorialized about the need to "free" something from the "chains imposed" upon it. The sentence's subject was "American science" and the Pharaoh-figure, President Bush.

"One man," huffed the Old Gray Lady, "and a minority of his party, the religious and social conservatives, are once again trying to impose their moral code on the rest of the nation and stand in the way of scientific progress."

The editorial umbrage was the product of Mr. Bush's declared intention to veto a bill currently wending its way through Congress that would ease restrictions on providing federal funds for embryonic stem cell research.

Stem cells, of course, are biological entities with the remarkable ability to develop into many different types of specialized cells. They can theoretically divide and redivide without limit, and thus offer the hope that they might be harnessed to replenish damaged or diseased organs, tissues or blood.

Some stem cells can be harvested from umbilical cords, bone marrow and even from adult human tissue; but many medical researchers feel that stem cells taken from embryos present the greatest opportunities for potential therapy.

President Bush's view is that, regardless, embryos containing all the ingredients for growing into babies are deserving of protection. Or, at least, that the United States government should not fund experimentation that will destroy such entities.

One bioethics analyst, Carrie Gordon Earl, asserts that the inevitable result of the enactment of legislation like that currently being mulled by Congress will be to reduce funding available for non-embryonic, or "adult," stem cell research - research that, at present, is far more advanced than that being done on embryonic cells.

As it happens, just two days before The Times' demand that Mr. Bush "Let My scientists go," researchers announced a striking and promising stem cell therapy that might allow Type-1 diabetics to live healthy lives without taking insulin. Oddly, though, the announcement did not seem to generate any of the expansive celebration one might expect at news of a possible cure for a disease affecting millions of people and presenting tens of thousands of new cases each year.

Why the lack of hoopla? Maybe it was due to the fact that the therapy that had shown such promise involved not embryonic stem cells, but rather adult cells harvested from the patients themselves and then re-introduced into their bodies.

The Times of London' news story on the announcement disclosed that fact only in its sixteenth paragraph - well after informing readers that embryonic stem cell research "is currently opposed by powerful critics, including President Bush."

Reasonable people can certainly disagree about the propriety of destroying embryos for potentially life-saving medical research, and likewise about whether federal funds should be used for the same. Indeed, while the issue is complex and still under review in respected rabbinic circles, some Jewish scholars and groups, even within the Orthodox community, have concluded that Judaism - which assigns value to potential life and, despite some Jewish groups' claims otherwise, does not consider abortion a "woman's right" - would nonetheless encourage embryonic stem cell research under certain conditions, and have expressed support for federal funding for such research.

One doesn't have to agree, though, with the President's position on embryonic stem cell research to appreciate his caution in the brave new bioethics-world.

The mark of true human civilization is the very concern for the "moral code" that The Times finds so quaint. And history teaches us how humankind has in fact taken gargantuan steps backward from the adjective "civilized" when it has not allowed moral concerns to "stand in the way," as The Times puts it, "of scientific progress."

At a time when cloning, the creation of hybrid-species-cells and the manipulation of genes have leapt from the realm of science fiction into that of emerging technologies, Mr. Bush's insistence on giving moral considerations a seat at the scientific public policy table is not only defensible, it is admirable. The President's position on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research may not endear him to millions of citizens who, for better or worse, have absorbed the mainstream media's messages on the issue. Yet he stands firm and refuses to jump onto the embryo-experimentation bandwagon, because of his conviction that terminating life, even its potential - even under the banner of scientific progress - is something that must be approached with great deliberation.

That may make Mr. Bush into Pharaoh in the eyes of some, but the identification is as ironic as it is unfair.

For Pharaoh and his sorcerers - the scientists of his day, one might say - were profoundly unconcerned with either the value of human life or moral imperatives.

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

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AMEN TO AHAVAT YISRAEL

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In a Jerusalem Post opinion piece, Dr. Jonathan Schorsch calls me a "clever fellow" whose "handwringing" over the hatred I've encountered aimed at Orthodox Jews is "somewhat posed, if not disingenuous."

Dr. Schorsch can be easily disabused of his first assertion by perusing my high school scholastic records, or by consulting my wife and children, who can regale him of all manner of dumb things I've said and done (but who love me, I hope, all the same).

As to the second charge, I assure him that I am sincerely pained by my observations.

Dr. Schorsch quickly moves to his real point, the contention that Orthodox Jews are themselves the cause of the hatred aimed at them, because they lack sufficient ahavat Yisrael, or love for fellow Jews. He cites personal experiences of Orthodox Jews insulting him and the Orthodox refusal to accept the Jewish legitimacy of non-Orthodox theologies.

The latter has nothing to do with ahavat Yisrael. Loving other Jews doesn't mean embracing everything they may embrace. The very essence of Orthodox conviction is the rejection of changes to the Jewish religious mandate, like those changes embraced, to one or another degree, by non-Orthodox movements. So there is no crime in, and hence no apology for, Orthodox belief. That, though, should not (and in the vast majority of Orthodox Jews does not) in any way affect how we Orthodox view non-Orthodox Jews. My love for an uncle who was a socialist was in no way compromised by my rejection of his world-view.

Dr. Schorsch, as a committed non-Orthodox Jew, does not likely consider the unabashedly atheistic "Humanistic Judaism" philosophy as a legitimate form of Judaism. And if not, it must trouble him that rabbis of that movement seek to redefine Judaism in atheistic terms. Does he, though, hate Jews who, out of unfamiliarity with the Jewish heritage, pay dues to that group? I would certainly hope not.

How, Dr. Schorsch asks, can anyone possibly not take it personally when his or her theological beliefs are rejected? Simple. All that is needed is good will, and respect for the deep-seated convictions of others.

But some of what Dr. Schorsch recounts is deeply disturbing. If, indeed, Orthodox Jews seized on the fact that his father is a chancellor emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary to berate Dr. Schorsch, that was uncouth, indeed downright rude. And if, indeed, one of his woman friends was assaulted by haredim for carrying a sefer Torah, all I can say is that haredi leaders have explicitly condemned and forbidden any such reactions to even intentionally provocative public displays of that sort.

Ahavat Yisrael, though, is very much an Orthodox ideal. It is a mandate my wife and I have instilled (thank G-d, successfully, I think) in our children, and one that I stressed, over nearly two decades in Jewish education, to the hundreds of students I was so fortunate to teach (and learn from).

Dr. Schorsch may think it lacking from the larger Orthodox world, but he is wrong.

For example, take Chai Lifeline, which cares for young Jewish cancer patients and their families, regardless of what prefix the beneficiaries may place before "Jew" in their self-description. Or the famed "Satmar Ladies," who minister to the needs of all Jewish patients in New York area hospitals. And those are but two of the better known of many such chesed organizations under Orthodox auspices.

Then there is the world of Jewish outreach. The very existence of dozens of groups helping Jews interact with their religious heritage should say it all. The concern of the "givers" in these programs transcends any and all denominational lines. A participant who remains a staunch member of a Reform or Conservative congregation is studied with, invited and cared about as much as any belonging to an Orthodox shul or to none at all. It would be exceedingly odd for Jews to be so determined to share what they treasure with other Jews they don't care for.

And then there are the many "community kollelim" that exist to engage in Torah study not only in the traditional kollel mode of internal study partnerships but which pointedly set aside considerable time for members and their wives to interact and study with men and women from the larger local community - again, without regard to denominational affiliations.

Then there are things like the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, which has brought unprecedented focus to the importance of "between Jew and Jew" ideals, and the remarkable "Inspired" films, whose entire existence is born of a desire to encourage Orthodox Jews to care about their non-Orthodox brothers and sisters. That the films have drawn large Orthodox audiences in many cities clearly indicates a concern in the Orthodox community for Jews who are not part of it. As do the themes of ahavat Yisrael that are mainstays of lectures by popular Orthodox speakers like Rabbi Paysach Krohn and Rabbi Yissocher Frand, whose audiences sometimes number in the thousands.

Nor should anyone forget Partners in Torah, the celebrated project of Torah Umesorah that matches up Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish men and women to study Torah by phone. My wife's partner in Torah lives in Arizona, is intermarried and belongs to a Conservative temple. My Chassidic colleague's lives in Poughkeepsie and is of a similar background. At my daughter's recent wedding, her new mother-in-law, who is from Los Angeles and not Orthodox, got to see her own Partner in Torah, from Lakewood, New Jersey, a young woman who made a long trip just to be at the wedding and dance with the Jewish woman she has been studying with for years. It was a festive sight to behold. Scores of Orthodox Jews are studying with equal numbers of non-Orthodox Jews through this wonderful project.

Orthodox organizations, both in America and Israel, offer Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews alike the benefits of an array of projects, services and educational opportunities. On the local level, practically every Jewish community has an Orthodox chesed group, whose goal it is to assist Jews in need - any Jews in need; likewise a chevra kadisha, or burial society, which prepares the Jewish deceased - regardless of his or her affiliation during life - for Jewish burial.

Even a quick look at any of countless articles in the Orthodox media calling on readers to reach out to and care about all their fellow Jews - or a quick listen to Orthodox-produced audiotapes and CDs for children - readily evidences the prominence given to the promotion of good will toward fellow Jews.

So to Dr. Schorsch I say: I hope you will come to realize how embarrassed and pained most Orthodox Jews are by reports like yours of alleged boorish behavior by some Orthodox Jews. And that you will realize that ahavat Yisrael is in fact a deep conviction in the larger Orthodox world.

I hope, too, that you will consider an open invitation to, at your convenience, grace my family's Sabbath table with the presence of you and yours. I assure you that the experience will be filled only with smiles (and wholly sincere ones), song, friendly conversation, words of Torah and ahavat Yisrael.

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

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WHEN 'ABORTION' ISN'T

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The U.S. Supreme Court's upholding of the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act has elicited the usual cries of protest from abortion rights advocates and, also as usual, they include an assortment of Jewish groups and The New York Times.

That latter institution characterized the term "partial-birth abortion" itself as a "provocative label" for the presumably more descriptive "intact dilation and extraction." As it happens, The Times (and the other advocates) are correct about the inaccuracy of the term "partial birth abortion," but not because it exaggerates the repugnance of the procedure in question.

Despite concerted efforts by some to misrepresent the law, its language is stark and clear. It prohibits any overt act, like the puncturing of the brain, "that the person knows will kill" a fetus whose "entire… head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother."

Thus, it is not abortion at all that the law at issue addresses, but rather the killing of a baby whose head or most of whose body has emerged into the world. Readers of The Times' editorial page, and much of the "mainstream" media, might be forgiven for not realizing what the procedure actually entails.

Nor have the media done a very good job explaining what exemptions the law does or does not contain. Since it does not contain an exemption for the mother's "health," there is wide assumption (at least from the evidence of calls and e-mails I have received) that even if the mother's life were somehow threatened by allowing the partially emerged infant to fully emerge, the federal prohibition would stand. In fact, though, the law contains an explicit exception for cases where the procedure is deemed necessary to preserve the mother's life. As to a "health" exemption, the Supreme Court's majority found, among other things, that if there is any threat to maternal health (a possibility about which no medical consensus exists), "safe alternatives to the prohibited procedure… are available."

Even more troubling to me, as a Jew, than the misunderstandings of the facts is that a number of rabbis and Jewish organizational spokespeople have asserted that Jewish religious tradition is somehow offended by the recently upheld law. The president of Hadassah, to take one example, has baldly stated that the law "undermines Jewish values."

She and others who have made similar claims are misinformed, and in turn misinform.

To be sure, the Talmudic sources are clear that the life of a Jewish woman whose pregnancy endangers her takes precedence over that of her unborn when there is no way to preserve both lives. (That is why Agudath Israel, while we oppose Roe v. Wade's effective "abortion on demand," has not and would never favor a wholesale ban on abortion.) And, while the matter is not free from controversy, there are rabbinic opinions that allow abortion when the pregnancy seriously jeopardizes the mother's health. But those narrow exceptions do not translate into some unlimited "mother's right" to "make her own reproductive choices" - the position Hadassah enthusiastically trumpets.

Moreover, in the specific context of "intact dilation and extraction" - to use The Times' preferred nomenclature - Jewish law certainly confers no right to kill a live baby whose head, or most of whose body, has already emerged. Indeed, once birth has already occurred, Jewish law makes clear, the newborn child has no less right to live than does the mother. Stated simply, what the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act prohibits is, in the eyes of Jewish law, little if anything short of murder.

Nothing, of course, prevents a Jew, or Jewish organization or rabbi, from ignoring the teachings of the Jewish religious tradition.

But intellectual integrity, if nothing else, should prevent anyone from misrepresenting the content of a law, or what Jewish tradition has to say about killing an unborn child, or a born one.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The article above was written for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency]

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JEWISH INFLUENCE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It isn't likely that very many people exhaled at long last with relief at the news that three entertainment industry executives had compiled their pet list of "America's 50 most influential rabbis." But there was still something worthwhile, if not terribly comforting, to learn from the venture.

It was, to be sure, an odd bird, rendered stranger still by its prominent reportage in Newsweek magazine, a periodical that once actually reflected its name. The roster, in any event, became fodder for much mirth-making - jubilant press releases from groups boasting connections to one of the Fab 50, and snickers from more disinterested corners.

There were even some knitted eyebrows, since lists of "influential" Jews more commonly reside in the darker recesses of the blogosphere, where they are usually festooned with swastikas, SS bolts and the like.

And there was some puzzlement too. Why, even if for some reason one wished to identify paradigms of Jewish influence, would one limit the focus to clergypeople? What of Jewish teachers, activists, writers?

What I found thought-provoking, though, was what the trendy troika's choices say to us about the contemporary concept of influence.

To be sure, included on the list are some noteworthy people, including the one at its top, Rabbi Marvin Hier. But, at least to my lights, any lasting influence he will have derives from the educational impact on society of the Simon Wiesenthal Center he heads. The list-compilers, however, gave him their first-place nod because of … his association with "almost every world leader, journalist or Hollywood studio head." How silly of me.

Even closer to truly enduring influence are the accomplishments of another name on the roster, that of Rabbi Nosson Scherman (although, at #45, he was listed well after a "Kabbala" snake oil salesman and a radical political guru famous for cloaking extreme left-wing stances in Jewish garb). By conceiving and building the Jewish publishing and translating powerhouse called ArtScroll/Mesorah, Rabbi Scherman has helped render accessible to more Jews than ever before a wealth of Jewish textual sources - including the entire Babylonian Talmud.

But those men and a few others on the list - like Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald of the National Jewish Outreach Program - are the exceptions. The bulk of the coronated received their crowns because of their connections to the rich and famous, or for their promotion of "progressive" positions at irreconcilable odds with Judaism. The point system the Hollywooders employed, moreover, gave particular weight to criteria like "Are the rabbis known nationally/internationally?" And: "Do they have a media presence?"

Well, being famous or photogenic must certainly be nice. But, as any of a large number of contemporary celebrities readily evidence, such attributes are superficial and fleeting - to put it mildly.

Surely the compilers of the list, with their credentials in the entertainment industry, must realize that. And yet still they seem to conflate influence with celebrity.

Judaism's understanding, I submit, is very different.

Influence in the Jewish view, particularly when rabbis are being considered, is measured in the energizing of authentic Jewish learning and ideals. Put simply, the coin of the Jewish realm is not trendiness but Torah. And what it purchases is not Jewish clout but the Jewish future.

Measured by that standard, to those sufficiently foresighted to separate the effective from the ephemeral, the 50 most influential rabbis are likely unknown to most American Jews. And, in fact, they would be scandalized to find their names on any "most" list. They are modest Jews who shun the limelight and whose momentous influence lies in their effect on their students, congregants and followers - to whom they impart timeless and authentic Jewish wisdom. Wisdom that is not just pondered but lived, determinedly and proudly, and passed on to future generations.

Some of those truly influential rabbis head yeshivot or seminaries, of which there are dozens in the United States - many of them having educated and inspired thousands of students. Others are Chassidic rebbes; others, respected congregational leaders. And others still are teachers or lecturers, some of them presenting Torah classes that draw large and enthusiastic crowds. One offering, in Brooklyn, attracts well over a thousand attendees each week - and is broadcast to other locales where at least as many Jewish men and women gather to participate at a distance.

Although the title "rabbi" in the Orthodox world is not used for women, thousands of students mourned like daughters of the deceased when an Orthodox woman teacher, lecturer and life guide passed on two years ago; she was eulogized at her funeral by Orthodox rabbis of remarkable stature. And, through personal memories of her wisdom and advice as well as tapes of her lectures, she continues to teach countless Jewish girls and women today - and surely will for many years to come.

Such, dear reader, is true Jewish influence.

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

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THE 'B' WORD

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Over the course of his distinguished military career, it is unlikely that General Peter Pace ever encountered a barrage as unrelenting as the one lately lobbed by the media and punditsphere after he expressed his personal feelings about the practice of homosexuality. The offensive (in both the word's senses) weapons aimed at him were only words, but they were duly destructive all the same.

What General Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dared to voice was his conviction that homosexual acts - not inclination, not orientation - are immoral. Needless to say, anyone can choose to disagree; the general was opining, not seeking to impose his views on others. But some who disagree with him seem to feel that his point of view simply has no place in civilized discourse. That should trouble us all.

The volleys lobbed at General Pace included widespread characterizations of his remarks as evidence of odious prejudice. The New York Times called the general's beliefs "bigoted" and averred that he was "wrong in every way, and out of step." The New York Daily News headline about the matter read, simply: "General Bigot".

Similarly, several years ago, The American Civil Liberties Union ran an advertisement comparing people who object to homosexual practices on moral grounds as akin to vicious racists of yesteryear. Those espousing a traditional view of acceptable sexual behavior, the ACLU asserted, seek "to hide behind morality." But, the ad continues, "we all know a bigot when we see one."

One of the few categories of humankind universally and rightly reviled is the club of bigots - those who judge others negatively solely because of their ethnicity, color or faith. That the word is being expanded these days to encompass those who disapprove of certain activities is a development both dismaying and dangerous.

As a third Gotham daily, the independent-minded New York Sun, editorialized: "If everyone who holds that homosexual acts are immoral were a bigot, it would mean that most adherents of traditional religions… would be bigots."

A 2001 study indeed showed that a majority of Americans hold that "homosexual behavior is morally wrong" - precisely what General Pace said. If the general is "out of step," as The New York Times contends, the paper is picking its marchers.

Some might imagine that contorting the meaning of the word "bigotry" is innocuous. But a more realistic take is that it is a first step toward restricting free speech - indeed, toward stifling free thought.

We have already witnessed the treatment, in 2002, of a British Columbia public school teacher who was suspended for a month without pay and received a demerit on his professional record for writing letters to a local newspaper that were critical of the practice of homosexuality.

The Canadian Charter of Rights protects citizens' freedom of expression and religion. But that was apparently no bar, in the eyes of the British Columbia Supreme Court, which ruled on the matter last year, to punishing the teacher for his views. We Americans may not take our constitutional cues from our colder-air neighbor to the north, but we do well to remember what a celebrated bard once noted about weathermen and knowing which way the wind is blowin'.

If fact, the chill has already arrived. Even here in the United States, the Boy Scouts, for its barring of avowed homosexuals as leaders, has lost funding from dozens of United Ways and municipal government sources; and the group's policy has been publicly condemned by, among others, the American Federation of Teachers, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and the Reform movement's Joint Commission on Social Action.

The issue is not benign and the game is zero-sum. Either the choice of a particular conduct is like being black, or there is a difference between who people are and what they do. To the degree that the first approach is advanced, proponents of the second one will be vilified, demonized and even penalized.

And if disapproving of homosexual behavior is bigotry, then not only religious folk but nonbelievers, too, who nevertheless accept the validity of the traditional moral code are, ipso facto, villains. And why should the label be any less apt for those who disapprove of other affronts to the traditional moral ideal - like multi-partner or incestuous relationships? Either morality has meaning and trumps what some people wish to do, or it does not.

We Americans cherish our constitutional right to live our lives freely, in accordance with our consciences and beliefs. What we need to stop and ponder is that sometimes erosions of that right can tiptoe in, whistling innocently, dressed in the shiny robes of progress.

Should the word "bigotry" be successfully devolved to include deeply-rooted, time-honored and sincere religious beliefs, it might not be long before morality becomes the conviction that dares not speak its name.

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

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WHEN LIES LURK IN LESSONS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

A major American publisher of educational texts recently showed impressive responsibility and resolve by pledging to destroy its inventory of a book because of its false characterization of Orthodox Jews' beliefs.

The problematic passage - in a volume of Scholastic Library's "Enchantment of the World" (second series, published under Scholastic's "Children's Press" imprint) - asserts that, in Israel, "some ultra-Orthodox Jews want to limit the definition of who actually qualifies [for automatic citizenship as a Jew, under the country's Law of Return]. They believe that Reform and Conservative Jews are not really Jews at all because they are not strict in their observance of all the religious laws."

When the passage was called to the attention of Agudath Israel of America by a school librarian in Brooklyn, we immediately contacted Scholastic to point out the falsity of the contention that Orthodox Jews reject any Jew's Jewishness because of a less strict level, or even complete lack, of observance.

Books like "Enchantment of the World," we noted, are intended as reference material for grade school libraries. They help mold young minds. And so, false and prejudicial assertions, unacceptable anywhere, are particularly objectionable in such works.

To its credit, Scholastic agreed. After researching the issue and recognizing that the controversy in Israel relates exclusively to conversions that do not satisfy traditional Jewish law, or halacha - not the Jewishness of any born or halachically converted Jew - the publisher rewrote the paragraph and pledged not only to rid itself of its current inventory of the books but to reprint a corrected volume in April and replace customer copies.

Where did the defamatory error originate? According to a Scholastic official, the publisher had relied on "a high-ranking member of American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprises" for the original formulation. AICE is, in its own words, "a leading content provider for students and organizations interested in Jewish history, culture and politics."

AICE probably does much good work and likely provides a good deal of accurate information. But that only makes the issue all the more troubling. How could a "high-ranking member" of the group have been so clueless (or, worse, malicious) as to have provided so egregious a misrepresentation of Orthodox Jews?

Equally troubling is the fact that, entirely under-the-radar, many Jews are being taught other fiendish fables about Orthodox Jews.

A number of such reports have come to my attention, but I recall one with a particular wince. It was several years ago, when a letter to the editor appeared in the magazine Reform Judaism. The letter had been written by a Jewish teen-ager in response to an article in an earlier issue of the periodical contending that Orthodox Jews have contempt for Jews who are not like themselves.

"Why," wrote the earnest young woman, "when there is so much anti-Semitism in the world, must fellow Jews hate us as well?"

I was greatly agitated by the letter and simply couldn't concentrate, so I picked up the phone and dialed information for the teen's New Jersey town, which had been identified beneath her name. There would probably be many listings for her surname, I told myself, too many to sift through.

There was only one; I wrote it down.

Taking a deep breath, I dialed the number and asked for Michelle (as I'll call her). She came to the phone and, after identifying myself and apologizing profusely for calling her out of the blue, I spoke my piece:

"G-d forbid! Orthodox Jews don't hate you! Our argument is with 'Reform Judaism', not Reform Jews. We have serious disagreements with the philosophy of the movement with which your family is affiliated. As you get older and learn more, you can evaluate those concerns for yourself. But you and your family are our precious Jewish brothers and sisters!"

A pause, and then she responded.

"You sound like a nice person," she said, "but I can't accept what you're saying."

I was stunned. "Why not?"

"Because I've been taught otherwise, for years."

"But it isn't true!"

"Maybe," responded Michelle, "but we've spent many classes in my Temple school discussing Orthodox attitudes and I can't just suddenly take your word against all that I've been taught."

Dumbfounded and deeply hurt, I realized that there was nothing to gain by pestering the clearly sincere but resolute young woman. I begged her to take down my number in case she ever wanted to talk further. She hasn't called yet.

Compelling a major publishing concern to correct a public mistake is relatively easy. How, though, to counter falsehoods quietly conveyed in classrooms?

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

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BLOOD OF LIFE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

That a recent book's reported claim of Jewish ritual murder in the Middle Ages stirred considerably more commotion in the Jewish media than in the Muslim world may be a hopeful sign. Or it might just testify to the depth and breadth of the longstanding belief in Arab and Asian countries that, why, yes, of course Jews murder non-Jews to use their blood in Passover matzos and wine (although the extension of that belief to Purim's hamantaschen is of more recent vintage).

The Western media's unanimous condemnation and ridicule of the blood libel assertion in the Italian book "Bloody Passover" is certainly heartening. As many reports noted, the book's author, Professor Ariel Toaff, based his speculation on confessions extracted from victims of torture. Surely, many whose bodies were pierced, stretched or torn by the horrific devices employed by European authorities in the 1400s - or who were even merely confronted with the prospect of such technology - would have just as readily admitted to being demons or Martians too.

There is, of course, no basis of any sort to the contention that the Jewish faith includes, or ever included, the consumption, on Passover or anytime, of human or animal blood. Consuming either is in fact forbidden by Jewish religious law.

The concept of blood, though, is indeed central to Passover, which begins this year with the first Seder on the night of April 2.

The blood is that of the Paschal, or Pesach, sacrifice, which in the times of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was slaughtered on the afternoon before the onset of the holiday. The meat of the lamb or goat comprised the final course of the Seder (the original "afikoman"), and some of its blood was placed on the Temple altar.

We don't have a clear comprehension of the Jewish laws of animal sacrifices; somehow, the ritual results in our own greater closeness to G-d ("korban," the Hebrew word for sacrifice, means "that which makes close"). But the spiritual mechanics, as is the case with so many of the Torah's commandments, are ultimately beyond mortal minds.

The Pesach sacrifice, though, seems to hearken back to the first Pesach, when the blood of the sheep or goat our ancestors were commanded to slaughter in Egypt, in preparation for their exodus from that land, was placed on "the doorposts and lintel" of each Jewish home.

In rabbinic literature, houses are symbols of the feminine, and so the blood on the doors of the Jewish homes in ancient Egypt might perhaps represent the blood of birth. From those homes in ancient Egypt, in other words, a new collective entity came forth into the world. A Jewish nation was born.

As the Shem MiShmuel, a classic Chassidic text, explains, before the exodus the Jews were all related to one another (as descendants of Jacob) but they were not a people. Any individual was still able to reject his or her connection to the others and the rejection had an effect. Indeed, our tradition teaches that many in fact did not merit to leave Egypt at all, dying instead during the plague of darkness. Their behavior precluded them from being part of the new, holiness-charged nation.

Once the nation-entity was forged, though, on our ancestors' very last night in Egypt, things changed radically. With blood on their doorways and satchels filled with (blood-free) matzoh, they readily followed Moses into the frightening desert on G-d's orders, knowing not what awaited them. As the prophet Jeremiah described it, in G-d's words: "I remember for you the kindness of your youth… your following Me in the desert, a land where nothing is planted." And thus the Jews began the process of becoming a living nation, an entity whose members, and descendants throughout history, are part of an organic whole, no matter what any of them may choose to do.

As the Talmud put it: "A Jew who sins is still a Jew," in every way. There is no longer any option of "opting out."

And so, blood in Judaism is a symbol not of suffering, not of torture, not even of death, but rather of: birth, life, meaning.

Which is likely why the prophet Ezekiel - in words the Seder-text presents as a reference to the Pesach sacrifice - has G-d telling His people that on "the day you were born… I passed by you wallowing in your blood, and I said to you, 'in your blood, live.' And I said to you, 'in your blood, live'."

How ironic that blood came to be the subject of the wild, hate-filled fantasies of our enemies. To the point, even, where halachic sources suggest using white, not red, wine for the Seder in places where there is fear of blood libels.

Anti-Semites, unfortunately, don't lack for fantasies. Whether it is casting American Jews as warmongers or Israel as a fascist state - even those who know that blood isn't an ingredient in the Jewish diet are adept at adopting new delusions.

For our part, we Jews do well to stay focused on the Pesach-blood, the symbol of our birth as a people. And from there, to turn our sights to discerning and embracing the mandate of our peoplehood, the Torah - the ultimate reason for our "blood of life."

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

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THE MAN ON THE BIMA

Rabbi Avi Shafran

He ascended the steps to the bimah, the platform where the Torah is read, with the strangely hurried movements of someone who would rather be traveling the other way.

This middle-aged fellow, apparently something of a stranger to a shul, had just been "called up" from his seat in the back of the small shul to make the blessing on the Torah.

They get so nervous, I thought to my cynical, teen-age self that day several decades ago; they should really come more than just a few times a year, if only to get the feel of things. The blessings, after all, are not very long, the Hebrew not particularly tongue-twisting.

"Asher Bochar Banu Mikol Ho'amim (who has chosen us from among all nations)" - I prompted him in my mind - "V'nosan lonu es Toraso (and has given us His Torah)."

C'mon, man, you can do it.

His life was passing before his very eyes; you could tell. The occasion, for the man on the bima, was both momentous and terrifying.

Then he did something totally unexpected, something that made me smirk at first, but then made me think, - and made me realize something profound about our precious people.

He made a mistake.

Not entirely unexpected. Many a shul-goer, especially the occasional one, leaves out words here and there, reverses the order, or draws a traumatic blank when faced with sudden holiness of the Torah. That would have been unremarkable. But this congregant was different.

His mistake was fascinating. "Asher bochar bonu" he intoned, a bit unsure of himself, "mikol," slight hesitation, "…haleylos shebechol haleylos anu ochlim."

The poor fellow had jumped the track of the Torah blessing and was barreling along with the Four Questions a Jewish child asks at the Passover seder! "Who has chosen us from…all other nights, for on all other nights we eat…"!!

For the first second or two it was humorous. But then it struck me.

The hastily corrected and embarrassed man had just laid bare the scope of his Jewishness. He had revealed all the associations Judaism still held for him - all that was left of a long, illustrious rabbinic line, for all I knew.

My first thoughts were sad… I imagined a shtetl in Eastern Europe, an old observant Jew living in physical poverty but spiritual wealth. I saw him studying through the night, working all day to support his wife and children, one of whom later managed to survive Hitler's Final Solution to make it to America and gratefully sire a single heir, the man on the bimah.

We have so much to set right, I mused, so many souls to reach, just to get to where we were a mere 70 years ago.

But then it dawned on me. Here stood a man sadly inexperienced in things Jewish, virtually oblivious to rich experiences of his ancestral faith.

And yet, he knows the Four Questions.

By heart.

When he tries to recite the blessing over the Torah, the distance between him and his heritage cannot keep those Four Questions from tiptoeing in, unsummoned but determined. The seder is a part of his essence.

I recall a conversation I once had with a secular Jewish gentleman married to a non-Jewish woman and not affiliated with any Jewish institution. His en passant mention of Passover prompted me to ask him if he had any plans for the holiday.

He looked at me as if I were mad.

"Why, we're we planning an elaborate seder, as always."

Astonished at the sudden revelation of a vestige of religious custom in his life, I told him as much. He replied, matter of factly, he would never think of abolishing his Passover seder. I didn't challenge him.

When living in Northern California, I became acquainted with other Jewish families seemingly devoid of religious practice. I always made a point of asking whether a seder of any sort was celebrated on Passover. Almost invariably, the answer was... yes, of course.

It is striking. There are more types of haggadahs than other volume in the immense literary repertoire of the Jewish people. The Sixties saw a "civil-rights haggadah" and a "Soviet Jewry haggadah." Nuclear disarmament, vegetarian and feminist versions followed. At the core of each was the age-old recounting of the ancient story of the Jews leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah. It is as if Jews, wherever the circumstances may leave them, feel a strange compulsion to preserve the Passover seder and its lessons whatever the costs, and whatever the form most palatable to their momentary persuasions.

Events that took place millennia ago - pivotal events in the history of the Jewish nation - are regularly and openly commemorated by millions of Jews the world over, many of whom do so out of an inner motivation they themselves cannot explain.

They may not even realize what they are saying when they read their haggadahs, beyond the simplest of its ideas: a Force saved their forefathers from terrible enemies and entered into a covenant with them and their descendants.

But that is apparently enough.

A spiritual need that spawns an almost hypnotic observance of the seder by Jews the world over is satisfied. And even if, after the seder, mothers and fathers go back to decidedly less than Jewishly observant lives, their daughters and sons have received the message.

As did their parents when they were young, and their parents before them.

The seed is planted.

The seder is indisputably child-oriented. Recitations that can only be described as children's songs are part of the haggadah's text, and various doings at the seder are explained by the Talmud as intended for the sole purpose of stimulating the curiosity of the young ones.

For the children are the next generation of the Jewish nation; and the seder is the crucial act of entrusting the most important part of their history to them, for re-entrustment to their own young in due time.

And so, in the spring of each year, like the birds compelled to begin their own season of rebirth with song, Jews feel the urge to sing as well. They sing to their young ones, as their ancestors did on the banks of the Red Sea, and the song is a story. It tells of their people and how the Creator of all adopted them. And if, far along the line, a few - even many - of us fall from the nest, all is not lost. For we remember the song.

Just like the man on the bimah.

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

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A CALL TO ARMS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The thesis that is the Jewish Nation has an antithesis: Amalek. And just as the Jewish People is defined by its Torah, so is its polar opposite associated with a particular system of thought and attitude.

Amalek the nation is unknown to us today; the Biblical command to destroy it to avert the mortal threat it poses to all that is good and holy is thus moot.

Amalek the notion, though, is very much present - in the broader world, the Jewish one and perhaps, to a degree, within each of us as well. And its undermining remains an obligation both urgent and clear.

A hint to the attitude defining Amalek lies in the Torah's words immediately preceding that nation's first appearance. In Exodus (17:7), just before the words "And Amalek came," the Jews wonder "Is G-d in our midst or not?" The Hebrew word for "not" - "ayin" - literally means "nothing." That Amalek's attack comes on the heels of that word is fitting, because Amalekism stands for precisely that: nothing. Or, better: Nothing - the conviction that all, in the end, is without meaning or consequence.

In Hebrew, letters have numerical values. The number-value of the word "Amalek," Jewish sources note, equals that of "safek," or "doubt." Not "doubt" in the word's simplest sense, implying some lack of evidence, but rather doubt as a belief: the philosophical shunning of the very idea of surety - the embrace of cynicism, the championing of meaninglessness.

For there are two diametric ways to approach life, history and the universe. One approach perceives direction and purpose; the other regards all as the products of randomness - cold, indifferent chaos.

The latter approach is the essence of Amalekism. It is a worship of chance, reflected in things like the Purim story's Amalekite villain Haman's choice to cast lots - putting his trust in chance - in choosing a date to annihilate the Persian Kingdom's Jews.

The religion that is Amalekism is often regarded as a harmless agnosticism. But it is hardly benign. Because if nature is but a series of dice-rollings, its pinnacle, the human being, is just another pointless payoff. Man's actions do not make - indeed, cannot make - any difference at all. Yes, he may benefit or harm his fellows or his world, but so what? There is no ultimate import to either accomplishment.

In fact, asserts the chance-worshipper, he is no different from the animals whom he considers, through the lottery of natural selection, his ancestors. He may be more evolved, but in the end is no less an expression than they of purely random events.

Amalek's credo is proudly and publicly proclaimed today. From "People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals" (PETA), which contends that "meat is murder"; to Princeton University's Professor Peter Singer, who asserts that "the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee"; to books like "Eternal Treblinka," which makes the loathsome comparison of animals slaughtered for food with (one winces to even repeat it) the victims of the Nazis.

And it lurks, more subtly but no less surely, in the contemporary insistence that chance-based evolutionary theory is the only explanation for the diversity of species.

One who sees only random forces as the engine of that diversity may be able to offer an explanation of the human belief in right and wrong - claiming, for instance, that such belief evolved through "natural selection" to confer some biological advantage to humans. But he cannot justify the belief itself as having any more import than any other utilitarian evolutionary adaptation.

And so, faced with the Jewish conviction that ultimate meaning exists, and that the human being is the pinnacle not of blind evolution but of purposeful Creation, Amalek mocks. Men, he sneers, are no different than the monkeys they so closely resemble, and the actions of both of no ultimate import.

Interestingly, our resemblance to apes may figure in the pivotal account of Amalek's attack on the Jews after the exodus from Egypt. When Moses lifted his hands, the Torah recounts, the tide of the fight turned in favor of the Jewish People; when he lowered them, the opposite occurred.

"And do the [lifted] arms of Moses wage war?" asks the Talmud. "Rather," it explains, "when the Jews lifted their eyes heavenward, they were victorious…" And so the lifting of Moses' hands signifies the Jews' beseeching G-d.

The etymology of the word Amalek is unclear. But one might consider it a contraction of the Hebrew word "amal" - "labor" - and the letter with a "k" sound: "kuf," whose letters spell the Hebrew word that means, of all things, "monkey."

It is intriguing and perhaps significant that among all the earth's creatures, only humans and primates can lift their arms above their heads. And little short of astounding that precisely that movement figures so pivotally in the context of a battle between the nation proclaiming that human life has no special meaning - that men are but smooth-skinned apes - and the nation that proclaims human life has unique meaning.

Because, while primates can also lift their arms, the gesture is an empty one; when humans do the same thing, it can be the most potent expression of relating to the Divine.

When Moses lifts his arms, indicating the Jews' turning to G-d, it can be seen as a declaration that our "amal," our labor, is not the action of a monkey but the meaningful expression of human beings.

"And his hands were belief" - says the verse there, strangely. Or not so strangely. Moses' hands declared belief in humanity's unique relationship to G-d.

The Jews thus prevailed in the battle by negating Amalekism - by demonstrating their conviction that G-d exists and that we are beholden to Him.

On Purim, Jews the world over commemorate the crucial, if not final, victory over Amalek that took place in Persia in the time of Mordechai and Esther, by publicly reading the Book of Esther. As has often been remarked, it is a unique scroll in the Jewish canon, the only one that makes no overt reference to G-d. Instead, it forces us to seek Him in the account's "chance" happenings, to perceive Him in seemingly "random" events.

By doing precisely that, our ancestors merited G-d's protection and emerged victorious. May our own rejection of the Amalek-idea in our time merit us the same.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above essay appears in a longer form in the current edition of The Jewish Observer and is offered with its permission.]

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THE KING AND I

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Anyone who frequents the streets of lower Manhattan has seen him. He's not the sort of fellow who easily escapes eyes.

Like many who spend their days wandering big-city downtowns, he seems to carry all his possessions in the upright shopping cart he pushes along. It is a colorful and eclectic collection. Peeking out from within the wire grid are assorted pieces of clothing, cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, empty cans, newspapers, the flag of some unknown country, and other assorted detritus of a life lived on the street.

Unlike many other unemployed homeless, though, he never panhandles or even seeks eye-contact with passers-by. He just pushes along proudly, a look of satisfaction on his face - and a large, green, foam-rubber Statue of Liberty crown atop his head.

It's the crown that really makes him stand out, and which, along with his piled-high pushcart and resolute gait, makes the security dogs at the Staten Island Ferry terminal go berserk with barking at the sight of him. To be sure, one sees the occasional tourist with a similar headdress; the hats are popular souvenirs from nearby Liberty Island. But tourists wear them as kitsch, for photographs; to King Liberty, as I call the proud cart-pusher of Wall Street, it is clearly a diadem, a mark of royalty.

It is easy to dismiss the king as someone suffering from a mental illness, although "suffering" may be too strong a word, considering how content he seems. But what occurred to me when I recently saw him is that he is, at least from what one can know from observing him, not all that different from the rest of us, only perhaps a bit more transparent. After all, he's busy collecting stuff and exulting in the status he imagines can be gleaned from flimsy things.

Our own stuff might seem more practical than King Liberty's, but that's just a function of our personal perspectives. His possessions are every bit as valued by their owner as ours are by us. And our own crowns - be they fancy watches, designer clothes, BMWs, the latest model cell-phone, or corner offices with nice views - are really no more meaningful in the end than gaudy foam-rubber garlands.

And the rest of us collect our stuff and our status, just as King Liberty does his, in an effort to achieve respect, mistaking the counterfeit for the real thing.

But it's not. True honor comes from accomplishment, not acquisitions. It's not what we have or wear or drive that counts, but what we are.

And the rabbis of the Mishneh point to a particular aspect of life that is a key to respect. "Who is honored?" they ask in Avot, 4:1, "He who honors [G-d's] creatures."

At first glance, one might interpret that statement as a simple good strategy: honor others and they will return the favor. But that's hardly always true, and it is particularly untrue in our crass times, when cynicism and insults, aimed even at people who deserve the respect they themselves show others, are the coins of all too many realms.

The Hebrew words for "Who is honored?", however, might better be rendered "Who is honorable?" - who, in other words, is inherently, meaningfully worthy of honor, honored, if not by his fellows, by his Creator.

And more food for thought lies in the Mishneh's answer, "He who honors [G-d's] creatures." A proof-verse is offered, and it is laden with meaning: "As the verse says, 'For those who honor Me I will honor…'" [Samuel I 2:30].

On a simple level, the verse is invoked to show that since G-d Himself honors those who honor Him, surely we mortals should act similarly. But something else clearly lies in the verse's words - namely, that honoring others is itself an honoring of G-d. For man, after all, is created in the Divine image, and every human being - the word "creatures" is used pointedly - carries a spark of holiness within. Thus the famed Talmudic leader Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, we are taught, would swiftly greet every person he met each day "even a Gentile on the street."

And so, the next time I spy King Liberty, who got me thinking about things in the first place, I will try to focus less on his hat than on what lies below it, and remember that he, no less than any of us, is worthy of honor. Because, royalty or not, he is the handiwork of the King of kings.

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

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BURNING ISSUE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

A crematorium recently opened for business in Israel, for the use of citizens who want their remains reduced to ashes.

A decade ago, just over 20% of Americans who died were cremated. In 2005, the rate had risen to 32%. The Cremation Association of North America confidently forecasts that by 2025 more than half of Americans will choose to have their remains burned rather than interred. While no one knows what percentage of American cremation-choosers are Jewish, there is little doubt that, at least among Jews with limited or no Jewish education, or who became estranged from Jewish observance, cremation has become acceptable, if not a vogue. And now, the Jewish State has it own facility for burning human bodies.

Yet the fact that the establishment is the first of its kind in Israel does bespeak an essential Jewish attitude toward the services it provides.

Some Jews recoil from the idea of cremation because the Third Reich incinerated so many of its Jewish victims.

Others, and many non-Jews, disdain the burning of human remains because of infamous cases where crematory owners, after accepting families' payments, presented them with urns of animal ashes, turning a further profit from the sale of the bodies entrusted them to brokers who then conducted brisk businesses of their own selling body parts.

Judaism's inherent abhorrence for cremation, however, predates and supersedes both Nazi evils and ghoulish crimes. The roots of the Torah's insistence on burial of human remains lie elsewhere.

Judaism's opposition to cremation is sourced, at least in part, in a fundamental Jewish belief: that there will come a time when the dead will live again. Although the idea of the resurrection of the righteous may be surprising to some, it is one of Judaism's most important teachings. And even though it is not explicitly expressed in the Written Torah, it is prominent in the Torah's other half, the Oral Tradition. The Mishna, the Oral Tradition's central text, confers such weightiness to the conviction that it places deniers of the eventual resurrection of the dead first among those who "forfeit their share in the world to come" (Sanhedrin, Chapter 11, Mishna 1). As the Talmud comments thereon: "He denied the resurrection of the dead, so will he be denied a portion in the resurrection of the dead."

That our bodies are invested with such importance should not be startling. Not only our souls but our physical selves, too, possess inherent holiness. Our bodies, after all, are the indispensable means of performing G-d's will. It is through employing them to do good deeds and denying their gravitations to sin that we achieve our purposes in this world.

And so, Jewish tradition teaches, even though we are to consign our bodies to the earth after death, there is a small "bone" (Hebrew: "etzem") that is not destroyed when a body decays and from which the entire person, if he or she so merits, will be rejuvenated at some point in the future.

The idea that a person might be recreated from something tiny - something, even, that can survive for millennia - should not shock anyone remotely familiar with contemporary science. Each of our cells contains a large and complex molecule, DNA, that is essentially a blueprint of our bodies; theoretically, one of those molecules from even our long-buried remains could be coaxed to reproduce each of our physical selves. (Intriguingly, the Hebrew word "etzem" can mean not only "bone" but also "essence" and "self.")

Burning, in Judaism, is a declaration of utter abandon and nullification. Jews burn leaven and bread before Passover, when the Torah insists no vestige of such material may be in their possession. The proper means of disposing of an idol is to pulverize or burn it.

Needless to say, G-d is capable of bringing even ashes to life again (as the ashes of the Nazis' crematoria victims will surely demonstrate one day, may it come soon). But actually choosing to have one's body incinerated is an act that, so intended or not, expresses denial of the fact that the body is still valuable, that it retains worth, indeed potential life.

The new Israeli crematorium's owner, in fact, describes himself as an atheist, as do most if not all of his customers. One, a teacher in Jerusalem, gave eloquent expression to her reasons for choosing cremation, telling The Jerusalem Post: "I was not sanctified in my lifetime so my grave won't be sanctified either… I believe that there is nothing after death…"

That is the philosophy underlying the choice of cremation.

It is the antithesis of the belief-system called Judaism.

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

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HEROIC MEASURES

Rabbi Avi Shafran

A recent report from Jenin got me thinking.

Residents of the West Bank city have hung a large picture of Saddam Hussein in the refugee-quarter's central square. A local commander of the Fatah-aligned Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades explained that the display was intended to show Palestinian appreciation of the late and (at least in the civilized world) unlamented Iraqi dictator. He pledged that Palestinians "will continue to honor his memory as a symbol of resistance until the American and Israeli occupation is driven out."

Much is revealed about a person by whom he considers worthy of honor. And much is similarly revealed about a people or a society. One's heroes reflect one's aspirations. And so the Jenin example, intended to draw eyes and hearts toward a depiction of someone for whom words like "ruthless," "cruel" and "murderous" fall pitifully short of the mark, is both telling and depressing, not to mention something vital for would-be international peacemakers to ponder.

It is also, though, nutritious food for broader thought. Who, we might well consider, are our own heroes? To whose examples do we aspire? While no sane and civilized person would ever respond with the names of bloodthirsty tyrants, more than a few of us might still come up with those of writers, entertainers, sports figures or other public personalities, people whose accomplishments, while noteworthy and in some cases perhaps even noble, reflect our limited horizons of hope for ourselves.

What is more, in their private lives, all too many of the figures idolized in contemporary society reveal character flaws that are more than minor. The clay often extends far north of their feet.

In much of the Orthodox Jewish world, those whose examples are aspired to are great rabbinic figures. Their portraits often grace the walls of our homes. And while the men depicted (there are also venerated women, of course, but in their modesty they would consider their visages' display to be unseemly) are renowned scholars, what makes them our heroes is their personal saintliness.

A good example is the Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan), the famed Polish Jewish sage who died at the age of 105 in 1933, and whose image can be found in countless observant Jewish homes (particularly near telephones). Rabbi Kagan wrote seminal books on the prohibition of slanderous and otherwise improper speech and was an unquestionable exemplar of righteousness himself. The day after his passing, The New York Times noted how the venerated sage had "lived in poverty all his life." The long obituary also pointed out that "Despite his fame as 'the uncrowned spiritual king of Israel,' the Chofetz Chaim was a modest and humble man. His career as a merchant was of short duration. Because of his popularity, all the Jews of the town flocked to his store. The Chofetz Chaim thereupon closed the store on the ground he was depriving other Jewish merchants of a living."

The Orthodox community is hardly without its failures. Even some Jews who are punctiliously observant of the Torah's mandate in most areas of life have at times shown themselves not beyond violating their responsibilities in others - sometimes in quite serious ways. The Chofetz Chaim would not be proud.

And yet the thought remains, and remains significant: While greed and other evil inclinations may find marks even within what should be a rarified community, something more trenchant is said by that community's aspirations, no matter how elusive - by, in other words, who its heroes are.

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

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YES, BUBBA, IT'S A JEWISH PLOT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In an unintentionally amusing video being e-mailed around, a large-boned, jowly man with a droopy mustache and hair parted down the middle sits at a desk and reveals a secret scam that Jews have been levying on unsuspecting Gentiles for years. Behind him hang an American flag and a banner featuring a large swastika.

The short "program" is billed as "White Nationalist News" and our trusty correspondent is identified as "Mich Bubba." Heavy metal guitar introduces and ends the spot; the refrain of the tune (so to speak) is "Tricky, Tricky Yid".

The conspiracy Mr. Bubba proudly exposes is the "Jewish tax" that hides in plain sight from unsuspecting non-Jews in secret code on food packaging. Long familiar to Hebrews of traditional bent, the various kosher symbols (the popular "u" inscribed in an "o" that is a trademark of the Orthodox Union - which Bubba calls the "United Rabbinical Council" - as well as myriad graphic riffs on the letter "k") are indications that the product so marked was produced under the supervision of a rabbi expert in the intricacies of both kosher law and food science. Bubba hews to the belief that such foods are simply "blessed by a rabbi" and identifies one product as carrying a second sinister rabbinical group's certification - "parve" - which he pronounces "parVEY" (French rabbis, probably).

In his essential point, of course, Bubba's right. Companies do indeed pay for kosher certification.

As they also do, of course, for the right to display, say, the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval (for which manufacturers must purchase advertisement space in Good Housekeeping magazine). Or as they indirectly do through increased manufacturing costs for the right to call their products "organic" or "natural." To Bubba, however, the Jewish arrangement is singularly unkosher; it smacks, to his fuzzy lights, of a Jewish "shakedown." If companies pay for a rabbi's service, he unreasons, the cost must surely be passed on… secretly, of course… to "Gentile" consumers.

The risible accusation is nothing new; it resurfaces almost every time logic-challenged anti-Semites manage to catch their breath between rants on the Middle-East and "Jewish control of the media." As to inconvenient facts, The New York Times reported in 1975 that the cost to General Foods for rabbinical supervision of its "Bird's Eye" products worked out to .0000065 of a cent per item. A Heinz Company representative maintained that its own kosher labeling actually decreases the cost of items, by increasing the market for them - the only rational reason, of course, a company would choose to pay for such a service in the first place.

Nor is Bubba compelled to buy one brand of corndogs or beer over another. If the kosher item in fact proves more expensive, he can simply opt for one that hasn't been supervised by a rabbi (which, he makes quite clear, he prefers in any event).

If there is anything Jew-haters don't like, though (besides Jews), it is having to deal with pesky facts. There are more important things to do, like sowing hatred and suspicion.

Most folks even loosely connected to reality know that there are no Elders of Zion (at least none who aspire to world control), and no Jews who murder Christians to mix their blood into matzohs, that such things are (forgive me) Bubba-meisehs. And yet, millions keep even those myths alive (not to mention create new ones, like Jewish recruitment of Arab innocents to fly planes into buildings). So it should hardly be surprising that there are people accusing us Jews of less obvious, more insidious crimes… like kosher certification.

The persistence, ubiquity and sheer creativity of anti-Semitism rightfully concern us. But there is also something curiously invigorating about it all.

Because it points to what underlies Jew-hatred: the suspicion that the Jewish people are special.

However odd it might seem of G-d, He did indeed choose the Jews. In other words, yes, Bubba, there is a plot (though not exactly a conspiracy; there's only one Plotter).

But Bubba needn't panic. What anti-Semites like him don't realize is that the Jewish mission isn't to subjugate but to educate. Keep it under your hat, Bubba, but what we Jews are charged with is living lives of holiness and service to G-d and man.

That includes prayer, charity and acts of kindness, study of holy texts and meticulous honesty in all our dealings - as well as a multitude of ritual matters, including eating kosher food. But no, Bubba, undermining society and levying hidden taxes aren't on the list.

One day, G-d willing - likely when we Jews shoulder our mission with more passion and determination - those who labor so hard to hate us will suddenly be stopped cold in their tracks and made to meet a reality they never considered: that Jewish specialness was never a threat to them at all, but a gift.

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

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SHABBAT CHAUFFEURS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The setting sun doesn't panic most people. Most people, though, aren't Orthodox Jews stuck in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike an hour before the onset of Shabbat, when Jewish religious law forbids driving a car.

I generally stay off highways - and try mightily to avoid cars altogether - several hours before sundown of a Shabbat or Jewish holiday. But this past October 6 was an exception. My 16-year-old son was stranded.

Dovie had accepted a ride that morning from Baltimore, where he attends yeshiva, and was to be dropped off at our home in Staten Island. But a later start than planned and unforeseen traffic (a turnpike oxymoron) forced the family bringing him (Orthodox Jews like us) to instead proceed directly to their own destination in New Jersey. They called me several hours before sunset to ask if I could meet them on the turnpike to pick my son up.

I readily, if nervously, agreed, and set out. The traffic was as formidable southward as it was headed north. But my paternal instinct propelled me on. Then my son's drivers called again. They had had to leave Dovie at a motel off the highway in order to reach their own destination before the Sabbath. My paternal instinct - and my car - went into overdrive.

Judaism is a religion of laws, and for those of us who consider those laws sacrosanct, a situation like the one I faced is harrowing. If the sun set before I reached my son, I would have to pull the car over and leave it wherever it was. It would likely get towed and I would likely be picked up by the police. If I reached my son before sunset but without enough time to get home, we would both be stranded, though thankfully together. As I watched the sun dropping closer to the horizon, I drove as… uh, efficiently as I could, knowing I was in trouble.

To make a long and sweaty palms, parched mouth and high blood pressure story blessedly short, I reached Dovie about a half-hour before sunset. I barely stopped the car, he threw his bags in the back, jumped inside and off we sped.

More traffic. The sun sinking fast. Finally, looming before us, the bridge to Staten Island. We made it across just as the sun began to set. We veered onto a residential street, ditched our possessions in the car (the Shabbat laws prohibit carrying anything in a public area) and got out.

We were ten miles from home, but elated. We had made it onto the island before the Sabbath began. I'm not in great physical shape but, thank G-d, can probably handle a few hours' walk.

After holding our private Mincha service (ideally recited before sunset), we crossed to the median of the highway and marched northward.

After about 45 minutes' walk - punctuated by the honks of drivers either amused or perturbed by the sight of a bearded man and a teenage boy walking where no one usually does - a car stopped on the median grass about 200 feet in front of us. A man emerged and began walking toward us.

He was a neatly-dressed and pleasant-looking young man, and asked if we needed help.

I explained our predicament and thanked him for his concern.

"Can I drive you home?" he asked.

I replied that on the Sabbath I couldn't as much as open the door of his car.

"If I open it for you, can you be driven?"

"Are you Jewish?" I asked. It would be wrong for me to even cause another Jew to violate the Jewish Sabbath.

"No," he said with a smile. "I'm a born-again Christian."

His offer couldn't be blithely refused. While Sabbath law didn't permit me to explicitly ask someone not bound by it to do something for me that I couldn't do for myself, I hadn't asked; he had offered. I tried to analyze other pertinent factors, including the slim but clear element of danger of walking on a dark highway. As the three of us walked together, I responded, "That is very kind of you. Where are you headed?"

At that point we had reached the man's car; a young woman whom he introduced as his fiancée sat in the front passenger seat. If she had any concern about picking up two strangers, she certainly didn't show it.

"To the Staten Island Mall," he replied, as he opened the door for us. That would shave half our walk off, I thought, and my son and I got in the car. Anthony, as our benefactor identified himself, was all too happy to help. "But please," I said, "just to the mall."

Anthony and his future wife - their wedding was to take place in a few weeks, if I recall correctly - couldn't have been nicer. Part of me wondered if this Christian couple might see my son and me as marks to whom to preach religion, but our conversation was only about their upcoming marriage and world affairs, and they both made my son and me feel as if we were doing them a favor by allowing them to be our chauffeurs.

In any event, when we reached the mall, Anthony asked us where we lived. I told him and he insisted on taking us home. (Later I discovered that halacha might have required me to not allow him to go out of his way for me.) When we reached our driveway, Anthony opened the door for us again, and we thanked him from the bottom of our hearts. When my wife and family - who had last heard from me when I was on the turnpike and didn't know where Dovie and I would be spending Shabbat (and the next day, the second day of Sukkot) - saw us walk in the front door, they were shocked but overjoyed.

The gratitude we felt toward our benefactors was, and is, not only for their having cared about my son and me but also for demonstrating, in a world of so much evil unleashed in the name of religion, good will toward two strangers of another faith.

In the Jewish religious tradition, though, there is something that goes beyond simple gratitude; it is called hakarat hatov - literally: "recognition of the good." Gratitude is recognition of another person's choice, but hakarat hatov is something one must feel even toward an inanimate, unchoosing, object. "Into a well from which you drank," admonishes the Talmud, "do not throw a stone." Moses, similarly, was not permitted to strike the Nile or the earth for the Egyptian plagues that emerged from them; as a baby, he had been hidden from his would-be Egyptian murderers in the Nile, and as an adult had buried in the earth the Egyptian taskmaster he had killed.

Hakorat hatov, I think, can best be understood as something meant to benefit not the recipient but the giver. It is intended to make us - the "recognizers" - more sensitive, more aware of the ultimate Source of all goodness. Whether through the agency of a well, a river, the earth or the fortuitous arrival of someone able and ready to help us, our ultimate feelings of joy and appreciation are for the One who has provided.

Sukkot is called z'man simchateinu, "the time of our happiness." This past Sukkot in my home, the phrase resonated with particular power.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above is an edited version of an article that appeared in the Staten Island Advance, and is published with that paper's permission.]

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MORE THAN FEAR ITSELF

Rabbi Avi Shafran

You suddenly begin noticing signs bearing Arabic script in buses. What do you do?

Well, what bus riders in Richmond, Virginia did was call the local Transit Authority to find out what it might know about the signs, which had been turning up on buses and the walls of local universities.

The Associated Press and other media outlets subtly scoffed at the concerned citizens, explaining that the Arabic phrases were in fact innocuous - translating as things like "paper or plastic?" or "paper, scissors, rock" or "I'm a little teapot." Those translations in fact appeared at the bottom of the signs, along with admonishments like "Misunderstanding can make anything scary" or "What did you think it said?"

The provocative ads were the work of the Virginia Interfaith Center, which placed them in public venues as part of an effort to change the fact that, as the center's executive director put it, "as soon as people see Arabic, they immediately make an association with terrorism."

Orthodox Jews like me have considerable experience with bias, and sympathy for good-willed, law abiding Muslims who are victims of religious prejudice. We know well what it is like to be targeted by bigots for harsh stares, ugly comments and worse. I always carry the realization that some subset of society will, when seeing my beard and headgear, associate me with Shakespeare's Shylock, Dickens' Fagin, the fictional poisoners of wells or the fantasized Elders of Zion.

And those are all, in the end, imagined characters. In this age of all-too-real and widespread Islamist terrorism - where the Muslim faith is regularly invoked by people around the world as directing murder and mayhem - innocent Muslims surely feel even more marginalized as a result of the hasty generalizations people tend to make, and bear the bitter fruit of the suspicions and fears born of their coreligionists' all-too-real words and actions.

But there are times, still, when suspicion and fears cannot be dismissed as the products of bias, and can even rightfully lead to the curtailment, at least temporarily, of the freedoms we Americans enjoy as our birthright.

Like the recent case of a group of imams who were removed from a flight about to leave Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for Phoenix.

That the Muslim religious leaders had reportedly prayed loudly in the airport before the flight was certainly no reason to consider anything amiss. But when passengers and flight attendants told law-enforcement officials that the imams had switched from their assigned seats - to a pattern associated with the September 11 terrorist passengers: two in the front row first-class seats, two in the middle of the plane in aisle seats and two in the rear of the cabin - security officials' concern was not outlandish, as later was charged by a number of American Muslim groups.

And when three of the men then asked for seat-belt extenders, despite being of average build, and proceeded to place them, unused, on the floor before them, it was hardly religious bias - or, in the words of Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee (D., Texas), "racial profiling, harassment and discrimination" - that motivated police to detain the group for questioning.

No weapons in the end were found among the imams, but that happy fact does not mitigate the less-happy one that the authorities' actions were more than justified.

As a visibly Jewish man, whenever I am on a plane or train, I always consciously try to alleviate any discomfort others might have with my own appearance or actions. Even well before September, 2001 - even before a young lady at a bus stop asked me to please tell her cowering 5-year-old that, despite my in-need-of-a-trim beard, I wasn't Osama bin Ladin - I would always make sure to apprise seatmates, with a friendly smile and a pleasant demeanor, of the fact that I was about to say my prayers, and that my whispering was only part of the ritual. And Orthodox Jews, to the best of my knowledge, haven't ever hijacked airplanes.

It is unfortunate, but Muslims who disavow the hatred and violence preached by some of their coreligionists have to accept, with sadness but pragmatism, the burden of society's suspicion-by-association. It's a regrettable reality that actions they take in all innocence might be misconstrued at times as sinister - or that Arabic script suddenly appearing in public places might cause some alarm. But our world is, as they say, what it is.

Yes, sometimes things that seem frightening in fact turn out to be harmless. But fright can also save lives and limbs. "Fear itself," unfortunately, is no longer the only thing we have to fear.

The Virginia Interfaith Center would probably consider me in need of re-education. But, with all due respect to the group and its well-meaning efforts, for my part, I still think that when I see something, I'll say something.

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

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MY WHITE HOUSE CHANUKAH

Rabbi Avi Shafran

If you should ever happen to find yourself in an ornate, high-ceilinged room and a military-uniformed classical string ensemble is segueing from a flawless rendition of a Bach Concerto to an equally impressive (if considerably less inspiring) version of "I Have a Little Dreidel," you can only be one place: the White House Chanukah Party.

The annual event hosted by President and Mrs. Bush for a few score representatives of the American Jewish community is a tangible expression of the good will the First Couple have demonstrated to a multitude of the nation's religious groups, Jews among them. Whether one considers President Bush II's domestic or foreign policies principled (as I, for the most part, do) or preposterous, the President must be given high points for his reaching out to Americans of faith.

Among the Jewish groups to whom the White House extended invitations to this year's Chanukah celebration, which took place on December 18, the third day of the holiday, was Agudath Israel of America, and I was honored to attend as one of its representatives. It was a pleasure to meet and mingle with Jews from other parts of the American Jewish community, an opportunity that doesn't present itself as often as I'd like. And it was a privilege to meet, if briefly, President and Mrs. Bush. I chose to use my moment in their company to offer them my sincere and solemn blessings, thereby disappointing my 13-year-old son, who had wanted me to request a Presidential decree that the school week be reduced to three days.

The event, true to its Jewish nature, was awash in food, all of it under strict Orthodox supervision, produced in a White House kitchen fully "koshered" for the event. As another observant participant observed to me when I greeted him, "This is an amazing symbol of the malchus shel chesed [government of kindness] that is this great country." It was indeed hard to not be impressed.

But the high point of my White House visit was neither the Presidential receiving line nor the array of kosher victuals (not realizing that the catering would be adhering to the strictest standards, I had earlier in the day had the regrettable foresight to stop in a local kosher eatery, and was hardly hungry).

Nor was the best part of the event seeing a dear friend from my yeshiva days for the first time in three decades. Now an anesthesiologist in the Midwest, he explained that he had received his invitation to the White House gathering as the result of his wife's "open house" policy for students at a university near their home. A frequent Shabbat guest of theirs several years ago had eventually gone on to become a White House liaison to the Jewish community, and wanted to show his erstwhile Shabbat hosts that he hadn't forgotten them. My friend himself, he reminded me, had spent more than one Shabbat in my own parents' similarly open home thirty years earlier.

No, the highlight of my trip to Washington took place before I even entered the White House. I was sitting on a bench outside the East Entrance, enjoying the unseasonably warm December day, watching the line of invitees form, as they waited for the security personnel to open the gates and begin the process of examining identifications and scanning bags.

Sitting there in the descending darkness, I felt a twinge of melancholy at being away from home for even that one night of Chanukah. I had made the necessary arrangements from the perspective of Jewish religious law; the menorah in my home would be lit by my wife or one of my children on my behalf. But still I was troubled by being so far from them.

I have always been struck by the inescapable contrast between, on the one hand, the public, potent pageantry and glitter with which the surrounding culture celebrates its winter holiday and the quiet, home-bound nature of Chanukah, with tiny flames its truest symbol. And here I was, about to join in a boisterous, bustling celebration - albeit of Chanukah - while the small if potent points of fire created on my behalf were flickering 300 miles away, invisible to me.

It was then that my cellphone clamored for attention. Aroused from my gloomy reverie, I offered it my ear.

It was my wife. She and our children were about to light the menorah and thought I might want to be included, if at a distance. A more accurate thought could not have been had.

And so unfolded the truly transcendent moment of my White House Chanukah, on a park bench outside the grand Presidential residence. To anyone passing by, it would have looked like nothing more than a balding fellow with a graying beard and a broad smile, animatedly singing into a phone.

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

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FAMILY AFFAIR

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The speaker was a bit reluctant, unaccustomed to standing before an audience. Yet there she stood in Los Angeles, her hometown, at a dinner hosted by a Southern California Jewish campus outreach organization, the Jewish Awareness Movement. She was addressing supporters of the group and parents, like herself and her husband, whose children, as a result of JAM and their consciences, had come to Jewish religious observance.

Marsha Greenberg recounted how her grandparents had come to American shores from Romania, met in Chicago and sired nine children, the oldest of which was the speaker's mother. And she told of her own childhood, how her father had died when she was only four and how, ten years later, her older brother and only sibling perished in a freak, fierce blizzard while on a Boy Scout trip in the San Bernardino Mountains.

"My mom never recovered from the loss," she told the crowd. "I grew up overnight."

When she was sixteen, she went on, she met a "nice Jewish boy" two years her senior, "from a good home." They married and eventually had three children.

When their oldest, their daughter Shari, turned sixteen herself, "she had had enough of temple." She and her siblings had attended Sunday school and she had been "bat-mitzvahed." But she hadn't been inspired to continue her Jewish education, and her parents didn't pressure her.

Their second child, David, though, happened upon JAM, participating in some events, Shabbat dinners and eventually even a trip to New York. He became intrigued by Jewish thought, texts and traditions, and his enthusiasm proved contagious, spreading in time to his older sister.

"What was happening to my family?" the speaker confided she had wondered at the time.

Shari embarked on a three-week trip to Israel, and then called to ask if she could stay a little longer. Her parents said okay. A few weeks later they received another call from Shari, asking if she could stay for a few months more. Again she received an okay. Eight months later, Shari returned home, according to her mom, "a different person, more mature and focused."

"She brought Shabbat into our home… In her own way, she set an example for David and Michael," her youngest sibling.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Greenberg continued, "David was doing a lot of learning on his own. Having his older sister home, watching her in action, living what she had learned, made an impression. Now David wanted to go to a yeshiva!"

Both Shari and David left home - she for Israel, he for New York - on the very same day, an understandably emotional one for the Greenbergs. Soon enough, Shari called to say she was dating a yeshiva student. Not much later, the Greenbergs and their sons found themselves in Jerusalem at Shari's wedding, which "made quite an impression of all of us, especially… Michael. Now he had a sister, brother and brother-in-law all frum [traditionally observant]!"

David returned to Israel to attend a yeshiva there, and Michael soon followed.

"There are very few mothers in Los Angeles," Mrs. Greenberg told the rapt audience, "who can say that they have three children learning Torah in Israel. I take great pride in being one of those mothers."

The speaker concluded by warmly thanking Rabbi Moshe and Bracha Zaret, the directors of JAM, and by imagining her mother, father and brother watching out for her family. "I know my children are going to live beautiful lives," she said. "They are going to raise magnificent, intellectual, sensitive, thoughtful families. I could not be happier. This journey is only the beginning, and every step counts."

My wife and I have gotten to know Mrs. Greenberg and her equally endearing husband quite well. We have met their children, who insist that their journeys to Jewish observance were directly due to their upbringing; their parents, they explain, always advised and encouraged them to think for themselves, to be idealists and do what they felt was right. And that is what they did.

All of the Greenbergs were at our daughter's wedding mere weeks ago, dancing as happily and as filled with as much joy as were we. Which is entirely understandable, considering that David, we are happy and proud to say, is our newest son-in-law.

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

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EMBRACING DISCRIMINATION

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In the early 90s, when I served as a teacher and principal of the boys' division of a yeshiva high school in Providence, Rhode Island, I once called the local school board to arrange a board-sponsored driver's education class for a group of male students, and one for a group of students in our young women' division.

The official with whom I spoke was aghast. "A separate class for girls!" she exclaimed. "That's blatant discrimination, and against the law."

I tried to explain that my request no more discriminated against the girls than it did the boys, that the separation of the genders was part of our school's policy for religious reasons, and that religious freedom was also a concern of the law (not to mention a touchstone of Rhode Island's history). But the official was unyielding, and the classes never came to be.

I couldn't help but wonder how she might have reacted to the Bush administration's recent announcement of new rules allowing school districts to create single-gender classes, and even entire single-gender schools. And to the fact that the move was backed not only by political conservatives but by urban educators and legislators on both sides of the political aisle as well. To be sure, the usual amalgamation of civil rights and women's groups (and Senator Ted Kennedy) dutifully condemned the administration's decision and threatened to challenge the decision in the courts, but Education Department officials expressed confidence that the new rules will pass legal muster.

The impetus for the reassessment of what constitutes illegal discrimination under Title IX, a 1972 federal law, was research suggesting that at least some children learn better in single-gender environments.

However future studies may pan out, though, it is encouraging to see consideration at the highest levels of government of the possibility that boys and girls may be different in the ways they learn, and that the case for same-gender education cannot be waved away with unthinking accusations of immoral discrimination. It would be encouraging, too, to see some Jewish schools until now pledged to "co-education" give some further thought to the matter as well.

The administration's rationale for separate-gender public education may be pedagogical, while our own is essentially religious. But there is more than minor overlap between the two, born of the realities of human psychology. And, whatever the reasoning, that the issue is being addressed honestly and objectively is healthy and heartening.

It holds out the hope, moreover, that charges of discrimination in other areas might also be considered not through the muddled lens of the word's contemporary pejorative meaning but in its original, benign sense - as per the American Heritage Dictionary's first entry: "able to recognize or draw fine distinctions."

Some such distinctions, of course, inform observant Jewish life, and occasionally come into conflict with contemporary society's notions of "equality." We certainly do not - or at least should not -discriminate on the basis of race, national origin or disability, but we are most unabashedly discriminating about a number of other things.

Like, to take one example, the definition of marriage, an institution under relentless attack these days. A number of countries have radically redefined the term, one state in our own republic has already followed suit, and several others - most recently New Jersey, through a ruling by its highest court - seem headed in a similar direction. At issue is whether marriage defined as it has been since postdiluvian times is, in the eyes of state constitutions, inherently "discriminatory."

Well, yes, it is. It discriminates among a variety of arrangements, some of which violate one of the universal Noahide Commandments (not to mention the Torah's laws for the Jewish People) and the deep sensibilities of countless civilized (and even some less-than-fully-civilized) people around the world.

But it does not discriminate, in the word's negative connotation, against anyone - any more than defining apples as fruit somehow wrongs tractors.

Because words have meanings, and "marriage" is a word. And discriminating souls care about protecting it.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above essay appears in the current issue of The Jewish Observer and is offered with its permission.]

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WINTER HARVEST

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In a forthcoming book, "Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality," Dr. Pauline W. Chen writes about the many operations she performed on brain-dead patients for the purpose of procuring, or "harvesting," their organs for transplantation. "They all," she writes, "seemed remarkably alive."

This past fall, the prestigious journal Science published a report on a young woman who, after a devastating car accident, 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."

Ten years earlier, a patient like the young woman would have been assumed, for all practical intents, to be - effectively, if perhaps not legally - lifeless. Only the development of a new diagnostic technology has now rendered her more obviously alive. It's hard not to wonder what technologies might one day yet be developed - or what aspects of consciousness might forever elude scientific instrumentation.

The acronym DCD might be mistaken for some new medium of music reproduction but in fact refers to "donation after cardiac death" - the procurement of organs from people whose hearts have stopped, even if their brains may still be functioning. Such procedures have taken place in many countries, despite the fact that the cessation of heartbeat is not necessarily irreversible. Even some patients whose hearts did not respond to cardiac resuscitation, it is well documented, have "come back to life" - in one case after the lapse of a full seven minutes, certainly sufficient time for harvesting a vital organ or two.

The driving force behind the scramble to define death "to the instant" is clearly the worldwide shortage of organs for transplant. This past summer, doctors at the World Transplant Congress in Boston were told how the pool of available organs in the United States could increase by up to 20% if DCD were adopted more widely.

What does Judaism have to say about all this? Saving a life is a most weighty imperative, to be sure, but Jewish religious law, or halacha, does not permit one life to be taken to save the life of another - no matter how diminished the "quality" of the life of the former, no matter how great the potential of the life of the latter.

Halacha requires that death be clearly established, and does not permit any action that might hasten the death of a person in extremis. Harvesting organs after any cessation of heart function that might not be permanent would be forbidden.

Unrelated to DCD is "brain death" - a diagnosis of irreversible cessation of all brain function, which modern medicine and secular law consider sufficient to permit the "harvesting" of organs before removal of life-support. What does Jewish law have to say about "brain death"? Can a patient with no discernable brain activity but whose heart continues to beat be considered a corpse?

Some rabbis vote yea on that question. And a recent New York Times article about a conference organized by the "Halachic Organ Donor Society," an organization advocating increased organ donation from halacha-observant Jews, referred to "near unanimity among rabbis on the criteria for organ donation" - presumably referring to the next paragraph's citation of the chief Sephardic rabbi of the Israeli city of Tzfat, whose criterion is brain death.

But many, and considerably more prominent in the world of halachic discourse, are the rabbinical authorities who do not agree. They include the late Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who was renowned as one of our generation's most authoritative halachic decisors, as well as Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, considered by many Jews to be the most authoritative authority of Jewish law today. Some leading scholars at Yeshiva University too, like Rabbi Herschel Schachter and Rabbi J. David Bleich, concur with those decisors.

In her book, Dr. Chen writes about her "83rd procurement" when the brain-dead body she sliced open for its organs was that of a young Asian-American woman like herself, who reminded her vividly, so to speak, of herself. She found herself hesitating during the procedure, but managed to complete it, although as she cut the vena cava and watched the patient's blood drain into canisters, she felt "as if my own life force were draining away."

Dr. Chen may intend her account to be simply what the title of her book promises, a reflection on mortality. But perhaps another thought for consideration lay there on the operating table, the idea that despite the inevitability of its end, life is holy - and we do well to tread carefully and slowly before considering it gone.

That might explain the feeling she writes she had at the end of that 83rd procurement, an exhaustion born not only of "sleep deprivation [and] overwork" but of "an unbearable grief."

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

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RECIDIVIST PARENTS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

A number of well-known international groups are very unhappy with my wife and me.

We are, you see, "multi-children" parents, violators of both the law of averages and the sensibilities of folks like those at Zero Population Growth and other such organizations. Yes, my wife and I helped contribute, even more than most American parents, to the world population's recent passing of the six billion mark.

Many of our friends, for the most part Orthodox Jews like us, have similarly chosen to raise large families, sometimes with six, seven, even ten or more children. To others, we must seem at best unbalanced, at worst irresponsible, for our choices - choices we regarded, and still regard, as entirely wise and proper.

The disapprovers are entitled to their opinion, of course. But it can become irksome when strangers, confronted with the sight of my beloved family, offer unsolicited judgments.

The smiles and even the pointing fingers don't bother me; I try to follow the Talmud's dictum to judge others favorably, to assume the best: here, that the smilers and pointers are happy for us. But commentators like the fellow in the airport who snidely query-editorialized, "Catholic or careless?" leave very little room for good will. ("Jewish and caring," I responded; it was all I could summon at the moment.)

And then there was what was probably my personal nadir of incivility, years ago in a California supermarket, when a severe-looking lady with an unmistakably Teutonic accent scolded a much younger and brasher me - wheeling a daughter-filled double stroller - with a humorless comment, something like, "Well YOU certainly don't believe in population control!"

On that occasion, I must admit, I was inexcusably rude. My Polish-born father and father-in-law each had siblings who never managed to make it out of young adulthood, thanks to some folks' efficient determination to starve, shoot, gas or burn them. Several of my children carry the names of those unmet great-aunts and great-uncles.

Maybe it was the matron's accent that sent me, relatively speaking, over the edge. "When I reach six million," I heard myself intone through clenched teeth, "I'll consider stopping."

Though I think that, over the years, I have become more understanding of others' dismay at large families, I haven't quite managed to bring myself to regret that particular retort, graceless though it was.

As it happens, though, the Fraulein was quite right. My wife and I are unrepentant infidels when it comes to the ZPG movement. The "expert" predictions in the 1960s about a world swarming with wall-to-wall humanity within a decade or two have proven silly. And although new claims have emerged about a future "population crisis", they, like their predecessors, are impelled more by ideology than by empirical evidence. One need do no more than take a drive across the vast empty spaces even within our own relatively crowded country to realize how lightly populated the planet really is.

And, if that doesn't do the trick, return across Canada.

A subsequent stroll, moreover, down any Manhattan, Chicago or Los Angeles restaurant-row, taking note of the prodigious amounts of food daily discarded in modern cities, would be an equally eye-opening experience. Human malnutrition, informed folk know, is the result not of new babies but of old problems. Humans still starve, tragically, at the turn of the millennium not because there is too little food but because of poor management, inefficient distribution and - perhaps primarily - because of the unconcern (or worse) of other humans.

In any event, much more than disbelief in doomsday scenarios or determination to re-establish truncated genealogies figures in my wife's and my choice of a large family. We would have endeavored no less even if Canada resembled Calcutta, even if the Holocaust had been only a bad horror film instead of history, even if we had needed to pull names for our children from the void.

For our faith-system, that of all Jews' ancestors over millennia, views procreation in and of itself as the holiest of endeavors, and children as the greatest of blessings. And when it comes to blessings, as most folk seem to naturally (though less aptly, to my lights) understand with regard to the monetary sort - the more, the merrier. How ironic, I often reflect: Were children shares of blue-chip stocks, my wife and I would be regarded with neither disapproval nor curiosity but envy.

Which is not to say that having children is, in the end, a self-serving vocation. It is true that life offers no joy remotely approaching the resplendent sight, at the end of a long, hard day, of a joyous, squeaking two-year-old face one has loved since its appearance on earth bobbing above a pair of little arms opened wide. But the challenges of raising children, especially several times the average number of children per family, are considerable. Barring a lottery-win, my family won't ever retain a housekeeper or own a boat - or, for that matter, a road vehicle that someone else hasn't driven for 50,000 or 60,000 miles first. And any disposable income we manage to amass is quickly absorbed by one or another worthy but costly educational institution.

At the same time, though, and above all else, we believe with our hearts and souls that our children are gifts beyond all earthly value. And my wife and I are doing all in our power to help ensure that our progeny will use their precious lives for the good of their fellow Jews and of humanity.

So if you should find yourself at a playground or highway rest stop and spy a group of Jewish kids of various ages who seem to resemble one another, please don't think their parents irresponsible. Try to remember that a profound commitment and deep love likely lie behind the striking sight.

And if it should happen to be any of my children or grandchildren, we'll all do our part, and try to interpret any smiles we elicit as expressions of delight.

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

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PARTIAL-BIRTH DISTORTION

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Listening to critics of the Partial-Birth Abortion Act of 2003, one might conclude that the law, which was ruled unconstitutional by several courts whose rulings are now under appeal before the United States Supreme Court, 1) is erroneously named, 2) lacks an exception to protect the life of the mother and 3) is based on false assertions.

And listening to some Jewish groups, one might conclude as well that the law 4) is at acute odds with Jewish values.

One would be wrong on all four counts.

Despite concerted efforts by some to misrepresent the law, its language is stark and clear. It prohibits any overt act, like the puncturing of the brain, "that the person knows will kill" a fetus whose "entire… head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother."

Thus, the removal of a fetus that has died or been killed inside its mother is clearly not prohibited by the embattled law. The procedure outlawed is the killing of a baby partially outside its mother's body. One is hard pressed to imagine a more accurate name for the law than the one it colloquially carries. Indeed, some prefer the starker term "infanticide."

Not, though, New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse. She rejects one brief's description of the procedure as "killing a child in the birth process," contending that every stage of gestation is perforce a part of the birth process. But Ms. Greenhouse, a truly gifted explicator of legal complexities, surely knows that the very point of laws is to draw lines, and that, to deal rationally with abortion, a line must be drawn between the concepts "unborn" and "born." It is not unreasonable to imagine that line lying in the vicinity of what is described in the law's language quoted above.

As to exceptions to the law's prohibition, contrary to wide public perception, the law contains an explicit exception for cases where the procedure is deemed necessary to preserve the mother's life. Whether the law needs a further exception for when a mother's "health" is at stake - the law's drafters found that there is no such situation - is one of the issues the Supreme Court will be weighing.

A piece of erroneous information was indeed found by critics in the law's preamble: the assertion that "no medical schools" teach the procedure being prohibited. In fact, several do. The error, however, hardly affects the logic of the law.

Most troubling from my vantage point, though, is the assertion that the Jewish religious tradition is somehow offended by the prohibition, an assertion that has been made by a number of rabbis and Jewish organizational spokespeople. The president of Hadassah, to take one example, who baldly stated that the law "undermines Jewish values."

She and others who have made similar claims are misinformed, and in turn misinform.

To be sure, the Talmudic sources are clear that the life of a Jewish woman whose pregnancy endangers her takes precedence over that of her unborn child when there is no way to preserve both lives. And, while the matter is not free from controversy, there are rabbinic opinions that allow abortion when the pregnancy seriously jeopardizes the mother's health. But those narrow exceptions do not translate into some unlimited mother's right to "make her own reproductive choices" - the position Hadassah enthusiastically trumpets - and most certainly not to any right to kill a live baby whose head, or most of whose body, has already emerged. What the Partial-Birth Abortion Act prohibits is, in the eyes of Jewish law, little if anything short of murder.

Nothing, of course, prevents a Jew, or Jewish organization or rabbi from ignoring the teachings of the Jewish religious tradition.

But intellectual integrity, if nothing else, should prevent anyone from misrepresenting what Jewish tradition has to say about killing a child who has effectively emerged into our world.

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

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In Loving Memory Of Our Father, Mr. Joseph Black (Yosef Ben Zelig) O"H
In Loving Memory Of Our Mother, Mrs. Norma Black (Nechama Bas Tzvi Hirsh) O"H
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