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Archives Of Previous Articles XXIV


Rabbi Avi Shafran

In the end, it wasn't threatened violence from any haredi hotheads that did in the planned "gay pride" parade scheduled for the streets of Jerusalem, but an IDF strike in Gaza that brought about the deaths of 20 Palestinians and subsequent threats of retaliatory terror attacks against Israelis and Americans.

Fear of violence, though - of any sort - should not have been the impetus for the parade's cancellation. What should have made such an event unthinkable in the first place, and should do so in the future, is something stark and simple: respect - for Jerusalem, for her residents and, ultimately, for Judaism.

The word "parade" conjures images of music and festivity, gaudily bedecked marchers and perhaps an elephant or tiger or two. And indeed, in venues like San Francisco, "gay pride" parades have been exhibitions of exhibitionists, processions that featured, if not actual animals, people clearly in touch with their inner beasts.

But organizers of the ill-fated Jerusalem parade - originally part of "Jerusalem WorldPride 2006," an international call to homosexuals to descend upon the holy city "in a massive demonstration of LGBT dignity, pride and boundary-crossing celebration" -insisted that their event would be no such spectacle of bad taste. It would be, rather, a civil and principled attempt to advance the legitimacy of a homosexual lifestyle through changes to the traditional conception of the family.

To some of us, including a majority of Jerusalem's residents, that "principled" social agenda is considerably more objectionable than any bacchanalian display. Crassness and craziness, after all, are laughed (or gasped) at and soon forgotten. Social revolution, though, by its very definition, aims to effect societal change.

There are societies, of course, for better or worse, that welcome such change, and there are Israelis with similar feelings as well. But Israel also has many citizens, particularly in Jerusalem, who consider the radical redefinition of moral behavior and the concept of family to be a deliberate affront to their deepest convictions.

Israel has hardly adopted the Torah's laws as her own, as is readily evident from a visit to any of a number of neighborhoods or night spots in Tel Aviv (or even, sadly, in Jerusalem). Nor is there any religious effort afoot to pry into fellow citizens' private lives. But the Torah is very clear about what sort of personal intimate relationships are proper and what sorts are not. And all but a small proportion of the Israeli citizenship endorse the idea that the Jewish state owes a certain respect to the Jewish religious heritage.

Yes, in a free society, any group can promote any cause, no matter how ill-conceived or offensive it may be to others. But bounds, including limits to free speech and demonstration, exist even in the freest of societies. Is it really an unthinkable curb on legitimate self-expression for the authorities and judiciary of a self-described Jewish state to prevent an intentional affront to dedicated and faithful Jews - not to mention to the Jewish religious tradition?

The threats of violence against the would-be marchers that reportedly appeared in anonymous pamphlets and posters in Jerusalem are indefensible. But such ugliness - whatever its source might in fact have been - should not obscure the actual issue: Are the Jewish religion and the sensibilities of tens of thousands of Jerusalem's residents deserving of respect? Or is all that trumped, even in the Holy Land's Holiest City, by the social agenda of radical activists?

Over the course of history, Jews lived their lives - and all too often died their deaths - in dedication to the Jewish faith. Does that faith not deserve, at very least, the respect of the Jewish State?

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Part of my job as Agudath Israel of America's media liaison is to help ensure that traditional Orthodox Jewish beliefs and life are accurately represented in the press, and that the larger Jewish and non-Jewish worlds are informed about important happenings in the Orthodox community.

There are ample opportunities for both. Misconceptions about Orthodox Jews, especially haredim, are commonplace, not only in the general press but even in the Jewish. And there is no dearth of newsworthy occurrences in the haredi world. Orthodox educational institutions, moreover, do an impressive job of ensuring Jewish commitment and continuity; and the community yields singular events - like the "Siyum HaShas" Talmud-completion gathering last celebrated in 2005, which brought together more that 100,000 celebrants in major convention centers across the continent and around the world.

And yet I think that what are most revealing about Orthodox life are little things.

A revered yeshiva dean was once asked by the parents of a marriage-eligible young woman about the personal qualities of a young man studying at the institution. The rabbi's response was that the fellow struck him as a paragon of good traits. "But if you want to find out what he is really like," he added, "you'll have to ask the cook."

What he intended to convey was that while our public personae and actions may mean much, whatever meaning they hold pales beside the evidence to be culled from the mundane activities of our daily lives, from the testimony of our husbands, wives, children, friends - or, if we live in a dormitory, the cook.

The haredi world doesn't have a cook (well, actually, it has a good many excellent ones, but you get the point). What it has, though, are newspapers.

There are several, most notably Yated Neeman and Hamodia - the latter not only publishes, like the former, a large, multi-sectioned weekend paper but a smaller daily edition as well. The news coverage itself says much about the community. Since mimicking the larger world's media would violate a number of Jewish religious ideals, one won't find any reference at all in the haredi press to the celebrity obsessions that grace even the front pages of the general press, or any parallel to the sort of sleazy crime coverage favored by tabloids, or even any of the standard-issue scandal-mongering that saturates so much of the media. Basic international, national and local news are reported straightforwardly, with the intention of providing important or practical information.

But to me, the most intriguing - and telling - window onto the Orthodox world provided by its newspapers lies in the small print of its classified ads.

Those in a randomly selected edition of Hamodia include the expected job offerings, services and properties for sale or rent, of course. But then there is, in addition to a "lost" column, a sizable one labeled "found."

Therein, one ad-placer seeks the owner of a gold bracelet; another, the person who had lost a digital camera; yet another, the feet missing a pair of children's sneakers; another still, the holder of the partner of a single leather glove. Another bracelet and a blanket are offered by yet other ads, both found "a few years ago."

And then there are the "gemachs," more than five full-page columns of them. "Gemach" is the transliteration of a Hebrew acronym for the phrase "bestowal of kindness," and the word refers to a charitable effort that grants or lends goods, or provides services, to anyone in need of them, free of charge.

Many gemachs - understandably, considering the Orthodox commitment to large families - revolve around the needs of new parents. There are gemachs offering "multiples" baby equipment for new mothers of twins or triplets, others that prepare free meals for new mothers, yet others providing women to spend nights at new parents' homes, to help care for the young siblings of newborns. There are also offers of catering services for new parents celebrating their son's bris, portable playpens, and infant car seats.

And then, among the dozens of other gemachs listed are some offering professional makeup-application (for weddings and such), others still lending hospital gowns that provide more coverage than the standard fare, audiotapes of lectures on an assortment of topics, checklists for planning a wedding, custom hair pieces for men and children with chemotherapy hair-loss (most of Hamodia's women readers own wigs), rides to the park or the shore for Alzheimers sufferers, air-beds for sudden influx of overnight visitors, "shtick" - costumes, novelties and the like - to enliven weddings. There is even a gemach offering listings of gemachs.

This, from a community that, with the constant and formidable responsibilities of observant life, has precious little free time. But what time and effort it has, it seems, a good deal of it is channeled toward helping others.

That subtle message residing in newspapers like Yated and Hamodia rarely appears in the general or other Jewish media. There the spotlight is most commonly focused on the Orthodox community for one or another of its unusual religious or cultural practices, or when one of its members does something wrong. But Orthodox peculiarities or wrongdoers, though they certainly exist as they do in every society, do not reflect the essence of their community.

The classifieds do.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Responses to an essay say much to a writer. Sometimes they reveal flaws in the essayist's assumptions or reasoning, provide a different perspective or are otherwise enlightening. Other times they reveal something more about the responders.

Back in May, I wrote an article about atheism. It was inspired by an earlier op-ed by philosopher Slavoj Zizek in The New York Times, extolling "the dignity of atheism." I titled my own essay "The Indignity of Atheism" and made one simple and obvious point: One who sees only random forces behind why we humans find ourselves here can have no reason to believe in objective categories of good and evil.

I took pains to stress that I was not contending that atheists are bad people, and certainly not that religious people are necessarily good. I was not judging anyone, rather stating a self-evident philosophical truism: If our perception that some deeds are good and others are not is but a quirk of natural selection, none of us need feel any commitment to morality or ethics.

The piece appeared in The Providence Journal and a number of Jewish weeklies. Soon enough, it was posted on a multitude of atheist weblogs, along with rebuttals - or screeds presented as such.

I had always imagined atheists as a misguided but relatively civil and intelligent bunch. But much of the reaction on the blogs was simple umbrage heavily laced with anger and even threats, born of my contention that atheists are bad people - although I had written no such thing, and indeed had clearly stated otherwise.

Perhaps the writers misinterpreted my invocation of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot as examples of non-religious sorts who were responsible for countless deaths of innocents. But that was only to counter Mr. Zizek's contention that the world's evils derive overwhelmingly from religion. (A few of the umbrage-takers insisted that Hitler was a religious Roman Catholic; I'm skeptical, but, just to keep the complainers on-topic, they can replace him with Caligula, Mao, Saddam Hussein, or Kim Jung Il.)

Other reactions (from the more careful readers, no doubt) consisted entirely of adolescent snideness over the idea of G-d, and harsh invective toward me, much of it of a strikingly personal nature and in language more suited to a locker room than an intellectual salon. Revealing, indeed.

As to the essence of my argument, though, there was no credible counter-argument whatsoever, no claim that right and wrong can somehow have inherent meaning without recourse to Something Higher than ourselves. That, too, was telling - of the truth that atheism, in the end, cannot assign any more meaning to right and wrong than to right and left.

What brings the edifying experience to mind is the pair of current best-sellers attempting to make the case for atheism. In one of them, Darwinist devotee Richard Dawkins declares that to be an atheist is a "brave and splendid" thing, and that to believe that there is Something to Whom we owe obeisance is a "pernicious" thought. Writer Sam Harris, meanwhile, in his own book, characterizes religion as "obscene" and "utterly repellent."

The two authors avoid the sailor-language favored by the bloggers and their blogophants, and they make a valiant effort to present what they claim is the case for atheism, but in their instances, too, more illuminating than their arguments is their anger.

Sure, it is easy to deny G-d. We can't see Him and can (at least some of us, with prodigious effort and illimitable imagination) imagine life evolving entirely on its own, and yes, there is evil in the world that seems to go unpunished. But belief in G-d has always gone hand in hand with belief in both His hiddenness, and his inscrutability. The "arguments" from invisibility, evolution and the existence of evil are, in the end, convincing only to those already convinced.

More informative is the atheists' anger. I think it derives from the realization of where their declared convictions perforce must lead. That would be - as per my original essay - a place where the very concepts of morality and ethics are rendered meaningless, a worldview in which a thieving, philandering, serial murdering cannibal is no less commendable a member of the species than a selfless, hard-working philanthropist. (In fact, from an evolutionist perspective, the former is probably better positioned to impart advantages to the gene pool.)

It is a thought so discomfiting to an honest atheist that all it can yield him is fury.

Some atheists, no doubt, are not infuriated at all by the implications of their denial of a human calling higher than nature. They revel in the knowledge that whatever they wish to do is fine, as long as they manage not to run afoul of the man-made (and themselves inherently meaningless) laws of society. If skillful enough, they can carefully lift items from the local store, surreptitiously violate others' rights or privacy, and covertly bring harm to those they dislike or who stand in the way of their wants.

Most atheists, though - and they, I contend, are the angry ones - would never dream of doing such things. Because they know that there is right and there is wrong.


Is it "wrong" when a dog steals a bone from his fellow canine, or when a mantis eats her mate? Of course not. But when a human being steals or hurts or kills another, it's qualitatively different. Deep down we know we are answerable to Something beyond our own natures.

That knowledge gives thoughtful atheists hives. Which is why, hopelessly conflicted by the irreconcilability of their unspeakable realization and their trumpeted posture, they can only fume.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Anyone familiar with contemporary talk-radio knows that the word "liberal" has become for some a slur, implying that holders of ideals like tolerance for other cultures or concern for the poor and disadvantaged are somehow inherently polluted by nonchalance toward national security, too little concern about crime and too much about the rights of terrorists.

But another word, "fundamentalist," has likewise been made into an insult of its own, something recently noted by David Klinghoffer, the erstwhile literary editor of National Review and current senior fellow at a public policy think-tank, the Discovery Institute. (Full disclosure: Mr. Klinghoffer was a Sabbath guest at the Shafran home several times seven or eight years ago, and I consider him a friend.)

Writing in the national Jewish weekly Forward, Klinghoffer points out that the "fundamentalist" label is regularly used to cast people who hew to foundational religious beliefs as "stupid," "obnoxious" or "backward."

Klinghoffer's context is the assertion by former New Republic editor and current Time Magazine blogger Andrew Sullivan that "fundamentalists" - i.e. people with deep religious beliefs - are inherently arrogant, because they believe they know what is right and what is wrong, and apply their convictions to political and social issues. Instead, Sullivan advocates "spiritual humility and sincere religious doubt" and champions "a faith that… picks and chooses between doctrines under the guidance of individual conscience."

Klinghoffer makes the obvious point: If one's conscience is one's only guide, then he is "his own ultimate authority," hardly a reflection of humility.

"That isn't to say," he hastens to add, "that the truth [for a religious person] is easily accessible." An Orthodox Jew for 15 years,. Klinghoffer openly and honestly admits that there is much he doesn't understand, and that certainty about applying Jewish wisdom to contemporary questions is not always available. It is, he explains, "in contemplating… complexities that Jews find a road to inspiration."

But in the end, as Klinghoffer has articulated in his writings over the years, we Jews "believe our religion is true, all of it." There are indeed Jewish verities, verities that speak loudly and clearly to Jews and to all humankind, verities that have implications for contemporary social issues, verities that Jews who claim to care about Judaism should not shy away from embracing, whether or not those verities comfortably coalesce with those Jews' own personal feelings. The bending of our imperfect human notions to the will of an omniscient G-d is, in the end - as both Abraham on Mount Moriah and his descendants at Mount Sinai came to know - the essence of the Jewish faith.

Abraham, as it happens, is David Klinghoffer's father, at least in a spiritual sense. The Biblical patriarch is considered the parent of all converts to Judaism. Klinghoffer lyrically and poignantly recounted his personal journey to the Jewish people and Jewish observance in his 1999 book "The Lord Will Gather Me In." His defense of the conviction that questions of right and wrong are not ultimately answered by our own subjective feelings - reminds me that he wasn't born into the Jewish people but rather chose to join it.

Because, although Jewish history is replete with illustrious men and women - from the Biblical Ruth to the Talmudic giants Shmaya and Avtalyon - who came to the Jewish people from other nations, there is a curious statement in the Talmud (Niddah, 13b) in which Rabbi Chalbo compares converts to "a sore."

One approach to that pronouncement is that it refers to converts who have not adequately prepared for Jewish life and who, after joining the Jewish people, come to violate religious strictures out of inexperience. Another approach, diametric to the first, is that converts, having freely and determinedly chosen their Jewishness, tend to be so meticulous in their adherence to Jewish law that their example reflects poorly on many born Jews' levels of observance.

A tangent to that latter approach occurs. The word for "sore" that Rabbi Chalbo uses actually refers to a sort of skin discoloration (often mistakenly identified as leprosy) spoken of at length in the Torah. Such sores, the rabbis of the Talmud taught, were divine signs - during periods of history when Jews' closeness to G-d merited them such signs - of any of an assortment of personal lapses.

Might some converts, too, in a way, be disturbing but luminous signs for the rest of us Jews? Might the clarity and honesty of people like Klinghoffer, who have come to Judaism entirely on their own through force of observation and reason, without the peer pressures and support systems that nurture born Jews from their childhoods, be reminders to the rest of us of things we might have somehow forgotten, or never confronted?

The "sores" suffered by Jews in Biblical times entailed an element of embarrassment, to be sure. In the end, though, they were a gift, a heavenly sign of guidance. Jews who might naturally assume, like Mr. Sullivan (and Jiminy Cricket before him), that our own consciences are our best guides would do well to listen closely to people like David Klinghoffer, and come to recognize that being a Jewish "fundamentalist" is no badge of shame but a deep and abiding privilege.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

At the recent large rally near the United Nations, it was encouraging to see the breadth of support for Israel and outrage at Iran's current leadership. Not only were Jews of very different stripes present - from the bare-headed to the black-hatted - but there was quite a representation of non-Jews as well, white and black, American, European and even Middle-Eastern.

The event's organizers deserve credit for all the work they put into it, and the vast majority of the tens of thousands of Jews who participated surely left with only good feelings. And yet, something - or, perhaps better said, Something - was missing: a clear expression of the Jewish people's faith in the Almighty.

The void was most starkly evident during the speech of famed lawyer and author Alan Dershowitz. After reading a lengthy indictment of the Iranian president and his policies, Mr. Dershowitz invoked a verse from the book of Isaiah that speaks of the ultimate futility of the plottings of the Jewish people's enemies.

"Utzu eitzah v'tufar; dabru davar v'lo yakum," the former yeshiva bochur eloquently intoned. "Plan a conspiracy, and it will be foiled; speak your piece and it will not stand."

Very inspiring, except that Mr. Dershowitz left out the final words of the verse, "ki imanu [K]el" - "for G-d is with us."

Whether he did so intentionally or not, the truncation seemed to symbolize an attitude that is sadly prevalent today.

The prophet Isaiah was not the only one whose words were edited. When a Jewish band called "Blue Fringe" struck up the Shlomo Carlebach classic "Am Yisrael Chai" - "The Nation of Israel Lives" - it used the title words for both parts of the song. In the Carlebach rendition, though, which became one of the signature songs of the Russian refuseniks during the dark years of Soviet Jewry's anguish, the words to the second part are "Od Avinu Chai" - "Our Father Still Lives." No room for Father, apparently, on the Fringe.

The Torah predicts how, amid affluence and security, it may happen that "your heart will become haughty and you will forget Hashem your G-d… and you will say 'my strength and the power of my hand has amassed for me this success'." (Deuteronomy, 8:14-17)

To be sure, the Jewish people will persevere and, at history's end, emerge triumphant. But Jews' trust must not be placed in military prowess, even that of a Jewish State. "Israel," we do well to remember, refers in the Torah not to a country but to a people.

And even our people, we know all too well, is not immune to the hatred and bloodlust of the rest of the world, at least not until the Messiah arrives.

No, not might, but right is the source of our protection. The only thing that can offer security to the Jewish nation - in our ancestral land or anywhere else - is the blessing of He Who chose us from among the nations.

And so when Jews gather together because of threats against their brothers and sisters, nothing belongs in the hearts of the gathered more than G-d. And nothing more than Him belongs on the lips of those standing before the microphones.

At the recent rally, shofars were blown. Against the disturbing background of the "my strength and the power of my hands" speeches at the rally, the sound seemed a call to arms - even, it seemed, to trust in arms. But the shofar on Rosh Hashana, of course, is a call to repentance, to thoughts of G-d.

Having passed the Days of Judgment, we Jews now approach the holiday of Sukkot, when we sit in supremely vulnerable structures, "temporary dwellings" that by definition are exposed to the elements.

Even had the Talmud not informed us that our sukkot are to remind us of the seemingly insubstantial "clouds of glory" with which G-d protected our ancestors from all harm and attack, could we have had any doubt that our fragile holiday abodes hold the message that our true protection comes not from things physical - or political, or military?

It is a fundamental Jewish message, and an eternal one. But it holds particular resonance, I think, for our own unfocused Jewish times.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Mindful of the Talmudic teaching that after the destruction of the First Holy Temple the only semblance of prophecy resides in children and fools, and well aware of my age, I should hesitate before claiming the mantle of a seer. But a prediction I made in an article for Moment Magazine more than five years ago - and for which, at the time, I was roundly pilloried - has been confirmed by recent events.

I entitled the piece "Time to Come Home," and it was addressed to Jews who belonged to Conservative movement congregations. That movement's claim of fealty to Jewish religious law, or halacha, I contended, is dishonest. Through citations of fact and the words of Conservative leaders, the essay demonstrated how the process of determining Conservative "halacha" differed qualitatively and radically from the halachic process of the millennia. Halacha, I wrote, has always been decided (as it still is by Orthodoxy) through the objective examination of verses, mediated through the Talmud, with determination only to discern the Torah's intention. By contrast, the Conservative process has often involved first deciding a desired result, and then manipulating the sources to yield that outcome.

That might not disturb some Conservative Jews, to be sure, but they likely belong in the Reform movement, which allows halacha a "vote but not a veto." Those Conservative Jews, however, who truly respect the concept of halacha and had always accepted as fact that their movement was committed to the traditional halachic process, the article contended, needed to realize that such was not the case, and that their true home (hence the title) was in the Orthodox community.

Whether because of that thesis itself or Moment's renaming of the piece (against my wishes) as "The Conservative Lie," the article met with loud and angry protest. There was much positive response, too, mostly from erstwhile Conservative Jews who had left the movement for Orthodoxy and from members of Conservative synagogues who had already come to suspect that things were as I had described them. But a small army of Conservative leaders angrily blasted what one called my "nasty diatribe" and accused me of hating Conservative Jews - even though my article had dealt with a theological process, not people, and was expressly aimed at engaging other Jews' minds.

In any event, time has a way of putting things into perspective. In my Moment piece, I identified the issue of same-sex relationships as a particularly telling topic, since the larger societal milieu had essentially embraced such relationships as morally acceptable and yet thousands of years of halachic literature (not to mention explicit verses in the Torah itself, in the case of males) declares them sinful. Hence my "prophecy": The Conservative movement would come in time to "halachically" sanction what the Torah forbids in no uncertain terms. My prediction, of course, required no supernatural powers, only the natural one of observation.

Fast-forward to September, 2006, when the media are reporting that Conservative leaders are proudly poised to effectively sanction unions that, by any objective measure, are halachically indefensible. A fig leaf of sorts is being planned, in the form of a contradictory "second opinion" that Conservative congregations (or, presumably, individuals) can choose to accept instead. But the abandonment of an uncontested Jewish moral verity - even as one of two or more "alternatives" - speaks piercingly for itself.

Conservative Rabbi David Lincoln, the spiritual leader of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, put it well: "Jewish law is flexible in many instances, but there are certain things that are very straightforward, like this."

Truth be told, Rabbi Lincoln's lament, like my prediction, has long been clear to others, even within the Conservative world. At the 1980 convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, influential Conservative rabbi Harold Kushner asked his audience "Is the Conservative movement halachic?" and then answered, honestly: "It obviously is not."

And so, what remains, still, is the thought with which I ended my Moment article.

The courage to recognize misjudgments is a laudable and inherently Jewish trait, one the Talmud sees in the very root of the name Judah (derived from the Hebrew "li'hodot," to admit), from which the word "Jew" derives. Such self-examination is what all Jews are to engage in at this time of year. And it is, moreover, why there are so many once-Conservative Jews who have already blazed a trail of return to a halachic lifestyle. In the wake of the upcoming Conservative decision, others, I hope, will come to follow.

And what I hope no less fervently is that that my own world, the Orthodox, will demonstrate its own self-improvement and commitment - to other Jews, welcoming them warmly into our shuls and into our lives. Here, too, there is a well-blazed trail-and much cause for optimism.

Because Ahavat Yisrael, love for fellow Jews, is not only a sublime concept and an underpinning of the Jewish people, it is as compelling and immutable as any halachah.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Much furor accompanied the exposing of a Reuters photographer's creative Photoshopping of images from the recent Israeli invasion of Lebanon - and rightly so. A short film report on the deception, by turns amusing and infuriating, can be viewed at . Among other examples of the journalistic deceit it documents is a gentleman posing first as a rescuer and then as a corpse. And the apparent placement, for maximum emotional impact, of a pristine wedding dress and an assortment of equally dust-free stuffed animals into the midst of Beirut bombing rubble.

Media manipulate, though, in myriad ways. Sometimes even with good, if misguided, intentions, sometimes even unintentionally, and sometimes even in our own backyard.

Take a recent front-page story in the New York Jewish Week. The article heralded what it claimed may be the "charting [of] new territory in the terrain of religious practice" in the Jewish world. The Sabbath's move to Tuesday? The introduction of a new holiday? A set of laws governing e-mail? A time limit for sermons? No, no, something more radical: a woman was appointed to lead a congregation.

Now there have been women rabbis in the Reform and Conservative movements for decades. Although their salaries inexplicably lag behind those of their male counterparts, Conservative and Reform female rabbis have become commonplace over the years. So why the Jewish Week's breathlessness over "a decision that could be seen as fracturing the stained-glass ceiling" of a synagogue?

That's easy, says the paper. Because the congregation is Orthodox.

Only it isn't. Back in 2002, the same paper identified the same Manhattan congregation, Kehilat Orach Eliezer (KOE), as an "Orthodox Shul" on a similar front page story (one might be forgiven for wondering if there are any other congregations in New York). The recent story more modestly bills KOE as "largely Orthodox in practice." The synagogue, however, is pointedly - and significantly - unaffiliated.

KOE does not belong to any Orthodox umbrella congregational body - not Agudath Israel, not the National Council of Young Israel, not the Orthodox Union. It has no ties to any established Chassidic group. The strongest hint of its theological identity, in fact, lies in its name, which honors a late leader of the Conservative movement, Dr. Louis (Eliezer) Finkelstein. Indeed, KOE's leader until recently was Rabbi David Weiss-Halivni, a well-known scholar who was associated with the Jewish Theological Seminary before becoming one of the founders and leaders of the Union for Traditional Judaism, a movement that broke away from the Conservative but opted to reject Orthodoxy.

To be sure, KOE claims to be a "halachic" congregation. So, though, does the Conservative movement itself. And "largely Orthodox"? Now there's an interesting formulation. Can something be "largely kosher"? "Largely legal?"

Whether Conservative, "halachic" or "post-denominational" (we Orthodox, one imagines, must be "pre-denominational"), KOE's practices, halachically defensible or not, are of negligible concern to either the haredi or centrist segments of the Orthodox world - which comprise the vast majority of Orthodox Jews. Why, then, would the Jewish Week - or The New York Times, which followed with its own story touting the "milestone for advocates of an expanded role for women in Orthodox Judaism" - deem newsworthy the appointment of a woman as a "community head" of a congregation that is Orthodox neither in name nor practice?

The answer lies in the fact of journalism's dirty little secret: Those who manufacture the product have personal opinions and hopes that they are not always able to prevent from informing their reportage. That is manifestly true in the larger journalistic world and, it has become amply clear by now, in the Jewish one no less.

A reporter might be refined, sensitive and talented but if he or she has personal leanings toward, say, the place where the Conservative movement and "post-denominational" entities like KOE reside, or a particular affinity for "gender issues," he or she is simply not the right candidate to write objectively about such entities or issues. The risk is simply too great that the result will be not a story reported but a story created. No, photographs won't likely be doctored, but facts might well be bent subtly out of shape. As they were, once again, here.

Unfortunately, there is a pattern of precisely such carelessness in certain ostensibly neutral Anglo-Jewish publications (which, in turn provide fodder for far more widely read media like The New York Times). And it is both journalistically and Jewishly treif. There should be no room for agenda-driven "news" in either a profession that extols accuracy or an ethical system that hallows truth.

There is certainly no dearth of Orthodox women role-models who shoulder important responsibilities in bona fide Orthodox communities. They fill the fundamental, vital positions of homemakers (in the word's most literal and sublime sense), wives and mothers - and in the roles, too, of spiritual guides and lecturers (within the bounds of traditional halachic norms). Such women, to be sure, do not seek to be featured in the press - as King Solomon wrote, "the honor of the princess" is expressed "inward," not in public prominence. But those women, in fact, are the true crafters of the Jewish future. And the images of their accomplishments don't need airbrushing to be impressive.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

If the world seemed to dim somewhat last week, it was likely because a remarkable woman was called to her Maker, leaving her husband of 67 years, their sons, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and countless others like my wife and me fortunate enough to have known her, to carry on in what light was left.

For the past several years, Mrs. Ethel Leifer, peace upon her, faithfully attended a women's Torah class I hold in my home over the course of several summer Sabbaths. She was the senior member of the group but as attentive as any attendee a half-century or more younger. She would often nod her head in concurrence with something said, and I would wonder if perhaps she was just being polite. Then, though, she would offer a comment, and it would become entirely clear that she not only had entirely understood the point but had something worthy to add. Other times, she would look skeptical, and voice a worthy question. And always, agreeing or challenging, with a smile.

Her constant smile was the tip of a happiness iceberg, a mammoth mountain of gratitude to G-d for His blessings, prime among them her husband, may he be well and take solace in his wonderful family. Whenever she would be asked how long she and her husband had been married, she would respond "blessedly long but not long enough." It is a wrenching thought that those of us in their Orthodox neighborhood in Staten Island will no longer be blessed with the sight of the two of them walking to synagogue holding hands, looking like nothing so much as newlyweds.

At Mrs. Leifer's funeral, I remembered - as I often have of late - some words she uttered when I saw her alive for the last time, words that are worthy for all times but perhaps particularly timely for us all today. She had fallen ill and was in constant and excruciating pain. My wife and I asked if she was up to taking visitors and, assured that she was, went to see her. Mr. Leifer, a refined and gracious gentleman, greeted us at the door, and took us to where his wife sat, smiling as usual, full of love and appreciation, for her partner in life and for life itself.

We asked about her health and she responded that she was managing with the help of her mate, adding, as all who knew her know she regularly did in many contexts, that "G-d does not abandon us." She and her husband explained the various doctors' theories about the source of her pain, about this biological malfunction and that. At one point, I remarked - thinking back now, perhaps without sufficient forethought - about how when any of the myriad processes that keep us healthy go awry we come to realize how miraculous it truly is when they work as they should. "We so need to perceive the divine blessing," I said, "when things go right."

Our hostess then looked at me and, smiling but pointedly, responded: "No, not only then. When they go wrong too."

I was struck with her retention of wisdom despite her pain. She was reminding me of something the rabbis of the Talmud had said: "All that the Merciful One does, He does for good."

In other words, all of us who believe there is a G-d in heaven must appreciate the value to us of all that He does, whether His actions are confluent with our wishes or not. That idea is what lies behind the astounding Jewish law that "just as we pronounce a blessing on the good, so are we to pronounce a blessing on the 'bad'." That latter blessing, recited on the death of a close relative, is "Blessed are You… the true Judge" and the Talmud implies that it is ideally to be recited as an expression of the same love we naturally feel when acknowledging an obviously blessed occasion.

We may not understand why things we feel are bad happen, and there is, to be sure, as King Solomon wrote, "a time for mourning." But somewhere in our minds must lie the conviction that G-d knows best, and that His concern is, in the end, for our ultimate good

It is a thought to think in these perplexing, vexing Jewish times, when - once again - innocent Jewish lives are targeted (cease-fire "time out" or not) by murderous foes seemingly devoid of any sense of fairness - or human attributes like empathy and compassion. Times when much of the world seems bizarrely unable, or unwilling, to recognize the mortal threats facing it - and deaf to the distressing condition of the Jewish canary in the coal mine.

Understanding world events is a possibility in distant hindsight but seldom an option in the midst of a maelstrom. Life is full of mysteries and enigmas; and history - in particular, Jewish history - has no dearth of puzzling twists and turns.

And so, trying to make sense out of our world today is futile. What we can do, though, and must, from Judaism's perspective, is redouble our determination to serve our Father in heaven, and intensify our prayers for His deliverance.

And, finally, realize the truth of Mrs. Leifer's mantra, that no matter what may happen, He does not abandon us.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

In 1970, a high school senior in Baltimore wrote a letter to an Agudath Israel of America publication, taking umbrage at the periodical's reference to the scope of the American Jewish experience "from Borough Park to Baltimore."

Tongue resolutely in cheek, the writer addressed the suggestion that the two places somehow represented diametric poles of the Orthodox world by expressing the "profound shock" he and his friends in Baltimore yeshivot had felt at the suggestion.

"When," the letter concluded, "did Borough Park go bad?"

A certain irony lies in the fact that now, more than 35 years later, the erstwhile teenage cynic works for Agudath Israel, indeed sits in my seat. But the more trenchant transition, I think, has been my home town Baltimore's.

The Orthodox Jewish community in that city was established through the efforts of a small number of exceptionally dedicated individuals in the years before, during and after World War II, heroes to whom Baltimore's Jews today are indebted. In fact, all Jews should be; Baltimore has proven a virtual Jewish nuclear energy plant, empowering communities across the country and around the world with yeshiva and kollel deans, Jewish educators at all levels, Torah scholars and supporters of Jewish education, not to mention good, simple, honest Jews.

Baltimore's formative years benefited from the presence of Torah giants like the founding dean of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman and the illustrious Rabbi Shimon Schwab; and of an assortment of groundbreaking educators and communal activists. But critical elements no less in Baltimore's development as a thriving Orthodox community were a cadre of Jewishly devoted laymen and laywomen who laid the fortifications that empowered Jewish observance in an "out of town" (read: not New York) community.

And their collective legacy is Baltimore's growing, vibrant and inspiring community of Orthodox Jews. To me, the city's true treasure isn't its baseball team, but that community, Baltimore's real 'O's.

I am both proud and humbled by my own Baltimore roots. My maternal grandparents and my beloved mother, may their memories be a blessing, were among the early members of the traditionally observant Baltimore community. And my dear, esteemed father, may he be well, has served for more than a half-century as a rabbi in Baltimore (and in recent years, as the secretary of the respected local Jewish religious court), and continues, with the help of my dear stepmother, to teach Torah, do acts of kindness and bring Jews closer to their heritage.

The seeds they and others planted have since grown into towering trees. The city's Orthodox community still amazes those of us who grew up there in the 50s and 60s but then left for other places. Whether measured in boys' or girls' yeshivot, in communal endeavors, in families or even in eateries, the contemporary Orthodox community in Baltimore is a resplendent large-screen version of its former self. To be sure, every community has its share of problems. As our Sages teach, possessions bring worries; accomplishments, too, bring challenges. But problems of growth are but the accoutrements of blessings. And Orthodox Jewish Baltimore today is a powerful blessing.

My family and I don't live in Borough Park, or even in Brooklyn, but we're not too far from those larger, older Jewish communities that were bustling while the seeds of today's Jewish Baltimore were still being nurtured.

And so we have become fairly familiar with the New York borough that hosts more observant Jews than anywhere else in the hemisphere. And in many ways, we're fond of it. Although the population density presents some challenges (I've been known to grumble about "Borough Double-Park" at particular traffic moments), and although some of the less salubrious effects of the surrounding urban metropolis can take a toll, Jewish Brooklyn is an impressive place. That is evident not only in the borough's preponderance of synagogues, yeshivot and educational opportunities - and not only in its unparalleled shopping and culinary opportunities - but in things like the ethereal peace that descends on the streets like a holy cloud every Shabbat, obliterating the bustle and noise of the days in between.

Baltimore, though, has attained its own undeniable Jewish presence. Its own cars may still cruise Park Heights Avenue on Shabbat, but the sidewalks are filled with observant Jews on the way to or from synagogue or a class, or just taking a walk. And while there may not be a kosher restaurant and modest-clothing shop on every block, there is no lack of pizza or snoods in town.

What is more, even from my (hopefully) more mature perspective these days, I think Baltimore offers something more than a "big city" Jewish community. Maybe it's the fact that it lies below the Mason-Dixon Line. Maybe it's the suburban layout of so many of the Jewish neighborhoods (not to mention the relatively affordable housing!). Or maybe it's the merit of those who pioneered the community. Whatever it is, though, Baltimore has a special grace, a charm, what in Hebrew is called "chein."

It shows in the fact that Baltimore Jews of different stripes and affiliations and levels of observance (or lack of observance) see their commonality before their differences; in how smiles there seem to come naturally; in how Shabbat greetings are extended to strangers and friends alike; in community-wide projects like the annual "Completion of the Torah."

That is why I consider it a privilege that I was raised in "Balmer," as the natives say it. And why my wife and I take great pleasure in knowing that one of our married daughters and her husband and their children live there, and that two of our sons are studying in Ner Israel today.

And so, when locals here in the "big city" ask where I'm from, although I have no idea what the reply "Baltimore" elicits in their minds, I say the word loudly and clearly, letting the sound of my voice convey my pride.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above essay appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times and is reprinted with permission.]

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

It is easy and tempting to wax cynical about Mel Gibson, the once-famously outraged-for-being-called-an-anti-Semite Hollywood powerhouse who recently, under the revealing effects of alcohol, proved his erstwhile accusers to have if anything underestimated the depth of his animus for Jews. And, indeed, cynics abound.

I am not among them. Not that I am beyond cynicism, unfortunately. But Mr. Gibson's apology, in which he disowned his drunken diatribe and asked the Jewish community to help him in "the process of understanding where those vicious words came from," cannot be blithely ignored.

I am given to understand that the successful actor/director/producer is not a man in financial need. Even if he never works in Hollywood again, he won't be homeless. So it would be ungenerous if not unfair to assume his words less than heartfelt. If Mr. Gibson is honestly grappling with the infection in his soul, he deserves not only sympathy but credit. It is infinitely healthier to know there is a prejudice lurking in one's heart than to be oblivious to it.

Which brings us to another performer, this one on the international stage.

Unsurprisingly, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan wasted no time, after word came in that Israeli forces had shelled a UN post in Lebanon, casting the Jewish State as a dastardly villain. Before any facts beyond the shelling itself came in, he publicly proclaimed Israel guilty of "apparent deliberate targeting" of the post.

Soon enough, it emerged that the shelling was a tragic mistake, and that one of the UN observers killed in the attack had e-mailed his former commander in the Canadian army to say that Hezbollah had positioned themselves in close proximity to the UN post - that, in the commander's words, they were "all over his position." The UN observer had gone on to write the commander that Israel's bombardments of the area had "not been deliberate targeting, but rather due to tactical necessity."

Even though if Mr. Annan had not known of that e-mail (or had entertained the obvious thought of removing the UN troops from harm's way), he might have waited until the facts were in. What impelled him to make so irresponsible, so… deliberate - to borrow a word - an accusation? Perhaps veritas is evident not only in vino but in venality.

Like soft drinks and poison, anti-Semitism comes in various flavors and strengths. There is religiously-based hatred for Jews - expressed by espousers of many faiths - and secularist animus for Jews (or things associated with Jews). There is nationalistic Jew-hatred and there are political varieties.

There is, moreover, subtle loathing of the sort that largely lies fallow, expressing itself, if ever, in tirades like the one some Malibu policemen recently witnessed - or in artistic or scholarly expression.

And then there is the more operational variety, like the recent rampage by an Arab-American at Seattle's Jewish federation building, which left one woman dead and five people wounded.

Ironically, though, while anti-Semitic rants and violence understandably capture the most attention, "anti-Semitism lite" of the sort routinely seen at the UN and even in its secretariat, should concern us no less. Not only is the subtle sometimes dangerous itself, but it is mother's milk for the more blatant kind.

And so, if we Hebrews might be so bold as to hope, our hope might be for the day when those whose Jew-hatred is unrecognized might come to recognize what their hearts harbor, and perhaps follow Mr. Gibson's admirable example.

Imagine Mr. Annan apologizing for his one-sidedness when it comes to Israel. Or words of contrition from the representatives of the various General Assembly blocs who routinely offer condemnation for Israeli defensive actions while maintaining stony silence on offensive acts against Jews.

Imagine the European Union - or even just France - asking for help in dealing with its own deep-seated irritation with Jews.

Or the Lebanese government admitting that its own neglect, or even accommodation, of Hezbollah terrorists lies at the root of the upheaval and destruction that has been visited on its land and citizens.

Or some of those citizens themselves owning up to permitting Jew-haters to use their homes, schools and hospitals to hide missiles and other implements of death. Or the man who, over many hours, posed for an assortment of media, holding the same dead Lebanese child as if he had just discovered the body, coming clean about his propagandistic exploitation of a tragedy and desecration of the dead. And those media themselves, for their complicity in the outrage (and more, like playing down the evidence that Hezbollah itself may have been behind the collapse of the building in which the child and others died) .

Or, for that matter, some folks at The New York Times, for, when it comes to the Middle East, editorially confusing evenhandedness with the equating of evil and good.

We wouldn't be wise to hold our collective breath. But history has in fact known some remarkable realizations, even in the realm of anti-Semitism, both regular and lite. So we can certainly hope.

Tisha B'Av has passed again. The day of Jewish mourning over our people's exile from its land nearly 2000 years ago gave way, six days later, to the festive day of Tu B'Av, a day associated by the Talmud with reconciliation, both among Jews and between Jews and G-d. The Talmud also teaches that it was Jews' "hatred for no reason" of other Jews that caused the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

How fitting that part of our lot in our exile - which continues today despite the existence of a Jewish state - should be the collective Jewish suffering of baseless hatred from so much of the world.

We now head toward the Jewish month of Elul, a word that can be read as an acronym for the phrase "I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me," from the Song of Songs. How timely to consider that only Jews' appreciation of one another and of the Torah that was and remains our ultimate unifier can ever lead a drunken world to grapple with where all its vicious words, and actions, come from.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Many wrenching images have arrived from the Middle East of late: dead and mourning Jews, dead and mourning Lebanese, the taunting "talking turban" of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah - the ultimate cause, with his followers, of all the death and destruction.

Civilized people the world over take heart in Israel's military expertise and determination, but there are, of course, no guarantees in geopolitics. Advanced weaponry can wreak advanced destruction; yet large and well-armed forces have not infrequently yielded to smaller ones less endowed. Military actions, moreover, are no more immune than any actions to the nettlesome law of unintended consequences. And when the enemy wears no uniform, is impervious to reason and has no regard for innocent lives - of either their targets or the civilians among whom they themselves hide - soldiers and ordnance are far from decisive.

Even the Jewish State's unspoken "trump card" - its unacknowledged but common-knowledge nuclear capability - may soon, G-d forbid, be equaled by an "Islamic bomb." And while one might imagine that the Cold War concept of "Mutually Assured Destruction" will dissuade Islamists (not a bet I'd make), can anyone truly be certain that Hezbollah does not have, as it claims, conventional missiles that can reach Tel Aviv or Jerusalem? Or that it cannot obtain them from their generous patrons to the east?

Confidence tastes good, but realism is healthier. We do well to remember that here are a billion Muslims, and millions of others, who would be happy - some of them wildly so - to live in a world without a Jewish State.

To be sure, military wisdom and experience, superior weaponry and strategic planning are all necessary and proper in the natural scheme of engaging an enemy. But Judaism requires Jews to recognize something more: that, as King Solomon wrote, the race is not necessarily "to the swift, nor the battle to the strong." Our ultimate prevailing derives from our having earned it with our spiritual commitment. It is that realization itself, in fact, that allows the military efforts to succeed.

Which brings us to the welcome fact that, along with the harrowing images of a nation at war, there were heartening images as well. Like the photographs of Israeli tank crews solemnly reciting the "Prayer for the Road" before embarking on their mission into crazed Hezbollah hornets' nests; of soldiers stealing time as the sun rises to don tefillin and say the morning prayers; of Jewish eyes in helmeted heads turned upward toward heaven. Indications, all, that there are Jews on Israel's dangerous borders who remember who they are.

Similarly encouraging was the speech Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert delivered to the Knesset on July 17, shortly after Israel began its attacks on the terrorist army that, unprovoked, had killed seven Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others. His explanation of why he had ordered the attack and his outlining of the military campaign's goals were expected. What was remarkable, however, was his quoting from an Israeli rabbinate prayer beseeching G-d to "cause the enemies who rise up against us to be struck down" and to "preserve and rescue our fighters" and "grant them salvation and crown them with victory."

The unfortunate norm among all too many Israeli leaders (Menachem Begin was a laudable exception) has been to play up the El Macho and play down the Almighty. Even today, many of us wince when we hear Israeli politicians or military men strut and boast of how superior weaponry or military skills will see them through. It is therefore encouraging to see the "Jewish" in the "Jewish State" no longer quite so missing in action.

Mr. Olmert not only offered a public prayer for Israel's soldiers, but concluded his address with the poignant but ultimately hopeful words of the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice is heard on high, wailing, bitter weeping, Rachel weeps for her children; she refuses to be consoled for her children, for they are gone."

"Thus says G-d: Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; for there is reward for your accomplishment… and they will return from the enemy's land. There is hope for your future… and your children will return to their land."

The future toward which the prophet directs our hearts is the messianic era, when, Jewish tradition has it, all the world's peoples will have come to recognize G-d, and the Jewish nation will live in peace and security in its ancestral land.

And the key to that future is the Jewish people's collective recognition that, in the end, Jews' true protection, in Israel and anywhere, is not of our making. It is, rather, of our Maker.

The soldiers must fight and the leaders must lead. But what will ensure their success is something more sublime. May Prime Minister Olmert's speech prove but the beginning of a new, truly Jewish attitude, in Israel and throughout the world.

A smile from heaven may have arrived in the form of an ancient manuscript of Psalms discovered in an Irish bog mere days after Mr. Olmert's speech. The survival and legibility of the book, which was dated as over 1000 years old, shocked archaeologists. What brightened countless religious Jews, though, was the chapter that it was reported to have been open to: Psalm 83. That would be the first of three Psalms that, at the behest of the Council of Torah Sages, have been recited by Jews worldwide over recent years as a prayer for the Jews in Israel. It speaks of how a conglomerate of nations aims to destroy the Jewish people and take over their land, and implores G-d to vanquish them, and bring them to "seek Your name."

In the merit of our knowing Who protects us, may the day arrive soon.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Intended so or not, Israel's actions of late have echoed the biblical Jacob's. As noted by the commentary Rashi, quoting the Midrash, when the progenitor of the Jewish people prepared to meet his estranged brother Esav for the first time since receiving (to Esav's outrage) their father's blessing, he approached his murder-minded twin with three distinct strategies: a gift, prayer and war.

Employing the first two, Jacob averted the worst-case scenario, the need for the third. Modern-day Israel has been less fortunate; unlike Esav, the enemy it faces has shown no readiness for even a temporary peace.

Echoing the Jewish forefather's example, the Jewish State began with gifts, most recently last summer's evacuation of Jews from Gaza. Neither it, though, nor the withdrawal of Israeli military presence from southern Lebanon five years earlier, placated the global Islamist jihadis, whose respective representatives continued to kill and maim Israelis on both fronts. And so, the third strategy, war - intended to physically prevent the enemy from expressing its bloodlust in deed - has been the whirlwind reaped.

From a truly Jewish perspective, however, the most vital strategy is the second, and it has been employed with determination over the years by countless Jews who trust in G-d, and in their power, by force of heart, to merit His protection.

And so, over recent years in particular, Jews the world over have gathered on many occasions to pray for the safety and welfare of their brothers and sisters in Israel. Many, heeding the suggestion of the Council of Torah Sages, have adopted the practice of reciting particular chapters of Psalms on behalf of endangered Jews overseas each morning after daily prayers.

Not that we have ignored the importance of activism. Only last week, Agudath Israel of America convened the most recent of its missions to Washington, at which members of the organization from across the country traveled to the nation's capital to engage lawmakers and Administration officials. Israel's security, as always, was a prominent topic of interaction.

Prayer, though, is paramount. Mere days later, on the evening of July 19, a remarkable gathering took place in Brooklyn, New York. A major New York Jewish institution, Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, opened its impressive edifice to an Agudath Israel -sponsored special prayer gathering on behalf of Israeli Jews.

It was no pep rally. The thousand or so Jewish men who crammed the yeshiva's cavernous study hall and flowed out into the large lobby and the street beyond, along with the hundreds of women who gathered in the spacious balcony surrounding and overlooking the hall, had not come to celebrate military actions, or to applaud the routing of terrorists. Those present saw beyond the immediate activity in Lebanon and Gaza; they were all too conscious of farther-reaching things.

Like the import of Hezbollah-supporting Iranian "Supreme Leader" Ayatollah Khamenei's recent description of the Jewish State as a "cancerous tumor," and that country's president's threat to unleash an Islamic "explosion" to "burn all those who created [Israel] over the past 60 years." They were aware, too, of the jungle that calls itself the United Nations, and of the putrid gutter known as the "Arab street." They had gathered in the Brooklyn yeshiva not to cheer or to protest or to make declarations, but rather to hear what they needed to do to merit God's protection of His children, and to pray.

Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe and rabbinic head of Agudath Israel, spoke briefly and emotionally.

His voice laden with pain, Rabbi Perlow emphasized the importance of "public prayer" at a "time of travail," and the importance of each Jew's taking account of his or her personal life - "in matters between man and G-d, and in matters between man and man." Especially, he stressed, the latter. And he extolled, above all, the power of Torah-study.

After reminding his listeners that "We in other lands can truly contribute to the safety of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel," he read the names of the Israeli soldiers being held by terrorist kidnappers. More than an hour of Psalms and supplications, led by respected rabbis, followed, cried out in unison by the swelling crowd.

Many hundreds more participated at a distance in the assembly by conference call, and the Orthodox Union held similar gatherings across the country that same evening. Thousands upon thousands of Jews were thus united in heart and hope.

And so we remain.

The children of Jacob, using his most potent weapon.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

This July, like so many before it, New York City's oppressive summer weather is being accompanied by another perennially irritating mass of hot air. "Jews for Jesus" - this year along with "The Chosen People Ministries" and the "Christian Jew Foundation Ministries" - are out in force, trying to convince Jews that relinquishing their faith in favor of a contrary belief system (one, even, in whose name untold numbers of Jews over the centuries were made to suffer and die) is somehow not an abandonment of Judaism but its "fulfillment."

Boosted by a budget of millions, Jews for Jesus alone has mailed material to 400,000 Jewish homes in the area, and Yiddish DVDs to 80,000 Orthodox ones. It is also running radio spots (complete with a klezmer "Hava Nagila" in the background) and placing ads in subways and newspapers.

Although in the past the missionary organization focused on Manhattan, this year it is aiming at all five New York City boroughs and surrounding counties, with special campaigns aimed at Russian-speaking Jews and Israeli expatriates.

Many Orthodox recipients of the Yiddish DVDs, seeing their title and packaging, assumed that they contained inspirational Jewish material. When they popped the discs into their computers, though, their anticipation turned to disgust as they realized the deception (call it Ruse for Jesus). After filing the unwelcome gift in appropriate receptacles, many then telephoned Jewish organizations like Agudath Israel of America, and Jewish newspapers, to warn others about the high-tech wolf in sheep's clothing.

Even the group's name misleads. There must surely be some Jews within its ranks, but interviewing a random sampling of its clean-cut, fixed-smile minions quickly reveals that the organization is composed less of Jews who have embraced the Christian savior than of born and bred evangelical Christians trying to foist their faith on Jews.

For the most part, it is Christians whom they attract, too. As a recent New York Times article noted, most of those "who pray with Jews for Jesus missionaries… are, in fact, non-Jews, according to the organization's statistics." Still and all, for those of us Jews who consider every Jewish soul infinitely precious, the missionaries' pushy pushing of their "good news" among our brethren is bad news enough.

It is, of course, an exceedingly rare product of a traditional Jewish education who might fall prey to Christian proselytizing. Familiarity with Judaism's beliefs and Jewish history is a most effective inoculation against conversion-itis. Unfortunately, though, there is no lack of Jews with sorely limited knowledge of their own faith. To the missionaries, they are their keys to heaven; to us Jews, they are our brothers and sisters, whose own road to heaven lies in a connection to their people and their ancestral faith.

And so the current missionary onslaught should serve as yet another timely and trenchant reminder that we Jews, all of us, need to do more to empower Jewish education - and the Jewisher the better.

In the wake of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey's alarming statistics, there followed an increased awareness within the larger Jewish community of the importance, and dire underfunding, of Jewish day schools, high schools and yeshivos. In more recent years, though, according to Dr. Marvin Schick, who is intimately familiar with the landscape of American Jewish education, things have changed, and not for the better.

Indeed, while there have been laudable private initiatives and some communal restructuring of priorities, few if any Jewish federations place support of day schools high on their list of concerns. An informal survey of Jewish federations in several large American cities yields average allocations of 2% to 7% of federation funds for such schools, with most contributions, including in New York, well toward the lower end.

Is it unreasonable to expect more from our Jewish philanthropic structures?

True enough, most Jewish schools are Orthodox, and most contributors to Jewish federations are not. But is that reason to turn a blind eye - or, at best, a severely myopic one - to the need for, and needs of, schools that happily accept, nurture and educate all local Jewish children, regardless of their families' level of observance?

Particularly important (and particularly needy) are Jewish "immigrant schools," those that provide for the education of children from families who have come to our shores from former Soviet Union lands and elsewhere. Such families are considered high priority by missionaries. Should they not be of equally high priority to Jewish charitable institutions?

If the broader Jewish community truly wants to fight the missionary scourge, it needs to ponder hard the fact that, in the realm of spiritual health no less than physical, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound - here, a ton - of cure.

As no less an authority than televangelist preacher John Hagee recently said (Jewish Telegraphic Agency, July 7): "If rabbis would put more emphasis on putting Jewish kids into Jewish schools, young Jews would never want to become Christians."

From the mouths of missionaries.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Anyone in the habit of reading letters to the editor in The New York Times or any of a number of periodicals is exposed to diametric perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He reads equally spirited defenses of both Israeli and Palestinian stances and actions: of the rationale for targeted killings, and of their outrageousness; of the reduction of terrorist attacks effected by Israel's security fence, and of the dire difficulties "the wall" poses for Arab farmers; of the wickedness of suicide bombers, and of the terrible frustration that leads to such desperate acts.

Simple minds (and some harboring darker things than simpleness) can all too easily come to conclude that the two sides to the conflict are moral equivalents. After all, Palestinians want land, and so do Israelis. Israelis say they want peace, and so do Palestinians. Palestinians kill, and ditto for Israel.

There are times, though, when plain people's plain words speak more eloquently than any letter writer's or spokesperson's, revealing more profound cultural truths than anything to be found in the massive morass of political punditry.

Like the words of an Israeli mother of 18-year-old yeshiva student Eliyahu Asheri, who was abducted and murdered by Palestinian "militants" at the end of June. After he was kidnapped, his abductors announced that unless their demands for an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza were met their captive would be "butchered in front of TV cameras" - even though they had already killed the boy shortly after seizing him.

Hearing that her son had been killed, Mrs. Asheri, a woman with unmistakably Jewish sensibilities, had the following to say:

"At this time… the pain is so unbearable; I can barely find a way to hold it. But one thing I can say is that many times in the past years, because of the many disagreements between brothers we have in this country, many times I asked Hashem [G-d] to give me, first of all, love in my heart for everyone…

"What strengthens you is, first of all, knowing that to die al kiddush Hashem [in sanctification of G-d's name], as he did - that Hashem chose him… this is the thing that comforts us."

Just about the time Eliyahu Asheri was abducted, a funeral was taking place in Gaza for three Palestinian children unintentionally killed in an Israeli strike on a car carrying three terrorists. Hundreds of mourners angrily clamored for revenge, and Falestin al-Sharif, the mother of one of the children, had words of her own.

"If I get my hands on an explosive belt," she said, according to USA Today, "I would go and explode myself inside Israel to tear their hearts out for their children, like they did to me."

No mother's words cried out in grief over the loss of a child should be held against her. But they can nevertheless be telling.

Two mothers. Two griefs. Two reactions. Two cultures.

Two sides, too. Superficially similar. But, in truth, deeply different.

One final quote, this from a little Arab girl called Ruqaya. She called in to an Egyptian television program on which a Muslim cleric, one Sheikh Muhamad Sharaf Al-Din, told a story from Islamic tradition.

"Ruqaya, what did you learn from today's show?" he asked his little caller, according to a translation provided, along with video of the program, by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).

"I learned that the Jews are the people of treachery and betrayal…"

Sheikh Al-Din then interrupted to praise Allah and to repeat the girl's words. "May Allah bless you, Ruqaya," he said. "That is the most beautiful thing I have heard - that the Jews are the people of treachery, betrayal and vileness."

At the beginning of July, according to Palestinian Media Watch, Palestinian television, after a three year hiatus, began to rebroadcast a film clip featuring a child actor playing Mohammed al-Dura, the boy who was claimed to have been killed by Israeli guns during a firefight at the start of the 2000 intifada but, as it turned out, was almost certainly killed by Palestinian bullets. He is portrayed as playing happily in heaven, calling to the children viewers to "follow me." A singer croons a song describing how the earth longs for the deaths of children, how its "thirst is quenched by blood pouring out of young bodies."

One needn't be a knee-jerk defender of every Israeli policy - I certainly am not - to recognize the essential quandary of a country facing an enemy sworn to its destruction, a country that is regularly subjected to terrorist and missile attacks and whose enemy inculcates its young with burning hatred of the other.

Any truly objective and informed observer should readily perceive how distinct are the two cultures in the Middle East today. Their respective ideals, aspirations and hopes are - despite the letters sections - not similar at all.

And pretending they are will only perpetuate the conflict, and help ensure that more innocent blood, G-d forbid, will be shed.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

For a Jewish media constantly scouting for scandals, it was the perfect pluralistic storm. Israeli President Moshe Katsav declined to call Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie "Rav," and the latter, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, took umbrage.

The Forward editorialized its ire, bemoaning Mr. Katsav's reluctance to summon "some measure of common courtesy." The New York Jewish Week weighed in with its own judgment of the perceived slight: a "profoundly disturbing" show of "derisive contempt" for "the largest religious body in American Jewry." Ha'aretz called on all American Jewish leaders to refuse to visit the Israeli president, a suggestion Rabbi Yoffie endorsed.

A posse of pundits pitched in too. The head of the Anti-Defamation League decried Mr. Katsav's policy; the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union called on him to change it; a past president of the Presidents' Conference called Mr. Katsav's position "a slander against all American Jewry." Several dozen Reform and Meretz-affiliated secularists held a protest outside the Israeli president's home.

The kerfuffle's roots lead back to shortly before Rosh Hashana, when an Israeli radio reporter prodded the Israeli president about Jewish religious pluralism and Mr. Katsav explained that his observant background predisposed him to consider only someone who represents the Jewish religious tradition of the ages to be a "Rav."

Word eventually got back to Rabbi Yoffie. Although the Reform leader admits that the Israeli president has always been "very gracious" and "very forthcoming" to him, he insisted that Mr. Katsav address him with the Hebrew honorific. Mr. Katsav explained that he would be willing to refer to the Reform rabbi as "Reform Rabbi Yoffie" or even with the English word "Rabbi," but politely declined to grant him the title "Rav," which, in Israel, is used exclusively to refer to an authority of traditional Jewish belief and practice. On a recent trip to Israel, Rabbi Yoffie chose to break with his personal tradition and not request a meeting with the Israeli president. And the rest was, well, if not history, at least media heaven.

In truth, even the English word "rabbi" presents a challenge to those of us who believe in the divine nature and immutability of the Torah's laws. Should the word be used to refer to clergy of Jewish movements espousing very different beliefs? And so we weigh the facts:

  1. For 3000 years until fairly recently, a rabbi was someone who affirmed traditional Jewish theology and both practiced and was a scholar of Jewish religious law, or halacha.
  2. Today there are institutions that award rabbinical degrees to men and women who do not fit that time-honored definition.
  3. Recipients of such degrees consider it personally insulting if their labors are not recognized by the public's use of the title "Rabbi" for them.

Some contend that Fact #1 should trump all else. No one, they say, should have the right to redefine a word at will. How, after all, would vegans like it if a food company decided to label its smoked meats "vegetarian"? Would environmentalists countenance, say, a strip mining venture's claim to be a "green" company?

Even titles duly conferred by recognized institutions can be employed misleadingly. A Ph.D. in finance is rightly addressed as "doctor" but most of us would consider it presumptuous for him to hang out a shingle offering surgical services. And that's not even getting into witch doctors.

Yet, Facts #2 and #3 persist. I might not feel that a particular university's standards are sufficient to render meaningful the degrees it awards. But is it proper or polite to refuse to recognize the undeniable fact that the degree was awarded? Would a traditional orthopedist be correct to refuse to refer to a duly credentialed chiropractor - whose discipline of treatment he may feel is quackery - as a doctor?

What some Orthodox writers - myself included - choose to do is identify non-Orthodox clergy clearly (e.g. "Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie") on first reference, and then yield to the unqualified word "rabbi" in subsequent references. That allows us to be true to our consciences - by making clear at the onset that the subject is something other than what Orthodox Jews consider a religious authority - while not waving a red flag in front of those who might choose to interpret our faithfulness to our beliefs as a personal slur.

And President Katsav offered no less. But Rabbi Yoffie insisted on being called "Rav." "The essential fact that we are rabbis along with all other rabbis in Israel," the Reform leader announced, "is a principle [Mr. Katsav] is still not prepared to accept."

Sometimes words have discrete, and even disparate, meanings. A rose, to be sure, is a rose. But a rabbi is not necessarily a rabbi, and surely not necessarily a Rav. Whatever one chooses to call them, teachers of the Torah's divinity and halacha's unchanging nature are in a different theological universe from those who teach rejection of those ideas.

At the end of the day, though, less important than the stance of a president of Israel is the underlying truth that has been brought to the fore here.

Rabbi Yoffie's umbrage captivated the press and public; conflict sells. But it also did something constructive, by bringing focus to that truth, to the essential and crucial theological gulf between the Jewish religious tradition and contemporary Jewish theologies that compromise it. It is a gulf exceedingly wide and immeasurably deep. When that fact is fully appreciated by all Jews, we will be on our way back to what unified us at Sinai.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Their usual haunt is Times Square but this time the threatening threesome had set up shop - a makeshift stage and an impressive speaker system - near the Staten Island Ferry terminal in Manhattan, where I embark on my commute home each day. I was surprised to see that my old acquaintances hadn't changed at all since the last time I had come across them a few years ago in midtown.

The master of ceremonies, as then, was loudly inveighing against people of non-color. He was flanked by his two assistants dressed like he was, in colorful caps and robes adorned with Jewish symbols. Together, they angrily denounced Caucasians - with particular malice for "so-called Jews." Occasionally, the lead man would nudge one of his helpers who had missed a cue to read from the bible he held in his hand. The addled assistant, once (or several times) so reminded, would then find the place in his own book and, pointing with his finger, read a pre-designated verse, stiltedly but with enthusiasm.

Next to the stage was a large display board, inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. Opposite each was a novel identification: one of twelve African or Caribbean nationalities. Their citizens, the MC announced loudly, were the "real Jews."

When I first saw the performance a few years ago, my immediate reaction was amusement. But then I experienced something like pity for the triumphalist trio and their fans. How tragic, I thought, that beings created in the image of G-d, capable of truly meaningful accomplishments, can imagine themselves worthy of dignity only by belittling others, even stooping to adopt an identity not their own.

There would be no point, I realized, in engaging the pitiable prophets in conversation. Their beliefs were fueled by fantasy, not fact, impervious to reason. But I indulged all the same in a little fantasizing myself, imagining what I would tell them if only I might find some crack in the wall of their whimsy.

The revelation would no doubt disappoint them, but I would share with them a secret: Jewish chosenness isn't a trophy, a bed of laurels on which to proudly rest. It doesn't mean having made it - or, for that matter, having anything at all.

In the Jewish view of things, being chosen is less a badge than a charge. Yes, religious Jews do indeed consider our forefathers' and foremothers' merit as extending throughout the generations to encompass their descendants. But the bottom line of being chosen is that it is not a reward for any achievement - certainly not any of our own - but an obligation to achieve.

In fact, I would tell them, if they were still listening, that the special status we Jews possess - unlike the supremacy preached by racists of whatever hue - is in fact available to anyone who both recognizes what "chosen" truly means and is sincerely and utterly willing to join the Jewish people and its mission. Many are the biological ethnicities represented in the Jewish people - today as throughout the millennia. One can indeed choose to be chosen.

But the tickets of admission to the Jewish People are sincerity and commitment, not placards and loudspeakers. It's easy to strut about and shout, to brandish skullcaps and Stars of David. Undertaking the endeavor of Judaism - humbly assuming the yoke of the Torah's commandments and Jewish observance - is in a different realm entirely.

Then, though, something else dawned. The rabbis of the Talmud exhort us to "learn from every man." Might there be something to be learned from the fearsome threesome? Of course there is. For they are remarkable, if unintentional, testimony to how coveted the name "Jew" is, even at a time (have there been others?) when the real "real Jews" are hated by so many. The Times Square trio may have no clue about what being a Jew really means, but their desire to assume the mantle is still striking and worth pondering.

What it should teach us born or properly converted Jews is just how special we in fact are, how desired is our very identity. And what it should inspire us to do is more seriously set ourselves to the holy mission of being what Jews are meant to be.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Among those opposing the - shelved for now but sure to return - constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman is an interfaith umbrella organization.

"Clergy for Fairness" includes an assortment of groups, some affiliated with various Christian denominations, others with the Sikh religion and others still with the Jewish world's Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanistic movements. It asserts that the proposed "Marriage Protection Amendment" would "infringe on religious liberty."

Unexplained is how religious liberty managed to persevere for the first 230 years of the Republic, or, for that matter, how people thought themselves free since the dawn of creation, when the right to same-sex marriage went unrecognized, indeed unimagined.

More mystifying still, though, were the words of one member of the group, Reform Rabbi Craig Axler. He told The New York Times that, with the proposed amendment in the sphere of public discussion, "to remain silent as a Jew is unconscionable."

Indeed it is. Although not the way he imagines.

Which is probably that Jews, as a people perennially persecuted, should empathize with others who are marginalized, even marginally, by society. But, whether or not such empathy is appropriate, the inability to claim marital status for a relationship that has been rejected by civilized cultures throughout history, is hardly akin to being confined to a ghetto or condemned to a concentration camp. And, in any event and more to the point, the defining aspect of the Jew is not victimhood, but Judaism.

Thus, what the rabbi should instead find unconscionable "as a Jew" is misrepresentation of the Jewish religious tradition. What should impel him to break his silence are Jewish truths.

He might start with the book of Leviticus, where sexual relations between men is referred to as "to'eiva", not inaccurately translated as "an abomination."

The Jewish Oral Tradition is replete with similar sentiment. Homosexual acts are associated by the Midrash with the Canaanite peoples whose behavior defiled the Holy Land; and the rabbis of the Talmudic era taught that the formal sanctioning of homosexual unions was one of the causes of the biblical Flood. Trenchantly, a statement in the Talmud asserts that one of human society's redeeming qualities has been its refusal to "write marriage documents for males" - its maintenance, in other words, of marriage's definition as the union of a man and a woman.

The Torah does not command hatred of homosexuals. It does not label people who engage in homosexual activity, and certainly not those with homosexual tendencies, as inherently evil. Such people do not forfeit either their humanity or, if Jewish, their membership in the Jewish people; nor are they unworthy of others' care and compassion.

But Judaism, in no uncertain terms, forbids homosexual acts; and, in equally certain terms, sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony. Anyone seeking to address the issue "as a Jew" should be proclaiming those facts, not fudging them.

Rabbi Axler, as it happens, was taking his cue from his movement. The president of the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi David Ellenson, contended in The New York Jewish Week that not only does homosexual activity not violate the letter and spirit of the Torah, but embracing its propriety is a Jewish religious imperative.

"A tradition that demands 'You shall do that which is upright and good'," he explained, "can surely be construed in such a way that the ethos of Jewish tradition can be said to trump a single statement in Leviticus…"

But - as a Jew - Rabbi Ellenson needs to face the fact that the Torah indeed contains both verses, and should realize that the latter contradicts the former no more than does any of the Torah's laws that prohibit certain other sexual relationships. The definition of "upright and good" is not whatever a particular society or era embraces but rather, and precisely, to heed what God commands us to do, and to not do. That, in fact, is the very essence of the Jewish faith: to follow the divine, not our own lights.

When contemporary Jewish movements define Judaism down for their followers, that is objectionable enough. But when they seek to swathe political correctness in Jewish garb, it does violence to the integrity of all Jews' religious heritage. Whether the issue is "reproductive freedom" or assisted suicide or the redefinition of marriage, responding "as a Jew" must mean something more than just responding.

Abraham, Jewish tradition explains, was called the "Ivri" - the "other sider" - because "the entire world was on one side" of a conceptual river, and he "on the other." Nothing is more fundamentally Jewish than to willfully stand apart from an unbridled world and affirm timeless truths.

That is what one does, as a Jew.

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

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Dip Tinking about H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N/P>

Rabbi Avi Shafran

My 13-year-old son Menachem is my valued chavruta, or study-partner; he has a keen and creative mind and I hope he will one day become a true talmid chochom, or religious scholar. We study Talmud together every evening and Sabbath; Menachem's mornings at yeshiva are also filled with the study of religious texts.

But he knows how to recreate too. Our family chooses not to own the ubiquitous appliance that a renowned if blunt-speaking rabbi once likened to having an open and flowing sewer pipe in one's living room.

And so Menachem reads.

Most of the standard fare of contemporary "teen lit" is as unwelcome in our home as are televisions. Many books, though, nonfiction and novels alike, have emerged from Orthodox publishing houses in recent years; the boy reads his share of those. With his well-developed sense of humor (and special appreciation of the imaginative and absurd), he has also consumed his share of Rowling and Handler (a.k.a. Snicket).

Not long ago, though, I found him engrossed in an old book that had somehow survived many years and several interstate moves intact. Four decades earlier, it had made me laugh out loud and, amazingly, it was having precisely the same effect on my son. More amazing still, the book was already decades old when I had read it as a boy.

The tome was "The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N," penned in the 1930s by Leo Rosten (under the nom de plume Leonard Q. Ross) for The New Yorker and then published as a book (followed by a sequel, "The Return of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N").

For the unfortunate uninitiated, the Kaplan books are wonderfully droll accounts of the experiences of what we would today call an "English as a Second Language" instructor, as he strives to introduce new immigrants - Kaplan hails from Kiev - to the vagaries of American speech, grammar and idioms. The humor derives largely from the garbled yield of Mr. Kaplan's accent and his, shall we say, "alternative logic." He is a student who proudly announces the principal parts of "to die" as "die, dead, funeral" and who, after submitting the word "door" as an example of a noun and asked to provide another example, responds "another door." He bemoans his wife's "high blood pleasure" and, in a business letter, pens the memorable sentence "If your eye falls on a bargain please pick it up." Not much in the way of plot, but the dialogue is priceless.

It's always heartening for parents, especially those of middle-age (or, as some of their children undoubtedly think, of the Middle Ages) to witness their young relating to ideas, books or activities they themselves enjoyed when in their own formative years. But, for goodness' sake, "The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N" was written in 1937 and a youngster is audibly chuckling over it close to a decade into the Common Era's second millennium? What gives?

Sure, Rosten is funny, but so are Mark Twain and P.G. Wodehouse (himself, incidentally, a fan of the Hyman Kaplan books); you don't see many kids cracking up over them these days. And sure, anyone who appreciates the intriguing elements of language (as a toddler, on hearing a new word, Menachem would repeat it softly to himself several times, rolling it around on his tongue like a piece of candy) is easily captivated by the sort of things that ensue when Mr. Kaplan and his classmates engage in mouth-to-ear combat with that strangeness called English.

But I think there may be another, more subtle reason both my son and I connected so well with the books. It has to do with Kaplan himself.

For all his comical blunders and swollen self-regard (the asterisks - actually, green stars - are part of his flamboyant signature for a reason), Mr. Kaplan is endearing - and for a very Jewish reason: He is preternaturally determined, and undeterred by even his most spectacular failures.

He's in the class, in other words, to learn, and learn he will, come hell or high vowels. He is committed to using his mind - to what he calls "dip tinking." Although the Hyman Kaplan books are almost devoid of religious references, their protagonist hews unmistakably to a principle stated by the Rabbis of the Mishna (Avot, 2:6): "The bashful person cannot learn."

Of course, the rabbis were referring not to study of the sort that goes on at the "American Night Preparatory School for Adults." They were talking about the quintessential Jewish study, that of Torah. But Kaplan's enthusiasm and devotion are familiar to anyone who has ever entered a yeshiva classroom or study-hall. That the Talmud compares Torah to bread and water is not insignificant. The study of Jewish law and lore is meant to be the staple of the Jewish life of the mind.

Single-minded focus on the pedagogic goal, no matter what obstacles or failures may interject themselves, is arguably the essence of Jewish learning - and teaching. The Talmud speaks of the great merit of one Rabbi Preida whose pupil could not understand a lesson unless it was repeated 400 times. Both teacher and student had every reason to become frustrated, indeed to abandon the task. But neither did; the goal was too important. And they were in it together.

Mr. Kaplan's instructor, Mr. Parkhill (or "Pockheel," as Kaplan calls him), while regularly at wits' end over his student's pronouncements and advocacies, also shows great patience, even signs of appreciation. After the rest of the class excitedly attacks a condemned building of words and illogic erected by their tenacious classmate, and Parkhill joins in with a withering demolition of the Kaplanesque structure, something surprising happens:

"Even as he chastised his most intractable pupil, Mr. Parkhill felt nourishing juices course through his veins. For the priceless spark of life, the very heart of learning, had been revived in what, but half an hour ago, had been a dull and listless congregation."

Hyman Kaplan's creator was not a notably religious man, but Kaplan the character and his goal-focused monomania readily evidence Rosten's recognition - perhaps instilled by his parents, and certainly present in his genes - of a truly Jewish ideal: Learning matters, above all.

The story is told of two Jews in the 1930s discussing the renowned Lithuanian Talmudic genius Rabbi Yoseif Rosen, popularly known as "the Rogatchover."

"Why," mused the first fellow, "if only he had studied physics, he could have been an Einstein!"

"You've got it wrong," says the other. "If only Einstein had studied Talmud, he could have been a Rogatchover!"

And so what occurs is that part of what so resonated in me and my son about Leo Rosten's memorable creation - aside from the laughter and amusement he brought us - may have been our realization, conscious or not, that, if only Hyman Kaplan had studied Torah, he could have been a talmid chochom.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above article appeared in The Forward and is reprinted with permission.]

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

As a Jewish state, Israel has always incorporated elements of religious tradition into its workings. Kosher food, for example, is served in the armed forces and at government functions; the national calendar recognizes Jewish holidays. And personal status issues like conversion, marriage and divorce are determined by Jewish law, or halacha, overseen by an official state rabbinate.

That policy, part of the "religious status quo" initiated at Israel's birth, served her well and without protest for more than a half-century. Recent years, though, have seen Israel's conversion and marriage laws assailed by a coalition of largely American advocates - in order to advance the interests of non-Orthodox Jewish religious movements, which currently have only miniscule followings in Israel.

Israel's "personal Jewish status" policy resulted from a carefully considered decision of Israel's early leadership. No less a personage than David Ben Gurion, who would become Israel's first prime minister, wrote that it was the only way to prevent "G-d forbid, the splitting of the Jewish house into two."

A number of arguments have been put forward for jettisoning the longstanding policy, in particular regarding marriage: Some Jewish couples resent having to undergo religious marriage ceremonies and classes. Marriages involving Jews not permitted by Jewish religious law cannot be effected in Israel. Israelis can and do circumvent the law and marry outside Israel. Persuasion is preferable to coercion.

But Jews - of whatever affiliation - who are truly committed to the wellbeing of the larger Jewish community and not only to the advancement of a particular cause or movement should carefully and objectively examine each of those points.

The religious status quo policy does in fact require engaged Jewish couples to undergo a Jewish ceremony, complete with a rabbi, witnesses and the writing of a traditional marriage document, or ketuba. And couples are indeed asked to attend classes. But, in a state claiming a Jewish identity, do a Jewish ceremony and a cursory apprisal of Jewish law really, as some advocates have repeatedly charged, "deprive citizens of basic human rights"?

As to Israeli law's declining to recognize halachically forbidden marriages, it's a rare country that doesn't place legal limits on marriage. All of the states in our own country prohibit incestuous marriages; 24 forbid cousins to marry; six require blood tests. Those things, too, likely discomfit some individuals, but, significantly, one doesn't see those who are assailing Israel's halacha-based marriage laws campaigning against American consanguinity or health-concern statutes.

It is true that some Israelis circumvent Israel's laws by taking quick trips out of the country to get married. But the idea that laws or standards that can be evaded should be dismantled is not one generally embraced. Many Americans disregard speed limits and underreport their incomes; few suggest that, as a result, highway safety rules or the IRS should be abolished. What is more, the law, heeded or not, is a teacher, informing the public of ideals; there is considerable Jewish value in a Jewish State statutorily enshrining unarguably Jewish expectations.

Something more: It is hardly uncommon for children of non-Orthodox, even staunchly secular, backgrounds to come to adopt halachic observance. Some staunchly secularist Israelis may be miffed by their country's marriage laws, but imagine the pain of a newly observant young woman a generation hence who, because those laws were undermined by American activists, finds herself forbidden by her religious conscience from marrying the man she loves.

Finally, the issue in the end is not about coercion versus persuasion. It is, rather, about whether a Jewish standard belongs in the laws of the Jewish state.

Characterizing a time-honored and deeply Jewish standard as something malevolent is grossly unfair. Overheated and incendiary language about "human rights" and an Orthodox "marriage monopoly" only serves to turn Israeli Jews farther away from whatever connection they may have with their religious heritage and the broader community of Jews. Do we Americans speak of standard-setters like the Food and Drug Administration or the Federal Reserve Board as sinister "monopolies"? Do safety regulations or interest rate adjustments, inconvenient though they may be to some, constitute a curtailment of "human rights"? A Jewish State needs a Jewish standard for marriage and divorce, and halacha - the highest common Jewish denominator - is the logical, not to mention the most Jewishly authentic, choice.

If American proponents of civil marriage in Israel would spend a fraction of the energy and funds they expend deriding our mutual Jewish tradition instead explaining and acclaiming it, fewer Israelis would be alienated from their heritage, Jewish law would be more widely respected and the Jewish people would be headed toward a more unified future.

American Jews can certainly choose to advocate for a separation of religion and state in Israel. And Israel, too, can choose to deconstruct itself as a country that respects the Jewish religious tradition. But - particularly at a time when the Jewish State's existence is under siege by both murderers within and genocidal madmen at a distance (but within range of nuclear weapons) - should such goals really be on any sensitive Jew's agenda?

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

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Custom-Made for American Jews?

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Shavuot, one of the trio of Jewish "pilgrimage" festivals that also includes Passover and Sukkot, tends to get short shrift from most American Jews. Coming mere weeks after the Passover seders, perhaps the "first-fruits festival" simply finds many folks "holidayed out". Or maybe it's because Shavuot lacks any unusual "mitzvah-food" of its own like matzoh, or ritual practice like building a sukkah. Whatever the reason, though, Judaism's summer-season holiday has come to be neglected by much of the American Jewish community.

And yet, the argument could convincingly be made that no other Jewish festival is more timely or urgent for unity-challenged American Jewry

Because Jewish tradition associates the day of Shavuot (two days, actually, at least for those of us who don't live in Israel) with the Jews' acceptance of the Torah, the seminal event of Jewish peoplehood and unity. Shavuot, the Talmud and Jewish liturgy teach, marks the anniversary of the day our ancestors stood at Mt. Sinai, in the Talmud's poignant words, "like one person, with one heart."

What unified our people at that time, Jewish sources make clear, was our forebears' unanimous stance vis-a-vis the essential Jewish mandate, the laws of the Torah - a stance embodied in their immortal words: "Na'aseh v'nishma", "We will do and we will hear."

That phrase captures the quintessential Jewish credo, the acceptance of G-d's will even amid a lack of "hearing," or understanding. "We will do Your will," they pledged in effect, "even if it is not our will, even if we are able to 'hear' it, even if it discomfits us."

Could anything be more antithetical to the American mindset? More diametric to the "What's in it for me?" mentality that we Americans, including we American Jews, take in with every breath?

Ours, after all, is a comfort-crazed society, fixated on having things, and on having them our way. And not only in the physical trappings of our lives but in our spiritual choices no less. How common it is these days to hear worshippers, Jewish ones as well, explaining their degree of observance, their choice of place of worship, even their religious affiliations, as born of something akin to coziness.

"I embrace this observance because it makes me feel good."

"I so enjoy the services there."

"That liturgy makes me feel involved, important."

"I'm most comfortable (or happy, or content, or fulfilled) as a (fill in the blank) Jew."

But Judaism has never been about comfort, enjoyment or even personal fulfillment (though, to be sure, the latter surely emerges from a G-d-centered life). It has, rather, been about listening to G-d, not only when His commands sit well with us but even - indeed, especially - when they don't. Jews, after all, have died, proudly and painfully, for their faith.

Thus, Shavuot, which this year falls out on June 2 and 3 (its second day coinciding with the Sabbath), really deserves to be a "front and center" holiday for us American Jews. Its central theme speaks to us, loudly, clearly and directly. The Jewish summer-festival reminds us about the engine of true Jewish unity, that it lies in the realization that Judaism is not about what we'd like G-d to do for us, but rather about what we are honored, exalted and sanctified to do for Him.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Quite a stir ensued at a recent American Jewish Committee symposium in Washington when Israeli novelist A.B.Yehoshua called the hosting organization's 100-year record "a great failure" and opined that Jews in the United States cannot live genuinely Jewish lives. Only in Israel, the celebrated writer asserted, can a truly Jewish life be expressed, and only the Jewish state can ensure the survival of the Jewish people.

Reaction was quick and spirited. Many of Yehoshua's American listeners were scandalized - New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier accused him of "insist[ing] on narrowing [Jewish religion, culture and literature] down to Israeliness." And Israeli commentators took Yehoshua to task as well for, what the Jerusalem Post's Uri Dan characterized as, "the stupidity" of the novelist's remarks.

Citing the work of Israel Democracy Institute's Professor Aryeh Carmon, Forward editor J.J. Goldberg perceptively framed the brouhaha as the yield of a conceptual divide. With the destruction of Jewish Eastern Europe during the Holocaust, asserts Carmon, Israeli Jews "inherited" the Jewish identity expressed through daily life in an identifiably Jewish environment; and American Jews, the experience of Jewishness as a "way of looking at things."

Writes Goldberg: "It ought to be obvious… that Israelis are not wrong in their way of being Jewish, any more than Americans are wrong in their way - joining organizations, attending events, giving to charities and trying to live by what they understand as Jewish values. The two ways are merely different."

Different, to be sure, but "merely" may not do justice to the yawning gulf between the two. More critical, though, the suggestion that either expression of Jewishness has lasting power is highly arguable.

Speaking Hebrew, having a Jewish army and living where the winter holiday is Chanuka and the spring one Passover are fine things, but to imagine they have the power to fuel Jewish continuity is to imagine that a shiny car without a motor can get you across town.

It doesn't take rocket science, only social science, to spy the implications of the large and increasing number of Israelis, mostly young, who have chosen in recent decades to emigrate. (New York and Los Angeles have particularly sizable Israeli expatriate communities, but most large American and European cities have their own healthy shares of once-Israeli residents.) Hebrew and army service are apparently insufficient to keep Israeli Jews in Israel; can they be expected to keep them vibrantly Jewish? And if Hebrew fluency is itself somehow the measure of Jewishness, the definition is as meaningless as it is tautological.

Nor is "American-style" Jewish cultural identity a bridge to our people's future. Not only is Hebrew Greek to most American Jews, but so are the most basic Jewish beliefs and concepts. Asked to name a Jewish tenet, the average American Jew is likely to respond "pluralism" or "repairing the world," even though his understandings of those concepts are bizarre expansions of how they are used in the Talmud. The true fundamentals of Jewish belief are books as closed to Joe Q. Jewish as the Talmud itself. Such obliviousness is hardly the stuff of generational continuity.

But continuity is attainable. The key is to recognize that there is a third heir to the Eastern European Jewish world that perished last century. It is neither Israel nor America, yet it resides, in fact thrives, in both countries - as it does on other continents. It is the world of Jews who live neither Israeliness nor liberal idealism but Judaism - in the word's original sense: Jewish belief and practice as prescribed by the Jewish religious tradition.

Not only is affirming and observing Torah and halacha the most authentic expression of Jewish nationhood, it is the one - and only one - proven to have empowered Jewish continuity in the past. And it is clearly poised to empower it in the future. The recent American Jewish Committee study showing a steep rise in the Orthodox percentage of young American Jews (and predicting a continuation of Orthodox growth) could not have come as a surprise to anyone remotely familiar with the multi-generational vibrancy of Jewish life in the many Orthodox Jewish enclaves across America.

The truism that Judaism underlies the Jews is often greeted with the blithe retort that observance simply "isn't for everyone." The Tel Avivian needs his nightlife, and the New York Jew his cultural relativism. How easily we turn wants into needs. And how easily we dismiss our past and forfeit our future out of fear that our styles may be cramped.

One need only enter almost any Orthodox synagogue to meet Jews from the most unusual backgrounds who, through force of determination and conviction, came to Jewish observance as adults. Every Jew stood at Mt. Sinai, and every Jew today can return to it. And all Jews - in Israel, America, Europe and elsewhere - who do so return, will, along with their children and descendents, become pulsating parts of the Jewish future.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Back on March 12, a paean to "the dignity of atheism" appeared on The New York Times op-ed page. It was penned by celebrated philosopher Slavoj Zizek who, had he consulted the same periodical's obituary page a mere three days earlier, would have come face to image with the late Richard Kuklinski.

Mr. Kuklinski, who was retired from life at the age of 70, claimed, utterly without remorse, to have killed more than 100 people as a Mafia enforcer; his favored methods included ice picks, crossbows, chain saws and a cyanide solution administered with a nasal-spray bottle.

The happy hit man's example might not have given pause to Professor Zizek, the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. But it should have.

Because the notion that there is no higher authority than nature is precisely what enables people like Mr. Kuklinski - and the vast majority of the killers, rapists and thieves who populate the nightly news.

No, no, of course that is not to say that most atheists engage in amoral or unethical behavior. What it is to say, though, is that atheism qua atheism presents no compelling objection to such behavior - nor, for that matter, any convincing defense of the very concepts of ethics and morality themselves.

The reason is not abstruse. One who sees only random forces behind why we humans find ourselves here is ultimately bound only by his wants. With no imperative beyond the biological, a true atheist, pressed hard enough by circumstances toward unethical or immoral behavior, cannot feel compelled to resist. Why should he?

In his view, a purposeless process of evolution has brought us to where we stand, and our feeling that there are good deeds and evil ones is but a utilitarian quirk of natural selection - like our proclivity to eat more than we need when food is available. And so, just as we might choose to forego a second helping of pizza if we harbor an urge to lose weight, so may we choose, for personal gain (of desires, not pounds), to loosen our embrace of a moral, ethical life. Biological advantages, after all, are not moral imperatives.

Atheism, in the end, is a belief system in its own right, one in which there can be no claim that a thieving, philandering, serial murdering cannibal is any less commendable a member of the species than a selfless, hard-working philanthropist. In fact, from an evolutionist perspective, the former may well have the advantage.

To a true atheist, there can be no more ultimate meaning to good and bad actions than to good or bad weather; no more import to right and wrong than to right and left. To be sure, rationales might be conceived for establishing societal norms, but social contracts are practical tools, not moral imperatives; they are, in the end, artificial. Only an acknowledgement of the Creator can impart true meaning to human life, placing it on a plane above that of mosquitoes.

Proponents of atheism bristle when confronted by the implications of their belief, that morality and ethics are mere figments of our evolutionary imagination. But, for all their umbrage, they cannot articulate any way there can really ever be, as one writer has put it, "good without G-d."

The bristlers are not liars, only inconsistent; some well-hidden part of their minds well recognizes that humans have a higher calling than hyenas. But while the cognitive dissonance shifts to overdrive, the stubborn logic remains: The game is zero-sum. Either there is no meaningful mandate for human beings; or there is. And if there is, there must be a Mandator.

What inspired Professor Zizek to celebrate atheism as "perhaps our only chance for peace" in the world was the unarguably dismal example set by some people who are motivated by religion. He is certainly correct that much modern mayhem is deeply rooted in claims of religious rectitude. What he forgets, though, is that the world has also seen unimaginable evil - perhaps its greatest share - from men who professed no belief in divinity at all, whose motivations were entirely secular in nature. Adolph Hitler was no believer in G-d. Nor was Joseph Stalin. Nor Pol Pot. Together, though, the trio was responsible for the murders of tens of millions of human beings. They pursued their dreams as atheists with no less relish than Osama Bin Laden pursues his as an Islamist. Evil is evil, whether expressed through faithlessness or misguided faith. But only a belief in a Higher Being has the potential - realized or not - of reining in the darker elements that haunt human souls.

Some of my best friends - okay, one or two - are atheists. Stranded on a desert island, I would prefer the company of any of them to Osama's.

But if my choice of island partner were between two strangers about whom I know only that one believes there is no higher reason for human life and the other that there is, I know which one I'd choose.

And I think Professor Zizek might make the same choice.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

I made a quick trip the other day to my home town, Baltimore, to crash a party.

It was a celebration hosted by my brother, a rebbe, or "Talmud/ethics/philosophy teacher and counselor" in Ner Israel Rabbinical College's high school division. After many years' effort, he was marking his completion of the study of the entire Babylonian Talmud.

A small group of local relatives and esteemed rabbis were present; my brother (whom I taught everything he knows - about hitting a baseball) had purposefully not informed me of his accomplishment or its celebration; he hadn't wanted me to make the 200-plus-mile trip to join him. But I was tipped off by his wife, who thought, correctly, that I wouldn't have wanted to miss so festive an event in honor of so magnificent an accomplishment.

It was a wonderful experience, not only because I was able to participate in the event itself - the meal served in celebration of a siyum, or "completion ceremony," is considered religiously significant - but because I was able to break bread with my father, stepmother, brother, sons (students in Ner Israel), sister-in-law and her parents and siblings, to whom I feel very close as well.

I found myself thinking about my father's experiences as a youth in Poland at the outbreak of World War II. Although he rarely spoke about that era to his children when we were younger, I was able to learn much from the videotaped interview he granted Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation in 1998. And, at the siyum, between courses and the words of Torah and congratulation that were delivered, I found myself recalling pieces of my father's testimony.

After my brother expounded on the final words of the Talmudic tractate with which he was completing his course of study, I pictured my father as a 14-year-old, when Germany invaded Poland and he and his family, along with the rest of the residents of his shtetl, fled before the advancing Germans.

He experienced some hair-raising moments during that flight, including the murder of his uncle by German soldiers who overcame the refugees, and being packed, along with the rest of the townsfolk, into a synagogue that was then set ablaze. (The people were released at the last moment, through the intercession of a passing German general - who the villagers suspected had been the prophet Elijah in disguise.) Nevertheless, once the refugees reached another town and settled into some abandoned barracks, the boy who was my father made an announcement to his parents.

"I said … that I'm going to yeshiva now… to Bialystok yeshiva. I was supposed to go a month ago… They said… the war is not over, it's not settled…"

The war, in fact, had only begun, and it would come to take the lives of my father's parents and most of his siblings, not to mention countless other relatives. But he couldn't have known that then, and he was determined.

At the siyum, my brother recited the special prayer traditionally offered at such celebrations, putting "the Talmud" where the name of a single tractate would normally go. And I remembered, incongruously, how my father at 14, when he said his final goodbye to his parents, had never before been on a train.

"I [had] promised [myself] that I would go to Bialystok and something was telling me - maybe it was because I was stubborn -- I said I am going to yeshiva and I'm going to go."

Those gathered at the siyum offered my brother their hearty congratulations and broke into song.

"[It was] a promise to myself, a promise to myself… they thought I was so dead-set to go… so they let me go. My mother, peace be on her, brought me a few apples…"

Several rabbis spoke at the siyum, including my father, who expressed his pride in his son's accomplishment.

Sixty-seven years earlier, carrying his apples, his phylacteries and a prayer-book, he boarded a train to Bialystok - only to be told by a passenger that, due to the war, all the yeshivos in that city had relocated to Vilna. When the train arrived in Bialystok the boy asked how to get to Vilna.

"Someone comes over to me and says… there is a train that goes to Vilna. I said I have no ticket. He said don't worry about a ticket - go! People were hanging from the doors… I'm standing there … probably crying… something was telling me 'you must get onto the train.' And all of a sudden I see the train moving… so I grabbed the handle of the steps - people were standing on the steps and I couldn't get on the steps… as the train started to move faster and faster, people pushed themselves in and I got between two cars…"

I, too, am proud of my brother's accomplishment. He and his wife - whose own commitment and assistance made his achievement possible - deserve tremendous credit for the thousands of hours of hard work and sacrifice that underlie it. But at the siyum I couldn't help but think a thought that I know they would agree with, a thought that has occurred to me countless times about my own life.

All of us surely play a major role in whatever we may achieve. But in the end we can never really know just how much our achievements are due to our own will and determination, and how much to the merit of the choices, commitment and determination of those who arrived here before us.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

This year's Passover celebration was punctuated by the characteristically barbaric Palestinian attack on a Tel Aviv eatery that killed nine and wounded dozens. The bombing hung like a putrid cloud over Jews everywhere. But it was also likely at the fore of the minds of many who listened attentively to the haftarah, or reading from the Prophets, on the festival's final day.

That excerpt, read only in the Diaspora, where an eighth day of Passover is celebrated, is from Isaiah (10:32-12:6) and includes some well known verses from the prophet's vision of the end of history, when the "wolf will lie down with the lamb" and perfect peace will reign among the world's human inhabitants as well.

It was a marvelous but difficult future to imagine in 2006, as it has been throughout most of history. Not only did malevolent murderers strike again against Jewish men, women and children, but spokesmen for Hamas and the Palestinian Interior Ministry proudly embraced the attack as a "legitimate response" to "Israeli aggression" - Israeli attempts, that is, to thwart such attacks. Although the carnage was apparently the work of a rival terrorist group (the field is as crowded as its inhabitants are depraved), hatred of Jews can always be counted on to bring together the strangest of bedfellows.

Nor were Islamic extremists the only ones who treated murdered Jews with contempt. A state-controlled newspaper in Egypt praised the bombing as a heroic "act of sacrifice and martyrdom"; and the South African foreign ministry essentially equated the attack on unarmed civilians with Israeli air strikes against terrorist bases.

For its own ignominious part, The New York Times chided Hamas for its expression of gratification over new pools of Jewish blood, but only for thereby showing itself to be "cynical and dim-witted," leaving the question of the morality of murder oddly unexplored.

And, of course, the president of the new nation-aspirant to nuclear weaponry continued his own diatribes against the Jewish State, and predicted that it was on the verge of "being eliminated."

Back, though, to the final day of Passover's reading. Its backdrop is the massing outside Jerusalem of the Assyrian army, intoxicated with its successful conquest of much of the Holy Land. The prophet foretells how the Jews' enemy will be suddenly and miraculously smitten by G-d, which indeed it was. It is then that Isaiah moves to his vision of a more distant future, when the Messiah will appear, the Jews will be rescued from all who wish them harm and "the land will be filled with knowledge of G-d, like the waters cover the seabed." The nations of the world, the prophet foresees, will celebrate and consult the Messiah, "raising a banner" as they gather to present themselves to the Jewish leader.

Another of the Jewish prophets, Jeremiah, also speaks of that era, giving voice to G-d's promise that that the time will arrive when "No longer will it be said, 'By the living G-d Who brought the Jewish People up from the land of Egypt' but rather 'By the living G-d Who brought the Jewish People up from the land of the north and from all the lands to which He cast them and returned them onto their [own] land'." (16:14).

In other words, despite all the Egyptian exodus's own miracles and wonders, and despite the fact that it will always remain the germinal event in the Jewish people's formation, that redemption will pale beside the one yet to come.

Why, though, should that be? Did not our ancestors' enslavement in Egypt seem a hopeless sentence, and would its persistence not have spelled the very abortion of the Jewish nation? And was our grant of freedom then not accompanied by miracles and wonders, the ones we just recounted on the Seder nights?

Perhaps the reason the exodus will nevertheless take second place to the future ingathering may have something to do with the essential character of the two events' respective miracles. That the Egyptians were visited by plagues and that the sea split for the Jews were surely wondrous things, but those events were but temporary interruptions of the natural course of things. What Isaiah presages, though, is a wrenching, permanent transformation of nature itself.

In our experience, animals are both food and prey; it has always been so. A world where the wolf will lie down with the lamb is a world radically altered in its essence.

As is a world where the Jewish People have been gathered from the corners of the earth back to the place from which they were exiled millennia ago.

And then there is the even greater, almost unimaginable, metamorphosis of nature inherent in a world where, instead of vicious hatred of Jews, there is only humility and reverence for the instrument of G-d who brought them, finally, home.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The notion that the phrase "documentary film" implies a balanced, or even accurate, production is quickly exploded by reflecting on the fact that the category includes things like "Birth of a Nation" (which extolled the Ku Klux Klan) and "Triumph of the Will" (which paid homage to the Third Reich).

Considering those two famous examples, it is particularly painful to see Jews, of all people, offering mindless praise to a recent Israeli agitprop film vilifying Israel's rabbinical courts and Jewish religious law.

The documentary "Mekudeshet" - which means "betrothed" but whose English title is given as "Sentenced to Marriage" - has been awarded prizes by Israel's filmmaking community and, despite its mediocre artistry and blatant biases, has been hailed by remarkably uncritical critics across the United States where it has been screened.

Produced by Anat Zuria, whose previous work, tellingly, was an indictment of the Jewish "family purity" laws and the mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, Mekudeshet tells the stories of three women in the midst of divorce proceedings - which, in Israel, are presided over by government-sanctioned rabbinical courts.

The women's stories are harrowing; each, by her telling, is the victim of a heartless husband who refuses to acquiesce to the divorce. (According to Jewish religious law, to effect a divorce, both a husband and a wife must agree to go their separate ways; under certain circumstances, a husband can be compelled to divorce his wife.)

Only one husband briefly appears; none of the men's advocates do. Only the women and theirs are prominently featured. Instead, the sounds of ostensible court proceedings are heard while the camera remains in the hallway outside the offices where the sessions are ostensibly being conducted. The film seems to suggest that the choice snippets heard in the closed sessions are genuine and not a creative re-enactment, although the claim is never explicitly made. The audio quality would seem to indicate a sound stage rather than a surreptitious tape recorder; and the judge's sonorous voice and occasionally malevolent tone also adds to the suspicion that the session proceedings, like other staged portions of the film, may have been "enhanced" for artistic - or political - reasons.

Even, though, if every scene - including one subject's calm and endearing refusal to abandon her faith in G-d despite the pain she has suffered; a husband's advocate defending his client's indefensible absence from court; and several bouts of shrill histrionics - is bona fide, the message of the film is a lie.

That is not to say that there may not be cases where individuals (both women and men) are inadvertently ill-treated by the divorce system in Israel - a bureaucracy (and an Israeli one) after all - or even that the three women in the film did not experience what they claim. The lie is the film's accusation that the Israeli rabbinical establishment is corrupt and uncaring about women and that Jewish religious law inherently mistreats them.

Rabbi Yaakov Berman, a resident of Lakewood, New Jersey, is deeply involved in divorce issues around the Jewish world, including cases in Israel. He heads the "Jewish Divorce Center," which facilitates divorce proceedings in failed marriages. He cites a number of false implications fostered by "Mekudeshet" - among them: that either Jewish law or the state of Israel allows a married Jewish man to take up with another woman before the procurement of a valid divorce document; that only a man can impede a divorce process; and that Israeli rabbinical courts are lax regarding husbands' responsibility to provide child support.

More egregious, though, than the slander against Israel's rabbinical courts is Ms. Zuria's indictment of Jewish law itself.

That agenda is transparent from the film's very opening, where the traditional breaking of the glass under the wedding canopy at a joyous celebration is punctuated by the sound of a prison cell door slamming shut; and by the words of a sacred Jewish text that then appear starkly on the screen.

Those words, from the Mishna, state the legal means by which a Jewish marriage can be effected. The translation provided reads: "A woman can be bought in three ways…"

Translations are meant to make a text intelligible, but sometimes they obscure. The misuse of language in the film's rendering of the Mishnaic statement is reminiscent of nothing so much as how some other manipulators of artistic media use words like "murder" to describe the elimination of deadly terrorists, or "occupation" to refer to Jews living in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

The Hebrew word rendered "bought" by "Mekudeshet" can indeed mean that or, better, "acquired." But it need not connote possession in the sense of control, and certainly not in the sense of some right to mistreat (the Talmud exhorts a man to "love his wife like himself, and honor her more than himself" - Yevamot, 62b). Consider that the very same word - in the very same form, gender and syntax - is used by another Mishna (Avot 6:6) to refer to how one "acquires" Torah.

One doesn't control Torah; one seeks a sublime relationship with it. One may not mistreat Torah; one must respect and cherish it. The analogy should be self-evident.

There are people, tragically, who do mistreat their wives (and others, their husbands).

And there are people who abuse Torah, too, who seek, for instance, to portray it as something it is not - like a license to cause harm or pain.

Ms. Zuria's production is ostensibly about the former. What its viewers may not realize, though, is that it is an equally ugly example of the latter.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

A curious Midrash holds an idea worth bringing to the Seder.

"Midrash," although redefined of late by some to mean a fanciful, personal take on a Biblical account, in truth refers to a body of ancient traditions that for generations was transmitted only orally but later put into writing.

One such tradition focuses on the verse recounting how the dogs in Egypt did not utter a sound as they watched the Jewish people leave the land (Exodus, 11:7). The Talmud contends that, in keeping with the concept that "G-d does not withhold reward from any creature," dogs are the animals to whom certain non-kosher meat should be cast. The Midrash, however, notes another, more conceptual "reward" for the canine silence: The dung of dogs will be used to cure animal skins that will become tefillin, mezuzot and Torah scrolls.

It is certainly intriguing that the lowly refuse of a lowly creature - and dogs are viewed by many Middle-Eastern societies as particularly base - should play a part in the preparation of the most sublime and holy of objects. And that, it seems, is what the Midrash wishes us to ponder - along with the puzzling idea that silence is somehow key to that ability to sublimate the earthy and physical into the rarified and hallowed. The particular silence at issue may be canine, but its lesson is for us.

Providing even more support for that thought is a statement in the Mishna (the earliest part of the Talmud). "I have found nothing better for the body," Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel remarks in Pirkei Avot (1:17), "than silence." The phrase "for the body" (which can also be rendered "the physical") seems jarring. Unless it, too, hints at precisely what the Midrash seems to be saying - that in silence, somehow, lies the secret of how the physical can be transformed into the exalted.

But what provides for such transformation would seem to be speech. Judaism teaches that the specialness of the human being - the hope for creating holiness here on earth - lies in our aptitude for language, our ability to clothe subtle and complex ideas in meaningful words. That is why in Genesis, when life is breathed by G-d into the first man, the infusion is, in the words of the Targum Onkelos, a "speaking spirit." The highest expression of human speech, our tradition teaches, lies in our ability to recognize our Creator, and give voice to our gratitude (hakarat hatov). The first vegetation, the Talmud informs us, would not sprout until Adam appeared to "recognize the blessing of the rain." Hakarat hatov is why many Jews punctuate their recounting of happy recollections or tidings with the phrase "baruch Hashem," or "blessed is G-d" - and it is pivotal to elevating the mundane. So it would seem that speech, not silence, is the path to holiness.

Unless, though, silence is the most salient demonstration of the consequence of words.

After all, aren't the things we are careful not to waste the things we value most?. We don't hoard plastic shopping bags or old newspapers; but few - even few billionaires - would ever use a Renoir to wrap fish.

Words - along with our ability to use them meaningfully - are the most valuable things any of us possesses. To be sure, one can (and most of us do) squander them, just as one can employ a Rembrandt as a doormat. But someone who truly recognizes words' worth will use them only sparingly. The adage notwithstanding, talk isn't cheap; it is, quite the contrary, a priceless resource, the means, used properly, of coaxing holiness from the physical world.

And so silence - choosing to not speak when there is nothing worthwhile to say - is perhaps the deepest sign of reverence for the potential holiness that is speech.

Which brings us back to Passover. As noted, the highest expression of human speech is the articulation, like Adam's, of the idea of hakarat hatov - literally, "recognition of the good" - with which we have been blessed. The Kabbalistic texts refer to our ancestors' sojourn in Egypt as "the Speech-Exile," implying that in some sense the enslaved Jews had yet to gain full access to the power that provides human beings the potential of holiness.

With the Exodus, though, that exile ended and, at the far side of the sea that split to allow them but not their pursuers passage, our ancestors responded with an extraordinary vocal expression: the epic poem known in Jewish texts as "The Song" (Exodus, 15:1-18 ). Written in a unique graphic formation in the Torah scroll, it is a paean to G-d for the goodness He bestowed on those who marched out of Egypt - who went from what the Talmudic rabbis characterized as the penultimate level of baseness to, fifty days later, the heights of holiness at Mt. Sinai.

And so it should not be surprising that, whereas Jews are cautioned to use words only with great care and parsimony, on the Seder night we are not only enjoined to speak at length and into the wee hours about the kindness G-d granted our people, but are informed by the rabbis of the Talmud, that "the more one recounts, the more praiseworthy it is."

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

I’m no great fan of “true stories,” too many of which, disappointingly, aren’t true. But I am deeply partial to good made-up stories, like – a favorite – the one about the shtetl showdown between the Jew and the priest.

As the tale goes, the local governor of a 19th century Polish village is prevailed upon by a learned non-Jewish cleric to humiliate the town’s Jewish populace by issuing it a challenge: “Have your greatest scholar meet me on the bridge over the raging river tomorrow at noon. Each of us will have a heavy weight tied to his foot, and the first one stumped by a question about the Torah, Talmud or commentaries will be cast by the other into the waters.”

The members of the Jewish community, in no position to refuse the ultimatum, anxiously huddle. “Whom can we send?” they ask. “Who can be assured of being able to answer any question the priest may pose?” “Who could possibly stump the non-Jew?” None of those present offers their services.

Until, that is, Shmiel the shneider (tailor) confidently steps forward to volunteer. Known as a decidedly unscholarly fellow, he would not have been anyone’s first, or eighty-first, choice. But he insists he can better the challenger and, well, he’s the only candidate.

And so, at the appointed time, Shmiel and his opponent take their positions on the bridge, ball and chain attached to each man’s foot, a crowd of supporters on each of the river’s banks.

Surveying the tailor, the non-Jew smiles benevolently and offers Shmiel the first shot. The Jew does not hesitate. “What does ‘aini yode’ah’ mean?” he asks loudly.

The cleric, not even pausing to think, shouts out his entirely accurate answer: “I do not know!” The crowd gasps at the response and Shmiel, beaming triumphantly toward the townsfolk, unceremoniously pushes his momentarily confused opponent off the bridge, into the raging waters. The crowds disperse, one jubilant, the other perplexed.

Back at the shtetl town hall, Shmiel is roundly congratulated for his ploy. “How did you come up with so brilliant an idea?” they ask. Radiating modesty, Shmiel responds that it wasn’t hard at all. “I was reading the ‘teitch’ (the popular Yiddish translation of the great scholar Rashi’s commentary on the Torah),” he explains, “and I saw the words ‘aini yode’ah’ in Rashi’s commentary. I didn’t know what the phrase meant, and so I looked at the teitch and saw, in Yiddish, the words ‘I don’t know’.”

“So I figured,” Shmiel said, his face aglow with wisdom, “if the holy ‘teitch’ didn’t know what the words meant, there was no way on earth some priest would!”

The story is good for more than a laugh, though. Because it raises the interesting and significant fact that Rashi – the “father of all commentaries” who wrote perfectly succinct yet brilliant glosses to not only the Five Books of Moses and Prophets and Writings but to the entire Babylonian Talmud – indeed informs the reader in several places that he “doesn’t know” the reason for one or another thing.

“I don’t know” is a phrase as deserved as it is rare these days, when self-assuredness seems all too often to stand in for self-respect, when opinions are routinely proffered as unassailable fact, when people are permitted – even expected – to state without doubt what they cannot possibly know to be true.

Whether in the political, scientific or social realms, opinions regularly take on the aura of convictions. There is, of course, nothing wrong with opinions (for some of us, our stock in trade), but Rashi’s modest example is one we would be wise to more often emulate. As the Talmud puts it: “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know’” (Berachot, 4b).

Some of us “know” that the Iraq war was a mistake. Others, that it was precisely the right decision. Some “know” that species evolved from other species. Others, that they didn’t. Some “know” that educational vouchers will be terrible for public schools. Others, that they would be wonderful. We think a lot of things, but know a good many less.

To be sure, there are verities. That we humans possess a spark of the Divinity that created us, for instance. That we have free will. That life is precious. That our actions have consequences.

For Jews, there are – or should be – other certainties, among them that we have been divinely chosen to set an example for the wider world, that our carefully-preserved history includes at its apogee G-d’s bequeathal of His Torah to us, that our mission and our peoplehood are sacred.

But there are many smaller things, no end of them, that we do not know, at least not with the certainty of those essential convictions. And so, as we consider wars and theories and causes, even if we think we have a pretty good idea of just what’s what, it’s always a good idea to stop and remember what Shmiel thought he knew – and what Rashi knew he didn’t.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Reform movement is proudly proclaiming its success in the recent elections for the American slate of the World Zionist Organization's "35th Congress of the Jewish People," having garnered the most delegates (although six fewer than in the previous election, in 2002). Reform Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, contends that the election result "demonstrates that our message… has become the dominant voice of American Zionism."

Well, that depends on how one defines Zionism. Which, in turn, turns on a question that likely puzzled thoughtful observers of the WZO's recent election: Where were American haredim?

Slates of candidates were fielded by a number of Jewish movements and organizations, including the Conservative movement, the Reconstructionist Federation and the Religious Zionist Slate.

But a slate representing the haredi community was nowhere to be found in the election results, and that was no accident. Although haredi events (prayer gatherings and major happenings like the Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas) have drawn tens of thousands of participants, and haredi voting blocs are a treasured prize to politicians in some of the largest Jewish communities in the United States, haredim chose, as always they have, to decline to participate in the WZO elections.

The reason might be hard for some to understand, but it's worth the effort.

In order to vote in the elections, one must affirm a set of ideas known as "The Jerusalem Program." It is the credo of the contemporary Zionist movement, and stresses the "centrality" of the "State of Israel" in "the life of the [Jewish] nation." (Ironically, the very idea of Jews returning to the Jewish ancestral homeland was once vehemently rejected by the Reform movement - and still is by the Reform group known as the American Council for Judaism. Mainstream Reform, however, changed direction in the 1940s.)

There are no greater "zionists" than haredim, who pray daily and fervently for the Jewish return to Zion; who are so disproportionately overrepresented in the rolls of both those who make aliyah and those who visit Israel regularly; and who are so strongly supportive of ensuring Israel's security. Yet, for haredim, Israel the state is one thing; Eretz Yisrael, the holy land promised by G-d to His people, another. And to a haredi, the "centrality" of the Jewish people can be only one thing: our Torah.

To a haredi, the laws and wisdom of the Jewish religious tradition are not only what defined our nation at its inception, and what allowed it (along, in fact, with its yearning for the Jewish ancestral land) to persevere for millennia in exile, but what alone can ensure its future.

Thus, while it might bring economic benefit to the haredi world in Israel and elsewhere were haredim to field and elect candidates for the World Zionist Congress, as a matter of honesty and conscience, haredim cannot in good faith subscribe to the credo on which such participation is contingent, a credo that subtly but objectionably places a country in the place of a divine mandate.

And so when, as a response to the broad pre-election Reform registration campaign, inquiries came in to Agudath Israel from its constituents, each caller was informed of what registering entailed, and advised to forego participation.

There's something worth pondering here. When haredi citizens of Israel exercise their democratic privileges to advocate for their needs, they are all too often portrayed as pursuing lucre even at the expense of principle - even though all they are doing is what every constituency in a democracy does: endeavor to access government assistance to which they have claim.

A truer proof of the principle pudding, though, lies in the WZO elections example. By participating, haredim stood only to gain (and gain they would have; just think of how the votes of the more than 100,000 Jews who participated in the Siyum HaShas - the majority of them haredim - would have changed the election's result). By not participating, not only was potential funding of projects forfeited but control of the World Zionist Congress' American division largely relinquished to a Reform movement openly intent on undermining the influence of halacha in Israel, hardly a comforting thought to Jews who value traditional Jewish standards. Principle, though, is principle.

A timely coincidental contrast to the haredi distancing from the WZO elections was presented by another recent development on the American scene. On the very day the election results were announced, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that universities accepting money from the federal government must, as per a 1994 law, permit military recruiters on campus. Some universities had objected to such presence on principle, since the Pentagon bars open homosexuals from serving in the military.

Perhaps it's too early to judge, but at least at this writing, none of the universities objecting to the presence of military recruiters has taken the step of announcing that it will forego its federal funding in order to maintain its commitment to what the schools have framed as a civil rights issue. Perhaps it's cynical to predict that few, if any, will ever actually do so. But betting men might well lay odds.

Because in most of contemporary life, ideals are often put on splendid but flimsy pedestals. As Groucho Marx famously said "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them - well, I have others."

Well, some don't.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

There's more than passing irony in the fact that the most infamous anti-Semite of antiquity, the hater whose downfall Jews celebrate on Purim, was a prominent official of an empire centered in modern-day Iran.

Like the Persian royal advisor Haman, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reeks with his own considerable animus for Jews, having not only endorsed the destruction of the Jewish State but called into question the murder of six million Jews not 70 years ago. And just as his evil antecedent is today recalled with mockery and laughter, so too is Mr. Ahmadinejad providing future rejoicers rich comedic material - like his recent blaming of the terrorist bombing by Sunni Muslims of a Shiite Muslim shrine on "a group of Zionists" who nevertheless "failed in the face of Islam's logic and justice."

Similarly creative anti-Semitic rants are no farther away than the nearest Arab newspaper.

At the end of January, for instance, the Middle East Media Research Institute informs us, a Syrian government daily suggested that Israel created the avian flu virus in order to damage "genes carried only by Arabs." That the virus first appeared in East Asia was carefully fit into the theory: the germ was planted far from where Arabs live in order to mislead the world about its true origin. Clever, those Jews.

And February saw newspapers in Mogilev, Belarus calling on citizens to boycott a new kosher bakery since, as the city's leading paper put it: "It is a well-known fact that Jewish bread is made kosher by using sacrificial blood."

Haman, more than 2000 years ago, was more subtle, preferring snide insinuations to outlandish conspiracy theories. And he focused on Jewish cohesiveness and dedication to Jewish law.

For instance, says the Talmud, he informed the king of the sinister fact that Jews marry their own. And, having discovered the rabbinical forbiddance of drinking wine that had been touched by a non-Jew (because of the possibility that he may have silently dedicated it to an idol), Haman told the Persian king: "If a fly should fall into their cup, they will discard the insect and drink the wine, but if your majesty should so much as touch the cup, they will cast it to the ground."

Even today, although most contemporary Jew-haters claim to have only respect for Judaism - objecting only to things like Jewish "influence" (read: intelligence) or the Jewish state's "mistreatment of Arabs" (read: acts of self-defense against terrorists) - common motifs in even the current arsenal of Jew-hatred include Jewish religious practices and religious Jews. A glance at the Arab media's cesspool of anti-Semitic (but Mohammed-free!) caricatures suffices to show that it disproportionately inspires images of black-hatted, black-cloaked and bespectacled men carrying oversized volumes of Talmud.

That fact, like the example of Haman, should serve to remind us how ugly is the derision of Jewish practices and ideals. It's something even we Jews may not always sufficiently realize.

Take a recent article in an Israeli newspaper. It reported how a mobile communications company has seen fit to offer a cellphone without Internet access, in order to capture a larger share of the haredi, or "ultra-Orthodox" market (which, out of concern for clear Jewish standards of propriety, prefers its phones to be just phones). The article's tagline reads in part: "Company succumbs to haredi pressure." Pushy, those haredim.

In a similarly ungenerous vein, a "progressive" advocacy organization in Israel not long ago issued a press release describing (with words like "scream," "yell," and "sneer") a scene on an Israeli bus, where a haredi passenger (the subject of the verbs) objects angrily to a woman who dared to sit toward the front of the vehicle. Comparing the scene - which, it turns out, is an entirely imaginary one - to Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s, the release characterizes as "an affront to the basic principles of a democratic society" what in reality is a bus company program providing gender-separated buses in haredi neighborhoods. Many haredi men and women prefer such travel arrangements and, since they had been patronizing private bus companies that provide it, Israel's national bus company decided to compete for the haredi ridership.

At just about the same time, an Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics survey revealed that, among the country's Jewish volunteers, 36% were haredim; 27%, non-haredi religious; 14% traditional; and 13% secular. Nevertheless, Israel's Orthodox are routinely, and almost exclusively, depicted negatively.

Their shunning of much of contemporary society's materialistic desiderata, their dedication to full-time Torah-study (especially as it results in deferments from military service) and their insularity are regularly portrayed as backwardness, ingratitude and arrogance. Yet no one disparages the Dalai Lama for his asceticism; conscientious objectors and some artists also receive draft deferments; and the ubiquity of crudeness in popular culture leaves religious Jews little choice but to remain, to the degree they can, within their more rarified world.

On Purim (this year, March 14), Jews are exhorted to seek to strengthen what binds them. As a demonstration of unity and good will, they traditionally send packages of food items to one another.

Now there's a Jewish tradition it would be hard for anyone (except perhaps Haman) to disparage. And what a powerful opportunity it presents for disowning intra-Jewish negativity.

Those of us who are haredim should consider sending such mishloach manot to Jews who are not; and vice versa.

Not only will that help bring us all closer, it will help us merit that Mr. Ahmadinejad and company more quickly meet the fate of Haman and his.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The parliamentary electoral victory of an unrepentant terrorist movement in the Palestinian Authority has created much chagrin.

The specter of a future Palestinian state's government pledged, as is Hamas, to the murder of Jews and the destruction of the Jewish State is obviously vexing to civilized observers.

But the Palestinian vote scandalized many for another reason, too. It created a crisis of conscience among people who had put their trust in the inherent virtue of democracy. Those trusting souls have now been rudely disabused of the noble but benighted notion that, given the opportunity to express its collective will, groups of human beings can be expected to do so responsibly, and with some semblance of civility.

Alas, that bubble has burst. The secret is out: What a large number of people may want to do needn't equate with what they should want to do. A majority of the murderous will vote for murder. Masses, as the saying goes, can be donkeys.

It is a truism, in fact, whose brutal brunt has been felt by Jews on many occasions in the past, when great masses of populations - whether Christians in the early Middle Ages, or Muslims a bit later, or modern European nations in later centuries still, or Communism until less than two decades ago - decided that members of the universal scapegoat-people deserved to be oppressed or killed. So the grand democratic expression of Palestinian will did not come as a great shock to anyone familiar with history (or, for that matter, Palestinian aspirations).

As it happens, the idea that a majority's will need not equal right, or even decency, is central to Jewish thought. Abraham was called the "Ivri" - from which our word "Hebrew" derives but which can be literally translated as "the man of the 'other side'." The "Ur-Jew" (pun entirely intended) was so called, explains the Midrash, because "the entire world stood on one side, and he on the other." The majority was wrong, and the minority - of one - right.

The people that would emerge from his son Isaac, and Isaac's son Jacob, came to occupy a similar place, standing in stark opposition to the "majority opinion" of a largely idolatrous and immoral ancient world.

That, it can well be argued, remains the mission of the Jew: To stand apart - and up - for an ideal: honoring and serving humanity's Creator.

It is a mission no less pressing today. Ours, after all, is a world that worships the material, idolizes the inane, scorns modesty and hallows gratification.

The Jewish mission is to be an example of holiness, to affirm eternal truths, unpopular though they may be to those who crowd bustling bandwagons.

Judaism declares that we are here to serve, not to get. That the true heros are the selfless, not the self-centered. That the human body is holy, not a billboard. And that principle should trump pleasure.

And it speaks as well to issues of the day - often, again, from the "other side" of where society has chosen to stand. Judaism teaches that, even if it may sometimes be justified, killing the unborn is an evil, not a right. That homosexuality is a challenge to be met, not an "alternative" to be celebrated. That marriage is the union of a man and a woman. That life, even compromised, is priceless. And that science is a means through which to gain awe for G-d's Creation, not a contrivance with which to try to deny Him.

Jews were chosen to champion such ideas. Unfortunately, though, some heirs to the Jewish religious tradition seem more attracted to the masses than committed to the mandate. Some of us even stand at the very forefront of contemporary efforts to embrace democratically-derived decadence. That does not do our collective mission well.

But even Jews who fully acknowledge what their heritage has to say about larger societal issues can be "majority fools" too when it comes to other matters. When, simply because "everybody does it," we treat synagogues like lounges, conversing when we should be praying or paying attention, we are doing anything but emulating Abraham. And when, with similar servility toward "the mainstream," we squander money on frills and status symbols instead of investing it in helping others, we are similarly falling prey to the mindless majority.

Judaism exhorts Jews to try to mine crises for clues about how we might better ourselves and thereby merit G-d's protection. The threat to Israel posed by the terrorist enterprise now embraced by a majority of Palestinians well demonstrates how majoritarianism can be malign. Perhaps that's something those of us - and, to one degree or another, it's all of us - who sometimes pursue what's popular instead of what's right might wish to quietly ponder.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Like many 50-somethings, I remember being informed in grade school of the imminent solution to the mystery of life.

Triumphantly, teachers described an experiment conducted by two researchers, Stanley Miller and Harold Urey, in which molecules believed to represent components of the early Earth's atmosphere were induced by electricity to form some of the amino acids that are components of proteins necessary for life.

Soon enough, we were told, scientists would coax further artificial formation of primordial materials, proteins themselves and even, eventually, actual life - some single-celled organism like the one from which we ourselves (our teachers dutifully explained) were surely descended.

A half-century later, however, we are left with nothing - not even a pitiful protein - beyond Miller-Urey's original results. And even that experiment is now discredited by scientists as having gotten the original atmospheric soup all wrong.


The Miller-Urey memory is an important reminder of how, with all of science's unarguable accomplishments, every generation's scientific establishment is convinced it has a handle as well on the Big Questions. And of how much more common hubris is than wisdom. It is a thought well worth thinking these days.

No one denies that species, over time, tend to retain traits that serve them well, and to lose others that don't.

But the appearance of a new species from an existing one, or even of an entirely new trait within a species - things contemporary science insists have happened literally millions of times - have never been witnessed. There isn't necessarily anything in the Jewish religious tradition that precludes them from happening, or being made to happen artificially. But the solemn conviction that they have occurred countless times and by chance remains a large leap of… well, faith. Which is why "evolution" is rightly called a theory (and might better still be called a religion).

Scientists, to be sure, protest that billions of years are necessary for chance mutations of DNA, the assumed engine of Neo-Darwinism, to work their accidental magic. A lovely scenario, but one whose hallowing of chance as the engine of all is easily seen as a rejection of the concept of a Creator, Judaism's central credo.

It also begs the question of how the first living organism might have emerged from inert matter. Spontaneous generation is generally ridiculed by science, yet precisely that is presumed by the priests of Randomness to have occurred - by utter chance, yet - to jump-start the process of evolution.

What is more, the first creature's ability to bring forth a next generation (and beyond), would have also had to have been among the first living thing's talents. Without that, the organism would have amounted to nothing more than a hopeless dead-end. No DNA, after all, no future. And so, a package of complex genetic material, too, would have had to have been part of the unbelievably lucky alpha-amoeba.

And yet to so much as express doubts about such a scenario is to be branded a heretic by the scientific establishment, the Church of Chance.

The issue is not "Biblical literalism" a decidedly non-Jewish approach. Many are the Torah verses that do not mean what a simple reading would yield; the Oral Tradition is the key to the true meaning of the Torah's words; and there are multiple levels of deeper meanings inaccessible to most of us. The words of Genesis hide infinitely more than they reveal - which is only that the universe was created as the willful act of G-d, and that the biosphere unfolded in stages. Details are not provided

The issue is more stark: Are we products of chance, or of G-d?

Jewish belief, of course, is founded on the latter contention, and, as a result, on the conviction that there is a purpose to the universe we inhabit, and to the lives we live. That what we do makes a difference, that there is right and there is wrong.

Is the very notion of good and evil an illusion, an adaptive evolutionary strategy that provides human beings some cold biological advantage - or does our innate conviction that some human actions are proper and others not reflect a deeper reality?

If humanity's roots lie in pure chance, there can be no more meaning to good and bad actions than to good or bad weather; no more import to right and wrong than to right and left. The game is zero-sum. Either we are here by chance or by design. Either there is no meaningful mandate for human beings; or there is. And if there is, there must be a Mandator.

Opposing the promotion of a particular religion in American public schools is a worthy stance. But, at the same time, there is simply no philosophically sound way of holding simultaneously in one's head both the conviction that we are nothing but evolved animals and the conviction that we are something qualitatively different.

And no way to avoid the fact that when children are taught to embrace the one, they are being taught, ever so subtly, to shun the other.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Nearly as enlightening as watching people protest their portrayal as mindless, violent fanatics by engaging in mindless, violent fanaticism is watching them respond to tasteless insults with even more tasteless insults of their own.

First we witnessed a millions-strong collective temper-tantrum engulf large parts of the Muslim world - riots, torching of embassies, curses, threats and attacks on individuals - in response to some newspaper cartoons that mocked Islam, through its central figure, as a religion less than respectful of innocent lives.

And then we were graced with the telling reaction of some others who joined the jihad junket at a distance, like Farid Mortazavi, an editor at Iran's largest newspaper, who offered a prize of gold coins to readers who submit the best cartoons discrediting the Holocaust. And the "Arab European League" (one of whose "principals" [sic] is to "fight every form of racism"), which posted on its website a series of its own creative caricatures implying that the Holocaust is a Jewish fabrication (one of them, peculiarly, portraying Hitler sharing a bed with Anne Frank).

Iranian President Mahmoud ("Adolph") Ahmadinejad, who has called for the destruction of Israel, wouldn't be left out of the fun either. He was quoted as saying: "If [Western] newspapers are free, why do not they publish anything about the innocence of the Palestinians and protest against the crimes committed by the Zionists?"

If you're wondering why Muslims angered by actions in largely Christian countries choose to vent their considerable spleen at… Jews, well, welcome to contemporary times - pungently reminiscent, of course, of earlier ones.

Leave aside, though, the oddity of Abdul, insulted by Chris, attacking Yankel. Leave aside, for that matter, even the fact that to deny the Holocaust is to lie, while to connect some Muslims' bad behavior with the faith they claim as their justification is to simply take them at their word. Consider only the truly astounding hypocrisy here: Societies whose media teem with patently libelous, venom-saturated, inflammatory words and images about Jews are expressing outrage at the idea of an impolite press.

To be sure, there are sane Islamic voices. Muhammad al-Hamadi, writing in the United Arab Emirates' Al Ittihad, contends that "We [Muslims] must be honest with ourselves and admit that we are the reason for these drawings. Any harm to… Islam is a result of Muslims who have come to reflect the worst image of Islam…"

And, in a letter to The New York Times, Saleem Ahmed, an author of books about Islamic teachings, suggests that "instead of torching Danish and other embassies, Muslims should torch the cause of European anger: extremist Muslim literature inciting suicide bombers and other terrorists."

We must appreciate words like those, and hope that they reflect a larger portion of the Islamic world than the crazed, wide-eyed images that scowl at us from the front pages these days. But neither can we ignore the Muslim in the street, like Mawli Abdul Qahar Abu Israra, who, interviewed on February 6 in Afghanistan, shared his sincere sentiments. "They want to test our feelings," he told the BBC. "They want to know whether Muslims are extremists or not. Death to them and to their newspapers."

Or the Muslim in the pulpit. The very next day, Britain's most prominent Muslim cleric, Abu Hamza al-Masri, was convicted of racial hatred and soliciting murder, by using his sermons to urge the killing of non-Muslims.

Jews don't preach violence against other religions. We would be overjoyed, in fact, if adherents of Islam followed its precepts as understood by many Muslims: tolerance and good will. What is more, we do not engage in public mockery of other faiths, and can well relate (if only from our own experience with much of the Arab press) to the sense of outrage felt at such things.

But neither do Jews riot when we are portrayed, as so often we are, as horrible monsters, nor even when the cold-blooded murder of a third of our people (the equivalent of 300-odd million Muslims today) is made into a sick joke or derided as a lie.

Some might surmise that the reason for our reticence is fear of consequences. After all, Jews comprise a mere fraction of one percent of the world's populace; if we were to go on a rampage, it would not likely be as long-lived as the recent Muslim one has proven.

Others might point to the proclivity in some Jewish circles for social liberalism, including the embrace of ideals like the "right" of free expression (scare quotes in deference to Jewish religious law, which in fact places clear limits on expression).

But there is something deeper, I think, that explains the lack of Jewish Sturm und Drang despite the abundance of anti-Semitic abuse.

It lies in a fundamental Jewish religious attitude, one articulated at the end of the mainstay of every Jewish prayer: the silent Amidah, or "standing"-service.

Its penultimate paragraph begins: "My G-d, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully. To those who curse me, let my soul be silent."

The sentiment is not one of resignation, but of faith - in the ultimate setting straight of things by a Power stronger than any mortal one. It is the utterance of one who does not feel the need to vent fury or to counter insult in kind, someone who has confidence in the final victory of truth and of justice. It is a prayer that has imbued the collective Jewish soul for centuries, and continues to today.

It continues: "As to all those who plot evil against me, quickly obliterate their plans and wreak havoc on their intentions."

And let us say Amen.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

"Google" and "National Security Agency" don't naturally come to mind as word-associations for "Talmudic blessing." But recent controversies regarding the successful Internet search engine and the secretive government entity do recall the final benediction of a great Talmudic sage.

Alarms were roundly sounded in the wake of reports that the U.S. Department of Justice, in the course of defending a federal law aimed at protecting children from child-inappropriate (actually, anyone-inappropriate) material on the Internet, had asked Google to share records pertaining to the Web searches of its patrons. Even though no information identifying individual users was requested, privacy advocates and skittish citizens saw the petition as the frightening shadow of an approaching Big Brother.

Similar nervousness ensued when it became apparent that the NSA (an entity so shadowy that, for a time, it was commonly referred to as the "No Such Agency") has been wiretapping conversations of suspected terrorists without benefit of court orders. The Bush administration argues that such measures are the legal privilege of the executive branch, in particular at times of war, and insists that innocent citizens' communications were never targeted. All the same, there was much hue and cry over the (real or perceived) erosion of that most cherished of American rights: privacy.

Reasonable people can certainly disagree about the degree to which a commercial venture might properly monitor its customers' purchases or tastes; or about the right balance a government should strike between protecting its citizens' privacy and ensuring their security.

But what cannot be argued is that our actions are, in fact, private anymore. Whether we wish it were so or not, our cell-phones and automatic toll-paying devices faithfully record our whereabouts, our computers are reliable repositories of information about us, and unseen cameras record our actions in public places. Private phone records of unsuspecting individuals are easily purloined, and regularly offered for purchase by anyone willing to part with a few dollars. And information about individuals' communications and Web use is in fact routinely, and legally, subpoenaed by law enforcement agencies when a crime is suspected.

Once upon a time, lives were considerably less transparent. Unless people chose to share information with others, or someone had his ear to the wall, most folks were safe from the sort of exposure to which we are so strikingly and increasingly vulnerable today.

There is a Jewish tradition of seeking lessons in societal and technological developments. When the telephone was invented, it is recounted, the famed Jewish sage the Chafetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan) - who wrote seminal books on the prohibition of slanderous and otherwise improper speech - pointed out how concrete it made the Jewish idea that a word spoken in one place can have ramifications in another, far away. Similarly, advances in our ability to peer into the heavens drives home anew how tiny a part of the physical cosmos we remain despite all our progress; and our ability to glimpse events in the subatomic realm reminds us of how little we really know about the very matter of which we, and everything around us, are made

Perhaps the immense erosion of privacy we have undergone in recent years is meant, too, to remind us of something important.

Like, perhaps, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai's blessing.

On his deathbed, the Talmud recounts (Tractate Berachot, 28b), the famed rabbi was asked by his students for a benediction. He complied, with the curious wish: "May the fear of Heaven be to you as the fear of human beings."

"That's it?" the students asked, puzzled.

"If only!" the sage responded, implying that the blessing was a mighty one indeed. "Think!" he continued. "When a person commits a sin, he says 'I hope no one is watching me!'"

But Someone, of course, is - a thought as obvious as it is profound. As the rabbis put it elsewhere (Avot, 2:1): "An Eye sees and an Ear hears, and all your actions are duly recorded."

We may squirm at the idea, but it is fundamental to Judaism - central, in fact, to any world-view that acknowledges a personal G-d: Our every action is meaningful, and, therefore, of concern to our Creator.

And so, even as we chafe at what our credit card companies and Internet providers and government agencies know about us, or can find out if they choose, we might do well to pause a moment from our outrage and dwell on how insignificant those eyes and ears really are in the long run, how revealed we are, in action and even thought, before the only One who, in the end, really counts.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

One sign of the chasm separating the American Orthodox community and much of the larger Jewish world is how the term "outreach" is used by each. To us Orthodox, the word encompasses a broad range of efforts born of our deep concern for, and responsibility to, our fellow Jews. To many non-Orthodox leaders, though, it has come to mean something very different: the courting of non-Jews, especially those living with Jews, in an effort to include them, one way or another, in the Jewish community.

Some proponents of such reaching out aim to bring the reached to conversion, even if the hoped-for ritual does not meet the standards of halacha, or Jewish religious law. Others do not even seek any such end, and are content to accept non-Jews "as they are" into their temples and Jewish communal lives. Reform Rabbi Janet Marder, for instance, makes a point every Yom Kippur of asking non-Jewish spouses of her congregants to come to the bimah, the platform from which the Torah is read, where she blesses them with the words of the "priestly blessings" that the Torah prescribes be bestowed on the Jewish people.

Her example was lauded at a recent national Reform gathering, where the president of the Union for Reform Judaism made his own plea for "welcoming non-Jewish spouses and converts to Judaism."

The Reform leadership's inclusiveness-push was followed, even more quickly than usual, by the Conservative's. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism's executive vice president asserted that "if we don't do an effective campaign to inspire the children" of mixed-marriages, "we'll lose an entire generation" - leaving unclear whether he meant all such children or just the halachically Jewish ones.

The renewed push to further blur the increasingly smudged line between Jews and non-Jews may be fueled by both the mind-numbing numbers of intermarried American Jews and the dwindled numbers of American Jews as a whole projected by demographic studies for the not-terribly-distant future. There is some fear at work here, too - of an Orthodox demographic onslaught. Because, as Professor Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary noted in the October, 2005 issue of Commentary: "If the Orthodox continue to retain the loyalties of their young people, as they have mostly done over the past 30 or 40 years, they will become an ever larger, more visible, and better represented part of the total community…"

The headlong rush toward inclusiveness, however, as Professor Wertheimer himself bravely notes, is a strategy both ill-conceived and futile. His words are brutally straightforward: "Faced with irrefutable evidence of demographic decline, communal leaders have worked to 'reframe' the discussion. The reframing goes like this: the Jewish population should be seen not as hemorrhaging, but rather as evolving new forms of expression…"

"The challenge of demographic decline, then," he goes on to summarize, "is to be met by inclusiveness, pluralism, and a welcoming atmosphere." And he observes: "The worse the decline has grown, the more fervently has this mantra been invoked - and not just invoked but acted upon."

Then, throwing all religio-political correctness to the wind, Professor Wertheimer declares that "the working assumption of Jewish officialdom" that "the acceptance and encouragement of every kind of 'family arrangement' will insure that Jewish life will thrive" is "not only a gross distortion of Judaism, it is palpably false."

There are other principled voices, too, in the non-Orthodox Jewish world. The "Jewish In-Marriage Initiative," an effort whose board of directors includes not only Professor Wertheimer but long-time Jewish communal leader Shoshana Cardin, Reform Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin and Conservative Rabbi Alan Silverstein, "is dedicated," says Ms. Cardin, its chair, "to educating and encouraging [Jewish] parents to counsel their children to look for Jewish mates." The Jewish community, she asserts, "must make endogamy the first choice."

But even those voices are all but drowned out by the "inclusionist" chorus, which includes not only Reform and Conservative leaders but independent efforts like the "Jewish Outreach Institute" (someone, please, rescue that poor word!), whose mission statement identifies it as an effort to create "a more inclusive Jewish community for intermarried families and unengaged Jews," and whose executive director says that "conversion… should not be an outreach strategy."

Similarly, Hillel, the Jewish campus initiative, recently unveiled a survey showing that Jewish college students are more likely than ever to be "part of an interfaith family,… have a non-Jewish boyfriend or girlfriend" and "identify as ethnically Jewish rather than religiously Jewish." As a result, the organization hopes "to double the number of students who have meaningful Jewish experiences." Note the pointed absence of the word "Jewish" before "students."

To us Orthodox, this is all tragic. And what it stirs the most caring among us to do is recommit ourselves… to outreach - the original kind.

Cynics, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike, mock the hope that American Jews estranged from their religious heritage can ever be brought back in appreciable numbers to traditional Jewish observance. "You can't even convince them to marry other Jews!" they scoff. "Do you really imagine them undertaking to keep the laws of the Torah?"

But cynicism is an easy dodge. Experience is more enlightening, and here it gives the lie to the assumption that a Jew can be spiritually budged only so much. For among the many thousands of once non-observant Jews who are today living Torah-observant lives are not only those who hailed from Jewishly-informed backgrounds and simply followed the trajectory set by their convictions, but many, too, who came from far, far afield.

Dr. David Lieberman, a Ph.D. and best-selling author of books on human psychology, currently of Lakewood, New Jersey, is one. Having been raised without a Jewish education, he describes himself as the last person anyone would have considered a candidate for observance.

And yet, beginning with an interaction with an Orthodox Jew, he came, as he puts it, to trade in "a life of insanity for a life of sanity, a life of unreality for one of reality."

Another is Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser, today of Jerusalem but once (as Johnny Glaser) of Southern California, where, as a hard-partying surfer-dude youth, he says, he had "tried everything" - only to discover, after being reached out to by Orthodox Jews during a short trip to Israel, that none of it meant anything. And his life was transformed.

Those two men, who today, with their wives, are raising Jewishly observant families, are among a number of "returnees" featured in a recent Aish HaTorah video, "Inspired," produced by New York psychotherapist Rabbi Yaakov Salomon.

Reaching out to non-Jews, in the hope that they may hold the key to the Jewish future is one approach. Realizing, and focusing on, the millions of David Liebermans and Johnny Glasers is another.

Radically changed Jewish lives like theirs are unshakeable testimony to the power of Judaism and the resilience of the Jewish soul. No one should underestimate either.

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

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