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Information and Opinion from a Traditional Jewish Perspective

Archives Of Previous Articles XXV


SUICIDE WATCH

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision concerning Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law was really about whether a federal drug-control law provided a U.S. Attorney General the authority to punish a state's doctors for acting in accordance with a state statute. But by contending that physician-assisted suicide is a "legitimate medical purpose" for the prescription of a drug, there can be little doubt that the ruling helped bring the idea of abetting suicide a bit closer to mainstream thinking. That's a deeply unfortunate thing.

As it happened, the decision came exactly seven days after a New Jersey nurse who has confessed to killing 29 people decided to stop cooperating with investigators. Charles Cullen maintains that he has killed up to 40 people, many of them old and ailing hospital patients whom he injected with lethal doses of drugs - like those that Oregon doctors have used to end the lives of more than 200 people.

And that was less than two weeks after CNN reported that several medical professionals are under scrutiny in an investigation by Louisiana's attorney general into allegations that hospital workers resorted to unauthorized euthanasia in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. One doctor was reported to have gone from patient to patient with a handful of syringes, telling them that "I'm going to give you something to make you feel better."

Last year, in The New England Journal of Medicine, two Dutch physicians published a set of guidelines for infant euthanasia; one of the doctors has admitted to presiding over the killing of at least four babies, by means of a lethal intravenous drip of morphine and midazolam (a sleeping agent). Although 12-year-olds in Holland already can, with their parents' approval, legally enlist doctors to kill them, the dispatching of sick babies remains illegal under Dutch law; the doctors hope that their proposed guidelines will provide a legal basis for such endeavors.

In the meanwhile, Belgium has enacted a euthanasia law similar to that of the Netherlands.

To some, this all is just the march of progress. In the eyes of Judaism, though, it is a descent into a deep moral morass.

Suicide is regarded by Jewish law as a sin, and helping a patient - even one who two doctors agree is likely to die within six months, whom Oregon's law permits abetting - to kill himself is acting as an accessory to the taking of a life. All the Torah's laws, in fact, with the exception only of three cardinal ones (idolatry, sexual immorality and murder), are put aside when life - even for a limited period - is in the balance. Contemporary society, unfortunately, has a very different take.

From the nearly non-stop portrayals of death and violence in what passes for contemporary "entertainment" to the all-too-real carnage on our cities' streets, the idea of human life as sacred has become increasingly unfashionable. In a world where youngsters regularly murder for a car, a pair of shoes or even just "for fun," or where women routinely decide to stop an unborn baby's heart to accommodate their own personal or professional goals, an elderly or infirm person's life just doesn't command the consequence it once did.

Nor have elements of the "intelligentsia" been hesitant to assist in human life's devaluation.

Peter Singer, for example, the famed Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University's Center for Human Values, has proposed the termination (even without niceties like consent) of what he calls "miserable beings" - people whose lives he deems devoid of pleasure.

Asked by The New York Times recently what idea, value or institution the world takes for granted today he thinks may disappear in the next 35 years, Professor Singer responded: "the traditional view of the sanctity of human life," which, he maintained, "will collapse under pressure from scientific, technological and demographic developments."

On another occasion, he went further still, predicting that once society jettisons "doctrines about the sanctity of human life," it will be "the refusal to accept killing that, in some cases, [will be seen as] horrific."

We're not there, yet. But even in the United States, where there remains considerable public aversion for assisted suicide and euthanasia, doctors report that both occur in hospitals much more frequently than most of us realize.

The elderly and diseased are rapidly increasing in number. Modern medicine has increased longevity and provided cures for many once-fatal illnesses. Add skyrocketing insurance costs and the resultant fiscal crisis in health care, and life runs the risk of becoming less a holy, divine gift than... a commodity.

And every businessman knows how important it is to turn over one's stock, to clear out the old and make way for the new.

Whatever the legal future of assisted suicide - the Supreme Court's recent decision may well move it into the chambers of Congress - one thing is certain: the issue belongs firmly, and loudly, in the sphere of public discourse.

And American Jews, in consonance with their religious heritage, should be at the forefront of "choosing life."

In ancient cultures that celebrated paganism and immorality, our ancestors stood up and apart.

In the midst of a culture that devalues human life, we should be doing no less.

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

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HEALING AN INJURED PHRASE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

"One of the 613 Mitzvot is 'Tikkun Olam,' to heal or repair the world," declares the Social Action Committee of a Massachusetts temple. The assertion is characteristic of the widespread ignorance these days about Jewish basics, not to mention the misrepresentation of the term tikkun olam.

There are indeed 613 mitzvot, or commandments, in the Torah, but none of them is tikkun olam - a phrase that, of late, is as frequently invoked (Google reports 226,000 references) as it is erroneously defined.

The term has its roots in the Mishna, the earliest Talmudic source-material, where it is employed as the philosophical principle behind a number of rabbinic enactments intended to avoid social problems. For example, the institution of a legal mechanism that can circumvent the sabbatical year's automatic cancellation of debts is justified by the concept of tikkun olam. As is the requirement that divorce documents include the signatures of the witnesses. Similarly, whenever tikkun olam is invoked by the Talmud, it refers to actions taken by rabbinic authorities to address communal concerns.

The phrase also has an eschatological meaning, as in "litakein olam bi'mal'chut Sha-dai" ("to repair the world through the kingdom of G-d") clause in the Aleinu declaration recited at the end of every Jewish prayer service. There it refers to the end-point of human history, when idolatries will disappear from earth and "every knee will bend to You" and all nations "will give honor to the glory of Your name."

And then there is tikkun olam's meaning in Jewish mystical literature, where it is used to refer to the cosmically redemptive power of personal actions, in particular the performance of mitzvot, both ethical and ritual.

In recent years, though, the term has been widely employed by a number of Jewish groups and individuals in a novel way, made to mean the embrace of any of a variety of social, political or environmental causes - including, as one, tikkunolam.com, asserts, arms control, reproductive rights and campaign reform. Gay and lesbian rights are another item on that group's list, although the only quote from Leviticus cited is "Love thy neighbor as yourself." (Other pertinent verses in that book seem to have been overlooked.)

Redefinition of time-honored Jewish words and concepts, unfortunately, is nothing new. "Torah" and "mitzvah" and "halacha" (Jewish religious law) and "observance" have all fallen victim to Jewish Newspeak. But there is a particular irony to the trendy twisting of tikkun olam to refer to the issue du jour of the politically progressive.

It stems from yet another legitimate employment of the term, as cited by Maimonides in his magnum opus the Mishneh Torah (or Yad Hachazaka).

Near the end of that 14-volume compendium of halacha, the revered 12th century Jewish luminary included several chapters of laws concerning Jewish kings. In the final law of the third chapter of that section, he writes:

"[In] any case where someone takes human lives without clear proof [of a capital offense] or the issuance of a warning, or even on the strength of a single witness [as two are required in a Jewish court], or where a person hates someone and kills him [seemingly] by accident, a king is permitted to execute [the unjustified taker of life] in order to repair the world ["li'taken ha'olam"] according to the needs of the time… to strike fear and shatter the strength [literally, "break the hand"] of the world's perpetrators of evil."

And so, Maimonides informs us, there is yet another meaning to tikkun olam, the authorization of a nation's leader to do whatever is necessary, "according to the needs of the time" - even suspend the ordinary rules of evidence in capital cases - to preserve the security of his society from those who seek to disrupt it.

No Jewish king exists today but, still - in the spirit of liberal-mindedness - we might engage in a little "expansion of definition" ourselves and consider how the Maimonidean concept of tikkun olam might pertain to our own society, leaders and times.

Reasonably, it would seem to advocate the right, in fact the responsibility, of the chief executive of a country threatened by murderous elements to take strong and unusual action to undermine those enemies of civilized society - even if some personal rights may be compromised in the process.

So, interestingly, the concept of tikkun olam would seem to argue most eloquently today for things like, say, the imprisonment of enemy combatants, secret wiretaps and surveillance of citizens.

It might not please those who enjoy waving tikkun olam like a flag, but the concept, accurately applied, would seem to more heartily support the Patriot Act than a ban on Alaskan oil drilling.

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

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WE’RE ALL TRAPPED MINERS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Even in tragedy – perhaps especially there – food for Jewish thought abounds.

It is wrenching to imagine the grief of the families of the 12 miners who were found dead on January 4 after an explosion two days earlier in a West Virginia coal mine. More wrenching still to imagine, though, are the emotions of the men themselves, 13,000 feet below the surface of the earth, during their final hours of life. They had built a “rough barricade structure,” according to the president of the mine company, and at some point donned breathing apparatuses that would have provided them one hour’s worth of oxygen.

They surely prayed, as did their families high above, for their rescue. They may also have hopefully recalled a mine collapse four years earlier in Pennsylvania, when nine miners were finally rescued after three days underground. Sadly, the West Virginia miners’ fate, with the exception of a single man who was extricated alive, was not to be that happy one.

Painful as the imagining is, though, the miners’ final hours’ ordeal is worth pondering. Because it has the potential of providing us all a most valuable realization.

Picture yourself thousands of feet below the earth’s surface, surrounded by darkness and without nourishment, confined and cut off from loved ones – indeed, from the entire world.

And then imagine – as the miners surely hoped with all their might would happen to them – being rescued from the depths, hoisted to the surface once again into the light and fresh air, into the presence of family and friends. Imagine laying eyes on familiar things again, the sun, the sky, the faces. Imagine the gratitude that would swell any human heart at such a moment.

And then consider that each of us undergoes a similar experience each and every day.

We wake up in the morning.

It’s not only the fact that in sleep we are not conscious, not in control, or that people can and do die in their sleep; or even that sleep, like death, is insistent, and will only be postponed so long. The rabbis of the Talmud said something more; they considered sleep itself to be a virtual microcosm of death – “one sixtieth” of it, in their turn of phrase and thought.

The regularity with which we are granted new life each day dulls us, regrettably, to the import of the fact. That is only human nature, what Emerson alluded to when he wrote: “If the stars would appear but one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the City of G-d.”

But recognized or not, the import is there all the same, and demands every sensitive soul’s attention. Thus, while all too many of us awaken each day with grumbling about the speed with which morning arrived, Jewish tradition mandates that a Jew’s first words upon awakening in the morning are to be those of the short “Modeh Ani” prayer of gratitude. It is one of the first things observant Jewish parents teach their young children.

“I gratefully acknowledge You,” the prayer goes, “living and eternal King, for having returned my soul to me with compassion. Abundant is Your trustworthiness.”

Few of us, thankfully, will ever experience anything like what the trapped miners underwent. But all of us can benefit from relating it to what we do indeed undergo each and every day, as we pull ourselves from unconsciousness and dark into awareness and light. Our gratitude should be powerful and heartfelt.

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

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SHABBOS. HOLY SHABBOS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

On January 13, the 92nd Street Young Men and Young Women’s Hebrew Association – the celebrated New York City institution more commonly known as the “92nd Street Y” – is slated to end its policy of closing for the Jewish Sabbath.

Over the years, it seems, there has been much demand by gym-goers to keep the “Y” and its fitness center open on the Sabbath, known to many Jews as Shabbat or Shabbos. Most of the facility’s Jewish members are not observant of the Jewish religious tradition, which considers exercising to be a violation of the Sabbath’s spirit, and the use of electronically-enhanced equipment a breach of Sabbath law. And, although a spokesperson for the “Y” denies that there was any financial motivation for the abandonment of the 130-year-old Sabbath-respecting policy, the gym brings in more than $5 million a year.

Defending the decision to have the “Y” and its gym open on the Sabbath, its executive director, Sol Adler, stresses that the institution is “not a religious” one but rather “cultural,” and that “if someone feels that it’s inappropriate to work out or go swimming, they can choose not to work out or go swimming.”

Whether that approach dovetails or clashes with the “Y”’s self-description as “a proudly Jewish institution” that promotes “Jewish values,” “promote[s] a public pride in the Jewish heritage” and “uphold[s] the historic Jewish emphasis on… sanctity of family [and] the cycle of Jewish times and seasons” is, perhaps, a judgment call.

What comes to my mind, though, is the story of a rabbi who once traveled to Miami Beach to speak on the anniversary of the death of the celebrated, revered Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, more commonly known as “the Chofetz Chaim,” – or “the one who desires life” – a biblical phrase he used as the title of one of his major works, on the laws forbidding gossip and slander. The rabbi in Miami recounted in his address a tale that had been told to him by an elderly man who had witnessed it in the Chofetz Chaim’s yeshiva in pre-war Poland. A student there was once seen smoking on the Sabbath and it was decided that the young man had to be expelled.

The Chofetz Chaim, however, asked to see the student before he left. The boy entered the sage’s spartan quarters (the Chofetz Chaim never properly furnished his house, explaining that all of us are just “passing through this world”) and, moments later, emerged in tears and contrition; he remained in the yeshiva and never violated the Sabbath again.

The speaker told the story just to illustrate the Chofetz Chaim’s greatness; it bothered him, though, that he didn’t know what had transpired behind the Chofetz Chaim’s closed doors. Astoundingly, though, that was about to change.

After his speech, the auditorium emptied out and the speaker, bidding his hosts goodbye, saw one elderly man still in his seat, heaving with sobs. He went over to him to see if he could help. The old man said only “That boy was me.”

The speaker comforted the older man but couldn’t hold himself back from asking what the Chofetz Chaim had said to him that day. The man looked up and recounted: “The Chofetz Chaim took my hand and cried – I remember the hot tears falling on my hand. And then he said three words: ‘Shabbos. Holy Shabbos.’ That is all he said.”

It was, apparently, all that was needed.

There may be no Chofetz Chaims today, no one whose pure tears can change lives. But those at the 92nd Street Y who made the decision to change the respect-for-the-Sabbath policy might want to consider the example of a similar institution that made a similar decision in Baltimore, in 1997.

In November of that year, the board of directors of Baltimore’s Jewish Community Center voted 37-6 to open its suburban branch on the Jewish Sabbath. Baltimore’s Orthodox community begged the local Jewish federation, whose imprimatur was needed for the plan to go forward, to recognize the inappropriateness of a Jewish institution, religious or cultural, treating the Sabbath as a regular day of business.

One particularly creative local rabbi’s wife – who happens to be my beloved stepmother – made the wise and hopeful suggestion that Jews who felt they needed exercise on the Sabbath consider undertaking a long walk to a distant synagogue for Sabbath services. A heartfelt gathering in defense of the Sabbath’s honor was held, and thousands of Jews attended. It was not a protest rally; the then-dean of the renowned Ner Israel Rabbinical College, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, well captured the event’s spirit when he spoke. “We are crying out,” he said, his pain audible in his voice, “from our hearts that have been wounded.”

And then came a remarkable development. On December 16, the local federation, in a 43-30 vote, decided to keep the facility closed on the Sabbath.

By all accounts, the words of LeRoy E. Hoffberger, a federation board member and self-described “Reform Jew who is not Shomer Shabbos [Sabbath observant],” had a profound effect. In a letter to his colleagues, Mr. Hoffberger called it “hypocritical” for the Jewish federation to “lower its communal standards of observance of the Sabbath and at the same time claim that its highest priority is strengthening Jewish identity and enhancing Jewish education.”

Mr. Hoffberger also expressed the fear that opening the JCC on the Sabbath would set a precedent that would invite other Jewish institutions to act similarly.

What a powerful statement of pride in the Jewish heritage and it would be were the 92nd Street Y to similarly reconsider its decision, even at this late date, and not set a sad precedent of its own.

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

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THE BAR MITZVAH THEME TO END THEM ALL

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Washington Post recently informed me that, if it is to qualify as "a state-of-the-art New York bar mitzvah," the celebration my wife and I are planning for our youngest son's upcoming entry into Jewish adulthood needs a considerable dose of "theater," including "like all theater… props."

The Post article, on the "glam makeover" that bar mitzvahs have reportedly undergone in recent years, stressed the importance of themes, highlighting a "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" bar mitzvah, a "guitar" bar mitzvah, a "casino" bar mitzvah, a "Yankees" bar mitzvah (complete with a film of the new Jewish adult joining the team during spring training), and other themes best left unmentioned here (actually, anywhere).

My goodness, I exclaimed to myself. Mere weeks from our dear son Menachem's assumption of the yoke of the Torah's commandments, we were utterly themeless. Whatever would we do? Sure, like other parents described in the article, I suppose we could (after taking out a third mortgage) hire some "motivators" to drag guests into dancing circles, some acrobats and even a bartender or two to oversee a "vodka slide" - a "massive block of ice with a groove down the middle" - for the adult guests. The bar mitzvah boy (thank G-d) would boycott his celebration if he saw any of those things, but at least we would have done something meaningful.

What, though, about the all-important theme?

As Orthodox Jews, we couldn't really go the route of the corporate CEO who recently flew in a number of rock and rap artists to regale the masses at his daughter's multi-million dollar bat mitzvah. But I know well that we Orthodox are hardly beyond our own acts of immature excess.

Think, I thought. But of course! The possibilities were endless! We could have a "tefillin bar mitzvah," with tables in the shape of the leather phylacteries worn by Orthodox Jewish men; or a "Talmud bar mitzvah" with tractate volumes made out of chopped-liver; or a "Mount Sinai bar mitzvah," with centerpieces rigged to erupt in simulated lightning after the bar mitzvah boy's speech; or a "manna from heaven bar mitzvah," where, in keeping with Jewish tradition's teaching about the miraculous nourishment's ability to taste like almost anything, each guest could order whatever food he or she wanted (we'd need both meat and dairy kitchens for that one, but hey, who said successful excess was easy?).

Then, though, it hit me. No, none of those themes was right - the perfect bar mitzvah theme was something else, and I had it: a "shtetl bar mitzvah."

We would recreate a pre-Holocaust Eastern European small town bar mitzvah, precisely like those my son's grandfathers experienced when they turned thirteen in 1930s Poland!

It wouldn't be easy, but we could do it. We'd have to find the appropriate venue, of course, something that captured the ambiance of a true shtetl synagogue. I'd seen old photos. It shouldn't be hard. There are a number of establishments in certain New York neighborhoods that would fit the bill; they might lack actual dirt floors - but their floors are certainly dirty.

The cuisine might be trickier, I thought, but after intensive historical research, I came up with just what the theme demanded: kichel (a primitive precursor of the cookie) and herring, with a shot of schnapps as an accompaniment for those of age (drinking, that is, not Jewish adulthood). No main course and no dessert - for authenticity's sake. A truly unique bar mitzvah, one not seen for sixty years!

I imagine there may be some strange looks from guests unaware of all the careful thought and planning that went into our son's chic, minimalist bar mitzvah theme. Even when I explain it, some may not realize how "state of the art" our celebration really is. It won't be their fault, of course. It takes a certain sophistication to recognize true style.

I even hope to start a trend. An avant-garde, deceptively low-key approach to bar mitzvahs! And aside from the sheer coolness of it all, the simplicity of the affairs may just make it easier for the bar mitzvah boy (or bat mitzvah girl) to remain focused on the true theme of the moment, their entry into the circle of Jews who are now responsible to humanity, to their fellow Jews, and above all, to G-d.

Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. For their son Menachem's bar mitzvah celebration, he and Mrs. Shafran plan to serve a modest chicken dinner for family, a handful of their closest friends and Menachem's yeshiva classmates. Menachem's grandparents will serve as motivators, in the deepest, most Jewish sense of the word.

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SHEDDING LIGHT ON ANTI-SEMITISM

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Recent events - like the president of Iran's call for Israel's destruction (and then, apparently in a more kindly mood, for its relocation to Europe); the United Nations secretary-general's participation in a UN-sponsored "Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People" next to a map showing "Palestine" in place of Israel; the sudden appearance of anti-Semitism in one country (Peru) and the refusal of another (Syria) to permit a Jewish journalist (WorldNetDaily's Aaron Klein) entry because of his ethnicity - are timely things to ponder as we head toward Chanukah.

Nor should we leave out the ugly underbelly of even some recent "good news," the International Red Cross's vote (after years of haggling, and with only 27 nays and 10 abstentions) to add a new official symbol to the cross and the crescent, entitling Israel's volunteer emergency services to be protected from attack outside the borders of the Jewish State.

Good news, yes. But the new symbol is not the all-too-familiar-to-Israelis "Red Magen David" but rather a red square standing on one corner. A star may be added to the square, but so can a unicorn or a turnip; the stand-alone star of Israel's emergency responders will continue to afford no international protection to vehicles or personnel displaying it. Even, it seems, when Jews are let in the club, they must check their identities at the door.

To understand what all the above "spirit of the season" has to do with the Jewish time of year, one has to move beyond bemoaning anti-Semitism, toward understanding it.

It's not an easy task. Irrational Jew-hatred's astounding resiliency and its purveyors' impressive creativity are baffling. And anti-Semitism has been around for centuries, indeed millennia. So, too, though, has been Jewish tradition's take on the matter.

Classical Jewish thought's approach to the question of anti-Semitism may have been most pithily rendered by the renowned Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik of Brisk (1820-1892), who wrote: "Know that the more that Jews minimize the 'apartness' that the Torah mandates through Torah study and the observance of the commandments, the more G-d allows hatred [within others] to bring about the necessary outcome - that the Jewish people remain a people apart."

It says much about how far we Jews have drifted from the fundamentals of our spiritual heritage that such a thought strikes so many as outrageous. How, they ask, could our attempt to blend harmoniously into larger society and to jettison religious observances increase anti-Semitism?

Yet that is precisely what the Torah itself repeatedly and explicitly predicts (as in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28), what authentic Jewish religious leaders have always maintained, and what alone explains the reality around us. Once our initial umbrage at the idea subsides, what remains are the troubling but telling facts: Despite the Holocaust, and compulsory education in liberal values, and interfaith efforts, and Jews' hearty embrace of the cultures in which they live - we are as hated as ever. Perhaps more than ever.

That is the point. Much as we may squirm, we Jews are meant to be "a people apart." And if we try to be "just like all the nations," in the Torah's disapproving words, G-d allows others to remind us of our role.

Which brings us to Chanukah.

Some contemporary Jewish writers - even, sadly, some clergy - seem intent on minimizing the significance of the Jewish holiday of lights, claiming it is but a minor affair, artificially magnified by its proximity in the calendar to non-Jewish celebratory days. Nothing could be more misleading. Chanukah, to be sure, is not a Biblical holiday; it is based on an historical occurrence that took place after Biblical times. But it is the focus of a substantial amount of Jewish thought and lore, particularly in the mystical tradition.

What motivates the would-be Chanukah-diminishers, I suspect, is their discomfort with Chanukah's elemental message.

Because according to Jewish tradition, the victory celebrated on Chanukah was only superficially about the routing of the Greek-Syrian Seleucid Empire's forces from Judea. More essentially, it was about the routing of the Greek assimilationist inroads into Jewish life. To the rabbis who established the holiday, a greater enemy than the flesh-and-blood forces that had defiled the Holy Temple was the adoption by Jews of Hellenistic ideals.

For the Seleucids not only forbade observance of the Sabbath, circumcision, Jewish modesty and the study of Torah, they convinced some Jews to embrace their world-view. They installed not only a statue of Zeus in the Temple, but an assimilationist attitude in Jewish hearts. And Chanukah stands for the uprooting of that attitude, for the recognition that Jews are, and must be, different.

Which is why Chanukah's observance does not involve a special feast - as does Purim's, when the threat against us was physical - but rather only the lighting, and gazing at, the ethereal light of candles. The battle of Chanukah was, in its essence, a spiritual one. Light represents Torah. And Torah - its study and its observance - is the essence of the Jewish people. "A bit of light," as the rabbis of the Talmud put it, "banishes much darkness."

And so, as we light the Chanukah candles, watch their flames and consider events both ancient and current - "in those days, at this time" - we might give some thought, too, to both the spiritual state of the Jewish world today and to how widely, insanely we are hated.

And ponder the message of the lights that flicker before us.

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

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JEWISH INVESTMENT PLANNING

Rabbi Avi Shafran

One benefit of having a lot of money is being able to speak one's mind bluntly, which license philanthropist Michael Steinhardt has never been reluctant to employ.

Recently, the mega-giver to Jewish causes, whose claim to atheism is belied by his commitment to projects he feels will help ensure a vibrant Jewish future, shared some thoughts about the Orthodox community, specifically about what he calls its "myopic" attitude toward the larger American Jewish one.

Mr. Steinhardt, it seems, has two complaints. First, that the Orthodox community considers non-Orthodox Jews a "lost cause," since "it's just a matter of time before they assimilate" - a sentiment he claims to have heard from an Orthodox Jew several years ago. And second, that relatively few Orthodox dollars support non-Orthodox causes, like Jewish federations.

Regarding charge number one, while broad brushes don't paint very accurate pictures, I tend to share Mr. Steinfeld's chagrin over the possibility that any Orthodox Jew might write off a fellow Jew as beyond reach and growth. I have in fact written for and spoken to Orthodox audiences warning against precisely that, and have heard many Orthodox religious leaders do the same.

Charge number two, though, is thoroughly misguided. Whatever Mr. Steinhardt might think about Orthodox Jews' principles and beliefs, he presumably acknowledges their right to remain faithful to them. Particularly here, where the principles and beliefs at issue are the very ones that not only imbued the lives of earlier Jewish generations but are empowering the most vibrant growth and commitment anywhere in the contemporary Jewish world.

And, sadly, those timeless Jewish beliefs and principles make it difficult if not impossible for many Orthodox Jews to view Jewish federations and the like as proper investments for their charitable contributions.

Why? Because there are projects in the non-Orthodox American Jewish community that are patently, and deeply, objectionable to many Orthodox Jews. They may be efforts to promote "a woman's choice," or non-halachic conversion, or "outreach" to non-Jews. Some Jewish federations, including the national federation umbrella group, the United Jewish Communities, may try not to cross controversial Jewish lines, but nevertheless do, sending messages at irreconcilable odds with an Orthodox Jewish outlook.

Take, for instance, the UJC's "Pride in Israel Mission" this past summer, which brought "members of the American lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community" to Israel to meet with, among others, "leading LGBT community figures and organizations" there. It was a mission whose national chair, the vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, proudly described as having "strengthened our identities as LGBT Jews." In fact, the mission had originally been timed to coincide with the beginning of a ten-day "Love Without Borders: Jerusalem WorldPride" festival (which ended up being cancelled because of security concerns during the Gaza withdrawal).

Whatever one's personal opinion about the "Pride in Israel Mission," it should be obvious that few Orthodox Jews would want any of their hard-earned income going to such projects - and understandable that many Orthodox Jews would not view an organization whose priorities include such projects as particularly worthy of their support.

One can, of course, choose to accept or reject Jewish religious tradition's attitude toward the propriety of "strengthening the identities" of "LGBT Jews." But to see any group of Jews "myopic" for refusing to jettison their essential convictions evidences a much more severe vision problem.

Orthodox Jews do support Jewish charitable causes - and as studies have shown, in considerably greater proportions than other segments of the Jewish community. That should not surprise; tithing one's income is a Jewish religious mandate. So, though, is the responsibility to give one's charity wisely. To an Orthodox Jew, that means donating to individuals in need (homes in Orthodox neighborhoods are regularly and frequently visited by the poor, Orthodox and otherwise, seeking assistance), to social services (of which there are a multitude in Orthodox community - ministering to all Jews, Orthodox or not, and even to non-Jews), and to what we Orthodox regard as the engines of the Jewish future - the day schools, yeshivot and Bais Yaakovs that educate Jewish children - most of which are in dire financial straits. There's no myopia there, only focusing limited resources where they are most urgently needed.

And then there's another entire area of Orthodox effort that benefits non-Orthodox Jews, one Mr. Steinhardt may not fully appreciate: outreach.

It exists in an organized fashion, though a multitude of "kiruv" organizations - like Aish HaTorah , Ohr Somayach and Torah.org, to name just three of many - and programs like "Partners In Torah," not to mention the dozens of community kollelim that have emerged in recent years across the country. And Orthodox outreach happens, too, in countless "one-on-one" interactions, whenever a Jewishly-uneducated and non-practicing Jew makes the happy choice of letting an Orthodox Jew know he or she is Jewish, and the Orthodox Jew extends an invitation to a Shabbat meal or class.

If Mr. Steinhardt finds such efforts somehow unimportant or condescending (as his pronouncement about Orthodox unconcern with other Jews would seem to imply), he might do well to consider in a new light something he already knows well: it's important to invest wisely.

There are investments, of course, of cash and property, but also investments of knowledge and effort. The Orthodox community doesn't have terribly much of the first kind. If we did, our schools and yeshivot would not be so severely strapped, and fewer Orthodox families would be suffering under crushing debt. What we do have, though, is the second sort, our learning and our love. That's what we have to invest in the non-Orthodox community. And we do.

So instead of berating the Orthodox community, Mr. Steinhardt might do better to extol it, not to mention support it. With its long history o strong performance, it would be a considerably wiser investment than a hedge fund, and it promises the highest of returns.

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

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TAKING TRADITION SERIOUSLY

Rabbi Avi Shafran

At the recent 68th General Assembly of the Union for Reform Judaism, in Houston, the group's president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, said some important things.

He noted that the children of Reform parents, have been "told… again and again that Judaism is an all-embracing way of life," and that those youths "expect that their tradition will have something to say" about fundamental moral matters.

He also called on all movement's members to "give our young people love, clear direction and the guidance of our ancestors." Pointedly, he added: "And to show them that we are ready to sacrifice for our Jewish ideals."

They were wonderful words to hear, but they stood in disturbingly stark contrast to much of the rest of his speech. Like his admission that "we are not very good at saying 'no' in Reform Judaism," and that, "in the realm of personal behavior, we are reluctant to ever use the word 'forbidden'."

Similarly discordant with ideas like seeking the "guidance of our ancestors" and readiness "to sacrifice for Jewish ideals" were things like Rabbi Yoffie's statement that "we do not tell our kids that sex before marriage is forbidden" because, after all, it is "unreasonable to suggest that this traditional standard should be maintained for young people who are adults."

Well, which is it to be? Is Judaism an "all-embracing way of life" or are its standards not reasonable to maintain? Should Jews be prepared to "sacrifice for Jewish ideals" or throw in the towel to prevailing social norms? In one fell sermon, Rabbi Yoffie laid bare the inherent inconsistency of his movement. The words are there, the talk about "ancestors" and "tradition" and "sacrifice." Words are important, but when they're empty they're worthless.

Although it didn't receive much press coverage, another large Jewish gathering took place shortly after the Reform conclave. Agudath Israel of America held its 83rd National Convention, in Stamford, Connecticut.

At that four-day gathering, Orthodox Jews received direction for their lives from respected rabbinic leaders, and discussed a wide range of issues, including the challenge presented by the internet's invasion of families and homes, worrisome to observant Jews because of the Torah's stress on not only moral actions but moral thoughts as well.

Also addressed was the "tuition crisis" - the economic crunch that is squeezing Jews for whom large families and intensive Jewish educations are non-negotiables.

Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, Agudath Israel's executive vice president, pointed out, however, that a great deal was said by that problem itself.

While daunting and urgent, he explained, it is a "good problem" born of success, of the powerful growth in both numbers and commitment, of the Orthodox community.

That observation, too, presented a stark contrast to what was admitted from the podium at the Reform gathering, where Rabbi Yoffie bemoaned the fact that so many who join his movement's temples end up leaving, "usually in three to five years, often right after celebrating a child's bar or bat mitzvah."

Does it not occur to him that the reason for that hemorrhaging of members might have something to do with the inadequacy of mere words? That when young people in his movement come to their spiritual leaders seeking "the guidance of our ancestors" they are looking not for platitudes but for true direction?

Does it really not occur to him that there is another Jewish approach, the original one, not only faithful to the Jewish past but clearly pointing the way to the Jewish future?

The speakers at the final session of Agudath Israel's convention were two Jews raised non-observant but Orthodox today. One, a Ph.D., is a best-selling author of books on psychology; the other, a surfer/party animal turned chassid.

They - and thousands of "returnees" to Jewish tradition like them - were powerful examples of how, to again borrow Rabbi Yoffie's words, "Judaism is an all-embracing way of life," of what it means for a young Jew to accept the "clear direction and the guidance of our ancestors." Models of what it truly means to be "ready to sacrifice for our Jewish ideals."

The psychologist and surfer-turned-chassid were not there to reassure their listeners but to reproach them for their complacency, for basking in the joy, serenity and spiritual fulfillment of their own lives without sufficient concern for the vast numbers of American Jews who are simply unaware of what traditional Jewish belief and observance mean. Pulling no punches, they insisted that the depth and beauty of intensively Jewish lives - born of the timeless truths of the Torah - are the birthright of every Jew. And that if Orthodox Jews don't endeavor to share their spiritual wealth with their non-observant brothers and sisters, they are both abandoning their relatives and shunning their duty as Jews.

The audience, visibly moved, even shaken, gave the speakers standing ovations.

And at least one person present found himself thinking about Rabbi Yoffie and all the Jews who had heard the Reform president's words, wishing with all his heart that somehow they could be there, and see what it really means to take Jewish tradition seriously.

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

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WHAT DO JEWISH WOMEN WANT?

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It hardly comes as news that the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) has embarked on a drive to galvanize its constituents to oppose the nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito, Jr. for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

The NCJW, like some others, views judicial nominees through a tunnel called Roe, and has a track record of opposing any nominee - including, most recently Chief Justice John Roberts - they suspect might have the inclination to overturn the blanket enshrinement of a "right" to abort. That suspicion now attaches to Judge Alito, and so, in classic "been there, done that" fashion, the NCJW is publicly flogging him with coat hangers.

Agudath Israel of America, for its part, would be happy to see Roe v. Wade overturned. By devaluing potential human life, the decision has helped devalue all human life, which Judaism cherishes deeply. The concept that a woman has an unfettered "right" to terminate her pregnancy is entirely foreign to Jewish thought and law. If Judge Alito would in fact shift the balance of the Supreme Court toward a less hospitable attitude toward abortion on demand, we would consider that a positive development.

That the NCJW has a contrary view is disappointing to us, but by now hardly surprising. What is novel about this particular anti-Alito campaign, though, and most perplexing, is the extent to which a group purporting to represent Jewish women is exhibiting such a hostile attitude toward an institution that most Jewish women, I think, would agree needs strengthening: marriage.

Among the anti-Alito material NCJW offers its supporters is a boilerplate letter to send members of Congress. In it, Judge Alito is accused of having "ruled to severely restrict a woman's constitutional right to abortion..."

The reference is clearly to a 1991 case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which Judge Alito, as a federal appellate judge, penned a dissent (the case eventually was appealed to, and decided, by the U.S. Supreme Court).

That case challenged a Pennsylvania law requiring a woman seeking an abortion to receive information about the fetus and the procedure, to wait 24 hours and, if married, to inform her husband of her decision.

The "severe restriction" to which the NCJW refers is apparently that latter condition, the subject of Judge Alito's dissent. The judge, basing his stance on earlier Supreme Court decisions, contended that a requirement to inform one's husband of a decision to terminate pregnancy, especially since the requirement did not apply in cases where there was fear of abuse, did not constitute an "undue burden" on a woman seeking to terminate her pregnancy.

One can agree with Judge Alito's interpretation of the "undue burden" standard or disagree with it (as the Supreme Court eventually did), but no reasonable observer would characterize a spousal notification requirement as "severely restrict[ing]" a woman's right to abortion.

If any philosophy lies in the judge's dissent to Casey, it was not about "a woman's constitutional right" but about marriage - to wit, that it matters. That is an assertion every Jewish group, every women's group - and certainly every Jewish women's group - should be applauding. By arguing that a state may legislate the notification of a husband (not a boyfriend, and certainly not a rapist) that his wife has decided to abort her - their - child, Judge Alito was, in a small way, resisting the societal trend of devaluing not only potential life but the institution of marriage.

It is an institution certainly under assault, and the toll has been considerable - in the Jewish community no less than in broader society, and in some ways even more.

The fact that Jewish women are marrying later than ever, if at all, resulting in a birth rate that falls short of replacement level, has contributed to a Jewish demographic crisis, as Professor Jack Wertheimer recently wrote in a recent, much-discussed article in Commentary. Many Jewish women claim that they would wish to marry earlier, and have more children, if they could only find like-minded Jewish men. But if the NCJW's hyperbolic attack on Judge Alito accurately reflects the state of mind of American Jewish womanhood, and if the bonds of marriage are so weak in the eyes of Jewish women that they feel their husbands are not even entitled to information about a planned termination of their child's nascent life, then how truly committed are Jewish women to marriage, childbearing and the Jewish future?

I, for one, don't believe Jewish women are so cavalier about these matters. I think the NCJW is misreading and misrepresenting not only Judge Alito but the constituency it claims to represent.

The NCJW - although one suspects the "J" in its name will squirm - is certainly welcome, like any citizen or group, to favor an unfettered right to abortion, and even to defend the widely-discredited notion that such a right lies hidden somewhere between the lines of the U.S. Constitution.

But rather than blatantly misrepresent a man's record (and, subtly, a religious tradition's attitude), it might better advance the cause of women, and of Judaism, by recognizing and promoting the ideals of marriage and childbearing - ideals that clearly mean something to Samuel Alito.

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

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THE KIDS ARE NOT ALRIGHT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It’s pretty commonsensical: a culture’s ideals and spirit can be discerned in what its adults choose to nourish their progeny’s developing minds. One can know much about a world, in other words, by considering its children’s entertainment.

I have thought that thought, gratefully and proudly, on many a visit to a Judaica store. If they’re even modestly-sized, they are sure to have large children’s sections, featuring a broad assortment of books, cassettes and videos which, in a variety of novel, often funny and fascinating ways, teach about the Jewish heritage, religious observance, and the importance of refining one’s personal temperament and character – the latter theme particularly well-represented.

Recently, though, I had the opportunity to consider a very different sort of children’s entertainment, promoting a very different sort of lesson. It was an artistically sophisticated cartoon, made available, along with a translation of dialogue, by the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).

Aired on television at the end of October, it is clearly aimed at youngsters; no adult graphic novel, this. Its target viewers were what, in American culture, might be termed the Sesame Street or Rugrats crowd – or, in Jewish culture, the Uncle Moishe demographic. But the cartoon was not designed to foster high ideals or elicit smiles.

The animated feature begins by depicting a Palestinian family being terrorized by a platoon of scowling Israeli soldiers, who, having just killed one of the family’s young men, are in the process of arresting another. When the Palestinian mother of the man runs toward a soldier, he strikes her viciously in the face with the butt of his rifle. Cartoon blood (surely a novelty in itself) flows copiously from her mouth, and the woman’s young daughter runs to her mother’s supine body and begs, seemingly, in vain, “Dear mother, open your eyes. Why isn’t our mother saying anything? Dear mother, for Allah’s sake, please don’t die!”

Then, when the father rushes the Israeli commander, the soldier turns and shoots the man, and then commands his charges to “finish him off,” which they gleefully do with roaring Uzis, laughing as the Palestinian’s blood splatters on a nearby tree’s oranges.

Oh, yes, there’s a plot too, wherein lies the cartoon’s message. A young man in the family, Abd Al-Rahman, watching all the carnage with tears welling in his eyes, declares that “I must take revenge upon these bloodthirsty aggressors who murdered my father, mother and brother.”

A friend comforts the teen, and, to make a long cartoon short, the two hook up with their friendly local terrorist cell, which trains and supplies the youths with weapons and grenades with which to attack an Israeli convoy.

Our hero climbs a high rock overlooking a road on which the Israeli patrol is soon to pass. But then, as the convoy approaches, instead of readying the hand grenades to be lobbed at the convoy, he strings them around his waist. And, when the Israeli vehicles pass beneath, he pulls the pins and jumps dramatically from his high perch onto one of the trucks. A great explosion ensues and the cartoon’s final scene shows the corpses of the Israeli soldiers and our noble avenger (his body remarkably intact, although the favored blood is, of course, amply present).

Then, the cartoon’s little viewers are provided their subliminal cue: a young Palestinian boy comes upon the scene, takes Al-Rahman’s bloody kaffiyeh, places it on his own shoulders and, in the best Western tradition, walks off into the sunset.

The cartoon was produced and broadcast in Iran, whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the very day before the children’s feature was aired, declared that “Israel must be wiped off the map.” Iran, that is, which, reliable intelligence sources say, is on the verge of nuclear weapon capability.

When American parents put their children in front of a television to watch Sesame Street, their hope is that the kids will absorb not only their ABCs but the values that inform the program. When Jewish parents put a “613 Torah Avenue” CD on the stereo, they hope, similarly, that their sons’ and daughters’ Jewish ideals will be strengthened.

What might we imagine is the hope of Iranian or Palestinian parents who “entertain” their children with messages of hatred and the glorification of suicide in the service of killing others?

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

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A LETTER TO KING ABDULLAH II OF JORDAN

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Your Highness:

This was to have been a letter of concern and protest, over a Jordan-based satellite network’s planned airing during Ramadan of a virulently anti-Semitic television series.

Instead, having been informed of new and heartening developments, I write to express my gratitude and admiration for the cancellation of the series’ broadcast.

As you surely know, the series, “Al-Shatat,” or “The Diaspora,” rivals the worst canards ever propagated by the Nazis. It includes wild fabrications intended to incite hatred for, and violence against, Jewish people. It depicts, for example, a rabbi overseeing the slitting of a Christian boy’s throat in order to obtain blood to bake in matzos; a Jewish leader taking “credit” for suggesting the destruction of Hiroshima; a “Secret Jewish World Government” assisting in the Holocaust in order to drive European Jews to the Holy Land – and other canards, both old and original.

I became aware of your government’s intervention to prevent the airing of the Syrian-produced poison through groups like the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and the Middle East Media Research Institute; both had earlier drawn attention to the broadcast and have now promptly informed the public of Jordan’s principled action. Jewish and other media have since followed with reports of the good news, and well-deserved praise for your government has come from every corner of the civilized world..

As one of a number of Jewish religious representatives you invited to a luncheon in Washington last month, I heard you eloquently address the importance of building bridges between Jews and Muslims, and I, like all those gathered, deeply appreciated your words. You have now shown them to be more than mere words. I salute you for showing your willingness to back them with action.

With your indulgence, though, please allow me to share a further hope.

By preventing the broadcast of the vile and hateful propaganda, Jordan not only struck a blow for truth and good will here, it set an important example. For that example to have an effect, though, it must be placed squarely, boldly and proudly before your people and the entire Arab world.

Al-Jazeera reports that Jordanian officials have been “tight-lipped on the ban [of the television program], apparently to avoid agitating a public opinion frustrated with Israel’s policies.” In fact, while the statement of your embassy in Washington was laudable, it disturbingly characterized the Al-Shatat program only as “controversial,” and contended only that it “drew concerns for inciting hate.”

But Al-Shatat is an evil production, pure and carefully distilled lies and hatred. And condemning such anti-Jewish poison should have nothing to do with anyone’s political views. When you spoke to us in Washington, one of your themes was precisely that: the need to separate political matters from religious ones. You asked your listeners to put the question of Israel and the Palestinians aside and focus on fostering mutual respect between religions. Al-Shatat’s producer – Hezbollah – surely has its political views, but the production is, above all else, anti-Jewish in its every frame.

And so it is my hope that you will find the right opportunity to state, unequivocally and straightforwardly, as a descendant of Mohammed, the monarch of a great nation and a promoter of truth, that Al-Shatat is falsehood from beginning to end, that it was designed to foment hatred of Jews, and that no Muslim who respects truth or justice, ideals glorified by the Koran, should, for even the briefest moment, imagine otherwise.

Your Highness, if I thought you were a leader like all too many others, concerned only with maintaining his position and enjoying its perquisites, I would not express my hope; indeed, I would have no reason to harbor it.

But you have demonstrated unusual – in fact, unique – determination and courage in speaking up for the cause of true peace among religions and peoples. And so that is what emboldens me to share with you my prayer that you continue, and intensify, the work you have bravely begun.

May the Creator grant you long life, good health and His constant protection in that holy task.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The letter above was sent to King Abdulla via the Jordanian Embassy in Washington on November 1.]

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MEET THE JEWISH PRESS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The fact that you are reading this means that the newspaper you are holding or the website you are viewing cares to provide a traditional Orthodox Jewish point of view. But there are many Jewish media – including the largest-circulation Jewish weekly on the east coast and its counterpart on the west – that seem to not consider traditional Jewish writers’ views worth even a handful of column-inches on any regular basis.

To be sure, they occasionally report on their respective haredi, or “ultra-Orthodox,” communities, although usually when something shameful – some shandeh, to use the Yiddish word – has happened. Or was rumored to have happened. But among those papers’ potpourri of opinion columns, a haredi viewpoint is a rare bird indeed.

To be fair, most readers of those periodicals are not Orthodox. But if part of the publications’ mandate is – as they all readily claim – to present the gamut of responsible Jewish viewpoints, what difference should that make?

What is more, and worse, shameless generalizations that would rightfully evoke charges of prejudice in other contexts are nonchalantly embraced by some regular writers in the mainstream Jewish press.

Earlier this year, for instance, a columnist in the New York Jewish Week dedicated her allotted space to a session at a conference.

“Some Orthodox,” she synopsized, “label secular Jews Amalek [the evil, would-be nemesis of the Jewish people, whose utter destruction is ordered by G-d in the Torah – AS] and some extreme Orthodox use the same term for the Modern Orthodox.”

The longstanding but absurd canard that “some Orthodox” do not recognize the Jewishness of less-observant Jews must no longer be working. The ante had to be upped. So now, it seems, we bad guys in black hats regard other Jews as deserving of annihilation.

Does the columnist really believe that? What could possibly fuel such fever dreams?

Certainly not reality. Unsavory epithets may well have been heard in the loud, unruly dialectic of Israeli politics, and uncouth individuals exist in every community – a shandeh, to be sure. But to imply that any definable subset of Orthodox Jews is wont to identify other Jews as evil incarnate not only ignores a thousand demonstrable facts (like the abundance of haredi-administered-and-funded outreach organizations, hospital services, free-loan efforts and study projects like Partners in Torah, which benefit Jews without regard to their observance-level), but is ugly, incendiary and irresponsible.

There may be any of a number of reasons for the ignoring (or worse) of haredim in the mainstream Jewish press these days. There is plain-vanilla prejudice, of course, and nervousness over statistics that show Orthodoxy – and in particular, the haredi community – on the ascendant. (The Orthodox share of the Jewish youth population in the United States is 38%, larger than both the Conservative (25%) and Reform (32%) – and the haredi sector is by far the most “youth-heavy.”)

But whatever the reasons behind the dearth of haredim in the larger Jewish newspapers, it is something that should change.

There may once have been a time when high-quality writers in English were a rarity in the haredi world. But that time is long gone. Not only are there many accomplished top-notch writers in the haredi world today (a few of my favorites are Jonathan Rosenblum, Shira Schmidt and Sarah Shapiro in Israel; and Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, Eytan Kobre, Rabbi Nosson Scherman, Dr. Marvin Schick, Rabbi Nisson Wolpin and David Zwiebel here in the U.S.), but there are many more who may not have been widely published but who have ample talent to be harnessed.

A haredi press thrives, to be sure. Here in the United States, there are several national weeklies servicing the haredi community, and even a respected haredi daily, Hamodia, that arrives on the lawns of thousands of Jews each morning. But those papers are a different breed from the general Jewish press. They do not attempt or claim to cover the breadth of the larger Jewish community, nor to provide anything but a Torah-based editorial stance; they are designed for Orthodox Jews who, already confronted regularly with the more widespread “general Jewish” papers and their attitudes, want to read news devoid of prurience and providing opinion based on Jewish tradition.

The Jews who are losing out are those who see only the general Jewish periodicals, those whose sources for Jewish information and ideas at best ignore what emerges from the vibrant, growing and unabashedly traditional Orthodox community; and, at worst, misrepresent it.

And that’s a true shandeh.

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

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CROWNING ACHIEVEMENT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

I recently had the opportunity to recite a Jewish blessing not very often recited. It goes "Blessed are You, G-d, Who has given of His glory to flesh and blood." The blessing, which is noted in the Talmud and codified in Jewish law, is recited upon seeing a non-Jewish king - a true monarch with a monarch's powers.

I said it quietly as King Abdullah II of Jordan entered the room at a posh Washington hotel, where he had come to address a gathering of Jewish clergy present at his invitation and that of a group called the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution. I closed my eyes to concentrate on the words and when I opened them again he had reached where I stood and seemed to be looking at me. I think he knew what I was saying; he is no stranger to Jews. In fact, in his remarks he showed a remarkable familiarity with Jewish sources and traditions; and the gist of his message, admirably, was to express his hope that Jews and Muslims might be able, despite political differences, to attain respect for each other's religious beliefs.

Although the blessing implies a relationship between earthly monarchs and the heavenly One, its text unmistakably stresses as well the contrast. Earthly kings rule only because G-d permits them to ("Who has given of His glory") and their power, substantial as it may be, is limited by, if nothing else, time ("to flesh and blood"). The king may live long, but not forever.

Awareness of royal mortality was all too evident at the gathering, in the careful inspection of each attendee's every briefcase and bag, in the "wanding" to which each of us had to submit, in the security personnel speaking quietly into their sleeves, in the bomb-detecting dog that paced the Ritz-Carlton's elegant carpet, sniffing away at the furniture.

And all for good reason, to be sure. King Abdullah II has undertaken a brave and - realistic or not - visionary mission: to marginalize Muslim extremism of the sort that continues to plague the civilized world. This summer he organized a conference of respected religious leaders from all the major schools of Islam to endorse a document that explicitly asserts the responsibility of Muslims to honor "every human being, without distinction of colour, race or religion" and to "shun violence and cruelty."

So the king has enemies, as do all moderate Muslims these days. And the limitations to the power he wields, even as a monarch, are all too painfully real.

For me - and I'm sure many of the rabbis present - the imminence of Rosh Hashana was poignant. For according to Jewish tradition, the Jewish new year, which falls out this time around on October 4 and 5, is the time for "coronating" the King of kings, the Monarch whose power is unlimited by time or space. A particular statement from Jewish tradition came to my mind: "There can be no king without a nation."

If the statement was intended to refer exclusively to kings of the mortal sort, I pondered, it is a rather self-evident observation. Were a flesh-and-blood king's subjects to suddenly disappear, or to reject his dominion, there is no meaning left to his rule. Could the statement, though, have some application to the ultimate King?

There can be no question that even if all the world's inhabitants chose to not recognize the Source of all existence, the Creator would be no less powerful. But what occurs is that the "kingship" of G-d alludes to a special relationship, one that is, indeed, dependent on the acceptance of the ruled - and is, in fact, the very goal of creation.

Before that relationship developed, the universe still stood; G-d was still its Creator. Before human beings recognized the astounding gift of the free will they were granted, and its concomitant potential for eternal life, the gift was there.

But until a nation developed that attained and embraced that recognition, G-d was not a King. Because a king needs a nation. And so does a King.

Ideally, and eventually, all of humanity will come to recognize G-d's reign. History has already seen the transformation of a world once steeped in idolatry into one that has increasingly embraced monotheism (although in some cases imperfectly, as evidenced by the security precautions noted earlier).

But the process was begun, G-d's monarchy inaugurated, by the Jews. That is what they were summoned to Sinai to do, the role they accepted with the words "We will do." The Jewish people, as the historian Paul Johnson put it, "stand right at the centre of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose." Or, to put it in a more pedestrian way, to coronate the Creator.

And the particular time of the Jewish year for focusing on that idea, on the fact that not only does a king need a nation, but a King does too, is Rosh Hashana, the year's first days. On those days, Jews the world over will include in their silent amidah prayer - the only time of year when such is done - the Aleinu declaration, which include the words "For the kingship is Yours, and forever will You reign in Your glory."

Traditionally appended to that declaration throughout the year is a verse from Zecharaiah (14:9): "G-d will [one day] be King over all the world; on that day G-d will be One and His name will be one."

May we see that - in more ways than one - crowning achievement in our time.

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

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SENSELESS IN GAZA

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Those nefarious Jews did it again. They had the gall to not destroy their 19 synagogues in Gaza, leaving them to silently stoke the passions of uncontrollable Arabs. It was a "political trap," in the words of Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian civil affairs minister.

"Civil" is not a word that comes easily to mind in the wake of the torching of several of those synagogues by Palestinians - people who would not likely be sanguine were their houses of worship in Jewish areas entered with shoes, much less set aflame.

Nor did civility shine very brightly from the words of Israeli Arab Knesset member Ahmed Tibi, who explained that the Palestinians should not have burned down the Jewish holy places but simply destroyed them as "their right."

Joining the abuse by the jubilant savages, tee-shirted and besuited alike, were the media.

Referring to the orgy of looting and mayhem that rushed like sewage from a drainage pipe into Israeli-abandoned Gaza - and ignoring the fact that the Israeli Gazan communities had been built on land where no Arabs lived - the BBC framed the scene with the words "Israelis stole 38 years from them; today, many were ready to take back anything they could."

The New York Times, for its part, didn't see fit to even mention the synagogue burnings in its print-edition headline, simply informing its readers that "Israel Lowers Its Flag in the Gaza Strip" and, in a sub-header, that "Palestinians Celebrate Departure With Fireworks and Gunshots," making mention of the arson only in a strangely passive-voice, en passant reference. Deep in the story, the paper noted how looting of window frames and ceiling fixtures from a Gaza synagogue took place "as fires burned inside the empty building." As if the flames had ignited themselves.

The primitives on the ground vandalized not only synagogues, but their own future. Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister futilely implored his fellow Arabs to at least leave alone the technologically sophisticated Israeli greenhouses purchased on their behalf (by American philanthropists, since the Palestinians, despite offers of capital for the purpose from the United Nations, refused to do business with Israel directly). The greenhouses were left standing to provide income for Palestinians. Taysir Haddad, a Palestinian Authority security guard assigned to one of those facilities expressed his frustration at his fellow citizens-of-a-Palestinian-state-to-be. "We've tried to stop as many people as we can," he told The Times. "But they're like locusts."

Shortly after the withdrawal of Jewish residents from Gaza, an op-ed piece by Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab appeared in the aforementioned New York daily. In it, he wrote of the "human cost on both sides of the conflict" and strove to assert an equivalence of good will among the Israeli and Palestinian populaces.

Even then, before the Israeli army had left the area, it was a difficult thesis to assert. Over years, we have repeatedly seen that when innocent Palestinians are harmed even accidentally, the vast majority of Israelis are sincerely pained; but when Jews are set upon and murdered, large numbers of Palestinians rejoice.

We have seen, too, that when the rare Israeli extremist commits violence, Israeli leaders and Jewish groups condemn him unconditionally; but when the Palestinian extremist acts, his or her act may be perfunctorily denounced as ''counterproductive to the Palestinian cause'' by some Palestinian leaders, but nothing more; and the perpetrator is lauded as a hero among the Palestinian masses.

And we have also seen (now, once again) how Palestinians and Jews treat one another's holy places. In 1967, when Israel captured all of Jerusalem, it was discovered how Arabs had utilized inscribed Jewish gravestones as path-paving and latrine walls; Israel made no move to evict the mosques from the Temple Mount, and explicitly guaranteed their protection as Muslim holy places.

Of late, even as rampaging Arabs were gleefully burning synagogues (and scrawling graffiti on the walls of others, like "Yes for freedom! No for Jews! - Hamas"), Israeli police added extra patrols to ensure that no one attempt to treat mosques in Israel in a similar manner. The Israeli Sephardi Chief Rabbi declared that any Jew who vandalized a mosque would be ostracized from the Jewish community.

It is hard not to wonder how so much of the world can still resist the truism that there are civilized peoples in our world and uncivilized ones - and that the political calculus in the Middle East make a compelling Exhibit A for the contention.

And yet some of us still hold to the hope that, somehow, the temperate elements that are claimed to exist in Palestinian society will emerge to control the others. Certainly, serene self-interest would lead in that direction. Alas, hatred and nihilism seem the dominant Palestinian products at present.

Imagine, though, what would have happened had the Palestinian populace decided neither to burn nor otherwise destroy synagogues. Had they demonstrated good will by respecting the sanctity of the buildings, and by preserving them for Jews to visit and pray in on better days in the future. Imagine how encouraged Israelis would have been by the thought that they might actually have a peace-partner in the Palestinians.

Alluding to the Jewish tradition that the ancient Holy Temple service in Jerusalem served to channel G-d's blessings to all of humanity, the Talmud contends that had those who destroyed the Temple understood what it was, "they would have mounted fortifications" to protect it instead.

Had the barbarians of contemporary Gaza understood what the synagogues they torched could have been, they would have fortified them as well.

To their eternal shame, they chose otherwise.

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

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MESSAGE IN THE MAELSTROM

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Even as much of New Orleans was still submerged, dead bodies yet floating on the putrid city-turned-lake, live ones yet waving from rooftops, the accusations flew fast and furious.

The loss of life and property during the Gulf Coast destruction was the fault of: President Bush, Louisiana officials, city planners, those who established a city where disaster was inevitable, those who chose to live there, racism, the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA. Choose your villain or combination of rogues and point fingers accordingly.

As it happens, there is a Jewish concept, too, of finger-pointing at times of catastrophe. But it is of a decidedly different sort. Jewish tradition counsels Jews to point their fingers at themselves.

Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast just before the arrival of the Jewish month of Elul, when religious Jews begin a period of particularly intense soul-searching that reaches its crescendo a month later, on the "Days of Judgment," Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

It might seem a bit proud or particularist, but the belief that G-d mandated a special mission for the Jewish people carries with it a responsibility not only to strive to live exemplary lives in service to the divine but also to see world events as messages. While Judaism considers all of humanity to possess potential holiness and while its prophetic tradition foretells the eventual movement of all of the world's inhabitants to service of G-d, it also casts the Jews as chosen. And so Jewishly-conscious Jews have always sought to plumb larger events for more personal meaning.

That was why the "Chafetz Chaim," the renowned early 20th century Polish Jewish scholar, who was 85 years old in 1923, reacted to the news of that year's Kanto earthquake in Japan by undertaking a partial fast and insisting that the news should spur all Jews to repentance. Similarly, after last year's Asian tsunami, a revered contemporary Jewish sage in Israel, Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, was reported to have remarked: "Everyone sits in his own home and feels good - 'Where I am everything is fine, it's over there that people are dying' - we have to learn [from such tragedies] the extent of what sin causes, and it is up to us to analyze and learn [so that we will] repent."

The death and misery Hurricane Katrina brought touched every American, and every civilized human being world-wide. The ruin it caused should spur us to do whatever we can to help the displaced and the needy. Countless individuals in fact reacted with determination and generosity. And many groups, including Agudath Israel, established funds to channel assistance. And if there were preventable delays in assessing or addressing the situation, they need to be identified and rectified for any future challenges that may arrive.

In addition, though, to being an opportunity for helping others and fixing systems, Katrina should also be a spur, especially for Jews, to individual introspection.

Although the destruction wrought by Katrina affected a broad swath of the Gulf Coast, the city with which the hurricane has become inextricably coupled is New Orleans. Might the venue of the recent tragedy hold some meaning for us?

What occurs, at least to me, is that the "Big Easy" received its nickname from the lifestyle it exemplified, one of leisure and (in the word's most literal sense) carelessness. The city is probably best known - or was, at least, until now - for the unbridled partying and debauchery that yearly characterized its annual Mardi Gras celebrations.

I cannot and do not claim to know "why" the hurricane took the terrible toll it did; but our inability to understand should not preclude us - those of us who believe in a G-d Who wants us to reflect on, and grow from, events around us - from trying to respond to the wind-driven wake-up call by asking a "what": What can I do spiritually as a result? And one message we might well choose to perceive is the need to recognize how belittling to meaningful life is the contemporary culture of recreation and entertainment.

There is no need to go into the crass detail of what passes for pastime in our age. Even those of us who do not own televisions or frequent movie theaters cannot escape the artifacts of our culture's decadence; they are ubiquitous. The objectification of human beings, their debasement as mere animals, their reduction to skin and flesh saturate the visual arts and popular music, and have bled into other realms as well. Could we not all benefit from critically confronting that fact, from recognizing the toll such reductionism takes on the deepest meaning of our lives? Could we not benefit, in other words, from pointing our fingers at ourselves, the consumers of the crudeness?

There can be little doubt that we could. And that doing so would be - at least from a traditional Jewish perspective - a most fitting reaction to the maelstrom we have witnessed of late.

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

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INTELLIGIBLE DESIGN

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Among the unquestioned assertions that have entered public discourse through sheer force of repetition is that faith and science are utterly unrelated.

It is a mantra invoked often these days, in the context of the debate over whether "Intelligent Design," a presentation of vexing problems in contemporary biological theory, has a place in the public school classroom. The essence of "Intelligent Design," as its name implies, is that there are things about nature that are not easily, if at all, explainable by resort to random forces alone. Among such things are the emergence of life from inanimate matter; the development of reproductive capacity; and complex biological systems whose multiple components confer advantage only in tandem with one another. Noteworthy, too, are the facts that no scientist has ever succeeded in animating inanimate material, and that none has ever induced a mutation in a living organism that caused it to become a different organism - or even to demonstrate a new ability.

Although ID's proponents claim to have no… well… designs, on identifying the source of the plan they perceive in nature, they are viewed by some as theological Trojan horses, trying to sneak G-d into the study of science.

To be sure, design indeed implies a Designer, and so the critics are correct about the effect of including ID in science courses. But not necessarily about its inappropriateness. Does the possibility of a guiding force, beyond randomness, in fact have no place in the endeavor to understand the universe? One thing is certain: that wasn't the case for most of human intellectual history.

The word science derives from the Latin scientia, or knowledge. And once upon a time, no essential distinction was made between what was called "natural science" and "moral science" - the latter concerning itself with teleology, human purpose and, yes, G-d.

In more recent years, however, a compartmentalization has been imposed on knowledge. "Science" has come to mean the physical sciences alone, banishing areas of human thoughts about more fundamental, if ethereal, ideas to other, artificially created realms, like "philosophy" or "religion." It is interesting to note, as does Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, that in Biblical Hebrew, of all languages, there is no word for religion. Explains the famed 19th century German rabbinic luminary: Judaism provides no separate compartment for things spiritual; the holy imbues the entire sphere of human life, indeed the entire universe itself.

Is it unthinkable, even in our open-minded world, to consider Rabbi Hirsch's contention, and to consider, further, reinstating science's original meaning - the quest for knowledge of every sort?

As it happens, physical science itself has been increasingly compartmentalized. "Science" has become a plethora of sciences: biology, physics, chemistry, geology, genetics and many more. Nor are each of those categories the final splitting of the atom, as it were. Physics is no longer mere physics. It is mechanical physics and sub-atomic physics, cosmology and fluid mechanics - each a discrete discipline unto itself.

We would be terribly short-sighted to prevent the consideration of one subset of science in the course of studying another. Living things, for instance, are not only entities that undergo certain stages and display certain behaviors; they are chemical factories too. Would a teacher of biology be out of line to include elements of chemistry in the curriculum?

"Ah!" the secularist crusaders exclaim. "But one can observe a biological entity or process, and perform chemical experiments! Biology and chemistry are still physical, not speculative, sciences!"

Indeed they are. But what we cannot see or measure can still be entirely real. There are even contemporary sciences that are only quasi-physical. Psychology, for instance. Or pure mathematics. Or astrophysics, which, while it deals with physical entities, largely concerns theories about realms beyond our reach. Not to mention the counterintuitive world of subatomic physics.

"Okay," respond the secularists, with condescension. "But even in psychology and particle physics, observations can be made, and theories verified or disproven. G-d is not like that!"

Maybe, though, He is. That is precisely what ID proponents claim - that things inexplicable by resort to randomness are in fact evident in nature. One might even suggest something similar about history. My own study of Jewish history has led me to conclude that the evidence for the existence of G-d is every bit as convincing as the evidence for the existence of DNA.

What is more, all that modern science affirms is the result of the use of our senses. We see, we hear, we measure, we think. And so, does not our innate sense that our lives are meaningful, that there is Something beyond us, deserve some consideration in a curriculum covering what we know and perceive and theorize about the universe? Is the idea really so subversive?

The Orthodox Jewish community of which I am a part has no monkey in this race; we operate our own private schools, and recognition of G-d is very much a part of what our children are taught.

It is unfortunate, though, that the students in most of our nation's public schools are indoctrinated in the religion of Randomness and Meaninglessness. They, and American society as a whole, would benefit considerably were they exposed to the possibility of design, in our universe and in our lives. I don't know if the Constitution permits or forbids it, but intellectual integrity would seem to demand it.

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

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GAZA, INTERRUPTED

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Gaza will soon be empty of Jews. Whether the decision to render it so was wisdom or folly, whether it marked the beginning of a more stable Middle East or a more volatile one, whether it served to empower Palestinians considered moderate or to encourage those proven to be murderous, are questions now being addressed with passion. History will one day address them with hindsight.

But the human tragedy of the withdrawal is undeniable. Those of us who have never been compelled to leave our homes, the fields we planted and harvested, the synagogues in which we prayed and studied, the cemeteries in which our loved ones are buried, cannot claim to truly appreciate the agony of those who lived in Gaza, and now no longer do. Those displaced families, noble and loving of the land, deserve our deepest sympathy and concern.

Concern for the future, though, is called for, too. Relinquishing territory to at best an unproven entity trying to govern a populace that embraces wild-eyed killers is not an obviously healthy thing, to put it delicately. Yet, despite it all, what no believing Jew may feel in the wake of the Gaza withdrawal is despair. Traumas like that of the past weeks should never be permitted to obscure a larger picture, the true one. It is a picture well framed by its timing.

Events in Gaza reached their crescendo and denouement at an appropriate season of the Jewish year: the mournful days leading up to Tisha B'Av, and then, that sorrowful day itself. Equally apt, though, was - and is - the assurance of Jewish tradition that, in the dark damp of Tisha B'Av's tragedy, the seeds of Jewish redemption quietly sprout.

A believing Jew recognizes that unfortunate things, even tragic things, happen, that many are the prayers denied. Moses, as Jews the world over recently read in the Sabbath portion, was not granted his yearning to walk on the soil of the Holy Land; the "generation of the desert" was fated the same. Jewish history, even after the Temples' destructions and the Jewish exile from the Holy Land, has been replete with deep disappointments, and worse - crusades, pogroms, blood libels and expulsions. And here we sit, just over a half-century removed from the annihilation of Eastern European Jewry.

And yet where we sit, too, is amid an abundance of spiritual resurgence. Whatever problems may plague the contemporary Jewish world, the reestablishment, in Israel and worldwide, of the Jewish learning and life that once epitomized European Jewry is astounding - and a vital lesson about the permanence of G-d's love for His people.

Beating with that lesson, the hearts of believing Jews discern things beyond the nonce; here, beyond the the Gaza withdrawal. True, the State of Israel may be smaller than it was last month, but Eretz Yisrael, the land bequeathed the Jewish people, has not shrunk in the least. Part of it may be lonelier now, but it will be patient; its rightful residents will return one day. Yes, sworn enemies of the Jewish people are now closer to Jewish cities, but Jewish lives remain, as always, in the hands of our Protector; if we merit His protection, the only victims of suicide bombers will be themselves.

And while members of Hamas may chant and fire weapons to mark what they perceive as a victory, and recommit themselves to their gleeful blood-lust, a believing Jew knows that one day there will be another festivity, infinitely greater, a celebration of the utter downfall of those barbarians and all their supporters. And it then will be the Jewish people and the righteous among the nations who will exult, singing praises, not firing guns.

What will bring about that ultimate rejoicing, the return of all of the Holy Land to its rightful heirs and the banishment of evil from humanity, will not be, in the sardonic words of the prophet, "my strength and the power of my hand" - neither geopolitical machinations nor advanced weaponry. What will bring it about will be something else entirely, something that was ironically evident - the seeds in the darkness - amid the turmoil of the withdrawal itself.

The media were filled with the predictable images of confrontation - the ugliest, products of radical youths who arrived in Gaza from elsewhere. There were even some Jews, elsewhere, who, tragically, seemed to adopt the methods and madness of our enemies.

More telling, though, were many other scenes, poignant ones of soldiers and residents in heartfelt conversations, embracing each other, comforting one another, crying together. A local family offering a hot soldier a drink, a soldier kissing the Torah that a rabbi was evacuating from a synagogue. The images were of siblings on opposite ends of a difficult situation not of their making, not in their control.

Those images hold the keys to the Jewish future, to the redemption that believing Jews know will in time arrive. We cannot hasten it with some Jewish jihad, nor with trust in political or military leaders or tactics. We hurry it only with Jewish observance, Jewish study, Jewish tears, Jewish love.

The seven weeks that follow Tisha B'Av are known in Jewish tradition as the "Seven of Comforting." They are a time for remembering G-d's promise that although Jewish tragedy may seem overwhelming, redemption will in time arrive. And when it does, the Jewish land, all of it, will rejoice beyond imagining with its rightful inhabitants.

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

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FUNDAMENTAL FOOLISHNESS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Are American and Israeli yeshivot incubators of dormant Jewish terrorists, Hebrew-chanting counterparts of Islamist madrassas?

Well, Queens College sociology professor Samuel C. Heilman, who has made a career of observing the haredi, or "ultra-Orthodox," world through a glass darkly, seems to think so. At least that is the unspoken but unmistakable message of a paper he penned this past spring for Jewish Political Studies Review.

For the bulk of his essay, which focuses on what he calls the "quiescent fundamentalism" of the yeshiva world, Professor Heilman avoids asserting an explicit parallel between violent Islamic extremists and those he chooses to view as Jewish ones.

But simply utilizing the word "fundamentalist" to describe the contemporary yeshiva world - at a time when the epithet is so readily associated with bloodthirsty Islamists bent on the conquest of western civilization - is something of a violent act in itself.

And by referring to the yeshiva world as a "stage" and a "phase" of something more sinister - the "active" form of "fundamentalism" that seeks to "liquidate those forces that oppose the truth" - the professor makes all too clear that he actually believes haredim pose a societal threat.

Indeed, at the end of his offering, he abandons all pretence to subtlety, and explicitly warns those who dare embrace a haredi worldview to consider "what has happened to the rich culture of Islam as it has devolved into Islamist fundamentalism."

The professor's evidence of haredi malignancy? Haredim's "fundamentalist view that there is a single truth."

Most faiths, of course, hold that their approach is the true one; that is, of course, the essential meaning of a "faith." And such a conviction most certainly underlies Judaism, which eschews religious relativism (even as it may look kindly upon other faiths as positive developments for their non-Jewish adherents). But does that way lie murder and mayhem?

If acceptance of the Torah as G-d's unparalleled revelation to mankind represents some aberrant, cancerous "fundamentalism," then Jewish luminaries from Rabbi Akiva to Maimonides to the Vilna Gaon to the Chafetz Chaim to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein to Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik - not to mention every religious Jew throughout the ages and every Orthodox Jew today, must be consigned no less to the "fundamentalist" camp.

And come to think of it, if every conviction that truth lies along a particular path is what makes a jihadist, then we have as much to fear from ardent secularists who consider science sacrosanct as we do from Al Qaeda operatives.

What nonsense parades these days as scholarship.

It does not take a Ph.D. to know that it is not conviction - even total conviction - that creates dangerous mindsets, but rather particular convictions. If one believes that the Koran is divine, and that it commands its followers to wage holy war against all who believe otherwise, that is a dangerous conviction, indeed one to whose danger the civilized world has begun to awaken.

But if one believes that the Torah is divine, and that it enjoins Jews to study and observe its laws, that it guides them to better their interhuman relationships, that it requires them to forgo some of what the larger world might deem acceptable, that it asks Jews to remain apart from the nations even as it demands they be a light unto them, then, no, that conviction threatens no one.

What could possibly predispose Professor Heilman to regard a sublime world filled with Jewish purpose and values as a parallel to one filled with hatred and violence? The answer, it seems, is his befuddlement at the fact that the haredi world has not quietly passed on, as his scholarly predecessors regularly predicted it would, but instead has grown and developed, and continues to do so.

The professor pines for a time when Jewish observance in American Orthodox homes was compromised by social insecurity and the very newness of the experience, and when the larger cultural milieu had not devolved to its present prurient state and thus presented less of a problem to religiously committed Jews.

He bemoans what he labels "the professionalization of day school education" and Jewish day schools' employment of haredim as religious teachers. And he laments the popularity among American Jewish youth of post-high school study in Israeli yeshivot or seminaries - from which young people return, he asserts, at best to "create cultural enclaves where they can fashion a kind of quasi-yeshiva or where they identify with and support the activities of the messianists who seek to hasten the redemption."

The professor is certainly welcome, if he chooses, to lament the high state of contemporary Jewish observance. He is free to denounce Jewish day schools - even if they are widely, and rightly, regarded as the most effective insurer of Jewish-continuity on the American landscape. And no one can prevent him from characterizing as some sinister "identity transformation" what might more accurately be termed spiritual growth.

What he should not, though, permit himself to do - either as a Jew or an ostensibly objective academic - is demonize a part of the Jewish world simply because he is frustrated by its success.

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

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MOURNING IN AMERICA

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Tisha B'Av, which this year falls on August 14, always presents a challenge.

What makes Tisha B'Av particularly difficult is more than the trial of going without food and water for a long, usually hot, summer day. More, too, than the fact that the fast, like Yom Kippur, begins the previous night and includes other prohibitions, like washing - even one's hands - for pleasure. What makes it really hard is the mourning.

The Holy Temple in Jerusalem, after all, was destroyed (for the second time) nearly 2000 years ago. We American Jews are more than temporally removed from those days. Yet Judaism considers our collective recollection of that distant era, and our lamenting of its increasing distance, to constitute a vital part of Jewish life. Even many Jews who fully appreciate the importance of the Temple as the central locus of the Jewish nation and the engine of the Holy Land's sanctity find it a challenge to translate that intellectual recognition into heartfelt emotion - the essence, after all, of mourning.

A multitude of afternoon lectures and presentations about the meaning of the day and the need for personal repentance - the path, according to Jewish tradition, to national redemption - are readily available. In the New York area, even after morning services that include the recitation of Tisha B'Av-themed dirges composed over the years, some of the events draw fasting participants in the high hundreds, eager despite their discomfort to gain spiritual insights and to better themselves as Jews. Pre-recorded presentations on ethical themes are also widely offered, in synagogues and social halls across the country and around the world.

What I have personally often chosen to do for part of my Tisha B'Av afternoon is focus on events of the decade preceding my birth, a period when many Jews still blessedly with us witnessed a horrific example of a world where G-d's face, as the Talmud puts it, was hidden.

For one key to relating as moderns to the Jewish national tragedy of the Temples' loss is focusing on the painful vicissitudes of subsequent Jewish history - all the horrors that ensued after we proved unworthy of divine protection. In fact, as it happens, Tisha B'Av is the date not only of both Temples' destructions but of the fall of the Jewish rebel outpost at Betar to the Roman army in 135 C.E.; of the expulsion of England's Jews in 1290; and France's, in 1306; and Spain's, in 1492.

And then there's the Holocaust. World War II didn't begin on Tisha B'Av, although some claim that Hitler instituted his Final Solution on that Jewish date. One thing, though, is certain. The roots of Germany's anger and war-footing in 1938 clearly lay in the country's nationalistic angst over the terms of the treaty that ended World War I, which broke out on August 1, 1914 - Tisha B'Av.

In truth, even tragedies that befell our people that have no clear chronological connection to Tisha B'Av are part of its mourning. Among the day's poetic dirges are lamentations over the Crusades and the public burning of thousands of Talmuds in Paris' city square in 1242.

It would therefore be well within the spirit of Tisha B'Av to ponder even contemporary evils. Like the anti-Semitic threats spewed forth by Islamist preachers, or Al Qaeda's sinister pontifications about "Zionists and Crusaders," or anti-Israel university professors' rants, or rabid, Jew-hating websites, or Hamas summer camps where children are taught how praiseworthy it is to kill Jews.

And so it is really not so difficult after all to get into a "Tisha B'Av" mood. In fact, the greater accomplishment may well be in managing a festive mood when the happy month of Adar arrives.

For my part, I am still focused on the Holocaust. This Tisha B'Av, I intend to see and listen to some of the testimony my dear father and teacher, may he live and be well, offered the "Survivors of the Shoah Visual History" foundation, Steven Spielberg's laudable effort to preserve first-person accounts of the Holocaust years.

I have heard much of my father's story before, but it never ceases to seize my mind and heart. At the start of the war, when he was fourteen, he insisted on leaving his parents to study in yeshiva. His incomprehensible (even to him, now) determination would save his life; he never saw his parents again. It is wrenching to hear of the flights and fears and bullets and frigid Siberian nights that he experienced over the years that followed. Concentrating on the ordeals of even one young man, amid millions of other Jewish men, women and children, serves the cause of Tisha B'Av well.

And it does so on a level beyond sadness too. For, while millions of Jews, tragically, did not survive the onslaught of Hitler and his friends, some did, and my father, thank G-d, was among them. He came to this blessed country and married the wonderful daughter of an esteemed Baltimore rabbi and rebbitzen, my beloved mother and teacher; and they had children, who now have children, and some of them grandchildren, of their own. When my mother, may her memory be a blessing, passed away sixteen years ago, my father had the incredible fortune of meeting and then marrying a woman who is beloved to me like a second mother, and who is a grandmother in every sense to my own children.

Which is to say that my father's story is particularly well-suited for a Tisha B'Av afternoon. Because the Talmud teaches that Jewish sorrows are a means, not an end, that the Jewish people can merit redemption and the return of G-d's manifest involvement in our collective life. One day, it says, Tisha B'Av will be not a day of mourning but of rejoicing. May it come soon.

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

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EVOLUTION OF A THOUGHT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Beneath the surface of the societal debate about whether the theory of evolution should be the only approach to biology in the American public school lies the real issue of contention: whether human beings are essentially different from the other occupants of the biosphere.

There are certainly enough unanswered questions about evolution and unknown details about the Biblical account of creation to permit the two to at least coexist, if not fully resolve themselves, in a single human mind. What truly animates those opposed to the way science is currently taught to most American schoolchildren is the notion - tirelessly promoted by adherents of the Church of Secularism - that humans are in essence mere apes, if singularly intelligent ones.

Science, of course, can never prove otherwise, limited as it is to the realm of the physical. And our bodies do, after all, function in a manner similar to those of gorillas and chimpanzees. But a purely "natural selection" approach to biology inexorably leads to the "animalization" of the human being, to the view that our sense of ourselves as special, as responsible creatures, is but an illusion and a folly.

And yet, all people who possess the conviction that it is wrong to steal, or to murder, or to mate with close relatives, or to cheat on one's spouse (or on one's taxes); all who see virtue in generosity, civility, altruism or kindness; all, for that matter, who choose to wear clothes, believe - against the dictates of Darwinism - that the human realm is qualitatively different from the animal (or, in secular-speak, the rest of the animal).

Either we humans are just another evolutionary development, leaving words like "right," "wrong," good" and "bad" without any real meaning, or we are answerable, as most of us feel deeply we are, to Something Higher.

The latter, of course, is the bedrock-principle of Judaism. And while there may be no way for the physical sciences to prove that humans are essentially different from all else, there are nevertheless some objective indications, subtle but powerful, that support the contention.

Language, of course, is one. G-d's infusion of spirit into the first human being, the Torah informs us, made him "a living soul." But Jewish tradition renders that phrase "a speaking soul." Communication, to be sure, exists among many life forms, but the conveying of abstract concepts - including the aforementioned "right," "wrong," "good" and "bad" - is something quintessentially human.

That we men and women generally care for our elders is another species-anomaly. Natural selection is myopically future-fixated. Progeny are what count in the evolutionary imperative; the elderly have already served their evolutionary purpose. And so animals care for their young, not their old. Most humans, though, feel an obligation to look not only ahead but behind.

And then there is a thought that had been percolating in my mind for a several days, growing slowly - evolving, if you will - until it emerged, fully-developed, only recently, at the end of a tiring hike, when, lying on a large flat rock, I caught my breath, watched an ant and remembered a Psalm.

My wife and I had spent a few days in the northeastern Catskill Mountains, and that morning had climbed up the steep rocky path leading from a winding country road to Kaaterskill Falls, a hidden and stunning double waterfall.

The trek was exhilarating but exhausting (at least to me; my wife waited patiently each time I paused to rest). When we reached the falls, nestled in a lush, verdant forest, we marveled at the beauty of the two cascading torrents, and at the loud yet soothing music provided by the rushing masses of water.

And there, on the rock, next to me, was the ant, meandering most likely in search of a meal (we had already eaten that morning). As I watched the insect, the Psalm - the 104th - came tiptoeing into my head. It is traditionally recited at the end of morning services on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of a new Jewish month; indeed, my thought had germinated when I had recited it the previous Rosh Chodesh, eleven days earlier.

It is a paean to the variety, interrelatedness, beauty and grandeur of nature. It speaks of the clouds and the wind, mountains and valleys, the food provided every creature according to its needs, nesting birds and sheltered rabbits. "How great are Your works, oh G-d!" the Psalmist interjects amid his observations, "All of them crafted with wisdom."

"I will sing to G-d while I live," he concludes. "May my words be sweet to Him… Let my soul bless G-d - praised be He."

King David's rush of appreciation and praise, born of nature's magnificence, seemed an appropriate accompaniment to both the falls in their glory and the ant in his search. Pondering that, I felt the thought congeal. The tiny creature and we lumbering interlopers on his turf had much in common; he needed his nourishment, just as we would soon be hunting lunch down ourselves. Yet there was stark evidence that morning of an essential difference between the ant and us. Between the ant and the Psalmist.

It was yet another, and significant, aspect of human uniqueness, another aptitude unknown in the animal world, and not easily related to any evolutionary advantage.

The bug, I realized, like all the other bugs - and bears and snakes - in the woods, was utterly oblivious to the beauty around him.

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

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