· jewish continuity
· jewish heritage
· jewish people
· jews of america
· jewish community
· jewish history
· jewish culture
· judaism · kabala
· jewish tradition
· jewish life
· torah · parsha
· perspectives
· jewish links
· jewish interest
· jewish humor
· jews · Israel
· holocaust


Subscribe - FREE!



Sharing and caring
on the Internet

In Recognition Of
Aish Hatorah
- Reconnecting Jews To Their Heritage

Preserving a near-lost legacy and heritage.
Sharing and Caring on behalf of Torah Judaism

Provided by Am Echad Resources:
Information and Opinion from a Traditional Jewish Perspective

Archives Of Previous Articles XXVI


Rabbi David Zwiebel

How should anti-Semitism be viewed?

As one example of a much larger group of social pathologies, a form of intolerance not unlike such other manifestations of group bias as racism, anti-Catholicism and xenophobia?

Or as something distinctive and unique, different from other forms of bigotry not only in degree but also in kind?

This was the burning question beneath the seemingly placid surface of the recent international conference on "Anti-Semitism and Other Forms of Intolerance" in Cordoba, Spain, at which the 55 nation-members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) patted themselves on the back for their outstanding efforts in dealing with the haters in their midst. In the main conference center the delegates were busy exchanging carefully worded platitudes and pieties - while in the side rooms and corridors there was heated discussion and debate over whether anti-Semitism deserved its own special focus.

In one corner stood Governor George Pataki, head of the American delegation to the Cordoba conference - of which I was privileged to be a part - forcefully arguing that the long, tragic history and seemingly intractable nature of anti-Semitism demanded that it be treated as a subject unto itself. The governor pointed out that anti-Semitism, more so than any other ideology of hate, has shown itself to have a unique propensity to lead to acts of violence; and that the documented rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes in Europe and across the globe made it necessary for the nations of the world to devote special energy to combating this alarming development.

But in the other corner stood others who took a contrary view. They agreed, of course, that anti-Semitism is a deplorable phenomenon and must be combated vigorously. But, they cautioned, let us not confuse opposition to the State of Israel and its policies with anti-Semitism; it is not fair to label someone an anti-Semite simply because he objects to the way the Israelis are treating the Palestinians in the "occupied territories." And, they further argued, while anti-Semitism is surely a problem, it is no more of a problem in today's world than other forms of group hatred - indeed, probably less of a problem than, say, Islamaphobia - and should be addressed as part of the much larger phenomenon of intolerance and bigotry.

These two views wrestled with each other in a variety of contexts throughout the Cordoba conference. In fact, the very title of the gathering - "Conference on Anti-Semitism and Other Forms of Intolerance" - reflected an attempt to accommodate both perspectives: the singularity of anti-Semitism on the one hand, and its place within the larger pantheon of intolerance on the other.

By the time the conference concluded, both sides were bloodied but could claim some measure of victory.

Those, led by the American delegation, who emphasized the unique nature of anti-Semitism could point most notably to an apparent commitment extracted from the Belgian Foreign Minister, who is slated to become the next chairman of the OSCE, that the existing position of the OSCE "Personal Representative" on anti-Semitism would be retained for the foreseeable future, and would not be consolidated with that of the Personal Representatives on anti-Christian and anti-Muslim activities. They could also celebrate the inclusion of a sentence in the "Cordoba Declaration" issued at the conclusion of the conference that declared "international developments or political issues, including in Israel or elsewhere in the Middle East, never justify anti-Semitism."

At the same time, proponents of the one-approach-fits-all philosophy of intolerance could point with pride to the potpourri provision in the Cordoba Declaration that "condemn[s] without reserve racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of intolerance and discrimination, including against Muslims and Christians, as well as harassment and incitement to hate crimes motivated, inter alia, by race, colour, sex, language, religion or belief, political or other opinion, national or social origin, birth or other status." (Yes, that's the way professional diplomats express themselves.)

Frankly, I was disappointed that the American delegation's perspective was not firmly embraced by the larger OSCE consensus. But perhaps my expectations were unrealistic.

After all, hatred of Jews, to the modern secular mind, is a bad thing because it violates the moral principle of egalitarianism, the notion that all human beings are inherently equal and entitled to equal rights under the law. Hatred of blacks, or Gypsies, or immigrants, or any other identifiable group, is also a bad thing because it violates the very same moral principle. Seen in this light, why indeed should anti-Semitism be singled out from all other forms of intolerance and bigotry?

Jews sensitive to the Jewish religious tradition, though, view anti-Semitism as something much deeper than a breach in egalitarianism. It is, above all else, and unlike anything else, a Message from Above.

The prophet Jeremiah wrote (Lamentations, 1:17) that the Jewish people are besieged by enemies because G-d has so commanded. The anti-Semite, said Isaiah, is merely "the rod of My anger" (10:5), the means by which G-d prods His nation to recognize that they are indeed His nation. As the renowned Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk makes clear in his classic Meshech Chochma (Leviticus 26:44), Jew-hatred is G-d's way of reminding us that we are a nation apart, a chosen people with a special mission on this earth.

Needless to say, the fact that G-d may allow those who hate us, and Him, to act on their hatred in no way absolves them of their evil. Even though our enslavement in Egypt was preordained and told by G-d to Abraham, Pharaoh and the Egyptians were rightly punished for their choices. Nor are we absolved from fighting anti-Semitism wherever it rears its ugly snout; ours is a world in which G-d expects us to deal with tangible symptoms even as He expects us to contemplate underlying causes.

But the fact remains: anti-Semitism is not merely one of many forms of human intolerance. It is special, because it emanates from a special Divine concern for over the Jewish people.

The nations of the world gathered in Cordoba may not have recognized this - but at least we Jews should.

[Rabbi Zwiebel, Agudath Israel of America's executive vice president for government and public affairs, was a United States representative at the recent Conference on Anti-Semitism and Other Forms of Intolerance in Cordoba, Spain. This essay appears in the current issue of Coalition]

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

A number of Jewish groups are campaigning to ensure that only someone favoring an unfettered right to abortion fill Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's Supreme Court seat. It is an effort offensive not only to many non-Jewish Americans but to many Jewish ones as well.

Some of the campaigners are explicit about their goal; others use code-phrases like "constitutional rights" and "fundamental freedoms" (the National Council of Jewish Women), "respect for… societal realities" (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism); and assert the need for a "voice of moderation" and a "consensus candidate" (Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism). What all the jargon amounts to, though, is a rhetorical shot across President Bush's bow, a warning of the ire he will face from the inveighers should he dare nominate someone who might conceivably side with those sitting Justices who feel that Roe v. Wade was a flawed decision.

Now, reasonable people can disagree about whether Roe was wise or wrongheaded; and even about whether our country is a better place as a result of the more than one million abortions performed here yearly - the vast majority for reasons of convenience - or whether there is reason to allow states to try to reduce that number.

Some may even take the position that an attempt to stack the judicial deck in order to preclude the objective consideration of so important an issue as abortion - to prevent the weighing of different approaches by excluding even the most qualified judicial candidates - is somehow a democratic approach. I don't, but some may.

What most offends, though, is the implication of the words "Jewish" and "Judaism" in the titles of more than twenty of the campaigning organizations - because there is simply no way in any world of internal logic to assert, as has been done, some Jewish ideal called "a woman's right to choose" to terminate a pregnancy.

Abortion is expressly forbidden by Jewish religious law, or halacha. There are different opinions about the nature and gravity of the prohibition of killing of a fetus, but no accepted halachic authority views feticide as a matter of personal "choice."

Like most forbidden acts, abortion can become permitted, even required, in certain circumstances. Such circumstances include when a continued pregnancy threatens the life of a Jewish mother-to-be. But that is hardly reason for Jews to ignore their faith's undeniable disapproval of abortion in general.

And so, what some Orthodox groups (like, prominently, Agudath Israel of America) promote is the regulation of abortion through laws that prohibit the unjustifiable killing of fetuses while protecting the right to abortion in exceptional cases. That not only most approximates Judaism's stance but reflects the feelings of a majority of the American people.

Agudath Israel has never supported any legislation that would totally ban abortion, or that would provide a fetus the status of a born child - which could jeopardize the right to abortion in those rare cases where Judaism might require it. We did, though, and do, support the Partial Birth Abortion Law, which was recently declared unconstitutional by a federal appeals court and may well end up before the highest court in the land.

What that law forbids is any overt act (most commonly, the piercing of the brain) intended to kill an infant whose "entire… head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of breech presentation, [when] any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother." Halacha would consider such a child fully born, and thus its killing murder, forbidden even to save its mother's life (although, as it happens, even the Partial Birth Abortion law includes an exception where the life of the mother is endangered).

When Jewish groups, blatantly or subtly, suggest that Roe is somehow consonant with the Jewish religious heritage, they sow misinformation. And when they oppose measures like the Partial Birth Abortion Law, they abet infanticide.

Reality Check: No seasoned, non-partisan observer of American politics and jurisprudence believes for a moment that abortion will be outlawed entirely by the Supreme Court, no matter who replaces Justice O'Connor (or, should he too retire soon, Chief Justice Rehnquist). And no one should be propagating any such fears about Supreme Court nominees who are suspected of something less than a mindless embrace of Roe.

And no group professing to represent Jewish values should claim that Judaism and Roe are a harmonious pair. Roe's legacy, abortion on demand, is a social ethic that devalues life. Judaism is a faith that cherishes life.

And so, Jewish groups agitating for the application of a Roe-faithful litmus test to any Supreme Court candidates President Bush presents would do well, and right, to contemplate the implication of the word "Jewish" or "Judaism" in their names - and the dire misrepresentation of the Jewish religious heritage they are placing before Americans, non-Jews and Jews alike.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Suicide bombers baffle.

They continue to take a terrible toll on Iraqi civilians and American servicemen alike. Israel, which has suffered repeatedly for years from such attacks, only recently intercepted several would-be suicide bombers before they were able to carry out their plans. And quite an assortment of other lands, including of course our own, have experienced the murder and maiming of civilians at the hands of people who chose to perish along with their victims.

For most civilized people, the idea of killing oneself just to kill others in the process is perplexing. To be sure, some Islamist terrorists may be motivated by titillating tales of a pornographic paradise. But there are considerably less deluded terrorists too, including many eyeing only the carrot of a posthumous political goal's advancement - and they seem equally happy to dispatch themselves to what they believe to be oblivion.

A jarring thought, but one worth considering, is that such murderers are motivated by idealism. If the notion seems outrageous, it is only because we tend to believe, mistakenly, that all ideals are inherently good.

The Talmud tells of a renegade Cohein Gadol, or High Priest, in the Second Temple era, who confided to his father how he had managed to surreptitiously perform the most important priestly service of the Jewish year, the Yom Kippur offering of incense in the Holy of Holies, in the particular manner of the Sadducee sect, against the prescription of Jewish religious law. The Sadducees sought to change Jewish tradition and, of course, eventually failed; but the renegade had done what he could to advance the Sadducee cause. The father asked the son if he was not afraid of being discovered by the other, tradition-faithful, priests.

"All my life," the younger man responded, "I have been pained by the verse…" - and he went on to quote the Biblical words with which the Sadducees sought to justify their practice. "And I wondered," the rebel continued, "when the opportunity [to fulfill it] might come before me. Now that it has, shall I not fulfill it?"

It would be hard to describe the depth of the sin that the Talmud perceives in the undermining of the Yom Kippur service's most momentous moment. Which makes it astounding to hear, in another Talmudic account, an eerie echo of the Sadducee's words. The account describes the Romans' execution of the renowned Jewish scholar Rabbi Akiva, for his violation of an imperial edict against teaching Torah. As the great rabbi recited the Shema, the Jewish credo declaring G-d's sovereignty and unity, his students were incredulous at his presence of mind; he was being flayed alive by iron combs.

"All my life," the Jewish sage replied to his students, "I was pained by the verse '[and you shall love the L-rd your G-d] with all your soul'" [which implies that one must be ready to give up his very life if necessary for the glory of heaven]. "And I wondered when the opportunity might come before me. Now that it has, shall I not fulfill it?"

The implication of the identical wording is inescapable. The editors of the Talmud were subtly but powerfully imparting a life lesson: The Sadducee's conviction was no less sincere than Rabbi Akiva's, only misguided. The Sadducee was an idealist, too, but his ideals were wrong. And that makes all the difference.

Likewise the "martyrs" of Islamic Jihad and Hamas, and of the insurgency in Iraq. They die convinced that they are heroes in the service of the sublime. And their sincerity does not mitigate their evil a whit.

In these relentlessly relativistic times, it is commonplace to hear how "all points of view" are equally valid; but they are not. Just because a particular culture or country or combatant is sincerely motivated doesn't make it or him laudable, or even tolerable.

There are ideologies - and their attendant idealists - that are good, and others that are evil.

It will be a wonderful day - may it come soon - when the Iraqi insurgency finally expires, and an even more wonderful day when terrorism altogether is decisively rejected by all human beings. But should those days be delayed, we would do well to ponder the subtext of every suicide bombing: It's not enough to be an idealist.

If we are not right, if we are not good, it means nothing at all.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The controversy over government funding of stem-cell research and about such research itself is unlikely to fade away any time soon. On one extreme are those who equate experimentation on embryos with murder; on the other, those who dismiss out of hand any concern for what is done to a biological mass that, provided the proper environment, will grow into a baby boy or girl.

From the perspective of Jewish religious law, things are not as simple as either of the polar positions. A host of fine-point factors apply to the issues, and that is why Agudath Israel, on the advice of the rabbinical leaders at its helm, has not taken a public stance. But there is one vitally important thought that every intelligent and sensitive soul can and should take from the stem-cell debate: what a miracle is biology.

We humans tend to swell with wonder when some of us manage to manipulate the effects of cells or their genetic material, but we too seldom dwell on the fact that the marvel really lies not in the manipulation but in the manipulated.

The thought may have been most memorably expressed by Emerson, who conveyed it as only a great poetic mind could: "If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years," he wrote in an 1836 essay, "how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the City of G-d which had been shown."

We human beings tend to perk up only when faced with something novel. Were we suddenly able to fly at will or read minds or travel back in time ah, how we would marvel at the miracle! And yet not only the scintillating night sky above us but the daily workings of the very bodies we inhabit (indeed even the lowliest components of the biosphere) are equally astounding things, and become more astonishing the more we learn about them.

Consider: When a sheep was first successfully cloned almost ten years ago, what was essentially accomplished was the coaxing of genetic material to do precisely what it does all the time: code for traits, replicate and direct protein synthesis. The achievement of producing Dolly bat Dolly ("bat" being Hebrew for "daughter of"), to be sure, was a major one; myriad obstacles had to be overcome, and a single set of chromosomes, rather than the usual pair from two parents, had to be convinced to do the job. But it was still, all said and done, a job that takes place millions of times in thousands of species each and every day without capturing anyone's attention. It is not a job at all, of course, but a miracle.

Similarly, the unprecedented medical promise of stem cells undifferentiated human cells that can form practically any tissue of the body derives from modern science's ability to coax such cells to do, essentially, what they routinely do in embryos everywhere. If such cells, culled from fertilized human eggs (or from adult humans, a source some researchers feel is just as scientifically promising) can be induced to develop into pancreatic cells, they will hold the promise of curing diabetes; if they can be convinced to turn into dopamine-secreting brain cells, they may be able to reverse Parkinson's disease; if into muscle, heart, liver or blood cells, they will figure prominently in treatments for muscular dystrophy, cardiac disease, liver failure and leukemia. The list is potentially even longer.

And yet every healthy person, we might pause and remind ourselves, has sufficient numbers of all those very cells working constant miracles, cells that once developed from embryonic stem cells naturally.

And so it behooves us all to step back a moment and consider: Are the technological breakthroughs really what amaze us here… or is the true source of our astonishment and wonder the suddenly revealed workings of Creation itself? Once upon a time, after all, heart transplants, too, were flabbergasting. But, at least to thoughtful men and women, they were never remotely as amazing as hearts.

For Jews who put their faith in the Jewish religious tradition, resolving the formidable ethical issues surrounding things like cloning or stem cell research will have to await a consensus of Torah scholars. It would be unfortunate, though, if recent and future developments in science didn't seize our attention and leave us with a deeper awareness of the manifold miracles we routinely, if obliviously, experience.

And with a deeper realization of the fathomless debt we owe our Creator.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The first day of Shavuot, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, falls on a Monday this year. Had the Tzaddukim been successful in their quest, however, the holiday would invariably be celebrated on a Sunday.

That is because the Tzadukim, or Sadducees, who comprised one of the two major denominations of Jews during the Second Temple period, asserted that it would well serve the needs of the people to have two consecutive days of rest and feasting: the Sabbath and, immediately thereafter, Shavuot. (In the Holy Land, Shavuot is observed on a single day; in the Diaspora, we celebrate it for two.) And so the revisionists advocated amending the Jewish religious tradition sourced at Sinai.

They provided a textual basis for their innovation too. The seven weeks whose days are counted from Pesach, or Passover, until Shavuot are, according to the Torah, to begin "on the day following 'the Sabbath'" - which, at least on its face, seems to imply that the count begins on a Sunday, and that the fiftieth day thereafter, Shavuot, would likewise perpetually fall on the first day of the week.

Despite the Tzadukim's scriptural argument, though, the Talmud contends that their motivation was their sense of propriety - two days in a row of rest just seemed right.

But the Oral Law, the bedrock of what we call Judaism - championed by the other Jewish denomination of the time, the Perushim, or Pharisees - often holds surprises. Just as "an eye for an eye," according to the Oral Law, is not intended literally (but refers, rather, to monetary compensation); just as "they shall be frontlets between your eyes" does not refer to wearing whatever "frontlets" might mean on the bridge of one's nose (but rather, as the Oral Law specifies, leather boxes containing special parchments on one's head, above the point between the eyes), so does the word "Sabbath" in the weeks-counting verse not in fact mean what it seems to say.

What it means, the Oral Law teaches, is the first day of Passover, so that the counting commences on the following day, whatever day of the week it might be. Thus, Shavuot can theoretically fall on any day (the standard calendar later put into effect does limit the actual days it can occupy, but that's another, and rather lengthy, story).

Defended assiduously by the Perushim, the Oral Law triumphed. And so today we celebrate Shavuot on the fiftieth day after the first day of Passover, whatever day of the week it is.

Interestingly, the desire to supplant the Jewish religious tradition with what "seems" more appropriate appears to be a theme of Tzadduki-ism. The group, for example, also advocated a change in the Yom Kippur Temple service, at the very crescendo of the day, when the Cohein Gadol, or "High Priest," walked into the Holy of Holies, the only time of the year that room was entered. The Oral Law prescribes that incense brought there as a special offering be set alight after the Cohein's entry into the room. The Tzadukim contended that it be lit beforehand.

Although here, too, they mustered scriptural support, the Tzadukim were in fact motivated, explains the Talmud, by "what seemed right." To wit, they argued, "Does one bring raw food to a mortal king and then cook it before him? One brings it in already hot and steaming!"

Such placing of mortal etiquette - "what seems right" - above the received truths of the Jewish religious heritage stands precisely in opposition to the message of Shavuot. According to Jewish tradition, our very peoplehood was forged by our forebears' unanimous sentiment at Sinai: their response to G-d's offer of His Torah with the words "Na'aseh v'nishma" - "We will do and we will hear."

That phrase captures the quintessential Jewish credo, the acceptance of G-d's will even amid a lack of "hearing," or understanding. "We will do Your will," our ancestors pledged, in effect, "even if it is not our own will, even if we feel we might have a 'better idea'." Na'aseh v'nishma, in other words, constitutes a declaration of our dependence -on G-d's judgment.

These days, as in all days, we humans try to convince ourselves that we know what is right, what is ethical, what is moral. Such hubris is both ancient and inevitable. But it is as far from the true Jewish attitude as anything could be.

And so, as we approach another Shavuot - June 13 and 14 this year - amid a marketplace-of-ideas maelstrom of "ethical" and "moral" opinions concerning myriad contemporary issues (often complete with "support" from Scripture), we Jews would do well to pause and reflect on the fact that our mandate is not to "decide" what seems right to us, but to search, honestly and objectively, for guidance in our timeless religious tradition - to try to divine the will of the Creator.

When we choose to do that, with sincerity and determination, we echo the words of our ancestors, declaring, as did they, that we are not the arbiters of right and wrong; G-d is.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

I don't own a television and so have never seen an episode of the popular program "Grey's Anatomy," which has been described as a contemporary, R-rated soap opera set in a hospital.

I have, though, become somewhat familiar with a recent episode of the show - through the reactions it elicited from a good number of people - on ABC internet message boards, and in e-mails and phone calls to me.

The episode, according to all the descriptions, presents an aspect of Jewish law in an inaccurate way, and an Orthodox Jewish character in an unsavory one. As television goes, it would seem a textbook example of one of the medium's many malignancies, its ability to propagate misinformation and misleading stereotypes.

The character in question is a newly observant 17-year-old girl who has a potentially fatal heart condition. Offered a lifesaving heart valve from a pig, she shuns it on religious grounds. That Jewish law in no way forbids such use of pig parts (only their consumption - and not even that when life is endangered) is not noted; quite the contrary, the viewer is led to believe that the girl's refusal would be the natural stance of any observant Jew. The silliness of the scenario is only compounded by the casting of a woman as the Orthodox girl's rabbi (and the episode's "good guy," of course).

As the episode's writer, the aptly named Mimi Schmir, told the Forward: "Whenever there is a story that has a rabbi I never see a woman, I just see old men. I wanted to clash with the stereotype a bit."

And clash she did, misleading viewers both about what Orthodox Jews believe and what their rabbis look like.

But the most egregious element of the fantasy is the character's, well, character. The Orthodox youth is portrayed as, in the words of one viewer, "a crazy fundamentalist fanatical Jew [who] was rude and behaved horrendously to the doctors who were only trying to help her." The character belittles her less-observant parents, cursing like a sailor in the process. Just your standard-fare nice, newly religious Jewish girl.

Now fiction, of course, is fiction. And writers of fiction - as several of them enunciated with umbrage earlier this year after Wendy Shalit took them to task in The New York Times Book Review for similar ugly stereotyping - are not bound by any rules of accuracy or courtesy.

Still and all, Orthodox Jews are not (I think) staples on television dramas. And so the manufacture of so rare a creature as a ba'alat teshuva, or "returnee to Jewish observance," is laden with implications - and responsibilities. If the character is a positive one, or even a neutral one, no one, save perhaps an anti-Semite, would complain. But if he or she is consciously crafted to be obnoxious - and not merely obnoxious, but obnoxious in her dedication to her ostensible religious beliefs - does that not border on provocation?

It does in fact, and particularly so in times when so much ugliness and evil is perpetrated in the name of religion. Anyone familiar with Orthodox Judaism knows that it is characterized by a reverence for life (an ideal, after all, of Jewish law), a respect for parents (one, indeed, of the Ten Commandments) and a disdain for rudeness in act or word. Unfortunately, millions of viewers have no such familiarity.

And so what Ms. Schmir has provided them is an image, quite a colorful one, to go with the words "observant Jew" in their minds. And, for that matter, with the words "Jewish observance."

Because, in reality, it is not only a Jewish demographic subset that the episode misrepresented and maligned, but the Jewish religious heritage itself - and, by extension, all Jews.

One message board poster, a self-identified Reform Jew, had it precisely right: "There really was no reason for this subject to be presented in such a negative light, and I am surprised that ABC would allow something that obviously has not been thoroughly researched to air. It's just not right… and leads to more hatred and intolerance, which is so unnecessary in today's day and age."

Couldn't have put it better myself.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

A possible cure for cancer lies in a little-understood component produced by living human brain cells. Researchers are hopeful that studying the substance will lead to treatments that could make a number of cancers things of the past. The substance, however, is found only in functioning cells, and the procedure to obtain it invariably results in the death of the donor; scientists hope to harvest it from terminal patients and the infirm elderly. Some religious leaders have voiced objections, but the consensus in the scientific community is enthusiastic.

"People who will soon die," explains one distinguished medical ethicist, "are not really alive in any meaningful sense anyway, and this research holds great promise for the rest of humanity." Congressional proponents of a bill that would provide federal funds for the research concur. As one of the bill's sponsors put it, "To allow religious concerns to hinder the march of medical progress would be unconscionable."

The previous paragraphs, of course, are a wild hallucination, a mildly promising premise, perhaps, for a science fiction novel. But the dark fantasy can nevertheless serve to illuminate an all-too-real contemporary ethical quandary: embryonic stem cell research.

Stem cells, for anyone still uninformed, are biological entities with the remarkable ability to develop into many different types of specialized cells. They can theoretically divide and redivide without limit, and thus offer the hope that they might be harnessed to replenish damaged or diseased organs, tissues or blood. Treatments for scourges like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases might become possible as a result of stem cell research.

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

And therein lies the quandary. Because, implanted in a womb, human embryos become human beings; mining them for their stem cells terminates that possibility. Thus, the Catholic Church and several other religious communities have taken the position that embryos, even in vitro and at an early stage of development, must not be destroyed for any reason, even scientific research.

President Bush's approach to the question of federal government funding for embryonic stem cell research has been a cautious one - for some, too cautious. Although the Bush administration opened the doors to such funding in 2001, it has limited the use of federal dollars to research that uses non-embryonic stem cells or already-produced lines of embryonic cells (there are no curbs on state or privately funded stem cell research). The issue has unfortunately, if predictably, become politicized in this election year.

The politicization of the question of embryonic stem cell research has resulted in its being portrayed as an issue of black and white (or, maybe better, blue and red), a stark battle between progress and backwardness.

Senator John Kerry for instance, has addressed the topic by saying things like "Here in America we don't sacrifice science for ideology" and by decrying the "barriers that stand in the way of science." Declaring his intention, if elected President, to lift the "ban on stem cell research" (by which he presumably meant the ban on federal funding for research involving the destruction of embryos), he said, "We're going to listen to our scientists and stand up for science. We're going to say yes to knowledge, yes to discovery..."

Similarly, recalling his father's battle with Alzheimer's, Ron Reagan Jr. has made the case for government support for unfettered stem cell research by denouncing what he characterized as "the theology of the few be[ing] allowed to forestall the health and well-being of the many," and couched the debate over the federal funding of such research as a choice "between the future and the past, between reason and ignorance, between true compassion and mere ideology."

There is a misnomer in this formulation. Communism and fascism are "mere ideologies"; concern for human life, whether at its end or its beginning, is a moral and ethical concern. Such concerns are among the deepest of human responsibilities, part of our sublime service to our Creator and to our fellow human beings. And while there is ample talk about the importance of progress and scientific advancement, there is precious little about responsibility and service.

The fact that the ethical concerns that have been raised concerning embryonic research have largely emanated from religious communities in no way diminishes their relevance in the public policy domain. "Ideology" used as a pejorative synonym for "religious concerns" implies, wrongly, that religious values have no place in discussions of public policy. Public policy denuded of religious values is public policy profoundly impoverished.

I don't mean to suggest that ethical, moral and religious concerns would necessarily foreclose embryonic stem cell research. Reasonable people can certainly disagree about the propriety of destroying embryos for potentially life-saving medical research, and likewise about whether federal funds deserve to be used for the same. Indeed, while the issue is complex and still under review in rabbinic circles, a number of Jewish scholars and groups, including some Orthodox rabbis and organizations, have concluded that Judaism would encourage embryonic stem cell research under certain conditions, and have expressed support for federal funding for such research.

The arguments, though, that are marshaled in the public sphere must consist of something more than paeans to progress. For the issue remains one of human service to something higher than ourselves (and infinitely higher than partisan politics). Embryonic stem cell research needs to be approached and evaluated with all the care and gravity appropriate to any ethical matter, especially one that touches, as it does, upon issues of life, death and human responsibility.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Much discussion followed the initial decision, now-reversed, of the foundation responsible for a Holocaust memorial in Berlin to drop Degussa, a German chemical company, as the contractor to provide an anti-graffiti coating for the structure.

An affiliate of Degussa, it had emerged, a company by the name of Degesch, supplied Zyklon B gas pellets used by the Nazis in their death camps to murder their victims.

Many survivors of Hitler's evil were flabbergasted at the possibility that a company in any way connected to the Third Reich's killing machine might be involved in an effort to preserve the memory of those it killed. And even Degussa itself, although it said it "regrets" the foundation's decision, still "respects it."

What complicated matters is that Degussa is one of 17 German companies that created the Foundation for Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future, which has raised millions for a special fund to benefit victims of Nazi concentration camps and slave labor. What is more, other German companies that supplied the Nazis - like Daimler-Benz (now DaimlerChrysler) and Siemens, not to mention an American one, I.B.M. - have not been held responsible for the actions of their executives over a half-century ago.

Still and all, it is easy to understand objections to the involvement of a company in any way associated with the perpetrators of that era's horrors with an effort to honor their victims.

Novelist Thane Rosenbaum went even further in a New York Times op-ed. "The soil and soul of Germany," he wrote, "are fated to have long memories, and Degussa, despite its commendable recent deeds, should not be profiting from its newfound virtue."

But an unremarked-on irony hovers in the periphery here, and, at least in the larger context, it dwarfs the fine points of long memories and commendable deeds.

The irony's backdrop is the virulent hatred of Jews that has metastasized beyond all imagining in recent years. More than a half-century since Hitler demonized the Jews, a Malaysian Prime Minister did the same - to the unanimous applause of his listeners, kings, emirs and presidents.

The same number of years since Jewish blood drenched Europe, a majority of Europeans is of the opinion that the country formed as a refuge for the remnant of the Jewish people represents the greatest threat to world peace.

At the same time that dictators who torture and murder their citizens with impunity, and countries that foster slavery or support international terrorism, are regarded with benign neglect (and even occupy positions of authority on United Nations human rights panels), that sole refuge-country, Israel, is condemned for building a fence aimed at keeping proudly bloodthirsty murderers out of its restaurants and buses and bedrooms.

And thousands of years since Jews were first killed for being Jews, and their burial places overrun and desecrated, Jews are still being killed for being Jews, and their gravestones spray-painted with words and symbols born of rabid hatred.

And therein lies the irony that should overwhelm the entire brouhaha over the Degussa affair. Because what is most remarkable and tragic about the whole business is not Degussa's history but the fact that its particular product, even after all these years, is needed by the memorial.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

On the unholy heels of the news that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has established a "messianic" Jewish congregation in a Philadelphia suburb comes word now from the Connecticut Jewish Ledger that a Jew who venerates Jesus is currently serving as the faculty advisor for the Jewish Student Union of a respected Connecticut boarding school.

The all-girls institution, Miss Porter's School, maintains that its advisor for Jewish students, Jessica Lemoine, is "a responsible adult... whose first priority is to the students," in the words of Head of School Burch Ford. And some of the students are enamoured of Ms. Lemoine as well; one describes her as "an amazing person."

Responsible and amazing she may well be, but she's about as appropriate an advisor for Jewish students as an imam for Catholic kids.

Such stories are wake-up calls to all Judaism-affirming Jews. And their message is that "messianics" are not going away.

Quite the contrary, they are seeking to entrench themselves in the Jewish community as never before, listing their congregations under "synagogues" in phone books across the country and posting proselytization pitches on billboards in Jewish neighborhoods.

Beliefnet, the popular and respected religion website, has featured on its "Jewish" page a link to "Torahbytes: Weekly Torah/Haftarah commentary from a Messianic Jewish perspective." "Hebrew-Christian" congregations are well established in many cities, and there are scores of organizations and resources aimed at servicing Jews who have accepted Christianity and at bringing other Jews to do the same.

Messianics, moreover, seem to have discovered how to ingratiate themselves among Jewishly ignorant Jews: by playing the ethnicity card. Jewish ritual objects - tallitot, tefillin, menorahs, Torah-scrolls - are gleefully flaunted, and Hebrew or Yiddish phrases heartily embraced. (One messianic dating service bills itself as a "singles forum for those seeking a basheret [sic] that trusts in Yeshua.")

And "Hebrew-Christians" have even received the Jewish imprimatur they seek from some Jews. In 2000, Dan Cohn-Sherbock, a Reform rabbi, professor of Judaism at the University of Wales and the author of a book entitled "The Future of Messianic Judaism," told a group of hundreds of messianic Jews: "I do regard Messianic Judaism as rooted within the evolution of Judaism... To me it is totally inconsistent and illogical to exclude you."

Mainstream Reform and Conservative leaders, to their credit, have made clear that, like Orthodox Jews, they consider messianic "Judaism" beyond the fold. They have a harder time, however, explaining why. No one wants to define Judaism entirely as the rejection of Jesus; our faith is a comprehensive and holy system of beliefs and laws, and it existed long before Christianity was ever dreamt of.

Yet it is no secret that Reform philosophy has downgraded those beliefs and laws from mandates to options; and that Conservative theology, denying their divine origin, has subjected them to an "evolutionary process" aimed at bringing them into agreement with an assortment of contemporary notions. Some, like Ms. Lemoine, might argue that the movement should include Christian views among them. In fact, she maintains that she "teach[es] from the basis of Conservative Judaism."

What is more, both the Reform and Conservative leaderships' devotion to what they consider the unassailable principle of "pluralism" - the idea that Judaism can take on radically different forms that must all be respected as legitimate - would seem to take considerable wind out of the sails of their objections to the messianic movement.

But object they do, and they are to be commended for it. At the same time, though, all of us Jews need to confront the fact that principled rejection of messianism must, in the end, be based on something more than a negative; it must rest on the bedrock of affirming the Torah's eternal and unchanging nature.

That might be an uncomfortable thought for many of us. But, with the strides being made by messianics these days, none of us can lay claim any longer to the luxury of not thinking.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

One would expect, considering their compassionate social agendas and track records championing the rights of the powerless, that the Anti-Defamation League and Hadassah would be the very last groups to promote the unfettered right to snuff out fetal life. Instead, the bigotry watchdog group and the Jewish women's organization both resolutely support not only such a right but even, apparently, the right to kill a child who is already born.

For that is precisely what the "partial-birth abortion " legislation currently on President Bush's desk is about. Despite the intense and concerted efforts of some to misrepresent the bill, its language is stark and clear. The bill prohibits any overt act "that the person knows will kill" a fetus whose "entire... head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother."

Yet, Abraham Foxman, the ADL's national director, contends that the legislation "wrongly intrudes on an individual's most personal decisions" and that "the government should not interfere in matters of individual conscience." This, despite the fact that the ADL is hardly shy about exposing and combating personal decisions born of individual conscience that cause harm to others.

For her part, and continuing her group's ill-considered foray into Jewish legal decisorship, Hadassah president June Walker pronounced that the bill "undermines Jewish values" since "the preservation of a woman's health is the standard in determining when an abortion is permissible."

She grievously misleads. To be sure, the Talmudic sources are clear that the life of a pregnancy-endangered Jewish mother takes precedence over that of her unborn child when there is no way to preserve both lives. And, while the matter is not free from controversy, there are rabbinic opinions that allow abortion when the pregnancy seriously jeopardizes the mother's health. But those narrow exceptions do not translate into some unlimited mother's "right to make her own reproductive choices," the upshot of Roe v. Wade, which Hadassah enthusiastically endorses.

And Hadassah's bemoaning of the lack of a "health of the mother" exception to the partial birth abortion bill is a red (schmaltz) herring. Congress' findings include the conclusion of medical experts that the procedure banned by the legislation awaiting the President's signature is never necessary to preserve a mother's health.

What is more, and more germane, the procedure is not really abortion at all but rather the dispatching of a born baby. The child, according to both Jewish law and any reasonable person's judgment, is already born - its head, or most of its body, has emerged into the world - when its skull is punctured.

Why, then, the clamorous opposition? Because the measure, when signed into law, will represent the first chink in Roe v. Wade's armor, the first time since 1973 that a federal law limiting abortion in any way will be on the books.

The partial birth brouhaha, in other words, is essentially a symbolic battle. Few if any unwanted fetuses will be saved by the ban. What the legislation, however, will do - in fact has already done - is force people to think anew about the fragile beginnings of human life. Which, in turn, may help them realize that the crux of the abortion issue is not "a woman's right to choose" at all, but rather to what extent to value the life of a fetus.

Most reasonable people would agree that a woman has no right to choose to kill her newborn, even if it was born prematurely and even if it is still connected by its umbilical cord to the placenta within her body. Whence, then, her right to choose to kill that same being as it floats in a bag of amniotic fluid a mere moment earlier?

According to Jewish law, there is in fact such a right, at least at times, when the mother's life and the child's life cannot both be preserved. But that is a matter of weighing adult life against fetal life (potential life, almost-life, call it what you will), not a matter of "personal choice." And moving the discussion from the realm of "choice" to that of "lives" - how to value them and what to do when two clash - is precisely what the pro-abortion movement seeks at all costs to avoid.

But it is - or should be - the national discussion, at least for a culture that claims to value life. Contorting the abortion issue into one of a woman's "right to choose," as has been done for fully three decades, predicates it on the contention that a fetus's life has no inherent worth at all.

Where such self-deception can all too easily lead is evident in what goes on in places like China and India. The Chinese government uses a number of means to discourage couples from having more than one child and a cultural preference for boys has resulted in widespread abortion (and, according to UC-Davis China specialist G. William Skinner, "female infanticide on a grand scale'' - close to 800,000 baby girls abandoned or killed in a single region during the years 1971-80 alone).

Indian census commissioner J. K. Banthia recently estimated that several million female fetuses have been aborted in his country over the past two decades because ultrasound scans showed they were female and Indian parents prefer boys. What those parents exercised was choice. Is being unwilling to shoulder the burden of a child - the reason for many if not most abortions in America today - somehow more honorable that preferring a son to a daughter?

As is happens, there is in fact a choice pertinent to the abortion issue, and it happens to come right from the Jewish tradition, from the Jewish Bible's book of Deuteronomy.

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

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

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Muslim hatred of Jews, so tragically commonplace these days, has to be pretty impressive for The New York Times to label it "toxic," but the Malaysian Prime Minister's diatribe at the recent Islamic summit in his country well earned the Gray Lady's editorial epithet.

Addressing the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, Mahathir Mohamad encouraged the Islamic world to fight its enemies (a large part of the rest of humanity, it seems). He singled out Jews because they, he explained, seek to subjugate humanity. Since, however, six million of them were killed in the Holocaust, he elucidated further, the remnant is today compelled to "rule the world by proxy," utilizing others "to fight and die for them."

Not that the Malaysian leader lacked kind words for Jews. He labeled us "a people who think." And while he seemed to intend it as something other than a compliment, he credited us too with the invention of concepts like "human rights and democracy," which he included in a list of nefarious societal developments.

Mr. Mahathir's musings were well received. His speech received, in The Times' words, "unanimous applause from the kings, presidents and emirs in the audience." The Egyptian foreign minister characterized the address as "a very, very wise assessment," and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose bodyguards protect him from Islamic compatriots who seek his murder, offered his sage judgment that the Malaysian leader's tirade was "very correct."

And although several individual European countries registered offense at Mr. Mahathir's speech, the European Union, after mulling the issue, chose silence.

While the press has been full of reports on the speech, and commentary about it both pointed and clueless (like Paul Krugman's casual dismissal of the anti-Semitism as merely "part of Mr. Mahathir's domestic balancing"), one telling irony seems to have been overlooked. The day of Mr. Mahathir's tirade was a day when Jews around the world gathered too, in synagogues. It was one of the intermediate days of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

And an unusual holiday it is. While Jewish festivals tend to focus on the Jewish people and its historical narrative, Sukkot, interestingly, also includes what might be described as a "universalist" element. For in ancient times, the seven days of Sukkot saw seventy sacrifices offered by the Jewish priests at Jerusalem's Holy Jewish Temple in recognition of "the seventy nations of the world." (Had the ancient Romans known just how greatly they benefited from the merit of the Temple service, the Talmud remarks, they would have placed protective guards around the structure, instead of destroying it.)

So, as Mr. Mahathir was railing against Jews, hundreds of thousands of traditional Jews were invoking God's blessings on humanity, recalling in their special holiday prayers those sacrifices on behalf of the "nations of the world".

While Mr. Mahathir was declaring that the world's "1.3 billion Muslims" need "guns and rockets, bombs and warplanes, tanks and warships" to fight its "much smaller enemy," that very enemy was not plotting but rather praying, and pining for peace and for humankind's recognition of its Creator.

To his credit, Mr. Mahathir conceded that, munitions aside, "we must use our brains also."

One hopes he follows his own advice. For if his head somehow manages to overcome whatever ugly organ it is that secretes paranoia and mindless hatred, he might come to realize that while there is indeed a Jewish mission, it isn't to subjugate but to serve, not to attack but to aspire - to lives of dedication to God and man.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. An edited version of this article, under a different title, appeared in the Forward.]

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Is it wrong for Jews to believe that Jews should marry other Jews?

The question was raised during the national political campaign in 2000, in the context of Senator Joseph Lieberman's vice presidential candidacy. As an observant Jew, the senator was assumed to embrace Jewish religious tradition's view on intermarriage, a view unarguably and unambiguously negative. After offering an arguable and ambiguous response to a radio personality who challenged him on the issue, the candidate was quickly taken to task by some of his less self-conscious coreligionists.

More recently, the intermarriage issue was invoked to question the fitness of Elliott Abrams to serve as a senior director at the National Security Council, to which position he was appointed by President Bush.

Mr. Abrams, a former Reagan Administration official, has unabashedly defended traditional Judaism - including its insistence on what has come to be called "in-marriage" - and has prescribed its embrace as a means of helping preserve the American Jewish community's identity and ensure its future. That stance, according to New York Observer columnist Philip Weiss, disqualifies Mr. Abrams from advising the President on Israeli-Palestinian affairs, currently the mainstay of his NSC portfolio.

It will certainly come as quite a shock to most observant Jews, even the most meticulously religious, to hear that they have anything in common with "segregationists," the term Mr. Weiss uses to avoid the "r"- word. Countless Jews of faith work closely with, are neighbors of, or are friends with, non-Jews. And while the Torah clearly identifies the Jews as G-d's "chosen nation," and imposes upon them special obligations befitting that status, at the same time Jewish tradition clearly regards non-Jews as created as well "in G-d's image" and as full partners in humanity, as per the Talmudic assertion that meaningful lives and the World-to-Come are the potential provinces of all people.

What is more, while Judaism neither demands nor seeks converts, any non-Jew who is truly willing and ready to undertake observance of the Torah's laws can, according to the Torah itself, join the Jewish people. How objectionable, in the end, can an "exclusive club" be if anyone at all can join it by sheer force of will?

There may well be prejudiced people within the religious Jewish world, as there are among all communities, but they are not representative of that world. In fact, the Jewish religious imperative of "darkei shalom" - "the ways of peace" - mandates exemplary behavior toward all humankind.

And yet, all the same, it is certainly true: observant Jews do not choose non-Jews as spouses and want all Jews to marry other Jews.

How can that be understood?

Well, for starters, it needn't be. Judaism is a religion of laws, some of which are understandable and others puzzling. Like eating pork or creating fire on the Sabbath, intermarriage is prohibited by the Torah, period.

Leaving aside, though, the religious component, is Jewish support for Jewish in-marriage really beyond comprehension?

Some people - even some Jews - feel that the world would be better off were the Jewish people to cease to exist. Not necessarily through its destruction (though, as in the past, there are certainly still proponents of that approach in our day) but by assimilation into the larger population. The British scholar and science writer Jonathan Miller gave eloquent voice to that stance when he expressed his feeling "that the Jew must constantly readventure and reventure himself into assimilation. He owes it to himself and to humanity to try and try again."

"I just think," he continued, "it's the nobler thing to do, unless in fact you happen to be a believer in Orthodoxy, in which case there are self-evident reasons to keep doing it. But, if it's done for the sole purpose of making sure that in the future you'll be able to say the prayers for the dead when the Holocaust is finally inflicted again, then I think it is a damnable device."

His logic would appear to be unassailable. No Jews, no anti-Semitism. And all too many Jews, over the course of the past century or two, have followed Mr. Miller's course of action, truncating their Jewish names, dropping Jewish religious observance, marrying non-Jews, moving to the "right" neighborhoods, trying in every possible way to blur all distinctions, even to pass as non-Jews themselves.

But many Jews (and others) feel otherwise, as does the Torah. We consider the perseverance of the Jewish people to be a high ideal, a goal to be pursued in every way possible. That position should not offend.

Consider: The current rate of Jews who marry outside their faith (since 1996) is approximately 47%; over the 1970s it was 28%. According to a survey by the American Jewish Committee, 33% of the children of marriages between Jews and non-Jews are being raised exclusively as Christians, another 25 % as "Jewish and Christian" (in other words, in confusion) and 24% with no religious identification at all.

To ears like Jonathan Miller's, that must be sweet music indeed. But to those who consider the continuity of the Jewish people to be a worthy concern, it is a most mournful dirge. There are approximately 2 billion Christians in the world, and close to 1 ˝ billion Muslims. There are 900 million Hindus and the North Korean Juche belief-system (have you even heard of it?) has 19 million adherents. The world's Jews? Around 14 million - and falling. American Jewish women have fewer children than American women in general, and American Jewish fertility rates are below replacement levels.

What is more, surveys show that intermarried couples report less marital contentment and have significantly higher levels of divorce due to the added stress of not having common backgrounds, goals and values. Children of intermarriage tend to lack a sense of identity and belonging, and often suffer from a lack of family closeness. And even those whose mothers are Jewish - and are therefore considered Jews by halacha, or Jewish religious law - are much less likely than children with two Jewish parents to marry other Jews themselves and maintain their own Jewish identity.

So should a concern for the continuity of the Jewish people really be something for which a government official can be taken to task? May civilized people be concerned only about endangered animal species and not endangered religious or ethnic groups?

Mr. Abrams' concerns with Jewish continuity, in any event, are hardly at odds with his ability to advise the President on issues pertaining to Israel. Indeed, one might reasonably suggest, considering our country's special relationship with Israel- and commitment to its survival as a Jewish state - that if anyone is inappropriate to advise our President it is someone with a "neutral" attitude toward Jewish continuity.

And so pundits might do well to seek scandals elsewhere and leave Mr. Abrams to his important work, and Senator Lieberman to his, and to his current quest for the Presidency. Those men's religious sensibilities are neither bigotry nor any hindrance to their public service. In fact, considering the import to good leadership of empathy, idealism and commitment, those gentlemen's convictions may well constitute a significant part of their qualifications.

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Irony is not dead - at least not the cosmic kind. That was clear to knowledgeable Orthodox Jews who read about the new "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe" recently opened in Berlin.

Something like a smile, although tinged with sorrow born of memory, graced their faces as they read about the unusual memorial, which consists of thousands of gray concrete slabs arranged in a grid extending over more than five acres in central Berlin.

Memorials, at least of the brick and mortar sort, are not particularly popular in the Orthodox world, although it is a world that has a special stake in honoring the memory of the Holocaust's victims - 50% to 70% of whom lived and died as traditionally observant Jews, according to Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum.

What we Orthodox tend to favor is the resuscitation of Jewish religious life and Torah study, things that, in addition to Jews themselves, were most prominent in the Third Reich's sights. The Nazis may have considered the Jews a race, but they also recognized what empowers and preserves our people.

As Hitler's chief ideologue Alfred Rosenberg wrote in 1930, "the honorless character of the Jew" was "embodied in the Talmud and in Shulchan-Aruch [the Code of Jewish Law]."

Perhaps even more telling is a 1940 directive issued by the German Highest Security Office. It prohibits Jewish emigration from occupied Poland on the ground that an influx of "Rabbiner, Talmud-lehrer" - "rabbis, teachers of Talmud" - and in fact "jeder orthodoxe Ostjude" - "every Eastern European Orthodox Jew" - could foster "geistige Erneuerung" - "spiritual renewal" - among American Jewry.

That fear, happily, proved well-founded. Orthodox immigrants, although arriving only after war's end, in fact helped rejuvenate Jewish life on these and other shores, rebuilding their communal and educational institutions.

That spiritual renewal is quietly evident every day, in thousands of classrooms in Jewish schools, yeshivos and seminaries around the world, in our own country, in Israel and in Europe. It was rather spectacularly evident mere months ago, when well over a hundred thousand Jews packed Madison Square Garden, the Continental Airlines Arena and other large venues across North America (and others still in South America, Europe and Israel) to celebrate the achievement of thousands of Jewish men who undertook a momentous challenge: the completion of the study of the Babylonian Talmud, through a study program called Daf Yomi, or "Page-per-Day".

That mammoth gathering to celebrate Talmud study was in fact dedicated as a living memorial to the Six Million murdered Jews of Europe.

And so, in a way, it was also a victory celebration. The Nazis had identified Jewish religious life and the study of Jewish texts as the greatest threats to the ultimate success of their genocidal plan. They understood something that all of us contemporary Jews would do well to ponder deeply: our people and our future depend on our fealty to the essence of our past, our religious tradition. And our enemies not only lost the war but failed at their ultimate, evil goal: the destruction of Judaism.

Judaism lives, thank G-d, and thrives. Each cycle of the Daf Yomi program - at a page a day, it takes approximately seven and a half years to complete the Talmud - sees almost a doubling of participants laboring on a challenging but holy text, each of 2711 days.

And so, at least for such people and those who appreciate their efforts, the irony was powerful. Because the number of concrete slabs contained by Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, the belly of the Nazi beast - the number, the designer insists, that just happened to fit the allotted space - is 2711.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Apologies are admirable. Only somewhat, though, when they miss the point entirely. The thought is born of the recent mea culpa offered by PETA president Ingrid Newkirk for her organization's offensive "Holocaust on Your Plate" campaign.

You may recall that effort of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals two years back to compare the meat processing industry to Adolf Hitler's Final Solution for the "Jewish problem." The traveling exhibit outraged innumerable observers with its placement of World War II death camp photographs next to scenes in animal slaughter facilities.

Naked, emaciated men were juxtaposed with a gaggle of chickens; pigs behind bars, with starving children behind barbed wire; mounds of human corpses with mounds of cow carcasses. In one panel, above the legend "Baby Butchers," mothers and children in striped prison garb were shown staring through the barbed wire of a concentration camp; alongside them, a similar shot of caged piglets.

As might be expected, Holocaust survivors were particularly flabbergasted by the astounding tastelessness of the animal rights group's exhibit. But it didn't take any personal concentration camp experience to be stunned by PETA's vulgarity.

One of countless expressions of disgust came from The Boston Globe, which editorialized that "PETA… has placed itself beyond the pale of worthy charitable organizations with this spiteful exhibit."

Although the headline of Ms. Newkirk's 1151-word press release describes it as an "apology," the actual expression of regret consists of only parts of two sentences, each regretting the "pain" caused by the campaign. The remaining thousand-plus words consist of a justification of Ms. Newkirk's decision to launch the campaign, and a recounting of how startled she was by the reaction. She had "truly believed," she writes "that a large segment of the Jewish community would support" the exhibit, and was "bowled over by the negative reception" it received. Disturbingly, she lays responsibility for the ill-advised campaign on "PETA staff [who] were Jewish." Shoulda guessed: It was the Jews.

More unsettling, though, is that nowhere in the lengthy release does Ms. Newkirk so much as touch upon what really made the exhibit obscene. If she thinks it was only the campaign's insensitivity to survivors, she just doesn't get it.

To be sure, the use of Holocaust images was incredibly callous to survivors; her apology to them and their descendents is, even if terse and belated, commendable.

But the essential outrage of "Holocaust on Your Plate" was not that it injured feelings, but rather that it equated human beings with cows, pigs and chickens. What is loathsome is that it reasserted PETA's credo, reflected in its motto: "Meat is Murder." The stance is well captured by Ms. Newkirk's earlier declaration that that "Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses," and in her infamous aphorism "A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy." That philosophy, denying humanity's uniqueness, is beyond hurtful. It is evil.

And while Ms. Newkirk has tried to "contextualize" at least her "dog is a boy" remark as referring only to the sensation of pain, the comment's context (in Vogue Magazine, 1989) is all too clear. The memorable line was a coda to her contention that "There is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights… They are all mammals."

Her moral equation of the animal and the human was unambiguously evident, too, in her response to a reporter's question about whether it was ethical to experiment on rats to cure human disease: She asked whether the reporter would endorse experimentation for the same purpose on the reporter's child.

Few religious traditions are as concerned with animals as the Jewish. Not only were two of the three Biblical patriarchs, not to mention Moses, caring shepherds, but numerous biblical laws, conceptually illustrative as well as binding today, seek to spare animals unnecessary pain. There is, moreover, a global prohibition in Jewish religious law against inflicting such pain. And in actual practice, observant Jews are in fact exquisitely sensitive to animal wellbeing. I recall as a young boy how my father scooped two injured birds from a street and brought them home to care for them. In my own home, even insects are captured and released rather than killed.

But Judaism - and civilized society, which has adopted many of Jewish tradition's ideals - maintains a clear and crucial distinction between the animal and the human. Animals, although they must not be caused gratuitous pain, may be forced to work and killed for food. And humans may not. Humans make moral choices. And animals do not. Conflating the two worlds, considering a rat to be a pig to be a dog to be a boy, inherently shows disdain for the specialness of the human being.

Even Ms. Newkirk's apology seems to reiterate her conflating of animals and humans. Referring to factory farms and concentration camps, she asserts that "both systems [are] based in a moral equation indicating that 'might makes right' and premised on a conception of other cultures or other species as deficient and thus disposable."

Still, though, there may be hope. At the very end of her manifesto, Ms. Newkirk claims that PETA's "mission is a profoundly human one at its heart." That phrase would seem to offer the possibility that PETA's president, at least on some level, in fact recognizes that there is something profound about humanity, that dogs are not in fact boys. Should that seed of an understanding manage to grow, perhaps one day PETA will have the courage to truly apologize, for its core philosophy, disavow it, and re-enter the civilized world.

Until then, though, those of us who care about animals but know that they are not humans will do well to direct our support to the ASPCA.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

In the scheme of history, sixty years is not very long. And yet, at least for those of us middle-aged or younger, 1945 seems part of another epoch entirely; the world then, a different planet from our own.

A continent lay in ruins. The Russians reached Berlin and Hitler committed suicide. Germany surrendered and, then, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan as well.

And the Nazi death camps were liberated.

For Jews, 1945 marked the end not only of a World War but of a calculated and nearly successful plan for genocide. There is little reason to imagine that Hitler would have stopped with the conquest of Europe, nor sufficed with the murder of Europe's Jews alone. And so all of us, in a sense, are survivors.

No wonder our determination to remember, reflect, commemorate. Despite our psychological distance from the Holocaust - or perhaps because of it - we are impelled to honor the memory of the six million precious Jewish souls whom it consumed.

And so we read and write books, build monuments and museums - using words, symbols and artifacts to preserve, as best they can, the details of the inconceivable.

We make pilgrimages to death-camp sites, and pay homage to the memories of parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins on the very soil that absorbed their blood; we breathe the air that carried their ashes.

The undertakings are inspiring; they seize our thoughts and squeeze our souls.

But at the same time, they usually fail to convey something vital: Europe's Jews didn't just die; they lived, too.

While remembering the Holocaust must certainly include the fact that incredible numbers of Jews were annihilated by the Germans and their many eager allies, that itself is not enough. The most crucial memorializing of those Jewish martyrs is a focus not on the lost Jewish lives but on the lost Jewish life, the timeless ideals and dedication to the Jewish religious tradition that characterized so much of pre-Holocaust Jewish Europe.

As historian Moshe Halberstal put it, we need to dwell upon "not how we lost, but what we lost" - and, we might add, how we might recapture it.

To be sure, there were Jews in pre-war Europe who abandoned the faith and practices of their forebears, but what they had rejected was in fact just that - the essence of their forbears' lives, and those of their brothers and sisters.

Just over sixty days ago at this writing - I needn't consult a calendar; the Daf Yomi Talmud-study program is on the 62nd page of its first tractate - hundreds of thousands of Jews gathered worldwide to celebrate the Talmud, the prime repository of Jewish religious law. It was no coincidence that the event, which packed Madison Square Garden, the Continental Airlines Arena and dozens of other venues across the country and around the world, was dedicated to the memory of the Six Million.

Jewish tradition considers it of great benefit to the souls of the deceased when the living study Torah or improve their religious observance on their behalf. Even here on earth, though, by embracing what so many of those killed for being Jews stood for and lived for, in a way we provide them new life.

And at the same time, we meaningfully address something else too: the contemporary Jewish crisis of "continuity." For by doing more than merely remembering the Jewish loss of the war years, by actually overcoming its effects, at least on the spiritual stratum, the Jewish world not only reconnects to its past - it ensures its future. Our collective Jewish heritage is the time-tested solution to assimilation; observance of our religious tradition is what preserved us as a people throughout history. It alone has the power to do so now as well.

There is a Jewish holiday most focused on continuity; as it happens, it is the one just past. Passover, or Pesach, is the time of "You shall tell your children," the season for planting the seeds of Jewish identity, of the Jewish future, in the fertile minds of our young. And it is tethered in a singular way - by the count-up of the "Days of the Omer" - to the Jewish holiday we will observe in mere weeks. Shevuot is Pesach's conclusion; it establishes the essence of our identity and the key to our future. Because it commemorates the day we were given the Torah.

Sixty years after the end of the Holocaust, Pesach\Shevuot, that binary star in the firmament of the Jewish year, speaks most poignantly to all of us Jews - all of us survivors. What it tells us is that we must continue to survive, and that the way to do that is to remain true to the peoplehood forged on the very first Pesach - and to the mission with which we were charged fifty days later, at the foot of Mount Sinai.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The immediate impact of the recent Israeli Supreme Court decision to recognize "leaping converts" as Jews is trifling. But what it may augur is chilling.

A "leaping convert" (it sounds a little better in Hebrew) is an Israeli non-Jew who travels to another country, undergoes a conversion process that would not be acceptable in Israel, and then returns to the Jewish State.

The standards of traditional Jewish law, or halacha, require a would-be convert to sincerely accept in principle to live an observant life. The Israeli rabbinate, which has always hewed to those standards, does not recognize the validity of non-halachic conversion procedures, wherever they may have been performed. That stance - shared by all Orthodox Jews, in Israel and around the world - is a simple matter of fealty to the Judaism of the ages.

Israel, though, as a sovereign political state, has laws of its own, including a "Law of Return," which guarantees Jews from any country automatic citizenship. And the definition of "Jew" with regard to that Israeli law has long differed from the word's meaning in the eyes of Jewish religious law. Since 1989, foreign non-Jews who underwent non-halachic conversion ceremonies in their native lands and then sought to immigrate to Israel have been considered Jews for the purposes of the Law of Return.

What the Israeli High Court recently decided, by a vote of 7-4, is that the same should apply to non-Jews who had already been living in Israel. Non-halachic conversions performed in Israel proper will remain unrecognized even by the Law of Return, but if a conversion certificate bears a foreign address, no questions will be asked. Logically inconsistent, to be sure, but that's the law, at least for now.

The "for now," though, holds frightening potential. The non-Orthodox movements, miniscule in Israel but with powerful allies in the judiciary, make no secret of their goal to expand the Law of Return to apply to beneficiaries of non-halachic conversions in Israel itself - and, from there, to challenge the rabbinate's halachic standards regarding marriage and divorce as well.

To a Reform or Conservative Jew's first glance, that might seem a comforting prospect. But a long, hard second glance is in order.

Those who long for what they paint as a pluralistic Israeli utopia should try to actually picture it - not only what it will "gain" their movements but what it will mean to the Jewish people.

Beckoned by Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Humanistic rabbis seeking to enlarge their flocks, non-Jews with Jewish aspirations (or Jewish friends, or Jewish love-interests) will join those movements in droves. "Hebrew-Christian rabbis" will surely petition the courts for their rights, too, to make new "Hebrew-Christian Jews."

Easy to imagine, too, is how the Orthodox population will react, and it will be joined by the Orthodoxy-respecting if less observant "traditional" community - which together comprise the majority of Israeli Jews. No court or government definition for the word "Jew" or "conversion" will make any difference at all to them, other than to alienate them from those institutions. They will simply forego their reliance on the government to oversee matters relating to Jewish personal status, and will rely upon an alternate system of personal-status determination, overseen by independent halacha-respecting rabbis.

And thousands of non-Jewish-born new members of the non-Orthodox movements will in time come to realize that their Jewishness is not recognized by a large part of the populace - and, in fact, the most religiously active one. Happy they will not be, and for good reason.

That scenario should not comfort; it should terrify. What it shows are two, distinct "Jewish peoples" in the Jewish State. In fact, more than two, since (at least here in the United States) most Reform conversions do not meet the Conservative movement's standards; and Humanistic Judaism's congregations have been refused membership in the Reform congregational body.

The truth here might discomfit some, but it's no less true for the fact: Only a single standard for personal status issues like conversion can preserve us Jews as a single people. And the only standard that can possibly preserve the integrity of the Jewish people as a people is halacha.

It is hardly an arbitrary standard. Halacha has been the "Jewish common denominator" for thousands of years of Jewish history, and remains the system that animates the overwhelming majority of religiously involved Jews to this day.

Mere days after the "leaping convert" decision, the same Israeli Supreme Court that rendered it upheld a law prohibiting commerce in Israel on the Jewish Sabbath. The Court admitted that the law "causes injury to the freedom… of employers and employees," but asserted that it is "in keeping with the values of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state."

Among the facts cited by Supreme Court President Aharon Barak was that the Sabbath "is a central component in Judaism."

So is the meaning of the word "Jew."

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The phone began ringing here at Agudath Israel of America mere hours after we released a statement asking Michael Schiavo to spare his wife's life.

We asked the late Terri Schiavo's husband to "recognize that what a court may consider legal can still constitute a grave violation of a higher law," and pointed out that "none of us can claim to know what constitutes a meaningful existence," and that "all of us have a responsibility to preserve even severely compromised life."

Our statement appeared in some media, primarily newspapers servicing the Orthodox Jewish community, like the weekly Yated Ne'eman and the daily Hamodia. But it also found its way onto the popular website as well as one maintained by supporters of Mrs. Schiavo's parents' struggle to save their daughter's life. Thence ensued the flood of calls.

Some were from observant Jews, gratified that we had articulated a straightforward Jewish take on the matter. But many - in fact, many more - came from non-Jewish Americans, clear across the country.

The callers' accents testified to their geographical diversity; the voices comprised a musical medley of northeastern enunciation, western drawl, mid-west mannerisms and southern comfort. And all were Christians, calling a Jewish organization just to say thank you.

More striking still, though, was something else, the single sentiment voiced, in different words, by a good number of the callers. As one succinctly put it: "You know, I never realized there were Jewish people who cared about 'life' issues."

What those callers meant, of course, was that their impression of Jews - likely culled from the media, as most had probably never met a member of the tribe in person - was of the stereotypical social liberal. And in fact, while most Jewish representatives quoted in the press expressed, properly, the Jewish view that even severely compromised lives may not be regarded as less worthy for their deficits, there were other voices.

Like that of Reconstructionist Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton, who cited Ecclesiastes that "there is a time to be born and a time to die"; her colleague Rabbi David Teutsch equated the food and water sought for Mrs. Schiavo with a respirator, about which, he contended, one can act on "what is in the patient's best interest." Conservative Rabbi Elliott Dorf also characterized a feeding tube as an "extraordinary measure."

And then there were displays of Jewish ambivalence on the issue like the one witnessed by writer David Klinghoffer, who recounted in National Review how, during a talk at a Conservative synagogue, he lauded Christian support for Mrs. Schiavo's continued nutrition and "the crowd reacted with a sharp intake of breath, shocked murmurs as if I'd said a kind word about the Spanish Inquisition."

Maybe my callers had such reactions in mind. But I think their assumption that Jews, G-d forbid, do not adequately value life owed less to any reaction to the Schiavo case than to many Jewish organizations' attitude toward the termination of fetal life as a "woman's right." And for that, unfortunately, there is ample evidence. Jewish clergy and organizations regularly fall over one another to see who might more loudly champion the preservation of Roe v. Wade, the hallowed "right" to an act that Jewish law forbids in no uncertain terms in all but rare circumstances.

All the same, I explained to the callers - as I did to a national talk-show host when he expressed a similar sentiment to theirs - that the Jewish community is more variegated than is often assumed, and that, in any event, more important than what any Jews may think about a particular "life" issue is what Judaism does.

There may still be perfectly sound reasons for some Jews to take liberal positions on social matters, even on end-of-life issues or abortion. But if they do, their reasons are personal, social, economic or political, not Jewish - not, that is, reflective of the Jewish religious heritage.

And that distinction is all the more vital in light of something that is occurring with increasing and disturbing frequency: the active misrepresentation, even by ostensible representatives of the Jewish community, of Judaism's teachings on vital issues. Whether through the portrayal of the Torah's attitude toward homosexual relations as flexible; or of its position on intermarriage as tentative; or of its stance on killing the unborn as benign, political correctness in Jewish clothing abounds, and it does violence to the integrity of all Jews' religious heritage.

Reflecting on my fleeting telephone acquaintances makes me want to plead with all the Jewish clergy, columnists, organizations and pundits who have strong feelings about social issues: Advocate to your hearts' content. Make whatever case you see fit for whatever you feel is the wisest public policy. But please don't mischaracterize our mutual religious tradition. Have the courage, whatever your personal convictions, to show respect for the timeless Torah to which all we Jews are heir.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Like the mental state of the incapacitated woman at its center, the Schiavo Saga doesn't lend itself to a simple label. On one level it exists as a family feud; on another, as a political football; and on yet another as a cultural touchstone.

But regardless of the motivations of brain-damaged Terri Schiavo's husband or parents, regardless of the propriety of congressional involvement in the matter and regardless of what reactions to the case might or might not say about America as a society, the tumult has also been a teaching moment, an opportunity for us all to ponder nothing less than the meaning of life. And Judaism, here as always, has much to teach.

Jewish religious law, or halacha, does not always insist that life be maintained. When, for instance, a person is in the state called "goseis" - "moribund [and] in imminent danger of death," in Rabbi J.David Bleich's words, Judaism forbids intercessions that will prolong suffering, although the active removal of connected life-support systems is another matter entirely. And there are times when even a healthy Jewish person is required by halacha to forfeit his or her life - most famously, when preserving life would entail the performance of an act of idol-worship, murder or sexual immorality.

However, when an individual is incapacitated, even severely, but clearly alive, Judaism considers that life to possess no less value than that it possessed before it was compromised. Even a previously expressed desire to be killed if in such a state, while of considerable import in American law, carries no halachic weight at all. Although there are those who like to assert otherwise, the Jewish high ideal is not autonomy but responsibility.

It is not hard to make a slippery slope case here. In the Netherlands, where patients in compromised states have been "mercy-killed" for years by doctors, today 16-year-olds with "emotional pain" can legally enlist medical help in committing suicide (a 15-year-old requires parental consent).

And there is already at least scholarly slip-sliding in our own country, like the pronouncements of renowned ethicist Professor Peter Singer of Princeton, who not only advocates the killing of the severely disabled and unconscious elderly but has made the case as well for the dispatching of babies who are severely disabled. Such children, he has written, are "neither rational nor self-conscious" and so "the principles that govern the wrongness of killing nonhuman animals... must apply here, too." Or, as he more bluntly puts it, "The life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee."

The Jewish view, though, of lives like Terry Schiavo's is, in the end, not dependent on slopes or slippage. According to halacha, withholding food and water from a person in a "persistent vegetative state" is, in and of itself, a grave wrong. Judaism invests human life - no matter how limited it may seem - with inherent, infinite meaning.

It is not surprising that the incapacitated (or, as in Dutch law, even the very despondent) are seen in our times as somehow less worthy of the protections we offer more active people. Ours is a culture, after all, where human worth is often measured by intellectual prowess or mercantile skills - even by things like youth or physical beauty, or, for that matter, the capacity to convincingly impersonate a real or fictional character, or to strongly and accurately hit, kick or throw a ball.

But the true value of men and women lies elsewhere entirely, in their potential to do good things - to prepare, in fact, for an existence beyond the one we know - and in their meaning to the rest of us. When that idea - self-evident to some, objectionable to others - is internalized, a very different sensibility emerges.

Basketball or dancing may no longer be options in the confines of a hospital bed, and even tending to one's most basic physical needs may be impossible without help. But are acts of sheer will - like forgiveness, repentance, acceptance, commitment, love, or prayer - any harder to accomplish, or any less meaningful? Are they compromised in any way by tangles of tubes and monitors?

Not even consciousness, at least as medically defined, need hinder what humanly matters most. We choose to take only what registers on an EEG or acts of communication as evidence of being meaningfully conscious, of the ability to think and choose, and then proceed to conclude that, in the absence of such evidence, those abilities must no longer exist - without a thought (at least a conscious one) of the immense tautology we have embraced.

We do not know, cannot know, when a human being is truly incapacitated - when his or her soul is no longer functioning. Only when a heart has stopped beating can we be certain that life in its truest sense has ended. And so hastening or abetting the death of even a physically or psychologically compromised human being is, at least in the eyes of Judaism, no less an abortion of meaningful life than gunning down a healthy one.

The attitude regarding human life that characterizes decisions like the one Terry Schaivo's husband made is, unfortunately, one toward which much of contemporary Western culture is slouching. It is spoken of by sophisticates as "progressive," and indeed represents a progression of sorts, away from the Jewish religious tradition that is the bedrock of what we call morality and ethics. The degree to which we manage to check that progression will be the degree to which we demonstrate that we truly understand what it means to be human.

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

Return To Index of Articles

THE DAY OF MY VICTORY - Reflections on the Siyum HaShas

Joseph Friedenson

The recent Siyum HaShas Talmud-completion celebration at Madison Square Garden and large venues around the world had different meanings for different people. For many, it was a day to celebrate great personal achievement; for others it was a chance to participate in a wonderful Jewish event; and for others still it was an occasion to proudly demonstrate identification as Jews who care about Torah.

For me, a Holocaust survivor, it may above all have been a day of great victory, a day of historical triumph; for me, a graduate of the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz, Oranienburg, Sachsenhausen, Ohrdruf and Buchenwald, it was a day that testified loudly and clearly that we Jews are an eternal people, indestructible and everlasting.

I remember, as a child and then a teen, as the winds of war were gathering over Europe and Hitler's propaganda machine was spewing vicious hatred against the Jews, how a great deal of space in Nazi newspapers and magazines, like the infamous Der Sturmer, was devoted to raving tirades directed against the "Jewish Talmud."

Their philosophy declared that the Talmud was the source of evil of the world. One publication wrote that the "Talmud was der blutkval des Veltjudentum" - the blood-font of world Jewry - embodying, in the Nazi view, the diabolical Jewish essence that threatens the world. The horrible caricatures of the ugly, hooked nosed "Talmud Juden" increased hatred of the Jews a thousand-fold in those terrible years preceding World War II.

One incident remains eternally etched in my memory, and none of the terrible suffering that I underwent later could erase it.

It was November 1939, at the beginning of the war, and just after the Nazis had occupied Poland. Two Nazi officers burst into our home to loot it. I was home with my mother at the time and she gave them money, hoping that they would leave and let us be.

As they were about to make their arrogant exit, one of the Nazis noticed my father's tall bookcase full of Jewish holy books. His eye fell on the beautiful bound Vilna Talmud prominently displayed on our bookcase. Apparently, he had never seen such large volumes, so he asked me what books they were. I innocently replied, "It is the Talmud."

I will never forget the Nazi's reaction. As if a cauldron of boiling water had fallen on his bare skin, he jumped up, his face contorted in rage. "The Talmud!" he bellowed as he bounded over to the bookcase and ripped one of the beautiful volumes of that Talmud from the shelf. Then, with a diabolical hatred and brutality that I had never before witnessed, both Nazis threw the volumes on the floor and began grinding them with their heavy boots. Those books, however, were well-bound and not easily destroyed. So they began ripping the pages and trashing the beautiful set, volume by volume, eventually throwing them out of the window of our apartment into the street below.

I will never forget watching from a corner of the room in horror as the Nazi beasts behaved as if they had encountered Satan. It took them time but they did not tire, expending enormous energy to destroy my father's set of Talmud and other holy books.

That pogrom against my father's "seforim shank," or bookcase, remains eternally etched in my mind. It was my first encounter with the inexplicably demonic, rabid hatred of the Nazi beast.

There was, though indeed a reason for their extreme reaction when they heard the word Talmud. An integral component of the anti-Jewish Nazi philosophy was its hatred of the Talmud. In fact when the Nazis took over Poland, one of the first decrees their chief office of security instituted was that applications for exit-visas by Orthodox Jews - Talmud lehrers, as they called them - would not be accepted. "The learners and teachers of Talmud have the power to rebuild the Judaism that we seek to destroy," they said.

They were right, of course, and they also understood that the Talmud embodied all that is holy in this world, including things like humility, service to others and the importance of fighting temptation. Because their world was built on arrogance, self-indulgence and hedonism, they perceived that as long as the Talmud existed, they would not succeed in mastering the world.

The Nazis also understood that the secret of the eternal survival of the Jewish Nation was their attachment to the Talmud, and they thus sought to annihilate Poland's Jews, who to them symbolized Jews devoted to the Talmud.

I recall celebrating the third Siyum HaShas in November, 1946 in the Displaced Persons camp in Feldafing, Germany. We were a tiny group of broken survivors, remnants of a Polish Jewry that had all but been wiped out. At the time all we had were two volumes of Talmud - symbolic of the pitiful condition of Jewry at the time. At the previous Siyum in Lublin there had been thousands of volumes, and now we were only a few broken Jews with two books.

When we celebrated the recent Siyum HaShas together with more than 100,000 Jews across North America, and many more in Israel and Europe, words to describe the feeling that welled up within me are difficult to commit to paper.

Yes, the Nazis understood the secret of Jewish survival. They tried to destroy my father's seforim shank, the Talmud that has preserved the Jews throughout the ages. But they failed. For the Jewish people are eternal, and the Talmud is eternal.

We may be persecuted, demonized and murdered, but as long as the survivors hold on to their religious heritage, they cannot be extinguished!

Just look at the miraculous rejuvenation of Torah Judaism barely sixty years after the Holocaust. Back then no one, including ourselves, ever believed that more than 100,000 people would gather together for no other reason than to celebrate the study of Talmud.

Not only is the Talmud still alive but from those two forlorn volumes of Gemara that remained after the conflagration, from the ashes of the greatest tragedy in modern history, the greatest rejuvenation in modern history has happened before our eyes. The day of the Siyum HaShas was truly my day of victory, the day of victory for all survivors and the day of victory of every "Talmud Jew."

Joseph Friedenson, an historian and author of numerous books on the Holocaust. is the editor of Dos Yiddishe Vort, Agudath Israel of America's Yiddish-language monthly. This article, in a slightly different form, appeared in the national English-language daily Hamodia.

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The third book of the Torah, Vayikra, the public Torah-reading this time of year in synagogues worldwide, includes a number of fundamental moral precepts, including a list of forbidden sexual unions. But the book, as per its Latin name, Leviticus, is most readily identified with the sacrificial laws with which it begins, and which appear throughout its text.

The body of precepts that concern animal sacrifices (and plant sacrifices; an assortment of flour-offerings are detailed as well) on the altar of the Tabernacle (and, later, the Temple) is large and complex. One of the Six Orders of the Talmud deals exclusively with the particulars of those laws and related topics.

And yet, especially in the absence of a central Temple in Jerusalem today, the very idea of slaughtering an animal (or grinding grain) in order to offer it in whole or part on an altar strikes many as jarring. The Torah's moral precepts, even many of its rituals, resonate agreeably with most contemporary minds. Charity, empathy and honesty; the Sabbath, the sounding of the shofar and the fast of Yom Kippur do not discomfit, and, for many, are self-evidently sublime. But killing animals (or plants) just to burn them or parts of them on an altar - who ordered that?

The answer, of course, is G-d. And we owe our tradition the respect to attempt some elemental understanding of at least the concept of sacrifice.

We might well begin with the observation that the word itself is a misnomer. The Hebrew word usually translated "sacrifice" is korban, which does not indicate forfeiture in any way. The word's root connotes "proximity," and, taking its form into account, korban might best be rendered "that which brings close."

An approach to fathoming the import of that term as a description of the Temple altar-offerings may lie in an ancient Jewish concept: the hierarchy of creation.

The base level of worldly existence, according to that concept's model, is "domeim," the inanimate, the mineral matter that comprises the earth on which we stand. The next highest level consists of "tzomeiach" or the vegetative, the representative of life at its most rudimentary. The third consists of "chai," the more meaningfully alive world of animals, which exhibit not only essential life, but willful movement and a degree of cognition. And then there is the top of the creation-pyramid, the medaber, or "speaker," the human being, possessor of the power of speech and, alone among creations, free will. Each of the levels provides support for those above it. The mineral realm contains the chemicals that make plant life possible; plants serve as food for much of the animal world, and for humans; and the animal world, along with the others, serve the highest level, the human.

A crucial consequence of humanity's lofty position as the pinnacle and purpose of creation is our ability, and responsibility, to make choices, even choices that frustrate our physical natures. We are, after all, not mere animals, slaves to base instincts and desires, but something significantly more, something closer, at least potentially, to the Divine.

There is our word "closer." The more we conduct ourselves as if we were members of the rung beneath us, the more we distance ourselves from what is above us, from the One Who created all and Who wishes us human beings to make choices, and to reap the benefit of serving Him. And, conversely, the more keenly we are aware of the essential distinction between the animal realm and the human, the closer we become to G-d.

According to Jewish religious tradition, there was a time in early human history when humans were forbidden to eat animals. After the Flood, however, the eating of meat became permissible to mankind. One reason suggested for that change is based on another rabbinic tradition, that the antediluvian generation had lost its essential moral bearings and considered humans to be mere "meat" (going so far, Midrashic sources relate, as to sanction morally repugnant unions, including between humans and animals).

The divine sanction of meat-eating, in that approach, was a means of ensuring that human beings recognize beyond question that they are special, possessive of a spark of holiness absent in animals.

Might the concept of korban hold a similar message? Might the offering of an animal's meat, in other words, embody a reiteration of the idea that animals exist to serve human beings - and, thus, that human beings exist to serve what is above them? If so, some light is surely shed on the meaning of korban as "that which brings close."

Certainly, there are deeper elements to the Torah's sacrificial laws, meanings to their myriad details that are beyond human ken. But perceiving what we can is still worthwhile. And in this case it might just hint to an understanding of Leviticus' inclusion of moral laws amid its sacrifices, an understanding that is both timeless -- and timely, in morally confused eras like ours.

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

Return To Index of Articles

More Am Achad Articles



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


Rabbi General's Warning: Unbridled web surfing is not recommended. Navigate the web with caution. Use the Internet in a way so that it enhances quality of life for yourself as a person, as a family member, and as a member in society. The Internet can enhance the mastery of Torah knowledge and it can also interfere. If you are able to study in a Bet Medrash at this time then you should do so right now.

© 1996- by Harlan Black, JewishAmerica. All rights reserved.